Weekly Photo Challenge: Seasons

IMG_5759Life starts off with promises and dreams, unlimited horizons and infinite potential.

a2This, however, is an illusion. Life is a vast and lonely place – a series of individual challenges that’ll test even the most courageous to the utmost limits.a5At last, having survived the seasons of drought and plenty, the realisation dawns: Hope, Love and Faith are choices and not guaranteed in any way. Life is, in fact, what actually happened while we were making other plans.a4And then we take note of failures and mishaps and unfortunate events – all of these steering us to abandon wild dreams and false promises.

Somewhere between the illusive mansion of expectation and the ruins of reality, contentment awaits. Satisfied with so much less but with the firm belief that the best is yet to come, we soldier on bravely.188_8855Until, with the comfort of a faithful companion, we look back at the seasons of our lives – remembering the successes and failures. It’s been quite a journey but worth every drop of sweat, every tear, along the way. This is the season too – because we finally understand  – we are able to embrace the unlimited horizons and infinite potential that were promised in the beginning.

There is no excuse. No excuse at all. (#2)

 

 

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Jean-Dominique Bauby

 

Telling us a story of a musical savant doesn’t help us all that much, Gertruida. It may be inspiring to a certain degree, but we’re still stuck with the same old problems in the country…or the world, for that matter. Playing a piano never fixed crooked politics, neither can disabilities be used to set the example for South Africa’s masses.” Servaas, after spending a restless night while contemplating the remarkable life of Leslie Lemke, is not in a good mood at all.

“On the contrary, Servaas. It’s about being disadvantaged and overcoming odds. That – I’ll have you know – is the most important and universal lesson for all of humankind. It’s of absolutely no value to sit down next to the road, complaining about the journey. We are each given a route – an individual journey – to complete during our on earth. Some get the easier paths, others not – it’s not something we can demand or change. Read it up, Servaas. (Proverbs 16:33) I suspect you know the passage…you should, actually.”

“So we are mere passengers on a runaway train, helpless to change anything? What about Revelation 20:13? Why judgement in the end if people have no choice in their actions?”

Gertruida sits back to applaud the old man’s remark. “Well done, Servaas! You’ve just proven  my point. I’m sooo proud of you!” Despite Servaas’s confusion, he has to smile at her tone. “You see, Servaas, your life will follow a certain path. That’s a given. But…what you do on that path, involves specific choices only you can make. Let me tell you about   Jean-Dominique Bauby, maybe that’ll help you understand…”

***

Jean-Dominique, or Jean-Do as his friends called him, was a young man at the pinnacle of his career. As editor of Elle, he was a know face in the French fashion crowd and a respected writer in his own right. He probably thought Life was a sweet fruit to be savoured and enjoyed – one can only imagine…

Then it all changed. At the age of 43 he suffered a massive stroke, leaving him an a coma for three weeks. He shouldn’t have woken up, but he did…in a manner of speaking. While he seemed to recognise faces and voices, he was completely paralyzed, except for his eyes; they followed movement. Despair turned to hope; maybe he’d regain more function as time went by?

But it didn’t. Things got worse. His right eye developed complications and had to be sewn shut. Then, with movement and observation restricted to his left eye, the terrible consequences of his stroke became apparent: he had Locked-in Syndrome. He could hear and see…but nothing else. He couldn’t respond in any way to external stimuli by speech or emotion. Only the movement of one single eye could possibly convey messages to the people around him.

A plan had to be made. With all the paths of communication destroyed by the stroke, only the left eye could possibly be used to reach his thoughts. Remember, this happened in 1995, before machines like Stephen Hawking uses, were available. The nursing staff did what they could, ending up with a nurse sitting next to his bed, reciting the alphabet. Over and over and over…and over. When she got to the letter he wanted, he’d blink. The letter was then written down and the selection of the next letter began. At last…he was able to communicate his thoughts to the world out there.

Then…the surprise. i-w-a-n-t-t-o-w-r-i-t-e-a-b-o-o-k.  Write a book? In his condition? Surely an impossible task?

But he did. Letter for letter, four hours a day, with the patient assistant reciting and reciting the alphabet over and over again. It took ten months, but in the end The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was published in 1997. Sadly, two days after the book appeared on the shelves, Jean-Do died from lung complications…

***

DivingBellButterflyMP“Ten years later, a film was made of the book. It won at Cannes, BAFTA, Golden Globes and was nominated for four Oscars. The story of Jean-Do inspired people long after his death. His life was maybe above average before the stroke, but afterwards it became truly remarkable. He had to lose everything – except an eye – to summit the highest point of his life. 

“So you see, Servaas, being disadvantaged isn’t fun. People have the right to complain and revolt against unfairness and injustice. But what has happened in the past, is no excuse for poor choices in the present. It is a sad fact that everything we do today, will impact on tomorrow. And that leaves us with but two choices: do we destruct or construct? That, my friend, is the Black and White we have to deal with – there is no middle way in that. Choices determine actions and words, which in turn result in consequences. If we are not building, then we are breaking down.

