Tuesday 22 December 2009

Door 24

Competition was fierce, but the honour of featuring in the Advent Calendar's nativity scene goes to Georgie and Sunday (look she's wearing a Mary-in-the-nativity-play-style headdress and everything).

Happy Christmas!

Door 23

Fingers crossed for a white Christmas for all of you in the Northern Hemisphere (once you've safely got where you want to go, of course.)

Door 22

This is what Christmas looks like in Cape Town: sunshine and Santa hats.

*** Warning: Important Notice ***

I really wanted to post each Advent door on the right day, but I'm not sure how easily I'll be able to do that from Harare. So, I've decided to post Door 23 and 24 today, before I leave.

Robben Island

So, I managed to cut 361 photos down to about 30 and am now ready to describe my visit to Robben Island. Well, fairly ready. I’m still processing my feelings about the day and I think I will be for a while to come.

I was in the awfully lucky position of being the guest of the Robben Island Heritage Department. I had met the research manager and exhibitions manager a few weeks back and they invited me to come and visit. Naturally, I accepted with alacrity.

The ferry left Cape Town Waterfront at 9. I was so anxious not to miss it, I was there at 7.45. It was grey and windy and we had a choppy ride over to the island, which is only 7 km off the mainland.

In the morning, I went on the regular tour.

We got on buses and passed through this archway. I don’t know when the sign is from, but I found it a bit chilling. (If you can't read it, it says: Robben Island - We Serve With Pride.)

There’s a lot to get through on the tour – and even with a week, I doubt you could cover all the stories, so by necessity the tour just deals with the highlights.

From the bus window we saw the leper graveyard (the island has been, at various times, a prison, a leper colony, a naval base, a prison again and now a museum), the village where the staff of the prison lived with their families (there’s an abandoned church, school, village hall, post office and some rather nice houses, mostly lying empty now), the huts used as a base by the SWANS (South African Women’s Auxiliary Naval Service) in World War II and the quarry where the political prisoners were forced to work.

(If you look very closely you'll see a tortoise in the bottom left hand corner. I'm sure there's a metaphor in that somewhere.)

(Bunnies, by the way, are the scourge of the island. The warders used to keep the population down, but since the prison closed the number of rabbits has escalated and they've eaten every scrap of grass on the island.)

There are some beautiful views back to Cape Town, but even the views are sad, because they underscore the fact that the island has been a place of banishment for most of its history.

The bus dropped us at the prison, and we were taken round by a former political prisoner.

He took us into this communal cell, where forty men would once have stayed and explained the basic context of life in the prison. There is something very eerie about being in a place that has so recently been a prison – the last prisoners only left in 1996. The utilitarian green paint, the smell of cleaning fluid and the bareness everywhere make it all very real.

Of course the moment everyone anticipates is seeing Mandela’s cell. After our guide talked in general about life in the prison for about 25 minutes (one of the facts that really stuck was that black prisoners had different rations to the coloured and Indian prisoners – divided even, or still, behind bars) and then we shuffled through the corridor where Mandela’s cell was and queued to take a photo.

With only about 45 minutes to see the prison the tour does feel a bit rushed. I would like to have known more about the other people – Mandela’s neighbours, for example.

When the tour was over, the other people in my group were waved back to the ferry, while I waited for Mavis, the exhibitions manager, to collect me. I had lunch with the Heritage Department staff and we talked about intepretation – the challenges they have (most notably of keeping track of visitors to an island – making sure that everyone who arrives, leaves!) and things they would like to do.

In the afternoon, Mavis and Sandra, the education manager, took me on my own personal tour of Robben Island (I know I’m lucky). One of the absolute highlights (if that’s the right word) of the day was visiting the house where Robert Sobukwe was kept for six years. I didn’t know very much about him before my visit, but he was a resistance leader, head of the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress), university lecturer who encouraged people to protest against the pass laws that severely limited the freedom of movement of black people (those protests led to the Sharpeville Massacre). He was jailed for three years by the Apartheid government and served his time. But the government were worried about having such a charismatic and influential person on the loose and passed a special act of parliament to allow them to incarcerate him on Robben Island.

Because he wasn’t officially a prisoner, he wasn’t kept in the prison, but in a tiny house further along the island. His living conditions were Spartan but not uncomfortable; he had access to books and a radio and could send and receive letters, albeit censored and often blocked. But he couldn’t speak to anyone and no one could speak to him. Even his warders were forbidden from speaking to him and if any of the other prisoners spoke to Sobukwe on their way to the quarries they were punished.

His family was allowed to visit twice during the six years.

His four little children slept in these iron beds and drew games on the floor with chalk - they weren't allowed to set foot outside the small compound either.

He was finally released in 1969 but was kept under house arrest in Kimberley, a dusty town in the Northern Cape and died there at the age of 53.

There was something terribly sad about the whole story – reinforced by the machinery of the regime that declared the man wasn’t a prisoner, and yet subjected him to a kind of torture. When Helen Suzman, the only member of parliament openly opposing apartheid at the time, came to visit Sobukwe, he told her he had forgotten how to speak.

In a piece of dramatic irony, the area around the Sobukwe house was later used as kennels for the prison guard dogs.

I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that each individual kennel was larger and more appealing that the cells in the prison.


I have more to tell about the leper graveyard and the abandoned village, but I’ll post that part of the story another day.

Monday 21 December 2009

Osa Johnson’s Christmas Menu

I'm getting ready to spend Christmas in Zimbabwe. Robbie has promised that there will be giraffes walking past the window on Christmas Day. I have no idea if he's pulling my leg or not, but I'll let you know as soon as I find out.

