Maverick Life

REFLECTIONS IN EXILE

A profound homesickness, for Africa

A profound homesickness, for Africa
Steaming towards Victoria Falls behind a Garratt. Image: Anthony Akerman

When Anthony Akerman left apartheid South Africa in the seventies, there was no love lost between the writer and the country whose citizenship he would soon renounce. Over a decade later, a trip that took him to neighbouring Zimbabwe and Botswana sparked a homesickness that would leave him feeling forever displaced in the country he had then grown to call home.

I believe that the chief gift from Africa to writers, white and black, is the continent itself, its presence which for some people is like an old fever, latent always in their blood, or like an old wound throbbing in the bones as the air changes.” – Doris Lessing, preface to African Stories.

Ian stopped drying himself and turned to look at me. We’d just stepped out of the shower.

Are you serious?

Absolutely.

When?

Next month? 

Next month! 

Okay, how about July? Say the end of July?

I’ll have to speak to Cheryl.

I didn’t have to speak to anybody. A long-term relationship with a Dutch girlfriend had ended the previous year and I was still licking my wounds. When I poured myself a beer, I’d stare into the glass and intone, “loveless, landless, wifeless”. Perhaps I thought self-mockery and the stoic levity inherent in an aptly chosen literary quote would make my misery more bearable and, after all, James Joyce had been the century’s most famous literary exile. Ian and I had last played squash on 18 April, which was the anniversary of my departure from South Africa. After I’d embraced exile as part of my identity, I marked the passage of each year by adorning my wrist with yet another African bracelet. That day I’d put on bracelet number twelve and, as I raised my beer glass with an even heavier hand, it occurred to me I’d spent one third of my life in Europe.

***

In 1926, Roy Campbell left Durban and docked briefly in Cape Town. His poem Rounding the Cape describes his complex feelings as he steamed away from the Cape and into exile. 

Farewell, terrific shade! though I go free
Still of the powers of darkness art thou Lord:
I watch the phantom sinking in the sea
Of all that I have hated or adored. 

I didn’t have complex feelings when I left the country. I hated everything about South Africa – its politics and its parochialism. I couldn’t name one thing I adored. Or so I thought. Did the irony escape me that most of the friends I made in London were South African? 

Before leaving South Africa I hadn’t been remotely interested in South African literature – besides Athol Fugard and Herman Charles Bosman – but about eighteen months after arriving in the UK I picked up a paperback edition of The Story of an African Farm in a second-hand bookshop. I went back to my student digs and, with the rain beating against the windowpane, was drawn into the emotional landscape of Olive Schreiner’s Karoo. When I closed the book I diagnosed myself as terminally homesick.

'The Story of an African Farm' by Olive Schreiner, 1892 edition.

‘The Story of an African Farm’ by Olive Schreiner, 1892 edition. Image: Supplied

Schreiner wrote her novel in the Karoo and set off for England in 1881 with the manuscript in her luggage. It took her over two years to find a willing publisher, but when Ralph Iron’s The Story of an African Farm appeared in 1883, it heralded the beginning of a South African literature written in English by writers born in the country.

When I began writing I was conscious of being a South African writer and looked to her as a trailblazer. Although serendipitous, it pleased me that my first play, Somewhere on the Border, was first performed in The Hague exactly 100 years after the publication of her first novel. 

Well, I say I was conscious of being a South African writer but I wasn’t sure whether I could really call myself a writer after having had only one play performed. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to describe myself as a theatre director who’d also written a play. Actually, I had written two plays but I hadn’t yet been successful in raising funding to stage my second, and an unperformed play doesn’t really exist. 

A Man out of the Country is set in the South African exile community in Amsterdam. Although this play features a Dutch character, I had no desire to attempt a play set in Holland with Dutch characters wrestling with issues that would interest Dutch audiences. I’d recently become a Dutch citizen, but it was a skin-deep identity I’d assumed for political reasons.

When I sat down to write Somewhere on the Border I realised I was writing primarily for a South African audience, the people I’d been so dismissive about when I left the country. After I heard the Directorate of Publications had banned the play, I can’t say I was surprised and may briefly have felt smugly supercilious about offending the custodians of the apartheid state. Then it occurred to me that I’d been deprived of the audience I’d most wanted to reach. If I didn’t want to write for Dutch audiences and wanted to write the kind of plays that might well incur the displeasure of the South African censor, was my writing life condemned to be an absurd exercise in futility?

What Lessing had written about Africa’s greatest gift to writers resonated with me. 

I’d typed it out and pinned it to the corkboard in my apartment. I felt no affinity with the flat polder landscape of Holland, but was exhilarated by the topographical familiarity of Mediterranean countries. That’s where Campbell eventually settled, as it was the closest he could get to Africa without leaving Europe. As I got up to get another beer out of the fridge, the phone rang. I answered, as I always did, in Dutch.

Cheryl’s okay with it, said Ian. We’re going to Africa, buddy.

***

Africa – but not South Africa. I’d need a visa for South Africa as I’d renounced my citizenship. I sometimes wish it had been the dramatic public denunciation the word conjures up, but it wasn’t. It was simply a precondition for acquiring Dutch citizenship. In 1978 the South African Embassy informed me they’d only renew my passport for one year at a time. It was their way of letting me know I was being watched. 

1978 South African passport of Anthony Akerman, valid for one year. Image: Supplied

1978 South African passport of Anthony Akerman, valid for one year. Image: Supplied

Renouncing my citizenship was my way of letting them know what I thought of them. One of my recurring nightmares was waking up behind the wheel of a car in Durban, being pulled over for a minor traffic offence and the policeman recognising and arresting me. I’d wake up in a sweat and, when I realised where I was, would have an overwhelming urge to kneel down and kiss Dutch terra firma in gratitude. 

The Polish Pope John Paul II was not only the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, he was also the first Pope to kiss the ground when he arrived at an airport. Feeling increasingly sentimental after liberally imbibing the free drinks on Air Zambia, I turned to Ian and told him that’s what I was going to do. Ian gave me a look and asked if I wanted to get us arrested. Two white guys with Dutch passports stating they’d been born in South Africa should not engage in outlandish behaviour in Lusaka which was, after all, headquarters of the outlawed ANC. He had a point.

Ian Bruce grew up in Boksburg, had been South African Junior Judo Champion, left home when he was sixteen, matriculated through Damelin College, did compulsory military service for a year, studied briefly at Wits and found his way into the theatre – initially as an assistant to the actor Patrick Mynhardt. When he and two of his closest friends received call-up papers for Angola, they boarded the first flight to the Netherlands where they were granted political asylum. I’d first seen Ian on stage as Johnnie in the English Speaking Theatre of Amsterdam’s production of Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye. Since then we’d worked together on Somewhere on the Border and Fugard’s The Blood Knot. We also played squash twice a week.

Looking out of the window at the African sunrise, I thought of the exiled Breyten Breytenbach’s poem in which he describes flying over Africa as an abstraction. I couldn’t remember the context or exactly what he meant by that, but I liked the sound of it. When I stepped out of the DC-10 and onto the runway at Lusaka International, it was exactly twelve years, twelve weeks and twelve days since I’d flown out of Durban. I hadn’t planned it that way. 

We caught an interconnecting flight to Gaborone on Air Swazi and had a liquid breakfast of cold Castle at Seretse Khama International Airport before inquiring how we could best get into town. The young girl at the Information Desk flashed us a helpful smile and told us candidly that she didn’t have a clue. There was no bus, so we hitchhiked, were dropped off next to the railway station and checked into the Gaborone Hotel. In those days it was a dump, but we didn’t care. It was the cheapest hotel in town and we were back in Africa.

The Botswana Book Centre stocked books banned in South Africa, which arguably made it the best bookshop on the subcontinent. Michael Smith, a friend in Amsterdam, said we should look up Ron Auerbach who worked there. A shop assistant pointed him out. I walked over and asked if he was who she’d said he was. He was guarded. Who wants to know? I said I’d flown in from Amsterdam and introduced myself.

Didn’t you write Somewhere on the Border? Michael gave me a copy. I thought it was great.

Then he asked where we were staying, said he’d fix us up with a place and arranged to meet us later on the veranda of the President Hotel. While waiting on the veranda, we sampled all the different South African beers. I’d travelled 10,000 km and had met a complete stranger who’d read my play and thought it was great. I ripped open the Carling Black Label and enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame. 

***

Ron spoke about the fear in the exile community since the military raid on 14 June. The Sunday Times had carried the story under the staggeringly tasteless headline, “The Guns of Gaborone”. Was it a gleeful endorsement or had they simply been reluctant to forego something catchy simply because twelve people had been assassinated? Three of those killed by South African operatives were Ron’s friends. He’d moved out of his house and didn’t spend more than three nights in any one place. He offered to take us to Alan Wilson, another friend of Michael’s who we’d met in Amsterdam. Alan was Head of the History Department at the Maru a Pula School. He generously offered us a place to stay and, because he’d recently invested in a Toyota 4×4, said we could use his Alfa Giulietta. 

Just before Tlokweng I pulled the Alfa off the road and we got out to feel the heat and listen to the silence. This was Bosman country. This was the bushveld of the backvelders whose stories Oom Schalk Lourens told with compassion and sly humour. I’d been looking at a map and mentioned that Abjaterskop could only have been about 15 km away. Ian smiled and recalled touring More Jerepigo as Mynhardt’s stage manager. It was so familiar and so close. Yet the other side of the border fence seemed redolent with malice and violence. The South African military had smashed through this border post on 14 June and ten days before we left Amsterdam PW Botha had declared a State of Emergency. This was as close as I was going to get to home. 

It had been nine and a half years since Ian last saw his family. Although his parents were no longer alive, he’d hoped his sisters would come to Botswana. Unfortunately one of them was too sick to travel, one had just had a baby and his third sister didn’t know where Botswana was. So he applied for a visa and the embassy called him in for an interview. They made him sweat until one of his inquisitors noticed he’d played a character called Freddie Malherbe in the TV series The Villagers. The atmosphere suddenly thawed and he was granted a fourteen-day visa on compassionate grounds. Nonetheless, he was feeling apprehensive about getting on the train to Johannesburg. But before he caught that train, we had another train to catch. We were going to Victoria Falls.

***

I’d last been to Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia. A friend and I drove to Vic Falls in a beach buggy. It was 1969 and I was surprised to see a Bedford truck full of uniformed men speaking Afrikaans. Those were early days of a war that was now over, which is why I was again surprised when soldiers boarded the train in Plumtree. The British press had reported that security forces had carried out atrocities in Matabeleland. Robert Mugabe had denied these reports. I wanted to believe him, although I didn’t feel reassured when soldiers confiscated opposition leader Joshua Nkomo’s passport shortly after we arrived in Botswana. 

Ian Bruce at Plumtree. Image: Anthony Akerman

Ian Bruce at Plumtree. Image: Anthony Akerman

Horse riding in the Vumba. Image: Ian Bruce

Horse riding in the Vumba. Image: Ian Bruce

Anthony and Nick at Mosi-oa-Tunya, 'the smoke that thunders'. Image: Ian Bruce

Anthony and Nick at Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘the smoke that thunders’. Image: Ian Bruce

Nick Leslie and a doorman at Victoria Falls Hotel. Image: Anthony Akerman

Nick Leslie and a doorman at Victoria Falls Hotel. Image: Anthony Akerman

Ian Bruce hits the bull's-eye in Botswana. Image: Anthony Akerman

Ian Bruce hits the bull’s eye in Botswana. Image: Anthony Akerman

Bulawayo once prided itself in the longest undercover railway station in Africa. That’s where we caught the train to Vic Falls. We were going there anyway, but Ian mentioned that a friend of ours from Amsterdam was coincidentally also going to be there. Nick Leslie was another war resister who’d been given political asylum in Holland. Stolid Amsterdammers who were accustomed to eccentric behaviour would stop and stare in bemused astonishment as Nick trundled along the Haarlemmerdijk in a multi-coloured pith helmet checking black bin bags with a Geiger counter. His father was Adam Leslie, pioneer of intimate theatre revue in South Africa, and his brother Rob owned a catering company for television and movies. Rob had flown Nick out to help him on a movie shoot. A growing number of international movies were being filmed in Zimbabwe – either to avoid the worldwide opprobrium associated with working in South Africa or because the films themselves were too politically sensitive to be shot there. We wondered what Nick was working on. We’d heard rumours that a film about Steve Biko was in the pipeline.

We were uncoupled from our diesel locomotive at Thomson Junction and steamed into the station at Victoria Falls behind a Garratt. As I was wearing an Italian straw hat and Ian a pith helmet, we could easily have been mistaken for passengers alighting from the Orient Express in an Agatha Christie movie. 

We took a rondavel on the local camping site and rented bicycles. Not much was going on in Victoria Falls, so everyone knew about the movie and pointed us in the direction of the set. We also discovered it wasn’t about Biko’s struggle against apartheid. It was about Allan Quartermain’s struggle against insurmountable odds in his quest to find his brother and a lost white tribe – presumably not unlike the white tribe Victorians believed must have built the civilisation of Great Zimbabwe. The movie was called Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold and it was the sequel to Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines that had just wrapped outside Harare.

The Lost City of Gold. Image: Anthony Akerman

The Lost City of Gold. Image: Anthony Akerman

Ian Bruce at the Ruins of Great Zimbabwe. Image: Anthony Akerman

Ian Bruce at the Ruins of Great Zimbabwe. Image: Anthony Akerman

Our years in Amsterdam had made intrepid cyclists of us so we set off in search of the Lost City of Gold. We got there faster than Allan Quartermain does in the movie and discovered it had formerly been the Elephant Hills Hotel. During the liberation war it took a direct hit from a mortar. The hotel’s golf course was reclaimed by the African bush but the hotel itself had been reclaimed by Cannon Films. They constructed some ancient city gates, fortifications and crowned the edifice with a statue of a golden lion. This lion clearly had great symbolic significance for the lost tribe of white film extras wearing white togas and gold belts. I spoke to some of them and discovered that the main disadvantage of being a member of a lost white tribe was that you had to queue for lunch and – unlike the cast and crew – were only served meatballs. Fortunately, we found Nick and were invited to eat in the Crew Dining Room.

Nick said he thought he’d been hallucinating when he saw us but that’s probably because he’d been smoking Malawi cob. He pointed to the table where the A-list cast was having lunch.

That’s Richard Chamberpot, he said.

And the blonde?

Sharon Stone. I did a scene with her the other day.

I didn’t know you were acting in the movie, said Ian.

They needed an Arab, said Nick, and I’m Jewish. What can I say? 

Where Ian and I shared the dining area with Sharon Stone. Image: Anthony Akerman

Where Ian and I shared the dining area with Sharon Stone. Image: Anthony Akerman

***

In a preface to a later edition of African Farm, Schreiner refers to a critic who said he’d have liked the book better had it been “a history of wild adventure; of cattle driven into inaccessible kranzes by Bushman; of encounters with ravening lions, and hair-breadth escapes.” She went on to say that such books were best written in Piccadilly or in the Strand. Although Rider Haggard’s novels appeared after African Farm, it’s tempting to think she had him in mind.

According to Carole Klein’s unauthorised biography, African Farm had a profound impact on Lessing when she read it at the age of fourteen. It was not only the first “real book” set in Africa that she’d encountered, “it was truth as she had never known it before, not in all the books she had devoured in her autodidact’s education.” In the introduction to a 1976 reprint of Schreiner’s novel, Lessing wrote, “The book became part of me”.

Almost 70 years after Schreiner embarked for London with her manuscript, Lessing boarded a ship carrying the manuscript of The Grass Is Singing. Like African Farm, her first novel was a publishing success story, although she almost took it for granted at the time. She simply said she was fortunate because the reading public was interested in Africa following the recent publication of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Those two novels inevitably invite comparison. While an undergraduate at Rhodes, I’d seen a creaky stage production of Paton’s novel performed by students and staff members from the Alice Seminary. When a political-science lecturer took his pipe out of his mouth and pronounced that the story was marred by Anglican sentimentality, I lazily embraced his judgement without bothering to read the novel. Lessing seemed more edgy, more radical, more real and her black characters didn’t speak biblical English.

The Catcher in the Rye had been to me what The Story of an African Farm had been to Lessing. And I knew exactly what Holden Caulfield meant when he said, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” After reading her “Children of Violence” novel sequence, I’d definitely have liked – as Holden used to put it – to shoot the breeze with Lessing. I’d experienced a similar stifling claustrophobia she experienced growing up in white Rhodesian society, endorsed her opposition to what was then called the Colour Bar and understood her need to go into exile.

