It’s summer 1983, I’m in Swaziland and my life’s about to change forever
These are my Swazi-related blogs, in the order in which they were meant to be read
Anyone for brains?
I’ve never eaten brains, but I did once watch someone do it.
I remember the meal through a retrospective filter of nausea, not because of the brains, but because next morning I flew into Matsapha, Swaziland, in a small plane. Matsapha is a little airport surrounded by steeply menacing hills and we spiralled into it like water down a plughole. That rapid descent really did for my equilibrium. Or should I say, started the process, because this was the trip that changed the course of my life.
The brain-eating episode had been in Johannesburg, where white-gloved waiters served at our white-clothed table and looked on impassively as we gorged. Sorry, dined. The memories of that particular trip to South Africa are a bit ragged now, but several things stand out. The sullen faces and blank, evasive eyes of black people at the airport. The black men in suits or overalls lounging around lamp-posts and street corners. The place where Steve Biko ‘died’. The empty first class (white) and packed third class (black) carriages on the train to Pretoria and most starkly – for me – the signs on the station platform benches: slegs blankes – whites only. No, don’t even think about sitting on a bench if you’re black. It was 1982.
I had thought long and hard about that trip, a kind of corporate family visit to Philips (I worked for the Dutch parent company at the time). Bands were refusing to play in the country, Barclays Bank was being boycotted (hey, there’s an idea!) for operating there and no-one of a liberal persuasion was admitting to visiting the apartheid state. For a naïve young woman born in one British multi-racial city and brought up in another it came as a total and utter shock.
But that’s not what changed the course of my life. Shifted my axis slightly, yes, but didn’t re-set it.
That’s where the socks came in.
Socks and drugs and rocks that roll
Baby elephants are cute, yes? Ever been knocked flying by one? I have. Through a fence. I was leaning on it at the time. He was being ‘introduced’ back into the wild. I’d been feeding him oranges. That’s gratitude for you.
I was in Swaziland, ‘managing’ the camp for a bunch of archaeologists out in the bush. In practice that meant cooking over an open fire without falling into it or melting my jumper – and making sure everyone took their malaria pills. But I was also there because I was – the shame of it – tagging along with a man. Tagging along and archaeology are a kind of leitmotif for me.
I was already a seasoned weekend digger, a dab hand at scraping out cesspits (I’m not making it up) in the City of London, on sites now groaning under glass and steel. This site, though, was out where the buses don’t run. Rhinos, yes, buses, no.
The ‘camp’ was perched on an escarpment near the border of Mozambique – where a civil war was raging at the time. Each evening I’d cook things like impala stew in my witch’s cauldron. On special occasions a nice young man from Texas would grill wildebeest burgers. The nights were cold but we slept out on sun-loungers, sheets of plastic tucked over our sleeping bags to protect us from the heavy morning dews.
Morning began with tin mugs of tea, half an hour’s drive in dodgy old Land Rovers, a walk along a dried-up stream bed then a climb up a rock face to reach a cave. There we’d get on our knees, stick our heads in a dusty hole and dig. Except for tagalongman, who’d walk around debating things with the director – like the effect that baboons rolling rocks over, looking for grubs, would have on the landscape.
Now, even if you don’t get on your knees and dig, even if you’re just thinking great thoughts about baboons rolling rocks, you still have to walk through dusty, scrubby vegetation, which means you end up with dirty … socks. Yes, THE socks.
Right. I’m just saying ‘no’ to drugs for today (it involves a mohair salesman – there isn’t time before your cuppa goes cold).
Time for a glass of wine.
A sinister cave, The Twins at St Clare’s and a rather radical departure
I don’t like caves. There’s one in Zambia I never want to see again, a jagged hole in a shard of grey rock that punctures a flat horizon. At night sometimes it hums. A jackal lives there – he ventures out after dark and slyly pads around, like an evil spirit on a malicious haunting. Owls swoop down as soon as the sun sets, screeching like lost souls. Nice place to camp. Not.
But I’m digressing. We were in Swaziland. That’s where I had my first experience of an African cave – more precisely, a rock shelter. Yes, as well as cooking up a storm each day and nagging people to take their malaria prophylactics I’d decided to join the dig.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I’m not built for shorts. I hate shorts. But it was hot. The bare rocks concentrated the heat. So I wore shorts, purple ones, quite long and a bit flarey to disguise the thighs. I hadn’t thought about the rear view so much, but if you’re digging a pit you’re kneeling on the edge and leaning forward, head in the hole – so your bottom’s in the air. It began to worry me. But why? Who was going to see?
