Friday, November 28, 2008


Its the time of year. Sometimes I just miss it all so much. I miss the dry season, the way the plains roll out like rustling paper, inscribed with endless vehicle tracks. When evening campfires crackle and send orange spark showers up to meet the silver dizzying stars.

But now is when I miss most. The start of the rains. The way those clouds stack up against the gunblue horizon, and the winterthorns go an eerie green as the lightning zigs and the light rolls away. The way the wind twirls and pirhouettes ahead of big slanting sheets of rain, turning impalas frisky and making us humans do a rain dance because we're still so grateful for the slaking quench of it.

I like this time of year in the valley coz everyone starts to unwind and misbehave. Bush camps are shut now, and those safari guides and caterers that only work the 6-month dry season stick around for a little while, maybe until Christmas, until the malaria and the mud the bug onslaught gets too much. Then the die-hards will settle in for the real sog and slog and bog of the rains. That spinning in the mud time when the only thing that's dry is the bottom of the whiskey bottle.

But those magical few weeks after the camps have been wrapped up, and the cutlery put away for next year, and the sheets packed in damp proof boxes and the last clients sent off at the airport, but before the rain sets in - oh thats where I want to be now.

Waiting for the river to rise, so suddenly, overnight, so we can go cruising up the gulleys into areas that you only see from a vehicle in the dry season. Being at eye level with hippos is always kind of fun. Scary but fun.

I'm a nostalgic lass aren't I? I got a bit of a shock the other day though when I realised I hadn't been home for two years. Two years!

Ah well. I think we'll be having a Joburg Christmas, unless something miraculous happens in the bank accounts between now and then. But Joburg's great at that time. People leave the city en masse, braving the clogged arteries to the coast, leaving those few souls who stay behind to enjoy the quiet roads, the abundance of parking, the empty cinemas. I think we'll go away later. When everyone gets back. Yes, that's what we'll do.

In the meantime, if I can just get my sister to break her blogger drought, I could get some vicarious valley updates, some more of her glorious pics. Please help me spam her with comments until she comes off strike. She's over here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Elephant Conversation

It comes up, again and again. At least in my circles, it does. And Val's post is right on the money. I especially like it because it draws no conclusions, offers no answers but gives you a glimpse into both sides of the story. Please read it if you're going to read this. It's what prompted me to sketch out these oft-thought thoughts for you.

The Biographical Stuff:
My grandfather killed elephants for a living, once.
Then he devoted a lot of energy to keeping them alive.
He wrote about them. He lived side by side with them.
He gave foreign visitors the extraordinary experience of walking in the bush and feeling the joy-rising fright of encountering one of these large beasts on their own terms.
He taught his grandchildren about them.
I grew up alongside elephants. I respect, fear, love and dream about them.
I have written plays and stories featuring elephants but have never come close to capturing what I want to say about them.
I dream about them.
I worry about them, for them.
I worry about the people I love who live near them.
Did I say I dream about them?
I think I was one, recently.

The Issues
Aside from humans, elephants are the most destructive creatures in terms of the effect they have on their immediate environment. Overpopulation of elephants in protected areas is an issue for biodiversity as much as it is a direct human threat. Anyone who argues that elephants shouldn't be culled needs to also look at the massive destruction they can wreak in a mopane forest, reducing a landscape to flat grey desolation and flattening much needed trees.

But this destructive tendency is also beneficial to ecosystems - they create access for other animals through impenetrable bush. Seeds that pass through their industrial sized digestive systems are germinated.

Obviously, the issue is a question of space. People who live in or near protected areas know this best. Imagine your only source of food for the year is your carefuly nurtured maize crop. The whole family has participated in tilling the soil, planting, chasing away birds, carrying water by bucket from the nearest river to water the struggling plants. One night an elephant family passes through and in the morning it is flattened - gone. Or worse, a child in the village was trampled to death. It happens.

Before humans and wildlife competed so much for space, the elephants would not have such a heavy impact on one area, because obviously they would migrate when food got low in one area. The population would regulate itself. This would happen in southern Africa's favourite reserves if the hands-off approach were followed. They would die of starvation. But it wouldn't be pretty and there would be a lot of casualties, including human casualties and other wildlife.

So - space vs numbers.

The solutions:
Population control method 1: Culling. Yes its terrible, and people who manage wildlife don't love doing it. There are various schools of thought the most commonly held right now is that it is better to take out a whole family unit and leave no orphans (elephants have very close family bonds) rather than just the breeding females.

Population control method 2: Birth control. Expensive, untested, problematic, but an option.

Population control method 3: Hands-off. Let the population control itself. Not really an option in our boundary controlled parks in southern Africa.

The More Space solution: Increase the size of protected areas? Create migration corridors so that they can move over wider areas?

Its hard to argue for that, when people have no land, or their ancestors were moved from tribal land to make way for animals which they are no longer allowed to hunt although their traditional food sources would have come from hunting. But the Peace Parks idea does, if I'm not mistaken, lay the foundations for more of a migration approach.

