Field Notes: Massingir PNL

In ethnographic study one of the main challenges is for the researcher to deal with his or her bias. From metanarratives to small daily events, one has to recognise and reflect on issues that can inform one’s observation and analysis. When someone says that bad behaviour occurs because people were messed up mentally through slavery, I immediately have to recognise that the irritation I feel is really a fear of guilt and a protest in what I deem to be reasonable resistance against cheap excuses. When I don’t sleep more than two hours at a time for three night running due to rats eating our stuff, I have to recognise that my view on the Park and it’s management will be influenced.

Below follows me dumping my observations and some emotions, it is not refined, it does not reflect my well considered opinion or stance, it is just a dump of things I see and things I’m tempted to think. I think I will start my reflections on lighter issues and get progressively deeper, so herewith a few observations:

Anecdote 1: One of the PNL workers, the person doing receipts and bookings asked me to give him boerewors when I passed through before my wedding. I obliged and gave him Woolies Grabouw worth R100. I left it for him. He never sent me a message or email to thank me. I then got a message from Doc saying the guy liked the boerewors and wants more. What Doc didn’t tell me is he said he wanted R200 worth and will pay me. Nevertheless, in Phalabhorwa I made effort to go to a good butchery and I bought the guy a small pack of boerewors. When we were seated at a restaurant on Sunday evening, he showed up and before greeting and chit chatting immediately asked where his wors were. When we gave him the wors he loudly threw a tantrum going on that it is too small and an insult. He wanted to pay, and this small ‘gift’ looks like a bribe he said. He wouldn’t take it, a gift offered freely and which took effort to bring from South Africa. In which culture would such behaviour be polite? No thank-you, no grace, no calm explanation. For someone with a small admin job his ego is out of control. His admin by the way is also shocking and unprofessional. Imagine this guy had a big job or leadership position… That by the way also happens more regularly than not. I asked his colleague why this guy has not been fired, to which he replied ‘witchcraft (drogas) is real’.

Anecdote 2: The manager of community affairs gave me a speech about communication, by which she really means reporting for the sake of control and showing off. Everyone wants to look good with their bosses. I pushed back on the issue emphasising the youths needs freedom to ensure ownership, she didn’t budge but danced around with words. Yet, when she and her colleague took our leader and leather products to an event in Zimbabwe, they did not bother to inform Doc or I; neither before nor after the event. Surely communication is a two-way street? If it aint, it’s called reporting.

Anecdote 3: Doc played in a top4 football final. He was a stand-out player doing well. Because he passed the ball on the floor (which is good) and did not just kick it forward in the air (like the majority of players on the field) the spectators commented that the ‘ball is too heavy for Doc’ and that the spirits surrounded him so that his team mates won’t understand his intentions. Before the game, as is common here, the coach wanted to give Doc salt to put in his socks for ‘protection’ for neutralising the ‘magic’ muti the other team put against them. I was not shocked at all, this is normative.

Anecdote 4: This area has a massive poaching problem. Killing a big rhino bull and selling it’s horn gets a group about R5m from the Chinese who want their own horns enhanced. The discrepancy in cash is staggering. The army and police are severely under-resourced, getting R2k salary a month you have to fight and risk against poachers who are themselves armed… The police end up asking transport from the poachers they are supposed to catch, like the grey Toyota double cab this morning. The policeman climbed out and asked me ‘onde esta minha coisa’ where is my thing, meaning, buy me a gift. A begging culture created by a sense of poverty. There can be no poverty without wealth and here the wealth is introduced by Chinese people who want rhino-horn. With each cash injection the community gets poorer, the good guys get poorer and the appeal of education, hard work and patience lose its value. The money is literally killing the community. The poachers get shot and the ones that get away kills the life and integrity of their villages. Crime cash can never bring true wealth; but it can buy cars and beer.

Anecdote 5: Speaking to the adult group of football players involved in the leather project, we spoke for more than an hour about the challenges of making a table. 15 minutes was used to discuss and conclude that the table would definitely be stolen, so it was not worth it. Government gave solar lights and a water pump and someone stole it. The whole town knows who did it, but nobody says anything. Now people walk 3 km to fetch water, because of one selfish stupid who stole the town’s pump. At night it is dark. Nobody replaced the lights or pump, the stolen vandalised installations stand there as monuments; of a thief and a communal culture that wont take charge of their communal good. Fear, hierarchy (chiefs) and witchcraft inform a culture that seeks non-confrontation over all else.

Anecdote 6: The main section of the table discussion centred around the notion that if it was build and left on the veranda, people would shit on it. Initially I smiled and thought it was a joke or metaphor, but each individual went on to confirm that a human being would actually climb on it and shit on it; it happens. Perhaps kids? No, adults. In the end the conclusion was that a cement table had to be built and it needed to belong to one person, a respected (feared) poacher. If government builds it or if it belongs to the community, shitting and theft is fair play. But if it belongs to an individual people will be too scared to touch it. Talk about tragedy of the commons.

Anecdote 7: Next up: water was needed for a building project. At first the young men simply said it was to far to carry. Even with the user-friendly hippo roller drum. Then the road was to bad for the drum to roll. Fetching water was impossible. Eventually, the point was made: we can’t fetch the water, it is the women’s job. Not that they were embarrassed or lazy, the women would be angry. So then surely one should ask them to carry the water for the building? Nope, they could never do that to them and burden them with such extra tasks… What to make of this? Perhaps the importance of repetitive ingrained culture and rhythms that provide a sense of security and order. If one aspect of daily culture could be contravened, what is to say all order would not be eroded. Maintaining the status quo is more attractive than disruptive pioneering. Kind of obvious who will stay behind in a globally competitive economy.

Anecdote 8: Kids here hear the word voetsek more than any other words. Nobody is friendly with the kids, nobody playes with them or asks them how they are, never mind asking them their opinion. The adults are embarrassed by the dirty little kids, perhaps they mirror the poverty in an embarrassingly real way. The go to job for villagers is seasonal orange picking in Tzaneen. Bottom of the food chain; unless you take out a rhino or elephant. There are no girls sports, no boys training football in the afternoon. The majority of the towns are unemployed and no one is taking time to occupy and develop the kids. Why? Yet the ‘cool’ men sit and drink every day. On a Monday morning, on a Sunday afternoon. Drinking and playing gambling games… Talking about what? Gossiping, talking badly about others literally takes half the time. Complex analysis of why this one or that one’s behaviour is out of order and wrong. Explaining why another person is actually bad or unfair. I know everyone gossips, but when gossips become the reinforcement of fear and paralysis it becomes something different than when two successful people gossip about each other.

Anecdote 9: The brightest young girl we took to SA last year now left school. Ten guesses why? A boyfriend. We know her father and I wondered why he would allow that? Not in the name of love, the guy that took (grab) her owns a small tuckshop in the village, which allowed him to buy a small car. A car worth $500 and a tuckshop made of mud, is all that was need to take the best and most promising young girl. She was not taken to be the wife, but the girlfriend, who would become the second wife. Shock and horror? Not so much, for her dad owns a small car and transport business, bringing supplies from South Africa. His house is the size of a South African RDP. This wealth allowed him to have three wives. So the promising young girl already has a father who is husband to three. Before the enlightened academics in fancy universities give me a speech about respecting all cultures and the traditional right and beauty of polygamy, I would just like to know, here in this village, how does it impact on this girl, her development and her future? The same happened again and again in Manica, the more a project developed a young female leader, the more attractive she became for a local man to make her pregnant (typical) or take her as a wife (best case). Should one invest in girls in such a culture? How should one confront the men? Can it change? Will it change? What I learn is that making comparisons of wealth between cultures and countries or races is a disingenuous and erroneous game played by elites for political sympathy in the public domain. If one really cared about equality and human rights, leaders should have been breaking their heads trying to crack the real issues of jealousy, witchcraft, fear and patriarchy.

Anecdote 10: A community and park leader told me he is tired of drinking. Too much 2M does not help. He will not give his life to beer. He would rather give his life for women. You must just not get caught by your wife. At least by ‘playing’ with girls, one day when you die and God asks you why, you can say to him that he made you for this, he gave you a penis and desires to do these things. But if you drank your life away, you would have no answer to God, because God made alcohol for us just to take a bit so we can deal better with life’s challenges. Again, fun for the man, where does it leave our sisters and mothers? Or are they okay with the gifts of clothes, one litre liquid-fruit or little material ‘thank you’ gifts?

Anecdote 11: Where I sit and type, I have small pleasures: little birds chirping and making the odd appearance, a fish eagle instead of a rooster greeting us in the mornings and sitting around a fire at night. Small instances of solace in nature. I never thought such small simplicities could be life-lines for my mental sanity. They are not ‘nice to have’s’ but necessities.

The Arimathians

For a famous book the Bible isn’t very well read today and I include myself. Even the easy or user-friendly New Testament is neither scrutinised nor memorised in the way the Jews familiarised themselves with their writings. How many modern Christians for example are familiar with the young man that ran away naked, leaving the guards holding his bed sheet? Why is he even mentioned? If he was mentioned as a witness, why no name? Was he perhaps mentioned for comic relief, in such a serious moment? Or was he a shadow of another young man who would soon be left naked with guards holding onto his garments? I have my own issues with the Bible (and it’s people), but I also discover and rediscover inspiration at unlikely times an in unlikely sections. I struggle to fathom that something smart was written so long ago.

