"My Baby's Hungry!":   How The medical establishment dismissed A mother’s insights into why My premie Was failing to grow

 

Just under two months ago, I held my grandson, Adam Joseph, for the first time. The son of my only child, Kendra, was born on March 21st.  I took in the baby smell, the softness of his skin, the silkiness of his hair under my cupped my hand that held his head.  Filled with emotion, tears threatened to run unchecked down my cheek and be absorbed by his hair.  I had expected emotion.  Instant love. Joy.  But there was something else.  Was it a sense of loss?  Why? Then it dawned. This was the first time I had ever held regular new born  so close. I could hold him without fear.  My daughter, born over thirty-two years before had weighed two pounds. She spent the first two months of her life in an incubator.

 Kendra at 6 weeks

Kendra at 6 weeks

 Adam Joseph at 3 weeks

Adam Joseph at 3 weeks

 

It was Christmas day, 1985.  After a sumptuous meal with close friends in Boston, I leaned back in my chair and looked around the table contemplating next Christmas. My daughter due in seven weeks on February 14th. would be ten and a half months, the first baby in many years, among a room full of adults ranging from their early twenties to late sixties.  I imagined her, chubby and energetic, crawling all over the place, getting into mischief.  Disquieting moments interrupted these thoughts as I became increasingly conscious of a lack of movement in my womb.  An occasional half-hearted kick, a fluttery feel, but not the earnest kicking I expected Just a quiet day, I convinced myself. On the drive back to New York late on the 26th, my uneasiness mounted.  Then a barely discernible kick would pull me back from the brink of anxiety. She’s alive. It’s nothing. She just isn’t an active baby, probably bodes well. She’ll be a sleeper. 

Back in New York, I woke early the next day with only one thought:  I had to my obstetrician.  As I waited for her return call. I ran my hand gently over my stomach. “Please, little one, be alright. Please don’t be under stress.  Please, please….”  I took deep breaths and tried to stay calm, willing my body to be kind to me and let me have this baby at her due date, healthy, no hitches.

The telephone rang. I grabbed the receiver. A male voice. My heart sank.  It wasn’t my doctor. Dr. Woolf introduced himself as her partner and told me my obstetrician had been up all night handling a life-threatening birth. He heard me out and told me to head for the hospital for a non-stress test.  His voice was reassuring.  Suddenly my worries seemed unfounded.  What on earth was I panicking about?  I shouldered my large maroon messenger bag filled with work and set off, now confident that I would be continuing downtown to my office in no time.

A chatty technician hooked me up to the fetal monitor.  We both stared at a horizontal line that pulsated across the screen. “Looking good”, she said.  “The heart beat is between 140 and 150, as it should be.” OK, I thought, she’s alive. “However, the line is straight”, she continued. “It should be dancing up and down.  You will just need to lie still until your baby moves.  Even if it takes hours.”  She touched my shoulder, a kind expression on her face, and walked towards the door.  “Just try to relax.”   

Soothed by the steady beeping of the monitor, I lapsed into a drowsy state and began to relive the last few years.  My breast cancer diagnosis at thirty-seven that was treated with radiation and wide-excision; the mastectomy a year later when tests revealed more evidence of cancer in the same breast; the widely differing opinions from the doctors I consulted from “Get pregnant tomorrow, you’re cured” to “You’re too a sensible young woman to play Russian roulette with your life.”   My oncologist was the steady voice through all of this.  He advised that I wait two years and then live my life as if cured. My cancer was slow-moving cancer – “indolent” - and unlikely to return.  We followed his advice, and I got pregnant promptly after the two-year interval.  All seemed to go smoothly. Until now. 

After about one and a half hours, furious beeping of the fetal monitor woke me with a start. My daughter had kicked. I looked at the screen.  The straight line had taken a sharp dive. Within seconds both technician was in my room, fiddling with the connections to make sure they were tight. “What’s happening?” I asked, now frightened.  “Your baby’s heart rate has dropped to 60.  That’s very low.” Within minutes Dr. Woolf was staring at the monitor. “We need to do an ultrasound to see what’s going on”, he said.  What was “going on” involved coils of umbilical cord, a tiny baby and virtually no amniotic fluid.  When she kicked, the umbilical cord tightened dangerously around her neck, depriving her of oxygen and slowing her heart rate. 

“Well,” Dr. Woolf said, smiling from above his white coat and his stethoscope draped around his should, he said, “You are going to be a Mom today”.  He left the room to telephone John.  About 45 minutes later he rushed in. Always light skinned, his face was now so pale his skin looked translucent, his crystal blue eyes bugging out of his head, his usually wispy blonde hair an oily matt from perspiring in his haste to get to me.  He said nothing as he took my hand.  I cried for the first time.  We barely had time to hug before I was wheeled into the operating room and put under a general anesthetic.

When I surfaced through the drugged fog, I was still under the bright lights with John at my side.  “All’s well”, he said.  

           John with Kendra at 6 weeks

          John with Kendra at 6 weeks

“How much does she weigh?” I asked.  He hesitated. “Two pounds”, he said, his words barely audible.  Then in a stronger voice: “But really, really she’s going to be fine. I could only hear the weight. Two pounds!  Two pounds?

 Kendra at 6 weeks:  First photos

Kendra at 6 weeks:  First photos

“Can I bring your baby to you?”  It was a woman’s voice.  I looked up, still woozy, to see a hand extending from a white sleeve, placing my baby across my shoulder. She was tiny, scrawny, reddish hued. Her head, smaller than a tennis ball, was turned away so that my first glimpse was of her straight dark brown hair.  I looked away.  The emotional pain was as sharp as any physical pain. I looked back at her.  I didn’t touch her.  How could a baby so impossibly small survive? Then the same white-sleeved arm took her away and she was whisked off to intensive care.  All I felt at that moment was terror.  

Dr. Woolf paid a visit soon after. Standing next to my bed, touching my arm in a friendly manner, he told me what had happened. A fibroid had grown under my placenta, robbing it of its nourishment.  The little that made it through supported her lungs, heart and brain. She was SGA, small for gestational age. “You saved your baby’s life by being so alert,” he said.  “Two more weeks or so and the outcome would have been very different.” 

The next day, fighting the pain of my incision, I was pushed by John in a wheel chair to the NICU on the twelfth floor.  Loss is what I felt. No baby to hold and cuddle, no baby to breast feed and sing lullabies to. Instead I had gained horror, fear, intense worry.  What would be the result of her deprived gestation? Brain damage?  Physical disabilities? Learning difficulties? Problems I could not even imagine?  

My arms hanging limply by my side, I stared into the incubator at my daughter. She was naked except for the tiniest white cotton knit tube pulled over her head, smaller than a tennis ball, to keep it warm.  Cotton discs covered her eyes to protect them from the light shining on her to treat the jaundice that had accompanied her birth.  Her upper arms were thinner than my little finger. She looked like twelve inches long wrinkled frog, with her feet pulled up towards her body.  My tears dripped onto the glass. I cried in fear and anguish for this little person. 

A young Latina woman sat cradling her baby and watching me.  “Habla Espanõl?” she asked.  I shook my head.  John did and he went over to her.  “Tell your wife, I cried like that too.  I was so unhappy and scared for him.  But look at my baby now.”  He was close to five pounds and seemed positively huge compared to my two-pounder. “He is just fine.  Your baby will grow just like him.”  It wasn’t sure.  

Four days later, on New Year’s Eve, we stared at the TV that hung below the ceiling in my hospital room, listening for the phone to ring to tell us whether our tiny baby’s bilirubin count – the measure of jaundice – would necessitate a full blood transfusion. We tried to joke: “We’ll call her Billy Ruben if she comes through.”  

Laughing faces pressed themselves against the glass of the TV screen and into our room, seeming to mock us in our misery.  The famous glistening ball descended, heartbeat by heartbeat, marking the last moments of 1985, as we clung to each other.  This may yet be the worst year of our lives.  Finally we fell asleep, John on a cot the nurses had brought in for him, me in the narrow hospital bed.  The phone never rang.  We awoke elated. She had won her first battle.  

The day after I was discharged I met Dr. Davidson, the neonatologist who would be our daughter’s doctor.  He ambled into the bleak waiting room provided for parents of babies in the intensive care unit where I was trying to nap on the green vinyl couch.  The hard couch was too short for the length of my body, and I had to gingerly unfurl myself in order to sit up and return his greeting. I took in his laidback demeanor, his empathetic face under a full, bushy head of dark brown, on its way to gray, hair. He was encouraging about her future. “She’ll be fine.  She just has to grow.”  I still found that hard to believe.  But I immediately took to him, sensed his competence.  I could relax.  My puny baby was in good hands. Each day that she showed her tenacious resilience was a day I could allow hope to drive a wedge into my dark musings.  

About ten days after her birth, John walked over to her incubator, pen in hand, and took down the pink card attached to the side of the incubator.  He crossed out “Female Urdang” and wrote in “Kendra Urdang”.  It was a bold assertion that our child would survive.  She was finally entitled to a name.  

Slowly, I could laugh again.  “I’m trying to imagine,” said a close friend over the phone, “what an infant who weighs the same as a two-pound plucked chicken looks like!”

“That’s it!  That’s exactly what she looks like”.  I repeated the conversation to a nurse.  “We call them Frank Perdue rejects”, she chuckled.  Our little Frank Perdue reject.  She couldn’t even make the grade.  No plump, tender chicken this one.

Kendra she grew almost imperceptibly.  The wrinkles began to smooth out.  A little flesh began to insinuate itself between her skin and bones. Any tears were now from emotion and love, not fear and pain. I knew I would fight for her through thick and thin. 

I had to fight sooner than I anticipated.

We had agreed to put Kendra on a breast milk study that was looking into the benefit of adding a supplement to breast milk for premies. One of the advantages was that she would leave the neo-natal ward with its row upon row of incubators for one with three incubators, where Kendra would get more attention, where we could spend the days and nights with her, where the atmosphere was intimate and friendly. 

But as I emerged out of my post-birth stupor, I began to bump up against a pervasive medical culture beyond the confines of the ward that I found virtually impenetrable. It showed little regard for me as a mother who was going through a tough time. The medical establishment had claimed control over Kendra and I ceded control. I was her protector, but I couldn’t protect.  I often felt accused.

My first challenge was Marilyn, who oversaw the study. I saw disdain in her blue eyes underscored by a defensive tone of voice she adopted when I raised what I thought were fair questions. 

 Kendra at 6 months

Kendra at 6 months

 “I don’t seem to be able to express enough milk,” I said. “Luckily she drinks so little,” I added, an offhanded comment to counter my fear that as she grew I’d be unable to keep up with her need because I only had one breast. 

“Nonsense!” she shot back.  “I know mothers who feed triplets perfectly well from two breasts, and with plenty of milk to spare.” Then she added, “You need to relax more.  You’re too uptight”.

I turned to stare into the incubator at Kendra, my back to Marilyn, trying not to show her how vulnerable I felt.  Comments like this fueled my sense of inadequacy as a mother. I became aware of Dr. Davidson’s presence, his eyes looking straight at me from the opposite side of the incubator.  He reached over, touched my shoulder and smiled.  “She’s doing just fine”, he said.  “And anyway, if you don’t want her, I’ll take her. I’ve always wanted a daughter.”  It became a standard joke between us. Talking to his wife on the phone in front of me, he told her that they had a daughter at long last.  “I’ll bring her home as soon as she’s fat”.

The next run in with Marilyn was over liquid baby vitamins. Marilyn brought a small bottle from the hospital store to show me. An inveterate reader of labels I caught artificial flavors as an ingredient.  I shook my head.  

“For Heaven’s sake”, she said, “They are made especially for babies. How likely are they to contain dangerous substances?”

“Throughout my pregnancy”, I responded, now defensive myself, “I ate only organic and natural food.  I am not about to agree to artificial anything now.”  She was about to protest again when Dr. Davidson’s calming voice intervened.  “Why don’t you buy the vitamins at a health food store and bring them in,” he suggested, ignoring Marilyn.  “If they pass the grade, we’ll give those to her.  OK?”  I nodded in gratitude.

I managed pump just enough milk to keep pace with the size of Kendra’s food requirement and went on to other concerns to obsess about.

For instance, Kendra’s weight.  Each morning I would wait for the battle ax of a nurse, the warden of her chart and the only unfriendly nurse, to leave the room so I could sneak a look to check her weight. We could take her home when she had reached five pounds. Some mornings her there was a slight gain, some mornings it was lower than the day before. I would rush to the pay phone to let John know the score.  We were frantic when there was no increase.  Then I began to note a pattern.  After I fed her the teensy bottle of milk according to amounts set by the study, she would squirm and wail, searing my heart.  John would report the same when he fed her at night. One of us tried to be there for all her feeds. 

The more I watched her move around her incubator burning up calories, the more I was convinced: she was hungry.  I was thrilled. I had the answer to everyone’s concern about her lack of weight gain!  I began to share my mother-daughter understanding with her various health care providers.  I put my case to a sympathetic resident who had befriended me and told her what I had discovered.  She fished a small calculator out of the left breast pocket of her white coat. Holding it flat in her hand, she punched in some figures.  She paused to examine the result, her brow wrinkled.  Then she looked up, eyes straight into my eyes and pronounced: “No, Kendra’s not hungry.”  

I accosted Dr. Banerjee, the study’s head. “Kendra’s hungry,” I told her.  She clearly wasn’t interested in my insights. She began avoiding me. It became clear:  I was a nuisance mother.  No worse, a neurotic mother. Even my ever-loving, patient John, whose anxiety about her weight was as acute as mine, dismissed my revelation.  He had no reason to doubt the doctors.  I felt like a wolf baying at the moon.

