Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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In Memory of Herbert James Downs

Today is the anniversary of the death of Herbert James Downs, who was murdered in South Africa a few weeks after his 100th birthday. His grand-daughter, K, asked me to repost a post I wrote three years ago about his death and what that meant for me.  In memory of her wonderful grandfather, I give you Cold Comfort:

A year ago, deep in the heart of Europe, while driving through the continent’s longest tunnel as my family slept around me, I made a decision that was momentous for me. It had been silting up for years, but as the weight of the Swiss Alps pressed down on my family, I decided that, although I love my homeland and although my soul will always be South African, I will never live there again. The tunnel was long, straight and well-lit, and I wept as I drove. I kept the decision locked into my heart, not wanting to verbalise it, because that would make it too real. Today, I’ve cried again, all day long with bitter tears as the nail was banged into the coffin of my decision.

In March 2006, 100-year-old Herbert James “Bob” Downs was stabbed several times in the home which he built and where he had lived for 72 years. His murderer stole a television from him, which he later sold for R150 (€12). Sibusiso Mbuje Dlamini (29) was caught later that day, wearing a pair of Bob’s favourite shoes. There have been many murders in South Africa, countless murders, some perpetrated by the apartheid government, others perpetrated by the freedom movement and others by ordinary citizens. Every murder is tragic, but the murder of Bob Downs caught my heart. He was the grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine, and had recently celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by his loving family: children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His granddaughter, K, had sent me photos of that lovely day. One picture that stays with me is of Bob, sitting amongst rows of his family, under the generous arms of a tree, the green lawns of someone’s home stretching out into the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, the land that is etched into my heart. The joy that radiated from them made me cry. I felt, selfishly and briefly, robbed. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.

This week, Dlamini was sentenced. He got life, plus ten. Cold comfort for Bob Downs’ family.

If you are feeling brave, look at Bob’s face here. See the wisdom in his wrinkles and the kindness in his clear blue eyes, which are those of a much younger man. When I looked at this photograph, over a year ago, I knew that I could not live in a country where a life as well-lived and good as his is so cheap. I made my decision and I held onto it in silence.

Last night, I was contacted by a young South African woman, who found me through my blog. Her husband is of German extraction. They are considering selling everything and immigrating to Germany. We spoke on the phone for a long time, and I heard the same sadness in her voice: how she loves her country, how she lives in fear, how the stress is affecting her whole family and how they are going to take the biggest risk of their lives and move. And I counselled her to do it. Germany, I said, is stable. It is green, healthy, safe, child-friendly and kind. As I said those words, my heart tore a little more. She is born and bred South African like me, whose parents are South African like mine. Her father runs a small supermarket and, she says, in order to be safe, has his own private army. “Going to the supermarket there is like going into Belfast. Soldiers everywhere.”

This morning, I drove past green hills and thought how blessed I am to have landed in this safe, green place. The Heidelberg hills are so beautiful, gentle and rolling, filled with surprises like ruined castles and winding rivers. They will never be mine. They will never attach themselves to my heart with barbs that cannot be loosened. If my soul had to choose between the green hills of Heidelberg and the yellow grass of the Drakensberg, my soul would choose the latter. I dream of the smell of the air in Cape Town, and wake up with my pillow wet.

My mother and I have been having these phone-calls. We skirt the topic, we tease around its edges. For a year, we have been approaching it. And then today I said it. I said, “Tones, I’m never coming home.” And then I cried and cried. Somehow, when you tell your mother, then it is real, almost too real to bear. Since then, I have been crying and I can’t stop. It’s cold comfort for my mother that we are safe here, cold comfort for me that my life is stable and kind, cold comfort for my children that they have freedoms unimaginable to kids of their age in South Africa, but see their grandparents once a year.

My heart is breaking. I am never going home. My beloved country, exactly that of Alan Paton’s, land of yellow grass, duikers, vervet monkeys, sardine runs, dark palaces of thunderstorms, crocheted doilies weighted down with stones, the smell of mutton, rusks dipped into sweet tea, people who shout hello to each other, will always be a holiday destination for me. I am filled with love and admiration for those who stay, for those who still believe in South Africa’s future. They are brave and their courage astounds me. I can’t be that brave.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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Cold Comfort

A year ago, deep in the heart of Europe, while driving through the continent’s longest tunnel as my family slept around me, I made a decision that was momentous for me. It had been silting up for years, but as the weight of the Swiss Alps pressed down on my family, I decided that, although I love my homeland and although my soul will always be South African, I will never live there again. The tunnel was long, straight and well-lit, and I wept as I drove. I kept the decision locked into my heart, not wanting to verbalise it, because that would make it too real. Today, I’ve cried again, all day long with bitter tears as the nail was banged into the coffin of my decision.

