Using the Experience of Travel to Contextualise My Life

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I’ve lived and worked almost half-a-dozen different countries in the last 10 years and probably travelled to a further three or four at least – Zimbabwe (home); South Africa (studies and work); Namibia, Botswana and Zambia (travel); the UK (work); Turkey (work and travel); Spain (travel); and France (work and travel). Of course it’s futile to try to go everywhere, to see everything, but I’ve felt a great desire to see and understand the way human societies operate and interact with each other.

Travel compels us to confront the world and challenges our perceptions of it

Travel compels us to confront the world and challenges our perceptions of it. Are other people just like me? No, but many of them seem similar in appearance, habit, likes, hates, tastes, desires etc. Do people live similar lives in other places? Surprisingly so actually, after taking into account differences in climate, topography, local economy etc. My impression of that swathe of humanity I’ve encountered in my travels is that, by and large, we act mostly on hard-wired impulses within the limits of law and society, the cultural aspects of societies providing context.

My impression of that swathe of humanity I’ve encountered in my travels is that, by and large, we act mostly on hard-wired impulses…

I can say this as a person coming from an emotionally and socially insular background witnessing first-hand the market places, shops, stalls, malls, squares, streets, pubs and restaurants where the majority of humanity gather on a daily basis for at least a portion of their daily routine. I’ve seen very few people obeying a strict, religiously codified way of life, except perhaps a section of Muslim society during the month of Ramadan and the Benedictine monks I co-existed with for a week at Belmont Abbey at Hereford in the UK.

The truth of it is that I marvel at how the world has come to be the way it is: the spread of mechanised agriculture; modern cities with their concrete and metal infrastructure; the pervasiveness of the internet; parking lots and MacDonald’s outlets; tin cans; plastic bags; highways; cars; suits and ties… the list goes on and on. It is paradoxical to think that amongst all this complexity there seems to be an underlying desire for some sort of accord or common purpose.

It is paradoxical to think that amongst all this complexity there seems to be an underlying desire for some sort of accord or common purpose.

I always marvel that most people seem to have an intuitive knowledge of such things, perhaps almost an expectation, that the world may look different from place to place, but that the people and things people aspire to will be similar. It’s taken a while for me to catch on. I grew up in post-colonial Zimbabwe in an English-speaking environment.

Most Europeans claimed some degree of British ancestry, myself included, although mixed marriages were common. My father’s ancestors were Cypriot for instance. Besides other minority European groups such as the Greeks, Portuguese, Italians and Afrikaans-speakers, there were Asians of Indian/Pakistani descent and a large proportion of bilingual Africans. I went to school with Shona and Ndebele kids from an early age. We didn’t think anything of it.

That’s not to say that there weren’t racial issues in society but at that age we were largely ignorant of the ethnically motivated violence perpetrated after independence in the south of the country and the racism that remained in some sectors of white society. How sad it is that generational issues, buried for a period of time can later resurface so viciously. I’ve just finished reading Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe which goes some way to explaining the roots of my home country’s present divisions and woes.

I’ve just finished reading Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe which goes some way to explaining the roots of my home country’s present divisions and woes.

HH did some excellent research in compiling her book, mostly through first-hand interviews. It’s interspersed with analysis – her own, of those interviewed and insights gleaned from professional people with training in psychology. In the final analysis she suggests that a better way of dealing with Mugabe, in terms of diplomacy, would be for the West to treat him with a bit more respect. It is hard for many of us to think in those terms but it has to be remembered that he is the head of state, however undemocratic that position may be, and that he was the subject of some injustices under the previous white administrations.

The thing with ‘Mad Bob’ is that he’s not actually that mad, although there are some strong arguments to be made in favour of self-delusional patterns of thought. What seems to underpin what must surely be his final years in office, is a very strong desire to be remembered as the leader who stood up to British imperialism without backing down. He says as much in the final chapter. He wants this to be his legacy.

What seems to underpin what must surely be (Mugabe’s) final years in office, is a very strong desire to be remembered as the leader who stood up to British imperialism without backing down

That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Zimbabwean political discourse in the last 20 years but HH felt, as do I, that the West has taken the wrong approach in dealing with the man. He wants so desperately to be loved by the British after all. Flatter him and acknowledge him and use this as leverage for implementing dialogue. No dialogue, no progress.

Just like the Robert Mugabe she portrays as a rather complex character, moulded in large part by his childhood experiences, I’ve asked myself many times over the years how it was I came to hold my particular view of the world when I was 10-13-15-18 years of age. What were the predominant forces? Who were the main actors, main influencers? I’ve no doubt that most were within my society rather than without.

I can, for instance, recall my father being for the most part an affable man but outspoken. He was a lawyer so that probably goes with the territory. Nonetheless he held some prejudicial views which reflected in part those of the society he grew up in and in part views held by his mum (my grandfather died when I was very young. Too young to remember his character). One of these prejudicial views involved looking down on those who were different either in opinion or character. I didn’t realise it then but much of what he said was about projecting an image of authority and certainty whereas beneath he was a rather insecure man.