While Dr. Davidson did not place me in the “neurotic mother” category, he didn’t buy my explanation.  Nutrition was not his terrain; he deferred to Banerjee’s expertise.  Then a dysmorphologist, a doctor who specializes in genetic malformations, took in her low birth weight and failure to grow, as well as her high forehead and proclaimed she had Russell Silver syndrome.  She was a “midget”, unlikely to reach more than 4 feet, 7 inches.  “Good news!” Dr. Davidson announced a few days later.  “Russell Syndrome has been ruled out!”  John and I were fabulously delighted.  Until I read the report in the chart.  80 percent certainty but more time would be needed to rule out the remaining 20 percent.  And then I few mornings later the words “Imp: Growing slowly” jumped out at me as if written in Day-Glo. I waited anxiously for his next visit. 

“Are you concerned about Kendra’s growth?” I said, trying to sound casual while not admitting I had committed a no-no by reading the chart.  He didn’t hesitate. “Yes, I am. Kendra is growing too slowly.   We have decided to add a high calorie formula to her feed and see how she responds”. 

I checked the chart more eagerly on the following mornings. No change. The pattern continued.  If all it was that she was hungry, and this stunted her growth, what would it mean for the future.  I began to get frantic.  

As part of the study, Kendra was whisked her away once a week to a lab on a different floor for tests. All I knew was that her miniscule heel was dotted with pin pricks.  I asked Dr. Davidson what was happening there.  Dr. Davidson suggested I go with her to see.   They placed Kendra on a raised platform, covered in a white sheet and began to stretch her out to measure her height.  For her it was an unnatural position. They had to pull her legs and hold her down to get a reading.  She began screeching with unhappiness and probably pain.  I stood horrified as if watching a torture scene.  I began to cry myself.  One of the doctors took my arm and led me out of the room and shut the door. I could still hear her wails. When she was returned to the ward I held her close, singing to her and apologizing for not protecting her.  But I also found some anger within me.  

By her projected birth date, she had barely reached the four-pound mark. She should have easily been five pounds by now.  She should have been home already.  Dr. Davidson and I stood watching Kendra as she navigated around her incubator, doing a dance with her skinny little hands. By then he had also gone to watch her tests.  "She burns calories like there is no tomorrow," he had told me.  Now his expression turned  contemplative.  He inhaled so deeply I could hear him and turned to the three nurses. “What do you think? Is Kendra hungry?”  Without missing a beat, Jill directly at him and replied in a somewhat belligerent voice, “We all know Kendra is hungry. Sometimes when the milk bank sends extra milk.” Her daily amount is careful quantified. “When we feed it to her she drinks it without problem and she is much calmer afterwards.” 

Dr. Davidson looked taken aback.  Jill simply shrugged.  His tone changed. “OK, let’s do this,” he said in a positive voice.   “Dispense with measuring her milk. Feed Kendra as much as she wants. Let’s see how she tolerates it”. 

After Dr. Davidson left, Jill spoke with irritation “They only listen to their books and not to the needs of the individual child," she said, her jaw fixed tight. “Until clinically shown otherwise, we should have gradually increased Kendra’s feed.  As far as I could see, there was no reason not to”.  

Vindication was staring me in the face. Finally, there was acknowledgement that I had not been taken seriously even though I knew in my gut that I was right. Not only me, the nurses. They, like me, knew Kendra.  They, like me and John, were with her many hours a day.  No doctor had ventured to consult me or them.  No medical professional, until now, had taken my insights seriously. Neither had the nurses’ superior knowledge of my child been even considered.  It would be a while, when I was feeling less emotional, to acknowledge the sexism in this culture.  How women, whether mothers or nurses, were not considered reliable judges of those they cared for.

Over the next few days Kendra gained weight steadily without sliding back. She was transformed from a fractious, irritable, crying baby to one of contentment.  I watched as she kicked her feet, looked around with keen interest, and slept soundly when tired.  About four days after Dr. Davidson’s intervention, she was close to four and a half pounds. Half a pound to go!  Dr. Davidson entered the ward, read the chart and stared at Kendra asleep in my arms.  

“Take your baby home,” he said.  “You know more about her than we do.” Then he put his hand on my arm.  “I am sorry for not listening to you.  I was wrong,” he said with a self-deprecating smile that asked for forgiveness. He had listened to Dr. Banerjee’s explanation for keeping her nutrition down, he continued, because it would affect her growing heart valve.  “Even though I didn’t necessarily agree, because she is one of the world’s experts in premie nutrition.”  I was so relieved that I had finally been heard, that I didn’t then appreciate that this man, this wonderful doctor, was also part of the dismissive medical establishment. At least he did finally acknowledged her hunger.  For this I was grateful.  And I respected him for his willingness to apologize. How many doctors are willing to admit their mistakes? “Take Kendra home”, he repeated. 

The next day we did just that. 

Kendra remained small for her first years.  By Grade 6 Kendra was tallest in her class.

Now as I hold Adam in my arms, I marvel at his softness, his even breathing.  I feel a connective pain when he wails from colic.  I am reverted back in an instant to the cries of hungry pre-term Kendra.  But as I hold his head in my hand, rock him, try to comfort him, I know this is a phase.  He is growing as he should, developing as he should.  And in the end, so did Kendra.  

[Note: I have changed the names of the medical practitioners.]

 

 Kendra and Adam at two months

Kendra and Adam at two months

 

 

 

 

Guest Blog: Stephanie Urdang on the Differences between Writing Her Own Memoir, and Writing Someone Else’s Memoir

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My memoir covering my years working in the anti-apartheid movement, and my writing about Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, is now out, and on my desk as I write. While I am very happy about that, I have little reprieve. While I waited and worried about finding a publishing home for Mapping My Way Home: Activism, Nostalgia, and the Downfall of Apartheid South Africa my writing fingers got antsy. Why not start another book while waiting, I thought, and thoughts have a way of becoming plans and then being transformed into action.  I met Gustave Mukurarinda in Rwanda twelve years ago when I visited in connection with my project that supported women who were raped during the 1994 genocide and, as a result, were living with AIDS.  We talked about co-authoring a book about his amazing story of survival when he was just eleven.  "We’ll start next year, Gustave", I would say, "When I have finished my memoir."  Well the ‘next years’ came and they went.  I wasn't working full time on it and it took me many drafts to get to where I felt it was ready for exposure to the air.  When ‘next year’ finally became this year and this month, I was finally free to start working with Gustave while waiting to see if a publisher would be interested.  I love working with him.  He tells stories with great verve, his memory is remarkable, and, as I relate in the contribution to Lisa's blog below, we have a working relationship based on trust and friendship.  It is very satisfying. 

Featured on https://lisaromeo.blogspot.com/

"It took me about ten years – but who’s counting – to complete my memoir, Mapping My Way Home. It is taking me about one year to write a book with a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, who was eleven at the time." read more

2011: WHERE IS HOME: Figment of the Imagination and Other Contradictions

How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it's good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life.    --James Agee, A Death in the Family

We have made our lives far way from our small city, but we just can’t get used to being away from it, and we like to nurture our nostalgia when it has been a while since we’ve been back, so sometimes we exaggerate our accent when talking among ourselves, and use the common words and expressions that we’ve been storing up over the years and that our children can vaguely understand from having heard them so often.  --Antonio Molina, Sepharad

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. -- A. F. G Bell, In Portugal (1912)

Where thou art - that - is Home.  -- Emily Dickinson


It was May 6th, a late Friday afternoon, and exactly three months after I arrived in South Africa.  The three months that had stretched ahead so invitingly when I got off the plane, had flown by even though day by day they had seemed endless.

Poof!

Now I was on the way to the Johannesburg airport with John, who had joined me for the last few weeks.  For the past six days we were based in Pretoria, the city that provided the bookends to my trip. My anxiety, sadness and sorrow about leaving sent me into something of a panic. Did I have enough material?  Could I really write this darn book? What did I have to say that made the project worthwhile? Was I exposing my inner self too much? What actually did I do those three months? My emotions rippled up and down from my center to a tightening of my throat, teasing me, scaring me, discordant.

                                                                     ø

I am sitting next to John who joined me for the last few weeks as I look out the window at the open veld.

The wavy brown grass, shrubby trees, horizon far in the distance, so familiar to me from my stays in southern Africa. I find myself edging away from him, turning my shoulders so that my back is towards him - my green-carded Canadian partner, who at this moment represents where we are heading. I don’t want to think about it, not yet.

Open Veld, North West Province

This is my private communion with my country that I am already yearning for before I have left it. I gaze and absorb. Words, unbidden enter my mind, prick like barbs: “I love this country! love this country!”

Why am I this affected I wonder as my seemingly incurable sentimental self gives way to teariness?

After all, I have lived in the US, mostly in and around New York, for more than forty years. This is close to double my life in South Africa and yet I could never be moved to say about my adopted country: “I love this country” or even “I love this city”.

New York City from New Jersey: Murkier, and not Table Mountain!

But neither had I felt this way on previous visits to South Africa, which have been fairly regular since 1991.  On those trips I was not there to finish gathering material for a book. I was not there to purposely immerse myself in memories, to conjure up an earlier life, to expose myself to current times. Cape Town insinuated itself into me, jarring forgotten senses – smell, taste, sight – as well as buried memories – that reconnected synapses I had thought were severed forever.

Why was I so affected - even as John and I were creatively hatching plans to return regularly and for longer periods?

Setting sun from above Camps Bay, over the Atlantic Ocean

One thought begins to surface. Was I harking back to the twenty-three and a half year old self that left without saying goodbye? I had told myself I wanted to leave. I had told myself I had no reservations. I was white and privileged. It was impossible NOT to benefit from apartheid. My skin was an undetachable badge that declared that the apartheid government had made sure that everything in the country would be, for years to come, geared to my comfort and privilege. As I could not change my skin color to match that of 90 percent of the South African population, I was doomed to accept much of that privilege, like it or not.  I didn’t like it, so the only option, or so it seemed at the time, was to leave. I had trouble envisioning staying once the organization I worked for was banned, once political activity had become dormant. After all, once outside I could join the vibrant and growing anti-apartheid movement and make a contribution that way. And leaving wouldn’t matter.

Or so I told myself.

Sky during sunset from St. James, Indian Ocean

I followed the man I married the day before we left Cape Town for the United States. He had a scholarship to study for a PhD in Physics. He did not intend to return. No future in physics in South Africa, especially not in his particular field. 

I left and I did not consciously say goodbye. 

Although I left with a passport, in one respect I was like other exiles who left with one-way permits or fled across the border ahead of their own arrests or deaths, I did not know when I would be able to return. The beauty or South Africa, combined with the horrendous and brutalizing political system, made it impossible for most South Africans to let go. The country I called home and then left, had planted a seed within me that grew taut like an indestructible vine, unyielding to stimuli from outside as I became integrated in New York and US life and culture.

They might have a home, but they don't have a house! Protests before the municipal elections were a common aspect of Cape Town life.

Now, after days and weeks and months that flowed into one another, during which I felt that Cape Town and South Africa began to once more take on the familiarity of home, I am saying goodbye. This time it is wrenched, not because I was once again leaving home. It was due in large part to finally having to acknowledge that while I might not regard the US or the town I live in as my emotional home, I could no longer claim South Africa to be 'Home' with a capital 'H'. But at the same time memory, physical recognition of place and space, tentacles that bind, years of nostalgia, years of longing for more permanent reconnections, all conspired to keep me linked in a visceral way even if I had to give up on the idea that South Africa was still home.

Home is not, I have come to reflect, a very useful concept. It covers far too much ground. We will say flippantly that we are going home, wherever we happen to be staying, for a short while, a longer while, or a long time. “Are you home for supper?” or “What time are you coming home?”, I find myself asking friends who are staying at our house, be it for a few days or a few weeks.

I smile at the immigration official, if a little wanly, as he says “Welcome Home” and hands me back my US passport at Newark Airport.  Home?

And when, years past, I spent a long evening over Chinese food and wine and green tea with a new South African friend obsessing about South Africa and he asked: “When are you going home, Steph?”, I knew he was referring to South Africa and not my New York apartment in Washington Heights.

Or more recently, having dinner with two young black women in Cape Town, one the daughter of a coloured friend, one her friend from university who is African, I delight in their talk and ebullience, in their South African-ness . When they talk about South Africa there is anger and pain but also an acknowledgement that this is where they want to be. There is also pride when they list many of South Africa’s assets. After they regale me with stories about their visit to New York in the middle of winter, a city they obviously enjoyed, I ask them whether they ever think of leaving South Africa. No, they say, their voices assured, no hint of doubt. They love their country. They would like to travel and live elsewhere for a while, yes, that would be good, but South Africa is their country. They have no desire to live elsewhere.

Home.

Then there is the police officer who flags me down at 11:30 on the Main Road in Claremont where I am happily driving my zippy Yaris rental car on my way "home" to my cousin in Tamboerskloof after dinner with friends. At first I am hesitant. I can’t see who is behind the flashlights that are being waved up and down to signal me to stop. Do I stop or drive on? I am aware that the Main Road is not the safest road to drive on at this time of night but having overshot the exit to De Waal Drive I am heading for the next one. Should I just ride on and not stop as I have been often advised in situations such as this?  I slow down as I get closer and see the police car. I stop. A young white policemen, Afrikaans, trim, minus the swagger that I associate with policemen in the US, walks over and says with a friendly smile that it is a routine check. He asks for my license. I hand him my New Jersey one. 

