Thursday, January 29, 2009

And finally

4. How did you develop so much internal strength of character? Did your parents show you how it's done, or was it something else? Life experience? Or were you just born that way?

I honestly don't think of myself in this way. Its an illusion. I do not have internal strength of character. Stubborn willfullness, yes. Bossiness, yes. Gritting my teeth, yes. But these are masks. I am porous, unhinged, composed mostly of water and fire (which makes steam, yes?). At boarding school I was pulled this way and that, getting into trouble for things that I didn't cause. Hapless. Serene on the outside, turmoil within.

I care too much what people think about me. I have a terrible record for starting things I never seem to finish. I am frequently late, disorganised, taking on too much. No boundaries!

I think I have outer strength, not inner strength - as in, the people around me are what have made me strong (or weak). I have an ability to sense the moods and needs of others with acute precision. I absorb emotional learning very quickly. I am far too aware of others, and very clumsy at emotional self expression.

The really strong role model in my life was my stubborn-as-a-buffalo, stoic, spartan grandfather. He taught me self-reliance. And I think being a lonely bookworm kid also shaped me in that way. I have a huge capacity for endurance - as in, I will passively accept discomfort (long bumpy road trips) and toxic relationships for ever without putting myself first. But I don't think that counts as inner strength. Agh, I don't know. Next question please!

5. When you're in a foul mood, how do you lift yourself out of it? Or do you just witness, or wait for it to change? When you're in a great mood, what do you do to extend it?

Excellent question. If I am in a foul mood, one of three things is wrong.
a) I am hungry and must eat. Low blood sugar turns me into a growling malcontent.
b) I am tired and must sleep. I don't function on a short night's sleep. I have a very vivid and active dreamlife and if I don't spend enough time there I get grumpy.
c)I am overstimulated (over socialised) and need time to myself. I am quite solitary and private by nature and too much intimacy leaves me feeling raw and naked. (Answering these interview questions has been quite taxing!)
This is a paradox however, and one I have been thinking about a lot lately. Its the double pull - for privacy, but also needing recognition. I grew up among adults - not a lot of other kids my age. In a safari camp. So always surrounded by people (adults) who have to 'keep an eye' on you and make sure you don't wander off into danger, but not necessarily taking a real playmates role either. Even now, when I go home, I feel like I'm in a petri-dish, under a microscope. Every one knows every one's business, but its still a kind of lonely space. Weird. So I want to hide, but I am also exhibitionist and gushing confessional. Can you tell? Over-exposure makes me nervous, but so does obscurity.

So - to counter a foul mood I must - eat, nap, or take a long walk. Yoga, of course, is marvelous for balancing. Meditation or breathing, the usual. Red wine is a fine mood enhancer too. When all else fails, the confessional pages of one of my notebooks is usually my best way of self-counselling and has saved me from myself many many times. If that also fails - a vitamin B shot usually sorts me out.

To extend a good mood? Aaah, how quickly they pass. I wish I could say that I make a conscious practice of keeping the good moods alive, but generally I tend to just observe, and not try to attach too much to either good or bad moods. My emotions are not me. They are like the weather, to be enjoyed, and sometimes to take shelter from. Sure, I have control over my mood. There's the logic of course of taking great delight in the little things, to feed the fire as it were. I do have a storehouse of images I keep. Things that have amused me.

Yesterday, a man riding a motorbike down Louis Botha avenue (a busy crazy Joburg road). He was dressed in wellworn tweed, he had a bashed up red helmut and he had an enormous pipe, firmly between his lips. He is now in my treasure chest, along with the image of that cute girl in the supermarket queue who kept putting the contents of her mother's shopping trolley into mine. And if there is one image that makes my heart expand it's the sight of baby elephants at play.

Thanks to Reya for these hefty, illuminating questions.
If you'd like to play too, here's how it works:
Below are the rules. I'll interview the first five people who ask.

1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me." Please include your email address if I don't have it. I'll delete it before publishing your comment.
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. (I get to pick the questions).
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

Thank you for being so generous with receiving my long rambling answers. I think I need a nap now.

pics by Freya Reder

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Part two: travel and choices

2. Everyone experiences defining moments in life, forks in the road of destiny at which we have to make changes, give up something, start doing something we haven't been, whatever. Will you choose one defining moment from your life and write about it? I'm especially interested in how you realized you were at a defining moment.

