Standing on the Snake

January 18, 2009

I’m standing with my hands up and my feet on the snake . In my opinion the virus look like a snake . You can’t see it and it’s moving in the secret ways and dark ways. Inkanyamba , a big snake that lives in the water, a destroyer like a hurricane that destroys everything on the earth and makes houses and trees fall down and kills people. But you see I am standing on the snake . With ARVs I destroy this virus too.

Namawethu, Body Maps Participant


I’m home now, on a gray North Carolina winter’s day, trying not to let the subequatorial South African homesick blues take over. I’ve heard of culture shock, but this is more like climate shock. An early morning walk (I’m still getting up on Africa time, around 5:30am) with Booker and some serious house organizing are helping keep the blues at bay, and, I figure, as long as I keep moving I’ll be alright. I told myself I’d be able to detach from the trip easily but I’m finding it difficult today, another Sunday with a busy week (classes starting) looming. If, at the end of the day, I’ve accomplished all I set out to do I think I’ll be moderately satisfied, which is a tolerable condition this time of year.


My last two days in South Africa I spent in Johannesburg where I met up with my sister’s friend Kogie Thangavelu. Kogie is a long time resident of the city and she gave me an excellent tour of Soweto, taking me to the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum in Orlando West and to Walter Sisulu Dedication Square in Kliptown. I’d been to Johannesburg in the 80’s, but had never seen this side of it. Both areas we went to on that first day are symbolic of the changes in South Africa since the time of apartheid, demonstrating pride in the struggle against government oppression which could never be displayed this openly before the 1990s.


This is especially true of the Hector Pieterson Memorial. The museum commemorates the events of the 1976 Soweto uprising which acted as a catalyst for student protest all over South Africa, lasting well into the 1980s. Sam Nzima’s photograph of Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying Pieterson’s lifeless body in his arms while the boy’s sister Antoinette runs beside them became an icon of the protest movement. A monument to this event, just a stone’s throw from the residences of Walter Sisulu, Desmond Tutu, and the former residence of Nelson Mandela, would have been inconceivable during the time I lived in South Africa. Now I was witnessing change in the form of government sanctioned symbolic memorials paying tribute to those who risked their lives in the struggle against apartheid. By visiting these locations I finally felt I had truly come in contact with the “new” South Africa.


This feeling was reinforced on the second day with Kogie when she took me to Constitution Hill, home of the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest judiciary body. Built on the former site of The Old Fort Prison complex known as Number Four, the court is now the primary interpreter of South Africa’s new constitution. The architecture and design are highly symbolic, representing a tree, traditionally the place of gathering when deciding important matters of the community. The entrance hall displays a wide variety of South African art in paintings and sculpture, and Kogie pointed out a series of works called “Body Maps”, a group of paintings based on the stories of HIV positive South Africans. I spent a good amount of time reading the stories and looking at the art which, like the memorials and museums, was also full of symbolic meaning, this time on a more personal level. The stories of these individual’s experiences when facing the physical and emotional aspects of the illness along with the reaction of the community—which is often discriminatory and unsympathetic—brought home some of the issues I had discussed with Jenny McConnachie at the Itipini clinic in Mthatha. Jenny made clear the difficulties these patients face: the threat to their employment by less-than-understanding employers, the chastisement from the community once the symptoms start to show, the debilitating byproducts of a weakened immune system, and the general stigma of living with a potentially fatal sexually transmitted disease. The Body Maps exhibit brings individual voices to the HIV pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa where some estimates of those infected reach upwards of 90 million.


The quote I used at the beginning of this piece by the woman named Nomawethu is also reinforcement for what Jenny told me at Itipini. The introduction of antiretroviral drugs into the health care system of South Africa has been, in Jenny’s words, “Revolutionary.” This and the new rapid test, a near-immediate test for the presence of HIV in the blood stream, along with high-strength vitamin “cocktails” and a coordinated regimen of visits to the clinics, all combine to dispel the earlier notion that a positive result for HIV was a certain death sentence.


