Mozambique 2008

JourneysAFRICA

My fascination with South Africa began a few years ago. And through the artists I met from the region and a visit to Mozambique I found myself increasingly curious about the entire southern region and its history. The continent of Africa has engaged my interest since I was a child…and led me on…one trip to another, one country to the next and back. Always though, confusion about how one country related to another and why similarities abounded or barely existed made my brief snapshots of this or that African city seem unsatisfactory.

Therefore, given my growing fascination with, and the American connection to, South Africa and what was one of the biggest global stories of the last century—the end of apartheid, I decided to pick the southern region of the continent to study in a little more depth. By that I do mean just a little more depth. All I hope to do given my age, modest financial means and limited tolerance for serious scholarship is read some books about these places—serious to light history, biographies, fiction and, my favorite, murder/police/detective inspired fiction—and make as many journeys to and about these countries as time and money permit.

 The South of the Continent of Africa. The south of Africa as defined by the Southern African Development Corporation (SADC) provided a regional outline within which I could explore. It is comprised of Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. My purposeful dance explorations with some more haphazard passport stamp-seeking sidesteps have taken me to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when it was Zaire (my very first trip to the continent), then Madagascar (where I served as a dance competition panelist),  Swaziland (by market bus from Maputo), Namibia and Botswana (no elephants, just passport stamps and extra dance), South Africa (two Dance Umbrella Festivals, Cape Town and bus trips through the most wide-open country I’ve ever experience—and I’m from the American Midwest and Southwest!) and Mozambique (which this post is mostly about).

Meanwhile other trips to other parts of Africa have taken place but in the south I have a mission—to know each of these countries a little more than just passing through…just a little more. In another part of Every-Country-in-the-World-Before I Die I will re-visit my earlier trips to the DRC, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Egypt, Uganda, Tunisia and Morocco, but this chapter/post will stick to the south and mostly to Mozambique.

Travel NOTE: Do you find yourself looking for connections with home when you visit other places and then slightly disappointed when you find them. We travel to experience what’s different, exotic, unusual—and just around the corner is a Kentucky Fried Chicken. On the other hand, when you go just below the surface in places with real parallels to the U.S., it can be the most fascinating journey of all. Like South Africa for instance. Mozambique is much more foreign—language plays a big role but so does the relationships of race, colonial culture, economy, types of wars fought (for example–Civil, Guerrilla, Proxy, Insurgency—all of which SA and Mozambique have engaged in but quite differently).  Before going into more depth about a 2008 trip to Mozambique here’s the South African thought for the day. And I do think about SA a lot because I’ve just returned from there and it is such a unique world place.

 South Africa and the American South: The Drama of Place. Is there a study about the shared characteristic of southern places—of the southern part of countries and continents?  Are these places always full of drama—battles that end with heroes, wars that change the very nature of places and people, characters too strange or evil or magnificent to be fictional but who inspire great writers, mythologies shaped by the lushness of magnolia and moss-wrapped plantations or the stark isolation of the grassy veldt. The American south reminds me of South Africa. They seem to share a certain melancholy and mystery and murder and the energy of the downtrodden, the farmer, the radical freedom fighter, the peculiar (to us northerners) food and odd expressions and, above all, the in-your-face history.

Okay maybe the simile is not perfect butI like it nonetheless. South Africa seems somehow more culturally layered, richer in both nuance and bloody reality than the whole of the U.S. More like our southland.  But now for South Africa’s next door neighbor–Mozambique

 MOZAMBIQUE 2008

It is 44 hours from 13th Street NW in Albuquerque, New Mexico to the Avenida 25 de Setembro in Maputo, Mozambique— Albuquerque to Houston to London to Johannesburg to Maputo. My colleague, Bryn Naranjo, VSA’s dance teacher, and I had already judged this to be a good journey by the time the first lunch was over. Prawns like small lobsters, fat and rosy, only minutes from their happy ocean home, partnered with bottles of chilly golden Laurentina, the prized beer of Africa, made right here in Mozambique; balmy Indian Ocean breezes gently soothing tired eyes and stiff limbs as the travelers fell in love with the place and the people and, soon, the artists.

We were met by two of our favorite dance artists, Panaibra Gabriel Canda from Maputo and Boyzie Cekwana from South Africa who is here working with Panaibra on a very special dance project. Bryn and I would spend the next two weeks working with them, me primarily exploring the contemporary dance and theater life of the city and Bryn teaching with Panaibra and Boyzie. It was a rare opportunity to engage with a city and its contemporary culture.

The Country of Mozambique lies in the southeast of the African continent bordering on South Africa and Swaziland in the south, Zimbabwe to the west and Zambia and Malawi to the northeast. The country fronts the Indian Ocean for over 1500 miles. That first day’s lunch was on one of many beaches which are in the process of being turned into potential tourist destinations. Temperatures range from hot to mild; in fact it was perfect spring weather during our October visit. Wildlife native to Mozambique was mostly killed and eaten during the war but now, especially in Gorongosa National Park and the Elephant Reserve, a regeneration is taking place and some of the African Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and cape buffalo) are reappearing.  I should confess that in all my African trips I’ve seen one each of a back-country river-bathing hippo and lonely baboon loping along the roadside on Highway 3 from Cape Town to Windhoek. This trip I saw many goats on my way to Swaziland and that’s pretty much it. But remember, I live by the Albuquerque Zoo so I’m okay with that. I travel for sightings of dance not elephants.

 History.  About 2000 years ago, as the Sahara Desert expanded, the Bantu-speaking tribes of the north displaced the original hunter-gatherers of the south. As time passed alliances were made with first the Arab traders and then the Portuguese who arrived in the early 1500’s and who were to become the colonizers of Mozambique. The drive for independence across the continent reached into Mozambique as well and, in 1962, Frelimo (Mozambican Liberation Front) was formed with the specific intent of ending Portuguese rule. After years of struggle, independence was finally won in 1975 under the leadership of Samora Machel, a much honored figure in Mozambican history. Frelimo received the majority of support during the war for independence from the Soviet Union, China and the eastern bloc in general, which gave western and white-dominated African governments all the excuse they needed for their ongoing attempts to destabilize the party/government.

I try to read several books about the places to which I’m traveling; in this case only two and one of those was a Globetrotter Travel Guide Mozambique (2008). The other, A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique (1992) by William Finnegan, was very helpful in providing some insight into the years and the war that almost destroyed Mozambique. Economic schemes did not work as planned, natural disasters were many and the war between Frelimo and Renamo appeared to be never ending. Renamo, described variously as a rebel army or “armed bandits” (or freedom fighters in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and Reagan’s Washington), was primarily a tool of the South African white government—this was the Afrikaners Proxy War. In 1984, the Nkomati Accord was signed; its intent to end Frelimo’s support for the ANC and South Africa’s support for Renamo. Mozambique kept their end of the bargain, South Africa did not and the fighting continued until an effective 1992 cease-fire agreement, with the first democratic election held in 1994. Frelimo’s candidate, Joaquim Chissano, won just as Nelson Mandela was elected president next door in South Africa. It was a very invigorating and promising time in both countries; how much of that promise has materialized is a contemporary debate in both countries.

Mozambique remains a complex country but now the battling parties of Frelimo and Renamo compete for village votes instead of victims. In the distant past, South Africa’s apartheid government interfered constantly in the country’s political life, weaving a web of bloody deception. Now Graca Machel (Samora Machel’s widow) is married to South Africa’s amiably aging hero, Nelson Mandela; they can be seen holding hands at press gatherings—hopefully the sign of a new age in southern Africa.

Maputo. Maputo appears to be a very livable city reflecting its Portuguese heritage architecturally and the war years in the actual condition of many buildings. In the past the European-built center cities were referred to as the ‘cement towns’ and the outlying districts where most Mozambiqueans lived as the ‘reed towns.’ As I was primarily in ‘cement town’ I obviously did not see all of the urban environment. We did drive around the city, and while Mozambique is not economically strong, the impression of Maputo is of a generally attractive, vigorous and workable city. Good restaurants abound, most automobiles—and there are many—appear to be in drivable condition, people are busy, the weather is perfect and the prices Albuquerque-level.  The Hotel Tivoli where Bryn and I stayed is quite perfectly located, between a big breezy friendly bakery/coffee house, Teatro Avenida, the city’s theatre for contemporary theater and dance, and Feria Popular, a sort of gated but casually friendly restaurant community with all of the pizza, piri piri and sweet and sour pork one could ever want.

 The Artists. We were hosted by Panaibra Gabriel Canda of CulturArte; Maria Helena Pinto, choreographer and dancer; and Manuela Soeiro, theater manager and theatrical producer. They represent the primary contingent of contemporary arts leaders in the city. Boyzie Cekwana from South Africa, a choreographer/dancer and southern Africa arts activist was also present in Maputo as a teacher and co-creator of a new work with Panaibra. We ate almost every meal with these new and old friends and each was an opportunity for lengthy animated discussion of contemporary African arts, politics and everyday life. For me what emerged from the many evenings’ brimming platters of ideas, was a tasty morsel called JourneysAFRICA—both as a programming concept for Global DanceFest and as a travel focus for me.

Panaibra, Maria Helena and Manuela took such good care of us, from long drives and long talks, cultural events to a theater lobby dinner with Manuela. Here is a little more information about them.

One of many talk filled and wine enhanced dinners

Panaibra on birthday

Panaibra Gabriel Canda, the primary host and organizer of the trip to Mozambique, is a community arts leader, choreographer, and the director of a CulturArte, an organization supporting his dancework as well as training programs for young people, artists with disabilities and other community dancers. Panaibra began his dance career in traditional dance but, dissatisfied with the lack of creative freedom and exposed to contemporary European dance, he soon moved on. CulturArte was created to provide a structure within which funds could be raised and an educational program developed. He has been quite successful although money is so very scarce in this economically strapped country.

Bryn worked every day with Panaibra and Boyzie on the Independence Project. The project involved local dancers and non-dancers, with and without disabilities in extensive training and then a final work to be choreographed by Panaibra and his dancers.