Hmmmm. Many of these. My life has twisted and turned like a twisty turny thing. Most often, these things are only apparent much later.

Nine years ago, I was teetering on the brink of what I can only think in retrospect was something like a nervous breakdown. I was confused. So 'other' oriented that I had lost all sense of who I was. My four-year-long relationship had come grinding to a stormy sticky halt. Years of stress from his ME, my depressive tendencies and the nasty things couples do to one another when things go bad. We had separated, but we were still writing, still knew we had a lot of stuff to deal with – so walk away, or go back and sort it out?

I was working with a theatre company as a designer. An exciting project that really meant a lot to me – a production on environmental issues, that would tour southern Africa and play to Ministers of Environment and other policy makers. The production part of things had come to an end, and they needed a manager for the road trip. An amazing opportunity to get to know theatres, arts journalists and environment bigwigs in Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique. I wanted it.

My on-again-off-again frustrated love was taking refuge from our storms in the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo. Sore, but trying to reach out. He arranged for me to come and stay there for six weeks – free of charge if I developed the small pottery studio they have there.

I hovered.

I knew it was a life-turning moment. I knew that if I walked away now from this man I would walk away from a lot of Drama but I would find more Drama elsewhere, probably on the road. It was more than a choice between a man and a career. It was about finding a new way of doing things, in myself.

We were staying a house that had once belonged to Olive Schreiner, in a small town in the karoo, where were rehearsing. I dreamed of an enormous spider that was fat from having devoured its mate. Hanging, pendulous from the ceiling above my bed. I realised that I didn't like who I was at that moment. This creature with so much capacity to hurt.

I knew that I had to choose kindness.

And I went to Ixopo.
Morning meditation
Noble silence
Green hills, beautiful “beyond any singing of it” as Alan Paton has written of those rolling grasslands of Ixopo.

We have had one more major crossroads since then, me and that fella. But we are ok. In fact we are doing well. And I still get opportunities to contribute to environmental theatre in Southern Africa. I know that I am a much better person because of that choice. I didn't know it at the time, but it wasn't a choice about a relationship. It was about me learning how to receive.

Funny thing, I liked to think I was someone who gave and gave, inexhaustably. I didn't realise the inherent selfishness of this. The arrogance of not being someone who can also be small and needy. My time there was a slow painful slog, the way healing can be when you finally, grudgingly turn around and face your defences. The hard work of sitting, and sitting, and feeling the waste products of your biography slowly unknot from your shoulders. Life is funny. I thought I was choosing a person and 'sacrificing' something that meant a lot to me. But I wasn't. I was choosing me.

Ok Time for this question -
Do you enjoy travel? Do you dream of exploring far-away places? Where would you go if money was no obstacle?

I'd like one day to explore Earth's most spiritually significant sites. I want to go to the Great Pyramid, to Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Chartres, Notre Dame, Delphi.

Then there's the decadent trip - Amsterdam, wine routes, food routes, whisky tasting in Scotland.

The theatre and ritual trip - ancient ceremonies in India, Mongolia, South America, West Africa.

I've always dreamed of sailing in a dhow up the east coast of Africa.

I loooong to go to the Amazon. This is one I've wanted since I was a wee gurli.

But also - Poffader, Paternoster, Pilansberg - so many places to see on our doorstep in South Africa. I want to make the ultimate African road movie.

America? Mostly because of people. Washington, to have tea with Reya. California - a walk with Freya, Alena and Lori.

The European Art tour - the one I was supposed to do when I was 17 but I ended up going to Hong Kong and Malaysia instead.

And also - atrocity sites. Rwanda, Auschwitz. I believe in simply being in places where terrible things have happened, and doing Tong Glen meditation, where you breathe in the sorrow and breathe out lovingkindness. I believe such things make a difference.

Um, Yes, I guess I do want to travel! Thank heavens for blogland!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reya's Interview: the miniseries

I knew Reya's questions would be weighty. If this were live on TV I'd drive the interviewer to distraction. I'd be that person who never stops talking about herself. So I'm cheating. I'm going to answer all of Reya's amazing questions, but, well, slowly. I'm answering the first one in full – a post of its own. The rest will come tomorrow, ok?

