Island Blog – The Slow of Africa

I have decided to extend my stay out here for another month.  Missing Christmas.  Well, I won’t actually ‘miss’ Christmas, as it still comes along, all these thousands of miles from home.  Home, where everyone has a cold, wears thick socks and lights fires early.  There is none of that here – way too hot, even now with a cloudy sky overhead and the endless promise of rain broken, yet again.  Africa is thirsty.

Back home, by now, I would be fretting my socks off on Amazon, in search of presents for my HUGE family.  I would be asking parents what to get for their children from Granny and Popz.  I would be agonizing over what to buy impossible boys who really want a jet ski or a Ferguson tractor and I would be completely void of ideas for my husband.  Socks?  Oh dear me, no.  I did that last year and felt very embarrassed at my  lack of imagination, even if they were jolly expensive warm ones with a reinforced foot.  I got 3 pairs for the same cost as 4 CDs, those nearly-redundant bearers of music.  Well, it felt ok at the time of purchase.

Getting presents wrong is my scary power.  I am super good at it.  What I think is just perfect is absolutely not, in the end – the end being my discovery of said perfect present behind a store-room door, or in the kids playroom or, better, in the big bag of stuff for the charity shop.  It’s very disappointing and I really should have learned by now.  I think we should all buy gifts for ourselves.  So much less stress involved for everyone.  However, a gift is a lovely thing to get, as long as you are prepared to find that smile whatever appears beneath the pretty wrappings.  Personally, I prefer a little home-made something – something that took a measure of time investment, care and thought and something that probably cost nothing in money terms.  I spoke, often, with my kids about that, but it rarely inspired them.  The advertising glitz, the ‘must have’ of the latest this or that is like a tsunami at Christmas.  Not out here, here where there is no cash to waste on anything as trivial as the latest’must have’.  Must haves include food, clothing and somewhere to sleep, and none of those come just because they should.  Evidence of that is clear from the men or women lying under a tree beside the road, with inadequate clothing and no protection from the sun, the rain or the mosquitoes.

I’m relieved – that’s what I am.  I have never, in 46 years been away for Christmas.  I have stayed at my post, baked cake and stuffed turkey.  The pressure is massive.  Failure lurks round every corner.  In panic I have hurtled to the little town for stocking gifts, for five children, if you don’t mind – yeah, my choice, I know, I KNOW! I have ordered a box of tangerines and enough booze to be embarrassing, to mention but two of a zillion must haves.  I have decorated trees, fought with fairies and stars and dud bulbs.  I have walked out to cut something with berries, sprayed Honesty and Teasel and fir cones and planted them in pretty vases around the house.  I go nuts with Christmas songs and carols and spend ages working out where to put the crib.  Should Jesus be held back till Christmas Eve or can he go in now?  Going in now saves me the extra stress of finding him again on his due date.

The small stuff becomes huge and I really don’t agree with it, in my heart of hearts.  Imagine with me, if you will, a relaxed approach to Christmas.  Imagine everyone smiling whilst the days plod on, without fear, or panics, or nightmare dreams.  Imagine not being completely knackered on the big day because, well, it’s Christmas – a time to be thankful and loving and kind and generous.  What it isn’t is Master Chef.  T’is the season of goodwill, although I don’t get that either.  All seasons might consider being ‘of goodwill’ and to all men, not just the ones we love or like.  Easy said, of course, but it makes perfect sense to me.  Concentrating all that goodwill into such a short time is both nonsense and exhausting.  It’s like we have to be mellow and light-hearted for a finite period of time and then what…….turn back into critical grumps?  I know we don’t all do that, but with January on the horizon and new year’s resolutions and diets and fitness plans, it is tempting.

