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Denise Y. Fielding

Denise Y. Fielding

My initial formal education was in the Eastern Cape where I am now permanently resident. Deep love of its people and places has repeatedly ensured my return to my roots of growth from 'foreign' sojourns of varied lengths. I continue to write new work (illustrating some) and editing for publication much written over tumultuous decades of frontline situations.
Monday, 03 July 2017 15:35

Prison to Prism: A Journey Home

‘Border’!   The word stands glaring at me as I scan the ‘Irish Times’. My platelets of perception do a quick realignment.

         I live temporarily near the ‘Border’ of which they speak in Ireland but there is no resonance with, no recognition of, that word in this context.   It strikes no chord within but this ‘border’ has been generationally true for many Irish. For me here, in that word, there is nothing of fear, broken hopes, dismembered families, of brother against brother; of bomb blasts, terror, of sectarianism - nothing.   I feel nothing but apathy.   No partisanship, no sympathy, no hate, no empathy. There is a void.   I keep feeling imprisoned.

         The ‘Border’ word that ripped at me lies at the other end of the globe somewhere about the latitude and longitude of 32 degrees south and 27 degrees east. That is where my tears fell, my heart tore, my mind raced or screamed.   That ‘Border’ I know.   I can tell you of that ‘Border’ but not of this one.  

         Of this one I can tell nothing beyond the speckled mountains, rippled lakes, silver rivers, peaty streams, tearing winds, sleeting rain, demure sunlight, purple-blue evening clouds hanging heavy as a backdrop to the black silhouettes of Scots pines, ancient demesne trees.

         I can tell of stone-wall circled fields, rampant hedges, soaked bogs, ruined places of worship; of crannogs, standing stones and cursing stones, broken lintels, weathered tombstones and Celtic crosses; of grass waving high on the dunes at the edge of stone churned beaches, long stretches of golden sand and gentian hills defined against a pearl-grey sky.

         I can tell of tumbled cottages, derelict Palladian facades, of round towers and ancient legends; of reed encroached meadows, cow parsley and meadow sweet, thistles and king cups; cuckoo calls … a corncrake maybe … linnets, woodcock and snipe; herring and salmon fishers and robust little boats sheltering in small harbours from Mullaghmore to Killala. And I can tell of islands lying low in the ocean.   This ‘Border’ place I know only by depth of vision, acute listening and, for a short two and a half years past, the sweet scent of sanctuary for me in my brokenness.

         My life and that of seven generations knows deeply by long osmotic process of absorption, analysis, experience that other ‘Border’. That one is all within the folds and confines of me.   Here away from that ‘Border’ my sensibilities have slithered little by little into some kind of vacuous-ness.   Life here for me is yet a great empty cavern of unseen possibility echoing about the stalagmites and stalactites of time, past and future. The now a vacuum place, a cavern, with only the gentlest slither of light probing its recess, bringing in this new freedom a new vision but only a miniscule part of its depth, its height, its breadth.

         But the way of light is to shift or we perceive it to shift as the angle of our concreteness turns to its fixed source. In doing so no matter how small the beam sooner or later the cavern of our beings, inch by careful inch, can flicker in the warmth of illumination; can highlight a future wholeness emblazoned on the retentive retina of creation’s memory. Even if at first perhaps only for a moment.

         Let me tell of that other ‘Border’.   It will be possible as I allow feeling to burst shackles and flee the prison.   Feeling for place has had to be shut away and become faith in Person, un-encapsulated other place, other ‘border’ that has no border, no division, no separateness. Safely within such an embrace is the cavern of selfhood waiting to be fully illumined. That cavern is truly my life. My life in its extension and interaction within the fullness of its humanness, its soul space within eternity, the spotlight of my perception its span or portion in time.

         One hopes that as the probe of Light is allowed to travel the dark of deep innerness a flash of brilliant incandescence will be ignited in the warmth of its beam.

