Sunday, May 11, 2014

To the Lighthouse

There's no doubt about it: I've been spoiled for South African travel of late, with trips to both the north west border *and* the furthest south, within a short month.  Amelia of Mahindra fame, the soon-to-be-doctor, also known in the Indian way as Amelia Madam, met me at Cape Town airport sporting her new "practical crop", as she calls it.  After a night at the international student medics' residence at Tygerberg Hospital, we meandered east along the beautiful coast to L'Agulhas, named from the Portuguese, the 'Cape of Needles' so feared by seafarers.

After a sunset wander around the famous lighthouse, we went for dinner in the Struisbaai harbour. Here we negotiated with the wind and attempts by a group of red-faced bikers to pick us up (but of course! -- any women unaccompanied by men must be there for the taking!)  Later we found our way down the long dark gravel road to Rhenosterkop, on which we met a better match - a regal spotted eagle owl. It graced us for some time on the road in the glare of our headlights, at one point bobbing its head at its own shadow.

Rhenosterkop is an old settler farm dating to the 18th century which has been bought and renovated by SAN Parks. In 1979, the apartheid government made the farm a national monument, though it's easy to miss the plaque. It is a set of dwellings that would have (and perhaps still does) engendered pride in those for whom the ideology of the robust pioneer spirit was so important.  The original homes were made only of local materials and timber salvaged from shipwrecks, of which this coastline boasts many.  

It must have been a hell of a lonely and challenging existence.  A bit of online research tells me that our cottage (Number 2) was a shepherd's house dating to circa 1930s. When this particular shepherd was a child, apparently he tried to fly by attaching flamingo feathers to his arms and jumping out of a tree. He was crippled for the rest of his life and was called Jan Mankie. Today the cottage is quiet, comfy and very cosy, even as the the hard edge of winter draws in -- and fully equipped for disabled access, which I'm sure Jan Mankie would have approved of.

We hiked for several hours through the limestone fynbos. The park is a shelter for all sorts of endangered plants, frequented by shiny sunbirds. Over 100 fynbos species are found only in this area, and 29 of them are rare or threatened.  The Lemon Buchu is amongst the latter, in its last remaining substantial habitat; it is almost fluorescent green, leaping out against the lavenders and greys of the two oceans that meet in the distance.  Amelia Madam is not accustomed to looking out for snakes on the streets of London, so good thing she had me around to spot the Skaapsteker (Psammophylax rhombeatus, allegedly of a 'gentle disposition'), as well as a large, vibrant and much more poisonous puff adder.  

 Back at the harbour, we consumed seafood platters with voluminous quantities of batter and sauce, whilst watching the returning fishermen and billowing stingrays hovering in the shallow waters.  We bought an icecream from two ladies who sell sweets to holidaying children in a blue van from a bygone era.  Struisbaai has the longest natural beach in the southern hemisphere, a total of fourteen kilometers.  We only caught a small corner of it, together with a scarlet sunset.

This southernmost tip of Africa has long been a global corner.  Ships and voyagers have died all along this coast since the 17th century, a time when elephants used to roam these parts too. The ships were from Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Britain, on their voyages to and from the east.   Amongst the vast array of finds displayed in Bredasdorp's Shipwreck Museum, sandwiched amongst some silver cutlery and Indian coins, is a small and patient Buddha which receives no mention by the curators.  A long journey it made, and we debated its possible origins.

We stopped in neighbouring towns. In Napier we found some ex-Rhodesians from Bulawayo on the side of the road selling stamps and honey. Their now-grown children weren't interested in stamps, they said. I seized an incongruous postcolonial opportunity to buy a first day cover (dated 1982, during the bad old days of South Africa's 'homelands') featuring black boy scouts in the Transkei. Whatever next! A few doors down, we met an eccentric purveyor of pewter chessmen and collector of militaria. His bunker-esque basement holds everything from Queen Mary and Jan Smuts to the SADF and the Third Reich. I wondered what Amelia Madam made of his multiple references to the British royals.

Our next much-awaited destination was Arniston, named after the British East India ship which ran aground on the 3rd May 1815, bizarrely exactly 199 years ago to the day on which we arrived. The entire fishing village, with its atmospheric whitewashed fishermen's cottages is a heritage site, known interchangeably as Kassiesbaai and Waenhuiskrans.  

