“I dream of my ancestors. I dream of a roof that does not leak” – Elina Makhubela
I had wondered, attending a family memorial in the Timbavati bushveld in South Africa, what kind of spirit was left in the family as the older generation passed away. So much had happened that was tragic and disconnected. It reminded me of trying to decide if a claw-like plant in my garden should be dug up. And, a few days later, finding red blooms at the ends of those blackened branches, gifts that were both bright and startling. It can be hard to know if something has died, or if it is just sleeping.
Timbavati has always seemed to me a symbolic mirror of current truths. I like that more or less around the same time that South Africa defenestrated apartheid, the Timbavati Reserve and the Kruger Park took down fences so that wildlife could flow between both lands. This visit, the land was very green, soft and quiet, less about The Big Five, and more about the chatty birds and gorgeous flowers that arrived after some summer downpour – a perfect au revoir to the matriarch of our family.
While I had intuited family histories quite accurately, hearing the real deets gave the bones of my understandings some flesh, some vibrancy. Over the weekend all kinds of stories flew in like strange, giddy birds, liberated from waiting all those decades for free expression, expressions of love from people I barely knew.
It’s quite a thing to go back to a land of your childhood. I gather words like some people gather stones on a beach. Funny little nouns from childhood, specific to this place and time, evoking all the senses – like Zebiediela, milk glass, brookies, robot and rusk.
The stories showed how darkness glided from one generation to the next. Itchy, crabby drinking that shortened lives. Squanderings. Slut-shaming. Suicide. Inabilities to express sorrow or kindness. Words flung like stones that stopped someone painting, making wine or simply loving. Setting fire to an entire relationship, because you can’t keep that person nearby. And money, oh sweet jesus, is always in there somewhere, because someone has too much of it, or too little, someone’s ungrateful, a brown-noser, a loser, a money-necromancer, a tight-wad, a spend-thrift, a gold-digger or a grifter. Yet somewhere amongst the hubris, some of the people in these stories had, over the years, quietly cultivated beauty and gentleness. A feat when you consider that South Africa is not an easy country to do this.
One story appeared that my late father had divorced my mother because she wanted to be a vegetarian. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of a man telling his wife what to eat. Of course food can be the battlefield that many relationships die on. And South Africa is intensely patriarchal, as I remember the many things women have told me that they do, “to keep the peace”. Margaret Atwood’s quote is still true – “men are afraid that women will laugh at them, and women are afraid that men will kill them”. Timbavati was a good place to muse on love and sovereignty over our bodies, and love and sovereignty within our mother-body, the land.
I had arrived in South Africa in its pre-election build-up and the anxiety in the air seemed greater than usual (noting that Johannesburg is normally high anyway on the Richter scale of Anxiety). It reminded me of recent elections in the USA, voters betrayed by rich, powerful and invisible forces, struggling to stay afloat in a way that is neither cynical nor delusional. All the colonies of my heritage – USA, South Africa and even New Zealand – are high in anxiety. We have similar histories, whether the atrocities are overt or covert. Genocides, extractive growth-oriented capitalism, the commodification of every single thing lead us all here, to this global panic of how we are going to live, really live, and not be prisoners or wardens. Or “hungry ghosts”.
This lovely phrase comes from various Buddhist traditions, where hungry ghosts roam the earth because of trauma, or not being appropriately remembered by their family descendants, and so rituals are performed annually to ensure they are properly fed and put to bed. Social media has borrowed this term as a way to describe the struggle of modern societies to come to terms with our collective trauma, with all our violent consumerism in a dying world.
I’m thinking of Elina, a Shangaan elder who works at Timbavati, and the way she remembers her ancestors, sure that they are there in her dreams to help her through difficult circumstances. By contrast, our Western rememberings of ancestors can be fraught. Where are they? Do they want to help us? Should they help us? Were they nice in human form and if not, are they nicer versions of themselves now, with requisite auras and robes? Or do they show up as crusty, red-faced, easily offended and just not sorry about all those things? If we Westerners don’t have faith in our ancestors, and our past, where do we put it?
The question of faith-in-something – whether you’re atheist or religious – is crucial now, as our foundations falter. What kinds of remedies and restitutions do we apply to feed and soothe our ghosts? Should we experiment, given differing privileges, histories and goals? I admire South Africa’s steady perseverance, for example, around land rights and restitutions. Timbavati itself has been scrutinized for its relationship to the community around it. These issues being raised are exactly the ones Americans need to study and learn from.
One of the roles of being a womxn is to be often (and not by choice) an expert at toiling in the Mines of Emotional Labor. We are forced to build unisons that are strong and swift, and I can think of three examples touching my life, in different ways, in the last three weeks. A new women’s collective of composers and musicians in Johannesburg, that provides safe harbor for fresh ideas that might otherwise be man-splained out of existence. The activist Nonhle Mbuthuma defending her land in Northern Pondoland on the scenic Wild Coast from Australian titanium mining on the coastal dunes. The women’s collective I attended when I came back home from South Africa, which was finally pushing back against a sexual predator who had posed as a healer in Native American ceremony.
We are going to fix those damn roofs. The womxn are coming.