I am sitting in rural Mozambique, in a hut where a rat kept us up the whole night. We are inside Parque Naçional do Limpopo (PNL), an extension of Kruger. Rural Moz, sometimes seems to be 100 years behind South Africa. 100 years is a long time, so the effects of 2000 years on a story, context or concept seems beyond my grasp. This morning I am intrigued by another marginal figure on the periphery of the Gospels. The periphery of the Good News being an interesting concept in it’s own right. We all drift in and out of the story. Peter for example, who got the revelation of the Kingdom and cut of ears is the same guy that ‘followed at a safe distance’, same guy that denied and wept. Even the Kingdom heroes seem tainted or fake. But let’s get back to the peripheral figure that grabbed my attention this morning…

At school, I was good and naïve; assuming that is possible. In Grade 12, when I was head-boy I cared deeply about my ‘job’ and I can remember how often in anger and disillusionment I wanted to ‘give in my badge’. I often fantasised about the moral integrity of quitting from an unjust system or walking away from a group without integrity. And indeed I’ve ‘given in my badge’ on many occasions in my life, at times it is what we have to do; especially when our minds have not caught up with our hearts. I have walked away from jobs and out of conversations many times. But indignation and statements in abstract solidarity does not always bring the peace and justice we imagine. I think it is easier to train the mind than it is to train the heart, so I will never be harsh on anyone who needs to ‘run from a lion’ or create space between their aspirations and temptations. We have to protect our convictions while we have them I guess.

When reading about Jesus’ last days in Mark, we quickly see how shit the religious leaders of the day were. Allow me the grace to infuse my contempt with a bit of Mzansi flavour: It’s easy to note the conniving, spiteful and useless batch of Gupta-like, EFF behaving, Zuma-led and apartheid inspired Jewish Council (Sanhedrin). I mention all the associations South Afrians won’t like in 2017 to highlight what a bunch of bad apples this little broederbond was. They bloody killed God’s Son! How bad do you have to be to take out the ‘94 Madiba in such a public and disrespectful manner? If I was member of the Jewish Council I would have handed in my badge a long time ago. At worst I would have walked out when I realised they were about to kill the King.

2000 years ago however, I was not even in Heerde, Holland yet. There was no Schalk, nobody to hand in a badge. Who was there though, was a guy called Joseph. Not the famous Joseph who got a kid without getting lucky; another Joseph. Joseph of Arimathia. A peripheral figure in the Gospel story. Obviously important in that his request ensured a verification of the death of Christ, fulfilled a prophecy about the Messiah’s tomb and important for giving a dignified burial to the person who deserved it more than anyone else.

Joseph of Arimathia, like the book of Mark in general makes a quick, strong statement. Plain and simple: a bit of info, a bit of action and a bit of effect. I take encouragement form Joseph of Arimathia, and if I were to ever establish an order of The Arimathians I would base five founding principles on this short account in Mark 15 (also considering the other Gospel variations).

1. Sacrifice: Joseph not only used his money to buy a linen shroud, he gave his own grave. He gave time to attend the body of the dead. Without giving time and things nobody can be part of any story. Joseph had bucks, apparently, but Joseph knew about sacrificial giving.
2. Living expectantly awaiting the Kingdom of God: He did not sulk and blame when JC died, when things didn’t pan out the way everyone expected, his convictions were activated and his expectation transformed into duty. His expectation made him courageous and he included others like his chommie Nic. We cannot expect the KoG as a one man show.
3. Respected amidst the rot: Pravin Gordhan was fired, he did not walk out. We now know how big the gap between him and JZ was, but Pravin stayed and served the country amidst a box of rotten apples. Joseph of Arimathia stayed in the Jewish Council, although it must have driven him up the walls. Not only did he stay, he was respected.
4. Secrecy: Joseph of Arimathea did not perform and talk on the public platform when Barabas was released. Joseph’s contribution was done behind the scenes, he contributed to the unspectacular, away from the stage and attention. He bought burial cloths and no PR company was hired to profile his good deed. (Yet here I sit in PNL 200 years later blogging about him)
5. Joseph of Arimathea (J.A.) cared for Jesus’s body. An Order of Arimatheans would care for the body of Christ. Today, the body of Christ is the church. Not only did Jay Ay (J.A.) stay in the Jewish Council, he cared for the body of Christ. It is plain to see how I make the link between the actions of Jay Ay, and me (or us) faced with a decision to stay in or get in the NGK and FGK in particular.

Today the Jewish Council and the Body of Christ is often the same thing- a thing in desperate need of Arimatheans willing to care in sacrifice, secrecy, expectation and resilience.

I am left with the question: is caring for the Body of Jesus a calling or a duty?

Two Faced

I was raised in a binary society, characterised by polarity, dualism and dichotomy.

We weren’t taught these big English words, because they would have threatened our aspirations towards a specific grand narrative, belief in absolute truths that white or black and it would have opened a door to a cultural relativism and nuanced insights that are more often grey than white or black.

To grasp the grey areas of understanding requires evolving grey matter and to suspend judgement in favour of paradoxical complexity requires not IQ but EQ.

I catch myself daily falling back into predictable paths of paralysis and I need grace and a diversity of friends that can help me to embrace the tormenting uncertainty that comes with the vulnerability an open-mindedness brings.

It is so much easier to be sure, certain and able to shut out, resist and fight all the wrongs that look different from the pictures in my head.  But my pictures are not instinctive, they are not Inspired: my pictures were formed, they can become deformed and they can become reformed.