Tag Archives: history

Bloemfontein: On the trail of Tolkien

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 13, 2017

Why would any famous son or daughter of a city be ignored? J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and of Lord of the Rings, was born in Bloemfontein. Trying to learn a bit more about his origins in this city, however, led in interesting directions.

I should start by explaining that J.R.R. Tolkien was born to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien, British citizens. They had been drawn to Bloemfontein by the offer of a lucrative banking position for Arthur. Mabel joined her fiancé in Cape Town via a three week journey by ship just after her 21st birthday.  They were married in the cathedral there on 16 April, 1891, with a honeymoon in the Atlantic suburb of Sea Point.  Immediately thereafter they took the long train run to Bloemfontein.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892; a year before, his mother had been in England!  During 1892, Bloemfontein was the capital of a Boer Republic called the Orange Free State. The Union of South Africa was still eighteen years in the future.  Mabel Tolkien didn’t think much of her new home, writing to her family of the “Owlin’ Wilderness!  Horrid Waste!”  She tolerated it for her husband, who seemed completely absorbed in his new position as manager at the Bank of Africa.


The Tolkien family in Bloemfontein, November, 1892 (I first saw this picture in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography.)

I had read that the Tolkiens had been part of the Anglican church in Bloemfontein, so I spent my Sunday morning visiting the cathedral (along with its Catholic neighbor). It was Confirmation Sunday, and the service had all the special elements one might expect. The bishop came to the service in order to interact with the Confirmation class. After the service, he posed for photographs, and he even took a photo with me!


I met the Right Reverend Dintoe Letloenyane!

Seeing the cathedral after a “high” church ceremony was a bit mystical. Smoke from the incense drifted in the sunlight pouring through the high windows. The Cathedral is dedicated to St. Andrew and the angel Michael.  It was built in 1866 and substantially expanded in 1883 (the old nave is the new one’s choir and chancel).


Looking from the new nave into the old

I took some photographs throughout the cathedral, but my target stood close to the entrance. While a baptistry in a Baptist church is essentially a bathtub large enough to immerse multiple adults, the Anglican church baptizes infants, and the white bowl was fitted with a metal cover suspended from the ceiling. I was pleased to learn that the city had memorialized J.R.R. Tolkien with a plaque celebrating his baptism on January 31, 1892. (The plaque was added on November 11th of 1992, the centenary year.)


The baptistry was bathed in light!

The early history of J.R.R. Tolkien is a tragic one. His mother Mabel had tired of enduring Bloemfontein’s harsh summers, and she and J.R.R. Tolkien (and his younger brother, Hillary Arthur Reuel Tolkien) returned to the U.K. in 1895. Only a year later, his father, who had stayed behind to complete his bank contract, died of rheumatic fever. Knowing that Arthur Tolkien was buried in Bloemfontein, I perused the cathedral’s garden of memory, but I did not see any cenotaphs for that period. I later learned from a member of the church that Arthur Tolkien had been buried in the large cemetery on the other side of the hill.

If the baptism and burial aspects were the ceremonial aspects of the Tolkiens, could we find non-spiritual evidence of the Tolkiens? Sadly, the house where the Tolkiens lived (included in the premises of the Bank of Africa in Maitland Street) was destroyed in a flood during the 1920s. It was at this house where J.R.R. Tolkien, then a toddler, was bitten by a tarantula; his nurse sucked out the poison.  The National monuments Council issued a historic marker for J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthplace, but you will not find it at the former site of his home! Instead, one must visit the Hobbit Hotel, located at 19 President Steyn Street.


I was surprised to learn that these could be moved!

The proprietors of the hotel have not gone overboard with the Tolkien theme. Each room has a needlepoint sign, naming the room after a particular character from the series. I paused for a moment at the signboard for Frodo’s Room, because who wouldn’t?  The hotel offers a little library of books with a tree top-level porch nearby. Yes, the hotel does have the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though they are on display downstairs, where they are closely watched since their hardbound copies vanished. I really liked their garden pub, with a distinctive tree-wrapped bar.


It’s a bar, but it’s it’s also like a woodland realm!

In short, J.R.R. Tolkien is not forgotten in Bloemfontein. His memory is cherished in at least two places. I would certainly encourage the city to build on this beginning, though. I know I am not the only reader to feel so strongly about his importance!


Bloemfontein the Beautiful

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 13, 2017

When I first mentioned to friends that I was planning a trip to culminate in Bloemfontein, several of them asked why I wanted to visit this city. I would summarize it this way:

  • Bloemfontein is one of the three national capitals for South Africa.
  • It was previously the capital of a Boer Republic.
  • It was the birthplace of one of my favorite authors (more in the next post).
  • It is the 8th biggest city in South Africa.
  • To be a city known for flowers in such a dry land is remarkable!

In person, I see that Bloemfontein does not disappoint. When I drove up President Brand Street, it seemed that every other building should qualify as a national monument! During my last full day of vacation, I visited several of Bloemfontein’s historical buildings, and I was very glad for the opportunity.

When I visited Pietermaritzburg, I commented that the Voortrekkers founded the city only to have it forcibly annexed by the British five years later. Bloemfontein was the same process except in reverse! In 1846, Major Henry Douglas Warden, a British soldier, acquired a farm belonging to a Boer couple, and he began recruiting other British people to build a town he called “Fountain of Flowers.” The town began growing quickly, with the First Raadsaal (city hall) constructed in 1849 (although it was first used as a school). The area between the Vaal and Orange Rivers was declared as British territory. In 1850, a church on the site occupied by the current Anglican cathedral was constructed. The Boers in the area, however, were not thrilled with these developments, and they began a whisper campaign casting aspersions on the way in which Warden had acquired the lands for the town. By 1854, the Boers had won, and the Orange Free State was named as a Boer Republic instead!

I was very happy to talk with Shuping Moeca, who opened the First Raadsaal museum to me. He helped me to understand why the first years of the Orange Free State were so rocky. The first state president, J.P. Hoffman, lasted only a year in office amid taunts about members of his administration needing crutches to walk and because of a scandal involving his gift to King Moshoeshoe of a barrel of gunpowder. The second president, Boshof, lasted four years, fighting a war against the same King Moshoeshoe and being torn between the English (who wanted to be part of the Cape Colony), the burghers (who wanted to become part of the Transvaal), and the republicans (who wanted the Free State to remain independent)!


I’m standing straight, but the building is slumping!