1. I would love for you to write about your involvement with theater - what
drew you to that form of expression, who are your favorite playwrights,
favorite plays. You're so talented, you could do anything you want. Why
theater? (This could be a whole interview, I realize. Just write what you
feel like writing.)

The heritage - er, none. My parents are visual artists. My grandparents - writers. So, while creativity was definitely encouraged in my household, theatre was the furthest thing from anyone's minds, I guess. I often wonder what they'd have done if I announced I was going to be an accountant or something. Anyway. I always knew my currency was stories. More importantly - voices. When I was a child I 'channelled' voices - played out long, complex dialogues, that just kind of coursed through me as I wandered around the mielie fields. My gran would say:
'There goes Tammy, reading, without her book.'
The funny thing is, when my mom gave me one of my early writing assignments as part of our home schooling curriculum, I point blank refused to write it myself. I would do the story, sure. But only if I dictated and my mom wrote it down.
I often refer to this tiny memory as significant - why?
Because it became a blueprint for so much of my creative expression later. It seemed I always needed a medium.

I think the reason I was drawn to theatre is because of how all one's utterances can be mediated through the ensemble. If you are the playwright, then the director is interpreting, the actors are interpreting - everyone has distilled your words through their own system by the time it reaches the end consumer. Putting my words directly out there has always been scary for me. I feel exposed. (Do you understand why blogging can be kind of terrifying for me?)

The Education
So I studied at Rhodes University in a mad little village-sized city (it has a cathedral - its a city). I intended to do a BA in literature. I was going to be a writer, see? But the drama department, that ship of dear, merry fools drew me in, sucked me in. I was in heaven - by day and night I mind-painted the black walls of the Box Theatre (still my favourite space ever). Worlds of play, of real delving into the psyche. The only place where you can walk into a closed room and someone is holding a gun to someone else's head and you say, "oh sorry," and shut the door. I could go on. I loved it. It became home. Grahamstown is home to an annual arts festival, and I took full advantage of this.

I studied acting, theatre design and scriptwriting. On entering the “real world” I realised I hadn't the temperament to be a real actress so closed that chapter (though I still love to perform, but only in self created wonderworlds, on my terms.)

Playwrights I love - I don't refer here to the 'masters' but those who have pinned down my reality, and hoisted it at the same time, the way knocking a tent peg into the ground enables both shelter and a sense of kite flying.
So - Beckett, Beckett, Beckett and Beckett.
Shepard - great craftsman, with distinct eras, that dovetail with eras in my life. I loved him, particularly in my late teens and early 20s. At 17, I could recite the whole of that monologue from Paris Texas. At 24 I was teaching A Lie of the Mind, a play I still think is extraordinary. And Buried Child, of course. Albee. The drunken cadences of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf found a familiar landing strip in my psyche.
Tenessee Williams - definitely formative, though a little too verging on the late harvest rather than the sauvignon blanc, if you know what I mean.
I'm a sucker for Chekhov. I think I was one of those pale long haired girls, mourning my life before its even begun and staring at the window at birds headed towards Moscow. I was one of those Ninas or Varyas, in a not-too-distant past life.
Caryl Churchill, David Hare, so clever, so important.
If Sarah Kane had made it through her Saturn Returns she would have written even more extraordinary plays than she did in the short time she was here.
The Shakespeares that are closest to me are The Tempest and King Lear.
So much for scripted stuff.

Pictures, words, energy, the body
You see, in Africa, things run a little differently, and if I have found a theatrical home anywhere, its in the ceremony and ritual of Zambian performance, and the raw physical, image theatre that South African artists have really made their own. The “poor theatre” that Jerzy Grotowski envisaged? That was taken, digested and transmuted by South African artists who had little but an 'empty' space and a burning need to show the world what was going on here. My aunt took me to a performance of Woza Albert in 1985 at the Market Theatre. I will never forget that visceral, blunt feeling, and can't remember what impressed me more - the Market Theatre, with its old 'no spitting' signs, or the performance itself. That may well have been the start of it.

South African theatre has done well with the physical theatre language. One man shows and two-handers proliferate in these parts. We do it out of necessity, because funding is scarce, and so we make what we can with our bodies. But for me, always a child of my head first and my body later, I floundered in this world. I'm not a dancer. I'm an ideas, concepts, images, stories person. But, theatre practice has also helped to ground me, and learn to work with energy and bodylines. It helped me, literally, to find my feet.

Now what?
So although I started as a writer, when I turned to theatre I learned almost all aspects of the craft, from hanging lights to chest resonance, costume stitching to blocking. When you run a tiny theatre company on no budget, you learn to do everything. I write, direct, act, design. I loathe admin and marketing but I can do it.

So – if images and stories are my building blocks – why not film? The answer lies in the power of theatre itself. Presence. Energy. Maybe you've never seen a piece of theatre that can heal, create community, and thrash out the real stuff that touches your life. I'm not talking about spectacular sets and big, miked up voices. There is something about the chemistry of a rehearsal process, working with the pliable, electric stuff that makes us hurt, recoil, lash out and be kind. Human emotions. Memories, tastes, reactions. That mysterious other thing – spirit, whatever you want to call it. Theatre process as shamanism. That's what I'm good at. Conducting the lithe, flailing serpent energy that comes from a cast of gifted performers. Drawing their stories out of them, taking their pictures, traumas and joys, and sculpting these frail things into sequenced image drama. Something that then belongs to the whole group. To the world. Wow. Why does no-one pay me for this?

Oh, we try to make a living from it. I've done problem solving tool in communities, I've created customised theatre for big conferences, safety shows for BP, feel-good stuff for Coca-Cola. Sometimes we call it Theatre for Development, Community Engagement, Theatre for the Environment. Sometimes we just call it play. Its phenomenally hard to make a living from this in this country, as I will never be a big musicals kind of gal. Image theatre, ritual theatre, theatre for healing mind and body – thats where I belong. Maybe its because I've got thin boundaries.

Stay tuned for Question Two tomorrow....

2. Everyone experiences defining moments in life, forks in the road of
destiny at which we have to make changes, give up something, start doing
something we haven't been, whatever. Will you choose one defining moment
from your life and write about it? I'm especially interested in how you
realized you were at a defining moment.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Have interview questions. Am thinking.

Coming to a theatre near you. Shortly.
Or not. So shortly. Depending on the weather.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

what you wish for

Hey there. Miss me? What do you mean you were too busy? Oh, come on, just because history was being made, greatness redefined and the world peace pendulum swinging wildly from extreme to extreme...

It has been a quite a week hasn't it?
Is it just me, or did the world shift on its axis a little? No, I know the answer to that. It wasn't just me.

That speech! that benediction!
That an elected leader of that nation said to his electorate that his nation needs to learn to consume the world's resources more responsibly? That he said some of the hard things that many of us concerned citizens of the planet have been grumbling about, worrying about for at least a decade?
Its so cool.

Yeah, he'll do. Well done, you guys, for choosing this one.
We wished and you wished, and they wished, and it came to pass.
Maybe its a case of - this time, everyone was very, very careful what they wished for, and this time it paid off.

So I've been a slacker blogger. Ever since Fush and Chips posted that manifesto about slow blogging, I've been thinking, about what I'm doing here and do I really have to post if I don't really have anything to say?

Actually, I don't need to blog at the moment, because Reya of the Gold Puppy always says whats in my head, and says it first. Like her post of today.

Seriously though. I started this thing in May last year, and I started it because I was angry. It was the time of the horrific xenophobic attacks in urban South Africa, and I was bursting with stuff that I wanted to say, not knowing at all who I was saying it to. Trying to undo writers' block - the kind where you have too much to say. (Writer's backlog. backblog. oh shhhh) Then I met all these incredible, warm, interested blogmates. I didn't quite expect that. Beautiful.

But suddenly I'm like, uh? How did I get here? What am I doing here? Random confessions? Navel gazing? A showcase for writing snippets that don't have a home? A marketing device? Oh my Gaaad! She has the blogger ID crisis!!! Its doing the rounds. Miranda has it, Janelle has it. All a question of scale, you see. The worker ants are restless, and the giant aardvark is coming with its big sticky tongue of oblivion.

What. is. she. on about?

