25 June 2012 § Leave a comment
I arrived last week but quickly left for Spring Creek (in North Carolina) for the wedding of two good friends who just graduated. A wedding . . . of dear friends . . . in the mountains . . . with a sweet circle of beloved friends . . . how rare it is that one’s heart is actually filled with joy! Mine was, and it was glorious.
Now for a flurry of packing before I fly away.
21 June 2012 § Leave a comment
A brief history of my days in Johannesburg
As the days dwindle—only three remain—something (guilt? compulsion to reflect upon weeks instead of upon individual days?) demands conclusions, summaries, neat sentences that tie up experiences into bundles that other people can understand. Unfortunately, I more often fail than succeed in that, but I am rather fond of recording experiences here and there, so here is a jumbly stack of Joburg times, numbered to confer a sense of order.
1) The taxis
These are public cabs that go every which way round the city and prove a bit impossible to navigate unless you know the city; I have taken them here but did not dare essay a trip on one in Durban. Whenever I go to Wits, I just walk, for it takes only about forty-five minutes at a brisk pace, so the first time I took the taxi was last week when I went to Soweto to interview Oswald Mtshali. After a few mishaps, mostly because I was distracted and writing down interview questions, I finally made it to the downtown taxi station and wound my way around the multi-level behemoth of little vans until someone helped me find one headed toward Pimville (the part of Soweto I sought).
Then, a kind man helped me figure out where to alight, and he called for his friend across the street to come and help me. This young man (he was probably about twenty-five, tall, and friendly) led me on a twenty-minute walk through Pimville and explained that people do not even know street names; they simply go by house numbers. It is quite a muddled way of going about organising one’s town. During our journey, we chatted pleasantly, and he added himself to the list of people who ask me who my beau is, why he is not with me, and whether I am planning on getting married soon. For some reason, this poses no contradiction to the general consensus that I am eighteen years old (everyone who asks me my age is shocked when I tell them and then inform me that I am actually only eighteen). Does every girl in South Africa have a boyfriend? The shocked expressions and disbelief make me laugh. Even whilst writing this very post, the owner of the hostel inquired about my boyfriend. (Edit: when I was leaving South Africa, the customs official jokingly proposed to me and said it was too bad I was leaving, rather than entering, the country. When I’m in Kenya, I think I’ll just tell people that I’m married.)
When I made it to Mr. Mtshali’s house, I had a lovely time listening to him talk, and, after convincing me to tell him my hopes and dreams, he offered such encouragement about being a writer. He also called Nadine Gordimer for me so that I can meet her. He does not understand that by now—after I have written a letter to her and left two messages on her telephone—she is quite sick of me and will never want to meet me, and she is about ninety years old, so I daresay she may be dead before she ever changes her mind about me . . .
The return trip proved uneventful until I alighted where I thought Bree Street was (where the taxi rank is); I was actually far from it, and about a fifty-minute walk from Wits, which I discovered upon inquiring of three kind-looking souls which direction I should go in order to reach the university. They conferred in a nearly Dickensian manner, which I observed with amusement, allowing it to play itself out, and finally one of them suggested that I simply hop in the cab that was on its way to pick them up. I found out that one of them was the director of a nursing college close to Melville, and the other two were other officials. They dropped me off at Wits and went on their jolly way. It was caricaturish enough to make me laugh now.
Soon after arrival in this strange and varied place, a miniature coterie of friends (Grace, Lewis, Jacob, and Ryan, a friend and most helpful girl who’s here on a Fulbright and writing a book about Nat Nakasa, Lewis-my-research-subject’s best friend from childhood) ventured to the Indian part of town for dinner. The only time I had ever eaten Indian food before was in London, and I cannot remember in the littlest what the results were; if the food made me sick, I think I blocked it out of my mind. Or perhaps it was so cold that I did not notice being sick. In any case, I cheerfully ordered normal Indian food—some vegetable thing—in Fordsburg and felt quite proud of myself. Ah, pride comes before a fall. Fifteen hours later, my stomach felt nearly free of stabbing pains. Indian food wins a place on the list of permanently banned foods.