“So, Servaas, harping on about hardship is an entirely futile exercise. In our society it’s become the norm to be destructive. And that, I’m afraid, is determining how we will be judged by history.”

“Well,” Servaas mumbles, “at least I’m not burning buildings and busses. I’m just saying…”

“Unfortunately,” Gertruida interrupts quickly, “words do more damage than burning a library. They remain long after the broken glass have been replaced and they hurt more than rubber bullets. ‘Just saying’ is no excuse. It’s the mind behind the words that makes you say things – and only you can fix that…nobody else is going to do it for you.”

And, just like yesterday, old Servaas finds himself at loss for words. This is a good thing, Gertruida thinks, because the country is being wrecked by people ‘just saying’. If only we could get to ‘just doing’ – positively – we’d become an example for the world.

But, she realises, we’ll get the future we deserve. And for that we have no excuses. No excuses at all…

“….Mutual misunderstanding
After the fact
Sensitivity builds a prison
In the final act…”

There is no excuse. None at all…

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Leslie and May Lemke

“Sometimes,” Gertruida says after switching off the radio, “we are just too keen on wallowing about in self pity.” She’s been harping about this lately, especially whenever Servaas gets going about politics. “Look, we’re still living in a wonderful country. Yes, we can moan and groan about students burning art and defacing statues, but what about the real people of South Africa? Granted, we have our fair share of scoundrels, crooks and other governmental officials, but we also have good, peace loving and kind compatriots who are only trying to make things work – for all of us.”

“Blah blah blah, Gertruida.” In his usual bad mood, Servaas isn’t taking this lying down. “We’re stumbling about in the dark, hoping against hope that things will improve.”

The remark seems to stem Gertruida’s flow of thoughts.

“Stumbling about in the dark? Hope? Mmmm.”

Now everybody knows how kantankerous Gertruida gets when you disagree with her. It’s an invitation to a verbal brawl where there can be only one winner.

“Ever heard about Leslie Lemke, Servaas? Tell me, have you?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Of course not. Your world stops at the end of Voortrekker Weg. You live – quite happily, I might add – in your own little bubble where you only think about yourself and all the trouble surrounding you. Now, let me tell you….”

***

Leslie Lemke was born prematurely in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1952.The doctors and nurses – even his own parents – soon gave up hope for the tiny infant. As a result of his complicated birth, he was spastic and had severe retinal problems. Glaucoma developed. He was also obviously mentally challenged. And then, as was done in those days, the already blind child’s eyes were removed within the first month of his life to ease his discomfort.

His parents just couldn’t take care of him.What to do? They gave him up for adoption…

Enter May Lemke, the petite nurse in the district. After being approached, she immediately took the baby under her care. A deeply religious woman and the epitome of love and hope, she took care of the helpless boy, despite the massive obstacles in their way. While everybody expected the child to die, May fed him and stroked his neck to make him swallow. She spent hours and hours trying to get his unwilling legs to move properly, hoping he’d be able to walk one day. She sang to him, played music for him…and prayed.

Eventually it became clear that the boy could talk – but he simply repeated the sounds of the words and May wasn’t sure that he actually understood what he was saying. Feeding remained a problem, movement was arduous and hesitant, and his quality of life far below zero.

But May refused to give in. At the age of seven, she bought a piano; hoping that the sound of music would have some influence on his slow development. For seven years she plinked and plonked the notes while the blind child listened and sometimes tried to find the right note with the right sound, to follow his foster mother’s example.

Leslie turned fourteen. The years ahead stretched out with insurmountable challenges. Leslie, blind and retarded, had no future.

They watched TV at night – or rather – May did and Leslie sat there, impassively, listening. He did like music though, and one night they listened to a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no 1 , the background to a programme.

That night May woke up to music. The Piano Concerto was playing again! At first she thought the TV must have been left on, but when she walked into the living room, she stopped dead in her tracks. There, in front of the piano, in the dark, the blind, mentally and intellectually challenged boy was giving a perfect rendition of the concerto…perfect! With every note, every nuance, of the music played exactly like they had heard before bedtime.

Amazingly, incredibly, the hands that could almost not handle eating utensils now flew over the piano’s keys in fluent movements.

That was the start of the career of one of the most amazing musicians of our time. He could play back any tune after listening to it only once. And then he started singing with the tunes – also pitch-perfect and not at all with the struggle he had while trying to speak normally.

rain-man-poster-007 (1)May was overjoyed. Local concerts led to TV appearances. Dustin Hoffman saw him play once and found inspiration for his movie, ‘Rain Man’. More concerts followed as well as tours to the rest of the USA, Scandinavia and Japan.

A favourite challenge during these concerts was to ask anybody in the audience to ‘Stump Leslie’ by naming a song he couldn’t play. The only times that happened, was when he’d never heard the tune before – then he’d make one up then and there, on the spot, lyrics and everything.

Leslie’s concerts are free. The miracle of music, he maintains, was given to him to share with others. What he had received was grace and making money out of his gift would be wrong.

