Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Nightmare Before Christmas

There’s a funny thing about Christmas. Unless you are a child, have a child, or approach Christmas like a child, Christmas isn’t really going to do much to fill your heart with the jingle bells of joy. I thought of this when reading Gail Cornhill’s article in the Weekend Witness recently. She has such a gleeful approach to the holiday that she just has to enfuse everyone around her with her own delight.

Young children usually feel the same enthusiasm about Christmas. I only have to think back to my earliest memories of Christmas to remember that barely tolerable excitement that the mere thought of the day itself engendered. When my brothers and I were small, my parents used to let us stay up late on Christmas Eve. When midnight struck, we were finally allowed to open our presents. The giddy joy we felt on these special nights is captured in numerous photographs where we are posing with grins as wide as Santa’s sleigh in front of the annual Christmas tree.

One year in particular stands out more than any other. My father had come home with a wonderful set of candles and holders which were meant to be attached to the Christmas tree. As was the fashion of the time, the tree was one hundred percent synthetic and a brilliant unnatural green. We couldn’t wait to light the candles on Christmas Eve. The electric lights were switched off. We held our breath, and my father moved forward to perform the magical ceremony. He took out his trusty cigarette lighter and lit the first one. Unfortunately, the lighter had delusions of grandeur and it did a fairly good job as a flame-thrower that night. Its flames leapt up about three branches high, searing a path of brilliant red flame as it went. It took just a moment for the whole tree, lovingly collected ornaments and all, to disappear in a singe of flames. A sadly blackened wire skeleton took its place, and a mournful swirl of smoke lingered around the ceiling. My father’s face was a picture. For a moment, we weren’t sure whether to feel delighted by the tree’s dramatic moment of glory or whether to mourn its sudden demise. My mother soon made her feelings clear. My father was in the dog box, make no mistake. He had to redeem himself. And quickly. He disappeared in his car, only to return a few hours later. He had a box with him and a large smile on his face. Things were looking up. Out of the box he withdrew a snow white tree, as artificial as its predecessor. He’d managed to find one late night café open with a white tree on display. After bartering with the owner for who knows how long, he was able to return, in triumph. We were thrilled. No one we knew had ever had a white tree before. And in a brief moment, Christmas became Christmas once again.

I think that is the thing about Christmas. It’s the way we approach it that makes it what it is. If we see it as just another huge responsibility and chore – which I must confess I have done for the past few years – it loses its sparkle completely. But if we can put a spin on it, and change a holiday from the singed black burnt out skeleton of consumerism and chores into a feather light white froth of inconsequential joys, then perhaps we can recreate our child-like approach to Christmas once again. And maybe, just maybe, we can enjoy the moment like we used to.

608 words.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

No Going Back scs 23 - 25


The blinding midday sun is beating down relentlessly as the couple drive their car towards the farm house. The low suspension of the car isn’t particularly suited to the rutted road.Caddie looks less pleased than she did before.

CADDIE:It looks a bit barren round here, doesn’t it?

FRANK:Virgin country, darling. Virgin country.

Caddie isn’t too sure about it.


Caddie stands by the car, staring at the farmhouse. Frank looks at her anxiously. She imagines the printout with the luscious green fields and the pretty, homely building and can’t quite reconcile this barren wreck with her preconception. A name on a sign near the gate is obliterated by age and neglect. Only the first few letters of the name can be made out: “Goei...”Caddie walks slowly, silently, towards the farmhouse. Frank follows her, trying to reassure.

FRANK:Remember we said we wanted to start from scratch?

Caddie says nothing.

FRANK:Think of this as a blank canvas.

Still she says nothing.

FRANK:It just needs a little TLC, that’s all.

Caddie still keeps quiet. She is not convinced.


The kitchen is a wreck. The sink stands leaning against the wall on one side of the room. A bare bulb hangs from the ceiling. The wooden floors are grey with age and neglect, splinters flaring up all over them. The room is dark and gloomy. Light barely manages to get through the tiny window because of the wrap around verandah which encircles the house. Frank tries to switch on a light. It doesn’t work.

