Africa, Africa. South Africa around Johannesburg, Botswana in the village near the border with SA, the Kalahari desert, Uganda – the airport, the city of Kampala, the Village of Katebo near Lake Victoria … on my mind. Like tears. Like hundreds of faces. Like hundreds of small children spontaneously cheering, celebrating a gift of two soccer balls – a ratio that would cause a Western kindergarten riot of reactionary unfairness tantrum and a potentially murderous grab for possession (and that’s just the parents). A village of people with so little food, gifting us with a feast. Maybe it’s the World Cup, on the periphery of my apprehension, but Africa is on my mind.
Africa is on my mind when I see soccer players lined up to play, each with an African child. There are so many children. So many working children. Children carting water. Children working in agriculture. Children sleeping piled up together in tiny spaces.
I was given some work teaching P5 who only gave me their English names. The girls: Flavia, Debora, Stella, Marion, Shadia, and the boys: Teddy, Joseph, Joseph, Andrew, Dodovico, Denis, Julius and Amis – the oldest class in the Katebo school (12 to14 years).
I began by saying hello and then rubbing off what was written on the board and writing my name. When I turned back to the class, the children laughed. I looked at my hands – covered in black from the dubious blacking on the black board. They informed me my face was black, too. I laughed almost as hard as they did. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to meet the class.
The children took pity on me and brought me some water and I used my hat as towel. Somehow, that act of kindness from the class opened up an easy dialogue for us. Denis stepped forward with his excellent English to help me when I needed help to translate. I was supposed to teach maths, but we ended up doing storytelling and art and eventually a concert because I am not a math teacher and that’s a fact.
I was introduced to the women of the women’s empowerment group, a dozen or so women who meet under a tree in Katebo and ingeniously fashion beads from strips of old fashion magazine paper from which they then create jewellery they can sell.
One very striking woman, Joyce, was caring for a kindergarten’s worth of children all by herself, her own plus children of women relatives (sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law) who had died of ‘the virus’. I learn later that she is Denis’s mother. I don’t immediately recognise Denis out of school. In school he wears a very smart outfit and is the only boy in the class with shoes. At home, he wears a large, torn shirt.
‘The virus’ is a woman’s problem, in the empowerment circle, under the tree, in the village of Katebo. It’s brought back from the city of Kampala by the men – but they don’t see it that way. It’s a woman’s problem. Just as pregnancy and childrearing are a woman’s problem.
I was the least useful part of a discussion about ways to avoid pregnancy. Many of the women in the women’s empowerment group were very tired of having a child every year. Cost and distance negate ‘the pill’ as an option, but travelling chiropractor Jazlyn, passionate about contraception, shared some ideas.
No good. If a woman wants to use a condom, her man might beat her because he thinks she is going with other men.
The women laughed. It is not within their power to say ‘no’. It’s dangerous; their men may kill them.
They shook their heads. If a woman asked a man to practice the withdrawal method, he would be angry and beat or kill her.
The rhythm method – would it be possible to abstain for a few days, six days, at the ‘most fertile’ time of their individual menstrual cycle?
Some women said they might be able to ask their men if they could say ‘no’ during the fertile days of their cycle.
It was suggested that many men ‘fight their women for sex’.
In another part of the continent, before I met the women’s empowerment group, I was strolling in the Kalahari Desert. I came across a baboon skull. It peered up at me from eyeless sockets. Unable to resist, I picked it up and said, ‘Alas, poor Yorik. I knew him, Horatio. A man of infinite jest’.
Yorik accompanied me on a stroll to a large, contemplative rock. Later, I brought him back to the fire, to show the young people I was travelling with. We were not there, in the desert, long. Not there long enough at all. But part of me was left behind, sitting on that large, contemplative rock, and Yorik came instead.
I was surprised (and a little horrified) when, about to leave southern Africa, and far from his resting place, from the rest of his bones, Yorik was presented to me by a well-meaning friend, for me to take home. He came with me to Uganda. He was in my backpack when I sat under the tree with the women’s empowerment group.
He went to Switzerland (youth conference) and England (family) on the way home (yes, the long way home). The customs officer at Basle airport in Switzerland was amazed and revolted (she gave me one of the oddest looks I have ever received) but just waved him through. Heathrow – the nightmare of airports – ignored him.
At Johannesberg: ‘Have you got any paperwork for this skull?’ the customs officer asks me. ‘No’, say I (best not to mention Hamlet and I didn’t have a copy with me, anyway). He and a fellow worker look at each other and roll their eyes. ‘Go ahead’, he says, covering it up.
I thought I was definitely going to lose him in customs, Perth, Australia – but by some strange miracle, a miracle associated to the one that allows him to keep a couple of his teeth, I suppose, Yorik was allowed.
Now he sits on my bookshelf and peers at me with his eyeless sockets and urges me to write about Africa.
But I’m afraid.
I peek in my diary and read:
Integrity. We ate our dinner last night and our breakfast this morning watched by the hungry villagers passing by. What is to be done? The truth is, I eat well every day. To pretend otherwise is impossible. To not appreciate the food cooked for me: an affront. Either I don’t eat or I do – feeling guilty while I eat is indigestible. And I stopped eating in my youth, to try and answer this very question – how can I eat while others starve? And starving did not save anything or feed anyone, just drained my potential as a human being in the world into which I was born. It was illness. Something else is required of me and I cannot yet identify what it is. And Sarah [our cook] will chase away with a stick anyone who comes near to share our food. So I sit in my perturbation, wondering. I am waiting, we are waiting; waiting to be useful.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!