Sam the Man – May 1992

This is piece I wrote when I visited the Lowveld in 1992:

Sam Njima lives in Lilyvale, Mpumalanga. Of course, when he became Sam the Man it was part of the Transvaal Lowveld. Then it was a lot wilder but many of the people that moved to his village had been forcibly moved from some of the Varty and Rattray lands after Verwoerd made some changes to the policies of  our land. Now lately, especially since the floods, there are a few Mocambicans as well. They started coming with their war and even have separate parts of the villages that they inhabit. They Speak Shangaan but with a deeper tone. Their houses, which are rural shanty shacks, are indistinguishable from their local neighbours.

Sam the Man is called that by everybody in Lilyvale where he is regarded as a lifetime mayor. He has a petrol filling station that has just had a revamp by B.P. and is the smartest building in town. There is general dealer which does not rate as much as the garage in looks. He donated money and built the primary school. It is a small clean white building with pretty Walt Disney characters handsomely painted on the walls. When I went past it was Women’s Day and all the children were out collecting firewood as gifts for their mothers. Sam the Man also donated money for the new clinic. Here the new government has helped and the clinic is staffed and administers vaccinations and gives out C.D.’s. There isn’t much electricity in Lilyvale and the radio is quite popular. C.D. is for ConDom. The locals don’t believe much in this plot. Although more and more of their friends and family are dying from Slim Disease and newer cemeteries are springing up, there is no danger. Life goes on and girlfriends are a way of life for a man.

Sam the Man is over fifty now. He has a big stomach and a few fat wives. He is a wealthy man. And he is very respected in the political circles of the land. He was not really an activist. Sure, he was troubled by the security police but that was only afterwards, and by then he was Sam the Man and even they could not touch him. Well, almost. At fifty he moved back to his home village of Lilyvale. He had a lot of money by then. Blood money to some.

He was not famous before, but after 1976 he was. He did not do much to change things, yet he was the one that changed them. He did not go to prison for it, but he was the one that set the wheels in motion after those in prison had started the drive. Sam the Man has children at school still, his youngest is only twleve. He will be a teenager next year, and will go to school learning Shangaan and English. He will have to learn English, to be able to entertain all the foreigners that come to his country nowadays, to see the wild animals, to see the sunset, and eagles flying in the open spaces. Perhaps he may even become the kind that they call “The Ranger”, showing people the wild animals in all their glory. Probably showing them all the animals stripped of their glory, but the foreigners will see them. His father, Sam the Man, also showed the foreigners.

Sam the man was a photographer. He did not take pictures of wildlife. He did not take pictures of death. But he became rich after they published his famous photograph on the cover of Time and Newsweek. Hector Peterson was on the cover, in the arms of his friends. Hector Peterson was killed on June 16, 1976: Soweto Day


An original Black & White print from my own darkroom, circa 1990: An Elephant in Kruger

Conversations about Birthdays

As children my mother always organised great birthday parties. She would invite our friends and set the table with food and treats. Cold drink bottles would line up to quench our thirst.  I remember everything being set and then having to wait for my father, who would rush back from his busy schedule at the office to be with us.

I know we were spoilt in those days, but there was not a plethora of cheap electronic toys available as there is now. For instance, I never owned a radio-controlled car. I remember going through a phase where I collected Action Man and all his accoutrements. This was disturbing for most men in the family because they thought this was a sign that I was gay. Even in that conservative town in the sixties it was not an unknown entity. One of the sons of family friends ended up having a gender reassignment operation in the seventies, and the pressure was on already from young for him to come out of the closet.

I remember our childhood birthdays as happy uncomplicated affairs. Aunty Kiki would treat us with wonderful gifts, beautifully wrapped, and she would bake a soft moist chocolate cake for the special day. We always had the correct number of candles and it was a big thing to blow them out and make a wish. I am sure I made many wishes over the years, but a line from a poem comes to mind:

“I got nothing I asked for but everything I hoped for

Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.”

