In my days as a cub reporter, I wrote my fair share of giant courgette stories.
So I do pity the journalist who had to write this non-story.
Readers and writers alert! Or as my borrowed countryfolk would say, Achtung! Litopia – the very lovely, friendly, creative writers’ colony where I hang out – has just published the first edition of its online literary magazine Muse. It’s sharp, it’s sexy and you want to read it.
Meanwhile, I’ll be back soon with an actual post. With content. That is, words written in order, by me, with a point to them. And that’s a promise!
I first started working as a corporate journalist 15 years ago, at one of South Africa’s big mining houses. It was as hierarchical as a company could be, with levels and grades and people who had corner offices and important art and people who worked in cubicles, like me. As part of my job, I had to interact with the senior executives, some of whom were very pleasant and human, and others who were not. Every article I wrote had to be signed off by the relevant executive, so the coal guy signed off the coal articles, the diamond guy the diamond ones and the gold guy had his say on the gold articles.
Each article would be printed out and put, along with a polite note, into an inter-office memo envelope (yes, it was before email) and sent along to the person for checking. If I was up against deadline, I would run it along to their offices myself and plead with the secretary to get it through for me. If not, I posted and waited. The articles all came back, duly checked, with terse comments and, as per company style, the person’s initials. Very taut, very mining house, very 1990s.
This week I had an article back, via email, from a chief executive. It said, “I am happy with the article.” And then there was a smiley.
I’m not really a fan of the smiley or any kind of emoticon. I like words to convey how I am feeling. But that smiley, from that 21st century executive, was a good one.
And in mining house terms, it was practically a proposal of marriage.
I’ve just finished this book by prize-winning South African journalist Jonny Steinberg in less than a day, and I have to confess I’m stunned by its vision, intelligence and compassion. Marketed in South Africa as The Three-Letter Plague (a title I prefer), Sizwe’s Test is subtitled A Young Man’s Journey Through Africa’s AIDS Epidemic. What Steinberg does is to follow two people – spaza shop owner Sizwe Magadla and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doctor Hermann Reuter – during a two-year period in which the former tries to decide whether to test for AIDS or not, and the latter does his utmost to provide AIDS testing and treatment in Lusikisiki, one of South Africa’s poorest and most remote districts. What Steinberg does so well is to empathise with both men and the adversity that they face, so that, as a reader, I understood both Sizwe’s intricate cultural difficulties with acknowledging AIDS and Hermann’s Herculean challenge in ensuring adequate services for the poverty-stricken people of Lusikisiki.
A third character who Steinberg encounters during his visits to the area is self-appointed community health worker Kate Marrandi. Unlike the two men, Kate is not young. She is not rich like Sizwe (he runs a small shop out of his two-roomed house and is considering buying a car, which makes him a wealthy man in his village), nor highly-educated like Hermann, but she is singled-handedly getting the people of her village who are HIV-positive onto antiretrovirals (ARVs) and watching them come back to life. Kate’s success is due, much like Hermann’s, to the fact that she is an outsider. She is a Zulu, not Xhosa, and has stayed behind in Lusikisiki to serve the people after her devout husband has returned to KwaZulu-Natal to proselytize for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Sizwe, on the other hand, is not an outsider. He grew up in the village where he now lives. For him to take an HIV test and to live with the potential outcome of that would be a threat to everything he is: a self-made man, a father, a husband, a son. Throughout the book, Sizwe’s intelligence shines through. Steinberg says of him:
His interest in me was neither watchful nor suspicious; I had arrived from a world he knew little about, and he wanted to imagine the place I had come from. By the time we reached his parents’ homestead I liked him. He possessed a curiosity both rare and distinctive; one recognizes it the moment one sees it. It is the curiosity of a person who has no interest in confusing the boundaries between himself and others, who does not identify or envy too much.
Sizwe’s curiosity takes him along on Steinberg’s journeys through the district, sometimes as translator and sometimes as observer. His understanding of the function of ARVs grows and yet he remains reluctant to test. By testing and potentially being found HIV-positive, Sizwe will have to acknowledge his promiscuous past, he believes he would lose his business and not be able to support his family, and thus never be able to pay the bride-price for his lover Nwabisa and give their son his own name. While Sizwe understands intellectually that ARVs can keep the sick alive for many years, his culture provides an impediment to his taking the test.