***

“You see, Servaas, sometimes we are put in a situation that seems hopeless. Maybe, according to all known information, we are stupid to go on trying and the urge to surrender and walk away is overwhelming. But May Lemke showed us a different way – not by fighting in anger, but by persisting in love.

“Sure, at times we feel blind and helpless. No way forward, no way back. That’s when you have to look up, not down. Faith and love breeds hope, Servaas. Hate and anger will see us doomed. No matter what Life throws at us, we cannot ever forget that.”

When Gertruida shows him the short video on her new smartphone, he gets up to go outside. He’ll have to think about Leslie Lemke for a while.

And feel just a tad ashamed about his constant moaning…

The Fable of the Jackal and the Eagle

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Credit: enca.com

Whenever Gertruida starts telling them stories, the little group in the bar falls silent, paying close attention to what she says. Gertruida never just tells a story – she has the uncanny ability to recount fables at very strategic times; when the fable really mirrors the bit of history unfolding in the current situation.

That’s why – when she finally falls silent – that they all stare out of the window, wondering how Boggel managed to understand while they didn’t.

***

A long time ago (Gertruida says) and also in recent times (typical Gertruida), a jackal spied a rabbit in the tall grass. Now, this was exactly what Jackal felt like at the time: a nice, young, succulent rabbit, slowly roasted over a few embers and served with a few termites on the side.

The problem was that Jackal was on the one side of a river, and the rabbit was feeding on the opposite bank. Jackal, like many of his brothers, had never learnt to swim. Despite this handicap, Jackal wasn’t entirely stupid – he was even more cunning than Snake and Scorpion combined. He was also ruthless, a trait the other animals were aware of all  too clearly.

So Jackal sat down, eyed the rabbit, and imagined how much he’d enjoy his next meal. But how? How to get to that rabbit? The problem had to be solved!

He had, of course, seen other animals swim. Badger was very good at it and even Buffalo could manage. Other animals, however, had failed dismally; like Tortoise for instance. The way Tortoise drowned, made Jackal very worried. If he were to attempt – and failed – that’d mean the end of him. He wasn’t prepared for that yet.

He then thought of getting help from Owl.. As one that preferred hunting at night, Owl would be sleeping during the day and be an easy one to catch. And once he’d convinced Owl to take him across, he’d be onto Rabbit in a flash. Owl was, after all, big and strong and more than capable of carrying his weight.

Owl was, to say the least, not impressed. Jackal reminded Owl that he knew exactly where Owl’s nest was and that he’d make a point of stealing  the next batch of chicks. Owl grumbled and moaned, for he actually liked Rabbit; but because of Jackal’s threats, he gave in with a heavy heart.

“You promise to leave me alone after this, and never touch my nest?” Owl didn’t trust Jackal very much.

“Of course!” Jackal said with a toothy grin. “You won’t have to worry about that. You have my word.”

Well, Owl flew Jackal across and put him down on the other side. Rabbit, however, saw him coming and hid behind a huge rock.

“The Rabbit,” he said in a squeaky, shrill voice like mouse’s, “has gone to Eagle. She’s in a foul mood. If I were you, Jackal, I’d go away.”

But Jackal would have none of that. He wanted that Rabbit and no Eagle was going to stop him. So he crept up the hill where Eagle lived and tried to see what was in her nest. And Eagle, sharp-eyed as ever – saw him coming and threw a few small stones at him. Jackal persisted and approached even closer. Then Eagle flew up high, high in the sky, and dropped a large rock on Jackal’s head. The blow was so accurate and so hard that Jackal became confused. He swore he’d get Eagle if that’s the last thing he’d do. And Eagle laughed, sprouted celebratory feathers, and flew off to her inaccessible nest on a high cliff.

“Do what you like, Jackal,” she shouted, “but by now all the animals have seen your cunning and cruelty.  Your days as a glorious hunter is over. From now on you’ll only prey on the dumb and the stupid.”

And so it was. Jackall could not go back to his home any longer – the river was too full and he still couldn’t swim. Owl laughed at him, telling im that as long as he couldn’t cross the river, he’d never be able to threaten his nest again. And Jackal looked around him, realised he couldn’t get to his old home and his hunting grounds at all, and became exceedingly angry.

***

“It didn’t help, of course. Getting angry never solved a problem.” Gertruida gets up to walk to the window. Outside, the sun was setting in a wonderful array of colours. “So Jackal, my friends, tried to steal sheep from farmers after that. Still does it to this day. But the farmers put up fences and traps and got vicious dogs to protect them. And Jackal became the most hated animal amongst the farmers and he had to flee into the wilderness to escape.”

She falls silent and turns around. The puzzled frowns on her audience’s faces pleased her tremendously.

It is Boggel who breaks the silence.

“That wasn’t a fable, Gertruida. Fables are pure fiction. This is too new, too recent, too true, to be called a fable. “

Gertruida’s smile broadened. “Yes, Eagle got him, didn’t she? Without her, Rabbit wouldn’t have survived.”