After the singing and cutting of the cake we would drift into the garden. Funny, I do not remember bad weather on any of our childhood birthdays, but that is probably a slant of brightness that comes with age. We would play cricket or soccer, or cowboys and Indians. I think for one year when I had built a puppet theatre and was making paper mache´ puppets whose gowns were supplied by Aunty Kiki, I tortured the audience with a puppet show. The theatre was a made of a wooden frame covered with plywood painted yellow. I always loved mechanisms of any sort, and made a curtain system to open and close both sides simultaneously. The drapes were thick red velvet, probably cut from one of my mother’s old ball gowns.

So the years have moved on to the point where half centuries pass. Children’s birthdays were so innocent and so much fun. Then as we grew they became complicated and a show. We went from a special meal treat at the local steakhouse to meals in other countries, weekends in decadent luxury and sometimes nothing, just a quiet dinner at home.

What made those early birthday parties was an air of simplicity, home backed cakes and my father rushing in like the president from the office for the occasion.

My father at one of my brother’s birthdays.

Conversations with My Grandfather

I do not remember either of my grandfathers. I am named after my mother’s father, Basil the baker. My father’s father, John, owned a corner café in Alberton. I can imagine he would be very proud that one of his grandson’s is an orthopaedic surgeon.

He would open the store early in the morning and close late at night every day of the week, closing only briefly for Sunday lunch. At lunch he would have probably told his children that they must study and become professionals. Become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. Make money, but more importantly, have a life and be someone. Don’t slog all day behind the counter.

That is not why I became an orthopaedic surgeon, although one cannot discount the brainwashing effect generations of aspiration and desire to have children pass through university into a profession might have had. One cannot imagine their hunger for that, when they themselves had not even completed primary school and their dreams were vested in their children’s children.

If my grandfather was alive now as I write he would be opening the store. He would have woken up earlier, maybe at four or four thirty in the morning. He would not have had breakfast; perhaps he would have taken a cup of tea. Then he would have walked through the courtyard at the back of the house, down the steps, under the grapevine to open the store from behind. The back door opened into a kitchen, with a small veneered table with chrome legs. He might have taken his tea there.

My grandfather would be tired at the slog that faced him yet again. Worried about having to pay the suppliers, and calling in credit from customers who had no money but needed to pay. He would have been concerned about his daughter who was studying at university, who would later go on to become a lecturer. She was ahead of her time, but beyond vision for an immigrant from the dark days of Greece in the twenties and thirties.

If time and place were one, at the same time today I would be driving back from the hospital. I left at three in the morning after a call from my ward that one of my patients had died. He was only sixty, a pleasant Afrikaans gentleman that I had known as a patient for almost three years. A lecturer at the university. He had a knee replacement two days ago. Everything seemed to be going fine until I answered my phone this morning.

But today my grandfather would have me for company at five as I returned home. A specialist who earns money, has a life and is someone.  Today I was awake before him, and the price I pay to be honoured with my profession is beyond measure. How do I explain to him that I did everything right. That I am a good surgeon. That I care. That I had to phone my patient’s wife and tell her that husband had died, and she was alone from now on.

Wish that today my grandfather could make me a cup of tea at five in the morning, as he opens the store. Wish that we could compare notes about work.

Neither of us have any idea of what it is to wear the shoes that take us to work each day.

My shadow taking making a picture in the Namib Desert

Conversations about Herbs

When I was growing up there was only one herb in our house: oregano.  It was never fresh and it always came from Greece, harvested in the harsh Arcadian mountains around the village.

Whenever my father returned from a trip to the homelands, as he used to call Greece, he would bring a gift, a bag of sweets and a bag of oregano. Sometimes the gift was a CD or a small ornament. The sweets were always made by Greece’s equivalent of Cadbury, Ion. I only found out after many packets of sweets that in fact Old Man Simbonis used to give my father money to buy me sweets at the airport.

