Monday, March 31, 2008

Our Big Days Out

Saturday was the monthly craft fair at a local park, we go along whenever we can. It is a great source of home baking, arty-farty things and plants, etc. I always buy a load of second hand books, too, as they are in good condition and it’s for charity. This time round I bought a Douglas Kennedy and a Paulo Coelho for R10 each. The third was a US detective thing, can’t remember the title. The exchange rate is currently about R16 to the £, so it is never an expensive afternoon!

On Sunday we had a grand day out. We went to the Rand Show, which is a bit like Ideal Home without the house sets or Highland Show with nae coos. So you get the picture. We got there at 11.30am and it was hot and sunny, so we went along sans sleeves. However, at 2.00pm, the heavens opened in a spectacularly South African way and we were invited to take shelter under a hot-dog awning.! Then we went into the “Tourism and Culture” hall and what a laugh we had! They had people from each of the South African provinces dressed in national costume and performing a traditional dance. Then they asked for volunteers from the audience to go up and learn the dances, then perform until a winner was selected. And no, before you ask, I didn’t volunteer! Anyway, it was a hoot! I might have said before that a big backside here is a sign of wealth and is thought sexy. The dances show this off, lots of gigantic erses waggling to whoops and “ululation” (high pitched “lululu” screeching sounds). We visited all the stalls and picked up the usual brochures and also a nice bag, two sun visor caps and a tee shirt! We got some good ideas for future day and weekend trips.
The main event of the day was a concert by the Soweto Gospel Choir, home for a rest after a European Tour. It was absolutely fantastic to hear them on their home ground. (The Soweto Highway runs just above the showground. Dave and Jen, you’ll know where I mean if I tell you it is between Gold Reef City and that big Bagarawanth hospital on the outskirts of Soweto). They had a huge following of family and friends there to see them, all singing along, absolutely everyone (except us) knew the words to all their songs. What an experience! We stayed until almost 7.00pm Mind you, we were freezing by the time we got into the car. I think that’s the first time we’ve driven it with the AC off and the heater on

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Easter in Clarens

Car in full working order, we arrived in Clarens mid afternoon. What a lovely spot! A small village, complete with village green, set in the middle of the mountains. It was also a very safe place and we were able to leave the car at the guest house and walk everywhere which was a pleasant surprise. Clarens is named for the town in Switzerland where former President Paul Kruger spent his final days in exile and there was indeed a Swiss feel to the place. It was quite cold, especially at night and in the early morning because of the altitude but the days were warm and sunny. On Sunday we ventured into the neighbouring Kingdom of Lesotho which was a different experience. Most of the Lesothans are cattle farmers with a cattle herder looking after six or so cattle. There are no fences in Lesotho so I guess they need the herders to keep track of “whose coos is whose”, as it were. They seemed to have almost a uniform, comprising woolly hat, white gum boots, big stick and red blanket wrapped round like a toga. Unlike the neighbouring Zulus we visited last week, the Sotho live in square mud huts, thatched and with walls decorated with traditional designs. Again, it seemed a bit rude to stop and take pictures but we found out at dinner that it would have been welcomed, especially for a few rand. They have their own currency, the Maloti, interchangeable with the rand in Lesotho but worthless elsewhere. I kept a few as a souvenir and we got a couple of new passport stamps! We met up with a very nice couple from Pretoria and had dinner with them one night, exchanging phone numbers with a promise to meet up before we go back to Scotland. We left Clarens early on Monday morning to come back for lunch with my friend from the gym and her husband, which was lovely.
I have been invited to a storytelling workshop with a traditional African storyteller and hope to get some ideas for my volunteer work at the library, as well as to bring home to Scotland. Mind you, I think I will draw the line at the traditional costume!
I think our next trip will be to the coast, we are flying to Durban at the end of April so between now and then I will once more be regaling you with tales of the mundane matters to be attended to here in Benoni!

