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Authors: Sandy Blackburn-Wright

Holding Up the Sky (9 page)

BOOK: Holding Up the Sky
JUNE 1989


I did not know it at the time, but the next two years would be my most dangerous, and I was fortunate to survive them. The weeks and months were so filled with violence and loss that much of what happened slipped into a black hole, memories lost or hidden with only snatches close enough to the surface to recall. Because of my sponsorship, I sent regular newsletters back to Australia and it has only been through these and the letters I wrote to friends that I have coaxed many of my memories out of the shadows. I doubt whether they will all return.

Arriving back in 'Maritzburg was like a lovers' reunion. Steve picked me up from the small Oribi airport and we drove through Edendale, then Sweetwaters, on our way to our new home, ‘Phezulu' (pronounced pear-zulu), meaning ‘up in the heavens'. It was just after 5 pm as we made our way along Edendale Road and the township was alive with people returning from work. Dust from the many feet and from the car and bus tyres gave the light a reddish haze and the air smelt of coal smoke and the evening meal. The festive mood was infectious; work was done for the day, the English language, the baas and madam left behind. People were now free to be their expansive selves, with laughter and conversation crossing roads, fences and yards; no secret words whispered behind closed doors. Community life was at its most visible at dusk and, leaning out the window of the kombi, I was breathing it all in.

The Trust had purchased a 2.2 hectare property near Hilton, only a short distance from the homeland of Kwazulu and the undulating hills of Sweetwaters. The property had an existing house behind which were some old stables and a garage that had been converted into bunkhouses, as well as a small cottage that I was to share with Mama Jenny, our housekeeper. Steve, Beth and the kids were living in the main house, the front room of which was now Steve's office.

Driving through the side gate, we passed the cottage and the carport and swung to stop a in front of the main house. The yellow house lay sprawled out like a dog in the shade. Its many rooms were large and gracious and a covered stoep served as the entrance hall to the house as well as an outdoor dining room. Steve and Beth's offices flanked the glass sliding doors which opened to reveal a sizable room with a sunken floor in the middle. The sunken area was circular and created a ring of seats; there were pillows scattered around its edge. There was also a double-sided fireplace that opened out into this room as well as into the kitchen on the other side of the wall. The door to the left led down a corridor, past the bathroom and bedrooms and into the spacious kitchen. The door to the right was always closed, as this was the family space in what was otherwise a shared house.

The kitchen had a large wooden table running down the centre of the room and windows on three sides that invited the sun. From first glance, you knew that this room was to be the heart and home of the community. Steve had built in industrial stoves on the understanding that we would often be housing displaced families on site and would need to feed large numbers of people. In the back lefthand corner of the kitchen was the door through to the workshop and bunkhouses. An old garage and stables had been converted for our program purposes: bunkhouses for overnight visitors and a workspace for our employment workshops.

After greeting the family I went down to the cottage with Mama Jenny. As she'd never shared a house with a white person before, she was a little nervous about the suitability of our living arrangements. For me, it was an opportunity to learn more about the Zulu language and culture. The cottage was a simple white brick structure with a fat roof, a concrete slab at its front and an awning over the front door. The door opened into a cosy lounge with its own fireplace, then through into the corridor, right towards Mama Jenny's room and left towards mine. Across the hall from me was the bathroom we would share and to the left, the kitchen. Like the main house, the cottage was newly renovated with fresh paint and carpets and shiny kitchen appliances. It was all I would need. Dumping my bags, I started to make myself at home.

After I had unpacked and chatted to Mama Jenny about my trip–which was clearly outside her frame of reference as she had never travelled more than a few hundred kilometres from home–I went outside to explore the garden. Steve and Beth had invited me to join them for supper at seven so I still had some time to spare. Behind the cottage was its old garage that had been converted into the program offices, of which there were two: one for Lee, our project administrator and one for Robbie, my fellow fieldworker, and I to share. In front of the office was a gravel area that served as a carpark. What I had initially thought was the side entrance to the property was clearly serving as the main entrance for all our visitors, with Lee's office doubling as a reception area. I turned back towards our cottage and up into the main part of the property.

The gardens were park-like–Beth had been as busy with them as Steve had been with the buildings. The cottage was surrounded by established trees and shrubs with a small grassy area off to the side. As I wandered up the gravel road towards the house, the garden changed to include more treeferns and cycads. The road looped out away from the house, opening onto a lush lawn at its front. Keeping to the road, I came upon a fenced-off area that housed a pool and provided a magnificent view of the city below. Beneath the pool area were two terraces, each with grassy paths that meandered through their overflowing garden beds. As the light began to fade I saw that there was still more garden to explore in the morning, but it was time to change for supper.

Mama Jenny had left the cottage when I went off to explore and now laid a hearty pot of stew on the table in the kitchen at the main house, around which we had all gathered. Mama Jenny declined the invitation to join us for supper, saying that she would take some back to the cottage and get an early night. When she joined Steve and Beth a few years earlier, she had struggled to adapt to their more informal style. She had only ever called her previous employer ‘Master' and was horrified when Steve told her that a condition of her employment was that she call him Steve and his wife Beth. While she was now able to shyly call Steve by his first name, I don't know how often her confidence extended to joining the family evening meal.

