September 2 – 12th
I have touched the continent of Africa before. First when, as a child, I sailed from India to England and we passed through the Suez Canal, which links the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. We landed at Port Said in Egypt, and Egypt is on the northern edge of Africa, this amazing continent which spreads all the way to Cape Town, at the farther most tip in South Africa . So when I used to boast to my school friends about all the places I had been, I could truthfully say I had been to Africa. Later, I had a brief, but wonderful holiday in the North African country of Tunisia. But it was only many years later, when I visited Nigeria, did I feel I was in the heart of Africa; saw the red of the earth, the green of the jungles, the sounds and sights, the music and art, and what I thought of as being African
Now here I am, once again on the continent of Africa – but at its most southern tip. I flew into Cape Town. Everyone who had ever been there told me how beautiful it was. They weren’t wrong. It is spectacular. Mountains and bays encircle the city; Table Mountain rises up behind, dominating every view, changing constantly, as a misty cloud wafts and coils over it like, as the inhabitants say, a table cloth being laid and relaid. In the mountain ranges there is the Lion’s Head and the Twelve Apostles, which seem almost to be pushing this modern gleaming city into the ocean, and it can look like nothing more than a blur along the shores – especially if you view it from the sea as I did, when I took a trip to Robben Island.
Robben is the Afrikaans word for seal. Seal Island or Robben Island is in the middle of Table Bay, about twelve miles offshore, and is the island prison, where Nelson Mandela spent twenty-eight years, doing hard labour, hacking limestone rock in the quarries along with other freedom fighters, who had fought against white rule and apartheid. It was a moving experience for me. I never thought that I – me – brown-skinned, mixed race, Jamila, would ever in my lifetime, be able – or even want to, visit this country, which had personified everything I loathed about racism. I, who for most of my life had supported the anti-apartheid movement, had boycotted South African fruit in the supermarkets, and written my letters of protest, I could never have dreamed that the whole thing would collapse in my life time, and that Nelson Mandela would walk free from that prison alive and well to become the first black president.
I still feel awe-struck. Cape Town is so beautiful it’s easy to be enchanted. Indeed, my sister and I stayed in a guest house called The Enchanted Garden. Feeling in need of a holiday, I couldn’t have imagined a more restful and enchanting place. It is tucked into the rocky, verdant hillside, which tumbles down to a wetland spreading to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Each morning, we slid open the doors to a terrace, and gazed down upon the ever changing blue of the sea, sky and the dark line of the horizon, and each evening, we sat and watched the sun drop burning red, and sink like a stone into the ocean.
The owners, Peter and Sonia Jacka, have two children, two miniature horses, two Great Danes, a little aged white terrier, a ginger cat, honking geese, clucking hens and, until she died recently, a pot-bellied pig called Victoria.
How they all loved running down the sloping hillside garden. There go the children, Natasha and Nicole, the horses, the dogs, the geese and, most amusing of all, the wild guinea fowl who, with their plump grey and white bodies, spindly legs, and long necks with their vivid sky blue cravats, hurtle down the slope, their legs strobing with the speed – looking as though they could all take off and soar over the ocean below.
Sonia is a talented painter, and their beautiful thatched house, with its terraces and swimming pool, is partly devoted to her studio and a gallery. Peter is a doctor, and offers his services to the local township.
Only when Peter took us to this town ship, did I realize that this was a country with two parallel universes. One white, mostly well-heeled to outright wealthy, the other, black and utterly poor. We walked round the shanty town – only a ten minute drive away from the Enchanted Garden, and saw where people lived in a world of shacks made of wood with corrugated roofs, where the homes consisted of one or two meagre rooms, with handkerchief gardens in which scraggy hens pecked the dirt – and each other. Many such townships have no bathrooms or lavatories, but only pit toilets. They have no running water or fuel for cooking, and have to be fetched from afar. They live miles from their place of work, with no public transport, but having to rely on being picked up by minibus taxis, bakkies (small pickup trucks,) or walking.
Only in the vibrant and multi-racial centre of the town, or by the water front did I glimpse a possible third universe – something in between, something that looked as if it could be a transition between one universe and the other; well-dressed couples and families, driving cars, and able to send their children to some of the high schools along with the white children. But – hang on, Jamila, you’ve only been here – ten days now, I remind myself. But I won’t forget those laughing cheerful children in the township; young twelve-year old Zia, who loves yoga, and his sister, Nosipho, and their solemn, proud mother, who kept her shack so clean and tidy. I have promised to send Zia a yoga book. If any of you have books you don’t want, then send them to Peter to take to the little library they have in the township – but which has so few books! (The address is at the bottom.) Even so – guess what – there on the shelf was one of mine! Grandpa Chatterji. I was thrilled and they were thrilled!
