Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


A is for Africa

Africa defines me. It is my foundation and my firmament. When I write, I recall the smell of sugar-cane being milled, of rain on hot tar, of the spices on East Street, of the cold morning veld just before the sun rises. I remember the sound of the hadeda raucous in her brown housewife’s coat, the incessant chanting of the Christmas beetles, the crashing of lorry gears on Town Hill, the mynah birds greeting dusk in the trees of the Old Supreme Court, Zulu hymns at night. I think of lucky beans, bright drops of blood in their pods, yellow winter grass under the Drakensberg, and grey vervet monkeys picking off the chickens one by one like a suburban Mafia.

Africa is my past and my future. It winds through me like a dust road, spooling out memories that stop me in the civil tracks of my northern European life, memories that punch the gut.

For how can you ever leave a land where acacia trees spread out like table-tops for the giraffe? A land where beyond the rose garden zebra dot the hillside? A land of canyons and mountains, forests and plains, deserts and beaches that stretch beyond memory. A land of poverty, disease and war, where people laugh with their bodies, shout across streets to greet their friends and cook strangers the very best food in the house.

As a journalist, I visited women whose husbands had died in mine shaft collapses, I went to funerals, I visited crime scenes where there were still slicks of blood on the wall, I sat in hushed court-rooms and listened to people detail murder sentence by sentence. I hovered on the outskirts of demonstrations, visited townships made of tin and learned the rank smell of burnt flesh. But I found the hardness of Africa offset by its beauty, by the willingness of people to laugh and to party. That is the trade-off.

My personal trade-off is that I will educate my children in Europe. One day I hope to occupy a small corner of Africa again. A tiny bit will do, just a place where I can smell spices, see buck on the hillside, invite my friends in for laughter and food, see a bird whose name I know and trees whose leaves form the pattern of my childhood. I don’t live for that future, and neither do I live in my past, but both form a backdrop to the life I have now – a richly textured backdrop that makes me who I am. I am an African.


I’m joining the challenge set by Courtney and City Wendy to work through the alphabet in short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.


SA – A Slender Travelogue

Our holiday in South Africa was all about the people*, but this time we also managed to go to some fantastic places. Usually when we go home, we confine our stay to our parents’ home towns, his being Johannesburg and mine being Pietermaritzburg, and we leave exhausted from serial visiting and feeling cheated. This time, thanks to an aptly located wedding, we managed to spend the entire time in the Western Cape, mecca of tourism and holidays, and everyone came to be with us. We are immensely grateful for the effort people put into travelling long distances, since it meant we could see them AND have a holiday. Here is a slender round-up of what we did and where we went:

My first stop was Kersefontein, a wheat and cattle farm on the Cape West Coast, where I went with my three dear girlfriends ostensibly to celebrate our year of turning 40, but also to drink wine, eat loads of food, play bridge, laugh ourselves silly and, occasionally, cry. Kersefontein, situated on the banks of the Berg River near Hopefield, has been in the Melck family for eight generations and, with its beautiful Cape Dutch farmstead, is now a national monument. What I loved about it is that, despite the pristine state of the farmhouse and the very gorgeous en-suite rooms where we slept, Kersefontein is a working farm, so sheep wander around, the ancient farm dog trails you, chickens cluck around the edges of your consciousness, swallows roost noisily in the rafters and host Julian saws down trees on the river bank while you are swimming. With its original crumbling outhouses, its sweeping lawns, the slumbering river, and vast acres of farmland, it is not surprising that Kersefontein has become a destination for travellers seeking peace and solace and a popular location for film and advert shooting. Also for four busy women, it was an absolute dream to be served food three times a day without having to make any decisions about the meal except would our eggs be poached, scrambled or fried.


