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Ona & Husøya: A tiny paradise off the Norwegian fjord coast

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Today, the navigational light up on the hill changes automatically from white to red and green. The last of the keepers who kept vigil up here at the lighthouse every Christmas with his grandson is long buried in the small graveyard facing the fjords on the adjacent island. With him rest a few dozen other souls, former inhabitants of these small Norwegian Sea twin islands called Ona and Husøya. Situated exactly in the middle between the former medieval capital of Norway, Trondheim, and the Hanseatic city of Bergen, Ona is the island located furthest away from the mainland in this region. It shields its twin Husøya from the open sea. The two islands almost form one landmass and are connected by a narrow inconspicuous bridge. A ferry transports supplies, tourists and locals to and fro between the mainland and the islands five times a day. After an one-and-a-half-hour journey from Småge, the ferry docks in a small harbour in Ona. A stone statue of a woman welcomes the people descending on land. With one hand she holds a child to her breast and with the other she shields her eyes from a setting sun or a merciless wind, her whole posture an expression of anticipation.
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We arrive on the evening ferry. Even though it is almost eight, the sun is still bright and it will take two more hours to set; quite a change after the short winter days of Cape Town in August. We move into a spacious grey house next to the harbour, rented out before it is to be sold to a new owner. Downstairs is a café selling svele – traditional big fluffy pancakes one can have with butter and sugar or brown goat’s cheese, a Norwegian speciality. We already had them on the ferry where, we have been assured, they always taste best.
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With an estimated fifty permanent inhabitants Ona and Husøya do not require much of an infrastructure, yet they provide a small cosy hotel with a restaurant, a well-stocked grocery shop with some banking and postal facilities, and two ceramic workshops – all situated in the vicinity of the harbour. Ona is famous for its ceramics. The two shops are a paradise for a coffee-mug collector like myself. Both showcase original designs. As if on purpose, the one located east of the harbour specialises in light, pastel colours and frivolous patterns. ‘These all look as if they were wearing pyjamas,’ my husband comments with a smile. The other workshop, located on the other side of the harbour, offers dark, elegant products which immediately catch my fancy. I add a tall, distinguished-looking, dark blue mug to my collection. I have been enjoying my afternoon coffee in it ever since.
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There is hardly any traffic on the few paved roads of the two islands, and everything is within easy walking distance. The ancient maroon-red lighthouse built on Ona in 1867 remains the main sightseeing attraction. Located on a hilltop near the harbour, fifteen meters tall, it is the perfect vantage point for the entire island. Grey boulders covered with moss and grass dominate the landscape into which the inhabitants have fitted large family homes and small holiday cottages. People have lived here for centuries, but most of the buildings are modern and very well kept. Some of the roofs are covered with thick turf, which creates perfect insulation in winter. In summer, the green roofs look like flower hats. Some people grow herbs near the edge of the roof, ready anytime to be picked for a salad. Others cultivate wild strawberries on top of their houses. Another striking feature of the local architecture is colour. Houses are painted in intensely bold colours, creating the impression of a fairytale setting. And now, in late summer, nature displays all her picturesque glory, adding to the impression. The intoxicatingly fresh smell of the sea penetrates the air and makes one want to go fishing.
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Svein Bjørnerem, a local journalist visiting his mother on Ona for the weekend, arranges a trip for us with Tore Viken, one of the island’s young fishermen, when he goes out to sea to bring in the day’s catch. Forgetting my proneness to seasickness, I eagerly join the excursion. I do suffer a bit, but the excitement is too big to spoil the occasion. As Tore pulls in the line with some 300 hooks on it, out of nowhere dozens of seagulls begin to swoop down to our small boat. A truly Hitchcockian scene, but these birds are not interested in us. They are eagerly awaiting their share of the feast. We return home with fresh cod and haddock which Tore fillets for us. An hour later the fish is on the dinner table, the freshest and finest we have had in a long time.
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The next day is a Saturday. My husband wakes me up very early to witness a spectacular sunrise. The sky seems on fire; its reflection makes the perfectly still sea in the harbour look like billowing hot lava. I run out in my nightgown to take photographs. Later in the morning the entire island is abuzz with activities. We are told that a couple from a neighbouring island got married and are to celebrate their wedding on Ona. Guests arrive on the ferry and chartered boats, some dressed in beautiful traditional costumes to feast our eyes on. The celebrations continue late into the night, but we are hardly aware of them, deeply asleep after spending the day on an idyllic white-sand beach on Husøya. The beach is situated near the cemetery where some gravestones date back to the early nineteenth century, others have only recently been set up. All people we speak to tell us about the famous Swedish crime author Henning Mankell visiting the island a few years ago. Allegedly, upon seeing this graveyard, Mankell expressed his wish to be buried on Husøya when the time came for his final rest.
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The beauty of the twin islands and the sense of inner calm one experiences here make Mankell’s wish perfectly understandable. None the less, my mind is flooded by other visions. A creative project not requiring contact with the outside world to work on and a few months away from everyday life seem like the ideal plan for this magical place. One feels creatively inspired the moment one sets foot on the islands. They could, for example, be the perfect setting for a novel. I wouldn’t be surprised if, before he comes to rest here, Mankell immortalises Ona in one of his books.
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On Sunday, before we have to leave, we make a final trip to the beach for a picnic lunch. The sun is generous again, the water crystal-clear. In stormy seasons the waves along this coast sometimes swell to thirty meters, but during our visit the sea is a calm and deep aquamarine expanse. Some people brave the cold water and go for a refreshing swim. By midday the tide begins to come in. Three ornithologists have set up a tent nearby to observe some birds which we cannot detect. In our ignorance we only recognise the seagulls which are everywhere. The only other bigger animal we encounter on the island is a cat which follows us on one of our excursions, dropping to the ground every now and then to wallow in the earth warmed by the late afternoon sun.
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After only a few days, Ona feels like home and it is difficult to say goodbye. From the departing ferry I see another, even smaller, white beach near the one we have visited but which remained hidden from our view on land. One of the twin islands’ treasures which still waits to be discovered. I know I will return one day to find it.