(my father) held some prejudicial views which reflected in part those of the society he grew up in and in part views held by his mum

South of the border apartheid South Africa was in existence until my mid-teens. I remember as a youngster traveling down to the South African coastal city of Durban with my family on our annual summer vacation. En route we’d drive through some unusual-sounding towns like Messina, Louis Trichardt and Pietersburg. Once we stopped off at a place called Warmbaths which was actually a spot with natural hotsprings, popular with local Europeans. I was probably only 8 or 9 years old and when the ticket person at the gate started talking to me in a strange, guttural tongue that neither me nor my brother understood, the two of us bolted back to our mother embarrassed.

Of course the language we’d confronted was Afrikaans. Back then I used to make my brothers laugh impersonating the news-readers on SABC which aired in both English and Afrikaans in those days, the late 80s. I didn’t think much about the English-Afrikaans division over the years except that van der Merwe jokes were popular in the community. Van was a dim-witted Afrikaans dude who was always doing something dumb and his antics elicited many laughs much in the same way as the English tell jokes about the idiot Irishman. I didn’t think much about it all the same.

It was only much later when I attended Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape of South Africa for 2 years that I had to revisit the question of my white African identity. A relatively small town it was overlooked by a garish brick-and-concrete monument (the mont) to the 1820 Settlers (British). Many of their descendents still lived in the area. The vast majority of the student body were native English speakers and Afrikaans was only heard amongst the working class ‘coloured’ ladies in the kitchens and supermarket tills in town. I remember Afrikaners aka Dutchmen/rocks/rock-spiders/slopes being the butt of a lot of jokes amongst my (mostly) white English-speaking South African housemates.

I remember Afrikaners aka Dutchmen/rocks/rock-spiders/slopes being the butt of a lot of jokes amongst my (mostly) white English-speaking South African housemates.

Once, when one of them heard Afrikaans being spoken on campus by a couple of female students he told them to ‘shut up’ in no uncertain terms which completely astounded me at the time. Ironically, it turned out he was from Klerksdorp, a predominately Afrikaans-speaking town just outside metropolitan Jo’burg. In retrospect it’s not that surprising. I imagine Rob growing up in an atmosphere of tribal rivalry which obviously left its mark.

I dropped out of Rhodes after two years for personal reasons and certainly nothing to do with any of the anecdotes I mention here. It was only several years later when I returned to South Africa to finish my Honours degree at another university, Tuks, in the largely Afrikaans capital city of Pretoria did I learn that this white-on-white discrimination cut both ways. It certainly was not pervasive but it was subtly present on several occasions.

My impression of many Afrikaners, both then and now, is that they are culturally and linguistically distinct and what that to be appreciated in those terms. I think what many people looking at the country as outsiders fail to understand is the uneasy alliance between the English and Afrikaans speaking people under the legislative apartheid of the Afrikaans-led National Party during the last century.

My impression of many Afrikaners, both then and now, is that they are culturally and linguistically distinct and what that to be appreciated in those terms

I’ve talked to many Afrikaners who will tell you, straight to your face, how they’re the real victims of history, how they were first compelled to leave Europe for reasons of religious disagreement, later falling foul of the British and even now misunderstood by the world at large. “We just want to be left alone,” is one sentiment I heard from a well-spoken, late 30-something Afrikaans man smoking a pipe during my stay in Cape Town earlier this year.

Not only did it make me want to understand the roots of European colonialism on the sub-continent better but it got me thinking more about the nature of colonisation and the fact that no nation is every guaranteed influence over other nations in perpetuity. The world expands and shifts as so do alliances, cultures and languages.

The world expands and shifts as so do alliances, cultures and languages.

My point is that alliances between former opponents are occupiers are a necessity in the game of nation-building. What happened in South Africa cannot be dismissed out of hand as a blighted exercise in colonial opportunism. There were tangible economic benefits even if the racial discrimination was awful. Knowing this and being more in tune with civil liberties, human rights and notions of equal opportunity for all, is it not still pertinent to remember the value of forging difficult alliances in order that our different societies and cultures can get on with the business of doing business?

Now here I am sitting in France, another nation with a rich and colourful history and I realise that, despite doing four years of French language instruction at high school, I still know very little about the people themselves let alone the subtleties of the language which evade me now rather as they did then. What I can say is that all the French people I’ve had the good fortune to work and live alongside thus far have been very friendly and approachable.

I’ve seen first hand a long and proud history as manifest in the architecture of medieval towns and villages, and within the centres of bigger cities too. Numerous churches and cathedrals span centuries of civilisation. The people speak a different language, have their own cuisine, culture and so forth. Many speak no English at all. Yet they appear to live as others in the West do and enjoy the fruits of economic prosperity. It strikes me that we could just as easily be living in a world where French was the principal language rather than English.

It strikes me that we could just as easily be living in a world where French was the principal language rather than English

Going back to my previous analogy, I suppose that in the same manner Afrikaans and English will persist in Southern Africa side by side even if English is the more international of the two. I’ve come to the conclusion that language and culture are so intertwined that it is probably very difficult to reject one without the loss of the other. Perhaps we need look no further than the British Isles to understand the value of alliances amongst near-neighbours.

Perhaps we need look no further than the British Isles to understand the value of alliances amongst near-neighbours

It seems to me that the Irish (Republic), the Scots and the Welsh have taken to the English language quite widely yet retained their own native dialects (I don’t know percentages off-hand). They remain culturally distinct and enjoy good trade and labour relations with their more powerful neighbour. In the case of the Scots and perhaps the Welsh too, they have won back chunks of sovereignty from the Union that may well culminate in full autonomy in a relatively short space of time without compromising the aforementioned benefits.

