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The red   hills swamp our eyes – too immediate to process in our travel-torn minds. The angular rock scree of cobbles, pebbles gravel, sediment, cover the slopes. This land the Klein Karoo, the great thirst-land – sucks us in with its dust, its sun, its sky, its landscapes, its juxtapositions of light and shadow. We arrive at Pear Tree Farm as the four o’clock sun aborts the promise of rain.

We have five days here, my mother, my sister and I. Five days to live in the intimacy of each other as the wild beasts gnaw inside me. I look up, the sky is scribbled with swallows, the telegraph wires sag with their weight, the heat. We abandon ourselves to the immediacy of each moment, leaching out of them the life essence of this finger- cracked basin of earth. I take my mothers hand, lead her across the cobbles, down the white stairs to the entrance of the house, generations of existence freshly painted – white walls, white roofs, white planters, white roses – a setting for angels in this resilient stretch of semi desert surrounded by wide girthed, split, bark-peeled blue-gum trees. A row of cypress stand formally in the front garden, under their shade butterflies float among an overabundance of flowering shrubs. Water drilled from streams beneath the earth keeps this little oasis alive.

The vastness of it all – country roads running across the desert floor, tapering off in the far mountains where they disappear over the horizon. Marilyn and I stand on a hilltop facing the last rays of the day. A boy walks by pushing a bicycle, a tractor chucks up the dust, laughing children on the back, a dog running alongside them. They pass – nothing else remains but the sky shouting its colours across the Karoo. My mind clears of the impending dread, a further six months of chemotherapy; I become encompassed by light, my sister beside me – my life, small in comparison.  This is the moment of my being, the moments behind – buried, the moments ahead – embryos waiting to be born.

 

The bushmen of the Karoo were children of the stars – tonight I look at the sky, I too am a child of this unfathomable galaxy. The milky way, brightest near Sagittarius arches over a silent Karoo, passing westward through the constellations of Scorpius, Orion, Gemini, Taurus, who play out their mythological tragedies in the arena above.  Phaeton, stung by the celestial scorpion as he drives his fathers sun chariot too close, drops out of the sky, scorching Africa into a desert. On this dry land I stand, vulnerable – my own tragedy playing out its course among these dying stars whose light carries on through the millennia.  We too, the remnants of some life form fizzled out long ago.  Moths appear -surround the lights, throw themselves against windowpanes, beat their wings in grim death throws.

It is morning. I watch Alexis limp across the lawn towards us, She hugs us warmly, I feel it spread, this warmth, between myself, my Mother, Marilyn, our friend Alexis, guardian of this fierce beauty. We are caught in the vortex of its existence, spinning with wonderment. A dragonfly has trapped itself in the dining room window, its wings splayed out in fine-netted delicacy. I lie on my belly, hands on my chin, watching the sun form rainbows on its thorax. I carry it outside; hold it up, the dragonfly escapes into the dome of space above us. I feel as free as it does.

We stand on a rise in the road watching the people on their way to church. Marilyn sits on a rock holding her camera. A boy on the other side of a fence starts to sing.

I believe I can fly

I believe I can touch the sky

I think about it every night and day

Spread my wings and fly away

I believe I can soar

I see me running through that open door

I believe I can fly

I believe I can fly

I believe I can fly

His head raised to the sun, his face tinted by its light, he adjusts his earphones. A small boy sitting next to him looks up, smiles. I see three women walking up the hill, each holding a bible. I get my camera ready. The middle woman is wearing a white pillbox hat with a veil caught up in a hatpin. She has a faux patent leather bag over her shoulder. She turns around for us to photograph the bow on the back of her hat. Her sunglasses are skew. They smile, walk on, their shadows stretch across the gravel road in front of them.

The golden hours between sunrise and sunset are spent hunting light and shadows. The mystery of these counterpoints challenge my imagination. These shadows are not sinister, they represent companionship on my journey through life. I metaphorically bend the bow in the rainbow to diffract the light. A women is sweeping in front of her Karoo cottage, the early morning light catches the white walls, the dust in front of her broom, it throws them into another dimension, sets them apart from the shadows. Her silhouetted form comes to represent all who have lived in this tiny farming community – Kruisrivier. Children on bicycles ride past us on their way to school. They stop to pose, their shadows create elongated mirror images along the road. A teacher walks by, books under his arm, glasses fogged by dust. Dust rages up behind a herd of cattle driven by men with red flags. They whistle and shout above the noise of hoofbeats. The light squeezes between the confusion. The heat of the sun begins eating through our clothing. We go home to rest.

The light surrenders to darkness. I have the ‘botanical room’ – prints of flowers, plants pasted on the wall. I lie on my back. A play based on magical realism, the ‘Karoo Moose’ by Lara Foot Newington comes to mind. I think about the children I passed on the road riding their bikes in innocence and delight. I think about the humour and tragedy in the play. In an impoverished, isolated village in the Karoo, Thozam, a young girl, survives a violet, mind altering experience and a magical encounter with a Moose that changes her life. This story is the light and dark side of pain, redemption, in this land of harshness and hope. I think of my own life changing experience, one where I have my own mythical beast forcing me through my fears, helping me see the awesomeness of each day, challenging me to be grateful, humble, fearless.

The 6 o’clock red hills are daubed in light, splashes of light over their peaks. The sun, too young to reach the slopes, the clouds, too few, too small to cast shadows over the valleys. Dust rises from farm vehicles starting their day. Slowly the Karoo is stirring. Roger points out spots for great shots, he a photographer with his own printing works, his own gallery, a bed and breakfast, a nursery, a wood sculpting, furniture making factory, a coffee shop with all kinds of farm baked goodies produced by his partner Phyllis, herself a puppeteer and couturier. A great man with a wild streak, (fast bikes, Elvis, Karoo feests) organizer of a soccer team for the local school where he teaches art. He has abandoned his early morning coffee, his split time to share his Karoo with us.

We take a turn into a track leading to a dam, mountains reflect in water fringed by thorn trees. I walk around the edge until I reach a tree filled with swallow nests. They fly in and out, skim the water, high notes of sound tumbling from of the sky. A laborers cottage stands abandoned, broken windows, doorless, thatch ripped by wind.

Our last trip is with Alexis. She drives us over rough dirt roads through valleys, over  mountains. We pass a herd of sheep being driven into the road, hooves powder the surface into fine dust, we wait. Alexis knows the land, the farms, the rivers, the history of the place. It has seeped into her soul, the beauty and the harshness of it all. She lives alone under the mountains with the companionship of the creatures around her, barking baboons, lizards, tortoises, snakes, caracal, buck, hare, extraordinary night skies above her, Karoo landscapes around her. She is a reflection of her great privilege and is generous, gracious in sharing it with us.

Five days – I look over my shoulder, way goodbye through the back window. I take with me an all-encompassing feeling of gratitude to have shared this experience with my Mother, my sister. I take with me a spirit that is prepared to fight as well as a spirit prepared to flow with the great force of life, I take with me the light, the shadows, the quintesinal now.

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The Cape fynbos kingdom

is a place where

squalling winds herd ocean birds shorewards.

hard rains infuse summer-dry soil

Orchids cling to water -furrowed misty cliffs

slopes thick with Proteas run to the sea

dormant seeds ant-drawn into earth chambers

sprout among blackened fire-tufts

cicarda nymphs molt on wiry stemmed Restios

Springs open petals tincture valleys warm with light

the archaic hail of trumpeting Ericas

pay homage to the mountains

great ancestors of Gondwanaland

in who’s leached acid ground

the fynbos Kingdom flourishes

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I pick up a hand drawn card, it has a red heart on the front – I turn it over, it reads

“You are loved”

Ella puts her arms around me, kisses my mouth, the red from her crayon rubs onto my T shirt. She is the first of my granddaughters.

Our tribe of female warriors stretch back to a world where woman ruled the British Isles. The first, Boudicca (Boadicea), Chieftainess of the Iceni took up her mantle to lead a famous rebellion victoriously. These Warrior Queen’s were many. Ethelfleda of Mercia, Gwenllian who raised an army to fight the Anglo-Norman settlers in Wales. Queen Maeve of Connaught, and perhaps even Gwenwhvawr of the Cornovii.