(2008)

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At Home in China

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Unexpectedly, it felt like a homecoming. Our Dragonair flight from Hong Kong to Beijing landed in the late afternoon. From the moment we left the arrivals hall something in the air made me want to curl up inside myself and simply return to where we came from. And it was not the chilling wind; nor the constant drizzle.

The grey architecture’s sharp and unimaginative lines, the bleak atmosphere, the poverty and hopelessness of masses, the condescending attitudes of people in any kind of authoritative position, the schemers operating below the radar of the system, and the uncanny impression of being constantly watched as if surrounded by an omnipotent, unpredictably scary, presence – almost instantly I was transported back to the time I was growing up in Eastern Europe still under the thumb of communist rule, before the political changeover of the late 1980s. Something engrained in my bones, but dormant for so many years, resurfaced in recognition.

The traffic policeman in charge of the taxi flow at the Beijing Capital International Airport shoved us aside and signalled for us to wait. It transpired that we were judged to have too much luggage to fit into an ordinary taxi, with no other kind of taxi in sight. There were three of us, each in possession of a suitcase and a piece of hand luggage. We tried to suggest that we could at least attempt to load the luggage into a car or separate and take two taxis, but both ideas were rejected. After a while of hopeless waiting, a rickety minibus arrived, clearly not an official taxi. The driver ‘generously’ offered to take us all to our hotel for about twice the usual fee. We did not have a choice but to accept.

An insignificant scene, one could say, but it was just the beginning. For the reminder of the trip I was constantly aware of this familiarity between the Poland of my childhood and the present-day China and I marvelled again at the destructive power of the ideology behind the resemblance, at how two countries of such diverse cultural backgrounds – Eastern European and Asian – could be reduced to eerie similarity under the pressures of a single system of thought.

But beside the ache in my bones, the experience of discovering a few spots of China was one of the most memorable ones of my entire travelling life. For the first time, I realised what Americans were doing when they ‘did’ Europe in two weeks. Our attempt was of a similar nature. My husband André Brink and I visited China to attend two literary festivals, in Hong Kong and Shanghai. The invitation was facilitated by a dear friend of André’s, Gary Kitching, who kindly offered to accompany us not only to the official literary events but on most of our journey through the Land of the Dragon. Apart from visiting the two festival cities, we used the opportunity to fulfil lifelong dreams of walking on the Great Wall and seeing the warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army.