I started this as a place to launch some spells, to call back the long skirted ladies of the dim and watery places (Muses, to you). Recognising some deep fertile connection between wild spaces and creative impulse, I wanted a virtual alter where I could burn some incense. Lacking a stage, a rehearsal space, I needed a sanctified zone where I could pour all my randomings. Hmmm. But now, ever restless, ever discontent with what is enough, I neeed mooooore! So I'm starting a sister blog - one that deals strictly with matters of a professional and a livelihood nature. One with a bit more focus, you understand. To go with the fact that I'm, er, starting a business. Watch this space. Actually, watch the space next door. Oh sod it, I'll send you there when there's something to read.

And in other news related to rituals gone awry and wishes with suprises attached, I attempted some clumsy rain dances for our Arusha cousins. In my garden the other night. The kind where you run outside and thank the big soggy clouds for bequeathing you with their blessings, and then try to waft some of it northeast to where Janelle and Miranda suffocate under empty white skies. The kind where you sort of take a wild stab and point the clouds in the general direction of the Ngorobob hill...several thousand kilometres away.

The next day, as I was busy cramming for this EQ course that I am in the middle of teaching (yes, this missive comes to you from ....drumroll... Witbank...client is BHP Billington. Later, I explain later.) SO there I was, a whirl of nerves and a trial of errors, sitting at my computer screen, swearing at powerpoint coz I really wanna be blogging... when I hear our tenant calling me with an edge of urgency in his voice. Irritable, I pop my head out the back door.
"Tamara, we have a disaster."
She thinks: Disaster? I'll show you a blerry disaster - wha? Water? Flood? Huh?

Turns out their geyser burst. Two inches of water on the carpet, and they come home to a spaniel standing on the coffee table to keep her feet dry. Ok, so that's their problem. My problem, is that the water is floowwwing, not dripping but flowing, through a crack in the floor that separates their flat from the downstairs garage, where MY BOOKS ARE GETTING WET!!! Boxes and boxes of the Zambian ceremony book that I published last year, and which is stored in my garage. A thousand copies of it!!! AAAAHHHHHHH!

Oh yeah, I knew this Mercury retrograde still had a suprise or two in store for me.

Luckily, I ripped open the wet cardboard on the outside and managed to salvage most of them before the seep got in. Working feverishly to haul heavy boxes out in the pre-storm heat.

So, sorry Janelle. I er, didn't manage to send the rain very far.

Aaaah. Peace, y'all.
Love and too many fussy cushions, from a B & B in Mpumalanga.

Where there is plenty of rain.

Monday, January 12, 2009


My sister has written about him here.

I'm adding to that, with this portrait of the man, written in 2006. It appears elsewhere, but I wanted to put it here as well.

He really was a magician.


Breakfast is slices of paw paw scored in a neat grid so you can scoop it onto the spoon easily. A squeeze of tiny hard limes from Malawi. Sometimes, its eggs and toast. and Iwomba asks, sclambala or flie? and sometimes, he shyly suggests, ‘what about eggie bread?’ Eggie bread is bread with a hole in the middle, and an egg fried in the hole. For some reason Iwomba thinks this is a special treat for me, and when I am home for the holidays he always offers it to me proudly.

After breakfast Iwomba asks me with anxious concern, ‘what’s for lunch?’ The cupboard is bare again. I am exhausted at the thought of searching the market on a blistering morning. Is there something in the freezer I ask, vague and non-committal. Lunch appears miraculously – slick cabbage salad and chicken pie.

Supper is soup and bread. Iwomba the alchemist, who can turn a couple of withered green peppers sagging on the bamboo shelf into a rich fragrant soup.

How do I write about Iwomba Zulu? Iwomba the herbalist, who knows leaves that make a scorpion sting disappear - but he’s not telling which leaves. Iwomba, whose memory archives store subtle combinations of allspice and cinnamon, bay leaves and clove. I’d love to take him to Zanzibar, to read the wind like he reads the steam rising from a curry.

Soup and bread. Iwomba’s made his preparations early. The soup is ready, cooked and cooled, balanced on a wobbly shelf in the crotchety fridge that we’ve had to tie up with legen* to keep it closed. The bread is cooling in the dark pantry. Iwomba’s going fishing.