 "Ah, New Jersey," he says as if he sees one of these on a regular basis. I tell him I am from Cape Town. “Good!” he responds, “South Africa is The Best!”

Home.

I interview Jean Marie Nkurunziza, an impressive young man who is working on gender justice issues with refugees in South Africa. He says at the beginning of the interview: “I am a Burundian by birth, an African by nationality.”

Home - he knows what it means to him.

I have come to the conclusion, a conclusion that I did not anticipate when I left for my three-month stay in South Africa, that in point of fact I have no home. Is it a figment of my imagination and that’s why I can’t find it? 

As the idea takes hold, I like it. It is freeing. It provides a sense of maturity and security. I am no longing seeking something too elusive to capture. It can be anywhere. I feel best where I have a community. And I have a number of them. Some bigger, with deeper roots. Somewhere I visit for short occasions and feel “at home” because of friends there that welcome me. And South Africa (more than Cape Town) where I am drawn back by a strong thread, resists letting go when I leave.

 

 Tree in front of our house in New Jersey in February, the day before I left for Cape Town

The same tree in bloom (white lacey blossoms against Rhododendrums) when I arrive back

Home is Montclair where I live in our family house where my daughter was raised. Home was England, to a lesser degree, for some twenty years, where first my parents, then my mother lived until they died, after leaving South Africa in the same year I did.

In the 1980's in northern Mozambique, I walked in the early evening with Anastasia my interpreter along a narrow dirt road that led out of the small village we were visiting. The African veld stretched away from us every which way in the receding light; the smell of fires, the sounds of birds in the calling in the stillness, the voices and activities of homestead life drifting towards us. It was a blissful walk, as we continued our ongoing conversation about what was happening to women after independence. A young man bicycling along the road dismounted when he reached us and walked alongside a little way, pushing his bike. He was curious about this white woman in his village, clearly not a common occurrence. Anastasia explained to him in Portuguese who I was.

“Aha!” he responded, obviously pleased. “A Internationalista!!!”

Many years later I still like that designation: Internationalist. I care about the world. The world is my home. 

Which is not to say that when I think of "home,” I think of the world. South Africa is what comes to mind when I am feeling nostalgic. Montclair and the US when I am in practical mode. I have no single place to identify as home.   Nonetheless, South Africa  tugs on my emotions; the feelings it generates about space and place are rope-strong. No other place comes close.

Breakfast on my last day in Cape Town in The Gardens with Sindiswa and Kate

An untranslatable Portuguese word captures the feelings about home better than any English word: Saudade. “Not an active discontent or poignant sadness but a ... dreaming wistfulness.” Am I destined to feel this way about South Africa, whether it is home or not? I don’t really know.

I smiled when I saw the subject line on an email from my cousin in Cape Town a few days ago: “Homingl”. I am not sure what she meant by this typo. In my mind I added an ‘e’ and a new word was formed,   "Homingle”. The mingling of many homes and connections and threads that tie me to places at different levels of flexibility, depending on where I am at that moment, both physically and emotionally.

Home. Africa. The World.

Yes, that feels right.

And yet I know when someone says to me “When are you going home again?” or “Do you miss home?”, it will refer to South Africa. No other place comes close.  It's more about feelings, than reality.  And when it comes to saudade, feelings trump.

And yet, and yet.... as I write this at my desk in Montclair, as I read emails from friends in South Africa relating how cold it is, and know too that I am comfortable here in my skin.  I know the place so well.  Friends abound.

Perhaps it is as simple as Emily Dickinson declares:  Where we are, that is home.

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African Penguins

Boulders Beach, Cape Town: No doubt they know where home is: their community

I want to be alone...  home or not, let me outta there!

2011: Reflections on Home, Nostalgia and Cape Town

The following blog reflects thoughts that are at this stage random about home and nostalgia and South Africa.

Rather than wait to do a “considered” piece, which I will need to do for the book as that is permanent (and which will be helped by your comments - so will yet appear in this space), I am jotting down thoughts and reflections I have had over the two months I have been here. These have come – and gone – while walking on the beach, talking to friends, meeting people, staring at the mountain (It’s become a joke with John who is continually telling me to “Look at the mountain!” because I said that to him at every vantage point when he arrived, and there are so many, it just never stops.

As I write I am looking over Fish Hoek beach, the mountains to the left, right and centre, the sky is blue, blue in the early morning light.   I already feel sad that I have just over two weeks more of this trip.

So let me indulge in a stream of consciousness about my thoughts on “home”:

CONCEPT of HOME

I can’t say I have yet come to terms with the concept of home and how I relate to it. But perhaps I am getting there. The longer I am here, the more comfortable I feel and the more settled. This doesn’t mean I plan to relocate here. There are many considerations now that I have been away for so many years and made my life, my “home”, elsewhere. But one thing is ever more clear. This city and country has once again cornered me. It is beautiful, rich in people and cultures; it is complex and complicated (a word I usually don’t like using) and it twists me into many contortions of emotion – love, anger, despair, respect, wonder, angst.

Sounds like any love relationship, né?!

I have had the opportunity to meet amazing variety of South Africans. Living here could be one of the most rewarding experiences imaginable on many different levels. 

POVERTY

Yes, the poverty in this country is, well, overwhelming. It is always commented on. By visitors, returnees, people who live here. What gets me is the level of disparity in terms of wealth. This links to the levels of violence that is not talked about as much as I would have imagined, although perhaps this is because I am in Cape Town.  (I referred to this in earlier blogs). 

Khayelitha bus station for mini-bus taxis.  Fare to city center is R12, roundtrip $3.5 dollars

I know it is hard for those who have lived outside of South Africa and Africa to be so upset by the poverty, the in-your-face, impossible-to-ignore poverty that is disturbing reason enough not to feel comfortable living here. What is particularly disturbing is that access to resources are the domain of a very few and certainly by no means the prerogative of only the whites.

Privately built house in Khayelitsha

In Khayelitsha the mountains are in the far distance; there are not trees

It is impossible to read the newspapers daily and not be offended by the stories of corruption and misuse of authority and position to accumulate personal wealth on the part of many of South Africa’s leaders in different sectors. In relation to poverty, some figures tell the story:

An official unemployment rate of 26% which among the 19 to 24 age group is estimated to be 53%; a poverty rate estimated at approximately 50%. Ironically South Africa ranks as an upper-middle income country based on average income, some of the nation’s social indicators are comparable to those of the poorest countries of the world. Having spent the good part of yesterday in Khayelitsha, all I can say is damned right.

Khayelitsha

Seller of hand creams at the Khayeltisha bus station

However the country I have lived in for the past decades is also a cleaved society.   Filmmaker and rabble rouser Michael Moore has recently pointed out that 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined. As my American friend, Peter Kjeseth, who has lived in South Africa for the past ten years, noted with passion and anger in his voice this morning, the gap in wealth in the US is totally abysmal and getting worse.  He feels no less passionate about this state of affairs as he does about South African poverty and the disparities. 

Tamboerskloof, suburb below the mountain where trees are in abundance

Another friend, South African living in the US, pointed out (quoting a Reuters article) in response to my email about minimum wages and the generally substandard pay that is common in South Africa wrote: “President Obama has advocated, against shrieks and screams, increasing the federal wage floor to over $8 per hour in 2011. Over 35 million working Americans only get paid minimum wage. “So the point I am making” she continues, “is not that poverty wages are O.K. but that they exist, on a huge scale here in the U.S., still the world's biggest, and among the richest economies. S.A. will have a hard time building its economy, given the deep scars of apartheid , to a comparable level of wealth and productivity- but the U.S. has gotten there and yet gets away with miserable minimum wages, huge, huge wealth/poverty gaps and tax cuts for the rich. Why aren't the people marching in days of rage?”

Flats overlooking Clifton beach with the reflection of the setting sun

Clifton beach

Clifton beach at sunset

There are significant ways that South Africa looks after its poor that puts the US to shame. Take the story of Grace, who’s name matches her personality. I got to know her when I stayed at a friend’s house where she works as a domestic worker. Last September Grace had a double bi-pass surgery at Groote Schuur hospital, no longer the segregated hospital of apartheid years, whose standard of medical care was spotlighted when Christiaan Barnaard performed the first heart transplant in 1967. The cost? Completely free. That’s not all. Grace was able to build her own house using a subsidy from the government, supplemented by aid from the Irish government. In addition, she received receive monthly social grants that are provided to all families with children under the age of 18 who qualify according to an income based means test. When Grace reaches the age of 60 she will qualify for a state old age pension that is not tied to any form of contribution while working.

RACISM

Ongoing racism is often raised as a reason for not living here, I understand how strong the response is for those who see it. Because of our past, because of growing up under apartheid, the reaction to racist incidents is like a punch in the belly. A really hard punch. For me, though, having lived these many years in the United State, it’s a no go argument. There racism is rampant, a constant undercurrent of life and politics, of the economy and society in general. A black President has not meant that racism is over, although some seemed to want to argue this. It has meant all too often that a backlash has been severe. And since 9/11 Americans of the Muslim faith have experienced levels of racism and xenophobia that is unprecedented.

I remember a comment by a close South African when she lived in New York for three years in the late 80’s studying at Columbia University, that she had never, ever in South Africa experienced the racism she encountered in the US, both as a white South African and as a general part of living in American society. Regard for white South Africans might have changed the day that Mandela became President, but the general level of racism remains. 

I have been impressed over the past two months at the few racist incidents I have encountered and when I have they tend to be very mild. What I do observe is the systemic racism. Although I no longer feel my stomach clenching into a knot of discomfort to the point of pain when I enter a Cape Town restaurant and am confronted by the usually all white clientele, I haven’t stopped noticing. I have spent a lot of time in the past few days with a Somali friend and her 6-year-old daughter, Hibo, and we can only laugh as we note, once again, that they are consistently the only black customers.

Certainly there have been the open though not necessarily hostile stares, as I walked along Fish Hoek beach with Hibo. But these were less frequent than the smiles, the calls of “How beautiful!” and “I love your hair” (that day her long hair stood out in a magnificent mass of curls) and then “And yours too!”, from someone with the same grey curls as mine. People would stop to chat and to encourage Hibo to pet their dogs. When we were in restaurants or at Kirstenbosch (Botanical Gardens) the usual children seeking out children to play with took place and she was off to participate in their games, apparently fully accepted.

In my daily interactions with people on the street and with people I meet for my writing and for pleasure I am accepted with generosity and affection, regardless of race or class. And so after a while, I have found that this is what I anticipate. Color is not something I am noticing on a personal level. When I walk into white, white restaurants or shops I do notice. This was very different in Johannesburg. There is a much bigger black middle class in Gauteng (Johannesburg and Pretoria). The suburbs are not as segregated. Race meets class.

Back in the US I will once again encounter a pervasiveness of race.

COULD I LIVE HERE?

Quick answer: Yes.

This doesn’t mean I am going to return. There are too many other considerations at this stage of my life. The point is that I know I could live here and part of me would love to. Not to, feels a bit like a abandonment by the privileged of an ongoing struggle for change in this country which I have found at the community and civil society level to be inspiring. 

Every now and then a thought nags at me that goes something like this: To have skills that one can bring to the vast need here, and not do so feels like an easy way out; to not be part of it, feels a bit like desertion. I do remind myself that poverty is systemic and exists everywhere. But for me, with my past of having grown up here, it would and it could make some sense to return, even at this late stage. That I don’t contemplate it except to spend some months here each year is personal. It has little to do with South Africa per se.

I think about what one South African friend wrote in her annual letter to friends on return to Johannesburg after seven years of working in New York. After commenting that people who didn’t know her well and some who did expressed delight and amazement that she would return home at a time when the country was once again in a cycle of middle class emigration, she wrote: “Of course I’m amazed anyone would think we’d stay away – rather this mess, our mess, one we understand, than the messes elsewhere – and yet another year of Obama’s own party not supporting him on health care, two wars unending, and a number of colleges suffering a shooting rampage, reminds one of how the grass may seem greener but every country has its madnesses.”

My problem is that BOTH the United States where I have lived for over 40 years and South Africa talk to me of their madnesses. I relate to two messes. So which one do I choose? It is a rhetorical question, as I have chosen to remain in the US.

BACK TO THE QUESTION OF ‘HOME’

Where is that illusive thing called home? Because of this blog and my current writing I am thinking about this a lot more than I ever have.

On Monday night I attended a Seder with some friends. It was a lovely evening. The discussion about freedom and the meaning of Passover allowed for thoughtful reflections. I sat amongst good people, One friend I have known since I was eight; the other since the first month of moving to New York.  They have returned to live in Cape Town   with their American husbands.

So why did I feel sad, emotional even? I was feeling as “home”-sick! I was missing the annual Seder that my family has been part of for the past twenty or so years in Montclair. And I felt almost teary.

Our Seder is an annual event, where we cook up a storm, invite friends, Jews and non-Jews and read from the pointedly secular Haggadah that one of the group prepared based on progressive Haggadahs that have emerged over the past decades.

I called after I got back to where we are staying, and was welcomed by shrieks of delight over the phone. Stephanie!!! I could hear the buzz of people in the background as they waited for Kendra, my daughter, to get there from the city after work so they could begin. How many are there this year, I asked? About 22, 23. Oh, I said, that’s small! Last year we had 31 squeezed around Claudia’s table. So I said, next year in.... Montclair. Home?

I continue to have difficulty in satisfactorily or at least not succinctly answering the question posed by the title of my blog. Home is where the heart is, goes the adage. My heart, I am finding is in many places. 