Not tagalongman. As each day passed his demi-god status seemed only to grow. I, meanwhile, played the skivvy. I washed his SOCKS in an outdoor sink. In cold water for goodness’ sake. What was my mental state? In need of a good talking to, that’s what.
Enter the dig boss, Tex. (Remember him? Nice eyes and – did I say? – very long legs). He’d noticed the socks thing and was not impressed. Every evening he’d join me to make appetisers in my kitchen tent. Soon it was not just his tasty guacamole I was liking.
But what to do? We’re all together all the time – and sleeping outside, just feet from each other. Well, there’s only one time no-one’s watching, isn’t there? Think Enid Blyton and the Twins at St Clare’s – midnight feasts in the dorm and all that. Okay then, juveniles, think Harry Potter – clandestine jaunts in the invisibility cloak.
So. I wait till everyone’s asleep, edge myself carefully out of my sleeping bag and tiptoe through the slumbering diggers. There’s a little ledge partway down the escarpment that we called cocktail rock. A handy place for a midnight assignation, a mug of cheap red wine, or both. No, not everyone else was asleep.
But there’s only so much of this kind of thing you can do before people notice. Most people that is. The time had come, he had to be told.
Hell hath no fury like a demi-God’s protector when he’s scorned. The mighty director banished me. Cast me out into the wilderness.
So. I’m stuck thousands of miles from home with no money and a ticket to fly that’s not valid for weeks. Boy, what a few weeks they were.
My last night in the bush. Last bath in a tin tub, perched on a ledge, way above the plain. By day you might see zebras as you wash away the dust. By night you lie back, gazing on shooting stars – no sooner seen than gone, glorious but dead.
The water comes by hose from a railway siding on the line to Mozambique. It’s warmed in an oil drum over a wood fire stoked by Dudu, a young Swazi woman. She’s working as a ‘maid’ but she’s really a teacher. A lightning bolt will strike her dead before she’s even thirty.
All too soon morning comes. It’s 5.30 am and chilly. No-one else is up yet, but there’s breakfast to make, fire to coax back into life. I trudge up to the bathing ledge, fill the kettle, stick my head under the hose and rub the night from my face. I forgot my soap and there’s none kicking around – the baboons steal it.
My cold hands clasp a tin mug of hot tea. Down on the plain impalas graze amid the acacias, bleached of colour by the lemon light.
The diggers depart and tears are shed. I wait. At last the old VW Combi with no second gear arrives. I climb aboard, en route to exile.
The yellow van rattles along the dirt road, struggles up the hills and dumps me on a pineapple farm in a place called Malkerns. All alone in a stranger’s empty house – I’m tense, tired and not a little frightened.
My host, let’s call her Fran, returns to find a cuckoo in her nest, but she’s not fazed. She’s seen it all before. Seems the great director has form with this banishing thing.
I’m set to work making lime jelly, then scooping out orange halves, a birthday treat for one of Fran’s sons. I make a hash of the oranges but she says nothing.
Night falls, wine is drunk and it’s time for bed. But I’m not sharing the house – a caravan at the edge of the nearest field’s my bedroom. ‘Be careful,’ warns Fran, ‘our night watchman was murdered not so long ago.’ She woke one night to find hands around her throat. Now she has bigger dogs.
I stumble across the rough ground. The door’s reluctant to lock. I face the night with fear, penknife in hand, and cry myself to a restless sleep. But morning dawns beautiful, with hills on the horizon under clear blue skies. I take coffee outside and sit beneath the thatched eaves of a roof where rats run.
Company arrives in a pick up truck. The mohair salesman studies me – the new creature in the zoo – smokes a cigarette, tells me about a barn with bricks stored in its false roof. Dope bricks. His plans for smuggling seem extraordinary and I wonder if it’s all talk. A few weeks later nothing seems extraordinary any more.
Sex, politics and Marvin Gaye
The phone rings at the pineapple farm. It’s for me – but I’m not there. To use the parlance of our times* – this is epic.
To understand why, imagine a world where there’s no email, a world where every phone is fixed in one place and wired to a wall. A world with no answering machines, no voicemail, no ring-back, nothing. Done that? OK.
Tex (the reason I’ve been banished – do keep up) is out in the bush directing diggers. He sneaks away, drives miles to a post office, in a village, in the middle of a sugar plantation, to use the only phone there is. So missing that call is – epic.
I’m badly in need of a morale boost. ‘I’m going out tonight,’ says Fran’s ex (I’ll call him Tom), ‘come along if you like, might cheer you up.’ Tom lives in a traditional Swazi hut, just shouting distance from my caravan. Reassuring, given the dodgy lock and the murdered night watchman.
So, I put on my party frock (well, a frock) and out we step. First stop an agricultural research station where we pick up Tom’s chum Mike. Next, briefly, a rather seedy bar where I feel distinctly out of place. Finally, the ‘Why Not Disco’.
It’s dark inside. Pools of light draw your eyes to films projected on the walls. Car crashes. Flesh. I try not to look. We shuffle onto the dance floor. Well it is a disco. They’re playing Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’. I dance like a robot, grateful when the music stops.
Out troops a bevy of bare breasted beauties, boredom blazoned across their faces. The ‘Swazi Dancers’ form a line across the middle of the dance floor. Supposedly traditional music starts up, they jiggle, waggle – and still look bored.
I down my g & t. My companions raise their eyebrows with that ‘shall we go’ kind of look and we head for the exit. But our path’s blocked by a screaming woman beating a man with her fists. We scuttle past, keeping close to the wall.
‘Sorry ‘bout that,’ says Mike, ‘he hasn’t paid her – she’s mad.’
‘Hasn’t paid her for …’ I know the answer.
So why all this sleaze? Well, it’s the 1980s. This little African kingdom’s surrounded on three sides by apartheid. South Africans can’t gamble. Mixed race relationships are illegal. Sex, gaming (and drugs) have become, you might say, an economic jewel in the right royal crown.
It’s not just sleaze. Political fugitives, ANC members, seek sanctuary here. Fran knows some of them. She feels the sharp end of discrimination on her business trips in South Africa. Oddly pale with frizzy black hair, police harass her, ‘accuse’ her of being mixed race, of not having a pass, of being where only white folks should be.
One day, cross border raids will start and nowhere will be safe for the freedom fighters. The storm clouds of HIV, busy gathering on the horizon, will break over the sex trade.
But right now, it’s still party time.
[*Big Lebowski ref]
Tapeworm eggs, Sheba’s Breasts & Waiting for a Friend
I’m having a flashback to the weekend before the exile.
I’m all alone, kneeling in front of a tarpaulin, staring at a huge chunk of bloody flesh and bone – an impala’s hindquarters. Impalas leap as they run, springing off long, elegant legs, showing off their stripy bottoms. That’s why they have such muscular legs – and bottoms.
It’s day one of our weekly two-day break. Time for laundry and lectures, shopping and sightseeing. Or butchery, in my case. The others are out, on a jaunt through the pretty hills of the Swazi Middleveld. Nice.
The Rolling Stones, in mellow mood, waft down from the eaves where the stereo is stashed. ‘Waiting for a Friend’ from Tattoo You. Ooooooh – yeah. Love that saxophone.
I hack away at the poor dead creature’s leg. A cluster of tapeworm eggs nestles in a muscle bundle. I toy with the idea of putting them on the director’s plate, telling him it’s a rare white form of caviar. No I don’t, not really. By the time I’ve salvaged enough meat to feed 14 hungry diggers for a week the skin on my arms is taut, crusty with drying flesh from wrist to elbow. Like a rash of scabs.
That was last week. This week I won’t be there when the team pulls into town. This time someone else will be cooking (and washing Tagalongman’s socks).
But I’m missing my Stones – that sunny, soothing, sexy sax.
There’s a record shop, Fran says, in Mbabane, not far from the ‘OK!’ supermarket. Maybe I could run some errands – her car, my credit card? I pull into the car park and dash for the shops, dodging the raggedy boys with the faraway eyes. They’re begging for coins. They’ll use them to buy glue – for sniffing.
The record shop has vinyl, some cassettes, no Stones. Looks like I’m stuck with ‘Cats’. Fran keeps the tape in the car – she’s learning the words for an amateur production. So, I trudge around the OK! then load up with flimsy plastic bags full of bread and milk, yogurt and tins.
Singing along to ‘Memory’, I ease the diesel down the hill, past the distant peaks of Sheba’s Breasts which rise above – legend has it – King Solomon’s Mines. A stark banner across the road tells me ‘Faster may mean disaster’. I ease my foot off the accelerator.
Inside I’m in knots. What have I done? Who is this guy Tex? What do I really know about him? Who do those weekly letters come from, hmmm?
Maybe you think I’m being a tad over-anxious. But I’m in exile. It warps your perspective, believe me.
I arrive back on the farm as the setting sun slips behind the hills. Fran’s smiling – there’s a message. Tex thinks Percy Sledge is singing tonight at the Lugogo Sun – can we meet? Fran offers a lift. My worries evaporate. Except . . . what shall I wear? And is there time to wash my hair?