When I was younger, I’d go too. I loved sitting on the bank watching Iwomba haul in hefty Cornish Jack and bottlenose while I struggled with the occasional wriggling squeaker and lots of roots and branches. Iwomba’s not a big talker. But he shows me how to tie hooks to line (twine, he calls it). And how to pierce the tiny frogs onto the hook and where to throw the line – where the water eddies and curls and the big fish are feeding. My line is always dead, or it tangles on the first cast. Frustrated teenager, I want to cut off my hook and start again. But Iwomba sits with the patience of a leopard and untangles it till the sun goes down. Lets me hold his line.

Iwomba never laughs when I don’t catch fish. Concern in his brown eyes. But when he guides them onto his own line with alchemy magic he smiles at me. And that’s the best part. Waiting for the smile.

Making Iwomba smile is a secret goal for each day. Actually it’s easy – compliment his cooking and his face cracks open with delight. All the natural worry that lines his face, all the kindly anxiety of no ingredients and ‘borrowing from the lodge’ melts like butter in a blackened pan. How do I write the life of Iwomba Zulu? It’s just my memories, marinated in woodsmoke, shot through with weevil dust. Iwomba using page after page of Delia Smith’s Book of Cakes to light the fire in the old Dover stove, coz he can't read it anyway. But his lemon meringue pie is like clouds with an underbelly.

1970’s: His early career. A dish-washer in the Chibembe kitchen, absorbing the recipes around him, he is patient and gloomy-faced until the day they are short of a cook. Iwomba do you know how to make Isaac’s green pepper soup? That big, cracking smile. Yes. He does. And it’s good.

1980’s: Norman moves to Mfuwe, to the all weather roads and all season prospects. Iwomba asks to join him. When Kapani opens, he loses the chance to cook for foreign guests, becoming instead a cook at the Ruins*, for Norman and family. This means no luxury ingredients or fluffy steam puddings. Cooking for Norman is like painting for a blind man. Soup and bread and eggy-bread and the occasional jelly and custard.

When we have guests he beams delight for they bring new recipes, spices and combinations. With closed eyes he smells the open spice bottles. In about 1987 Iwomba perfects his world-class curry.

1990’s: Iwomba returns to the world of safari guests, and lemon sponge cake for tea. Nsolo bushcamp. He joins a team of the golden oldies – John and Rice Time and a clay wood oven. I visit him there before he retires, driving the long powdery drive towards khaya trees that swallow me gratefully. And the tongue-smacking lunch that I swallow gratefully. I visit Iwomba in the back kitchen. He’s ready to receive guests – a slightly grim look on his face. But when he sees me the smile breaks like dawn. Hello Iwomba. Thank you. Thank you for lunch.

* legen is strips of bicycle inner tubing, universal fixing/strapping/binding material in Africa.
* The Ruins is my home. Its the family / behind the scenes / staff quarters counterpart to the Lodge.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Curious Rituals of the Valley People (Part 2)

Honouring our ancestors

Uncle A decided to take to take us on the river. This is always a treat, not just because Uncle A has a fine aluminium flat-bottomed boat, perfect for this hippo-studded river, but also because he is simply a fine person to be in the bush with. Safe, experienced, deeply in knowing with the place, its rhythms and warning signals. Just like his father, Norman Joseph Carr.

We all have different levels of literacy in landscapes. When I am at the ocean, I always feel a slight tip and swell of strangeness. I love it, but I am not literate in oceanscape, not like I am in the bush. I can't read a shorebreak like my other half can. And when we are in the bush, and we wake in the night to a strange belly roar echoing across the dambo, it is he who will sit upright and say, 'wha wazzat?' and I will mutter in my semi sleep 'hippo' or 'elephant', depending on the exact timbre of the roar, trumpet or bellow. [elephant stood on a thorn. elephant shouting at lion. elephant shouting at human. indignant hippo.]

Well, Miranda has written about the role that our grandfather, Norman Joseph Carr played in developing this kind of literacy, and so have I. Somewhere.

But the gals, the young revolutionaries, are too small to remember him. So they learn from their Papa, and its the same lessons of course.

What a treat when Uncle A takes us to Bonkar's memorial stone in the National Park, by boat! In the dry season you can go by road, but not now. So we pack some water, and apply lashings of sunscreen. We drive to the river though its not far to walk, skip off the side of the landcruiser and tramp over soft ankle hugging grass to where the boat is moored. Past the trichelia where I sat and sulked, dreamed or smoked as a teenager. Now strewn with the ex-coals of a fisherman's fire. Clamber down into the boat.