As encouraging as this news is, there are still many obstacles facing the medical workers and patients on the front-lines of the pandemic. Some of the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS is eroding, but in an enduring patriarchal culture the attitude toward certain sexual practices remains rooted in tradition, reinforcing a need to keep an individual’s sexual choices hidden. The misconceptions and prejudices attached to HIV remain one of the true stumbling blocks to the better care of infected patients, as many of those infected try to keep their condition from the community for fear of being ostracized. But as more-and-more African lives are touched personally by the HIV pandemic, there seems to be a widening acceptance of the realities of the disease as communities realize how nondiscriminatory the virus is. Jenny sees this as a positive change but acknowledges there is still a long way to go until people really understand the disease and dispel the misconceptions and prejudices associated with it.  


Another problem in treatment is motivating HIV patients to follow through on the regimen of antiretroviral drugs and doctor visits. In the case of Itipini, a community living in conditions of often the severest poverty, the strict schedule of pill-taking and visits to the clinic is much more of an obstacle than western minds might be able to comprehend. A disease that weakens the body of someone trying to scrape together an existence under extremely adverse conditions may also prevent that person from walking the distance to the clinic to take their prescribed drugs. This, combined with long waits at overextended clinics which might cause one to miss a days work or risk of exposure to one’s employer, all make the regimen of treatment precarious at best. These are some of the factors that worry Jenny, but the effects of ARVs continue to give her hope. The difference between what she’s seeing now and what she experienced just two years ago is dramatic. She’s seen people at the very worst stages of the disease make it back to a reasonable healthy state through ARV treatment, highlighting possibly the best development to occur at the Itipini clinic.


The trip to Constitution Hill for me was all about change. I wrote an article some twenty years ago for the UNCG newspaper about my 18 months in South Africa under apartheid. In it I all but predicted a bloody civil war because, at the time, things looked just that bad. With the release of Nelson Mandela only a few years later, and the peaceful turn-over of power into the hands of the ANC, my prediction, thankfully, missed the mark by a mile. But after the political crisis ended a new crisis appeared in South Africa involving the health of millions of people. Now, somewhat like the political situation, an uncertain truce has been made with Nomawethu’s snake. As the climate of the political landscape shifts and evolves in postcolonial South Africa so does the climate surrounding HIV, aided by revolutionary drugs and a slow wearing down of stigmatization. As with any revolution there is still a chance for the wheel to shift backwards and the snake to come free, but those at the front line continue to pursue advancements in an effort to put the worst days of the virus behind us.  



For a brief summery of the HIV statistics at Itipini go to Jesse’s link. Please pay heed to Jesse’s assertion that the numbers are somewhay misleading, but these are the figures for a community estimated at about 2,500 to 3,000. 

  1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
Total Tests 45 44 82 152 251 162
Positive 20 7 28 69 89 78
Negative 25 37 54 83 162 84
No Response 0 0 0 0 0  
Percent Positive 44.44 15.91 34.15 45.39 35.46 48.15
Percent Negative 55.56 84.09 65.85 54.61 64.54 51.85
Male Tests 16 17 20 46 68 50
Percent of Overall 35.56 38.64 24.39 30.26 27.09 30.86
Male Positive 7 2 5 19 23 40
Male Percent Positive 43.75 11.76 25.00 41.30 33.82 80.00
Female Tests 29 27 62 106 183 112
Percent of Overall 64.44 61.36 75.61 69.74 72.91 69.14
Female Positive 13 5 23 50 64 38
Female Percent Positive 44.83 18.52 37.10 47.17 34.97 33.93
  2005 2006 2007 2008 totals  
Total Tests 118 96 102 89 1141  
Positive 46 27 28 23 415  
Negative 72 69 74 54 714  
No Response       12 12  
Percent Positive 38.98 28.13 27.45 25.84 36.37  
Percent Negative 61.02 71.88 72.55 60.67 62.58  
Male Tests 35 34 49 37 372  
Percent of Overall 29.66 35.42 48.04 41.57 32.60  
Male Positive 16 11 11 9 143  
Male Percent Positive 45.71 32.35 22.45 24.32 38.44  
Female Tests 82 62 54 52 769  
Percent of Overall 69.49 64.58 52.94 58.43 67.40  
Female Positive 30 16 17 14 270  
Female Percent Positive 36.59 25.81 31.48 26.92 35.11  







January 15, 2009

A few corrections from the last post:

I used the word “buckie” for truck, in Afrikans it is spelled bakkie. 

