Once upon a time?

In Australia my dreams are of Africa.

[In Africa there is no need to dream? Or, no need to remember dreams? Is Australia the place of dreaming? Does Australia cease to exist when I’m in Africa?]

Once upon a time I presented a paper at a conference in Wollongong, NSW. This was not the first conference I had spoken at but it was where, for the first time, I was admired for my writing. The paper, Christmas at the Big House,  was subtitled ‘intersecting the insider and outsider roles in the fieldwork process.’ Why anthropology and ethnography papers have such long and convoluted titles is a mystery. Nevertheless, at that stage of my life, that is what I did. I even quoted Foucault in the introduction.

I returned ‘home’ to Zimbabwe in 1996 to research for Honours, so being both the insider and the outsider were conflicting roles. The Christmas mentioned in the title was a celebration of the reunion of my siblings. I was the only one without my immediate family at the party. It was held at the Big House.

The Big House, on a tobacco farm in Zimbabwe, is where I was born and brought up. It is a big house, built around a lawned courtyard, colourful with bougainvillea and flowering vines. There are verandahs, arches, and many big rooms. The gardens are bright with poinsettias and jacaranda trees. Once upon a time the house seemed to be alive and strong. Now, when I visit in 1996, I find the termites have eaten away the parquet floors. The wild bees have swarmed in the chimneys and the ceiling space. Honey drips through the ceilings leaving honey puddles in the sun-room. The electric wiring, never dependable, is completely unreliable, not helped by the intermittent blackouts and power outages.

For many of the past decades the house had not been permanently occupied. Because it is isolated, and usually empty, the night-watchman had taken the opportunity  to remove much of the furniture. In the more recent past, since the family left Zimbabwe, the Big House is now home to three or four Zimbabwean families. I think to myself, “at least it is being lived in.”

I quote, verbatim, from the essay

My knowledge of the family is sensitive. I am fluent in the language. The cultural world of this family is familiar to me as insider (how easily I slipped back into that identity) alien to me as outsider (how difficult to be part of the scheming and plotting). Intersecting the roles of insider/outsider allows me to acknowledge my limits – and that my analysis is imperfect and it is incomplete

I have to be honest, this was not the best Christmas I’ve ever had! However, when the time came to say goodbye, everyone was very emotional. There was much kissing and hugging. I left with my brother and his family because I am staying out on their farm now, and going to Aberfoyle (on the Mozambique border) with them for New Year.

During question time after I presented the paper, which discusses the feelings of identity, belonging, remembering, and misunderstanding, one of the audience paid me the supreme compliment of likening my writing to that of Michael Ondaatje.

 

 

 

 

 

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Once upon a time?

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