FRANK:We’ll get them to connect us tomorrow.

CADDIE:(Baldly)It’s a wreck Frank.

FRANK:It needs some work, I did tell you.

CADDIE:(Gesturing around the room)But not this...

FRANK:Give me a few weeks, Cads. You won’t recognize the place.

Caddie turns the tap which is in the wall above the space where the sink used to be. She turns it. A brown trickle seeps out slowly.

FRANK:(Trying to make the best of things)At least it has running water.

Caddie shoots him a dark look.She turns to walk into the next room. It is a huge living room which has large (broken) windows and grey, cracked wooden floors. Everything is in a terrible state of disrepair. In one corner is a large old mattress. There are blackish stains in the middle of it. A heap of rubbish huddles in a corner nearby, feeling sorry for itself.Caddie shivers.

CADDIE:I don’t like this room...

FRANK:Don’t be silly, Caddie. Come on, you have to use your imagination here. We’ll get the rubbish out, sand the floors, paint the walls and it will be the largest and most inviting room we’ve ever owned!

Caddie isn’t sure at all.

CADDIE:I don’t know...

FRANK:(Holding her gently by the shoulders)We have to be positive. Remember? The clinic is the easy part this time. Now we just have to put a little effort into this place and in no time at all we’ll be right as rain.

CADDIE:Looks like it hasn’t rained around here for centuries.

FRANK:I know! Isn’t it great?

She looks at him blankly.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Cliché Calling

Yellow-billed kite
Swoops menacingly down
Determined to decimate
Designated prey.
Prey thinks fast
And reverses under wing.

Frantic Kite back pedals
Becoming a child’s cartoon
Of incompetent flight
Clawing to
Impossible scaly skid
In forgiving and compromising air.

Making Pancakes

The eggs crack bone-hard
on the side of the bowl.
As they plop and sink,
flour puffs up white dust.
Dust to dust.

Milk. Salt.

Spun batter
spider webs on the bowl.

A scoop into the pan.
Sizzle. Spread.
Wait for the air bubbles.

Flip of the pan.
Brown the other side.
Pancakes for my boys.
Keep them full.
Safe and warm.

My little brother won’t be eating today.
Must feed my boys.
Keep tummies full
until after the funeral.

Outside Goose Cottage

Watching darkness grow
around the house - beacon
of light slicing
the gloom.
I light a Camel.
The first in
nine months.

A firefly indicates,
turns left.
A bat swoops
under night-
etched trees.

It is possible to
feel peace - at least
For a moment.
Or is that just
The nicotine?

Sunday, November 14, 2004


Isolation tanks became popular - when? Was it in the free-spirited 60’s, or the mind-altering seventies, or the alternative eighties? Whenever, the image of Edina aka Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous springs to mind as she dons her scuba-wear and descends into the tomb-like structure conveniently placed in her bedroom. Apparently the salt-water and darkness contribute to the greatest sense of well-being since the womb. Something must have been missing for Edina, though, as she always emerged more of a shivering wreck than the one she was when she went in. Perhaps it was withdrawal symptoms from the variety of substances she was fond of abusing. Whatever. I have found my own alternative isolation tank. It is found in most homes and costs much less than the professionally hired one. It is called a bath.

Now I know you are thinking this does not have the same Tutenkhamen-esque sarcophagus lid, nor the salt water, but believe me it works just as well. Epsom salts was ever the scourge of the old wives who prescribed this evil-tasting solution for almost every ailment from ingrown toenails to split-ends. It has one redeeming feature: used by the boxful it can make a bath seem as salty and soothing as the sea. Next, the question of the lid. I don’t know how many people really like the idea of being shut in darkness without any means of escape except perhaps students of the Marquis de Sade. I don’t need the lid to feel isolation. I just need the door shut.