On Political Correctness, Racial Awareness and Honesty.

IMG_4985 copy“So the Emperor displayed his new clothes for all to see.” Servaas tosses the newspaper aside and signals for a drink. “Not that there was much to hear.”

“On the contrary,” Boggel smiles, “never in my entire life have I seen an obese parade with so much evidence of affluence. Did you see the size of some of them? My gosh! Our trade deficit must be huge – as a result of the yards and yards of material necessary to cover up the wobbly backsides. Maybe that’s why the prez is cutting down on catering – the cost of installing extra-outsize chairs in parliament would finally convince the rating companies that our economy deserves junk status.”

“That,” Gertruida scowls, pointing a finger at the little barman, “is not politically correct. You are in fact insinuating that some of the ladies and gentlemen in our government are fat. Now…’fat’ isn’t a word to use when describing somebody. That’s insensitive and uncalled for. It’s as bad as saying we are optically  challenged to observe the extent of their circumferences. No, it’s unkind, to say the least.”

“Like calling somebody ‘white’ or ‘black’?” The smile on Servaas’ face is without humor. “Come on, Gertruida – when something is obvious for all to see, why play the Elephant-in-the Room game? Should we now be so sensitive that we are forced into denial?”

“That’d be following the government’s footsteps, Servaas..” Boggel sighs. “They insist we’re a non-sexist, non-racial society with equal opportunities for all. The way I see it, is that they’re fooling nobody. Black empowerment isn’t an equal opportunity policy. Enrolling in an university is far more difficult for white kids than others. The only situation where the prez favours whites, is when he has to defend himself in court – then the advocate is white. Why?”

“That would be horribly politically incorrect to speculate about that, Boggel. You’re at rsik of being labeled a racist.”

“But being racially aware, doesn’t make me a racist, Gertruida! Are you suggesting that I should renounce my heritage? Of course I’m what is called European, or white, or whatever. But I was born in Africa and I have the right to be called an African.” He arches an eyebrow. “Am I American? No! Spanish, French or German? No! I am a proud citizen of South Africa and that’s who I am. I happen to have a different skin colour than the majority of the inhabitants down here, but why does that put me at a disadvantage? Because of a history I had no control over?” He lets the question hang in the silence. “And what about the rest of the world? Their histories are even more tainted by oppression, extermination and xenophobia. South Africa has had her share of these horrible things, but nowadays it is used to sway the mood of society to pro-black and anti-white. I am forced to acknowledge the fact that I am currently disadvantaged and they hold me hostage to what has happened generations ago – the government rubs my lilly-white face in it every day. Am I happy about it? No! But I have to live with it – in shame, if the ruling powers had any say in t. The very government who claims to be non-racist, is using racism to deny me equal opportunities based on performance. If I open my mouth about this, a chorus shouts:’ Racist!’, simply because of my skin colour..”

Boggel shrugs. “The government is only trying to retain their voter base, Servaas. They cannot very well say they have ruled fairly and justly over the last 20 years, can they? They have to play the race card to keep their support secure. With so many state-owned enterprises in trouble and service delivery as bad as the corruption we read about every day, they have no choice but to unite the majority of voters by emphasising race. It may not be politically correct, but it is politics. United we stand, divided we fall, remember?”

“So ‘Black’ – the word – is given special  significance? If you say something about black – like it’s a Black Friday, or black magic, or blackmail, black market, blackout,  black box, black eye – then the first thing we must think about, is race? How absurd is that? Anyway, who started calling people ‘Black’? Nobody’s ‘black’ – we’re all shades of brown and beige and cream.Moreover, we are suddenly  so sensitive about the blackface phenomenon that students get expelled for having purple faces  when they portray aliens?

“No, being proud of who you are, doesn’t make you a racist. It simply means you identify with your individuality, your identity and your culture. You’re a racist only when you put these attributes above all others. If I think white is superior to black, then, sure, I deserve the label. But if I respect somebody else’s right to be who he or she was born to be, that makes me a humanist. Racism in South Africa would have died a long time ago if the government hadn’t insisted on reviving it all the time.” Vetfaan shakes his head – it’s all so horribly wrong!

“I still think there are too many heavyweights in the parliament,” Servaas tries  to change the subject to something more humourous.

“You’re a racist, Servaas.”

They all laugh at Gertruida’s remark, but it’s the type of laugh you laugh when you get your tax assessment in the post – a despairingly sad laugh, without real humour and tinged with a dose of sadness.

“Being politically correct means you insist on living in a bubble, with no own opinion and certainly no insight. That’s the thing, isn’t it? You may think something, but saying it is wrong. That means you have to pretend all the time and you end up fooling everybody except yourself. What that means, is: you constantly have to put the sensitivities and preferences of others higher than your own. In other words, you have to view yourself as inferior to others.” Boggel spreads his arms wide. “Now that, my friends, is as bad as racism where you think you are superior to others. Thinking yourself to be inferior, is just as bad.

“Which brings me to justified reverse apartheid. The very words imply that only whites can be racists..which is certainly not the case.

