Hadedas, the African ibis, screaming hoarsely as they fly over the fields of genetically modified rapeseed, grown for export. The air smells of snow, a dusty wind silts up the wooden flooring of the house, planks of yellow wood or Oregon pine laid in late 1928. Out on the veld there are breeze blocks of concrete and taps in communal places, another makeshift housing project. No running water as yet, no ablution blocks, no electricity, but the homeless have moved in and are cooking over fires lit inside unpainted rooms. The steel-frame windows blacken with smoke and soot, holes are made in the corrugated roofing so that the inhabitants sleeping around the embers do not smother and choke to death on carbon monoxide.
My land base, degraded and disregarded. When tourists come out here, they want a more sanitised and exotic Africa, tarred routes through the scenic mountains and along the coast, they want organic show farms, vineyards and ravines of virgin forest, streams that bubble and froth under overhanging willows. No unsightly rubbish dumps, no medical waste scattered in riverbeds (that detritus of bloodstained bandages, used syringes, broken morphine bottles — such a familiar sight for those of us out walking in the bushveld). No expanses of veld given over to crude pine crosses and hastily dug graves, the lingering stench of overflowing graveyards, reminders of the epidemic. The harsher landscapes, the ugly informal communities (once called squatter camps) and the steaming garbage disposal sites, the dead dog at the roadside, the protruding ribs of sick cattle, the brutishness of poverty repels. But this is the reality, the isness of rural Africa.The raw truth of where we begin.
There are women laughing as they queue for the solitary water truck bringing in not-enough water for washing clothes and dirty pots, cooking over the fire, cleaning the sick, for boiling to sterilise the baby’s bottle, for quenching thirst at the end of the long hot day. Women laughing and telling stories, even though the well has run dry.
The raw truth of where we begin.
And where the picturesque ends, where the dreams of travel founder. Let us go elsewhere, escape the West, reconnect with this vast unknown over-imagined continent, this fantasy of giraffe and rhinos on a golden plain. Let us connect with ancient Africa, have some mystical concocted moment, some experience we can consume and polish as an anecdote for when we return. How the real unspoilt Africa got under my skin, how Africa broke my heart, how Africa illumined something or other, that glittering epiphany of a vanished Africa.
And all that can be heard are the hadedas screaming overhead and the women laughing, making a plan for sharing not-enough water.