A love affair with Africa; A life less ordinary

2008-05-20 00:00

“My book Holding up the Sky wasn’t meant to win a Pulitzer Prize, to stand up under the critics’ scrutiny — it was just a story I thought should be told,” says Sandy Blackburn-Wright on her website. Her autobiography tells the story of a young Australian woman’s love affair with Africa and its people. She lived and worked in South Africa between 1988 and 2003, years coinciding with some of the nation’s most tumultuous and significant events.

“I had the rare privilege to live in one of the most intriguing countries on Earth and spend time with its magnificent people,” she writes. “I learnt about the joy of being part of a vibrant community working passionately for an ideal. I also learnt that with deep joy comes pain, relentless and inevitable. One reviewer said my book was not a comfortable read — well, I’m not surprised. In a place like South Africa, people are not cushioned from life’s harshness but in my experience, they also are open to more of life’s pure joy.”

Blackburn-Wright speaks from the heart. She shares the tender story of her early love for Xhosa-speaking Msizi; to her dismay he ultimately decided that he would find it difficult to survive being ostracised by his community, and ended the relationship. Down the line, Blackburn-Wright married Teboho from Mohlakeng, “a man who marched to the beat of his own drum”, and they adopted Mamello, his niece, before Blackburn-Wright gave birth to their son, Dichaba.

By sharing her life less ordinary, Blackburn-Wright helps to bridge the racial divide.

She describes her experience of ubuntu. “As white people, we are brought up to believe that to survive and prosper, we need to be financially, and perhaps personally, independent … In the black community, I think that people understand that there are good times and bad and the only way to navigate them is to have a strong social network around you. You support others when you have plenty and ask for help when you don’t. People know that pain is part of life and something we all go through, and so it’s not something to be ashamed of. That attitude to life, that resilience, that ubuntu, is something we, as white people, could learn from.”

Blackburn-Wright’s journey certainly demonstrates the magnanimous spirit of the families and communities of which she became an integral part as her life knitted with those of her extended family and community. Not only was she welcomed, but also loved, forming strong bonds with many of the friends and family she made along the way. She describes many a wedding and funeral, deftly conjuring up the dancing and feasting, the shared joys and commiserations .

The Australian entered African life determined to cast off the stereotype that white women “have no hands”, mucking in wherever she could, throwing herself wholeheartedly into everything she did, whether saving children during the Seven Days War, undertaking development work, hosting extended family and friends in their new home, raising her niece as her own or trying to adopt her husband’s culture and speak his mother tongue.

Ultimately their different needs proved too great for her and Teboho. “This was not the ending I, the holder of dreams, had imagined,” she confides in her autobiography. But in their shared journey, she illuminates the incredible love and richness of experience that can be realised in living a life so vastly different from that of middle class white suburbia the world over.

What advice does she have for people in mixed marriages? “Firstly, that it’s possible. I don’t want my book to be a cautionary tale,” says Blackburn-Wright. “If I were magically able to mentor my younger self, I would advise me to find a “third way”. And by that I mean: create a third place that is neither his home nor mine but a place where a family culture can be created afresh, one that draws from both but where neither dominates. I also think you need to learn both languages and cultures so that you can share them with your children, but then find a family culture that is the rich intersection of both”.

In March 1990, Blackburn-Wright moved in with the Skhosana family, a minister and his wife. They lived on the edge of the border between Edendale and Sweetwaters. She lived through an attack on the residents of Caluza by up to 3 000 armed warriors while the police turned a blind eye. Her narrative describes the harrowing moment she witnessed a man being shot dead in the Skhosanas’ driveway.

At the end of what has been named the Seven Days War, she estimates that about 20 000 refugees had fled the area and up to 100 people had been killed.

How can South Africans move on from a past like this? “I believe it’s about building relationships, real warts-and-all relationships, with people from different backgrounds. Unless we do that, we live within the stereotypes of “the other”; living in fear or resentment of people we don’t actually know. I also think it’s about acknowledging what happened and not asking people to move on too quickly. It’s important to take time, listen to the stories people have to tell and to say, “yes, that happened and it was horrible”. And with that knowledge, we can move forward into relationships that are real and deep.”

Blackburn-Wright is “real and deep” and that is what makes her autobiography so absorbing. She is at times painfully honest. She describes being jealous of her adopted daughter’s relationship with her father, for example. And it is her jealous reactions to Mello’s mother, to her father and Mello’s relationship, and her hurt at her husband’s infidelity — coupled with her own single moment of infidelity — that brings her self-portrayal to life.

Blackburn-Wright now lives with her husband Shaun, a Maritzburg College old boy, and her son “Chaba” in Sydney, although she says, “South Africa has so much to offer. I believe that the South African experience was a crucible of the soul that has refined the national identity and created the likes of those people I describe in the book. South Africa’s people are extraordinary. They are resilient, entrepreneurial, authentic and diverse.”

In Holding up the Sky she mentions her “beloved Maritzburg”: “Maritzburg will always be my happy place. Despite some of the difficulties I went through when I was there, it is equally the place where I have spent many of the happiest years of my life. Maritzburg is also a community that is small enough to be known, yet large enough to be diverse. For me, it’s an example of the possibilities of local communities and what can be achieved.”

• Visit Sandy Blackburn-Wright’s website: www.wrightings.com.au

• Holding Up the Sky, An African Life, by Sandy Blackburn-Wright, is published by Pier 9.

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