Flat tyre

After our wet weekend in the Drakensberg, we barely had time to unpack and repack because come Good Friday we were off to Clarens, a lovely small town in the Free State, about 3 hours drive from here. However, we had an amusing escapade on Thursday before we got away. I took the car to be washed at the local “drop and shop” and was in the supermarket with 30 mins to wait when Les phoned to say he was finishing early, could I pick him up at 4.15. But the car wasn’t ready and because the place was so busy, I didn’t get it back till 4.30. Off I went, directly from the carwash, and arrived at the factory only to discover I’d left the “clicker” (electronic gate opener) in the house, having emptied the car of all valuables for the wash. So I called Les on my mobile, but he could only open it from the office and by the time he’d done that and locked up and set the alarm, the gate would be closed again. Nothing else for it but for me to drive home to pick up the “clicker”. On the way home, the car began to make a funny “ding” tone, indicating it needed petrol. Did that. Then it began to make another funny “ding” tone so I pulled over, got out the manual and discovered it was the flat tyre warning. Off to the service station where they pumped up the tyres but confirmed one had been low. Still the annoying “ding” didn’t go away, despite me following all the instructions in the manual (which is the size of “War and Peace”). I tried to phone Les to let him know of the delay….phone out of money. I queued for ages in the service station to get a top up and having been reassured by the manual that I could drive on these “runflat” tyres, I picked up Les. Meantime, he had phoned the care hire man, who suggested we check the tyre pressure. We did. No improvement. Finally we drove to the hire place, just as he was closing up for the holiday weekend. He called someone, between them they reset the onboard computer system and everything was OK. We finally got home at 6.50. So much for his early finish! No clicker, no petrol, no money on my phone…the motto is, be prepared! As for the fancy car with it’s on board computer, Les’ Dad used to say, when shown something new-fangled with many knobs and buttons, “Hmph! All the more to go wrong!” How right he was!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Safety, Power, Reading

I don’t think I’ve mentioned much about safety and security here, but it is a huge issue. We live in a gated complex with electric wire fencing on top of 6ft high walls and we have a 24/7 security patrol. Public transport is strictly “no-go”, as is walking anywhere except the local shops. Although we have not personally felt in any danger, I have heard a few stories recently that make me stop and think. Firstly, let me explain that to call someone “black” here is neither racist nor derogatory, it is a statement of fact and quite acceptable. I spoke to Gloria, a black worker at the library where I have been volunteering; she had been off work for a few days and I asked how she was doing. Her daughter had gone missing without a trace and no one seemed very interested in finding her. Gloria now has to look after her two grandchildren, so she had moved into their home. Home is a tin shack. On the third night, having arranged other care for them, she went home to her own house (also a tin shack) where she lives alone. She woke in the middle of the night to realise that her home was in the process of being stolen…not burgled, stolen…lifted right up and moved whilst she was asleep inside! She was dropped back down when she screamed; obviously the perpetrators knew of her situation and assumed she was still at her daughter’s house.
Then Les came home to tell me that one of his workers had not turned up for work. Repeated calls to his mobile were eventually answered by the police who were investigating his murder. He had been shot right through the arm, sideways through the chest and out the other side by someone walking close beside him. Nothing had been stolen. Police think he knew his killer and assume it is a family or tribal row.
Among our white and Indian friends though, no one has been attacked or anything. I call it the “Head and Shoulders” no dandruff scenario…”Have you ever been robbed?” “No, but that’s because I have a good security system” However the newspapers are full of tales of shootings, hold ups at gunpoint, knife attacks, etc. These tend to be in Johannesburg, not out in our neck of hicksville. Mind you, the bank at a shopping centre I often use, about ten minutes drive from here, was held up at gunpoint at lunchtime one day. I am now writing this on battery power as we have another power cut. They tend to last for about 2 hours, so we should have power again by 5.30pm. But then everyone will want to cook dinner, so there will be a surge of use, the grid will be under threat and it may well go off again! Eskom, the national electricity suppliers, are unable to provide enough power because they underestimated future use in the 1990s and decommissioned a number of power stations. It is a huge problem, not just an inconvenience; I heard in the news today that shares in gold and diamond mining have fallen to a new low as investors move to other options due to uncertainty about profit since mining stops when the power goes off. A local baker is suing Eskom because he lost a days production at his bread factory and had to throw away the whole lot!

Power back on, dinner successfully cooked and eaten! Now on the evening news, I see that there was a huge tribal incident in the Drakensberg at the weekend. 47 arrests were made, rival tribes fighting over land ownership. So that explains the lads with spears, then! It seems a hotel very near where we were staying has cancelled all Easter weekend bookings due to the potential danger to tourists. To think we drove for miles along these very roads and didn’t have a clue about the “potential danger to tourists”
We are going away for the Easter weekend, but to a different area, this time to a small town in the Free State. Nearby is Bloemfontein, which has an unusual and to me very surprising claim to fame… JRR Tolkien was born there! I didn’t know he was born in South Africa. Imagine that! However, he left when he was three.
I forgot to say that the Eoin Colfer lunch was great, he is a very funny guy…must read some of his books now and see why the kids think he is so good! I got a couple of signed copies of his latest book, one for GHS and one for the library where I do my volunteer work. They were much cheaper than in the UK.
The volunteering goes well, I helped with class visits from a local primary school and with a nursery school visit. They sang “The wheels on the bus” so not much different there (except most of them had no shoes…) After Easter, I will be going along to the school two mornings a week to help with the “poor readers”.
As far as my own reading goes, I have been trying to buy books by South African writers, both fiction and non fiction.Currently, I am reading "After the dance" a travelogue about attitudes in various parts of the country after the end of apartheid. Fiction wise, I am reading "Blood sisters" which is actually set in 1960's Kenya after the end of British rule, but is very similar to what is happening here right now. It is a good old story but strangely written; it's authors are two sisters, one living in Kenya, the other in France. I seem to remember seeing them interviewed on TV in Scotland a couple of years ago.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Weekend in KZN: Sunday