There you have it: the modern day, easy to use Isolation tank. Prepare for at least an hour of uninterrupted snoozing or reading by telling everyone else you have gone out to do a large grocery shop, or to kill a wild boar, or something. Drive the car up and down the road for a bit and then park it out of sight. Creep back in as quietly as possible, trying to shake off the dog by throwing an old slipper or a dead rabbit, whichever is handier, for it to chew. Then sneak into the bathroom and quietly add water and Epsom’s finest. You’ll have to drizzle the water in very slowly so as not to alert the youngest member of the family who can’t bear a bath to happen without her. Be sure you have piled your favourite book or even a magazine discretely behind the loo-roll before the operation begins. If you want to be extremely organised, you could put your favourite beverage into the bubble bath container once you are absolutely sure it has been rinsed enough times. If you have done your groundwork properly, I promise you might even read a whole chapter of your book or even (no, really, this has been done) a magazine from cover to cover! There are a few hazards though. Dogs with a great sense of smell and a strong attachment to your person can blow your cover, especially if your bathroom door doesn’t lock. But keep a handy supply of aforementioned slipper or rabbit at your side and encourage enthusiastic hunting of the above as quietly as you can. Outside the bathroom of course. Now, the trick is to switch off your Pavlovian response to the screams of the children as they throw garden spades at one another, and to repeat to yourself as a mantra, “I will not answer that, I will not answer that” as the phone rings interminably. It can be done. But it takes a lot of practice. Believe me, I’ve tried. The trickiest bit is ‘arriving home’ without any supplies for the empty cupboard but I’ve learnt to describe a Startling Supermarket Check-Out Strike with such dramatic detail that the enthralled audience forgets its hunger for a moment. And the clean, rejuvenated me will then make inordinately interesting toasted sandwiches for lunch.

647 words.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Shining Shards - some poems

1. Wounded, Love paused.

Wounded, Love paused
On the steep banks of the
The river, as her heart-blood
Seeped into the
Muddied waters below.

Drawing ragged breaths.
She considered her
Course of action.
Should she press forward
Trying to claim the prize
For which she had been fighting?

Or should she stop
On the banks of the river,
Try to stem the flow of
While praying for
The healing rays
Of the sun?

She breathed a moment longer -
Then resolved to
Fight on...
Only, she found, her
Legs crumpled
As she tried to stand.

She looked down
And saw
The river below her
Was red
With Heart-blood.
There was nothing left to give.

She would have to pray
For the healing rays of the sun.


2. The Smell of Rain on Hot Tar.

For my brothers, Jimmy and Bundi, who died far too young.

The smell of rain
On Hot Tar
Throws me back
To childhood’s
Skippings in puddles
Alive with life:
Slippy spawn on small fingers;
Frogs the size of pennies;
Mud squishing through fat toes;
Tadpoles in murky jars
Growing legs to die
Not satisfied
By a diet
Of breadcrumbs.

3. Sorting Socks.

It is time to sort out my sock drawer.
It is full and thick with messy muck.
I can’t find a thing I’m looking for.
Where are the gossamer-sheer,
(not the condoms, silly) the glamour tights
Needed to transform me into Titania bright?
Are they still there? Perhaps under the
Preventative, practical, keep out everything,
Block all comers (especially dreams),
Thick and woolly heavy-duty socks?

Here are all the mismatched ones-
Where do they come from? Did I really buy these?
They drift and float in confused isolation.
They’ve all been kept in case a mate turns up.
“This eternal search for a mate is exhausting,”
They cry. “Let us go and dwindle in socky oblivion”.
I’ll throw some out. But I’ll keep one or two.
Just in case.

I repack the sock drawer.
Some holey redundant overworked solesavers
Join the pile on the floor.
I think I can just catch a glimpse
Of a gossamer glow in the dark,
In the deepest depths, in the corners.
I know they’re there.
I’ll find them.

Don’t you just love psychotherapy!