I close my book – Artur, Gwenwhyvawr and Myrddin – Ancient Brythons of the North by Alexander and William McCall. These brothers, offspring of my great-grandmother, siblings to my grandmother, uncle’s to my mother  – all born in the womb of an old, old land – Scotland.  I think about these people who are my family, descendants of the warrior queen’s whose fate turned out differently through some inexplicable events in their lives.

She remembers seeing her mother for the last time, standing at the front door of their cottage in Carmunnock, Ayrshire. From the back window of her father’s car she remembers passing the bull on the farm next door, she remembers her baby brother crying, her sisters tears leaving dark marks on the leather seats. Those moments were tightly stitched in the fabric of her memory.

The road to the terraced houses where her grandfather lived cut through the woods. Glasgow – What wonderment the place aroused in her, soaked as it was in her mind with sounds and smells of her childhood: armfuls of bluebells in springtime and foxgloves flowering; walking through the woods to school; the silence of the snow; the stiffness of the cooks  uniform; Miss Walker, the fat little housekeeper who smelled of mothballs.  The times before her grandmother left: getting into her big feather bed, burying herself between her breasts, listening to tales passed down through the generations of grandmothers. Afterwards, when they took her grandmother away, she would touch the long golden plait on her dressing table, wrap it around her head; pin the glass encased bumblebee broach onto her dress, run her fingers through the sequined, embroidered silks in her cupboard.                                         Her grandmother, the second woman to be taken from her – put into an institution while the fat little housekeeper spread her duties to her master’s bedroom.

And there is the memory of seeing her grandfather for the last time. She stood on the deck of the steamship at Southampton, waving goodbye to him   hunched under his umbrella in the rain. As the ship left the dock, grinding it’s way through the swells, she could see him getting smaller and smaller until he was the size of the seagulls wailing in the cold, grey sky. She felt as if her ten-year-old body was tied up with pieces of string.

She had not been told much, as the ship approached Cape Town she remembered seeing the mountain.  She clasped her suitcase tightly as though it carried her life, neatly folded inside it. Aunt Molly held onto the two younger children, Hannah and Barry: little suitcases dangling from their hands as they walked towards a figure waiting for them. She handed them over to a man whose face they no longer remembered. Aunt Molly left them at the station where they caught a train to Johannesburg with the man they were told was their father. That little girl was my mother and wrapped inside that suitcase were the fragments of her life.

I followed the path from the tube station to my grandmothers house at 89 Littleton Road, East Finchley: the path that her offspring followed as though pilgrims  – back to the shrine of their matriarchal roots – Her son, her daughters, scattered about on the shores of the southernmost tip of Africa unaware until a strange turn of fate revealed that their mother still lived. How strong can the maternal instinct be to draw back children abandoned so many years before?

The thing I remembered most vividly about that visit was the smell of roses as I walked up the garden path. The air was sweet with fragrance. Full blooms dropped crimson petals onto the lawn. I pressed my finger on the doorbell, Nan opened the door. She stood in the light with her arms outstretched, tall and elegant and groomed as though she was a person of great importance, like the Queen. She wasn’t wearing a hat, but she had on a tweed suit and a string of pearls. Nan’s skin – the colour of Arum lilies and her eyes were what I imagined bluebells to look like – the bluebells Mom had told us about, the ones that grew wild in the Scottish woods.

When she spoke I could hardly understand her.

Why did my grandmother sound so different to us?

That’s when it struck me: We were different, foreign to the land where our ancestry was mixed in the melting pot of Celtic culture. Our traceable family tree began in the early eighteen hundreds where two brothers, cattle drovers in Dornoch, spawned sons – David, James, Robert, William – herd boy, herd meadow head, shepherd boys. In eighteen seventy-two the McCall connection was established when Elizabeth Gilchrist married Thomas McCall and produced three children. Alexander, their only son, married Marion Samson in 1903. They had seven children, one of whom was Margaret, my grandmother, who’s secret drove her husband to sleep with a gun under his pillow. Another was my Aunt Betsy who had her own secrets. Bobby, the boy raised by maiden aunts, the boy she saw every day, opening the gate of the house next door  – was he Betsy’s child?

His grandfather told him when he was fourteen and yet never once during her lifetime did Aunt Betsy acknowledge him as her child.

Had the court not awarded custody of her children to our grandfather, our existence would have been very different. We may have spent our childhood exploring the landscapes of Scotland: playing in heather covered knolls, hiding in little glens, jumping from boulder to boulder across burns and walking on ground choppy with peat. I will never know the real truth, but on that day, standing at her front door, I felt like one of the salmon leaping up the falls of the river Earn or Tay, the Braan or the Garry or the Tilt, finding their way back to the place of their birth.

Although I stood on a doorstep in the north of London, neither my grandmothers birthplace nor mine, we were both in the United Kingdom of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In my seventeen-year-old head I was home and the words from my favorite school poem came back to me

Up the airy mountain, 

Down the rushy glen,

We daren’t go a-hunting

For fear of little men;

Wee folk, good folk,

Trooping all together;

Green jacket, red cap,

And white owl’s feather!

Down along the rocky shore,

Some make their home,

They live on crispy pancakes

Of yellow tide-foam;

Some in the reeds

Of the black mountain-lake,

With frogs for their watch-dogs,

All night awake.

And yet my childhood was spent exploring landscapes – landscapes of a different kind, more wild, gritty, arthritic; the earth’s acid eating into focalized rock, leeching out dust of gold into rivers bereft of fish. At least where I came from; those mudbrown watercourses tasseled with willows, chocked with hyacinth, giving little relief to the dry earth tattooed by drought.

And those whiskery, knobbly, misshapen barbel – can one call those fish?

The women I knew as a child were not warrior women fighting wars, they were women fighting for seeds to sprout, for rain, for fertile soil. Mrs Harrison – every Sunday she grabbed a chicken in each hand, swung them around until their necks snapped, plucked them, pulled out their guts, stuffed them and served them for lunch

It is precisely these contrasts that I love –  my ancestral land, the feeling that I know it so well – deep inside me the wellspring of my being.

My birth land – gripping my existence like a strangler fig – intoxicatingly suffocating and I must gasp for air.

When I look at Biba I see the warrior women of my ancient past in her eyes, I feel my blood flowing back to the mist of time, pumping through the veins of the earliest Britonic Celts, the Gaelic Celts, the Gaulish Celts. I feel my blood spilling on the lands of South-west of England, south Wales, southern Ireland, place of her paternal lineage, southern Scotland, all these the places of her ancestry She, my last born grandchild, hair red with locks, as true as any Celt. At three she has the legendary temperament described by Ammianus Marcellinus

“…a whole band

of foreigners will be unable to cope with

one in a fight, if he calls in his

wife, stronger than he by far and with

flashing eyes; least of all when she

swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks,

like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult”

and then I feel in Ella’s heart her connection to nature, as connected  as ancient Celtic spirituality where every aspect of life was nature revering -placing shrines in natural sanctuaries – at springs, lakes, rivers and woodlands. She, like the Bards, Vates and Druids has an integrated relationship with the natural world.

Through my matriarchal ascendancy of endurance,  suffering, courage, humiliation, abandonment I look at my descendants – my daughters daughter’s – a pure mixture of  boldness, determination independence, braveness and warrior instincts in the one and the intergratedness with nature in the other, all these qualities combined together in my daughter Justine, each expressing themselves through the multiple possibilities of life itself.

We search the cemetery for a rose garden where Betsy wanted her ashes to be scattered. The graveyard attendant digs a hole under a white rosebush, takes the top off the urn, mixes her pale ashes with the dark, rich soil, I remember her words when I asked her to tell me about Nan’s secret.

“ I cannot tell you, that secret I will take with me to my grave.”

She was the last living relative who knew the answer

.

I only now begin to understand. Nan did not have a dark secret,

she made a choice.

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My eyes catch a brilliant flash of wings in the forest canopy. A Lourie flaps from branch to branch raising its alarm call ‘kok-kok-kok.’ It flies off in an extravagance of emerald and scarlet plumage. Marilyn is putting up our tent on the wooden deck under a network of trees. I am lighting a fire. It is the time of sunset and silhouettes, pinpricks of light shine through the foliage. I listen to the closing birdsong of the day – chorister robins, chattering bulbuls, cinnamon doves, boubou shrikes, sunbirds, forest canaries, warblers. We are their audience until the night curtains draw around the forest.

