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Myrna Robins

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Reviews

CRADLE OF LIFE: The story of the Magaliesberg and the Cradle of Humankind by Vincent Carruthers. Published by Struik Nature, 2019.

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No matter how dedicated a student, how rapid a reader, how enthusiastic an amateur, no one can absorb this amazing accumulation of knowledge in one sitting. Or even three. This is a treasure house - profusely illustrated - of the evolution of life up to the present, as found in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve.

Author and award-winning environmentalist Vincent Carruthers – who has spent his adult life living and working in the Magaliesberg, takes us along a timeline, from the birth of our planet through to the 21st century. What an extraordianary journey he presents, as we unearth the formation of our landscapes, the emergence of life, the rise of humankind. On we go through the Stone and Iron ages, early settlements, migrations, wars and modern developments.

The greater Magaliesberg has a unique geology, history, and biodiversity. Paleontologists, archaeologists, botanists, military historians and environmental lawyers were all among the academics and specialists that Carruthers worked with during his endeavours to get the entire Cradle-Magaliesberg region registered by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. A decade later the proclamation took place in Paris in 2015.

Main chamber Sterkfontein Caves.

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The book opens with the birth of our planet, 13,800 million years ago. Fast forward to 3,100 million years ago and we learn about the first landmass, then about The Magaliesberg and the Pretoria Group at mere 2,350 million years back. In the section headed Africa, time moves on to the breakup of Gondwana, mammal and primate evolution at 65 million, and climate change and the spread of grasslands at 15 million years ago.

Humans enter the scene in Part 2, sub-headed Evolutionary Science. The section ends with the arrival of Homo sapiens some 200 000 years ago. Part three deals with the First People populating the world, the Stone age hunter-gatherers, early farming at Broederstroom (1 600 years ago) and the development of cattle economy as recently as 200 years back.

Maropeng Visitor Centre

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There’s more detail in the later chapters covering the 19th century, which includes the South African War and revival of Afrikaner nationalism after World War I. Modern developments make the final part, as in engineering (Hartbeespoort dam), and in science (the Leiden telescopes and Hartebeesthoek radio astronomy observatory.)

Carruthers concludes with the sobering thought that human activity is altering many of the evolutionary processes of the planet, including climate, atmospheric conditions, ecosystems and the hydrosphere. In the midst of this evidence (platinum, chrome and manganese mines and urban pollution) the Cradle-Magaliesberg retains much of its rural character and unspoilt natural environment. It is a model to be emulated because of its combination of scientific endeavour, sustainable economic enterprise, environmental responsibility and community development.

A detailed glossary, bibliography and index complete the text.

The back cover describes this book as “spectacular.” To which I would like to add “and awe-inspiring.”

 

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GREENFEAST by Nigel Slater, published by 4th Estate, London 2019.

 

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Let’s start with the design of this hardback, which does not resemble a cookbook at all. Shocking pink cover, featuring a swathe of gold, a single brushstroke by artist and calligrapher Tom Kemp which, he points out, are not pictures or representing anything, but a small aside to remind readers about the” nature of nature... where ultimately the food in this book comes from.”

Glued onto this hard cover is a half-page , glossy red, listing author and title on the front, and a photo and quote from the author on the back.

Unconventional. Intriguing. But as every foodie knows, we can rely on Nigel Slater to produce another title that features his simple prose that is English culinary writing at its relaxed best. Seldom prescriptive yet always thorough, so that beginner cooks are guided unobtrusively to success. (An occasional command “Don’t even think of using horseradish from a jar.”)

 

Slater tells us that this collection of about 110 recipes is what he eats when he finishes work every day. It’s meant for those like-minded readers who find themselves wanting inspiration for a supper that owes more to plants than animals. In all but name, it’s a vegetarian treasury, that could, with some tweaking, also be suitable for vegans. It’s the way his eating has grown to be over  recent years, and we know that across the world, there thousands of others who have followed suit, whether for ethical, health or environmental reasons – or all three.

