Monday, December 1, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Begging to be Black

With thinking writers like Antjie Krog, South Africa has a mine of greater value than all her gold and diamond mines combined. This daring, forthright journalist-poet goes on inner and outer journeys to help her understand her fellow human beings and herself in depth and compassion. In A Change of Tongue (blogpost 11-19-14) we followed her journey with fellow poets to Timbuktu in West Africa. In Begging to be Black Krog continues the quest motif in three significant ways.

At first it seems like a braid of three strands: a modern day murder, a personal European journey, and a historical search for the phenomenon, Moshoeshoe. But as the book radiates out, we are amazed by the complexity Krog unearths. Rather than a simple braid, we are treated to fantastic beadwork of extraordinary design.

The murder is in the town near her home; the gun is hidden on her porch; she is sucked in. Her travel to post-Nazi Germany is a scholarly and personal pursuit of the roots of Afrikanerdom which bore the fruit of apartheid. Her fascination with Moshoeshoe and his powerful legacy among the Sotho and others led her to research what made this man so different from all others?

Begging to Be Black is a genuine search to understand what it means to be black in post apartheid South Africa. Krog is not a hand-wringing, helpless white woman. She was a member of the ANC and took a number of unpopular stands throughout her journalistic career., taking risks for herself and her family. Her openness to learning from others, history and herself make her a brilliant model for young South Africans today: a model for conversation and dialogue. 

Where is the path to understanding how ubuntu will actually work? In Krog’s book Country of My Skull (blogpost 4-14-14) she documented the TRC for three years. The testimony of Cynthia Ngewu begins to set a pattern for the conversation of reconciliation. She said:

This thing called reconciliation . . . if I am understanding it correctly,
if it means this perpetrator, this man who killed my son,
if it means he becomes human again,
this man, so that I, so that all of us
get our humanity back . . .
then I support it all.

It is said that true bead artists always incorporate a little “mistake” or irregularity in their beadwork to keep it from being absolutely perfect or absolutely boring. Krog has managed the same feat in her writing: she blends in her own personal issues (her Afrikaner family and her Jewish husband), being used by her trusted African friends to cover their own misdeeds, the other-worldliness she discovers as she lives and studies in Germany, where the seeds for apartheid’s eugenic theory were germinated.

Begging to Be Black is also a series of conversations about the many issues that arise when “ubuntu” is the ultimate topic. These conversations, with more significance than the colour of one’s skin, range across privacy and community, space and ownership, loyalty and justice, reconciliation and humanity. Antjie has developed deep relationships with an astonishing variety of people. She has proven herself an able listener. Her gift has enabled her to share deep places in the hearts of those unable to speak or use her hard-earned platform.


It seems fitting that Krog chose Moshoeshoe as her historical figure to bring understanding to her modern situation. He is a significant and universally acknowledged genius of human nature. Both Max du Preez and Rian Malan also referred to him at length in their works on Southern Africa. He epitomises the best of Africa.  His self-observation expresses a humble awareness of the “bigger than we are” quality Africans call ubuntu. “Though I am still only a pagan, I am a Christian in my heart.” 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

a few very short thoughts for Ferguson

When you look at me, you see a little, elderly lady, lots of laugh lines, thinning hair changing from blonde to dishwater, a neck full of wrinkles, bony knuckles, and a waist that’s thicker than I’d like. I’m even shorter than I was back in college and old enough to be someone’s grandmother. Oh, and I’m white, but even that is speckled with scars and age spots I’ve collected along the way. Basically, I’m not that much to look at. Don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t.

Because that is not me. It's the home I've lived in and it hasn't always looked like this. At one point I couldn't walk or talk or take care of myself at all. I've come a long way since then. This body of mine is only slightly more permanent than the pyjamas I wear every night. I do, however, identify with it and appreciate it since I don't change it daily. I've taken care of it and I've abused it--just ask it about the knee and wrist surgeries.

That's me with my friend Geny. We are sporting our aging tents. She is one friend who lived and believed the reality that we are not the tents we inhabit. We are so very much more.

Somewhere things went wrong and people got off track. What started as maintenance and looking after a temporary shelter for the duration of our lives has turned into an obsession with keeping it attractive and impressive to the point that it must not ever be something we move out of and beyond. The value of caring for our tents is obvious. Shabby tents with holes are not as functional as water-tight, sturdy tents. How did we end up so worried about our tents that we completely forgot that we have mansions under construction?