As we were travelling light, the only book I’d brought from Amsterdam was Simone Signoret’s Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be. I’d been enjoying it, but I only wanted to think about Africa. So I’d left it on Alan’s bookshelf. When we met Ron in the Botswana Book Centre I’d bought Schreiner’s Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. After we’d again switched locomotives at Thomson Junction, I finally opened it and started to read. Schreiner and Rhodes had briefly had a mutual-admiration society. However, she turned against him after the Jameson Raid. This novella, although considerably more than a political pamphlet, was written in response to what she felt was the true nature of his imperialist agenda.

First edition of 'Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland' by Olive Schreiner, London 1897.

First edition of ‘Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland’ by Olive Schreiner, London 1897. Image: Supplied

It tells the story of a boy from an impoverished English family who enlists as a soldier in Rhodes’s Chartered Company, comes out to Africa and is sent to quell the 1896 uprising in Mashonaland. Peter has little to no schooling and unquestioningly accepts all the prejudices and arrogant assumptions inherent in British imperialist attitudes. One day he’s separated from his comrades and is forced to spend a lonely night on a koppie in the veld. A Semitic Stranger emerges out of the darkness and asks if he can join Peter at his fire. During the ensuing encounter with the mysterious Christ-figure, Peter experiences his Damascene conversion. Lyndall Gregg wrote in Memories of Olive Schreiner that the only words her aunt had wanted inscribed on her grave were, “She wrote Trooper Peter Halket.”

We picked up a rental in Bulawayo and drove out to the Matopos Hills. Although I’d been there in 1969, Ian never had and it’s a place worth revisiting. In Light on a Dark Horse, Campbell describes the “jumbled masses of huge round boulders heaped in piles and forming the most unusual caverns and chasms.” It was also Rhodes’s final resting place. I placed my copy of Trooper Peter Halket on his grave. At the time I may have felt like the final arbiter on their dispute but I now like to think it made up in small measure for it not being mentioned on Schreiner’s tomb at Buffelskop.

Rhodes's grave and Olive Schreiner's novel. Image: Anthony Akerman

Rhodes’s grave and Olive Schreiner’s novel. Image: Anthony Akerman

***

Rob Leslie had said we should look up his wife in Harare. Christine was staying at the Holiday Inn, which was the nerve centre of the film production as she coordinated everything that came in from South Africa and went up to Vic Falls. After two nights in a first-class compartment on National Railways Zimbabwe, breakfast at the Holiday Inn felt like sheer decadence. As I was spreading marmalade on my toast we heard the shrill shrieking of sirens along Samora Machel Avenue.

What’s that?

It’s Bob Mugabe and the Wailers, said Christine rolling her eyes.

We had lunch in the part of town where much of Lessing’s “Children of Violence” novel sequence is set. This was the “big city”/Salisbury that Martha Quest/Doris Lessing escaped to from the farm her father had built together with his farm labourers in the fictional country of Zambezia. Although she was still to write her autobiographies, it was widely believed that the novels were semi-autobiographical. She’d left school at fourteen, eventually found a job working for the telephone exchange in Salisbury, married at twenty and had two kids, then abandoned the family and married Gottfried Lessing, a comrade in the Southern Rhodesia Communist Party. Martha Quest, the first novel in the sequence, opens with an epigraph taken from Schreiner. “I am so tired of it, and also tired of the future before it comes.”

Christine was going to return a rental and offered it to us at the discounted rate she was getting. So we set off on the next leg of our journey in a Datsun 1800 bakkie. We were making our way to the Eastern Highlands. After I’d finished the Schreiner, I had nothing to read. In Harare we’d been to a bookshop and I’d asked if they had anything by Lessing. They didn’t. Importing books meant a loss of foreign exchange, so they only stocked university set works such as Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice

Vumba Mountains. Image: Anthony Akerman

Vumba Mountains. Image: Anthony Akerman

I’d been keeping notes on our journey and decided I should write a travelogue. We were going to spend a relatively quiet week in the Vumba Mountains, so that would be an ideal place to make a start. As an epigraph, I wanted to use the words Lessing had written in her preface to African Stories but only remembered it imperfectly.

So what’s your title? asked Ian.

Fellow Travellers.