The solutions, generally speaking, are thrashed out by very dedicated people who love wildlife and are not, in spite of what animal rights activists would say, the enemy. They are scientists, who have to use hard data and take in a hell of a lot of competing factors. Like - the fact that the tourist industry relies on having parks that are well managed, well stocked, which means full of live animals and yet still with beautiful big intact trees and grasslands. Like - the fact that local people wage life and death battles with these creatures on a daily basis and would prefer it if their children and livelihoods weren't so threatened. Like - international opinion and treaties that need to be respected, CITES, etc. Elephant experts weigh all these factors up. They know what they're talking about. They can't afford to be sentimental.

And yet, and yet.

The point is, elephants are very like us. They attach, play, mourn the loss of loved ones, have clan gatherings to celebrate seasonal events, and become delinquent if they don't receive proper counsel as teenagers. They get lonely. They get maaad.

The point is, we're scared of them, and rightly so. We have to contain them, manage them. We can't invite them into our cities. Can we?

Can we?

At the World Parks Congress in Durban in 2003, they had a team of economists who just crunched numbers for that whole week. The costs of maintaining protected areas, the costs of research, the costs of policing anti-poaching, etc etc. They spun numbers and compared them to other costs - development, education, millennium development goals, etc. A random figure stuck in my mind. The amount of money needed to maintain protected areas the world over, and to create a few more, was exactly equal to the amount of money that Americans spend on ice cream every year.

I wish we could have a great big elephant think-tank to revise the issues and turn them on their heads. It would involve scientists, writers, poets, artists, traditional leaders and chiefs and policy makers and animal rights errorists, conservationists, economists and number crunchers and medicine men and women, and of course, psychics and dreamers.

And to pay for it - why the ice cream manufacturers of course. Anyone got an uncle in the ice cream business? I have a proposal for them.

Monday, November 24, 2008

No pics are proof of a good time

I never used to have much birthday action. As an adult, that is. Throughout boarding school and university my birthday always fell smack in the middle of exams. My memories of birthdays when I was very small are of my mother valiantly decorating a table with a white bedsheet and magenta bouganvillia flowers. We probably had lovely fluffy lemon sponge cake a la the Chibembe camp chefs, or even a chocolate cake, thin candles drooping in the November heat. I'm sure we had the bounty of those wonderful care packages that used to arrive from my German grandmother (chocolate that had melted into every crevice of its silver packaging and shrilled the grown-ups' fillings, jelly babies for us, and salty liquorice for dad.) The only photographic evidence I have of one of these birthdays is a hilarious one, with me in centre looking jolly pleased with myself and Miranda scowling the jealous scowl of a younger sister, nursing her thwarted ambitions to the birthday throne.

I remember birthday parties with egg and spoon races, blind mans buff and cakes themed like cars, or exploding volcanoes, but there's an accompanying feeling of anxiety related to these. Other kids were always a bit of a mystery to me, having spent my early days in bush solitude. I was terrified of those games. I was terrified of a throw-away line my mother used once - 'cry on your birthday, and you'll cry for the rest of the year'. Where do these nuggets of terror come from? My first encounter with the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When I turned 30, Bernd invited some of my friends round and we shared such a beautiful evening together that I decided I would always do something with friends on my birthday, because this is what makes me happiest. So where other people grow out of birthday parties, I have grown into them. I love my annual gathering of nearest and dearest.

If I do an analysis of the wealth in my life, I would score very high in the friendship box. When I look around me see such a collection of beautiful, warm, talented, clever, generous and witty women as I saw in my garden this Saturday, I feel incredulous at how lucky I am. I feel mirrored in them, and consequently feel utterly fabulous, for this is what they are. Ok, there's usually a smattering of fine men as well, but this year, for one reason or another, the male of the species was under-represented. Except of course for my diligent co-host the unrelenting Bernd, maker of fine coffee, producer of garden umbrellas at the precise right moment, and intuitive DJ. You were a marvel my dear. Thank you.

I find it a little annoying when people try to match make me socially. "Oh you must meet so and so you'll love them, they also [insert irrelevant thing you have in common]. So I don't take it for granted that my friends all manage to socialise so elegantly with one another, even though many of them only see each other once a year at my birthday!

I love you all, you gifted and gifting gals. Hermien who can withstand the icy cold sea in the Western Cape with no wetsuit but wimpers (spelling intentional) and flees at the sight of a high-veld storm rolling over the hill. (Sorry you left so early, but thanks for bringing the water-bomb balloons); Nicci, I know you never let anything quite so inconvenient as a massive head injury get in the way of a good time, but thanks for coming, and I'm looking forward to being captained on the St Francis waters soon. Stacey (aka Spacey Spanks) the only Jewish Zimbabwean lesbian comedian actress filmaker poet I know who can really whip up a whoop in my lungs, a real one. And dear Zu, you are so utterly chic and fabulous you make my eyes hurt.

