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African Renaissance

What they say about first impressions

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In my family, the men are in a league of their own. They are authoritative, speak their mind, they’re elders in the church, patriarchal.

Politics has always been a part of my life; ever since ex-President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was released on that eponymous day from house arrest. My paternal grandfather, Staff Sergeant Joseph William George served in Regiment 39 during the Second World War. He was a highly decorated war hero. My father was a God-fearing, devoted, hands-on father, devoted husband, loving son, an educationalist first and foremost, (who was) later promoted to an Inspector of schools during the heyday of post-apartheid when all the primary and high schools in the Eastern Cape of South Africa had to be integrated (due to race relations because of our new-born democracy).

My father also found the time to be writer, scholar, and academic, lecturer, volunteer and community leader, and who graduated from no less than universities with six degrees, (Rhodes University, the University of the Western Cape, the University of South Africa, and London University). My father wanted to be a medical doctor, he had the marks in mathematics and physical science and chemistry for it, but he came out of the impoverished (now vanished, dysfunctional) community of South End, (District Six in Cape Town is more well-known), in the city of Port Elizabeth (situated in the Eastern Cape). It is the price he had to pay. My father taught me that a life of service is never easy.

Now I wish that my father just had more time to settle down and pen his autobiography. All the families in South End were forcibly removed (my dad has written about this, co-authored books, written pamphlets on mental health awareness, see the historic forced removals, South

End: As We Knew It, South End: The Aftermath, Depression the Sickness of Our Time: A Sufferer’s Perspective) from their homes, from a non-racial, inter-faith conscientized, cosmopolitan and vibrant community that knew nothing of gangsterism, illicit drug use and abuse, crime, and alcoholism, addiction, sexual, and domestic violence. This community knew absolutely nothing about endemic racial slurs, the class system, prejudice, and racism.

Due to the promulgation of the Group Areas Act it literally tore families and worlds apart, and now apartheid is supposedly a part of a bygone area, and yet the emotional baggage, the scars are carried by the youth, the young men, young women of the Northern Areas of the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Here God means everything to the mothers, and grandmothers of this downtrodden-violent, and brutal, and close-knit, protective community. We are staunchly fundamentalist when it comes to Christianity, church, religion, and family. In the Northern Areas young people don’t get the fairy-tale ending, the happily-ever-after. Instead the young men are the assassins of a kind of Dante’s inferno, the kingpins of the underworld.

Nobody has spoken about the compensation on the land question, (not yet anyway), nor the widows, children, and compensation for the great-grandchildren whose great-grandfathers, grandfathers, and uncles served in the Second World War, although the question(s) of land reform is on the lips of everyone. Will divinely-elegant solutions and positively-intuitive answers come in time, before combative, nonverbal -communicative revolutionary acts will be trending like who the Duchess of Sussex is wearing, climate change, global warning, and the global recession. It seemed as if my father wanted to save everyone that he has met, and come into contact with in his life from the mental anguish, and pain, clinical depression, and hospitalisation, institutionalisation for mental illness.

He obtained his teaching diploma at 16-years-of-age, my father never drank, he gave up his six-pack-a-day cigarette and tobacco smoking habit before I was born in 1979. My father is primarily the oral-storyteller in our family (and I’m a filmmaker, playwright, poet, and short story writer because of him), and he was also the first in his family to achieve his doctorate (in philosophy). He made his own way in the world, on his own terms, while eating the dust of the colonial masters, eating the breadcrumbs from their kitchen tables. My paternalistic-family has the blood of slave ancestry, European, non-European, Germanic, Dutch, and Saint Helena flowing through our veins.

The turning points in our lives make us aware of our own survival instincts. What do poems make us aware of then? Our own immortality.

We’re all rivals at some point in our lives. We all compete with each other until the day we mourn the days we lost listening to our souls and the feeling lost and numb only comes down to this. Not having a profound and serious respect for humankind. He’s been described as legendary, but he won’t even accept the word “mentor” in his vocabulary. Winter is the most perfect time to rest. There’s a lightness and a being in the air. Now there are only time for ‘botanical drawings of observations’, a palace, throne room, metaphors, and for growing older.