4. The Perfect Pause.
(After a course in which living in the moment is the aim and a pause is the means to achieve it).

Pick a piece of perfect Pinter
By peeping into a pause:
Every perfect, pregnant moment
Plops plumply into place -
Propping up the silence
With pendulous space
And meaning and measure
Beyond all acts and deeds.
Dipping into the silence
Inspires, unveils, reveals
Depth, perception, promise,
Understanding of the NOW -
The ultimate in living
In the moment is, like, WOW!


The grass scrunch, scrunch, scrunches
Under each step of the leather sandles.
Dust rises in the hot midday sun
And hangs like glitter in the dry air.
Throat parched and skin stretched tight
I shield my face with a sheet of paper.
It forms an arch around my head.
Thoughts fly freely with every rhythmic footfall.
The winter-scorched grass
scrunch, scrunch, scrunches.
My dress brushes the tops of the dry-white tufts.

In mid-stride I am transformed
And out of time.
The paper shield is a kappie:
A voortrekker woman’s kappie.
My dress is hers brushing the ruthless earth.
The feet are ours. We share soles.
Contentment floods the being like hot sun.

It is good to walk on this hard winter land.
It is good to tread this African soil.

As whoever.

6. A Fertile Valley.

“You have a fertile imagination,”
A teacher once told me.
He didn’t realise what it takes
To find such a rich source.

To be fertile the mind has to feed
On compost,
In a bed rich and fulsome,
Made up of manure.

The deep-down layer is the most important:
The foundation.
Guilt droppings of Mea Culpas
Are the best and Thou Shalt Nots
Are useful too.
A shimmering spray of brimstone
Adds the necessary roughage,
Followed by a sugary sprinkling of
Politeness and Girls Don’t Do Thats.

Then you add the good stuff:
Familial discord, fractured feelings,
Broken lives and impotence.
Dish out this dirt with lavish ladles-
And cover with a large helping
Of Injustice. (Laid out, of course,
In neat piles of rotting corpses).

And there you have it:
A fertile imagination!

Here’s one I prepared earlier.

7. The Russians and Winston Churchill.

The Churchill Theatre is crisp
With sequins and satin
For the Russian ballet -
And that is only the audience.
Two plastic chairs cringe on stage
Trying to hide their drabness in the curtains
But they don’t succeed.
The dancers cavort, the costumes dazzle
And the woman bends her grey head
Towards her partner’s neatly groomed one.
In her hair are leaves and tiny plaits
Made by a child’s clumsy hand -
Forgotten momentoes of a winter afternoon in the sun.

8. South Coast Road.

The air shimmers
With Illovo-damp droplets
In the glistening heat.
Sugar cane sizzles
Under the buttery sun.
Palms and fronds loll
The atmosphere is
A charismatic priest
Who uplifts the soul
With a sense of
Hushed expectation.

Beneath the wheels of the car
The road sings
Like an obedient congregation

9. On: The Beach.

The beach
Draws up the foam
To cover her
Secret parts
But she can’t escape
The crabs
Who tiptoe up
To tickle her naked

10. Amuzing Tune.

The Muse
Is sulking in the corner,
Tired and Irritable.
Best thing is to
Give her the day off.
Leave her to paint her toenails.
She’ll feel better
After a day off sick.
This time
No muse
Is good muse.

11. The Toddler.

With unsteady steps
He reaches out -
Grasping to
Hold on to
The white-coated woman
In front of him.
She is his life-line.

His eyes bore
Into hers,
An arc of concentration
Vivid between them.

He reaches the table.
He feels for the chair.
He sits.
He turns and smiles.
He has made it.

It is lunch time in Frail Care.

12. For Nana.

10 August 1999.
The small body
lies curled
into a tight
the most common
to mankind -
the foetal.

This time
it’s fatal.

Your breath
is rasping,
I bring


You look

You see -

My long-dead father and brother by your side.
You say they are coming to fetch you.

I am glad.

I hope
They hurry.


For C.