 

Recipes are grouped into chapters that reflect cooking method or preparation. Thus, ‘In a bowl’,’In a pan’, "On the grill’, "On the hob" and so on. Having shared his penchant for eating from a bowl, often using a spoon, Slater offers a variety of recipes best served in a bowl – a simple miso soup containing cauliflower, garlic and root ginger, colourful  paneer with aubergine and cashews, a golden crunch of carrot, pawpaw and radish topped with Asian dressing, . Supper from a pan includes roasted, creamed augbergine, topped with crisp, fried halloumi, finished with pomegranate seeds and mint.

 

Slater does love aubergine in every guise and  also uses a variety of grains from freekah to couscous or quinoa as a base for many creations. He combines fruit with pulses, with veggies, pickles and herbs – take his plate of green falafel, watermelon and yoghurt, where canned chickpeas, broad beans and green peas are blended with green herbs to a paste, formed into balls, baked until puffed and dry, served with a salsa of cherry tomato, red onion and watermelon and accompanied by garlicky yoghurt. Fans of Asian fare will find recipes of steaming sushi rice topped with nori flakes and crisp pickles of carrot and shallot, topped with tsukemono (pickled vegetables).

But there are other, more familiar combos, such as asparagus baked in an egg custard seasoned with ricotta and parmesan, which resembles a Tuscan classic whose name escapes me right now. An easy traybake for two consists of new potatoes, red and yellow peppers, simmered with garlic in olive oil, finished with spring onions.

 

The final chapter is called, simply, Pudding. It focuses on seasonal fruits like blackberries, cherries and currants, Mediterranean stone fruit and figs, mangoes and finishes with watermelon prosecco. My favourite here is an easy finale of perfect, ripe peaches sharing a plate with mascarpone mixed with double cream and biscuit crumbs garnished with finely grated orange zest. Yum

 

Recipes are illustrated with full page colour photographs, The index is professional and particularly useful, given the unusual organisation of the recipes. The book’s subtitle “ spring summer” gives an indication of the sequel to come, covering autumn and winter.

 

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LUCKY PACKET by Trevor Sacks published by Kwela Books, Cape Town, 2019.

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This is a book that drew me in, quicker and deeper as I turned the pages. I seldom review novels, but Lucky Packet is different, it’s more like an autobiography, that is not only well-written, but clever: As Ben tells his story, as a 12-year-old, he brings in everything from family history to small town prejudices along with a broad sweep of South African politics in the 1980’s. Apartheid practices and their effects on locals, the reaction of those who tried to ameliorate these, are all dealt with in a way that is verycredible, as Sacks’ writing as a young Jewish teenager is so convincing.

What he presents is a picture of a Jewish family living in a conservative Northern Transvaal town during the State of Emergency in the 1980s. Ben Aronbach, the writer, feels as if he doesn’t fit in anywhere, as his schoolmates are Afrikaans-speaking Christians and - as his family is not religious - they don’t fit in with the Jewish community either. Ben also missed out on having a father to look up to as he died when Ben was just six years old.

While life, and school, and school tours and meeting girls go on, and Ben experiences the embarrassments and anguish that teenagers are subjected to, the family business is failing and the local bank manager is not being co-operative about loans. With the entry of one Leo Fein onto the scene Ben’s life got more complicated, more so after it was revealed that this “uncle’ who had chatted up his mother, and befriended Ben, was escorted from Ben’s bar mitzvah by two government men (who “lifted Leo Fein up under his armpits...”) Whatever else he had done, it turned out he had also stolen a large part of the Aronbach fortune.

Guilt consumes Ben as he feels that a job he did for Fein contributed to the family loss, and only years later, as South Africa prepared for the 1992 Referendum, could he confront the charlatan . Meanwhile, to try and make large sums of money to help the family, Ben undertook jobs for Leo Fein after his return to the town, which included a trip to Moria to meet the bishop of the Zion Christian church and an encounter with the AWB.