It was our honour and pleasure to share parts of the journey with another South African writer, Mandla Langa who, like André, was a guest of both literary festivals. Mandla Langa’s latest novel, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (2008) won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Africa Region in 2009. During the two festivals Mandla read from the novel and spoke very movingly about his work, the hardships of exile, and the tragedy of having to cope with his brother’s death at the hands of the ANC. At shared events, Mandla and André discussed the different sides of the literary and political struggle they were both involved in during apartheid. On a more positive note, they shared with their enthusiastic audiences their feelings of optimism about the explosion of creativity in the New South Africa.

In Hong Kong at one of the literary events, together with Mandla, André was interviewed by Rachel Holmes, author of The Secret of Dr James Barry (2002) and The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Times of Saartjie Baartman (2007). She reminded them of the occasion they had met in London when Mandla was still in exile. André described the encounter in his memoir, A Fork in the Road (2008). He went to see Mandla and Essop Pahad at the time. As he took his leave, André was offered a packet of ANC coffee from Kenya and was told that they would drink it together when they were all allowed to come home “one of these days”. “The coffee will still be fresh,” André was reassured. Mandla accompanied him to the tube. André recalls in the memoir: “I walked huddled over the small packet I was carrying like precious loot under my arm. Mandla walked inclined towards me as if he, too, wanted to claim possession. Perhaps we were both imagining the flavour of that coffee: the smell of tomorrow. One of these days.”

For both of them, and for myself, the time of tasting freedom has arrived when at last we all found ourselves living in democratic countries, post-1994 South Africa and Austria respectively. But while we were travelling in China, signs of the ongoing repression and fear were everywhere: the Rio Tinto trial began in Shanghai amongst secrecy and doubt in the fairness of the process, Google was finally on its way out of the country refusing to accept the censorship imposed on the search engine, and an interview with the outspoken Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, a victim of censorship and state violence, was repeatedly shown on BBC World. Very tellingly, there were hardly any Chinese readers attending the festival events.
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Even before arrival in the country, while applying for our visas we were told not to mention the fact that we were writers, academics or had any associations with the media. This might have either endangered the positive outcome of the application or at least made the process much more tedious, we were warned. So, André travelled as a retired teacher, I as a housewife. Neither was a direct lie, but both statements were far removed from the truth. The application went smoothly. To our great surprise, the Chinese Consulate in Cape Town even distributed free DVDs about the Dalai Lama. We did not dare take one when applying for the visa, suspicious of the unexpected offer (a possible test of the worthiness of the applicant?), but could not resist bringing it back home once the visas had been granted. We were curious whether it was a piece of propaganda. But it turned out to be shrewder than that. We only managed to watch thirty minutes of what seemed a factually correct documentary. Then we fell asleep; it was so boring. Clever, we thought.

We also discovered that in spite of being widely publicised in the print and online media, the literary festival in Shanghai we attended was strictly speaking illegal. This kind of schism is also part of the system I remembered from growing up. You constantly live your life on the border of legality. Your actions are tolerated until you overstep a line. Where that line is precisely located you never know until you cross it, and then all which has been ignored till then will be counted against you.

As a special administrative region, reflecting the policy known as “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong still enjoys a high degree of autonomy in all areas except defence and foreign affairs. The city hosted its literary events officially. Celebrating their tenth anniversary with a bang, the festival organisers invited the likes of Alexander McCall Smith, Junot Díaz, Louis de Bernièrs, Linda Jaivin, and Mo Zhi Hong whose debut novel The Year of the Shanghai Shark (2008) won the Best First Book for South East Asia and Pacific of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2009 (the same year as Mandla won with The Lost Colours of the Chameleon).

The Hong Kong and Shanghai festivals often collaborate in bringing authors to the their audiences. So some faces were more or less familiar when we arrived in Shanghai. Contrary to expectations, literary festivals or conferences seldom offer good opportunities of getting to know other writers, especially if one is rather shy by nature, which, maybe surprisingly, many writers are. In spite of many organiser’s efforts to put them into social situations, writers often end up lonely in hotel rooms, passing the time from one event to another with TV or mini-bar content (more often than not, both), or if the gatherings take place in interesting settings, desperately trying to see as much of the area as possible. The latter happened to us, when André and I spent every free minute exploring Hong Kong and Shanghai instead of listening to other guests of the festival, no matter how alluring.