You dance and twirl
with filmy skirt
wrapped around
cheeky hips -

You mouth the words
to the songs
and flick your hair
in time to the music -

You are beautiful.
Full of joy.

I wonder
if I will
be able
to dance
the joyful

14. Christmas In Africa 1.

The church is breathless and full.
Sweat drizzles down between my legs
As bodies press in on all sides -
We ooze and drip quietly
In time to the music
Trying to concentrate on the words of the songs
Giving up eventually as the African resonance
Makes a mockery of Westerners’ pipings.
Damp armpits blossom
Staining bright clothes.
The priest intones his message limply -

We pray
For a breath of fresh air.

15. Christmas in Africa 2.

In the white heat of the
Post Office
Christmas trees
With tinsel
Look out of place
And wrong -
Their brightness
Upstaged by the
African sun.

16. Christmas In Africa 3.

Smells of turkey
In Suffocating
Soggy paper
Oozing with salad
Collapse and

People who shouldn’t
Wear shorts.
Cellulite dimples
Out of tightly-
Drawn cotton
Which damply
As the heat

Christmas trees
With the exhaustion
Of holding up
Glittering balls.
“Not in this heat,”
They groan
And their limbs drop
Even lower.

The decorations
Look falsely
Bright -
Against the backdrop of
Hydrangeas and Hibiscus.
Bougainvillaea outshine
The baubles
With wedding gown white
And passionate purple.
Like primadonnas
They take all the glory,
Shaking their proud
Spanish Dancers’ skirts
In disgust,
The shop-bought

17. Leap Year Day. 2000.
“Yesterday a 10 year-old schoolgirl was knocked down and killed on the R103 near the Cedara College. She was knocked down by an oncoming bakkie when she crossed between two buses.” The Natal Witness, Wednesday 1st March.

The body looks deformed -
Small, thin legs protruding
From a man’s jacket.

Feet are bare,
Shards of red brighten
The dust-coated brown legs.

It takes me a while to realise
It is a child lying in the grass,
Quiet as only death can make her.

The crowds around her swell,
Alive with outraged awfulness,
A sea of white shirts and black faces.

The driver of the offending vehicle is frozen.
Hysteria has given way to dumb shock.
Her blond hair shines in the early morning light.

School will start late today.

Today one little girl
Has leapt, from the struggle
Of school books and survival

Into a world of no demands.

The picture of her little body will not leave me,
Until I imagine lifting it up
And gently rocking it,
Soothing the broken body,
And gently rocking it,
To sleep.

The rocking comforts me.
We will both be at peace tonight.

18. Thought Droplets.


is like an
in the


is a bread
butter pudding
with cream and dreams
onto the
of a

19. More Thought Droplets.


As it writes
At the waste
Of energy


Throws its
head back
at the moon,
then lifts
its skirts
to bare

not caring
whether they are

20. Two Last Thought Droplets.


is a salt-drenched
growing to
in an
aching eye,
and then it
in its haste


its cheek

and ponders
the wisdom
of its

22. For Caitlin at Five Years Old.

I love you like
tender and smooth
Petals of
Infinite softness.
I love you like
sweetest scent
of princesses
and promises.
I want to absorb
your being,
breathe you in
like a drug.
You intoxicate
my senses
with your
essence of

23. For James at 13 years.

I love you like a
which once
nestled on
a chain
between my breasts.
Now you
are carving out
your own
But sudden shakings
loosen shimmers of
and you
momentarily warm,
close to my

24. For William at 10 years old.

I love you like a
Prickly Pear
on a humid,
hot day,
whose bony spines
do all they can
to push me
away -
But once I fight
Past the
daunting surface,
I peel back the thorns
and expose the
Tenderest, softest
flesh of your
my thirsty

26. First Born Blues.

You had the ejaculation
Then watched the rip of the knife.
This was your view point,
One aspect of your life.

I had the bearing-down,
The failure and the pain.
You had the pleasure
Of the little child to gain.