I found our accommodation on Gumtree, and our hostess B. was at first perplexed that we were whites who wanted to stay in "the coloured aria".  She must have repeated this phrase at least 3 times the first time we spoke, and must have been even more perplexed when this made me laugh out loud.  After several preliminary phonecalls, B. met us on the side of the road in her green Corsa before we followed her into the newer part of the small and slightly shabby 'township'.  Her great-grandfather was a Khoi man who married a white woman, and her grandfather was the first man to own a fishing boat in Arniston.  Notable features in her house include the only picture on the wall - a black-and-white photograph of the village at a time when it was populated by only the coloured community, a statement of identity and belonging.  And an innovate soap dish in the shower made from a Flora margarine tub with crafted drainage holes, nailed to the wall.

After a brief but glorious early morning swim on 'the coloured beach', we drove inland to Franschhoek through canvases of hills and valleys which made me realise that artist Pierneef's landscapes are not stereotyped but entirely accurate in both detail and spirit. Lest we romanticise too much, though, (another famous artist) Kentridge has pointed out that the nationalist work of early white landscape painters such as Pierneef "emerged only after "puffs of gunsmoke" had silenced debate over who controlled the land"(*full article here).

Monday, April 28, 2014

Water, Stone & Metal: The Orange River

To find peace, one must travel down a river with strangers, almost to where the river meets the sea.  It sounds like a mythical edict, a rite of passage.  And so it was.  The story starts some 15 hours drive from Johannesburg.  In the far north west of South Africa, on the lowest seam of the Namib desert, the Orange/Gariep River has already gathered together all its known waters from across this troubled country. Blended into a slightly muddy cocktail, the powerful stream winds its final 300 kilometres through ribbons of ancient purple hills that smell and sound of metal.  It is expeditiously rinsed and cleansed by reedbanks and sands along the way, and at its confluence with Namibia's famous Fish River, its temperature drops from tropical to fresh.  Most unusually for this region, there are no crocodiles - and by c.1925 the last hippo were shot out by our settler forebears.  

We were a funny group. Three professors of the social sciences (a considerable bias towards anthropology and sociology), a web developer with a snowboarding qualification, and the many-hats me.  We are all tied together, one way or another, by Namibia.  During the journey we uncovered multiple other intersections in our pasts and kin, despite geographic and generational differences: among others, the fall of Tobruk during WWII, the Zimbabwean bush war, southern African Jewish intellectual networks, and those anthropological darlings, the San.

The interesting thing about travelling with strangers is sometimes, of course, what you find out about them afterwards. The Professor of Fewest Words, for example, turns out not only to have published multiple novels and poetry collections, but to be the captain of the Namibian spear-fishing team, along with national colours for horse racing.  I kid you not. Our guide was unexpectedly a former dancer, nimble on his feet, with the energy of a thousand dragons and an infectious passion for his work.  The culinary high point was seeing him produce a gluten-free chocolate cake in a cast-iron bakepot on the fire, on the beach-like sandbank.  His best friend is an Australian cattle dog (the only other female on the trip) who travelled as the figurehead on his kayak the entire way, metre-high rapid waves and all. 

It was full moon on our second day. We departed the vast grape farms of Aussenkehr as dark fell, and paddled as the moon rose - so tremendously bright that the other river-goers were completely illuminated, as if in the path of a spotlight.  Some time later we docked in the stickiest of mud, up to mid-calf.  Bathing in the warm and earthy Orange under the light of the moon before snuggling into one's sleeping bag under the stars is the stuff of make-believe and she-wolves.  At dawn the moon was still luminous, crisp and high. It surprises me that the sun and the moon can appear in one vista, separated by so little sky.

I confess to a revitalised romance with nature: the extreme beauty of the early mornings (somewhat interrupted by having to break camp and load the kayaks each day), the deep quiet of the nights and, especially in the latter part, the liberating sensation of desolation.  Slicing the water repeatedly with the paddle, feeling the ache of the shoulders, taking in new panoramas minute by minute, anticipating the next rapids with a shot of adrenalin -- all of this helps to focus and free the mind.  The routine of camp soon becomes clear: to find a place to sleep, to set one's tent if one wants, to sort out one's belongings from the wetness of the day, to consider the best time to swim after taking on the dust of the shore. Just the right amount of brain activity.

