The Night of the Flying Ants
Author unknown. c. 1986. Translation from the original Afrikaans manuscript by Roon Lewald.
“Right up to the hour of our death, we have the illusion that we know ourselves, that we know what we want . . .”
The sun is rising blood-red over the sea and the dagga (marijuana) sellers have not yet taken up their positions as we drive out of the city. As we turn off onto the Kwamashu road, about the only other traffic consists of rickety Putco busses and minibus taxis, over-filled with black faces. The whites, high up against the Berea, are still dazed with Saturday-morning weariness after waking up to Nescafé and “Goeie môre, Suid-Afrika!” – good morning, South Africa! Altus lights cigarettes for us as we try to work out how to tackle the Afrikaans tutorial for the black matriculants today. We have to do Ernst van Heerden’s “Die hardloper” (the runner) and the passive and active voices (I silently consider the irony that, in this country, the Afrikaans terms for these two grammatical expressions — “lydend” and “bedrywend” — literally mean “suffering” and “perpetrating”).
“What exactly would you say ‘the Runner’ symbolizes?” asks Altus as I take the turn-off to Inanda, with the pathetic fish and fruit stalls on the left. Crooked, battered umbrellas are rigged to create the illusion of coolness above rickety wooden constructions that serve as tables for the limp merchandise. A Putco bus nearly shoves me down the embankment, forcing me to brake suddenly. Altus grabs hurriedly at the briefcase on his lap and draws his pointed, patent-leather shoes together. “He probably symbolizes life as against death: the ‘man who is always behind’ with the breath ‘on his neck’ must clearly be the threat of death, of transitoriness,” I say to distract his nervous attention from the road while I try to weave through the unpredictable traffic. The Boers are late again as usual — it’s hard to get up on time on a Saturday morning.
Beyond the traffic light, we enter the first black settlement: everywhere, people with water vessels are walking to and from the water sellers. Some of them have wheelbarrows; women skilfully balance the large, full plastic jars on their heads while jutting their buttocks out far behind to compensate. The mud huts along the road look battered after the heavy floods and bits of rag and clothing are draped on every fence to dry in the sun. Long queues wait at the bus stop. At the shop, the first white-robed women and children start gathering on the stoop for their mysterious weekly gathering (with Jesus and a sangoma, a magic-medicine seller?) In his corrugated iron shack, the hairdresser too is already open for business.
“Did you know that the people in Kwamashu use one-third of the electricity that the Southern Life building needs?” asks Altus as we drive past a man with two decapitated chickens. Moses Mfeketo and Magnificence Tinto wave us to a stop: they are our two best Afrikaans students, even if 18-year-old Magnificence with his Blechtrommel stature is no more than three foot high. They smile broadly amidst the “Good morning!”s and struggle to open the tight door of the Golf. “I have to talk about ‘nurture or nature of the child’ at the debate, will Doctor help me? It is difficult for us to obtain the necessary books and we are going to Durban Girls’ High for the competition”. I am once more struck by the formality of Moses’s English. Yes, I’ll see what I can do. How was the week at school?
“Very satisfactory – we had our interschools athletics, and it was very enjoyable.”Rousseau’s Emile is all I know about “nurture or nature of the child”. Two sentences start turning in my head: “The teaching of nature comes slowly; man’s lessons are mostly premature”, and “You count on the present order of society … and we are on the edge of a revolution.” I’ll have to make photocopies.