Apart from the necessity to see Robben Island, the other trip I had to make, was to Cape Point – the most southern tip of all – to see the Cape of Good Hope, which I had read about in my childhood, and which had always fired my imagination. Before the Suez Canal was dug, ships had to sail all the way round the coast of Africa to reach India and the Orient. The seas around the Cape were notorious, and numberless ships floundered and went down. There are three thousand ship wrecks between Table Bay and Hout Bay alone, among them, “The Flying Dutchman.” It was here, off the Cape of Good Hope when, in 1680, a captain bet his soul, that he could round the Cape in a storm. He lost his bet. The ship went down with all souls, and from then on, many people claim to have seen a ghostly ship riding through mists and storms. Richard Wagner wrote his famous opera based on the story, and there is also a thrilling film I remember seeing as a child.
This was the point which the first European, a Portuguese captain, Bartholomew Diaz reached in 1486, followed ten years later by Vasco da Gama, another Portuguese, and the first European to reach India by sea. When Sir Francis Drake arrived in Elizabethan times, his chronicler stated that The Cape of Good Hope was “the most stately thing, and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.”
The trees and wild flowers are profuse and beautiful – especially the protea, a most beautiful flower which is the emblem of South Africa, and the red erica flower – Peter’s favourite.
It was here that we saw wild ostriches, Cape sparrows, robins, mynah birds, heron gulls, gannets, and so many beautiful species we needed to look up in a bird book. There were the classic South African deer they call the bok, and there were the baboons! “Be careful!” we were warned. “Make sure you keep the windows of your car down, and be on the lookout when you open the boot.” The car park attendant stood nearby with whip in hand, cracking it to warn away the baboons if they came too close.
I had just bought an ice cream, when I heard the crack of the whip. “Move, Jamila, move!” yelled my sister, but I hadn’t seen the baboon approaching, and didn’t know which way to move. So I stood still, and suddenly, soft leathery fingers passed over mine, and scooped the ice cream out of my hand. All around, other visitors fumbled for their cameras, but too late; it was all over in a second.
One of the reasons I was in Cape Town was to meet up with my fellow children’s writer, Beverley Naidoo. She was born here, and left to live in England because of apartheid. Those of you who have read her books, will know that this is what all her themes are about – the horrors and tragedies and fierce courage which apartheid engendered – and especially how it affected children. She devotes all her energies not just to writing about this, but informing children about the need to remember the struggle as well as to be on guard for other human rights abuses. With the help of the British Council, Beverley had organized a video link between a Cape Town school, one in Devon, and one in Ramallah, Palestine.
This could have been a mere exercise in the wonders of technology, but to our delight, the children in all three schools not only enjoyed looking at each other, but were intensely interested in each other and asked so many questions. Basic questions like: (to South African township children) how do you get to school? How long does it take? (To Devon children)What sport do you play? At secondary level, the South African children had practically no sport at all, and they were green with envy at what was available to the English children. (To Palestinian children) What happens when violence shuts down the school? How long might you be off school? How do you keep up your school work when schools can be shut for sometimes three months at a time? We were moved to see how the children in Devon realized how privileged they were compared to the difficulties faced by the South African and Palestinian children.
Before we left The Enchanted Garden, Peter took us on a hike. With rucksacks on our backs, we climbed up to a peak in the Silver Mine conservation reserve. Black eagles soared high overhead as we left the vehicle and started the steep ascent. September, in South Africa is the spring season, and it was like an extension of Peter’s garden – like a vast rock garden. Sweeping up gulleys and rocks and on to the headland, it was a mass of glorious flowers and shrubs; hundreds of protea and erica and all sorts of flowers we couldn’t name; yellow and purple, pink and white. We reached a peak, took lots of photographs, then settled on a rock ledge for our picnic. Suddenly a sleek, small, grey lizard, about two inches long, his body like finely-woven chain mail, appeared and paused, unafraid of us. Peter slid a bit of cooked kudu meat- a type of deer) towards him. In a flash, the lizard took it in its mouth and slithered off. A few minutes later, it reappeared for more. I had never thought to see a tame wild lizard!
On 13th I flew from Cape Town to Windhoek in Namibia. More to tell you in my next letter!