In September 2006, 100-year-old Herbert James “Bob” Downs was stabbed several times in the home which he built and where he had lived for 72 years. His murderer stole a television from him, which he later sold for R150 (€12). Sibusiso Mbuje Dlamini (29) was caught later that day, wearing a pair of Bob’s favourite shoes. There have been many murders in South Africa, countless murders, some perpetrated by the apartheid government, others perpetrated by the freedom movement and others by ordinary citizens. Every murder is tragic, but the murder of Bob Downs caught my heart. He was the grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine, and had recently celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by his loving family: children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His granddaughter, K, had sent me photos of that lovely day. One picture that stays with me is of Bob, sitting amongst rows of his family, under the generous arms of a tree, the green lawns of someone’s home stretching out into the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, the land that is etched into my heart. The joy that radiated from them made me cry. I felt, selfishly and briefly, robbed. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.

This week, Dlamini was sentenced. He got life, plus ten. Cold comfort for Bob Downs’ family.

If you are feeling brave, look at Bob’s face here. See the wisdom in his wrinkles and the kindness in his clear blue eyes, which are those of a much younger man. When I looked at this photograph, over a year ago, I knew that I could not live in a country where a life as well-lived and good as his is so cheap. I made my decision and I held onto it in silence.

Last night, I was contacted by a young South African woman, who found me through my blog. Her husband is of German extraction. They are considering selling everything and immigrating to Germany. We spoke on the phone for a long time, and I heard the same sadness in her voice: how she loves her country, how she lives in fear, how the stress is affecting her whole family and how they are going to take the biggest risk of their lives and move. And I counselled her to do it. Germany, I said, is stable. It is green, healthy, safe, child-friendly and kind. As I said those words, my heart tore a little more. She is born and bred South African like me, whose parents are South African like mine. Her father runs a small supermarket and, she says, in order to be safe, his own private army. “Going to the supermarket there is like going into Belfast. Soldiers everywhere.”

This morning, I drove past green hills and thought how blessed I am to have landed in this safe, green place. The Heidelberg hills are so beautiful, gentle and rolling, filled with surprises like ruined castles and winding rivers. They will never be mine. They will never attach themselves to my heart with barbs that cannot be loosened. If my soul had to choose between the green hills of Heidelberg and the yellow grass of the Drakensberg, my soul would choose the latter. I dream of the smell of the air in Cape Town, and wake up with my pillow wet.

My mother and I have been having these phone-calls. We skirt the topic, we tease around its edges. For a year, we have been approaching it. And then today I said it. I said, “Tones, I’m never coming home.” And then I cried and cried. Somehow, when you tell your mother, then it is real, almost too real to bear. Since then, I have been crying and I can’t stop. It’s cold comfort for my mother that we are safe here, cold comfort for me that my life is stable and kind, cold comfort for my children that they have freedoms unimaginable to kids of their age in South Africa, but see their grandparents once a year.

My heart is breaking. I am never going home. My beloved country, exactly that of Alan Paton’s, land of yellow grass, duikers, vervet monkeys, sardine runs, dark palaces of thunderstorms, crocheted doilies weighted down with stones, the smell of mutton, rusks dipped into sweet tea, people who shout hello to each other, will always be a holiday destination for me. I am filled with love and admiration for those who stay, for those who still believe in South Africa’s future. They are brave and their courage astounds me. I can’t be that brave.


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RIP, Tony Shelembe (A 30th Story of AIDS)

Today I am honoured to have my first-ever guest post. Please meet my new-found friend Daniela Gennrich. Daniela worked closely with Tony Shelembe, and nursed him at her home along with his fiance, Pretty, during his last hours. In this article, which was published on Saturday, 1 December in The Natal Witness, Daniela interviews people who knew Tony well, including his mother, his fiance and his daughter.

