The Road to Kwambonambi
There are many roads to many places in Africa. The road to Kwambonambi might just as well be the road to Babanango or the road to Oshikati or why not the road to Ondangua? These places are sometimes thousands of miles apart in geographical terms but in the mind of the traveller, they are the revisiting of familiar roads to places that have meaning and touch all the senses when the traveller looks back.
They are not at all easy to describe or explain to others who may not have been there. I remember reading somewhere that In the 1947 Royal visit to South Africa the British Sovereign was heard to remark that the passing scene of the Great Karoo from his train window was akin to:
"Miles and miles of bugger all".
What is bugger all to one is a world full of substance and change to another.
Once when I was at school I took a train from Johannesburg to Windhoek in Namibia. The train made its tortuous way southward for 500 miles to DeAar and then made its way northward across the Orange River, through Keetmanshoop, Mariental until eventually it reached Windhoek, the capital. The journey took 3 days and at times the train travelled so slowly that you could easily run alongside the carriages.
These were not air-conditioned coaches and the summer desert heat was only abated by what slipstream could be created by a train barely able to reach a top speed of 30 miles an hour.
The countryside through which the line meandered, was politically contested from Johannesburg all the way to Windhoek. In the South African leg of the journey it was Apartheid South Africa where life was good for some 5 million white people while 15 million other South Africans were denied their land of birth by laws that made them second class citizens and banished others to “homelands” around the periphery of South Africa where life would be difficult if not nigh on impossible. The Namibian leg was at that time, not the Namibian leg of the journey. Rather it was the South West African leg of the journey as this territory was being run by the South African Government as a Mandated territory under the rules of the pre-second world war League of Nations in opposition to the will of the United Nations which wanted to make Namibia into an independent state.
At this point I could describe my opposition to Apartheid and my dedicated fight for the liberation of these two great countries.
The reality is, however, that I was as much a part of that regime that denied people their rights as any other of my white South African friends, colleagues and mentors for I was a product of that “New South Africa” that sought to retain values of civilisation that had spuriously driven previous generations of Europeans in the direction of Africa, from the “Scramble for Africa” in the late 1880s to the almost religious zeal of those who would carry the “White Man’s Burden”, the idea that the white man had something to offer Africans in terms of civilising them by offering us Europeans as a role model!
The road my life was to take starting with that fateful rail journey, was one that would slowly destroy the myth of that superiority in my own mind and my own life would alter hugely according to a new role model; those whom I was supposed to be influencing with my inherited Western, European cultural background.
The whole spectacular affair of the liberation of Nelson Mandela, the building of a new South Africa and the reconciliation between all South Africans is testament to the existence of a civilisation and humanity far more profound amongst the then deprived nations of South Africa than anything Western tradition could provide.
When Jesus advises in the New Testament of the Christian Bible that people who are afflicted and injured by others, should “turn the other cheek”, could he have considered to what extent this advice would be taken in South Africa?
In that I include the Afrikaner tribe for the reality is that to bring about such a reversal in the fortunes of people, it takes two to tango. Two opposing ideologies decided in those fateful days, to engage in change. In later years, I often argued with Afrikaner friends that they are in fact not Europeans, holding more in common with their Zulu, Xhosa brethren by virtue of 300 years of history locked in Africa, than they had in common with people like the Dutch Nation.
I recall my Dutch friends coming to South Africa and expecting communication to be a matter of ease but finding that while the languages of the two countries bore similar roots, they were profoundly different in terms of vocabulary and usage and in terms of adaptation to the environment.
On one occasion we were driving down the motorway from the North coast of Natal to Durban when Joost and his family were reduced to fits of laughter over the appearance of a road sign specifying an approaching rest site on the motorway.
“Aftrekplek 7kilometers”, the sign announced and I could not work out what was making them fall about in such excruciating laughter.
“No, No, said a clearly embarrassed Helena, it is obviously the right word in Afrikaans, but in Dutch it is very rude!”
When they had managed to achieve a measure of control, they explained the source of their mirth. In Dutch “af trek” means, to put it bluntly, “to wank” and the thought that the tired traveller would require a wanking place to recharge his or her batteries, extends the range of possibilities for misinterpretation beyond the realms of decency. Nevertheless, in Afrikaans, this place is simply a place to pull off and rest!
As journeys feature strongly in this book, so do the significant “aftrekplekke” that punctuate my journey and where, despite the exertions of the moment, new experiences and realities helped to shape my view of life and the future. In those locations are people who, willingly or not, have contributed to my coming of age and in that have served as important role models giving insight into the nature of man and woman and an understanding of our purpose in life.
