Thursday, October 9, 2008

mercury dance

Oh Mercury, that silver footed trickster. The one who usually oils sprockets, puts wings on envelopes and opens our throats to say the right thing at the right time. But when its retrograde, its like, take aim, throw spanner in works. Throw another and another. The time for phones to get lost and stolen, for hardrives to crash, cars to falter for no apparent reason and cheques to get lost in the mail. Now before you astro-sceptics out there go piff paff poof let me tell you - this mercury thing is an observable phenomenon. Pay attention to the mercury retrograde cycles, pay attention to your stymied negotiations, your muddied contract conversations, your computer glitches and money hold-ups. Notice any correlation? Oh yeah, I'll buy you a new flash disc if you prove me wrong.

Luckily, and this never happens, I'm having a bit of a hiatus this time round, and I've been able to do what mercury retrograde really calls for - quiet introspection, regrouping, inner delving. I've lent a sympathetic ear to my dear one who is in the midst of not one but two contract negotiations, and keeps having that "am I talking Serbo-Croatian?" feeling when engaging with the relevant parties. Don't worry, I reassure him, it'll come right after the 15th. Me, I am accepting it, this time. Not doing a lot of driving, just staying home, detoxing and biding my time. Accepting that my blogger blank is ok. That everytime I switch on the computer and my mind freezes - its ok. Its not always that I get to take this approach. Usually Mercury's backwards trail comes at a frantic busy time, and causes sparks in my life.

October 2006. I had come to the end of a gruelling season of traveling all around Zambia documenting traditional ceremonies. I had a Nokia N70 that I was very attached to. Camera, video, internet, sms, voice calls in one silver package. Oooh, I was very attached to that little device. I was SO happy to be able to connect to my email on the road. To listen to mp3s in Mwinilunga, and sms my love, who was very far away and getting more and more sulky with me as the season progressed and I still didn't come home. I could hear his lower lip dragging on the floor whenever I phoned home.

I would try to keep him up to speed: "we drove 8 hours to Solwezi. The road is great to there, but from then! Shocking. It took us twice as long to travel half the distance." and I would attempt to regale him with tales of the road. "We were welcomed by a guitarplaying chief who showered us with pineapples! We went on the boat on Lake Tanganyika with a group of fish geneticists and I left my bag on the jetty by mistake." But, it was too many worlds away to make sense or bring cheer. When I came to Joburg for fly-by visits, the privilege of sushi and crisp white wine brought a lump to my throat.

To get us through the away periods, one night we decided to record a saucy bit of shenanigans on my N73. Well, decided is a bit strong. It just kind of happened. As it does, you know. Started off as a bit of a laugh and, weell, one thing led to another. As it does. And so. I ended up with a video clip on my phone that would make a pole dancer blush.

And so the last ceremony of the season, after trekking across great swathes of Zambian landscape (that's a lot of miombo* forest, y'all) from Mpulungu to Mwinilunga, Kabompo to Katete, I plan it very cleverly so that I end up in my dear home village, Mfuwe, for the final stop - the Malaila ceremony. This is when the Kunda people gather to remember the journey of their ancestors to this fine bit of game-rich land, and they tell tales of the heroic shooting of a troublesome lion. They drink a lot of beer, eat buffalo, and have dance show-downs with those-who-have-left-for-the-city. And steal cellphones off white girls in the crowd.

Now, I used that phone at every single ceremony we went to. In towns and villages where 'poverty' is an understatement - people have very very little. But they are proud of their traditions, they welcome guests, they assure you that you are free, safe and welcome to wander. I keep the phone in the front pocket of a sort of moonbag thingy around my waist, take it out to capture a particular dance, mask or costume so that when I check my notes later I have a visual reference. Coz the photographer (yes the same one of previous posts...ze light, ze light) has wandered off somewhere else and is not looking for the same things I am. ANywaaay. It was not stolen. Until. I got home.