My father is now the illustration of a dark horse of a man growing dimmer and dimmer, and I leave that open to your own interpretation.

My own childhood transformations have come and gone taking bedtime stories, Disney and chipped teeth with them. Family history, imagination, the wilderness. When the world feels apocalyptic. When your mind’s eye sits through silences. The day your parents told you they were either going to separate or divorce and you felt like an interloper. I was the chosen one in summer, spring, winter and autumn.

The sun and days compensate for the lack of you. Now, we talk about love as if it is a mountain. We want to hike to the stars and forget about our hearts and what startled us into believing that we cannot live forever. Love is not love when it alteration finds. Shakespeare said that. My father taught me that God can even bear fruit in drought. God has no substitute. He can boast of having known poet Arthur Nortje, political activist George Botha, diplomat Bhadra Ranchod, intellectual Neville Alexander, assassinated struggle heroine Dulcie September, but he won’t with every altruistic bone in his body, so I will do it for him here.

Daddy is in the autumn of his years now, and I find myself thinking of his legacy, the thousands of lives he has touched with his fatherly concern, charitable kindness, humane goodwill, I will miss you more than the stars the day that you are no longer here. He has never curried favour with anyone, least of all politicians, and government leaders. It is both a curse, and a gift to write about my father. I am well aware that I cannot illustrate him as a man, he was daddy, confidante, and friend. My father always took a neutral stance in the arena of community politics when it came either to parliament to prevent the closure of the Elizabeth Donkin Hospital, a well-known psychiatric facility in Port Elizabeth, or the boards he served on in an executive capacity.

Everything, everywhere in this place, in Port Elizabeth, in the Northern Areas is marked by my father’s tenacious spirit. He has fulfilled his “mission, and five commissions”, this son of Sarah Rosaline, a domestic worker for prosperous white families (she took in washing to make ends meet, was a seamstress at Collegiate High School for Girls, that I attended for a year, and that real estate mogul Pam Golding also attended. My grandmother was so financial-savvy she even bought property in Fairview, unheard of in those days), and he was also the son of Joseph William, a casual blue-collar worker. In my mind, to me, his daughter, this “missionary-son” of the Northern Areas of the Eastern Cape, has fulfilled his divine obligation.

He has fulfilled his spiritual duty, and his prophetic vision with his age-in-action attitude. My father, or rather “daddy” has lived a fascinating and remarkable life, his glittering-mudslinging story deserves to be told, and we all know that, in his eyes lies confession, memories of attending a talk by comrade and compatriot Ruth First at a political rally in London, memories of writing with invisible ink, memories of  university life in London, interrogated for over an hour as if he was a terrorist at Dover Airport. Confession that he was recruited into a subversive political organisation at the age of 16-years-old led by the late struggle stalwarts and intelligentsia Neville Alexander and advocate Fikile Bam.

Ever heard of the Yu Chi Chan Club? If you haven’t, I’m busy writing that story, transcribing his (daddy, of course) “all of his confessions” before I get to Robben Island: Our University.

He was head over boots into politics, and the only thing that saved him from Robben Island, the quarry, the bucket system, his conversations being bugged, was his comrades, and compatriots.

I came home to forget about my glory days at film school, and instead found people who were extra-ordinarily gifted in times that were much too late for lullabies.

Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominated shortlisted and longlisted poet Abigail George is a recipient of four writing grants from the National Arts Council, the Centre for Book and ECPACC. She briefly studied film, writes for The Poet, is an editor at MMAP and Contributing Writer at African Writer. She is a blogger, essayist, writer of several short stories, novellas and has ventured out to write for film with two projects in development . She was recently interviewed for Sentinel, and the BBC.

African Renaissance

Slavery and the real life bending sinister

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What is slavery? It is nothing more than poverty of the mind. It is not a school of thought or a philosophy. It is scarcity. It is lack. It is cumbersome. It is heavy. It is a burden.

What does it have to do with politics? Ask what it has to do with genocide.

What does it have to do with the power of having a slave mentality? Just as easily as we rise, we fall. A leaf. Ask yourself this. Does the leaf or gravity have the slave mentality or is it just a path to its consciousness, and if it is a meandering path to its consciousness what does that make of gravity? Gravity is easily the culprit or saboteur. A cup carries water but how does the water break through the physical wellness of the body to sate thirst, how does water flow through the universal meridians and find sanctuary in all the wild places that the ocean cannot contain, in code, in which case what observations come out of these natural and bohemian studies.