Breakfast on the stoep outside our room

While I was languishing at the river and enjoying afternoon naps, my husband had driven up the N2 with our threesome to meet his family at Plettenberg Bay. Once my Kersefontein retreat came to an end, I joined them at Plett, which is where his family have a holiday house and where we have been going on holiday for twenty years. In the old days, we would occasionally grace the beach, but mostly we would lie on the sofas all day, me reading, him watching cricket on TV, now and again getting up to make tea or, as the day progressed, pour gin and tonics, after which we would hit the Plett nightclubs. Now Plett is all about the beach. My brother-in-law is a beach expert, and his beach experience always includes ice-cold drinks, snacks, umbrellas, beach chairs, buckets, spades, boogie boards and inflatable boats. It’s a military operation getting all this stuff and thirteen people to and from the beach, but he manages it with cheer. Then when he’s there, he’s building sandcastles, teaching people how to fish and making sure they don’t drown in the surf while we stand around vaguely wondering why no-one’s bringing us a gin and tonic.


Robberg, scene of beach action

Robberg Beach is a five-kilometre stretch of pristine sand that runs from the hotel you see in the middle of this shot all the way to the Robberg peninsula, and where I jogged most mornings. One morning, I made it triumphantly all the way to the rocks, and despite claiming I needed airlifting home, all the way back again. Plett was busy: the gaggle of cousins cavorted all day long like happy puppies; we got to spend time with our US friends T and J, also out for the wedding, and meet their adorable baby daughter; and I lunched with Jeanne, the famous Cooksister, who is even more lovely than her blog.

Then we left to meet up with some members of my family – my dad, brother and stepmother, who drove two days all the way from KwaZulu-Natal to see us. Our meeting place of choice was the Teniqua Treetop Lodge, a series of self-catering treehouses tucked into the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains. Teniqua was very rustic and quiet, which was quite pleasant after the rigours of Plett, and the kids enjoyed rushing from our treehouse (the Eyrie) to Grandpa’s (the Philosopher’s Perch) and back again. They were inducted into the joys of birdwatching by my father and brother, and spent a lot of time staring into binoculars identifying small birds. Their mother also took them on a mammoth hike down into a river gorge, where they swam in cola-coloured water and then, after a lunch of biltong and apples, hiked back up the mountain again.


Cola rockpools at Teniqua

The charm of Teniqua is that the treehouses are partially open to the elements, which means you not only have branches curling into your living space, but you get visitors like the Cape Robin, who comes looking for breadcrumbs, and the terrifyingly large rain spider. Thankfully the hosts provided a large feather duster on a long stick, which I used to sweep the latter out of the kitchen, accompanied by piercing screams from the children.

Their experience of African wildlife grew exponentially at our next stop, the Garden Route Game Lodge. This was the setting for the wedding of dear South African friends who also live in Germany. Their guests were from France, Germany, the US, Belgium, the UK, Malawi and South Africa, so it was a very international gathering in a particularly African setting. A two-day affair, the wedding kicked off with an afternoon at the pool, followed by evening game drives, where we got to see lion, elephant, giraffe, buffalo, zebra and a tortoise. That night there was a kudu braai in the boma, with African drummers, fabulous food (including an array of South African desserts for which I rapidly abandoned my low-carb diet – the Malva pudding lives on in my memory), dancing and a surprise rendition by the groom of “Shosholoza”. On the wedding day there were more game drives, more swimming and more splendid eating, until 3pm when we spruced ourselves up for a very moving ceremony and a great party, where we danced to one of South Africa’s most exciting new bands, the exceptionally groovy Goldfish.


Wedding flowers with rondavels in the background

Then it was back to Cape Town, and a whirlwind visiting session of braais, dinners and lunches, catching up with university friends, their spouses and offspring. We also managed to get out of Cape Town to see the wonderful Kit and her brood. The children got on splendidly and we grown-ups didn’t do too badly either. On my last morning in Cape Town, spectacularly hungover from the last last dinner-party the night before, I attended a yoga class and was hugely relieved that it was a restorative meditation. Had anyone asked me to do the downward dog at that point, I might have collapsed.

One of the messages of the meditation was “Observe your emotions, and let them slip by you”, which was appropriate for leaving Cape Town, my favourite city in the world, and South Africa, my homeland. While nursing my hangover, I observed my feelings of sadness, but let them slip by me. Since then I have had tinges of my usual departure grief but have been feeling mostly grateful, that I was able to have such a wonderful holiday and that I am lucky enough to have great friends and loving family. Thank you to everyone for helping us have our dream holiday!