And then we are there. We turn right over the potholes in the tarmac and enter a corrugated gravel driveway through the gates of Ohlange Institute, founded by Albert Luthuli at the beginning of the century. It resembles a farm, semi-secluded and on a rise, away from the encircling townships. From here, the human misery of the area looks idyllically beautiful — here and there a thorn tree and little roofs painted bright blue. A few stray goats stand munching at the grass tussocks in front of the library. A library in name only: all the shelves yawn emptily, with a single encyclopaedia and a few old shabby throwaway books. Bongane Dlamini, the little teacher who coordinates the tutorials, greets us with a warm smile which reveals a missing tooth. “We’ve been cut off from the outside world now for two weeks: the post office people are striking. No letters, no phone calls. Ow, it’s bad, man!” He’s wearing a UDF T-shirt today. From the wall behind him, a mass of little gekkos stare motionlessly, with only their almost transparent abdomens pulsing where their hearts must be. Pulsing with the heat, which keeps getting worse. Now and then, one of them scrabbles higher up into the roof with a staccato rhythm. And the little black eyes stare: insolently, insistently. “What are you doing here? This is Africa, this is our territory…We’re watching you…” Outside, the hadidahs are screaming their harsh, venomous cries. The temperature rises. We stroll to our classrooms. Gekkos, heat, Africa. We are entering unfamiliar terrain.
Altus’s self-conscious swing of the hip in his designer jeans and briefcase is more conspicuous here, deliberately at odds with the munching goats and shabbily dressed students waiting in front of the classrooms. Even so, he has a certain rapport with them (one minority towards another minority, even if they are unofficially in the majority?). The discouragement which black Africans suffer makes them strangely tolerant towards others. Altus’s refinement and soft voice are apparently more sympathetic to them than my own aggressive approach. “We like people who smile with us”, was the hint Magnificence gave me the week before last after a class in which I made a concentrated attempt to communicate the mysteries of Afrikaans poetry. The hidden message: as long as you smile so that we can see your good will, the rest is unimportant.
The students stream in, of necessity sitting two or even three to a desk, and spend a long time creaking their plastic Checkers and Pick’nPay satchels. The broken windows yawn and unpleasant sounds are heard from the toilets. The loose notice board with its VIVA MANDELA against the back wall leans dangerously over towards the class and there is no chalk anywhere for the blackboard. The first hurdle is the roll call. “Nombuyiselo Zondi, Angelbirth Mbeje, Faith Mthembu, Hope Sithebe, Monde Cele, Rejoice Msomie, Gladness Ndandani, Mozipho Mgeyane, Pretty Ngidi, Prudence Zikubu, Sbongile Mhlongo…
“All at once, there is uproar at the streetward side of the school: everything comes to a stop, everybody’s eyes turn to the windows. A Casspir personnel carrier and a police van are there. Two busloads of singing, dancing people are stopped: supposedly a funeral party who are warned to sit, stop singing and, in some cases, to get out (at Pietermaritzburg, people are being killed daily by machetes and necklaces of burning tyres…) When everybody has been calmed down, Moses reads out his composition about last week’s poem, Gedagtes van die beseerde arbeider (thoughts of the injured labourer):
“This poem should still be taught in these days. The poeter talks about things that are still happening. There are still people today who are jobless like the injured worker the poeter talks about. The poeter talks about sharing between the rich people and poor people. That today happens. There are still people who live off dry pap (porridge) — like the injured worker the poeter talks about. If things in life are not good, a person cannot believe in God. That is true. If a person is poor, he or she gets despairing for God.”
Versus the F’s and E’s of the rest of the class, Moses got a B for Afrikaans in the last examination. When Cresentia reads her report, struggling and scarcely audible (she speaks with her hand in front of her mouth, supposedly a gesture of respect towards superior persons which Zulu girls pick up somewhere during the process of their education), despair wells up in me:
“I like this poem, because the injured worker gives his wife hope that one day he must stand with his feet. While he stands with his feet he will buy the blankets and he can give a cent for his wife and his children.”
What am I doing here? How can one ever get these students to the level of poetry analysis needed for the matriculation examination? I don’t know, I really don’t know. But I carry on:
“Today, we are doing Die hardloper by Ernst van Heerden, page sixty six, in Skakering.”