Imagining these arguments taking place in the First Raadsaal is entertaining. The clay walls were not “cooked” quite right, and the street side wall has a significant slant to it. The floor was made of cow dung, much as the Basotho have been doing for years. At least the thatched roof would allow cool temperatures. The museum also features an interesting assortment of ox and horse wagons. I was very impressed by the stagecoach until Shuping mentioned that this wagon would be a temporary home for its riders for twenty days to get to Cape Town!


Shuping also enlightened me about a mystery concerning two hills in town. One that offers an imposing view of the entire Bloemfontein skyline has been named “Naval Hill.” An eight-meter bronze statue of Nelson Mandela appears at this scenic point (the year after it was unveiled, Pretoria unveiled a nine-meter statue). Why would a landlocked capital have a Navy? He explained that the Free State government sought favor with the Dutch, and so they used the name Orange Free State.  Naval Hill borrowed its name from two guns that had been placed there by the British, actually!  Similarly, the Free State government copied a Scottish hill by laying out a horse outline on the hill to gain favor with the Scots. The “Signal Hill” district of Bloemfontein seems quite flat, by comparison. Apparently, the citizens demolished much of the hill but retained the name.


Bloemfontein panorama from Naval Hill

Bloemfontein has cycled through several Raadsaals, over the years. The current National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Sesotho Literature Museum are housed in the third Raadsal (1875), featuring a beautiful tower.


Third Raadsaal

The Fourth Raadsal immediately draws the eye. I wandered in through its gate and was taking a photo when security guards stopped me. The hall is now used for meetings of the provincial parliament. They explained that I could take photos outside the gate, but not inside; the building is a “National Key Point.” Oddly, the building adjoins a massive equestrian statue of General Christiaan De Wet (1854-1922), who performed brilliantly in the Anglo-Boer War but rose in rebellion against the government of the Union of South Africa when it decided to join forces with the British in the First World War.


Be sure to take your photos outside the fence!

One can certainly have mixed feelings about another son of Bloemfontein, J.B.M. Hertzog, an ardent Afrikaner nationalist. Serving in the Parliament for thirty-three consecutive years, Hertzog bedeviled both Jan Smuts and D.F. Malan. He even served as the Union of South Africa’s prime minister during 1924-1939.  Under his leadership, South Africa adopted its prior national flag (1928), promoted Afrikaans as the nation’s second official language, approved women’s suffrage, and denied black citizens the right to vote.  His support of the gold standard and of the German side in both World Wars also hindered South Africa.  I wanted to visit his house museum on Goddard street, but the museum didn’t open at the time stated on the sign out front. Instead, I looked at his statue near the National Museum. The fountain below is entirely dry, and street people have been using it for a garbage dump. The plinth on which his statue rests carries graffiti. Like several other white politicians of South Africa’s past, Hertzog is being forgotten.


Hertzog’s plaza is now entirely derelict.

I mentioned that Bloemfontein is the judicial capital of South Africa, and with that role, it is home to two different courts. The High (Appellate) Court is located in a very solid-looking building opposite the Fourth Raadsaal, and the Supreme Court of Appeal is not far away; repairs to offices were underway when I visited.


Appellate Court

Certainly, anyone with an interest in institutional architecture will enjoy a stroll down President Brand in Bloemfontein. Whether the buildings have dung floors or sandstone facades, they speak to the centrality of Bloemfontein in Afrikaner history.

Bloemfontein: in praise of troublesome women

An index to this series appears on the first post.

Augut 12, 2017

I arose with a sense of anticipation and excitement about returning to South Africa, the country where I feel at home. My vacation had been so tightly scheduled that I was feeling a bit worn and ready to head back. Just the same, I was curious about Bloemfontein and determined to learn what made it remarkable. I waited through a growing line of people on foot to get my entrance stamp in my new passport, and then I hit the N8 heading west.

I am always concerned to see pedestrians standing in the middle of the driving lanes on a national road, but something unusual struck me about the figure ahead of me. I had encountered a police roadblock! Along with a few other drivers, I maneuvered my car to the side of the road. A police officer greeted me and asked a few basic questions. Had I been in Lesotho? What was my citizenship? Was I really using a paper map? I resumed my westward course in no time.


After a tasty breakfast at Wimpy in eastern Bloemfontein, I followed the M13 to get south to the Anglo-Boer War Museum, but it was incredibly busy on a Saturday morning. Pedestrians, taxis, and other drivers seemed in no mood to give the others space.  It seemed ominous to realize that my turn had directed me toward massive cooling towers for a power plant. I was a bit rattled from the chaotic neighborhood, but I managed to reach my destination shortly thereafter.

I realized I was close when I saw the top of an obelisk pointing out of the trees behind a massive gateway inscribed in Afrikaans. I had reached the Anglo-Boer Museum and Women’s Monument! I was not sure what to expect of it. A museum glorifying the war that erupted along the fault lines between Boers and British would seem quite beside the point in today’s South Africa, but the museum is far from glorifying battle, as it focuses on the tragic losses to all South Africans due to the war. Of all museums I have seen in South Africa, the Anglo-Boer War Museum has adapted to the changes in South Africa since 1994 the best! Rather than throw together a side gallery themed “oh, black people got hurt, too,” the curators have worked to integrate the stories of non-white South Africans into all parts of the museum. This evolution is most apparent in the person who is my emphasis for this post.


The word Agterryer (“squire”) refers to a person of color fighting in the South African War.

Emily Hobhouse was a highly contentious woman, and she is my hero.

Photo from http://www.kapstadt-net.de/pages/home/geschichte/kriege/emily-hobhouse.php

Emily Hobhouse felt this statue made her look sickly and old.

Born in Cornwall, U.K., Emily Hobhouse spent her entire life in service to others. After her father’s death, she moved to the United States to improve the welfare of miners in Minnesota. In 1898, she returned to the U.K., but after the outbreak of hostilities with the Boer Republics in 1899, she joined the South African Conciliation Committee, and she sailed for South Africa in 1900. The British Army began using concentration camps to relocate Boers (essentially women and children) and others who were dispossessed (approximately 350,000 people in all) by their “scorched earth” policy to beat the guerrilla Boer commandos. Having gained permission to visit the concentration camps, Hobhouse discovered inadequate sanitation and nutrition for the prisoners and indifference among the administrators. (by the time the concentration camps were ended, 50-60,000 had died from these conditions; as many as 28,000 black South Africans may have lost their lives). Having observed that British leadership in South Africa was ignoring her, she returned to the U.K. with a scathing report that the Government confirmed through a separate committee. British policy changed, and conditions began improving.