A white umbrella of overcast sky radiates soft and even light bringing colours and textures in the forest alive. Orange fungi, multitudes of them clinging to decaying tree trunks. Mushrooms, ferns, fronds, tree bark, roots, lichen. The earth underneath soft, spongy. It’s woody smell permeates the air. The forest is secret, enclosed. We are not alone. No matter how softly I tread I am aware of eyes watching me. Birds, animals, insects hiding in the lower and upper realms of this world. Although I cannot see them they follow me. My foot snaps a twig, panicked wings take flight. Insects are silent, monkeys move away from the trees above me. The light forever changing, shadow to shade, shade to light – blocks of shade, shadow, light hurtling onto the forest floor. We follow a path leading deep into the forest, walk over stepping-stones across streams heavy with reflection. This, a forest that has been here before KhoiKhoian clans inhabited the region. Before the Sao Goncales ran aground bringing with it Europeans who cut down its timber. Before the Dutch East India Company plundered it. European settlers exploited it, The Great Trek demanded wagon timber from it. Royal hunt’s massacred its elephants. Prince Alfred hunted elephants with an escort of over forty men. By1908 the forest elephants were faced with extinction, their hunting was prohibited except for members of the British royal family.
I look up, the crowns of the old monarchs; the Outeniqua Yellowwoods rise above the canopy, threads of bearded lichens cling to their branches. These trees germinated around the time when King John 1 attached his seal to the Magna Carta granting freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, freedom to petition the monarch, freedom to elect members of parliament without interference, freedom of speech and of parliamentary privilege, freedom from cruel punishments and freedom from fine and forfeiture without trial while they journeyed afar to rape the souls of primitive man.

My mortality is strongly felt amongst these ancient trees bean-stalking their way into the sky, I am a mere speck below them, my life an inconsequential passing. And yet my will to live is enough to draw from their life force. I breathe in deeply, hold my breath for a second, breathe out slowly. I am a parasite, I leach their oxygen into my lungs, draw it into my abdomen where between my small intestines a tumor grows. Smaller ones invade my peritoneal chamber, my lymph nodes. I seek among decaying tree trunks, logs, branches to find healing fungi. I pick them from mycelium beds, these fruiting bodies ready to spread spores on the forest floor. My will to live makes me no better than a poacher. My sister, wise in the ways of ancient healers, places milk, honey, bread on the desecrated shrine, gives thanks to the forest for their gifts of healing. I in my own way pay homage to this threatened system of nature clinging tightly to its remedies sheltering in the moist understory.
“The forest never gives up its secrets…it is like someone you can hear talking, but whose language you do not understand.” Dalene Matthee

It is raining, I can hear it beating against the tent, every tree is exhilarated, bowing to the wind, waving, swirling, tossing their branches, raindrops gathered in leafy pockets fall in unison, symbols, tambourines, maracas, tympani drums in percussive coincidence on canvas. Inside I listen to the breath of my sleeping sister. I think of us as children splashing through puddles on the farm dirt roads, chasing flying ants -new queens of the rain dance, Steaming earth, rainbows over mountains. I am transported back to my birthplace, a farm at the edge of the world; my mind wandering through poignantly random moments of my life.

The forest path is interrupted by a tannin stained stream flowing over water-worn stones. Above tree ferns cast shadows on pale rocks, their spiral motifs one of the most Delphic sacred images known. We cross to the other side, step over circled tree trunks between starbursts of sun on water. The path – the only sign of man’s mark on this forest, its strangled growth leads us deeper into this enigmatically primeval place. I sit on an uprooted tree trunk. I watch a butterfly land on a leaf; a moments repose – I, and the butterfly. I drink the silent energy of nature, feel it stir my inmost thoughts. Annie Dillard comes to mind
“In nature I find grace tangled in a rapture with violence; I find an intricate landscape whose forms are fringed in death; I find mystery, newness, and a kind of exuberant, spendthrift energy.”
Thomas Carlyle wrote
“All life is figured by them as a Tree. Igdrasil, the tree of existence,
has its roots deep-down in the kingdoms of Death:
its trunk reaches up heaven-high, spreads its boughs over the whole Universe:
it is the Tree of Existence. At the foot of it, in the Death-Kingdom, sit the three fates – the Past, Present and Future; watering its roots from the Sacred
well. It’s bough with its buddings and disleafings – events, things suffered, things done, catastrophes, – stretch through all lands and times.
Is not every leaf of it a biography, every fiber there an act or word?
Its boughs are the Histories of Nations.
The rustle of it is the noise of Human Existence, onwards from of old. …
I find no similitude so true as this of a Tree.
Beautiful; altogether beautiful and great.”

I think of the fairy tales read to me as a child, still potent memories in my mind – The brothers Grimm portray forests as symbols of chaos, danger, mystery, wonder, introducing a mythological dimension between the forest, man and beast. Joseph Young describes how fairy tales shape our lives
“The darker elements in tales often reveal shadow energies in an action, an image, or even a setting. The deep dark forest is a common representation of the feared elements within. The monsters live in the forest. The forest can reflect parts of ourselves that are never entirely tamed, that are always somewhat dangerous and chaotic. These elements sometimes come up in nightmares. They are important parts of ourselves. In some ways, they are the most creative aspects of our inner world. We need to go into the dark forest. It is difficult and mysterious. Still, fresh energies and new ideas come from that place.”

Yes, I suppose subconsciously I chose to make a pilgrimage to the forest for those reasons. The dark malevolence growing inside me represents my innermost fears, this, my own monster. I need to go into that dark place to walk through my nightmares, come to terms with my nemesis, find “fresh energies and new ideas to cope with it.” At some level in both my mind and body I am excreting my metaphysical toxic waste, hacking through an avalanche of thoughts, the chill of death stalking me, the very air I breath seems filled with it, and yet it is not a smell of decay – it is a smell of rebirth.

The dark forest of my dreams is the archetypal home of my deep inner rootedness – a place where darkness is at breakpoint and can only turn to light.

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LOVE FROM LAMU

“Time brings about accidents, seemingly meaningless events that fall out differently from our expectations. Somewhere inside our experience of time we find the idea of choice, which lets us take one branch rather than another when we come to a fork in the road”

Francis Huxley

I awoke to Muslim morning song. Stretching from under my mosquito net I opened the curtains. The rainheavy Mombasa light struggled to penetrate my hotel room. White breasted house crows dominated the sky. There is a Swahili proverb about white-breasted crows.
‘My sons wear waistcoats: those who do not are not my sons.’
A woman opened a door onto a roof garden, she scattered crumbs for the crows. They flew down – a multitude of wings, beaks, claws – their squawks vibrating against my windowpane. It began to rain. The woman stood in her bui bui, arms lifted – a black robed Madonna catching raindrops in her cupped hands. That image is what I remember of my overnight stay in Mombasa

.

The bus to Mokowe was twenty minutes late. My seat had been pre booked right at the back. A man dressed in a Punjab and skullcap knocked on the window and told me I should move.

“That is the worst seat on the bus. You are sitting right on top of the axel.”
He indicated with his hand on his head that I should be careful not to bump my head. I liked my seat as I had windows all around me, so I stayed. The bus filled with passengers, we pulled out of Mombasa in a burst of rain. Piped Taarab music lulled us into silence, now and then interrupted by a crying child, buzzing flies, ever increasing mosquitoes. I looked through the window between Africa and me, my thoughts cutting through the preconceived ideas I had of this land, Kenya – a land romanticized by stories about the early pioneers – The Man Eaters of Tsavo, Out of Africa, The Flame Trees of Thika,West With the Wind. Other books – Rethinking the Mau Mau in Colonial Kenya: seeing Kenyan history from a new perspective, an alternative to the colonialists and nationalists explanations of the Revolt that was one of the world’s greatest events which helped to bring the Empire down to its knees.