Ben spent much time with his mother before her death, during which they shared thoughts with each other that helped him, to an extent, deal with his guilt.

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The Messiah’s Dream Machine by Jennifer Friedman. Published by Tafelberg, 2019.

 

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Like  many other South Africans I devoured Jennifer Friedman’s first memoir, Queen of the Free State with relish. So I was anticipating the sequel with enthusiasm, especially since the first title ended with Jennifer about to leave for boarding school in Cape Town, unhappy and furious with her parents for being sent away from her beloved Free State. In the epilogue she sums up the years at boarding school as ‘a nightmare she couldn’t wake up from’, and also packed away her dream of learning to fly, pushing it “far, deep into the furthest corner of my mind."

I had to wait to find answers to several questions as this second part of her life story took us back to her home town, where Jennifer reminisces on the excitement of circus acts, human and animal, in the big tent before she turns to the train journey to Cape Town and boarding school. With that incredible ability of hers to recall in such detail scenes, events, action, and most of all landscapes far and near – we read about life in the boarding house (and hope she is exaggerating, just a little, about the appalling food served up to the girls!)

Next she is back in her beloved home province, plus a fiancé, introducing Allan to her Uncle Leslie as her own parents have departed the Free State. The wedding is in Cape Town and the newly-weds settle in Johannesburg.

Not one but two family members – Jennifer’s great-uncle John followed shortly by her grandfather, die, and stories follow around the customs that precede and follow death, until the deceased are buried in the family cemetery on the Free State farm - and even that event descends into a fiasco...  The stories of the exploits of these two men during their lives   range from sentimental to uproarious.

In 1977 we find the family – Allan, Jen and little Adam in Haifa, about to return to Johannesburg where a baby girl Leah takes the family count to four and Allan’s mother seals her fate as an unwelcome visitor. But its her house that becomes their chosen home in Morningside when mama joins the exodus to Australia. They followed, but settled in Sydney where they were happy for three years until Allan is diagnosed with a cancerous ulcer in his mouth. Jennifer starts flying lessons, Allan’s gift to her, as his cancer spreads and they know their time together is limited. Her description of the pain-filled months ahead until his death just before his 49th birthday makes poignant reading, and so well illustrates her story-telling brilliance.

But there’s plenty of humour  to offset the sadness, wherever she lives, even when she goes back for a visit to the Free State farm and joins her cousin Wilfrid for a trip up the mountain in a fearsome truck that ends on the summit, where she describes in brilliant detail, the view, the colours, the hills and sky, the distant farms that encompassed her childhood.

We are told in publicity releases that Jennifer lives in Australia where she flies herself  all over that vast continent, sometimes just heading off to a dot on the map to a lunch date. So, there’s a lot more to tell her readers. The third title is no doubt in the making and will update us with laughter and sighs.

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A SHORT HISTORY OF MODERN ANGOLA by David Birmingham. Published by Jonathan Ball publishers, Cape Town, 2019.

 

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Did you know that a Jewish colony was nearly created in Angola in 1912 backed by the Jewish community on the Witwatersrand and those on the Congo copper belt?

Or, that in the 1840’s, in Luanda’s  small stone prison one prisoner was being held in solitary confinement: He was a royal prince who had fallen foul of the authorities through non-payment of taxes due to the Portuguese. He insisted he had been wrongly accused so he was allowed to exchange his prison rags for his full dress uniform with braids and epaulettes once a month and march to the palace where he petitioned for a reprieve. This was always turned down, so he had to return to his cell and don his convict rags once again.

These are just two of several little-known vignettes in this very readable history. First published in the UK four years ago, Birmingham’s own experiences in Angola make fascinating reading in his preface, which also offers a useful summary of its history to this western land which has seen such flows of migrant peoples. During the 19th century more than half a million Africans were taken to work the coffee estates of the newly independent Brazil and the cocoa plantations of the island-colony of Sao Tome. During the 20th century the flow was reversed as close to half a million European migrants arrived in Angola, from northern Portugal, Madeira and the Azores. After 1975 change occurred again when the white population flowed back to Europe leaving black nationalists to struggle for control of their rich economic heritage.

Birmingham starts his tale early in the 19th century when the Portuguese colony of Angola was formed as Portugal gradually replaced their former Asian empire with an African one. By 1960 Angola had become Portugal’s most treasured overseas possession. The slave trade proved profitable until the anti-slave movement in Europe saw Portugal follow other countries outlaw the trans-Atlantic trade in 1836. But labour remained the main theme of Angola’s history until after 1910.

The influence of the missionaries in Angola was important – with the Jesuits and the Franciscans taking Christianity inland. In the second half of the 19th century       a fine mix of French Catholic, British Baptist, American Methodist and Swiss Congregationalist brought religion, education and hospitals to various parts of the country.

The story of capital city of Luanda makes the subject of the second chapter - from mid-19th century when it was a picturesque market town where the wealthy households were run by armies of slaves of all ages. Along with blacks and whites the population of mixed race pointed to colonisation which had been almost exclusively male.

Life and trade in the inland areas varied immensely, with the Ambaca district, some 200 miles north of Luanda, standing out from neighbouring territories. The population considered themselves Portuguese , spoke the language, were educated , baptised as Christians and had a fine sense of dress style.

After the end of World War 2, Portugal – which had been neutral territory during the war - was debarred from joining the UN. The country and its colonies was the poorest in Europe, only Albania suffering worse poverty. In Angola life started to improve thanks to the world’s craving for coffee as planters and peasants began to meet this need. Labour practices and the rise of nationalism led to an uprising in Luanda in 1961, emphasising the the winds of change speech made by British PM Harold Macmillan. A violent outbreak followed in northern Angola weeks later, resulting in a huge conscript army being assembled in Portugal and dispatched to Angola . This saw the start of guerrilla warfare, led by Agostinho Neto in the north while in the south UNITA gained an exile base in Zambia, led by Jonas Savimbi.

After years of guerrilla warfare the coup of 1974 saw the Lisbon government overthrown mounted by young military captains in the Portuguese army. This led to a re-alignment of forces in Angola as the Portuguese prepared to leave Africa. In January 1975 an interim government was established that included Portugal, the FNLA, the MPLA and UNITA. Sadly instead of peace, a new war of foreign intervention ensued: the Congolese, Russian, Cuban, South African and American interests vied with locals in an offensive that saw South African troops invade along the coast . The extent of the horror endured by civilians and soldiers were made known, to some extent, to South Africans who had sons, brothers, uncles and friends doing their compulsory national service who were sent into Angola as part of the South African invading army.

As foreign forces withdrew, only the MPLA remained strong enough to eventually take control of Angola which had gained independence from Portugal. The fruits of freedom were not experienced by the people and a revolution took place in 1977 which was shortlived but violent. The liberation wars of liberation of the 70’s were followed by others through the 80’s with many causes – the Soviet Union, the Americans, the oil wells, Cuban support and South African destabilisation efforts among others: its intricacies and corruption make depressing reading. Worse was to come after a brief period of celebration of peace in 1991 with a civil war in late 1992 .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               After another peace accord negotiated by the UN, dos Santos became president and proceeded to develop the country into a presidential state with his power emanating from his vast palace complex.

The saga of violence and corruption is countered to some extent at the end of the text by optimism increasing in the 21st century as hope  centred around the energy and inventiveness of the women of Luanda and inland areas. They had developed giant markets which kept the city fed and clothed and inland by establishing many small scale business enterprises.

This softback contains no illustrations but there is a bibliography and an extensive index.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

 

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