Emily Hobhouse was turned back to the U.K. after taking ship once more to Cape Town because she was a disruptive influence. She was able to return to South Africa after the war, in 1905, when she established spinning and weaving schools for Boer girls in poor areas of the country. In South Africa, she is considered something of a saint! Hobhouse was not finished, however. During the armistice after World War I, she sought to help victims of a famine in Germany, fundraising and collecting food for the German people. For the second time in her life, Hobhouse was called a traitor for relieving the suffering of people against whom the U.K. had fought.


The National Women’s Memorial, Bloemfontein, contains the ashes of Emily Hobhouse.

It seems natural, then, that when in 1913 South Africa unveiled the 36.5 meter obelisk for the Women’s Memorial at Bloemfontein, they invited Emily Hobhouse to give a speech. She accepted, but her failing health prevented her attendance. Her speech was read instead by Mrs. Rachel I. Steyn (wife of the last president of the Free State). Despite their long friendship, though, the organizing committee had committed an injustice to Emily Hobhouse. They omitted from her speech this key phrase: “Does justice bid us to remember to-day how many thousands of the dark race perished also in Concentration Camps in a quarrel that was not theirs?” As Afrikaner Nationalism grew in power, sympathy for non-whites was silenced. In his diary, Sol Plaatje noted that “The Imperial Government may be as good as we are told it is, but one thing is certain, that (it) does not care a hang over the lives of its distant subjects.”

I was thrilled with the Anglo-Boer War Museum, and yet it was only lunch time! At the restaurant, I watched as two young people were counseled by a gentleman my age to join a program that sounded much like Amway. When I said hello, he tried to convince me I needed to be part of the company. Well, I hope that their joint venture turns out well.

The National Museum

I continued to the National Museum. Remember that Bloemfontein was the capital of the Free State, so the town is filled with monuments and soaring buildings to celebrate that glory. The National Museum had previously been held in the original city hall (they’ve progressed through a series of buildings for that purpose), but it is now held in a building constructed explicitly for that purpose. I was helped in my appreciation of the place that they had listed these highlights for their guests:

  • A complete fossil skeleton (with skull!) of a Melanosaurus,
  • The Florisbad skull from an archaic human (~259,000 years ago),
  • The Malvern meteorite, a rare stony meteorite from 1933,
  • A fiberglass replica made from a genuine adult bull elephant,
  • A model street scene to represent Bloemfontein in the early 20th century, and
  • The largest selection of live animals on display among all SA museums!

From the exhibit, you might not think this meteorite is special!

In other words, the museum was a bit scattershot in its focus. I must say that their evolution exhibits (everything from the Permian-Triassic extinction event to why the Great Karoo is such a bonanza for fossil finds to the route from primates to modern humans) were top-notch. The Melanosaurus was a bit confusing because it had been billed as a Euskelosaurus in the handout, but it was subsequently renamed. The Florisbad skull was actually a bit hard to find, and it’s not very complete. The Malvern meteorite is smaller than my fist, and the handout’s claim about a Mars origin didn’t make the cut for the exhibit including it. I’m still not sure why the elephant cast is inherently superior to one that is sculpted (except that the hair on the fiberglass model is the hair from the original elephant– shudder). The street scene was a little weird when I was in there by myself. The drug store played chicken noises when I walked by.


“It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed… bred for its skills in magic.”

Their room devoted to the history of Bloemfontein was a collection of many facts and artifacts (including a “Liger,” born from a male lion and female tiger); it was a bit randomly tossed together for my tastes, but I did really like their model of Bloemfontein 1851. The gallery of architecture from the city was very nice indeed (some were even accompanied by scale models), but it seemed that every other structure had a sign marking that the building had subsequently been demolished to become a parking lot. The live animal displays were a bit of a bust. From the handout, I could expect bees, snakes, fish and crayfish, and cockroaches, but the bees colony had collapsed, and I didn’t see any live cockroaches (my feelings aren’t hurt). I did, however, enjoy seeing a live African clawed toad (Xenopus laevis) and a terrapin in a tank!


Xenopus laevis: important to research and cute, too!

I would emphasize some other things that the National Museum does well. They’ve sought to complement their recreation of a 20th century street with reproductions of the Batho community, a township that actually had some thought given to its design. I thought the blue jeans that had been patched with shweshwe fabric (donated by a Batho resident) were quite stylish! I was also very impressed by the African cultural anthropology exhibit, which explained the defining features of the different cultures of southern Africans that derived from populations on this continent. Their images from the colorful artistry of homes in the Ndebele culture made me want to see the real thing, in person!


Bespoke jeans!

Every museum in South Africa was faced with significant changes in the aftermath of true democracy. Some have taken real steps forward in the population they serve, and others are still struggling to navigate that change. I was very pleased to see that these two Bloemfontein museums understand how to be relevant to today’s South Africa!

Thaba Bosiu: Sunrise of a Nation

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 11, 2017

I awoke early this morning, filled with purpose.  I was traveling to another country! Clarens, in the Free State, is very close to the northern periphery of Lesotho, but I was driving to Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. As a consequence, I had a couple hours of driving ahead of me, and Free State highways are renowned for their potholes. Until this day, those seemed like urban legends, but the stretch of R26 between Fouriesburg and Ficksburg taught me differently. Litchi bounced along, but she didn’t lose her grip on the road. Of my KFC breakfast at Ficksburg, the less said the better. From there, I hopped down the road to Ladybrand, where I had a surprise. When I merged onto the N8, heading east, the road swooned down a massive slope. That is not what I had imagined in entering “the kingdom in the sky!” Instead, the border crossing came at a bridge across the Mohokare River (which later flows into the Orange).

The Border

I botched my first border crossing with my new passport. The South African side seemed mostly intent on passing people through, and so when I arrived at the Lesotho side, the inspector was alerted by the absence of my exit stamp from South Africa. I ended up parking my car, walking back across the border, and then asking the South Africans at the pedestrian booth to stamp me. Then I walked back across the river, visited the tourist booth for a map, and then returned to the Lesotho inspector for my entrance stamp. Solved! I also got my first taste of Lesotho hospitality. I met a wide variety of Basothos in the course of the day, and none of them treated me like a stranger. I felt greeted like a long, lost friend!

Let’s have a word or two about this landlocked country. First off, one must pronounce the name as though it were spelled “Lehsootoo.” The people of this group are called “Basothos,” and the language they speak is called “Sesotho.” We see something similar with prefixes in other languages, such as Zulu and Xhosa. Although the official currency of Lesotho is the loti, the value of one loti is pegged to the value of one South African rand, so one can spend ZAR as though they were loti (highly convenient). To summarize conventional wisdom about Lesotho, one would say “impoverished,” “HIV epidemic,” and “politically unstable.” My visit, however, was to touch something special about its foundation.