Forgive me, here. I have been accused of being a conspiracy theorist and I do suspect a conspiracy here. Back at the beginning, tents were perfect and did not deteriorate. But the souls who lived in those tents made a critical decision that started the gradual weakening and break-down of the basic structure of tents. A future plan for tent alternatives was briefly explained, but unheeded.

Tents were doomed from that time. But the instigator of tent demolition decided to use the very fact that tents were doomed to reinforce how important they were. He used a truth: that we need to look after our tents or face serious consequences, and turned it into a lie: that these tents are all we’ve got so they are our top priority.

The perpetrator then went a step further and realised that with people making tents their top priority, it would be a clever way to cause separation, divided interests, and potentially, war. One obvious characteristics of all tents is their colour. Visible, identifiable, and superficial. But tents are superficial, we live inside them. We are not them.

The rest is history. His plan was brilliant. Skew a simple truth. Add an obvious lie on top of that. Reinforce it with plenty of repetition. Voilá.

Now people the world over are killing others, judging others, hating others, maligning others, all on the basis of the colour of their tents. 

He is not just smiling, folks. He is laughing out loud.


Every Stone Shall Cry: Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets

History. People either love it or hate it. Most likely to those who hate it, it was fed as tasteless gruel in some school somewhere focusing more on grades than education. Probably a teacher who thought dates and names of wars were more important than the people who fought and what was going on in their minds.

History was written by the victors. Another reason why "who" won seems so important. But history is much more than wars and intrigues. It is stories of real people, leading their own lives, certainly not anticipating inclusion in a dry, school text.

But Max du Preez (see blogposts 7-1-14 and 7-15-14) has turned history on its head in this delightful book of stories. Real stories about real people with foibles more interesting than a schoolbook ever was. Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets is the type of book we should have been given to read, which would have encouraged all of us to be students of ourselves and our ancestors. The subtitle, “unusual stories from South Africa’s past” is understatement.

Du Preez, in his characteristic iconoclasm, insists on seeing the people in his stories as human beings first, before being ethnic or cultural creatures. He has selected some wild and hair-raising tales as well as those which bring us back to the humanity of each of us: ubuntu is his theme.

The stories span South Africa’s past from the 15th century to nearly the present. He begins in “Death on the Beach” with the culturally inappropriate gestures of Dias, da Gama, and Almeida. These ill-fated overtures set the tone for 484 years of miscommunication and bloodshed. When reading this book, be prepared for well-researched, documented tales of sound and sometimes fury.

In “Pacts with Lions” du Preez gives us glimpses of the Bushmen's naturalism which kept them safe from being lions’ prey. While the Leghoya went to the lengths of building stone huts with entrances too small for lions, Bushmen slept and hunted in the open veld without fear. In “A Fatal Attraction” he uncovers a multitude of slave stories and womanising men whose exploits populated the early Cape, broke hearts, and sometimes mutilated bodies.

“The African Socrates” is a sensitive portrayal of Mohlomi, famous seer, herbalist, king, and the mentor of the greatest of all Bantu kings, Moshoeshoe. Cannibalism, did it happen in Africa?, is the subject of “The Graves are Alive.” And Africa’s most infamous chief, Shaka of the Zulus, is treated with perceptive psychological awareness in “Shaka’s Women.”

Due to the vast influence of Afrikaners on the pages of Southern African history, a number of the stories are about them: some known and details buried, others not well known but should be. Coenrad de Buys (the ancestor of several towns full of people) of “Scoundrel Pioneer” sounds like a modern day Goliath. While “The Case of the Pink Slips” reveals a little known cover-up of the small pox epidemic by none other than Rhodes and Jameson. “Broedertwis” means a quarrel between brothers and tells the hero vs. traitor story of Piet and Christiaan deWet.

Prophets such as the "Boer Nostradamus", Siener (Seer) van Rensburg and that "Bloody Coolie", Mahatma Gandhi remind us that non-violent resistance and the understanding of human nature can be more powerful than physical force. Most intriguing was a story that seemed fantastic in the extreme, but can now be proved by modern day genetics,  “The Black Jews of Africa”.

