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Allusions in a Liandscape (1954)- Nadine Gordimer Block 6

A South African Childhood- Allusions in a Lifescape (1954)- Nadine Gordimer

Growing up in one part of a vast young country can be very different from growing up in another, and in South Africa this difference is not only a matter of geography. The division of people into great races --black and white-- and the subdivision of the white into Afrikaans and English speaking groups provide a diversity of cultural heritage that can make two South African children almost as strange to each other as if they had come from different countries. The fact that their parents, if they are English speaking, frequently have come from different countries complicates their backgrounds still further. My father came to South Africa from a village in Russia; my mother was born and grew up in London. I remember, when I was about 8 years old, going with my sister and mother and father to spend a long weekend with a cousin of my father’s who lived in the Orange Free State. After miles and miles of sienna-red plowed earth, after miles and miles of silk-fringed mealies standing as high as your eyes on earth side of the road and ugly farmhouses where women in bunchy cotton dresses and sunbonnets stared after the car as we passed, we reach the dorp where the cousin lived, in a small white house with sides that were dust-stained in a wavering wash, like rust, for more than a foot above the ground. There we two little girls slept on two bed of a smothering softness we had never felt before-- featherbeds bought from eastern Europe-- and drank tea drawn from a charming contraption. There--to our and our mother’s horror-- we were given smoked duck, flavored with garlic, at breakfast. The two children of the house spoke only Afrikaans like the Boer children who played in the yards of mean little houses on either side, and my sister and I, queasy from the strange food and able to speak only English, watched their games with a mixture of hostility and wistfulness.

How different it all was from our visit to our mother’s sister, in Natal! There, with our “English” side of the family, in the green, softly contorted hills and the gentle meadows of sweet grass in near Balgowan, we might almost have been in England itself. There our cousins Roy and Humpfrey rode like young lords about their father’s beautiful farm and spoke the high, polite, “pure” English learned in expensive Natal private schools that were staffed with masters imported from English universities. And how different were both visits from our life in one of the gold-mining towns of the Witwatersrand, near Johannesburg, in the Transvaal.

There are nine of these towns, spread over a distance of roughly 140 miles east and west of Johannesburg. The one in which we lived was on the east side--the East Rand, it is called-- and it had many distinctions, as distinctions were measured in that part of the world. First of all, it was one of the oldest towns having got itself a gold strike, a general store, a few tents, and a name before 1890. In the pioneer days, my father had set himself up in a small, one-man business as a watchmaker and jeweler, and during the 20s and 30s, when the town became the most rapidly expanding in Witwatersrand, he continued to live there with his family. In the riches gold mining area in the world, it became the richest square mile or so. All around us, the shafts went down and the gold came up; our horizon was an egytian-looking frieze of man-made hills of cyanide sand, called “dumps,” because that is what they are-- great mounds of waste matter dumped on the surface of the earth after the gold-bearing ore has been blasted below, hauled up, and pounded and washed into yielding its treasure. In the dusty month before spring-- in august, that is-- the sand from the dumps blew under the tightly shut doors of every house in the town and enveloped the heads of the dumps themselves in a swirling haze, leading them so of the dignity of cloud-capped mountains. It is

characteristic of the Witwatersrand that any feature of the landscape that strikes the eye always does so because it is a reminder of something else; considered on its own merits, the landscape is utterly without interest-- flat, dry, and barren.

In our part of the East Rand, the yellowish-white pattern of the cyanide dumps was broken here and there by a black hill rising out of the veld. These hills were man-made, too, but they did not have the geometrical, pyramidal rigidity of the cyanide dumps, and they were so old that enough real earth had blow on to them to hold a growth of sparse grass and perhaps even a sinewy peppercorn or peachtree, sprung up no doubt. These hills were also dumps, but through their scanity natural covering of blackness clearly showed-- even a little blueness, the way black hair shines-- for they were coal dumps, made of coal dust.

The coal dumps assumed, both because of their appearance and because of the stories and warnings we heard about them, something of a diabolic nature. In our sedate little colonial tribe, with its ritual tea parties and tennis parties, the coal dump could be said to be our evil mountain; I use the singular here because when I think of these dumps, I think of one in particular-- the biggest one, the one that stood 50 yards beyond the last row of houses in the town where we lived. I remember it especially well because of the other side of it, hidden by it, was the local nursing home, where, when my sister and I were young and the town was small, all the mothers went to have their babies and all the children went to have their tonsillectomies-- where, in fact, almost everyone was born, endured an illness, or died. Our mother had several long stays in the place, over a period of two or three years, and during these stays our grandmother took us on a daily visit across the veld to see her. Immediately when lunch was over, she would spend an hour dressing us, and then brushed and beribboned and curled our hair; then, we would set off. We took a path that skirted the coal dump, and there it was at our side most of the way-- a dirty scarred old mountain, collapsing into the fold of a small ravine here, supporting a twisted peachtree there, and showing bald and black through patchy grass. A fence consisting of two threads of barbed wire looped at intervals through low rusted-iron poles, which once had surrounded it completely, now remained only in places, can convey the idea of a taboo rather than providing an effective means of isolation. The whole coal dump looked dead, forsaken, and harmless enough, but my sister and I walked softly and looked at it out of the corners of our eyes, half fascinated, half afraid, because we knew it was something else inert. Not dead by any means, but inert. For we had seen. Coming back from the nursing home in the early-winter dusk, we had seen the strange glow in the bald patches the grass did not cover, and in the runnels made by the erosion of summer wind and rain we had seen the hot blue waiver of flame. The coal dump was alive. Like a beast of prey, it woke to life in the dark.

The matter of fact truth was that these coal dumps, relics of the pre-goldstrike era when collieries operated in the district, were burning. Along with the abandoned mine workings underground, they had caught fire at some time or other in their years of disuse, and had continued to burn, night and day, ever since. Neither rain nor time could put the fires out, and in some places, even on the coldest winter days, we would be surprised to feel the veld warm beneath the soles of our shoes, and, if we cut out a clod, faintly steaming. That dump on the outskirts of the town where we lived is still burning today. I have asked people who have studied such things how long it may be expected to go on burning before it consumes itself. Nobody seems to know; it shares with the idea of Hades its heat and vague eternity.

But perhaps its fierce heart is being subdued gradually. Apparently, no one can even remember, these days, the nasty incidents connected with the dump, incidents that were fresh in memory during our childhood. Perhaps there is no need for anyone to remember, for the town now has more vicarious and less dangerous excitements to offer children than the thrill of running quickly across a pile of black dust that may at any moment cave in and plunge the adventurer into a bed of incandescent coals. In our time, we knew a girl to whom this had happened, and our mother remembered a small boy who had disappeared entirely under a sudden landslide of terrible glowing heat. Not even his bones have been recovered by the girl we knew survived to become a sort of curiosity about the town. She had been playing of the dump with her friends and all at once had found herself sunk thigh-deep in living coals and hot ashes. Her friends had managed to pull her out of this fiery quicksand, but she was horribly burned. When we saw her in the street, we used to be unable to keep our eyes from the tight-puckered skin of her calves, and the still tighter skin of her hands, which draw up her fingers like claws. Despite, or because of, these awful warnings, my sister and I longed to run quickly across the lower slopes of the dump for ourselves, and several times managed to elude surveillance long enough to do so. And once, in the unbearable terror and bliss of excitement, we clutched each other on the veld below while, legs pumping wildly, our cousin Roy, who came from Natal to spend the holidays with us, rode a bicycle right to the top of the dump and down the other side, triumphant and unharmed.

In the part of South Africa where we lived, we had not only fire under our feet; we had, two, a complication of tunnels as intricate as one of those delicate chunks of worm cast you’d find on the seashore. All the towns along the Witwatersrand, and the older parts of Johannesburg itself, are undermined. Living there, you think about it as little as you think about the fact that, whatever your work and whatever your life, you’re reason for performing where you do and living it where you do is the existence of the gold mines. Yet you are never allowed to forget entirely that the ground is not solid beneath you.

DMU Timestamp: September 03, 2020 08:33

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