My goal in visiting Lesotho was to visit Thaba Bosiu, in many ways the nation’s historical and even spiritual capital. Before I launched into that visit, though, I decided to establish myself the the Kick4Life Hotel, just south of central Maseru (the capital and also my point of entry from the Free State). I knew very little about this organization before the trip, but I must say I was deeply impressed by the impact this organization has produced. All of its customer service people at the hotel, it associated restaurant, and at Thaba Bosiu put in extra effort to make me feel at home. I think the “Football for Hope” effort is paying serious dividends for its participants.

Driving in Maseru was a bit challenging. I am accustomed to the approximate adherence to traffic laws that we see in South Africa. For example, I don’t blink when I see a shuttle bus taxi picking up passengers on the shoulder of the national road. It’s expected! Maseru releases the rule-following impulse a few more notches. Their main highway leading south from the capital, the A2 (don’t expect labels on Google Maps, BTW), is littered with speed bumps so that drivers don’t kill pedestrians. I saw people reversing their cars into oncoming traffic with little warning. On two occasions, I saw cars driving against oncoming traffic by using the shoulder. It’s only workable because there are far fewer cars on the road in the city than one might expect.  I was jarred when I encountered a long funeral procession, led by a motorcycle cop.

Thaba Bosiu

With an omelet in my belly from the hotel (and some time rationalizing Google Maps with the insufficient tourist map in a hand-drawn sketch), I was ready to plunge ahead! Thaba Bosiu is within an hour of the border, but I must say my navigation was weakened by a variety of factors:

  • I had seen photos of the site that were of the wrong mountain.
  • When I saw the cultural center, I thought it was a resort rather than recognizing it as another “living museum.”
  • I was looking for a road leading south from the B31 to a visitor’s center.

All of these contributed to a bad bit of navigating. I drove right by the Thaba Bosiu Cultural Village, entirely missing that the mountain across from it was Thaba Bosiu. The mountain I thought was Thaba Bosiu came soon after, but I didn’t see any way to get there except some doubtful-looking dirt roads. I continued for another five km, when finally the blacktop of the B31 gave way to very bouncy rutted gravel-on-dirt. I stopped right where I was. A herd of cows was being guided forward by two young teen boys and a primary-school aged boy. I tried my pronunciation of “Thaba Bosiu,” but that didn’t seem to help. Showing the spelling on my hand-drawn map, however, elicited a response from one of the teenagers, directing me back where I had come. The small child said “money!” I pulled a couple R10 notes from my wallet, and the teen speaker reached into the car to grab them. I let the herd pass, and then I U-turned and headed back in the right direction.


The junior herdsmen and a lovely vista

I tried my luck with the dirt roads to the peak I thought I recognized. The road kept winding on and on through a mix of formal (mostly cinder block) and informal (shack) housing. I stopped by a well-built brick building, some distance from the peak I thought was the right one. A woman reclining in the building entrance explained that I was looking at the peak after which the traditional chief’s hat was designed! She pointed back toward Maseru. The huge plateau back to the west was Thaba Bosiu. She mentioned, as an afterthought, that I was standing in the city hall for the modern Thaba Bosiu settlement.


The modern Thaba Bosiu city hall and the “hat mountain”

After some photos from the site, I returned to my car and headed back to the west. In no time at all, I found the information center. The docent (a Kick4Life graduate) sat down with me at a table to profile King Moshoeshoe, the central figure of Basotho history. (Pronounce it like “Muh-shway-shway,” quickly.) As a young chief (1820), Moshoeshoe was faced with a problem. The Mfecane had resulted in a brutal social Darwinism throughout southern Africa in which tribes that could muster large armies absorbed their weaker neighbors, thus releasing desperate refugees into neighboring areas, sparking more conflicts. Moshoeshoe’s solution was to find a home for his band that was secure from attack. He made the bold decision of moving his tribe from Butha Buthe (near the northernmost point of Lesotho) to Thaba Bosiu, essentially the distance I had driven that morning.


Panorama of Thaba Bosiu, seen from the east


Looking back down the “ancient pass” at the Cultural Village

Why Thaba Bosiu? The Basothos gave it this name (“Mountain at Night“) as a neat bit of propaganda; they alleged that the mountain had magical properties that would make the apparent hill in daytime grow ever larger at night! The plateau, being considered as a World Heritage Site, has an area of approximately two square kilometers, more than enough for a substantial village, and the surface offers several water springs. Seven passes allow one to reach the top.  150 years ago, each would have been guarded by a trusted family member. I decided to make the trek by the “ancient” route rather than the nicely paved ramp. I reminded myself several times on the ascent that I am a middle-aged professor. I felt proud to make it by that route, though!


Moshoeshoe’s home atop Thaba Bosiu, constructed with help from allies

Moshoeshoe was also a gifted negotiator. He allowed other refugee groups, running from the Zulus under Shaka or the Ndwandwe or the Ngwane to join his band, but in each case he demanded that they contribute whatever skills that they could. He applied this logic to his contacts with whites, as well. He welcomed missionaries who had education to offer, and one can still see a Blue gum tree atop Thaba Bosiu along with several stone buildings that came about through his interactions with Westerners.


A century-old bluegum tree beside a stone kraal

The Basotho position atop Thaba Bosiu was sufficiently strong that the group could repel assaults by hostile tribes and also by aggressive Voortrekkers; the settlers of the Free State made a few attempts at “King of the Mountain,” but the plateau surface never fell to attack while defended by the Basotho. His diplomatic skills were his best weapon, though. In 1868, Moshoeshoe asked for British protection from the Boers, and he retained control of the territory even with that help. In 1884 Lesotho was listed as a separate British protectorate.  Moshoeshoe, incidentally, was personally responsible for the tradition of blanket-wearing among the Basotho.  He acquired a blanket from a trader in 1860 and began wearing it around his shoulders; those who revered him soon took up wearing blankets rather than the traditional “karosses.”


I liked the understated elegance of Moshoeshoe I’s tomb.

One should not think of Thaba Bosiu as a simple historic site. When King Moshoeshoe died in 1870, he was buried at the top. When King Moshoeshoe II (a few generations down) died in 1996, he was buried at the top! This plateau continues to have cultural relevance for the people of Lesotho. When I approached the top of the pass, I saw two people begin their descent by the same route. The man was dressed in a brilliant green robe and carried a religious staff. The woman was dressed in brilliant pink and also seemed ceremonially dressed. I saw remnants of candle wax and other sacramental leavings across the plateau. In times of trouble, the Basotho look to Thaba Bosiu as a source of strength.


