Wednesday, 25 September 2013

African Skies

Perceptions of skies are coloured subtly by the environment from which the observer is experiencing them - and lets face it skies are “experienced” and not just “seen”. If you just see a sky then you are partially dead, but if you experience a sky then you are part of it, not least because the sky palette is constantly changing.

Skies are framed and referenced by landscapes over which they hang. Light intensity, colour and shapes dance and interplay from one moment to the next, providing texture and counterpoint.

How often have you shouted – “Hey – come and get a load of this sunset!” only to find that as soon as the words are spoken the moment of sublime excitement is already fading as the ambient light dulls and that impossible orange wanes into something more pastel. Or “I think I’ve just seen the Wicked Witch of the West eating the Eastern Flying Pig” but within seconds the vision has transmogrified into a mundane picture of a strangulated chicken picking at a deformed punctured child’s balloon.

The best a photograph can do is represent an infinitesimal part of a shifting canvas. What amazing luck if an image can convey even some of the emotion experienced by the photographer.

It would be arrogant to suggest that “African skies” are more dramatic than skies experienced from any other continent. But there is often a clarity in the air that somehow magnifies distance and colour, and with no exception the following photographs are for me accompanied by a uniquely African quiet; a sunset or dawn stillness . . .


At least five different cloud types  - all in a fetching battleship grey, with a half moon, and in the far, far distance Ngwenya South mountain hides the oldest known worked mine in the world.
Mbabane, Swaziland

Another day; the sort of evening I think that JMW Turner observed when in 1839 he painted "The Fighting Temeraire"
Mbabane, Swaziland

The Wicked Witch of the West about to take a mouthful out of the slumbering Eastern Flying Pig - just before she became a strangulated chicken . . .
Mbabane, Swaziland. 

Dawn looking West towards Meru. This is taken at about 3,500m high and is as cold as it looks.
Kilimanjaro Tanzania

A crystal clear sky that is truly a counterpoint to a dramatic landscape. An almost full moon hangs above Sneukop with a twisted dead Cedar trunk in the foreground; clear skies pressaging a very cold and uncomfortable night. 

Cederberg Mountains, Western Cape, South Africa

A three-quarter moon dominates the evening sky - but Venus, the evening star, lurks in the bottom left-hand corner. 
Mbabane, Swaziland

The glory of the Angel on top of the Bell Tower is echoed and emphasised by the clouds behind.
Washa Umkhukhu - House On Fire, Mahlanya, Swaziland

"Cracking Sunset!" breathes the Bronze Crested Stalk as it gazed dreamily into a blooded distance decorated with the Evening Star.
Mbabane, Swaziland

In front of Kuthula Cottage the fronded Strelitzia are reflected in and by the clouds surrounding a diffused moon
Hawane, Hhohho, Swaziland

And finally an unbelievably cheesy washed-out photograph that should be gracing the title page of a "Watch Tower" magazine. You almost expect an avuncular elderly chap to be peering around the edge of the cloud with a speech bubble proclaiming - "Don't worry - I've got you all covered!"
Nkoyoyo, Hhohho, Swaziland.


Friday, 20 September 2013

Yorick Reincarnated

An idle Saturday morning at the coffee shop. It is dark and stormy outside and the conversation has drifted around to cats, well to be honest I navigate the conversation round to one cat in particular.

“Have you ever wondered,” asks M…de V . . .  .(all names have been subtly changed as protection against libel), “where Yorick actually came from?”

“From under the hedge,” I say realising immediately how juvenile that sounds. I hear my mealy mouthed alter ego scoffing - or perhaps the Stork brought him. “I've told everyone that,” I continue lamely. And the table nods in resigned and silent affirmation.

“No no,” persists M . . .de V . . . “I’ve met him.” This with triumphant emphasis and a glint of challenge to the others around the table, “And he has a special character about him.” As if I don’t know that! “I wonder who he is the reincarnation of,” she says. The atmosphere crackles with triumph, glint and challenge.
" . . .  he has a special character about him." Yorick with a
large lizard.