Ain’t love grand?
Mr Sledge sings thrice & the Land Rover doesn’t turn into a pumpkin
‘When a ma-an loves a wom-an . . . ’
Percy’s warming up, the same song three times, the same lines three times, testing the sound system. Not sure we can stay till he does his thing for real because Tex is on a curfew – must be home by midnight, or else.
Or else what, I wonder?
We have a few drinks, laugh a lot and I sympathise with Janet. She broke a bone in her foot while disposing of a dead mouse. She lends me a children’s book and gives me a bag of sweets. I feel like an invalid but she’s the one in the cast.
The clock hands edge past eleven and all too soon the fun stops. It’s time to go.
The Land Rover chugs its way towards Malkerns, down that dark, mysterious valley, the heavenly Ezulwini. Mountains, streams and waterfalls – even King Solomon’s mines – are resting under the cover of night.
The diggers’ lively chatter tails off. They have to drop me off and make it back themselves before the Land Rover turns into a pumpkin. Or whatever it is the director’s cursed them with this time.
I’m getting anxious at the thought, the: ‘When will I see you again . . .’ kind of thought. Why is it songs you’d rather not have in your head pop in at critical moments and stay? Popular culture, an unwelcome song for every occasion.
It’s a sad parting. I light the lamp in my caravan, contemplate writing some notes but I’m not in the mood. I try and read the children’s book but the thought of that murdered night watchman slips into my head. My ears alert for the sounds of the night, I lie awake, happy and sad.
I’m just dropping off to sleep when I hear a vehicle approaching. The engine stops. I hear footsteps. Adrenaline’s amazing stuff. The penknife’s in my hand. The footsteps are very close. They stop. There’s a gentle knock on the door. (The door that doesn’t lock – I’ve added a wedge of cardboard to buy me time when the murderer of my fertile imagination arrives.)
‘It’s me, are you asleep?’
I rush to remove the wedge and let him in. Yes, it’s the return of Tex, gone midnight.
But what about the curfew?
Seems there was a plan all along. They went to bed, waited till the director was off in the Land of Nod and the door to his private rooms firmly shut. Then ‘covert ops’ sprang into action. Sneaking out into the shooting-star-spattered night they pushed the Land Rover – Tex at the wheel – uphill. At the top they set it off rolling, down through the bat-flitting, monkey-sleeping orange groves, heading for the road. Safely out of hearing range, Tex set the engine running.
And now . . . It’s still dark, but it’s morning. (You didn’t really think I was going to say any more about the night, did you?) As Tex sets off a tiny pearl of light’s beginning to grow on the horizon. The mountains, like nosy friends, peek from behind the net curtain of dawn. The air is saturated with dew and impregnated with wood smoke.
I stand on the step of my temporary home, just looking. The night watchman has survived the night – at least he’s walking, so he’s still alive. I watch his thin figure, arms hugging his thick greatcoat to his reedy body in the chill of the southern African winter. I wave. He shrugs.
Back in the caravan I notice something on the pillow. A cassette. Tattoo You. I have my sexy sax back, just in time. It’ll help me while away the time, Waiting for a Friend.
Suzy’s cabin, a missed appointment and a little yellow pill
‘I’ve got a cabin on the game reserve – you can borrow it if you like.’
That’s Suzy speaking. She’s in Swaziland with the US Peace Corps and has the most amazing hair – long, naturally blonde, it falls nearly to her bottom, even when it’s plaited. Wow.
Her cabin’s on a reserve in the Heavenly Valley, not far – excited squeal – from the archaeologists’ Centre. A hop, skip and jump from weekending Tex. OK, so the ‘jump’ is over a very large fence – but he’s young, he’s fit.
I nearly bite Suzy’s hand off.
So I leave my natty blue caravan – and its sadly-lacking lock. Nice people give me a lift with odds and ends to eat and drink, plus paper and pens (I’m writing a piece for the Swazi Observer).
But as the day tails away I begin to worry. This place is a game reserve. I have no car. It’s a pretty fair walk to the gate. From the windows I spy not only the beautiful shards of the mountains fading to grey in the twilight, but also the warthogs.
Now, you’ve probably not read the Thorn Birds (the TV series was big that year) but in said book a wild boar gores a chap to death. Suddenly those warthogs cease to be cute trotting piggies with tusks, they’re prison guards.
As evening falls I’m happier, settling into my newfound independence – and the cabin. Everything’s in miniature, including a neat verandah framed by a full length sliding window (that locks).