After weaving 220 kilometres among the jagged charcoal, rust and pinkish hills, we reached Sendelingsdrift border post.  Beyond this point, river and land access is tightly restricted thanks to powerful mining interests, for these alluvial soils are rich in the stones that 'are forever'. Further inland, we saw the remnants of other prospectors who have already tried and failed.  Driving back to base camp on the Namibian side, but for a few strokes of green, one wouldn't know that a mighty river carves its way through this dramatically rugged and apparently inhospitable landscape.

The waters of the Orange have drawn enthusiasts for millenia.  Near our base camp close to Vioolsdrift, there are ancient petroglyphs, or engravings, carved into the black dolomite by southern Africa's earliest inhabitants.

They reportedly date to around 2500 years old, though some suggest they are even older. Interviews with /Xam San informants by Bleek and Lloyd in the 1870s suggest that engravings enhanced the legendary and ritual significance of particular places in the landscape. And near those too are the farms and often unnamed graves of hardy Afrikaner settlers, many those of children.  This land is a curious mix of bountiful and unforgiving.  

* With thanks to my fellow travellers for some of the photos here.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Rwanda: Just South of the Mountains of the Moon

As it turned out, our landing in Africa’s most populous country was perfectly smooth.  The young driver was already waiting, arranged by warzone specialist friend Connie, who has a whole network of transport contacts on the DRC-Rwanda border, overseen by a taxi-lord called Bienvenue.  Despite looking barely out of his teens, and despite sitting the furthest possible distance away from his steering wheel, he was a safe and charming chauffeur, and we got along more or less fine with a mix of broken French-English.

Nothing like having your first stop being a genocide museum.  But so it was.  My bags received the most rigorous and intimate inspection at the entrance - almost as if to say, 'do you realise the weight of what you have come to see, and can we trust you, or anyone else, in this world of ours?'.  It’s hard to do any of it justice – the extremely complex history behind the genocide, the immense scale of the killings which took as many as a million lives in a hundred days, and the extreme and almost inexplicable tragedy.  The graves in the memorial gardens hold the remains of over 250,000 individuals, and new remains are still added on a regular basis, as they are uncovered, close to twenty years after the genocide took place.   I spent a long, shocking, time there. 

David Mugiranezi
Age: 10
Favorite sport: Football
Enjoyed: Making people laugh
Dream: Becoming a doctor
Last Words: "Mama, UNAMIR will come for us"
Cause of Death: Tortured to death

Aurore Kirezi
Age: 2
Favourite drink: Cow's milk
Favourite game: Hide and seek games with her big brother
Behaviour: Very talkative
Cause of Death: Burnt alive at the Gikondo Chapel

"When I am at the market, in the midst of a large crowd, I always think I might just find my brothers"
Rose, 10

 Despite some academic and historical knowledge of conflict in the Great Lakes region, this visit raised so many questions for me, including about how a society can possible recover from such a devastating trauma.  How does one even broach the topic with locals? In the days to follow, I saw memorial signs all over the countryside. The visitors at the museum were incredibly attentive – most appeared to be from other African countries, as well as some Rwandans.  There is also, of course, the question of how history is constructed in particular ways.  The museum narrative posits that Rwanda was harmoniously united and at peace prior to Belgian colonization and the spread of Christianity – an hypothesis which seems deceptively simplistic, and accredits too much agency to the colonial powers in shaping ethnic difference. 

 As we departed Kigali, the heavy torrential rain began, and stayed with us all the way to Musanze and beyond.  The country is spotlessly clean – one of the markers, perhaps, of Kagame’s authoritarian and disciplinarian leadership.  We reached Kinigi, at the foot of the extinct Sibyinyo volcano,  and on the edge of the national park, in the late afternoon.  The guesthouse was perfect – simple  and no frill, but clean, tidy and spacious, with great service from the manager on duty.  The rain subsided briefly before continuing at full force for another 4 hours!  Connie arrived from Goma after dark, with one of the taxi-lord’s minions, under a sizeable umbrella.  We caught up over some chewy chicken and rice with a glorious groundnut sauce. 

Connie moved from Afghanistan to Goma about a year ago. There, just across the border, which is about an hour and a half’s drive away, the M23 rebels surrendered just three weeks ago, in the wake of a rare offensive by the UN and government forces .  There is substantial evidence for Rwandan government support for the M23, reportedly comprised of mostly Tutsi, who had amassed some $2m worth of equipment and arms, allegedly to counter Hutu extremists who fled Rwanda after the genocide.  General Bosco Ntaganda, a warlord involved with multiple militia groups and mining interests over the past decade, including the M23, handed himself over to the International Criminal Court earlier this year.  He apparently drove to the US Embassy in Kigali under the cover of a baseball cap, and no doubt received a cold shoulder when he tried to get an unscheduled appointment with the Ambassador – until they realized who he was. He will face multiple charges of war crimes at the ICC, including mass rape, murder, torture and the forced conscription of child soldiers.  Other armed groups remain at large, and as FA reports, "their alliances, leadership structures and even names keep shifting". 

