Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Today I feel almost ridiculously happy. Someone is having a post-graduation party just down the hall from me and I can hear the cheesy music practically making the floor vibrate. Apart from the fact that is so nice to hear someone having fun in this ghostly residence, Graduations make me happy. This week, I've seen women walking carefully over the uneven paving in shiny black high heels and a whole family - red cheeks from the cold - sitting on a low wall and laughing together: from grandpa and granny to grandchildren newly graduated. Everyone is dressed to the nines and looking breathlessly proud.

Then there is the fact I have just done my aerobics dvd. If you've read my ridiculous post, you'll understand why it makes me so thrilled. Even better, it was free, from Women's Health Magazine. I have so much respect for this publication: even if it is just because they published an article on intersexual people in one of their first issues. There is only so much one can read when it comes to health issues before you start guilt-tripping or the information starts being repeated, but if you want a magazine that gives you sensible health advice, delicious recipes (rocket, strawberry and goats cheese salad soaked in balsamic vinegar with salt and black pepper anyone?) and the occasional free aerobics dvd, then Women's Health is it.

I also had a really productive day. I am planning for my classes and am feeling really excited rather than overwhelmed, which is a very. good. thing. I have two classes of twenty-five students each, and I see them twice a week. There are no happy tutorial sheets prepared by the department. One just arrives and - in theory - answers questions that students have prepared. I envision myself making completed lesson plans and making this the most educational experience for them EVER. I need to channel some Zoe with the guru-ness that is Lumumba.

I did a teensy bit of thesis work too. I am now defrosting my fridge. I have never done this before. In the digs at Rhodes University, our fridge was almost warmer than room temperature. I think biologists would have found really interesting plant matter growing along the sides and in the darkest corners of the drawers...but this fridge froze over when I was away for a week. I ate cup of soup tonight because all the nourishing food I could eat is frozen into the freezer. This has still not dampened my mood. I feel like an adult now. Defrosting my own (well, it's sort of mine) fridge...

And I'm catching up with far-away friend Indra tonight.

Sometimes it's the little things...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

the second-hand book

At Wits University, wedged between a parking lot and the wide green lawns is a great library that houses row upon row of Africana (i.e. books by Africans of various descriptions). It is called the William Cullen Library and was the first library to be built on campus. There are high ceilings and book-cases set against the walls that you have to climb up stairs to get to. It reminds me a little of the beautiful Port Elizabeth library with the statue of Queen Victoria that still holds her position in front of it (I can't say it welcomes you. Queen Victoria is very severe).

Back to William Cullen: there is a brightly-coloured painting spanning almost the whole of one wall that depicts a kind of magic-realist South Africa. Colonisers arrive in strange masks, and animals people the landscape, larger than the ships sailing in from the horizon. The trees are abundant with fruit, and the San and Khoi mingle with the settlers, who seem very settled already in this surreal landscape. There is night on one side of the painting and day on the other with the ocean surrounding the land on both sides. I hope many people studying at the long tables have happened to glance up and notice this singular artwork.

One of my (other) favourite things about this library is the bathroom. The Wartenweiler Library (which is now the main library) has chip-board cubicles and basins set so close to the cubicle doors that it's really difficult to move in there. It is also windowless and has that distinctively unpleasant closed-in public bathroom smell.

When I step into William Cullen, it is as though I have stepped into another world because it is so old. The fittings are all made of thick porcelain and are cleanly white and solid-looking. The doors are made of varnished wood and the windows let dappled sunlight into the airy room. There is even a a long, dark-wood table set into the wall with chairs in front of it. I feel like I should adjust my hair net and hat and perhaps touch up on my lipstick while having a good gossip with similarly attired friends, rather than adjust my backpack and twenty-first century jeans.