The neighborhood adjacent to Itipini is spelled Ngangalizwe.

The acronym RVD is somewhat controversial among medical professionals when referring to HIV. To avoid confusion I’ll use HIV when writing about human immunodeficiency virus.

Thanks to Jesse for catching these errors.

Here is a link to Jesse’s blog. Jesse’s been at Itipini for 18 months and his journal gives information about the day-to-day life of the community in much more depth than what I could gather in five weeks. Jesse and Jenny, along with other efficient volunteers and staff members, are the mainstays of the clinic and have committed a large part of their lives to this necessary service. They are living examples of how people, more than anything else, can make a difference.

Itipini (part 1)

January 8, 2009

Mthatha, Eastern Cape


If you drive east on Nelson Mandela Drive past the relatively new shopping complex called The Plaza, through the throngs of pedestrians and vehicles seemingly going in every direction imaginable, down to the end of the street and take a left on Madeira avoiding the crowds crossing the road to peruse the live chickens on the other side, then negotiate a right at a hazardous four-way-stop onto Sutherland and continue down the hill turning left where the early morning car-wash is in full swing on the unpaved road, then slowly and carefully navigate the eroded drive up the hill overlooking the Mthatha River, you will reach a small cluster of structures with a painted mural on the side that says “Clinic, Tipini, Community.” Around a sort of courtyard parking area you will usually see children playing, shouting, swinging on the swing-set and greeting you with smiles and invitations to “shoot, shoot” meaning they want you to take their picture. Women busy themselves with preparations for cooking and other day-to-day chores and a stray pig trailing a row of foraging piglets might wander through while everyone settles into their daily routine. A look beyond the boundary of the clinic and its corresponding structures reveals the community of Itipini whose name is derived from the English word “tip,” meaning the tip of town, where the dump was usually located. Itipini literally translates to “at the dump,” a former squatter camp where people, many from the rural areas who come to find work in Mthatha, take shelter due to lack of any other housing options.


The clinic sits at the northern edge of this community of roughly 3,000 residents. The Mthatha River provides the eastern boundary of the community which rises west up a hill overlooking the outskirts of the city. Along the river are close clusters of corrugated tin shacks made from every piece of salvageable material available: rusted road signs, side panel of cars, pieces of metal roofing, oil cans lashed together, which all constitute a community subsistent on what they can scrape together for shelter. The front row of buildings by the river’s banks house a number of shebeens, unlicensed liquor establishment, and several children play and swim in the muddy water of the Mthatha, cooling off from the sharp summer heat. More thinly dispersed structures climb the hill behind the river as the community expands west toward the neighborhood of Ngangaleswe.   


Soon a red VW pulls up with the logo African Medical Mission embossed on the side. This is Jesse Zink, a volunteer from Alaska who has spent 18 months here at the Itipini clinic stepping into every role from administrator, to clinician, to ambulance driver, social worker and everything in between. With him are Sister Dorothy, a retired registered nurse who works at the clinic five days a week, and Lwazikazi Madikiza, a third year university student at Rhodes who is volunteering her time over summer break. After the group exchanges warm greetings with the community members a blue “buckie” also carrying the AMM logo pulls up the drive. Jenny McConnachie, the director of the clinic has arrived, as she has for over ten years, to open the clinic and start treating patients.