In other news, Goma’s appeal is much increased once you subtract the M23's shelling activities:  not only is Lake Kivu idyllic, but Connie has a local mani-pedi guy called Vanilla.  But, back to Rwanda. In the rainy season, you need to get everything, or almost everything, done before about 1pm.  The very early morning was breathtaking, with cool and dewy views over clear fields and misty mountains on the horizon.  The park HQ was just a few hundred metres away, and despite being low season, there were already multiple groups of tourists gathering for hiking and silverback gorilla trips.   All of the options are very expensive, and the Rwandan parks authority must generate a tremendous income each year.  There is a community conservation scheme in action too, which channels some funds and employment to the heavily populated areas immediately adjacent to the park. 

 We spent several hours in the capable hands of our guide Placide (you can’t beat the names in this place, right?!) tiptoeing along very muddy paths into the tall bamboo highland forests which are home not only to the gorillas, whose populations are recovering beautifully, but also to the endangered Golden Monkeys.  Encroached upon by dense human populations, deforestation and armed conflict, their diminishing habitat seems to be their largest threat.

These creatures are all about fresh bamboo shoots.  They break and munch, break and munch, jump, break and munch, jump, jump, munch and so it goes on.  This time of year, the juiciest shoots are up at the canopy level, so it’s quite hard to get a good view of the monkeys, but we were lucky to have them come down to ground level after about an hour.  Due to the frequent visitors, they are habituated to humans and very relaxed.   We spent a fantastic hour or so observing a group of about 20.  

After some mint tea at a nearby lodge, Connie and I went in search of two mini-lakes and a tea plantation, between Musanze and Gisenyi.  We didn’t achieve much but we did get a good walk and gather a substantial group of excited children who seemed dead set on following us around no matter how far we continued.  To get home we hopped in a minibus taxi with a church group in full song, though sadly most of them disembarked not long afterwards.  Once back in Musanze we braved the local motorbike-taxis for the 8km trip back to the guesthouse.

Sunday brought an extended rural excursion (some would call it ‘getting lost’) to the twin lakes of Ruhondo and Burera, along never-ending and windy dirt roads through dozens of beautiful hills and valleys, all the sides heavily planted and terraced.  It’s difficult to imagine what the indigenous vegetation looked like, before the arrival of exotics and before rapid population growth that has necessitated extensive subsistence farming.  Anxious to please, both our driver (yes, yet another of the taxi-lord Bienvenue’s crew) and all the local peasants took the approach of affirming at all times that we were on the correct road(s), despite not having a clue.

Four hours later, we did eventually make it back to the main road, having survived 4x4 terrain in a sedan, and after taking on board some advice (and a passenger) from a pedestrian whose jacket was appropriately labelled ‘Operation Joint Endeavour’.  We stopped for an enormous grilled potato on the side of the road, and I bought a kilogram of delicious fresh peas to take back to Jo’burg. Connie hopped in a cab heading for Goma with two guys who turned out to be UN Afghans (of course).   And I ventured back to Johannesburg with the peas.  I can strongly recommend my new recipe with mint and orange.

Uganda Tea Bags and Kampala’s Lord Mayor

 Entebbe airport, unlike Johannesburg, has free WiFi.  And the speeds are good - at least when the waiting lounge is empty.   When my flight is delayed, I realize that there is no information desk (at all) in departures, but for a Googler that’s minor compared to WiFi. 

The airport, fresh from the ‘80s,  houses multiple small duty free shops, all of which stock exactly the same produce, but - wait for it - at different prices.  So for exactly the same Uganda Tea Bags you could either pay $4 or $6, or any other price within a $3 dollar range.  Unique market forces at play, clearly, and more physical exercise for the more discerning customer who is willing to walk from store to store to find the best deal.  No names mentioned.

