Sunday, February 06, 2005

South Africa to African America: 2 Poets Correspond (Letter #6)

06 February 2005

Dear Ayo,

I loved your letter. It’s layered with history, philosophy and wit. The girl who asked for your contact details at the salon was brave enough to confront you. I guess she saw a window of opportunity: a handsome man, husband, good life in the US. Maybe she’ll send the email. And when you come back, do not live indoors: face the real world out there in clubs and pubs and stadiums and church and varsities and where else… where young people gather. Of course you need to take precaution. But fellow, I can tell you that people have been falling in love in all these years of a myriad catastrophes: World Wars and ensuing challenges. If you are serious about claiming your Africaness, then get a real Zulu or Kenyan maiden girl. She will balance your life like she does with luggage on her head. I wish I had been there, behind the curtains, with a red-lipped Kenyan beauty. I am happy you suppressed your feelings, but I was not there!

ii. Print making

I’m making a book bro. It’s called, Lines for Lionel. It’s taking a good shape. Malcolm has amazing technical knowledge. I went upstairs to his office/ studio, and we sat behind the PC to layout text. We talked about measurements and sizes – a language of designers and architects. I am happy with the prototype made so far. I am not sure how books we gonna make, but I am sure I’ll have something to show the people of Limpopo when I get back home. I think it’s gonna be special book made on rare paper. Paper in this country is expensive, it is owned and controlled by private companies Mondi and Sappi. It’s for this reason book prices are unbelievably expensive compared to places where forests are under state control.

iii. A visit to Ukhahlamba (Drakensberg’s) Giant Castle

Sandile knocked on the door as I was sipping herbal tea, waiting for the two eggs to boil in the pot. The time was 8:55. Then Gabi, Sandile’s mom came to literally collect us. You had just cooked the green broccoli as part of our cottage’s contribution to the afternoon picnic. I added baby tomatoes (which few Cavershamers ate) and maize cheese snacks which everyone loved. Cruising through valleys and alleys, and rolling knolls in the hired Toyota Condo 2000, Malcolm the master printer (driver) behind the wheel, I felt safe. I had the company of you and the arts-maestro Peter Clarke. The Caversham man known for his word, ‘you are here for others) explained the history and landmarks of the area: the Midlands place of rare shoes, the expensive and historic Michaelhouse high school where parents fork out R80 000 before uniforms and other school activities. We drove through a huge village, children loitering in the road. Some were playing in ponds, perhaps catching trout – the fish we ate at the Caversham mill restaurant last night. I kept asking myself, how many lives have been lost in these ponds… Red kombis stopped and loaded people to church or parties or societies or who knows? Scrap cars littered everywhere. I actually think they are more than moving cars in the village. It’s a typical lively village where most people in the village are of Hlubi descent and share the surname Hadebe (according to Thandeka, the tour guide at the caves). People’s houses were generally typical of any village: poorly constructed crammed brick walled houses with stones over the zink roof, mud huts that normally collapse when heavy rains fall and a few tin shacks.

When we entered the Giants’ Castle, I was glad to know that the place is controlled by the government of South Africa. In South Africa, there are a few propertied few who own rivers, mountains and game. They even charge for what they acquired illegally.

We walked to the Main Caves, guided by Gabi, who, like you and Terri, took pictures incessantly. Terri loved the beautiful landscape – of a variety of proteas plants, red ochre, million-year old layered rocks, flowing river/ stream in the bottom, singing birds. I saw her capturing types of grass and fen.

Lionel remained behind at Caversham with Molly the bulldog, making art. When I learned that he was not going join us, I tried to persuade him during dinner at the restaurant. But when a big man of Lionel’s stature has made a decision, no one can change that. Even though it’s risky to walk in paths of puff adders, baboons and reptiles at the so-called Bushmen museum, it would have been good if Lionel had joined the group. Perhaps we would have become a better team, now and forever.

As we walked in the lovely sun of Midlands summer, I admired the energy of 76 year-old arts-maestro Peter Clarke. He walked tirelessly, hanging his green jersey on the shoulders. He might have walked 2 hours to and from the caves. At the caves, Thandeka the tour guide from the local village, with words pasted on her head, told us the history of the Northern and what side caves? She spoke in English. She enticed us to the beauty of the Nguni languages of clicks. She made sounds: qoqo, cici, xoxo. I am not sure if tourists bother to learn Zulu given their obsession of European languages. Many tourists who walked to the direction of the caves were white. I kept probing, ten years into South Africa’s freedom and democracy, where are the African tourist? Peter indicated sarcastically pointed that they were still fighting for liberation. Later he said he represented the African folk. I asked Thandeka about numbers of people who visit the area, she said,

“We have a lot of whites. Sometimes a few blacks from the US. It’s expensive, it’s R50 per person. Imagine a man from Kwa-Mashu with his family visiting, it would be very expensive. Plus they would like to eat and drink, and plus petrol”. Importantly, local people need not pay when they visit the caves. The only problem is that sometimes they hunt down elands and kill them, an unbecoming act.