The narrow road flooded, a truck had washed over a bridge. People sat on its roof holding umbrellas, waiting to be rescued. The worst part of the road was the section before Kilifi. Yachts moored along the creek became visible for a moment in passing. Mirella Ricciardi’s book ‘African Visions’ came to mind – her affair with Africa.
“Africa lay around me in all her magnificence … I seemed so small and insignificant in my task of capturing her magic.

The bus stopped at Malindi for half an hour. I climbed out with the others to line up for the toilet – a pit with no door; inquisitive eyes watched. I closed my eyes and thought “This is Africa”.
I bought boiled eggs, bottled water from vendors. tropical fruit from the baskets of young girls.

Some of the passengers disembarked and new ones filled their seats. A soldier, heavy with sweat, sat down next to me. He rested his AK47 between his knees – the barrel pointing towards my face. I lifted my index finger onto the tip of the barrel and moved it away. The soldier laughed and said

‘Don’t worry it’s safe, its not cocked.’

He told me he was on the bus to protect us from Somali bandits. He had shot four of them the week before. He lifted his gun and said
‘With this gun.”
They had attempted to hijack the bus to rob passengers of money and food.
“The bandits were so shot up you could not recognize them as humans. We exhibited their bodies on the roadside like trophies as a warning to others.”
I looked at his face. He could not have been older than seventeen. I found it hard to imagine him murdering starving Samalians. I asked him how he felt about killing people.
“It’s my job, if you don’t get them, they get you and they have no mercy.”
We talked about South Africa. He was glad to meet someone from there because of the world cup soccer. We drove along the corridor between Somalia and Kenya, one of the few natural game areas left in Africa.
“I get off here”
He got up, slung his gun over his right shoulder, shook my hand and said goodbye. I waved at him through the window; my reaction to a fully active mercenary killer with fresh blood on his hands surprised me.

After a bone-shattering journey, the bus dropped me off at the edge the mainland. Swallows fenced through a five o’clock sky. Azizi, who had also been sitting on the back seat of the bus, introduced himself and asked me to follow him.
‘For one hundred shillings you get a speedboat instead of an old dhow that will take forty five minutes to get to Lamu.’
A Muslim woman, who had taken off her ninja during the bus ride, re-covered her face, she sat down next to me in the boat. Her small daughter sat in front.

Lamu – how I had anticipated that moment but I was not prepared for the mystique of it. An ancient hand carved dhow seemed to be suspended in time above the water. Others came into view – exotic names, painted flags. Only when our boat stopped did I notice the rag coral buildings with palm frond roofs. I was looking at centuries of history framed in an Indian Ocean sky.

I stepped off the boat onto Lamuian soil. Azizi led me through rain-puddled corridors to my hotel. Men sat on barazas between caved wooden doorways. They stared down narrow streets that seemed to whisper ancient secrets. The textured surfaces cast varied densities of shadow.
‘Jumbo’ they greeted me softly
‘Karebo’
You are welcome.
Women dropped their eyes and children took my hands and kissed them.
‘Jumbo Msungu, jumbo, jumbo, jumbo.’

I squeezed past donkeys in narrow alleyways, rough textured walls softened by courtyards of pink hued bougainvillea. In between, houses had crumpled with age. Goats grazed on moonflowers growing over the ruins. Open drains emptied themselves into the sea.

Douglas greeted me on arrival at Jannat House. He took my luggage and led me up a flight of stairs to the entrance of the dinning room. A sign read
‘Please remove your shoes before entering’
I was relieved to kick off my sweaty black pumps, walk across the cold plaster floor. Another flight of stairs led me to my home for the next month. My room had a mosquito net draped above a carved mahogany bed. The sheets, folded in shapes of origami birds were trimmed with flowers.

Carved wood decorated the desk, the wardrobe. Fabrics draped across the doorway leading into the bathroom – there a view led my eyes over rooftops to the sea and across to Manda Island.
This was not a luxury room, nor an expensive room. This was a room that welcomed me with its warmth.

A loud speaker from a mosque outside my window echoed a visceral call to prayer. I freshened up before walking back into the dining room, barefooted. Island flowers crowded bowls on white tablecloths. The sound of ceiling fans reminded me of typewriter keys. I imagined Earnest Hemmingway writing in a room designed by the hands of an ancient architect. A lizard emerged from behind a beam. It remained motionless, as though part of the ornate plasterwork. I was the only guest that night. I listened to night-sounds – the beating wings of fruit bats – children playing – the kissing sounds of boys herding their donkeys’ home. The smell of paraffin stoves permeated the sea air. Douglas brought me a starter of shrimp cocktail. A fish dish served on coconut rice. After a desert of fruit crepes I returned to my room.
The sounds of a contented community living in harmony with its environment punctuated the reality of my life in South Africa. I can’t remember when I last heard children playing in the streets.

Lamu seeped through my pores saturating my senses. Within the first few days I had abandoned my clothes to a bui bui and wrapped my head in Khangas.
Bui bui means spider in Swahili, how appropriate the name was. The women did look like black widow spiders, their dark robes accentuating their thin, tall and perfectly postured bodies.
I lost myself in the maze of alleyways, my fingers reaching out to touch the textured surfaces. The light trapped between walls bounced off paths worn smooth by centuries of footprints. The old stone town – a fusion of Arabic, Indian and Swahili architecture.

I took a trip on a fishing dhow around the mangrove islands. The wind calm – our Captain dropped sail and used the diesel engine for power. I managed to get a few shots of yellow-billed storks, carmine bee-eaters, a fish eagle. The crew sat in the back of the boat while I captured shot after shot of sunset. 


That night three other guests joined me at the dining room table – a couple from the UK and a Swedish girl who introduced herself as Karin. She reminded me of a friend I had made in London and liked her immediately. We arranged to walk to Shela beach the following day. Douglas cleared away our wine glasses, blew out the candles and said goodnight.

‘Lala Salama’
I did sleep peacefully that night.

Mosque prayers through a loudspeaker woke me at five. I was glad to be up at that time to see the sunrise over the sea. After a breakfast of juice, tropical fruit salad and a Spanish omelet, Karin and I set off for our walk. I greeted some Rustas I had got to know – each had their own pseudonym

‘Hi Captain Coconut, what’s up’
Captain Coconut lifted his hand to mine and gave me a take five slap
‘Jumbo Candy, the sky is up. Karebo, have a nice day.’
Captain Dolphin quoted his own Swahili proverb
‘Be free
like a bird to the sea
like a fish to the sky.’

Wales showed us his curio stall on the beachfront. He told us about a root from a tree called Mira. He said the islanders call it The Romantic Tree.
We were soon able to spot those who had chewed Mira – it made the whites of their eyes red. Old men sat under a giant tree in the town square chewing its leaves, eyes glazed over in hallucinogenic bliss.
We passed the power station – a dilapidated building surrounded by acres of drums. Old generators thumped through thick diesel smoke. The regular power cuts in the town did not surprise us after seeing the source of its power.
Karin and I chatted while walking and I got to know her better. She practiced as an Expressive Arts Psychologist combining the visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing to promote deep personal growth and development. She told me that by integrating the arts and allowing one to flow into another, access to inner resources for healing, clarity, illumination and creativity can be achieved. Karin explained her theory called ‘The council of all living things’ She believes that pollution is created from within oneself.
“If you are clean inside, you cannot pollute the outer world”
It began to rain, we continued walking – the downpour soaked our hair, our clothes, our skin. I thought about Karin’s theory and how symbolic it was for the rain to have come just then. Like a cleansing ceremony, the warm drops seemed to penetrate my body and wash away scar tissue from deep within me.
We passed donkeys saddled with woven bags that bulged with coral bricks -their legs buckling under the weight. Old men sat along the seawall reading their Korans, fishermen threw nets out in semi circles.
Shela is the luxury south side of the island where the famous build holiday homes. Prince Ernst of Hanover and Princess Caroline have houses there. Opulent hotels mushroomed up everywhere, houses were being renovated to the extent that they had little resemblance to the indigenous architecture – I was glad to be staying in Old Lamu Town where I felt closer to the soul of the people.

Karin and I returned by ferry just in time to enjoy the giant prawns Douglas had prepared for dinner. I went up to my room afterwards feeling nourished and satisfied. Harrison had made up my bed with flowers again – when I thanked him he said
“You must lie in your bed like a princess.”