I'm telling my youngest cuz, the one who was born hours before her grandfather left this world, what she said to me when she was barely two years old.
"My Bonkar is under a stone," she said to me, eyes big and serious.
"He's in the sky. He's under the stone, he's in the sky." she'd repeat this over and over, like a mantra, anchoring the concept of having had a grandfather, then letting it slip away again like a kite and hauling it back again. Sweet thing. She giggles and says, I don't remember. Uh. I'm not suprised.

I can't believe how crowded that riverfront has become in the last 11 years.

You see, the National Park is on the 'other side' of the river - untouched and just for the animals. Historically there were only ever a few permanent structures in the NP itself. Most of the other camps and the majority of the residents live in the Game Management Area (GMA). On 'this' side of the river.

At first, there was only Chinzombo, sweet little whitewashed chalets on the rivers' edge, with the flood marks of '76 painted half way up the wall, like a warning. Few kilometres upstream - a little thatched studio on the corner, then nothing til the bridge, which is also the main entrance into the park. Directly after the bridge, the house of Jemz Shuz (James Schulz, RIP) and then, the Croc Farm - built circa 1987 or 8. A major milestone in civilization, at the time. Concrete snake pens, a teahouse where you could buy lime milkshakes, how that rocked my adolescent world.

If you trace that riverfront now, its all different.
Chinzombo has been swallowed by the river. The pretty little camp where we played Marco Polo in the tiny pool on hot Christmas days of quite a long time ago. That pool is in the river now. The Luangwa ate her.

But upstream from there, especially beyond the bridge - Oooh, its starting to be like a Zanzibar beachfront I tell you. Squish squash no elbow room and [shock! horror!] sandbags tessellating the side of the river bank! Hmmm. Will that protect your camp when the river really rises to the occasion? Will it stop the steady lick of that persistent tongue? Hmm. Someone should do a socio-economic history of this stretch of river. Of land claims still contested, ruined walls of houses still occupied by tenacious ghosts. Deals are forged, fought and abandoned and everybody wants a piece of it and everybody is aghast at the development but of course they're not budging either.

Before the old benign patriarch (aka my grandfather) passed away he said that there was 'a gentleman's agreement' that there would be no development on the stretch of habitat between the lodge he built (inland, away from the Luangwa's licking tongue - he'd learned) and the Luangwa bridge, the entrance to the National Park. Keep it as an intact game corridor. A conservation area, even though its in the GMA, you can do nature walks and its still forested. A gentleman's agreement. Ah, but the age of gentlemen, bwana, it is passing us by. Reed walls are replaced by concrete, thatch with tiles. And where the mzungu settle, they bring their plants, their cats, their dogs...

To be sure, though, there are elephant aplenty and they still cross there, and there was an old gruff-looking buffalo hanging out the past few weeks. An elderly kakuli haunting the peninsular.

I digress. Again.

We got there, and moored the boat. We clambered out. Always a hush under those mighty ebony trees.

We talked a little. Not much. We nudged some msikili seeds into the ground so that they might grow there.

For company.

We examined the big msikili tree by where we moored the boat and Uncle showed his daughters how to tell that it had been inhabited by a leopard. The girls each got a leopard hair, unmistakeable, gleaned from the folds of the bark. Mimes kept hers the whole way home where she stuck it in her book. RoobyRu kept hers pinched between her fingers but then forgot as we were mounting the land cruiser, and released it into the wind.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Curious Rituals of the Valley People (Part 1)

Setting the table

Preparing the feast

Accepting rare and exotic gifts

Welcoming the guests - all of us strayed and flung far from family (even we, in this rare gathering, are missing many many parts)

Hence the cell phone calls even as we sit down to eat

And as we toast absent family and friends our breath is ragged for a moment. We swallow throat lumps the size of marula pips

and turn our attention to cracker tricks

and crap cracker jokes

as beer and wine flow like a frolicsome river

and chatter layers over twitter over giggle and guffaw til we sound like an aviary of mad scurrilous birds

Presided over by the Queen of Orientar*

And then

Post-lunch silliness takes on bizarre forms:
1. Stand in a circle and throw a small bouncy ball randomly around the group.
2. If you miss once, you get given the letter B
3. If you miss twice you get given the letter U
4. If you miss thrice you get given the letter M
5. Now you stand against the wall and everyone in the group gets to throw the small bouncy ball at your bum.
6. ???? don't ask. Its a good spectator sport.

but the light fades too quickly

and we have to submit to the blurr of the end of a fine day

* Remember "we Three Kings Of Orient are.." and how many like me wondered "where's Orientar, mummy?"