         I traverse the scope of memory. I ponder the concept of cavern and its imagery. For one fleeting moment, flashed on the screen of my mind, there are school books of poetry and Grey’s, ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ and lines remembered from decades ago:

‘Full many a gem or purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bare:’

         Remembered, too, emotively, the tragedy, conflict, scars of sorrow in Matthew Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’.

         It seems that the ‘Border’ I know shaped me by printed words as well as landscape. Yet it was the landscape experience in which I grew that proved to be litmus paper. It taught me to test the acidity or alkalinity of the written word and later, more so, spoken word, deed.   A most obvious thing is that fruit does not fall far from the tree. It is merely a matter of time before one can discern whether that fruit is good or not.  

         The process of fully understanding what is being learnt takes place through long observation, experience, within the field of focus. That is the reason I have great respect for men who responded to a call upon their lives. Many spent fifty years or more in and about the area I call ‘Border’ without the comfort of leave. They were more often than not without deeply committed, like-minded companions. They planted faith and began schools of practical teaching with purpose.

         So I peel back the layers on the area I call ‘Border’ to a time when some good of my race interacted there in such ways with men of other race.   These stalwart trees of dedication rooted in wilderness places produced via circumvented path, acknowledged or not, the matured fruit of, among others, a Mandela melded with the best also of his people’s tradition.

         The great Ntsikana’s too had God given comprehension for the future of his people. He taught a way other than the war drums of military and tribal destruction instigated by false prophets on both sides. People who advocated Godless assaults and rebounding incursions in on-going flux for generations. His understanding instead was for a meld of the best of cultures and teachings with the best.

         The first of my people from Ireland, England, Scotland and Germany who went to that ‘Border’ place also benefited from the schools established. The faith of their founders combined with a grounded sense of work ethic scattered far from their own shores, continued to teach all races who initially chose to hear. Just as others were reached via river ways and seas in vulnerable little coracles that ventured back into the darkness of Europe more than one and a half thousand years before.

         Among men of faith who went to Southern Africa in the nineteenth century was an Englishman, William Shaw. His Wesleyan Missions planted learning among the tribes and clans of that ‘Border’ I know and so began the long journey of softening harsh existence as others called to the task had done throughout the Isles and Europe for those who received them..   Shaw did so in a line stretching through what became Ciskei and Transkei and on into Natal. But he and his denomination were by no means the first, only, or last. These at first were people of English, Scots, Irish, German, French, Dutch nationality. And some among them were sufficiently anointed to bring to that land faith in heart as well as in book, hand and head. It continues to bare good fruit.   Good fruit because some of them understood the universality of ‘Ubuntu’, the need for all to re connect with one another through the source of shared life. The source that eschews mindless destruction and endeavours in order to propagate sustenance and growth in all goodly ways.

         The best of these, like fellowmen and women among many peoples beyond the African Continent also, learnt and recorded the hitherto unwritten languages. Now archived the records of such of them who were just people of faith, who stood true and above the jaundiced, the bad, are beacons aloof from mountains of inflammatory misconception, aloof from the misuse of their intent by the avaricious. Just as happens now. Their records are sometimes mingled cries of heart ache and hope for the people they served, far above and apart from records of destruction wrought by ill intent, misunderstanding, provocation, repressions and repercussions down through history.

         There had previously been no written word in the language either of the tribes of the ‘Border’ where I grew to adulthood. There had been ceremony, sacrifice and story-telling. One tribe’s story tells how far back in time, over generations their people had travelled from the Sea of Reeds down the length of that great continent.   As they wended and warred their way, they herded their cattle and kept the tradition of circumcising their sons. They sacrificed livestock to their ancestors not people to ideology as happened later in the name of freedom -

         A time when a Godless party political thought entrenched itself in a movement for justice and some of whose members did not blanche at inciting acts no less merciless than the worst of other systems of perceived ‘justice’. Violence increasingly became the accepted tool forged by opposing political agendas against the powerless as well as indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants. Repression from within and manipulation from abroad drowned the heart cries of the God faring. Where all people had had an opportunity to hear the better way for more than a century at the ‘Border’ I know, rampant barbarous acts became excused and rife. We conveniently forget this included ‘necklacing’ the politically non-compliant. The lighted petrol filled rubber tires placed around the necks of those who fell victim to the desire for political reform and the stench of burning human flesh remains a scar on the memory of a cause which arose to seek freedom for all. Freedom and dignity for a land in bondage to another man made ideology with its escalating acts of brutality in order to maintain control of the masses.