A slave is a slave is a slave. My grandfather was a slave. My great-grandfather was a slave. On both the paternal and maternal side they are non-existent for me. I live for my father. My father is not a slave. You see his mind is not enslaved. His psyche, his mental, emotional, physical wellness, intellectual prowess and integrity is intact inasmuch as he is not a slave to the peculiarities and eccentricities of the people he finds himself amongst.

In the stages of my own life I can see that I have been enslaved (my mindset and attitude was) by my body image, my identity of cosmic Africa, the cosmos, my self as an African, what I was entitled to, my basic self esteem. I was a slave to my sister, her dalliances, her whiteness, her renouncing Africa for America then Europe and I understood what loneliness, family, friendship and family finally meant and this frightened me a great deal because I realised I had never really loved myself before. I was a slave to every moment up until I heard James Baldwin speak up. I had truly been a slave to waiting for someone to release me and offer me relief somehow from this kind of suffering and cognitive thinking. I wanted happiness but the price for my freedom was this. Somebody else had to love me before I could.

Ask what slavery has cost us as humanity. Look back at history. When I look back at history, all my life I never felt safe. Whether it was the bogeyman, or a horror film, or apartheid, or reading about apartheid, acknowledging it was the difficult part. How would you even begin that dialogue? What could you partner with those hectic images that left you with an urgency and a sense of betrayal from God? So, I grew up with an unpleasant disdain for middle class families in South Africa. It was easy for me to picture them as racist which they were and still are to a certain degree and yet how could I not be? The thought of slavery and decolonization never left me even as a child as I sought to fight for the betterment of society and to right all the evil wrongs.

Slavery is everything. It is primitive. It is visible if you look hard enough. We haven’t even begun to talk about or discuss in rational terms without venting or becoming agitated or irrational about race relations in South Africa or slavery as a concept or narrative in Africa.

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African Renaissance

On watching David Mamet in an African context

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His boots made a squelching sound. In the whorl of her ear a squelching noise on the welcome home mat. The man was quick. The girl was slow. The woman was slow to speak. She was slow to communicate what she was thinking and feeling. The secret part of the actor was valid. Her fear, anxiety and chemistry becoming like the flapping wings of a Bach woman. After the interview came the hurricane. Late morning the man realizes his mistake. The woman remembers her parents’ relationship from childhood. The man remembers how the young woman looked the day he married her. He remembers their courtship and the day they got married. How he squinted at her through the sunlight that fell upon her hair that day at the beach. He had gone fishing. Caught nothing.

He had left her alone to read a magazine on the beach. The town was near decay. It was a tourist destination for the mega rich.  She will think one day (the girl inside of her) that she married the wrong one.  The apparitions come at night. The snow in winter. David Mamet is a mega rich American writer and Republican intellectual. He has made it. Millions won’t. Millions idolize him. Thousands want to be him. They want to live his life for him. They admire him for living so well. There is driftwood on the beach. The chips of wood are like a magnet almost as if they are chipping away something of life at the root heart of humanity. There is always a story to be told from life, from everything. Everyone has a story to tell. The girl sighs with a thousand other girls. Her soul is bitter. She has lost something. She feels she has lost everything because the guy has up and left her stranded with the baby. What is she thinking, what is she feeling? David Mamet is a well-known playwright. In a shining circle the bleak ones live in this world feeling nothing. Existing on the fringes of this life world. They wait in unison for the hereafter. I realize my mistake now. The young girl fell for the wrong guy. The twig sucks me in. The man walks in beauty. Wild geese are calling with a purpose. Music in Africa has its own language.