Steinberg shows how Sizwe sits on the cusp between old and new: he sits between the peasant society his parents grew up in and the modern new world where technology can save lives, between poverty and relative comfort, between the traditional requirements of manhood and a new, more enlightened way. At one point, Nwabisa has to give up work to stay home and care for their child, and Sizwe agrees to pay her the salary she has lost, plus an extra 15%. This is a world where women are changing too. Steinberg describes a support group meeting for people on ARVs where women discuss loudly and in public the nature of female desire, complaining that they may not always have condoms to hand when they are in the mood.
Hermann Reuter’s challenge, on the other hand, is to entrench the services he designs so that when he and MSF pull out and hand over to provincial government, they will continue. His goal is to show that if you provide decent treatment, people will come and get it. His triumph does come: a few months after he leaves, the South African government decides that nurses can dispense ARVs, which means that people can receive their treatment in community clinics and not at far-flung hospitals. At the end of the book Steinberg says his goal was tell a story of AIDS treatment, and that there is no reason to see Hermann Reuter as emblematic of the quest to heal a country of AIDS, nor to see Sizwe’s reactions as typical of ordinary people. However, he couldn’t help seeing the two allegorically – a doctor and a potential patient in the theatre of a battle against a pernicious epidemic.
Sizwe’s Test reads easily and well. It is intimate in its insights, but broad in its perspective. I would strongly recommend it for anyone wanting to see the human side of the AIDS epidemic. I also recommend it for Jonny Steinberg’s superbly strong writing. The dust jacket calls it a “tour de force of literary journalism”, and it is.
South Africa’s renowned reggae artist Lucky Dube was shot and killed in Johannesburg last night in front of his teenage children. According to local newspapers, he was shot during a botched hijacking, but the killers fled the scene, leaving his car behind. He was killed, effectively, for nothing. I feel sick.
While reading the same paper online, I chanced across the report of another murder. When I was at university, I worked every summer vacation on the local paper as a trainee journalist. One of my first stories was about a giant zucchini, but I soon progressed to crime and court reporting. I was frequently sent out with senior journalists and photographers and I learnt an amazing amount from them about the craft of journalism: how to talk to people, how not to talk to people, how to take notes in a court-room, how to befriend a tame prosecutor in order to get the best stories and how not to turn up in court stoned.
One of the photographers who adopted me was Elaine Anderson, who was then in her late thirties. We were often sent out on jobs together, and she would let me drive (since I was busy getting my driving license) and give me tips. There’s a part of the highway near my mother’s house where I always remember Elaine teaching me how to drive the cambre of the road. When a road is empty and the cambre friendly, I think of Elaine and swoosh from lane to lane pretending I am a race-car driver. Elaine never tried to do my job for me as some of the male photographers did. She always said, “You’re the journalist. You ask the questions. I’ll just take the pictures.” It was baptism by fire, but a great way to learn. Sometimes she would nudge me and say, “Ask him this. Remember to get a phone number”, but she always did it subtly, so as not to humiliate me in front of my interviewees.
So while perusing the Mail & Guardian online, feeling devastated about the murder of Lucky Dube, I was horrified to discover that Elaine and a friend were shot and killed last Sunday outside her church. Someone has apparently been arrested and will appear in court, but that is cold comfort for her family. Elaine had 10 grandchildren, who now live with the message that their world is not safe.
These are not assassinations or planned murders; this is sheer, horrifying, random violence (perpetrated by desperate people) that can happen anywhere or anytime in South Africa – at church, while you drop your kids off at a friend’s house, outside ballet class, while riding a bike. Neither Rosettenville, where Lucky Dube was killed, or Woodlands, where Elaine died, are major crime hotspots. They are ordinary suburbs populated by ordinary people like ourselves.
My heart goes out to Lucky Dube’s family and Elaine Anderson’s family, and the families of the people who are murdered, hijacked, raped and attacked in South Africa on a daily basis. Will the people of my homeland ever be safe?
Here is Arthur Goldstuck, a well-known South African journalist and friend of Lucky Dube, on Dube’s famous song Prisoner:
If Slave changed Lucky’s life, Prisoner changed the South African recording industry. In five days, the album sold no less than 100 000 copies, and another 120 000 in the next three weeks. Ironically, in the week of its release, eight of South Africa’s longest-serving political prisoners were released from jail, a major step in South Africa’s slow road to democracy. As so many times before, Lucky had unintentionally tapped into the national spirit of freedom hungry South Africans. Yet, he has never regarded his songs as political messages.
“They are all dealing with true and real-life experiences in our day-to-day lives. That’s what they deal with: social issues, even though some people see them as political things.”
You can read his whole article here.