* While I’d love to post some of the many photographs of me clasping my favourite people, I won’t since I must respect privacy. Instead you get landscapes, flowers and tiny dots of people.


Reading in 2008

I’ve dived into 2009 with a delicious orgy of reading. The kids are still on holiday, it’s minus bloody something outside and I’ve got a blankie and a pile of Christmas books to work through. Luxury! So far I’ve read both of Barack Obama’s books (Dreams from my Father and Audacity of Hope) and Elizabeth George’s latest massive tome, the 530-page Careless in Red. I have also read and cooked from my wonderful birthday present, Nigella Lawson’s latest recipe book Nigella Express. (I can recommend the fudge.) Now I am reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which I bought in New York last year, and which promises to be delightful. More time under the blankie is predicted. Pity the fudge is finished though.

But before I get carried away with this year’s reading, and before 2008 dissolves completely, I thought I’d better review last year’s books. My total for the year was 53 books, which my old self finds disappointing since she fondly imagined she always read at least 100 books a year. Turns out I don’t: in 2007, I read 81 and this year 18 books fewer. My new self knows why – I spent more time writing than reading in 2008, and I hope that 2009 will be the same. I don’t subscribe to reading goals, though I admire those who do, but found that I consciously avoided literary fiction and books set in South Africa because I wanted to avoid any crossover with what I am writing. I read a lot of memoirs, some chick lit, some thrillers and a couple of books from the start of last century. Turns out, though, that my favourite reads of the year were litfic, so that probably is my natural reading home.

Here are the stats:

Fiction: 34 (64%)

Non-fiction: 19 (35%)

Short story collections: 1 (1.8%)

Memoirs: 11 (20%)

True crime: 1 (1.8%)

Books on AIDS: 3 (5.6%)

Thrillers: 5 (9.4%)

Books by women: 36 (67%)

Books by non-Anglo American writers: 10 (18%)

Dry stats aside, here are my awards:

Book of the Year:

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Adechie – superb prose, wonderfully drawn characters and a history lesson all in one package. A wonderful book, destined to become a classic.

Runner-up: Richard Ford’s trilogy, of which I have only read The Sportswriter and The Lay of the Land. Ford deserves all the paeans and praise he receives for he is a wonderful writer. The surprise for me in both books was his characterization of the Tri-State area: in Ford’s skillful hands, it becomes a protagonist itself.

Find of the Year:

Geraldine Brooks! I read all three of her novels this year and was most impressed. She has a facility with bringing a specific historical period to life, be it Civil War USA, plague-ridden England or post-war Serbia.

Blogging Recommendation of the Year:

Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, recommended by Litlove. I loved this novel for its powerful, tragic story and rushed off to present it to my book club only to discover that all US members had read it either in high school or at university. Not so new to them though, but a wonderful find for me.

Thriller of the Year:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson – a gripping plot and ace characterization. I look forward to reading his two other novels.

Most Disappointing Thriller of the Year:

PD James’s The Private Patient. Oh dear, the master of the art was off-form with this one: plot didn’t gel, characters weren’t clearly or thoroughly realized and the motive for murder was vague, at best.

Most Hard-Hitting Non-Fiction:

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous. This had strong contenders in The Gifts of the Body and Sizwe’s Test, but its frank telling of Berlin in the dying days of World War II was brutal.

Most Spectacularly Annoying Protagonist:

Undine Spragg of The Custom of the Country – what a grasping, power-hungry and superficial woman. A fascinating portrayal of avarice by the stylist extraordinaire, Edith Wharton. (I did I envy Undine’s wardrobe, though.)

Memoir Writer With Whom I Would Most Like To Have Dinner:

Anthony Bouraine, without a doubt. Especially if he’s cooking.

Protagonist I Most Wanted to be Friends With:

The Girls of Riyadh! What a fabulous bunch. Of all the chick-lit books I read, this one stands out the most in my memory (they often melt into a messy, love-stricken whole).