Including the struggle against apartheid, du Preez has stories of Winnie Mandela (her softer side), the betrayal at Lilliesleaf, and the “Breastfeeding Warrior” Phila Portia Ndwandwe and her exoneration during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

These are just some of the rare gems from the past in which du Preez urges us to know the past and allow that knowledge to unite us. He says: 

. . .  history is not about forgetting.
We cannot properly understand who we are
and why we are where we are today
if we don’t fully know how our ancestors interacted
and what they did to and for each other over time.


History is not about forgetting. With such compelling, readable books, we will be encouraged to remember, and maybe even do a little research ourselves.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: The Expedition to the Baobab

The back cover reads: “A slave woman is the only survivor of a failed expedition into the depths of Africa. She shelters in the hollow trunk of a baobab tree where . . .”

I was hooked. A slave narrative. A failed expedition. A baobab. But Wilma Stockenström’s third novel goes much deeper than a mysterious and fabulous tale. Expecting something of a fable, (also mentioned on the cover), I found to my delight not a story with a moral, but a story incorporating elements of myth and legend—a more pleasing type of fable, for sure.

The Expedition to the Baobab was written in Afrikaans in 1981 and translated into English in 1983 by J. M Coetzee (see blogposts 8-16-14 and 8-21-14) which is recommendation in itself. Since then, it has been translated into seven other languages, winning the Italian Grinzane Cavour Prize, and becoming a French stage play. In this work, Stockenström has written much more than a slave narrative or a fable.

She is the foremost, living Afrikaans poet; this novel, even in translation, is solid evidence. She uses a type of stream-of-consciousness which pursues non-linear abstract thought. When our fascinating, unnamed slave girl says, “There are more tracks criss-crossing in my memory than I ever actually saw in a lifetime”, a picture of the dry wastes of interior Africa spotted with baobabs shimmers into our mental imagery. 

First the reader must willingly suspend disbelief and accept the possibility of a slave girl with the self-awareness and articulation to express these intricate, philosophical concepts. An uneducated, kidnapped and sold while still very young girl without any formal training except as a sex object—to live through four owners (harsh and malicious, self-absorbed, greedy, and protective) and gain wisdom from living in a seaside town during the era of rampant slavery. Not very likely.

The South African timeframe for this fable is still apartheid. So the premise is fantastic in the extreme. After we release our doubt that a slave could progress beyond the basic elements of survival, we realise that we are not hearing a mere slave narrative. In fact, her slavery is incidental to the themes she raises and cycles back on. Two of her “companions” in her life journey are time and fear. She interacts with them and learns from them as they accompany her. This is not a propaganda piece against slavery, although that point is mutely made. It is a journey into ‘what is ubuntu?’ without using the word itself. As she interacts with slave traders, other slaves, and owners, she explores what makes us all human. 

In her lonely, desert refuge, ubuntu comes out in her relationship with the little people (presumably bushmen who do not know what to make of her, her size, her existence in their realm). She tries to communicate, but their clicks sound like the language of lizards and geckos to her. She withdraws. But her awareness grows:

. . . for now I perceive that dreaming and waking do not damn each other, but are extensions of each other and flow into each other, enrich each other, supplement each other, make each other bearable, and that my baobab is a dream come true, and when I see the little people I know they are dream figures that really hunt and really provide me with food and that they really see me but also do not see me because I exist in their dream, and they feed their dream by caring for me. We meet each other and know nothing of each other. We go our ways separately and depend on each other, they on me in that I am as I am, and I on them in that they act as they act.

A reader would expect more Robinson Crusoe-type explanation of survival details in a story about life in a baobab tree in the bush. But our story-teller is on a different plane. She has lived a richly varied life and continually returns to bits of her past, searching for cohesion in her final place. Quite a few readers complained about the confusing chronology: starting at the baobab, we are only able to piece together the life by random mental excursions into the slave’s past. She doesn’t give the people of her past names: they are the Stranger, the Protector and so on, identified by qualities. 

This book is lyrical, even in translation. For someone looking for historical authenticity or a genuine slave narrative, this is not the manuscript. In this work, Stockenström has chosen a marginalised narrator to develop some complexities of relationship and individual identity. By using a female slave who had all her children taken from her when they were weaned, she reinforces that using others in inhuman ways reduces the humanity of us all. 