***

Hugh Boswell Brown was the owner of Crake Valley Farm in the Vumba Valley. He’d come out from England in 1958, bought a tract of virgin bush in 1962 and transformed it into a successful coffee farm, while his wife Tuffy ran the local farm store. We were the first paying guests to use the cottage he’d built for his late father. When we went horse riding on our first morning, Hugh said we shouldn’t go beyond any painted fences on his farm as that was the Mozambican border. Although Samora Machel and PW Botha had signed the Nkomati Accord the previous year, the civil war continued unabated and South Africa kept supplying arms to Renamo.

Sometimes you can hear the shooting from here, said Hugh.

Hugh was a gentleman farmer – not because he had a double-barrelled name, but because he was an Oxbridge graduate with a well-stocked bookcase. I discovered this when he invited us around for sundowners. After being in the saddle all morning I was happy not to sit and stood inspecting his books. I noticed he had Peter Alexander’s biography of Campbell – a book that had already planted the seed from which my play Dark Outsider would eventually grow. Hugh thought Campbell was “an interesting fellow” and liked his poetry. I continued scouring the shelves.

You don’t happen to have Doris Lessing’s African Stories?

I’m afraid not, said Hugh, but if you want anything by her you should ask her son. 

Her son? 

Yes, he’s got all his mother’s books.

Tuffy entered carrying beers on a tray and asked who we were talking about.

John Wisdom, said Hugh. Anthony wants a book by Doris Lessing.

Well, he’ll have it, she said. His farm is on the opposite hill.

I think we passed the house when we were out on the horses, said Ian. On the slope, with the deep veranda and a corrugated-iron roof.

That’s the one, said Hugh. He’d love it if you called in.

He’s a great talker is old John, said Tuffy.

He must be Caroline, said Ian as we got into the Datsun.

Who must be Caroline?

John Wisdom. I mean, if he’s the daughter Martha Quest leaves behind when she goes to England.

I wouldn’t bring that up, I said.

Don’t worry.

I wish I’d had someone like Doris Lessing as my mother, I said. My mum only reads historical romances by people like Georgette Heyer. Imagine being able to discuss James Joyce with your mother?

You mean Molly Bloom’s raunchy monologue?

Well, maybe not that.

Anyway, said Ian, why would a coffee farmer want to talk to his mother about James Joyce?

We’re staying at the Boswell Browns, I said by way of introduction, as Ian and I walked up to the man leaning over the stable door. You must be John Wisdom.

Yes, I am.

We shook hands and introduced ourselves. We didn’t say why we’d dropped in. In this part of the world it wasn’t necessary.

I’ve got some beers in the fridge, he said leading the way indoors.

We waited in the living room while John collected the beers. It had a stone floor, deep armchairs, old rugs scattered about and a corrugated-iron roof supported by irregular wooden beams. Near the fireplace was a bookcase and, after a quick inspection, I noticed the spines of many Doris Lessing books. 

John came in with three beers and saw us looking around.

This is an authentic African farmhouse, he said. The Boswell Browns’ place is English – or as English as you can get out here.

These beams are beautiful, said Ian.

I had four men and four tree trunks, said John smiling at the memory. What I did was line them up out there in the morning and I told the men that lunchtime would only be when there were four beams ready to go up. My God, they grafted. It became a competition with each man trying to finish before his neighbour. You can see the different styles of workmanship. You can see by that beam there that that was a careless chap. This one here’s the best one. It’s Gideon’s. He’s a meticulous sort of bloke. 

So, like his maternal grandfather, John had built his own house. He stood in the middle of his room, a tall, sturdy man with a beard and spectacles. He wore khaki shorts, an off-white shirt that gave the impression of being buttoned up incorrectly and no shoes. John led us out onto the veranda, which was as large as the living room, and we exchanged pleasantries and drank our beers.

Then he went off to the kitchen to get us another round.

John Wisdom while briefly a student in Vancouver, 1958. Image: Supplied

John Wisdom while briefly a student in Vancouver, 1958. Image: Supplied

I think we should have phoned first, said Ian sotto voce.

Hugh said it wasn’t necessary.

If you’d been intelligent and phoned first, said John handing round the beer, I could have invited you to supper. But there’s nothing in the house and I gave the cook the day off.

