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Authors: Sandy Blackburn-Wright

Holding Up the Sky

BOOK: Holding Up the Sky
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HOLDING UP
THE SKY
AN AFRICAN LIFE

SANDY BLACKBURN-WRIGHT

Contents

 

 

PREFACE

THERE
ARE THREE THINGS I HAVE ALWAYS BELIEVED: FIRSTLY, THAT I COULD DO ANYTHING I SET MY MIND TO; SECONDLY, THAT I SHOULD ALWAYS BACK THE UNDERDOG AND THE POWERLESS; AND THIRDLY, THAT I WOULD DIE YOUNG. THESE THREE BELIEFS HAVE SHAPED THE WAY I LIVE EACH DAY OF MY LIFE. I HAVE IMAGINED I MIGHT DIE OF A RARE DISEASE, SOME RANDOM ACT OF VIOLENCE OR IN A DEVASTATING PLANE CRASH—SOME TRAGIC END TO A SHORT BUT FULL LIFE. I DON'T KNOW WHICH CAME FIRST, THE NEED TO LIVE LIFE ON FAST FORWARD OR THE BELIEF THAT I DIDN'T HAVE A LOT OF TIME TO WASTE ON THINGS THAT WEREN'T IMPORTANT. I THINK, IN THE END, THEY HAVE FED OFF EACH OTHER.

Oddly, despite placing myself in danger's way suffciently often to facilitate my early death, I sit writing these words in my forties. I don't know at what age I thought I would die. I just never imagined myself as old. Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive and in our mind's eye we are eternally young, feeling the age of the soul within us, not the body without. My husband finds my premonition of death somewhat disturbing. I have factored it in when we talk of our future long-term plans, something which I've only started doing in the last few years. At such times I try reassuring him that it was just one of those childhood thoughts that stuck, and he shouldn't take it too seriously, but I think he wishes I would grow out of it. Yet after writing my story, I now see that my premonition of an early death was not literal but, rather, figurative; time and again I have died to one life, one way of living, only to enter a new and different life, as if reborn.

I have one more childhood thought that stuck: I remember as an eight-year-old, growing up in suburban Sydney, becoming completely entranced by the thought of Africa. Then began a binge diet of Tarzan movies, National Geographic documentaries, books and TV shows on tribal cultures of East Africa. It was a feeding frenzy that lasted many years. I tossed up between a career as a doctor working in a remote African hospital and a career as a biologist studying endangered lowland gorillas. I remember thinking that friends who planned to marry their childhood sweethearts and buy a little three-bedroom house in an affordable Sydney suburb were somehow limiting their options. Me, I had plans. And along with those plans, heightened by my need for high impact in a short space of time, was an ideological world view the size of Mount Kilimanjaro–one I had been sharpening on my family and friends for years. I think my father suffered badly during my adolescence. Perhaps his appearance towards the end of his life–weary beyond his years–was in no small part due to my teenage pillaging of his emotional reserves, followed by many years of ardent risk taking 10,000 kilometres beyond his reach.

IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER, BRUCE BLACKBURN, WHO PASSED AWAY BEFORE MY STORY WAS COMPLETE. THE WORLD TURNED THAT DAY, NEVER TO BE QUITE THE SAME.

01
FEBRUARY 1988
INTO AFRICA

AS
MY FRIENDS AND I—SIX YOUNG, IDEALISTIC AUSTRALIANS-CROSSED THE BORDER INTO SOUTH AFRICA AFTER FIFTY LONG HOURS ON THE TRAIN FROM HARARE WE WERE ALL AWARE OF A CHANGE, A TENSION THAT HUNG IN THE AIR LIKE STATIC ELECTRICITY, READY TO STRIKE AND BURN AT THE SLIGHTEST SUGGESTION OF FRICTION.

Newly arrived in Africa, nothing we had seen before prepared us for the confrontation with the unimaginable that awaited us here. We had spent the previous weeks in Zimbabwe, seeing black and white families living side by side in middle class suburbs, kids of all races at school together and the relaxed faces of people who were not afraid. In 1988, Zimbabwe was the warm heart of Africa and though that would change a decade later, the extraordinary graciousness and optimism of its people then allows me to believe that the magic will one day return to that now war-torn country.

I had set eyes on Africa for the very first time only three weeks earlier. Flying in from Sydney, I looked down from my window seat and saw the coastline of Mozambique stretching out for miles and miles. I imagined the savannah, the people, the villages, the animals, the cities–the life pulsing beneath my feet. And I cried. I had been waiting for this moment for years, and I was ready to fall in love. I had dreamt of Africa since my childhood, imagined what it would be like to be here: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned child who would have stood out like a fash of sulphur in a sea of black faces. Africa was my obsession and although I was about to move from dream to reality, somehow the obsession would remain. As the months unfolded, the real Africa would be far more mesmerising for me than the Africa I had read about in books and seen on TV. Its real people lived an unimaginable drama that would drive me deeper into their lives, rather than leaving me disillusioned and estranged from the continent of my childhood yearnings.