A True South African Hero
by Daniela Gennrich

The sister at the local clinic looks up wearily, and surveys the queue snaking out of the main door onto the road. It’s going to be another long day…

“Next…” A young man approaches. “Sawubona Sister”.
Yebo Boetie. What’s the problem?”

The somewhat sickly looking man explains that he has a persistent headache, and his abdomen is distended, or swollen. The sister puts on her stethoscope and listens briefly to his chest, takes his pulse and blood pressure, and sends him off with a small plastic packet with the word ‘Painadol’ written on it.

“OK – Next…”

A tired, careless moment, a missed opportunity to diagnose a life-threatening condition…

Just over a month later, Tony Shelembe became one of the death statistics for November 2007, one of the perhaps 1800 who will have died before the month is out.

But who was this man?

As I sat in his house the other day surrounded by his family and friends, the rain pelting down on the corrugated iron roof, I noticed a faded photo of a 14-year-old Tony, and asked people what they remembered about him. This is some of what I heard.

A grandson:
“I cannot eat when I think of my little grandson. Who is going to take of care of me when I am sick? Who is going to look after the cows and the goats for me? I should have gone before you. Who is going to bury me now?”

A son:
“I am Tony’s mother. Tony was very helpful, at home and in the community. He loved his children very much, they were very important to him, but all children were important to him. This is a very great loss. Everyone will miss him.”

“He was not talkative and didn’t fight. He loved to braai meat outside on a Sunday. He was often making jokes. One day when he was 14 and I still had a car, he just took it and drove away. But he was humble and just said ‘I am sorry, dad’. He could not resist driving!”

A brother:
“He was always there for me when we were growing up.”

A father:
“My dad was so kind. He did all the things I wanted. The best part was when he used to take us kids to go swim in the river. He bought me a bike for Christmas.”

An athlete and a role model:
“My dad was a marathon runner. He got three Comrades medals, and eight others for running. He won three gold medals for his soccer team.”

A community leader:
“He was a good leader. I always remember Tony with his smile. I remember the work he has done with us in the community since 2000. I remember when the committee was divided, and some wanted to follow Sthembile and others wanted to follow Prudence. And Tony said “No, this thing is too big, we have to continue the work, however scary it is”. And we have continued to work until now. The stigma is less, and more people come forward for help. Tony left us in the middle, but we know that God is there…”

“He was like a son to me, chatting about his future and where he wanted to go. He wanted to be an NGO director and quietly went about making it happen. Working day to day to make a difference, it was never about the money or the status, always about how things would change.”

A caregiver:
“He was not like other men. He helped orphans talk about their sadness, helped gogos looking after their grandchildren. How many men have that gift to give children?” (A community member)

“Tony used to come straight away when we called for help. He used to drive us to hospital when we were sick. But he was not like a taxi driver. He used to talk to us to help us not to be afraid.” (A gogo in the community)

“He helped me to take my medication correctly – what will I do now?” (Young woman in the community)

A friend:
“I remember his dedication. His respect for the young and the old, his smile, his tiny body, his funny caps and his good heart.”

“He was many things in one. He was there for everyone, mothers, children, friends. Whatever he put his mind to, it became possible. Even though things were a struggle he never accepted failure and always found a way forward. He never lost hope.”

“He was not afraid to confront you when things went wrong, to honestly work things out.”

A lover and a husband-to-be:
“I fell in love with Tony on the 9th August 2004, when we were both doing home based care training in Howick. One day he took me to uMngeni River and he told me he wanted to marry me. I did not agree. He begged me until I finally agreed. He has just finished paying my mother lobola (bride price) for me. We have started wedding preparations. Next month we were going to collect our rings at the jewellery shop, and we were paying off a bedroom suite.

Then he got sick. But he never gave up hope. I remember one day when he was very sick, he tried to get up and go to work. He loved his job.

He also loved talking with me about our future and our babies. I miss his smile. When he called my name, he said ‘love’. Everywhere I go he still goes with me. I wish someone could bring him back to me.”

His vision for his community?
I remember he said: “ This community is going to have a vibrant economy and there will be no more unemployment. And most of all, there will be no HIV stigma and we will be free. If I die, please don’t let anyone say it was nthakathi (witchcraft). Tell them I was just sick.”

The Hilton Valley Committee chair has committed to continue working to fulfil his vision. Even though they have very little funding, they have vision and they have hope.

So, who was this man, passed over so easily by the Health System?