“Why can’t we just be people – whether white or green or yellow or the B-word – and get on with the joy of living together? The longer we insist on pigment – or the lack thereof –  defining ability, efficiency and opportunity, the worse our society will fare. And, mark my words, pigment maketh not the man – what is needed is a deep-seated desire to contribute and build.”

Gertruida nods slowly. “You better keep that talk right here, in the bar in Rolbos, Boggel. If you dare say things like that in bigger places like Prieska or Springbok, you’ll have to see a lawyer.”

“Okay then, Gertruida. Like the rest of the country, I shall say nothing about the elephant in the room. It doesn’t exist, does it? Just a figure of speech…like ‘efficient government’ or ‘united nation’.”

The night the Emperor went naked…

Emperor_Clothes_01_edited-1“Promises, statistics and other lies – not much else.” Gertruida sits back, eyeing Servaas critically. “I mean, what else? The man is under siege, his reputation is shattered and his support base is shrinking. He’ll have to create the illusion that he’s in control and that everything is rosy. Oh, he’ll acknowledge things like global warming, the drought and the state of the world’s economy, blaming them for the country’s problems. But will he be bold enough to state that he’s at least partly responsible for the chaos in the country? I don’t think so. He’s far too clever for that.”

“It must be terrible to address a nation, knowing your popularity is bouncing about in the basement. If he has the guts to appear at all, pretending nothing is wrong, I’ll have to tip my hat to the man.” Vetfaan smiles at the surprised glances he gets. As an outspoken critic, his statement really makes them sit up. “On the other hand: maybe he just doesn’t understand these things. Maybe – in his own mind – he’s a real Jimmy Do-good; you know, as innocent as can be and only doing his best to govern the country fairly….But even he, despite his academic background, should be nervous right now.”

“Reminds you a bit about Hans Christian Andersen’s story, doesn’t it? When everybody watched the parade through the city and pretended to admire the emperor’s clothes – but only he believed he was, indeed, attired most gracefully. The naked king actually believed his advisors after they mimed dressing him up – but he was as naked as the day he came into this world. Shows you: putting all your trust in the people you’ve appointed can be a dangerous thing! They must have been so fed-up with his overbearing attitude, they decided to parade him through town for everybody to see him as he really was: a real clown.

“He embarrassed everybody but himself, that king! That, I suppose, is only possible when somebody is so vain, he believes himself to be right all the time.” Servaas has always said there is much more to children’s stories than meets the eye (or the ear).

“Could be megalomania, Servaas. Even a sign of being intellectually challenged in the most severe degree, if you asked me. Why would the king in the story believe he’s dressed when, very obviously, he’s not? Still, he must have enjoyed his little parade, even if he was only mentally dressed.”

“So there we have a vain king, a terrified populace and nobody said anything?” Kleinpiet arches an eyebrow. “That is the most stupid thing ever! Being a king shouldn’t be reason for the people pretending he was dressed. You can’t fool all the people all the time, for goodness’ sakes!”

“The story doesn’t end there, Kleinpiet.” Anxious to add to the story, Servaas answers quietly. “You see, all the faithful citizens tried to prop up the charade by applauding the naked emperor’s new clothes. But…Andersen already had the manuscript at the publishers  – and then he changed the ending. He added a child to his plot – an innocent, honest little boy cried out that the emperor was naked. And then the population took up the cry and ridiculed the emperor’s new clothes. You know what? Despite that, the emperor continued with the procession.”

“Yes, I knew that.” Gertruida, of course. “It is said that Andersen himself – as a little boy – joined the throng to see King Frederick pass bay. And, according to his recollection, he said: ‘Oh, he’s nothing more than a human being!” His mother then tried to silence him by crying, ‘Have you gone mad, child?’  That incident, according to some, made him change the script.”

“So it’s business as usual? An Imbongi singing the prez’s praises, the whole parliament listening in quiet admiration while the emperor speaks, and the rest of the country in awe?” The sarcasm in Vetfaan’s tone is unmistakable.

“Only if he’s honest. Confesses to the fact that he violated the constitution, that there is more fire than smoke in the many accusations flying around, and that he’d be willing to step down.”

Boggel laughs so much that he almost drops the bottle he has ready for the next round.

“Fairytales!” He eventually manages. “Oh, how we love them!”

“…You had me several years ago when I was still quite naive…”

“Any colour, as long as it’s black…”

1910Ford-T“That’s what old Henry Ford said back then about his cars.” Gertruida folds the newspaper with a sigh. “I suppose it was acceptable in those days. We are currently far too inclined to be sensitive about these things. Just look what’s happened in Stellenbosch: two young ladies expelled for painting their faces purple. Some insist that they were doing the blackface-thing.”

“Blackface? What’s that?” As usual, Servaas displays his ignorance of trending news.

“Look, here’s the picture of the ladies, all dressed up to attend a student theme function as blackfaceinterstellar spacewomen.” She holds up the picture. “Hard to see any racist slur in that.”