As for me, my heart is not British but I speak their tongue and I admire their achievements, much of their culture, and their long-established form of democracy which at least ensures a periodic change in leadership. I hold a British passport because Mugabe left me and countless others a stark ‘either/or’ scenario in forbidding dual nationality. Having a Zimbabwean passport in this day and age is pretty limiting i.t.o. travel and work opportunities. Like many other young Zimbabweans of my generation we are sad and angry at having our dreams of a ‘normal’ life in that country dashed because of things that had nothing to do with us, prior to our births.

Like many other young Zimbabweans of my generation we are sad and angry at having our dreams of a ‘normal’ life in that country dashed because of things that had nothing to do with us

Some of us blame our parents and their generation for either naiveté or having kept too many skeletons in the closet. We are also angry with Mugabe, the man who once promised unity and reconciliation, before he became the intolerant dictator that he is today. Better that he had been a Marxist from day one rather than get our hopes up for a land of equal opportunity. Who is going to be brave enough to stand up and challenge a status quo that gives us little cause to celebrate. Is it time for another form of nationalism, not based on race, but on our right to live with equal rights in the land of our upbringing?

The Many Faces of South Africa

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Quite a lot’s been said about South Africa and the state of crime, poverty and inequality over the years. I don’t intend to make a critique of this issue in this blog post since there are many wonderful things to celebrate and highlight in South Africa but it would be unfair of me not to at touch on the current state of affairs before I go on with my little tour.

A selection of popular Afircan dishes including a popular lumpy Zimbabwean millet beer, Chibuku.

A selection of popular African dishes including a popular lumpy Zimbabwean millet beer, Chibuku. Cape Town CBD.

Certainly the Rand has weakened considerably over the last decade against the dollar and sterling. When I arrived a month ago the mid-market rate was about 17.5 to the pound. Today it’s 18.5.

That obviously works in my favour as a sterling account holder. So when a beer at a local bar costs me R25 I score; when a meal costs R40, I score; when an Uber taxi costs as little as R25, I score. It’s also revealing that most of the Zimbabwean contingent I talked to at my brother’s wedding repeatedly remarked on how ‘cheap’ everything was.

The problem for working class South Africa is touched upon in an article I found on the site News24 from August last year (referenced at end of post) and is presumably still reasonably accurate. It alleges that South Africa is …

“… a country without an adequate social security net and where at least half of the national workforce earns less than R3 100 a month. Perhaps as many as a third of men and women in work earn less than R2 000 a month.

Yet most trade unions and human rights groups estimate that a bare living wage in 2014 would be between R4 000 and R5 000 a month.”

Even considering the relative affordability of food and services for me I find it hard to imagine surviving on less than 150 quid, and perhaps even as little as 100 for many. Considering that RSA is one of the continent’s more affluent nations it’s saying a lot. It is worth scrolling down to the comments section where some other facts and figures give further food for thought.

#Utopian Indignant, claims:

Actually not. Just like government, Terry Bell uses the incorrect exchange conversion rate to compare wages with overseas. The correct rate is the Purchase Parity Conversion Rate – youa re using the speculative moneymarket rate, which is only for buying and selling money on international markets. Terry and government arrive at incorrect costs calculations on contracts and wage negotiations because of this technical error. Using the correct rate, our pay compares reasonably per skill level with overseas, but our Public Sector is significantly overpaid.

Another quotes official stats to support his claim that the black population has grown by 47% in the last 20 years whilst the white population has only seen a net increase of less than 5%.

Whatever the situation, I’ve seen a fair deal of poverty on my trip out here. It’s hard to say whether or not there are more beggars and homeless individuals than previously. Although the sight of destitute whites still shocks some I think it’s important to look beyond colour and rather at communities.

I’m aware that sectors of the scattered Afrikaans communities look out for their aged members who have fallen through the safety net. Black African communities tend to have stronger familial relationships than their European counterparts. Are they strong enough to weather the hard times notwithstanding the question of the foreign workforce and the forces of xenophobia which seem to simmer in the background?

I don’t have the answers, but like my friend Carol I agree that anyone who chooses to bury their head in the sand and ignore these issues does it to their potential detriment. Where is the charity of society when all I hear are cynical assertions that vagrants and beggars have probably ‘brought it upon themselves’, ‘are most likely criminals’ or that they make ‘obscene amounts of money begging at traffic lights.’

I don’t believe it frankly. Most of the people I’ve given a few Rand coins to or, on occasion, bought a loaf of bread or packet of crisps for, have been pretty desperate people. If this isn’t manifest in their appearance or demeanour it’s in their eyes. I’ve no doubt some of them will spend this money on alcohol or some other substance but at least a quarter of people who’ve approached me have asked for food and been grateful for it.

He plays a badly tuned red guitar but his voice was true and heartfelt.

He plays a badly tuned red guitar but his voice was true and heartfelt. Near Parliament Gardens, Cape Town.

It doesn’t cost me anything substantial because of the nature of the exchange rate. The scriptural homily about giving in proportion to one’s means actually leaves me slightly uncomfortable in times like these. Am I giving generously enough?

At times it seems better to give nothing rather than give inadequately but one has to put one’s pride aside in such situations. There will always be beggars who will push their luck. I do try make a point of giving more generously to those who seek to help themselves. I have a soft spot for buskers and street artists.

