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An Unnatural History: Hedley Twidle Reviews Henrietta Rose-Innes' Green Lion

Out of Africa, Into Loneliness: Michele Magwood Talks to Alexandra Fuller About Her Latest Memoir Leaving Before The Rains Come

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Leaving Before The Rains ComeLeaving Before The Rains Come
Alexandra Fuller (Harvill Secker)

“People have been calling this a divorce memoir, which I really hate,” says Alexandra Fuller. Her voice from Wyoming is sleepy and muffled. I suspect she is still plumped under her comforter on this early winter morning. “I think it’s much more a love story. An impossible love story for another human being but also for a land and family. It’s a violent attachment that’s never left me.”

Leaving Before The Rains Come is Fuller’s fourth memoir, but it picks up from her first, the now classic book Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, written, she says “in a tsunami of homesickness”. It ended with her leaving Zambia for a new life in America with her husband Charlie Ross. And what a man was Charlie Ross, an American who ran rafting operations on the Zambezi, an adventurer who had walked with gorillas in Rwanda, climbed Yosemite and Kilimanjaro, whitewater rafted in Siberia. He had “an uncompromising Romanesque profile like something off an ancient coin”. All of 22, Bobo – brought up in an eccentric, addled family – was smitten. “I believed that if I moored myself to Charlie, I would know tranquility interspersed by organised adventure. He would stay in Zambia because he loved the romance of it. I could remain here, safely. Our lives would be the ‘three rifles, supplies for a month, and Mozart’ of Out of Africa without the plane crashes, syphilis and Danish accent.”

But when Charlie’s business started faltering, and Alexandra fell desperately ill with malaria while nursing her first baby, they decided to move to the US. “Our marriage wasn’t going to be about nearly dying, and violent beauty, and unpredictability … our lives would be good and ordinary and sane.”

Fuller went on to write other books: the searing Scribbling the Cat – Travels with an African Soldier; a biography of the redneck oil rig man Colton Bryant; and a book about her mother, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. But the farm in Zambia remained her True North, her emotional lodestone, and back in Jackson Hole, USA, Charlie had morphed into a conservative, careworn real estate agent. Instead of slipping into a safe and sane life, Fuller chafed. “I hated it, I’ve never felt so lonely. It was a complete smothering. What was impossible for me was I had left my family and you know, I’m wildly in love with them. There’s so much we don’t agree on – politically especially – but we disagree in such a loud exuberant way, and we’re bonded by what we’ve endured.”

Two more children followed and Fuller was ravelled up in the tedious rhythm of parenthood, the loop of laundry and meals and school runs. She and Charlie began to talk past each other. It was, she says, like being in solitary confinement. Early in the book we hear the dread notes of this discord when she puts the phone down from Zambia, a call full of crocodiles and chaos. She seldom told Charlie about these calls, she says, because “the events we Fullers found hilarious or entertaining did not always amuse my American husband. He was a gallant one-man intervention wanting to save us from our recklessness”.

When the financial crisis of the late 2000s hit, they started going bankrupt. Fuller, who could strip an uzi and change a car tyre before she was 10, was financially illiterate. She had no credit card in her name, had never seen a royalty cheque, could not understand how their sudden penury had happened. After 20-odd years the relationship fragmented.

This is not a book written for catharsis or therapy or score-settling, it is a sedulous, scraping “journey to my interior” with universal resonance. As always the pages sing with her fine description, her almost forensic tenderness. “The rain let up, and now there was the thick contentment that comes after a storm, everything tranquillised and heavy, the world freighted with dripping vegetation and buzzing with insects.”

As you read this, Fuller will be back in Zambia, visiting under the tree of forgetfulness and gathering, one hopes, fresh material for a new book. Having mined her parents’ lives, she has her sights set on her sister Vanessa, who still lives there. “It’s the one relationship I haven’t explored. We’ve only found each other now and we’re heading towards 50.” I, for one, can’t wait.

Follow Michele on Twitter @michelemagwood

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Play now, pay later

GLAMOROUS though it might appear, a career in rugby is not the wisest choice. Each year, about 200 boys sign on for the first time with one of the 14 unions. At any one time, there are about 1,000 professional players in the system. At the most, 5% of them will make it into the national team, which means they stand a chance of earning enough to live on and, at the same time, investing enough money to retire on.

Salaries for the vast majority of professional players are low. A junior player contracted to one of the eight smaller unions will earn an average of R100,000 a year. A senior player will earn R200,000. The minority who make it into Super Rugby squads will earn between R700,000 and R800,000. They will earn this amount, if they are lucky, for about 10 years. It will not be enough to provide for them and their families once their rugby-playing days are over.

Most contracts stipulate a 40-hour week: players have to report for work between 8am and 4pm and they get 20 days’ holiday a year. This means it is difficult for them to prepare at the same time for a second career by studying or doing some sort of apprenticeship.

Those who make it to Super Rugby can make it work if they are clever about the opportunities that come their way. They can secure sponsorships and make the contacts which might help them get decent jobs after rugby. Some Premier Division Currie Cup players might also be able to leverage their brand value. But for most Vodacom Cup players, the future is bleak.

This is one of the reasons the professional aspirations of the small unions is so problematic. They don’t do these young men any favours.

There is one glowing exception: the Welkom-based Griffons.

The Griffons are an exceptionally well-managed union. They have thought through their role in an intelligent and realistic way and implemented a strategy which keeps the union solvent, treats their players fairly and produces winning rugby.

The Griffons started life as the Northern Free State Provincial team and were based in the then thriving mining community in Welkom. Club rugby was strong and most mines had their own teams.

Now there are hardly any working mines and their funds come mostly in the form of the R10m annual share of broadcasting revenue from the South Africa Rugby Union.

The Griffons decided about eight years ago that the best way to serve rugby in their region was to position themselves as a development unit.

This meant limiting the amount they spent on professional players and instead instituting an innovative system of semi-professionalism. They allocate less than half their income to professional salaries.

Some of their players have full-time jobs at local firms. Their employers usually deduct the time spent on training and matches but the Griffons pay a monthly retainer and a decent match fee as compensation.

Other players are full-time students. Some play for the University of Free State Varsity Cup team, the Shimlas, and they are loaned to the Griffons for five months.

The Griffons management encourage their players to study. They plan their training schedules around the timetables of the students and those who work for outside firms.

Last year, the union took home the First Division Currie Cup, proving that, despite these restrictions, they are still able to produce winning rugby. They also manage to nurture stars for the bigger stage: both Cecil Afrika and Branco du Preez started their professional careers at the Griffons.

Unlike some other unions, the Griffons stay within their budget. For the past six years, the union has broken even, despite the fact that they channel significant funding into the clubs and schools that fall under their jurisdiction. They field several amateur provincial teams, including girls’ under 15s, women’s under 17; provincial under 19s and under 17s.

As a journalist, what impressed me most about the Griffons was their openness. All it took was an email to their CEO, Eugene van Wyk, to elicit a copy of their 2014 financial statements, complete with a detailed breakdown of where every cent goes.

This is despite the fact that Van Wyk is currently in Australasia, touring with the Cheetahs, for whom he acts as team manager.

Instead of trying to compete with the Cheetahs, their local Super Rugby franchise, the Griffons collaborate with them and share resources. It’s eminently sensible and an example that all the small unions should be following.

Semi-professionalism is the way to go for the smaller unions. It means that they can stay within their budgets, provide proper support to amateur rugby in their regions and manage their contracted players properly. And that means ensuring they balance their rugby with preparation for a second career.

*This column first appeared in Business Day




"Clever Blacks", "White Privilege": Gareth van Onselen on the Chaos that Erupts from South African Labels

Clever Blacks, Jesus and NkandlaGareth van Onselen, author of Clever Blacks, Jesus and Nkandla: The Real Jacob Zuma in His Own Words, has written an article about the apartheid legacy of archetypes and group identities – and the accompanying terms – in South Africa.

“Is it possible in SA today to meet someone new and assume nothing about their particular character before they speak? No, is the short answer,” Van Onselen says.

Read the article:

“White privilege”, “black anger”, “white guilt”, “Africanism”, “the poor”, “the elite”, “the rich”, “women”, “men”, “clever blacks”, “foreigners”, “Zulu”, “Xhosa”, “Socialists”, “Afrikaners”, “English-speaking”, “black history”, “culture”, “religious”, “atheist”, “educated”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”, “apartheid beneficiary”, “black consciousness”, “white interests”, “liberal”, “oppressor”, “nationalist”.

These are some of the many archetypes, group identities and categories of collectivist thought — if not, simple labels — that currently define the South African debate; each one so saturated with explosive meaning and emotion they would, on their own, be enough to collapse any discussion into chaos.

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Don't Miss Achal Prabhala's Public Lecture "Thugs and Coconuts" at Wits University

Thugs and Coconuts

Miscellaneous WritingsAchal Prabhala will be presenting a public lecture called “Thugs and coconuts, or three black writers who defied South African literature” at Wits University.

In his lecture, Prabhala will be speaking about Valentine Cascarino, Omoseye Bolaji and Zebulon Dread. Raimi Gbadamosi of the Wits Art School will offer commentary.

The lecture will be delivered on Wednesday, 8 April, at 6 to 8 PM at the Humanities Graduate Centre Seminar Room.

Don’t miss it!

Event Details

  • Date: Wednesday, 8 April 2015
  • Time: 6 PM to 8 PM
  • Venue: Humanities Graduate Centre Seminar Room
    South West Engineering Building
    Wits University
    1 Jan Smuts Avenue | Map
  • Interviewer: Raimi Gbadamosi
  • Refreshments: Refreshments will be served
  • More information:

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Masande Ntshanga and Margie Orford Selected for Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy

Alert! The Civitella Ranieri Foundation has announced its Fellows in residence for the 2015 season, including South African authors Masande Ntshanga and Margie Orford.

The ReactiveWater MusicLike ClockworkDaddy\'s GirlBlood Rose

The fellowship is offered in music, visual arts and writing. Other African authors invited are Mia Couto (Mozambique), Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria), Elnathan John (Nigeria), Wame Molefhe (Botswana) and Chinelo Okparanta (Nigeria/USA).

This year we will welcome 51 Fellows from around the globe at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, including our first Fellows from Botswana, Syria, and Ukraine. This prestigious Fellowship is now in its 21st year.

Congratulations to Orford and Ntshanga!

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Special Discount Offer on Pens Behaving Badly by Paige Nick, The Book Lounge's Book of the Week

Pens Behaving BadlyThe Book Lounge has announced their latest Book of the Week: Pens Behaving Badly by Paige Nick.

To celebrate Nick’s new collection of columns, The Book Lounge is offering a special 20 percent discount off the selling price, from R175 to R140.

The Book Lounge writes in their announcement: “Paige Nick is one of the funniest writers in South Africa and the collection of the best of her weekly Sunday Times columns, Pens Behaving Badly, is testament to that.”

Pens Behaving Badly contains the best of Nick’s weekly columns as well as the wild letters they’ve inspired.

The offer is valid until Sunday, 5 April and there will also be opportunities to have your book signed by the author.

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