We did however, even if only briefly, catch up with Linda Javin, Louis de Bernièrs, and Mo Zhi Hong in Shanghai. On the terrace of the fabulous “M on the Bund” Restaurant (venue and one of the main sponsors of the festival), over James Bond martinis and the exotic Dragon’s Pearl cocktails we listened to the wonderfully flamboyant Linda Javin, author of the best-selling A Most Immoral Woman (2009), talking about her latest project, a traditional Chinese opera based on a story from a Ming Dynasty novel for which she has been asked to write the libretto. We actually managed to attend Louis de Bernièrs’s official event during which he delighted the audience with a reading of “Obadiah Oak, Mrs Griffiths and the Carol Singers”, a story from his recent collection Notwithstanding (2009), and charmed us all with his infectious sense of humour. With Mo Zhi Hong we shared a taxi to the airport in Shanghai and after a brief conversation were very sorry not to have been able to spent more time in the company of this erudite young man. The festival over, he was on his way back home to Auckland and we were travelling to Xi’an for our appointment with the world-famous Terracotta Army.

One of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s megalomaniac ventures, the terracotta warriors are a sight to behold. What struck me most about visiting China’s well-known places of interest was that in spite of seeing them numerous times on television programmes or in photography books, one is not prepared for their size. Constantly I had to readjust the images in my head to the real thing. The Great Wall of China (also Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s brainchild) does not impress with its height, as I expected. It is actually quite low and narrow for most of its unfathomable length. But when you stand on one of its vantage points and it stretches away from you in both directions over the mountain ranges like a ribbon carelessly discarded on the seemingly impenetrable landscape, it takes your breath away. In Beijing, the infamous Tiananmen Square is so vast that one can hardly see from one side of it to the other and walking across it in bitter cold was quite a challenge. The Forbidden City is actually a city within the capital. We began our tour of it at the northern entrance and it took us over four hours of almost continuous walking to reach the South Gate where Chairman Mao’s portrait overlooks the scene of the terrible massacre which took place in 1989.

Similarly, no matter how often one had seen them on television, the enormous excavation pits near the city of Xi’an where the Terracotta Army stands exposed after thousands of years of existing only in legends, are simply awe-inspiring. Each individually crafted and meticulously reassembled after centuries of being buried in mud, the warriors testify to the outrageous and murderous dreams of a single individual. Thousands of craftsmen and workers were tortured and killed during the execution of Qin Shi Huang’s vision of the army that was to protect him in the afterlife. Since their discovery just over thirty years ago, thousands of archaeologists, scientists and helpers have been meticulously putting the warriors’ remains together to make them, and what they stand for, known to the world. I walked around the pits and was terrified by the hunger for power and greatness which called this army into being. It was a chilling experience, but I admired the incredible reconstruction work on site and the amount of knowledge experts have gathered about ourselves and our past from the excavation pits. If only we would learn from it.

Other ‘visionaries’ ruled the land. After the so-called Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s when China’s innumerable treasures were destroyed and a whole generation of artists annihilated, the country is in the throes of another ‘cultural revolution’, this time brought about by Big Money and Big Mac. Like many other fast-growing economies, China is in constant flux, its authenticity challenged by the same forces which are at work in South Africa and other westernised parts of the world. Recently modernised for the Olympic Games, China still looks like one gigantic building site. Entire cityscapes are dominated by high-rise flat buildings which function as dormitories for the expanding population. Transport networks, shopping malls, factories, office buildings, and all kinds of institutions rise from the ground like mushrooms after the rain. The one constant is forests of cranes. Higher, bigger and faster seems to be the motto for everything. I can imagine that architects must have a field day in a country where their imaginations are required to go beyond all limits.

One of the most spectacular modern sites we saw was the architecturally mind-boggling Pudong skyline in Shanghai, the characteristic Oriental Pearl Tower dominating the scene. Over the last two decades the district has become home to China’s commercial and financial buzz. Just across the Huangpu river from Pudong is Shanghai’s best-known historical landmark, the Bund. While we were visiting, we witnessed the exciting preparations for the World Expo all along its beautiful promenade.
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Yet, among all the splendour and chaos, the one place in China that is truly lodged in my memory is the Old China Hand Reading Room, a small antique book-cum-tea shop located in one of the quieter streets of the French Concession, another of Shanghai’s historical districts. It was founded by photographer Deke Erh and writer Tess Johnston and strikes the perfect balance between past and present, between Chinese and Western influences. Furnished with antique furniture and stocked with hundreds of old and new publications as well as many quirky trinkets of local and international origins, the shop is a must for all tea and book lovers. They also serve excellent cappuccinos in ancient porcelain cups. Just the thing after a long Sunday morning walk through the Concession, as André and I discovered.