And there in spirit - Thandi, working on a presentation, sorry dear, and Renate, nursing a bad flu (chicken....) and A and A, thanks for your messages from colder climes. The sun is waiting for you, and so is our glorious garden, with its Mexican blue wall, purple basil, and seething spring chaos of lettuces mixed with pansies, herbs and spinach next to squash and beans, mielies next to ornamental bushes. YEeeahaaa! The chillies, cherry tomatoes and sunflowers are still rehearsing, and by the time you get there they will be ready for their big show. (and you Freya) Talking of rehearsing, Rob was unable to make it as he is gearing up for the next episode of Strictly Come Dancing... you can DO IT DUDE! And James had a valid excuse - best man at best friends bachelor party, yeah, yeah, I get it. Nesh, what do I call that fly-by drop in visit en route to the cherry picking festival? hmmm.... well, the gift does make up for it, sorta.... Anu, with her usual bounty stayed the full day (hooray), beyond the emptying of the bubbly. And you Jen, that silvergreen dress, your eyes... what can I say - a perfect garden accessory you are. Its important for designers to be decorative. All that and brains too. Janet - bravo! The number of hours spent chasing your 17 month-old Oliver must have utterly exhausted you. I fondly remember that a couple of years back you were the first to arrive and the last to leave and as your champagne drinking marathon record remains unbroken, it is quite acceptable to bow out early.

Glorious, glorious, is all I can say! If these are my friends, there is hope for me, and inspiration too. Much fun and silliness was had by all, and there are no photographs to prove it. Which in my book is proof that we had a splendid time - when you're too busy enjoying yourself to bother with cameras, you soak it up properly.

My favourite moments -
The poor little fiscal shrike attacking its own reflection in the garden mirror that Bernd put up. Ouch.
The way we so gracefully gathered up the blankets, the salads and food and whisked them inside when the rain came.
The elephant conversation. There's always an elephant conversation.
Watching Oliver attempt to drink the entire contents of the water feature, in all its green slime deliciousness.
Stacey in the mask.
Seeing Hermien leave in record time when she spotted that storm coming over the ridge. We usually take up to 20 minutes to say goodbyes but she was in her car in under 4 minutes.
Sneaking away to check my email on my phone and finding so many good wishes via email and facebook - thank you!
Oh, too many, too many moments to list.
You had to be there.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Oh just one more!

Well I've cracked open an old vat and just have to spill the contents, y'see. Cleaned up the hard drive of an old laptop. These stories only existed on stiffy drive, you understand. So here's another. Hey, whats a blog for if a girl can't air her old selves from time to time?



I have wanted to do this for such a long time now. It's one of those things that I knew would just give me such satisfaction. I am not by nature a vindictive person, by any means. Unless of course you count the time I sabotaged Henrietta's petrol tank. But that doesn't really amount to the same thing, because I was actually trying to save her life. It was a good thing she couldn't go on that journey. She would have died or met with a horrible accident. Everyone said it was vindictive, but actually it was a very selfless action. This is completely different. This gives me great satisfaction.

I sneak in here while he is still asleep. You have to be very careful that the stairs don't creak. You have to miss the eighth stair because it's been all chewed by termites and it makes a hollow sort of breaking sound when you step on it. He's a very light sleeper. He wakes up at the slightest midnight footfall outside his window. It's because he doesn't remember his dreams. `Sleeping is a waste of time,' he used to tell me. And `you sleep too much.'

Still, he really hates it when even a single mosquito gets into the net. It drives him crazy. He sits up in the middle of the night as if terrorists have arrived. Sits bolt upright and starts swiping at the air like a fat drunk kitten. And then he'll keep dead still, like he's trying to fool the mosquitoes, like if he keeps still for long enough they'll forget he's there and land on his arm, but they never do, because his heart is pounding with midnight adrenalin, he's breathing too fast. Mosquitoes can pick up vibrations really well, they know if a person is asleep or just pretending to be there and keeping really still to fool them. Every now and then he'll make a mad lunge at the side of the mosquito net where he thinks one has landed, and he takes his hand away, squinting for the grey-red smear, but they're always too quick for him. He blinks at the pillow, but all he gets is that thin whine, sailing past his ear. It drives him crazy, especially when he hits the side of his own skull too hard. If he could, he would fetch his Winchester .22 and blast their tiny heads off but he can't do that either, they're just too small. All of this makes him very irritable in the morning, especially as I'm always lying there so peacefully, dipped in warm watery dreams without waking.

That's the way it used to be, at any rate. I don't know if Henrietta is such a heavy sleeper. She's not here now. That's why I chose tonight. Henrietta has gone off with my sister on Safari. `Do you mind?' my sister asked me. I told her I'm not the jealous type.

So I tiptoe up the wooden stairs without too much creaking. He is very fast asleep this time, and there's an empty whisky bottle next to the bed, with a sticky smear on the wood where it spilt and the dust has collected. My hands are quite sweaty because it's a hot night and also I can't stand that smell any more. Lemon soap. I stopped using it last summer. I have my mother's best scissors in my hands, they've got an orange handle. Round my neck is a silver whistle, the kind policemen and dog trainers use. I want to laugh out loud, but I won't, not yet.