Out here, whatever the season, the smiles are ready.  Why is this, when many have so very little to smile about?  I know the answer.  A thankful heart and the innate ability to go v e r y s l o w through the days.  It can be infuriating, of course, on the white side of black.  This slowness is applied to everything from thought processes to actions taken.  Replacing a fuse can take all day.  Well, there are people to laugh with, to sing with, to laugh with at every step, for starters.  Then I have to walk all-the-way to the electrical supply store (500 yards) and then s l o w l y look for the new fuse, and then walk back again, meeting another load of folk en route, folk who might want to chat, or sing, or laugh with me.  Next, I have to change the fuse.  Well, that’s a faff and a tad difficult as I’m still singing at the top of my voice and bopping along to the inner beat which challenges my right arm.  It just won’t keep still long enough for me to remove and insert.  Then I have to walk all the way across the room to flick the switch.  If this fuse is dud, I repeat the process.  See?  Now it’s time to clock off.  A good day all round.

If, on the white side of black, you challenge work speed, the fuse changer looks astonished and then……wait for it, wait for it…….here comes that HUGE SMILE, bright enough to bring out the sun.  Yeah boss, he says, and pays absolutely no heed at all.  It is impossible not to love them.  They have much to teach us, unless we pay absolutely no heed at all, of course, which we don’t.

So, for this blessed Christmas time, I will immerse my soul in the slow of Africa, and maybe, just maybe, I might absorb enough to take back home, home where all the small things rise up like snakes, home where  there’s only one season of goodwill and the other three are laden with to-do lists, pressure and gargantuan attempts not to be grumpy.

Yesterday afternoon I heard the ‘girls’ coming in to prepare supper.  No, what I heard was, in fact, a party.  As they sashayed those marvelous African bottoms across the tundra between their house and the kitchens, one of them started to sing, again, at the top of her voice.  I don’t think black people have a vocal sliding scale.  She belted out a phrase in Zulu and the others answered her.  It took ten minutes, fully, for them to get to the kitchen door, although the distance is but a few yards.  They laughed and sang and lifted my spirits as I sat on the step outside my rondavel.  Whatever I was thinking about just flew away and although I understood not one word, I understood everything.

Island Blog – Otherness

I see the world, or I used to, through the eyes of a child.  Magic, mystery, unexplainability are all my friends.  I like not being able to define or understand things that come from the other side of outer space.  I understand little of science, to be honest, although I am fascinated by it and recognize its value to my life, to all of our lives.  However, when I meet someone who works only with the facts, proven, irrefutable data, and who approaches life from a place of finite understanding, I have to shut my gob.  I can walk some way with this person who does not deviate from what they can see, touch and prove, but I cannot think as they do.  They have built a whole persona around the ‘truth’ and with me and my otherness at the table, there is no going forward.  The best I can do is to ask questions, which I do, because their knowledge and their definiteness intrigues me.  They know they are right, these people, because they can prove it.  But, it is not enough for me because I wonder.  I wonder at everything.  If man and woman only believe in what is seen or heard, what happened to otherness?

In childhood, otherness is called bad behaviour, or it was in mine.  In adolescence, as weird and in adulthood subversive, dangerous, cloudy with a chance of thunder.  Otherness people refuse to fit into any box or pigeon hole.  They won’t be labelled, thus disallowing definition.  Otherness people may well look wistfully at the definite people and wish they were over there, with them.  Sometimes, if that need is great enough, they will go ‘over there’ but it won’t last, for the pull of mystery is too strong, like an inner moon nobody else can see.

So, what is otherness?  I call it spirituality, the unseen, the unconfirmed, the invisible.  Saying it isn’t there is, well true.  I cannot see it, nor control it, this carpathian mystery, but without its guidance, I am not whole.  I don’t believe in the spirit world, I heard someone say once.  If I can’t see it, touch it, explain it, prove it, then its just fairy tale nonsense.

In many African cultures it can kill you, this non-existent otherness.  It can also give life.  Cursing a man from inside a shake of clacky bones and weird clothing will kill him, for he believes in the otherness so strongly.  A blessing can save the same life.  It’s all about belief.  Although I know ‘Muti’ to be of immense power, I couldn’t talk you through it and nor can anyone who isn’t a witch doctor.  Incantations, fire, herbs and potent bush plants in the hands of such a ‘doctor’ will decide on life or eventual death.  Its just words, just plants, just gobbledygook, but not to the believer.  I can’t see belief and nor can you.  I can’t see love either, nor empathy, nor kindness – only through their manifestation in a human act.  Oh, there it is, that invisible marvelous mysterious undefinable thing!  It was always there, of course, a spirit-sent energy, ripe for the taking should a believer believe.