I had the shavings and the
Enema and the tubes.
You had the cigarettes
And the joy of spreading the news.

I had engorged breasts
While you had a party.
I had prodding students
But you were hale and hearty.

I was left confused and battered
In hospital with a baby boy.
You were welcomed back to work
Where you were greeted with joy.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Talking with Ancestors

A sign on the showcase reads “Dumisane U Jehova Amen.” “We hope in God, Amen.” The showcase is filled with fine bone china tea sets, and porcelain dogs of various descriptions stare out at visitors from their vantage points on top of the cupboards. Lace curtains line the walls, and hide a myriad of doorways from view. A radio blares in the room in the back. A YFM D-Jay is rapping his stuff. In the lounge where we sit, an ancient soapy mumbles on the television, relegated by its datedness to day time viewing.

This is not what I expected. I expected animal skins, dried herbs on the ceilings, a host dressed in beaded dreadlocks and skins. Instead my host is wearing a floral print dress and a turban on her head. When I enter, the family watching the soap scatters in all directions. I am told by my companion, Minah Phoswa, to sit down. I have to eat and drink before anything else happens. I am in Imbali to meet Mantombi Shange, a Sangoma, but she has disappeared with the others behind the lace curtains. A short while later she re-emerges, carrying a tray with two glasses, a large bottle of Fanta Pineapple, and two plates of tennis biscuits. She avoids my eyes and only sits down when I have drunk half a glass of cool drink. Then she begins to speak to Phoswa in Zulu. I ask questions in English and Phoswa translates the Zulu replies. Shange still avoids my eyes but she soon relaxes enough to smile at me when I understand the Zulu words and ask her in more detail about them.

I have done quite a lot of research on Sangomas as a character in one of my screenplays is a Sangoma. One of the most informative books is The Spirits Speak by Nicky Arden, a white Canadian woman who became a South African Sangoma. But I have waited a long time to meet an actual Sangoma. The main reason for this is that I wanted to meet someone who was practicing traditional herbal medicine in a positive way. My reading had also led me to explore the dark underbelly of muti murders and ruthless practitioners. I didn’t think I was up to an encounter with the dark side. So when Phoswa told me how her aunt, Shange, had been asked for muti to kill someone and how she’d refused as she didn’t prescribe muti for evil purposes, I knew that Shange was the person I wanted to meet.

Shange’s dignified grey haired husband wanders in unobtrusively to switch off the television. Someone else turns the radio off in the background. And 63 year old Mantombi Shange begins her story. Shange had been sickly since she was 15 or 16 years old when she’d started having constant dreams of Sangomas. She usually dreamt that she was under the water with her departed grandmother who kept showing her how to use muti. Shange’s mother swore she would rather her daughter was dead than become a Sangoma. They were a very Christian family, and even had a small church on their property at home. “I never wanted to be a Sangoma,” Shange says. “I was a member of the Assemblies of God, you see.”

When she was married she could not have children. “I had seven miscarriages, and grew very thin and weak. Then in 1983, when I was working at Gold Dollar Furnishers in town, I started to get lost. I could never find my way to work,” Shange tells me, warming to her subject. “I thought I was going mad. Eventually my manager came to find me. When I told him I couldn’t find my way to work, he drove me to get my cheque and my money. I decided to stop work then.”

Shange’s very concerned and long suffering husband finally consulted another Sangoma who recognized the signs immediately. She knew that Mantombi Shange should become a Sangoma. Shange decided to see a woman known for her powers of prayer instead. “The woman prayed night and day for me not to become a Sangoma,” she says. “But even she saw Sangomas in her prayers getting muti for me. Eventually she said that even she couldn’t stop me becoming a Sangoma.”

Then Shange dreamt that she must go to Elandskop where she would meet the right person to train her. There she met a Sangoma who said that Shange had to listen to the ancestors or else she would lose her mind altogether. And so it was that, in her forties now, Shange took the path which she says has brought her nothing but peace and happiness.