Book that Brought on Landscape Envy:

The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg. Despite the irritating title, it made me long for Africa.

Right now, with temperatures sinking and snow outside, I’m still longing for Africa. So my plan is to burrow further under my blankie and read some more. My reading resolution for 2009 is write more than I read, and post more frequent reviews. To kick-off, I will review one of my 2009 books – vote in the comments for which one you would like me to review.

Wishing you a wonderful reading year!


RIP Miriam Makeba

South African singer Miriam Makeba – the nightingale of Africa – died yesterday at a clinic in Italy, only hours after performing in her last concert. She was 76.

According to The Independent, she suffered a heart attack after a 30-minute performance against organised crime. Makeba was an outspoken critic against apartheid, and was involuntarily exiled for 30 years when the Nationalist government revoked her passport.

“One of the greatest songstresses of our time has ceased to sing,” Foreign Affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said in a statement.

“Throughout her life, Mama Makeba communicated a positive message to the world about the struggle of the people of South Africa and the certainty of victory over the dark forces of apartheid and colonialism through the art of song.”

Here is Mama Makeba singing Soweto Blues, written by her former husband Hugh Masekela:


Just So Easy Afro-Teutonic Beer Bread

The lovely Jeanne has tagged me to take part in Breadline Africa’s Worldwide Blogger Bake-Off. According to Jeanne, Breadline Africa is a:

South African-based charity that is seeking to put a lasting end to poverty South Africa (and further afield in Africa) by breaking the cycle of poverty and helping comunities to achieve long-term self-sustainability. Breadline Africa was founded in 1993 when a group of community and social workers in South Africa (who had first-hand knowledge of the uniquely African problems that they faced) formed an alliance with like-minded colleagues in Europe (who were well-placed to source donations in valuable foreign currency). Armed with this unique combination of skills, Breadline Africa has been able to raise funds in Europe and use their local knowledge to identify which small, ground-level projects in Africa are most likely to succeed with a financial boost.

On Blog Action Day, Breadline Africa launched their Worldwide Blogger Bake-Off campaign. The aim is to raise $1 million in funds for a project to convert shipping containers into locations for food production and distribution in Africa. It is hoped that these sustainable community kitchens will not only provide food such as bread and soup to those in need, but also opportunities for skills development within poor communities.

So how does the Breadline Africa Worldwide Blogger Bake Off Campaign work?

Quite simply: bake bread, give dough. You can sign up for the campaign, make a donation, upload your bread recipes and document your culinary adventures in the media centre to spread the word. Bloggers can go even further by downloading the Blogger Bake-off widget and tagging five other bloggers to do the same – which I have done. My five tagged bloggers are:

1. Alida of Here We Go … Again

2. Helen of A Was Alarmed

3. The Very Wise Mandarine

4. Herschelian of The 3 Rs.

5. Tanya of Just Me

And now, to the bread …

The thing is, though I bake, I don’t make bread. Being good South Africans, we barbeque or braai, all the way through summer. I have a way with salads, and desserts, and Germany’s Top Husband does his thing at the grill, but our repertoire has never included bread. However, two summers ago, I borrowed a South African beer bread recipe from Jeanne because it was just so easy. The original recipe called for thyme and cheddar cheese, but since neither were available to me, I replaced them with rosemary and Emmenthaler, bringing a lovely German twist to a South African recipe. Unfortunately I have never photographed it, but I assure you it looks and smells as delicious as it tastes. There are never any leftovers, because everyone ADORES it. Try it, and preen at your new-found skills!

The Just So Easy Afro-Teutonic Beer Bread Recipe


500g self-raising flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

125g Emmenthaler cubed

340ml beer

50ml water

1 tablespoon of fresh rosemary chopped

Maldon (or kosher) salt to sprinkle


Preheat oven to 180°.

Grease a small loaf tin.

Sift flour and salt into a mixing bowl.

Stir in beer, cheese, water, rosemary.

Mix until all the flour is moistened the dough forms a consistent mass.

Transfer to loaf tin, sprinkle with salt and place in oven.

Test with skewer after one hour and if it comes clean, remove from the oven.