The answer is best summed up in the words of his daughter Luyanda, as I was bringing her back from shopping yesterday, when she saw Tony’s cousin in the distance: “Look, look! Daddy IS here! … Oh no, sorry – I forgot ….”

******************************************************************
Tony’s memorial service was today. My mother baked scones and with Daniela, collected Tony’s family and drove them to the community hall where the service took place. She said many people spoke, and she was deeply moved by the beautiful singing of African hymns, where one voice begins and then others join in in parallel harmonies. She met all the people who loved Tony and who mourn him so deeply.

My Toni was also relieved to hear that Tony’s community are going to try to help Sambeka, who lives 10 kilometres away and who was one of the many people with AIDS that Tony was helping. Community members will drive her to the clinic so that she and her baby son get the treatment they so desperately need.

I am gaining faith in the amazing networks built by ordinary people who find the compassion in their hearts to help each other. But it is nevertheless a tragedy that such a wonderful man had to die because the health system was too overwhelmed, overworked and weak to save his life.


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Today, Our Tears Flow

In my Sunday post, A 29th Story of AIDS, I wrote about a young man, Tony Shelembe, who was the last person still working for the nearly defunct uMngeni AIDS Centre (uMAC)*. His particular mission was to counsel children bereaved by AIDS, but he also assisted sick people by driving them to clinics and acquiring the documentation they needed in order to get ARVs. He was a gentle, humble man whose first thought was always of the children. Tony died last night of TB of the liver.

Tony was on ARVs, but his TB was not diagnosed until last week, when it was too late. In a visit to hospital two weeks ago, his stomach was drained of liquid but no-one ran the tests to check for TB. Had they done so, there might have been time to get him on the right medication and save his life. My mother’s neighbour, who nursed Tony alongside his fiancé, Pretty, said no painkillers were able to alleviate his pain. Towards the end, they managed to get a prescription for morphine, which helped him. He had a two-hour sleep, and died shortly after waking up.

Tony Shelembe’s death was tragic, and unnecessary. He, of all people, was doing everything in his power to combat AIDS and its terrible ramifications for individuals and society. Today, we mourn a true South African hero.

We cry for Tony’s family, Pretty and their 10-year-old daughter.
We cry for the uMngeni AIDS Centre.
We cry for Sambeka, so recently a recipient of Tony’s warmth and help.
We cry for all the other people living with AIDS who relied on Tony.
We cry for all the people who will now say, “Look at Tony. ARVs didn’t save him. Why should I bother?”
We cry for the children whose parents have died who no longer have Tony’s visits to look forward to.
We cry for hospitals that don’t test people for TB because they look like just another walking skeleton.
We cry for a government that doesn’t appear to care.
We cry for a health minister who says eat beetroot and garlic.
We cry for all the people who turn their backs on this terrible crisis as a means to protect themselves when they could just help one person.

To those South Africans, I say please open your hearts. Please just help one person.

* Special thanks to all those who have offered to donate money to help Sambeka and the uMAC. If anyone else would like to make a donation, I can send you the email address of Dan le Cordeur, a Catholic priest who works with people with AIDS and volunteers for uMAC.


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Poets and Politics

When I was studying English Literature at U of Cape Town during the last dying gasps of the Nationalist government, there was an ideological battle going on between two poets on the department’s staff. One, Stephen Watson, advocated that poetry and literature can stand on their own and need not refer to politics, or the struggle for liberation, in order to be valid. The other poet, Kelwyn Sole, believed that if you live in South Africa it is your responsibility as a public voice to use polemic to educate people and open their minds. It was a debate that I, as an undergraduate, never resolved for myself. All I learnt is that if I wanted to get good marks from Stephen I should leave politics out, and that if I wanted to get good marks from Kelwyn I should put politics in. An object lesson in pandering to academic agendas.

However, the argument itself is a valid one, and it continues to inform South African literature now. The new government is in place, say some, liberation has occurred, so literature is free to soar without the shackles of having to be politically right-on. Others say, hang on, we may now have a legitimate government and one of the most humane constitutions in the world, but does that mean that women are free from sexism or that people on the poverty line have been liberated? Perhaps we still have a duty to point out the inequalities that have not gone away with our longed-for freedom.