Standing in the crowd, watching the girls' Chisungu dance, the initiation dance they do when they come out of confinement. I did this initiation once, another story. I was revelling like everyone else. My initiation 'mother' greeted me with suprise, delight and light scolding because I had been away so long. Dear Old Cha Harry, who is one of the Chief's retinue in the procession, had barely recognised me (thought I was my mother and he had slipped back 30 years), but I was home. October heat filling my lungs, dust between my teeth, arm sore from endless handshakes. Mfuwe has changed so much since the days I was a permanent resident. It has urbanised quickly. There's money here - tourists, burgeoning industry. But I am home. Its been a long season, its been great. I reach for my phone, to call Miranda who is sick at home with a kidney infection. To share the moment. The zip on my moonbag is open, the phone is not there.

The bastards have scored!!!!!* Not only does some nimble fingered fellow now have a 9 month old Nokia N70, he also has some rather good quality home porn, and 6 months worth of research pics.

Everyone I talk to tut-tuts about how this sort of thing never used to happen, its the people from Chipata* you know, they're crooks, they steal from tourists. They don't know its you, your family...

Damn. I'm a tourist in my hometown.

I go to the police station. Station is a bit strong. Its a small block near the airport - one tiny room with bars where a drunk man is railing against the injustice of his capture. He stops as I walk past the window, and asks me for some money so that he can buy his way out. The policeman laughs, and aks how he can help. I write down in detail what happened at the Malaila ceremony. In the big ledger book that doesn't have a lot of solved cases in it. "We are only two," sighs the cop. THey should send us more help from Chipata when have the ceremony. But don't worry! We will definitely recover your phone!" Its a dance of formalities - I know they won't. I'm not sure if I want them to. I blush everytime I think of what lies behind the gallery icon.

I never did get back my Nokia N70. But I did find out later that Mercury went retrograde that very day.

So I'm keeping a low profile right now. I'm fighting a small battle against an army of snails that are working their way through my seedlings. (I believe they hate coffee). I sit and marvel at the breathsucking blue I have painted my garden wall.

And I'm not, simply not, going to think about the state of my bank account until at least Wednesday.

*Miombo: a type of woodland that stretches across southern Africa. Hardy trees that go amazing shades of orange, purple and red before the rains, and very dry and sparse during the dry season.
* A quote from Dennis Liwewe, famous Zambian football commentator, referring to the opposition team's goal.
*Chipata, nearest town, some 130km away, but the journey can take up to 4 hours on a punishing road.


Janelle said...

ah tam! you genius.just LOVED this post..and thanks for alerting me to this mercury malarky..shall pay it close attention and do let me konw when its over and safe to get back on my love you xxx janelle oh and BLUSH BLUSH about the phone man...god..its not like you're not exactly known arount those parts..heavans above, darling!!!???

Miranda said...

Ah boy did we chase that phone! And people as far as Chipata were saying "Ah I hear you had your phone stolen at Malaila" And I'm sure they were all giving knowing smiles and raised eyebrows....

tam said...

no you guys! That's not what you're supposed to say. Say 'oh don't worry no-one will find the file, they'll just erase the contents straight away'. Needless to say my new phone is clean and password protected..
Janelle i think it stations direct on the 15 or so.

Janelle said...


Adrianne said...

I'm not really that knowledgable about astrology and had never heard about the significance of Mercury in retrograde. However, based on your description, I'm thinking that explains a lot of things in my life right about now. Thank you!

Chimera said...

Mercury eh? Not blinking sodding woner then about current situation. I might contact deed poll and change my star sign.
Lovely sweet, funny wicked post! Sorry about the phone. Have stories to tell about phones.. a posible theatre/ phone piece to tour?! Hmm brain creaking.
T xx

Reya Mellicker said...

I know people who don't believe in astrology except for mercury retrograde.

I'm so glad you've taken the time to do it "right" - as if there is such a thing during a Mercury Rx.

This is an intense one here, especially for me. I feel like I'm talking backwards - maybe I am because all my clients just stare at me and blink whenever I say anything.

It'll all be over soon.

So sad about your phone.

Will you write about the initiation sometime? I would love to know especially if it had some kind of transformative impact on you.

tam said...

Hi all, sorry to take so long to get back to you. I've been cleansing,fasting, whatever, so the last few days have been a bit rough.

Ja, the mercury tricks should subside in the next few days I hope, and No, Janelle, you will not be beamed up anywhere, not even to that lovely Paris hotel room you dreamed of.

Chimera darling, I want to make plays with you, movies, lets do it!!

Gareth Schweitzer said...

Closer than you think...