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African Renaissance

Molo Swaziland

Abigail George

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It is the sun-drenched space that strikes me first in the car. There seems to be so much of it. Almost immediately I fall in love with the green rolling hills descending into what seems valley upon valley. I’m visiting family (my mother’s sister Magda, her husband Ernest and two daughters Desmonda and Delicia). My Johannesburg cousins and Aunt Caroline are travelling with me by car from Johannesburg. The open road made me feel free traveller, independent adventurer with nothing standing in the way of the ascending sky and forest descending. I found myself in Swaziland, scribbling away in a journal and wanted to return years later as successful novelist and published poet living a dream life, in a dream world, and perhaps investing in a flat.

It is Swaziland where I learn to eat corn barbecued over hot coals. Talk to boys without wearing my glasses. I have my first Irish coffee here at a Spur. I ride Delicia’s bicycle on the dirt roads near the house. We go swimming in the hotel pool while the adults visit the casino. Us kids play the slot machines. This green universe is like an open book to me. During the day we visit market places, buy trinkets that I know I will treasure forever. I find I admire the statures, my eyes lingering on the stuff I know I can’t afford. I’m envious of the European tourists with their leather sandals. The American bubblegum-twanging women wearing cut-off denim shorts that I was never brave enough to venture outside in.

At night we barbecue or try-out out of the way restaurants. We eat pizza like cavemen. The other patrons of the restaurant, young people dance to the music of a lounge singer singing covers while I sip my vodka and orange juice. I visit a bookstore and buy my first gay book (Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson). I think of this huge world I find myself in. How I found it strange at first, but how it also accepted my own strangeness. I pick avocadoes and mangoes pulling them off the trees. Discover I’m happier here than I’ve ever been in my entire life. The people are Swazi-angels. There’s no crime on the one channel at night like there is in South Africa. Here, life it seems can’t break or forsake me. I realise travel, journeying inward or outward can and will change you in ways you can’t even imagine.

I excelled at being free in Swaziland, and each morning I woke up to the smell of fresh mountain air. I am a plain mermaid in the water. I am floating on my back in the hotel swimming pool, turn over onto my stomach with a belly flop, swallow some water and then spit it out again. I tell myself I never want to leave this place. I want to stay here forever. There’s an OK Bazaars where we shop for our weekly groceries. I listen to Blur and the Manic Street Preachers latest albums on CD at the CNA. I eat the ripened butter-flesh of the mangoes growing in my aunt and uncle’s backyard. The juice drips down my chin where I catch it with my hand. At night we (me and the cousins) ate bowls of vanilla ice cream.

The humid weather turned my hair into a mass of fragile curls. That year I saw all that Swaziland had to offer. I visited a casino, mall, expensive hotel, glass and candle-making factory that was world-famous, and the international zipper company that my uncle worked for. I had a good steak at Spur. I did my hair for Christmas at a fancy salon. Read Nabokov’s Lolita while the hairdresser washed my hair at a basin.  Whenever it rained, which was frequently, the rain it seemed, seemed to wash away the dirt in the streets, all of my sins, renewing the vigour and energy in my soul. Then there were the hailstorms. Like tiny pebbles spitting and hitting you on every part of you. Some people love to travel. Love to experience a new town, new newspaper headlines, new food, and new chocolate and biscuit wrappers. They want to feel a sense of urgency when they get out on a bus to elsewhere, but that feeling left me in my twenties. 

We all watch videos on the VCR. Watch riveting soap operas and The X-Files in the evening on the only television channel that there is in this country. During the day I sit in the family room and read old copies of YOU magazine. I page mostly to the back to read the celebrity gossip until my eyes get tired. The people here are warm and friendly. Even the cows seemed warm and friendly. I think that eating ribs on a Friday night with my family makes this country a magical place. Brown faces, olive-skinned faces, men who have dark brows, men with blonde hair pass me by. The dark-skinned weave-wearing women are beautiful. I find that here I’m a dreamer with new eyes. Swaziland turned me into a beautiful queen in my one-piece swimming costume. I haven’t discovered Hemingway, Woolf, Gillian Slovo and Updike yet.

When there is doubt and I think to myself perhaps now I will venture out again to a new country. Whenever I think that perhaps I will explore the rest of what Africa has to offer I think of my battered suitcase. I think of the suitcase that went to London University with my dad that I inherited. I think of all my Swazi-inspired dreams, fleeting now. One day during the holiday we all tumbled into my uncle’s spacious sedan. We all went for a long drive to the glass and candle-making factory and all I thought of was this. Everywhere I found myself felt so remote. I felt the loneliness of the lost-in-a-crowd at the mall buying caramel stockings. It seemed as if Mbabane-city both rejected and accepted me. When I felt bored I smoked menthol cigarettes on the sly outside on the patio or upstairs when the grownups slept soundly.

