Aunty M. Part 2: churches, cats and categories

I nearly fall off my chair when I get an upbeat response from Georgina, the church secretary telling me: Yes, it Is her and Yes, she is still alive, Yes, I phoned her and she is sitting next to me as I write this mail. Aunty Martha dictates, “I’m as fit as a fiddle, with a few untuned strings”. Georgina writes that Marthe’s knees give her trouble, but other than that she is fine. She has no e-mail address and only an old mobile phone, so we communicate via Georgina and via text message over the next four months. Her text messages are hilarious, full of strange characters I later find out are cats. She insists the gremlins and ET’s eat her words, she means the spell checker and technology in general. She has her own very special language. I think I might like this godmother of mine.

We make arrangements to meet. She sends me a text message saying. “Am getting anxious to meet u but there’s no way I can speed up time to make our meeting come round sooner. We meet at St Francis Church at 9am and part at 4pm so I can miss the heavy traffic flow to check on miss Molly.” I check google street view and look at the church building. I want to be able to tell the Uber driver where to drop me off. Even then he is reluctant to let me get out of the car at the empty church carpark and drives me to the guardhouse of the Maeyersdael estate. Who should be standing chatting to the guard? Aunty Marthe. Black hair turned to White, bent over with the effort of walking and still wearing jeans and a white turtleneck. I recognise her immediately.

St Francis of Assisi is in Alberton, southern Jo’burg. The church is on the edge of a modest gated estate full of middle sized, well kept houses. This is not like Sandton, but again there are women walking towards the houses with baskets, wearing house coats and berets. There are men wearing blue overals doing maintenance and a pick up truck with a trailer carrying the slogan ‘Mshume’s bin cleaning service’. I see a man roll out two wheelie bins from behind a gate, load them into his trailer, hose them down and scrub them clean. Things in the new south Africa have definitely changed in the last twenty five years, but it remains black people working in white peoples houses, with a few exceptions. The divide in the new South Africa is largely economic and runs along class lines, but everything here is racialised.

We sit in the church garden and have a cup of tea. I listen to her tell stories about her life and about me as a baby. She gives me palm crosses she made herself, a prayer cycle she wrote for the Easter service and little beaded guardian angels for all the women in my life. She says, ‘I am not trying to convert you, I just want to remind you that you will be in my prayers from now on. Give these things to your mum will you? From me’. I give her Belgian chocolates. After tea we drive to the OK Bazaar and she buys me lunch. My Godmother and I sit and eat with our hands in her car, parked on a grass verge in the park behind the church. She is 80, I am 46, we haven’t seen each other for 40 years.

Her car is full of stuff, cool bags, a walking stick, a jumper she bought in 1994. The dashboard has wooden crosses stuck on it with blue tack: ‘God is love’ & ‘Angels watch over you’. There are CDs of vaguely Celtic sounding music over which we establish quickly that she loves the sound of bagpipes and I hate it. We are a similar type of people of Scottish descent, neither of us born there, neither of us live there, but both of us are brought up to feel vaguely Scottish. There are little trinkets and glasses cases in every cubby hole and glove compartment: “Thats my spare pair. That’s my other spare pair, that’s my spare, spare pair”.

The Very Reverend Aunty M., my Godmother, is the first female Anglican priest to be ordained in the Johannesburg diocese. This is something she is very proud of.  Before this she has a long career as a primary school teacher. For 30 years, Aunty Martha is a single live-in teacher at the hostel for boys and girls sent by Johannesburg district court to come to school in Bethal. The children are either in trouble, their parents are in trouble or they are orphaned. These kids love her. She fixes all their toys and takes them out to play sport at weekends. She never married. People with nothing better to do would call her a spinster or an old maid. She was also the school librarian. Everyone I speak to from Bethal remembers her. Gerjen, a man now in his 50’s, tells me: “She hid me in the library once, from the older boys. They were going to beat me up. She wasn’t afraid of anybody.” Charlotte says “she sneezed so loudly it made me jump and always three times, never just once”.