Breaking it down, walking backwards into mystery, I find my soul.  It is also invisible.  An unseen, unscientifically proven part of our scientifically mapped out bodies, the giver and receiver of magic.  A postmortem will never reveal it, place it, define it.  It quite simply isn’t there at all, can’t be pickled in formaldehyde nor accurately described, and yet we all have one.  We nourish it or we starve.  The up-to-us bit is, well up to us.  Worldly intelligence is a wonderful grounding thing and we play truant from that class at our peril, but, if we deny our spiritual side, our otherness, we grow faint and weary.

Acknowledging that what we know for certain is only half enough for a whole life, opens our souls to a wealth of power.  Let’s say I am stuck in my life, can’t work out what I want to do, whilst knowing for certain that I have ants in my pants and nothing feels right as it once did.  I go through all my scientific knowledge and wherever I look, there are fences.  Then, one random moment shines her light.  A new idea, one I had never thought of before, which I never could have, as it just wasn’t in my data bank.  It came from outside of me, not from my mind.  Had it been hiding in there I would have been able to locate and employ it yonks ago.  So, if it didn’t come from me, where did it come from?  It came from nowhere in response to a soul call, that’s where.

In balance, we walk with our feet on solid Mother Earth and our heads in the sky.  As this good earth limits us more and more with health and safety rulings, with DO NOTS and other boundaries, we must feed our souls for they are our light and our strength, our epiphanies and our revelations.  They hold in gentle hands the life we live and the love we give, and when all is said and all is done, they go somewhere, nowhere, into the mystery of otherness to inspire a future soul on solid ground.

‘The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.’ Carl Sagan


Island Blog – Transitions

This morning, very early, I helped a spider out of the pool.  It was either a Grass Spider or a Wolf Spider.  So, does it bite and is it poisonous?  I haven’t a clue.  I had been chopping some banana up for the Bulbul birds, plus team of ants, and had this kitchen knife in my hand, so I employed it.  Saving things with legs and wings from pools is my thing.  I absolutely can not watch all those waggling legs flattened by the surface and do nothing. That spider, those Christmas Beetles or moths landed themselves in mortal danger, when what they sought was re-hydration.

From the stoep of the cabin I hear hippos grunt and puff down by the river.  This river, when full, is wide as a mile and alive with danger.  We walked along the Kruger fence yesterday in 40 degrees to catch sight of them but saw nothing.  We didn’t see the elephants either, nor the crocodiles, nor the leopard lying in the shade, but we knew they were all there.  A lone giraffe, tall as the tallest tree, appeared and then was gone.  Gone where?  The trees are not a forest.  The spaces in between them is clear to our eyes, the tundra laid out flat and empty, but somehow this huge creature just vanished.  Various buck wandered along the sandy banks and, in my whispering head I wish them safety as they make their way down for water.  Crocs and hippos look like rocks, after all.  From this side of the river, this side of the high barbed fences we can fix binoculars to our faces and marvel at each glimpse of the wild things.  Someone has dropped a crimson flipflop over the wooden rail of the viewpoint but nobody in their right mind would climb down for it.  It lies incongruous on a sand-dusted rock, way down there, in Kruger Park, out of reach, a something out of place, a human footprint.

We drive back to the cabin for supper.  A wildfire sunset settles into dusk as the African night awakens.  Now the leopard will stretch and yawn as her belly rumbles.  Her eyes see everything in the darkness, and everything is jumpy as hec.  I hear lions roaring in the distance and am only too glad I’m not an impala. My night concerns are nothing by comparison.  I spray myself with citrus and lavender against mosquito bites and put down a banana for the bush babies.  They will come eventually, those cute little long tailed things with huge eyes and long fluffy tails, and then, just as quickly, disappear again through the scrub.  3 kudu, long-legged and graceful, come asking  for food and take it from my hand.  Although the feeding of wild animals feels odd to me, I cannot deny the thrill of watching warthog, kudu, or bush buck up close and personal.  They look right into my eyes and I look right back. In my eyes there is awe.  In theirs, I see fear, and, yet, the risk is worth it for the game nuts.