It was Joe Abercrombie in Last Argument of Kings that said, “Travel brings wisdom only to the wise. It renders the ignorant more ignorant than ever.” I think of the wisdom that Swaziland brought to me. It transformed something of me into a brighter, shinier personality that was less flawed, less weakling and more warrior. Perhaps it will haunt me for all of my remaining days in this world. Now when I think of Swaziland I think of family, of laughter, of bloody steak, and Irish coffee, Christmas and the annual traipsing off to visit to the hair salon for the perfect hairdo for the holidays. I look at that holiday fondly; think of my second mother, my aunt Magda who has since passed away, how the more things seem to change around a person, in nature, the more things stay the same. I think that travelling makes gurus out of all of us, and then I think of the horizon, if it is everlasting, or does it change from country to country.

The lights in Swaziland often went out in the evenings but came back on minutes later. We’d eat sticky ribs and chow mein around romantic candle light. My aunt and her oldest, Desmonda drove a Volkswagen Beetle to the shops, to return the videos we hired, to friends, on long drives, to the market place. Boxing Day we went to swim in a river, and had a fish braai. My uncle disappeared behind a wall made of stone to sleep the sherry off. There were fireworks New Year’s, and resolutions that were meant to be broken. Now I am always finding Swaziland wherever I found myself in the world. I dream of Africa, not France, Mexico, and the Far East. I need only look at a photograph or postcard with palm trees of all things. Or drive past the airport, that’s all it takes to take me back to green plateau and pasture, green landscape, and rolling hills. That year I learnt that every journey is part-survival guide and part destination. Swaziland was ruled by nobility. The landlocked country was ruled by a young king who had the aura of more of a handsome prince looking for his Cinderella than King. Swaziland was the country that time forgot. What I’ve learnt about travel is this. It makes you thirst for knowledge until you’re sated, it makes you grow intensely, you are forced to make strangers newfound friends, and you gain illuminating perspective, and forge new experiences. And then it hit me with a shock. I would always be writing poetry to the people of this isolated, magical, and tranquil country. When you read a poem, you become part of that poet’s dream, and travelling is proof that you’re alive. It changes everything about you. It changes your life experience, your expectations, and even your hair becomes lost in the translation while I lived it up for a brief moment amongst the good vibes of this novel country.        

Abigail George is a feminist, poet and short story writer. She is the recipient of two South African National Arts Council Writing Grants, one from the Centre for the Book and the Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council. She was born and raised in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, the Eastern Cape of South Africa, educated there and in Swaziland and Johannesburg. She has written a novella, books of poetry, and collections of short stories. She is busy with her brother putting the final additions to a biography on her father’s life. Her work has recently been anthologised in the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Anthology IV. Her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She briefly studied film.

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African Renaissance

Diary of a filmmaker, the fox and the curtain

Abigail George

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I woke up with my hands full of leaves. Marakana and Lonmin are all over the news. My brother the wolf guy, the lone wolf, Wolf didn’t know how to sing and how to hold down a melody between his ears. But he did like music.

Every kind and when he laughed, he howled. I could hear his laughter as if the veil was lifting from his belly. He was the first person who ever taught me about issues of trust and loyalty, vulnerability and morality and giving up the ghosts. The boy in him was the purest part of my memory of him. The geometry of loneliness was built into him long before I ever reached any kind of love story, any kind of instruction on that world that dominates. Between my parents there was denial, shame, truth, separation between both of their depressions. My father’s mood was manic and my mother mood was pensive. So, they would alternate. So, we all lived with broody illness. She would be sulky, moody, shout and disagreeable and mostly ignore us and forget that we have to eat hearty meals of meat and potatoes rich and thick with gravy, that the meat would have to be taken out of the freezer to defrost. She would shout at my father. How he could do nothing right. Was he having an affair? Why wasn’t he a family man? Paying more attention (to her). So, we lived like this, the three of us, my brother, my sister and myself for all of our young lives never daring to question it, thinking that this was the way everybody lived. Sometimes they would go out.

They would behave like a couple. They would go to the movies and be like girlfriend and boyfriend. I would wonder if they would share their popcorn and hold hands. My father would write at night working on his thesis. My mother would watch television. They would be in separate rooms but you could still cut the tension in the house with a knife. My sister and I would do what my mother did throughout her life. Watch love stories and read them. We had a library. Access to books in a way other children did not have. The paperbacks my father bought in London. The romance novels mummy read. In all of this happy-mess my brother came into the world, into the exciting times of two people who had decided that because they loved each other they would get married and start a family just because they could. The lives of four people, individuals who learned the controversial mechanism of not giving in to the unstable because it would mean you were weak and vulnerable. Fathers are supposed to be charming. Mothers are supposed to be poised. Houses are supposed to be filled with joy every day of the year not just Easter, Christmas or birthdays. Mummy was stylish even when she was wearing her glasses.

