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.

Island Blog 129 Out of Africa

African woman

 

 

In Africa I was more likely to find wildlife than wifi.   Of course, there were odd times, in a bar perhaps in town or in a friend’s spanking new office block, but mostly, the only form of contact with anyone at all, was with a handshake, a wide smile and an exchange of words, a state of being I rather like, even if I did, out of habit, reach for my phone if ever we stopped for coffee.

This new office block, with its wide light rooms and wrap around views across Capetown, is already a business hub.  Inventive and creative thinking, interior design and spatial understanding brings together anyone with a business to run and no desk to run it from.  Hot Desks are affordable and genius, because, not only do you get your own space, wifi connection, etc, but you also get to work in a bustling energetic atmosphere among other creators, all of whom are more than happy to network over coffee or a beer.

At every robot (traffic lights) there may be 3 lanes of vehicles.  I look across at those parked beside us in our little silver car (Maggie) and can hardly see the tops of the buckies (four-wheel drives) without craning. Inside these sit the well-upholstered Africaaners, their windows tight shut for the aircon to work.   On the other side, a people carrier taxi, all windows open, pumps out music, the black passengers grinning and bopping on their way to or from work.  The second we stop, the street sellers move in, weaving their way among the cars, holding their merchandise, such as beaded animals, children’s wooden puzzles, mobiles, jewelery, long-legged birds fashioned from plastic bags, woven sunhats and the Big Issue. The sellers are clean and proud, in the main, the turbanned women flashing sparkly smiles, the men making eye contact.  Not begging but business.  We don’t buy because we can find exactly what they are selling on the high street or at the market, even though they did assure us it was all their own work. It could also cause a cafuffle if the lights changed in the middle of negotiations, for there are always negotiations.  The asking price is set high, the rest is barter.

I found the beggars, when we did meet them in town, and you always meet them in town, most distressing to observe.  I always wanted to give something, but, had I done so, I would still be there in Market Square with not a penny left to my name.  Once you give to one, others move in, many of them children, and all of them thin as rakes.  Those who live in Capetown are not cold hearted, but they have grown a thicker skin.  They will consider employing anyone who turns up, who cleans up, who decides to move up in life, but they will not easily support those who choose doorways to sleep in and some lethal coctail as nourishment.

I thought much about that.  If someone has lost whatever they had, which may not have been much, it might not take long for that loss to turn into an acceptable way to live.  I imagine self-confidence and respect dissolve pretty quickquick when your only chance of food is by raiding bins on collection day.  I watched a man walk down the street doing just that and talking away to himself. He was oblivious to me, beyond stepping off the pavement to avoid a collision, and his eyes were bloodshot and empty.  I pulled my bag closer and felt vulnerable and overdressed and frightfully well spoken and, well, guilty.  We were heading out of town for a few nights on the coast, with food and wine and a rented beach hut to wrap around us and all he had to look forward to was another long street of wheelie bins and the possibility of Thai curry leftovers in polystyrene. And a doorway to sleep in.

Then (for life always sends a balance to help out) I met young black people with a zeal in their bellies. Not priveleged and living in one of the townships –  mile upon mile of tin roofs and dust floors, but still determined to find new quality for their lives, waiting at tables, working on the dustcart, cleaning, odd-jobbing, and so much more.  ‘If anyone wants it, the work is here’, I was told more than once.  This is a country where labour is abundant and cheap.  Wages are low, work is hard, but these people have a joy about them, a laughter that may well not come from a place of comfort.  It’s more an attitude than a result of how life treats them.  In other words, it comes first, that smile, that easy laugh.

We saw the maids arriving at the big smart Africaaner homes every morning around 7am.  Dressed in black with brilliant white aprons, they trudged up the hills from the noisy taxi that brought them out of the townships, talking and laughing together.  They always looked up for a greeting and always responded with friendship.  Their hours, from 7.30 to whenever they were done cleaning, looking after children and cooking, might earn them £8 at the far end of a day that expects a woman to do every domestic job required.  Then they walked back to the taxi rank, back to the townships to their own families to begin all over again, every single day.  When I talked with one maid, she told me she was happy to work.  Work, she said, is important.  No work, no importance. She look at me, astonished when I told her I had worked as a maid for a time.  Why?  she asked me.  ‘You don’t have maids in Scotland?’  As if cleaning was not for my shiny white hands. I fumbled about for an answer that didn’t sound like ‘well, I needed the money.’  She would have fainted clean away, had she known the wage I was paid for doing far less than is expected of her. And then she smiled the widest smile and then she laughed a laugh that made her bangles jingle and shook her head in amazement and amusement at the very thought of the ‘Ma’ cleaning a house, even her own.  Then she gathered up a huge pile of washing and left me wondering at my priveleged life and how often I forget to remember that it is just that.