Aunty Martha goes to Germiston Girls High and then trains as a Physical Education teacher in Johannesburg in the 1950’s. She wants to be independent, no one telling her what to do, least of all a man. When her brother asks her to wash his shirt, she doesn’t. When her mother asks why she didn’t wash his shirt, she says, ‘he didn’t say please’. Her brother keeps asking when she is getting married. She tells him, if he asks her one more time, she’ll wallop him with a cricket bat. He never asks again. The headmaster at H.M. Swart is afraid to ask her to change jobs because one of the male staff says, “Sy sal jou donner!”, She will punch your lights out. ‘I don’t know where they get that idea about me’, she says. ‘I will not put up with any nonsense from men, not then, not now. I never understood why men got paid more than me for doing the same job and I worked much harder than they ever did. Did you know their wives used to mark their students work, while they were off playing golf or rugby all day. I wasn’t afraid to say what I thought about that, but I have never hit anyone!’ A woman in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, oh, lets be honest, its still the case, who stands up for herself, isn’t interested in men, doesn’t even notice them till they get in her way, is obviously aggressive. If you are not submissive, you are aggressive. ‘I have no time for relationships’, she says, ‘I just wants to get on with my life, do my work well and read a book undisturbed, thats not too much to ask, is it’?

When I say she is a feminist, she says, ‘oh no, most of them are more left wing than the government’. I’m not sure what to do with that. I ask her about the current government, What does she think about how things are going in South Africa? ‘I listen to the news’, she says, ‘I read the papers and its all going to the dogs, ‘they’ don’t know how to run a country, this lot. ‘They’ give jobs to their friends and family, its pure corruption. You know about Zuma and the Gupta’s? Zuma built a huge house, you know, for all his wives. With government money! And there is no electricity! Escom sell all the good coal to the Chinese and bung up our own power stations with 3rd grade coal. Its a bloody mess!’ She is not the first person who has said this to me. Both black and white South Africans are highly critical of the ANC government. But it is her use of ‘They’ and ‘Them’ that jumps out. She talks about ‘the blacks’ and how they are ‘different’ from ‘us’. She thinks, as many people do, in racialised categories. It is mainly the white people I talk to who still use racialised terms from the Apartheid era such as ‘The Coloureds’ or ‘The Blacks’. Black people I talk to move words around, renaming and reframing power-dynamics, for example, ‘the So-called coloureds’ or ‘people from the Western Cape who speak isiXhosa’.  She says: “a Zulu will never work under a Sotho or a Xhosa. They will always want to be the BossBoy”. I literally cringe at the word ‘BossBoy’. I think of grown men being called ‘boy’ and that feeling arises again. That feeling I am trying to put into words. That feeling of being part of a system and a group of people who have been and still are so sure of our ‘natural’ superiority that we see and name everyone else as inferior pieces in our self made puzzle. She says: “I have always had respect for ‘Them’. As long as we have respect for each other, its fine. We can all get along in the new south Africa”.

I spend two whole days hanging out with my Godmother in Alberton. When I get home after day one, I write her a letter about the things we may not agree on, about who I am and whats important to me. On day two I want to do more than smile, listen and ask questions. I want her to get to know me and maybe I want to differentiate myself from her ideas, even if she is a product of her time and the system she grew up in. I also wonder how much of my reaction is rooted in my own shame at having lived here during Apartheid as a child. These are questions I want to get to the bottom of. I want to understand and I do not want to judge. When I ask her about the Apartheid era, she says ‘It wasn’t all bad, the roads were in good condition and the rubbish got picked up on time’. While I am still thinking, hang on a minute, You cant say that, It WAS all bad, it was ALL BAD…she jumps to a new subject: Cats!