 I am pleased to report that the Independence Project as a dance was presented at Global DanceFest 2009 and was a major success. It is one of the most powerful dance pieces I have seen, and almost the first that included dancers with disabilities in a way that didn’t make the work all about disability.

Maria Helena and Manuela

Maria-Helena Pinto, the other dance leader in Maputo is, in some ways, the embodiment of this country with a Mozambiquean mother, jailed in South Africa for much of Pinto’s childhood, and a Portuguese father she did not know until she was an adult.  Pinto was partially raised by a grandmother who constantly reminded her that she came from a strong tribe and could survive anything, skills she needed when her ex-husband, father of her child and fellow dancer/choreographer was shot and killed by the police in 2007. Pinto has studied dance in Cuba and is presently completing a doctorate in Paris. She has plans to build her own art center on land she has purchased in a Maputo suburb.

Manuela Soeiro is the founder and director of both the venue, Teatro Avenida, and the theater company, Mutumbela Gogo, the only professional theater company in Mozambique. Soeiro is a woman of great determination who was handed Teatro Avenida by the government right after independence with no expectations that she would actually make it work—but she did! From complete shambles, Teatro Avenida has grown to become the primary venue for contemporary artists in the city. In 1986, Soeiro founded Mutumbela Gogo which has hosted a variety of internationally known writers, playwrights and directors including Henning Mankell, Sweden’s favorite detective novelist (and of course, one of mine) who is very involved with the group, and Mia Couto, Mozambique’s most famous and best-loved writer/poet.

Great coffee house & meeting placeNice streetThe famous Teatro AvenidaNight downtown

Evenings Bryn and I were treated to the everyday cultural life of Maputo. As in most cities most of the time, it was comprised of the art made and shared by friends and neighbors and the art offered through cultural exchanges, school and clubs and associations. A rich and varied smorgasbord for the residents of Maputo. Boyzie, Panaibra, Bryn and I in some combination went to a number of community events including a play and video presentation of a South African photography project in a downtown ‘art alley’ and a student recital of Maria Helena’s dance school. There were evenings of film at Teatro Avenida including a German film dubbed in Portuguese and also signed [the story included a deaf person] and another rather-pointedly anti-American Spanish film about Cuba hosted by Spanish and Cuban cultural organizations. I did get to see a community performance by the national dance company which David Abilo (director) had explained to me earlier was the part of the work they were doing to keep the company solvent. It apparently was developed as a social message (and sales pitch) for a drug company. I visited the small but quite excellent contemporary art museum and regret that I didn’t try to find out a little more about the visual art world. The last night we were there Panaibra took us to one of his favorite restaurants which was celebrating …. An October German beer fest! Final night in Maputo, Mozambique. Polka music and bratwurst… the beer however was Laurentina!

Another country–only 130 or so to go

Swaziland. My passport-stamp adventure for this trip was a day’s outing to Mbabane, Swaziland.  According to Google Mbabane is 93 miles from Maputo but it can take some time. I took the regular old market bus to make sure it was an authentic experience—and to check out my travel stamina levels! The market-to-market buses (medium-size vans) line up early in a bumpy and dusty parking lot just off 25 de Septembro.  It took close to three hours for the van to fill–coming and going, 10 hours actually moving (well, except for the hours spent at the border crossing and being stopped by the police) and then two hours at the Mbabane Mall. Where I had a BLT and a latte, bought some books in English and made sure my bladder was absolutely empty for the return journey.

Way home to Maputo

It was a great trip. Outside of the mall, no one spoke English but everyone was kind and helpful with directional gestures when I was momentarily lost in Mbabane. TRAVEL TIP: It is essential NOT to spend every moment of a trip with a travel companion. You must experience some things through your own eyes only!

 

A Small World Story. Shortly before leaving Maputo, I was walking back to the hotel along the very crowded and hectic Karl Marx Boulevard from a meeting at the U.S. Consulate. A woman across the busy street started shouting and motioning for me to come across to where she stood with a child in a stroller. With great curiosity, I crossed. The woman turned out to be one of the kind people on the market bus to Swaziland who had helped me with directions. She just wanted to say hello and how are you. ‘It IS a small (and generally friendly) world after all!’

Night in Maputo!

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Out of Africa. For now.

   Time to Go. In Johannesburg, the countdown to going home began about Wednesday—there is always a countdown to home. No matter how much you love where you are…and how eager to get back on the road you will be once you actually get home. But for now…you wash the last soapy sink of undies, make a last trip to the cash machine for rands or euros or pounds or pesos and have a last lunch of something you cannot get back home—like biltong salad or mopane worms. You might actually start missing work and your workmates and you try to remember what’s next in your Netflix queue.

 The Countdown Diary

March 10th   It is only Wednesday and I don’t leave until Sunday evening. However I left home on February 11th so it now one month away. Mentally I’m starting home.

March 11th   Now it is Thursday afternoon and my colleagues and I have just had our last lunch together at the Coffee Bean…biltong salad and pumpkin/cashew/goat cheese risotto. I know it’s time to go home when I’d rather have a bowl of Cheerios.  Boyzie’s performance coming up. 

March 12th   Friday am. Sleeping way too well. Need a little stress back in my life.  Boyzie’s piece last night. I love it…a distinctive, impossible to forget work of political dance-theater. Some meetings today and a last “talk” with Adrienne Sichel. We still have four performances to go…Actually more because one’s a triple bill but the main one’s I came for are over. There is still the surprise possibility of course.

 Dear Diary. Can I go home now? It’s Friday night and I just saw a performance that is not at all to my taste nor was the sausage and potato chips and beer for dinner. However I had an interesting chat with Laurent Clavel, the Director of the French Institute here, a passionate advocate for South African Dance and an equally excellent example of France’s ongoing support for contemporary dance. While it hasn’t been as vigorous under Sarkozy it still makes the US look bad bad bad in the arena of art support.

 March 13th   Saturday Morning and a bad thing happened. Jodee and I met Adrienne Sichel in a coffeehouse bookstore and now I have more books. I need a 10-step program that deals with addictive book-purchasing behavior especially when you’re about to travel home with an already full-suitcase. But I am so enamored of Southern African literature of all sorts that I cannot stop myself. Obviously anything can be ordered on-line but you can’t easily know about this work unless you browse in an actual bookstore.

Yesterday, someone shared a FB post about how Starbucks is allowing those brave gun-toting Americans in for a power shot of something while carrying/packing heat/feeling manly. What’s Flying Stars position on pistol-packing coffee drinkers? Or is it time to switch to tea? The American gun culture—what a shameful national attribute. An African refugee told me years ago that her Minneapolis neighborhood scared her so much because of the constant sound of gunshots at night. At home, she said, “Only the police and the bad guys have guns.” Think about that comment. In the US I’ll wager most of the deaths by gun are committed by angry insecure psychotic-or-otherwise ordinary citizens who have every right by our standards to own a firearm. Stop.

Saturday Night: One last South African rain for me last night. Now home to the desert and spring dust blows. Engaged with a performing group from Reunion Island last night. Piece based on idea of dancers selling dance like prostitutes sell sex. Usually this company actually does the “performance” in the streets but festival organizers felt like that might be dangerous so they were given a way too comfortable lounge in the rather genteel atmosphere of upstairs at the Market Theater. Only ten “clients” participate per hour. A bit too low-key perhaps for anyone to relate dancers to prostitutes and the typical contemporary dance environment to a stripper/den/bar/house of ill-repute!

Stimulating talk with Boyzie, catching up on his projects. Influx Controls: I Wanna be, wanna be is now slated for several European festivals and the second piece in the trilogy: On the 12th night of never, I will not be held black will premier in Paris in early May. Then that will tour as well, in some cases with Part 1 and in other cases on its own. The 12th night includes Boyzie and his nephew with the addition of singer he has talked about previously. Wish there was a way to tour both together. I mentioned it and of course it is probably logistically possible but financially is surely another question. I need a quick trip to Paris to see the new piece. Oh stop it Marjorie…you need to stay home and write grants so you have money to pay the artists you love so much.

Sunday: The end of a trip. Dirty clothes packed, too many books packed, I congratulate myself on only having lost a camera case and one pair of black socks in 34 days of travel. I have a last cup of my on-the-road Nescafe and check in with my loyal laptop for any last messages—will be out of touch now for almost two days. Well there is my cell but at $2.29 a minute I do not chat lightly. I did not take my laptop to Gaborone, two nights and a day—which is what drove me to my nearly-hour of American Idol—NEVER leave home without your laptop or this could happen to you too. I will miss this cozy, convenient, quiet, quirky little Tama Rumah room in Melville, Jo’burg, SA. Anyone going to Johannesburg. Stay here.

Goodbye to Ann, a new friend, an energetic, kind and brave woman, younger than me but not so so much, who left South Africa to try Japan, teaching English for a year, and came home to start life over after years as a businesswoman, now the guesthouse manager, and William, her young assistant from Malawi, one of the world’s absolutely poorest countries, who sends money home to maintain younger siblings after the death of their mother and to support a wife and small child. He has land back home but no way to make a living on a small holding without farming equipment or money to buy fertilizers, etc. He is smart and exceedingly sweet young man who exclaims on how lucky people are to have been born in South Africa where the schools have chairs and blackboards and chalk and even some books!

joburg-four-way-home-086A last afternoon of well-presented performances at the Dance Factory and my colleague, Jodee, and I are on our way to the Oliver Tambo (anti-apartheid leader along with Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela) Airport. Through passport control, I check my bags (because of books there are now two) and still have to carry an extra bag of book with me or I’ll be over weight limit. South Africa may have some of the world’s best book stores—not overrun with the latest trashy best-sellers from the likes of nasty-mouth blonde Republicans or celebrities-of-the-month. The ones where I fell under the book-browsers spell are full of all things southern African/African from biographies of people who’ve actually done something to poetry to literary fiction to—my favorites—the smart and surly and disenchanted but nevertheless somewhat sensitive police detectives fighting crime in neighborhoods with which I’m now familiar. Books are piled up everywhere and it just feels…well…bookish. Hey, I love all bookstores but some do seem more about reading than others.