Jenny and her husband, Dr. Chris McConnachie, came to Mthatha in the Eastern Cape in 1981. Chris, an orthopedic surgeon, saw a severe need for orthopedics in this area of South Africa which, at one time, supplied only one orthopedist for every three million people. Soon after their arrival he and Jenny founded the African Medical Mission, an organization which brings medical care to an area formerly known (during the apartheid era) as the Transkei. The organization is supported by contributions from corporate, church, and private donors in the United States and South Africa, and in his tenure at AMM Chris managed to drastically improve a center for orthopedic care outside of Mthatha at Bedford Hospital. Jenny, a registered nurse, meanwhile involved herself in occupational therapy for rehabilitating patients at Mthatha General Hospital until the 1990’s when she began work at Itipini. Since then the clinic, which began operation in two conjoined shipping containers, has witnessed the construction of a new clinic building, a recreation center, a pre-school with three classrooms, an outdoor play area and a community meeting space.


As Jenny opens the clinic Jesse fills her in with any new developments such as students in the community who have been accepted to college and details about patients from the clinics and hospitals Itipini corresponds with. The clinic staff prepares the clinic for the day ahead and after a quarter-of-an-hour they emerge to begin the daily prayer service in the shaded dining area.


Dozens of children gather around. Once heavily animated, they are now still before the presence of the community women. Soon a lone voice sings a single note and the community rises as one to greet it, resonating harmony inherent in all those present. The song is a slow measured melodic prayer which ends when a pause for reflective silence envelopes the group. Then Mkuseli, the community’s activity director, says a few words in thanks and begins another prayer-in-song. During the prayer a high-pitched tone is apparent, in perfect pitch with the singing, and as the service ends the tone continues. It is a baby crying. Here, even the babies cry in harmony.


The service over, each community member slowly files out of the dining area. The cooks go to the kitchen to prepare the noon meal for the children, Mkuseli is off to make his rounds and tend the community garden, the children go back to their games and their polite requests for “shoot, shoot,” and Jenny, Jesse, Sister Dorothy, and Lwazikazi go back to the clinic as the patients line up on the bench inside. The workday has started at Itipini.


(note: at the risk of sounding like an advertisement for a magazine supplement, I do want to say that the next piece will be about the activity of the clinic and the treatment of the patients. I talked at length with Jenny about Retroviral Disease in the community and Jesse lent me the clinics statistics on HIV. What I learned about RVD at Itipini was encouraging, and I hope I can do justice to Jenny’s patient explanations during my onslaught of questions about the issue.)  



Road Hazards, the Wild Coast, and the “Other” Hole in the Wall

January 2, 2009

One morning, about a week into the trip, I made it to Coffee Bay on the Wild Coast. The place has changed since the 80s, with more shops and restaurants, but it still maintains a remote coastal-hide-away feel compared to what I’m used to on the North Carolina Outer Banks. There are no drive-through beer stores or outlet malls, but an African drum shop invites travelers to make their own drums, and tropical pubs overlooking the coastline give the area a slightly bohemian atmosphere. On the way in, I passed white families on holiday and a couple of hippy surfers, one with bright red dreadlocks. All along the route were Xhosa children waving or gesturing with their hands out asking for money. At one point, during a slow maneuver with the car, I backed up and gave two boys who had been running behind me for several yards 10 rand each.  


There are several hazards to dodge as you drive down the highway to Coffee Bay. The first and foremost are potholes. The potholes come in clusters and require deft maneuvering to avoid a slipped vertebra or jaw dislocation. On this trip I was fortunate to get behind someone who seemed to know every pothole on the road, but he unfortunately turned off halfway, so I ventured forward on my own for the rest of the drive. I did quite well unless I came across a pothole cluster around a blind curve. Then all I could do was brace.