‘We are not allowed cats in our block of flats.’ She tells me. ‘But, if Linky Plinky creeps under my chair and sits there all day or jumps into my bed at night, I cant do anything about it, can I?. She loves me, what can I say’. She cat-sits for an ex-colleague of hers when he and his wife go off on safari. She and Miss Molly are the best of friends. She loves Miss Molly and Miss Molly loves her. I can see why Linky Plinky and Miss Molly love this near Octogenarian. She has this wicked twinkel in her eyes. An intelligent, naughty curiosity and a sparkle for life. When I ask her what makes her happy, she says: ‘Being alive’, followed by, ‘I’m nearly 80 you know!’

When she gets up she takes a deep breath, counts to three a few times and sings herself up onto her feet. Walking is difficult, she’s waiting for a knee operation. She wants to know all about me and keeps saying: “to think I missed out on so much of your life and you missed out on all those Christmas and birthday presents”. This makes me laugh. We may not see eye to eye on everything, but she is my present. The one and only, twinkly eyed, short haired, cat lover in sensible shoes. Even without knowing it, she has been a guardian angel in my life. Thankyou Aunty M.

Aunty M. Part 1: Who is this woman?

Aunty M. is my Godmother. lets call her Martha. My Mum met Aunty Martha in the 1970’s. They are colleagues, teaching at H.M. Swart primary school in Bethal. as two of the three english medium teachers in a majority Afrikaans primary school in a majority Afrikaans mining town. Bethal is in what is now called Mpumalanga. Pre 1994, on the old map of South Africa, it is known as the Transvaal. The NG Kerk Bethel Oos (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Church, East Bethel) still refer to the area as the ‘Ou Transvaal’ on their website and in their hearts. The headmaster doesn’t speak much english and my mum doesn’t speak much Afrikaans so when there is an announcement on the Tannoy, Martha or Jenny run in from the classroom next door and translate.

I grow up seeing the usual old photo’s of me as a baby; on a changing mat, in a christening gown, bum shuffling on a woven rug, wearing an orange floral dress and an orange floral floppy sun hat with my gran and my mum also wearing floppy floral sun hats. There are big red knobbly mountains stretching out in a wide ark behind us. My first question is always: Where is this? Where are we living when this picture is taken? How old am I? I am still trying to get a sense of my own movements as a child. I want to trace the dotted red lines of my own migrations on a map. In many of these photo’s; baby in a cloth nappy, feeding time in a plastic high chair, wobbly wanderings in the garden, there is a tall, strong-boned woman with short black hair and some variation of trousers and a white turtleneck. This is Aunty Martha, My Godmother. Apparently, she takes me out on Saturdays to give mum and dad a rest. I go with her to the hostel where she lives. The old Afrikaans Aunties in the hostel kitchen feed me milk pudding and rusks. We have the ‘Just in case case’ with us, a small orange suitcase with spare pants in it, in case of emergencies. The ‘Just in case case’ is legendary in our family.

My parents lose touch with Aunty Martha in the late 1980’s. At the time I had other things on my mind, like puberty, but now I want to know who this woman is in these old photo’s. I want to know who this person is beyond the stories. Who is my phantom godmother? The post office isn’t so reliable in South Africa and we keep moving every two years so many of my parents Christmas card, catch up with the family once a year, contacts have been lost along the way. My parents don’t have email addresses for many people either. So, Where should I start looking?

Social media, where else? I look online for some of the names my parents mention from Bethal: Elsie & Hein and their daughter Charlotte, who must be about my age. I find Elsie easily on that social media site we won’t mention where people are all best buddies. She is an active poster of motivational messages and pictures of people playing golf. I send her a friends request and PM (Personal Message) her with an explanation about who I am, that I am coming to visit and that I’m looking for my Godmother, Martha. I scroll through all her friends looking for family members I might know. I examine and compare faces on family photo’s and Bingo!

