Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mermaid's Pool

When I look back at my childhood in Rhodesia, so much of it seems idyllic. One of my sweetest memories is of Mermaid's Pool... 20 km from Salisbury (Harare) on the Shamba (Shamva) Road ...

In the thick, shady trees there was an old railroad car, the perfect changing room for little boys and girls, actually I think only the girls were supposed to use it. It had that abandoned smell of dead leaves and animal urine, so we hurried. We slipped into our swimming costumes and then ran down to the pool. Sunday afternoons at Mermaid's Pool was pure joy!

A huge rock arched out of a blue-green pool, like a great hippo's back. Water from the river spilled down its' smooth curve and gathered in a deep bowl surrounded by tall trees. A foofie slide (zipline with a special hangy thingy that you held onto) tied high in one of those trees stretched across the pool and to the other side. The intention was not to make it to the other side, depending on your courage you dropped yourself into the water. You picked the height from which you wanted to fall, or if you hung on, you dragged your legs in the water and slowed down. Then the drop was a little less traumatic...

There were several ways to slide down the rock, usually on an inflated tire,or an old sack but sometimes on your rear end, but this was tough on your swimming costume. Also if you hit Humphrie's Bump, a natural rock ramp, lower down on the rock, you went flying and heaven help you if you weren't on your tube when you hit it.

Such happy days! I hope that one day it is up and running again. I would love to take my grandkids there!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Deep Drinking

I sat with my family in our stationwagon at a watering hole in the Etosha Pans. No one was around, we were alone in this great bush of elephant grass and umbrella Acacia trees. A clanking windmill turned slowly, sucking sparse breath from the sky and moisture from deep in the African heart. Around the watering hole were some other green bushes, because of the moisture, but within yards of it, the vegetation turned to grey dust, the dust of the Namib desert. In the tallest Acacia a communal birds' nest encased several branches and birds flipped in and out of a multitude of openings. I watched wearily, snakes made their homes in those nests too, dining on chicks and eggs.


We all noticed at the same time as a great Bull Elephant broke through a hedge of foliage. He ignored us, where we watched in awe. He had eyelashes and tears, because the dust on his journey had bothered his eyes. His ears were large and notched, his tusks heavy and cream, stained with the juices of his last meal. His trunk swayed gently ahead of him, the pink opening reaching finger-like for the air ahead and then at the edge of the muddy water he knelt.

We held our breaths, what would he do? Roll in the mud at the edge of the hole to cool his heated hulk? On his knees he began to reach into the pool, the tip of that great trunk disappeared below the surface and then the searching seemed to stop, awareness on his great wise face. His trunk disappeared deeper into the water, in the same spot. He had discovered, on some previous occasion, the source of water for the watering hole. He had slipped the tip of his trunk into that pipe and siphoned up the pure unmuddied water.

 We stayed and watched reverently, till the Bull had drunk his fill and wandered off into the desert. I felt honored, blessed with the glimpse into the fulfilling of one of his most basic needs.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Monkeys in my hair!

I don't like monkeys! I think that they smell absolutely awful and I know exactly how they smell.

We would go to Beira, Mozambique for long weekends. Our family was extensive and several times a year we would gather at some beautiful places; Hot Springs and Mermaid Pools, both in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) were two other memorable spots. In the Dutch Reformed Church, in the early days, 4 times a year, people gathered for Nachtmaal. Everyone lived very far apart and gathering together more regularly for church was impossible. Families literally lived, using their ox-wagons as travel, weeks apart. So the church came up with Nachtmaal to be able to christen babies, perform weddings and collect money. I often thought that my family had got into the habit of Nachtmaal and never given it up. The same holidays were celebrated at the same places, Easter at Hot Springs, Founders Day at Mermaid pools and so on, it seemed that everyone always knew where each other would be gathered As children, we loved it, we could count on catching up with cousins, aunts and uncles regularly.

In Beira, we learned to speak a rudimentary Portugese. I ate pot after pot of mussels, roller skated around the Grande Hotel in my scandalous “Hot Pants” listening to Melanies song “Brand New Key”, also scandalous, and helped to dig holes on the beach that reached to China. The last time we visited Beira was 1974 or 1975, I was 8 or 9 years old. I loved Beira!