In the United States my heart is with a wide group of very good friends, some South Africans, some Americans, a few hailing from other nations.

In London it is with close family members who either immigrated from South Africa around the time I did, or, as in the case of my niece and my great-niece, were been born. There as well as some true Brits besides my nieces, including my goddaughter – at least until she recently (happily or me, though perhaps not for her Mom) moved to New York.

In South Africa where I have friends who when we meet after often years of separation simply pick up on conversations we had before and expand. My heart is with these, my communities in different parts of the world. Home is not a static place for me. It is where I happen I feel at home. Most particularly it is where I feel passion and compassion.

Where I engage in debate, where I get affected by the politics and the news. In my case it takes place in both South Africa and the environs of New York if not the United States as a whole.

Perhaps I must simply echo Socrates, "I am not an Athenian (Capetonian), or a Greek (South African), but a citizen of the world." Or the Tamil poet, Kaniyan Poongundran who wrote, "To us all towns are one, all men our kin". Thomas Paine, "My country is the world, all men are my brethren and my religion is to do good." (I will forgive them their use of “men”)

Have I come home or back? I still don’t really know. I have come back to Cape Town. But home? I proudly tell people wherever and whenever the question arises, that I was born here but I live in the United States. Sometimes I will add “It’s good to be home”. I then may expand: “Growing up in South Africa means that the country continues to have a hold on me. South Africa will never let you go”. They all nod. 

I was flagged down at 11:30 one night on the Main Road in Newlands on my way back from dinner with friends by two policeman, one black one white. The white came up to me and explained it was a spot check. He asked for my license. Ah, New Jersey! he said. I told him I was born here. He smiled as he said with great emphasis in a strong Afrikaans accent, “Ag, but South Africa is best! The very, very best!”

(He then cautioned me that they were concerned that I was driving alone at that time of night. It is dangerous he assured me. Up until that moment I was feeling particularly good about life, and independent. I drove the rest of the way to Tamboerskloof aware of every car behind me. But by the next day I felt unencumbered by fear once more, just aware of the sensible precautions to take as one does in both South Africa and New York, although in South Africa these precautions are far more stringent.)

CAN YOU LONG FOR A PLACE AND NOT CALL IT HOME?

I will miss South Africa when I leave. I will miss Cape Town which, before I came, I didn’t expect to feel as attached to as I now do. I will also long to return and get to know other parts of South Africa as I got to know Matumi. I miss the different terrain, the different sense of other parts of South Africa that resonate more closely with the other parts of Africa I got to know over the past decades. (See earlier blogs on Matumi and Maputo)

I am already scheming my next visit back or home. I hope, intend, plan to come back for longer periods. Meanwhile well over two thirds of my time here has slipped by, leaving me sad at the thought of leave but very relaxed. I don’t stop reacting, but I find myself more reflective, seeing the whole, and not only the parts. I see failures and I see successes. And perhaps this is just the nature of the world, which doesn’t mean we should shrug and move on.

One thing I can’t do is shrug off South Africa.

April 20, 2011

2011: A Visit to Maputo, Mozambique, provokes thoughts of Africa

Day One in Maputo: March 25

The small plane from Cape Town lands at Maputo airport just before noon. I wait the moving staircase to drop from the plane as the door is opened. As I descend one metal step at a time I realize just how excited I am feeling to be back. When I reach the bottom I stop. Blue hazy sky high above, hot tarmac below. A hint of a breeze. I take a deep, deep breath of the tropical, pungent, thick, humid Maputo air. It’s familiarity eases out of the recesses of my memory with a wave of nostalgia that catches up with the present. It is a smell like no other.

Not a scent, not an aroma, these words are too vague for the combination of trees and ripe fruit and wood fires and humanity and diesel that mingles into something pungent, something sweet, something rich. One sensation. Its elements no longer distinguishable. It is particular and peculiar to Africa. West. East. Almost South. Not Cape Town. It’s in my head before I know I have thought it. An involuntary response: “I am in Africa”.

 

Later I go for my first walk along the streets of Maputo from my friend Julie’s house which is in the middle of “cement” city on a busy main road, Avenida 24 de Julho. Julie is a doctor has made her home here since the mid-70’s where I invariable stay on my visits, the last one about four years ago. It is just before dark (no dusk here, its light then its dark) and it’s still hot and humid. Unusual heat wave for this time of the year, 35 degree (95 Fahrenheit). 

The sounds of the street are vibrant, cars and motorbikes and music and people talking and laughing, all give into a general roar of Maputo city sounds. It resonates with my memories of living here in the eighties and they flood back: times of hope, times of hardship, times of obsessive focus on the political minutiae of a particular day by cooperantes (those who came to work here because of political commitment) when we gather at weekend parties or get togethers, the grace and politeness of the Mozambicans who must have regarded the arrival of hundreds of foreign volunteers with some bemusement if not resentment.  I was a bit of an outsider because I came in and out to write about Mozambique, I didn't work here.  I used to listen to their involvment and envy their direct contribution to the building of a revolution.

Apartment building on Avenida Patrice Lumumba where I stayed in in the early 1980's

I pull back to my present surroundings and the rush, rush of people to catch minibuses home, the pace of cars (many more than my last visit) which often slow to a standstill, to people walking briskly to get where they are going at the end of the day on Julius Nyerere and Eduardo Mondlane and 24 de Julho.  I walk the familiar street and smile at the earnestness of their names, which reflect an earlier time:  24 de Julho (one of the few names unchanged after independence) crosses with Salvador Allende; Mao Tse Tung with Kim Il Sung; Patrice Lumumba with Vladimir Lenine, Karl Marx with Eduardo Mondlane, the first president of Frelimo who was assassinated in 1969.

Traffic outside of Julie's house - with a heavy dose of polution

I find bits of Portuguese coming back as I walk (though my language skills are pathetic), my feet aware the uneven, rubble-ly, stony and sandy, patched concrete sidewalks with edges broken so they merge into the cracks and crevices of the roads, past the street vendors peddling their wares, fruit, electronic goods and nuts, shoes, cloth. There are Mozambicans filling the street, young, old, sprinting to or waiting for the minibuses that will take them to their homes on the outskirts of the city, students in uniform from the nearby technical college that used to be the Josina Machel High School, lively youngsters, boys and girls, chatting and laughing and flirting as they walk by, street children, children in school uniform. The women in capulanas , the cloth tight-wound around the waist in colorful patterns, some with babies wound onto their backs, women in jeans and tight fitting t-shirts, the women in skirts and blouses and impossible shoes for the nature of the sidewalks.

I find a physical ease between people, anvopen affection, a physicality of the connection.

I can count the number of non-Africans I pass, a white woman my age-ish, a white man my age-ish, a younger woman. I am ready with a smile as I am for everyone I pass, but they don’t acknowledge. I surmise that to smile would be a tacit recognition that we are different, and they are not different, they are part of Maputo.

A young seller of airtime for cell phones

I head for Avenida Frederick Engels. Here the tempo abruptly changes. My pace slows to enjoy the quiet, the scenes of lovers, bodies close, faces smiling, dreamy eyed sitting on benches facing the sea. I am light footed and light hearted as I stop and look beyond the low wall at the edge of the cliff over the vast sea and the faraway horizon. It’s glorious. Maputo has its own beauty because of vistas like these. Not "of course" the beauty of Cape Town with its ever present mountain, its craggy, rock face rising up to the heavens from every vantage point so that you can’t escape it. Towering, protective, magnificent. Maputo with its vistas of the sea and the River Maputo that you must walk to find, cannot compete.  But it has other things to offer. Among them a vibrant city, with the addition of many side walk café’s and open air café’s in newly renovated parks - many that give views of the expanse of water that are creating a new culture of Maputo.  

Park overlooking the bay.  One of the newly renovated spaces with cafe's

Lovely places for coffee/lunch and meeting people and to work I feel happy and at one in a city that provides perhaps not the beauty, but something else. Africa? Well not exactly. When I wrote in an early blog from Pretoria: I head tomorrow for that “this-is-not-Africa” beautiful city of Cape Town - note the quotations marks. I was being facetious. Of course Cape Town is Africa, African.

It is at the very tip of Africa, purportedly its peninsula the meeting of Atlantic and the Indian Oceans (purportedly because that point is actually Cape Aghulas which a close look at the map of South Africa will reveal) how can it not be Africa. Just as Libya and Tunisia and Egypt are Africa, but at the northern end. I bristle when people say Cape Town is not Africa. I was born in Africa. I grew up in Africa. I feel African in the broadest sense of the word, not the racial categorization sense of the word. My city is Cape Town. Africa is far more diverse than Europe. Do we say that Greece is not Europe, but Britain is? That Portugal is not Europe but Switzerland is? So let us put to rest the notion that for some reason or other Cape Town is not Africa.

Cape Town has its own feel, its own expression of the continent, that once experienced is with you forever. However, it is a city that is still cleaved apart by race and class; By privilege and inability to access resources. Far far less than under apartheid. Now in the center, people of all races and ethnicities mingle and pass each other with a naturalness that could not be imagined during apartheid times. It is definitely Africa.

Walking down Cape Town’s main street, Adderly, which in my youth was almost solely white, colorless and pristine, where whites thought little about shopping in whites-only department stores (the few smaller stores who encouraged black customers did not go as far as allowing them to try on clothes) breaking their shopping sprees with tea in department store the restaurants.

One of my strongest childhood memories of walking down Adderly with my mother was stopping to listen to African boys, not yet teenagers, buskering kwela music on penny whistles. Fabulous. That the scene and the music that still echo in my mind speaks to how uncommon it was.  Now Adderly is alive with street vendors, selling all manner of goods - fruit and electrical and other miscellaneous wares and sunglasses and crafts, lining the street with stalls that take up half the wide pavements so that people jostle each other, people representing every part of Cape Town life. The informal sector found in varying ways in cities all over Africa . And in on every street in the center of Maputo.

An artisan in the newly constructed park for crafts with its pleasant cafes and greenery.  Before crafts were sold all over the city.  It is not clear if the craft sellers benefit from this new arrangement

_____________________________________________

So why, given that I feel this way, do I think to myself as I walk through the centre of Maputo “I am in Africa”, when in Cape Town I think, “I am in Cape Town”. In Maputo I do not feel the stomach tautening, the discomfort that often grips me when entering a restaurant in Cape Town, observing once again that the clientele are all white or almost. Here there are open air café’s and a life that does not obviously segregate.   (Segregation comes through economics and class - the bairros on the outskirts of the city where people live in increasingly dire poverty)

Mozambicans live their city. From filling the café’s for coffee during the day and beer in the evening, from mingling on the street to stop and chat, to the sellers of fruits and vegetables from a cloth spread on the pavement, from carts with large wheels, from stands rough-built for the purpose that people congregate around.

In Maputo people are tactile, holding hands, engaging, kissing on both sides, both hello and good bye (I have learnt to assume the greeting with whomever I am introduced to). Where Cape Town is organized, the pavements smooth, an ever present orderliness, in Maputo it is totally other. Chaos is probably a more appropriate word. Shabbines? I revel in it.

There are many new buildings in the city, and many more being built.

I confess: There have been glib moments when I have said without any sense that Cape Town is not Africa. How is that possible that I could forsake my city so? I mull it over and see that it is not about Cape Town but more about the Africa I have experienced since emigrating from Cape Town.

I retrace my own personal trajectory. From leaving apartheid South Africa in 1967 during a period of fierce repression for the US where I immersed myself anti-apartheid and pro-solidarity with the anti-Portuguese colonial struggle activity, to my travelling in 1973 with a back pack from Cairo to Dar es Salaam, to returning to Africa within a few month to march with PAIGC in the war zones of Guinea-Bissau, and again after independence in 1976, to visiting Mozambique throughout the 80’s and when not in Africa submerged in writing these experiences,  until the high point: watching on TV the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990.

Cape Town has its unique geography and terrain. What I got used and what became far more familiar as Cape town receded into memory were to the open spaces, the endless veld, the boabab trees, the sounds of the veld, animals and birds calling, frogs, the hues of brown and gold and green over flat distances, the smells of fires and smoke, of undergrowth, of plants and bushes and trees and earth; the sounds of life in villages I stayed in, the different energies of the various cities, of the small towns, of the rural areas.  I have been incredibly fortunate that my writing took me places where I connected with much of the diversity of Africa.

So when I arrive in Maputo those many years of connection to Africa resonate in a way that arriving in Cape Town does not. My connection with Maputo is immediate. In contrast, my time in Cape Town has been one of unhurried relearning and reconnection, of falling in love once again. 

Whether I can call it home is another question for another time. Postscript

Maputo:

Day 10 April 3

 

The end of the Acacia tree blooms. When in full bloom they set the city alight in orange

A week later, and I am still in love with Maputo.But reality seeps in: ·

The preponderance of South African companies, from mining companies, to supermarkets,department stores, to high end and low end chain stores, to housing compounds... without, as far as I can gather, guarantees for worker conditions. The corruption – from the President and his amassing of wealth down to petty officials at the bottom of the bureaucracy; The falling apart of the health system and provision of care, which at the time of independence was a fundamental goal of the new government; To the falling apart of the education system, which at the time of independence...ditto.  The tight control of the Frelimo, the party, with little possibility of dissidence, challenge or real democracy. Etc.

Despite a sense of disillusionment, a longing for the Frelimo that was, I will miss Maputo, and my friend there, and feel the visit was too short.  I leave with determination to return for a longer time.

Meanwhile, tomorrow I return to Cape Town. I feel as if I am going back home.