Everywhere else we had what one really should have while travelling through China: tea. It is served at every opportunity, its distinct flavours and the rituals to bring them forth cultivated through millennia-old traditions. I have always loved tea but never appreciated it as much as after the visit to China. The souvenir I cherish most from our visit is my collection of exquisitely embroidered, colourful silk pouches from the Laoshe Teashop in Beijing which was recommended to us by our dear friend Alex Smith, the author of the travel memoir Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008). Inside the pouches conceal such wonders as Dancing Fairies, Love at First Sight, Birds of Heaven, and Whispering Flowers. If you put them in a transparent teapot and pour mild boiling water over them, the little green tealeaf bundles which are known by these fantastic names open up like blossoms and release a string of flowers – jasmine or lily – from their centre. The taste is as marvellous as the spectacle.

It is good to be back in Cape Town, where I’m truly at home, and to enjoy a bit of Chinese magic. Not all can be lost for a people who can create such perfect little artworks in a teacup. They may yet survive the dreams and visions of ‘Great Men’. And in spite of everything that is going wrong in our own country, I gain strength from the unsurpassed surge of creativity we are experiencing at the moment in South Africa. I just hope that my bones won’t begin to ache here, and I wonder whether I will ever be granted a Chinese visa again. Or will this article be placed in a file with my name on it, hidden away in some obscure cabinet?

First published in WORDSETC 8 (August 2010).

The Day We Became Delta

(An edited version of the following article was published in the Sunday Independent on 9 November 2008; a bit of the background story to the post I want to write next.)

New lifeThey thought that he was just another white man come to make their lives miserable. The previous owner of the Zandvliet Delta farm filed for insolvency. The new one announced himself to the farm residents, wanting to meet every family individually. Nico Jansen, an outspoken member of the community, remembers his first encounter with Professor Mark Solms: “We were scared that he would want us off his land. But I knew we had to stand up for ourselves, because we belonged here.” He told Solms straight out, “You’re not going to kick us off!”

Mark Solms had no such intentions. Namibian-born, he emigrated in 1988 in search of better career opportunities. After having made a name for himself as a world-leading researcher into the brain mechanisms of dreaming, in 2002, he decided to follow his own dream of returning to Southern Africa. His late relative, Friedrich 4th Prince of Solms-Baruth, knew that Zandvliet Delta had been lost to creditors and recommended it. “He thought I would recognise the value of this place,” Solms recalls. “I came to look at the land after the great veld fires of that year. I remember the smoke-heavy air and the rustling of leaves when I walked around the farm. No decision had to be made; it was exactly the place I was looking for.”

The land in question, which became known as the Solms Delta, is situated in the Franschhoek Valley just off the R45 between Franschhoek and Paarl. The sheer beauty of the region and the quality of the wines produced here are world-famous. But Solms knew that settling and making wine in the area required a sensitivity to the historical burdens embedded in the local communities living in the Valley: “Very consciously, on a local scale I wanted to contribute to the transformation which was taking place in the country. I saw the farm as an opportunity. Only after getting here, I realised how challenging the whole project would be.”

Mark Solms was unprepared for the lack of enthusiasm and engagement he met with on the farm: “There seemed to be no common purpose or hope. The lethargy and depression were overwhelming.” For centuries people had lived here with strictly predetermined possibilities and would not think beyond them. He had to confront the “deeply uncomfortable role of a white farmer” which he suddenly personified. The attitude of most people on the farm was that, since he was the owner, they must be scared of him; or, if he does not live up to the role, then he can be taken advantage of. “We had to work around layers and layers of scar tissue,” he says. Moreover, he had to confront “the racism that exists in oneself”, and the tendency to transform while maintaining one’s own privileges.