I have just finished reading a novel called Strange Nervous Laughter by a young South African writer, Bridget McNulty. Set in Durban’s hottest summer, the plot swirls around six main characters, all of whom are eccentric, to say the least. There is Harry a dustbin man, to whom broken things, including broken people, attach; Mdu who is talented at everything he does, but only finds joy in speaking to whales; Meryl who wears an invisible corset that reigns in her feelings, and Beth, cashier turned motivational speaker who levitates when she is happy. There is also Pravesh, an undertaker obsessed with painting corpses’ toenails and Aisha, a withdrawn and silent orphan. All are seeking romantic love.

Every word I think of to describe this book sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise – it’s delightful, whimsical and quaint. It would make a great date movie. I could see Drew Barrymore as Beth, being cute and levitating. The process of reading it was satisfactory – I wasn’t gripped enough to stay up all night, but I wanted to finish it. I wanted to know if Beth would dump the self-centred Pravesh, if Harry could actually bag the glamorous Meryl.

In any other context, I would love the whimsy. If it were an Irish novel, or a Canadian one, I’d be yelling yay for the whimsy and the bits of magical realism, which I really rather like (the pearls that Aisha cries when Mdu rescues her from the ocean, for instance). But there is a part of me that still wants my South African literature gritty and that’s because life there is gritty. Durban is the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, most of it is poverty-stricken and crime-ridden. Life there is dangerous, even if you have tall walls and trellidoors to live behind, and far more deadly if you don’t.

I realise that this is my need, and that, for South Africans who actually live in Durban rather than in the European diaspora like me, maybe it’s great to read escapist literature set in your home town. Maybe if you see the gritty realities on a daily basis, you want to read something that takes you away on a magic carpet ride. Maybe there’s room for literature of gritty reality and of charming whimsy and neither need cancel the other out. I’m sure that’s the case.

However, don’t read Strange Nervous Laughter as your guidebook to Durban and KwaZulu-Natal. You’d be in for a shock.

(Bridget McNulty blogs here. Apparently she’s attempting to break a Guinness Record by baking a one-metre wide cupcake. Sounds like my kinda gal.)


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A 29th Story of AIDS

This is my mother’s story, so I’ll let her tell it in her own words. Meet Toni:

“I was driving through the village to my bridge class when I saw an old gogo (grandmother) with a baby on her back. The baby seemed to be slipping out of the blanket and looked as if it was going to fall, so I stopped my car. I ran across the road to tell her, but when I got to her, I realised she was not an old lady but a child.

I could see she was very sick. I asked her how old she was and she said, ‘Seventeen’. I asked her where her parents were and she said, ‘My parents are dead’. I asked her who she lived with and she said, ‘I live with my aunt. She does not like me.’

I began to cry. My heart just opened and I wept. She said, ‘Please don’t cry.’

Then I asked her where she was going and she said, ‘To the clinic.’ I drove her to the clinic, and then I told her I would come back and fetch her. I drove to my bridge class to tell them I wouldn’t be joining them and I told them why. They told me the only thing to do is to turn your back and walk away.

I knew I couldn’t do that, so I drove back to the clinic and saw Sambeka sitting, feeding her baby. She seemed to be smiling, but then I realised she was grimacing with pain. Every breath hurt her and she could hardly hold her four-month-old baby. Her arms were too weak. The clinic sisters seemed kind but overwhelmed. They told me Sambeka was the tip of the iceberg. They also told me not to cry in front of her. They were waiting for results of a blood test, so all they could give her was porridge to take home and formula for the baby. They said that she was too sick to walk.

I told her I would drive her. On the way, I stopped at home and gathered everything I could find – food, cooking utensils, money, blankets. Then I took her home – to a small, two-room RDP house (RDP stands for the goverment’s Reconstruction and Development Plan) where she lives with her aunt and her three children, who were all semi-naked. It is a twelve kilometre journey from the house to the clinic. Sambeka would have had to take a taxi (a minibus used for public transport), crammed with people and then walk part of the way. It must have been such a struggle for her to get there.

I went home and phoned my neighbour who is involved with AIDS organizations in the area. She told me about the Umngeni AIDS Centre and a young man called Tony Shelembe, who helps people with AIDS and counsels children bereaved by AIDS. I phoned Tony and arranged to meet him to find out what else could be done for Sambeka. He asked some details about her and where she lived, and before we met up, went to visit her. I also went shopping and bought clothes for all the children in the house, and more food.