Sunrise walks through old Lamu town became a ritual – the light perfect for photography, the streets vibrant with vendors setting up stalls. I took pictures of Orma women selling tobacco. They believe in a higher power called Wakka who forsakes them when the moon wanes and blesses them when the moon is full. The Orma associate spirits with mountain tops, trees, groves, rivers, wells. They are bone thin, their skins dark, their faces lined with hardship.

A young boy walking past told me that he had a very old grandmother and asked if I would like to take pictures of her. He led me through labyrinthine alleys to his home. His grandmother was bedridden. Her skeletal neck seemed too fragile to hold up her head, her dress clung to her loose skin. She seemed comfortable with me photographing while she sorted green lentils on an aluminum tray. She was a natural – her eyes penetrated my lens with intense curiosity

.

I walked passed the fort built by Omanis in 1808 for the Sultan. Behind it the market sprawled through three buildings. Fresh produce stalls displayed coconuts, bananas, mangoes, limes brought in from the shambas. Fish stalls, meat stalls blackened with flies. Lamu cats lay on their backs in the sun licking their paws – potbellied from market offerings.

On the northern side of the island tall coconut palms reflected in pools of rainwater. A forest of sacred baobab trees shaded crumbling tombstones inscribed with Arabic writing – their large blossoms wreathed the graves. A Koran worn with age hung in a palm fronded mausoleum. I stopped at a ruin on the edge of a marsh close to a beach. Within minutes a little bee-eater perched in front of me. It seemed to pose for me, turning this way and that preening its feathers. Another gift of nature presented itself – dragonflies blurring into pinks and purples as they skimmed across the water. A somber skull of an animal peered down from a tree trunk above the ruin.

Children followed calling ‘pictcha, pictcha, pictcha’ Small boys ran ahead to collect shells. When they noticed my camera focus on them, they did summersaults in the sand. Small girls wore Peter Pan collared dresses with puffed sleeves, their hair tied in Swahili braids. I heard the distinctive sound of a kingfisher. Looking to the right I saw it perched on a log. It remained there long enough for me to get closer. The birds were used to human activity as a school had its playing fields on the beach

I arranged to sail to Matandoni with Captain Happy Flower. Maureen who I met in the town square decided to accompany us. Our trip on a dhow powered by the Kusi monsoon introduced us to her extensive knowledge of natural history.

As we sailed past the mangrove swamps she pointed out colonies of oysters attached to their roots. She told me that a certain type of isopod was destroying the mangroves by boring into the roots. The black mangrove sea horse could be found in these parts. We sailed past the home of Dr. Richard Leakey – renowned paleoanthropologist and environmentalist. He organized an excavation of the eastern shore of Lake Turkana and found ancient hominid fossils. He unearthed the famous “Turkana Boy,” roughly 1.6 million years old. It is one of the most complete skeletons ever found.

The breeze picked up and our dhow tipped dangerously to the right. We did some quick maneuvering to stabilize it. Fishermen sat silently catching giant crabs. The breeze swirled the fragrance of mangrove flowers in the air, flycatchers sat on high branches seeking food. Otherwise, at that time of day, the birds were sheltering from the sun. We passed Lamu mainland, Maureen told us how they transport cattle across to the island.
“They simply swim them over. I call it the ‘death passage’, as they take them directly to the slaughterhouse on arrival.”

A community of fiddler crabs greeted us as we stepped off the boat at Matandoni. Mohammed, waiting to meet us said
“They are not for eating. Their job is to wave ‘jumbo’ to our visitors and bid them farewell when they leave.”
Matandoni seemed different to Lamu – the buildings more primitive, the people more rural. We walked around the village while women wove baskets under shady trees, men sat in groups making fishing nets, boys played soccer in a dry river bed.The children came out of school, girls passed by – pink veils billowing in the afternoon breeze.

On the way back to the boat Maureen poked her stick into the sand to find pieces of century old porcelain.
“This is Chinese, it has the markings of the imperial dragon, see, it has five claws, this is a piece of Celadon China – it is my favorite. Here look at this, it is from the aubergine period.’
We sailed home happy. I noticed the inscription on the front of the boat
‘OPEN YOUR MIND AND MAKE A WISH’
I thought – what more could you wish for?

Lamu first caught the attention of the outside world when a group of idealistic British and European intellectuals called Freelanders settled there in 1894. They planned to use the Island as a base for a Utopian community. Many have followed – writers such as Cynthia Salvadori who wrote ‘We Came In Dhows’ and ‘Through Open Doors’. Errol Trzebinski, famous for her books on the ‘Happy Valley Set.’ She wrote ‘Silence Will Speak’ a study of the life of Denys Finch Hatton and his relationship with Karen Blixen. It was used as a source for the script of ‘Out Of Africa.’ She also wrote ‘The Kenya Pioneers’, ‘The Lives Of Beryl Markham’, ‘The Life And Death Of Lord Erroll‘
Flying doctor Anne Spoerry who lived and died in Lamu, devoted half her life to the bush people of Kenya. . Maureen had known her and said she was a true bush doctor. She learnt to improvise when she was not prepared for an emergency. Once she took a thread of cotton from her dress to sew up a patient. George Fegan donated the burial plot he had carefully chosen for himself years before for her mortal remains. I had been to the graveyard where she was buried – it had only a handful of graves resting between a copse of lime trees. I walked up further and found a headstone decorated with porcelain pieces and shells from the beach. I noticed the name Diana inscribed across it. It was simple yet beautiful, peaceful. I asked Maureen about it. Diana’s death had been a tragedy and a shock to all those who knew her. She had burnt to death in her lovely home in Lamu a year before. Her friends decided not to cover her body with a tombstone – instead they wanted the green grass and wild flowers to spread across her, limes to grow over her.

I think of all the women past and present who have been mesmerized by Africa, all the woman I came across, learned about, discovered, talked to, read about, heard about, serendipitously encountered – anchoring roots in the foreign soil of this stygian, intoxicating continent, some for a moment, some for a lifetime. taking from it a wisdom somehow drawn up from deep within the subterranean bowels of Africa to make their mark in this prosaic world.
I am sure those who have stepped onto Lamuian soil are left with an indelible impression of peace and goodwill. During that month on the Island, my life was perfectly in rhythm, moving confidently in a pattern of self-discovery.

Leaving the Islands my plan flew low across the waters of the tropical archipelago. For a second Lamu came into view – I looked out of my window and saw the vast sand dunes of Shela where the legendary lost city of Habidu lies buried. I glimpsed for the last time at what had been my world for a moment in time – a place that could have been out of the pages of `The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom.’
I imagined Lawrence Of Arabia riding across the rolling dunes of Shela – once a place of great battle, his caravan of camels melting into a mirage of cinema graphic magnificence.

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I watched the television screen in front of me. I could see my plane traveling across the west coast of Africa on its way to London. The light from the screens on the back of the seats flickered into the night – miniature Boeing 747’s, sometimes flying over a pixilated sea, sometimes over the bulge of Africa.

As I stepped off the plane I breathed in the air that had filled the lungs of my forefathers, so cold it burned the back of my throat and I coughed like a newborn taking its first breath.

My Son had followed the path back to the shrine of his roots. Both his maternal and paternal great grandfathers and grandmothers lived and died on this Island of great medieval Kings and conquerors.

Jules lived in a small apartment on Kingsland High Road. We walked up the two flights of stairs, lugging my heavy suitcases behind us. I watched Jules as his fingers shuffled through his keys,

‘The one with the red nail varnish painted on it, that’s the downstairs key Mom. I can’t forget because it reminds me of the blood in the streets’

Before I could ask him what he meant, he pushed open the front door. It was dark inside. He opened the Venetian blinds and the London light streaked through in javelin throws of dull gray. The clouds shifted above chimney tops and satellite dishes and television aerials. Planes drew vapor lines across the sky

I looked at the clock on the wall. It was nine. Jules and I sat with our mugs of coffee between our hands, chatting while watching the day begin.

The metal doors in front of shop windows started rolling up – Enjoy Café, Olivia Ashley Shoes, House of Antoine Bridal Wear – with dummies in bridal dresses – bridesmaids in white dresses and red satin bags – their hair entwined with plastic roses.