The eastern view from the plateau

Lesotho had been granted the status of a separate protectorate by the British, then called “Basutoland.” At Moshoeshoe’s death, the British tried to annex the protectorate to the Cape Colony, but the Basotho raised havoc in the Gun War, leading to the British relinquishing effective control. When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, the Basotho rejected being included. Lesotho turned away from later proposals to integrate the nation into South Africa, particularly once Apartheid laws had been enacted. They were granted independence from Britain in 1966.


I first learned of Lesotho from my friend Marky Pace, whom I met in the Nashville in Harmony choir. I wanted to do something special in her memory since she had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in this country many years ago. My poem, written the day before at Mushroom Rock in Golden Gate, is titled “For Marky.” I read it from the shelf of Thaba Bosiu, where one can overlook the mountain that gave the chiefs the shape of their conical hats.

“Life is too short to shake hands,”
she said with a hug.
Her memory brought friends
from far and near.

Her family, by choice and by blood,
lives powerfully,
Touching others with her spirit
of joy and love.

As I reach a place that shaped her,
I am moved by her once more.
As I return to the world I’ve chosen,
I will strive to be present, like Marky.


Chasing Churchill and Singin’ a Song in the Central Drakensberg

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 9, 2017

Table Mountain is nice, but it’s not huge at roughly a kilometer in height. For big mountains in South Africa, one must look at the rim of mountains surrounding Lesotho; the eastern arc is called the Drakensberg. The very highest mountain in South Africa is Mafadi, at 3451 meters. It doesn’t get much attention, though, because it is more of a shelf than a proper peak. My day’s travels would take me into the central Drakensberg for my first encounter with this massive range.

To get there, though, required a couple hours’ drive from Pietermaritzburg. When I charged Litchi west onto the N3, though, I was doubtful. The hamster under the hood did not like the steady climb that was required of it, and it made quite the howl, in response. After the first hour, though, the road leveled considerably, and I began driving through undulating hills. From place to place I encountered areas that had been burned, I think intentionally.  Lara, who ran the bed and breakfast at Pietersmaritzburg, had mentioned the “Midlands Meander,” directly to the west, but I was headed north of that route.

IMG_0050At Mooirivier I had another adventure with a toll booth. This was was more expensive, at R46 ZAR. I handed the attendant R51, and she looked back at me and said something I couldn’t understand. When I stared at her uncomprehendingly, she shouted, “IT’S UP!” and pointed at the gate. I automatically shoved the car into first gear. I was a hundred yards away before I realized she hadn’t handed me any change.

Winston Churchill becomes a POW

An obscure fact from history had struck me the night before. In the days before Winston Churchill was prime minister during World War II, even before he had masterminded the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, he had been captured as a prisoner of war in South Africa! Churchill had finagled his way to South Africa as a journalist, and he convinced the military leadership to let him ride on an armored train running north to Colenso. When the train was derailed, he acted with great courage, but he was captured and handled as a POW because his actions were clearly partisan.

Finding the monument relating to his capture, though, was quite a problem. I knew it was near the intersection of the N3 and the R74 (this was, coincidentally, my turn-off to my next destination). I drove east from that intersection but saw nothing like the monument’s description. Continuing for about fifteen minutes, I saw no match, so I pulled into a farm store. The attendant knew nothing about the monument, but one of her coworkers said, “never mind her; she’s from the Free State.” The coworker then drew me a map. She emphasized that the only tar (paved) road leading south from the R74 (just east of the N3 intersection) was what I wanted. I found that road and headed south for ten minutes: nothing. I looped back and consulted Google Maps on my phone. This time, I saw that the little pull-off on the tar road I was following was within sight of the R74! I found it at last and took a few photos. I paused in the breeze, thinking of a young man who begged to go to war, and I said, “Churchill, you were a crazy man.”

IMG_0057Having scratched my history itch, I shot northwest to Winterton. I was able to confirm the location of my lodgings for the night, and so I headed south on the R600 into the area of Cathkin’s peak, where a valley surrounded on three sides by mountains is notable for a birds of prey center, an arts community, excellent hiking trails, and a very unusual school for boys. The R600 is one lane heading south and one lane heading north, and essentially all traffic into the area uses the road. From place to place I would encounter a group of small children dancing by the side of the road in hopes of earning some cash.

Ardmore Arts Farm


A grandfather indicates a direction with his spear for a young Zulu.

My first stop was an impulsive one. Natasha had mentioned Ardmore as an interesting arts community with an international reputation for creative ceramic artwork. I was hungry when the sign for Ardmore appeared, and the sign indicated that they had dining options! I headed east for a visit. I was dismayed when the tar road soon became gravelly dirt. I bounced along the road and stopped at the first place that appeared to be open for business. They had an antique shop and a shop that qualified as an antique (and was now billed as a museum). I visited the antique shop, bought a ladle, and continued down the road until I had arrived at Ardmore. A woman named Fée Halsted-Berning had been “retrenched” from her position as a ceramics lecturer in 1985. She moved to her soon-to-be-husband’s farm in the Drakensberg and asked her housekeeper if she knew any local artisans who would like to be trained in ceramics. Bonnie Ntshalintshali soon became her fast friend, and others joined in to create a studio of more than one hundred ceramic artists, with worldwide sales to not only collectors but museums. Today the Ardmore Farm is owned by a new couple, but this change has led to an expansion to hand-woven fabrics, under the label African Loom. The original pottery studio has become a series of rooms for the bed-and-breakfast business; the ceramics studio has moved to a different location. I loved the light and greenery of the property, and I loved the peculiar silo-shaped multistory homes that a couple of the employees inhabit!


The original Ardmore pottery studio

Monk’s Cowl


My next stop was intended to let me touch a mountain. From Ardmore I had seen the “Champagne Castle” area dimly in the distance, but I wanted to get closer. I reached the Southern end of the R600 at the trail head for “Monk’s Cowl.” My lower left leg was still giving me troubles with a pulled muscle and a blister, but I simply gutted it out to wander down the trail toward nearby pools. I took some advice from the guards and donned my cap again and grabbed the bottle of water. I had not walked more than fifteen minutes when I encountered a lovely vista of the mountains. I snapped several photos, moved a bit further, found another view, and shot more photos. Then, looking at my watch, I realized it was time for me to turn back for my only planned event of the day!