On one of our first visits to Beira, I was about 5 or 6, we went to the zoo. My Daddy bought me a bag of peanuts to feed to the monkeys. A chain link pen enclosed many of them, I bet there were fifty in there. The chain link formed a roof too and the monkeys could not get out. At this point of my life, I had no reason to believe that monkeys were anything but cute, cute little ears, eyes, noses, arms and the cutest of all, their nimble fingers.

I stood with my back to the monkey cage and watched the HUGE lion. I was astounded at how big he was, and I ate peanuts, the monkeys' peanuts and behind me the monkeys got louder and frantic. They knew that the peanuts were for them and I turned in time to see sweet little fingers attached to hairy little arms stretched through the fence. I was inclined to share but there was a short wall separating me from the monkeys and I couldn't reach them even when I stretched out my hairless little arms. So I climbed the wall and the minute I reached the fence, a hundred monkey arms grabbed me. They held me against that fence by my ear, nose, clothes and hair. I screamed bloody murder and my father vaulted the fence to save my stinkified rear end. The monkeys retreated with the battered bag of peanuts to a corner of their world to eat them.

I remember screaming for hours, until my mother put me in the bath, scrubbing off the top layer of my skin, so that I no longer smelled like them. To this day, I can't stand a monkey. Every experience I have ever had with a primate has been a negative one. Maybe I need to do some belief work!

When the war hit Rhodesia, it also destroyed Mozambique. The Grande Hotel became the terrorists headquarters and after the war several thousand refugees took over. The squatters still live there today, the glory of Beira is no more.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Counting a Baboons teeth!

I sat on the bonnet of our Land Rover, my derriere firmly planted in the middle of the spare tire, which was bolted into place. The roof had been removed from the vehicle and my family and I could communicate clearly with each other. My father drove slowly along the uneven dirt road and I scanned the dirt ahead. Disturbed dirt was cause for worry. The terrorists were crawling all over Rhodesia and one of their effective tactics was planting, into these dirt roads, landmines. The countryside also crawled with Rhinos and Hippos, military vehicles designed to locate mines and survive the blast, but they didn't find them all. That's what I was doing, hopefully... Actually, I felt pretty important, being given this job, and in retrospect, I am sure my father was not relying solely on my eyes.

We were on our way to a braai, a barbeque to us Afrikaaners. The fun outing was to take place on someones farm and we were so excited. As we neared the farm my parents began the “rule countdown”. It went something like this, “Remember not to sit in grownups conversation and count teeth [and listen to every word], do not ask for seconds, wait till you are offered but don't hang around waiting to be asked, do not take seconds on dessert, even if you are offered, no fighting with other kids, Bernadine watch Jannie and Belinda and if you kids go near that Baboon, you will be sorry!” I sighed, usual list. No worries, especially when it came to the Baboon.

I stood before a curious sight! A tall pole was rooted into the earth and at the very top was a small hut, like a dog house. A chain connected to the pole, looped towards the earth and disappeared into the hut. That Baboon was in there. No fence surrounded the Baboon but it was obvious just how far he could reach, because a path encircled that pole. When that Baboon was out, he prowled at the full extent of the reach of that chain. Belinda balanced on my hip, she was about 3 years old and there weren't many kids around her age, Jannie stood next to me, he was six, or so. We all watched, waited, would the Baboon look out his house, down at us? Nothing happened and Jannie ran off the play and I sat down on a low rock wall, it encircled the Baboon and a patch of lawn where the children all played, separated from their parents by the cleared circle of Baboon territory. Belinda wandered around me examining everything that moved. I kept one eye on the Baboon, another on Belinda and a third...on my brother.

One advantage to being raised in Africa is the knowledge that you gain, absorb, by being aware of wildlife. We were educated by comments our parents made (counting teeth when we shouldn't have been), our wanderings in the bush, and things other kids said. I don't recall fear when I remember hearing a lion, seeing an elephant suddenly nearby, but rather a deep thrill, a primal joy. But now watching the chain jingle as the hidden, hairy beast moved in his aerial hut, made the hair raise on the back of my neck. I had seen plenty of Baboons. They weren't cuddly looking things. Longish, grey fur, dusty and constantly picked clean of ticks, lice and vegetation, covered every inch of them, except their rear ends. As children, we giggled at those exposed backsides, bright red during mating season. But the heavy brow was a bit menacing and when a baboon yawned, that face was terrifying. Their fangs hung like razor sharp assegais, deadly. The only cute thing about a baboon was the way the mothers held their babies, as if they were little humans.