         Now, across age and race, in the bruised hope of a post-apartheid new dawn, irresponsible oratory and worse again instigates the easily manipulated, the desperate, to acts of unspeakable destruction and barbarity. And incitement to revenge.

         At the very foundational levels, disregard by educational platforms of the Ten Laws for a just society of mixed multitude and the Two that incorporate all, as well as departure by the detribalized and urbanized populace from the good in their own societal norms (without sufficient effective nonviolent replacement constraints), has led to rampant moral degeneration for all races in the country. Such is the fruit of misused conciliatory constitutional intents perpetrated in the name of ‘freedom’. Such is the root of our pain. Such is the root of dysfunction as individuals, hence of many communities and therefore shame for the Nation.  

         I am deeply conscious as I sit here at The Observatory, Markree, of how threads of faith woven in this region of Connaught (more than 1500 years ago) are part of the same skein of hope for the human soul to reach its full potential of fruitful freedom as that taken to the Southern African shore of my land. Tragically, often there too, as elsewhere down the centuries, it became a hope dashed by divisions, opportunism, misunderstandings and evil opposition which eventually misrepresented and eroded the good and left bitter heritages rather than peace of place and personhood. Too often ‘the baby was thrown out with the bathwater’. Too often The Spirit of Life in all its fullness was replaced by stultifying ‘Religion’ with constraints that control beyond the value of good order.

         Yet where ever one may find oneself, if followed carefully back to its source, even the darkest recesses of the human cavern can blaze with the Light that heals all things of past and present. In its wholeness that prism of Life through its multi facets allows devolvement of scintillating essence. Diversity becomes unified in the brilliance of its Source.   The Constitution of Creation has in no part inferior or superior facets of humanity. Those aberrations are the product of limited consciousness, distrust or fear of ‘other’.

         In order to eschew such fear of ‘other’, that child of prison, should not education’s springboard be to engender recognition, awareness of self as part of ‘other’? A deconstruct of barriers, divisions?   If the intent is constructive should education not be far more than a covert instrument of indoctrination, that god of manipulation whose use of a cacophony of wrongs and blames and promises of unsustainable utopian futures, keep victims in covert perpetual bondage.  Should not nation building education have as its foundation and fulfillment displacement of hate, fear and suspicion? Displacement by an inner awareness of realizable self-worth no greater nor less than the ‘others’ worth, different as each may be.

         Education’s purpose is not to merely impart knowledge necessary to fill workplaces. Nor to entrench non - life sustaining vanities. The visibly attainable parameter needed is to try to continue to bring life filled order out of humanities increasing spiral toward a world in chaos. Educated freedom of being precludes the dross of destructive rebellion against the greater Created rhythms of Life.

         Freed from imposed tyrannies of ideology, and despite the now much despised some good that existed and ensued through the interfacing with settler tribes, (the new political correctness) despite all, I know that because of what was and is learnt from the people who understood the ‘borderless ness’ within prism, despite my ‘whiteness’ filled too with the love of our African homeland, there is yet place and purpose in it to gainsay whatever and wherever mental prisons of ‘border’ may raise their heads above the urgent need for unity in diversity.

         So before I begin my journey home, I allow myself to face the scars and wounds of memory. I begin to see such as a measure of growth.   Filling my emptiness (that vacuous-ness of displacement), there begins instead to reign within me forgiveness for betrayed trust. Forgiveness for the destruction of generations of good seed bearing endeavor by party political constructs that have feet of clay.