“It was then that I told the ancestors that I wanted a child,” she tells me later, “and if they wanted me to become a Sangoma they must give me just one child. It was soon after that I discovered I was pregnant.” Shange’s one and only child was born months later and her health and well-being have improved steadily ever since. Her husband also found a stable job and their lives began to prosper. “I am very happy to be a Sangoma now, and it has given me freedom. But I did ask my ancestors to let me continue to pray,” she adds.

As we talk, an adolescent chicken wanders in through the doorway. Seeing me, it takes fright and leaves. Shange fetches her photograph album and shows me pictures of all the initiates that she has trained. She is very impressed that I know they are called Thwasa.

When I ask if she will wear her special clothes for me so that I can take a photograph, she disappears for a while. She returns, dressed in Sangoma regalia – animal print wrap, beaded dreadlocks, a headdress made of rooster and guinea fowl feathers and a goat’s bladder, and carrying her fly whisk. Now she is relaxed and talks more directly to me. I ask her if she will burn imphepho for me to hear what the ancestors have got to tell me. Imphepho is the herb used to summon the ancestors. Shange doesn’t throw bones, but merely talks to the ancestors to find out what is wrong with the person. The ancestors will also tell her if the person needs any specific muti. She agrees to do this for me but I have to go outside to her hut. Phoswa is mildly put out. She has never been invited to the hut before.

Moments later we are walking across the yard. Fat chickens and their scrawny chicks bask in the late afternoon sunlight. I hadn’t noticed it when we arrived but hidden amongst a number of outhouses on the property is a traditional beehive hut. My spirits leap. Here it is. The real thing. The hut has a very low door, and we bend to go in. Shange ignores my protests and insists on my sitting on a stool. I would have been quite happy on the grass mats which cover the earth floor. She sits on the mat in front of an area where beaded hangings and cloths form a central focus. A certificate hangs in a frame above. An enormous snake skin stretches well over two metres across the wall. Shange lights the imphepho in a small clay bowl. She bends away from me and breathes in the smoke. She begins to talk quietly and in a normal voice to the ancestors. I sit on my stool, saying quiet prayers for only good news, delighted to be experiencing all I have read about so thoroughly.

After a few minutes in which peace descends on the little hut, Shange turns to me and begins to talk in English. Not shy any longer, she talks to me directly. She puts her hand onto the back of her neck. “You have the heaviness here,” she says to me. “You feel like something is pressing you here.” She gestures along the shoulder blades too. I say yes. Has she been watching me wear my neck brace more and more often, I wonder? “You also like to talk to people. You like people, but then sometimes you just go ‘Ah no! Enough!’” she says as she makes an unhappy face. “Sometimes you are just tired of being with people and you have to be alone. You’re not cheeky to the people, and it’s not that you don’t like the people, but you just don’t want to talk anymore.” I laugh, as I have seldom heard such an accurate description. Anyone who knows me will recognize the descent of a bad mood when I haven’t had enough time alone. “That is because the ancestors want you to listen to them. They are very close to you all the time. You have to spend time alone to listen to them.” And I’ve always thought it was just that I needed to think. Shange goes on to tell me how the ancestors like to talk to me. She thinks I should wear a shawl more often, like the Sangoma’s cape, and it will relieve the pain in my neck and shoulders. I smile, as I always wear a shawl of some sorts on those all too rare occasions when I meditate. Shange talks more freely now. She says that the money seem to just fly out of our house. She’s right there. It is a hungry ancestor, she says, and I must put some bread and tea on a windowsill for him somewhere in the house. I smile, thinking how like the Christmas ritual of leaving a glass of wine and a mince pie for Father Christmas it is. And it’s probably less silly than having a Feng Shui frog with a coin in its mouth at one’s doorway, I suppose.

