Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Misadventure in Maputo

I am consistently stumped by my stupidity. I went online looking for pictures of the "real Maputo". The city where the potholes need to be filled with bricks if they are to be prevented from swallowing motorists. And all I got was palm lined beaches, a clean looking city, no flaking paint (the pictures are not taken close up, you see - all very clever) , hotels that look like imitations of our idea of heaven on earth. But I did manage to find these. There's no way that I'm going to invite more people into the web of the greedy Officers.

The Trans African Concession motorway seems endless. It melts away into the distant horizon, shimmering under the African sun, linking countries and people. With high hopes we set off on this road; leaving the comfort and safety of the little guesthouse in Malelane to cross the borders, get our first stamps in our crisp, new passports and visit the city of Maputo. We spoke of the prawns, (which we all love as you must have guessed) and the coconuts, while I reminisced a journey to a war torn country of some fifteen years ago.

I told them of the barefoot AK47 wielding soldiers who had harassed us then, threatening to unpack our luggage laden booths. Barely men, they were and could promptly be silenced with a few cigarettes. I assumed that the new country would be different. I could not have been more mistaken.

I had done some reading on the country before getting there. Unfortunately the handbook brought out by the government on the wonders of Mozambique failed to mention that it was law that every vehicle passing through the borders be accompanied by the registration papers. Neither the SA border post nor the Mozambican one mentioned that to us either. Had we known of this regulation, we would have complied, and it would have saved us considerable trouble.

We drove on though in blissful ignorance taking in the sights of the grass huts at the roadside, the impoverished people who pushed heavy wagons of water along the road. A few had the luxury of donkeys to do the carting, but even the donkeys had the look of misery about them. We looked at the half-demolished buildings that lined the roadside, at the many buildings that had fallen into a state of disrepair, at the general hospital; that cried out for a fresh coat of paint.

We got to the circle that would take us onto the main road of the city, and instead of going straight ahead into the throng of milling people - goods atop their heads, children on bicycles, goats and chickens, we ended up on a quiet side street and smack in the middle of a roadblock. We were singled out, naturally, damned that GP registration.

The officer greeted us in Portuguese, we were bewildered already. He then switched to broken English, asked for my husband’s driver’s licence, which was duly presented to him. He then asked for the vehicle registration papers. We did not have them.

He rambled on for the next ten minutes telling us that it is regulation for all vehicles to have them. He then threatened us saying that he would have to confiscate the vehicle, impound it at the police station until someone could arrive with the necessary papers. We were scared. My husband tried explaining that we were from Gauteng and staying in Malelane for the weekend. It would be impossible for us to comply. He then asked my husband to get out of the car, led him aside and told him that he would allow us to go, if we would pay a 1.5 million metical or R500-00 fine. We agreed.

After my husband handed the money over, he asked for a receipt (just shows how naïve we are). He told the ‘officer’ aka highway robber that this way he’d have something to show any other officer who’d stop us asking for the papers again.

“I can not give you a receipt,” he responded. “You have to go to the Police Station to get one.” By now, I was seething, hating everything about these officers, from their grey school boy trousers, to the very official looking buckle on their belts. We had effectively had R500-00 stolen from us and contributed to the rampant corruption that had clearly become a lot more organised in the new Mozambique.

We set off once more on the potholed road, into the city centre, feeling deflated and cheated, our minds increasingly inclined towards leaving the God forsaken country. We began on the main road to make our way out of the city, when we were once more accosted by a officer. He could not speak English, but managed to convey to us that he would take our car keys from us, if we could not present the car’s papers to him. We tried explaining that we had just paid a R500-00 fine. He then said that he’d be fining us R50-00. We paid him. I was so angry by now that I wanted to choke him when I saw him squash the notes and slip them into his schoolboy trousers. I hated the country then, and all that it represented.

Our hearts skipped a beat each time we saw ‘officers of the law’ along the road, fearing that more money would be taken from us, or worse. Finally we passed the toll plaza and were on the TRAC motorway once more. As we passed the factories that were familiar, their names being well known by every South African, I felt somehow that they had betrayed us. I felt that my own government had let us down too, by failing to warn us, or even assist us with temporary papers, for they could easily have ascertained whether we were driving a stolen vehicle, having the technology at their disposal to do so. I felt cheated, helpless, disempowered.

On the way back, I mulled over the impact that the actions of these dishonest officers would have on the country. The greatest would be that it would weaken the economy. We left without spending a penny. No one can underestimate the value of tourism for any country. Their actions would be damaging in ways that it would hurt the most vulnerable of their society – the suffering masses.