You know when you're a kid and they don't know what to do with you at nursery school so they give you paper and a pair of creaky silver scissors and you're told to cut out shapes? And then they show you how to fold the paper so that if you cut a person out and then unfold it, you get a whole string of paper dolls holding hands, with stiff skirts almost touching? I like those shapes, those angular paper people dancing in a line, looking like they're getting ready for a curtain call. So that's the shape I'm going to cut out of his mosquito net.

I start at the foot of the bed. I don't want the snipping noise to wake him just yet. I cut out three smug little A-line skirted figures, all smaller than the palm of my hand. Then stand back, breathing carefully. He doesn't even move. A slight lung rattle is all that disturbs the air.(He smokes far too much, though Henrietta's trying to get him to stop.)

I step towards the bed again. This time I cut out a much larger shape, its body just a little bit smaller than my face. I step back. I position the wooden chair directly in front of the bed. My wooden chair. Which he still hasn't given back to me, though he said he would drop it round. I position myself in the chair so that I will be in his direct line of vision when he wakes, perfectly framed by the largest of the holes. I put the silver whistle in my mouth and take a deep breath. I can just see his face as he wakes. I know exactly what his eyebrows will do and how his cheeks will quiver. How he will fight with the sheet before sitting upright, bolt upright and alert as if terrorists have arrived.

I am about to blow on the silver whistle when I notice a small movement on the pillow next to him. Just a quick scurry, then it stops. I peer through the hole, my eyes are quite adjusted to the dark. I peer through the shapes I have cut and there on the pillow is a small black scorpion. Not one of the really bad pale ones which keep you swearing all day, but still. Enough to really hurt, especially if it gets you on the cheek. All at once I am completely helpless. There's a lump in my throat and I don't really know why. I suddenly remember being seven years old. My first scorpion sting and sobbing all night from how sore it was, wishing my frail wish for arms to be holding me in the dark.

It was a long time before I could do anything. Too many thoughts bumping into one another in my head. I felt even more foolish than that time in Henrietta's garage, barefoot, on cold concrete. The room suddenly much bigger than it ever was. I thought That's my book on the bedside table. Right next to the whisky spill. Lolita. I had a sudden craving for ice cream, like when we walked through the shops that cold day.

A rush of something in my chest then I am standing on the chair I blow on the whistle over and over and I think I might be crying I'm not sure but I'm shouting `Scorpion! Next to you on the pillow.'

Then I'm very still because before I can head out of there I hear click and he's loading his gun. Click. I lower my head without breathing so he can see me through the gap. We stare at each other for a long time.

I say, `There's a scorpion on the pillow next to you.'

I walk. Down stairs that moan under my weight.

My bike purrs beneath me with the wind clean on my face but I wish I didn't feel like this. Lemon soap burning my nostrils, and eyes raw. My sister's coming home tomorrow but I can't really speak to her anymore. She wouldn't really understand anyway, if I told her that I wish I'd never put that water into Henrietta's petrol tank.

I've hung my string of cut-out dolls above my bed. Four dancing girls in their net skirts. They are the last thing I see before I fall asleep.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bathtub Red

I am back in deadline city, with a major gridlock in all main synaptic junctions, [read - slow brain, slow words] so in the spirit of all that was and may have been, I give you an oldie. This from over a decade ago. I welcome your critiques, as I no longer have any particular sensitivities around these random little bits of fluff that I collected under the vague title of Red Dress Stories / Diaries / Chronicles what have you. After a while it became somewhat tiresome and I strayed from the theme, but still, fun to dig out old bits of juvenilia and read them with curious detachment.


Bathtub Red

Look, I don't often wear red, but when I do I know there's going to be trouble. Like now. Like the size of the hangover I am waking up with.

When I force my eyes open, I can only wonder. Where I am. What I am wearing and how I got here. The flaming hug of scarlet satin that engulfs my tender and thirsty body is completely unfamiliar to me, and as for my location, well. I am in a bathtub, in a garden, underneath a jacaranda tree which is scattering a generous harvest of purple onto my breast.

And there's a face, above me. Looming in and out of focus. Not an unattractive face, I am pleased to note, through the scream and the rage of my hangover head. He is smiling, and scattering petals onto my stomach.

I smile back weakly and try to rub my eyes. I can't. Try again, suddenly aware of this tight and bruisy feeling around my left wrist. Eyes down and I realise all at once that I am handcuffed to this grinning dark-eyed man. Two silver hoops of metal join us, wrist to wrist, and the glint of the morning sun hurts my eyes.

"LOUI-EEEEESE" I cry out in relief, as the owner of the bathtub and the garden appears.
"What happened?" I say, quite pathetic.
"Nice dress" she says, eyes flickering. And like a treacherous undertow, the memory of last night begins to take hold.