This year, three and a half years after my father died and stopped supplying oregano, we finally ran out of stock of oregano. So did most of my close family. So it fell to me to get the herb. I went into Tripolis once while I was there last month, walked around, sat and had a breakfast of Greek coffee and loukoumades, did some shopping but forgot to go to the market where they sell so much oregano the smell overpowers any other produce they hold in the small open square. I eventually bought some at the airport.

I remember opening the packet of gifts, already with an aura of the mountain aroma, and then decanting the oregano into a glass jar, where the strong reminder would remain for a few weeks in the cupboard until it faded. Each time I opened the jar to use the herb the heady mountain smell would jump out and fill the kitchen. As it baked or grilled the smell would sweeten and finally when I snuck a piece of food to taste I would be transported back to my grandmother’s house, and her cooking. There was only one herb in her house as well!

When I married into an Italian family and dinners were shared by both families I remember my father picking at the Sweet Basil, because his Greeks never ate that stuff. They only kept buckets of it potted around the houses and courtyards to keep the flies away. It was also useful at the Epiphany for the priest to bless the congregation and their homes.

Rosemary was someone’s name; although it featured in church as incense, we never cooked with it. Now I have rows of bushes growing in the garden, ready for use. I remember walking the streets off the strip in Las Vegas and brushing my hands against the oily rosemary the city had growing as hedges and ground cover along the sidewalks.

Dagga was legal up to the forties in Greece. Much like it was in South Africa. You could buy it in the corner grocery store. It was an herb that never featured at our house.  I wished it did recently. A friend’s mother who was having chemotherapy called me up to ask how she should use it to control her nausea. I had no idea, but the internet provided some answers. In the end she just needed one puff to halt the waves that overcame her.

Spring wild flowers in an Arcadian Valley

Conversations about Work and Corners

The Greeks use the word work to mean labour as well as to mean trying to pull a fast one. They say the only work left in Greece is the work where you pull a fast one on your neighbour.

Sitting in the lounge at Oliver Tambo Airport after an intercontinental flight is far removed from arriving in Athens and driving into the city. Some stores are flashy and new, like the Zara, while behind it lies a burnt out facade of a building destroyed in riots or set fire by the owners so that they can claim from insurance.

A night in Athens remains, a drive through the ghetto inhabited by Indians and Pakistanis and Chinese, drugs changing hands under furtive glances along dirty side walks with cars parked on and off, crammed and dirty as well. They hover outside windows of stores that hold a foreign nation’s goods, strange in Greece were it not for the fact that Greece had Gypsies before.

After the ghetto we drove out to Paxi, a small village on the Attiki coast between Athens and Corinth. It was filled with young people drinking coffee and cocktails. Some arrived on scooters, some on superbikes and quite a few in Porches. The psarotavernas, the fish tavernas, were empty except for one, where three tables including us enjoyed a meal like we would have had ten years ago for ten times the price. Some of the taverns had been turned into new Russian looking club cafes and were full of designer clad youth.

The next day I left Athens and wondered through Corinth up  to Nemea, through Mycenae, Tolo and Astros and ended up in the village where time seems to have stood still. The road past the house has quietened down, with much less traffic than before. The priest across the corner is never home during the day since his wife died, and in the night the lights are on as he struggles with the insomnia brought on by loneliness. The empty house on the corner remains empty, except for one year when one of the sons used to peep out from shutters even though we continued to park our car on his corner. The remaining corner has a ramshackle house with stables and chicken coups facing our house. She has been moved into a home because of dementia. Our part of the village is made of corners. No where else are there four houses neatly laid out on the corners of a crossroad. Three the same age, with the priest’s new house built in the eighties on the odd corner.

That is about the only sense of order there. All the villagers are working, but not all of it is labour.

Looking into Arcadia from Mycenae

Ta Engenia tou Manelis – The Blessing of Manelis’ Restaurant, Artemisio, Greece 6 July 2011

The drive into Artemisio is peaceful, through an avenue lined with plane trees. A few are missing, like a black hole in place of a tooth in the mouth of a weather hardened villager. The gap in the trees has been replaced by iconostasios, white miniature churches, in memory of the young men who were driving too fast and killed themselves.

As the avenue ends, the road forks. On the right is the old village fountain where we used to draw water before pipes were laid in the seventies. In the angle of the fork is a larger iconostasio, welcoming all. “I Analipsi to Theou”, or “The Ascension of Christ”.  Analipsi is also the name of the church on a ledge high up on Artemisio Mountain, a church that Old Man Natsi built when his heath miraculously improved after returning from America.

On the left is the Manelis house. It used to be run down, built in the 20’s. The sisters, one of them my grandmother Marigo, were excluded from inheriting this house. My grandmother’s exclusion came by virtue of the Nuptial Contract signed in 1937. Her husband John accepted ownership of 3 pieces of land, 2 of fields and the third a smaller vineyard at a place called Maneta Lino from her brothers. I have a copy of this document.  One of the paragraphs ends with:” Ioanis (John) Stathoulis declared that (he) gladly accepts the abovementioned dowry and the conditions herein related.”  Conditions that still run in the blood of our veins, conditions that we struggle to honour.

Two years ago I walked past the Manelis house. John Manelis, my grandmother’s nephew called me in to see the corner where she used to wash clothes, and the worn stone used to rub the old soap that would never lather. Much like the stones in the Tugela River where the Zulu woman do the washing. Except the river that runs through Artemisio is dry except when the snow melts and it rains in winter.

Tonight was the engenia of his new restaurant, the first modern eatery serving paradosiaka (traditional) food, in our village.  There are only 3 other cafes unlike any you might imagine, where basic food may fill a lone bachelor or husband who has been kicked out by an angry wife.

The crowd gathered from 8pm and collected sweets and cool drinks from a central table in the garden. The sweets portend a sweet future for the new business. At 8:30 pm the priest arrived and quickly proceeded to bless the new undertaking and then anointed all with Holy water sprinkled on basil leaves. Funny how the Greeks don’t eat basil but use it to bless everything, and keep flies away. The preist extended himself with the blessing, and went on about commitment and faith and the youth, a conversation I mirrored at his house two evenings later with Theodore, an engineering lecturer from Megalopolis who is my grandmothers second nephew.  The priest, in his mid seventies, had a sparkle in his eye and stunned me when he asked Theodore if he uses Facebook to teach.

After the blessing waiters took orders for the usual Greek mezzedaikia, salads and cheeses and 3 meats: roasted lamb, pork and goat. The evening was almost balmy in the mountains, promise of a warm summer to come. The young village children had been roped in to help as waiters, all smartly dressed in black trousers and white shirts. I hope their future extends beyond waitering, what with the crisis in Greece and Europe at the moment. The orders were slow and mixed up, but the 200 people outside and on the veranda ate well and all paid a token as thank for the meal and for good luck. In the old days, they would have walked past an open till and placed money in the drawer. Nowadays they might make a surreptitious withdrawal or two.

If you want to eat at “O Manelis, aim for Tripoli in the Peloponnese and take the narrow road that leads to Artemisio. You’ll pass the ruins of Ancient Mantinea on your right, one of the oldest city states of Greece in ancient time.  The restaurant is on your left after the avenue of trees. Tell John I told you to go eat there, and don’t order, tell him to bring you “tis oras”, of the hour. Enjoy.

Standing Prayers at the Engenia

Conversations: Five Things My Father Taught Me

My father did not actively teach, but reinforced ideas. This is what I learnt from him:

Have faith.

Act now.

Be punctual.

Be prepared.

Have compassion.

For all the trials and tribulations he faced, and he faced as much as any of us and sometimes more, he kept his faith. It was a complex religion and culture that he tied himself to. His roots went deep down and could not be disturbed. His faith was mixed with mysticism and philosophy.

He always grasped the opportunity presented with both hands and acted immediately. He spent long days waking up early and going to bed late doing just that. I cannot remember him saying “I should have done that.” He did what he had to do, and did it immediately. He made plans and stuck to them.  I am not sure if any of his plans were written down. When he died I remember seeing some notes on his desk, with cash flow projections for the company for the next two years. I wonder if he ever wrote down his plans, his mission, and his affirmations?

He taught me to be punctual. He said things like for a business meeting it was acceptable to be ten minutes late and for a social meeting thirty minutes late but he was never late. I am not sure how he coped with Greek time, which is notoriously tardy. Most times you are lucky if a Greek gets the right day, never mind the right hour. They might own the fanciest Swiss watches but their time keeping skills are terrible. A bit like their national budgeting skills.

Whatever he did, and whatever I did, he emphasised preparedness. For his meetings he would read the minutes and make notes on the agenda. For cocktails with ambassadors and CEO’s he would have his secretary type up notes of their wives’ names, hobbies, children’s’ details and he would go through these while dressing, slipping on the well used tuxedo. He expected us to study for exams, and most times we did. I had to; I was never clever enough except in mathematics. He was distraught the year I left engineering for medicine. Before my final Applied Mathematics Exam I was notified by the secretary at medical school that I had been accepted. So I celebrated and got drunk. I wrote the exam the next day and passed with distinction.

The last time I rode in his old Mercedes in Alberton we stopped at the traffic light and he fumbled in the console between the seats to find change for a beggar. He had a small Tupperware filled with R5 coins which he handed out all day. He never said things like “I wish the police would remove these people” or “surely they can find a job “or “he’s not really blind”. He just gave. He was religious about visiting friends and family who were sick. He would make arrangements for the surviving family of those who died and he helped many people out by funding their failing businesses and helping them get back on track.

As I think about it I learnt a lot more than these five things. This was a start.

My Mother and Father at the Acropolis circa 1966

Conversations about May Day

I wanted to start this by asking “crisis, what crisis?” but it is unfair. There is poverty and suffering, but there is still a whole lot more living happening in Greece than in most places.

Take May Day. Sure, it is Worker’s Day worldwide, including in Greece. People protested in groups, there was certainly aggravation around the political party stands as they built up to elections in a few days. But May Day was also the day to celebrate spring. My cousin, Panayiotis, invited a few friends and cousins around for lunch. It had to be an early lunch as I was leaving for the airport at that time.  I am not sure if he has ever celebrated his birthday before, because none of his friends knew it was his birthday. But I am sure on the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, on 15 August, his name day, they all call to wish him.

On May Day his wife, Olympia offered me coffee when I walked into the kitchen. She was busy stuffing peppers to be baked. As an aside she told me it was his birthday. Other than my mother and father who celebrated their birthdays while in Greece on holiday, this was my first Greek birthday party. But it was really just a great warm spring day to get together in an Athena garden.

Panayiotis has enough olive trees in the garden in Athens to harvest 120 litres of olive oil. His own to use on salads and to cook with. He had a lamb on the spit by the time I woke up. It was turning slowly over the charcoals, looking like a vestal virgin cloaked in white baking paper. When the paper eventually came off it revealed a small lamb expertly tied to the spit, with an intact head with baked with bared teeth. He had sourced this lamb from a shepherd in the mountains. There were no butcher’s stamps on this carcass. He told the story of some Athenian family that held a baptism in their village in the mountains of Epirus. The bought ten sheep to take up for cooking on the spit for the party. They were city butchered sheep. None of the shepherds ate the meat. To them it smelled off, or otherwise they were mortally offended that the rich Athenian family did not ask for their sheep.

He did nothing to the lamb other than rub it with olive oil and some pepper before he wrapped it up in the baking paper. After three hours he took the paper off and an hour later the lamb was cooked. He removed the lamb from the fire and let the spit and lamb rest against the nearest olive tree for 10 minutes, for the meat to firm up. Then he held the spit over a large dish and cut a few wires, allowing the lamb to slide down the steel spit into the dish. He expertly folded the body into the dish and took it to the table for carving. It was an absolute work of art.

As a snack while the lamb was cooking he had prepared his own kokoretsi and was happily pulling off brown bits of the intestine used to twine the offal to the spit. These spicy crispy bits of meat were so tasty that I could not thing about the offal as I savoured them Bits of heart and lung and kidney and even brain peeped out through the roughly twined intestines.

The table under the shade of the veranda amongst the olive trees sat 20 people. Three salads appeared, a platter of tiropita, baked melanzane, tzatziki, bread and stuffed peppers. Local retsina in plastic bottles appeared and one of the ladies poured  a light home made rose from a jug. The wished each other a hearty meal and tucked in, slowly devouring the food, choosing tasty bits to colour  their plates and slowly demolishing the food. I left halfway through, but by that time the second lamb went on the spit and I knew they would be there the whole day, eating with passion and living through talk and actions.

The really special thing about May Day in Greece is not the fact that it is spring, or a worker’s holiday. Or even that it was the first Greek birthday party I had attended. It is the fact the everyone greets you, and wishes you with “kalo mina – have a  good month” the same way we wish each other at New Year. Each month holds something new for them, and deserves special hope and treatment. As each day should.

White lamb and kokoretsi below

Conversations with My Father’s First Cousin

Panayiotis is the son of my father’s mother’s sister, Christina. He was born between my father and me, and was my father’s most important family connection in Greece, and the only real cousin I adopted in Greece. All my first cousins are in South Africa, Australia or the USA.

Panayiotis is the sort man that will drive four hundred kilometres to share an ouzo with you, then drive back at midnight to work the next day. He is a great guy that has built a small empire in his suburb of Athens, the Forest of Xaidari. The only forest that remains is the olive grove that covers his property, which is the only garden with a house amongst neat apartment blocks. He has green fingers and plants vegetables alongside the olives and has a driveway lined with winter and summer orange trees. The summer trees  are in blossom as spring unfolds in Athens.

I have not seen in him in a year but it is as if we have not called since yesterday. He exudes a genuine caring and he has a mystic mix of spirituality and capitalism. His spirituality comes from annual sojourns to Mount Athos where he fasts with monks and his capitalistic streak emanates from his mother, who, when they were small used to go out at night and move the boundary stones of their Athens  property. Notwithstanding the real estate gains, he started building apartments around the house and now has a collection of non government employees paying rentals. In anticipation of the economic crisis that hit Greece he reduced his rentals in 2010 by twenty percent and again by a further ten percent this year. He has kept all his tenants and they seem t be paying the rent. He delivers basket of home grown produce to each of the apartments as he harvests. His daughter, Dionysea, named after her grandfather Dionysius, and also the god of wine by the same name, knows all the tenants by first name and can list them as if she is repeating the alphabet. She is only seven years old now.

Panayiotis came out for my brother’s wedding. He arrived with a beautifully cut suit, specially tailored for the wedding. In the days before the wedding my mother arranged for the suit to be pressed at the dry cleaners and my father then substituted one of his own suits with the same fabric, carefully placed under the plastic cover with the tag attached. Panayiotis left the suit in the plastic till the day of the wedding. When he dressed he was dumbstruck that his pants were too long and the waist too narrow. He accused the drycleaners of messing up his suit and was so upset he shouted at my father through closed doors that he could not attend the wedding. My father was silently laughing, but egging him. “Imagine what people will be saying: I brought my cousin from Greece for the wedding and he did not want to some because his suit would not fit! Perhaps, Panayiotis, you should try another suit?”

“How will you find one to fit me?”

“Try it anyway”, said my father, proffering it through the crack  door.

As he fitted it he exclaimed “this is just like my suit!” and then he realised he had been duped.

Until he got his own back. Many times. The Greeks call it plaka.

Panayiotis in his garden