I am supposed to be flying Air Uganda, but on arrival they insist that I check in at Rwandair.  Ok, mix’n’match.  Then, having been informed a week earlier that my Air Uganda flight was going to be pushed forward, they then announce that the Rwandair flight will be delayed.    “Ten to Five”, they say over the intercom, “Ten to Five”.  The prospect of another 8 hours at the airport is far from thrilling, but about half an hour later I realize that they mean “Ten Two Five, Ten Two Five”,  as in Ten Twenty Five, which is thankfully only an hour or so away.

In other airport observations, the Rotary Club of Entebbe has a long line of see-through charity donation boxes against a wall.  Rotary Clubs, whilst American in origin, are always the dead giveaway of a British postcolony, and seem to be one of the longest lasting postcolonial institutions (possibly with the most elderly members too).  Meanwhile a military aircraft with a US flag on its tail has just landed on the runway overlooking Lake Victoria.  A group of UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh are waiting inside, all crisply kitted out.  Entebbe is the hub for all peacekeeper movement in and out of the troubled eastern DRC.

Back in Kampala, the city’s Lord Mayor, who is a major opposition figure to President Museveni, was arrested a few days ago, apparently for no good reason, and yesterday there was a strong police presence outside the city court house, where I saw an insignificant crowd gathering to jubilate or protest, depending on the outcome.  Last night the mayor was acquitted, but by 6am this morning when my driver collected me, he had been re-arrested.   Indeed, familiar themes from another country to the south: the utility of harassment and the instrumentalization of disorder.

Said driver, who talks non-stop about local politics all the way the airport, despite the early hour and despite having had only about 4 hours sleep, tells me that there are laws around public gatherings, and that any planned gathering greater than three or four needs to be reported to the police in advance.

The city reminds me of Harare – albeit with an extra dose of jungle, traffic congestion, pollution and homophobia.   There are rather a lot of laidback police and security guards around, wielding AKs, sometimes whilst lying on the grass.  Yet people are relaxed and it’s far safer than somewhere like Johannesburg, despite the increased building security checks following the Westgate terrorist attack in Kenya. 
Eventually I board a two-prop 30-seater Rwandair plane, welcomed by possibly the most articulate, pleasant and polite steward I’ve seen in the past two years of international travel. And he warns us sincerely that our descent to Kigali, during the height of the tropical rainy season, is likely to be a bit nerve wracking. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sandton Expedition, Empire Exhibition: The San come to Sandton c.2013

“Let us not feel that they are being unduly revealed to the public gaze for purpose of private gain.  Let us rather feel as they feel, that they are working for a home, a land, and for the perpetuation of their race.”  Donald Bain, Bushman Exhibitor, Empire Exhibition speech, Johannesburg 1936 (R. Gordon 1999:270)

To start with, there was something about the publicity that seemed odd. “Kalahari Odyssey”, it shouted.  No, not a safari trip but “fifteen members of the [San/Bushman] Kruiper family join [eco-adventurer Patricia] Glyn to recount [an] unforgettable journey”.  And to be held in a church in central Sandton, to boot.  Fifteen #Khomani San from the Kgalagadi in Sandton? Tickets being sold online via Computicket? Most academics or anthropologists could only dream of having events popular enough to be sold on Computicket.  So what was all this about?

I went in search of deliciously problematic politics, and indeed found them.  When I pulled in at the very sizeable Rosebank Union Church, the carpark was already packed.  A Tuesday evening, mind you.  I had to scout around for a parking like a Khwe scouts for an increasingly rare mangetti tree in the Caprivi sandveld.   And there they were: scores of Johannesburg’s white middle classes, myself now included, swaddled in jackets and coats, filling the entrance hall.  And there they were: a handful of small-statured ‘authentic’ Bushmen (the Kruipers’ preferred nomenclature apparently), manning several tables of jewellery and crafts, wearing only traditional skin loincloths at the start of a Highveld winter. Two of the loinclothed men were squatting next to an electric heater, almost oblivious to the crowds, whilst others held blankets to their shoulders. Already a provocative Twitter stream was going off in my head: “Exactly how is this going to be different from the Empire Exhibition of 1936?”