Although philosophical in nature, the book is still full of simple stories of interactions. She learns what she knows by connecting with and observing others. The story does not lag: her capture, a violent hurricane, the doomed expedition—provide continuous forward motion, even as she reflects. This fable is the work of a truly gifted author. 







Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: A Change of Tongue

An odd-looking fish with both eyes on one side of its head graces Antjie Krog’s A Change of Tongue (2003). It is one of the many poetic images she uses to communicate the transition and transformation process going on in South Africa immediately following the end of apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which she documented fearlessly in The Country of My Skull (1998), see blogpost 4-14-14. 

Why a bizarre flounder to illustrate her reflections? The flounder is born with eyes on either side of his head, and as he grows up, developing the capacity to be a bottom-feeder, one eye migrates to the topside of the head where it will actually see something. It adapts. It transforms to be more useful and productive. Krog’s insight found a variety of natural elements to describe South Africa’s emergence from apartheid, and this is but one.

A Change of Tongue is a poetic philosophy or a philosophical poetry written in flaming prose. It is not one story, but many. There is not one teller; Krog becomes each narrator and literarily grabs your hand, urging you to run and keep up with her.

Antjie Krog admitted she was unsure of how to proceed in writing such a work, following on the success of Country of My Skull. But the poet in her reached deep and brought up personal tales of great poignancy. She writes from the view of all the rainbow colours of her country.

Six sections, each a separate work of art, come at South Africa’s impending “new look” from different perspectives. “A Town” focuses on Kroonstad, predominantly Afrikaner and breaks many of the debilitating stereotypes as well as describing the delicacy of the very first one-man-one-vote democratic elections the country ever held. She brings in the writer’s tension, too, of telling the story as it happened, or telling it to point to the Truth.

“A Hard Drive” is a frustrating, humorous interlude for anyone who has dealt with the downside of technology: two important, irreplaceable pieces must be recovered from a corrupted hard drive. But within that, she holds up a sparkling gem embedded in the interview, thankfully restored by a young and able techie. The voice of a young woman who had been detained, tortured and had her life permanently scarred says: “Ubuntu. The most profound opposite of apartheid. More than forgiveness or reconciliation. More than ‘turn the other cheek.’ It is what humanity has lost.”

“A Change” describes her invitation to and meeting with a group of exiled poets (during apartheid) at Victoria Falls. “A Translation” reveals that she was the one selected to translate Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom into Afrikaans. Her personal encounter with the man she knew only as myth is delightful and up-lifting. “A Journey” follows the fifteen day trek of a select group of African poets to Timbuktu. It is full of life and rustic humour. Her honoured place as a white among people of colour reveals her immense humility. Finally, “An End” reminds us that the transformation of South Africa will take a very long time and much intention. As she opens window after window on the myriad problems of employment, infrastructure, medical care, the damaging effects of fifty years of oppressive paternalism show a need for a new mentality to cope with what is ahead.

These brilliant pieces (each readable on its own) are skilfully connected by a lace of prose poetry which tie the subjects in a continuous flow. Each written in second person, she brings us back to the reality of nature as the context of the necessary upheaval and fragmentation in change: rain, giraffe, moonlight, willow, river, child, and wing—each helps bind the book into a creative whole.


Antjie is a poet of excellence. This book reveals her also, as a deep philosopher of her treasured South African people. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Long Walk to Freedom--the movie

While the book Long Walk to Freedom is Nelson Mandela’s own story about the freeing of South Africa with his perspective on what was happening in his country and his family, the movie is a wide-screen view focusing on an amazing marriage and what happened to it when history conspired to separate the two key players. Chadwick chose to make the story about the Mandela couple, not Mandela the man. This strengthened the core by highlighting more of the fallout from the enforced separation and the toll it took on family life.

In the review of the book (blogpost March 25, 2014) I mentioned Mandela’s grief and awareness of the cost to his family of being a freedom fighter. But his point of view, from prison, was incomplete. The movie includes parts of the story he could not tell. It pans vast segments of the country’s painful history, particularly violence in the townships. This graphic backdrop is essential to filling in the missing bits of Winnie’s story.

In one of the rare visits she was able to make to Robben Island, she and Nelson sit on opposite sides of an acrylic window. Admiring her spirit, he asks her where she gets the strength to carry on  and she hisses, “I hate them.” Her hatred fed the bitterness that kept her fighting after the battle had been won. She could not release the resentment of how her life and that of her family had been tragically ripped apart. She turned herself into a fighting machine that did not feel.