We are conditioned to think that nothing lasts forever in politics. The only thing that really lasts is a story. It has prophecy and legacy combined. Which one lasts longer? What of our playwrights and our songwriters? It is a summer evening. People are dancing in the street. The smell of barbecue is smoky. She looks at her face as she passes a shop window that is brightly lit up and doesn’t recognize her own face. The wretched and forlorn look upon her face. The young girl smells of bloom ad smoke. She thought she would give it up for Lent. David Mamet is a world-famous director and writer who understands the nature of art and truth when it comes to telling and writing original stories. He started his own theatre company. He married an actress. Conquerors know of miracles. The house has a room that has been standing empty for years. The naming of parts comes with having a range of intelligence, scrutiny, wearing a sorrowful mask, understanding suffering. The woman has a slender body. The actress has a stunning face. The woman has a confession. There is a sharp intake of breath as the man’s fist comes crashing down on the table. You cut your finger with a kitchen knife. Remember, the day you cut your finger with the kitchen knife. Or was it really your fingernail?

The director goes back and forth, back and forth cutting between the tension and the dialogue of the actors. He walks them through their paces. The actors take a well-deserved break. They talk and interact with each other. They smoke and laugh. The girl throughs her head back and sounds silly when she tries to put everyone else at ease when she is not with her own performance. There is some insecurity there. Some self-doubt. They run lines. The gravity of the thing comes into view. We all struggle. Don’t we all, someone in the group says. There are confessions. Then there are more confessions with a trimmed and a manicured nail. I am getting old. I can feel it in my bones. The flesh of my flesh was very tender that day I cut my finger with the kitchen knife. I sliced it like a pear. Prizes make you happy and sad. Here is the ballad of a growing intimacy, a camaraderie amongst the actors in this theatre company. They mill around. No one wants to end the flow of the conversation. They want to work. They don’t want to go home yet. It means sitting at home alone for some. It means a lonely night. The beauty of the dahlias is complicated. Will there be real flowers or plastic fruit on opening night on the table? My sister doesn’t phone to talk to me.

When she does telephone, she speaks to my mother. I wish I was more real than having this kind of a fake personality.  The actress is deciding whether to paint her toenails a fire engine red to stay in character. Pain helps you to grow. If you forsake pain, you also forsake growth. All of us should conquer something in life. Let us go into the wild that is calling. My life has always been on this path.

On the edge of uncertainty. My soul is gone to tell you the truth. It has lost a bit of its own mystery.

When I speak of David Mamet, I think that in the context of Africa that there is the worker Mamet in all of us. Whether it comes to the tradition of oral storytelling or not, the linear arrangement of the goal of the storyline or in the sheltered pose of the actor reading their lines from a script. The past slips out of its calling. Its shell of water. It passes away into nothingness. That means absolutely nothing and everything to me.

I feel it coming. I feel it coming on. Turning me around. This lonely night. Beyond the trees I feel the thaw.

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African Renaissance

Covid-19 and recovering from the first wave of the pandemic

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coronavirus people

I always wanted to be an African writer living and working in Paris. Eating onion soup and fresh bread rolls at a café for lunch but mostly I am a woman reading, translating work through editing, writing and working in the macrocosm of the narrative that is modern day Africa. I am a woman who feels compelled to tell stories. It is a fundamental part of my day and one of the basics of my life. I want to be honest, but it hasn’t brought me happiness all the way. I go outside and loneliness meets me there. It is too authentic for its own good. It smells like spirit and behaves like wild horses. I admit that I am like water. I am tired of braving hospital life after braving hospital life again. Swimming against the tide of the kindness of strangers. Those nurses and caregivers. Covid-19 there, there, there everywhere and then manifesting inside of me.

What to do with illness? The aberrations of mental illness and physical illness. What to speak of it and to whom? I drink coffee. Too much coffee. Underneath all that coffee is a field. A field of illness. Health is wealth. But I have realized this much too late. The pills glow at night and during the day I take them with gulps of water. My mind palace is awaiting harvest. Too divine. Every day is a day of hope and recovery and renewal. There was a man in the picture, but he is gone now. I thought a man was going to save me. But he didn’t. Now he sits in a house, occupied with thought and calling. All I have ownership of is purpose. It is capable of many beauties. Many things. Once I was in love. Now I find territories to conquer and one of them happens to be life itself. I am a warrior with intent. I am happy, content and satisfied to be a puppet again engineered by the ways of a materialistic society. A puppet named outsider. I don’t pay attention to my mother as often as I should have. I chide myself. I should have been more on her side, placated her more, laughed more with her then I wouldn’t have been rejected by her I tell myself. Now that I am older, I don’t know what truth is anymore. Most of the time life perplexes me. In all my life Rilke has been in my hands like summer. I dance towards battle.