Tearful plane journeys would punctuate my life for many years. This fight had begun with tears of farewell. I had said goodbye to my parents at Sydney airport, not knowing when I would return. In the days leading up to my departure, my mother and I had promised each other we wouldn't cry but this time, and every time, my father had to prise us apart. ‘Just go', he would say, and I'd turn back to see Mum laughing and crying as she waved me through customs.

Six of us few from Sydney to Harare, all of us fresh from university or first jobs: myself; Matt, the deep-thinking, kind-hearted man I had dated for over two years until the relationship ended amicably several months before; Bee, actress, journalist, comedian and close friend of mine and Matt's for many years; Chook, a tall red-headed newcomer we got to know after his time in a theatre company with Bee the year before; Charlie, a shy fellow we knew through church who surprised us all by coming along on this adventure; and Liz, Matt's sister's best friend and, more recently, Matt's new girlfriend. Plans had been in place for almost two years to make this trip a reality. We were to spend a few weeks in Zimbabwe working in schools in and around Harare, and then three months in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, taking part in a youth leadership program with a local church organisation working for change. After that, I was planning to further my studies in Canada for a semester or two before returning to work in Tanzania in 1989. I had a pre-med type of science degree under my belt and would be studying third world nutrition, health and politics in Canada, in an effort to contextualise my studies for the realities of Africa.

As our plane touched down at Harare airport we strained to see what the African landscape looked like up close. To my surprise, I saw rows of gum trees next to the runway: the southern parts of this new continent looked an awful lot like home. Discussing theories of continental shift, we waited by the carousel for Matt's friends to arrive. I was all eyes and ears, thrilled at my first opportunity to sit and observe Africa for a time.

Despite the fact that we were sitting quietly in the arrival area, I soon became aware we were creating a scene. Passengers were staring, heads were popping around corners, porters were gathered in small groups discussing us or, perhaps more specifically, discussing Bee. Ever since I'd known her, Bee had had a fashion sense all her own. We now suspected it was a bit much for Harare. She wore hiking boots, baggy denim jeans with splits on the knees, a thick leather belt, a bright orange checked shirt, a straw bowler hat, brown hair cut short but with a long fringe that covered half her face and a toothbrush hanging as an earring from one ear. Jet lag had stolen our capacity to endure this public scrutiny, so we were enormously relieved when Matt's friends Richard and Venetia arrived and whisked us away in an old, large Mercedes.

Their beautiful house in Marlborough, in the eastern suburbs of Harare, was only slightly larger that my own home in Sydney but the grounds were extensive and well manicured, much larger than the quarter acre block we had all grown up with. I remember nothing of the meal or the dinner conversation, only the moment when I fell exhausted into bed.

My first morning in Africa I was woken by the delicious sounds of a dove outside my window. It was a sound so distinctive–more song than bird call–that each time I heard it thereafter it would take me back to that moment. The sun was rising and the house was still quiet. Bee was not yet awake in the bed across the room. I lay there and drank it all in. I was not reading about it, not looking down from a plane at 30,000 feet: I was finally here in the middle of the great continent. As I listened to the sounds of the garden outside, I felt the expansiveness of Africa spreading out through the suburbs and into the bush that lay beyond. I felt the vastness of possibilities that lay ahead, and at the same time, the stillness of the moment, as if time held its breath, listening with me to the dove calling for a mate: ‘do do, da do do do'.

We travelled for a few days before the work began in earnest. On our trip to Fothergill Island on Lake Kariba, I had my first experience of the uniqueness of African light. The light in Africa never ceases to amaze me, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon. It has a quality that makes the air itself seem brighter, bringing the colours to life as the day dawns or fades. It gave our photos a surreal appearance that, looking back, makes me doubt it was ever more than a dream. During three magical days on Fothergill Island my friends and I saw elephants, wildebeest, zebra, hippos … it was like the Africa of my childhood dreams: lush, fertile and teeming with life. We came away under the false impression that all game viewing in Africa would be like this, yet on only one other occasion would I see so much game in such close proximity.

Back in Harare, we did our first performance at Eaglevale High School which, along with many others in the mixed suburbs of Harare, schooled the children of middle class families, black and white. Though the white students outnumbered the black, it appeared to be comfortably integrated. Our show was a combination of drama, speeches, music, comedy and even a song, which was a brave thing for a bunch of Australians to do in Africa, as we soon found out. But the Eaglevale students loved it, which boosted our confidence for the ten shows we were to do over the next five days and we threw ourselves into them.

Visiting these schools was a fabulous experience for me. As we entered the school grounds, looking conspicuous wearing our civvies and carrying our paraphernalia, a wave of nervous energy would pass through us and the students. Faces would appear at classroom windows and doors, students on errands would stop and whisper. Sometimes they were noisy, thrilled to be out of class, speculating on what the show was about. In other schools, they would file in, sit quietly and wait. Either way, you could feel the energy. Often when we arrived, the students would break into song, hundreds of kids singing and dancing in anticipation of something new. In those moments, we hotly regretted having a song in the show as our strained white voices and halting rhythm put us to shame. In the end, though, what we lacked in talent we made up for in enthusiasm and it all seemed to go over well.