3) Driving to Pretoria
Weeks ago, when we rented Witsie, little did we suspect that, by signing papers and papers, we actually signed away innumerable (only because we never counted them) hours of our lives to navigating to and from Pretoria, which should be about forty-five minutes away. One time, it took us three hours. Wonderfully, all of the friends who made the blessed decision to live in South Africa this summer—I refer to Grace and Lewis, because they were the other two people in the car—are good-natured, and, in spite of carsickness, we managed to laugh at ourselves.
4) The Pretoria archives
Oh horror! After six log books (one of which required the serial numbers of cameras), we were finally allowed to obtain request slips, but those took so long to fill that I never saw a bit of what I requested, which, to be honest, was little. The woman behind the desk chattered away in Zulu on the telephone, and I laboured at a computer in the back, searching every word remotely connected to Lewis Nkosi; the glacial pace of the internet rendered this a solemn, slow-motion process. Whilst I awaited these phantom documents, I joined Grace at a much pleasanter task: reading. I’m still reading Light in August, yet even if I finish it before I arrive in the States, two novels remain in this remarkable volume of Faulkner (remarkable because the pages are Bible-thin; were every book’s pages thus, imagine the number of books one could transport during long journeys!).
We finally left after snapping as many photographs as possible of the documents that Lewis requested, in a fury of speed, because I had to be in Sandton, a schmancy northern suburb of Joburg, for an interview, which nearly made me swoon during it and for an hour after it. Peter Thuynsma, who started the African literature department at Wits with Ezekiel/Es’kia Mphahlele—who was nearly my research subject last semester—made me want to write his biography, and Mphahlele’s, and every other writer he mentioned. He was Ezekiel’s student in Denver, and they became close friends even before returning to South Africa, and he (Peter) became an American citizen, a rare occurrence among South African exiles. He said that he still gets chills when he is waiting in the line for American citizens when he goes through customs. He said it without blind patriotism or sentimentality—and, indeed, he lacked sentimentality in general; strict matter-of-factness marked his speech yet desisted from imparting any intellectual immovability—which made it all the more solidly encouraging. So many Americans disparage their own country that I took pleasure in hearing a South African-turned-at-least-partly-American avowing his love.
5) The bioscope
About a week ago, Jacob and a few other friends and I went to the bioscope downtown to see two documentaries: one was about Hillbrow, an erstwhile solely white and now virtually all black, strongly international, and allegedly dangerous part of downtown Joburg. My favourite part was an elderly Jewish woman who lived in Hillbrow when it was all white and still lives there. She is eighty-something years old and goes about her business and climbs the twenty-something flights of stairs with her little white dog after a round of errands and hair styling (it takes her two hours to climb all of the stairs). I keep mixing up the two films in my head (the other was about police brutality), but I think it was during the Hillbrow one that Jacob and I turned to each other with mutual recognition in our eyes: there, upon the screen, was a boy we met in March, when we visited the Central Methodist Mission and its adjoining school in downtown Joburg!
Bishop Paul Verryn also appeared on the screen, eliciting a collective (well, only from two of us) sigh. What a mensch!, as Professor Chafe would say.
I was signed up for a Sophiatown-Constitution Hill-Soweto-Sophiatown tour that was supposed to involve poetry tea and “sconce”, as they were termed in the notice, at the end, but after several directional mix-ups and extra walking (the two accompany all of my endeavours with inevitability) and discovering that the Constitution Hill tour was exactly what I had done before and we were headed for the Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto, which I also visited before with my class, I claimed exhaustion (from travelling and frustration and boredom and social activity—a deadly combination for some people) and escaped from the tour.