The roads of Maputo have potholes that could rival craters in their city centre. The people live in such squalor, such abject poverty, that it makes our own squatter settlements look good by comparison. Tourism could help change all that. But if the government doesn’t get their act together and become a bit more ‘untypical’ of Africa, I don’t see that happening, The Portuguese exploited the indigenous people. But these self same people are now being exploited by their ‘Heroes’ – the people who fought for their emancipation.

Never in my life have I felt happier to see a member of the SA Defence Force than I was that morning, as we crossed over into SA once more. I didn’t even mind the mangy bucket that I had to step into before entering SA proper. I would gladly have kissed ground.

We left Mozambique R800-00 poorer (R150-00 travel insurance and R12-00 levy per passport on entry at the Mozambique side – plus tip for the guy who helped us out added to amounts mentioned previously). We had gained nothing but the record for the shortest visit to Maputo -ever - and were left longing for the prawns and fresh fish even more. Durban, here we come!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Book Excerpt - A Work in Progress

Two excerpts from this novel were posted in August last year. I call it a work in progress, though the progress has dwindled to virual non existance. I have rethought much of it and know now that there is much that needs changing. But I rather like this portion of Chapter Four. Thought I'd share it with you...

My father ran a motor spares shop. He worked seven days a week. I only ever saw him on Sunday afternoons. His hard work paid dividends. The year I turned ten, we moved out of the council house that had always been my home, into a larger dwelling in an area that was once for whites only.

It was the perfect family home. Wide, tree-lined avenues, huge yard, landscaped garden, swimming pool. The bedrooms were spacious, the kitchen cavernous. When I fight for space in my miniature Leicester kitchenette now, I long for that kitchen. Pity my mother was always too busy chasing success to enjoy it.

My father was a man of few words, an unknown quantity. I remember him asking me for a peck on the check before he left for work in the years before I started school. I remember it because his moustache used to poke my cheek. He’d hug me too, but in a stiff way that spoke of discomfort.

After my mother left, ten years ago, we continued living in a rented house in Dewsbury. It was an awkward time for me. He had found a job at a supermarket, not far from the house. I worked at a restaurant and studied part time. Evenings were a thorny time. I’d cook supper and we’d eat in silence, the ghost of my mother and his disgrace hanging over our table, like cigarette smoke, only a lot more noxious.

When I got married to Sufyaan and moved to Leicester, where his family lived, Sufyaan would take me there twice a month for a visit, much to my ire. And then my father had a stroke. Sufyaan set about emptying his flat, packing what was left of the thirty four years of his life since my mother had walked into it. He moved in with us, taking up as little space as he always had.

It was an uncomfortable arrangement, but gradually the ice began to thaw. For the first time in my life, I saw him laugh. He developed a relationship with my Zaheer who was five at the time.

It was then that I was reminded of a conversation that I once heard my mother have with a friend, “Fareed had been nagging for another child for so long now, that I’m actually tired. I’ve given him a child. Pity that it’s a girl. He wanted a son. But there is just no way that I am going to ruin my figure to fulfil his dreams. And you can just imagine what it would do to my career.”

My Zaheer was his son, two decades too late.

“Your mother was a good woman,” my father said to me one afternoon while I was giving him his medication.
This statement caught me by surprise. I placed the tablets on the pedestal and sat down on the stool. I studied his face.
“Yes, she was,” I said warily, wondering where this conversation was going. She had walked out of our lives ten years ago.
“She was a good cook when we got married. And she was very pretty. You have her eyes you know, Asma. Her eyes.” I lost him. He stared at the potted flowers on the window sill .The look on his face was paradoxical mix of yearning and happiness. Had they ever been happy?

He reminded me of a man who once owned a sports car and then sold it off because it did not suit his needs. He then spent the rest of his life basking in the memory of what it was like owning the sports car. That was my father. He didn’t fight for her when she arrived that afternoon as the snow softly fell; accumulating on window sill and the wall outside, to say that she was leaving. Marcus sat outside in the car waiting for her.

He just turned around and sat down on the couch. He switched on the TV and stayed that way while she packed. He didn’t even look up when she stepped out and snow swirled its way into the lounge. He didn’t flinch when she banged the door. He didn’t stir when he heard my sobs. It was the only time I ever cried for my mother.

His reaction was not unexpected, when you weigh it up. They lived separate lives in a common space. Two celestial bodies following differing orbits.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Vanished - a flash in the pan

She sat on the couch. The one by the window. Each time a car swept by, she’d pull the curtain aside. Would it be him?

