Out of South Africa

(February 2004)
Published in The Sunday Times, UK

A surge of song rises up over the valley. It grows louder, swells, takes on the tone of weeping and then of celebration. Since sunrise, there has been a stream of people trickling across the blue-green valley. Normally echoing with laughter and the shrieks of school children, everything had been heavily silent this morning, my baby rolling around at my feet while my husband hung white nappies on the branches of the startling flame trees to dry. Larry, like us a guest at the Khanya Project in Mooiplaas, South Africa, stepped out of his whitewashed mud rondavel, stretching into the sun, calling out a welcome. His voice seemed so loud against the silence that two roosting birds, startled, flapped up into the air.

Larry wanders towards our rondavel and has taken barely six steps when the singing erupts. We sit on the warm grass, captivated. It lasts until the sun is hot above our heads, the voices ringing out over the valley, echoing against the harsh tin sheds and circular rondavels of the settlement. Even the baby is quiet, happily grabbing at her toes. Then the music stops, as suddenly as it began, and all the people of the village swarm out into the sunshine. Later we meet Weleile Sikale, the Khanya Project’s co-ordinator, trudging across the valley, a red scarf wrapped across his shoulders. When he reaches us his round face breaks into a smile, his arms stretch out in an open hug. “A funeral,” he says. “We have had our morning of tears, now we will have an afternoon of laughter.”

Mooiplaas is a small shanty town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Made up largely of the ubiquitous tin shacks which were one of the visible legacies of the apartheid relocation scheme, Mooiplaas village horse-shoes around the edges of a lush valley. The Khanya Project is on the fourth side of the valley: a smattering of five white rondavels; the mud brick house of the co-ordinator’s home; a large meeting room and kitchen; the village church. Set up in 1997 by Roger Hudson, the project works with the local Xhosa people, developing permaculture garden and farming sites, craft projects, re-building traditional homes and attempting to remove the physical traces of apartheid. We are on the second “Service Safari”, spending ten days helping to thatch the roof of the meeting room, and working on the various food gardens in the village. The first group built the mud brick house, learning how to make mud bricks, design the house, and build it—all in a ten day period.

The Khanya Project has no electricity and limited running water. In our email correspondence, setting up our stay at the project, Roger has emphasised the basic nature of the accommodation. Although Khanya means ‘light’ in the Xhosa language, our evening light will be coming from gas lamps. As a result, by the time we arrive, I am full of anxiety, expecting a fly-blown lean-to with perhaps a mat thrown on the floor for bedding. Roger collects us from East London airport, and drives us out across river gorges punctuating rolling hills, towards the spectacular Wild Coast area. We drive through a farm gate, push our way through goats and cattle nuzzling at the car, and he shows us down to our rondavel. I almost weep with relief. It is comfortable, beautifully decorated with Xhosa designs and beaded curtains. The large double bed (not on the floor) is covered with a brightly patterned bedspread, and spectacular rugs are scattered on the floor. There’s a desk, a chair, a gas powered lamp, water jugs and buckets. As a complete shower addict (at my best, I’m a twice a day girl), the idea of spending a fortnight or longer washing in a basin of water isn’t immediately appealing and I imagine that I’ll hold off until I get to the game reserve, with its luxurious showers. That first evening, though, Monica – the project’s cook – carries a jug of warm water down to me, balancing it on her head. My whole little family washes in a warm, soapy two inches of water, looking out at the orange sun searing the valley. We have a second bucket for washing nappies, and after a few days the rhythm of simplicity has seeped into us, slowed us down. Zwinze and Barshay, two village women, show me how to tie the baby to my back with a couple of sarongs. When I walk over to the village to help plant out one of the food gardens, she falls asleep as soon as I begin moving. The women in the village come close and peer in at her, then nod approvingly. I spend the afternoon bending and tugging and stretching; my daughter stays contentedly asleep until I get back to the rondavel and peel the sarong and blanket away. In the evening, we eat maize and beans together in the meeting room, with the gas lamps projecting our shadows onto the walls. Later, Richard and I sit in our rondavel, breathing in the quiet and the cool air.