Jansen was very sceptical about the plans Solms had for the Delta. “It was very difficult for us to believe in white people’s good intentions,” he remembers. But then Prof, as Jansen refers to Solms, took them by surprise. He met with all the families on the farm and addressed their fears directly. He also recognised Jansen’s leadership qualities and the young man became a facilitator between himself and the community: “He told me the reason he liked me was that I said what I thought, about him and the situation. It wasn’t a smooth path. There was a lot of mistrust on our part at first. But then Prof did two things that made people begin to respect him. He told us to work on our houses at the same time as we worked on his. Then he asked us what we were passionate about. Our answer was sports, especially rugby. So he had DSTV installed in all our homes.” These events were “attitude changing, real eye-openers,” Jansen recalls. “From the beginning Prof treated us as humans, and we decided to meet him halfway. Prof told us that he wanted to set right the things his people had done wrong. And I felt I could guide Prof’s dreams. I am proud of the fact that he didn’t break any of his promises.”

Shortly after his first visit to the Delta, Jansen telephoned Solms to tell him that the residents of the farm had organised “a prayer meeting to thank the Lord for sending them an owner they didn’t have to be scared of.” Solms knew that transformation would take time. Given human nature and the injustices of the past, “nobody can take your word for it in this place, sincerity has to be proven.” The changes have been gradual, but if he had to define the turning point, it would be the Bastille Day parade in Franschhoek last year. Tokyo Sexwale suggested using the festivities to celebrate, not the storming of the Bastille, but our local freedoms: the Huguenots’ freedom from religious persecution, freedom from slavery, Mandela’s freedom. The Solms Delta people created a unique float for the parade: a pyramid of wine boxes, each representing an inhabitant of the farm. They walked with the float, wearing t-shirts with their hands imprints on them in the colours of the South African flag, making music and waving to the crowds. It was “nation building on a small scale,” Solms remembers, “That day we were one, we were Delta, all of us.” The farm workers suddenly felt that a commercial event for the elites had turned into a festival in which there was a place for them. And to crown their achievement, they were awarded the prize for the best float. The feeling of belonging made Solms realise that they had “genuinely transformed the farm, in structure and feeling.”

In 2005, the Solms family established the Wijn de Caab Trust to benefit all the historically disadvantaged residents of the farm and other employees of the Solms-Delta wine company. In due course, Mark Solms convinced a dear friend from Britain, Richard Astor, to buy an adjacent farm, Lubeck Delta, and the Trust was restructured in the process. With the help of loan funding secured by the Solms and Astor families, the Trust purchased a third adjoining farm, Deltameer. The three linked properties now became equal partners in a common enterprise.

Alex van Heerden with Richard Astor and the Gramadoelas

Alex van Heerden with Richard Astor and the Gramadoelas

Richard Astor first visited his friend on Solms Delta in 2003. He returned several times and the beauty of the place grew on him, but he never considered settling here. In 2005, because of personal misfortune he needed a change and that was when Mark Solms suggested he buy the adjoining farm: “Mark managed to communicate his passion to me. I have been looking for a cause I could get involved in and it was suddenly easy to see the opportunities to make a difference here.” There was only one obstacle: “I love wine, but I can’t take it seriously; I don’t have the palate or Mark’s passion for it. He sees wine as an art form. I told him that the one art form I can be passionate about is music.”

The idea for the annual Oesfees (Harvest Festival) was born. Celebrated for the first time in April this year, it was an enormous success. Farm workers from the entire area were invited to participate in the festivities, involving traditional music, local food and wines. Richard Astor, a cornet player, performed on stage with the likes of David Kramer and the Delta Optel Band, consisting of Solms Delta residents and led by the young Cape music enthusiast, Alex van Heerden.

Farm youth dancing

Farm youth dancing

“Alex fitted perfectly into the project. He brings music out of people,” Astor says in admiration. Employed by the Delta Trust (established by Astor), van Heerden can now pursue a lifelong passion: “I have always wanted to uncover the common musical heritage we Afrikaans-speaking people share in this area.” In the mid-1990s van Heerden founded the “Gramadoelas” band and began his field research work in the rural areas of the Cape to get material for them. The project was not financially viable; nobody was ever interested in getting properly involved. Coming to work for the Trust has been a dream come true for van Heerden. Forty people are now directly involved in the music projects on the farm. Two bands, the Delta Optel and a brass band, meet regularly for practice. Van Heerden and historian Tracey Randle are collecting materials for a music heritage centre which is to open on the farm in 2010. Van Heerden is also in charge of the Saturday evening concerts which will begin in December. “I feel healed by making music with my people,” he says, clearly moved, “There is a feeling of unconditional sharing involved.”