Over Mama Jenny's stew, we took the opportunity to bring each other up to speed on programs, fundraising and the general comings and goings at Sizwe during recent months. Sizwe's inaugural program had been for a group of nine displaced teenagers. Steve helped them think through what it means to take refuge, to be a refugee, and what support they needed to live normal lives again. By the end of the two days, they acknowledged that their lives were now characterised by alienation, dependency, demotivation and vulnerability–these were themes that our programs and support services would need to address. The time not spent on running programs had been taken up by fundraising to cover running costs. We had also sought corporate sponsorship: for example, Toyota donated a Hiace kombi and a bakkie or small truck; and A&W International donated a photocopier.

By the time we finished dessert, my fatigue had overtaken my excitement and I was ready for bed. The whole team would be here at eight in the morning and I was eager to put faces to names. So I thanked my hosts and made my way down to the cottage where Mama Jenny had already turned in for the night. While it was strange lying in my new bed that first night, I knew that it would very quickly feel like home.

The next morning I was back up at the house for the regular Monday morning team meeting. In Steve's office, I found a number of chairs in a rough circle and took one next to Lee, a familiar face. Lee was quiet and .effcient in the way of many talented administrators. She had also been Steve's secretary at the Centre for African Renewal; like me, she had been excited by the work Steve was planning to do and was quick to jump on board. Behind Lee's reserve was an adventurous spirit: she was the only female volunteer firefghter in the city and regularly went for long rides on her motorbike on weekends.

Also in the circle was Robbie, about the same age as me, who had the look of a black Santa Claus with a goatee. Robbie and I were to be fieldworkers together, a team. He was round, jolly and kind with a patience that rarely reached its limits. He had also been an activist in the area for many years and I learnt to trust his judgment implicitly in the many difficult situations we would face together. Robbie had been detained for eight months the year before for participating in a peace initiative between the two warring political parties in the area, the ANC and Inkatha. No charges were ever brought against him. Robbie now lived with his sister, Happy, and her husband in a small tin shack out on the outskirts of Edendale. It was a new extension to the township and was, as yet, poorly serviced. The original area had been razed of all its greenery and then a few hundred tin sheds had been dropped onto the sides of the hills, like seeds sown on a terrace. Robbie's contented cheerfulness always stood in stark contrast to the harshness of the valley where he lived. His initial involvement had been through Sizwe's new management committee but Steve quickly offered Robbie a job and, to our great good fortune, he accepted.

Themba was hired to run the self-employment workshops, as well as to look after the maintenance of the property. He was taller than his peers at close to 183 centimetres, lighter skinned than most, with handsome features. He had a gentle spirit, listened often and spoke wisely when he had something to say. Themba lived in Calusa in an outside room behind someone's home. He had no family in 'Maritzburg, having come from the rural areas to study and afterwards find work. Steve had met him through a local technical college and, impressed with his dedication and focus, had offered him a role.

In retrospect, we were incredibly fortunate to find two men of such high calibre to work with. Neither took on the roles for pure financial gain nor to claim the status that being employed offered. They were both selflessly committed to bringing about change in the area and worked tirelessly and with great maturity to do so. We were not so lucky with everyone who came to Sizwe.

Over the next two weeks, Robbie and I spent many hours in the red bakkie driving around the townships, meeting principals, youth leaders, attending community meetings and generally introducing me to the Sizwe network. At that time, few people in townships owned cars so each person who did was known by their car. The whole community appeared to be very familiar with both the Sizwe vehicles, the red bakkie and the green and white kombi, so much so that they acted as a passport of sorts. Sizwe already had such a good reputation in the townships that we could drive anywhere in either vehicle and be greeted by people we met on the way. This was no small comfort as I was fully aware that strange white people in townships often drew unwanted attention, the assumption being that you were somehow connected to the security forces or government departments who were yet to meet people's basic needs. Ironically, Sizwe's positive reputation led people to believe that we were a much larger organisation than we actually were, and very soon we were struggling to keep up with the demand.

I had arranged with Steve to take a little bit of time off in that induction period as my brother was planning to visit me on his way through to London. After those first two weeks, Jon few in and we headed off to explore the countryside. I'm told Jon and I look very alike, though he is still cross that I was dished up the blonde hair and blue eyes and he was given brown and hazel. At almost 183 centimetres, he is a good bit taller than me, but we share our family's slim build and our mother's smile.

We began our journey in the nearby Drakensburg mountains which form a ring around Lesotho, the Mountain Kingdom, in the centre of South Africa. We spent two glorious days at the Drakensburg Sun Hotel hiking, riding and talking. Jon and I were born two-and-a-half years apart and though very different in temperament and goals we have always been close, especially in our teenage years and beyond. Jon, like my mother, is a natural peacemaker, often acting as a go-between in the battles of will between my father and I that marked my adolescence. He is also a little more reserved than I, slower to make friends but a generous and committed friend once the bond is formed. I remember on family holidays going out and making new friends in all directions on the first day and bringing them back to meet my brother. Jon also has Mum's action orientation, giving him an efficiency in all he does and bringing him great success in life; he has the ability to do the work of two people in a single day without appearing to be stressed or overrun. But most of all, my brother is a listener and a kind-hearted man, and was therefore a great companion during our journey together. We hired a car which he named the Silver Streak, and spent many hours talking as we sped across the country.

During our stay in the Drakensburg, we went for an all-day horse ride through the foothills of the majestic mountains. Our sturdy mounts had taken us from one breathtaking vista to the next all morning so when we were given a chance to let loose in an open field, we took it. (It is worth mentioning that I was an accident-prone child and that I was unable to cast this affliction aside as I grew older.) In the middle of our wild fight across the open plains, my horse put his leg down a pothole and we both came asunder. Both horse and rider were remarkably lucky not to have broken a bone but I was bruised and the worse for wear for many days after that.

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