On Sunday the weather lifted a little and the rain stopped so we headed into the mountains proper. The scenery was unbelievably beautiful. The area is very fertile and is home to both Afrikaans and Zulu farmers.The Afrikaans farms are large and have mechanical aids, growing great swathes of mealies, sunflowers, etc. Dairy and beef herds were also in evidence.However, I beleive they find the going tough nowadays, like farmers everywhere.The Zulu crofters, who live in thatched round huts called rondavels, grow a few mealies and have chickens, a cow or two and goats. The children herd the animals with long pieces of reed-like grass. Their way of life probably hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years, except for the fact that many people had cell phones! Everywhere we drove we passed crowds of locals walking…from nowhere to nowhere, it seemed. Great crowds of barefoot school age kids, bunched up in groups of twenty or more, were walking along these endless tracks. Mothers and grannies, babies tied to their backs with towels, huge cooking pots balanced on their heads. Where were they all going? Some were easier to work out; teenage girls carrying laundry or a few dishes in a plastic basin were heading to wash things in waterfalls at the road side. We had to stop when a group of some 12 or so young men, carrying sharp spears, were stopped by a police landrover and bundled inside, the spears taken from them and put in the front. Puts a new slant on carrying an offensive weapon, doesn’t it! We passed several schools which were like tiny huts, no bigger than a single car garage. Most had broken windows and some had open doors. There was little evidence of furniture inside. In these country schools, children often sit on tree stumps or beer crates for lessons. They routinely walk 5-10k to get to lessons. We found out that many young men and women leave the "homelands" to work in the cities or in hotels and resorts on the coast and return home at weekends. That would account for the number of people we saw lugging those checked bags you often see at airports! Though I doubt if many of the people we saw have ever flown.
We found out a bit about the San or Bush rock art paintings.These are stick-like representations of ancient farming and spiritual rituals painted on cave walls using sticks and vegetable based dyes.They have survived for thousands of years! Stark but quite beautiful.

Weekend in Kwa Zulu Natal: Friday and Saturday

The weekend in the Drakensberg Mountains was excellent…apart from the weather! We arrived in the tiny village of Winterton on Friday evening and went for a quick walk…well, there was only one street, really, so it didn’t take long. We saw a woman by the side of the road and her shopping consisted of a bag of meal and… a live chicken, feet tied together with string, looking quite unhappy! We had just settled with a drink on the stoep (porch) of the hotel when the rain started. The rooms were thatched cottages, so we had the soft sound of rainfall on thatch all night, not at all unpleasant.
On Saturday morning, we set off in torrential rain for Ladysmith, home to Ladysmith Black Mambaza. Quite disappointing; the cultural centre, which houses the township musical history, is only open Mon – Fri, 10.00 – 4.00pm. So instead we visited the siege museum which was very good. Then it was on to Rorke’s Drift, scene of a horrific battle in the Zulu war . (Remember “Zulu”?) Well, Michael Caine had it easy, let me tell you! The route was a dirt track, or shall we say a mud track, full of rain filled potholes and it went for miles and miles in the middle of nowhere! Eventually we arrived at Rorke’s Drift. It was very atmospheric. The museum was excellent and we visited both the Zulu and British cemeteries. It looked only a little way on the map but it took three hours! The Garmin lady gave up, at one point she showed us driving through fields (we almost were, actually!) and was busy “recalculating” so we turned her off and relied on the printed map instead! Several more miles of dirt track took us back onto a “proper” road and back to the hotel for an excellent dinner. We came back through Glencoe and Dundee! The piped muzak in the dining room was awful ancient schmalz on a loop, “Lady in Red” and “Its only just begun” over and over again, interspersed with woeful stuff about dead babies and love lorn useless war veterans and cowboys, you know the kind of thing! The clientele was of the white farmer type, mostly Afrikaans speaking. I asked the black waitress if she could put on any local music and she said, “No, Ma’am, they have chased it all away”.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What’s in a name?