Naomie Harris, who played the part was intimidated. She said: “She’s so hugely complex, this mixture of tremendous warmth and compassion as well as anger and rage. She’s a warrior as well as a nurturer.” Even today Winnie, the person, conjures up strong feelings both for and against. Where Chadwick showed courage was to allow Harris the decision of how to portray this woman, and in the end, she showed us a genuine person. Even Winnie herself felt the portrayal as just: but acknowledged she would not be watching the movie again; it brought back too much.

In his autobiography, Mandela shared his own secret to Freedom: forgiveness. He had much to resent and did wish for revenge. But he knew he could not hold onto that and be a free man, even outside prison walls. In the movie we see Winnie making the opposite choice. She was not a demon. We cannot begin to understand what 16 months of solitary confinement can do to a person. But Winnie did not come out cowed. She grew up, in her own words, she became defiant, locked into her own private cell of fury.

Ubuntu is the bedrock of Mandela’s forgiveness. We are human beings in context with one other. Much as we ache with Winnie and the price she had to pay in the struggle for freedom, we see her choice as one freely taken. She chose retaliation, violence, and anger. She lost her ubuntu.

For those unable to take the time to read the biography, the movie does a creditable job of telling a painful story and unearthing a past that is already being silted over by time. But the book brings Nelson’s humanity and humility vividly to our attention. His conviction that the best for the people was to move beyond the past and his personal pain shows why he stood with giants in his time.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Numbering the Days

I’m counting the days now. Next month we return to the US and spend Christmas with our kids. You better believe I’m counting the days. Twenty-four to go. So much of life seems to be counting days, anticipating things to come. But is my heart wise enough to treasure those days as they get ticked off on the calendar? 


What I wouldn’t give for a bonafide heart of wisdom. A guarantee of the best decision because experience has paid off. I had hoped by now, I would be wise. Not just able to make best decisions, but even know what decisions not to sweat. Wisdom comes with age, they say. Dad was old and he was wise. But I discover to my regret, age does not equal wisdom.

I say I want a heart of wisdom. Do I even know what that is? A heart to lead my mind to know what to determine to do or leave off. A heart that is wise and loving and humble, because if it were wise and loving it could not be proud.

Lord, You give one method for gaining a heart of wisdom. One. Period. Number your days aright, then you will gain a heart of wisdom. That’s it. Number the days aright.

Teach me, Lord, to number my days. I can count days. But numbering them is so much more.

I am not numbering my days in healthy ways. I use a desk calendar and a phone calendar and I keep track of appointments, meetings, dinners, mentoring sessions, workshops, and writing deadlines. This is not numbering my days.

A pristine morning starts each fresh day. I can unwrap this new, shiny day-gift whether the sun streams in or the rain streams down. The day’s number has arrived. A chance to start anew. Spend time well—with my loving Father who made me for relationship—and with those He gave me. A chance to make up for something I missed in a day I did not number aright. A reconciliation, a word of encouragement, a song of hope.

Numbering days aright is not as simple as it seems. It is so intensely present. I cannot number the days I have finished and accumulate satisfaction from those tasks over and done. I cannot number the days to come—I have no idea how many or few are mine. As a creature who has lived for decades, remembering things that ought to be remembered: liturgies, birthdays, farewells, mourning and celebrating, part of me looks back. As a mini-creator, I have lived for decades planning, anticipating, imagining events to come that I have worked for: classes, journeys, moves, children, so much to plan.

None of this is numbering my days aright. None of this leads to wisdom. Oh, it needs must be done. But it is not enough. 

To number this day aright, I must unwrap it gratefully. Not wish for a fast-forward button. I must treasure it for something that will never return. It is unique. There is no routine day in numbering. This day alone is the one I can redeem at this moment.

If I die today, my projects will remain incomplete. My computer will be untouched, perhaps scrapped: the photos and bits of writing stored in its “memory” will corrupt. The pile of stones I have collected from my hikes will be thrown into the garden. None of it will matter.

Only today matters because it is all I can number aright at this time. 
Each day is God’s gift for us to number with care, to delight in—not squander or regret.

Then, just maybe, I will look inside and find a heart of wisdom.