Drakensberg Choir Boys School


I had realized that my day in the central Drakensberg was a Wednesday, and the Drakensberg Choir Boys School has weekly concerts on Wednesdays at 3:30! One of my last coherent thoughts in Durban was to purchase a ticket so I wouldn’t have to worry about the concert selling out (this Wednesday was South African Women’s Day). I arrived at the school right on time, and a school teacher gave us some orientation about the institution as we stood in the first room that the school used for these weekly performances. Since 1967, the school has been hosting boys from ages 9-15 who want to become excellent musical performers. The children have very full school days since they practice music for hours in addition to the normal school requirements. The school has three performing choirs. Their two most experienced choirs had recently been on tour in Japan, and the group we heard today had just returned while the other continued for a few more performances in that country. He estimated that the three school choirs produce a total of around 85 performances in the course of a year!

I was really happy with my seat; I was in the second row, quite close to the middle. For the first half, the boys were wearing formal outfits, with a white ruff of sorts over a blue shirt. I was close enough that I could hear individual voices. The quality of individual singers was most apparent when a boy would feature as a soloist. It makes sense to me that individual boys are able to move successfully to music careers after such intensive training. Having participated in a number of choirs throughout my life, I am a bit “judgy” on music. I wanted to know if these boys, submerged in music, rose to the level of the Tygerberg Children’s Choir, probably the best choir I have ever heard perform before. I was a bit frustrated by the show’s opening with an Eric Whitacre piece. In my view, you use the Eric Whitacre somewhere mid-show, when you are ready to wow an audience that has settled into complacency. I really appreciated the excellent showmanship on display, even by some very young boys (featuring as sopranos). It was nice to see the not-ready-for-performance-choir boys serving as ushers and stage setting. The second half opened with a special performance by the Ulm junge blaserphilharmonie (youth wind philharmonic). It was a huge group, and their play was very evocative. I learned to love a piece of which I hadn’t heard before, celebrating the “Red Rock Mountain” of Pennsylvania, and they did an amazing job with Shostakovich. The Drakensberg choir then closed the show with a multi-part paean to the receding animal life of Africa. I believe the piece spanned approximately a half hour, and the dancing, singing, and drumming on display were stunning. The boys were sweating a fair amount by the end, but I know I would have been passed out if I’d tried anything as audacious. It was quite the way to close the show!

It had been a very full day.  I returned to Winterton, and I checked into the Lilac Lodge, a bed and breakfast spanning several buildings.  I was delighted to discover eight cats occupy the property.  I could not, however, tempt any to visit me.  Actually, a few of them seemed to be locked in a titanic struggle of wills!  I sent a few messages via WiFi, standing outside to get a signal.  The room was comfortable and quiet, and off I went to Dreamland.

A few hours in Pietermaritzburg

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 8, 2017

The size of Durban made it a bit overwhelming for me, but gladly, I was able to drive to Pietermaritzburg to continue my trip. This city of a half million is the KwaZulu-Natal provincial capital, and it ranks after Port Elizabeth in size. My drive from Durban was mostly uphill, since “PMB” sits at almost 600 meters elevation (more than halfway up Table Mountain). I dodged through the construction to hop onto the N2 heading south, and miles of Durban unfolded before me.  The shoulders were lined with all the greenery one would expect of a subtropical area.  At long last, I hit the intersection of the N3 and headed inland. For the second time since arriving in Durban, I paid a toll, this time of R11 ZAR (still less than a dollar).  The plants on either side of me began looking more like those of the high plains.  The road kept rising, and Litchi-Car was barely able to stay above 80 kph; I soon learned I had been climbing Cato Ridge! The car’s struggle didn’t bode well for later days of this trip, in more mountainous areas.

I took an early exit from the N3 to approach the city from Alan Paton Ave (many Americans may first have learned about Apartheid from this PMB-born author’s book Cry the Beloved Country). I continued on Chief Albert Luthuli St. (1960 Nobel Peace Price winner and former President of the ANC) into the heart of the city. When I realized I was quite close to where I wanted to start my tour, I began spiraling through the mid-town in hopes of finding a parking lot. I made several frustrating orbits before parking Litchi-Car along Luthuli. A sign noted that I needed to display my receipt in the window, so I needed to find the attendant. She was about a quarter of a mile uphill, and she would only be on site until 1PM, so I paid R9 to cover that period. Now I could get down to business!

20170808-Pietermaritzburg City Hall

The 1893 City Hall showcases the red brick architecture for the city.

Pietermaritzburg has experienced two key revolutions in ownership over time. It was founded in 1838 by a group of Voortrekkers led by Piet Retief between the Umsunduzi River and the Dorp Spruit (Piet Retief was killed by Shaka’s successor Dingane in 1838). One will frequently hear that the “Maritz” part of the name comes from the leader of the second Trek into the Natal region, Gert Maritz, but apparently there was bad blood between these two men; one history I’ve read suggests that the city name is instead a garble of the first two names of Pieter Mauritz Retief! PMB served as the capital for the Boers who were gathering east of the Drakensburg mountains, and they formed the Boer Republic of Natalia. This republic didn’t last very long, because the British annexed it in 1843 to their Natal Colony. The Boers had started their Trek because they didn’t want the British making their rules, so many of them headed further north and inland from the city they had founded.

The second key revolution took place in 1994, when South Africa extended its franchise to all citizens, regardless of race, and this has led to considerable change in the administration and housing patterns of South African cities. Cape Town, where I live, has a continued tendency to segregation, even if it now takes place along economic lines rather than explicitly racial lines. PMB’s downtown, however, reflects the ethnic diversity of the people who live in this region. Many sidewalks are crowded with booths for people selling cell phone accessories, clothes, bootleg DVDs, and local art. (I bought a Zulu-style beaded collar for a mere R50 ZAR.) I hardly saw a monument with a shelf in the memorial garden next to City Hall without at least a couple of people perched atop it. The sidewalks were bustling with people. It reminded me that I am part of an ethnic minority in South Africa.


High Court

I felt a bit uncomfortable about pulling out my camera.  I must say, though, that the city center is quite gorgeous! Much of the architecture is linked by the use of locally-manufactured red bricks. City Hall, Tatham Art Gallery, and the Provincial Legislature all feature the use of these bricks, and the Victorian and Edwardian architecture is really something to see. As I walked around the center, my map showed an entire block marked “Capital,” and I was confused because the sidewalks seemed to be getting even more congested with informal sellers as I approached. When I arrived at the block, I realized my error. The block was the Capital Centre shopping mall. The informal sanitation of those streets was problematic, perhaps in connection with the nearby taxi rank. I could hardly get the smell of urine from my nose.

I settled upon my plan of attack for my tourist day. I wanted to see two museums; the Natal Museum emphasized natural history and cultural history, and the Voortrekker Museum discussed the city’s past. Happily, both were an easy walk from City Hall.