 

Shop window

 

 

A group of school children walked past bundled up in jackets and scarves. They skipped, they screamed, they poked fingers into mailbox slots, they waited for the lights to turn green. The door of  ‘Pier One Nightspot’ opened slightly. A tall man wearing a sweatshirt and tracksuit pants carried out a black plastic bag of rubbish and dropped it against a street pole. Scraps of garbage left over from the night before littered the pavement. Patches of blood from a street fight outside Afrikico Bar stained the flagstones.  Pigeons pecked at the aftermath of Kingsland High Street nightlife.

Plastic packets glided in the wind as though invisible children pulled them on strings. They settled in winter trees.

‘Toast with your coffee Mom’

A string of chilli lights hung above Jules with photo’s between the lights – Christmas in the Transkei with the family, the dogs, the beach, the forest, the local people.

 

Chili lights

 

 

I turned back to the window. Pedestrians walked past, their images reflected in the shop windows – heads down, shoulders hunched, scarves pulled over their noses. The brake lights of cars flashed red between their images.

The rain came down.

We planned our first day and stepped outside into the cold. Jules walked ahead of me past mothers with babies in plastic bubble pushchairs. A man on a bike carried a steel sink under his arm. He rang his bell at pedestrians crossing the street.Afro World had a sale on all synthetic wigs – hair products cluttered the shop window – Milky Way, Strawberry Curl, Afro Curl, Deep Wave, Ripple wave. Stalls sold watches, cheap jewellery and international phone cards. A bus shelter had a billboard pasted on its side – Licky Sticky Happy Easter egg.

Julian took my arm, led me across the street. We walked down a small flight of steps to Regent’s Canal. The waterway flowed past in swirls of David Hockney brushstrokes, lined on one side by a concrete footpath. Dandelions and cow parsley grew between the cracks. Joggers hustled us and bike riders overtook to the right. Julian slowed down. We observed the tiniest details. I took pictures – a close up of a dandelion, a faded painting of a rainbow on a sewer pipe arching over the canal – the pillared remains of a dismantled railway bridge that seemed to be holding up the sky

A  pink plastic glove floated on top of the water. Houseboats idled by or stood moored against the sides of the canal. A fisherman sat on a grassy verge with a flask of tea and a plate of sandwiches in front of him. On the opposite wall a tiled mural caught our attention. Ceramic butterflies and snails, birds and flowers, beetles and frogs.

 

Mural

 

 

We passed locks, arched bridges and gas towers that reflected in the water, their metalwork  – giant spider webs rusty in the sunlight. It started to rain. We trudged home on blistered feet. Julian and I chatted into the night until our words grew thin with exhaustion. He went to bed and I read until my eyes closed, dissolving the images of the day.

We caught the fifty-eight bus to Church Street in Stoke Newington. Julian and I were going to look for angels. We walked along woodchip paths deeply shadowed by Horse Chestnuts. Abney Park Cemetery was overgrown with knotweed and brambles. The weather ravaged faces of angels looked down at us from ivy-covered tombstones. They held chiseled bouquets between eroded fingers – their wings torn off, their limbs broken free. Celandines made stars in the sycamore. A flock of blackbirds settled in the Yews – song thrushes pecked between the memorial plantings of snowdrops and crocuses. We were in the middle of East London with cars pumping lead into the clouds and we could hear Woodpeckers hammering on trees – we could see Orange Tip butterflies basking on garlic mustard  – touch fungi growing on rotting wood.

 

Child Angel

 

 

We imagined mourners placing wreaths of flowers below the memorial stone of Elizabeth Alice, dear little daughter, died February 23rd 1897 aged eleven months, also dear little son John Idris died September 27th 1897 aged seven weeks, also our beloved daughter Olive Charlotte. Lichen obscured the rest of the epitaph. We wondered how these children had died so close to each other. Jules took a picture of me standing next to a moss covered child angel.

“Mom stand so your profile matches the angel’s to catch the light between you – great, that’s going to be a cracker.”

And so we shared our love for photography, our love of light, observation, asthetics, art, design, philosophy, humour, streetlife or just simply chatting, sharing and loving.

Snowflakes crowded around streetlights. The sky was white – white rooftops, white chimney pots. Snow rested on decorative ledges of buildings – on patterns in the architecture. We walked to Ridley Street Market. The snow had calmed down and gently dusted the stalls. Chickens hung upside down from rails with butcher’s hooks through their feet.

 

Butcher shop

 

 

Sweet and seedless clementine’s sold for seventy-five pence each. A stall displayed fish, prawns, eels, pigs’ trotters. Baskets of shallots and purple onions stood alongside Ghanaian stalls with hair products, wigs, shoes, bags, Vaseline, boxes stacked with dried fish. Stalls sold plum tomatoes, ginger, okra, sugar cane, yams.  I shopped at the Turkish supermarket and bought flat bread rolled up with spiced mince, diced coriander and onions.

 

Market produce

 

 

Market stalls were being dismantled – the remains of the day lay in the street. Old women scratched through discarded fruit and vegetables, stuffing them into plastic packets – a man poked his umbrella among the rotting piles – he picked up an apple here, an orange there.  Ridley Street emptied – once the place where fascist Mosleyites shouted

‘Not enough Jews were burned at Belsen.’

That was enough to stir the angst of the unenlightened in a world where exploitation of the other was commonplace.Throngs of people drifted past us into side streets as mounted Bobbies watched.

Julian handed me a glass of wine.  I picked up The Independent, the headline on the second page read

‘ANTI-SEMITIC ATTACKS RISE TO RECORD LEVEL’

The Chief Political Correspondent, Marie Woolf went on to say

British Jews were subject to a record number of anti-Semitic attacks last year, including a huge increase in serious assaults. The increase has been blamed on “the Middle East factor”, with a sharp rise in incidents rooted in hatred of Israel.

Under a photograph of Jewish servicemen’s desecrated graves, a list recorded incidents of attacks in 2004

13 FEBRUARY A London travel agency specializing in tours to Israel had “dirty Jew cunts, up the PLO” daubed on the outside)

1 MARCH A Jewish man was stabbed in his home by an assailant who shouted

“I’m going to kill you, you fucking yid”

APRIL Letters were sent to several synagogues in London reading:

“By almighty Allah you shall not escape Muslim justice with 1000 assassins ready to strike in places that you gather”

I stopped reading.

Jules’s three days off work were up. He gave me a local gazette to see what was on in the area. The first Hackney Literary Word Festival had been launched. I went to the Centerprise bookshop two blocks away to find out more about it. I picked up a booklet advertising different events.

Write To Ignite – Hackney Word Festival – February March April 2005.

My eyes ran along a line of books on a shelf. I touched the red spine of a book called The 43 Group. I hooked my finger over the top of the book and pulled it out of the shelf.

‘Who’s Morris Beckman?’

I thought as I looked at the cover. It had a picture of a couple being led away by two policemen. The number 43 was set in the middle of a Jewish star. I opened the book.

‘The crime of the Nazi leaders had squalid beginnings. Once a handful of policemen could have suppressed it. Instead it grew to its dangerous might through the wickedness of a few and the complicity the cowardice of many’.

This quote was taken from the Daily Express on the day of the Nuremberg executions.

I turned the page

Cover Story –  The identity of the couple on the front cover had been discovered. They were Mick and Hetty Noble. Hetty told the story behind the picture.

The police had driven a wedge between the platform, surrounded by fascists, and the demonstrators, and had driven most of the crowd back from Ridley Street into Kingsland High Street…One young woman got very excited and while I was trying to calm her down the police arrested me. Mick shouted, “You can’t take her, she’s my wife!” So they said he’d better come along too. In the photograph, though it looks like I’m crying, I’m not – I’d got a punch in the face and was wiping the blood from my nose.