There is a sudden echoic hush in the shopping mall, the table shudders, my world does half a gambol and I am forced to order another cappuccino. Who the hell is Yorick? As you can imagine that fundamental question took a bit of asking, let alone answering.

Without knowing an awful lot about reincarnation, well in truth knowing nothing about the subject I set about the task of finding the essential Yorick without carrying out one jot of academic research. Let’s not get bound up with existential arguments, I thought, or glued down by Buddhist dogma. Neither the Quaran nor the Bible are going to be of any use in this quest. It’s back to basics!

The detective work began, and I logged on to Wikipedia to find out who died round about the beginning of October 2008.

Given the obvious uncertainty about Yorick’s actual date of birth his conception is an even deeper mystery so I decided to concentrate on the former date. Barry the vet had settled on a “registered” date of birth 1st October 2008, a sort of Nom de Naissance. (Barry is incidentally his real name. I have no fear of legal dismemberment from that quarter.) Allowing a degree of latitude in his accuracy in dating kittens – unlike dating trees it is not an exact science and cannot involve destructive testing, I thought a five day window on either side of his assumed date of birth a reasonable guess. So that was one parameter settled. (I have not incidentally asked for confirmation from the veterinary profession about my assumptions on the grounds that I would have to explain why I am enquiring.)

The next bit is a lot more difficult. How long does a soul hang about waiting for a suitable host? I don’t think anyone knows, but I have to assume the same five day window of opportunity pertains. I know no better after all. So this great intellectual leap leads me to a ten day period that is fertile ground from whence the Yorick character can be found - 26th September to the 5th October.

Oh, and to make the quest attainable the soul has had to come from someone who has made some sort of mark, but that of course – given Yorick’s personality – goes without saying.

According to Wikipedia 86 people of note died over this period. This could be a mammoth task of elimination! September 29th was a particularly fertile day for the grim reaper with 14 notable deaths recorded. There is the inevitable crop of sporting and film luminaries, and very old war heroes (who as far as I can see were very ordinary chaps who became heroes simply because they were very old).

Five stand out. Paul Newman tops the list, closely followed by two leaders of al-Qaida.

The cat with Paul Newman eyes.
While the late Newman and the current Yorick did/do have strikingly bright and piercing eyes in common, and there is no doubt that Yorick has huge potential in the film world (something I am open to any advice on) he does not have a philanthropic bone in his body and Paul Newman was renown for his charitable enterprises. So with some reluctance I have to abandon this avenue; and lets face it who would believe me if I were to admit to having Paul Newman eating his lunch in our kitchen – crouched on the worktop by the side of the micro-wave.

Where Mahir al-Zubaydi and Mohamed Moumou are concerned I can thankfully discern no evidence of reincarnation other than Yoricks generally subversive behaviour when it comes to prospecting for semi-precious metals under the throws and cushions on the sofas. If I felt a stiffening of the feline fur every time I swear – a regular occurance; or jumpy behavior when we discuss Christians, Tony Blair, George W Bush, or Americans in general, then I would have reason to delve deeper; but I have not. I tried the acid test of dropping the phrase “The Prophet” into normal conversation while he was around. Not an easy task in a secular houshold I can tell you, but not so much as a blink. With a sense of relief these two are abandoned. Lets face it the thought of some sort of really nasty Jihad emanating from the admission that either Mahir al-Z . . . or Mohamed M . .  are eating their lunch of tinned pork and dried kitty food in our kitchen is not a pleasant one. I don’t have the fervour of Salmon Rushdie.
Al-qaida operative on the look-out for . . . something.

Fourthly there is an American pornographic film producer. A reincarnation of this talent in feline form boggles even my over-active imagination. I'm not going there - and neither is Yorick.

Lastly there is Marian McQuade who lived to the ripe old age of 91 and whose claim to fame was the founding of National Grandparents Day. This it appears she formed when she was a grandparent – there’s good ‘ole American enterprise for you! Delightfully dotty but still not quite right.

But then a curiosity caught my eye with such intensity that for the second time in this my world did a hop-skip-and-a-jump!