This evening, as the sky squashes the African sun into a crimson brushstroke, we go again to the viewpoint.  My eyes traverse the land that falls down towards the river, across its shining back and on up  into the bush.  From up here I am safe, but down there would be a very different story.  Vulnerable, and on two unfit legs with not much running left in them, I could be dinner. It thinks me of life.

Without risk, life is tame, and I am not interested in tame.  In order to cross a dangerous river, metaphorically speaking, I must risk being out in the open.  There is safety in just looking, but just looking is not enough.  The eyes that look back from the bush are all my own.  This is me watching me, and I cannot pretend they’re not there.  For a life to be really lived, the dangers must be faced.  We all meet our own croc-infested rivers, at some point, and we would do anything to avoid a crossing.  Let’s stay safe, we say, up here, away from all those nasty eyes and teeth, from all those things I know I could do, from the inner changes I need to make, and then to work on, but the river still rises in response to the rain in our minds, however much we try to turn away.  Circumstances always change without our permission and the river divides us from ourselves if we just stay here in the safe place.

What does that mean?  I think it means we don’t risk crossing it because we cannot know, from the safe place, what opportunities lie on the other side.  We can’t see anything, so there must be nothing, but nothing is something.  It’s just hidden from our view.  Yes, going down there, moving into the lazy, deep and potentially dangerous flow of our own river, is a risk.  A huge risk. But life is a wild, crazy, unpredictable risk.

Or it’s nothing at all.

Island Blog – Space

Today the photography volunteers have been given the name of their project.  Minimalism.  I watch them wander around the reserve, deep in thought, eyes looking down, eyes looking up, looking out, thinking in.  What does minimalism mean to me?  Is it this leaf in a dustbowl, or that emerald green gecko shinning up a fat brown tree?  What do I hear while I seek my subject?  What do I feel, how do I feel?  Someone hunkers down to take a picture of an attention bell, one of those ping things that sit at reception when reception has popped out for a pee.  She places it carefully on the wide stone floor and crouches down to get it right.  I see the bell, tiny in such a lot of negative space.  From above it certainly is minimalism.  A child’s boat in a great stone ocean.  From down there, where she is, the bell becomes huge and the stone ocean goes on for ever, or, at least, until it meets the wall.

At art school we were required to work on negative space.  I hadn’t a scooby what that was, thinking it was something dodgy, the opposite of positive space, if, indeed that’s not an oxymoron. I found it extremely difficult at first, looking at what wasn’t there, the space in between the things that were.  We had to look, see, draw the spaces, not the jugs or benches or trees or parked cars.  All I could see was physical presence until, eversoslowly, just as my eyeballs threatened early closing, I got it, saw it and it was huge.

My understanding of opposites can often be This or That.  I forget there are many miles in between the two, many colours, hues, options.  Inhabiting that space is something I need to re-train my mind to work with.  A physical life requires certain choices between This and That and decisions are based on what I see, what is available, what is acceptable in any given moment.   We like routine, most of us, known quantities of things fixable and in good working order, things we use in our daily lives.  There is, after all, a time and place for everything, is there not? I want a positive space to live in, one that protects me, mostly, from myself, one that nurtures, one I can see clearly and understand.

At home, I would call those times of deep internal unrest, negative space.  Instead of really looking into that space, seeing it for what it is and allowing it just to be, I feel that I need to colour it in with my own pack of crayons.  I need to get busy, sweep the floor, cook something, change a bed, anything that gives me good grasp of the positive, the physical. What I can touch reassures me.  At least, over these things, I have control. That awful empty space back there, the one I just ran away from, the one full of unhappy thoughts and doubts and fears, well I sincerely hope that, by the time I descend the stairs, it has flown out the window.  Go pray on someone else you horrid negative space.  I’m fine now, with my pinny on and not long till lunch and the aftermath of dishes and cups to wash and dry.  When I focus on the tasks ahead of me, I can feel the calm.  There is always something to be done, after all, something that demands straightening, or mending, or wiping down, and once collected in an orderly fashion inside my mind, I am happy again. I am safe.  this life is just fine.