So many books, such small suitcases

The flights—airtime around ten hours to Frankfort—maybe nine to DC—three to Albuquerque. Don’t eat, take a pill, doze…it’s cold in Albuquerque, my son picks me up with latest family news and I’m soon home. The urge to travel will now lie dormant for up to two months…

 Southern African Dance and Theatre

I am so lucky. A big chunk of South Africa time. I do love this country. My every-country-in-the-world-before-I-die strategy has to incorporate some extended time in special places—such as South Africa. I hope to do the same in Brazil and maybe in Russia, maybe in Australia. Vast spaces, multi-racial/cultural in very different ways—troubled, rich, big bad histories, personalities, sources of wealth. Oh for god sake Marjorie, stop planning the next trip before you’ve even stopped for milk on the way home from the airport and washed this trip’s laundry.

On this lovely southern African sojourn the first order of business was to conduct research about contemporary dance and theater artists in this part of the world. For me personally it is all about my belief that Americans need to know more about the world and one way to do that is to experience the work the worlds’ artists are creating. And to have a better sense of place. I have written previously about most of the following artists/places but to summarize:

  • Cape Town

  1.   Infecting the City: a strange but oddly appropriate festival for this lovely ‘city by the bay’—European artists invited to make pieces of consequence about the city and its history. Working with local artists of course but certainly, intended or not, offering an outsider’s look at place and people. All work was site-specific.
  2. Ingewaba lendoda lise cankwe ndlela (the grave of the man is next to the road), a production of Magnet Theater, traditional story-telling in isiXhosa language combined with physical theatre, music, dance, and video footage of the N2, along which young South Africans travel back and forth between their work in Cape Town and their homes and families in the Eastern Cape. Directed by Mandla Mbothwe.
  • Windhoek, Namibia

Haymich Oliver, Windhoek, Namibia

  1. First Rain Dance Theater, Haymich Oliver, Director. Interesting find in what seemed like the barren dance-land of Namibia. A group of active contemporary dancers with substantial training in both South Africa and Europe. They have danced together for some time, now have formed a company to take their work a professional and creative next step.
  • Johannesburg/Dance Umbrella. I will describe/list here only the work that I think  Africa Consortium members might want to know more about.
  1. Vincent Mantsoe’s SAN (which GDF presents fall ’10) was a great pleasure for me. I love Vincent’s work and SAN is no exception. Of course, seeing GULA, the perfect solo of all time, again after so many years was really the icing on my festival cake. I do not know where all SAN is going in the states but for those of you who are fans of Vincent’s please come to Albuquerque to see the work if no other nearby opportunity is available. If anyone reading this attended any of the MASA showcasing festivals in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in the 90s, Vincent performed GULA for the first time at one of them and it was the talk of the event. This beautiful man becomes an equally beautiful BIRD. He does. It happens before your eyes without benefit of accoutrement. It is an exquisite perfectly choreographed gem of the kind of precise and compelling movement that will become Vincent’s dance signature.
  2. Nelisiwe Xaba’s BLACK!…WHITE is an exceptional work but I am most excited about the possibility of bringing the two solos about the Hottentot Venus to Albuquerque. The Hottentot Venus, a young South African woman raised mostly in Cape Town, exotically pretty with larger-than-average buttocks, was exhibited throughout much of Europe as part of a Nineteenth century obsession with “freak” shows. She became the generally unwilling symbol of a colonial mindset that equated difference, i.e. non-white/non-European, with inferiority and the right to subjugate. 
  3. PJ Sabbagha with Deep Night was one of two big festival surprises for me. A work about violence against women with powerful dancers, original choreography and even a message! (I like messages). This work is pure dance, less theatrical than much of the work here.  
  4. THE TIME OF SMALL BERRIES is still for me the most important piece I’ve seen in awhile. I have already described it at length, so unless I have some comments from Sello Pesa and/or Peter Van Heerden I won’t say more. I did talk to a couple of other people here who agree that it is indeed a very weighty work full of cultural references that are way over our American heads but which, with a little research, are readily available. The Struggle is so recent (and goes on) and the wounds still raw so work like this has political and social resonance that ‘you had to be there’ to grasp. I am reminded a little of the Laramie Project although this is much more layered and purposefully messy.
  5. Meeting with Malcolm Purkey/Artistic Director/Market Theater. I know many people in the U.S. know Malcolm but I did not and it was a thrill for me to meet someone so connected with theater in South Africa and especially the Market Theater. I explained to him that several members of Africa Consortium were interested in incorporating more theater into our programs but that many of us have fairly modest budgets and are generally interested in smaller and, in some cases, work at the more experimental end of the spectrum. Malcolm will be more than happy to work with Consortium members if we are interested in some of the original work produced by the Market.  
  6. Boyzie Cekwana’s Influx Controls: wanna be wanna be is nothing if not unique! It is a solo so Boyzie’s imposing presence is everything. It is all about the world’s dark political forces and the masks we’re made to wear for survival so for a first passage of performance time, Boyzie carefully paints on a glossy black and red persona, which will appear quite evil or ironic or megalomaniacal or sorrowful or coquettish, depending on the moment. And then talks and moves his way through a condemnation of what’s wrong with the world all the while in his vest of explosives, eventually changing his black satin pants for a white tutu. A chorus in the back of the audience sings a moving and beautiful South African hymn/gospel along the way but much of the sound is simply Boyzie’s soft husky voice reiterating the woes that befall us because of our political leaders. At the end, with the artist, a quite large and lovely guy in red sneakers, white tutu, white satin bomb vest with red explosives, sunglasses and a crown of thorns, possibly sitting in your lap, you know you’ve just been part of a pretty remarkable piece. You will probably only have sporadically understood where the artist is going but then that’s the charm of the dance adventure isn’t it?

Wednesday night, I abandoned dance and bought a ticket to Foreplay at the Market Theater by a controversial young playwright labeled the ‘Township Tarantino,’ Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom. Foreplay consists of a diverse range of explicit sex acts—initiated or forced by the preacher, the playwright, the politician and the pleading boy. The women who submit unwillingly, semi-willingly and commercially are flawed but actually come across as stronger and smarter than the men. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s the user, who’s the used. It is in your face front-row sex; one reviewer says “Foreplay is an essay on sex in Pretoria townships.” Figures…Pretoria is the primary seat of government. And HIV/AIDS is ever present but since its presence is represented by bubble gum bubbles and pink balloons I did not get that until reading the review.  I must admit to being bothered by the giggles of the students (in their preppy uniforms of pleated skirts, dress slacks, white blouses and shirts, dark jackets and ties) in attendance and for that matter much of the rest of the audience. The more sexually graphic and violent the scene the louder the laughter it seemed.  Okay okay okay…I am a little old lady in tennis shoes! All in all…the acting was powerful and the dance interludes intermingled with all that sex could be said to link Foreplay to Dance Umbrella!

 Politics and Ranting

I so love this country. A history like ours but not so buried or air-brushed into meaninglessness. South Africans aren’t pretending they’ve won the battles against racism, sexism, bad politicians yet. The battles still rage throughout the media and throughout the arts. I personally think America hasn’t won the battle either but we do tend to gloss everything over by—Shopping! Being politically crazy cautious!  Shopping some more! Voting for a man of African heritage and then not going back to the polls to elect people that are going to support his plans!  Shopping some more! Both countries—big spaces, pioneers, battles aplenty. Subjugation of the native peoples. Slavery/reconstruction/apartheid. And good energy and beautifully diverse smart people and great artists. Only the Struggle is fresh in the minds of the population here and the artists and thinkers are making certain it is explored thoroughly before being relegated to the history books largely ignored everywhere.

Jump to the present. Can’t confuse President Zuma (with his 3-4 wives and at least 20 children) with President Obama. Can equate the Tea Party types and their ‘traditional values’ with Zuma’s traditional values however which he uses to justify his large family. When people are baffled by life’s intricacies and feel like they’ve lost control, they turn to a past airbrushed with simplicity—called a time of traditional values. Where men were men and everybody knew their place. So, my female friends and relatives and acquaintances… we know, we’ve always known, that “traditional values” is ALWAYS ALWAYS a code phrase that means ‘women beware…you are about to be put back in your place—and that place, if you remember,  was NOT a desirable place to be.’ We have our problems in the U.S. with the traditionalists just as South Africans do with Zuma. I wish us all well.

The delectable delicious mopane worm

I eat the worm!

The Afrikaner thunders his god-like proclamations as ancient cultures slip away in a feast gone awry. Meanwhile Sowetans hang at their new Mall of America prototype…doing exactly what Minnesotans are doing half way round the world—spending money on designer labels, new cell phones, junk jewelry, DVD’s, washers and dryers. It has been an eye-opening couple of days here in Jo’burg where the rain has departed, the sun shines and we more and more absorb the big vitality and excitement of this country—so like the US in so many ways.

A second week of contemporary dance of every size and shape begins today. I vow to eat less, a difficult task since the food is delectably good here (although I can’t speak for the crispy, greasy, salty quotient of the endless array of fried chicken places) and the wine does seem to be way above average—even the house wines are always smooth with a kind of sunny freshness that  my seriously untutored palate actually notices. The African Crafts Market is appropriately stuffed with souvenirs from around Africa. Mostly beaded, carved, wired, tall, short, brown, gold, stripped, spotted giraffes, elephants, lions, zebras and hippo/rhinos abound; they’re called The Big 5 and they are the stuff of tourist nirvana—on hoof, paw or shop shelf. I would name South Africa’s Big 5 a little differently. Let’s see—how about the DANCE; the wide-open debate among everyday people and politicos about the future and SA’s continental role; the endless spaces of desert, veld, bush and farm country; the energy and excitement of the approaching world cup and finally the palpable presence of history-making in the very air you breathe.