Mark Solms with David Kramer

Mark Solms with David Kramer

Richard Astor knows that “all these great people on the farm can’t be a coincidence.” He says of his friend, “Mark brings out the best in people in a realistic way. He builds confidence and helps people realise their potentials.” The pool of talented individuals involved in the Solms Delta projects attests to this.

Cathy Macfarlane began as administrator at the farm in March 2007. A former teacher with no experience in administration, equipped only with vast enthusiasm, she swiftly adapted: “Working here has been an adventure. It’s tough at times, but I love my job.” As Solms Delta’s administrator, she coordinates all the entities on the farm, interviews new staff members (mostly appointed internally), and until recently was responsible for the certification of wine. Her latest projects are a fynbos reserve and “Fyndraai”, a restaurant which from December onwards will delight farm visitors with traditional Khoi cuisine based on the dedicated research of food scientist Renata Coetzee.

Tracey Randle was fresh out of university when she came to work at the farm in 2004. Finding vast amounts of artefacts during the renovations of Delta, Solms had an idea for a museum on the farm and employed Randle to direct it. A passionate historian, she shares his vision on how history can be told in a multitude of voices, an idea inspired by André Brink’s novel A Chain of Voices. In 2005, Brink was invited to open the Museum van de Caab which became one of the most sought after tourist attractions of the region. The Museum is unique in that it seeks to present history from individual perspectives of all the people who have ever lived, worked and died on the farm. There is no attribution of blame, just a display of the resilience of the human spirit.

In 2004, Medwin Pietersen and Johan O’Rayn came to work at the Delta as security guards, but both had a passion for history, which they have been given the opportunity to develop at the Museum and by completing heritage management courses. Later this month they will be travelling abroad for the first time in their lives on an exchange program to Sweden: “We’ll be visiting museums and schools in Malmö and learning how best to teach children about history, heritage and culture at school,” says Pietersen.

At home, Pietersen’s wife is one of the teachers involved in supervising the farm children in their after-school activities. The after school is an initiative coordinated by Frances Semmelink, a social worker employed by the Wijn de Caab Trust to represent all its beneficiaries. She began working for the Solms family as an au-pair while studying social work at the University of Stellenbosch. Recognising her potential, Mark Solms invited her to invest her skills in helping the Delta community after she completed her degree. Her focus is education: “It’s crucial that we break the cycle of poverty and dependency, so that children can move on if they wish to in the future.” By providing financial assistance for education on all levels, private health care and encouraging independent home ownership, the Trust aims at broadening the horizons for its beneficiaries. Semmelink coordinates various other projects, including all sports activities on the farm: a rugby team coached by the cellar manager, Fanie Karolus, a young basketball team led by a noted American player, Kyle Ray, and a walking team participating this month in the Big Walk in Cape Town. Semmelink knows that one has to remain “realistic about change, it’s a slow process,” but people see that it is real and that they are truly making a difference. “There is still drinking and domestic violence, but it’s on the decrease. The community realises that they have the power to control and stop things. They recognise their responsibility.” She adds with a confident smile, “People are happy.”

Even though he swore early on in life that he would never work on a farm, today Nico Jansen is the estate manager of Solms Delta. “Before, I used to work for a construction firm. I never believed in farming because it had broken my people, but now I love it.” He is proud of all the achievements on the farm. “People started taking care of themselves, they drink less. They feel that they can uplift themselves and restore their dignity,” he says. “Every week people come to me asking for work here, and it’s not about money. It’s about the respect and equality we all share here.”

The cycle of fatalism has been broken. People on Solms Delta know they are the masters of their future and that their fates are interlinked. “If you can transform one farm, why not a valley or a province?” asks Solms. What is he happiest with? Being greeted with a smile by every person on the farm and hearing the spontaneous eruptions of music on his daily walks. He explains, “Music is a genuine expression of pleasure and cultural participation.”

As I leave Solms Delta inspired by these stories, the voices of all the people fuse into the words of Theresé Willemse, a young woman working at the Museum van de Caab: “We are a whole big family here.”