Eat with large slabs of butter and thank me. Oh, and Jeanne too.

(PS After an hour’s struggling, I am giving up trying to upload the widget. I will return when I have more strength. But in the meanwhile, please click, donate, bake bread, vote for my recipe or do something to help raise people out of poverty. Thank you.)


Women, AIDS and Poverty

I am writing a novel about AIDS in South Africa. God knows if it will ever sell, because it’s very depressing, but it’s also about love, hope and ridiculous self-belief so maybe there’s a small chance. The thing that angers me most about the AIDS epidemic in South Africa is that it affects the poorest, the most vulnerable, the least educated and of this group, the largest proportion is women. It’s as if for them, apartheid is happening all over again, but it’s an apartheid of rich versus poor, of haves versus have-nots, of those with sexual power and those without.

So, to mark this year’s Blog Action Day – which has poverty as its main theme – I want to talk about the place where poverty collides with gender inequality, and how both affect the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. When Thabo Mbeki became South Africa’s ex-president a few weeks ago, the one thing that stood out for me in the reams of press copy I read was this:

First his culpability in the death of hundreds of thousands of ­people in South Africa with HIV/Aids cannot be underestimated and its impact will be felt for generations. Death certification by Stats SA shows more than 1,5-million deaths in the ages 0-49 and more than two million new infections during his rule. The long-overdue roll-out of a comprehensive antiretroviral programme, compounded by state-sponsored pseudo-science, has left 524 000 people desperately in need of the life-saving treatment unable to access it. As a direct result life expectancy has dropped every year Mbeki has been in office.

(Zackie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), writing in the M&G, 27 September. Whole article here.)

That’s 1,5 million people – children and their young, economically active parents – who are now dead. That’s another two million who have become infected, of whom a quarter cannot access the life-enhancing drugs. Of these people most were, and are, poor. What a legacy, Mr Mbeki. According to the TAC’s website, most of the people who are infected live in informal settlements. There are more women infected than men, and most of those infected are black South Africans.

As part of my research for my novel, I have read a book by Edwin Cameron, a judge who sits on South Africa’s Supreme Court and who is living with HIV. Called Witness to AIDS, the book is part autobiography, part analysis and it is gripping. In it he describes the guilt he feels in being able to afford, just barely, the anti-retroviral treatment he needs to stay alive when so many millions in the country were being denied access. Cameron also bravely decided to go public with his HIV status in 1999, in order to begin to counteract the negative stereotypes of people with AIDS. He says:

The external manifestations of stigma are horrific enough. At Christmastime 1998, a 36-year-old South African woman, Gugu Dlamini, was stoned and stabbed to death. The horror of her death has never been fully investigated, because her murderers were never held to account. The prosecution brought charges, but dropped them for lack of evidence. What is clear is that shortly before her death Gugu told Zulu-language radio listeners that she was living with HIV. Three weeks later, members of her own neighbourhood rounded on her. Her attackers accused her of shaming her community by announcing her HIV status … Three months after Gugu died I decided to announce publically that I was living with HIV.

One of the main topics in Witness to AIDS, and of vital importance to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the TAC is access to drugs. There are two types of patients in South Africa: those who are privately insured and who acquire their drugs from dispensing doctors or pharmacies, and those who use the public health system. Here they can expect long queues and inconsistent service. Also, they have to get there. If you are poor and sick with AIDS and live in a rural village, you still need to find someone to help get you to the clinic in order to get your drugs. Poverty impedes people from getting treatment.

So, how do AIDS/HIV and poverty affect women specifically?

  1. Women and girls will be expected to give up their jobs and schooling to tend the sick, thus fuelling a cycle of poverty.
  2. The poorest households are mostly female-headed. Very often grandmothers, having nursed and buried their children, are left to raise their grandchildren, many of whom are also ill.
  3. There are also orphan-headed households, where the oldest child or oldest girl, takes care of the younger children.
  4. Society and customs do not allow women to abstain from sex or insist on condom use, so they are at heightened risk of infection.
  5. Women and girls in poverty are often forced to sell sex to survive, which opens them up to more risk of infection.
  6. Fear of abuse, or community retribution, discourage women from getting tested and seeking treatment.
  7. Lack of respect, and the custom of seeing women as commodities, means they are at risk of sexual abuse, rape and thus infection.