Island Blog 120 On Leadership

2013-02-14 14.43.19

It’s a funny old chestnut, Leadership.  It sounds so grand and important.  In fact, as a youngster I wanted it for myself.  Those, it appeared to me, who were given such a badge of honour, positively glowed with the warmest of light.  They were lifted above us earthly girls, fixed to the ground with our lack of leadership skills, our heavy lace-up brogues and our triple-layered (for safety) regulation greys, and they never came back down again.  I met them in corners with members of staff, or prefects, or team leaders, discussing something important in hushed tones, corners I rounded in an un-leaderly, and often late dash to the next fixture in my school diary.  They would both stand in a conspiratorial silence, one that positively burgeoned with importance, as I hurtled by, knowing two things for sure – that I would meet some disgrace for running in passageways, and that my bottom jumped around way too much inside those earthly greys.

When they said to me that they were sorry I was leaving the school because, did I realise that they were going to ask me to be Music Prefect next school year……I knew what they were up to, asking me AFTER I had announced with barely concealed joy, that I had now collected my 7 O Levels and was abandoning my brogues for ever.  If I had said……Oh, ok then, I will stay, they would all have fainted clean away and I would have finally become a leader, one they may well have regretted inviting into a corner.

A few minutes later, as a newly engaged farmer’s wife-to-be, I pondered leadership once more.  This farmer with whom I was about to spend the rest of my life, needed some serious leadership.  For a start, he didn’t want to be led at all and most certainly not by me.  Well, ok, I can be patient.  After all, look at how he does what his mummy says, albeit now and then, but ‘now and then’ looked promising to an over-zealous young woman (child, really) with a fat sapphire on her forever finger and plans already laid out in the loft of her mind.  He argued with every plan I brought forward for discussion.  He made all the ‘big’ decisions with automonic confidence. He dropped his clothes on the floor, the ones he deemed ready for washing, which was usually two weeks later than my deeming.   He wore white crimpolene flares.  There was a lot of work to be done.

Leadership isn’t nagging.  Ok, ok, so what is leadership then and why can’t I lead him?

Answer……he doesn’t want it and, listen girlie, he is as determined as you on this matter.

Once this sank in, was resisted vehemently, caused endless rows and overly slammed doors, removal of priveleges and absolutely no cake for tea never mind the honey, I remember falling into a black depression.  My mother, who also tried to lead my dad, who also had no intention of being led, had the advantage.  Dad was away all week so that she could lead all five of us, the neighbours, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker to her heart’s delight.  Then, when Dad came home at weekends, she could probably just about manage to shelve her leaderly urges for two days until she popped him once more on a plane to Dubai or Italy or Africa or wherever his veterinary consultant skills were currently in demand.  But my husband was always at home rejecting leadership, so I had to think sideways.

43 years later I have a crick in my neck and still no husband running along behind.  I ask myself, is that what I want?  And the answer (quick learner, me) is absolutely not.  What I want is actually just to lead myself, not to lead, and not to be led, although that bit is very much according to my current mood swing.  There are times, many times, when I do want him to lead me, and love the feeling of safety and protection his leadership brings.  When it goes wrong are those times I feel controlled, which is, of course, the same for him.  My tutting over dropped clothes, or whatever, serves only to make him feel controlled, and therefore to resist.

Aha…….now we are getting somewhere!

So, if I can’t control him and don’t want him to control me, and he feels the same, why does this need to lead still raise it’s discordant cry?  Because dear sweet daft woman, it is yourself you need to lead.

Well how can I lead me?  I am me and me is me and that’s three of us already.

Yes, and you can lead all of them, all the mees, as much as you like, to your hearts desire, knock yourself out!

Thinking, reflecting on this bonkers truth, opens many doors to me, to all mees present.  If, in an argument, I only consider my own voice and the content of my retorts, my behaviour, I am in control.  I am leading. I don’t need to lead the other (the one who is so obviously wrong) in this situation.  I only have to lead myself.

Yes, but, will you listen to what he is saying!  It’s complete tripe and EVERYONE would ALWAYS agree that he NEVER gets it.

Hmmm……so many absolutes.  But life and love isn’t about who is wrong or right, always or never.  It isn’t about what happened in the past and the past is only a minute behind me.  It is about leadership of myself, and if I can get that right, after a few, or many clumsy crashings through the thorn and thicket of life, then I just may find, to my eye-wide surprise that someone is following on behind.