I was visiting Louise, on my way to the boss's birthday party. It was one of those days when everything you wear makes you feel like mashed bananas. I was waiting for her to come out the shower. Her wardrobe door was open, a throat-prickling scent emerging from it. I began to page through her clothes, absent-minded, waiting.

Other women's wardrobes. That urgent feeling that you are violating some terrible code of privacy. The sensuality of someone else's perfume; the cool rub of unfamiliar fabrics, they all combine in a narcissistic throb of forbidden pleasure.

One dress in particular seemed to gleam in the patchouli scented dark of Louise's wardrobe. Without really knowing what I was doing, I slipped it off the hanger and over my head. Stepping into the light, I see that the dress I am wearing has the gloss of newly spilled blood. It is redder than Snow White's apple.

"Louise." I yelled to her while she was still in the shower. "I've just remembered something urgent. Must dash. See you later|" I turned and ran as fast as I could, out of her house, to the boss's party, leaving a flaming wake behind me.

In the swirling, strobe-lit vortex of the next twelve hours I am aware that the dress I am wearing has a deep and potent mystery. I have heard women speak of garments such as these: a dress or a pair of shoes that has the power to transform, to awake the slumbering carnivore, to draw out an ancient wolf-like craziness that you never knew you had. I am both predator and irresistible prey.

I remember leaning over the railing, my grip growing weaker and weaker. Below me the dizzy spin of city lights pattern themselves into heartbeats. Its a long way to fall but I feel sure it will be more like soaring than falling. The lights are foaming down there, like the trickle of bubbles in a champagne glass.

Voices behind me blur and hum in this moment of ecstasy between me and the growling city. But then a quick hard tug on my arm, I'm being pulled back, just at the moment that I might have been airborne.

Pulled back. I sink deep into this eternal pair of arms, this all-engulfing man-scent. Eyes that swallow me whole. The same eyes that are devouring me now, as I lie in the bathtub, awash with last night's madness. What do I remember him saying?
"I can't wait to get you out of that dress"
And we danced, and the strobe lights sliced up the night into bite sized slivers.
"I won't let you out of my sight." I accepted the handcuff around my wrist the way other women accept diamond rings.

But now Louise is staring at me, her eyes hard. My throat is dry, devoid of explanation. Her eyebrow arches like a cats back and she turns away and walks back into her house. I focus all my attention onto this stranger I have found. In my mind's eye his tongue traces thin languorous trails over my expectant flesh.
"Can it happen now?" he asks, his mouth quivering with promise.”You promised.”

"Can what happen?" is my coy reply.
"Please please please? Can I wear your dress?"

Friday, November 14, 2008

Don't throw that red dress away

He's the man from that Coke ad. He has a generous belly, and big gold medals. He is the President. He is seated in a deck chair, surveying the open plains in front of him with corpulent satisfaction. And I cannot persuade him.

Me, I am dumbfounded. Why on earth? Numb.
But he is insistent, smug.
He is going to plant alfalfa. All this wild wasteland will become agricultured, tamed, greened.

But these are the salt pans of Chibembe. These wide open plains, where you can walk for three days in one direction and you won't see another human being. Where lions lie in shallow bleached grass, their yellow eyes hooded as they laze. To the east, mopane forests, grey and scrubby. These are the salt pans of my youth. There is no more wilderness like this. You can't just -

"Yes," he joins his sausage fingers together over his stomach. Binoculars round his neck.
"It will be good. Can you see it? Green farmlands. I can feed my people."
But. Wait. This soil, its salty. Your crops won't grow. Rather build a lodge. I'm telling you - people would pay, they would come here, to be in the wilderness - such empty space, at night you can't even see an electric light. You could charge $1000 a night. Come on, you could charge $10 000!! You could feed your people with that.

He won't be persuaded.

I turn away from that precious horizon and look at him. He has a crew of militarised dancers, about to perform for him. They are suited and jacketed and about to do drum majorette style acrobatics in his honour.

I want to go walking, one last time, to find the lions before they are all shot.

Now it is night, and I have been walking so long here, I have merged into the memories of my childhood on these plains, looking for lion. Now I am lion. There's a spotlight, wiping the darkness away in big strokes. Sweeping the bush. I must be still. It will find me. They will find me. I must close my eyes or they will find me by my eyes. I turn away. My eyes have become huge, I take in all the distance, the bush and the scrub and the tiny movements of mice. I take in the man in his safari suit and medals and his tumbling crew of cameras.

Now I want a camera. I want to record this place, capture it on film. Go to the papers. Something. But I have no camera. No one has a camera for me. When I find a clutch of them, they are old, outdated, falling apart. No match for Mr Alfalfa man.

But in that same room where they show me the cameras, I notice a pile of clothes. Old, second hand clothes, once glamourous sexy clothes. There - that one on top, its my dress. That's my red dress. Its kind of soiled and shredded, but I recognise it. I pick it up, hold it. Put it back on the pile and watch as they are carted away, to be destroyed.