There are some really funny names here: For females: Happy-girl, Dorcas, Precious, Mummy, Mammee. For males: Goodwill, Doctor, Bongo and one unfortunate waiter who said, “My name is Fanny; they call me Fanny-Boy”. Mmm. I bet they do, sunshine! The traditional African names are difficult to pronounce as they seem to have a series of consonants at the start, like “Mphleko. I feel like saying, “Vowel please, Carol” and working them out as anagrams!
Then there are the Afrikaans names, where “a” is pronounced “aw” so you get Fanie and Sanie. Also, terms of address are quite formal. I am usually called Ma’am but some younger women and many children call me “Auntie” or Tannie” in Afrikaans. Les is addressed as “Sir”, “Boss” or “Captain”. Oh, and once by a waiter as “The old man”. Not to mention some of his workforce wanting to call him “Uncle Les”, this from the Afrikaans form of respectful address of “Oom” for uncle, used to address older men.
When I visited a school, the librarian called the class to attention and introduced me. All the boys immediately stood and chorused, “Morning, Ma’am”. Wow!
And as for school uniforms, I have never seen so many! There are loads of schools in our area, some private, some government, some religious, some Afrikaans. All have strict uniform codes adhered to by everyone. When I think that some people earn less than £40 a week and there are no clothing grants, it must take some effort to turn out these immaculate children every morning. When visiting Soweto, even the poorest shacks had a line of washing, invariably including some white school shirts. Each child has only one; it is removed and washed immediately on returning home, to be clean for the next day. The uniforms are quite traditional and old fashioned; knee length socks for boys and girls, shorts for boys and skirts for girls. Blazers are proudly worn, with some wearing loudly striped ones, like London stockbrokers. These are for “colours” earned for sports. Not just tacking on some braid here! Many boys wear caps and in the posh schools in Joburg they wear boaters! A common accessory, for both boys and girls, is a big umbrella in the school colours, used as a parasol as well as to keep the rain off. Mind you, behaviour is much the same, in the streets on the way home from school and indeed in the schools! One school I visited was a posh boys school and they run in the corridors, slap each other and horse around just like back home. The private girls school was a little more refined, the girls posing around the central courtyard fountain, smoothing their hair and preening, gossiping in small groups, just like schoolgirls everywhere. They too, were very polite when my colleague asked the way to the conference room, all standing up when we approached and one leading us personally to our location.
Later this month, I have been invited to visit some township schools where I understand the emphasis is more on attending, eating a basic breakfast after what is often a 5k walk and dealing with basic literacy and numeracy. I have also been invited to a storytelling workshop and next Wednesday to meet childrens author Eoin Colfer, so hopefully I will get some ideas for working with the children. Oh, I have also been asked to help at a volunteer literacy group for youngsters in a near by public library. Looks like I will have little time for housework, what a shame!

Autumn approaches

Well, they tell us autumn is on its way, but yesterday it was 28.5 all day! Today is still hot and sunny. We went to that rugby match, it was just like watching Scotland after all… the Bloue (Correct spelling…Afrikaans!) Bulls, “our” team, lost to a New Zealand team, the Canterbury Crusaders. The score was …54 – 19. Still it was quite an experience, the crowds waving big blue flags, lots of loud music, floodlights, etc. We also had a buffet dinner in the box so it was a great night.
My talk to the librarians seems to have been well received; I’ve had quite a few emails and offers of school visits as a result. Only one problem, the powerpoint failed to open!!! It was working fine here in the morning and it is still working fine here, but just would not open at the school! The school’s IT guy came down and pressed a lot of keys, all the while shaking his head and saying, “It’s not looking good; let me just try this; Ah, I think it might be…” Just like our own dear I.Mac at GHS. And still the b****y thing didn’t work! So they just had to listen to me for an hour. I had even added photographs and animated text, remembering how to from an in-service a couple of years ago! Anyway, I still have it on my memory stick so maybe one day I will subject another audience to it!
We have been busy booking up short breaks now that all our visitors have gone. On March 15 we are going to the Drakensberg Mountains and in April we are flying to Durban and having a few days at Umhlanga Rocks. We are also looking at options for a trip to Cape Town and the wineries but nothing fixed yet.
Martin is hoping to come here for a couple of weeks in May. He is currently working in Broome having driven from Perth. When he gets to Melbourne, he hopes to fly here then return there for the rest of his gap year.