         Most importantly there is a refreshing new awareness of the ‘border’ places in my own heart that yet need honest attention on this life’s journey from Prison to Prism.  

Thoughts on my homeland South Africa from my unpublished Irish Notebooks: date Saturday 2nd August 2003

Edited after return to my permanent residence in the Eastern Cape in 2004.
Monday, 03 April 2017 22:38

Soentjie's Song


The drought was grievous.   It clung to men’s hearts and hung from their faces.   Silence lay heavy.   No chirp of crickets.   No bird calls. Nothing, nothing at all moved in that heat.   The ground baked hard and crusted open like a scabrous sore.   No seeds groped down to seek rooting in the red earth changed to sand. The thorns had turned from white to black.

The land was dying.

Soentjie, alone, who lived far beyond the agterdorp, didn’t know it.   If you followed the footpath past the last of the salt bushes, there you would find her.   There she sat.   Not idly, no not idly!   She sat with her cat on her lap and her hands were never still.   She wove.   Her hands reached out to a pile of reeds beside her, prepared and ready.   She used them to weave whatever she was making. Hats, and baskets and mats taking care not to disturb her cat. It was a wild black foot bush cat brought her as a clawing, meowing, orphaned, bedraggled fragment.

Nearby a huge spekboom twisted out from under a deep cleft in a high, flat topped rock.   From the spekboom over that cleft in the rock and firmly attached, stretched a large reed mat she had woven.   It was strong.   Its shade sheltered them from the fiercest rays at midday.

Other than the pile of reeds, the clothes on her back and one new blanket, her possessions were an old rusted gogok, the kind that paraffin was once sold in – it now held her drinking water, and a small tot she used to skep the water. She also had a spoon, large and battered. She had two plates, white enamel with navy blue rims, a bit chipped. One plate went back to the handelaar each evening when the other came with food.   The handelaar’s ma used to know her ouma and he sent the food to her. The plate was always filled to the brim with pap or whatever else was available, sometimes fat tail, or liver from his skape.

And that was Soentjie’s life. She was happy.   Her shack of rusted iron broiled hot in summer and there was no warmth in it in winter so she sat and slept where she worked under the mat stretching from the rock to the spekboom…

She was happy because she did not know about the drought.

She was blind. No, not from birth.   When about ten or so and who knows really what year that would have been, she had been beaten. Drunks have no sense of the way things should be done.   She had been beaten badly on her head.   Somehow she went blind.   Her ma went to jail and didn’t come back. Her ouma had always looked after her and her oumagrootjie, so it didn’t matter about her kleurling mother not coming back. She didn’t quite understand what her oumagrootjie meant when she called her mother a kleurling.


There was something else Soentjie did.   She sang.   Her oumagrootjie had taught her all those old songs of the vlakte people. She sang quietly to herself. The only person who sometimes heard her was the meid the handelaar sent with food for her. But usually she knew when she was coming from a long way off and stopped.

The time she was made blind was in spring. All the old people said that year, never before had they seen the vlakte and randjies so covered in grass. And the flowers! She still saw in her head those flowers. And springbokke pronking in the haze.

Yes, she saw all that. And the vlei near the track was filled with reeds and waterblommetjies. And duck. Yes, she had liked to watch those little black ducks that flew off early with a whistling sound and came back at sunset.   She remembered the ripples as their feet landed on the water. She was happy.   She saw so much in her head while she sat and wove her things and sang her oumagrootjies songs….

Now though she couldn’t smell the bos anymore. Maybe it was because she was getting older. She smelt dust instead.   And when she thought about it she didn’t hear the ganse honking on the vlei.

Soentjie’s cat – the name she called her one cannot write or pronounce because it had funny click sounds – well her cat sometimes brought her presents.   A dried locust, a lizard, even a skilpad once quite long ago but it had a vrot smell.