Natal Museum

IMG_9991The Natal Museum is pretty old-school. The ground floor is all about natural history, and the presentation is based around large collections of taxidermy animals. I was particularly taken with a musk deer. Did you know they have tusk-like teeth? It’s like Bambi got bitten by a vampire! A particularly sad exhibit was the skeleton of the last elephant shot in the wild in KwaZulu-Natal (1916). He was 55 years of age, based on his fused molars. I won’t say more of the stuffed animals, but I did notice something else on the ground floor. Since this week features Women’s Day, I was very glad to see that local students were learning about women who have been successful in science in the auditorium!

Upstairs, the Natal Museum is going in a different direction. They had a whole room in the mezzanine devoted to prominent Indians in Pietermaritzburg; what the exhibit said of the Neo-Vedanata sounded almost Unitarian Universalist! Moving further up, I saw that the museum had invested considerable effort in exploring ancient, medieval, and more recent traditional culture in Africa. I particularly liked their exhibit linking the Zhizo (AD 900-1000) to the Kalanga (AD 1000-1220) to the Mapungubwe (AD 1220-1300) to Great Zimbabwe (AD 11th-14th century). That last culture produced the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. Once I left that exhibit, a marimba and drum set took center stage. The museum had thoughtfully left the music for anyone who wanted to play “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” which constitutes part of our national anthem.


Voortrekker Museum

20170808-Voortrekker-MuseumMy next stop was a different kettle of fish. I would explain that the Voortrekkers are thought of as the predecessors to the Afrikaners, and the rise of the Afrikaners led to Apartheid. To leave the Voortrekker Museum as it was before the 1994 democratic elections, then, would leave that museum with a bad odor in the modern political climate of South Africa! The museum, correspondingly, has rebranded itself the Msunduzi Museum, changing its scope to the entire municipal area. This transformation has been partly successful. All exhibits are given in three languages (English, Zulu, and Afrikaans), so the amount of text that appears on any topic is necessarily limited. Most of their collection is associated with the Voortrekkers, though they have included some impressive specimens from outside that group. My favorite was King Dingane‘s chair. The furniture was carved out of a single piece of wood rather than being nailed or screwed together! (Photographs were not allowed.)

IMG_0029The grounds of the museum are one of the best reasons to visit. They contain the Church of the Vow, a chapel built to recognize the Battle of Blood River. Fewer than 500 Voortrekkers (plus 200 servants) faced thousands of Zulu warriors in December of 1838, one week after the Boers under Andries Pretorius had vowed to build a church if they were granted victory. More than 3000 Zulu warriors died, and only three Voortrekkers were injured. Massed firearms made all the difference. Blood River was the first of two battles that ended King Dingane’s power. Quick-eyed readers may have noticed that 1838 was also important for the founding of this city! This church, then was one of the first structures of PMB, being tied to the battle that made occupying this land safe from its former guardians. For years white South Africans celebrated December 16th as “the Day of the Vow” or “Dingane’s Day,” but now South Africa celebrates that day as the “Day of Reconciliation” instead.

Missed opportunities

The two museums I visited in PMB have some nice starting materials, but I felt that some of the themes I would have expected to see covered in their exhibits were bypassed.  For example, PMB is the nearest major city to many of the battlegrounds of the Anglo-Zulu War.  I might have expected to see the Battle of Isandlwana and the subsequent conflict at Rourke’s Drift highlighted.  While the Voortrekker Museum has added a room of information about the Zulus, the interactions between the Zulus and Boers or between the Zulus and the British are less well described.  With more time, I am sure the curators will find the best way to integrate their old and new material.

The abundance of government buildings in PMB demonstrates that the town has a considerable history of its own.  At present, the Natal Museum emphasizes natural history and cultural history.  I hope that they will tell the story of PMB’s emergence as a capital, as well.  I didn’t see any exhibits in town, for example, that explained that the site was chosen in part because the two watercourses could be linked by ditches that ran parallel with streets, providing natural irrigation and sanitation.  Some of these rivulets are still visible in the modern town.  I was reminded of the bächle that I saw in Freiburg.

I was glad for the comforts of PMB, since my next stop would be in the mountains!

The trail of three dreamers: the Inanda Heritage Route

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 7, 2017

Why would Nelson Mandela cast his first vote in an Indian township in the homelands of the Zulu when he came from the Xhosa people?  Today’s adventure in Durban took me some distance from the standard tourist fare. Instead, I was able to learn a little bit about the lives of three men who began bending the arc of South African history toward justice: Mohandas K. Gandhi, Isaiah Shembe, and John L. Dube.

My destination was the Inanda Heritage Route.  From the information I could find online, it was apparent that I would be heading well off the beaten path for this adventure.  I was able to navigate the construction site at the entrance from the M41 to the N2.  The red earth of Durban was very apparent!  I traveled south to the R102 and headed away from downtown; very shortly I was on the M25, traveling into townships and industrial areas.  The M25 was tarred, which gave me some confidence.  I grinned when I passed a garbage dumpster that was literally on fire; I hear the phrase “dumpster fire” frequently in relation to the news, and here was the real deal!  Every kilometer or so I saw a series of blue and white flags celebrating the people whose former homes I would visit today.  Soon I turned onto a small dirt road, flanked by shacks, that led up a short hill to my first site for the day.  An attendant waved me into the parking lot for Phoenix Settlement.

Mohandas K. Gandhi

While people associate Gandhi with India casting off English rule, few realize that the first two decades of his career in social justice took place in South Africa. When Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893, he was really struggling to get his law career into motion. After he was thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg for trying to use his first-class train ticket, his consciousness that racial discrimination must be countered began to grow. He read Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau avidly.

IMG_9907In 1904, Gandhi decided to create the Phoenix Settlement on 100 acres of land to the northwest of Durban. He named his house “Sarvodaya,” meaning “progress of all.” Life for the community that grew there was very spartan; Gandhi held that human work should always target needs rather than desires (a theme John Ruskin popularized in Unto This Last). He began to spin his own thread to weave homespun clothing.

IMG_9919His wife and children moved to join him, as did activists from throughout South Africa. Gandhi began a newspaper, entitled the Indian Opinion, and published it from the Phoenix Settlement. He continued to live in South Africa until 1914.

In the closing days of the Apartheid government, different ethnic groups were deliberately played against each other. During 1985, the Inanda area, adjoining the Phoenix Settlement, erupted in riots. Much of the Phoenix Settlement, including Sarvodaya, was burned to the ground. After 1994, however, the democratic government recreated the main buildings of Phoenix from historic photographs. Today, the former printing press serves as a computer skills training laboratory for the surrounding community under the Gandhi Development Trust, charging only R20 ZAR (less than $2 USD) for ten hours of training in Microsoft Word!