This dream, for me, is very clear. Its about wilderness, wildness and losing your wild spaces inside. Last night I had dinner with Billie, who has know me since high school, through university, through craziness and many wardrobes. We are laughing about those times, about parties under the stars and me with my black cowboy boots claiming Grahamstown streets. The late nights that she had to walk home alone because I was who knows where in my red dress or my cowboy boots. Throughout my twenties I always seemed to have a red dress in my wardrobe. I remember the soft flowing one I wore to lectures in the day. And another one I had, later, that fitted like skin, that always seemed to bring out a fire in me. She looks at me over her glass of wine, and with true Billie honesty says, "I prefer that Tamara to the one now." I know what she means. Tamed, domesticated me who worries about the dishes in the sink and the month end debits. It hurts to hear it, but I know what she means.
"Is she still there, somewhere?" asks Billie. And I think of the motorbike I sold, that I used to ride, at dawn, still drunk from the night before, shouting at mopane trees for jumping into the road. Running down to the river at dusk to watch the elephants cross. Taking the landrover out at 3 am to look for aardvark. Casually non-committal to all the boys who wanted a piece of it. Wild kisses under the moon. My collection of stories, the Red Dress, unshelved in some box somewhere.
I don't know.

I'm a nicer person. I don't break hearts any more. I don't drink tequila like I used to. Of course not. We have other things now. And what I've learned about love in the 15 years is so much more valuable to me. But the lions in the dream are about something else - the one inside who doesn't want to be nice. Hunted and threatened, alfalfa!! By rolling green pastures.

A sense, when I woke up, that this is the trouble with where we are in the world. With land use policies. Environmental impact assessments. Biodiversity. Investment portfolios. We are losing our wild spaces faster than ice can melt, but we just don't really get it. And the reason, I think, is because we are not in touch with the wildness in our selves. The way a glimpse of a lion's yellow stare can fundamentally shift your chemistry.

We are being regulated out of existence. ID books and credit checks and driving licences and the way we gratefully hand over our freedoms because its for our own safety. CCV cameras and spyware.

But I know that wildness doesn't go away. That if its ignored and asked to be civilized and rapped on the knuckles and told to be seen not heard, it might go to sleep for a while, it might yawn and turn the other cheek. For a while.

But that's also when it subverts. Meekness turns into passive aggressive manipulation. Contentment masks boredom which masks a pacing snarl. The goddess will find her way out if you don't give it to her. She'll take it. I'd rather stumble on a lion in the bush than a lion that's been in a cage for ten years.

Sure we can deny our wildernesses, incarcerate our wild spaces, tame our flaming hearts. Sure we can. But isn't that when they become really deadly?

Your thoughts, o wild ones?

pics courtesy of Freya Reder.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Seems every body wants more of it. Life is short, we say. There's not enough time in the day! we say, in that pleading way. Er... who are you asking for more?

And then that old chestnut - I don't have time to meditate.
But meditation creates time! I remind myself. Doesn't matter. Once you're off the wheel you're off. It takes six months to create a habit.

I think its not more time we want. Its timelessness. Its the sense of not-time. Not having to rush, to have a deadline, to not have enough hours in the day for all the things we have to do.

We'll have time when we're dead. Plenty of it. Or rather, we'll have not-time. And that's what we're homesick for. The feeling of now.

Well, its definitely speeding up, as we hurtle towards the mythical date in 2012. Time is melting, warping, speeding up... becoming meaningless!

And will keep on doing so.

Have you ever played time games with yourself? You know you're late but you insist that time become elastic and stretch for you, and somehow, miraculously, it does. It just does. I forget this, but when I've done it with absolute assured insistence, it has worked. Within reason, of course. And of course, if you assert often enough and with enough conviction, there's just no time! the universe complies. Those obedient laws of time and space.

This morning I was awake before 4. I got up, ungroggy for once. I sat on my meditation cushion. It felt airless. I got up to open the window. I sat. I was cold. I got up to get my wrap. I sat. I breathed. The cat demanded my lap. I ignored. My back hurt. The other cat came and the two of them squabbled. I got up to let them both out. I sat.

And sat. My brain squabbled with itself. Ego sniped at breath. Shoulders hurt. Birds sang, twittered, scraped and creaked.

My spine unfurled by a hundredth of a millimetre. Then another. Breath lengthened me. Shoulder knot popped. Birds squabbled with my neck vertebrae. With my sitting bones.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to stop. Time. Knotted in every crunch of breath I felt the silted layers of time across roots and tangled impact of thought waves, my poor aching back. My poor racing brain.

Meditation creates time. It became a song, a groan. A lie. A truth. A clever thing to say later in a blog.

And then, for a breath, or a song or a cycle of breaths, I felt it. Not-time. A brief dip in the ocean, bracketed by a feeling of my day rushing towards me.

The seeds of it are there now. For today, I am not in a hurry.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Brainstorms in teacups

I had an inspiring weekend at the Africa Research Conference on Applied Theatre at Wits this weekend. Lots of vigorous debate and real connections - remarkably free of the usual posturing and look-at-me intellect that too often happens at these conferences. This one is hosted by the Drama for Life programme at Wits University, and caused me to break out in feverish sweats of planning and get all excited by the electric storm in my head.