From where I sit on the writing surface of the front desk, I read aloud with feeling. I can see they don’t understand a word. Two girls whisper now and then during the reading and the boys fidget with boredom (but they are here, a sixth day at school, because they seek the myth of education; they want to get ahead in life; they want to go to university). I translate into English (that too makes little impact, although everyone takes frenetic notes: they had Zulu-medium education until Standard V, and their command of English is pathetic). And then I ask Moses to translate into Zulu. From what I can deduce, he explains while translating. Suddenly, everybody is all agog. Heads nod in agreement, all eyes are fixed on him. “Mmmm…”, the whole class says (for the first time, comprehension seems to dawn). I watch him, feel like an idiot: I understand hardly a word of Zulu, and yet his gestures make it possible to guess what he is putting accross: “Sy hart het hoog geklop, sy bloed was heet” (his heart beat high, his blood was hot . . . ), with heat and heart dramatically illustrated by breast-thumping gestures. He made a billowing movement with his hand while explaining in Zulu, and the whole class screamed with delight. I asked nervously: “Moses, what did you say just then; why are they laughing?” “I told them that ‘die wind het sy haregolf gelig‘ (‘the wind lifted his wave of hair’) means that only white people’s hair waves in the wind like that . . .”
“Time is getting short. I quickly discuss the poem. The final couplet of the text especially makes quite a few eyes look as if they are pondering something which they can see but I cannot:
Hy weet al het hy nou die loop gewen,
Die ander man sal eendag eerste wees.
(He knows that, though he won this race,
One day the other man will finish first.)
And then we “suffer” and “perpetrate” for a while. These passive and active voices certainly inflict pure suffering on me and them. The bell rings, we stream out in relief, out to where the sun is now gnawing at shoulder blades and the cicadas shrill monotonously in the isolated trees. Nature forces me to enter the appalling toilets, where not a single water closet flushes any more and lakes of unidentifiable liquid collect on the floors. The stench is so overwhelming that you try to hold your breath during the few seconds you spend there. The ceramic stem of one toilet has been broken off just above the floor. What fury managed to achieve that?
After three more classes (with the students eventually turning ashen with heat, or is it hunger?) I drag myself into the library. Bongane is serving refreshments: Mellow Yellow cooldrink and lemon creams from the shop. We drink thirstily and eat. We have been up since six o’clock and had no breakfast before the 25-kilometer drive. Bongane is starved for company. I am so tired and wilted by the heat and the struggle to communicate that I can hardly concentrate on his words. He is talking about Phambili (the Zulu word for “Forward!”), the new school founded by Prof. Fatima Meer, and its problems. He shows a poem written by a student for the opening ceremony:
Students came from Kwamashu, Umlazi,
They all shouted
Phambili! We salute you.
In busses and trains – I listened
They talked about Ma Fatima,
Oh! Its Prof. Meer. Not very tall.
But her deeds are taller than Carlton
Centre, or maybe Brisiton [Brixton]Tower.
Phambili! You are concrete.
You survived against two enemies –
One with a spear and the other with
Phambili! We love you
While he reads, I can see gekkos scrabbling along the wall at the back. They are suddenly restless as they shoot higher up the wall. Staccato-staccato. When they stop, they stare again: “What are you people doing here? This is Africa. Our territory.” It’s late, we must get back to town, we are tired.
I have a dinner date for tonight at the head of the department’s home. It is a reception for the external examiner. In this terrible heat. Moses and Magnificence are waiting at the car (“I am called Sbongile Mhlanhla Ndandani, but if that is too difficult for you, just call me Magnificence.”) Before we leave, goodbye is said in all the languages: “Sala gahle!”, “Mooi loop!”, “Have a good week!”. We leave. To give them a chance to practice Afrikaans, I ask in the Boeretaal: “Wat gaan julle vanmiddag doen, Moses?” – What are you going to do this afternoon, Moses? (After all, it’s Saturday afternoon; I expect to hear about some kind of sport or another pastime like cinema). “Ek gaan my klere was” – I’m going to wash my clothes (his clothes are always painfully neat). What more can I say? Conversation peters out. I drop them across the road from a sangoma’s house, where animal skins and many bunches of dried herbs hang above the door. From there, they walk homewards, deeper into the township. We still have to drive another 22 kilometres back to town in this unendurable heat. Altus lights more cigarettes for us. It’s disgusting to smoke in this furnace, but it fosters the illusion that one is in control of the situation.