I don’t know the eco-adventurer Glyn, but understand she had a successful career in South African broadcast media.  Indeed, she is an excellent speaker, fluid, eloquent, evocative in her descriptions, and had an excellent slide deck with supporting visuals (notwithstanding the Springbok rugby ad footage from the early ‘90s, a la ‘Gods Must Be Crazy’, which is enough to make any anthropologist squirm uncomfortably in their seat for its exploitative stereotyping, but which made a good half of the audience laugh out loud).  Glyn talked us through her two months of luxury camping with the San/Bushman #Khomani leader Dawid Kruiper, at his behest.   We saw photographs of large water drums, tents, kitchen sinks and other such conveniences. Before his death, Kruiper wanted to return to places in the Kgalagadi that he had not visited in 50 years, together with his children and grandchildren, before his health failed him.  It seems to have been a reciprocal arrangement – in my interpretation, he got to take his family on an expenses-paid trip to significant places in their troubled history, whilst Glyn got to publish a new book and boost her personal brand with the ‘Bushman Mystique’.

Some of Glyn’s findings indeed contribute something new to our record and understanding of San history, notably the little-known Khomani role in bolstering Nama resistance against the Germans during South West Africa’s (Namibia’s) 1904-1908 wars, deep in the Kalahari desert.  Kruiper was even able to lead her to battle detritus and graves, powerful evidence of his intimate knowledge of landscape and oral history.  But more striking was Glyn’s lack of reflexivity about the politics of her engagement with this much-feted clan, and the romanticisation of a community actually full of internal strife. She walked us through the dispossession of the Kruiper ancestors from their land, recanted and criticized the European ‘voyeurism’ that led to the Bushman displays at the Empire Exhibition of 1936 (“shipped off like a circus act to perform”, she said), and again later at Kagga Kama in the Cedarberg, and one or two other farms where they constituted, and in some cases agreed to be, a sort of living zoo.  And yet how was this night in Sandton, just two weeks ago, any different?   

Glyn could easily have given her talk without the Kruipers’ presence. Their images filled the majority of photographs and film footage throughout the presentation anyway. She herself admitted that the Kruipers were the evening’s drawcard, “the people you’re really here to see”. As another attendee familiar with San affairs later commented, if Glyn felt that the Kruipers needed to be present, was it necessary for them to be clad in loin cloths, beads and skins, in the same way as they used to be presented for the gaze of the tourists and ‘voyeurs’ who visited Kagga Kama in search of ‘authenticity’? Did Glyn fall into the same trap as her predecessors - despite her awareness of these problematic identity politics – or was her approach deliberate, for the benefit of her listeners and ultimately herself? Or, did the Kruipers perhaps insist on attending? 

There were apparently some 600 in the audience that night.  I looked around and could count only 3 black people.  Later I saw a handful more.  I am fascinated by these demographics.  Why this absolute white fascination, this obsession, with the ‘authentic Bushman’?   For there are many other ethnic groups in South Africa that also have traditions and customs that are ‘exotic’ and/or ‘dying’.   Is it to do with connection to wilderness, that the urban white middle classes feel they have lost?  As Glyn puts it, “What we’ve lost and what we’re trying to relearn”?  Or is it simply part of how white southern Africans have substituted relationships with blacks, with relationships with ‘untouched’ landscapes, per the analysis of anthropologist David Hughes for the case of Zimbabwe?  And do whites project Bushmen/San to be part of that landscape, thanks to their alleged ‘primitivism’, thanks to being ‘harmless people’, per Elizabeth Marshall, in other words, no threat to white identity in post-apartheid South Africa?  Last but certainly not least, how did the Kruiper family see this rather extraordinary Sandton expedition working to their advantage?  For certainly they do not unknowingly engage in what some anthropologists call ‘strategic essentialism’. 

The metaphor for the entire evening was captured by Glyn’s adoption, on one of several visits to the Kgalagadi, of a neglected, suffering, malnourished, half-dead specimen of a dog, of which we were presented with several photographs as evidence.  Said dog was then magically and triumphantly brought out on stage, now collared and in pristine middle-class condition, along with the mostly-naked and in some cases bare-breasted Bushmen.  A pity President Zuma wasn’t present to share his take on this extraordinary conglomeration and the politics of pet-keeping.  Glyn has adopted the Kruipers as her cause, in the well-intentioned hope that she can boost their chances of survival in an era, now spanning over a century, that has arguably disenfranchised them more systematically than any other group on the continent.  The question is whether prolonging and promulgating an essentialist, romanticized depiction of San identity will help them survive. The Kruipers do not, of course, lack agency in all this.  Their elders are savvy enough to know that ‘authentic San’ sell.  They closeted away their (real) day clothes, their realities of alcoholism, violence and communal fractions, and made ready for a windfall.  And on this winter’s night in Sandton, they sold particularly well.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Pumpkin and Drankwinkels