4 April, 2011

Trees in abundance in Maputo beautify the city. Alas, so are street kids, here fast asleep on the sidewalk

And here, clowning around

The Acacia trees line the avenues in abundance: gnarled and imposing trunks, fern like leaves

2011: SOUTH AFRICAN SCHOOLS: An Education in Contrasts

It was Founder's Day at Westerford High School. My high school, which when I entered was two years old.  I sit in the auditorium that was built towards the end my stay at the school, and which easily held the school's 500 students at the time. Now 900 squeeze in, using an extension that fans out of one side through adjustable walls and into a balcony that was added after I left.

I scan the students, well more accurately I stare at them, contemplating them, from those that are 12 or 13 to those in the graduating class who are heading for young adulthood.   Like all schools, Westerford has its own specific uniform in the Westerford colours of in maroon, gold and grey.  They wear them with casualness :  shirts half out, or creeping out, maroon blazer worn by some, not others who are in their shirts, girls in dresses that are different in style and pattern to the one I wore although still checks (plaid), ties off, ties on but loose around the neck. I prefer this level of comfort which would certainly have been frowned upon in “my day” as would the joking around between students, the noisy exuberance as they enter the hall, the turning to talk to the girl or boy behind them as they file in.   We would have entered in silence, walking with backs straight, blazers and ties neatly correct.

I think back the decades to “my day”. I remember the first principal with his straight greying hair parted down the middle precisely brylcreemed to each side. He walked with purpose, seldom smiled, was serious about his religion (Baptist, preached the need to be a good Christian - no separation of church and state to be sure, apartheid got its im-moral compass from the bible), could be both kind and unkind. One did not go against his wishes and he had many directions about how to behave as a Westerfordian: The daily emphasis on being a good Christian (impossible for me - not only was I Jewish, my family was atheist), always respect the uniform which meant never ever taking your blazer or tie off outside the school grounds as you were to be an exemplary standard bearer of Westerford wherever we were – and yes, the girls as well as the boys wore blazers and ties. Obey the teachers. No pranks tolerated, although in a school of girls and boys this rule was always broken.

The Principal  was tougher on the boys than the girls. He seemed to have no sense of humor. Being sent to the Principal’s office was not a happy experience. Lectures were long and disdain was expressed very easily for all except his favorites. He had many good points including his belief in an education that emphasized independent thinking. He emphasized that Westerfordians respect everyone and to make the point he referred to appropriately as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss.

The school sign was a gift from my class at its 40th reunion. The school motto (under the badge): Nil Nisi Optimum (Nothing but the best)

I pull back to my surroundings from these ruminations.   What I am looking at is very different from what I remember.  The principal jokes with the audience when he talks.  He is relaxed and in control.  Sitting with him are teachers from all South African backgrounds. 

It is of course obvious, but sitting with the all white section from the late 1950's and 1960's what I am most aware of is the makeup of the student body. About 50 percent are black. Mostly coloureds and Indians, with a very few Africans. (It is later explained to me by a parent of recent Westerford graduates, that the catchment area for the school is confined, effectively excluding African applicants. I also learn that although it is a state school students have to pay fees of R21,165.00 ($3129.65 at today’s’ exchange rate. The website indicates that fee exemptions are available for those unable to afford the fees. Frankly, had Montclair High School fees for a public school been at this level, very few parents would have been able to manage. Without knowing how it all works, I am assuming it to be a mechanism to enable the highly privileged school to continue to provide education for the highly privileged without draining the Provincial education budget.)

I sit next to two classmates, Lois and Stan, in a rows down one side of the hall reserved for guests. The rest of the guests are from the class behind me who are having their 50th reunion. 

In contrast to the new South Africa demographic, where the students and teachers represent all of South Africa, we are a relic from the past. All white. Lois turns to me and says: “Isn’t it wonderful how mixed Westerford now is?” Her face glows. I just nod in agreement, my breathing constricted with the thought of how many things have changed, (though fully aware of how things have not.)

Photo taken on Founders Day (from WHS website)

When I later ask a teacher the racial breakdown he says “I don’t know. We don’t count”. It’s a sensitive issue. And no wonder. The apartheid government certainly counted. By the use of a very weird maths. Africans who were actually 80 percent of the South African population, were by a sleight pen, designated not.

Africans were divided up into different language groups and then assigned their “own” homeland, one of ten so-called Bantustans, according to language – Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana etc. – whose edges had long ago been fudged beyond ethnicity and language into a diverse but one African people within two language groups. Few Africans spoke only one African language. Many spoke four, or perhaps even more, as well as English and/or Afrikaans. The clincher was that in each so-called homelands the government could count a smaller number of citizens than the white citizens in South Africa. Voila! Whites were no longer a minority. Africans could vote in their own supposed country. Problem was most of the “citizens” of these homelands did not live there and many had never ever set foot in them. Problem was that these so-called homelands made up 10 percent of the country’s land mass, and that some of the homelands consisted of non-contiguous “black spots”.

Problem was Africans constituted 80 per cent of the population, whites fifteen per cent. Problem was the land was eroded and generally non-arable so the “citizens” couldn’t sustain life from it even if they wanted to. They had to continue get permission to work in the white areas of South Africa, and the requisite stamp in their dompass (stupid pass) because their land was no longer their country. The labor was exploited and those that controlled the apartheid economy – and their overseas corporate investors - were exceedingly happy. Cheap labor. Humongous profits. Don’t rock the treasure boat.

Again I pull myself back from these thoughts as the Westerford Orchestra plays the national anthem signaling an end to the Founders Day ceremony.

As I  played the violin in high school and was part of a youth orchestra, this was a welcome sight

We all stand to sing the South African anthem. The anthem is in three parts. It starts with the rousing but solemn hymn that was the anthem of the struggle, a symbol of resistance and hence banned in apartheid South Africa but now sung proudly in Zulu or Xhosa or one of the African languages. I sing along with the Xhosa: N’kosi Sikilela Africa.... (God bless Africa)

It is close to seventeen years since South Africa had its first elections for a new South Africa. And I am finding it hard to sing along. My voice is cracking because of emotion. When it segues without stop into the old, apartheid anthem in Afrikaans – Uit die blou van onse hemel (Out of the blue from our heavens), I join in more forcefully, the Afrikaans words carved into my very being from my childhood. Now I know I am being truly soppy as I think of the significance of the majority government decreeing that the new South Africa should include in its anthem the old South Africa that we want to forget.

I can't wipe away the tears that wet my cheeks because it will bring attention and make me even more embarrassed. And as the anthem then segues without barely an intake of breath into the English, it is even harder. And I find myself thinking: I have never felt the tiniest bit emotional over the American anthem although I am now a US citizen. To me it is a song. But my strong reaction to the South African anthem? Can it be that I am home? I guess this is Something for later reflection.

I leave the school impressed by its progress, delighted by its diversity. I have seen the large fields that extend from the Main Road up to De Waal Drive, the swimming pool, new astro-turf playing field with its bright new sports building where my class held its annual picnic. The mountain towers above me on this perfect late summer day. The grounds are many times the size of the Westerford I attended (where I and my fellow students painstaking planted the grass for the first playing field, seedling by seedling) and many, many times the size of the New Jersey high school my daughter attended in Montclair. The school is not only graced with sports fields. It has a fantastic library, an art room, classrooms that aim to serve under 30 students in each, newly painted walls, spic and span bathrooms. I am told by a teacher that prime real estate that was recently acquired for the expansion of its sports fields in one of the more expensive suburbs of Cape Town belonged to the Provincial government. He believes it was granted for use to the school which had to fund raise for the fields and buildings.

I leave wondering whether I should be impressed by a school with such resources that services a mixed community or troubled by the display of resources that is almost ostentations when considering the situation of the majority of students in South Africa.

School grounds that stretch up to the edge of the mountain

²

Forward, not too fast, to March 21, 20011.

March 21st is Human Rights Day, a public holiday commemorating the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960. This year 20,000 black youth chose the day to march to Parliament to protest the state of education in South Africa and demand better conditions. They are elementary and high school learners, in their school uniforms despite the holiday. There are teachers and parents and other supporters of the call. As I missed theannouncement of the demonstration I heard about it from press coverage. 

This call for equality education came thirty-five years after the Soweto uprisings of 1976 when school students went on strike to protest Bantu education, in particular the ruling that Afrikaans would henceforth be the language of instruction. The uprisings and continued demonstrations resulted in a brutal crackdown in which hundreds of people were killed, many of them school children.

While the black youth of South Africa were protesting Bantu education for many years to follow, the white youth continued to benefit from education that was among the best in the world. Inequalities still based on race as well as on class and privilege continue to mar progress. Today, education for the majority of South Africans is sub-standard.

Some 18 percent do not have access to electricity. Twenty percent do not have no water supply (which means they do not have flush toilets). More than 92 percent do not have stocked and functionary libraries. [Timeslive.com].

Yvonne Msebenzi, a Grade 10 pupil at Mfuleni High, quoted in The Cape Times , said “Sometimes we have to go to libraries in Delft and Khayelitsha because the library in Mfuleni does not have enough books with the information we need or there are just too many people there.”

A Grade 12 pupil at Harold Cressy High School, Qhayisani Mxhego, told the Sowetan that he marched because education was a basic right that should be fulfilled by the government. “We want all schools to have the same opportunities, and for learners to have the same access to higher education”.

Protest on Human Rights Day (Photo: Gillian Benjamin/Writing Writes blog)

Another Grade 12 pupil at Hector Pieterson (named after the first child to die in the Soweto uprisings) High School said: “We need the same quality of educators and resources.”

Protest on Human Rights Day (Photo: Gillian Benjamin/Writing Writes blog)

The key demand of the protest was for National Minimum Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure. Yoliswa Dwane, spokesperson for Equal Education that organized the march said “This is not just our bright idea. The South African Schools Act itself...gives the Minister the power to set Infrastructure Standards.” It has been in place since 2008 but no action has been taken so far. Dwane added that while some pupils are taught in “mud huts”, others are taught in “buildings that look like universities.”

Or like Westerford?

I stand on the field that possibly still had the grass my class planted

As long as Westerford remains the domain of the privileged, and schools in the townships and the rural areas remain the domain of the poor, the need to fight inequality will not diminish. While the education realities are depressing, the students are inspiring in their protests. They are once more leading the way. 

I can’t stop looking for glimmers to hitch some hope to.  And I find them all over the place.

I continually hear about community based, civil society organizations (such as Equal Education) involved in work that is making a huge difference to people’s lives. In terms of education, stories abound about the involvement of teachers and principals and parents, who are responding in innovative ways to the eagerness of children and young people wanting to learn.

One story I heard recently came from a friend who visited a small pre-school outside Hazy View in Mpumalanga province. A teacher from the area, trained in early childhood education, established a pre-school for the children of her village who were left at home during the day while their parents went to work. She started with a dozen children, holding classes under a tree. Now 150 children attend the pre-school every day.

In the decade since she began, she has developed a progressive curriculum for pre-school children, teaching them in English and their own language to read and to develop skills necessary for learning. With financial support from individuals and organizations to help her fulfill her vision, the school now has several buildings, grows its own vegetables, has a kitchen and provides two meals to the children every day. She has opened a second school in the next village. When asked what has happened to those who started their schooling with her a decade ago, she said she has followed their progress. They are all now in high school.

April 30, 2011

2011 "Apartheid is over but the struggle is not": Reflections on South Africa

Khayelitsha

Kate sits next to me as I follow Peter’s car out of Cape Town to Khayelitsha.  This is the largest African township that visitors travelling from the airport to Cape Town can’t avoid seeing jammed up against the highway, a dense mass of shacks that border the road through on the Cape Flats.

Kate Ncisana

Kate tells me she has two children, seventeen years apart. “I didn’t want more than one child when I would be unable to live with them and when I didn’t have my own place”.

The son, the eldest, lives near her in Khayelitsha, has his contracting business and renovates houses in white Cape Town as she calls it. He is doing well. Her daughter has a good job and is a boxing champion. Katie has grandchildren and great grandchildren. She grins when she tells me how her husband left her many years ago a few days before her birthday. She found the timing particularly hurtful. 

I ask her if he is close to his children. Yes, she answers, he is. She chuckles again. He used to send her birthday presents. “But all that did was remind me that he had left me”.

But this is the past. She is independent now. Her activism took off in the 1980’s. She fought apartheid at its core – the pass laws. And then it was over. She believed that all the horrors were now behind.

Kate outside her house in Khayelitsha

Two years ago she moved into a new brick house replacing the shack that she built on the small plot allocated to her.  In proud place in a new cabinet is a display of her bead work. Her talents have been recognized and she is always busy. Last year she took her intricate colorful necklaces to the Sante Fe International Folk Art Market. Her beading work table is in the cluttered second small bedroom of her house. Next to the table is a low black board on a easel with a child’s drawing in chalk by one of her grandchildren. This keeps her great grandchildren and her grandchildren busy so she can get on with her work when she’s caring for them.

She continues to work as a domestic worker two days a week. But on her own terms. She is in charge of her life now.

Some of Kate's jewelry

And so why does Kate who has made so many strides in her life still feel the need to continue to fight for change; why still part of an ongoing struggle?

 

We reach Khayelitsha and stop in front of a small community center. In a room that was once a show house and is now used as a meeting room, I sit with seven women and two men on worn plastic chairs in a circle  The house hasn’t fared well. The plaster board ceiling bows at the edges, the built-in kitchen furniture is split in places, the paint was probably once green, the floor is uneven. Despite the clear hot sunny day outside, little light enters.

