Merle's Blog

Insights and Outsights

When an elder dies a library burns down

Posted by Merle Levin on May 19, 2010

“If you are in such a hurry, why didn’t you come yesterday?” is a saying of the indigenous Sami people of the North.

Last week I met with a group of 50 women who no longer rush. This group of grandmothers live in Stanford, a small, historically beautiful, coastal town about 2 hours south of Cape Town. The idea of this gathering was seeded at the annual Freewheeling Festival, held at Stanford Valley Farm, when I and a local resident, Elma Hunter, considered how wonderful it would be to have some of the local elders attend an event of this nature. Why not begin by having a gathering of “conscious grandmothers” at the Farm? We set a date and Elma rolled up her sleeves, gathered support, cooks, drivers, church leaders and on May 6th, ten carloads of grannies arrived on Stanford Valley Farm, eager to have a day out of their small kitchens and dark houses. We were a fine mix of colours, shapes sizes and languages – 10 whiteskinned, 3 Xhosa skinned and the rest, Coloured-skinned women and even one brave husband.

Over the past year I have met with and facilitated other “Conscious Grandmothering” groups in Canada and Norway and was eager to be a part of a local event here in South Africa. Since I have become a grandmother myself, I have become acutely aware of what a force of wisdom and life experience we as grandmothers can provide. We just need a venue to do so. Who invests time and energy in this population? Who stops to realize the potential of this precious recourse we have to give to our communities? The indigenous people say “when an elder dies, a library burns down”. This makes the gathering like this one, even more imperative and urgent.

We met in the historical building called “Ou Huis”, whose slanted floors bespoke it’s history of once being the wine pressing building of the property. The old open fireplace at one end and the pounding rain that beat against the windows panes, set an atmosphere of intimacy and warmth. We sat at tables, over good food, conversation and sharing. The women began with stories of their childhood – many of them were born on farms in the area. Their eyes twinkled with memories of childhood and the ability we have as we grow older, to mince memory into magic. They all agreed that Stanford was a wonderful place to grow up in, safe and filled with adventures of childhood. The room shuddered with laughter and “Ja! Dit was so!” – Yes it was exactly so! All children played together, no sense of race, religion or financial status divided them. I then asked them to talk amongst themselves at their tables, about the things they would like to leave their grandchildren. The values they feel are important.
There were no surprises.

Unanimously, each table reported the same most-important value: respect. The children today do not respect us, they do not respect their parents and they do not respect their things. How to tell them that this is the basis of a happy life? A fundament on which to build their future life as good citizens of this country? “When we were young, we learned something very important”, said Auntie Dollie Cornelius, an eighty year old, former midwife who has delivered more than 1051 local children. “If we went to bed hungry, that was just how it was, we did not whine or complain. As daar niks is, is daar niks If there is nothing, there is nothing. Plain and simple: one has to know how to accept things just the way they are.”

These women knew about acceptance of hard facts. Many of them had been removed from their homes when Stanford was declared a “White’s only” town, according the Apartheid Group Areas Act of 1950 that Forced physical separation between races by creating different residential areas for different races. As late as 1970, families in Stanford were forcibly removed from their large homes in the town and resettled in small box-like houses on the edge of town. Their compensation for this forced removal: R5,000. Auntie Dollie said sadly “When we left, we couldn’t take our furniture, it would not fit in those small houses, we took what we could, even roof sheets, on a small handcart. I and my parents, cried for days” she said.

Maxie Pillay, a feisty 89 year old, spoke of their removal. “My father was a farm labourer, planted a garden with many fruit trees – apricots, grapes, figs, pears and apples. He grew every kind of vegetable. Whatever we had, we shared. When we slaughtered a pig, ‘karmenaadjies’ (pieces of meat) were given away. When my family was ‘kicked out’ of our eight-roomed house in Longmarket street, my parents were broken. As a young girl I slept at the foot-end of our white neighbour’s bed to warm the woman’s feet, now, these same white people said I was dirty. It took a long time to forgive and remove the hatred from our hearts. We heal ourselves by helping others in our community.” She said brazenly. Another family, Ignatius and Sara Barends had 10 children. Ignatius is preacher in the Pentacostal Church and being the only man present, he stood up and gave a heartfelt rendering of his trust and love of God in all difficulties. The room broke into song about the love of Jesus.

There is a little house in Adderley St now occupied by white woman, Janika Dorland, a local music teacher. She heard how it had been occupied until 1974 by the Appel family who were heartbroken because they had to leave the house they had built up with great difficulty and go and die in what they felt was a ‘foreign’ land. They moved to Hawston and stayed with relatives. Willem Appel, one of the children, became the local primary school principal. There were many such stories about the sadness and bitterness people felt when having to leave their homes and move to ‘Die Skema’ or Stanford South. IN the spirit of sadness, one of the younger women stood up and declared the blackest day of her life was when she discovered she was HIV positive. The voices of support and love for her swept around the room. Another spoke of having had to sleep with “one eye open” as she feared the abuse of her husband. I sensed that many things were shared that had not been spoken of publically before. These are stoic women, who hold their pain. How wonderful for them to have a safe venue in which to share.

The heartfelt sharing of the women of all colours, set an intense atmosphere of honesty, as together we faced the injustice of poverty, the previous government and the terrible problems of alcoholism and drugs that face the community today. “No-one listens to us” the grandmothers said. Yet the day ended with a great sense of positivity and joy at having had a forum to heal pain and promote joys of the past.

My sense is that it is by gathering in this way that we will define new ways of harnessing the wisdom of life represented by this population. It will take work and tenacity to bring their voice out into the community, but I know they have the energy, if not unlimited time left, to do so. I felt the day carried the seeds of future gatherings, and hope that the impetus will continue locally to make this happen. These grandmothers are a precious resource that should not be overlooked or ignored. They have a storehouse of stories and knowledge that should be documented as a community project. If anyone is moved to add their voice or energy to this idea of a “conscious grandmother” movement, please contact Elma Hunter at her email address: elmian@iafrica.com

Merle Levin is a South African writer who spends half her year traveling in Europe and Canada, teaching creative writing. She has a 7 year old grandson, and writes a book for him each year for his birthday. She is connected to the grandmother to grandmother project in Canada and the Conscious Grandmother project in Norway. She is one of the 40 shareholders of Stanford Valley Farm and presents creative writing workshops there. For more details about workshops, the Freewheeling Festival or other events at Stanford Valley, please contact Leli at her email address: leli@stanfordvalley.co.za

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2 Responses to “When an elder dies a library burns down”

  1. Patty said

    Thank you for this. I googled the quote about an elder dies it is like a library burnt because my Dad mentioned he had just read that and quoted it at his 90th birthday with tears and a voice you could barely hear because it choked him up. He said, “this is true”. This coming from a man who reads over 100 books a year.

    My sister and I have both just became Grandmas in the last 2 years and we too are realizing how much more conscious we are of every movement and noise and how it is the joy and rejoicing of our hearts.

    Have a wonderful day.

    • Thank you for your story about your father. very touching. Yes the wisdom of those who have walked before us is a great foundation for a world that has become very rushed and overwhelming. As a grandmother myself, i see the importance of transferring the values of my elders. Blessings to you and thank you again for responding.

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