Elsie’s daughter Charlotte has a new surname, but I recognise her face from an old photo of us in the 80’s at Bethal dam. In the photo we are all dolled up to go to a disco, Charlotte is wearing a purple and blue faux-leather two piece: bustier and miniskirt. She made it herself. I am wearing what appears to be a large baggy T-shirt with a white belt. We must be 14, both wearing make up and staring into the camera. She looks ready, I look dazed. These days she is a shop owning, married mother of two boys in Jo’burg. I PM her too. She replies. So does her mum. Of course they remember me and the family…“I must give their love to my parents, how can they contact them? such a shame we lost touch…” Elsie and Hein still live in the same house in Bethal that we visit regularly as children in the 1970s. We chat online and e-mail. I tell them I am looking for Aunty Martha. They remember her well, but don’t know where she lives now. Both mention that she was active in the Anglican church in Bethal and that she moved back to Jo’burg and they’d heard she may have become a priest. A priest? I hadn’t seen that coming.

This is the only lead I have. Mum says she must be about ten years older than her and that her parents used to live in Germiston in Jo’burg. That would make her about eighty. Is she still alive? I wonder, briefly. I scour google and end up on ‘My’. This is the website of the Anglican church in South Africa, that lists all the churches and all the priests and their email addresses. Handy! I go through the listings for every single church in the diocese of Johannesburg. I find a church in the District of Kathlehong, which means ‘place of succes’ and is also the second biggest informal settlement or ex-township in the city after Soweto. The church is called St Francis of Assisi Anglican church. Two retired priests names are listed, both with the right and the same surname. A Martha and a Mary. How biblical. Could this be her? Could she have a sister who is also a priest?

There is an email address, so I send a mail to the church secretary, Georgina, with some of those old photos: ‘She is the tall one on the left, and I am the toddler’. I feel a bit foolish mailing a total stranger with old family photo’s. It is a long shot, but what have I got to lose? I expect nothing will ever come of it.

Uber Queen in the city of Gold

Call me out of touch, but i never use Uber till i arrive in Johannesburg. Now i am Uber Queen! I meet drivers from Durban, Zimbabwe, Limpopo, Ethiopia but not from Johannesburg (Jozi). It seems that no one driving an Uber comes from this city of Gold in Gauteng. People come for a few years to make money, and go home to set up their own business. People have been coming to Jozi for hundreds of years to make money and try their luck since the Witwatersrand goldrush in 1886. Not that everyone was free to travel and own land or a business then. Now it is everyones big dream: business. Not an easy game in South Africa. Many people are struggling to survive. The cost of living is getting higher, and a vast majority of the population doesn’t have decent housing, water or electricity and have to travel miles to get to work if they are lucky enough to have it.

I’m staying in Sandton, one of the wealthiest residential and increasingly business areas in Johannesburg, and the area my parents used to live in in the 1980’s. I’m staying in a complex of small houses and apartments behind a double electric gate with a guard on duty 24/7. Inhabitants are a multiracial, Middle class bunch but it is only black people working at the gate and in the complex as gardeners, maintenance men and housekeepers. As I step out of the taxi from the Gautrain, I have to pinch myself. Has nothing changed?

I walk to The Shopping centre down the main road. I am the only white person walking. In Woolworths I can buy rolled oats and avocado’s and black seed, lemon sprinkled locally sourced bran muffins. The shopping crowd is mixed, well off, middle-class, black and white people dressed for the office or the gym. Even though the rand is low and i can travel far with my euros, i check the prices, careful what I buy. In the OK Bazaar in Alberton on the other side of the city, I can buy a whole meal for two and a bag of mixed nuts for 100 rand (£5,48/ 6,33€). The clientele are black families speaking isiZulu, seSotho and English all mixed together and one very fat white man in shorts, a checked shirt and a pick up truck.

Running the gauntlet and getting out from behind those damn security gates does you the world of good, as does getting back safely and breathing out. You book that Uber, watch the little car on your phone moving around, will he take the ride? (they have 60 seconds to decide), then you stand around looking out for the specific car, number plate and name of your driver. Hello, How are you? Sawubona, Unjani?  You’ve been to the airport already 3 times today? Uber takes how much? 25%?! the petrol hike, the cost of roaming data, the taxi wars, who to vote for in the upcoming elections,…(“we chose our politicians by who shouts most loudly, you don’t have to be qualified”). And you’re off. Constant radio traffic flow rapports, service provision strikes shutting down roads, full minibus taxis swerving between lanes and stopping suddenly in front of you, people walking  along the side of the highway and crossing in the middle of the road, street vendors at junctions, police sirens, not stopping at red lights at night due to hijacking risk and what a great city this is, and what a tiring city this is. One thing is for sure it is never ever boring. This constantly moving flow of traffic, people and money is the blood in the veins of the city of gold.