According to a paper by the HIV and Development Programme on poverty and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, the HIV epidemic has its origins in African poverty and unless and until poverty is reduced there will be little progress either with reducing transmission of the virus or an enhanced capacity to cope with its socio-economic consequences (my emphasis).

And the that question remains, for those who care, is what to do? There are many small ways to help make a difference:

1. Donate to Oxfam or another reputable NGO.

2. Join the Stop AIDS in Children campaign (see my side-bar).

3. Join a global volunteer programme.

4. Volunteer your professional services (I edit for an NGO in South Africa, and am about to start doing the same for one in Kenya).

5. Become a fan of The Girl Effect and spread the word that girls are the future.

6. Help a family affected by AIDS. PACSA is an NGO in the heart of the South African AIDS epidemic. I can put you in touch with the director, Danielle Gennrich. Through her, I am sending money to the widow and children of Tony Shelembe, an AIDS worker who died last year.

Edited to add: Following the wonderful example of LadyFi, I will make a donation for every comment on this post today to Global Giving’s project to Fight HIV/AIDS and build lives in South Africa. Why don’t you go and have a look at the amazing work they are doing?


Catching a Feeling

Eve has asked her readers to write about their childhood. I thought I would give it a try, because I can’t resist a challenge that is as well-written as this:

If you read here regularly, I wonder if you’d indulge me by thinking about your own childhoods, going back to the flow of days during which nothing much happened, but when the passing of time nurtured and fed you. You’ll know which days I mean by finding strings of days, days on end, whose memory causes a wave of nostalgia to overcome you. Days that now fill you with longing, or a pang of loss, deep joy, or deep gratitude. Sometimes you may think of them and feel great sorrow over something you’ve lost. Maybe it was days you spent with your grandparents, or days you spent at home doing nothing; a day with your brother or sister, a family vacation. Think back to the hours or days when life felt like an afternoon in a hammock, or time on a quilt under a tree with your very best friend.

Think about it, or feel your way back to it, and write it out for yourself. I don’t mean you have to write about it here, as a comment, or even on your own blog; but I do want you to write about it. Get it down somehow when your level of feeling or emotion (affect) rises up and squeezes you in the middle of your chest, right around your heart, and you begin to feel a little weepy or giddy. Right . . . there. That’s the part we want. Catch it like a firefly in a jar, and get very close to that feeling, and then write about it. Write it all out, the memories surrounding it: where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, what it smelled, tasted, and sounded like there; how long did it last?

The Angel in the Garden

When my father left in a storm of self-justification and golf clubs, my grandmother moved into the cottage at the bottom of our garden. It was like having an angel of our own living there. My brother and I would wake in the morning and race our beaten path to her front door, where she would open up, catch us in her arms and breathe, “Hello my darlings!” as if she hadn’t seen us for a month. While my mother was dealing with her own pain and sorrow, and gradually finding her way back to herself, my grandmother gathered us into a gentle place of wonder that offered us refuge from our pain. She had a naivete that spoke to my child’s heart, and taught us how to be silent and listen to the self within, how to shape clouds, how to appreciate an egg sandwich, to believe in fairies. Under her guidance, I developed an interest in other realms and soon our garden became, for me, a magical fairyland that was bustling with activity and solace from the pain of my parent’s separation.

This fairyland was closely tied with the plant life in the garden, starting with the enormous camphor tree that towered over us like a gentle giant. I climbed into his arms, and found comfort there, staring at the leaf patterns and imagining myself on a ship sailing across oceans, or in a palace, or in village of busy elves. I lost time there as I watched ants trace paths across the tree’s rippled bark, or listened to the doves high above, or felt the wind sough mournfully in the branches. The tree reflected my mood: he was sad if I was sad, content if I was so, but his depth of feeling was so great that after a while I could bear his compassion no longer and had to seek more light-hearted magic elsewhere.