Kate, Sindiswa, Dorothy, Cynthia, Angelina, Six, Evelyn, Jack and Ethel are members of a group dating back to the early 1980’s, who came to be known as the “Nyanga Squatters”.

The group of Nyanga Squatters who told me their story

It’s a moving story of courage and determination in the face of apartheid.

It’s a story of how a group struggled against apartheid on the personal level, won some victories for the wider community, and longed for the day when apartheid would end; for when the conditions of their lives would improve and they could begin to leave behind them the poverty and oppression and the humiliation they had known for generations.

They are still waiting.

“The TRC could be used to wipe away tears of some people”, one of the women in the group interjects, referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC was formed soon after the new government came to power as a means to address the serious human rights violations – the murders, the killings. But not the day to day crimes against the people who lived the brutal realities of apartheid. They were all eager to talk – their words translated by Sindiswa from Xhosa to English - about the apartheid period as a time of acute suffering.

“The TRC did nothing for those who lived and suffered so long under apartheid. We had nothing to wipe our tears with.”

“No one came to say sorry”, said Peter who stayed for the beginning of the session. “No one.”

But don’t get me wrong. While their feelings of abandonment by national and local government was real, this was not a room full of people recalling only their suffering. They were telling me their history with pride, and often with humor, even as they expressed disappointment in how things have turned out. They are in no way defeated.

Dorothy

Their story goes like this:

They were among the hundreds of women who headed for Cape Town from the Transkei and the Ciskei (Xhosa-speaking ‘homelands’) in the early 1980's. How could any woman survive in that dry land with all its physical and political problems, with no way to feed their family, old and young?  How could they survive being split from husbands and partners who as "units of labor" lived as “single” in Cape Town and earned so little that the remittances with a pittance? There was only one thing to do. They packed their few belongings and set off with their children. Illegal or not, they had to eat. They knew, as Africans entering a so-called “Coloured Preferential Area”, they had only 72 hours to seek work before being declared illegal.   Totally impossible. They didn’t care. They were determined to stay. They did not hide in fear.  Feeling that safety was in numbers, they went to the administration and made their demands. They were told that on such-and-such a day they should meet at such-and-such a place and they would get the decision about their case from the authorities. 

At the appointed time they headed for the meeting place. They got their answer: the police were armed and waiting. They were rounded up, put on buses and driven 1170 kilometers (730 miles) to Umtata, the capital of the Transkei. Gone!

Too bad that they had not brought their children with them. Too bad they could not get their belongings. Just too bloody bad.

The authorities were not interested. Their only interest was that these agitators did not set a bad example and get away with it. For three months they pleaded to be allowed to return to get their children who had been taken in by neighbors. Some were only a few months old. Others were a few years.

The authorities finally agreed and they were told that buses would be provided – but just to get your children. OK, baas. They filled more than 20 buses. They arrived back in Nyanga. “Then”, said Sindiswa who was translating, waving her right hand in a snake-like move, “It was duck and dive, hide and seek!”

Phffft!

They collected their kids and disappeared into the dense morass of corrugated iron- wood scraps- plastic sheeting shacks and narrow pathways occupied by the thousands of Africans living both legally and illegally in the Cape Town area. Some took sanctuary in one or two churches in the community. They were safe for a few months while they tried more negotiations from their safe havens. They got nowhere. When this no longer worked, a group of 57 decided it was time to involve a “white” church. On March 10, 1982 they headed for St. George’s Cathedral in the center of Cape Town on a Sunday, acting as if all they wanted to do that day was pray. They informed the Dean that they were not planning to leave. Their plight was greeted with a sympathetic ear.

A squatter camp was set up in the grounds of the Cathedral and after a while began to fast in protest. The media began to cover the story and it was captured in the international press as well. The authorities caved. They squatters got a three month temporary permit. At the end of the three months they got an 18 month permit. The pressure from the world and from inside the country against those dompasses was getting to be too much. Then they got an 18 month permit.

Soon after the pass system was abolished. National resistance and international pressure was too much. Confronted with the need for settlements the government established Khayelitsha, forcing the squatters and hundred like them to leave Nyanga. Minimal services were provided as the population climbed to over 400,000. Their activism focused on the right to decent housing.

Then President F.W. De Klerk announced in early February 1990 that Nelson Mandela would be released on February 11th; that the ANC and other banned organizations would be unbanned.   After a transition period elections were held at the end of April 1994 and apartheid was finally dead (if not totally buried). Then on May 10, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated and the new South Africa was born.

Oh the rejoicing in the townships! In the rural areas.  In the towns and the cities. Throughout South Africa. More TV images. The scenes of joy. I watched with tears. Apartheid was over, and the Nyanga Squatters were as happy as anyone.   They would get back their dignity and self worth. South Africa was now owned by the majority. There would be housing and schools and freedom of movement and health facilities and jobs and no-one arresting them for crimes that were only crimes in apartheid South Africa, nowhere else.

Fast forward seventeen years. They are still waiting for basic services. What are the biggest issues? I ask, already having a sense from the way the conversation was going. Now their voices are serious. Lack of decent housing. Lack of Jobs. Violence among the youth. Education.  And overriding poverty.

The son and daughter of one of the Nyanga Squatters outside their house

Kate in front of the plot where their new house is being built next to the shack

Many of the group of “Nyanga Squatters” from the Cathedral hunger strike continue to wait for livable housing. Some find that after years, many years, their names are not on the waiting list, although they registered. Others find that allocations have been made, but no action was taken to inform them. Three of those sitting with me are still living in shacks. The rest had been allotted small brick houses. The houses were free. But much work was needed to make them livable. “Matchboxes”, they call them.

Angelina's house.

There is an exposed electrical wire at the back of the house that the authorities admit is dangerous but they haven’t come to fix it. Angelina grows corn in the sandy front garden. What exacerbates all these conditions is the impossibly high jobless rate. At the end of 2009, 53.4 percent of all young black Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 unemployed -- three times the unemployment rate (14.5 percent) of young white South Africans. Even those with education can’t find jobs. “You have no experience”, their children are told. But how can they get experience, they ask rhetorically, if they can’t get jobs? 

We have been talking for over three hours. I see their earnestness of, their faces, a mix of hope and sadness, of feeling failed by the government, but refusing to give in. These are not defeated faces, not by a long shot. South Africa is theirs and they made it theirs through their struggle. That spirit does not die. But their message has been clear and explicit:

Apartheid is over but the struggle is not.

I explain to the group that I am moved by their stories, that I respect their struggle, but I can offer nothing concrete. I feel humbled. I am from outside. I am white. I visit. I leave. I stay in the white city.

“Ja, no” they said in the typical yes-no way that South Africans begin their responses, “it doesn’t matter. We are not expecting anything. If you tell our story, that is enough.”

And then they invite me back. The visit was too short, they tell me.Please come again, meet with our leaders and hear the full story.

I had come to South Africa with an open mind, not sure what I would find to add to my book. I know as I say goodbye that this is one of the stories I will include. My book is developing a mind of its own.

 

Cynthia with one of the children from the crèche at the community center. They get food from the Provincial Administration, but not salaries. They care givers volunteer. They work full time

.

Cynthia's co-worker, also a volunteer

2011 Back in Cape Town: The memory of a childhood peach.

 

                                         Smells are surer than sounds or sights
                                          To make your heart-strings crack—

                                                      - Rudyard Kipling, Lichtenberg

I bite into a small, perfectly ripe, imperfectly rounded, soft, furry skinned, orange – really orange - peach.

It is a few days after arriving in Cape Town, settling in, which means organizing my new workspace in my cousin Gillian’s house close to the mountain above the city, beginning to contact friends, and generally getting ready for writing.  I am still in awe of the view of the glorious mountain in all its moods from every vantage point that her house and garden presents, when I casually pick up a peach from the fruit bowl on Gill’s kitchen table.  In the two-inch thick large flat-ish weathered bowl, four peaches rub up against other fruit: bananas, plums, avocadoes, mangoes, pineapples.

These other fruits are, it must be said, delicious.  However they are not that far from the league that can be found elsewhere and so they evoke and provoke little.  

Bananas I have eaten in America were perhaps not quite as dense in taste or texture, but if their flavor evokes anything it is probably America where the banana is the most popular fruit.  

Plums which drip as I eat them are sweeter and riper, for sure, but while they provoke some memories of a Cape Town childhood, they compete with plums I picked from a tree that grew in the garden of a house in the Catskills,  New York that I once shared with South African friends.    

Mangoes - well frankly, there is nothing to beat the fleshy, creamy, golden mangoes, large as babies’ heads,  that I have eaten in West Africa.  Now there’s a mango!

And the little undersized pineapple?  No contest with the enormous Abacaxi I encountered in northern Mozambique which women sold from high piles along the side of the road we drove on.  They were so heavy and ripe that even before I could cut through their thick, thorny skin to be cored and sliced,  juice had oozed and collected in a large puddle on the plate by virtue of their very weight.  

It not being Avo season the ones in the fruit bowl hail from Spain or Latin America and are no better, no worse than those I buy in Montclair and leave to ripen in a brown paper bag in a dark kitchen cupboard.  And not that much cheaper either.

As for the chunks of watermelon I tasted on a friend’s St. James’ veranda overlooking the vast sapphire sea?  Not up to the flavor, color or texture of the height of the season summer watermelons in the US.  

But then I pick up a peach, nestling innocently among the other fruit.  It is smaller and rounder than the New Jersey peaches that come into season for five or six weeks during the summer, and which I buy in small amounts at the local Saturday farmer’s market.  There is a window of what seems like a mere 60 minutes before peaches transform themselves from too hard to too soft to frot.  If you don’t eat them at precisely the right moment, they are destined to join the organic scraps heading for the compost heap.  If you manage to, they were, I thought, pretty delicious.

Or so I thought before I bit into my first Cape peach. 

 

Like the swelling, cresting and crashing of a wave after a calm, shallow sea I am engulfed.

With this one sensual taste, I am home.

I can’t describe taste.  It is way beyond my literary powers. But although recognizable as a peach, it is essence of peach, just as perfume is essence of the flower it is extracted from; just as a dab of perfume amplifies and is absorbed by the weightlessness of air as it ripples outwards until it can fill a whole room when the wearer steps into it, so the taste enters my head and expands there, to flow over my mind and release dormant memories.  

I relish it bite by slow bite, until only the pit is left.  I help myself to a second. This time I cut it in half and then in quarters, and then eighths removing the pit which leaves behind a deep rose-red creviced imprint in the orange flesh.  I bite into each section savoring each one and chewing  thoughtfully. 

I remember...

The feel of sun on skin, salt on skin,  leaving a white residue, wet sand clinging to feet and ankles and shins which when dry turns crusty and has to be vigorously toweled off.  The pinched painful sun burnt  shoulders, chests, backs and glowing cheeks.  The smell of calamine lotion slathered pink onto sensitive skin, unable to sleep under even a sheet.

Sundays at the beach. The packing of a picnic lunch into a wicker picnic suit case.  Roast chicken, boiled eggs, tomatoes, cut up carrots and cucumbers, salt wrapped in squares of grease proof paper  twisted at each end, bottles of water that will be too warm to drink, plates and alloy cutlery strapped criss-cross inside the lid of the case.  Then placed into the boot of the car with towels and an old table cloth and folding chairs.  The drive to Muizenberg.  No seat belts, my sister and I in the back seat, perhaps one of us with a friend in our black Citroen with the spare wheel held in place by metal casing the shape of the wheel, driving at 30 or 40 miles per hour.  It was a trek

The buying of watermelons. On Prince George’s Drive, my father pulls over in front of young men selling them at the side of the road.  He unfurls his long frame from the car and teases and jokes in his not too fluent Afrikaans, and is teased back.  Then he selects one of the large melons from the high dark green pyramid.  First he scrapes a spot on the rind.  If it marks easily he  rests the heavy melon on top of his head, and jerks his hands downwards.  If it cracks an inch or less it is deemed ripe enough to buy.  If not, it is returned to the pile and another selected.  “Try that one, Daddy!” I dance around and insist, delighted when “my” one is chosen.  Later, spread out on towels  on the beach, my father cuts it with a large bread knife brought along for the purpose and we hold the triangular slices by the rind, and devour the deep red, juicy flesh while trying to shield it from the wind’s determined effort to spoil the pleasure by insinuating fine white sand.

Tea at Kirstenbosch. Scones and apricot jam and thick cream. Milkshakes from synthetic flavoring and coloring. Pale green peppermint my definite favorite.  Large lawns to run on.  Stone steps to climb amongst Proteas and indigenous bushes up the sides of the mountain towering above us.  Lady Ann Barnard’s deep, clear bath shaped like a bird, in amongst different species of ferns and other shade plants, the sound of water trickling into and out of it.

The large sloping lawn outside the house I live in in Mowbray until I turn eight.  Rolling down the slopes, arms tucked under chests. Playing catch.  Making  tents with kitchen chairs upside down and blankets draped over for the roof.  Tea carried out to me and friends on a tray by our domestic to drink in cups with saucers in the coziness, cut off from the whole world. Bread and jam cut in triangles.  Sometimes Oros orange squash in plastic glasses tinkling with ice.  

Playing on these lawns on a sunny Saturday morning with coloured children my age and younger who have come with their father for legal advice from my father.  I fill two paper bags with toys on appreciating that they have none, and my six year old arms each grasping a bag I head back to the lawn from my bedroom.  