There is much to admire in those who go out on the streets in all-weather with an old guitar, hand-drum or accordion to earn their living. Perhaps all that they have is their voice. Some of the sweetest, most heartfelt songs I’ve been privy to were played or sung from a street corner or pavement.

Busking can be a lonely and frustrating business at times. This young man's trumpet was in a poor state of repair. My heart went out to him.

Busking can be a lonely and frustrating business at times. This young man’s trumpet was in a poor state of repair. Cape Town.

I chanced upon a young man in the middle of Cape Town on the edge of a market square, dressed in a glittering red and gold costume as if he had stepped out of a carnival procession that had moved off without him.

I stood back and watched as he tried with growing frustration to get his trumpet in tune. It was nothing more than a collection of parts held together by an assortment of folded, paper wedges, cigarette filter ends and goodness knows what. It looked as though most of the keys had been brazed onto the body at one point or another; many of the joins were broken. It was pretty hopeless.

I went across out of curiosity and he explained how he had been given the instrument a few years before. It really needed professional attention but of course he couldn’t afford it. I gave him R20 and took his name and phone number with the intention of making some enquiries on his behalf. I’m ashamed to say that I lost the slip with his details on it. I really should have done better.

Immortalising the nameless black citizen who emerges every day from township to work the city streets as traders, taxi-drivers and labourers.

immortalizing the nameless black citizen who emerges every day from the township to work the city streets as a traders, taxi-driver or labourer.

I’ve walked many of these city streets as a curious spectator, both of people and architecture. After spending many years ensconced in my own little world I’ve done my best to travel and make amends.

We live on a populated planet after all and cities are where we congregate and create things of beauty as well as the mundane and functional. Ever since visiting Algiers, indeed Algeria, I’ve had a particular interest in the legacy of European urban architecture in African towns and cities.

Urban Cape Town has some great architecture against the ever-present backdrop of ‘the mountain’. I caught a commuter taxi from my backpacker residence in Observatory (Obs) to town one morning and was surprised to see a number of Europeans commuting for work or studies.

Working and middle-class individuals, black and white, use the Metro Rail service every day to commute from the suburbs to the city, Cape Town.

Working and middle-class individuals, black and white, use the Metro Rail service every day to commute from the suburbs to the city, Cape Town.

The city is probably more cosmopolitan than even Jozi (Jo’burg) far to the north. When I moved further out to Muizenburg I discovered that the Metro trains, the main urban rail provider, moved people of all hues to and from the city. Both means of transport were wonderfully cheap – between R6 and R12 per trip depending on the distance.

What concerned me on the Metro commute wasn’t so much the graffiti which adorned the carriages both within and without as the number of black and white advertisements pasted on the inside of the compartments. Many advertised ‘affordable’ abortions alongside a mobile number but no information as to the provider of the service.

Others were less controversial and even a little amusing: penis enlarging and hip-widening creams and treatments, dubious ‘doctors’ who could revive fortunes, eleviate debts and cast love charms. It reminded me that superstitions lurked barely beneath the surface of this erstwhile modern city. It was the same elsewhere in Durban, Jozi and Pretoria.

It’s tempting to call it African superstition but I can’t be sure who the practitioners and clients of these myriad treatments and charms really are. South Africa does, after all, play host to dozens of foreign nationals from all corners of the continent. The fraudsters and confidence tricksters aside it was the advertisement of illegal abortions which saddened me most. How could these people advertise their services with impunity?

Women in townships are all too often the subject of abuse. Those who worked at the hostel and who I spoke to either avoided the township altogether or told me it was unsafe to move around after dark. I took a township tour with Henry, a deadlocked, affable Malawian who had lived in that particular one, Masi, for several years. It wasn’t the first time I had been in a township but they are never dull places. Unfortunately those photos are still on an SD card so they are not included here.

A few days earlier I decided to take a tour of Robben Island with one of my fellow hostel travelers, a young Norwegian man called Pal (the a having a little circular character above it, not available on my mini-keyboard). Never mind that it is a highly subscribed tour which departs several times a day from Cape Town harbour, it was still worthwhile.

I went on a tour to Robben Island with a friend from my hostel. We were fortunate enough to have a former inmate explain to us exactly what they had to endure in the apartheid-era prison. Amazingly enough he bore no grudges drawing his inspiration from fellow inmate Nelson Mandela in his policy of reconciliation.

I went on a tour to Robben Island with a friend from my hostel. We were fortunate enough to have a former inmate explain to us exactly what they had to endure in the apartheid-era prison. Amazingly enough he bore no grudges drawing his inspiration from fellow inmate Nelson Mandela in his policy of reconciliation.

On the trip out we were lucky enough to see a Southern Right Whale surface a hundred yards astern of the small vessel we were on. I thought it a large seal until it surfaced properly with barnacles encrusting the exposed part of its head. As we arrived at Robben Island harbour a streak of white beneath the surface betrayed the path of a penguin, the one and only one I remember seeing on that trip.

After disembarking we hopped on one of several buses taking tourists around the small island. We weren’t allowed to disembark until we got to the old prison buildings, where we were given a tour by a former inmate, Ntabo Mbatha. He was a humble man who had made the island, his former prison, his home. He looked not unlike the current president, Jacob Zuma. His voice was rich and sonorous, a confident orator.