What really entrances me is that they have a small selection of books for sale: all R5. I am a compulsive book buyer, and I had sorted through them for weeks (finding Dame Edna Everage's Bedside Book amusing but not necessary) before I came across one that caught my eye and generated a tumult of conflicting thoughts. The first is called "Readings in South African English Prose", compiled by A.C. Partridge of the University of Pretoria and it was published by Van Schaik in 1941. It is a first-edition and looks impeccable, but more importantly, it was a present: "To dear Dad Love from Marj, Xmas 1944".

Second-hand books with inscriptions, (particularly old-fashioned, spidery ones in that good-quality black ink) make the cockles of my heart warm (I've been reading Dickens recently, can you tell?). The pages are thick and yellowing, and the preface is cringingly full of terms like "native mind" and phrases like "For whilst it is no doubt true that all good literature is universal". Nevertheless, it was someone believing in the literature of the country enough to compile a book about it. All the writers are white (Sol Plaaitjie was clearly not English enough)but there are a host of names I had never heard before along with other more familiar ones. Olive Schreiner, C. Louis Leipoldt, Lady Anne Barnard, Thomas Pringle and Kingsley Fairbridge among others are included.

The inscription was what decided me to buy it: "To South Africa, and all its people of both races, this book is dedicated, in the hope that enlightened co-operation may soon be at hand".

An academic from Pretoria (never a city with a reputation for housing liberals) produced a book - in 1941 - with an inscription like that. It made me really excited and yet at the same time made me a feel desperately sad for wasted potential. Just seven years later, all those hopes were dashed for almost fifty years with the introduction of institutionalised apartheid. I wondered if A.C. Partridge had lived to see the end of apartheid, and what he was doing so that his hopes about "enlightened co-operation" may be realised.

Then, I thought a little more and read a little more into the book. He says "both races". Back then, the all-inclusive term "black" had not come into usage to describe everyone who was not white. So, there are then several races in South Africa. Why does he say "both"? I then realised (in this collection of "South African English" prose that proves the English are as South African as their Boer counterparts) that there are two white races. Is he talking about less enmity among whites in a new white super-era? I mean there is a section in this book titled "Native Sketches". But the ANC was originally titled "South African Native National Congress", so in the past, even black people called themselves "natives". In what year did this term become questionable? Have I purchased a questionable book?

And then I relaxed and gave myself a mental slap on the wrist. I was reminded of my trip to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford when I confronted the curator with the fact that the labels on the anthropological artefacts were completely outdated, "Native Rhodesian Drum" for example. She smiled patiently and explained to me that the labels (made by the curators or explorers at the time the object was found) are historical and anthropological objects in themselves. They reflect a part of history that should not be forgotten.

Being politically correct can lead to missed opportunities for knowledge and a more complete understanding of the subtlties of the past. I think I will learn as much by reading the prejudices and baby steps towards understanding of the compiler as I will about the decades of South African English engagement that have been compiled. Perhaps I will even breathe in something of the spirit of the man who received it as a present in 1944. And I could never get such an experience from between the matt-finish covers of a new book from the morally fortified shelves of a new bookshop.

Nor could I buy it for R5. Reading (and buying) second-hand books really is an affordable education.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

the bus: waiting

Seven hours. It's the amount of time I (and my friend Gwynlyn along with a few other Rhodents, i.e. Rhodes Students) spent on a pavement on the shady side of Grahamstown, waiting for our first bus in first year. We had packed everything in our wheeled suitcases, Gwynlyn had been told to buy enough sweets to feed an army by the Livingston (her res) girls so thus arrayed, and gigglingly happy to be going home and having an adventure, we walked down high street to the bus. We met a few other happy first years also waiting for the bus and we all sat on the pavement and got started on our bus food (and on Gwynlyn's bus food which became our treasure trove in the hours to come).