Sometimes she heard the bells from the Sendingkerk across the valley, or trucks rumbling by loaded with oranges from the places where water went where people wanted it to go.   The meid brought oranges for her when a bag fell, by accident, off the truck. Tizt! That was good. The handelaar was very careful about Soentjie’s money! Oh yes, she had money! That wasn’t very important to her but someone had to pay for the food she ate. All the baskets and woven things she made saw to that. These went with the agent who came down the white dust road twice a year. He took them to some sea place. Soentjie’s baskets and hats and mats were very sort after there at holiday time.

As I said, Soentjie didn’t know about the drought that was making the land die because she was blind. She did wonder though why the trucks from the planted trees didn’t drive past anymore.   She used to scent the coming of those trucks, loaded with oranges or lemons or naartjies, before she heard them. She didn’t have names for those things. The meide who brought her food over the years never talked to her.   They spoke different languages.   It was difficult. The meide couldn’t speak hers and she kept what she knew of the meid se language to herself.

Now the week a bad smell came on the wind – the smell of dead sheep – and didn’t go away something else happened.   She knew it wasn’t Zaaiman’s creaking donkey cart she heard.   It was the sound of a truck, she thought.   


She had never seen a modern bakkie. The sound came bouncing over the veldt and stopped.   A crackly voice called out her real name. The one people who weren’t of her clan couldn’t say. The voice sounded just like the Korhaan.

She hadn’t heard her own speech since her oumagrootjie died. She kept quiet.

Translated from her language into Boer talk for baas Coetzer to understand, the voice said,

 ‘Soentjie, ek is jou oumagrootjie se neef.   My name is Klaas.   Ek werk daar onder in die vallei vir baas Coetzer.   Hou gaan did met jou Soentjie?’

In English for those who don’t speak Boer, the voice said,

‘‘Soentjie, I am your great grandmother’s nephew.   My name is Klaas.   I work there below in the valley for baas Coetzer.   How does it go with you, Soentjie?’  

‘Hy en ek wil met jou praat, Soentjie.  Soentjie,’ said Klaas, ‘onthou jou nog die ou liedjies wat oumagrootjie vir jou geleer het toe jou klein was?’

     ‘He and I want to speak with you, Soentjie.   Soentjie, do you still remember the old songs you learned as a young child from great grandmother?’

     ‘Ja’, she said. The only word she conceded to know in the Boer tongue.


     ‘Ek het vir Baas Coezer gese daar ‘n lid is, ’n ou liedjie wat die droogte kan breek.’

     ‘I told baas Coetzer that there is a song, an old song, which can break the drought.’



     ‘Ken jy so ‘n liedjie?’

   ‘‘Do you know such a song?’



     ‘Dis ‘n struwe droogte Soentjie.   Die skape vrek almal.   Die mense is hartseer en moedeloos.   Die lewe is nou bitter.   Sing asseblief daardie liedjie, Soentjie?’

     ‘The drought is serious, Soentjie.   All the sheep are dying.   The people are heart sore and miserable.   Life is now bitter.   Please sing that song, Soentjie?’

She poured out in torrents a reply to Klaas but this is all he translated into Boer for Baas Coetzer. In English that bit was,


‘My great grandmother told me that one of those songs she taught me will bring the rain.   That one I do not sing.   It is not good to be wet and cold.   Hot is all right. Cold is all right.   Wet and cold is bad!’

So it was from Klaas, her oumagrootjie se neef that Soentjie was told as they talked back and forth and she understood, about the great drought.   When they had said all they wanted, baas Coetzer and Klaas drove away over the vlakte churning up more dust clouds.

Soentjie carried on weaving her basket.   She had a lot to think about.   Klaas said here were no springbokke, no bye even.   No voeltjies.   Her oumagrootjie had told her what to do if she saw the land begin to die.   But she hadn’t seen it.   Her head was filled with the things she saw as a little child in the years of the rains.