Van Zylsrus is at the end of the road.  Well, at the end of two roads, to be precise.   Kind of like a one-block settlement at the end of two roads. “Relax in Van Zylsrus” pronounces the welcome sign.  The Van Zylsrus Hotel is tightly sandwiched between two drankwinkels (Afrikaans for bottle stores, which sounds to me even more like a hangover than babelaas). Unsurprisingly we are met by one of the local drunks on arrival, as well as a variety of dogs of indeterminate breed and ownership.  The hotel is clean and comfy, rooms with automated air-freshener clustered around some artsy courtyards and a pleasant leafy garden.  Afternoon rugby is about to begin, and the bar is filling up with local patrons and some meercat researchers.  There are not enough of them, though, to make much of a difference to a slow autumn Saturday.

Earlier in the day, we passed through a half-street village in the middle of nowhere called Askham, where the Afrikaans manager of the local co-op invited us in for a coffee, in amidst the paint, fertilizer and horse bridlery.  She loves it here: she glows, she is full of energy, she sees beauty in the stark camel-thorns and the endless dust.  She is supersize in body and spirit, joyful, unpretentious, and content with her lot in life.  She confirms (or reassures?) that there are thirty white people in the area, and that they see each other at church once a fortnight. She rattles off the list of annual parties and dances.  Oh, to be a fly-on-the-wall at the Askham Valentine’s Dance.  She almost drools with delight and anticipation telling us about the menu that we can expect at the Van Zylsrus Hotel, in particular the pumpkin which, I later find out, is so sugary and translucent with butter that it is virtually jam.   

I go running and think about all the strange places I’ve been running in the past year (like Bandra Bombay, Gairezi Zimbabwe and Tooting London). It is almost new moon and my uterus aches. I calculate that if I’d lived in Mary Moffat’s time, albeit not in the Kalahari, I might well have had 13 children by now, including allowance for some fallow years in between and perhaps a death or two.  

Gravel beneath my feet, and my shoes make shadows in the late light – like hobnail boots, like wagon wheels, like hobnail boots, like wagon wheels, round they go.  The road is much more uneven under one’s own feet than it is under car wheels, of course.  Like so many things in life, one’s perspective shifts with proximity.  Uneven, undulating, coarse, pushed here and there into little sand peaks, this road is harder to navigate with only my own body-fuel. It is so silent that I stop to listen under a huge void of cloudless sky. Thud of own heart, gravel crunch pause, at least four bird species at different distances. A horse trap passes me, driven by three young country boys, perched side by side.  The trap moves strangely quietly and when I next look over my shoulder it is gone without trace, like maybe it was imagined.  I am nearly back at Van Zylsrus as the sun sets.  Three 4x4s rush past and their dust envelopes the orange.

At dinner I sample the remarkable pumpkin dish whose reputation precedes it. We are the only diners.  There are red-checked tablecloths. The wide-ranging playlist brings us everything from Phantom of the Opera to Belinda Carlisle.  There is a substantial collection of kitsch Christian crosses on the wall above the piano.  We are fussed over by two pretty teenaged waitresses, who double-check every detail.  The food takes its time, as it does in out-of-the-way places.  The girls flutter in and out, doing god-knows-what.  The food finally arrives and it’s very tasty.  Even two delicious gluten-free vegetarian quiches (specially prepared ahead of my arrival – in fact they were already proffering them to me at lunchtime), piping hot, accompanied by green beans smothered in white sauce, and the syrupy pumpkin.  Think of it as a sort of vegetable extension of the koeksister family.  Just in case I didn’t have enough sugar, I round off the meal with a Dom Pedro, that favourite of southern African treats, Kahlua mixed with vanilla icecream in an alcoholic shake that tickles both the adult and child within.  As for which Dom (or was it Don?) Pedro inspired this drink - and when and where - that remains shrouded in mystery.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Salt, Sand and the Heart of the Matter

More on the 2500km road trip.  After Augrabies we headed north towards the Kgalakgadi transfrontier national park, into country with no phone reception and one other car.  To use one of Larry Page’s favourite expressions, this was ‘uncomfortably exciting’ for someone who’s now sadly conditioned to email-and-SMS-on-tap.  The park itself is busier, with visitors converging from all three countries (Namibia, Botswana and SA).  The more-trafficked part was frequented by older-generation white South African 4x4 roadtripper couples with over-equipped vehicles, if not trailers as well.  (Thinking back a few years, the same breed would sometimes show up at campsites in Caprivi with the entire contents of a large house.)