7.30pm (the departure time) came and went, and my paranoid mother got very worried about her poor darling sitting down on the street opposite the Frontier Hotel in all its decayed, seedy glory. The street is also frequented by truckers, buses, drunks from "The Copper Kettle" (the dodgiest bar in Grahamstown) and street kids who try their luck for some money every now and again. She phoned every hour to see what had happened, and it had broken down in Port Elizabeth. We were told it would be coming in the next hour every time so - not wanting to be left behind - we stayed on that pavement, wrapped ourselves in blankets, ate yet more food and chatted about absolutely everything. When the bus eventually did arrive, it was close on 1.30 am.

Translux eventually shortened their arrival time over the years. The next time I caught a bus it was only five hours late. I have also had to wait three hours, two hours...when it got down to one hour I was really impressed. These days, the Translux bus comes exactly on time and they even have a kind of bus host or hostess like they do on Greyhound, rather than leaving the eccentric range of driving teams (there are always two drivers on the bus for those who don't know) who man the buses to handle the frequently irate and edgy passengers.

Waiting in small towns is always interesting because there is never a station, just a landmark that frequently ceases to exist. So in Grahamstown, you are told you have to catch the bus at the "Conference Centre" (which is actually the worn-down Frontier Hotel), and in Port Shepstone, you have to catch the bus at the "Spur" which closed down and has been half-way demolished for the past two years. I was fascinated the first time I took a bus from a city (Greenacres Mall in Port Elizabeth) and there was a little room with chairs. Even more fascinating is the bigger cities where they weigh your suitcases before you get on. I really appreciate travelling by bus because you can have super-heavy suitcases and you never have to pay extra. Useful knowledge for avid readers who like to take an extra few books "just in case" and come back with a few more they managed to find wherever they were visiting (I don't know why I'm even talking in the third person. The person who carries and then acquires an additional library wherever she goes is me).

Park Station was my most pleasant surprise. I was nervous because one always hears terrible stories about that side of Johannesburg. But the scariest person there was a gaunt white man wearing baggies and slops (in the middle of town!) and smoking a cigerette ominously. The scariest bus was Roadlink, which we could hear squealing from miles away as it pulled into the station. It was leaning to one side. This was several months after they were pulled off the road and then allowed back on again after all the accidents. Hmmm... I caught the bus at 8pm, and the station was clean, quiet and relatively empty. Everything worked really efficiently and it felt a little like an airport. It is when you get outside to where the buses stop that it feels like chaos. There are lanes stretching almost as far as my eye can see and you have to find where your bus is when you walk out. There is a thin, coloured woman with a loud, activist's voice who gets on every bus before it leaves with shiny pamplets and AIDS ribbons who makes requests for donations for the shelter she is involved in.

Most of the time (these days) I take the bus from Pretoria station. The first time I caught the bus there, I had to catch a cab and then wait a few hours by myself for the bus to arrive. My friend at TopCD (a Venda prankster called Shevon who is contually astonished by the fact that I am a white person who doesn't hate black people. Pretoria: it'll do that to you). She looked at me and said, "Ooh, Pretoria Station is not a nice place for a little white girl like you".

When I got out of the cab, I was clutching all my possessions to me and looking as forbidding and streetwise as I could. Actually, Pretoria Station is like a particularly fascinating market. For a start, it is outdoors with a few extended rooves, and some benches. You can wait for the bus whilst savouring the sun on your face. There are hawkers lined up waiting for buses to take them back to Zimbabwe or Zambia with the largest hessian bags you have ever seen filled with necessities to take home. There are chip and sweet sellers who sell those ones that - urban legend has it - make your intestines expand they are so unhealthy. Enterprising teenagers and men in the early twenties have shopping-trolley like vehicles on which they load bags to help over-burdened passengers. I can perch myself on my suitcase and lose myself in the book I have brought along, conscious of the chatty, industrious movement of people bustling around me.

My favourite moment however is always the moment when the bus has arrivied and I can get on. Soon - I know - familiar landscapes will be flashing past me and I will be on a journey that will contain both the solid sense of the ground I cover from place to place that is so sadly absent on a plane flight and sights of the vastly different environments we travel through. The adventure will begin.