Ivy covered the camphor tree’s earthbound roots – the perfect place for fairies to cavort. I imagined them climbing the roots and chasing each other under the green pointed umbrellas of ivy leaves. The Japanese anenomes planted nearby were special since they flowered around my mother’s birthday, and their ivory petals and fluffy yellow centres brought to mind elegant fairy princesses, wafting through my fairyland in white gowns with golden crowns. They were beautiful, and slightly removed, rather like my mother, and I couldn’t spend too much time with them without the sadness edging in.

Following the path of the anenomes, I would arrive at a bed of flowers planted by my mother that curved out into the garden like a headland or peninsula. This buttress was seldom shadowed by the tree, so it was a sunny place for both children and fairies. Roses encouraged the arrival of pink and white fairies, bold and laughing. They were enticed by the dripping tap that stood in the flower-bed, and would recline underneath the tiny waterfall and catch drips directly into their mouths. The tap also attracted an old fat frog, who croaked grumpily as dusk fell. Here in this sunny bed, I created fairy gardens, small flat patches of earth, surrounded by stone walls and decorated with flower furniture. I knew that when the moon rose and I was in bed, the fairies would be sleeping on an azalea or camellia petal and thanking me for their comfort.

Following the bed, I came up against a wooden fence, behind which lived our mad and muttering neighbour and her barking dog. If I came too close to the fence, the dog would unleash its volley of angry remarks and I would have to retreat to underneath the lemon tree for safety. It was fragrant and citrussy there, but the ground beneath was littered with rotting lemons which were revolting if I stood on them with bare feet.

Behind the lemon tree was a green wire fence covered with jasmine, and behind that a lowered area where our maid washed and hung the washing to dry. I would climb the fence, sit on the hot and crumbling stairs and watch in a dream as the washing swirled on the windy drier. The maid lived there too, in a room that smelled of soap, sweat and putu – the porridge that she liked to eat and sometimes shared with me, if I was lucky. There weren’t fairies here – it was somehow too jagged a place – but her bed was on bricks in case of the tokoloshe. There was mystery in the bamboo fence below her khaya that separated our house from those neighbours. I could walk between the tall bamboo and the fence, and be transported to a world where plants were huge and people tiny.

Following this fence, I would come upon a green patch of lawn where our jungle gym had once stood, before it grew rickety and dangerous and had to be taken away. There was my grandmother’s cottage, with the door always open. She would be reading, or painting, or gently napping, but was always welcoming to her small visitors and would find us a piece of hazelnut chocolate from her secret stash. In front of the cottage stood a bank of strelitzias, flowers which my mother dismissed as ugly and African, but which were fascinatingly bird-like. I could crawl under the bushes and hide there, enjoying the feeling of separate nearness to my family. Usually the corgi, Muffin, would snuffle me out or my little brother would crash in, demanding that I play a game with him.

Sometimes my grandmother would get a blanket and we would lie on the sunny grass, looking up at the clouds. She would show us how to shape clouds, and we would get lost in the mystery of the sky. I think both my brother and I learnt early, and from her, to take responsibility for the shape of our lives. We were taught not to feel buffetted by fate, but that our thoughts could shape our lives and that every event, no matter how sad or sick inside it made us feel, happened for a reason. Then our mother would bring out a tray of a tea and biscuits, I would put the tea cosy on my head to make everyone laugh and my brother would run off to hit a tennis ball against the wall, all life’s lessons forgotten.


No To Apathy

Bishop Desmond Tutu is one of the few South African leaders who is strongly condemning the insanity in Zimbabwe. He says that we cannot stand by watching a tragedy unfold without becoming complicit in our apathy. Tutu is the patron of the Zimbabwe Benefit Foundation, which, according to its website, seeks to relieve poverty and sickness and advance education in Zimbabwe.

Now my dear husband likes to ride up mountains in the company of very fit cyclists. This summer he is riding from the Italian Riviera, over some Alps, to Nice. He has dedicated his ride to the ZBF and is seeking donations. If you would like to support his cause, you can read his blog post about it here, or head straight to his Justgiving site here.

Many thanks to anyone who decides to help.