About history then. An astonishing piece of work happened Sunday afternoon at the Dance Factory. Called The Time of Small Berries, created and performed by Sello Pesa, Peter Van Heerden and Andre Laubscher. I am doing my own interpretation, my own description here with some trepidation. I had to let the piece work through my psyche overnight before I even knew quite what it was—but a few minutes in I knew it was going to be important to me. Quite simply the work is what happened to the traditions of the indigenous people under colonialism. The Time of Small Berries was a special feast time in traditional African cultures—until Afrikaner colonialism obliterated it along with many of the other traditions of the Xhosa and Zulu people. The Afrikaners, founders of apartheid, in fact destroyed everything in their path that threatened their desire for total domination, replacing it all with a harsh and bitter Eurocentrism of the most regressive sort. The Time of Small Berries forces us to recognize that loss.

The audience wanders to the stage loading door, nearby Sello washes in preparation for the celebration, a pig slowly turns on the spit, drops of grease sizzle and the smell reminds me of a New Mexico political gathering in the South Valley on a crisp fall afternoon. When we finally enter the theater it is to sit in chairs circling the centerpiece…how incongruous a centerpiece it is with the chickens and dripping greasy messy meat and cases of beer just nearby…it is a white tablecloth and silver-set long table where visual artist/social activist Andre Laubscher, invites various audience members to sit. And talk. Meanwhile Sello Pesa and Peter Van Heerden pace, struggle, tie themselves literally in knots amidst sacks of spilling corn and beer. The chickens run under the chairs cackling in annoyance, stacks of plates are smashed violently by the actors over their own heads, a little more hesitantly by the audience, beer is everywhere, I guess what is South African/Afrikaner country music plays. Sello pees in a pail (discreetly) and donning his soccer uniform pontificates in an I-am-an-Afrikaner speech endlessly replicated—the irony building as platitudes from the whitest of cultures emanates from the throat of a powerful black African man. And still polite society sits around the table of colonialism discussing how to be happy, discussing what you do if your baby’s raped, somehow making it equally fit into the most inane of dinner table conversation. .

Peter Van Heerden and Sello Pesa are both respected dance/theater artists coming from very different places it seems. Peter is grappling with/exploring, through highly confrontive site-based and staged work, his identity as an Afrikaner white man in a society that has moved on from a time when that identity represented the source of all power. To see this work with roles reversed, Sello mouthing the Afrikaner speech, Peter literally tied, bound, struggling with his burdens of corn and history, so angry. This is an important piece, I think…I know. And a big messy theater piece. Not so many artists willing to delve quite this far into these relationships probably. I hope to ask both Sello and Peter via e-mail a little more about this work and include their comments in here.

There, I have dissected this work through my own naïve dance/South African history lens—it’s my story and I’m sticking to it in other words—only to be terribly embarrassed later if I find I completely misinterpreted everything.

History is contemporary is everywhere is alive here. Gregory Maqoma, our Dance Umbrella host and one of our favorite dance artists in this rich South African dance landscape, took some of us visitors on a drive through his hometown, Soweto. I’ve been before, the tourist route to the Apartheid Museum and the Hector Pieterson Museum (the 13-year-old child who was shot and killed as students marched to protest the forced teaching of Afrikaans in the schools—the resulting photo of the boy carried bleeding from the site by two other fleeing children was a huge chink in the armor of apartheid), we drove into the Beverly Hills of Soweto where the modest little home first shared by the young newly-married Mandelas and the only street in the world that has been home to TWO Noble Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu)  and we saw from the hill Winnie’s current rather grander house where she lives and maintains a still powerful role in the ANC.

The best part was simply driving around contemporary Soweto. While the area does have its Beverly Hills, it is more about the ordinary pleasant homes in the older communities—the kind of homes in which most of us live or grew up. The very word Soweto conjures up massive blocks and warrens of hovels and crime and hopelessness and while those areas do still exist, most lives are lived in modest little or not-so-little homes, agreeably furnished, well-maintained, filled with family and cooking and dogs.

Gregory took us to meet his mom, a lovely vital woman, a widow with three sons, the dancer, the soon-to-be sangoma (traditional healer) and the soccer player. Her home is spacious and comfortable and, if the treat she sent with us is an example, she is a cake baker extraordinaire. Gregory’s brother was home, the dogs were playing, the mom and sons equally proud of each other. It is such a rare treat to get to meet the artists’ families—we are most grateful to Greg for the opportunity. We also found out that Greg has been commissioned to choreograph the opening dance number for the World Cup games held in the massive Soweto stadium. Now I have a reason to watch the Cup!

Kids coming home from school, scuffing their sneakers, teasing each other, kids rehearsing in a community center, sun shines on the giant Orlando Towers, a disused power station whose two cooling towers are landmarks on the Soweto skyline. They now serve as a showcase for the electric blues, greens, reds and golds of everyday life in Soweto as a train winds past the musicians playing, the fruit waiting to be tasted in the biggest mural in Africa—they could be said to power a certain irrepressible Soweto energy and pride. I am not trying to convey that all is love and roses in Soweto but there is something very infectious about the pride everyone from there seems to find in those origins. After all Soweto and the townships of Cape Town are where it all happened. They forced a nation to freedom—pretty inspiring. Remember we fought a civil war in addition to our marches and freedom rides, and South Africans managed to do it without resorting to the battlefields in the way much of the world expected. Sorry about that…but I am simply over and over impressed with this place and these people—black and white South Africans.

Rain Dance

My rain-starved being is feeling less famished. Another week before I head back to my desert—will I be saturated with early morning lush peace and writing quiet—and thunder and morning’s green damp and the Market Theater plaza’s wet night neon shining?

Festival Mode. At noontime everyday there’s dance talk at the Market, led by Adrienne Sichel, a dance writer and critic here for many years; she may in fact know more about dance in South Africa and on this continent than anyone else.  Adrienne is a striking older woman, rangy, blonde, pony-tail and jeans or sometimes suited and elegant, self-effacing you think until you realize how confidently she is addressing absolutely any dance subject related to Africa. The artists do want to talk—about how and why they make dance instead of doing what their mums and dads thought they should do, about politics of dance and the politics of ignoring politics in dance, about relationships within dance companies and between schools and locations and states and countries, and between the artists and the traditionalists of the Zuma government.

Attending a dance festival is an art in itself. The pace is maybe a bit slow in the beginning, haven’t started running into old friends, meeting new ones yet. Feeling out the best places for a wine or coffee, studying the programs to make sure you get to all of the performances and talks you don’t want to miss. Expectations are high! You know and love some of the artists, sometimes in spite of a particular piece, but mostly because you know who they are and what they mean to do with their dance. You expect all of the new work you will see to be brilliant. You expect to gain insight, broaden horizons, find new artists for your programs and you expect an agreeable surprise here and there.

The reality is almost as good as the expectations. Indeed all of the above happens! Artists show new sides of their creativity as they explore new ideas…black and white for example…what is that about in 2010? They make a new thing out of placing their own unique movement on a physically-opposite dancer. Or an artist you didn’t know gives you a new perspective on HIV/AIDS. How is that possible? And sometimes artists offer work that’s not quite ready or not well-conceived or executed or… you’re cold and tired and annoyed because the performance started so late…so the artist doesn’t get his/her creative due. In spite of never intending to slight any artist’s creative endeavors in any way, it does happen.

And over a beer and veggie lunch you talk to someone who surely ranks among the most idiosyncratic and perceptive artists you’ve met. A pattern develops. There’s another intellectually-stimulating or amusing or lazy lunch…and another. Afternoons might be for hanging out around the Market Theater and schmoozing with old friends and new. The Market has enough leather couches and chewy crusty chocolate-oozing soul-satisfying Brownies to sustain a visitor for a very long time. It’s all so damn civilized and thoughtful and…exciting.

About Neli

Nelisiwe Xaba is a pure treat for me, a South African woman, one of few recognized female choreographers from here, and a true free dance spirit it seems. She is indeed as smart and funny and creative as some of us have suspected from following her work for awhile. In the first piece of hers I ever saw she spent considerable time in one of those large blue and red-stripped plastic shopping bags so prevalent in Africa. But that was then and the level of sophistication has jumped ten-fold. The work performed in the Market Theater the last few nights, BLACK!…WHITE?, is all new and all elegant. Political at its base, quirky and visual in execution, an exploration of  just what it means to be black or white in a world where Neli believes this is a, if not the, main social/political question. Neli is also working with Malian and Brazilian choreographers on a piece with religion as its central thesis—certainly a work to which only someone with Neli’s irreverent worldview could do justice. But there is no funding for the piece and after all Mali, South Africa and Brazil are a bit far apart so maybe the work will never get made.

Most intriguing to me, Neli has made two dances about the Hottentot Venus, a pretty young South Africa woman taken to London to “display” her extraordinary physical feature, a rather substantial derriere, to European society. A book I am reading, The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman/Born 1789—Buried 2002, will surely clarify how many tales of Saartjie’s life are apocryphal, how many bona fide. The second of Neli’s two pieces is called something like “Sarkozy rejects the Venus” and is the story of IF Saartjie had come to France!  I cannot imagine how these pieces could not be original and a pure pleasure given the peculiarity and history of the story and Neli’s wit and political sensibilities. This is a project that, with some luck and careful planning, we may be able to get to Albuquerque!

About Vincent

Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe can truly be given the label charismatic, a reality of which I was reminded last night at Dance Umbrella’s GALA opening. Vincent’s new work, SAN—destined for Albuquerque in October—was described in a previous post and I’ll come back to it in a minute. For now however I must talk just a little about the older solo, GULA. Made in 1992, it is a favorite of mine for all time. Vincent becomes a bird…as simple as that. I’ll use the description from the program to bring you further into why I like this work so much. “Gula Matari (The Birds) choreographed by the fabulous dancer Vincent Mantsoe, makes the dancer into a bird-being. One can only be fascinated by the simplicity and the accuracy of the disjointed and staccato gestures and is one of the most beautiful solos of the global contemporary repertoire.” Ayoko Mensah, Africultures, 1999”

I have a further relationship with GULA which attaches me even more deeply to the piece. In the 90s a richly-programmed and well-orchestrated artistic showcase/ conference/ festival of the African performing arts was held biennially over at least six years in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. MASA (Marché des Arts du Spectacle Africain) was my introduction to the broad range of contemporary performing arts on this continent and I was enchanted with it all. The bustling city of Abidjan, West African culture, new programs, colleagues, artists. It was a multi-layered sensual experience of tropical heat, skinny roasting chickens and fat roasting fish, the baguettes and verbosity of French colonialism and everywhere the background of West African music and vendors and traffic. In the midst of this, in the grand and rather ugly conference/arts center built for the people of the Ivory Coast by the Chinese, I saw GULA. What to say? Thank you Vincent. GULA is an exquisite gem of performance to be lodged carefully on a protected shelf but taken down as often as possible for the sheer pleasure of communing with this delicate bird being.

Just a little more about SAN—a journey begun by Vincent in a book of photographs of the rock carvings left by the Khoi-San people as they left their southern African homelands and sought new shelter. Called ‘the living people of the desert,’ connected to the origins of the human race, the Khoi-San are honored and accompanied by Vincent Mantsoe and his dancers on this leg of their trip.  Persian poetry and song offer a background somehow integral to the dance.

Vincent’s movement is so distinct that it seemed impossible that it could emanate from body types other than Vincent’s own.  His tightly constructed and sinewy body seems to be the uniquely correct container for the control, the possession so necessary to express the power of his work. So, seeing that movement placed on a rangy red-headed French guy and three women required some double-take moments for me initially—and then I LOVED IT. Aude Arago and Desiree Davids were completely mesmerizing, such different bodies channeling Vincent’s moves…extraordinary!

A Little about PJ

The surprise of Wednesday was a piece by PJ Sabbagha called DEEP NIGHT. There’s a message, all about HIV/AIDS and how deeply the “tiny, sophisticated virus permeates our minds, bodies and hearts…”, great dark video backdrop and remarkably strong and charismatic dancers in a hard-pounding, in-your-face piece. I’m looking forward to seeing the piece in its entirety on a DVD or in real life in the near future.

Goodnight

There was an elegant GALA reception last night where Jo’burg’s art elite mingled with champagne and tiny egg rolls in hand, sheltered from the rain, looking slick and sophisticated, schmoozing animatedly, taking on their ‘important reception’ personas. Less and less my cup of tea as I happily age out of the expectation that I might possibly ever be charming.

Dancing. Last night at the Market Theatre Nelisiwe Xaba turned black to white and back again in a piece that poked fun at our racial confusions through a kind of sophisticated slapstick that was all black and white bodies, fashion, accoutrements, film. Neli is a funny, sharp-dance-tongued, opinionated woman who happens to move like a magic creature. I am at the Dance Umbrella Festival, Johannesburg, South Africa. The piece: BLACK!…WHITE?

The night before, Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe, invited us along on …”journeys and spirits of the Khoi-san people…” the inspiration for SAN. Considering the history-telling petroglyphs of the Khoi-san, the dancers search for a place that’s theirs even as the world keeps shifting markers. They battle interior and exterior forces with Vincent’s forceful, almost-aggressive, possessed-by-spirits-and-demons movements.

How’s that for the first two days of a festival? Plus vital discussion and getting to hang out in the best of all places/worlds/centers of art that matter—the Market Theater. More about the Market later. I think I could live there, in what I think are substantial rock and marble and granite constructions, arches, high ceilings, big fat leather couches everywhere, exotically-decked out and coffee bar restaurants.

My Perfect Life. IT GETS BETTER. In addition to this continuing dance feast, there is rain, pour-downs of pure water with no air between it seems. They mostly come at night and the guesthouse roof magnifies every beautiful noisy bucketful. Remember I’m from New Mexico…this is a water-heaven for my thirsty soul. The guesthouse, Tama Rumah, is the best! Rambling in oddly-shaped rooms with a bathtub here, a shower there, might be a double or single bed. Might be a grand mahogany-looking headboard-or none at all. Windows that open all about looking into one of many gardens and courtyards, coffeepots, cookies…it is just so so so damn…cozy.

I get up early, no alarm and write and write to the music of mourning doves and their chirpier cousins. Make a coffee, turn on the computer…don’t have to go anywhere until noon. It is indeed my idea of the perfect world. If I could just have the Bosque and my Rio Grande a few blocks away I would never leave.

Dance Umbrella/Jo’burg. Johannesburg, South Africa hosts the best dance festival on the continent in my humble opinion; one of the nicest anywhere. Almost all are SA artists, most from or connected to Jo’burg. It is impressive. Not so many cities could present a festival of this variety and strength, all with local artists—NYC, Paris/a few other Euro cities, Tokyo, Rio? maybe that’s it. Since I’m not a dancer/dance expert my colleague, who is here at the festival also, will surely be the one to give you the dancier details on her blog. I will pass that address on later. For me, for now I will just tell what I love and what moves me, and what I hear these captivating dance makers telling me. Maybe my role is to tell the layman’s dance stories.

In addition to two weeks of dance evenings, there’s a most helpful bonus in the series of 1pm interview-discussions that take place between Adrienne Sichel, Johannesburg’s long-time dance critic and scholar, and festival artists. Yesterday’s, with Adrienne interviewing Vincent and Neli was particularly eye-opening for me. I’ve seen both artists’ work several times and I’m always struck by Vincent’s very distinct movement style. When I described him as appearing to dance-fight his way out of a spiritual or demonic possession of some frightful intensity that is simply what I see, the personal story I am making of the art he is presenting to me. Vincent talked yesterday about his attempts to make work that is about the spirit, the search, the individual, not to let it be muddled with contemporary social and political reality all of the time.

Neli appears to be quite the opposite. Her work is all inventive, idiosyncratic , and full of humor and wry comment. Her perspective is ALL about society and politics. She works much of the time in Europe and also in Brazil. BLACK!…WHIITE? is about race…what Neli claims as an overwhelming issue world-wide, not just here in SA.

Both artists include white dancers/artists in their work and both have been criticized for it. Neli, with a slightly caustic laugh, says ‘it seems it’s okay for white choreographers to have black dancers but the reverse bothers people…maybe blacks still aren’t supposed to be telling whites what to do…!” The artists spar a bit over their differing approaches. Everyone agrees on one thing however. Without a renewed effort to gain support for contemporary work here at home…it will increasingly become making their work with and even for Europeans all of the time—that’s where the funding exists.

Jo’burg. We’ll get around this rich vital energetic city more in the next days…but I’ve been here before and I still don’t quite get it! Cape Town was so easy. A beautiful multi-racial city by the bay. Johannesburg. Is. Not. Africa “Lite.” Our neighborhood, Melville, could be any up-scale, yuppie, hip neighborhood in any city world over. And—there may not be anything else quite like it in this city of 2+ million. We drove through downtown/city center last night: Impressive, even grand in some cases, buildings. Wide streets. Parks. Corporate headquarters, City Hall. It was end of the work day so street activity was thinning…could have been Houston. What was noticeable to me—because I keep looking for signs of post-racial South Africa (or post-racial anywhere else for that matter) was there was not a single white person along the entire drive.  Gerard, one of our friendly Dance Umbrella hosts says, in response to my comment about this, that not so many years ago you ONLY saw whites on downtown streets unless it was time for the cleaners and servants to go home for the day.

This weekend we’ll go with our dance friends to Soweto. Now I think Lawrence, our festival driver, said a city of 4+ million. Biggest black city in the world he says.

Meanwhile I guess Zuma’s in London being feted by the Queen so maybe that attention will compete with his impulse to only appeal to the traditionalist, least progressive SA voices, and somewhere among his minions they will realize the art is good and not necessarily only important at ceremonial dances for a new wife.

  

 God’s on the Bus. So close to Gaborone…so far from my travel goal of 192 (give or take) countries before I die. So what to do on a Saturday night but take the Intercape bus to Gaborone, Botswana and Immigration where the travel god will bless me with yet another passport stamp. And it did turn out to be something of a religious holiday. The bus rolls northwest out of Johannesburg through Illinois farm country—the corn is as high as … Right about here the on-board TV comes alive with what appears to be holy roller, fire and brimstone preachers straight from Elmer Gantry—except these have an Afrikaners accent. Through the farm country we go with pro-life ads, Christian pop and, through the small farm towns where only black South Africans seem to be fooling around and shopping and doing their Saturday night visiting. Starts getting dark as the umbrella thorn trees grow green and dense, earth reddens and fat brown and white cows and donkeys snack by the roadside against the sky-mountain purple dusk.

 

So still…where are endless roadside stands, knots of aimless men, women heading to somewhere with large baskets, kettles, bags perched elegantly on their heads. Where’s the trash? The smell from the smoky fires and the roadside rubbish? This, my friends is another Africa—southern being very different than western/central Africa. THIS IS PEACEFUL ORDINARY EVERYDAY SOUTHERN AFRICA.

 

  At the bus stop I catch a taxi to the Gaborone Sun. I did try…I did…to find a reasonable normal hotel or guesthouse on line but Gaboronians aren’t big on response to such queries so when I finally decided to go I just booked what I could find easily and American Express-booked a resort gambling ex-pat-in-town-for-the-weekend-from-the-bush camp hotel. DO NOT DO THIS unless you’re coming overland from the deadly jungles of the Congo or have just gone by camel from Cairo to Casablanca. If this is your kind of hotel you should have stayed at home in Amarillo. The hotel staff is very nice however and quite astounded to have a little old lady appear in jeans and a backpack. Tucking myself in for the night to CNN earthquake disaster coverage was already boring…only CNN can repeat so much minutia about every disaster detail of every catastrophic calamity so that even the words and photos of death and destruction of the worst kind have a lulling effect. But I do love you in a kind of obsessive way, CNN.

