It’s 5 am and I’ve been lying in bed watching a couple of White-eyes getting an early start, pecking delicately at the remains of some naartjies on one of the bird feeders. After they’ve had their turn, a pair of Bulbuls appears. I relent and put out more fruit for them, earlier than usual because I know that later the Starlings will muscle in and there is nothing refined about their table manners, they are barefaced hogs. Every morning, just before 6, the birds start gathering in the trees and shrubs around the birdfeeders outside my bedroom window, like troops massing on the border. I don’t need an alarm clock, they make such a commotion that it’s impossible to sleep through it. As soon as I go outside with their food, they come swooping in closer and once I turn my back on them to go inside, they swarm in to feed. My garden is teaming with bird life, not just at feeding time but throughout the day. There is always some chattering and chirping and swizzling (which is what my bird book calls the sound that Weavers make) going on in the garden, so much for peace and quiet in the country. The other morning I heard a terrible racket coming from my roof. It turned out to be a pair of Hamerkops performing a crazy mating ritual while at the same time screeching at each other in a somewhat maniacal fashion. And I thought the Francolins were noisy!
My favourite bird call is that of the Dove because to me, it is the quintessential sound of the African countryside. When I was a teenager, my parents and I would sometimes drive up to the Drakensberg for a weekend (usually to the northern resorts of Royal Natal National Park and Mont aux Sources). We would usually arrive in the late afternoon just as the fires were being lit and the doves were cooing at the end of the day. I loved those ‘Berg resorts, mostly because of the food! Nothing fancy, just good, old fashioned porridge for breakfast, cold meats and salad for lunch and a three course dinner, not to mention the bar snacks. There used to be a bar at the Mont aux Sources hotel which had a spectacular view of the ‘Berg Amphitheatre and where they used to serve crispy bacon rinds, what a treat. And of course I loved the landscape, the majestic mountains, wonderful walks though natural forest and crystal clear mountain streams and pools. The smell of wood smoke and the sound of doves always remind me of those ‘Berg holidays. And now I light my own wood fire, listen to the doves as the day ends, pour myself a glass of wine and watch the sun setting behind Giant’s Castle. The only thing missing is the bloody bacon rinds (what were they called?).
Some years after those ‘Berg weekends, in June 1981, to be precise, Peter and I packed a bakkie with as many of our worldly goods as we could fit on it (with my brand new, red Western Flyer on top of the precarious load) and set off for a place called Mboza in northern Zululand. Peter was a social anthropology lecturer at the University of Natal at the time and had decided to take sabbatical leave to do research in an area called Maputoland, and I went with him. To get to Mboza one had to travel north past Mkuze, take the turn-off to Jozini (which was nothing more than an army base in those days), travel past the Jozini dam on the left, onto the Makhathini floodplain and head towards Mozambique. Somewhere along the way there was a sign saying Thusi’s Bus Stop and that’s where Mboza was! From Jozini onwards, it was dirt road and from Thusi’s to our camp (and I use the word “camp” loosely because it was simply a dilapidated mud hut in a clearing) there was no road, just pathways. We arrived at Mboza just as the sun was setting over the Lebombo Mountains. In every homestead hidden in the bush a fire had been lit and the first thing I noticed about my new home was the smell of hundreds of sweet potatoes being cooked on open fires.
I volunteered as an English teacher at the local primary school. Every day I would cycle from the camp to school on my Western Flyer, negotiating sandy patches or mud, depending on the weather. It is true to say that back in 1981 I was the first white woman that most of the kids had ever seen and I like to think that I gave a good first impression, hurtling into the school yard on my bike, looking a bit like the wild woman of Borneo. In an effort to compensate for no salary I was given an “office” (another loose term). This was a mud structure with no roof, windows, doors or floor. But it did have a school desk and chair in the middle of the space where I could sit, usually with chickens at my feet, and mark or do whatever teachers do in offices. The children used to file past the doorway and curtsy to me, trying to get a good look and giggle at this strange woman who not only rode a bicycle but who also wore trousers (it was not the done thing for women in rural areas to wear trousers back then, but I was buggered if I was going to ride a bike through the bush in a skirt).
It was an eye opener for me too, to see what conditions rural kids had to endure in order to get an education, not to mention the teachers who had to educate them. When I left Mboza at the end of 1982 to look for a paid job, I was much more aware of the terrible inequalities in our society and wanted to be involved in helping to improve education for black kids. Peter stayed on at Mboza when I returned to Durban and over the next few years we spent long periods of time apart as he travelled back and forth between Durban and Mboza. He became disillusioned in the academic pursuit of research for research sake and became more involved in rural development, eventually resigning from academia to set up a non-government organisation (ngo) on campus called CORD (Community Organisation, Research & Development). I, in the meantime, had gotten a job with another ngo called the Career Information Centre. CIC had been started by an organisation called Women for Peaceful Change to make vocational guidance available to disadvantaged kids and it was my job to start a resource centre and develop relevant careers guidance materials for schools. It was an exciting job in exciting times.
CIC moved into a building called the Ecumenical Centre, run by Diakonia, in St Andrews Street. Other non-profit organisations were also housed there, like the Legal Resource Centre and the Black Sash Advice Centre. It was quite a hotbed of political activism and of course we were sitting ducks for the Special Branch, who regularly raided the building. I have a fond memory of attending a journalism workshop at the centre one weekend. I smoked in those days and during tea breaks I would go out into the courtyard to have a smoke. I struck up a conversation with an incredibly charismatic black guy who paced up and down the courtyard while he talked, never sitting still for one moment. We became quite friendly over the weekend and eventually I asked him why he kept moving all the time and he told me that he had just come off Robben Island and was enjoying the freedom to move about outdoors. It was only later that I discovered just who “Terror” Lekota was. A few years after his release he was rearrested and imprisoned again. I remember driving to the prison with the director of CIC, en route to Joburg, to deliver a pair of soccer boots to him; his nickname “Terror” had come from his antics on the soccer field and not from him being a so-called terrorist.He was, like so many of the other activists I met at that time, absolutely committed to a democratic South Africa. They worked hard and risked their lives but they also had an incredible capacity to have fun!
My proudest achievement in CIC was developing a mobile resource unit which travelled to schools in Maputoland to run workshops with teachers and disseminate information to school kids. I left CIC in the late 80’s to run the educare centre. One day, one of the fathers and the chairperson of my parents committee, Vijay, came rushing into the educare centre to tell us that President de Klerk had just announced that the ANC had been unbanned and that Nelson Mandela was to be released. We were all very excited and our excitement infected the children, who became quite unmanageable. So we took them onto the university playing field to run around and scream to their hearts’ desire, while we and other university staff who had joined us on the field all started singing and dancing. It was an amazing moment.