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