In the caves, I saw faint paintings of the Khoisan people: images of elands, cattle, bushbucks, snakes, people, bows and arrows. I also saw sculptures of these short people donning Thandeka explained too fast the traditions of these almost decimated people. She also showed us a 1942 signage by a certain Boshoff whom she did not know anything about. She showed a place where British soldiers used to gather and make fire. She said nothing about the great AmaZulu nor the village where she lives in.

For me, the visit to Ukhahlamba was joyous, a great effort on the part of Caversham to build a team. I wish Lionel joined the team. Maybe he would have loved the food feast and sweet corn that I ate in the picnic luncheon.

iv. Sharing is based on the generosity of spirit

Now I want to preach. Sharing is the basis for any solid group. Yesterday you expressed doubt if we were a group, pointing out that if we were, few would dominate. It’s not only you who sense a hierarchical structure within the group; that is, it’s Peter, Lionel. Peter is humble and reasonable.

What is it that we can share as poets? Poems to the group. We must fight for that space. Peter created the 10 o’clock ritual during tea time. We must leave a legacy. No room for despondency.

Lot of things can be shared as part of strengthening this residency: photos that people take can be developed and shared amongst all of us. A group photo can be made for all participants to take home. A Caversham news/ bulletin can be set up. It’s good Terri is helping with the development of Caversham website. It’s a resource for all of us. It’s good that we’ve been eating together quite often. Some members of the group are not into the cooking habit though. Or are they saving money? I don’t want to mention names (I have no cash to face the legal court).

Sharing must go beyond Caversham. Someone must do a catalogue of work done at this residency. We must all practically demonstrate an ability to cut this selfishness in us, and share words, ideas, physical resources to the poor and deserving.

When we share what we have, financially or ideas, we must not attempt to control processes. Let us facilitate. Collaborate. Corroborate areas of transformation. When we share, we must promote the collective ways of making decisions. Where possible let’s have consensus, or worse, vote. We must encourage dialogue and monologue. Otherwise we end up in total control, that makes us bosses. Others can call us dictators.

When we share, let’s think before we open our big or small mouths. It’s better to contribute by listening other than blathering. Sometimes I speak without thinking! And when I do so, I make no sense at all. What’s your take on this matter, bro?

Should artists be sharing? Yes, and what if you don’t click? Maybe Caversham should run a group dynamics workshop and deliberate team building exercise as part of the residency. I take it most of these concepts are being implemented, for instance, we normally eat together as a group. Malcolm and Ros often invite us for dinner. Why don’t we invite them for supper too? Does this kind of tradition/ exclusion signify uneven power balance between participants and management? What do you think?

II Sharing skills and abilities – a reflection on workshops

Every member of the group must share. If Peter the maestro does not have time or skill or energy to drive interviews using video, the maestro must then pass the baton to another artist of writer to do the job. Time is ticking. I promised to write a press statement about the work of Caversham and this residency, and if nothing comes of it, Vonani must be reprimanded. The group must tell me to have a clear focus and set realistic objectives. Sharing skills and abilities is dependent on expertise, selflessness, confidence, love, readiness, compassion and a feeling of ownership.

The workshops conducted during the residency were fine. Peter shared his poetry through his own voice and the video which featured other notable South African poets like Ingrid de Kok and Michael Cope. Lionel shared his life in Robben Island and the harsh conditions in District Six. He raised the question of identity and deconstruction. Ayo, you made us think fast, free writing exercise. I tried to get people talk about their personal history, and write a poem or something about ‘tree of their lives’. Gabi took us to the river, orienting us about Caversham. She trusts us with her computer, and radio, and plates and… she drives us to Howick and Lidgeton. Ros invites us for dinner, she drives us around Howick to do some shopping at the Gravevine and Spar, to the Falls and to that overflowing Dam.

Mr Caversham or should I say Malcolm shares love, passion for creativity, his hour-glass model for development, deep concern for the poor and peaceful working environment.

When writer and poet Kobus Moolman visited, I sighed. It was good meeting a prolific writer of his stature. I am sure we shall share a lot, now and tomorrow. When story-teller gem Gqcina comes, it will be marvelous. Fireworks. That’s what we need. More fire. More energy. You have a lot of fire, energy, sir.

Best regards,

Vonani wa ka BilaCaversham Centre for Writers and Artists

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