I enjoyed my time at Phoenix.  The site acts as a guidepost to other historical sites linked to the Inanda community, with a museum featuring information about all three people I highlight in this post.  I had the place to myself for a bit, but then two busloads of students from New Hampshire arrived at the site.  They had come to Durban on a church mission trip.

Isaiah M. Shembe

Born in the 1870s to a Zulu family, Isaiah Shembe experienced a powerful vision while a young man, and he became part of the Wesleyan Church and then the Baptist Church. He became an evangelist, and his interaction with Nkabinde, a formerly Lutheran prophet, led him to create a healing ministry in 1910. Just a year later, he created the iBandla amaNazaretha (Nazareth Baptist Church), and he transformed a farm within walking distance of Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement into the holy city of Ekuphakameni.


The replica staff was not bolted down. I am a rebel.

Shembe’s church has continued to grow in membership since his death in 1935, now incorporating millions of followers. Much of its appeal comes from his syncretic abilities, transforming the Zulu art of praise poetry into a powerful set of hymns. His hymnal, primarily composed between 1910 and 1940, may have been the first book ever published in the Zulu language. Today, one may see the “Nazaretha” described as an “African Initiated Church,” reflecting that its practices were defined by Africans for Africans. In 1976, the church suffered a schism, resulting in a new settlement being created a short drive to the west in Ebuhleni.

I was curious to learn more about the Nazaretha, but their towns were not set up as museums or monuments.  I would have needed to set up prior arrangements with a tour guide to visit those locations.  Instead I followed the buses of students from Gandhi’s site back to the tar road, through a couple of turns, and then hopped off the M25 onto a dirt track.  It jolted upwards to a ridge featuring the Ohlange Library and the Ohlange High School.  We had arrived at the Ohlange Institute!

John L. Dube

Born in 1871 to Christian converts at the Inanda Mission Station, John Dube was destined to become the first president of the African National Congress. As a boy, John Dube got into a fight at school, and American missionary William Wilcox was asked to have a word with him. Their relationship grew over time, and when Wilcox returned to the United States, John Dube came along, becoming a student at Oberlin College in Ohio. His collaboration with Wilcox continued, though, and Dube began raising funds for a school in South Africa by giving talks on a tour through several states, and he authored a book on the challenges of being caught between the traditional values of his home and the structures of the Western world. He alternated between South Africa and the United States between 1892 and 1900, gaining an ordination as priest by the Congregational Church and forming a relationship with Booker T. Washington, who impressed upon Dube the importance of career training for empowering young people with self-reliance.


This, the oldest extant building of the Ohlange Institute, is barely mentioned on-site.

John Dube began making his mark on South Africa in 1900, when he founded the Zulu Christian Industrial Institute, renamed a year later to the Ohlange Institute. His chosen site was, again, within walking distance of the Phoenix Settlement and of the Shembe town of Ekuphakameni. It ranked as the first educational institution with a black director in South Africa. Its initial enrollment of 63 students soon bloomed to more than 100; by 1917, women were also allowed to enroll. In 1903, Dube created a Zulu-language newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal (the Natal Sun). His message of “Honour the man who works” and scornful “demise of the idler” began reaching a wider community. The school’s finances had become threatened enough by 1924 that Dube allowed the school to become part of the “Department of Native Education” (note that while the Nationalists did not bring “Apartheid” to the government until 1948, the earlier government under Smuts had plenty of racial limits in place).

Dube’s enduring relationship with the American religious community put him in a difficult position. He was committed to non-violence, and the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion put him on the opposite side of the Zulu chiefs. Nonetheless, his prominence in fostering the growth of the Zulu community positioned him well for the 1912 convocation of educated South African elites to establish the South African Native National Congress, renamed in 1923 to become the African National Congress.

IMG_9955When Nelson Mandela cast his ballot in 1994 at the John L. Dube building of the Ohlange Institute, he walked to the memorial monument at Dube’s grave and said, “I have come to report, Mr. President, that South Africa is now free.” He explained his decision to come to this site with these words:

I voted at Ohlange High School in Inanda, a green and hilly township just north of Durban, for it was there that John Dube, the first president of the ANC, was buried… When I walked to the voting station, my mind dwelt on the heroes who had fallen so that I might be where I was that day, the men and women who had made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that was now finally succeeding… I did not go into that voting station alone on 27th April; I was casting my vote with all of them.

During my time at the Ohlange Institute, the students of the high school on the site showed a lot of curiosity about their visitors.  One boy asked to have his picture taken with me.  A group of girls were giggling behind me, and when I turned around to say hello, one said, “you are handsome!”  We all laughed.

Mzinyathi Falls

With these three giants in my mind, I was ready for a moment apart from the world. I should be clear that the two sites I had visited (Phoenix Settlement and Ohlange Institute) were quite close to the M25 highway that burrows into the heart of this principally Indian township. Both sites had security gates and personnel guarding entry, and I could walk around each with a sense of security. The dirt roads connecting the sites to the highway were somewhat worrisome, with shacks or cinderblock houses beside them. My next destination was at least a kilometer off the M25, though, and I was unsure what I would find.


This mix of formal and informal buildings appears just above the falls.

Just navigating to the turnoff for Mzinyathi Falls was a bit shocking. On that route, the M25 juts north from a traffic circle that doubles as a public square / taxi minibus rank, and I missed my turn on the first attempt. I was soon back on course, driving past “tuck shops” built from shipping containers. When I saw the turn for the Falls, my face fell. The route south was just a dirt road of one lane. The Litchi-Car bounced and jostled merrily along, and soon the endless rows of shacks and cinderblock houses gave way to a ravine on the left side. No sign indicated that I had reached the falls, though, and I bounced on another quarter mile before turning around for fear that my car couldn’t navigate back up the slope.

When my eyes landed on the falls, though, I felt it was all worth it. Ironically, they were easier to see on the way back to the highway! I fell into conversation with Nehemiah, a Zambian who had come to South Africa to work in a friend’s shop (it didn’t turn out well). We stood at a half wall on the edge of the ravine, and I shot photos and videos of the cascade.

When one has been in a dry country for a while, the sound of water becomes a little magical, really. It does not surprise me that these falls are considered a holy place for baptisms by the followers of Isaiah Shembe.  I loved the rainbow reflecting off the water vapor at the bottom. Perhaps South Africa has “moved on” from being the Rainbow Nation, but I still take comfort in my belief that the leaders of tomorrow still feel inspired by luminaries like Gandhi, Shembe, and Dube.