I ponder over the whole problem of black education, and recall the story my brother told me at Bergville. “You know, he says his friend, who is a farmer, had to deliver mail to a black primary school on the farm. He stood waiting outside the shed for the teacher to finish talking before he took the letters in. Inside, he heard the woman say: ‘This is a pointed leaf, class.’ And while she held up a pointed leaf, the class repeated: ‘This is a pointed leaf.’ Then she held up a round leaf and said: ‘And this is a disappointed leaf.'” Altus laughs. I wonder if he realizes that we are really involved in the same sort of thing: all of them “disappointed leaves”, these bits of learning we purvey about Die beiteltjie – the little chisel – and Die hardloper – the runner. While they look for a moral lesson, we try to convey the complexities of poetical analysis to people who have no command of the language whatsoever.
Back in Umgeni Road, Altus asks me whether I can lend him a rand and stop for a moment at a place he will point out to me. Over the top of my newspaper, I can see a quick, furtive transaction taking place — a slope of dagga? It’s not my business. I have already warned him about the danger. Then I drop him, tiredly greet my wife when I reach home and tell her I have to take a rest. She comes to lie by my side, I with my indigestion from the Mellow Yellow and the bad shop biscuits. It’s stiflingly hot. All the windows and doors are shut to keep out the heat, but the fan does not manage to create much coolness. Against the ceiling, which has peeled badly since the six-day flood, a transparent gekko pulses through its belly. Watches me fixedly. I shudder slightly. Everything in this city is harsh and extreme and excessively obtrusive: the hadidahs and Indian mynahs screech against the heat, the vegetation burgeons purple, wine red and dark pink until it smothers everything, and the people . . . so many kinds, perspectives and lifestyles. Africans and orientals and occidentals. And as for the “Europeans”, it’s as if Africa had seized their blood: the brain functions less and less and the glands and hormones take over. Passions become increasingly dominant to replace absent rationality. The heat is in their blood, blossoms forth from their eyes: never before have I encountered so many hyped-up, animally driven people in one city. Everything screeches “growth, growth, propagation” in an almost self-destructive drive towards coupling, copulation, passionate action. In enclaves here and there, small groups still try to maintain European, “civilized” habits against the heat and the preponderance of nature and boiling passions. But the effect is often embarrassing, as if misplaced.
Half asleep, I feel Elsa moving against me. The intention behind the movement of the round, moist hip here against mine is unmistakeable. Half reluctantly and mechanically — like a faithful old robot — I respond to her erotic suggestions. She strokes my perspiring body with her hands, and I feel her damp body, the roundness of the over-full breasts with the stiff nipples against my side. In spite of the chill in my head I can feel the warmth between my legs swelling and hardening, until my resistance crumbles. Behind her, the gekko watches us fixedly. There is something threatening in its black eyes (“. . . one day, the other man will finish first”).When I reawaken from a sweaty sleep, my eyes seek the gekko first. There are suddenly three of them in the corner of the yellow ceiling. They seem to propagate in the wink of an eye to will you out of your home. I shall have to tackle them tomorrow: God knows how, it’s an impossible task (as the Scottish poet observes: “beliefs are harder to evict than tropical gekkos from a room”). Their presence is getting too much for me. There isn’t enough room for us and them.
We shower, get dressed (Elsa in deep purple) and drive to the ridge above the city, the better-class district, where Prof. Maarten Stander, the head of my department, lives in his “architectural marvel” with its papaya trees, lighted swimming pool and “magisterial view” over the city. (In the valley behind the house lie the deserted streets and overgrown lots of the old Cato Manor where, in the 1960s, Steve Biko witnessed the bloody fights between police and residents before they were all evicted. Now, the white nouveau riche are moving in there).