Stopped by my mother.  “What are you doing?”  “I want to give toys to my friends”.  “Absolutely not.  Take them back to your room”. Her voice is unsympathetic.  I do.  All of them.  My good deed thwarted.  Me crestfallen.

What other city boasts a mountain up to the heavens?  Always taking care, mother mountain, as if it could protect us from all things untoward. 

But it doesn't.

Suburbs nestled around it.  Streets running through the city right up to it.  Craggy and rocky, layers of rock, and its flat, flat top. Small cable car miraculously ascending.  Clinging to my mother‘s hand, sure it won’t make it. My father’s fear that we wouldn’t was real enough to keep him down below. Windy up there, walking along the paths and smiling at the cute dassies, who look something like prehistoric rabbits.  From the top we see the flat, sandy, Cape Flats, inhospitable terrain for those who work in Cape Town and are the source of my privilege.  But I am yet to understand this.

Later when older, climbing that mountain, up and up along windy paths, balancing on rocks, but never attempting the really tough, challenging climbs that Cape Town mountain climbers revel in.  One memorable time with a cousin leading the way.  Only understanding the importance of making sure one’s toe nails are cut when making the long descent,  toes jammed up against the front of my shoes, until I finally, painfully reached the bottom with bruised toes and blood seeping out of a big toe.

The peach talks to me of warmth, and sea, and long beaches, and lush flora, and easy living, and sturdy, comfortable houses, kept dustless and shining by domestic workers whose families lived back in the Transkei are looked after by sisters and mothers while they take care of me.

The contrasts dawn on me slowly.  My childhood interprets my surroundings through lenses that present it as normal.  As much as my parents rail against apartheid and my father bores his advocate friend with 18 hole lectures in Trotskyism during their Wednesday afternoon golf, for me what I see around me as a child, in keeping with South African with what other white children absorb, seems to present life as it is.  Not life as it should be. 

Who picked the peaches of my childhood and adolescence?  Who packed those peaches so that they arrived in stores unbruised? Who could afford to buy them and place them in large bowls on tables in scrubbed and shiny kitchens, in such abundance that a child walking by could grab one without stopping and eat it as she (I) went about her life of privilege and ease.

With each slow dawning moment of understanding of what apartheid means to those who are roped and chained in by it, I feel a wave of shock.  It is increasingly emotional and increasingly painful so that anger seethes below my surface and bursts.  

Once in New York I will build on my anger and hatred of apartheid and get to know the finer details of how apartheid functions, and how it essentially exists to control a cheap labor force.  I will devour banned books. I will meet exiles and connect with the anti-apartheid and anti-colonial struggles.  I will begin to channel (but not lose) the emotional response into anti-apartheid and anti-imperialism activism in the United States.

I will begin to channel (but not lose) the emotional response into anti-apartheid and anti-imperialism activism in the United States.

And in so doing I will lose the taste of the Cape peach.

And now after apartheid is no more and I am back in Cape Town, I have found it again.

2011: The Story of Two Marches in Cape Town: Protesting Apartheid

March 30 1960:  30,000 Africans march on Cape Town, eight miles from the African townships.  They head for Parliament but detour to the Police headquarters at Caledonian Square when they hear that the army has surrounded it.  It is a call to end the pass laws.

September  13, 1989:  30,000 South Africans of all races march on Cape Town, from St. George’s Cathedral to the Cape Town Parade.  It is called a Peace March. It is a call to end the violence The first contributed to my leaving South Africa.  The second contributed to my ability to return.

The 1960 march takes place nine days after the notorious Sharpeville massacre.  It’s leader is arrested. It results in the declaration of a State of Emergency that very afternoon, and the brutal clamping down of political activists for years and decades to come.  The 1989 march, twenty-nine and a half years later, is lead by Archbishop Tutu. Five months later, almost to the day, apartheid unravels. Nelson Mandela is released and the ANC and PAC were unbanned. The dismantling of the apartheid state began.  Four years later, in April 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first President to represent all the people of South Africa.

I walk into the newly opened exhibition space in the crypt of St. George’s Cathedral.

I stop before towering photos capturing the 1989 march.  The role that the religious leaders, Christian and Muslim, provided gravitas to the event and are in the forefront. Being Jewish, I note the absence of Rabbis.  The Chief Rabbi of Cape Town was initially against the march, I am told, but supported the actions later. It was sparked by the killing of 23 people in various Cape Town townships in the aftermath of the second tri-cameral parliament elections on Election Day, six Days earlier.  

Enough!

Photo by Eric Miller (www.eric.co.za) who kindly agreed that I place it in this blog

I am moved, emotions wrenching, tears well up as I see a dense mass of thousands upon thousands of Capetonians, black, white, men, women, young, old, in business suits with ties, in shirt sleeves and t-shirts, serious faces, smiling faces, somber faces, glowing faces.  Faces of a people who know they are winning.

I recently found black and white grainy photos of the first march.  They are equally powerful.  African men, and some women, packed tight as they walk silently into the centre of the city.  I reflect that, looking back, way back, what happened that day lead to my leaving. It is why I am not  a face in the  crowd in the photos in St. George’s Cathedral crypt.

The march came nine days after the March 21st Sharpeville massacre which captured headlines throughout the world. The protest was part of a wide campaign against the pass laws. These laws forced all Africans living in urban areas to carry pass books in the land of their birth to prove that they had permission to be there. These laws defined every movement and aspect of their lives.  Relegating them to no more than units of labor, they provided a Draconian means of controlling and directing a cheap – very cheap - labor force.  The pass laws were one of the main pillars of apartheid and the fuel for a vibrant South African economy.  In 1952, four years after the apartheid government came to power, the laws were extended to include all male Africans over the age of 18 regardless of whether they lived in the towns or the rural areas; four years later African women were lassoed into the law.  

Enough

The call went out:  Leave your passes at home, present yourself to your local police station and be arrested.  Township after African township throughout South Africa responded to this call.  In Sharpeville, the cheerful, calm and friendly protestors sent jitters down the spines of the skittish police, young and inexperienced. They fired wildly into the crowd.  Most of the victims were shot in the back while trying to flee, including ten children, some on the backs of their mothers.  The killings caused reverberations around the world, bringing with it unprecedented shock and horror at the extent of the brutality of the apartheid regime, which up until then the world had largely managed to tolerate and ignore.  

The protests were local within the confines of the proscribed African areas that the police could contain.

Not so Cape Town.

The specter of 30,000 Africans walking deliberately and silently out of the townships of Nyanga, Langa and Gugulethu scared the bejeebies out of the white government.

As well as for many of the soldiers deployed to provide control.  

Michael Mittag, a friend from university and beyond, stood outside his office on one of the streets leading into the city center.  “There was a buzz, an eerie buzz, that reverberated through the buildings.  It sounded almost electronic”.  He was impressed. In awe.  But not the terrified soldier no more than 18 years old standing near him, who gave visible evidence to his fear by the spreading wet spot in the front of his pants.

At the head, dressed like a school boy in shorts and sockless shoes – the only clothes he possessed - was Philip Kgosana, looking even younger than his scant twenty-three years.  He had hoped for a turnout of about 5,000. Kgosana, having acquired the necessary white sponsorship was among the few African students permitted to attend the University of Cape Town.  The only way he could support himself was to live in the all male sub-standard barracks built for grossly underpaid ‘migrants’ (foreigners in their own country) as ‘temporary’ (they were in fact permanent) housing far away from their wives and families in the rural areas who were not permitted to live with them. Steeped in their lives, their histories, sufferings and living conditions, Kgosana dropped out of university and began working as a political activist full time.  

Kgosana fearful that the police would begin to fire and cause life-threatening havoc and among the marchers tightly packed in the narrow streets of Cape Town, agreed to ask the marchers to return home.  But only after he was promised an interview with the Minister of Justice so that he could place the demands of the marchers before him.  On Kgosana’s his request which travelled back through a murmuring wave from the front of the protest to the back, they turned around as one and walked back to their townships, led now by police vans.

At four o’clock Kgosana arrived for the meeting.  He was arrested. Nine months later he was released on bail. He skipped the country and went into exile.  (He is now back home)

I was in my last year of high school, and our school, like most probably most, went into virtual lock down.  It was considered a dangerous situation.

The evening of the march my father, Joe’s step through the back yard was uncommonly quick and light, lacking any of his usual end-of-day draggy tiredness.  He was positively glowing.  No sooner had the news of the march spread to him in his law office in Athlone, a Coloured area of Cape Town, he was in his car driving to a vantage point to view the extraordinary phenomenon.  He was awe struck by the huge, silent, orderly march of thousands upon thousands of determined Africans, who with immense dignity walked towards the center of Cape Town with their one message. It was a demonstration of power and of determination that he had never before witnessed or believed possible and he was exhilarated.  

This is the beginning of the end!” he announced at the dinner table to my mother, my sister and I and perhaps our African domestic worker listening from the kitchen. “The government cannot deny what has just happened.  The passes have to go.”  He truly believed that this was a major turning point, from which there would be no going back. What he saw when he surveyed the dense protest, was a determined mass of African workers taking up the struggle, flexing their collective muscle, and showing the oppressive ruling class that they were ready to take on the revolution. His Trotskyist viewpoint was being justified.  The workers had risen. There could be no turning back. Or so, on that day, he fervently believed.

He underestimated the might of the apartheid machine.  

A State of Emergency was declared that afternoon. Within days the Unlawful Organizations Act was passed, the ANC and PAC were declared illegal.  The Terrorism Act was passed, which allowed for indefinite detention without trial.  The Communism Act were more stringently enforced. A severe clamp down followed of all who might be considered a danger to the state.  Thousands were arrested.  Thousands fled into exile.  

Thousands fled into exile.  

For the next eight or nine years, South Africa experienced a hiatus in open political activity.  Caught in the revolution’s doldrums as a result of terrible and mounting repression, looking on as bannings and detention without trial and trials for “crimes” that were simply demands for human rights were metered out with determination by an state bent on crushing any resistance, however slight, I decided to leave.  

This was not an easy decision, and the discussion, and debates and differences with friends who decided they must stay often went on into the night.  But with heavy heart I made it along with others who were privileged to be able to leave voluntarily into self-exile at our own pace.  I simply could not live under apartheid, benefit from its privileges because of the happenstance that I was born into the “white” racial category, and while finding no obvious – for me at the time - meaningful way to contribute to change.  

 

After leaving the exhibition I was invited to have lunch with the Cathedral’s  Sub-Dean Fr. Terry Lester, Lynette Maart and Josette Cole.  

Fr.  Lester, Maart and Cole are social justice activists of the 1980s generation who are passionate about educating next generations about what happened under apartheid in general and the role the St. George’s Cathedral played in pursuing non-violent means of struggle in particular. 

Fr. Terry Lester and Lynette Maart are part of the leadership team of the St. George’s Cathedral Crypt Memory and Witness Centre.  The Centre aims to excavate the social history of the Cathedral, particularly its role in the struggle against apartheid to use as a lens to current social justice issues.  Josette Cole, a member of the Mandlovu Trust, is researching the struggles of squatter communities in and around Cape Town between 1977 and 1985.  Plans for the next exhibition are well underway. Under the theme ‘Bearing Witness’ it will focus on the 23-day fast in March/ April 1982 of 57 Nyanga Bush squatters at St. George’s Cathedral to protest the dire lack of rights for Africans to live - as families - and work in Cape Town/Western Cape.

Our conversation is as inspiring as it is sober.  They do so with zeal and purpose.  I listen to their plans and can only be impressed. 

But as I listen I reflect that Brecht’s words about the “difficulties of the plains” are all too real.

They talk about how Cape Town was being transformed into a city for foreigners, for tourists to enjoy. 

They talk about Cape Town being gradually transformed into a city for foreigners, for tourists to enjoy. 

They talk about resources being poured into making the centre of Cape Town safe and beautiful, a magnet for the privileged. 

They talk about lack of access to resources for those who continue to live in poverty on the Cape Flats in areas apartheid relegated to coloured and African people.

They talk about how those continuing to live in these inhospitable outskirts of the city are most likely to remain, given Cape Town’s exorbitantly high property rates.

They talk about iron shacks, and crowded tiny brick houses, and lack of water and lack of electricity; of inferior education. 

They talk with concern about what they see as a the lack of political will to forge change, so that for too many what they had marched for, what people by their thousands had died for is still in the realm of dreams.

I listen and I find I am listening as an outsider.

I know, and knew, that the South Africa I would return to, would be a complicated and often distressing place. 

I am listening to a story that is not directly mine. Not yet. Without living here, without being engaged is specific aspects of working for change, can I, I wonder,  I regard South Africa as home?

But ‘home’, I know is a fluid and often mercurial concept.  It can be attached to more than one place and space.  But this is for a future blog.

Meanwhile, I am moved by the history of struggle in South Africa, inspired by the tenacity of those who lived through it and won.  I am moved in a way that is only possible because I was born here.  And because growing up in Cape Town and South Africa defined who I would then become.  I was raised and socialized here so that what I now see and recognize became as intrinsic to me as any part of my genetic makeup.  

And I cannot give it up or give up on it.

But as I said, this is for a future blog, as I continue to mull over the meaning for me of the triumvirate of words: exile, nostalgia, home.


Eric Miller is one of the most widely published and experienced photojournalists working in South Africa who documented the anti-apartheid struggle and continues to document the process of transformation in South Africa. 

http://www.eric.co.za/

Cape Town March 2, 2011

2011 Missing the South African Low-Veld, and Eve and Tony Hall: Matumi Reflections

I think of Matumi.  

