That was the way it was

Ruth HartleyConflict, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe1 Comment

My last blog post was about children of violence. Today I write about how I am also a child of violence and its impact on my family and children.  

Three books about southern Africa when I was growing up. Not Alone by Nan Patridge describes life for black people in Rhodesia. Bessie Head writes about her life in South Africa. The Toe Rags by Daphne Anderson describes life for poor white children in Rhodesia during the Great Depression

War was always around me but as a child, I didn’t know that. My parents were scarred by it – a normal human reaction after all. As a schoolgirl, I stood by the cenotaph in a Red Cross Uniform on November 11, visited war sites and graves and learned history at school. There had been militarism, aggression, invasion, and conquest by the bad side but by the end, the good side had won. Nobody explained why there were wars. Nobody said how to know if you were on the right side. Nobody said how the right side could be sure it was right and would win. That was the way it was.

Read More and Comment …

The Children of Violence

Ruth HartleySouthern AfricaLeave a Comment

Martha Quest

My bookshelf.

The sky is clean, the moon twisted and the temperature zero. Outdoors I would freeze and die. Here in my study, I think of Doris Lessing and the five novels that make up Children of Violence. When I read the first book, Martha Quest, I had the frightening sense that Lessing was writing me into existence and I was locked onto the same path as her heroine. Lessing’s affair with the communist Gottfried Lessing and her abandonment of her children scandalised white Rhodesia. My mother was of Lessing’s generation and a friend of her first husband, but it was I, the daughter who became a communist, like both Lessing and her character and was branded a criminal because of the draconian miscegenation laws in South Africa.

Read More and Comment …

Journeys of courage and imagination

Ruth HartleyDisplacementLeave a Comment

In front of the Dangriga town sign

African people in the Americas

Garifuna drummers at Hopkins Village – a very short video.

Two years ago we visited Belize and Livingston in Guatemala and encountered Garifuna people for the first time. I was interested to learn how the Garifuna came to live in Central America and still retained the culture of their African heritage, while it seems to me that so many Afro-Americans who endured centuries of slavery have not been able to. What do we lose when we migrate? What do we keep? Why? Is music more permanent than language? Is it easier to retain one’s culture in a ghetto while also more dangerous?

Gilbert Swaso of the Tuani Cultural Centre and restaurant.
The view from the top of the restaurant.

Cultural survival and slavery

Syncretised religions like Santeria in Cuba combine African spirituality with Christianity but Afro-Cubans don’t seem to be as African as the Garifuna. I felt closer to my African home in Belize than I did in Cuba and wanted to know what had made such a difference. The Garifuna, captured as slaves in West Africa, were either shipwrecked on the Grenadines or took over the Spanish slave ships and landed there. They never lived in the Caribbean as slaves but instead as freemen and warriors integrating with the Arawak and Taino.

Garifuna Settlement Day

When we returned to Belize in November we planned to go to Garifuna Settlement Day to see the enactment of the arrival of the Garifuna on the beaches of Belize. Sadly Covid restrictions meant that the celebration and the drumming were restricted. Instead, we went to a meal in Tuani, the cultural centre where we met Gilbert Swaso who told us some of the Garifuna history. The history can be seen in the pictures on this post.

One of the paintings of the arrival of the Garifuna people in Belize at Dangriga

The history of the Garifuna people.

The painting shows how cassava is processed. Above is the long sieve used to drain the cassava. The photo shows Gilbert Swaso’s assistant demonstrating how cassava grows

The Garifuna are currently writing their history. It’s important to analyse and reinvent the past to understand and reshape the world. History written by the victors distorts our present lives and damages our futures even if we believe we’re on the side of the victors. What stories should we tell ourselves? Gilbert Swaso told us that perhaps Africans crossed the Atlantic Ocean before the start of the Slave Trade – the Triangle Trade. I wondered if that would have been possible in dugout canoes even with favourable Trade Winds until I remembered the Kon Tiki expedition on balsa wood rafts from Peru across the Pacific Ocean to the South Seas. ‘Maybe?’ I thought.

My own stories

I invent stories that can be read in different ways. I don’t want to tell people what to think. I can’t claim to know the whole truth about my own life and my memoirs are fragile constructions of uncertain facts. My relationships with people and my world are constantly disintegrating and reforming. All I can do is hope and love.

Margins, boundaries, barriers, borders, thresholds, transitions and liminal spaces

Ruth HartleyDisplacement, Journey, Migration, ZambiaLeave a Comment

5 hours at the border post


We were blocked, stopped and stuck at the border between Mexico and Belize for five long hours. It was a strange way to exist – a state of waiting in which nothing happens. We didn’t have the right papers. We were in Limbo, that place of meaningless suspension in which you wait endlessly for judgement on your soul. Being in Limbo changes you. You become passive and remain desperate. A conflicted state of victimhood. You know you are the only person in Limbo even when there are other people around you in the same void.

Read More and Comment …

Leaving and going – migrants and tourists.

Ruth HartleyDisplacement, Journey, Migration4 Comments

I want to stay at home

Leaving home before sunrise is a plunge into an abyss. Black moments before brain functions. A home disguised and hidden under bleak darkness. Cheekbones ache with cold. Nose sniffs up tears. Departure weighs more than a baggage allowance. Loss is heavy and sadness clutches my heart and trips up my feet.

Yet I love journeys because the displacement frees my mind and imagination so I know I will come back inspired by stories and ideas that will feed what I write. Here however is that song by Carole King – So far away – doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore?

Read More and Comment …