And here is the inimitable Mr Dube himself, singing Prisoner in concert:
I think it’s time that South Africa’s government starts to make crime political. This is no longer a social malaise. This is a political crisis.
Imagine I am an editor. I edit an online magazine, and have full responsibility for selecting the content. My job is to scan the web, focusing mainly on blogs, and choose what I consider to be the best writing on a broad variety of topics for publication in my magazine. My focus is often women’s issues and women’s writing, because that is what interests me, but I frequently publish articles by men. The scope of my magazine is wide-ranging, and changes from month to month, according to what I discover and what delights me. I publish witty, acerbic, moving articles and above all I prize excellent writing. My magazine has no editorial policy, no editorial board and no mysterious benefactor who insists on one article per month on Ferraris or fine wines. All decisions are mine and mine alone. I eschew product placement and advertorials (no Mauritian spa visits for me), fundamentalism and intolerance, sexism and racism, anything overly scatalogical or profane (unless it supports the aim of the article).
My magazine is one of the fastest growing sites on the web, with visitors flocking in their daily thousands to read my selection of the month’s best content. I am not Huffington or Dooce, but somewhere in-between – sometimes polemical, sometimes strident, usually funny and always entertaining. If you like to think, you like to be amused, you like to know what the good writers out there are saying, then my magazine is where you come. I save you the hassle of trawling through millions of mediocre blogs to point out, for your reading pleasure, the very best writing the web has to offer.
Welcome to my first edition. One day when my magazine is famous and my mortgage is being paid as I lie in bed, file my nails and eat Belgian chocolates for breakfast, you will be able to say you were one of my first readers. Quite likely you will also be one of my first contributors (see below).
The first edition focuses on quality. I want to show you the best writing I have found on the web in the last few weeks. I want to share with you articles and posts that have me laugh and think, but above all, that have delighted me with their unswerving dedication to beautiful words.
Let me introduce our first piece. It’s written by Emily of Telecommuter Talk, a blogger who is consistently witty and thoughtful. She deserves to be famous (or at least well-read) because her writing is fabulous. Her article is called The Wives of Others, and it celebrates friendship between women, men and their wives.
The next article is by Litlove, one of the most erudite bloggers writing today (and she will still be writing tomorrow). Every post is a jewel, every post is challenging. In the one I have selected from her recent oeuvre, Litlove veers away from literature to delight us with her insights into learning The Tango.
In many ways, I am a modern woman, except in that I loathe my mobile phone. It sits in my bag “for emergencies”, but usually the battery is empty. I loathe the loudness, the rudeness and the global inability to make proper arrangements (“call me when you get here and then I’ll tell you where we are”) that make up the mobile phone culture. I’d like to arrange a Put Down Your Mobile Phone ceremony, where all addicts could return their phones to their local police stations and life could become a little slower and a little more peaceful. (Don’t try to take my broadband away, though.) Here is a provocative piece from Kerryn, of the always-excellent White Thoughts blog, called Who Died to Make Your Mobile Phone?
No edition is complete without a diatribe. A few days ago, the wonderful Wendz was having a very bad day. She took it out on the blogosphere in a post called The Blog Commandments. I have to say I agree with every single one of the rules that have been handed down to us by Wendz, and find myself muttering “Not too many widgets” as I do the kindergarten run.
There needs to be food. Food is essential. My favourite food blogger and fellow South African is Jeanne of Cook sister! Her posts are well-written and well-researched, and her photographs are beautiful. So add an atmosphere of elegance and glamour to this month’s edition, and to make us feel cosmopolitan, here is her review of London restaurant Yauatcha.
Irish-but-living-in-Sweden blogger Paddy_K comments on the oddities of his adoptive country. He writes well, and amusingly, about politics and pop culture. Please enjoy this piece on a new Swedish phenomenon: Gothic Lolitas. Please also note that if I were fifteen now, this is definitely how I would be dressing.
Somewhere in the blogosphere lives the Queen of the Absurd, the ProblemChildBride. She tells a shaggy sheep story like no other. Currently residing in WeirdyBeardsville, USA, the PCB hails from Scotland where, apparently, one knows a thing or two about sheep. I have selected a wonderful post of hers for your delectation. It’s not about sheep, but about bears. Look here and admire as PCB and family Play to the Sitting-Room.
I have just finished reading Vikram Seth’s Two Lives, a poignant memoir of his great-uncle and aunt. As I read it, it made me think of marriage, loyalty and love. In her review of The Post-Birthday World, Diana writes with wonderful clarity about the book, and her experience of reading it. This experience highlights her feelings about her husband and her marriage in unexpected ways. It’s a delightful post.
