On Rhodes Statues and A Cactus Garden

I watched my father growing a garden made out of cactus and succulents in the backyard of our house. The sky was always very big and very blue when he worked on his creation. He carved it out of the brick steps that led up to the pool. Plain and predictable white suburban stairs, the ordinary life of the racial elite in 1980’s South Africa, glistening with water and the smell of braaivleis. My father was those things, and also brown skinned and racially ambiguous in his cut-off denim shorts, inserting objects and magic into the garden he grew over those stairs under the sun. He made one for each of his three daughters. Was mine on the end or in the middle? I don’t remember that detail, just that in the end all three gardens merged into one. I watched the tossing of the soil, the setting of the rocks and stones, shards of statues, icons, glass pieces and the spikes of cacti gathered on walks in the veld and koppies that still surrounded Alberton back then. Those walks where me and my sister would trot behind him, learning how to use our feet like noses to sniff out potential traps and trips on the ground. My father would stop and pull up plants, take cuttings. Sometimes producing a frying pan and a fire to make bacon and eggs. I can’t say that we were part of it so much as spectators, watching. I did learn some things. How to pull a piece of a cactus plant off and stick it into a new pot where it would magically keep growing, without roots. You don’t need roots to grow. What a lesson I think now, looking back. The garden became ever more outlandish and charged with sorcery and indifference. I loved to watch it. At night I would explore its perimeters, finding glow worms clinging to aloes. I have stopped collecting cacti now. I last had them ten years ago, a small collection on the windowsill in my house in Brixton. After that, they fell away. Like my memories of my father’s garden, the one he made for us as an expression of his Self. My fingers are humming with the energy of it. Our relationship has been so problematic for so long that the garden was forgotten. And it was something that I can say with certainty was an aspect of him that I can love and grow from. For a very long time I have not mourned the loss of that home. I know that this is in part because of the problematic politics that surrounded its situation within a place marked by white priviledge. Better to let it die unmourned or acknowledged. It leaves me with a question: can beauty ever come out of evil? Can the essence of a pure and real love grow out of a place that could not continue to exist? I find the answer in the cactus. You don’t need roots to grow. And with patience, a flower as beautiful as the dawn will blossom. I think of the comments written by white South Africans on Facebook, barbed and mean spirited, that cling with misunderstanding to that statue of Rhodes, as if roots of any kind are better than none. I am the cactus that flowered. If only they knew how easy it can be to let go.

When Rooibos Was Ordinary

There are shivers.
So I write.
When Rooibos was ordinary,
We drank out of old china cups
Yellow flowers, gold edged
I, three years old, green headscarf
Rooibos, black, lemon slice, sugar
A teaspoon to blow and sip
Later, there on the shelves
Of the Hypermarket
(bring your car, you can park it)
Beneath the mine dump
(mysterious steps reached the stars, I swear it)
Between ricoffy and five roses
The souls of gold seekers wandered the aisles
Though we did not see them
When Rooibos was ordinary.



This poem was inspired by a beautiful piece I read on Stirring Conversations.  In it, Rooibos is the tea that is drunk during a conversation between the author and interviewee.   It is scented with lemongrass, and forms the backdrop to a moving and insightful conversation about the nature of friendship, regret, reflections on younger selves and the importance of being present, rather than thrusting forward to a point of resolution.  I thought about how the meaning of things changes.  How objects and products acquire layers of associations and resonance over life times that are contradictory and ambiguous, though they surround the same material reality.  Like Rooibos tea.  Growing up in South Africa, it was ubiquitous and so ordinary.  Unglamorous, yet comforting.  And also in the background as my life moved through various landscapes.   Now, living in what I suppose you would call the ‘West’ , Rooibos takes on other qualities… more elegant, refined, healthful and exotic.  As I read the interview on Stirring Conversations I shook my head because the way things transform is so compelling.  Reflected in the shifting meanings of objects, spaces, places, memories, people and the unfolding of conversations.