Even when she crashed and burned on the sofa chair while my sister and I played on the floor with our dolls, re-enacting the same territory, the same drama our parents had come from. Drama filled with a man having enough rope to hang himself, war stories, and a father who had another family. Children who did not have his surname though. Then there was the drama of alcoholism, clinics for stress, burnout and depression in faraway cities and a clinic and a notorious hospital that was close by. Just a twenty-minute ride away to visit over the years, the childhood years, and the years that counted the most. People stopped coming to visit and I stopped having friends come over because mummy needed to rest. At least that was what I told myself. One day she yelled and screamed, cursed, pulled the sheets off the bed as if she was a mad woman. And then I began to look for her in the books I read. I called her Mrs. Rochester when I read Jane Eyre. I watched, observed and learned. Her imprint marked me like my father’s old books and divided us forever. Sadness seeped into my home, my bones, the stars and fat moon, everything, everything. The sun burned and left a scar on my forehead.

I couldn’t see it when I looked in the mirror but when I put my palm against my head, I could feel it. Anger, now that was something else. It was a sharp and bright force. It came with the momentum that any negative energy came from. Hot and cold, Iceland and Hawaii and it hit me literally between the eyes. It was potent, made itself seem significant and important, as if it had any kind of real substance and staying power. But it would also vanish just as soon as it had appeared. So, I am not afraid of Virginia Woolf and of speaking of the data of her sorrow, her memory, behind the scenes of the wasteland of her childhood. Sometimes things go wrong but not today. Sometimes holding onto the videotape, that stream of consciousness thinking of the position of a dream of a man turning into dust is enough. This is my diary. A diary caught on videotape, life through a lens as I see it. I think that is when and how and why I decided to go to film school. I had all these images that I had collected over the years and stored up in reserves in my heart. Finally, I decided one day that writing about them was not enough. I needed more time to compulsively declare them to the world to be the truth about what happened to all three of us.

It had become an obsession. These thoughts, my goals, all the psychological heresy and games that is in my mind’s eye held down in text while serotonin and dopamine is whizzing around in my head (that I furiously wanted to fix, hold down, stick to). There is nothing neurological about preeminent death. It will come whether we want it, and will it to or not. The bluish sky was filled once upon a time with laughter, with your laughter. Your glee had never been so magnificent. All we wanted to do was live. In childhood we were tigers, mannequins, clowns, climbing trees like monkeys, aping them before an organic depression cloaked us, dealt us stealthily with blows, neglect. I abandoned you, Wolf. I know that now. We were perfect once and loveable, adorable, wacky before we put up barriers to our inner vision and dreams. Projects to build empires reside in us still. And then the darkness came, that monster, those monsters of shame and prejudice. No friend of yours or mine but it was activated all the same. In parking lots in Johannesburg, I dreamt of change and freedom and love as I felt hands reaching out towards my thundering heart. I never felt the electricity of passion passing through me like a beam of lightning.

I never saw trees in Johannesburg. All I saw was a city and smoke. And men and I saw them everywhere I went. I saw them sitting in cars, in peak traffic, smoking, in restaurants, with wives and children pulling on them, reading newspapers, in a glorious office space and most of all I saw them walking past me, leaving me behind. All these strangers inspiring me towards greatness like you have done for most of your life. I have to make everything up to you. It came from your childhood. Life is an event that we are always waiting for.

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African Renaissance

Alcoholism: Cloud Briefly Visible For A Moment Above Zelda Fitzgerald’s Head

Abigail George

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I think of total exhaustion and being. How it takes me from winter to summer. Then I think of you and the space, the gap you in-habit for me.

The thing is I don’t distrust you, or pain. I think of you unburdened.

I think of you but you’re light years away from me now. Once I called you home. Once you called me sanctuary. Your hands were like a hat full of leaves, a porcelain teacup full of blue sky. Now all I know is betrayal, ghost protocol, the estrangement of the heart, the page, the frozen sea. I am the surgeon. You are the vibes in my fingers at the operating table. You are the phases of a Saturday morning, the leveling out of daylight. There’s nothing common about you. About your system of arrows, your symphony of sorrows. You’re light, I’m a bird found with an olive branch in it’s mouth. The notes found here in this world’s paradise are tentative. I’m thinking of you again. Now what is so wrong about that. You were romance, and I was homelessness. Now all that I know of love is extinct for me.