Potholes, for the most part, are inanimate objects. Stationary indentions in the road, no matter how many of them there are, cannot fully compete with the very mobile and unpredictable cow or steer. Herds of very healthy cows—actually quite beautiful when being gazed upon from distance and not from behind the wheel of a speeding four cylinder—meander all about this road like bored sightseers on the last day of holiday. Casually they chomp on their cud and move their enormous frames from one side of the road to the other. Occasionally you’ll find one just stopped, going neither forward nor backward, staring fixedly at nothing in particular and ignoring the blaring horns of slowed-down travelers. I try not to think what one of these huge beasts would do to a speeding car with an un-alert driver at the wheel. I just do my best to dodge them, still marveling at their bovine nonchalance against the rolling green, village dotted, landscape of the Eastern Cape.


At least, however, the cows move somewhat slowly. Goats, which are highly unpredictable and particularly determined, trot and canter much more haphazardly than their bovine brethren. They move in fits and starts, darting across the road with intense fierceness, regardless of what’s speeding toward them. When you see a herd of them scamper across the road you must be careful to look for the herdsman, who is often a small boy with a look of determination on his face matching the goats. Occasionally you’ll see on the side of the road an immobile goat who, unfortunately, wasn’t quite quick enough.


I’ve come to the conclusion that sheep are the most mentally-challenged of the farm-animal-hazards. Goats, at least, sense the presence of a speeding hunk of metal, and cows may employ the confidence of their girth to ensure that only the stupidest driver would dare hit them, but sheep seem to have an almost suicidal carelessness when it comes to road crossing. Unless a herd-boy is smacking them with a long stick, I’m starting to think a sheep would run straight into a speeding car as if it were a pile of delicious gourmet grass. I would love someone to disprove this theory for me, explaining that sheep have very high intelligence, but on this trip I somehow doubted it. Of course I understand that all they want to do is graze in a high meadow somewhere, far away from rushing travelers speeding down a major highway. Perhaps the panic of being away from their environment of safety causes them to act this erratically. Seen in this light, I can, in some ways, identify with sheep.


Somehow all of these elements, including the stray dog and possibly an occasional pig, not to mention hundreds of people, occupy the road in every degree of mobility imaginable. It’s a far cry from home, where dodging speeding SUVs on I-40 on the way to Greensboro is about the only challenge in a daily commute.


The coast was even more spectacular than I remembered it. I drove along an unpaved road through the rolling green hills overlooking the rocky coastline stretching itself into the cool blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Small coves provide beaches for the people on holiday, and I made my way out to The Hole in the Wall Hotel where the gateman let me park. After a short walk to the beach I found a rock where I could watch the waves, and after holding out for as long as I could in the hot sun I took a swim. The water was perfect, just cold enough to take the heat off the body, but not frigid or icy. My revisit to the ancient art of body-surfing met with poor results; my theory is that my extra lbs are a bit much for even these breakers to carry.


I returned to the exact spot the next day. This time I came prepared to hike. The previous day found me swimming and reading on the beach, so I wasn’t able to walk to Hole in the Wall, a large outcropping off the beach with a near perfect hole in its center which lets in the breakers. This day I set out for it, and as I neared the large treeless hill I came across a herd of cows lounging on the beach like day-trippers out for a picnic. I wonder if cows get the same pleasure from taking the sea air as people, the looks on their faces gave no indication either way, but they did seem content, or bored, or both.


I marched up the treeless hill and realized just how long it had been since I’d done any strenuous hiking. In 1987, I spent five days with a group hiking the Wild Coast, including this stretch. Today I had no heavy pack on my back, just a light pack, and the beginning ascent made my thighs and lungs burn. But I made it to the top and the view acted as compensation while I caught my breath. A single small sailboat tacked casually on the horizon, and my heart-rate stabilized.


Hole in the Wall is still spectacular, but this being the holiday season there were many visitors and few good chances to take a photo without a kid carrying a boogie-board in it. I didn’t linger. I wanted to hike toward Coffee Bay and see how far I could get, so I set out in the opposite direction, north, past the Hole in the Wall hotel and up the coast. The first part was another inclined patch, but this evened out onto a well maintained trail.


Soon I found myself with a decision to make. There was an opportunity to go inland along the official Wild Coast trail, or there was what looked like a goat trail right along the coastline which disappeared into a cove some quarter to half-mile away. I chose the goat trail mainly because I was reluctant to leave the coastline; the breeze and the sound of waves, plus the chance at some good photographs, caused me to choose the narrow path.


About halfway down the path I realized how steep and sheer the drop-off below me loomed. I considered turning back briefly, but that seemed pointless, so I pressed on. I’m glad I did, although a misplaced step could have been fatal. The path wound along the cliff and down into a cove with a rocky beach. I became determined to climb down to this beach to rest, drink water, and eat some kudu biltong which I’d bought earlier in Mthatha. After that I’d figure out how to get back.


I found a way down the steep incline over rocky crags, only using the undignified back-end-slide maneuver once, and as I stepped onto the beach I realized that towering over me was another outcropping close to the shore with a gigantic hole in the middle. It was another hole-in-the-wall. This one is much shorter than its gigantic neighbor, but it sits closer to the beach and the hole is massive. At the top center of the outcropping is a large chimney like formation jutting into the sky. Viewed from a distance the whole structure looks like a giant monster’s head emerging from the ocean and roaring into the cliffs. The chimney structure mellows this image slightly for me, vaguely resembling a cow-lick, so the whole thing appears to be a fearsome monster god with too much hair-gel.


But now, how to get back? There was only one option—up. This proved to be the most grueling part of the expedition, and as I neared the top I rested for several minutes to again catch my breath. I finally surfaced in a cow pasture where I found a group of Xhosa women in traditional dress talking animatedly, only pausing briefly to regard this fool panting and sweating up the side of the cliff. Here I rested and watched the women. One of them did most of the talking, making backward motions with her arms, her hands together, as if she were telling a story about catching a large fish. I didn’t speculate long about what they were discussing, I gathered myself up and began walking back to the Hotel. As I walked, I passed another group of women and said “Molweni.” They glanced up and a couple of them said half-heartedly “Molo.” I figured my red-faced panting frame was not inspiring any enthusiastic salutations at the moment.


I located the trail used for the Wild Coast hike and followed it back to the beach where my car was parked. As the strain of the climb up from the outcropping wore off, I hit another stride and I wound my way down through the pastures past thatched vacation cottages and more unconcerned cows. On the drive back I again played dodge-the-road-hazards; potholes, cows, sheep, goats and people all doing their part to keep me an alert, break-footed driver. The day had been beautiful on the coast, but now a fog blew in making the hazards of driving that much more difficult. But, after careful driving, I got home in one piece and felt that I had, once again, experienced one of those great days in Africa. 



Photos of the Wild Coast

January 2, 2009


December 22, 2008

 I finally got a decent night’s sleep. I made it to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift yesterday after about 2 or 3 hours of dozing in the early morning. As I drifted off the winds picked up and a draft in the room caused the door to pound lightly against its frame, keeping me from falling into a full sleep. I used the cell phone as an alarm clock and only hit the snooze once, climbing out of bed at 6:10 relatively alert and anxious to get to the battlefields. Drank two cups of coffee and ate two rusks which are like rough biscotti and, after taking some photographs of the farm, set off.

It took about an hour and a half to reach the Isandlwana Lodge through rolling green hills and bluffs passing the towns of Dundee and Nguthu, where teaming African life crowded the streets. I drove up to the lodge at Isandlwana which sits back into a hilltop overlooked by rock-outcroppings several hundred yards above the valley floor. I parked and walked up the inclined walkway to the reception desk where Rob Gerrard, Michael’s cousin, greeted me. He told me the tour would start at 9:00 o’clock and to help myself to coffee.

I had about 20 minutes until the tour started, so I walked out onto the veranda which runs the front length of the lodge and overlooks the main feature of the battlefield, a large kopje, or hill, distinct with sheer sides looking vaguely like a giant saddle. Underneath the hill, white piles of rock dot the hillside, sometimes in clusters and sometimes sitting out, away from the main part of the field. These are cairns, memorials to the British who fell here, each pile representing five soldiers killed. Here, a British encampment came under attack in the early afternoon of January 22, 1879 by 30,000 Zulus, caught virtually by surprise, all but cut off from their column. The result in was a massacre comparable to our own Battle of Little Big Horn. Nestled between the battlefield and the lodge sits a Zulu village, marked by rondovals, mud-brick structures and a bright blue Vodacom cell-phone kiosk depicting a smiling patron on its side. The villagers go on about their business, walking this way and that, little concerned about what occurred here 130 years ago.

When I walked out onto the deck I found a camera crew preparing to film the valley. They turned out to be French Canadians from Quebec working on a documentary series on sustainability projects. Actually, only two members of the team were Canadian, the cameraman and the director. Of the other two, one was a beautiful young woman from Ethiopia, the other a South African from Soweto. I asked the man from Soweto to help me pronounce the word Xhosa, and there he, the Ethiopian, and I sat, clicking the first syllable of the name for people of the Eastern Cape-a click involving the tongue against the inside cheek at the back of the mouth. Before long Rob came out to introduce me to my guide, Dalton.

Dalton Mgobese, great-grandson to one of the Zulus who fought in the battle, sat me down on a chair in the shade of the lodge and proceeded to give me a detailed and very animated history of the Zulu nation leading up to the Battle of Isandlwana. As he spoke he gestured with a knobkerrie, a straight stick, about 2½ to 3 feet long, good for clubbing an adversary but just as helpful as a hiking stick. A master story teller, Dalton wove through the complicated history of the Zulus from Shaka Zulu to Cetshwayo (pronounced approximately with a click from the tongue at the front of the teeth, then-“twayo”), the king at the time of Isandlwana. As I listened on, the cameraman started filming us, which made me slightly uneasy, but I tried playing it off and acting casual which is not easy when you’re trying to grasp the finer points of Zulu history. Then Dalton took me around to the side of the Lodge, cameraman in tow, to show me the outcropping of rock where the Zulu general stood to overlook the battle.

After about a twenty minute break we climbed into a truck which took us to the base of the hill out among the cairns. We hiked a short incline to set up folding chairs on a flat concrete slab which provided an almost 360 degree view of the field. Here Dalton told the story of the battle, and I’ll try to relate it in limited detail and only from memory, as I have very little resources where I’m writing. The central column (part of three columns of British expeditionary forces in Zululand) commanded by Lord Chelmsford, had advanced some of their men to the base of this hill and set up camp. Chelmsford then took part of these forces to a forward position several miles to the west, splitting the column into three pieces. Command of the camp at Isandlwana became disorganized; the men were exhausted from a slow advance from Rorke’s Drift through muddy condition with heavy wagons, and the morning before the attack found the soldiers recuperating and beginning to slowly put things back in order.

The Zulu army, totaling about 60,000 men, sent 30,000 over the hills surrounding Isandlwana, and as he described this part of the story Dalton made the low-pitched sound the Zulus made as they advanced, which sounds like a very deep-tenor “HOO!” You could hear it echo through the hills, and it didn’t take much imagination to picture 30,000 Zulus pounding their assegais against their shields as they ran, making this sound, and swarming over the distant hills like ants, which is exactly how Dalton claims some British soldiers described them. Dalton, in a deeply serious voice, claimed it was precisely at this point when many of the British soldiers automatically found themselves thinking of their Ma and Pa back home, suddenly not so happy to be in the Queen’s service.

The battle ended in slaughter, with many trying to retreat to Rorke’s Drift only to be killed by the pursuing Zulus. In later years posthumous Victoria Crosses honored those who tried to save the Queen’s Colors at the cost of their lives. The two of us, Dalton and I, pondered the idea of meeting your end in the process of trying to defend a piece of cloth. Dalton claimed that people still do such crazy things today.

Isandlwana holds a fascination for me ever since I read Donald Morris’ The Washing of the Spears. I mentioned this to Dalton and he says he owns a copy; that historians, old and young alike, still revere Morris’ book as the authoritative history of the Zulus, even after more than 40 years. There is no way I could have ever imagined actually being on the field when I read Morris’ description of Isandlwana five or six years ago, but there I was, getting the story from an ancestor of one of the Zulu warriors. It is a credit to Morris’ descriptive powers that much of what I imagined as I read his book seemed to be familiar when I visited the field in person. I expect I’ll experience more sensations of familiarity, and also of surprise, as I continue this journey through South Africa.  










Blanerne Farm

December 18, 2008

Dec. 12th about 11:45pmI’m wide awake. Jetlag is doing strange things to my sleeping habits. I’m in Natal, at the ranch outside of Elandslaagte owned by my former roommate Michael Bowles’ aunt and uncle, Ian and Pam Mitchell-Innes. I met them and their son William this evening after the drive down from Johannesburg through Harrismith over the Drakensberg Mountains. I arrived around 5pm, greeted by the Mitchell-Inneses, two wire-haired dachshunds and a huge, bounding, six-month-old St. Bernard puppy.


The farm is a 5,000 Hectare (approximately 18,000 acres) cattle ranch named Blanerne Farm. Ian and Pam ran the house portion as a bed and breakfast and hunting lodge for fourteen years before returning strictly to ranching, with a few group tours coming through from time to time. It’s been in the family since 1863, meaning the family operated it during the Anglo-Zulu War which includes the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift in January of 1879. The Mitchell-Innes are extremely good hosts, naturally friendly and curious about what my trip to South Africa is about, and also very forthcoming about their farm life in Natal. The couple have just returned from two months in the States, where Ian lectures on holistic management which, as much as I could gather, is a sustainability-focused approach to farm management. I found myself wondering how I could adapt it to a history major.    


My room has French doors leading to a veranda looking out onto a lush backyard with a pool. I ventured out for a minute, immediately met by the St. Bernard who almost knows the command “sit” but leans his overgrown frame against you when he obeys, and looks up at you with big droopy eyes and jowls. The command “stay” does not come to him yet, but scratching the top of his head keeps him still temporarily. The little dachshunds hop around the St. Bernard with gruff but expectant expressions on their faces. Extended scratching of the ears, head and stomach appeases them as well.


At dinner we ate perfectly cooked beef (fifteen years as a chef, but I hold no illusions of being able to cook beef better than a cattle rancher, at least not this one). I think it was part of a rump, but was as tender as loin. The conversation turned to biltong and naturally the Mitchell-Inneses became animated about the differences between biltong and our version of cured meat—jerky. Biltong is air-cured as opposed to smoked , they told me, and I explained to them that there are places where you can get edible, even delicious, beef-jerky in the States, but I think I only partially convinced them.

Their son William spent six years travelling around Europe and North America, three years of which he spent crewing on sailboats in the Caribbean. He’s crossed the Atlantic twice, once on a 150 foot yacht with a seven man crew. Now he’s back on the ranch, running the hunting lodge and preparing himself to take over the farm one day. Still handed down this way after nearly 150 years, the ranch signifies several generations of ranchers, past, present, and future whose livelihood expresses the evolving environment of cattle ranching in South Africa. Ian, Pam and William represent the shifting nature of this way of life, adapting to measured changes in South African as well as world-wide farming. Their attitude, it seems to me, is broad-minded, realistic and pro-active, combining entrepreneurship with traditional forms of ranching to reinvent concepts of sustainable farming. 


Tomorrow, (today actually) I’ll be waking up at 6pm to drive to Isandlwana to tour the battlefields. The Mitchell-Inneses set me up with the best Zulu guide available to tour Isandlwana in the morning, and after lunch at the lodge I’m to meet Michael Bowles’ cousin Rob for a tour of Rorke’s Drift. I’ll try to sleep now.

Ian and Pam Mitchell-Innes
Ian and Pam Mitchell-Innes
Blarnerne Farm

Blarnerne Farm