Becoming a midlands ‘mlungu’

2011-01-31 00:00

SURVIVING and thriving as a midlands mlungu is no mean feat. Take my great-grandfather for instance. Godfrey Ferguson left the mildlands of Dublin in the early 1900s and came to Natal to start Howick Rubber Works (later Sarmcol and now Dunlop­). I suppose he thought swopping the green hills of Ireland for the midlands would be a cinch. He was wrong. Building a factory, taking a wife, producing three headstrong daughters and borrowing the Zulu induna to brand his tyre did not buy him immunity. He died in his early 40s of infected mastoids: clearly, he did not realise that midlands “noonoos” were super nasty, even before Duzi guts and Umgeni sludge slithered into the ecolisphere.

Four generations later, my son Nic has evolved into a sturdier midlands mlungu. It occurred to me that this step-up-the-ladder of survival has transformed our family gene pool. I had been reflecting on how miraculous it is that Nic has escaped 11 near-death experiences in his 17 years. Or rather, it’s the nature of these near- death experiences that got me thinking about what it takes to survive and thrive in this unique part of the country.

It began with his birth. When Nic was conceived, my husband and I were living in the Karkloof on a wilderness­ training school. By the time he was ready to be born, it was June and the dirt roads were tsunamied with rock-hard swells of sand, and seas of loose gravel. As we skidded­ into Grey’s Hospital maternity section, he had been practically bumped out of my womb into the Karkloof, sugar cane on one side, indigenous forest on the other. We made it to the delivery room though, and Nic popped out into life leaving the obstetrician only minutes to catch him. Landing on the cold tiles of the ward would not have been an auspicious start, even for a midlands mlungu baby­ boy.

Three months later Nic survived his first uniquely midlands near-death experience. It was a hot spring day. I had taken his nappy off, put him on a blanket and left him in the front garden to enjoy the fresh air while I hung the washing out in the back garden. A few moments later I noticed a Crowned Eagle circling above our house. I had spent 18 months in the Karkloof by then, watching these ferociously­ beautiful birds carry off monkeys, kill them in mid-air and finish them off in the trees on the edge of our garden. I knew a hungry Crowned Eagle when I saw one. My little baby, squiggling on the lawn, would probably look like a tasty monkey-sized morsel to a sharp-eyed raptor­. Sure enough, as I kept my beady maternal eye on the bird, it circled­ lower towards where Nic was lying. I don’t really know at what point I morphed from vigilant mom into an adrenaline-fuelled superheroine. But there was an instant of knowing: if I did not grab my baby, I might have to watch him being carried off in the talons of a midlands king. I sprinted around the house, across the garden, waving and shooing and saw that, indeed, the eagle had swooped very close to Nic. I have since heard from three raptor experts that infant human­ bones have been found in Crowned    Eagles’   nests.   Not   my baby’s. Not that day. Not on my watch.

Much more Earth-bound creatures nearly ended Nic’s little life the second time. Still in the Karkloof, he was by now a mobile, curious toddler. We had no fence around our house, so he was free to wander wherever his adventurous heart took him. One morning, he decided to take himself for a walk along a pathway towards one of the camp-site obstacle courses. This was also the path his dad used to reach the house from his office. While gazing out the window, I saw that father and son were about to meet. This rare moment of domestic, bucolic serenity was shattered for me when I saw David­ suddenly charge towards Nic, snatch him up, put him down on a nearby embankment and begin attacking the ground with an assortment of deadly digging implements. Moments later, David heroically flew into the house, announcing that he had just saved our child’s life. (Well, at least he had made up for the time he accidentally dropped Nic on his head. That is another survival story.) “How? Why?” I asked. “Were the thorns in the grass that vicious?” Indignant at both my lack of crystal- clear long-distance vision, and appreciation for his manly bravery, David blurted that our child had been about to investigate intimately the mating habits of two puffadders and did I know how deadly that could have been for him? Indeed. Another close encounter of the midlands kind.

So, triumphing in the evolutionary contest of survival of the fittest, which poor great-grandfather Godfrey lost, Nic, by the age of 18 months, had vanquished two characteristically midlands threats: Crowned Eagles and puffadders. The third midlands menace­ was a tree. Well, to be fair to that most luscious of tropical foods found in these parts, it was Nic in the avocado tree that was the problem. Or rather, Nic out of the tree. He had just had a cast removed from his broken arm (yet another story for another time) when his boyish heart succumbed to the enchantment of seeing if he could climb right to the very top of his uncle’s avo tree. Of course I said no. Of course his father said yes. Of course the next thing I saw was my child literally bumping from branch to branch down the avo tree. Miraculously, the midlands mlungu survived again, with nothing more than some bruises and grazes.

I can’t help believing that Nic has a little more of the luck of the Irish than his ancestor. What he definitely shares with Godfrey though is fearlessness in the pursuit of a worthy woman. My great-grandmother was a stern yet passionate German (she had three husbands after Godfrey) who was left to run the rubber works in Howick and raise three outrageous daughters after her Irishman weakly succumbed to the rigours of living in the midlands. She could not have been easy to impress and family mysteries hint at what feats of daring he had to perform to woo her. Nic’s conquests, on the other hand, are the very stuff of Pietermaritzburg urban legend.

This particular death-defying escapade involved a little woman — she was five to be exact — a brick, a window and some balloons. And Nic, of course. By then, we had left the Karkloof and were living on another type of landscape characteristic of this region: the private school. Nic was inspired to his feat of romantic daring by a recent burglary in which the felons­ had broken our dining-room window. When he needed to impress the object of his desire — Julie was her name — with a gift of many balloons, he went AWOL from aftercare, charged home, and, finding the house locked and free of parental vigilance, decided to get in by smashing the window the burglars had. (And here, I think I see some of Godfrey’s ingenuity­.) He climbed through the hole, jagged with protruding shards of glass, collected the balloons and then climbed out through the very same cunningly crafted space. Providentially (again), his dad happened to arrive at home just as Nic was squeezing his jugular and femoral arteries past glass spikes, emerging triumphant and unscathed with woman-winning balloons in his hands. What he nearly did not survive was the terrified­ rage of his father. Yet, fearlessly facing his dad’s interrogation as to how he thought he could do such a dangerous thing and not bleed to death, our midlands mlungu replied: “It’s okay, daddy. Jesus was looking after me.”

Since then Nic has had at least seven­ other potentially fatal encounters in the midlands, involving animals­, diving boards, little plastic motorbikes, tricycles, quadbikes, bicycles­, go karts, big powerful motorbikes­ and cars — in fact, all wheel-enabled things on rickety roads. Perhaps it wasn’t genetic strength that my great-grandfather lacked, but faith — and a respect for the wildness of the midlands. Or, perhaps, respect mingled with love. To this day Nic retains a soul connection with raptors, following each species’ calls and flights in a way that seems to acknowledge his position of vulnerability in this beautiful place “too lovely for the singing of it”. He loves to fly kites in the cyan blue of a winter morning and trout fish in tranquil dams nestled in the Berg. He knows the names and calls of orioles, barbets­, kestrels, eagles and cuckoos. He knows when the swallows and the Yellow-billed Kites come and go. Yes, Nic has become a midlands mlungu through and through. Thankfully, a live one.

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