We carefully followed instructions to find our meeting point, cutting it fine in terms of timing, but with a few spare minutes to enjoy yet another rice cake with avocado.  P. knows all about the rice cakes by now.  Two San and Mier guides from !Xaus appeared in a Toyota and accompanied us into the desert wilderness.  In these parts mileage is measured in dunes rather than kilometres, making the lodge 90 dunes from Tweerivier and 34 dunes from Kamqua.   34 dunes is about an hour’s worth of travel.  P. did a fine job of tackling the road, since driving in thick sand is no easy feat.  Only once did our guide have to take the wheel to conquer the largest orange dune at high speed, after which he announced in his singsong accent: “There’s nothing-wrong with this Hilux of yours…”

Traversing the dunes is well worth the effort.  The lodge is spectacularly perched on the edge of a giant salt pan, a kilometer in diameter.  You don’t grasp the scale of it until you realize that the dot about two-thirds across is in fact a stately oryx.  The pan is almost perfectly round, but for a small dimple which makes it more like a heart, giving the place its name, !Xaus, which is also said to reflect the spirit of healing and dignity brought by the restoration of indigenous land rights.   

At the start of Brody’s documentary Aftermath, #Khomani leader Dawid Kruiper describes what happened on the day that the land claim was formally signed, suggesting that even nature recognizes justice:

“The day Mbeki came with the helicopter and black car…there [were] lovely loose clouds, here a cloud, there a cloud, and the clouds began to speak…When they speak there, then they speak here…and from the top a faint rain already came. When the rain began to fall hard, the helicopter rose.  Within two days there were pools of water between the dunes.  After 30 dry years, on that specific day, it rained.  Those years when we were forced out were sad.  Then the land was given back, signed for.  And those bad things they did to us, we forgave them. That is why the blessing of rains came that day.”

Nor was this rain was not shortlived.  According to other interviewees as well, it was plentiful and extensive.  #Khomani children who’d never seen more than small quantities of drinking water bathed in it for the first time – and white farmers’ houses near the river were in danger of flooding. No rain during our autumn visit, but water is drawn from below the surface of the giant pan.  On a more trivial note than justice, it’s so salty and mineral-rich that it made my skin look ten times better than Lancome could ever aspire to.  I even filled two bottles with this miracle tonic to bring home, in the hope that I could prolong the ‘spa effect’.

The politics of the land claim, of community and identity, are obscure during such a short visit.  It was difficult to get any real sense of what was going on. ‘Shifts’ of people come to the lodge to preside in a ‘traditional village’ where they make crafts to sell, mostly jewellery.   This construction of Bushman-ness made me feel awkward – admittedly I’m over-sensitive to the identity politics, but others would argue that it is no different than any other ‘tourist village’, and a viable socio-economic strategy.  Our San guide grew up speaking Afrikaans, reinforcing what filmmaker Brody has documented among the elders: that the #Khomani language N/u had been strategically ‘buried’ during the process of land dispossession and assimilation into farm labour, because, amongst other things, it was not in #Khomani interests to speak a language which would brand them as ‘lowly Bushmen’ rather than ‘coloureds’.  Brody’s films provide a rich set of testimonies which explore over a decade’s worth of highs and lows, from justice and joy, to community power struggles, financial mismanagement and alcoholism.

Thanks to its remoteness and shelter from light pollution, the lodge is soon to qualify as an official international ‘Dark Sky Place’.  At night, the stars are a tremendous scatter of white sand granules.  You can admire them through the telescope, if the telescope is not being slept on by the tame guinea fowl.  The red dunes nestle amazing biodiversity, including oryx, springbok, wildebeest, ostrich, jackal, tortoise, kori bustard birds, and 9 lions recently recaptured after they disappeared over the fence into neighbouring farmlands for some fine dining. 

The park sees an extreme temperature range: 47 degrees Celsius in summer and -10 in the winter.  On our second day, a wind picked up at lunchtime and blew tirelessly through the afternoon and most of the night.  By early next morning the temps had dropped to 6 degrees.  Outdoor winters on the sandveld are not for the fainthearted. There is little protection in this vast and open environment, so going to bed between four walls was a true luxury.   At last light, on return from our game drive, we catch a glimpse of the silhouette of a male lion not far from our room: a little jolt to remind us about the other custodians of territory round here.