There is certain kind of darkness visible in my nerves. I have known and lived alongside suffering emphasized by psychological insight. It has been majestic in the way that only inconsolable sorrow can be. I am too primitive for this world. I have known love but not enough of it to marry and be happy. My brother says there are married people who feel deeply unloved and who are unhappy. There began to be patterns in my life that marked me, and the world seemed to reject the sunlight inside of me, inside the ancestral worship, Christian psychiatrist of my head. On returning home I began to step out in faith. I watched Joyce Meyer. I wanted to be worthy. Even comets have the air of having a complex about them. Time has a refrain. It is leaving me and with its return come all the stars of the universe. I wanted to know more, do more, I wanted to know what my inheritance was. I remembered myself as a bone thin girl in my twenties wanting to be ambitious but already jaded of the people around me, in their spiritually diminishing crowds. Their mystery attracted me. Their personalities seemed to reject the introvert that I was. I always viewed it as a rejection of me. Rejection of self I suppose.

My mother’s destructive self-sabotaging behavior milking my father’s manic-depressive personality. My own dark struggle with mental illness defined who I was for much of my adult life. My middle sister made her escape to Europe, my paternal family into the church, establishing the bonds of close-knit nuclear family, religion and my maternal family into wealth and privilege. The quiet honey of money. Rich and thick. I found a spiritual habitat in writing poetry, cognitive behavioral therapy and stream of consciousness writing was unleashed. I found there that life shimmers in both joy and solace. I found the edge of the impossible in reasoning, balancing and prayer. We tend to find the human being in the minority, the lesser being in the outsider and locate glory in the majority. In the pages of my diary I find the destruction of the earth there, moral being. For as long as the man was in my life, he was wondrous, and I felt tethered and I discovered that the empirical nature of childhood functions as the creative’s unweaving. When I wrote I felt bird flight in my veins, bird flight in Provincial Hospital, bird flight in my brainwaves, in the cavernous vibrations of my body and something was manifested.

It felt as if I was manifesting the exposed. The spiritual embodiment of the plains of the journeys we mature in confidence in, the districts of human nature, the rooftops of the birds and while society paints the iris, we contemplate the beauty in the world. On the wings of the unpeeled, the astonishing, the extraordinary the capable scientists flutter in the medical fraternity, on the cusp of innovation in pharma. I am left to glitter. Like an octopus I wade into the supreme self-correcting depths. There was an otherworldly renewal to my limbs when I recovered from the first wave of Covid-19 and life felt supernatural to me. Everything was faster, faster, faster and I began to live in a magical reality. Millions live life like this. On this precarious edge of the device of breathing with this kind of survival mechanism built into them. When you descend into illness you also descend into a kind of sustained despair that never leaves. That seems to float like the leaves, that has the hardy vertebrae of branches, the activity found in furious churning of the gulping mouth of a shaking fish. I never contemplated my own death in the hospital.

I never contemplated that life would go on, that I would recover, that I would write again. The day was filled with silence and longing in the ward filled with young women. Psychotic. Aggressive were words that were used. I had my period when I was admitted to the hospital. The depression I had when I got out of the hospital had the body length of an elephant. It curled up inside of me like a snake connected to my bones in the fetal position. My mother had a kind of tender fragility leaning towards sainthood when I came home. My father was sad. My brother did not pick up the phone when the hospital telephoned him to come and fetch me. I had been discharged. My mother told me he had feared the worst. I had to stay an extra day in the hospital. My mother explained they were not ready for me to come home yet. What did that mean, I wondered? I still don’t know how I made it through that passage of time, fought my way through. All I know is I still need to heal. I still need to heal and that takes practice and getting used to, engaging, involving yourself in the pursuit of daily activities, not words.

Things are returning to normal. My brother wants to get away to Canada now. Even the holy is visible here in my childhood home. Incarnated here if it is possible to use a word like that. It feels as if some days there is an anointing on everything that I touch. The day is golden and bright with promise. You don’t come all the way back from the experience of near death. I want you to remember that.

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