A tear trickled out from one eye. It slipped down her cheek and touched the corner of her mouth. She licked it away. She could not taste the saltiness. She hadn’t been able to for so long now. Too long...

She lay down. Closed her eyes. The images flickered against the blackness of her eyelids with alarming clarity. She saw them argue. Well perhaps argue is not the right word. It was her, all her. Talking, crying, eyes flashing when the tears dried out. HE just sat. His face impassive, gaze averted slightly. Fixed on the frame behind her. A puzzle of the Grand Mosque in Medina .

She twisted words, bent them, spread them. She even poked with them, hoping, hoping…for something. It never came.

The sound that ended her monologue was that of the door being closed firmly as he stepped into the chilly June air. She parted the curtain. She saw his breath rise in clouds before his face. Saw it vanish. Saw him vanish.

How long ago had that been?

Three weeks, as the clock struck ten. Three weeks of little sleep. Three weeks of frantic phone calls. No he wasn’t at work. Had called in sick the first week. Now they simply said he’d resigned. No he wasn’t at Umar’s. Not at his mother’s.

The police had found nothing. As though he had never been. The only sign that remained of his ever having been a part of her life was the cupboard full of his clothes. The neat line of polished shoes in the cupboard that he had made with his own hands some weeks before. And the occasional flutter she felt in her belly as his child reminded her that it still was.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Skint - yes he's a writer, what else would he be - posted a challenge here , but I was too lazy to write anything new, especially since I have been under the spell of words for oh so long already. A piece of fiction in response. Written? Ah well, a loooong time ago:

Seasons for falling

I could never have foreseen the outcome of starting up an ill advised communication, not that I really gave it much thought. I just went with the flow, allowed myself to be swept away, off my feet and finally destroyed. It started with a letter to the editor of a newspaper. It was about an issue that was important to me then, even though I can scarcely remember it now.

He disagreed with my views, but he went ahead and ran the letter anyway. I challenged him, fool that I was, to clarify his position. He did - so eloquently, so beautifully, that by the time I read his first response, one of many that would follow in the ensuing months, I was already seduced by words that came at me with a force that robbed me of my breath and common sense.

Some women are suckers for good hair, good bodies, lots of money; I’m a sucker for words. Words that melt, create, destroy, entice, invite; words that leap off pages and screens and ensnare me in a golden web. I’m helpless under the spell of words.

And so began the flow of words - a current aside from the electricity that powered my PC. I became obsessive with my mail, checking up over and over in the day, waiting for his eloquence to delight me, beguile me, confuse me.

And I was confused, more than I’ve ever been before. I had been in a marriage of bodies and hearts for twelve years. I was committed to my man and my two little angels who often provided me with material to write about. I was content.

But I had never felt a meeting of souls before. Al and I were just too different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not vilifying him. I loved him then, I love him now. He was my first love. We met when I was seventeen, were married when I was nineteen. He was six years older than I was, and no, I wasn’t pregnant, but I would have been, had we not married when we did. Dating boys is different from being with a man.

Al and I were fine for the first eight years of our marriage. My mind was slowly rotting under the piles of laundry, dishes and goo-goo gaa-gaa talk and he was busy building an empire. Then one day, I woke up and realised that I was really very depressed. Al was great. He found me an excellent psychologist, he stuck it out with me even when I refused to change the baby’s napkins, and he made sure that I never missed a session. The psychologist suggested I keep a journal as part of my therapy. I haven’t looked back since.

But that’s when Al and I began to drift apart. Al was the kind of guy who really thought less of words than he did of mosquitoes, a man who often told me that should he ever attempt to read the kind of volumes that I lost myself in, he’d need two lifetimes. And I believed him. He scarcely read my own writing. For him, they were just too many words and in all likelihood, they were not very good words either. He was probably too polite to say it straight.

So when Mr Seasoned Journalist, with his longish hair, roguish smile and twinkling green eyed galloped into my life on a steed of seductive words (he sent me a picture), I was all too eager to hurtle into a sunset the colour of books. And Mr Seasoned was an author too, published, mind you. And he thought I wrote ‘well’.

If you’ve ever spent four years collecting rejection letters from publishers, you’d understand just how attractive Mr Seasoned looked form my side of Smallsville. Oh and he’d travelled. The only travelling I had done by then was chatting with fellow writers in far flung corners of the globe.

I explained to Mr Seasoned my situation, I told him about Al and the kids. I told him that I was scared of falling. What I didn’t mention was that I had fallen already, hard and fast in a pool of gorgeous words that seemed to caress me in a way the Al never could.