Raymond Macherot shuffled off at the age of 84 on 26th September. Also known as “Zara”, Macherot was a Belgian cartoonist who worked for a time on Tintin magazine followed by Spirou. It seemed that Macherot had a thing about cats. His debut for Spirout was a new series – Chaminou – which featured a cat secret agent.

In the subsequent Sybilline et Taboum series he introduced a stupid cat named ‘Pantouffle’, followed in another series by a cat called ‘Mirliton’ of which I know nothing except that a mirliton is either an oddly shaped fruit not unlike an avocado pear, or a membranophone, neither of which even I can remotely connect to Yorick – but there is evidence enough elsewhere.
"Yorick's suspiciously furtive character" . . .  hedge hopping

The description of a cat secret agent resonates delightfully with Yoricks suspiciously furtive character, his ability to appear from the most unlikely direction, and the slightly pained look he flings over his shoulder as he crouches over the dogs bowl of freshly poured water that says “ . . . would have preferred it shaken and not stirred.” But what set me all a’shiver was the realisation that ‘pantouffle’ is the french for ‘slipper’. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled and glistered as I remembered a period when Yorick would pull out the false inner sole of one of Margaret’s slip-on shoes and bat it around the passage floor. This thankfully brief period of feline foot fetishism is surely proof indeed of a strong slipper connection.

Enough you cry, enough!

But wait - there is more!

According to my source (Wikipedia naturally) Macherot's cartoons belie their apparent innocence with an underlying theme of the struggle for survival. I quote “In Macherot's world, animals live in a society of their own, and species must learn to coexist together peacefully.” Here we have a cat who cannot keep his paws off the dogs, tolerates his fellow cats, has long (admittedly fruitless) chats with goldfish, befriends a variety of small rodents and not so small lizards, and eats grass. For all I know he shins up one of the pine trees of an evening to pay his regards to the Spotted Eagle Owl (Smallkittenus eatus).

The answer is staring me in the face. The spirit of Macherot has chosen to adopt as his new form a cat, a figure that he has depicted in various guises over decades. And the evidence is all there.

QED. Yorick is the soul of Raymond Macherot!

The mechanics of how the Macherot soul somehow connected with that spitting ball of renegade fluff who later fetched up at the bottom of our garden I do not know, and I do not care – but there is no doubt in my mind that behind those limpid grey green eyes there is a cartoonists twinkle.

From what little I have managed to read about Raymond Macherot the more I feel attracted to him and the more I regret not having met him - but maybe I can - and have?
Cartoonist at work - oops dropped le damned
crayon, merde!

So now we (well actually me) are busy engaging with Yorick in execrable schoolboy french in an accent lying uncomfortably somewhere between ex British Prime Minister Ted Heath and Inspector Clouseau. These attempts are however such a failure that I am beginning to wonder if “Zara” was in actual fact a Waloon speaker – or perhaps even Dutch!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Pennies from Heaven

I previously recounted a couple of anecdotes about Tourists and Missionaries in Swaziland – and here is another disturbing piece. In recounting this story I have to tread warily and not allow my own obvious prejudices to intrude . . .

I was recently introduced to an organisation, an NGO - actually more technically a FBO (Faith Based Organisation) that is involved with the feeding of OVC’s. OVC’s are incidentally “orphans and vulnerable children” which in Swaziland represent an inordinately high percentage of the population.

This organisation apparently sets up “feeding points” and provides meals for the OVC’s in the immediate vicinity. Quite how these points are set up in the first place I am not certain and the person explaining this to me (an expatriate) could not explain the relationship between the NGO and the local Traditional Authorities or for that matter Regional or Central Government. The organisation provides pre-schooling and some form of post high school skills training – although what these skills are I could not establish. They also run after-school activities such as bible classes. The NGO seems to be run by a preponderance of expatriates.

My defensive antennae immediately spring up when introduced to an organisation that has a heavy foreign presence, and that is providing sustenance and spiritual aid and little else of obvious sustainable substance, unless you count bible classes as substance, which you might – and it is here that I have to tiptoe lightly in my ecumenical ballet shoes across the eggshell stage of evangelistic philanthropy. The point of this piece is not to dissect the aid-for-spiritual-upliftment discourse – that is another vast and highly charged subject.