When I had first departed from the hostel to walk to Sophiatown, which exists alongside Melville, I called the woman in charge, who told me where the group was. Behold!—when I arrived, they were actually somewhere else, “straight down the road,” as she next told me on the telephone. I then enquired of five people while walking down this road where to find the A B Xuma (he was president of the ANC once upon a moon) house, where I could only assume the group had relocated. The complete lack of knowledge of street names in their own neighbourhood of the people I asked shocked me. It is actually shameful. How is it possible not to know a road that is literally one block away? Eventually I found it, however, and my brief annoyance abated. This kind of outraged, disbelieving annoyance visits itself rarely enough upon my spirit that it rattled me for a few hours. Following escape, I made a delightful lunch, went running in a field, met a boy from Australia and talked to him for a few hours, and am now savouring the quiet evening hours that hold reading and writing as their finest pleasures.
Other unaddressed subjects include interviewing Juby Mayet (the only female Drum writer) in Lenasia, another part of Soweto; trying to return the car (it proved a difficult endeavour; we did eventually succeed); going to the drive-in movie theatre near Pretoria, the four of us realising at the same moment what an abomination of the art of film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was, and proceeding to provide commentary and laughing for the remainder of it; going shopping at vintage stores in Melville with Grace and finishing with a pair of bloomers; perishing multiple times whilst running up the hills in the Melville koppies; and scores of other adventures. Writing this list makes me realise how many there actually have been…
Edit: I did write this post on Saturday, but the internet disappeared before all of the photos could upload themselves (each one takes four to five minutes), and then I didn’t have/use internet until now (at home, where each photo takes about three seconds).
11 June 2012 § Leave a comment
(Most of this was written a few days ago . . . )
Today, after a bit of a slow morning, I walked to Wits to go to the historical papers room again. I copied heaps of pages from a thesis about Cato Manor, a part of Durban that was Lewis’s home for a bit, but that definitely was not as fun as reading letters is. The lovely part was the walk home; I scarcely noticed the cold, because the sun was setting and sending diffused beams up and up and making the clouds blush, and brilliant jagged lines of gold stretched along the horizon. I made it home just as it was really turning duskish. I do make efforts not to get mugged now and again.
It surprises me that I feel hardly whirlwindish at all. After riding the sixteen hours to Cape Town in a car, renting a car there and driving an hour to Genadendal and an hour the next day to Stellenbosch and two hours the next day to Cape Town and then doing the five-hour cab-flight-cab process, my mind should be in a more ruffled state. Or perhaps not. After all, I’m back in the hostel . . . it is certainly some type of home (read: there is free tea and friends and I’m not cold at night, the only things I desire in a home).
And now for a bit of the Durban story. Grace and I arrived in the evening, and Edith of our wonderful guest-house-on-a-hill enveloped us with much kindness. In the morning, we had the delightful experience of discovering monkeys gamboling about on the neighbouring rooftops. How funny they looked! I suppose my camera must have been dead for the Durban jaunt, because I have very few photographs.
I met up with a professor at the university in Durban and had the pleasant surprise of discovering that she was good friends with Lewis during the last tenish years of his life. She pointed me towards a book shop and another professor and was kind in answering all of my fledgling interviewer questions. It was my first interview ever!
Off we went to Ike’s. We discovered a cosy wonderland of old books of all sorts, and who knows what restrained us from taking half of them with us? I bought a Drummy book and a collection of C S Lewis essays and a volume of Cowper.
The woman who worked there allowed me to interview her for a few minutes, and she sent some photos to me that she had of Lewis at one of his book launches there. One of the walls in the entryway has heaps of signatures on it:
Yet only Lewis was allowed to sign the outside wall on the balcony:
It’s difficult to read, but it says “Louis quatorze” and has his death-date and some signatures of friends and his daughters (who are Londoners) beneath it. Then we hopped to the beach for Grace’s first time to see the Indian Ocean and had a lovely walk along it, although the water proved too cold to swim. That did not stop me from accidentally soaking most of my clothes. Our dinner was leisurely and lovely, and when we returned to the guest house, we snuggled into bed to read, but we fell asleep . . . it was about eight o’clock. Oops.