My father, inevitably, is one such role model. A Quaker, he was a consummate musician, a master of the English language and a person with a knack for very un-pc observations. On one occasion when a gentleman was trying to explain the finer details of the necessity for racial segregation, he was heard to advise that the speaker was wasting his time.
“The world”, my Father said, “is a cul-de-sac. In a thousand years time we will all be of mixed race, those of us who aren’t already of mixed race, that is.”
”This last quip was directed at those in the conversation who, despite their adherence to the idea of being white, were displaying distinct features in their countenance that betrayed previous unmentionable goings on in previous generations, behind the “wagon wheels” of the Great Trek and other momentous migrations of peoples round the sub continent over the last 300 years.
It was also a reference to what people in England and other Western countries have discovered as they take up the latest fad of tracing one’s family history. My family, not untypically for Europe boasts ancestors from
Spain, across the UK and Europe and ethnicity probably stretching from the children of Abraham, across the ethnic divide of Spain into the Celtic world of Cornwall where we like to claim our origins. Somewhere along the line invaders and immigrants from Eastern Europe have made their mark. The words ‘scrambled’ and ‘egg’ spring to mind.
Later in life, the mid 1980s, I would discover the true meaning of the word “racist” when as a Head Teacher in England I was invited to attend a Rotary meeting in a large hotel near Ascot, the home of horse racing and all things sporting and British.
I was greeted by a man sporting a waxed moustache who was obviously someone of importance in the British Raj.
On discovering that I had come from South Africa, he immediately commiserated with me in a voice affected by a part consumed plumb, on the troubles in my country and saying that he fully understood where us
supremacists were coming from as “no coffee drops” should be allowed into England either.
As the England I knew then was a tolerant society with opportunities and acceptance for all, a central concept of education, I was left standing there with a startled look on my face and my mouth left gaping as I struggled for an appropriate response for this unexpected revelation. I recall that I had not shaved particularly well that morning and had staunched a few cuts with random pieces of cotton wool. An Aussie friend explained to me the effect as I stood in the reception hall trying to acclimatise to the situation.
“ Mate”. He said, “ You looked like a plucked chicken!” Not the first or last time I would adopt such a “look!”
The significance of the train journey undertaken so many years before from Johannesburg to Windhoek lies in an incident that forced me to confront the differences between people and to realise that what we see as differences simply covers the vast array of mutual characteristics that make us not different at all. It has to be said that heat does peculiar things to our brains and on this occasion I was so focussed on the issue of a cool drink, that clear thought was not accessible to my range of processing options. My friend had obtained a bottle of cool drink and we looked forward to sharing the cordial but only had one glass in the cabin, We also had an empty milk carton and I decided to wash it out in the cabin sink and once full to its full pint capacity, I launched the contents out of the window towards the beckoning desert outside.
I was clearly not aware that the train was executing a concave turn at very slow speed on an incline and that the body of water, instead of sailing outwards into the vast beyond, travelled compactly down the line of the next coach and entered the first available open window, which happened to be the first compartment of the next carriage.
Some moments later there came a serious wrap on the compartment door. We opened it to be confronted by a train guard holding writing pad and pen and shadowed in the background by a short, rotund man, dressed in black with a black hat and sporting an impressive black beard. Round his neck was placed a prayer shawl and from the extremities of his hat, beard and nose, droplets of water obeyed the laws of gravity and dripped onto the smart black suit below. The man’s glasses were as a car’s windscreen as it drives towards an approaching storm. Only it was us that the storm was approaching. The Conductor searched his vocabulary bank:
“ Did you jus throw water out of the window of this compartment, hey?”
I owned up naturally and before I could give an explanation, the conductor interjected:
I gave it while my friend pressed himself into the confines of his bunk, barely able to contain his laughter as the scene unfolded below him.
The man in black moved forward, placing his hand on the shoulder of the conductor and said,
“No, no need for dat. Dis is the vork of God”.
Plucked chickens aside, the astonishment of the man’s audience was unmistakeable and he continued,
“I vas sitting in my compartment praying to God and askink him to send me a cool breeze to make less the heat of dis desert plain. All of a sudden I wos hit by dis vave, like da sea. God vorks in mysterious vays so you my son(a reference to me) are but a tool of God.”
At this point my friend could contain himself no longer and guffaws of laughter erupted from the top bunk. Laughter is infectious and more out of nervousness than out of mirth, I started to giggle as well. Soon there were three people falling about at the sheer incredulous situation we were confronting and a resulting release of tension transformed conflict into friendship. Alas the conductor was not a party to this détente. It had probably been a long day for him.