There are polite noises all around, copper gleams contentedly and the yellowwood table groans under the drink and food. The visiting professor, in whose honour the get-together has been arranged, sits stiffly and uncomfortably in the close atmosphere of the reception room. Maria Callas screeches from the corner. Elsa immediately launches into frenetic conversation with my female colleagues. I seek out the coolness of the Cape-wine bottles and am introduced to Dr. Mala Naidoo, an Indian woman who is studying traditional Zulu music at Cambridge. At the request of Maarten (a frenetic opera lover), she is going to give us a talk tonight about her “field work” (as she calls it paternalistically) among the inhabitants of Kwazulu. I: “Where did you learn Zulu?” (She grew up in Durban.) She: “At the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies”. (Irony, o irony!) She relates that she had to make the recordings during “field work” without the subjects knowing about the tape recorder, otherwise they would have felt threatened. She will subsequently use instruments she has brought with her to illustrate how the music is produced. Prof. Anna Schmidt, the visiting lecturer, questions her interestedly about “conditions” in the homelands. (She belongs to the Cistercian Order, has taken the oath of celibacy and uses her spare time to bring the Faith to Africans in and around Johannesburg.) Tension is in the air: I know that Mala has become a British citizen and wants nothing to do with the politics of her former country. The whole business here revolts her, according to a Daily News report a few days ago.
While the company gradually gets into swing, I can feel rivulets of perspiration running down my shoulder blades and from my armpits. On the wall above the Maggie Laubscher I see scores of gekkos limned against the glistening white. Stander’s home is obviously laid out so that the little creatures can enter the house from the garden and feel particularly comfortable here. It’s horrible: there must be thirty of them on the other wall. Much bigger than those in our low-slung semi-detached or at the school in Inanda. They skitter everywhere in the grooves of the painted brickwork. Hundreds of eyes are fixed on the stiff gathering in oppressive clothes. (I grin inwardly: the larger and smarter the house, the greater is the size and menace of the gekko colony.) Stander has never been able to accept his living in Africa: his expressed wish is to retire to the south of France, far from all the “rubbish” — as he calls it — here.
Altus, our junior lecturer, stands flirting with Rafael, the Italian instructor. He resembles a Vogue model tonight in a flowing white costume which he has designed himself, with a broad girdle of blue and red Zulu beads. He draws self-consciously at his Cartier cigarette. The yellowwood gleams under excessively bright side lighting. Prof. du Toit, emeritus professor, cannot understand why his last senior council meeting was so stormy. He has decided to open it to select representatives of “other colours” after all.
Altus and other younger academics had loudly announced that night that ox-waggon nationalism and token “openings” were irrelevant today. (Thank God, Maarten is changing the music: shrill Callas is being replaced by Gregorian chant.) The heat gradually becomes somewhat more bearable. The whining and squeaking of tropical insects in the trees outside fades away under the restfulness of these sounds. I seem to feel the coolness of stone walls and dark, mediaeval monastery passages full of sanctified moss about me. But consternation suddenly breaks out: the entire room is filled with flying ants. (Of course, it’s time once more for the wedding night of the winged termites: mating time, when they are attracted by bright lights.) Maarten starts running about in alarm, and Prof. Schmidt, who is shielded from the extremes of nature in her Johannesburg cloister, looks anxious. Altus vents a sharp little squeal of fear. Everyone is talking excitedly and confusedly.
The room is suddenly pitch dark. “Do you always do that when you have visitors?” asks Schmidt in a bid for light relief. “It’s the only thing to do against this kind of attack,” says Maarten. “We shall now have to sit like this for an hour or so, and then the worst will be over.. I’m terribly sorry about the inconvenience, but it’s the only solution.” Outside, the large frogs croak-croak at the lower end of the garden. It seems to me I can see Altus and Rafael moving quietly out onto the open verandah. He is looking for trouble: Maarten and Rafael have been friends for years. I stumble to the table and fill my glass: it’s the only comfort in this intolerable situation. It’s bad enough in the bright light, but God knows, continuing to sit in the dark and make polite conversation would be unbearable. I accidentally put my hand into the bowl of luke-warm, thick cherry juice. I shudder, thinking of blood — the large pot of pig’s blood in which the murdered man in Eco’s The Name of the Rose is immersed, head-first (the blood in Pietermaritzburg, where people are hacked apart alive…).