In the meantime, I've been reading Osa Johnson's description of the Christmas dinner she prepared in Kenya, where she spent four years with her husband, Martin. The Johnsons were pioneering documentary makers in the 1920s and 30s. The Christmas Menu and description are taken from Osa Johnson’s book Four Years in Paradise, first published in 1941.




Wild Buffalo Oxtail Soup

(with garden vegetables)

Wild Roast Turkey


Wild Mushroom Stuffing

Wild Asparagus Candied Sweet Potatoes

(Hollandaise Sauce)

Celery Hearts

Mixed Green Salad Water-Melon Preserves

Strawberries and Cream


Nuts and Raisins

It was about seven-thirty when I called Martin to announce that our Christmas dinner was on the table. He came into the room, and for a few minutes he just stood there and stared at everything.

‘Osa, it’s wonderful!’ he cried. ‘Water-melon preserve, too!’

‘This beats that Christmas dinner we had in London. The Savoy hasn’t anything on you, Osa.’

We said no more but just pitched in and ate. I had never before been so proud of a table, and I had done it all from the jungle. When we had finished, Martin pushed back his chair and came over to my side of the table. He took my hand in his. I looked up at him. Neither of us could say a word. It was one of those times when no words could convey our feelings…

Osa Johnson, Four Years in Paradise, 1941.

Door 21

Dear Compulsive Cook:

Still no sign of a squidgie recipe, though I continue to search the cookbooks of South Africa. You and I will just have to concoct our own recipe in the New Year.

Love from Queen of the Dessert.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Door 20

A rummage through the archives revealed some photos from New Year's in Cape Town 2006. There's V and Si ... J and Max.

Four years later and V is married to Tim and has gorgeous Freddie - and Si and J and Max are now joined by Tilly and Robbie.

So little time, so many babies! BIG Christmas kisses to all of you.

Saturday 19 December 2009

Door 19

For Frances: because fuchsia isn't meant to be tamed in a suburban garden, but growing wild along an Irish country lane.

Friday 18 December 2009

Meat Market

I uploaded 361 photographs from my trip to Robben Island last night, so it’s going to take me a little while to sort through them and write about the day but I’ll try to post about it before I go to Zimbabwe next week.

In the meantime, here are photos from last Sunday when I went with a group to Mzoli’s in Guguletu, one of the townships in Cape Town. Mzoli’s started off as a butcher’s shop – and now it’s what you might loosely call a restaurant, and a Capetonian hotspot – especially on Sunday afternoons.

Mzoli’s operates a bring your own policy so we went to the nearby shebeen to buy beer. Shebeens (the name suggests some Irish person visited a township way back when) are informal off licences. Very informal. This one was in a one room shack where a lady had a fridge full of beer.

This is not a place for vegetarians. It’s all about the meat. For 25R a head, you get a huge basin full of different kinds of meat.

If you really want, you can get some pap (sort of cornmeal porridge, like a bland polenta) on the side. But that’s it: no vegetables, no salads. You eat with your hands.

And it tastes REALLY good. Hot, dripping meat and cold beer in the sunshine. Mmm mmm.

Door 18

Blue sky, blue sea, bright colours, palm trees ... no, it's not South Africa. It's Ireland - Co. Cork on a June evening, to be precise. When the sun shines, there really is no place like home. It's just that the sunshine is all too infrequent.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Door 17

Here's the Winfield Family: James, Laura, Tommy and Tommy's Little Sister, due in February.
They have been my surrogate family in Cape Town.

It's not that I wouldn't have had a good time without them ... it's that because of them I knew I always had a cure for homesickness on hand. When you're a stranger in a foreign land it's such a relief to be with people who know you well, who get your jokes and your peculiar Irish ways.

Thank you for sharing your home and family with me.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Byron’s Boot, Chopin’s Piano … Mandela’s Wheelbarrow?

A week and a half ago (the day I almost missed posting at all), I was invited to give a talk about my exhibition work at the Mayibuye Archives, based at the University of the Western Cape. Talking about my work has never been a problem for me … and so it proved on this occasion. I was prepared to run through some slides and talk for about half an hour, but the session went on for over two hours. Let me hasten to add that it wasn’t just me talking – there were lots of questions from the people there and we had a very interesting discussion about museology, design, museum philosophy and museums in South Africa.

Afterwards, we walked around the archive, which has all sorts of interesting collections connected to the apartheid resistance movement and, in particular, to Robben Island. Here’s the Robben Island football team strip:

And the box for Archbishop Tutu’s papers (got to love the Arch Tutu scrawl!):

‘But what does this have to do with Byron or Chopin?’ you cry. Well, here’s my guilty little secret. I have a mania for touching things in museums. And because of my job, I am one of the lucky few who actually gets to touch things in museums. So these hands typing on my MacBook have also been privileged to touch, among other things, the special boot Byron had to support his twisted leg and the piano on which Chopin composed many of his early works.

I’ve added to this special and esoteric list with a close encounter at Mayibuye with a wheelbarrow which may (or may not) have been used by Mandela on Robben Island:

Perhaps I should start charging people to touch my hands, she said thoughtfully.


Tomorrow I am going to Robben Island, so will have photos of that expedition in a couple of days.

Door 16

Gregory helping Yiayia Aphrodite in the kitchen. Chronia polla!

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Along the N2

Yesterday I posted a tour of downtown Cape Town and commented that the city changed radically from one area to the next.

When I say radically, I do mean radically. On the N2, one of the main roads that loops through and around the city, you pass from extreme wealth, to extreme poverty, and back.

If you fly into Cape Town, you pass by shacks and shanties along the main road on your way into the city from the airport, passing some of the townships on the way in: Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Athlone.

I took these photos along that stretch of road on my way back from Stellenbosch.

To remind you, this is what Stellenbosch looks like:

And these are pictures of the township: