Monday, November 30, 2009

Wisdom of Grannies

I have had my first articles published online in a magazine called Needle by the Hand Embroidery Network. The first I called the Wisdom of Grannies. The second is on my amazing mother-in-law, Mabel Coleman, who at nearly 95, knits beautiful Kaffe Fasset designed jerseys for the elderly and orphaned in Harare.Here is Kiff with Gran in one of the pulloevers she knitted for him. Take a look on the link: It is also full of articles on wonderful embroiders from around the world and should give those of you with a creative bent lots of inspiration.

Thunderstorms and lightning

Spent a couple of nights last week up in Ntabankulu near the southern end of the Drakensberg. We were treated to two of the most spectacular lightning and thunderstorms I've experienced in many years. They came booming in on massive dark grey clouds at twilight and battered everything else into submission and silence. It was awe-inspiring in the original sense of the word not the debased 'awesome' that is used to describe the most trivial of incidents. The saddest of all though is that when I got home on Thursday night I discovered that on the first night three huts were struck and four people died, including a baby, and on the second night another three people were killed by lightning. So far this November 18 people, including babies,children and old grannies have died in the area from lightning. It's no wonder the people in the area are so frightened of it and put rubber tyres planted with a sacred Gasteria plant on the top of the hut roofs to protect themselves against the terrifying lightning bird. When we live in westernised comfort we never get to really know the fear that people feel when exposed to nature at its most violent. No wonder Thor and Odin and other gods of thunder and lightning were revered and sacrificed to in the past. I'm afraid that climate change is going to make us all more familiar with the power of nature unleashed and out of balance.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tag the tree climbing dog

Our spaniel Tag loves to be with us whatever we're doing. Aside from the beach which is his most favourite thing, he loves to climb the huge Milkwood trees that gave this blog its name. So here's some pics of him exploring and posing.

Trophies galore

Christopher did us proud last night at his final primary school prizegiving - five trophies and nine certificates (some to accompany the floating trophies)- across a whole range of subjects, sports and cultural things like chess and acting. We were two very proud parents. His best friend Ryan Boy who has been the Head Boy at the school this year took double that number - he needed a box to carry them home. The boys were outshone by the Head Girl - Hayley Boy, no relation to Ryan - who aced the Dux cup which she had sworn she was going to do at the beginning of the year. The friendly rivalry between the three of them has certainly pushed them along. So here's a photo of the boy with his prizes.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rain, blessed rain

We've had two grey days with heavy rain, thunder 'n lightening but it's not been a penance after months of drought. As I drove out this morning the sea was molten lead and silver while the sky was awash with clouds of every conceivable shade of grey - quite beautiful. The farmers will be rejoicing and so will everything else once it goes on its way. The birds all seem to go into overdrive after good rains and the swallows will be able to start building their nests - a bit difficult without mud. It's a fairly late start to their summer breeding and apart from one day we've yet to have a proper start to summer. We're known to have four seasons in one day in this part of the world but going from 28 to 18 degrees in less than 12 hours is still worthy of comment. Just glad we've not had to travel this week - Transkei driving in the rain is only for the foolish or foolhardy - the last time I had to do it I saw 8 accidents in the four hours I had to travel and that was on a Sunday afternoon with a major Rugby match on so the roads were pretty quiet.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Form Phobia

Form Phobia

Some people are afraid of heights, some of frogs and others of getting peanut butter stuck on the roof of their mouths. Aside from a long standing arachnophobia – fear of spiders – that meant my Dad had to go on spider killing missions when required, I have now realized that I suffer from formophobia. That is the fear of forms, especially government forms, and most particularly income tax forms.

Amongst the many phobias on the a fear of forms is not listed – how strange, I can’t be the only person in the world with this phobia. I would have thought there would be millions of us poor sufferers out there. Eventually I tracked down a name and description on the urbandictionary site:

Formophobia/ Form Anxiety: n. Paralyzing fear, distress, and nervousness caused by the act of entering personal information into a pre-made template. Making simple tasks such as applying for jobs, school, etc. almost impossible for the affected.

Now that describes pretty exactly how I feel about government forms. My fear has ratcheted up several notches after having to fill in a 27 page Basic Environmental Scoping Application form four times for four different roads. This must have been developed by someone suffering from severe formophilia – i.e. joy, elation, and sometimes sexual arousal caused by the act of entering personal information into a pre-made template. People affected often find themselves drawn to filling out papers for others.

People who create forms must be formophiliacs – sounds fairly gross doesn’t it?

The scads of new legislation in South Africa has been a windfall for the bureaucratic formophiliacs that infest government offices around the country. If you can’t do anything else to prove that you’re working, create a new form. It needs to be as confusing and difficult to complete as possible. It must require numerous repetitions of the same facts and figures, especially name, address, etc. It must be printed in a 7.5 point serif font to ensure maximum illegibility, especially once it has been Photostatted numerous times and then faxed to the poor bastard who has to complete it. It must have dozens and dozens of places where signatures are required. To really count as a form par excellence it must include an incomprehensible, unexplained formula to identify whether or not the applicant qualifies as a Formerly Advantaged, Formerly Disadvantaged, Currently Disadvantaged, Gender disadvantaged, Disabled, Working in the local area, and any other requirement that can be thought up by someone who is not going to have to fill in the blasted thing.

Is it any wonder my hands begin to shake, I hyperventilate, my heart races and a full blown panic attack ensues when faced with the latest production of some asinine grey suited formophiliac.

Friday, November 6, 2009

South African Idiosyncrasies


The South African accent has many critics, especially those who come out of an older, more colonial mindset when only “The Queen’s English” was the acceptable standard. But even the most hardened must I think recognize the vibrant creativity of the language we speak down at the southern end of Africa and we fondly call “Seffrican”. Post 1994 not only brought huge political and social upheavals and changes but it is also changing the way we speak whoever we are, from whatever background, race or family.

There are many colourful Afrikaans terms that we use in every day talking out here and there is an increasing cross-cultural mix of Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho words that are or have become incorporated into “Seffrican” whatever race you may belong to. Einaa, Jislaaik, Nooit and Serioousss can be inserted anywhere into a conversation with the proper intonation and drawn out explosive sound to indicate surprise, questioning, horror, affirmation or confirmation of a statement. And each generation adds its own contribution. When I was a teenager we used to say “Kiff” for the American “Cool” and it’s still used to some extent but “Cool” has been adapted and you can say “Cool bananas” or “Apples” to indicate something is seriously fashionable or good. Amongst my son’s friends they say “SWAK” with great regularity to their seriously uncool parents. He was horrified to hear that during his grandfather’s youth that meant “Sealed With A Kiss” and was written on love letters.

So you might have a discussion as follows;

“We’re braaing tonight my boet/china/chommie/bhuti. Why don’t you bring some vleis and Charles Glass and we’ll have a lekker kuier? We can all check out the Blou Bulle and the Sharks” “Eish, or Aggh (something like the sound of a chain smoker trying to clear their throat first thing in the morning), ou swaer, the laaitie’s sick and I said to the old lady that I’d get him muti on the way home”

Translation: We’re having a barbecue tonight my pal/friend. Why don’t you bring some meat and Castle beers and we’ll have a nice visit. We can all watch the Blue Bulls and Sharks (Rugby teams)’ “Oh, old man, the kid’s sick and I said to my wife that I’d buy him medicine on the way home.”

At a braai, the men, most complete with beer ‘boeps’, show of their grilling skills while the women make salads, look after the kids and gossip on the other side. Due to their Herculean work of producing sometimes edible charred meat, the men then sit back and wait for their wives to serve them huge plates of food. National Heritage Day has also become National Braai Day and you are far more likely to find a complete cross-section braaing at the local park on that day than attending the boring politically correct celebrations in stadiums being addressed by politicians.

So we celebrate with vuvuzelas, that the whole world is going to know about after the Soccer World Cup here next year, we Shoshaloza along at cricket and rugby matches, most of us know at least some of the hybridized/bastardized national anthem, even if we struggle with the lines in Sotho and we wave and wear with abandon our brightly coloured flag that was criticized so fiercely when it first made its appearance. The ‘underpants/y-front/onderbroek’ flag now belongs to all of us and I think if anyone suggested that it was only meant to be an interim flag as was the idea in the beginning they would get very short shrift. We love our country, even if we don’t all love each other.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Working in the sticks

Working in the sticks of Pondoland

Some of the projects I have worked on this year have been in a tiny municipality called Ntabankulu (In- Tab-un-koo-loo for those who can’t read Xhosa names). It is tucked up against the Drakensberg Mountains, cut through by the Umzimvubu (oum-zim-voo-boo) river and boasts some of the most stunning scenery and tortuous dirt roads. We have had a number of community meetings with traditional leaders and people living in tiny rural villages. Most of our meetings are held outside, often next to the cattle kraal, the most important part of any of these rural homesteads. Poverty is endemic, there is something like 90% unemployment and most families depend on pensions and child grants to survive along with the sale of the illegally grown dagga (Marijuana) known as Pondo Gold.

Yet no matter how poor the dignity of everyone you meet is striking, as is their friendliness. There are places I have been where they have never seen a white woman before and yet they make a place for me as ‘Mama Jayne’. At one homestead I jumped out of the bakkie to open the gate and then walked up to the huts and house where we were to meet. One of the local councilors who had traveled with us was horrified and said, “But what about the dogs, they will bite her.” He was assured by someone else, “Don’t worry, the dogs never bite white people.” This was proved when the dog ran up to me and allowed me to pet it. The context of this is that dogs are kept as working animals – they guard the home, herd the cattle and hunt any game in the area to fill the often empty pots.

Most households have four or five dwellings – one square or western style house for the head of the house, and the rest mud and daub thatched huts or rondavels that house children, wives, grandparents and kitchen. The reason for this is that most amaPondo live in extended family groups and polygamy is still common. They are a very patriarchal people but it is unwise to underestimate the influence of the women, especially the older women who take on something of the status of men once they enter menopause. They may not say much in public meetings but their husbands listen to them in the privacy of their homes.

As the villages are small everyone knows everyone else and there is always someone who will give you directions to a particular person or house. There are also strong clan links and loyalty to the traditional leaders or Nkosi of the area. When there is a marriage, funeral, birth or male puberty rite of passage to celebrate everyone participates, helping to prepare the feast and dressing in their traditional best for the occasion. Africa time is the order of the day in this area. Don’t arrive at a meeting due to start at ten o’clock and expect it to begin on time. Sometimes it will take an hour or longer to gather everyone before a meeting can begin. Patience is one of the virtues you learn working in these areas.

People gathered for meetings – the men sit on one side and the women on the other
Even if the meetings are held outside there are always the niceties to be observed. The Nkosi, his counselors and the visitors will be seated on chairs brought from various houses while low wooden benches or the ground serve for everyone else. The men will often come in their working clothes with sticks or whips in hand. While the women are never seen without their ‘doeks’ (scarves) or hats, the men must remove their hats for the duration of the meeting. Each newcomer greets the iNkosi with his praise name, for example, “Aaaie, Jongilanga!!” The iNkosi will not speak until the end of the meeting. His counselors will address the meeting on his behalf and then each person has their chance to stand and ask questions or make comments. Having listened to everyone, the iNkosi will then make a summarizing speech stating the position or consensus that has been reached. This is an archaic form of democracy – the iNkosi’s word may be final but it is only made once everyone has expressed their opinions. The iNkosi’s have a quiet dignity and serious demeanour in the meetings.

Dreamers and Doers

I joined the Hand Embroidery Network a couple of weeks back and its become a morning pleasure to check into the site and see what new work is up on display in the gallery. This morning there are some amazing pieces that use everything from tracing paper and photostats to old sweet wrappers combined with more traditional embroidering materials. It made me think about how creative people are and that the human race has this deeply entrenched innovative capacity to go beyond the bounds of what was previously thought possible. That old saying 'Nothing is impossible for those who dare' is absolutely true. The other side of that is that alongside the innovators we need the practical down-to-earth people who can turn ideas and dreams into reality. Those who are able to slog for the long haul without getting bored. I'm one of the dreamers but I need the calm, practical common-sense of my husband to keep me grounded and make sure I don't fly off into something that is not really feasible. So to dreamers and doers, innovators and sloggers plus the rest of the range of human beings we all have our roles to play, our particular destinies to fulfil - find yours and do it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Piecing family history together

I have become the de facto family historian due to a memory that goes back to when I was a toddler, the fact that I'm the eldest of the family and the only one to have clear memories of our grandparents, to having a long fascination with history and more recently human genetics, as well as an incurable love of 'kraaming'. What might you ask is 'kraaming'? It seems to be a particular and peculiar Deeks family word that refers to the activity of spending hours sorting through old family photographs. My Mum and Dad always kept boxes and old suitcases as storage places for family photographs. There were some albums put together but they were not nearly as fascinating as the jumbled heaps of old black and white, sepia toned and fading early colour prints that gave glimpses of people from the past. For my parents 50th wedding anniversary - how's that for staying power - I put together a book of my memories of the family. That led to putting together sequential photographs of various members of the family to more intensive research into the history of the Coleman and Deeks families initially but as I dug back into Westons and Windusts, Sells and Devantiers, Underwoods and Carrolls.

What made me really stop and think is when I investigated the careers/work of our forebears. Within two generations they went from being almost illiterate peasants who left school at 14 to enter into trades to the first university degrees. So my one grandfather was apprenticed to a saddler but his eldest son is a CA and his eldest grandaughter has a Masters degree. We take for granted the lifestyles that we live today but generations ago we would have lived in tiny cottages at the mercy of landlords for work and housing. My great aunts hardly ever left the tiny hamlet they grew up in. They still had an outdoor privy in the 1950s. The men travelled further, mostly as a result of war and conscription or volunteering into the army. My grandfather, the saddler, was one of them - he enlisted in the Norfolk Volunteers Regiment to fight in the Boer War and stayed in South Africa because he was offered the chance of land through the post war Milner Settlement Scheme. This was beyond anything he had dreamed of as a boy.

My paternal grandmother was of German Settler blood whose family endured three months aboard a ship to come to the Eastern Cape, just for the chance of owning 12 acres of land - what seemed a huge estate in Germany but in terms of the Eastern Cape's climate and vegetation, insufficient to keep a family alive. What adventurous genes have been passed down? Would they recognise any of us as family? What features and mannerisms have crossed generations to pop up unexpectedly in ourselves and our children? It's a fascinating puzzle that keeps me enthralled and seeking for those extra titbits of information that bring the past to life.

An Honourable Man in a dishonourable age

My father Hall Deeks is 84 years old and is finally retiring as a Chartered Accountant, having worked for a number of Water Boards in the White River area in the Lowveld of South Africa for over thirty years. But not for him a pension or even a gold watch. No, the new Chairman of the Board has accused him of 'cooking the books'. Anyone who knows my father knows that he is a man a absolute integrity and honesty, a man for whom his word is indeed his bond. Never in all the years that he has worked has anyone ever suspected him of the slightest dishonesty or double dealing, never mind accused him of such. This has been a devastating blow to him - he is utterly distraught at the idea that someone might accuse him of dishonesty. As his daughter I feel that the accusation tells us more about the man who made it - he is obviously capable of such things if he can think such thinks. In South Africa today dishonesty and corruption make daily newspaper headings and we live in a dishonourable age but how does a man who was bred in a more honourable age deal with this one now? With great difficulty. Anyone who knows him well or has even met him relatively briefly or had business dealings with him can testify to the character of this most honourable of men.

Red Bishops

Our bird feeder this morning was ablaze with four male Red Bishop birds in full breeding plumage - brilliant scarlet with black masks and aprons on their bellies. There is a lovely Zulu story about a warrior who stopped to rest under a tree while escaping from some enemies but a whole flock of Red Bishops descended on the tree giving away his hiding place - he cursed them and turned them into brilliant red flowers and that is why we have the Coral Tree now.

The males have a harem of between four to six wives whom they visit in turn at their nests in the reed beds.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hogsback inspired Tapestry

Hand Embroidery Network


I recently joined a wonderful site - Hand Embroidery Network (HEN) at It is for anyone who does hand emboridery and has a number of wonderful features and is easy to use. As a way to get inspiration and see what other people around the world are doing it is great. You join as a member and get a free page. You can post pics of your latest work that goes into a general gallery, there are blog pages, special interest groups and lots of other free features.

The MIlkwood Grove

The Milkwood Grove in our garden has four ancient milkwood trees twisted and bent by the almost continuous winds from the sea. In storms or heavy winds like we had this weekend they creak and groan like a group of old people rubbing their branches together and rattling their leaves. There is a constant flow of birds in and out of the trees - sunbirds, sparrows, weavers, doves and pigeons, black collared barbets and boubou shrikes. When the trees are in fruit, bejewelled in red ovals then the green pigeons descend in droves taking as much as they can of the short season of bounty.

It is early summer now and all the birds are pairing off and looking for nesting materials and sites so our milkwoods are currently popular. On the hottest days of summer it is shady and cool with the zither of cicadas as accompaniment. They are also perfect for growing boys - trees to climb and sway in wind, a lookout post for spotting whales and dolphins, a place to play with imagination and to escape to for a brooding session. Sitting on a great branched limb or a deep fork between two branches is to escape from the mundane world and enter a place open to other worlds. There is a sense of the sacred and of being in touch with earth magic through the roots that run deep into the soft dune sands.