Sunday Morning in Gaborone. Early, I’m rested, up, showered, out to breakfast. Instead of describing the breakfast myself I’ll let the author of my latest South African murder mystery do it for you. I was reading this while eating and I couldn’t do better myself. “across the deep tan industrial carpet flecked with tiny fern-like organic motifs…into the international-cuisine pine-and-etched-glass emporium with its compound-noun multi-cultural opulence. Sliced melons, German Hams, sausage links, glass jars of muesli and bran flakes weighted down the oversized teak table-top…an endless supply of full, dark coffee….glasses of papaya juice. Globalization. The last time … the juice was called “paw-paw”. Strange fruit.” Author Jane Taylor’s character goes on to describe the guests (except for me), “…Up-country South African parliamentarians, Nigerians, the deputy CEO from a Swiss blood bank attending a symposium on disease control, a French delegation from Rwanda, two Belgian forensic accountants investigating a tax fraud, and an American academic commissioned to write a hagiography of a South African left-liberal novelist. The American’s notebook computer was open in front of him as he jotted down a description of the group mingling around him.”  (Of wild dogs: Jane Taylor, Double Storey Books, a division of Juta & Co. Ltd, Mercury Crescent, Wetton, Cape Town, 2005)

The idea I want to convey is that this crowd in some shape or the other is in every “resort” hotel in every developing country. I have always been so envious of the concept of ex-pat, knowing I’d make a more loyal American abroad than I can ever be at home; I’ve wanted to be one of them but I’m actually not so sure anymore. Whether cultural liaison or AIG rep or missionary or aid worker their lives seem to run parallel in every country. While my bus trip may not exactly introduce me to real life in this or any other country it is a tiny but bona fide experience!

 Sunday morning then. After breakfast I try mightily to gather some ideas from various staff about what to do. “No, no,” they say, “you must rest, you can do nothing, everything is closed, it is the day people go to church and rest, you must rest too.” Now if I were economically-wise I would not be in Gaborone today…but even for me all of the dollars (rands, pula) I’ve spent on the bus and this hotel have to have been for something more than the passport stamp…don’t they? I get a little map of sorts and head for the Parliament and government buildings and the Main Mall. As your trusty Lonely Planet will tell you Gaborone primarily consists of malls and fast food joints but they are closed too on Sundays it seems.

Out the door for what turns out to be a perfectly perfect 2 ½ hour morning jaunt in the warm overcast Botswanian morning. Church-goers walking the neatly swept streets to a scattering of imposing and simple structures among the thorn trees and thorn bushes here on the edge of the desert. I know there are other trees but so far Google hasn’t yielded the information I need to name them. The people I can better describe. Race and tribe are obviously surer things here than in South Africa. The people are mostly Tswana, dark sculpted people of facial dignity and strength. They’re dressed very like our parents and grandparents dressed for church. The women in conservative, crisply-ironed, dark or brightly-patterned dresses, the men in suits or white shirts and slacks. Children spit and polished. They walk at a comfortable pace, not fast, not slow, small groups, obviously even here most people are sleeping in on Sunday morning. It’s a mile or two before I reach the government complex.

Government…as it should represent itself. Here a surprise. Pleasant buildings. well-maintained. Modest. MODEST. No armed secrurity—obvious at least. NO ARMED SECURITY. Am I in Africa? I’m certainly not in DC!  Where’s the opulent Presidential Palace where you will be shouted at if you take pictures? It is not like Botswana has nothing anyone else wants. It has DIAMONDS. The biggest building in the neighborhood is in fact Debswana, the conglomerate of De Beers and the government of Botswana, with the majority of profits reverting to the country and apparently not into the private bank accounts of the government leaders. Seretse Khama Ian Khama is the president, son of the first great leader of Botswana who married an Englishwoman and was exiled to Great Britain for some years. The son is said to be quiet, smart, modest, unmarried, a pilot, wildlife advocate and fitness fanatic. Sounds like Barack’s single brother. Well, actually the Obama brother I’ve seen on TV appears to be rather crazy so I take that back. I am so impressed. I am sure this is government as it should exist. With apparently no one, local or international fundamentalist, gunning for the leader. I stroll from this quiet retreat in the heart of non-blood-diamond political power down the Main Mall, a collection of tacky storefronts offering loans, fried chicken, cheap clothing and videos. Only a couple of vendors are about so I purchase my Botswana souvenir, a brown and gold woven wall hanging for about $3.

Sunday Afternoon in Gaborone. I don’t know this yet but the adventure part of this trip is over. I’m back by noon, greeted by awed desk staff who say “you WALKED, wow, you are strong for such an old person is the subtext of course but that’s okay…if I’m going to get to every country in the world I need to be able to walk the streets when I’m there.

The Gaborone Sun. Gift shop. Decide not to buy the $300 ostrich feather scarf but do get one of South Africa’s gossipy fat Sunday papers. It’s not the Times…well actually it is the South African Times…less serious than our Times perhaps, but then a colleague arrived from the states yesterday with the NY Times for me and the Sunday Styles features an article on a new fad, bus-drinking…in comparison an article about Zuma’s fourth wife’s luxury home seems relatively weighty.

  •  I read the paper. I nap.
  • I watch more earthquake loops (where is Anderson?).
  • I read my book I don’t like so much.
  • I watch American Idol! I always learn new things about myself on travels. Now I know my tolerance for minutes of American Idol in my lifetime is 43.
  • I get an ice cream Sundae but since a waiter must bring it to my room it’s melted by the time it gets there so I eat the bananas and lick the melted chocolate off my plate.
  • My walk inspired me so I decide to do some planks. My gym friends would be proud.
  • Planks are not mentally stimulating but between the earthquake the planks the bad book, yet one more article about sex in South Africa and a bath (I hate baths but thought I could try one in this decade to see if my mind had changed) the day passed.
  • I slept
  • I took the 6:30am bus to Johannesburg.

God of nomads, bless Gaborone and the Intercape bus company. No, god bless travel and passport stamps and new countries and curiosity.  And thank you for Sunday in Gaborone oh mighty toothpick tree.

A note: I feel rather guilty about not exploring further somehow in this rather odd and elusive country. Two bits of information then: 1) Read Michael Stanley’s murder mysteries starring Detective Kubu (A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade). They are much better in my humble murder mystery-expert opinion than the Women’s Detective Agency books. Not quite as simplistic. And then I found this poem on line at Off-the-Wall Poetry, a Western Cape web site. I share it to counteract any sense that Botswana is all mall and KFC.

BOTSWANA MEMORIES

By Sandy Wetton
1.
I love the place names that roll round my mouth
like ripe marulas, indigenous and sweet.
From Molopo in the dry and dusty South,
sand river meander where the boarders meet,
fossil from a more alluvial time.
Not flowing, past Tsagong and desert dunes,
dotted with feral sage and wild thyme,
to Ramatlabama and the customs post.
Mabuasehube, romantic and remote,
abutting the Gemsbok Park, where it plays host
to herds of antilope, on grassy plain.
Or travel East, follow the line of rail,
take the overnight train, again and again
the station name music echoes the rhyme
of wheels on tracks.
Lobatse, Gaborone, Pilane
Lobatse, Gaborone, Pilane.
The clicks and the clacks
Palapye, Mahalapye, Serule
Palapye, Mahalapye, Serule
till dawn in Francistown.
At dusk in the dining car you clattered past,
too fast, to catch the comfortable compounds,
that are Mochudi’s pride.
And while you slept, starch sheeted,
pillow puffed, Matlabanelo’s
pot-shard scattered hillside,
silently slipped by.
In the wee hours, the Swapong range
was lost, with hidden relics from the Iron Age.
And sipping steaming morning coffee,
through the siding at Macloutsie
as you round the final bend to journeys end.
Then further East, the great Limpopo,
green and Kipling greasy, flows,
fever tree banked and humming with mosquitoes.
Or West crossing the Shashi at Matangwan,
chewing Mopane leaves to slake your thirst,
through ever dryer bush to the great salt pan.
Mgadigadi, jewel of the Kalagadi.
Jewels of sound and jewels of carbon
Jwaneng, Letlakeng, Orapa.
Diamonds in the desert.
2.
Mkalamabedi fords the Botletle south of Maun,
where the river was born.
Daughter of the great Okavango,
mysterious delta of channels and Islands,
home to the shy sitatunga, the sly crocodile.
Marvelous maze of lost days
soaked in the sun and birdsong
of a makoro meander along
the Thamalakane and Boro
to the tiger fish bays
of Gomare, Namaseri, Shakawe.
A rattling ride over roads less traveled
to Kudumane, Katata and Kwaai,
where a twitch in the grass is a lion’s tail
and the king is the Tsetse fly.
Savuti, Moreme, Linyanti
form this small monarch’s domain,
this slayer of livestock and cattle
and patron of all wild game.
To the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers
where the hippo and elephant bathe
to far flung Pandamatenga,
and the rumoured elephant grave.
Past pans and pimples that pass for hills
in terrain as flat as a shambva
but as round in sound as Metsemetlaba,
Ramotswa, Notwane, Gaborone, Gabane
Hukuntsi, Mababe and Molepolole
Singing an anthem in my memory.
 
 

Geography is ALL

Personal lives, emotional lives, social lives, sex lives, economic lives…blah blah blah…what about our geographic lives?  

  Me

I grew up in the woods at the end of the  gravel road (Minnesota, not Mississippi, otherwise Lucinda Williams Car Tires on a Gravel Road is my childhood memory too). The variety of green available in that world was pretty well covered by the balsam, cedar, spruce, balm of Gilead poplars (baummies to us), aspen/poplars, willows and more surrounding the tiny farmstead and stucco/log house; sometimes in late spring it was seeing all of the world through a kaleidoscope that only included shades of GREEN. And in spite of being rather poor how very secure it was. It was warm in the winter, full of friendly insect life in the summer, big yeasty loaves of white bread baking, maybe cinnamon rolls too, the kind with sour cream topping adding just a touch of tart to the warm sweetness of cinnamon and brown sugar, dogs barked, neighbors came for coffee, an environment that will always represent my version of the nest we probably all need.