Send books to: Peter and Sonia Jacka
The Enchanted Garden
1, Devon Air Close
NAMIBIA, THE LAND OF THE BUSH PEOPLE AND THE KALAHARI DESERT and the story of THE WITCH OF THE SINGING SANDS
The aeroplane flies you in from one place to another, and when time is of the essence, then it is a boon. But it means you have no preparation, no sense of a journey and the change, which is occurring beneath you. Landscapes are changing, and from thirty thousand feet up, even if you have a window seat, you’re lucky if you can see anything.
All I really knew about Namibia was that it is the land of the Kalahari Desert, and that down there were incredible sand dunes, vast acres of scrub land and acres of acacia trees; that this was a land of lions, leopards, wildebeest, jackals and all sorts of amazing beasts and birds; a land where people known as the San (or Bushmen) still hunted with spears, and bows and arrows.
For thousands of years, the San people had hunted and gathered over a wide area between the Western Cape of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. They moved with the seasons, following the game which was their food source. The San are some of the oldest people known on this earth, and many wandered down towards the Cape and settled in those lusher, kinder pastures. This was before Africa was carved up into countries by the Europeans: the Portugeuse, French, Germans, British and Dutch. The San that are left today in the Kalahari are an endangered people, confined by these boarders, with their traditional territory shrunk to an almost unsustainable level, depriving them of the wild life they need for their nomadic hunter-gathering life style.
Fixed in my mind was a story I knew from the Kalahari. It was about three motherless boys, whose father built them a tree house so that they would be safe from the lion, the cheetah, the leopard and wild dog while he went hunting for food. It was about a witch who lived on the other side of the Singing Sands, and I called the story, The Witch of the Singing Sands.
The father knew about a witch who loved eating children, so he warned the children that, on no account must they let down the tree ladder to anyone except him. He said he would whistle three times to let them know he was back, and only then, should they let down the ladder for him to climb up.
It was a wonderful tree house, built high in the branches of an acacia tree. They were shaded from the blazing sun by the strange umbrella-like canopy of leaves, which spread over the top. All day long, the boys were happy to play and scuttle along the branches.
One day, the witch came by. She sat at the foot of the acacia tree to rest out of the sun. Hearing a little rustle above her head, she looked up and saw three young faces looking down at her.
“Little boys, little boys,” she cried, in her most kindly voice. “Let down your ladder and let me visit you in your tree house.”
But the boys remembered their father’s warning. They shook their heads, and climbed up to the highest point of the tree.
The witch thought, “I want those boys for myself, I’ll just bide my time until I find a way to catch them.” So she went and hid in the bush and waited.
As the great sun dropped low over the desert, father came home with a fine buck slung across his shoulders. He went to the foot of the acacia tree and whistled three times. Down came the ladder and the father climbed up.
“Ah ha!” smirked the witch. “Now I know what I must do.”
The next day, after the father had gone hunting, the witch went back to the acacia tree. She stood beneath its shade and whistled three times. Down came the ladder. In a flash, the witch sprang up into the tree, grabbed the boys and made off with them.
When the father came home at sun down, he saw the ladder was down and swinging gently in the evening breeze. With a cry of terror, he climbed up into the tree, but his boys were gone. Although he called and whistled and yelled out their names, he knew the worst had happened and they had been kidnapped by the witch.
He hurried off to find a magician. Perhaps he could tell him what to do. When the magician heard his story, he said, “yes, I can help you, but it will be very dangerous. The witch lives on the other side of the Singing Sands. No one can get near her without her knowing, for as soon as you put one foot on this sand, the grains start singing. Their song reverberates for miles and miles, and warns her that someone is coming.”
The magician told the father he must cover himself completely in white ash to make himself invisible, then he gave him a drum. “When you arrive at the Singing Sands, beat the drum very softly. The sands won’t sing, and you will be able to cross without her hearing you. But you will not be able to rescue your boys until you have destroyed the witch’s magic. Her magic is contained in a stick. Only when you break this stick will you destroy her and be able to get your boys back.”
So the father covered himself in white ash from the fire, slung the drum around his neck and set off.
After many days, he arrived at the Singing Sands. He knew, because when a buck sprang onto the dunes, a strange sound rose into the wind, humming and sighing like a woman singing. The witch would be on her guard, checking to see who was coming, but all she would see was the buck, because he was invisible.
“Boom, boom, boom!” The father beat the drum and tentatively stepped upon the Singing Sands. The magician was right. The sands didn’t sing. Feeling bolder, he moved quickly, desperate to get to his sons before she was ready to eat them.
At last he reached the other side, but now, the ash no longer made him invisible. The witch saw him, and knew she had been tricked. She would have killed him straight away, but she saw the drum slung round his neck, and knew it was a magician’s drum with magic powers. She must find a way to get that drum. Pretending to be a kindly old woman, she approached the father.
“Stranger, you look weary from your hunting, and I see you have caught nothing. I have a cooking pot full of a good stew. Come to my hut and share it with me.”
The father knew this was the witch, and that the stick she leaned on for support was her magic stick. He thanked her for her invitation and followed her. Bending low, he entered the windowless hut. There was a small fire in the centre over which was slung a very large cooking pot. At the back of the hut in the deep shadows, he saw three pairs of frightened eyes, gleaming in the darkness. He had found his sons, and they were still alive.
The witch handed him a bowl. The brew was poisonous, and if her visitor swallowed even a mouthful, he would instantly die and she could steal his drum. “Here, kind sir, take this bowl,” and she put down her magic stick and took up a ladle to scoop up the deadly brew.
In that instant, the father leapt forward, grabbed the stick and broke it across his knee. With a horrible scream, the witch began to shrivel and shrink and soon, she was nothing but a pile of dust. Joyfully, he rushed over to his beloved sons, who were all tied up, and cut the bindings from their bodies. Clasping them to him, he hurried them away from that dreadful place.
This time, when they crossed the Singing Sands on their way home, he didn’t beat the drum. It didn’t matter that the sands sang and sang for miles around. The witch was dead, and would never trouble them again.
I couldn’t help thinking of that story as I saw the acacia trees dotting the landscape, driving to Windhoek through the dusty darkness. I used to love tree houses as a child, and was always trying to make one whether I was in India or in England. I had also heard that Singing Sands were not just a figment of a storyteller’s imagination. Apparently, there are such sands – a geological phenomenon. I would love to have found them.
The writers and illustrators I met in Windhoek had come form all over Africa: from the Congo, Ghana, Mozambique, South Africa, and Namibia itself. Dominique led the illustrators. I loved his own books which he had written and wonderfully illustrated, and I hope they can be bought in Britain one day, as they would be enjoyed by children of any country. Meshak, who was to lead the writers with me, has also written and illustrated marvellous stories for children.
We had been given a rough draft of a story submitted by a young writer from Ghana. It was called “The Blue Marble,” and the brief given us by UNESCO, who had sponsored the workshop, was to work on a story with the illustrators to produce a picture book suitable for publishing. Tall order!
We got to work with a passion. I was to workshop the writers, and Meshak to fine cut the material to make sure it was structured and properly to length.
We liked many elements of the story; it was about three sisters having to earn a living and run a household because their mother was dead, and their father had gone to pieces. Africa is ridden with HIV/Aids and other diseases, and there are many households with no adult at all. These are known as “child-headed households.” So this theme was already going to be familiar territory. The father wanted to marry again. The girls desperately didn’t want a step-mother, so they tried to prove to their father that he didn’t need another wife, that they could keep house and earn enough living to buy food. While the father went out each day looking for a job, the eldest stayed at home and made little pancakes, which the two younger sisters had to go out on the street and sell each day.
They usually went to the university, where rich students liked to buy from them. But they were often attacked on their way home by gangs of boys who, after the girls had sold their pancakes, would steal their money.
The other issue in the story was education. How could the need and desire of the poor girls to have an education be worked into the text, so that it was an integral part of the story? The writer had given us the means. She had created a blue marble which brought them luck, though what kind of luck was a little vague.
During my two intensive days with the writers, I brainstormed them until we had produced a fairly classic story about a blue marble bringing luck to each of the girls and finally to the father. Everyone agreed, that it was important to have a positive image for the notion of a stepmother. The original writer had a very negative image, and wanted the story to end with the girls succeeding in stopping their father marrying again. But, with the device of the blue marble, we were able to turn that around and make everyone happy.
That is how I had to leave it after my two days were up, and Meshak and Dominique were to then take the material and fit the words and pictures together. I went away thinking, well I’ve learned something too, for I have promised my publisher a picture book text and, though I can turn out a hundred thousand words for a novel, I’ve found it so hard producing a perfect text of one thousand words! I do hope I get to see the final result of The Blue Marble.
While I was working with the writers, my sister Romie was able to see a bit of Windhoek. It was disturbing. The pattern of extremely rich Europeans and very poor Africans was the norm here too, apart from a few exceptions, like those I met in the workshop. Even if apartheid has gone, and these countries are democracies, it’s going to take two or three generations before both the economy and attitudes change this around.
I’m glad to say that, day by day, as I listen to South African radio programmes, hours are spent discussing all the various challenges facing southern Africa, and all of Africa.