It’s dark by the time a torch-bearing Tex comes bounding down the hill and leaps the fence – well, climbs it. He can’t stay, he says. I wonder… Did he get one of those airmail letters today, the ones from ‘Miss A Jones’? I squash the thought like a nasty fly.
Tex brings an unwelcome message. Tagalong man plans to pop by later – after dinner – to ‘discuss things’. Great.
We drink a glass of wine but all too soon it’s time for Tex and his torch to leave. I mope around, feed myself a small can of beans and wait.
I fall asleep, waiting.
I wake to the sound of knocking and drag my reluctant body over to the door. I’m about to open it when some wonderful instinct stops me. I realise he hasn’t said anything.
‘Tagalong, is that you?’
Footsteps. I hear footsteps.
I switch off the light and race into the sitting room – I know I left the window ajar. I shove it to with a crash and pray I haven’t broken it. Frantic now I struggle to find the lock but luck is with me and I shoot it home. I shrink into the corner and pray.
I can’t spend all night standing here. Still terrified I make my way to the kitchen. I root out the Valium (stolen from my mum – she won’t miss them), pour a glass of wine and swallow a little yellow pill.
I sit on the edge of the bed, kitchen knife in hand, listening with all my might. Eventually I stretch out, praying it won’t be my last act on this earth.
I wake up next morning. The mountains, still shard like, have a wreath of mist around them. But it’s not for me. Dull, but true.
Sorry for the anticlimax – but I hope you’re glad I’m still alive and unmolested.
Oh, sweet-heart! (and why you don’t need a cake tin to make a sponge cake)
I’ve thought a lot about the warthogs and I’ve reached a conclusion. They’re not going to stop me.
I need out. I need to shop – no, don’t be sexist, not that kind of shopping, food shopping. I’m cooking for Tex tonight and baked beans are not on the menu.
I grab a bag and check my supply of borrowed cash. Needs must when you’re banished with only a maxed-out credit card to your name.
I stride to the gate, daring the warthogs to gore me, and breeze down the dusty hill.
The walk’s an exercise in anxiety management. As I approach the thatched huts of the village a fudge-coloured dog with a backward-curling tail follows me, barking. I speed up, keeping my eyes on the path ahead, ignoring fudgy dog and concentrating on the chickens dashing headlong in front of me. Daft things.
I cross the great iron bridge and finally reach the main road that runs through the Heavenly Valley. Across it lies my destination – the petrol station where we sometimes stop to buy grenadilla ice lollies, refreshing confections shaped like knobbly hand grenades.
I take a deep breath, smile as if I’m confident and enter the little shop. It’s surprisingly well stocked. No fresh dairy produce but a tin of Nestles cream and a block of margarine. Rice, dried onions, salt, pepper. Eggs, sugar, flour, jam.
And . . . vanilla ice cream.
Yes! I can do it!
Just one thing missing – well, apart from real onions and nutmeg: beef.
Courage screwed up, I approach the other roadside retailer.
Men are lounging on the step beneath the open door. It’s dark inside. I can see the carcases hanging from the ceiling – and I can hear the flies buzzing. But there’s no alternative.
‘Good morning, what kind of meat do you have, please?’
Right. Meat it is, then.
Back at the shop I buy a newspaper to wrap my meat and ice cream – the day’s warming up – and trudge back over the bridge, up the hill, through the gate and, with an epic degree of relief, open the door to my cabin.
I stow the ice cream in the ice box of the fridge and send out ‘thank you’ vibes to my old domestic science teacher – I can make a sponge cake just like that (clicks fingers) without so much as a recipe. Or in this case, cake tin. (A Pyrex dish, since you ask.)
Once that’s in the oven I do the best I can to make the meat, tinned cream and dried onions into a passable stroganoff. I’m really quite proud of the result. The meat’s a bit tough – but then, who knows what it is? Or was.
He’s not exactly effusive about the main course – and now I’m nervous. Maybe the pudding’s a bit too ambitious.
A smell of heat rises from the oven. By the time I add the sugar my wrist hurts from beating the egg whites. I spread jam lavishly on the cake.
Tex is puzzled. Good, good, that’s the plan.
I take the ice cream from the fridge and arrange it over the jam.
‘Is that an ice cream cake?’
I smile what I hope is an enigmatic smile and not a drunken leer (Tex brought wine), slather the egg white over the ice cream and bung the whole lot in the oven.
Minutes later a triumph of a Baked Alaska has changed my life forever.
That may be a slight exaggeration. But only slight.
He liked it. Very much.
So, is the way to a man’s heart through his stomach? What do you think?