I feel at odds, wrenched out of place, because Matumi is, for me, no longer. Because Matumi was more than a place.  It was the home of Eve and Tony Hall.  

From Matumi the continent spreads out in spiral formations and it felt right. I knew I was in Africa.

A tradition was established during my visits “home” / my "coming back".  It went like this:

I arrive at Johannesburg airport.  Alan or Pippa meets me and takes me to their house in Pretoria. I see Mathew again: “My how you have grown”, I think but refrain from saying.  I begin to unwind, to disconnect from America.  We catch up.  I sleep.  We walk the dogs up the mountain. If the weather is right, I swim.  Slowly, slowly I am drawn back in.  I relax my shoulders, take a deep breath of Gauteng air and say to myself “I’m here”.  I enjoy the glow that comes with reconnecting with good friends, friends for close to 30 years.  

Then I head for Matumi.

Matumi is a little piece of paradise.  It is on a nature reserve in Mpumulanga Province.  You turn off the N4 before reaching Nelspruit, drive less than a mile, see the sign “Matumi” on your left and turn up a dirt driveway, past dense intertwined bush and low trees aware that baboons are most probably watching you.  Perched on an escarpment which drops away on one side, below a mountain on the other, is the beautiful house.  It has high ceilings, and views, a large open plan that melds with the surroundings.  It is usually winter or autumn, hot enough to swim during the day, cold enough to light the fire in the living room area as soon as the sun goes down or to sit outside in front of a fire overlooking a long view, wrapped in shawls.

View of the nature reserve from the garden  (photo:  Phil Hall)

A small table and chair set outside a little patio beyond the French doors of ‘my’ room await me.  Here I perch my laptop and write away the days and drink in the view, the flowering trees, the rolling hills.  There were the breakfasts (ah, those paw paws), sometimes on the weathered table looking over the plateau, or in the nook outside the kitchen when it was too hot or too cold. For lunch Tony would gather this and that until a veritable feast would be waiting.  We would linger over the dinners which I often prepared, trying during later visits, to find something that would appeal to Eve, a task which became more and more challenging as time went by. 

At Matumi I began to take the first tentative steps towards working on the memoir I am writing. Eve and Tony egged me on as I falteringly began to describe what I was thinking of doing, as I shared some initial drafts so that I began to believe I had a story to tell.

One of my writing spots 

The low-veld, as that region of South Africa is referred to, began to resonate with a sense of being home.  More so than my visits to Cape Town.  “Cape Town is not South Africa”.  I would hear this a lot.  I would think it myself despite the fact that Africa is a vast, diverse continent, far more diverse than the countries of Europe.  So why is Cape Town not Africa?  But this is for later musings.  

What it meant  to me was that at Matumi  I felt connected with the Africa – east, southern - where I have spent so much time in since I emigrated to the United States in 1967.  With my feet on the lowveld soil, with its pungent smells that rise up from the earth and join those of the African foliage, with its sounds from birds to baboons, I knew that the continent stretched from where I stood all the way up the east coast of Africa – Mozambique, Kenya, and beyond.  I felt connected.

 

I first insinuated myself into the Hall family – Eve, Tony, 12-year-old Phil and ten-year old Andy and Chris -  in Nairobi in 1973.  

I had just arrived from Addis on a trip I felt compelled to make after being in the US for six years.  I had become increasingly consumed with the notion that I get to know at least some of the vast continent I was born on.  All I seemed to imbibe from my Apartheid education was a view of Africa as a vast stretch of continent, a virtually empty space between South Africa and the UK.  As I got more involved in the US anti-apartheid and solidarity movements, as I devoured book after banned book about Africa and African independence in the 60’s,  I felt a magnetic pull.     

And so, in February 1973 carrying a large blue backpack I disembarked in Cairo and worked my way down to Dar es Salaam for six months.   In my wallet was  a white covered US State Department  travel document, a letter signed by Oliver Tambo attesting to my being a “good” South African, and a list of contacts from friends.  Among them was the telephone number of the Halls. I called them the day after I arrived in Nairobi. “Come for tea!”   I did.  I stayed six weeks.

Eve already a feminist was isolated from the tangible excitement of the women’s movement in the US, and the way women connected, the new sisterhood.  We gravitated towards each other immediately, and our conversations– about the women’s liberation in the US (me) and about the realities of women in the anti-apartheid struggle in Africa (she) went on late into the night.

Eve and Me - 1983-ish

Within six months after returning to the US, I was back in Nairobi.  It was February 1974.  We were planning a book together on the role of women in the liberation struggle against Portuguese colonialism and travelled via Nairobi to discuss it.  I had an invitation to visit the liberated zones of Guinea-Bissau as the war continued.  Eve was waiting for confirmation of a trip to liberated areas of Mozambique.  

For three weeks in Nairobi I walked and climbed and ran, a get fit regimen for the eight hour per day marches ahead of me.

Photo I took of Eve and To in the Ngong Hills, 1974

Ready for Guinea-Bissau! Photo To took of me - Rift Valley in the background

In the end I wrote a book.  But without Eve and only on Guinea-Bissau.  (Fighting Two Colonialisms: Women in Guinea-Bissau, 1979) By the time permission would have been granted to Eve, the anti-colonial struggles had been won.  

Clustered with PAIGC militants around a small, battered short-wave radio to listen as we did each evening to the news from Portugal, we heard on April 25th 1974, that a coup had toppled the fascist government of Caetano.  Within just over a year, flags would be raised over the newly independent nations of Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola.

It was sometime in 1999 or 2000 when I received news from Eve that she had Stage III breast cancer.  Her email with its usual humor and cheeriness, upset me terribly.  I am a breast cancer survivor myself but her outlook did not match mine.  She was cautioned that she had perhaps five years to live.  She lived over seven.  She refused to relinquish her tough hide, her  feisty self.  Every remission was a triumph.  Every recurrence a challenge.

Eve at Matumi, 2007 (Photo: Phil Hall)

Tony at Matumi, 2007   (Photo: Phil Hall)

 

I visited Matumi for the last time in March 2007. 

Eve died in November.

Then without warning Tony died in his sleep from a heart attack at Matumi the following February.

My current visit to south Africa is the second since their deaths.  The reminder that they are not here is sharp and painful.  It is not about nostalgia.  It is about sheer and sad missing. It’s about loss.   

And so, with no side trip to Matumi, no opportunity to work on my now near-completed book in the beauty of Matumi and the comfort of my departed friends,  I head tomorrow for that “this-is-not-Africa” beautiful city of Cape Town.  

And begin my trip in earnest.

Tuesday, Feb 15, 2011

2011 'Home' yet?

Hanaa emails:  Does it feel like ‘home’ yet?
No, not yet.
I am Pretoria.  I have not yet got to Cape Town.  That’s for  Wednesday next week (February 16th). 
And I am still working on what is  ‘home’ to me, a subject of another blog.
But inching closer....
Are you Australian? Asks the petrol attendant -- after I have stopped to buy petrol for the red Ford Focus I have generously been lent;  after I have accelerated wildly into the petrol station which is suddenly there, through the exit lane so my car is facing the wrong way;  after I have been unable to locate the lever to release the petrol cap; after he points out he needs the car key to open it;  after I have been unable to find the lever to release the hood which he points out... yes.. the car key; after he fills the tank and hands me the credit card slip to sign.  I smile and say, no I was born here (I thicken my South Africa accent which sounds fake because I cannot remember what my South African accent was). I have been living in New York.  He smiles back at me and I hand him the six rand that have been clutched in my sweaty palm – it’s a hot day – waiting to be dispensed as a tip which I only remember to dispense when he politely stays next to the car.  I drive off, this time through the exit.
²
I  am, I guess, grateful that he didn’t think I am American. 
Australia is closer.

I go to the Pick n Pay supermarket.  I walk through the aisles. Matabela. Curry powders. Masala. Marmite. Provita. Biltong. Mrs. Balls Chutney, Tinned youngberries. Cape style multi-grain bread. Koo apricot jam. Lunchbars. Crunchies. Lemon creams. Ginger biscuits.  Rooibos. Shelves and shelves of South African wine.  I add biltong to my cart.  And Provita. And as a greedy afterthought, a Lunchbar. 
I am barely out of the store before I rip open the plastic package of biltong and stop to savor the sliced dried game meat.  The flavor is warm and fills the mouth.  I have to chew hard but it only increases the flavor.  Later I eat a Lunchbar and close my eyes to the mix of chocolate and nuts and caramel.  Sigh.  Delicious. 
When I get back to my friends’ house I fight with the package of Provita to release the 1 ½” by 3” whole wheat crackers and spread butter, then Marmite.  I always have Marmite in my kitchen in New Jersey, but it’s not as mellow as the south African variety, and certainly never with Provita.  The combined flavors crunch in my mouth.  I eat two more. Aaah. 
Yes, I am inching closer.
I add Rajah Hot Curry Powder to the onions I am browning for the evening meal of prawn coconut curry: Whoosh! Its pungent aroma blasts out of the pan and travels deep into my nostrils and startles to the memory part of my brain.  I breath it in again, and again.
I sit on the veranda with my computer. Leitmotif of incessantly cooing doves, so that it is fixed in my head like a recurring tune.  Twittering of small birds.  Cawing of large, charcoal crows.
The air soft, the sky high and light blue, above the forever clumpy cumulus clouds.  
Rebecca and Anna, the domestic staff who come a few times a week to clean and iron seem genuinely pleased to see me.  Anna chatters to me in Afrikaans which I can more or less follow except when she talks very fast. She refers to John as “Oupa”! (Grandpa).  I manage to dredge my memory for appropriate words while she helpfully fills in the blanks.
I quickly adapt to driving on the left side of the road and the right side of the car.  I chant my mantra.  “Driver in the middle.  Driver in the middle.”  And when ready to turn it’s “Tight Left” or “Far Right”, and not once do I make a mistake until I am once again driving without having to think about it.
Slowly familiarity is seeping in.
UNTIL....
Alan and I walk the dogs.  Three.  Two German Shepherds, Dusty and Rex who greet me as if they remember me from my previous visits while barking furiously. Which they do a lot.  I take it as a welcome.  I know them and their barking ways.  I wait for them to calm so I can greet them with fond strokes and head pats and ear scratches.  Mojo the two-year old Golden is new.  He is easy to adore.  We walk past the houses which have high fences, walls topped by electrified thin wire, signs that declare “Armed Response”.  As we near each house a cacophony of sound erupts and dogs of all sizes but mostly large and fierce looking, rush to the fence in a whirl of frenzied barking.  I have no doubt if given the chance they would tear me limb from limb.  They continue to bark as we pass, then fade as the dogs ahead pick up their fury.
And oh yes, I also found avocados imported from Spain.  One step back.  It’s not avo season which is winter.
A friend tells me she is having trouble sleeping.   Have you tried sleeping pills? I offer helpfully, thinking I can give her some of the ones I brought to aid getting over jetlag.  “No, I can’t.  I need to be able to wake up alert in the middle of the night if....” and she trails off her incomplete but very clear sentence.
I drive to Joburg.  On the other side of the road there is a bad accident.  The cars stretch for miles behind it.  On my side, the traffic has not slowed down one even by one km/hr.  People are so used to accidents that there is no rubbernecking.  Except for me, although I make sure I don’t slow down.
Someone I knew as a teenager is mourning a friend who surprised a burglar and was killed.  I find myself indulging in a strange math.  The number of friends who experienced direct violence: a riend being tied up in her bathroom which her house was removed of all valuables; a friend who thought she heard something at night but ignored it, only that her living room had been emptied of all electronic equipment.  Luckily they were not disturbed enough to investigate.  The friend who’s brother was killed in a carjacking.  The friend who’s father  was killed.  If they themselves didn’t experience violence, they can relate terrible stories, more than one, of friends who were stabbed in bed, held up, robbed blind, murdered.  Just one degree of separation.  True for everyone I meet.  The lists of both go on and on, and will be added to weekly if not daily.
Don’t drive alone at night, I am cautioned.
Don’t leave your handbag on the seat next to you, I am cautioned.
If you do drive at night, don’t stop at red traffic lights, don’t even slow down unless you have to.
In disassembling the notion of ‘home”, nostalgia demands a space.  What is nostalgia?  A longing that defies  sense?  One that plays havoc with smells, and sounds and tastes that are hard wired into one’s brain, and then tantalizes the selective memory.  Nostalgia for the past in South Africa?  It goes far beyond smells and sounds and tastes.  Can it be divorced from the memories that come with a deeper, harsher more overriding reality: apartheid?
²
Hanaa, you will have to wait for an answer. 
Other than, I am getting there. 
Other than, I am so content, so looking forward to being in South Africa and Cape Town for the next three months that life at this moment feels sweet. 
I am trying my best to hang onto to this.

2011 Thinking about "Home"

I am sitting in a Maputo cafe with a South African friend.  The metal table rocks away and towards us as we lower a cup, lean on an elbow, take a sip of water from a clouded glass. 

We are chatting about, obsessing about, fantacizing about South Africa.  We do this very well.  And often.  It is mid-80's. Perhaps 1984?  The end of apartheid is still a dream unfulfilled.  He is a member of the ANC. I am not.  But our nostalgia for South Africa is woven through our many conversations that range from the personal to the political and back again, often with little distinction between the two.  It is getting late.  I need to get back to where I am staying at the apartment of my Canadian friend, Judith.

"I need to be getting home", I say, as a waiter comes over to clear our coffee cups.  I rise from the rickety chair in the cafe that is showing its wear.

"Define your terms, Comrade", he says.

It is January 2011 and I am still trying to define the term "home".