In this instance however my finely tuned antennae was assailed by the astonishing fact that the food that is being dispensed to the disadvantaged Swazi children is actually imported from the United States of America. Why should that be one may ask – and I did; and the answer was that it is cheaper than purchasing it locally. Apparently it is cheaper to import food from the USA by the container-load than it is to purchase food stuffs locally – and that is why food staples are being imported into a region that has the capacity to feed itself and have surplus.

There are a couple of issues here that are begging to be unpacked . . .

I cannot for one moment subscribe to the theory that, taking into account all the costs of freightage, demurrage, packaging, protecting and palleting, import duties and so on that it is cheaper – dollar for dollar as it were – to import foodstuffs from the USA to Southern Africa. And this is aside from all the other annoying “hidden” environmental costs such as embodied energy, carbon loading and green accounting. If this really were the case then surely some very serious and strident alarm bells should be ringing in the board rooms of charitable organisations let alone in the halls of economic academia. In fact the idea is so patently absurd that it both beggars belief or any further scrutiny.
Container shop laying off the Port of Durban, stacked to
the gunnels with pre-packed food parcels for Swazi
It may be that the charity “hook” is for legions of generous American office workers giving up their lunchtimes to parcel up ration-packs for the starving fly-blown children of Africa. In other words the only way that this particular form of largesse can be achieved is through donation of “kind” rather than cash. But again this doesn’t stand up to any serious scrutiny.

If you are a really serious donor you will want to donate in an appropriate fashion – taking into account local conditions and all other wider aspects of what we environmentalists refer to as the receiving environment. Meaningful and considered charity should surely be directed towards the recipients and not be some sort of a sop to the consciences or social mores of the givers. If the only way of raising aid is by getting the donors to physically package food-stuffs (which I really do doubt) then use it locally, and god knows if CNN is to be believed there are enough potential recipients in New Orleans alone. If locations on the African continent are the desired aid target then examine how interventions can be best directed and tailor efforts accordingly.
Productive Homestead in the Nkoyoyo/Hawane area
Oh, and by the way, these are “interventions”; an apt description which alludes to “coming between” and speaks of “interference.” Be of no illusion, however carefully planned it may be, “aid” is disruptive.

In fact it doesn’t take much imagination to see that far from being sustainable ill considered intervention is in danger of promoting even greater levels of food aid dependency than the country is already suffering. There are enough stories circulating about homesteads no longer engaging in subsistence farming because they know that food aid is in the offing, and I do not believe these tales to be apocryphal. The empathetic support and promotion of sustainable farming must be paramount, and the importation of basic food stuffs which can and should be sourced locally should be immediately stopped.

As an illuminating matter of interest the web page for this NGO extols mightily the virtues of its aid and sustenance to the “hurting” children of Africa and it does not hold back on its spiritual provenance or strength of beliefs. It gives a list of the personnel involved in its activities. Under the heading of “missionaries” there are thirteen American couples or individuals. Under the heading of “staff” there are fourteen expatriates (single or couples), and there are 11 Swazis. What is revealing is the fact that all the expatriates (missionaries or staff) are referred to by forename and surname, but the Swazi staff are, with one exception, referred to by forename only (oh, and one other has the appellation of “Make” which means “Madame” or “Mrs” and which in this context smacks of condescension). This, for me, speaks volumes about a web page that actually says very little and is another indicator of the depth of understanding and empathy that this organisation really has of the complex issues in which it is meddling.

Okay, it is not just daft misguided amateurs who are creating havoc in the rural areas of Swaziland and elsewhere in Africa. There are quite enough more formal organisations that are also operating this most sensitive of sociological fields. And I readily admit that neither the traditional nor the formal governmental structures are working well.

Ultimately the responsibility for these foolish interventions must lie with Governments who do not have the political will to say “thanks for the charity – but its got to go there, or there, and its got to be done like this; otherwise no thanks.” Only then will this level of aid make sense, and only then will the recipients actually start to truly benefit, rather than being pawns in a game that they cannot participate in.
Surpluses from subsistence farming activities