Zelda is waiting for the light. We’re all waiting on the museum. She’s waiting for the light. I’m waiting for the light. The world is full of stories for us to sup on. Even you must have one. The text sparkles.

It stretches out into the widening silence. Zelda is fathoming. The old girl has hit her head. She is bleeding from the wound. Her heart over the years has been faithful. Zelda is young and smart and no-nonsense. The priest must come over the vastness of desert and city jungle. The priest must come to pray for me. Zelda is not holy like the tubers and fossils found underground are. I’m left to clutch at the bird in my hand.

Zelda is eating sunflower seeds and honey. The old girl pours milk into her tea. I’m falling in love with Tarzan. Me Jane. Let’s give thanks. Let’s celebrate the galaxies. New and old.

I fear photographs and the cold sea’s philosophy. Now we all grow like wildflowers. Anywhere that we please. Like the seed of a mustard tree.

There’s nothing as beautiful as the newspaper man eating fresh plums.

The woods, mushrooms, potatoes. The vibrations of foliage. Daylight.

Glory. A tender swarm. The triumph of an athlete. The redemption of a sinner. Spring found in the desert. A Saturday morning. Leaf! Oh, sacred leaf! Universal winter. Cat. The action of rope found in blood.

The shadow of a woman found in the venerable wild. There’s nothing as beautiful as deep-blue love. The echo of a bird. An icy wind that freezes everything green but the gap of time. A page in a book. Golden people. Fire. Bright places. Novel places. Iron faces. The out-lines of a lonely season and hills. There’s nothing as beautiful as the woman in the photograph. The bride of high summer days. The confession of a sinner. The perfumed juice of a pear. Bird. Field.

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African Renaissance

The Renal Unit: Paper Towns Of A Borderless Woman

Abigail George

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The hospital is a lovesick climate. The blessing of an emerald day.

Kite-flying. The fabric of a stream. The hidden wings of a child. The swell of a rosebud’s mute-bloom.

Thread of an owl through the air. The lengthened passage north.

Sinking-gathering-maturing cells of sunburnt flesh and bone. The Mediterranean-blue sky. The tarnished transaction of vital star meeting black hole. No, there’s nothing as beautiful. I come to life in my sister’s Cape Town flat. It is raining men and women and when the radiant sun comes out it rains golden. I think of people that only say things to be polite or diplomatic. I think of how before I do things now, I have to wait for the tiredness to lift. I think of my flesh and blood. And how everything around me is fragile and connected to God. Sometime I think of the hospital room I found myself in when I was barely 20-years old at Tara, then at Golden City Clinic, then at Hunterscraig Private Clinic. That was before the renal unit at the hospital where I was born. Now, I eat for three and four and five. I have to find my own way to be cheerful, and it feels like the day after Christmas in my hands.

The sun was unusually strong today. The waves seemed as angry as I was, and fury was like ice warmed up. He has a bear of a man for a step-father. I think of his sticky fingers on the counter-top. I think of the shape of autumn near my fingertips. The weather changing. Is it more climate than God? Whenever I wear a dress I think of Paris. I think of wearing Parisian-made dresses. I think of the love of my life and his daughter now. Of how he never saved me. I think of eating and drinking. I think of grief. I think of loss. I think of emptiness, futility, loneliness and silence. All harmless like vessels. I think of the country where I live. How heavenly it is. How metaphysical.

There’s a chill in the air as I eat alone in my room, and I think to myself that I am oceans away from the sun. I wonder if he told his wife what I said. That I was afraid of him. Making love to him. I was young. I was afraid. I thought of never going back. Never going home to the dysfunctionality I was brought up in. A sister, a daughter.

Siblings fighting. Competition and rivalry. I think of the desert. It offers freedom. I think of how vulnerable I felt in the hospital. I think of my sorrows. My so-called nuclear family. My poverty. My weaknesses. I think of freely-given bread. I am always looking for people to read my poetry and tell me what it is they think of it or rather me. As if it will add to my happiness. To my future. As if it will fix me or love me or mark me in letters ‘Return to sender’. I think of my house on fire. Pale fire. Milk in my hands washing away all my sins but it is never ever quite enough. I am never ever quite enough. I am not loved. I am unloved. I dream of digital copies of my books. The world is cold and made of gnarled oak, exoduses, and indigo children. People who are dumped on the ash heap of life. And for all of my life I have been one of them. No winter-husband. No autumn-children to rain on me. No blue river. There is no one to bring me flowers or to cook me a champagne breakfast.

Only the souls of bad men and good men.

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