Sunday, January 4, 2009

big wheel

"Big wheel keeps on turnin
On a simple line
Day by day"
- Massive Attack

Happy two thousand and nine everybody. Two thousand and fine. Two thousand and shine. Anything except two thousand and whine. Okay? No more a that.

As I sat in the Lusaka International Airport departure lounge, waiting for a delayed flight to Joburg and listening to Al Jazeera report on Gaza, and slowly bringing my consciousness back to this world, a world that seems to turn on different wheels than that valley world where I spent an all too brief ten days, I fantasized about the stories I would write here.

I felt fattened up on stories. Burping with details of Christmas silly games and creepy crawlies under the mozzie net. I wanted to tell you -

how strange it feels to come back to a place that is so familiar that you hear the sound of your own breath sighing, from 20 years ago. Still wisping down that footpath, still bored and disaffected.

how we saw wild dogs, pert eared under bushes.

how the river was up, and my uncle took me and the cousins on the boat, to our grandfather's memorial stone, and we planted trichelia seeds there.

how i didn't sit at a computer screen, (though blogs bloomed in my head) and how good that is for one.

how the elephants were all around, and the whole valley is steamy and green and writhing with life, life! crawling, biting, hatching, breathing, killing, sleeping, munching, breeding...

about how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same.

I wanted to. And I will.

When we got off the plane, though, I slid the SA simcard back into the phone, and turned it on. We were on the bus, that liminal space between landing and passport control. The voicemail was from a friend of a friend. I had to listen to the voicemail several times. Horror sinking into my belly. The kind of news that cannot, should not be true. But is.

My partner B has a dear friend, who used to be married to a favourite cousin of his. Six years ago that cousin was killed, while collecting pottery in northern Natal. I only met him once, (marveling at how perfectly like mine his bookshelf was - archeology, anthropology, museums, culture). In the grieving period after his death, we became close to his dear, beautiful poetess widow. B helped her through that time. And then in October we went to her wedding. She has found a huge-hearted, grounded man to be her new partner, to be a father to her gorgeous teenage children. It was such a moving ceremony - simple, small. The way they included the kids into the ceremony, vowing to make it work as a family. It made me cry, I loved it.
And on the day after Christmas, her 16 year old son died in a random accident. A jet ski. A wave. Doing ordinary things on an ordinary beach with the family. It doesn't bear thinking about. Her grief. The utter randomness of it. The fact that this beautiful shy child doesn't have life anymore. And his mother must face this second immense loss.

When I went to Durban for their wedding, I wanted to blog about that sweet marriage ceremony, describe in detail how it moved me. Somehow, I didnt. I wrote about my mother-in-law's ducks instead. Time moved, swept me along with other issues, other posts found their way here instead. Its not right that I should be writing this, now. But it also doesn't feel right to blog about Christmas merriment, when there is this immoveable fact just sitting here, making everything else so relative.

Make this year count, people. Its such a precious fact that we are here at all.

"Hymn of the Big Wheel"

[Horace Andy]

The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

There's a hole in my soul like a cavity
Seems like the world is out to gather just by gravity
The wheel keeps turning the sky's rearranging
Look my son the weather is changing

I'd like to feel that you could be free
Look up at the blue skies beneath a new tree
Sometime again
You'll turn green and the sea turns red
My son I said the power of axis over my head
The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

We sang about the sun and danced among the trees
And we listened to the whisper of the city on the breeze
Will you cry in the most in a lead-free zone
Down within the shadows where the factories drone
On the surface of the wheel they build another town
And so the green come tumbling down
Yes close your eyes and hold me tight
And i'll show you sunset sometime again

The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes
As a child's silent prayer my hope hides in disguise
While satellites and cameras watch from the skies
An acid drop of rain recycled from the sea
It washed away my shadow burnt a hole in me
And all the king's men cannot put it back again
But the ghetto sun will nurture life
And mend my soul sometime again

The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes