|Sculpture by John Baloyi|
in his Limpopo studio 2013
Grace and I had a conversation one morning when she offered me a plate of tropical fruit for breakfast. It became a game to compare the costs of what we could eat in South Africa, particularly Limpopo and what we'd pay for it in a UK supermarket. As the juice from mangoes and paw paw dripped down my arms, I told Grace what a luxury it was. She laughed.
All our conversations were translated, although she speaks some English where I speak absolutely no Venda other than to say hello. For a women, hello is a drawn out and gently spoken "Ah", as quiet and laid-back as a meander down a dusty lane.
Then I asked what she'd consider a luxury and quick as anything it was a cream cake.
Grace and her daughters showed me South African life without fear, rural life, its keen wisdom and generosity. She knew when it was going to rain and woke us in the middle of the night to move off the porch, she showed me how to make maize cakes and how sweet potatoes grow. Grace worked morning to night to grow food to feed her family and is now bringing up two grandchildren while their mother works. I often think about her. When I'm on the allotment, when I'm juggling this issue of culture and race, when I moan about single parenthood and above all when I think about poverty.
Several poems in Fever Tree emerged from this journey and, 'Her Year' (in Woman's Head as Jug) grew more slowly, rather like a fruit tree. Eventually it felt ready and although it's moved a long way from that time in Limpopo, it comes from Grace's symbiotic relationship with her world.
Grace spent her days with her hands in the earth. All that's changed because of her arthritis but she still keeps chickens and a small kitchen garden. In 2013 we visited briefly and took the cream cake I promised at breakfast ten years earlier.
Regret is a wasted emotion, but I wish we'd stayed longer with Grace. Even in 2013 we didn't see enough of her or Margaret and the girls in Palm Springs. Each trip, in some ways, has felt as if we were trying to funnel family, the history of apartheid, traditional Venda life, contemporary South Africa with all its complications, the beauty of the southern hemisphere, birds, elephants, the markets, the mangoes and ancient hardwood forests, into four tiny glass bottles to take home.
Tuesday 22 January 2003
We’ll stay until Friday because it’s an amazing place. Grace produced a week old baby as if by magic, Isaac, her 7th and third boy.
She has four girls at home – Randu (8), Mercy, Caroline and Mavis. Mavis does most of the work. The kids are up at dawn to wash and get ready for school. There’s no electricity, the TV’s powered with a car battery, the children study with paraffin lamps and we eat in the dark. Last night we had warm maize cakes and cabbage. For breakfast, Mavis lights the fire in the round house and puts the kettle on. Mrisi and Giya are fascinated by the chickens, geese, goats and ducks. These are their meat, their veg is grown, and fruit. But they’re not entirely self-sufficient and have to pay for school and healthcare.
Water comes from a standpipe in buckets, and there’s great hilarity when I go with Mavis and carry it back on my head. After breakfast we go off to find some artists. The first one we go to is Jackson Hlungwani, a famous woodcarver. He’s there, talking about God, how the future is with women and he gives us four sculptures, a small crocodile, a face and two fish.
The kids have discovered some kittens. Jackson hands out mangoes and says he’ll take us to see more artists. First stop is Jackson’s student, John Baloyi who has pieces in a number of museums. Later in Pietersburg Museum of Art we see an amazing crocodile he’s done. The most stunning piece of his is a wonderful giraffe chair and a carved seat. He’s not there.
I didn't write this in the diary, but it lodged in my mind. In every tiny shop, however informal, there was a Coca Cola branded fridge. Sweet drinks were easier to obtain than water, for cash. Jackson sat in the front seat of the car giving directions and asked us to stop for a Coke. "The blood of Christ," he said as he gulped it back.
Coca Cola was everywhere. We went into one tiny village and there was an arch over the road - Welcome to Coca Cola country. Somehow this seems so much more intrusive than the ever-present and faded ads for Sunlight soap.
Then we go to a drum maker who has made the biggest drum I’ve ever seen. He unwraps it from under a tarpaulin, it’s made from a tree he got permission to cut it down. Then there are two women potters in their studio in a cold round house and another older woman whom Jackson says helped start it all with him. We buy small plates and bowls, more fish designs.
We shop for Grace and on the way back go to see R’s old house on top of a hill. He’d hope to show us three but there’s only one left. His neighbour’s still there, sitting in her courtyard doing the washing. He’s shocked by how grown up people are, as if he’s been in a time warp. It must be hard.
Supper is maize and spinach. Giya finds it hard to eat food she can’t see. I do too, but suppose I’m less nervous. I worry they’ll both get hungrier. Giya’s stomach’s still upset and the toilet smells bad. But you can sit with the door open and it’s the only place I can have a cigarette in peace.
Wednesday 23 January
We’re off to Giyani to meet K, R’s old friend who teaches at the college of education. We take Randu with us. We pass a dam which R says wasn’t there when he was a child and a shepherd. We see nothing of Giyani but the college of education. The campus is wooded and flat, like everything – single story buildings. K meets us at the Caltex garage. She drives fast. Everyone drives fast. Her house is full of bright colours and sculpture, wall hangings, many of them by well k known artists she’s had contact with.
She wants us to visit artists but R and I did most of them yesterday with Jackson. So she suggests a woodcarver who’s not far away. The heat is oppressive. He’s very talented but his wife’s psychotic. She sits in the garden talking very loud to herself. She lost a month old baby and was threatened with a gun by a guard. The sculptor’s beside himself. His daughter sits under a tree with her back to everyone. The other children come back from school while we’re there. M & G are disturbed and the woman doesn’t stop babbling. I can’t stand more than a few minutes of the stifling heat inside and the woman outside. I go to the car. There’s no water. We leave without buying anything. No more artists. It’s too difficult.
The children are hot and bothered but we go swimming with K in the afternoon at a school where she gives lessons. Randu doesn’t swim but becomes more confident. In the evening, on the way back we stop to see another of R’s cousins - he’s a chief. It’s dark, the houses are traditional round houses with low walls between them. The women are sitting under a tree eating supper – an old woman, children and some younger ones.
Everyone’s amazed to see us, but as the evening goes on I feel really self-conscious. I can’t understand anything but know people are talking about me. When we drive back I say, 'they’ll have something to talk about' and R goes mad, shouting and ranting about how I think everyone should speak English, which is untrue. When we arrive back at Grace’s house, I sit in the car crying. Grace comes to see me. The children are upset too, because I am. That night we sleep on the porch but Grace comes to wake us up, saying a storm’s coming. Minutes later the rain starts. I’m amazed she knew. We run to the round house and go back to sleep, badly. The mosquitoes are heavy.
Thursday 24 January
|Country life - entrance to R's land in Mashau,|
It’s cloudy and wet. The children go off to the village school, then we go to Louis Trichart to change money and have a Wimpey. We buy cloth in an Indian store off the N1 and stop off at Jackson’s on the way to Giyani to pick up the fish he’s been making for R. He’s made a stand for it and is in the middle of doing an Adam and Eve sculpture which looks beautiful. The children play with three kittens. His grandchildren are sitting carving too. We pass the chief’s again and he chief mentions it must have been hard for me not understanding anything. I feel vindicated and realise how insecure R is about this trip. Family always causes tension.
R talks to the chief about buying land by the dam but it’s hard to get to the water. The sand roads are bad and full of ravines and potholes.
At K’s realise how amazing it was staying with Grace. She’s preparing a barbeque and her friends arrive. One woman with her son is friendly. Another is a social worker and a snob. She talks about child abuse. K wants everyone to dance but I’m too knackered. The children listen to music in her daughter’s room. We’re bitten alive that night – the net’s full of holes.
I look up into the tunnel it makes, lights on it making it solid. More sounds of the night. The net tunnel twists up into the darkness.