Another blogger whose writing I love is Courtney of The Public, The Private and Everything In Between. Her prose is lush and evocative, whether she’s writing about organic vegetables, views from the lake or politics. Here she writes the Reasons You May Not Give If Don’t Want Hillary for President.
I do hope you enjoyed the first edition of the Charlotte’s Web magazine. In conclusion, I would like to introduce a competition: the magazine needs a name – something witty and quirky that encapsulates the catholic and eclectic nature of my new publication. I will send a box of Belgian chocolates to whoever can come up with the best one. Leave your suggestion in the comments. I will contact the winner by email.
I’m not a fan of hospitals. I’m not particularly keen on doctors. I know many personally, and think they are great people, but once they don their white coats and come over all official on me, I get scared. Fortunately, I have had great health in my life and have not needed doctors or hospitals much. Like Emily, I have had to go to hospitals to visit others. Mostly, these have been very sad or traumatic experiences – visiting my grandfather on his deathbed, visiting my very ill grandmother or watching my brother in ICU and wondering if he would make it out (he did). But apart from having tonsils out at the age of three and giving birth to a baby at the age of 31, I’ve had no need of hospitals.
As a journalist, I had to go to hospitals now and again. Working the seedier side of the crime shift meant trying to get an interview with the victim/survivor, preferably at their hospital bedside. My most memorable hospital visit took place when I was a cadet reporter on The Star, one of Johannesburg’s largest daily papers. I had a two-month trial period in which to impress upon the news editor that I was the most worthy of all his candidates and that he should give me a full-time job. I gratefully and enthusiastically took every job he handed me, and had some success: some front page stories, a few by-lines, an op-ed piece. I was quietly confident that all was going well.
One morning when he told me I was off to the Johannesburg City Hospital with a photographer to capture pics of Father Christmas visiting the children’s ward, I was pleased. Just a few photo captions here and there, a few smiling children, a genial Father Christmas; compared to many of my assignments thus far this would be a piece of cake. The photographer I was going with was seasoned – Joao Silva, who later made his name as one of the Bang-Bang Club, a group of four South African photographers who captured the violence (hence the “Bang-Bang”) in South Africa’s townships in the early Nineties and transmitted their images to the world, helping to sway international opinion against the apartheid government. He’d photographed war, famine in the Sudan, unspeakable things in towns just near where I lived. So, in comparison, Father Christmas at the hospital with the children was for him an easy and pleasant way to spend a morning.
We arrived at the children’s ward. There were little people with their limbs in casts, others attached to drips but smiling broadly from under their completely bald heads, others who didn’t appear to see us. The ward was brightly decorated for Christmas, tinsel everywhere, and outside the hot, December sunshine griddled the pavements. As I looked around at the faces, some animate, others not, I could feel my heart come into my throat. Inside, I was delivering myself a stern lecture: “Pull yourself together, you’re a journalist, a professional, here to take down names and write some captions, this is an easy job, just wait for Father Christmas and then it will all be over.”
Father Christmas arrived, incongruously dressed in his winter red and white suit, and started making his rounds of the beds, delivering presents and hugs. Little arms stretched up around his neck, ruffled his overtly fake beard. Joao started snapping. Those who could unwrapped their single present delightedly, the nurses helped the ones who couldn’t. To my horror, I felt tears in my eyes. Frantically dabbing at the tears now streaming down my cheeks, I was trying to write notes and take names. My tears turned to sobs. Joao patted me, then got on with his job, professional that he was, while I gave up all attempts at journalism and gave in to weeping. Eventually a sister took pity on me, led me away, still sobbing, sat me down, gave me tissues and fed me sweetened tea. When Joao had finished, he collected me, still a damp wreck, and took me back to the office, where I used his notes to write my captions.
A couple of weeks later, the news editor told me I would not be getting a position on the newspaper. While everything I had produced had been of good quality, he suspected that I did not have what it took to be a journalist on a newspaper. I was disappointed and angry, and within weeks, found a job on another paper. There I covered the crime beat, saw some horrific things, was often scared out of my wits by the dangerous situations I found myself in. Six months into that job, after suffering repeated nightmares, I quit newspapers and gave up my dream. It was never going to be for me. I didn’t have the professional distance that it took to be a journalist in South Africa at that hard, challenging moment in the country’s history. My morning in the children’s ward should have made that clear.