“That looks like purple.” Vetfaan says after a few moments. “And they got expelled for that?”

“What’s a blackface?” Servaas persists.

“Well, you see, it’s an old theatre tradition. When white people portrayed so-called black characters, they used to paint their faces black. Many, many well-known actors did that, including  Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Irene Dunne, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Chester Morris and George E. Stone. At the sinterklaas-002time, this wasn’t seen as racist – rather it introduced audiences to Afro-American culture…or so some historians say. Remember Zwarte Piet? In the Netherlands he’s a much-loved character. Or…to be more precise…he used to be universally accepted as Santa’s helper. But, sadly or not, even his role and character has become the centre of a debate on racism. Some say it’s bad, others don’t.

“The point is this: times have changed. Things that were generally acceptable fifty years ago, are now frowned upon. Today, society does not accept the blackface on face value alone any more. The calendar has ticked over to 2016 and people are much more sensitive about these things than in the previous centuries. No longer are we prone to joke about heritage or race – it’s become a serious matter.” Gertruida finishes with a flourish, happy that she’s made her point.

Fuck white people“Um…” Kleinpiet turns to page three. “If that is true about Stellenbosch, what about these students in Johannesburg? This is the Wits law school, so they have the right to free speech, I suppose. And see what the University had to say about it: ‘The university’s management said it had been advised that legally‚ the campaign may not be a violation of Constitution‚ which provides for freedom of expression unless it constitutes incitement to cause harm. “In this instance‚ while the messages are certainly hurtful‚ we have been advised that they may not directly incite harm.’.”

“Ag, Kleinpiet, racial tension is as old as the hills, man. Since the beginning of time, people have taken to accentuate differences – colour, culture, tradition, religion – the whole lot.” Boggel serves another round, trying to ease the tension in the bar. “It’s a bit silly, really, when you think about it. Look at our country – we are all here, moulded together into a single nation. Why on earth spend so much time trying to alienate each other, while we should be working together to build a better future for later generations? You know what’s happened? We’ve lost the vision. We’re destroying the dream. If we cannot find a way to live together in harmony, we’ll destroy each other. Banning two girls with purple faces and pussyfooting about freedom of speech are just symptoms of a society grappling with deep-rooted insecurities. While we are so terribly conscious of race, we are polarising what needs to be united. I find that exceedingly sad.”

Gertruida, at loss for words for a while, eventually nods. “I’ve got two quotes for you. The one is from Robert Sobukwe, who said: . ‘The Africanists take the view that there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race. In our vocabulary therefore, the word ‘race’ as applied to man, has no plural form.’ This was in 1959. The other is by Henry Ford himself: ‘I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.

“These two men made statements we can take to heart at this point in our country’s development. Sobukwe emphasised that we belong to one family. Ford maintained that our actions today determine our future – and that the past is of little consequence. Both were saying we must look ahead, not back. We should never poke fun at other cultures, that’s true, but we must stop skewing social morals, for goodness’ sakes! How can we object to purple faces and turn a blind eye to racist graffiti?

“It’s time for us all to start accepting some facts. We do have a colonial past – like most of the world. Slavery was accepted by our forefathers – it doesn’t imply that we still embrace the concept. Cecil John Rhodes did live here and he contributed both positively and negatively to history. Many individuals and groups forged the country into what it is today – from Kruger to Verwoerd – and we cannot change that history, even if we wanted to. That’s why Ford is correct: the only history worth anything, is the history we make today. I do so wish people bear that in mind whenever somebody wants to polarise society for political gain. Even our prez, when he sings about shooting the farmers.”

She falls silent, eyeing her little audience. There is another quote from Ford she’d like to tell them about, but she decides it’ll sting too much. No, better to remain silent on that one. It’ll only cause a protracted debate that’ll go around in circles forever, Still, it’s one of her favourites.

‘As long as we look to legislation to cure poverty or to abolish special privilege we are going to see poverty spread and special privilege grow…’

“…I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry, it was drawing near…

“....It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping.”         Dan Heymann

 

 

Swan Lake – the Kalahari Tragedy.

swan-Lake-on-Ice-4“They’re doing Swan Lake in Cape Town – on ice, nogal!” Gertruida sighs as she puts down the newspaper and stares out of the window. Oh, how she longs for the days when she could waltz in to the State Theatre in her best evening gown, excited about another excellent performance of ballet or opera! Out here in the Kalahari, she seems so far removed from those moments.

Servaas frowns at this. It doesn’t make sense! “I though global warming was melting everything down there.”

“It’s a ballet, Servaas. With skates. On ice.” Gertruida tries her best to be patient, but old Servaas really gets to her when he’s so ignorant.

“It’s sinful, then,” he retorts. “Short skirts and those tight-fitting pants! I don’t like ballet.”

“Oh, shush! Shut your trap! Ballet is the most graceful of all the performing arts. And to do it on ice, requires years of experience and practice. It says here that the troupe is one of the best in the world.”

“Ja, maybe, whatever. But I’ll have you know that our troops used to be the best, way back then. Nothing lasts forever, I suppose. Look at our cricket team.”