Next stop was Johannesburg. This is where my sister is living and working. I had been told not to have any great expectation of this city, but I knew that you haven’t really experienced South Africa until you had been to Jo’burg!
Johannesburg 15 September 2004
My sister, Romie, is also a writer. She works for an NGO (Non Governement Organisation) radio station, producing plays and material informing their listeners about HIV/Aids, and all kinds of issues to do with health, crime, drug and alcohol abuse. HIV/Aids is such a terrible problem, and I had already seen posters in school corridors warning young people about how you contract the virus, and how not to discriminate unfairly people who are HIV positive. People living with HIV/Aids are commonly treated as outcasts, and it is important to educate everyone with the facts. So many children have been orphaned because of their parents dying of Aids, and so many children have the virus too.
I listened to one of Romie’s plays about how a young man who had a pregnant wife and two other children, went to a party, got drunk, and spent the night with a woman who turned out to have Aids. It spelt out the consequences; the potential disaster this could be not just to him, but his wife and children. It showed how important it was to face the facts and do something about it so that he didn’t contaminate his wife and unborn child. I thought it was very powerful and, since Aids and sex related diseases are on the increase in Britain too, such a programme would be just as relevant there.
Johannesburg seems an eerie city; in parts, full of tall gleaming office blocks, luxurious tree-lined suburbs, and burgeoning apartments, but where crime is rampant, and security is apparent everywhere. To enter the complex where Romie lives, you have to insert a code key to open steel gates, and pass a security guard who checks who you are and waves you in. A visitor would have to pass the guard and say who they are visiting. The guard then phones the resident to confirm it’s OK to let the person through. She only walks along certain streets within her own neighbourhood – and never at night. She’s used to it now, and moves around with confidence, the precautions being second nature to her. But like so many others, she drives fast, tries not to linger too long at road junctions, even jumping the lights at night rather than risk being hijacked. And it is after dark, that I found this city so disturbing. There is very little street lighting, and many of those buildings, so tall and glinting by day, are only half lit at night, and there is a sense of menace in those broad, empty, dark streets, crisscrossed by vast flyovers, along which cars zoom along at speed.
But the more I read about Johannesburg – or Egoli as it is called- and especially about the province, Gauteng – the more fascinated I have become.
Egoli means Place of Gold – and it was when we drove out of the city onto the high veldt, that I realized the full meaning. It really is a place of gold. This is what made South Africa rich. It was the very heart-beat of the economy.
Although the gold mines, which surround Johannesburg are now depleted and shut down, the land is gold. In a coal mining area you would see mountains of black slag heaps, here the heaps are golden; the dust which blows in the wind is gold, the earth is gold, the surrounding hills are gold, the grasses and fields are gold. It’s as though King Midas passed this way, and everything he touched turned to gold. And yet this too is eerie. Instead of it gleaming with wealth, the landscape looks sullen, with scatterings of ugly if not utterly poverty-stricken townships, looking just as depressing as many of the areas around Britain with their abandoned coal mines and industries. But for all that, Jo’burg is still a magnete for those looking for work. It is the place to come to make money, and these townships are spreading and spreading, as well as the pathetic shacks of the thousands of immigrants who pour in over the boarders also looking for work.
We were on our way to Soweto, a township with over two million people living there, and growing. Having done a broadcast for an Indian-run radio station, we went in search of Nelson Mandela’s home.
I’ve reached the glorious state of Karnataka, and staying the the city of Mysore. This is the city of Tipoo Sultan – who heroically fought the British under Wellington (who was cutting his teeth at that time.) The British won – at great cost to both sides – including the death of the mighty Tipoo, depicted in many, many engravings which were commissioned at the time and appeared all over Europe. But this state is a relief from some of the stress and horrors we’ve experienced in less ordered places. No beggars!!! A great sense of subsistent prosperity and sustanence This beautiful, rural countryside still moves with the pace of the bullock cart – with a casual, swinging, rhythm among thick pile carpets of rice paddy – applegreen turning to gold – shahed with palm trees and banana groves. We’ve visited exquisite temples, palaces and gardens – restoring the myths and legends of an exotic and magical India. I needed this antidote to my grappling with the issues of how to respond to poverty, beggars and some of the tragic sights we’ve seen on our journey. I’ve looked into the eyes of some child beggers – and seen as little point of communication with them than if they were wild animals. The term “lost soul” seems to apply terribly. Their eyes are not windows into a soul – but into a black void from which there seems no escape. Other begger children are vivd, humerous and resourceful – they look as if they could be rescued – but I’m haunted by those empty eyes. So thank God for Karnataka – which has restored my faith.