We talk a little more, and a sort of timelessness descends on the hut. Shange tells me how the ancestors showed her how to build the hut. “They told me in my dreams how I must build it,” she says. “I showed my husband and we made it ourselves. But then they said I mustn’t use it because I have to wait for a visitor. I didn’t know what they meant,” she says. “But we didn’t use the hut. Until one day, I looked in the door and saw this big snake across the floor. I couldn’t believe it.” I look up on the wall at the snake skin, and she nods. That is the one. The snake is the most powerful symbol of the Sangoma. “I had to get my friend to kill it. I couldn’t do it – I am not allowed to kill any animal that comes into the house. But the snake didn’t fight. It knew it had to be killed. And I could used the hut after that.” All of the parts of the snake, except the skin, were used for muti.

Soon afterwards, Phoswa and I prepare to leave the little house behind us. As we go, Shange tells me I should become her Thwasa. We laugh. I wouldn’t mind so much, I say, but I couldn’t deal with the phalaza, the regular purging, that goes with it. She tells me that she would make a special plan for me. I promise to think about it. But perhaps I’ll just stick to meditation. And have I put bread and tea on my windowsill? You bet my bottom dollar!

1917 words.

October 2004


What is it with Bureaucracies? Do you think they have weekly committee meetings to see how they can make their average customer’s life more difficult? I’m convinced they do. It’s the only explanation.

I had the misfortune last week to be on the receiving end of a bureaucratic system. This meant I had to go from Point A to Point D, brandishing a little form which needed to be stamped and signed and ratified and approved at each of the various stations. Have you ever noticed how the trip between any two points of such a system is as long and hot as it is possible to make it? Funny how that happens. Anyway, I thought I could get through it all in an hour. After all, all that was required was a number of signatures and a little financial negotiation and I would be home free. Silly me. How easily one forgets!

Point A went along swimmingly, making me optimistic with false hope for a speedy conclusion. Point B was a little sticky. Person required to sign the form was not available so I had to come back. And come back. And then come back again later. But all concerned were doing their best and it was eventually done with the best will in the world. Only took a couple of days. I was lulled into the false security that everyone was out to help me. And so I sailed on blithely to point C. And there she was. The original bureaucrat. The one who designed the system. The one who worked out how it takes five pairs of hands to fill in a single form. The one who says “How can I make this process more difficult for this person?” The one who lies awake at night thinking of different ways to say “NO!”.

I almost escaped her clutches. Her young colleague was listening with empathy to my need for a little bending of the iron clad rules. I could see the girl consider the possibilities of how we could make efficient but alternative arrangements. And then the experienced signer of forms, the veteran deflater of hopes, the gainsayer extraordinaire moved into position. A quick interrogation of her colleague’s intentions made her act swiftly. Behind their glass enclosure, she covered her hands with her multi be-ringed fingers and whispered urgent instructions to her innocent and wayward co-worker. Of course I couldn’t hear a word of the vicious calumnies she was obviously pouring out on my head and so couldn’t pre-empt any objections. But it took a mere matter of seconds before the young girl’s helpfulness changed to stern “There is absolutely no way on God’s green earth that we can possibly contemplate this”-ness. If you know what I mean.
I sighed deeply. I did not break down and cry as I’ve done before. Three years ago, when ill with TB, I’d been broken by the system while waiting in a queue at the local clinic for a packet of pre-packed medicine for over 2 hours. I could see the packets neatly arranged on a table within my grasp. All the other patients were waiting for the same medicine. But we had to follow the primordial procedure to go from step A to step Z even though it was the n’th time all of us had been there. And then, then - just when it was finally my turn - the nurses shut up their little offices and went to tea. Both of them. For half an hour.

I do not profess to have great time/management skills but I’m sure I could improve the efficiency of most of these processes. I once heard a man describe his attempt to obtain his preordained funds from the government for his state school as being impossible “because it takes ten hands to wipe one #$#%”. It’s those weekly obfuscation meetings I tell you. They must spend hours devising new ways to make life more difficult for the average applicant. But I’m willing to bet that they never come to a unified resolution on anything!

684 words.