Vetfaan comes to the rescue. “It would have been nice to see it, Gertruida. I agree.  But we can only dream of it, can’t we? Cape Town is too far and the tickets seem a bit pricey, don’t they?”

“Ag, I don’t know. Travelling all that distance for a show is way above my budget. And my sheep needs shearing.” Kleinpiet sips his beer, thinking how nice it would have been. “Tell us about the ballet, Gertruida?”

“Well, it’s a fascinating story. Odette is a beautiful girl, transformed into a swan until she meets a man, falls in love with him…somebody who’ll remain faithful to her forever. This almost happens when she meets Prince Siegfried, but he is tricked into declaring his love for Odile, who he thinks is Odette. This is, of course, a major mistake and banishes Odette to swanhood forever. When Siegfried realises his mistake, he is devastated. The only way he could be with Odette, is to die with her. So they decide to drown in the lake and live happily ever after in the hereafter.”

This doesn’t improve Servaas’ mood. “Who thinks out such farfetched plots? Huh? Swans and suicide? It’s ridiculous.”

Even Vetfaan gets upsets with Servaas now. “Look, it’s only a story. And a good one, at that, I’ll have you know.” He remains silent for a few moments, lost in thought. “It’s much like our politics these days, Servaas. Think about it.”

Serfaas knits his bushy brows together, shakes his head and grunts. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s like this. We have a country that wants the most beautiful future for all. Then a prince comes along – in the form of our beloved prez – and everybody wants him to love them. With him at their side, the people thought they’d have a chicken on every table, every Sunday. For a while it seemed as if was going to work out just fine. Then a certain Mister Gupta comes along and upsets the apple cart. The prez, it seemed, didn’t love the country as much as the new admirer in his life. So prez teams up with Gupta, see, and the people are left grieving the loss.

“Well, one shouldn’t underestimate the Guptas of the world. He’s just using the prez for free landing rights at Waterkloof and the business contracts he can wrangle out of the system. Well, by the time the prez finds out he’s made a mistake, he – and the people who kept him in power – will realise they’ve committed political suicide. So they drown in a sea of corruption and crime, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never be able to put them together again.” Vetfaan raises his glass in a mock salute when Gertruida offers a modest applause.

“Oh.” Servaas brightens. “So it’s a true story? No short skirts and tight pants?”

“Yes, Servaas, with rumpled suits and extra XXXX size  long pants. About the skirts I’m not sure, but probably nothing above the knees. As for the troupe: you’re actually part of it, as well. A minor part, but still…you did vote, didn’t you?”

The old man contemplates all of this while he finishes his beer. “It’s a tragedy, isn’t it?”

“Yes Servaas. It’s a sad, sad affair.”

“I think –  after having given it some thought – that I’d rather prefer the version on ice.”

That’s the nice thing about Rolbos: the townsfolk tend to think along the strangest lines, come up with the most ridiculous ideas and somehow manage to be convincing as well as entertaining at the same time. Tchaikovsky would have fitted in quite nicely, come to think about it.

(Only watch the video if you understand South African humour – and the art of exiting the political scene gracefully…sort of!)

The Porcupine and the Coconut

154768913“So now the president is offering to pay back the money – at last? After all those commissions and enquiries he simply ignored and laughed away in parliament?” Servaas puts down the paper with a sarcastic smile. “I’d say that’s mighty big-hearted of the man to eat humble pie for a change.”

“Ag, Servaas, you’re being your old facetious self again!” Gertruida throws her hands in the air in mock horror. “It’s all about not fighting the battles you cannot win. The Constitutional Court is about to hear the case and the municipal elections are just around the corner. He’s performing plastic surgery on the wrinkled face of the governing party -even though he knows it’ll leave lasting scars. Better to cut your losses than to erect a house on sand.”

“He’s good at that,” Vetfaan smiles. “Erecting things, I mean.”

They giggle about that for a while. Then Gertruida tells them of the porcupine and the coconut…

***

One day, she says, Porcupine found a coconut in the desert. Now, this was a strange thing, for the coconut was completely out of place: it simply didn’t belong there. Porcupine wondered about this, but when he shook the coconut, he heard the milk swill around inside.

“Now this thing may be very precious,” the porcupine mused, “I shall take it to my home to prove how farsighted I am. Nobody else has one like this – they’ll all admire me for being so clever to own a coconut that’ll benefit all. I’ll wait until it starts germinating, then I’ll plant it. It’ll become a huge tree, with fruit and shade.”

images (20)Oh, and how the other animals admired Porcupine’s new object! Zebra liked the hair on the surface, while Gemsbok thought it resembled the tsammas that fed him during dry seasons. Elephant sniffed at it, thought it was foreign, but still said it was a nice thing to have.

But in all communities you’ll find that not everybody accepts what others admire. Hare, for instance, asked what good does the coconut do, sitting there on a shelf in Porcupines house? And Owl, wise as always, remarked that such a thing could only bring bad luck if it were to start growing.