While the performances were fun, the real rush came afterwards in all the conversations they opened up. We would sometimes spend hours talking to kids after the show, hearing about their lives and interests, what they wanted to do when they left high school. There was always a sea of smiling faces, requests for addresses to be exchanged and photos taken. I quickly learnt that having my photo taken with a group of black people never ends well–my sun-bleached hair and white skin makes me look like a ghost in comparison to their rich darkness. Vanity aside, the school encounters were a fantastic opportunity to meet a variety of young Zimbabweans of different races and social standings, and to find out what was important to them. They spoke of plans to be doctors, teachers, to work for the community, to travel abroad, echoing the aspirations of young people all over the world.

To give ourselves a break from performing, we went into Harare to the ‘Mini Cini' to see a movie. The only show on was Cry Freedom, which was banned in South Africa, so that made it a must-see for us. The story of the South African journalist Donald Woods and black activist Steve Biko is engaging at any time, but seeing it in a cinema just across the South African border made it thoroughly compelling. It turned out to be a preview of the strange, contradictory life we were about to immerse ourselves in.

We had observed a little of the race relations in Harare; while there was more integration than we would see for years in South Africa, still, working-class African communities were living in the sprawling townships that surrounded the city. In previously white suburbs such as Marlborough, middle-class black families and white families now lived happily side by side. Our hosts Richard and Venetia told us that the black families were very pleasant neighbours, but seemed to have no more than passing contact. As with every household in the suburbs, Richard and Venetia also had domestic servants: Bobina, who was their maid, and Wilson, who tended their gardens. Both were Shona speaking. Bobina tried to teach us a few Shona words as she told us a little about her life.

After a couple of weeks in Africa I was starting to experience the common, but rarely acknowledged, white malaise of feeling out of place. I wrote in my diary: ‘I really hate being a tourist in Africa. I feel so WHITE. I look white, dress white, talk white, think white. Black people fit in here and whites don't'.

To finally realise my dream and then to feel out of place was difficult. But that feeling was also a strong driver for wanting to immerse myself in the culture and languages of Africa. I realise that not everyone responds in the same way to feeling out of place. Many people, instead of going deeper, create for themselves a life that they could essentially have in England, Europe or America. But I had deliberately chosen to be in Africa and so I wanted more of it, not less.

By the time we set out for Johannesburg, we had knocked some of the kinks out of our own relationships and historical baggage. Our unstated arrangement involved me spending most of my time with Chook and Charlie. Bee fitted easily into the new dynamic with Matt and Liz.

Our time in Zimbabwe proved to be a gentle introduction to Africa. The train from Harare would take us from an independent Zimbabwe to the bloody struggle for self-determination that was raging in th south. Zimbabwe, while burdened with all the challenges of a newly independent nation, still had a lightness that South Africa lacked.

The first leg of the trip took us down to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city. We had a cabin to ourselves in second class, with three beds on each side and a table in the middle. Chook disappeared to explore the train and came back telling cautionary tales of third class where people were packed together like sardines and someone had vomited on the floor. From the stares he'd received, he gathered that white people didn't wander down the aisles of the third class cabins very often.

Bulawayo train station is not a must-see travel destination so we were relieved when we finally pulled out, heading for Gaborone in Botswana. But at about six o'clock that night, as the day began to cool, our train ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere. Flat grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see–and yet, not long after we had stopped, some women and children approached the train to barter and ask for coins or keepsakes. I could not see a single village or dwelling across the horizon. These people seemed to have emerged from the earth itself. Wherever they had come from, a train full of people wealthy enough to afford a ticket represented a rare opportunity for momentary relief from the blanket of poverty covering areas as remote as this one. After seven long hours, passengers cheered as the train finally jerked forward, ready to move on. We later heard that a train further up the line had hit a cow and derailed. ‘Only in Africa' was a phrase we were quickly to learn. I peered back into the darkness for a final glimpse of the groups of women who had camped beside the tracks, ever-optimistic that while the train stayed, there was bartering to be done. They slowly gathered their few belongings, woke their children and disappeared into the scrub. I was beginning to understand that in Africa, no matter where you are, you are not alone.

Gaborone train station was a delightful oasis in a sea of grass. We had been told that you could rush off the train at Gaborone and buy cold Coca Cola at the nearby store. If you were fast, the train wouldn't leave you behind. I watched as my companions and others leapt from the train and dashed towards the store. The whistle was blowing as they ran back along the platform, fizzy treasures pressed to their chests.

This day, my first on the South African side of the border, our train sped deeper into the lion's den. From Zimbabwe I had brought with me a vision of what was possible, but also the images of what lay ahead, splashed graphically before me in the cinema when I watched Cry Freedom. Australians are brought up to support the underdog as a matter of national pride. After seeing this movie and reading such books as Cry the Beloved Country, I knew that if sides were to be taken my choice would lie with the black majority, and the African National Congress in particular. Carrying that choice in my back pocket, along with my tendency to be intense and strong-willed in my dealings with people, would prove to be an explosive combination.

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