I collected Tony and he told me he was taking me to see Dan le Cordeur*, a Catholic priest, who also volunteers for the Umngeni AIDS Centre (UAC). Dan said that the UAC has had to close down because donors don’t want to pay for administration. The eight UAC employees are now jobless, except for Tony. They have managed to find R700 (€70) a month to pay his salary.

Tony and I then went to see Sambeka. He told me he had already applied for a birth certificate for the baby and ID for her. While I was away, he was going to take her to the Howick Clinic (20km in the opposite direction) to try to get her on ARVs.

Sambeka is dying. Unless she can get on ARVs immediately, her baby will be orphaned, with only a reluctant great-aunt to look after him. I don’t know what to expect when I get back. She might be gone, she might already be on treatment.”

I have a photo of Sambeka, taken by Toni. I thought briefly about posting it but I decided I didn’t want to without her permission. She holds her baby son propped up on her lap so that the camera catches his little face as well as hers. The camera doesn’t show the lesions on her chest and around her mouth, but it does show the devastating hope in her eyes.

Sambeka does not want to die. She does not want to orphan her child. But unless Tony and the UAC can help her cut through South Africa’s red tape, get her to a clinic – no mean feat now that she’s so sick – and help her access those ARVs that she so desperately needs, she won’t make Christmas.

* If anyone would like to make a donation to keep the UAC above water so that it can help people with AIDS like Sambeka, I can provide you with Dan’s email address


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The Forest Maker

I have this little brother, Andy. He is big and quite funny. He is also kind, dreamy, hard-working, full of empathy, sporty, outdoorsy, loyal and committed. For a living, he makes forests.

When he was growing up and in his early twenties, it was never clear what Andy was going to do for a job. He tried his hand at insurance and while his boss liked him, Andy found the relentless daily grind of office work unbearable. He also became bogged down by office politics – as a non-political animal, he just couldn’t understand it and was often hurt by people standing on his head to climb onto the next rung of the ladder.

He knew it was not for him and he left. He began making my mother’s smoked trout pate and selling it at local markets. This work suited him better: he was his own boss, he could work at his own pace and it allowed him more time to be outdoors. Andy’s smoked trout pate became very popular in KwaZulu-Natal and he even started selling it to a few shops, but it still wasn’t The Thing he wanted to be doing with his life. The family, as you can imagine, were wringing their hands. What was he going to do? Who was he going to be?

What nobody knew was that, in his heart, Andy knew what he was going to be. In his time off from the smoked trout pate business, Andy took his beloved black Lab Billy for walks in the indigenous forests of KZN. While there, he would collect seeds off the forest floor, take them home and nurture them. Achingly slowly, over a period of years, Andy developed a nursery of 4000 trees in his garden. He found he was spending more time looking after his trees than making trout pate. He joined local environmental groups, made contacts and began to be known as someone who knew a lot about indigenous trees.

Going indigenous is a big trend amongst South African gardeners because plants that are local to the area attract more birds and insects, whereas exotics leach the soil of precious nutrients and can be destructive. Andy began to sell a few trees from his home nursery, started to advise the lady gardeners of Pietermaritzburg on replacing exotics with indigenous and participating in drives to replace exotics in public spaces with beautiful indigenous trees.

And then his miracle happened. He was offered tenancy at the nursery of the local Botanical Gardens. He carefully transported his 4000 trees from the garden at home to the Gardens, where he now has a shop, staff and a public venue for his skills and knowledge. He is also involved in wholesale indigenous tree sales, participates in tree fairs and has become known as one of KZN’s top tree people. He still landscapes for lady gardeners, but he has also worked on golf courses and larger projects, removing hillsides of exotics and replacing them with indigenous. He is the forest maker.

My brother inspires me because he didn’t take the traditional route into the working world, but followed his heart. He ignored all the naysayers and did what he had to do. When he found his true calling and began to live it, his miracle happened. He is not an arrogant boss; he labours with his team, digging and hacking and hauling. He speaks brilliant Zulu. His employees love him. His employers love him. He is the gentle tree-man of KwaZulu-Natal. I am so proud of him.

And the best news of all, selfish sister that I am, that he is finally earning enough money to buy himself a ticket to come and spend Christmas with me and my family. This is his first visit to us ever and the best possible Christmas present I could have.


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Why Animals Matter

Fancy another inspirational South African story? Because I’ve got one!