We decided to run to the beach the next morning and then take a cab back so that we could just run downhill; the day before, running (climbing?) up the hills proved a bit of a challenge. We ran out of time and did not reach the water, instead stopping in a telephone booth store/internet café/hair salon to call a cab. It was an odd place. A poster advertised some rather bold hair colours; I, for one, can’t wait to transform my tresses into a puff of passion plum. After our breakfast, during which we surreptitiously made honey sandwiches and stored them away for lunch, we walked to the university again to meet the professor who started the bookshop. He was an even closer friend of Lewis’s and is now, I discovered, an important banker in the midst of moving out of his office who was kind enough to let me interview him. I really don’t know what makes these people agree to let some insignificant undergraduate girl ask them personal questions.
We wandered around after that and walked round the botanical gardens, which have the most glorious things: walking trees. They move only a bit more slowly than Ents. They are in the fig family (that’s just a figment of tangential information) and, after growing up from the trunk, grow back down from their main branches. These branches plunge into the ground and make roots of themselves, making wondrous arches of thick vine-ish branches everywhere.
That night, we flew back to Joburg (colder, busier, dirtier, lacking monkeys and the sea) with sad faces. I think I mixed up some things from those two days, but I never read over my journal until at least a few months after I have written in it, so I can’t consult that trusty log book.
I was just reading things about fig trees and discovered that the largest fig tree in the world is in Pretoria! I was there two weeks ago and had no idea that I was so close to the Wonderboom (“wondertree” in Afrikaans). I might have to go back.
1 June 2012 § Leave a comment
This morning, after dropping the rental car off (Witsie, after Wits, the university here – sometimes we call her itsy bitsy Witsie), I checked out the Bailey’s Archives, which have all of the Drum issues, but they needed to compile it for me, so I ran out quickly and tried to catch up with Lewis, who was walking to Wits. I never found him, but once I had run for about five minutes, I just decided to keep running til I found the university. I didn’t have a map (and the one I keep running across is shameful, scarcely any streets are labelled), but luckily we’ve driven around downtown enough and it had taken us so long to find the rental car place again that I had a fairly good sense of direction.
Running along the sidewalks with some people going to and fro and some people lounging about and music playing here and there and trafficky noises and one-way streets popping up everywhere exhilarated me, and I was quite full of energy and ready to work by the time I reached the historical papers room. It’s a lovely place in the library with a congenially serious atmosphere and a little loft and shelves lined with old books about the Church in South Africa and kindly librarians who run off to fetch stacks of boxes for researchers. I’ve read through papers there on various days, when I’m not trying to reach people on my long list of contacts. Last week, I called about ten in a row, risking death by telephone, with mixed results.
One former Drum writer was in the hospital (I was horrified when he told me that; how awful to bother someone in the hospital! . . . why was he answering his telephone in the first place?), several people had message machines that they apparently never check, because I have received no calls from them (I can’t blame them; I check mine every four months or so), one person told me she would send me some good photos, one person took about ten minutes to figure out what I was saying (“I am doing research on L-E-W-I-S-N-K-O-S-I”) and then proceeded to tell me that he lives 3oo km from Joburg, and one person‘s brother answered, told me he was in the hospital, and bid me send a text message to him. This confused me; wasn’t he (the one to whom I was talking) holding the telephone? I followed his instructions, however, and received the most outrageous text, which I immediately recorded in my notebook, because it is definitely going in this thesis.
Anyway, he did not consent to let me interview him.
When I first arrived, I had two days of bymyselfness (except conversations with George, a tiny young man from Malawi who works at the hostel and gave me a lengthy description of the educational system of Malawi) that was gloriously ended by the arrival of Grace and Lewis one evening. The next day, we went with Lewis’s friend Dawid to Soweto (South West Township of Joburg) for bungee jumping. It holds absolutely no interest for me; hang-gliding or just flying (oh that my wings would hurry and grow soon!) are far more tempting, but it was fun to watch Dawid and Lewis flail about from marvellous painted (former) electrical towers.
That evening, Grace and I flew to Durban. It’s dinner time for this junebug, so stories about that trip will have to wait.