Morris Beckman, the author of the book had grown up in the East End Jewish community of the Twenties and Thirties. Vidal Sassoon who wrote the forward stated

“As a child I had no concept of hate, its depth and the place it commanded within human feelings and the history of mankind. In the confines of Pettioat Lane, my family lived on the fourth floor of the grey tenement building which housed Mrs. Cohen’s baker shop, and it was her bagels that sustained us when we were hungry My whole world was Jewish; from the barrow boys with their cockney ‘schpiel’ to my uncle, ‘Kosher Jack’ as he was called, who worked in a butcher shop on Middlesex Street. The salon where I eventually started my apprenticeship was at 101 Whitechapel Road, and ‘Professor ‘Adolf Cohen, the hairdresser became my mentor. How could I forget Petticoat Lane, especially on Sundays? It was a maze of colourful humanity, a kaleidoscope of people wanting to buy and to be amused. Love could be bought with kind word and hate was for sale on every street corner.”

I read the credits on the back page.

Oswald Mosely decided he could carry on where Hitler and Mussolini had left off.

In a ferocious, bloody, yet brilliantly covert five-year campaign, The 43 Group destroyed the Mosleyites and everything they stood for.

And all this had happened right where I was staying. I had seen the street sign Balls Pond Road and remembered reading somewhere that a derelict chapel at no 49 had once been the headquarters of Oswald Mosley’s Legions. I walked a few blocks from Centerprise then turned right into Balls Pond Road. I walked up the street and down again. I went into a pub and asked about the derelict chapel – no one knew about it and no one had heard of Oswald Mosely.  I passed a wall covered with graffiti and began to read the aerosol scribbles

No woman no bills

Rules R for fools

If there was a god drugs would be free

I looked closer and saw a faded swastika and a sign which read

Anti Nazi skins.

Evidence of hatred defaced the walls that had survived the Second World War bombings.

Of all the horror I saw at the Holocaust Museum the next day, I was not prepared for the impact of seeing the personal possessions of the Jewish people who died in concentration camps. Behind a glass cabinet, shoes had been stacked up like bricks in a wall. Those were the shoes that mothers and fathers, daughters and sons had worn as they walked into the gas chambers. I saw the scuffmarks on them – I saw the worn heels and the holes in the soles. I put my hands on the glass that stopped me from tying a shoelace on a boot in front of me. I felt my South African guilt reach out and try to tie up the wrongs that had been done by so many of us in so many different ways…

‘Today I am going to see the Joseph Beuys exhibition at the Tate Modern Museum’

I said to Julian as he grabbed his bunch of keys, pulled on his coat and pushed his cell phone into his pocket.

‘See you later Mom, have a good time. I’ll text you during the day’

‘Cheers Jules, wish you could be with me. What bus do I catch to get to London Bridge?’

I didn’t hear him; he was busy stuffing the last of his toast into his mouth as he walked out the door.

Bus Stops are a good place to pick up colloquialisms. A boy walked past the queue. He was wearing studs through his ears, his nose, his eyebrows, his tongue. He recognized a girl standing in front of me.

‘Hey fucker,’ he said, patting her on the back. ‘Long time no see. How are you strawberry, wild one man.’

From the upstairs window of the bus I looked down on the streets of London. We passed The Fox Bar and Kitchen, Angel lettings and a tyre shop with piles of wheels stacked against the yellow walls.

The law should protect us – not burglars was written on the side of a building.

Wax Arser! covered a bridge in front of us. We passed Old Street. On the corner was a tattoo bar called ‘Prick Tattoos’ and ‘Back the Bid’ soccer posters hung from every lamppost. Someone was buffing the brass letters on a plaque outside Lloyds Bank

I stopped in at Starbucks for some coffee. Fleetwood Mac was playing

You can go your own way

Funny how a song can bring back memories in an instant.

I listened to the words above the sounds of clinking cups, soft voices at the tables, footsteps coming and going.

You can go your own way

rose up above the purple velvet armchairs.

A woman asked for a cappuccino.

Its gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day

People queued, they had scarves wrapped around their necks, they wore long coats.

It was cold outside.

From under the brim of my woollen hat I saw a bouquet of red carnations floating to the edge of the river. Two pigeons watched it lap up and down as boats went past. I imagined a woman standing on the bridge, tossing her bouquet into the water. I walked into the Turbine Hall of The Tate Modern. It was filled with voices, some were coherent, others were difficult to understand.

This is to mask the cover of need

Nothing and no thing and no mask can cover the lack

Lack before love

Paper covers rock

Rock breaks mask

This is the need that contorts my pain

I saw the name Bruce Nauman on a brochure. I picked it up and read it.

Language has always played a central role in Bruce Nauman’s work, providing him with a means of examining how human beings exist in the world, how they communicate or fail to communicate. For Raw Materials, he has selected 22 spoken texts taken from existing works to create an aural collage in the Turbine Hall. …Nauman has transformed this cavernous space into a metaphor for the world, echoing to the endless sound of jokes, poems, pleas, greetings, statements and propositions.

I looked at twenty-four sledges. They each had a survival kit made up of a lump of animal fat, a roll of felt and a torch. Joseph Beuys used felt in many of his sculptures and in contrast to Neuman’s projection of sound; Beuys used felt as a symbol to muffle sound.

Survival kit

I looked at Chris Ofili’s ‘No woman no cry’ painting and thought of Picasso’s Weeping Woman. How many other paintings had been done of woman crying I thought? I went up close to see the layers of paint and the poured resin with glitter in it. Embedded between the layers were the words R.I.P. Stephen Laurence in luminous print. His face could be seen collaged onto each of the crying woman’s tears.  The painting was named after the song by Bob Marley as a tribute to a London teenager murdered by a racist gang.

I sat at the back of a Gothic Cathedral listening to an orchestra practicing for evensong. The conductor’s shirt was soaked with sweat. It stuck to his back. Choral voices filled the arches – they rose up to the domed ceilings. I could hear cellos, violins, trumpets.

As I got onto the bus to go home, my scarf fell into the isle. A little boy picked it up, he handed it to me and smiled – a smile that made his eyes shine – I wondered if he was Jamaican or Indian or Pakistani – it was hard to tell, his hat covered his head. Then he spoke to me.

‘Is this your scarf? You will need it, its cold outside’

That’s when I knew he was British.

I looked up at a bridge spanning the road. Four neon doves spread their wings and lit up the darkening sky.

 

Peace doves over a London bridge

 

 

A woman jumped out of a car in Kingsland High Street. She cried, she screamed. A man screamed back at her, he swore at her, pushed his fist into her face.  I ran towards them – I wanted to shout out ‘Where is your respect?’ I wanted to go up close to him, to look into his eyes so he could see my contempt. And the street full of pedestrians and the road full of cars and the busses full of passengers and the shops full of sales assistants watched. The man continued to abuse his wife and the children were silent in the back of the car.

They say in London it is none of your business but I know that deep in my Son’s heart, he knows when he looks at a woman who cries for help in the street – it is very much his business. I know, when I look into his eyes, he is as soft as his heart will allow him to be and as tough as he needs to be. His heart conveys the passion only someone who has lived in a confluence of nations struggling to find an identity can understand. He is a foreigner, lost in the sinewy womb of another land.

My son Julian. When I think of him I feel a surge of love flood through my heart. I feel the pull of his emotions  – strong as a spring tide today – frail as a neap tide tomorrow. I look into his eyes and see his pain – pain of being without his family – pain of a culture that is in his blood but not in his heart. He has the warmth of the sun but lives under the clouds. He can hear the laughter of his people growing softer in his ears until it disappears and he hears English spoken in many different tongues.

As my plane hurtled into the smog and smoke and steel clouds of a nation throttled by xenophobia, prejudice, elitism, guilt, racism, oppression, I closed my eyes and saw Nelson Mandela shake the hands of the people of South Africa, I saw a nation  rejoicing in the Grand Finale of apartheid and all it stood for.

I began to read a book I had bought in Ridley Street. Time to be Bold – Poems by Lotte Moos.

IF YOU THINK

If you think

Blows

Struck in Ireland

Won’t hurt you

Think again

If you think

The Knife

Slid between the ribs of a Pakistani

Will glance off your lighter skin

Think again

If you think

Bullets hissing towards beating hearts

In some country we know nothing about

Will miss you

Think again

They will not miss your beating heart

If you think

Needles

Jabbed into veins

To make the blood run docile

Won’t prick you

Think again

They will hurt you, hit you, prick you

And they will not miss you

We are all one

One trembling human flesh.