On the fourth day, Weleile, Larry and a Cape Town student called Davey climb on to the roof of the meeting room. I stand at the bottom, passing tools and thatching materials up, and calling out helpful tips like “be careful” and “Oh, no, you’re going to fall!” After an hour or so of my valuable assistance Weleile kindly suggests that I go and rest. As an afterthought, he calls: “Zwinze and the craft workers are down by the gate. They may need some help sorting the beads.” I pelt down to the gate with the enthusiasm of a St Trinian’s girl let off maths class. The Women’s Craft Co-operative is set up in a thatched room near the farm gate. Six or seven women are sitting on mats on the floor, stitching and beading brightly coloured bags and curtains. They welcome me loudly, give me a sweet apple drink, and give me a bag of beads to sort into colours and sizes. I lie on the floor, ordering them into piles, while the women ask me about my daughter and tell me about their own children. Zwinze smiles and says that now, with the food from the gardens, and the income from the craft, she can feed her children well.

We spend afternoons driving down to the long beaches of the Wild Coast, sliding down the dunes and body surfing in cool water. Towards the end of our stay we drive up to Mpofu Game Reserve. It’s dark when we arrive and dark when we head out on our first game drive in the morning. The first glimmer of orange sun shows us a line of zebras strolling casually in front of us, pausing occasionally to dart curious glances at our dusty red Cortina. Four of us are crammed breathlessly into the car, a map of the 7500 ha park folded on the front seat, a spare tyre in the boot. Larry drives, but the American in him clearly feels unhappy sticking to the left side of the road. His hands are dusty at the wheel as we veer wildly along the rough tracks until we hear a loud bang and the car swerves. Fifteen minutes, several more curious zebras and one spare tyre later, we’re back on the track. We are barely further on when Larry stops again and puts his finger to his lips. On the hill in front of us, a herd of gazelles are framed against the sunrise. Three or four young ones leap and tumble at each other while the others feed. When Larry starts the engine again, I realise that I’ve been holding my breath. We pootle about the park, catching glimpses of antelopes, a herd of trekking wilderbeasts, impalas and baboons. We have a sheet with lists of animals, and little square boxes to tick off. I have abandoned the ticking off, much to Larry’s consternation, who keeps calling out “Aardwolf. Look—Southern Reedbuck. No, is it a mountain reebuck?” But even Larry is silent when we see the family of giraffes running across the plains towards us, their necks swaying like elegant tree branches, their bodies impossibly poised. They stretch across the grass, every movement like dance. Of course I’ve seen giraffes before, huddled up in zoos, but never in the freedom of space, never seen them this way, floating like a single cloud over the savannah. They come close, nibbling at the trees nearby. The baby nuzzles against its mother. I hold my own baby up so that she can see; I try to whisper to her and find that I have lost the ability to speak. I muzzle my face into her neck and mouth the word “thankyou.”

There has been nothing but welcome and friendship at Mooiplaas, but the realities of post-apartheid South Africa appear starkly when we go for provisions at the store on the highway. It’s a fortress, surrounded by aimless looking youths, in which the shopkeeper paces edgily inside a large cage. What is he guarding? Large bags of mealie flour, as far as we can tell. But apparently the carloads of armed gangsters don’t care. They’ll kill before asking what there is to take. That’s what we’re told by way of explanation, and we’re not going to argue. It’s the same fearful undercurrent in Johannesburg. With a night to wait before our flight home, we stay at a cheap chain motel near the airport. Here there’s no grille at reception, but the ceiling is festooned with video cameras. The manager begs us for contacts in the London hotel trade. He’s been through three armed raids in a month, even though there’s no money kept on site. It all feels so far from the hospitality we have been offered at the Khanya Project. But as we leave we take with us memories of hope and resilience, not fear, and the singing, the incredible singing.