What was I to do? Every morning I’d awaken in Al’s bed, the bed that we had shared for as long as I could remember and I’d be thinking of Mr Seasoned - imagining his arms around me instead of Al’s muscular ones, imagining him whispering the words to me that he only ever wrote. And it made me feel rotten.

You have no idea how many times I chided myself for being a fool, told myself that Mr Seasoned was probably not sitting in a corner waiting for me to run into his arms. He was probably seasoned in other things too. If he made love the way he wrote, he probably had woman queuing up to be his bedfellows. And they probably wouldn’t have two children in tow. They were probably pretty, young journalists looking for a bed up the ladder of literary success. And he was single.

After six months of mails that I feverishly hid from Al, Mr Seasoned finally asked for my telephone number. What now?

It would destroy everything. If his voice wasn’t sexy, deep, husky, my illusion would be shattered. And besides, he couldn’t possibly speak the way he wrote. Who used words like profligacy, effete and bellicose in their conversations?

Oh, what the heck, I finally thought. I needed to know, didn’t I? He probably did too. And so I called him. At first I thought that I had made a mistake. Surely this stammering, waffling, barely male voice on the other end of the line wasn’t Mr Seasoned? It couldn’t be! He was suave, sophisticated and eloquent, wasn’t he?

I was destroyed, annihilated by the spell that I had allowed him to weave around my mind. I was also consumed with guilt. This would take many batches of pastries as atonement. I needed to make it up to Al.

After tearful remonstrations from my side, Al and I have reached a plateau of compromise. He reads one of every five articles/essays/stories/poems that I write and I promise myself never to attract a Mr Seasoned again. Of course I haven’t told Al about Mr Seasoned. The guy would probably need a head transplant if Al ever found out. But hey, at least I learnt to separate the word from the person.

I shall call it a Tribute to the power of Words.

Mirror - The End Result

She stood before the dresser
Tilting her head

This way and that
Looking into the mirror, at
The drawers
With their strange iron handles

Did she notice how she wears
Her sorrow like a tattered t-shirt
Drooping off her shoulders
A little
Hanging a bit
At the sides
Like her eyes

I wonder who she sees?
The woman she has become
Too heavy for her age
Worn by births
And deaths
And life

Or the child she once was
The one who ran against the wind
Hair streaming out behind her
Face tilted heavenward
Exulting in the flocks
Of orange and black weavers
That passed like fleeing rainclouds

Sometimes she swims
When red dust
Burns the air
Still there
Buried under ages
Water on sleek skin
Empty mirrors reflecting
Only the infinity
Of stars overhead

Could she see past
The lifelines
The wifelines
The bad and
The good times
The ages of woman
A woman of love

The child she once was
Waves from the past
A kite
Paints triangles
In the clear sky
Draws jetstreams
Around the woman
She will become

And as the rainclouds
Open and fall
She unfolds
Beneath the
Gathering storm
The rite of passages
Truths untold
Flicker in her mirrored eyes
Of life and heaven
She was the bride

Did she see the shadowed darkness
Of baggage accumulated
Over the years
Weighing down heavy
The windows to her soul?
Or did she notice
How the salty water
Of untimely rains
Have gorged
Deep ravines
On a once perfect canvas
A now tired face
Belying the splurge of energy
Mustered up by mechanical motions

I think
Behind the woven veils of derision
That time has cast
If the winds of memory
Were to part them
For a single moment
She might notice
The flicker of an as yet
Burning candle
Fighting tiny breathes
Against the debt of darkness

Telling the tale
Of yet one more joy awaiting birth
Life labels her mother
And in this simple sign of life
A single sparkle graduates as
Euphoric spectacle
She is radiance

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Poetry Challenge - Mirror

I'm tired of the usual, so I post this as a challenge. Each visitor must come up with a stanza to add on to this poem. Off the cuff. No need to labour over it. I wrote this in about five or ten minutes. So I'm sure one stanza shouldn't take longer than it normally would to post a comment. Except perhaps, that it will require more thought. But then again, some of you put so much thought into your comments, that my posts look rather ordinary by comparison :-) Once everyone is done, I will redo the post including what everyone has contributed.