Apart from Google, I gather most of my news from BBC Radio 4, so I know a lot about breast cancer recovery rates in the UK, how bad the pay gap is in Britain and ways to cook pumpkin risotto. However, one lucky morning by sheer chance I caught an interview with Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist and mad South African who took it upon himself in the early days of the Iraq invasion to go to Baghdad to rescue the remaining animals in the Baghdad Zoo. I was amazed and astonished by his story, and then last week, a friend lent me his book, which tells this very tale.

Lawrence Anthony owns a game reserve called Thula Thula in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa that I call home. KZN is a land of immense privilege and immense poverty. Game reserves attract vital tourist dollars that support not only conservation and these precious oases of savannah, but also local communities who find jobs as game rangers and reserve staff. If you ever have the chance to go on safari, snap it up; it’s an unbelievable opportunity to experience beautiful animals in their natural surroundings.

Lawrence Anthony was watching the fall of Baghdad on TV from the relative comfort of Thula Thula in April 2003 when he realised that he, of all people on earth, was going to do what he could to rescue the animals of Baghdad. He says:

Standing out there on that magnificent African starlit night, watching my elephants contentedly showing off their progeny, I decided for once I was not going to be a bystander. Enough was enough. It was time for me to make a stand, even if I failed.

He got himself a visa, some money, said goodbye to his family and within days found himself waiting on the Iraq/Kuwaiti border with two brave compatriots from the Kuwait Zoo. They were the first civilians to enter Iraq after the invasion. They found their way to Bagdad, miraculously unscathed, and found both the city and the zoo to be a scene of apocalypse. I won’t repeat the details of what he found at the zoo, but accept that it was horrifying: 80% of the animals were dead or looted, and only the carnivores were left. These were nearly dead of starvation and dehydration.

Anthony’s book tells of how during the next few weeks he managed to scrabble an existence for these creatures: all the pipes had been looted, so he carried water to the cages in tin cans, and when he was finally given a bucket, it was stolen. He fed them with food brought from Kuwait. The zoo staff, hearing that someone was feeding and watering the animals, trickled back, and with their support he started cleaning up the cages, scaring off looters and slowly creating order from the chaos. He paid the staff, so that they had enough food to feed themselves and their families, and so that they had the energy to come to work and haul water for the animals. The staff then sourced donkeys as food for the animals.

When Anthony was sure that the animals of the Baghdad Zoo were going to live, he then turned his attention to Saddam Hussein’s many private zoos and menageries. The book details how he and his team rescued lions, bears and even ostriches from unspeakable conditions in other places in the city. One particularly vivid image has three ostriches running through an army barricade, closely followed by a troop carrier with an ostrich’s neck and head sticking out of the top.

What is stunning about this story is Anthony’s deep-seated conviction that the animals mattered. When his colleagues from Kuwait decide to head home, understandably unsettled by the precarious nature of life in Baghdad, Anthony decides to stay. He watches his life-line, in the form of his Kuwaiti rental car, drive away and realises that whatever it takes he will make a stand on behalf of the animals:

I considered again my reasons for coming here. For me, this was more than just about saving a zoo. It was about making a moral and ethical stand, about saying we cannot do this to our planet anymore. This realization had a profound impact on me, and I decided that an example had to be set. A responsible, influential stand had to made against mankind’s irreverence for other life-forms. I decided then and there than Baghdad was to be the place it started.

The rest of the book tells of more animal rescues, Anthony’s efforts to get the zoo onto the radar of the US administration in order to receive much-needed funds, and well-intentioned – but insulting to the Iraqis – attempts by international NGOs to relocate some of the Zoo animals to the wilds. While not a political book, it inevitably becomes of and about politics as Anthony negotiates the fragile space between Americans and Iraqis. He was still an outsider after all.

The book is jointly written by Anthony and journalist Graham Spence. It’s a well-written, gripping story that happens also to be true. It gave me a different viewpoint into the invasion and the war, and all the wonderful people who are doing their best inside their city and their country to survive day-to-day.

Lawrence Anthony received the prestigious Earth Day Award at the United Nations in March 2004 for his rescue of the animals at the Baghdad Zoo. In September 2004, he was invited to become the first South African member of the Explorers Club of New York. Lawrence Anthony is the founder of the international Earth Organisation dedicated to environmental issues.

Because none survive alone.