My best things:

Seeing dear Paula and the Bonfire Theatre company perform their version of Playback theatre. These guys are responsive, disciplined performers, with experience as drama therapists. They get stories from the audience and play them back in real time, in a very elegantly structured process. Paula astonishes me with her listening skills. She can hear through several layers of the body and aura. I salute you, Ms Kingwill.

Seeing people that I had kind of lost touch with - Emma, Caroline from Phakama theatre, all these powerful creative women that I miss so much. Somehow in Jozi I haven't touched into the same sense of creative community that I had when I lived in Cape Town. I wonder why. I have great friends here, and many of them make amazing work, but somehow the rules of the game are too much centred around money in this city of gold, whereas in Kapa I had a crew of magicians who were happy to just play and see what came of it, money no object. Perhaps its to do with age. I'm much more of a solitary worker now. And that's ok. But I had a lovely feeling of being in my real tribe.

"Networking" (hate that word) with other practitioners from the subcontinent. Becoming part of a forum that is going to create a proper network for applied theatre practitioners in Africa. Woohoooo! This has been a long time in my field of intentions, and is starting to take shape at last.

A workshop on stories, voices, community, landscape. Taken from a project that worked with communities that lay claim to Mapungubwe, the ancient civilization site where the famous gold rhino was found. A simple and very intimate process of sharing stories in a small group, thoughts on landscape, community, the significance of names, and then creating a map of your life landscape and putting little feet/footsteps at different parts of your map. Getting responses to these from the person next to you, and then interpreting these responses in a group still picture - how stories get interpreted and filtered down - diluted or added to. Beautiful Sarah from Ghana who describes herself as unstable and pure spirit, who said 'when I had my son I realised I exist', Yvonne from the Valley of a Thousand Hills whose son went to the school I went to, and who carries a breathstopping recent tragedy in her aura. Vivacious Kat with flashing eyes who misses the Jacaranda trees of the country she no longer lives in. Stacey who wraps layers of protection around her vulnerable core. How much intimacy and poetry can be created in an hour and a half. The way we had to pass round little slips of paper to create a silent story in the group (and this to be developed further - a gorgeous idea, I love the thought of a murmured act of communal storymaking in an audience, where its not ever 'aloud' - ie spoken by performers on stage, but passed on from person to person, everyone telling part of a scripted whole.)

The drama therapy guru Phil Jones whose paper sparked something in me - especially where he spoke of rethinking childhood - oh, so much there - how adults create 'others' out of children and silence them. Think about it - which of these words resonate with you and your childhood messages - 'invisible'; 'inadequate', 'not worth listening to'. And how this creates a cycle of incompetence. And his paper delivered in such a performative way, with some of the students reading out his case studies as if from a playreading.

Yes, the rains have started, as my fellow African bloggers Janelle, Miranda and Val celebrate so lyrically. For me, this conference was a much needed slaking of an old thirst. I haven't been working much in this field lately, because I decided to concentrate on the wordsmith aspect of my being. I still do the odd bit of facilitation, but I really miss the chemistry of a shared storymaking and theatre making process. It feels like the plans that have been slowly uncurling at the base of my brain can find some other sparks to ignite them now. Yay.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Its palpable. The traffic on Louis Botha is celebrating. Everyone is hooting. Its bigger than when SA won the Rugby World Cup. And if you're not South African you don't know how big that is!

Congratulations American voters, you did it. Doesn't it feel good to have a warm-blooded mammalian creature at the helm again? The rest of the world is very, very relieved.

My prayer now is that this energy and excitement can be harnessed. "Follow it through" my dear grandfather used to say, ad nauseum. Don't sit back and think your job is done. That all too human tendency to let others lead, make decisions for you and when they do bad you just shrug shoulders while saying "ag, that's politics" is what gives leaders permission to inch towards forgetfulness.

Make no mistake, we are as besotted with the man as you are. But we'd like to throw in our penny's worth. Or Rand's worth. (its cheaper that way). Hell, what's a blog for if its not for a bit of opinionated chirping from the wings? We can tell you a thing or two about politics in Africa, oh yes we can. And even though this election seemed more like American Idol than politics, still, we'd like to share.

We can tell you that Charisma is bewitching, heady, dizzy-making. We love it, we want to be close to it all the time. Its like falling on love. Your partner is so wonderful they can do no wrong. So be like the lover who needs her independence - hold your man accountable for his promises. Don't just give him carteblanche coz he's hot.

We can tell you that Change cannot be outsourced. It can be managed, sure, but you got to do the hard uncomfortable work yourself. You can hire someone to clean up your mess, but then its easy to just keep making the same mess again. Do it yourself, and you'll keep it clean.