What amazed me, as it evidently did an English travel blogger for the Daily Mail several years before (see reference below) was his lack of acrimony. Like Mandela before him he embraced the idea of reconciliation. He really was to be admired. I have uploaded half of the footage I took of his presentation below:

Back at the V&A Waterfront the crowds had swelled. The V&A is a real hive of activity – tourist central. A guide from a city walking tour alleged that the shopping mall and restaurants were the second-most visited ‘attraction’ on the continent ahead of Table Mountain which made him sad. I guess it has to be taken in context.

The Waterfont area has a bit of everything – musicians, good food, boat trips, museums, art galleries and pubs. One just hopes the wealth filters into the local economy. I’m told rents are exorbitant and heard from a reliable source that only 3 in 10 restaurants survive their first year in the city.

I enjoyed my time in Cape Town. I certainly met a broad spectrum of people both local and foreign; white, black and mixed-race; gay and straight. I’ve come way with some priceless anecdotes and good memories. My journeys to the other metropolitan areas mentioned have been shorter affairs but worth mentioning too.

For the first time in my life I visited central Durban where I perused the natural history museum (excellently curated) and the city Art Gallery above (not quite as good but also worth a visit). Nearby stands the City Hall, an impressive neoclassical structure with a variety of statues and impressive memorial to the Great War in close attendance.

The memorials appeared well maintained but, like all South Africa towns, the informal sector flourished on the margins. A few white vagrants were sleeping rough near one of the statues, a former governor of Natal, while young people perched at the bases chatting amicably to one another.

I walked to the Victoria Embankment which flanks the harbour. The wharfs here harboured an amassed wealth of yachts and catamarans under the auspices of the Royal Natal Yacht Club. I continued on to the end of the harbour pier beyond the boats and restaurant-cafe (closed till further notice). Right at the end was a chunky fisherman of a mixed-race ethnicity. A little further back were a group of Indian fishermen with deck chairs and a cooler box.

I asked the former how the fishing was. He shrugged and cast a critical eye across to his Indian compatriots. “If it wasn’t for them taking out every single fish they hook there might be some decent fish. Man, you have to throw back the undersized fish and let them grow. They take everything just to make bloody fish cakes and sh*t.”

The view across Durban harbour from a pier with the city skyline as a backdrop.

The view across Durban harbour from a pier with the city skyline as a backdrop.

The real problem it seemed lay in the fact that fishing permits were not being actively enforced as neither were bait catchers. As with Cape Town the most sort-after bait were the sand prawns caught during low tide when they could be sucked out of their holes with simple hand pumps. My new acquaintance was adamant that they too were being over-harvested.

From there I walked back across town and hence to the Point area. My curiosity saw me enter one of the new ‘China Malls’ which I had previously seen on the outskirts of Pretoria. I am anecdotally informed that Chinese business has been flourishing in South Africa in recent years.

To be fair most of the shops therein were not Chinese but on the second from last floor above there was a large department store, the China star, selling all and sundry. However, the very top floor of the building spoke of different era. A derelict Art Deco styled room recalled a time when white Durbanites probably came here to socialise and be entertained. I would love to know more about the history of the place.

From Durban I headed back up to the Highveld – Jozi and Pretoria. Based in the former I took the new intra/inter-city Gautrain to the latter last week. It is a modern fast-rail service, essentially a modern mass-transit system significantly faster than the Metro Rail. It runs between Jozi and Pretoria at regular intervals, more frequently during rush hour, and provides a useful alternative to the busy, congested inter-city freeway (motorway).

I have long been fascinated by the Afrikaans language and it’s people. I did a year in Pretoria to round off my bachelors degree in 2003. It was a difficult time for me personally but I long regretted not pushing up against whatever social and self-perceived barriers might have presented themselves at the time and tried to see more of the city.

I guess it’s a case of ‘better late than never’. Please take a look at the accompanying gallery and attendant captions to get an idea of the rich history of the former capital of the Transvaal Republic, the Union of South Africa, the apartheid-era Republic of South Africa and indeed the present capital of the nation.

Referenced articles:

http://www.fin24.com/Economy/Labour/InsideLabour/Inside-Labour-Decent-wage-decent-policies-20140829

http://travelblog.dailymail.co.uk/2010/06/the-people-of-south-africa-could-teach-the-england-players-a-thing-or-two-about-humility.html

The GNP, Then and Now (And the Futility of it All)

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The following extract is from my childhood memoirs (unpublished except for chapter one, posted here) with reference to a particular place where I spent much of my adolescence. What photos are included are scanned prints taken by myself. Following this are some photos (mobile phone camera) and an account of my most recent visit to the GNP only a week or so ago on a return visit to Zimbabwe.

It was relatively early on in my high school career that I had met Mr. Rob Burrett properly, when my mother and I were walking in the green belt near our property one afternoon. Until this point in time it had been a neglected strip of seven or so hectares which was impenetrable in parts due to the proliferation of vegetation. The local gardeners and maids fished in the old farm dam up top, but the catch was usually small, as were the fish. However, a local initiative had recently commenced to spruce the place up, transforming it into a recreational area whilst trying to return it to a semblance of what it may have been like prior to the effects of urbanisation. Rob had been a master of sorts at Highlands Junior School, but I hadn’t known him then. Later on he had come to teach Geography at St. Georges.