“Keep it on the shelf – don’t try to do anything with it. As a showpiece it’ll be okay, but if you really think planting such a tree will be useful, you’ll only be disappointed.”

And so the coconut stayed in Porcupines house, where the other animals  could see it. Although some maintained that it underlined Porcupine’s powers, after a while others started doubting it. They asked owl to explain.

“It doesn’t belong here, see?” Owl shrugged. “We are used to living in the desert. Our world is a harsh one, where you survive because you understand the circumstances. Now that coconut…well, when it starts growing, it’ll need water and nourishment and lots of care. More importantly, if Porcupine really tries to grow here, it’ll steal our precious water. And, mark my words, it may survive a good season or two – but when times are tough, or it becomes too big and thirsty,  it’ll die. And to what avail, I ask you? If anything out here can’t contribute to our well-being, it’ll simply be a thief and a scoundrel that’ll rob us of our livelihood. No, it might be a nice thing to look at, but in the end Porcupine will regret taking it home.”

Porcupine ignored such remarks, of course. Instead, it watched as the coconut sprouted a few little roots and started growing a stem.

“Oh, how beautiful my coconut is!” Porcupine was  very proud. “In all the desert, this will be the most beautiful of all things. I shall care for it, make it grow, and the others will see my powers.”

To keep the coconut alive, Porcupine had to water it every day. Whenever its roots became dry, its fragile leaves drooped and hung limp. No longer was the coconut able to sustain itself with its own milk and oil – Porcupine had to spend his days carrying water from the little fountain that supplied water to all the animals in the desert.

One day, the animals gathered to discuss the situation. Coconut was using so much water, there was almost nothing left for them.

“Let us get rid of Coconut,” Hare said. “Coconut must fall!”

Many of the other animals simply nodded, because their mouths were too dry to speak.

When Porcupine heard this, he became exceedingly angry. “We,” (Porcupine loved using the royal plural), “have brought this wonderful thing to the desert. If you do not revere Coconut for it’s beauty and power, you’ll regret it. Moreover, Coconut provides shade for you to protect you from the sun.”

“Protect? Protect!?” Hare was furious. “It has grown so high that even the birds cannot nest in its silly things it calls branches. As for us down here, it only provides shade for you. Coconut has left us with no water and no shade. You, Porcupine, have brought great hardship upon us.”

For a long time the animals only complained like this, but nobody dared face Porcupine with his terrible quills. And then, at last, the fountain dried up completely. It was no longer possible for Porcupine to sustain the tree he had planted. Some animals died. Some animals sought for a new home.

In the end, all the animals suffered.

Ever since then, Porcupine had to hide from the rest of the animals, and had to search for food at night. His wonderful Coconut had ruined his reputation as a powerful creature. Walking around in daylight, proud of the object of his power, became impossible. Instead, he became a shadowy figure of the night, causing the other animals to scorn him as he dug around for roots in the moonlight.

It took a long time, but in the end Porcupine secretly wished he had never found the coconut.

By then it was too late.

***

“Well, that’s a nice story, Gertruida. I don’t understand why you felt like telling it now, but I’m sure there’s a moral  hiding in it somehow.” Servaans beckons for another round of beers. “But to get back to the point: do you really think the prez is going to pay back the money?”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “The fountain, Servaas, has dried up. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a heavy thud one of these days. Tall trees do that when they crash to the ground.”

Vibrant Bo-Kaap

Colour is an emotional issue in South Africa. It gets in the way of both national politics as well as individual common sense. It’s almost as if people have forgotten to celebrate diversity and the wonder of individuality. To form a Rainbow Nation – so it is thought – people have to coalesce to embrace a concept that requires the amalgamation of the masses into a single culture.

In the Bo-Kaap (Upper Cape Town), this is not the case. Culture, tradition, religion and individuality are joyously exhibited – and lived – for all to see. The community welcomes inquisitive tourists into their homes. They know their neighbours and their families. They spend endless hours in the streets, swapping stories and discussing family matters. It is surely the most colourful place in South Africa.

Take a walk down the cobbled street with me. These stones used to be ballast in the old sailing ships visiting the Cape.

B2

The drab suburb suddenly erupts in a kaleidoscope of colours, overwhelming the senses.

B6Here street art does not follow the trend to deface buildings with amateurish graffiti.

How to camouflage your dustbin? Easy! Add colour and suddenly nobody sees the garbage bin anymore!

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The mosque towers over it all. The community (mostly) follows the Muslim faith, but you won’t find them excluding other religions. Live and let live – in kindness – is the philosophy of the people you meet here.B7

The Bo-Kaap is almost like an arched gateway to a new way of thinking about society. Colour? Yeah, man! It shouts optimism, whispers hope and asks so little. Just be…and let be.

B5

And maybe, at the end of your walk through this historical area, you’ll see the smile we all hope to have – the smile that says: “I’m me. And you know what? That’s good enough.”

B10

Ah, yes, colour! We don’t have to build a monument for it.

We already have one, right here in the Cape…