This is to say I had a proper nest from which to approach the world. Somehow my apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico manages to almost equal that early environment: Many trees because I’m near the Rio Grande, just minutes from the Bosque, now they’re cottonwoods and there is never quite the sense of falling into vat of ‘essence of green’, still…, my apartment is small, full of the bright dark colors that everyone says makes rooms seem even smaller, which for me is a goal—just recreated home. So there are not a lot of baking smells, should get a bread machine I guess (sorry, mom) but coffee perking and Amy’s Enchiladas cooking in the microwave supplies a bit of scent to the place.  Besides when I walk by the river in the morning I can smell elephant dung and hear Africa Land awakening at the neighborhood zoo. That is why I do not need to go on safari when in Africa.

HOWEVER IN SPITE OF ALL OF THIS COZY-SOUNDING HOMESPUN RHETORIC, I AM ALWAYS MOVING ON–A NOMAD. Just need a nest to which to return.

Two Kinds of People

There really are only two kinds of people in the world (sometimes the lines blur or the multiple personalities overlap):

  1. People who consider their nest as priority number one. I looked up nest in several on-line dictionaries and it is defined variously as “The place in which one’s domestic affections are centered,” “a cozy or secluded retreat [retreat=a place of privacy, a place affording peace and quiet],” “a place affording snug refuge or lodging—a home.”
  2. People who must wander, who always want to see what is over the next hill or around the next bend. Here my thesaurus gives me nomad, vagrant, itinerant, traveler, rover, rambler, drifter, rolling stone.

We have, then, the nesters and the nomads. Although again we must agree that nesters sometimes want adventure, to see the world’s sights and experience the world’s wonders—but it is probably not their priority. And nomads want to have a nest to which to return for connections, financial regrouping—as in work, the sheer familiarity of one’s own bed and shower.

In my own family there are examples of people confused about the category into which they fit. Robert and Marsha, you know who you are! Looking for the perfect place. Buying houses in Minnesota, Alaska, Florida, trying to love New Mexico where there’s family, maybe loving Louisiana or Alabama or Georgia…but not quite. Not moving beyond U.S. borders much because there is the DOG. But always always looking for the perfect nest while struggling with their evil nomadic twins

Here’s one way to know you’re a nomad. Two nights ago I was trying to shower, doubled over from the pain of an RA flare-up, vomiting up the sole thing I’d eaten in 24 hours. I was in Windhoek, Namibia—a very long way from home. Supposed to take buses over a couple of days to Johannesburg. Pain won the battle, besides which I could not walk, and I spent an extra day feeling lost and sorry for myself in a very foreign city. Early flight yesterday to Jo’burg, to doctor, massive dose of prednisone, night’s sleep and today I’ve planned and finished booking my bus trip and hotel in Gaborone, Botswana tomorrow!

 We all envy each other. The nesters and the nomads. I wonder if it’s nature versus nurture. My family history includes apocryphal stories of gypsies and reindeer herders which generally I choose to believe, not based on fact but if we nomads only relied on fact where would we be—home saving money. And my dad came over from Norway on a ship. So there’s nature for you. I was nurtured in that snug nest ringed by trees so tightly you couldn’t see the storm until it was over your house. I knew I had to move on from a very early age—since my tiny self could turn the pages of mom’s old grade school geography book with the maps everywhere and big hand-colored photos of Rio and Yellowstone Park. Guess nature wins. Although I discovered after many years that my wayfarer father who had an itinerant fiddler for a great-grandfather really hated to leave his northwoods and my mother, who grew up in the relatively stable environment of the Dakota River Valley, was a closet nomad. I should have known since she remembered every single detail of every scrap of geography and history she ever had in school.

Okay…well I will think of this some more as I head up the road to GABORONE. Yes. With one small backpack. What a luxury for a nomad; usually you must take more than clean underwear a couple of books toothbrush billfold lipstick! Jackets tied to backpack in case the bus is cold. OFF TO ANOTHER PASSPORT STAMP.

Africa Lite

  Welcome to Cape Town

Cape Town is disdainfully dubbed Africa Lite, intended to separate its European ambience from the real Africa of out-of-control cities such as Dakar or destroyed cities like Kinshasa. It is true; Cape Town is surely one of the most delightful cities in the world but the fact that it shares a continent with Mogadishu does not make it less authentically African…does it? Cape Town proper is in the process of getting its best foot beautifully shod and putting it way forward in June for the World Cup. You cannot not sense what this means to all of Africa—a place on the world stage of important game-worthy, tourist-worthy continents. And South Africa, former pariah of the sports world—hosting the cup. Makes Africa-aficionado hearts beat just a little faster whether you care about soccer or not!

I try to figure out my fascination with this country—where I am about to spend over a month, a few days of that traveling by bus just to feel what the non-urban South Africa is like. Of course I am drawn to every corner of this continent with some old-fashioned desire to explore or maybe explore-lite is a more apt term since I’m not exactly sleeping in the bush. But South Africa is unique; it is the country in the world with which we share the most history. We (the US and South Africa) are so alike, almost mirror images of each other in some ways with the colors reversed like one of those old negatives. It’s true that the black minority has never dominated in politics or finance in the US while the white minority in South Africa did for a very long time. But the history of apartheid is similar in both of our countries and white power has never been anything except harsh in either.  Now it’s a new day…and we look at what might be. It feels like both countries could get it right with Barack Obama in our present and Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s past and, hopefully, Joseph Zuma up to the task of South Africa’s future.

I left the US, happy to be gone from endless news of the American fundamentalist forays onto the political battlefield from every ditch and cave. I come here to a society in big economic trouble with a president who is on the verge of becoming a stereotype for bad boy behavior but nevertheless a country that in many ways feels more eager and open than us to discussing the BIG issue which is how to move past race and get on with the work of the nation. Americans said on election night November 2008 we had done that. Wrong. Nelson Mandela hoped it would happen here when apartheid ended. Wrong. Still, considering the relative newness of both countries attempts at color-blind societies, it is amazing that the US has a black president and that South Africa, a country whose leaders once considered Adolph Hitler their political guru, is witnessing a multi-racial society pretty close to working pretty well.

My airline seatmate on the flight from Dakar, a pleasant and successful young white South African who markets expensive liquors and other high-end products in West Africa—what could the Congo possibly need more than high-class gin and vodka—says of course apartheid was terrible but, he also says, instead of simply replacing whites with blacks in as many positions as possible couldn’t there have been some thought given to training and education first.  Of course he’s right in a way, but how does any new leader say to a people who have been hugely repressed and discriminated against for their entire lives that now you must somehow spend the next many years getting educated (as though the facilities existed to do that) before you can have a position that pays you a living wage. Impossible. So the alternative is sometimes putting people in jobs they’re not qualified for but will grow into, and watching the country slip a notch or two on the efficiency ladder. It can right itself, and in fact is, with the government hopefully sincere about paying extra attention to education. While the problem is bigger in South Africa, the US has a ways to go before we reach an educational high ground that includes every kid of every race and ethnicity. More similarities.

My taxi driver from the airport, a black South African, said “Yes, the President is doing some good maybe, but he’s a joke with all those kids and wives and girlfriends.”  (President Zuma just took a new wife, his third, and the news just broke that he has fathered a new baby with the daughter of one of his government officials. “And” says the driver, “Now the blacks are treating the whites just like the whites did the blacks before.” He doesn’t seem to think that ‘turnabout being fair play’ is going to get the country anywhere. But did I know that Thursday was the 20th anniversary of the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison? “We’ve come a long way,” he says.

Conundrums

I was in Cape Town for more than a week and it is a lovely low-key city. Beautiful old buildings, Table Mountain looming above, the Atlantic right at the city’s edge, full of restaurants and stores and prosperous looking people of all hues. I have been describing it as San Diego with character. But San Diego doesn’t have townships? And on the edge of Cape Town, everyone’s-favorite-city, lies the Cape Flats…where the black, coloured and Asian populations were forcibly moved during apartheid, in fact moved into separate neighborhoods even in the Flats. Now downtown and the ‘good’ suburbs are increasingly home to coloureds and Asians but still not so many blacks. The mythical color-blind society is still a long ways in the future. But, admittedly knowing little of New Orleans, I understand that it is a city of neighborhoods approaching the intensity and color concentration of the townships of South Africa. Am I wrong?

It seems to me from my various conversations that one difference does stand out as the races reconsider who they are. In the US, people of mixed parentage typically identify with the race of color or the “minority” race that makes up some part of their heritage. Two of my grandchildren are half-Filipino and they very much identify as Asian. Barack Obama has described his path to becoming African/African-American. In South Africa, with apartheid’s divide and conquer strategy always in play, the divisions between white, coloured, Asian and black were so clearly marked and so programmed into the minds of the population that the divisions still exist although one would never know it in downtown Cape Town. More complicated than simply being a ‘person of color.’

The racial criss-crossings and animosities and attractions and the very way history records and defines the relationships creates something of a conundrum. If Cape Town doesn’t feel very “African” because so much of its visible downtown population is white and whites are a tiny minority in SA, then does New Orleans not feel very “American” because much of its visible population is black and only a minority of Americans are black? We think of New Orleans as practically our favorite American city, don’t we? Or another way of saying this. Why do African Americans seem completely American and white Africans not quite African? The latter is a topic of discussion and dissension all over Africa, apparently always has been. I’m sure there’s an easy answer like—whites came willingly to Africa, Africans did not come willingly to North America. But I’m not sure it’s that easy.

I mentioned to my Cape Town friend that actually in South Africa it did feel that whites were South African and I’ve never quite had that feeling elsewhere in Africa. Did that make sense I asked. She said, “Yes of course. Think of it this way, whatever good and bad was to follow when those early Dutchmen arrived they came to stay, not to colonize and return home. They started calling themselves Afrikaners early on whereas the French and the Brits never claimed Africa as their homeland.”

The Township Tour!

 I have always felt a little queasy about poverty tours from the old photos of Bobby Kennedy in Appalachian shacks to the favela tours of Rio and on down to me with some other Europeans taking a van into the Cape Flats. I have now been on two such tours in South Africa, a few years ago to Soweto and now to Langa, Khayelitsha and Crossroads. All in all, I guess if it is done respectfully and it brings business into the township and a bit of understanding of what real poverty looks like to a few more comfortable people, it’s worthwhile?