She stood before the dresser
Tilting her head
This way and that
Looking into the mirror, at
The drawers
With their strange iron handles

Did she notice how she wears
Her sorrow like a tattered t-shirt
Drooping off her shoulders
A little
Hanging a bit
At the sides
Like her eyes

I wonder who she sees ?
The woman she has become
Too heavy for her age
Worn by births
And deaths
And life

Or the child she once was
The one who ran against the wind
Hair streaming out behind her
Face tilted heavenward
Exulting in the flocks
Of orange and black weavers
That passed like fleeing rainclouds

Picture: Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1882-1973), Girl Before a Mirror, 1932, oil on canvas, 64 x 51 1/4 inches, Museum of Modern Art, NY. See Cubism.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Royal Child Washer

My daughters had their most expensive bath ever last night. It cost all of R1200-00. It would have carried a price tag of R5000-00 had Mahmood had that kind of cash on him at the time.

The Royal Child Washer was a family member who ‘dropped by’ last night, ostensibly to check on my health. I am pregnant after all. She volunteered her esteemed services upon noticing that I was much too absorbed in getting supper on the table.
Even though the girls emerged smelling great - lotioned, powdered and brushed - I couldn’t help feeling that I had been short changed somehow. It was water that I pay for that filled the tub. Soap that I buy, shampoo, lotion and powder too. The clothes I provided. So why did I pay R 1200-00 again?

Now I remember! Because Mahmood has difficulty saying , “No!’

I’ve thought of giving him ‘No Lessons’. It’s a shorter word than yes, and so wonderfully liberating when it shoots out of your mouth. But he’s scared of it. Scared that some part of his anatomy vital to his existence will drop off if he uses it when people appear for visits that culminate in,”I was wondering man. I’m in a real jam. So many problems. And business is quiet. Couldn’t you spare R 5000-00? I’ll pay you back next month. A PDC.”

When really such visits where a guest is treated to a grand meal should end with, “Thanks guys for the great supper. Salaam,” leaving me with the opportunity to smile graciously, say all the appropriate inanities and bid farewell.

Any volunteers to teach Mahmood the art of saying, “No!”? I’m at the end of my rope really and I fear that I might just use the said rope to hang him from the horribly defunct light fixtures which could have been replaced with the money he saw fit to kiss goodbye if he doesn’t get the hang of it soon.

So if any of you are interested in saving me from a lengthy prison term, please help. Lesson plans desperately needed

Writing Exercise

A random writing exercise to unblock the block. Hope you're not asleep by the time you get to the end.

The first autumn leaves have drifted to the ground. The first cosmos have hesitantly poked their purple and pink heads from the slowly cooling ground. I can feel the change. If is there in the morning air that is cooler, slightly crisper. Air pregnant with promise of prettily frosted mornings. A much needed respite from the heat that has been nothing short of cruel this summer.

And I rejoice. Did I tell you about that journey sometime last year, at the height of Autumn? The road meandered through sleepy hamlets and was often flanked by freshly tilled earth. We passed meilies drying in the fields and the sunflowers in full bloom.

And there, in the middle of nowhere, gently undulating land stretching in all directions, I saw it. One of the prettiest sights to ever greet my eyes. Farmland, cheerfully yellow with sunflowers. And separating each field, a river of cosmos wending its way in all its purple, pink and white glory. It was stunning. And curiously uplifting. The work of man fringed by the handiwork of the Almighty.

Strange how these sights remind you of how alive you are. Of the wonder that is your body, your being.

There is something else. Did I mention it?

How the prospect of something better makes you faintly impatient with what you already have? We’ll be moving house soon. Something better. Saying goodbye to our home. We’ve been here four years now. We’ve made various improvements. Tiled it, carpeted it, painted it. It was our haven. Away from prying eyes and wagging tongues. Away from the painful poverty that frustrates me at times. Away from the robberies and murders that have become a part of the tapestry of our lives.

It is where I remove the various coverings that hide me from view when I leave the house. And now, faced with the prospect of more space, this little sanctum has begun to suffocate. We cannot articulate it, but we all feel it. We politely side step the topic even though we often look for excuses to drive past what will be our new home. We don’t say to one another how honestly and truly we cannot wait to leave the clogged storm drains, burst pipes that birth artificial rivers on dirty streets and shopkeepers who are constantly under siege.

Perhaps that is an exaggeration. Perhaps the shopkeepers aren’t always under siege and the burst pipes are occasional occurrences as are the blocked storm drains. But you know how the clean suburb seems to promise better?

Maybe we’ll get there and find that the homeowners are under siege. Maybe we’ll discover that suburbs have wagging tongues as well and that the storm drains are blocked with garden refuse. But for now, we’ll keep hoping, imagining that the grass really is greener on the other side.

Some fun with proverbs: I invite, nay challenge, all visitors to come up with variations on proverbs. Something that packs a punch. This is my feeble attempt:

The grass is always greener on the sewage farm