Back at boarding school I listened to John Denver on my walkman: ‘i’m leaving on a jet plane’ and ‘Take me home, country road’. I was 13, it was the 80’s and my taste in music was still developing.

I’m off on the same journey I took at the end of every term, home, to my parents. This is not my first trip to South Africa. This time is different though.

Ladies’ Choice @ UN/SETTLED festival 11 November 2018 at 11h

At 11h on 11 november 2018,  Migrating Dialogues will be diving into a military bunker in the provincial domain Raversyde in Ostend during the slot weekend of KAAP’s  UN/SETTLED festival.

Exactly 100 years after the end of the First World war we will be examining the borders of the future. Come and watch and listen to our new story: Ladies’ Choice.

Ladies’ Choice is a conversation between my mother, a friend and I about being an expat, setting boundaries, fighting old patterns and the sea.  How do we carry our past into our future? Which smells, sounds and images travel with us?

We will be performing in a military bunker right on the edge of the sea. It will be a totally unique experience – a one time only experience.

More about Ladies’ Choice @UN/SETTLED festival.

#KAAP, #UNSETTLED, #eych2018, #europeforculture, #atlantikwalleurope

Ladies’ choice: A performance about displacement, decolonising your past and looking at the borders of the future.

For this performance Rona Kennedy enters into dialogue with her mother and her friend Lola. They talk about drawing lines in the sand,  shaking scorpions out of your shoes, learning new languages and unpacking boxes. They dance, sing and ask questions to the sea.  They are digging for memories, self justifications and blind spots. They are expats, but exactly does that mean?

This performance is part of Migrating Dialogues, a story-project about migration, power and privilege. The makers invite you to share stories and so join a collective process of thinking about displacement, decolonisation and taboo.

Where do you draw the line?


Third day of our residency in KAAP in Bruges. We are floating in a sea of sounds, voices and images. Great food, cosy atmosphere, friendly people and plenty of space to experiment. We will have to make choices and kill our darlings, but not yet.


Migrating Dilaogues at UN/SETTLED fesitval in KAAP Arts centre, Ostend.

We are excited to be taking part in this superb festival in Ostend and Bruges this summer and autumn: UN/SETTLED at KAAP arts centre.  Its a festival about the feeling of being unsettled, not belonging, being on the move,…Migrating Dialogues feels perfectly at home in this journey.

Our audiovisual installations will be in Vrijstaat 0 between 20-25 August and we will be there for Intimate storytelling sessions on 25 August.

We will be performing intimate stories in a first world war military bunker at the sea in Ostend on 11 november for small and select publics during the day.

There are lots of interesting visual artists and performers taking part so definately check out KAAPs website of download the programme online HERE

looking forward to seeing you there!

FAHREN: Rona, Fabian en Helena

A huge thankyou to all our crowdfunding supporters!

We Did it! When we say that, we mean YOU DID IT!

Thankyou for supporting our first crowdfunding project.

We raised more than 100% of our goal of 2400€.  With 76 supporters we raised 107%  We will use it wisely to get ourselves set up and get the next podcasts made!

We will be organising exclusive dates for our supporters to take part in our audio visual installation and dialogue sessions. We will be sending postcard sets to supporters and looking forward to entering into migrating dialogues with you all!

Fabian leaves for Chile and Paraguay this week with his recording equipment and a bag full of questions (and Belgian chocolate).

In july we will be going on a short residency at KAAP, a comtemporary arts centre in Bruge/Oostend to rework our materiaal and to take part in their festival UN/SETTLED.

Thanks again for your support!