He was a charismatic teacher with a sharp mind and an ability to bring out the best in his students, although he had a fierce temper when the marks were not what he expected them to be (they seldom were). I attribute Mr. Burrett’s teaching in large part to my later attaining an ‘A’ at A-Level Geography. It was a voluminous syllabus which he never quite managed to cover entirely, but nevertheless in sufficient detail to get me the grade. I stress emphatically that there were no favours on his part done to me. If anything he was harsher, and I very seldom got over fifty percent for any of the assignments he set us.

I never managed to figure out exactly how Rob, as I came to know him outside of school, had come to be involved with the Greystone Nature Preserve. He was more than happy to explain to me the aims and objectives of the GNP Association, which were to try and eradicate the invasive and exotic plants and re-establish the native flora and fauna. It resonated strongly with my own environmental inclinations and before long I was spending as much of my free time as I could hacking paths through the thickets of Lantana camara and prickly bramble. Best of all I was given permission to use fire to incinerate impenetrable clumps of shrubs and weeds. Perhaps I wasn’t given permission per se but I had observed a series of controlled burns around the dam and had managed to convince my parents that this other burning was equally within the mandate of the GNPA.

Perhaps none of the primal elements can invoke as much awe and wonder as fire. Retrospectively I have to admit to being something of a pyromaniac, but fire was an important part of the ecosystem there, something not always appreciated. A few weeks after a blaze, from the scorched earth would arise a multitude of shoots from perennial plants and shrubs whose roots and tubers housed the water and starch they needed to survive until the rains arrived late in the year. By incinerating the old plant and grass matter above ground, fire would provide a stimulus to the living plant below to send up shoots, and perhaps even germinate their seeds.

The analogy of a phoenix rising from the ashes could not be more appropriate. I remember Robbie Taylor being severely berated for having started a fire in the field or vlei nearest their house in an adjacent neighbourhood. “He’s such an unruly child” my aunt Nick had said at the time, “Lyn is very worried about him.” (Lyn was his mother). She must have been aware of my activities in this arena and maybe she spoke to my mum or others about me – I don’t know. But even if other people had voiced disapproval it wouldn’t have stopped me. After all, I was sanctioned by the GNPA who had an extensive lease on the area. It didn’t extend as far as Robbie’s house so Robbie was labelled a pyromaniac and further actions forbidden.

Busy, slasher in hand, pummeling a thicket of silverleaf in the lower reaches of the GNP.

Busy, slasher in hand, pummeling a thicket of silverleaf in the lower reaches of the GNP.

Squatting after my exertions and demonstrating how sticky were the multitude of seeds produced by the silverleaf plants.

Squatting after my exertions and demonstrating how sticky were the multitude of seeds produced by the silverleaf plants.

The other thing I was permitted to do was to spray herbicide on the undesirable plants; the noxious weeds perceived to threaten the natural order. This was initially restricted to Lantana camara, attractive when flowering but possessing acrid-smelling leaves as well as thorns that had a tendency to form thickets. It was poisonous to cattle where it had spread to grazing pasture in the countryside.

In time we came to use herbicide, Rob and I, on a selection of exotics. The flowering cherries whose blossom was so admired in suburban gardens, for instance, was a proliferating nuisance in the GNP where the birds would spread the seeds far and wide. The coppiced growth that arose after felling them proved to be very susceptible to the effects of Roundup, the herbicide of choice. Other plants were more resilient like a leguminous pasture shrub called silver leaf, introduced for cattle fodder was a problematic invasive and could survive the Roundup treatment.

The GNP became my own personal project, a garden where I was the gardener and the evolution of the space within of my determination. Perhaps it was an outlet for my frustrated soul yet I never thought that at the time; I simply loved being there. Like most habitats in the country that had not yet been overwhelmed by man’s activities, this area had a wealth of diversity, most noticeable in spring just prior to the rains and during the early part of the rainy season, before everything became swamped by the more vigorous plants like silver leaf and morning glory.

My favourite time was the weeks after fire had swept across the grassland; seeing the emergence of the red-winged pods of the shrubby ground Combretum and the delicate flowering stalks of the Gladiolus species particularly prominent amidst the various other herbs and shrubs. A local botanist, Mark Hyde, had remarked on the enormous diversity of the grassland flora and urged the Association to protect it. He lamented that the grassland habitats around the city had come under increasing pressure due to agriculture and land clearance.

I was never really lonely, except perhaps on a deeper level, but generally liked to be left alone and avoided contact with people walking there. In the evenings the older, middle-aged inhabitants of the neighbourhood would come out walking with their dogs. They were generally predictable in their routine so I could avoid them when necessary.

Other visitors included the inevitable young lovers, fingers interlocked, sitting together for long periods on the benches and sometimes wandering into the undergrowth for secret trysts. They were mainly black teenagers but white teens were present too, although they seemed to spend more time at the dam, especially with a few bottles of liquor on a Friday evening.

The dark profile of the 'praying tree', a little sinister-looking here perhaps but venerated by the individual I refer to.

The dark profile of the ‘praying tree’, a little sinister-looking here perhaps, but a sacred place to the individual I refer to.