At some point we ate, minus second desserts, and we got back to playing on the lawn, careful not to cross the path that marked the reach of that Baboon's chain. I had joined the game, having left Belinda with my mother so that I could run. We were having fun! The evenings in Africa are magical, it seems that the continent wakes up as the sun sets. Unbeknownst to us, so apparently had that Baboon.

One kid was assigned to be the “monster”, and as he was blindfolded, spun dizzy in our midst and then set free, we scattered from his flailing arms and squealed running in all directions, watching over our shoulders as he chased, following our voices. I watched as Jannie crossed into the Baboon's territory, I saw the horror register on his face as his feet hit the bare dirt, cleared by that Baboon. Then my vision slowed, I was across the lawn, the bare space and pushing Jannie onto the grass ahead, hearing the clang and snap of that chain as the Baboon reached the range of his leash, his breath on my neck as his teeth snapped together, and then the ripping of my dress as those great muscular arms reached for me. I tumbled onto the lawn, right in front of where the grownups sat.

The awful realization that the Baboon had nearly had my marrow for dinner wasn't the worst of it. My father was furious! I had disobeyed. Later that night I received a “hiding”, a very good spanking. I am not sure if “hiding” referred to the blistering of your hide, or not, but I remember wondering every time my brother and I had an argument, during the next week, whether or not it had been worth saving his hairless, little hide.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

African feet!

I have African feet.  Tough, tanned and dirty African feet.  Partners in adventure, love, disappointment but mostly joy.  As children, the dust clung to them, till our nanny washed them or the rain splattered them.  They were warmed by talc-like, dry earth, begrimed by rich mud, and African dirt provided the nutrients we thought we needed to grow.  Whenever a relative turned up they'd say, "You've grown so much, you must have been standing in manure!"

My feet loved hot earth.  I was surprised myself, at the heat they could handle. We had soles as thick as rhino hide.  When I was about 11 years old, my brother, sister and I were playing in the front yard, on our side of a thick, scallop-shaped, white block wall.  A neighbor boy, Andre, poked his head over the top and said he wanted to play.  We didn't like him.  At this point, in our vacillating love/hate sibling relationship, we were on a high.  My brother thought "the boy" was being a little pushy and  needed to be taught a lesson.  
"Sure, come over!" Jan said.
Andre slipped through the gate and was promptly chased into a patch of Duiweldoorings (Dicerocaryum zanguebarium).  These marble sized, Devil's Thorns are not kind to bare feet.  The little things always grow with their spines up, and if we tossed them on the sidewalk, they always landed spine-side up. The little lance-like thorns could've pierced the soles of combat boots. You can imagine his howls, standing, barefoot, on the creeping carpet of little trumpet-shaped pink and mauve flowers, angelically babysitting their awful, spikey offspring.  Getting out of the patch was almost worse than getting into it.  Placing all your weight on one of the painful feet, you leapt to safety, far from the patch, knowing you would land on the recently lifted foot, probably still studded with thorns.  After that excruciating pain, something in those little spines made your feet itch for hours!
Well I felt TERRIBLE!  I am not sure "apology" was a word we understood but we were eager to be forgiven and move on.  We ended up spending the rest of the day in the branches of the fig trees, eating golden, globular fruit and swimming in our newly erected swimming pool, watching poor Andre reach down frequently to scratch his itching, burning soles.
African Feet!  I think running around barefoot allowed us to feel Africa's heartbeat. Her immutable throbbing, deep in the earth, filled us with her penetrating comfort and sense of sanctuary.  Even if you leave Africa, her imprint is eternal and rooted, you will always long to remove your shoes, close your eyes and travel there, even if just for a moment.

Monday, January 31, 2011

What am I doing?

I have never thought that my life, past and present, was a particularly interesting
one.  Certainly not one to write about.  Recently, though, I have had a series
of experiences that have changed the way I think of things.  I was raised the old fashioned way, 
not to ask "why?", the religious way, "don't ask why, a faithful Christian, just does as he is commanded".  I discovered that I had a mission, that I didn't need peer validation to accomplish it.  If I was truly following my heart, loving and serving my "earth mates", family, friends, neighbours etc,  that I had nothing to fear.  I would succeed.  I didn't write because I was afraid that
my voice wasn't enough.  I can ask "why?" and expecting an answer, I will receive one.  This is my prayer, my gratitude and the fuel for my passion.