I, though, had met my first Rabbi, I had also walked headlong into one understanding of God.
Many years later at a school in England, pupils would ask me why they had to study religion as to some of them it was all nonsense and not relevant to them. I replied, honestly, that there were two reasons why they should study religion.(i.e.: the study of comparative religions):
The first was because religions affect the condition of man. They are at the centre of human history and present day actions. To understand men and women, understanding what they believe and how they believe, is a crucial part of understanding the human condition.
The second reason was born of experience. We are all confronted at some point in our lives by our destiny. We suddenly confront, without warning, who we are? what we are? and where we are? in the grand puzzle of life. In that moment an understanding of God in all his manifestations, is a huge asset to understanding ourselves and understanding others. To many of us it is a moment of no return..a stepping out on a new road.
As a very young child(5-8years) I had struggled with education probably due to dyslexic tendencies which are prevalent in my family despite my father and mother’s genius as musician and author respectively. My educational woes, however, came to a sudden end in the 1960s when I attended a school in Somerset West, near Cape Town, called Somerset House.
This is still a successful school and at that time was run by an Englishman called Eric Webb. Eric had an irrational manner with us pupils. We trusted him implicitly, his judgement that is, and would never cross him for to do so invited a level of soul searching and self revelation that would reduce the most hardened individual to tears and remorse. He never lifted a finger to anyone but expected us to account for our views, actions and beliefs.
On one occasion I was reading a magazine on the play- ground. As I recall it was “Look and Learn” and I was engrossed in the adventures of “Prince Valiant” when all of a sudden the magazine was wrenched from my hand and in it was replaced a copy of News Week and a well warn book with the fading title...”Keep the Aspidistra Flying”. The author I had never heard of, was one George Orwell.
Another turning point in my life!
Many people can recall with embellishment their moment of sexual awakening. The fact that I can recall it, is directly attributable to the then unbelievable goings on in Mrs Brown’s upstairs bedroom. To this day I am
not sure whether the book’s sub-plot is the record of Mrs Brown’s athleticism or Orwell’s dreary description of pre World War Two 1930s England . What I can say is that if you stood on a chair in the senior dorm and held the book some six feet off the floor and dropped it, 9 times out of ten, it would open in Mrs Brown’s bed-room!
The gift Eric Webb gave to me was the self confidence to be a free thinker, to question and enquire but above all to see value in others. If I can empathise today it is because of my experiences at that school with its chickens running through the dining room, the girls of the senior cricket team who bowled, batted and fielded better than we did(us lads), Roger the Airedale who could clear a classroom in 20 seconds due to his insuppressibly nasty flatulence and of course George Orwell, who only later in life would stir my sensibilities with the wonders of his literary genius.
Enter the world of the story teller. In the fledgling days of South African television, the picture quality and breathtaking unreality of the moving picture in colour suppressed the viewers awareness that the content he or she was watching was in fact , not worth watching! Endless viewings of “The Brady Bunch” in English and “The Sweeney” in Afrikaans, soon led people to question whether there was not something more local that could entice us to marvel at the wonders of the “PAL” system.
Another person who greatly influenced my life was one Professor Pieter DuPlessis, professor of sociology at the University of Zululand. For him the content issue of television was of such significance that he steadfastly refused to buy a television. He was only interested in the news and he would go to his friend next door to watch that at 6 o’clock every evening. He could therefore, fully justify his commitment to the “PAL’ system for as long as the good neighbour was happy to be his ”pal”.
He too was an avid reader and it is through him that I was introduced to what some would deem the “non literary world” of Louis Lamour and Zane Grey. The Wild West was easy to visualise in parts of arid South Africa where canyons and semi-desert abound. Social parallels too, could feel uncomfortably close.
But, what did we do before we had television? Happily I spent a great deal of my younger years without the infernal box because it did not exist. It is in this atmosphere of having to entertain yourself and participate with others to be entertained that I developed a love of the story teller.
Jesus and Guru Nanak used the technique of the parable to huge effect in putting life shaping lessons across in a way that ordinary people could make sense of and benefit from. The Vedas and books such as the Rãmãyana point to more ancient traditions of making a serious point through the art of the story teller.
The ‘ancients’ of the third world are not to be found wanting when it comes to spinning a ‘yarn’.
The Khoi and San peoples of Southern Africa are far older inhabitants of the continent, going back into the mists of time. The Bushmen and Hottentots relied on that tradition of passing wisdom from one generation to another via the esteemed elder who imparted such stories of the ancestors around the camp fire.