Old Windbag du Toit is still flogging his political hobby-horse. Now he has been involved in a dispute by young Van den Heever, our latest acquisition on the linguistic front, who is one of the worst firebrands and is liable to say irresponsible things once he starts formulating his progressive ideas about “Afrikaans and the future” after a few glasses of wine. He is also undeterred by his seniors. I shall have to put my oar in, otherwise the whole department will be buzzing again tomorrow. To one side, the women chat peacefully. My eyes adjust to the dark and I can make out the vague outlines of the guests: Prof. Schmidt and Mala Naidoo are talking about Cambridge and music. Schmidt is said to play the flute, and Naidoo is evincing apparent interest for the moment. She too must be finding the company an odd lot. Hope she doesn’t understand too much Afrikaans any more: the political discussion sounds as if it’s heading for an embarrassment.
“You know, professor, we whites are really intruders in Africa. We come from outside. And we will simply have to accept that Afrikaans is going to die out in future. It’s that simple,” continues little Van den Heever. I can hear that the wine is making itself felt. Very soon, he’ll be yelling “Amandhla!”, as he always does when he gets excited. “Never! Die out? Now you’re being short-sighted, young man. And needlessly pessimistic too. It’s simply a question of de-exclusivizing Afrikaans. We must open the doors, so that other races can also feel welcome to join us.” (His tongue fumbles over the long word ‘de-exclusivization’…he tries it twice before it comes out right.)
Van den Heever is at him right away: “I don’t think it’s still a case of us welcoming them, Prof. It’s now up to us to start looking for association with them, before it’s too late. After all, looking at it objectively, what we did was to come flying in here like rare birds, and now the people don’t even have basic civil rights today. One ought to talk of two species: the indigenous and the exogenous.” There’s no stopping them now. Van den Heever is excitedly flexing his academic muscles, and a test of strength with such a doughty old warhorse is fun, of course.
Around us, other conversations start to fall silent as the dispute grows in intensity and volume. “You surely don’t want to open the doors so wide that you’re finally surrounded by nothing but open space and nothing is left of the walls of the building. There are limits to everything, aren’t there?”, Prof. du Toit offers as a witticism. But after the general, loud laughter, it’s clear that little Van den Heever is not going to let go. “Prof., it’s now a question of survival. As far as I’m concerned, we can teach Afrikaans through the medium of English too if it comes to that. Why are our people so narrow-minded about wanting to cling to the preservation of Afrikaans? That’s the old nationalist idea, through and through. We must kill it right here.” And now he has put his foot into it. I can hear Du Toit choking on his sherry. Fortunately, everything freezes as the lights suddenly go on: Maarten has decided that the worst of the plague is over (end of the wedding night of the flying ants).
We blink our dazed eyes, must adapt again to the reflecting white walls under the over-bright lighting. Everybody starts to move about: to the toilet, to wash hands, pour wine. Altus and Rafael shyly come in. The women go to help themselves to the frightful Oriental cherry juice. I look up. A loathsome sight meets my eyes: everywhere against the walls sit gekkos, bloated to double their normal size, with hugely stuffed bellies, and four, five rear ends of flying ants protrude from their mouths — only the wingtips and brown hindlegs are visible. The little reptiles can no longer close their jaws, keep them wide open. They now sit quietly, only their hearts still visibly beating through the thin abdominal tissue, and their eyes bulge out, focussed on us. Both walls are covered by the guzzlers with their half-eaten prey. Deliberately. Elsa asks whether she can dish up some food for me. I shudder: “No thanks, I’m not hungry.”
You never know in advance how a night like this will end.