Another regular was the Shona man who came regularly to pray beneath a particularly large musasa tree that grew not far from our house. He prayed loudly and imploringly, perhaps to God or perhaps to an ancestor and although I couldn’t understand much of what he said he imagined that he was praying for what most people prayed for: assistance in the rigours of daily life, good health and prosperity.

I can also recall the old medicine man or N’anga who would occasionally arrive to dig up the bulbs of plants, or collect aromatic leaves from particular trees and shrubs. He was old and stooped with matted hair and a lined and weathered face. He carried with him a plain, hessian sack in which he would collect the various articles. Once he even raided a hive of African honeybees with nothing more than a smoking roll of newspaper, extracting combs of rich, succulent natural honey as the angry bees swarmed about him. He remained undeterred.

I started the process of trying to ‘move on’ from the GNP when it became clear that I would be expected to go to university directly after finishing my A-Level studies. The thought of leaving home and my piece of Africa made me sad. I always felt I could identify with the Zimbabwean bush but I also felt an intense solitude at times when in the GNP akin to the one that Terry Waite experienced (see this extract). The closest I can come to rationalising it is to say that I knew there were some deep-seated problems in my life rooted in relationship dynamics (things that would come to light in the next couple of years actually).

I have written about the general facts and dates of my tertiary education in my biographical notes (unpublished). There was a 2 year stint at Rhodes University in SA which was quite excruciatingly difficult at times – socially and emotionally-speaking that is. In that time my mother decided, finally, to act on her suspicions regarding my father’s fidelity. She discovered that he was indeed being unfaithful (no surprise in retrospect) and after some negotiations divorced him. I was informed of much of this remotely so that, after dropping out after 2 years at RU, it was pretty much a fait accompli.

I did manage to vent a little of my considerable vault of anger at my father but he was in a state of self-denial which made it difficult to understand how much guilt he really felt. My mother sent me off to a psychologist, ironically enough, although it did help to have someone impartial to talk to. My one regret was that this particular bloke, John, obviously had his own issues, as we all do I suppose. I sometimes think he helped, at other times I’m not so sure.

Anyway, I digress – back to the GNP. It was at this juncture that I made the decision to get involved once again in the GNPA (A for Association), the body that ran the GNP. It consisted of a committee which met on a monthly basis to discuss things which needed to be done: the wages for permanent and casual labour; outreach programs; fencing issues; maintaining working relationships with various other members of the community and so on and so forth. I think I stood as a member without portfolio for one season and as VC for another. It was comprised entirely of Europeans sadly, but in theory anyone was eligible for nomination. I have no idea of the real demographics of the neighbourhood (except that it was mixed) and why no other ethnicities came forward for nomination.

As the youngest member of the committee I found some of the monthly agenda wearisome. There were a few personalities who always had to have their say and sometimes they laboured whatever point they sought to make. Another lady, Sarah, probably a good 8 or 9 years my senior, said how refreshing it was to have some other young blood to relieve the tedium of the ‘old farts’! To be fair there was also James, the son of our family GP, also in his late 20s or early 30s. He was also someone who liked to get to the point in a determined fashion. What I tried to do in my time on the committee was to inject some of the passion I had felt as a teenager. I wanted recognition and I more than anything I wanted to see my dream realised of turning it into something akin to modern-day Eden.

The scale map of the GNP which I drew up with the help of some early surveyor plans.

The scale map of the GNP which I drew up with the help of some early surveyor plans.

I energetically sketched drawings of bridges and pathways, mist-spray schemes to feed arboreal orchids, lists of trees to be planted and so forth. I constructed an enormous scale map of the entire area on a number of A4 sheets taped together, noting every prominent tree and all the various paths and habitats. When I presented my ideas to the committee it was met with a mixed response. One old chap thought it was a great idea but he was at the end of his tenure and about to go off and retire to another part of the country.

Roger, probably the most influential member on the committee, it’s founding father so to speak, gave a lukewarm response. The idea of an Education Centre had been mooted some years before but nothing had ever been done. I was keen to realise this goal but without Roger’s backing it never got off the ground. His was basically a hand’s-off approach. Essentially he just wanted the place to remain undisturbed so that he could walk his dog/s with his two boys. I respected that but it hurt nonetheless.

And so it was that my own enthusiasm slowly diminished until I realised that it was all a bit of pie-dream really. The country was going downhill rapidly as the government seized private commercial farms as part of its badly-executed land redistribution programme. Besides the exodus of people and skills from within there was a huge devaluation in the Zim dollar and a corresponding squeeze on people’s income. Everywhere in and around Harare the native inhabitants seized their hoes and picks and fell upon the land in a desperate attempt to cultivate crops to subsidise their meagre wages and diets. In the main this was maize, the staple, but I also saw squash, tomatoes and a local variety of spinach called rape planted as well.

As a result a number of other initiatives which sought to emulate the GNP ‘experiment’ – it was unique to the best of my knowledge in that it was leased from the municipality for the purposes of conservation – came to a grinding halt. The local councils actually did try for a time to crack down on the illegal cultivation, but the perpetrators were just too many and too desperate. If it weren’t for the perimeter fence around the grassland surrounding the dam and at the opposite end on Warwick Rd (where our house was built) I have little doubt that the GNP would itself have become victim to the illegal cultivation phenomenon. It was something of a miracle that it never did (even to this day).

