Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goodbye Guinea Fowl, Hello Truck Stop

This week I learned that the land I grew up on will be a truck stop as of mid-February 2010. Each day after that up to 32 trucks with trailers, those eighteen wheelers that terrify motorists as they race along the N3, will drive over the land where once stood our horse stables, pigsties, and my grandfather's cow shed. Soon I will wonder if it is true that I once played barefoot here and watched the penny stinker grasshoppers leap, the shongalolos curl into spirals, and the snake swallow the frog. Alas, these memories, taken for granted back then, have not been passed on....

This time next month the unique veld grass that only grows on this plateau, in this part of the Valley of a Thousand Hills, in this section of KwaZulu Natal, will be replaced by tar and macadam and encircled by a high brick wall. The thorn- and corral trees will be gone, chopped down, roots dug up, and hauled to a waste dump to rot slowly among discarded papers and toys, food scraps, and plastic bottles.

I worry about the weaver and Hoopoe birds and the flock of four adult guinea fowl with two new chicks that live in the scrub and bush among the razor wire under the electric fence that, until this week, separated Thor Chemical from our land.

It is not as if this was a pristine environment. For decades, Assmang – called Ferralloys during my youth – belched smoke most days and flared most nights on the western horizon. Despite the black dust that cakes our buildings that facility is as familiar and as annoying as an old relative puffing a pipe on the back porch.

It was a shock when Thor Chemical arose on what was also once my grandfather's land...and a further shock when it contaminated the region with toxic waste. Then, three years ago and despite “the process” required when a new facility is built – the EIAs, meetings to gather input from Interested and Affected Parties, and local residents' outcry against the facility – Chlor Chem chlorine manufacturing plant went up across the road where my grandfather grazed and dipped his small herd of Jerseys.

Melvin, a nice enough man who owns the truck stop, represents the much vaunted South African entrepreneur. He must be relieved that, somehow, his trucking business was not subject to “the process.” And, if it was, it flew so low under the radar that we – right next door living lives that eschew the entrepreneurial spirit that digs into, dumps upon, fills, burns, and sucks dry the land – knew nothing about his truck stop's imminent arrival. Melvin dreams, not of shongalolos, penny stinkers, and guinea fowl but of his 32 trucks speeding along the nation's roads. He worries, not about flora and fauna, but that his cargo – perhaps plastic bottles filled with syrupy liquid, or reams of paper from many pulp and paper mills, or kids' toys imported from China – arrive on time and on budget at Makro, Super Spar, Click's and Game.

Truth is, my grandfather could have been Melvin. He, too, was an entrepreneur, out to make a buck, feed his family, and leave something by which to remember him. He believed in owning land and he bought as much as he could afford from someone who'd bought and sold it from someone else, all the way back to the English king's land grant to George Cato. Back then wild creatures abounded: Duiker and other buck, leopard, civets, lynx, snakes, chameleons, fowl, frogs, thousands of species of birds, beetles, mantis, grass hoppers, spiders, ants.... My grandfather dug up a portion of the land, conveyed it into a rock crusher, graded it according to the formula of his day, and sold it to spec housing developers.

Indeed, entrepreneurs like my grandfather and Melvin – decades apart in how they conduct business – are the global norm and follow the multi-generational mindset to dig, build, trade, promote, and bequeath plots of land despite the loss of indigenous flora and fauna.

It just so happened that King Shaka's tactics in this region had left the area underpopulated at the time the English king's land grant displaced indigenous communities. Nevertheless, as I walk around to photograph the last of the thorn and corral trees, stroke the veldt grasses, and warn the guinea fowl to find safer ground, my heavy heart reminds me that I share these feelings of loss, and anger, and impotence, and sadness, and fear – with millions of others who have seen their histories disappear under the mindset that admires tar and macadam, brick and block, smoke and smog. I haven't seen a wild Duiker for years while chameleon and mantis, sensitive to environmental pollution, disappeared long ago.

This is how people the world over lose that which few of us recognize as the only human heritage worth working to maintain: our natural environment. As they say, lives ends not with a bang but a whimper.

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