However, this is a life out of balance.  It must be, because the negative space is still there and it still bugs me. I don’t ask for it but it has something of import to show me.  Drawing the space in between two jugs, I began to notice the distance.  It wasn’t empty at all.  Behind the jugs I could see someone’s hand as they drew their own negative space, a corner of a cupboard, a snatch of white-scuffed blackboard, and even further back, the branch of a tree through the murky window.  It made me realize that I could look for ever into negative space and find positives, but distant positives, not too close, not mine to fix or mend or rearrange.  They were simply there.  I could fill in the gaps, complete the cupboard, the hand or the tree in my mind, but, somehow, I didn’t need to.

In order to control my mind, my thoughts, thoughts that fuel my choices of action and thoughts that will always have consequences, I need discipline, but discipline and I have never enjoyed each other’s company. I didn’t ever complete the drawing (no discipline!) because I was so pulled into the space.  I may have been given  poor marks, but what I learned about negative space back then has become a life-long fascination.  The trick is to be able to inhabit it, just as it is.  Those times of discomfort and self-doubt will still come to me.  I can fill them with stuff and noise and self pity; I can beat myself up, tear myself to shreds with my hyena teeth, or I can simply let them wash over me and move on.  I doubt that I will ever learn my way around them, never ‘complete’ my drawing, but if I just sit and let them come to me, surround me, without fear……. if I can find the courage to do that, I believe I will, at last, be able to say this is Me.

No apology.


Island Blog from Africa

sausage tree



They tell me the sausage tree hasn’t flowered for years.  It is now.  Two fat crimson blooms, deep as trumpets, hang down and waggle in the hot wind.  A sugar bird dips its beak into the nectar, then throws back its head to swallow.  Only two blooms as yet, but tomorrow rain is promised.  I sit in the dappled shade of a jacaranda and over there a coral tree waves fire blooms at the sky.  It’s super hot today and the sky is wide and blue with just faint brushstrokes of cloud. I look up and all I see is colour, bright primaries, nothing muted or almost there, but loud in my eyes, almost blinding.

I woke early this morning, around 5 am and opened my curtains slowly.  There she is, Shiloh the Peaceful, a heavily pregnant Nyala, a deer in a land of many different species of deer.  Her body is light tan, softly streaked with white and she has chosen the safety of this small reserve to give birth.  Her herd could be anywhere but she needs solitude for the task ahead.  I could reach out and touch her, she is so close to my window.  She looks at me.  I look back but she isn’t alarmed and soon her head returns to the ground, to pick the watered grass, her nourishment.  Keep safe, I whisper.  She would make a fine breakfast for a hungry leopard and there is a big male that walks this place at night.  Many other deer have made this place their home.  Little hunched Bush Buck, jumpy Impala and, now, Shiloh the Peaceful.

Swifts cut through the blue above my head whilst petrol blue blackbirds scuttle along the ground.  On a walk through the bush yesterday I saw grasshoppers as long as a Scottish housemouse, green at first until they spread their crimson wings.  When the rains come so will the spiders, the scorpions, and the snakes.  When the new arrivals gathered this morning for a power point induction, we learned the guidelines for a safe and happy stay here.  Some have come for a few weeks, some a few months, a few for longer, but the rules around wildlife are always the same.  How to behave in the wild is not a matter of choice, but of survival.  All of us gave our full attention, needless to say.

When encountering anything with venom, claws, teeth or trunks, don’t change shape.  That’s the nutshell of it.  No flapping of arms, no running, just very slowly back away, or, in some cases, stand absolutely still like in musical statues.  One guide, whilst out in the bush came face to face with a cheetah.  Although raw terror shot through him and every natural instinct was to run, he knew better.  Standing completely still and in silence, he waited as the cheetah came towards him brushing the skin of his leg and moving on down the dust track.  Easily advised, this standing still thing, but the truth is that any movement, any attempt to run would have been disastrous.  However, not one single wild animal has the slightest interest in humans, beyond curiosity.  They don’t fancy a human for lunch, nor do they carry ill intent towards us, nor do they think and reason as we do.  They run entirely on instinct and will not harm any of us unless we do something foolish, like flap or run.

We are all wise to remember that this land is their land, not ours.