What I managed to do was to divert some of my energies to other projects like planting an aloe and succulent rockery garden on our property and building the bridge shown in the previous gallery with help of the resident labourer, John. There were moments of satisfaction and I did love my rockery garden, but when I look back I can’t help but consider the toll all of it was taking on my mental health. I was estranged from my father, my mother had just died from cancer (November 2001) and I was soldiering on with a degree in geology for which I felt increasingly at odds with. I had only started it because I felt bad about what had happened to Wolf and because I was made to feel as though any other sort of job connected to ‘the land’ was beneath me and the family’s aspirations. It wasn’t as though I had much support for my bachelors degree anyway.

But continue I did, back to South Africa and the University of Pretoria this time. This was undoubtedly the most profound year of my life. The studies were incidental. Day and night I felt the heartache of separation from my father, family and the home I had once known. This was life interrupted. I found myself redirected on a course which I’m still travelling to this day. Sometimes I flounder and come close to giving up on this reality. Today is one of those days but I’ll feel better tomorrow.

My father too passed away in early 2006. It was meant to be, of that I have little doubt, but it has not made it any easier. Perhaps I focus too much on the man’s death and not enough on his life; as I do for my dear mother. Both of them were vital individuals, despite their flaws. Life shone from their eyes when I recall those same people, the parents of my childhood and adolescence. When I started this article I had it in mind to highlight the futility of my life in Africa but I feel that it is somehow a perversion of a complex truth and one that I have yet to fully grasp.

Over the years I have returned to the house in Greystone Park episodically and the GNP as well. Every time I go back it seems to be wilder than before and the weeds that we formerly sought to suppress, grow taller and taller still! How futile it was to try and create something pure and exact in this mad hybrid-nation that is modern-day Zimbabwe. I can see all sorts of metaphors in the tumultuous riot of native and exotic pants which choke the wetland areas:- poplar, syringa and Ipomoea competing alongside bush-willows and waxberries. It’s unclear who has the upper hand. It seems impossible for either side to win out completely and eliminate the other. Perhaps, if left alone long enough, an equilibrium will be reached.

This time around I walked slowly around the dam marvelling at how the trees and shrubs had encroached upon the grassland there. It was thick and green in parts but also quite moist, in contrast to the dam itself which was largely empty.

The main dam. now almost dry. A lone fisherman cast his line into the shallows. Whilst I watched he pulled out one average-sized fish.

The main dam. now almost dry. A lone fisherman cast his line into the shallows. Whilst I watched he pulled out one average-sized fish.

This dam bore many memories: fishing it periodically as a youngster, meeting new friends like big Ralph Heron, bird watching (literally and figuratively speaking), even drinking beer and braaing (barbecuing) on its banks. I greeted and introduced myself to a man and his young son, Tafadzwa, a common Shona name. He told me how the dam, now unseasonably low, had been plundered of its fish by unscrupulous netting, although I still noticed a lone fisherman casting several lines in from the bank. Whilst I watched he caught what appeared to be a bream of average size which surprised me. What usually came out of there was rather smaller. One season, however, there had been a huge harvest of catfish (locally known as maramba) and word had it people had been wading in and depositing them in sacks.

I continued around the dam and reached the other side of the wall where I could see someone sitting on a bench overlooking the dam. To my right was the spillway and behind me to the left a house that someone had started to build many years before but which remained unfinished. The wetland area below the wall was the usual riot of green.

As I walked below the main wall alongside the flanking property with its unfinished mansion I encountered an enormous stone wall, something to rival one of the perimeter walls at Great Zimbabwe. It was ridiculously large. Was it meant to convey power and superiority? Was it simply meant to prevent outsiders from looking in? Security perhaps? I didn’t know and the empty house stood in contradiction to all these possibilities.

A little further down I heard voices and peering through the vegetation flanking the stream I spied a pair of teenagers chatting on one of the stone benches the GNPA had built years earlier. He was black, she white. In itself this meant nothing except perhaps a reinforcement of the previous metaphor. At least this relationship appeared to be friendly. Whether it was anything more I couldn’t tell.

At the bottom end of the GNP I came upon my old property. I stopped a few minutes to take in the trees and the garden I had once known so well.

Intro

The thing that struck me was that, with the exception of the few plants that I had transplanted and which had survived, most of what grew here now had grown here before my intervention and would still be growing here well after it had ceased altogether. All the same I am glad that in some small way I did manage to leave a mark – not in what I sought to destroy but rather in what I created. In transplanting a few saplings in the right conditions I have endowed a legacy of sorts to the GNP. Perhaps they will survive this present period of turmoil and uncertainty and live to see the next era? God-willing an era of peace and prosperity.

 

 

 

 

Reminder of ‘That Other Place’

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THIS IS MY VOICE. THESE ARE MY THOUGHTS. THIS IS MY BLOG.

If perchance you read my last post, a poetic effort, you would have understood that I was writing on the reality of being in place far removed from that where I grew up: that ‘other place’ of both heart and of ancestral importance, principally because it is where my parents both lived and died. All the same it is a contemplation on the present as much as a reflection on the past.

There was a period of my life in ‘that other place’ that was particularly hard to bear and I am aware that it still permeates my current existence. Living meaningfully in the present necessitates that we put past events and experiences into some sort of philosophical framework that allows us to cope with what was difficult and draw upon those things which gave us happiness and meaning, the foundations upon which our life here and now has been…

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