In the early morning before sun rise with no one there to see her, she clambered cautiously up the rock. Bent knees, hand holds and laboriously lifted feet - the flat top of the rock was reached. Straightening, she stood with her back turned to the heat of the rising sun. She raised her blind blue eyes to the blind blue sky.  

Then Soentjie began to sing the rain song.

Unseen by her a little cloud started up in the south west.   Grey, soft, small, low in the sky. But she felt it was there.   She saw it in her head.   She sang to it. She reminded it of the Great Txixo who gave life to everything.   She told the little cloud of the troubles of the small creatures because she knew the cloud was still a little cloud.   She sang a love song about the things that grow and bloom and dance in the wind and sunlight after it came to visit and how they couldn’t if it stayed away.

Then as she saw in her head the cloud grow bigger, she sang how all creatures missed it.

Near sunset, the air was heavy with the tears of the sky.   Soentjie remembered that the meid would be coming with her food.   Groping her way, very cautiously, she began to scramble down the rock. She slipped. Her head banged, hard, and she tumbled.   Instinctively she folded her small body into a ball and rolled from the rock, her fall broken by the reed mat strung from the spekboom.  

Her cat with the unpronounceable name met the meid at the salt bushes. That was unusual. She hurried to where Soentjie usually sat, then turned and ran for help. She reached the sheltering back door of the handelaar se winkel in time to cringe from the first lightning bolt and thunder clap.

It was a tremendous thunder clap.   Lightning forked, tore, splintered, split the dusk sky, branched, struck iron stone boulders, shimmered over the dry ground.

At last the furrowed, heavy windblown clouds which usually held back their moisture as they rolled piteously over the parched land, unloaded their burden.  


The hard rain drumbeat reached crescendo, ricocheting off tin roofs.   Water brommelled and swirled along the sloot, its torrent washing all before it.  

It rained and rained and rained.

When Soentjie regained consciousness she saw shapes. Grey, black, white shapes. And it rained and rained and rained.   It rained as it had the year her oumagrootjie died.   The year Soentjie went blind.

Well into the rain washed season of that year Soentjie’s eyes fully blossomed. Klaas and Baas Coetzee took her to the sea place - where her baskets were sold.   There they told her story to a skilled, renowned in fact, specialist, for he had patients from around the world. Working with him was Klaas’ grandson, now an ophthalmologist. They had also grown up in the valley. The Sendingkerk with the bells that rang, was started by the specialist’s great, great grandfather. He had taught the mense to read by carving letters out of bits of wood, rubbing them through charcoal, then printing them out!

When the bandages were taken from her eyes Soentjie could see clearly.

Already very old, she insisted on returning to her rock where her cat waited.

Now, though she found a simple proper dwelling had been built to keep her dry when it rained and warm in that, her last winter, yet she still wove under the spekboom with the cat on her lap.  

Her heart felt warm – no, not because of the house.   Because she could see far over the oop vlakte and, on clear nights she thought, even into the farthest places of the ruimte with the hemel se shining eyes of light. She sometimes wondered which were her oumagrootjie’s. No, her heart felt warm mostly because the spring under her rock ran again, its moisture oozing and seeping into the surrounding earth. Her drinking water was clear and pure. There was no need to skep a little each day from the gogok.

Her heart felt happy, joyously happy because just as she had kept them in her head for many years there again were all the wild things she had known and loved. And the flowers! Yes, the flowers! – purple, white and every shade of gold, yellow, orange, and red.   Birds sipped at her spring and winged over her rock. Steenbokkies poised on the height before suddenly leaping away in skittish fright.   The aardvark rooted about at night and the honey bird followed the bye laden with pollen from the citrus orchards in the valley.   She saw just as she remembered things from childhood.

She heard once more the loud happy ringing of the Sendingkerk bells and the pickers’ song reached up to her from orchards where water went in pipes. The Big River was full and swelling like no one ever remembered except Soentjie.  


It teemed with things that swam and waded and floated. Life and the river was full to over flowing like Soentjie’s old song filled heart. The land smiled again.