And we can tell you that Your Neighbours are important. What other people think is important. I guess by now many of you have realised that the rest of the world has an opinion about the USA and not a very complimentary one. We care because you guys have what we would call a big footprint. The power to do good, yes. But also the power to be the big kid at the party who ate all the cake and slurped up all the juice and didn't leave any for the rest. Years ago, at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Joburg, there was a very cool Tshirt that I didn't manage to get my hands on. Black with luminous green font, worn by slim bands of protesters at traffic lights - "What shall we do about the United States?" read the tshirt. It was a question that had to be answered, but that was back in 2002, pre-Baghdad, pre the last 5 grinding years of hope erosion. Finally, it feels like maybe the United States can do something about themselves. We hope so. We will be watching this man with great interest. We want to share.

But look at me, I'm the one spoiling the party now, like a strict old teacher with sharp gary larson glasses.

I truly am very excited. It feels like a real chance.

Enjoy the celebrations, and keep riding that energy - the hard work begins now, I reckon. Yes, you truly can.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Felix's wish

I phoned my sister this morning. She was on the bus, from Arusha to Dar es Salaam. In the background some heavy thudding bass and a repetitive chant. Listen, she says, and holds out the phone - "Barak Obama. Barak. Obama." Yep, that was my little postmodern moment this morning - a Swahili soundtrack to the US election.

It reminded me of a waiter called Felix in Malawi. Today being the day of great import and moment that it is, we in Africa are also holding our collective breaths. Especially Felix, who gave me much to smile about on my recent trip to Malawi.

Here it is straight from my notebook:
Let us give thanks for Felix the waiter, barperson and general service fellow extraordinaire at Kuka Lodge, Lilongwe. "A most excellent man" as he himself declares in his Malawian accent with flashing mischief dimple. Who fervently knows that God is sending direct and swift punishment to the bad people of South Africa who chased foreigners away from their homes. Who joined me in suggesting to Franc the fotoman that he try the mbalane on the snack menu (small wild birds, roasted, spindly legs and all).
"I want sumsing light", muses F
"Oh, try the mbalane," I joke
"Yes. Very excellent. Most delicious," enthuses Felix.
"Oh, okeh"
"Um, Francois, they're wild birds. Probably endangered ones."
"Oh. Okeh. i try. Is good to try, no?"
To his credit, he valiantly crunched his way through all of them. Too bad there were no mbewe (roasted mice).

For the next few days we take mutual delight in F's increasing grumpiness. For the record - my travelling companion is a most gifted photographer. Some of his pics truly smack your breath away. But he says he's getting too old to sit in white landcruisers and bump over bad roads and stay in shitty (ie non Parisienne, non Cape Grace) guest houses working for people who don't understand his art. He says Pfff a lot. He can take a joke, luckily. He laughs when I laugh at him - the way he is so disappointed at the Caesar salad he ordered. Egg, hot lettuce, a few chicken pieces.
"What did you expect," I clutch my belly in laughter. Croutons? Anchovies?
Most times I've worked with F, there's a mild culture clash. It is not polite in Zambian or Malawian culture to express discomfort, grumpiness and general dissatisfaction. Most people go into a slight panic when they meet with F's grizzling. Not Felix. Like a kid playing with a scorpion, he says things that might piss him off, then jumps back to watch the reaction and gets a look of glee to see what he has provoked. This is making my trip a lot more fun than usual.

Felix the most excellent is ardently pro-Obama. Naturally.
"He is excellent. An excellent president. Not just for America but for Africa too. He is a good man. He will stop all the wars. He is a black man."
"Yes. He will save Africa."
"I don't know about that, Felix.I think he'll change things but he can't save the world."
He ignores me, staring at the tiny tv screen above the bar. The lodge is empty, its just me, waiting for my eggs, Felix, and CNN.
"Look at that guy." (McCain). "He is already dead."

He rushes to the kitchen with the energy of a meercat. Presents the small plunger of Mzuzu coffee, on a tray.
"I am the best coffee maker in Lilongwe. The second best in the country. There's one guy in Blantyre who is better than me."
"I see. Was there a national coffee making championship?"
"Yes!" He shows me a marketing pamphlet for Mzuzu coffee, with detailed instructions on how to make it in a plunger.
"There was a white man who taught us. I was the best."
The coffee is good. And for that I most grateful.
"I am a very excellent man," says Felix. "And so is Mr Barak Obama."
Well, I would have to agree.

Now there is a tv preacher on the box, and he is chiming along to her sermon.
"Oh praise God. Halleluja praise the lord. Hosannah. Amen."

He is a most bouyant spirit.


We are all waiting. We know, we know how easy it is to steal an election. We know also how giddy it is to pin wild hopes on one man. How hard the fall if they disappoint. But we're nothing if not hopeful. I'm not sure that hope is all its cracked up to be. Sometimes I think its a paralysing thing, a substitute for action. But today, its what we hold in our lungs.

We pray. We hope, we wait, we breathe.

Can you feel Africa's inheld breath? We have strong magic here, who knows whether it is being spun right now. Can you feel it? If the results are as they should be, you'll feel it alright.