It really becomes important to read a history of this country in conjunction with being here and before doing this. I had just picked up Dominique Lapierre’s 2008 book, A Rainbow in the Night, and spent a mildly-sick day in bed reading it from cover to cover. It’s as even-handed as one could possibly be when considering apartheid is at the heart of this country’s history, and it was an update for me on details that had been forgotten or never known. For example the story of District 6 and the forced removals of its multi-cultural population into their own compounds/ghettos by race: black, coloured or Asian; then the area was razed so the sinful example of races living peacefully and equitably together could be erased from history. And Crossroads where the march against the bearing of passbooks originated, or Landa, the first township and the home of our guide.

The tour was well done. The guide was matter-of-fact and comfortable,taking the six visitors into all but the “informal” sectors where no services are provided among the shacks truly cobbled together from whatever scrap of material can be nailed to the next. Areas within townships are classified by degree of stability and, in a way, prosperity from the “informal” on up to areas where the shacks have gradually been replaced by tiny concrete structures then by larger concrete homes with several rooms, plumbing and small yards. The single men’s dormitories that housed the thousands of men who came from all over South Africa and the rest of Africa to find work in the cities and who were absolutely restricted to hideous overcrowding with no facilities to maintain any measure of privacy, cleanliness, humanity still exist. Woman and children came to join their men, initially living in the same conditions. Now, very gradually, these structures are being turned into apartment blocks; at the low-end a family of six or so sharing a room with bunk beds climbing the walls, shared cooking facilities, pumps in the yard, miserable outdoor toilets. At the high end and the eventual goal, they become two or three room apartments with proper plumbing, etc. It’s  also true that modern life goes on, hard to maintain but TVs are on with teenagers doing homework while their cell phones charge; the mamas are cooking and shooing the babies about and the men are at work.

We stopped at a dirt-floor dark and claustrophobic Shebeen, shared a pail of traditional beer, all yeasty like bread dough in the process of rising; at a traditional healer’s, nasty skins and tiny heads all about; and visited a bed and breakfast where I will certainly stay for a day or two when I return to Cape Town. It’s in an area of Khayelitsha where the structures have all become concrete houses and the dirt streets are trash-free but it’s still smack in the middle of the Township. It is a lovely B and B really, airy bedrooms, neatly made beds with their traditional quilts; you can tell the house is pieced together over time but all the more character because of it. I’ll publish the name of it when I return home.

Art and Stories

This meandering travel commentary needs lots of editing but I must get it on the blog before it keeps me in blog block any longer. Just to finish with a note. The stories one hears from friends, artists, taxi drivers, hotel staff are endless. Like the US, South Africa subjugated more than one race, treated them brutally and will be dealing with the results for decades to come. The complicated consequences are being explored by everyone and—whether the story is of Native Americans and African Americans raising their voices through theater or the young African choreographer I met yesterday talking about the role the history of this country (Namibia, where I am now, was part of South Africa) plays in his work—it is a rich field of inquiry destined for many art, social and political investigations in the decades to come.

Dining on Happy Exotic Animals

They ran and they played…and then I ate them.

Since I only eat free-range meat or none at all and think hunting is not a real sport but rather some kind of bizarre male bonding ritual leftover from the ‘hunter-gatherer’ era and since I believe in conservation of natural wild things…tonight’s dinner was solely done to prove to my San Diego son that I’m not an exotic-food wimp. I did not break all of my rules; I am quite sure the springbok, kudu and impala I ate for dinner were wild and happy until slaughtered by some great white hunter type who took the heads home to White Bear Lake or Syracuse, and they’re not very endangered…are they? And ostriches are living everywhere. This one probably got loose from the local ostrich farm and was hit by an out-of-control truck between here and Stellenbosch.

Here’s how it all happened. I was wandering around my lovely Green Market Square neighborhood after a site-based performance work that started oddly but ended normally with Jesus (I think) dragging a big broken metal table over the cobblestones and out of sight, his feet all bloody and robe torn and a haunting African melody to cheer him on his way. There’s a sweet restaurant called Da Capo next to my hotel so I decided a meal would be a good thing since I’ve only eaten exotic pancakes since I’ve been here. Through a long and convoluted discussion with my waiter I wound up ordering the following plate under their tapas menu:

  • Ostrich filled with fresh spinach and secret sauce;
  • Springbok filled with artichoke, tuna and tapanada;
  • Kudu filled with exotic wild mushrooms and
  • Impala filled with creamy chili and tuna puree.

I copied that directly from the menu as I said a silent forgiveness prayer to the pagan Norwegian god of turnips and rutabagas.

PROUD OF ME, SCOTT?

And here’s the critique. Kudu is REALLY good. It’s very light somehow. Like the best steak imaginable—the melting in your mouth kind. Absolutely elegant. And I never have to eat it again. Like going to Luxembourg; it’s done and you don’t have to go back even if it was a pleasant experience. Springbok tastes like a nice light pork with a slightly liver-like texture and Impala tastes like a wild animal. I know I must have eaten venison growing up in Minnesota, and once I tasted bear meat. Impala tasted like I imagine that tasted. About ostrich. I could not do that. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the Swiss Family Robinson kids rode around on them so I associate them with horses. Or because they are so truly ugly. Or because they are being farmed, penned up, not wild and free like I like to imagine my meat having been just prior to my chewing it up.

Now I am having instant cappuccino and dried out ginger cookies for dessert as I write this. Already too much adventure for one day.

Robben rocks

Welcomes should never be taken at face value!

The late summer sun beats down on this denuded island of scrub brush and the odd patch of faded weed and dry grass, but the ever-present Cape wind cools its glare. We’re tourists come over from Cape Town on the Robben Island ferry. “Anyone here want to get married today?” Thabo, our guide for the first part of our trip asks. Funny question I think. But after all it is February 14th and there are 29 couples marrying today on what seems an odd choice of sites. Thabo offers his crowd-pleasing explanation, “They say marriage is a life sentence so where is a more appropriate place to begin serving your time!”

Marriage as a "life sentence!"

Thabo asks us from where we hail and the answers include Japan, Gabon, Belgium, California, the Netherlands, Johannesburg, New Mexico, Botswana and, he laughingly adds, “and my township, this mama in the front row knows me, I better speak well…”  The tour bus drives slowly about the Island stopping often for the young man’s stories of life at Robben Island. His soft and easy South African-accented English is almost mesmerizing as he tells the tales of an island used through time as a place for isolating the region’s troublemakers. “I know you are anxious to see where Nelson Mandela lived but he would be the first to remind us that everyone coming through here during apartheid played a part in the struggle.”

Nelson Mandela

After an hour or so with Thabo he bids us good-bye and we are turned over to a stocky smiling man in his fifties, an ex-prisoner, who will take us through the prison compound. Here the story becomes more personal and both more and less horrific than we imagine it to be. John was here for over six years. He lived in the open barracks, a long room heavily barred but for most of his years without window panes to keep the cold and stormy ways of the Cape at bay; they had only mats on which to sleep at first although eventually bunk beds were installed. There were three meals a day but even then the cruel pettiness ever-present in the “divide and conquer” schemes of the apartheid government came into play. A menu board lists the daily rations for “Coloureds/Asiatics” and for “Bantus” who simply received less of everything, including “No jam/syrup” while the lighter-skinned “coloureds” got treated to a daily “1 oz.” of the treasured sweets. 

In response to a question about daily life though, John says “I’d be lying to you if I told you every day was bad. It wasn’t. We made a life under the conditions that existed and it had its joys. We worked five days a week, mostly out in the quarries, and we played soccer and tennis on Saturdays. We could socialize, each within our building mostly, but the best thing was our education programs for the kids who wound up prisoners. They had their first real schooling by all the professors and doctors and lawyers sentenced here…remember for most of the apartheid years Robben Island was only for political prisoners and many were professional men.”

Mandela's cell

We finally get to Mandela’s cell, the climax of our trip. The 8 by 8 cell holds only the bucket which for many years served as the prisoners’ only container for, in turn, drinking water, bathing and waste; a small stool and a mat and blanket. The leaders of the movement had their own cells, sparse though they were, and usually the ability to communicate freely inside and outside where they grew their gardens of flowers and vegetables, both to make time pass and try to maintain some vestiges of normalcy.

This sunny Valentine’s Day in 2010, it is hard to get my mind around the impact of this place on the men who lived here and the society that put them here. Robben Island wasn’t a place of physical torture or outright murder for the most part—that was done elsewhere. This non-descript island with its fairytale view of Cape Town and Table Mountain just a brief span of blue sea away, was a place to play the mental games necessary to break spirits not bodies. What a testimony South Africa today is to apartheid’s inability to conquer those spirits.

John shared a closing thought that would make a striking Valentine’s card image. “You know the prisoners could have visitors, their wives and children over the age of 16, but no one younger could come to the Island. Well, one summer the guards who lived here got to bring their small children to their compound which was at the other end. It seems that by mistake, their babysitters brought them over to the guards’ golf course near the quarry to play. There were many prisoners working in the quarry that day, digging, pounding, crushing the hard rock, when the sound of children’s laughter came to them. All of them stopped dead still and just stood in silence, almost at attention, with tears making tiny rivers down their dusty faces as their thoughts went to their own children and life as it was supposed to be lived.”

But it’s 2010 and there is a Robben Island souvenir shop, and a summer swimming competition is being organized to commemorate some event of Island history, and animal rights activists are up in arms over a government scheme to shoot all the Robben Island bunnies because they are consuming every shred of plant life on the island. So life moves on.

The view of apartheid

I have a butternut squash pancake and nice South African wine back on the mainland and think about the reality that never quite lives up to the hope and inspiration of big movements but how inspiring it all is anyway.  And I think how one of the few places I ever feel lonely when traveling alone is when I’m participating in a group tour. Can one be ‘a wallflower at the tour?’