I do think – after ten years I have reason to think and remember we are all one, one trembling human flesh. I hold an ancient fungus in my hand, each layer representing a year of it’s life in the rainforest. I cup it in my hands, draw it up to my nose. I breath in deeply. This is not just a fungus, it is the whole forest. I smell the forest, the moss, the soil. I feel the trees, the elephants, the falling leaves, the rain.

I embrace the fungus and the forest and know as the Ancient Chinese did 2000 years before me that it will gather up the whole forest with its creatures, its animals, its birds, its rivers and streams to heal me, destroy the tumours in my body. I know it will restore me to the state of oneness with humankind, with nature with my self.

If you think Chemotherapy cures

Think again

If you think the needles

That poison your body

Will save you

Think again

They will kill you

If you think nature can’t heal you

Think again

It is time to be bold.

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Inonyizizwe

A flame burns in her indumba. Her incantations are soft as she kneels, sitting on her haunches, bowed in reverence.

Takosa”

she whispers as she cups her hands, claps, sprinkles snuff  in front of her,  A bundle of the sacred herb imphepho is lit, the smoke entwines around her hair.

“Takosa”

Her name is Inonyizizwe meaning The one that comes from afar. The albatross, her mongoni spirit who’s myths have become nestled in the human psyche represents her ancestors passage from Australia to their adopted homeland here. Her great grandfather Henry Waters, her great grandmother, Mary locke-Waters, their children Muriel, Jocelyn, Evelyn Archer and her grandmother Dorothy from whom she inherited the gift of healing. The albatross is her symbolic mediator between the upper and lower realms.

I look through the lens of my camera, My sister is drinking the warm blood flowing from the neck of a goat.  The death bleats summon her ancestors to guide her transition from twasana an initiate to Sangoma. The sacrifice becomes a celebration of life. The goat is skinned and cut up for food. This her first test of strength during her Tsonga initiation.

Things are not revealed – they unfold in their own way. I enter into this ancient and complex ceremony without judgement, it is the only way I can try to understand my sisters calling. I stand outside in the sun, my thoughts stepping on my own worldview while her next task is being prepared. A toothless woman smiles at me, a child covers her forehead with her arms, swings her body from side to side, stares at me. I look at an enamel bowl filled with the head and shins of the goat. It’s dead eyes look peaceful, as peaceful as when they looked at me behind my camera. It got to know the sound of my camera, a sound it associated with my soft voice as I stroked it, the food I gave it, the bowl of water I put down for it while taking pictures in the afternoon light in Soweto. The moment before the blade was held up to its neck,  I clicked and it turned,  it heard the camera and it’s eye’s were calm.

Nonyizizwe is lead out, hands behind her back, her two thumbs tied together with string. She kneels in front of a bowl filled with chunks of raw meat from the sacrificed goat. The bowl is pulled away from her as she crouches. She plunges her face into the bowl to snatch the meat. The bowl must be empty before it is dragged to the end of the yard.  She walks on her knees, her cheeks bulge, she chews, swallows, thrusts her head back into the chunks as she follows the bowl. Her face tilts up to the sky, Her eyes closed, her mouth contorted as though she is about to shout but she is silent.  A procession of Sangomas, drummers, singers, family follow Nonyizizwe upstairs where a coal filled brazier has been lit. The goat carcass hangs from a pole supporting a clothesline. We surround her as she drinks liters of water mixed with medicinal herbs to cleanse her body. She brings up frothy white foam.  The reaching causes her body to tremble. She purges until she has nothing left in her stomach, her bladder, her bowls. Nonyizizwe sits sill. The stillness is around her, the stillness is part of her. It exists deep inside her where her ancestors guide her.

A plate of liver is passed around. We each take a piece. My sister is kneeling next to a stove. A pan filled with a concoction of blood and crushed peanuts bubbles above the hotplate. She dips her hands into the boiling mixture and licks them, she works quickly, her hands are red from the heat, the blood. She taps the surface and licks until the mixture is finished.  She gets up, her face stained.  Ritual medicine is place directly onto the burning hotplate.  A long bamboo stick is handed to her, she draws the smoke into her mouth, inhales it. Two other Sangomas join her. The drumming and singing intensifies.  I look at my sister, her face is tired, her body thin, her feet scarred and calloused. The sunlight catches her eyes, they are resolute.

The Sangoma’s take off their shoes outside Nonyizizwe’s indumba, bow and sit quietly while she communicates with her ancestors.  Her Gobela’s rub her face with white clay,  place grass wreathes around her shoulders –  to me they are wings. The candlelight flickers across her face, to me she is a bird. The white clay indicates that she is in the luminal world. Baba Martha bows next to her. The ritual of Phatla calls her ancestors, welcomes them on the eve of her graduation into Tsonga Sangomahood.

A feast is prepared. We eat while Nonyizizwe stays in her indumba. Food taboos exclude her from this meal. The drummers drum, the voices sing, the dancers take the floor, one at a time. Dancing styles are compared and admired.  The drums throb louder, whistles are blown. People from the street stand outside the yard. An old man on crutches comes in and sits down. He is welcomed and given a plate of food. Others follow, they are welcomed and fed. It is customary to include the community. Nonyizizwe walks into the centre of the room. A mat is put down for her to kneel on. The drumming stops. People are silent.  She bows down, greets the Sangomas individually. To Baba Martha she recites her Tsonga greetings, to Baba Evelyn, Baba Queenie, Baba Cynthia then the neophyte Sangomas.  Each reply Takosa and clap their cupped hands making a hollow, rhythmical, percussive sound. The mantra Takosa is repeated in ancient custom. Nonyizizwe extends her legs, they begin to shake, her arms, her shoulders, her whole body shakes. She jumps up, Shouts,  a loud guttural sound comes from deep within, her eyes glaze over. Her dancing is slow at first – a bird preparing for flight. As it intensifies, the tempo of the drums follow the rhythm of the dance. She rises and falls, a bird soaring effortlessly on a thermal.  She speaks, tears smearing the white clay on her face.

“Where are my things, Where is my Dorothy, I am a pilot, I have been shot down.”

This is the incarnation of her great uncle Evelyn Archer Locke-Waters who was shot down over Arabia just after the second world war. Dorothy was his  sister, Nonyizizwe’s grandmother. She is clutching her grandmothers watch, her broach, her fathers flying wings as she dances. Evelyn Archer is her dlozi. her guide. She is bringing him home. Her professional name will be Baba Evelyn Archer.

There is a Moari myth about the tears of the albatross, weeping for its distant land. Nonizizwe’s tears, Evelyn Archers tears and the albatross tears become one. She is united with her guide, her mongoni spirit, her destiny as a Sangoma, She is a guardian of ancient  knowledge and maintains the balance between man, nature and the ancestral world.

The scenery in Soweto tumbles past us as we drive towards the mountains.  Children are playing, girls walk together laughing, boys kick soccer balls, men lie under trees, caps pulled over their eyes. We follow a path leading up the mountain. I feel at home among the khakibos, the blackjacks; they stick into my jersey, prick my skin. I put my hand around a head of khakibos and squeeze it. My mind is filled with childhood memories of the farm. Nonyizizwe is carrying a chicken, she disappears into the long dry grass as though hiding from predators. I think of the book “Mediations on Hunting” and try to remember the words. “The essence of hunting involves a complete code of ethics. The hunter who accepts this code keeps his commandments.” The Sangomas are about to sacrifice a chicken in the same spirit, in the solitude of this place with no witnesses but us, no audience other than us and the tall aloes, and the yellow grass, and the clumps of acacia trees that form  an amphitheater for our ceremony. In the shade of the acacias the chicken’s throat is cut, its blood spills into an enamel bowl until it is full. Nonyizizwe is kneeling, three crowns of entwined grass are placed on her head on top of which a clay bowl is balanced. The chicken’s blood mixed with frothy medicines is poured into the bowl, it flows over, over her face, over her long hair, her body. Barefooted she is led away from us, further up the mountain. We remain quiet and contemplative. I am summonsed to be with my sister. I find her naked, smeared with red clay. The red of the clay and the red of her hair are the same.

I do not ask questions, my sister is smiling. Her journey to becoming a Tsonga Sangoma is now complete.

Takosa Baba Evelyn Archer.

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