Wednesday

When I get a little moneyEver since the summer of 1993, I’ve had this thing about Wednesdays. Special things used to happen to me on Wednesdays. But when I came to live in Cape Town, for a while Wednesday became my least-favourite day of the week. Fortunately, routines can change and miracles do happen. About two years ago, Wednesday reverted to being an ordinary day like any other. But yesterday, Wednesday hit again with the full force of all its magic and I was reminded of kisses, falling stars, the Baltic Sea, literary lectures, and the colour blue. Yes magic.

Most of my days centre on books, but yesterday brought with it an avalanche of bookish delights.

Beijing OperaRecently, I read a book which mentioned a dim sum restaurant in Cape Town with the glorious name Beijing Opera. I discovered my love of dim sum during a trip to China in 2008. It was soon afterwards that I met Alex Smith and read her wonderful account of travels in Asia, Drinking from the Dragon’s Well. She loves dim sum and tea as much as I do, so it was a no-brainer whom to invite to go with me on an exploration of Beijing Opera. We celebrated the recent publication of her latest YA novel, Devilskien & Dearlove, with some delicious gao, bao, and pu-erh tea.

I returned home already smiling to the fantastic news that one of my all-time favourite authors was longlisted for the Man Booker with a novel which I adore: Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.

In the evening, on my way to Alex’s reading at Clarke’s Bookshop in Longstreet where Devilskien & Dearlove is set, I stopped at two of my other regular hunting grounds, the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch and the Book Lounge, to pick up three books that have been waiting for me. I am struggling to finish Stephen King’s The Shining (I was expecting more creepiness; as it is, the only thing that creeps up on me on nearly every page is the word ‘overindulgent’), but I do not want to give up on him just yet, so I ordered the one book apparently every beginning writer should read: On Writing. I believe in second chances, and staying away from creepy hotels.

Divided LivesThe other two books were Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform and Lyndall Gordon’s Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter. I have read all books written by Gordon. Her biographies of writers – Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Mary Wollstonecraft – are simply brilliant. I don’t know how I would have survived many periods of doubt in the last few years without these insightful, empathetic, passionate, beautifully written books on lives of writing. Divided Lives (what a cover!) is different, because it is a memoir. I’ve been following its reception in the UK and have a feeling that I am in for a magical treat.

I found out about Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform through the New York Times. I have been reading books about the internet for years in order to be able to participate more consciously in its evolution, i.e. to use it wisely instead of being stupidly abused by it. Not sure that I am succeeding, but in the words of Manuel (Fawlty Towers): “I learn, I learn!” Perhaps now that I have joined twitter I need the books more than ever, but so far, my experience with the service has been quite positive. I treat it like a radio station: I tune in and out when I feel like it. Occasionally, I tweet. I follow God and Jennifer Lopez, so I feel in safe hands. (I might even make it to Facebook one day – in the words of my compatriot Conrad: “The horror! The horror!”)

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke's

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke’s

So: There I was at Clarke’s Bookshop, still smiling from the dim sum lunch and the longlist announcement, with a handbag full of books I couldn’t wait to get into bed with, listening to Alex’s beautiful reading voice, surrounded by shelves and shelves of exquisite second-hand books, then chatting to friends and other book lovers about Stephen King and literary podcasts, when…DDDRUM RRROLL…I spotted a copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Face to Face (1949), the first book she ever published. And because my handbag was stuffed with only three books, and because after the shopping spree I was on the verge of being completely broke again (“When I get a little money…”), I bought it, of course.

I flew home on the wings of a booklover’s happiness and arrived to the news of winning a copy of Jane Austen by David Nokes in the Great Faber Finds Summer Reads Giveaway:

“We are about to shut up Finds Towers for the summer, pack a bag full of odd-sized vintage paperbacks and catch a plane to somewhere sunlit and contemplative. In case you haven’t got your own bag packed yet we can, perhaps, make it all a bit easier for you. We are giving away a copy of each of the following thirty (that’s 30) superior Faber Finds titles.”

What a way to end a Wednesday!

How did I find out about the giveaway?
On twitter.

I’m off with my own bag full of odd-sized books in search of a glass of sherry and a fireplace…

Happy reading everyone!
And have a great Thursday. (It’s Set Menu Dinner Club time at Beijing Opera tonight.)