We were admiring your view, said Ian.

On a clear night you can see the lights of Quedas, said John. That’s 70 miles into Mozambique.

It suddenly grew dark as we drank our beer and listened to John. He told us he’d studied in Canada and spent seven years working there. He’d spent much of his time in Alaska, away from the falseness of city people. He spoke slowly, taking long pauses while searching for the appropriate phrase.

Is that Quedas over there? asked Ian pointing to distant lights.

That’s not a town, said John. That’s a Frelimo barracks. They’re guarding a timber factory the Swedes have set up.

Weren’t you vulnerable here during the war? I asked.

This was not the most dangerous part of the country. If I’d got the land I really wanted, I’d be dead now.

Did you ever get attacked? asked Ian.

Not me. I’m not a soft target. A bachelor living out here on his own. What would be the use of killing someone who wouldn’t even have really minded? They went for the families. That has more effect, more psychological effect. Kill a child or two and that makes people pack up and run. If they’d killed me off, people would have probably thought I deserved it for living out here alone.

I flattened my second beer and asked whether he had any books by Doris Lessing.

Well, she’s my mother, said John. Which one are you looking for?

I wanted a quotation from the preface to African Stories.

I haven’t got that anymore. Trouble with books is you lend them out and you never get them back. People are like that. What was the quote?

I don’t remember exactly, but it’s something about Africa being like an old fever in the blood.

Well, that’s true, said John. Mind you, I don’t agree with everything she wrote. She’s got some pretty potty ideas about politics.

We directed the conversation away from his mother. If he found her politics potty, I’d have hated to think what he thought of her feminism and explicit descriptions of sex.

***

Maybe he’d have been better off with Georgette Heyer as a mother, said Ian as he navigated the Datsun along the farm track in the dark.

Well, he spoke like he’d read everything she’s written.

That’s understandable.

Not necessarily. Nora Joyce never read anything her husband wrote.

Well, if John grew up without his mother, said Ian, I suppose reading her books was one way of finding out who she was.

If I’d ever got to shoot the breeze with Doris Lessing I’d have told her about our meeting with John. Much later I discovered she had a reputation for being brusque, didn’t much care for literary fans and didn’t suffer fools gladly. I’d certainly have qualified as a fool. I mean, what kind of person expresses an opinion about Cry, the Beloved Country without having read the novel?

'African Stories' by Doris Lessing. Image: Supplied

‘African Stories’ by Doris Lessing. Image: Supplied

Ian hasn’t stopped talking about it since he’s been back, said Cheryl over supper in Amsterdam.

You guys must come around and see my slides, I said. They should be ready in a day or two.

So do you think it helped?

Helped what?

No, I mean going to Africa? With your homesickness and stuff?

I smiled a noncommittal smile and shrugged. I’d loved being there, felt I was home, but now I felt even more displaced than before. I hadn’t seen that coming. I’d reread the Lessing quote pinned up on my corkboard. If I’d remembered the following sentence when I set out for Africa, I’d have known this was going to happen.

That is not a place to visit unless one chooses to be an exile ever afterwards from an inexplicable majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or of thought.” DM/ML

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Michael Cosser says:

    A moving account expressive no doubt of the sentiments of many South Africans who are homesick in their own country.

  • Alan Jeffrey says:

    People should be queuing up to come and live in South Africa. We all know why they are queuing in the opposite direction. Any reasonably intelligent person with an education and some personal integrity, could run this country properly. Instead it is cursed with one of the most evil, most inept governments in the world. The extent of their greed and immorality is beyond understanding. What we need is a GNU to fight the next election with a Black leader. It is our only hope. The alternative is the inevitable decline towards ruin. The real tragedy of SA lies in the fact that it could be turned round very quickly and so easily to the benefit of all our people, but……
    Oh yes, interesting article. The pain of Africa at home or in exile is the same and never leaves you.

  • Jeronimo Chennells says:

    The first picture of the steam engine with all its carraiges, puffing out spirals of smoke near Vic Falls,
    allows me to understand a little of the homesickness for Africa that Anthony felt during his time in exile.
    This is a descriptive and easy to read message to us all of the pain and angst of being away from our homeland, despite the many problems and anxieties that face us each day.
    I look forward to part 2!!

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.