By Jane Burt
This is a contribution to the #Winefride4women campaign. Please support us by donating or sharing our campaign with all that you know. https://chuffed.org/project/winefride4women
Last year I walked the St Winefride’s Sacred Well pilgrimage alone and communed with the rocks, trees and mountains. This year, Stella Horgan joined me, and we learnt to walk the path together at a pace that suited us both so that it flowed to be what we both wanted and needed. This is a different form of walking, sometimes it requires one person to speed up and another person to slow down. It requires listening to how each other came to be here in this place and what that means for how we walk together today. It is a wonderful dance of creating space for whatever arises and responding to this.
When I walked alone in 2021, I kept away from humans mostly, spending my days with trees and rocks. With Stella, we came together with the human world, enjoying the drone of bus as it revved up the hills and the clinking of voices in greeting. Last year I felt I greeted the more-than-human world and became part of this movement. This year I met the human world that has lived with this landscape for 1000’s of years. Their ancestors knew the rocks and stones, the rivers and wells that we were walking on. They had dug deep for copper and coal and built walls and weapons as well as shrines to living water. They lived under brave and sometimes cruel, Kings and Queens who resisted and relented to oppression, conquest, and belittlement. Religions that have grown out of moss and soil have been replaced by religion that fell from the sky promising a different salvation.
On one of the many buses we caught, Stella and I heard the story of the ‘Welsh knot’. This was a piece of wood on a string that was put around the neck of a child heard to be speaking Welsh. An elderly woman on the bus recalls how she spoke Welsh until she was school going age and then stopped as speaking Welsh was punished with the ‘Welsh knot’ placed around your neck. It was sad to hear these living memories of forced disconnection and destruction, but the Welsh people have held onto their language that holds their history. This resistance is a kind of independence. A demand that that Welsh people will think in their language and name the landscape with their words, not the words of the oppressor. I can relate to this, coming from South Africa, and how Afrikaans was forced onto Black people leading to the 1976 Soweto uprising, with children resisting and being gunned down. The pictures of this massacre will always remain burnt into the collective memory of South Africans.
Learning the oppressed language of tree and root is our task now. We need to learn to speak of landscapes from the perspective of beaver and fox, dandelion and yew tree, lion and mopani tree. By not doing so we are in danger of being cut off from the language of our more-than-human ancestors. We need to resist this like the Welsh resisted being cut off from the language of their ancestors.
The village where the Centre for Women’s Independence stands is on the border of the Great Kruger Park, a landscape protecting biodiversity in the form of a reserve, a fenced community, a separation of the more-than-human from the human. This rich landscape is inaccessible to the women at the Centre of Women’s Independence even though they were in no way responsible for why this reserve is needed in the first place. Instead, they have lived through being fenced off, like the giraffe and the buffalo. During apartheid, they lost their sacred spaces and the land and water they accessed to feed their young. Like the wild dog and the bushbuck, they were shifted into reserves away from the rich environments they used to keep their families healthy and their hearts joyful.
Conservation is the best solution human systems have come up with to save our biodiversity so far. This system is not without deep, systemic inequalities and it is not perfect. There is something so painful about seeing herds of giraffe crowded up against the fence line of Parks in the South African Lowveld, in mid-winter. Their long necks reaching for the mountains that they can’t get to. Once again their ancestral path to water is stopped by human fences and even more so, by the reason these fences are needed. Between the Parks and the mountain hectares and hectares of land are under the grip of unsustainable human economic practice: large, industrialised farming and mines, industrialised cities. And on all the edges of these activities, forgotten people, eking out a living on a small piece of earth with no benefit trickling down as was promised by the mines and by the industries.
So Zingela Ulwazi and the women in the Lowveld start small, like the meerkat, and start weaving ancestral memory and future innovation back into the language we use as we speak of the Earth and with the Earth. They start this conversation with permaculture and then something bigger emerges, The Centre for Women’s Independence, and women learn and grow food and make things that do not harm the Earth. They start claiming their right to walk the Earth free from violence and poverty. It is hard work as we have forgotten so much and although the world is abundant, so little is shared with the people and animals and trees at the boundaries of what we call ‘civilisation’. Too few gain and too many loose.
But a start has been made in the villages in the Lowveld, more than a start a deep tap root has been reclaimed. As a small collective, we may not have the power to shift global inequality, but we can keep the connection between human and more-than-human alive, like the Welsh keeping each word of their language alive and spoken, we can re-teach each other how to speak mountain, hare and river.
Then one day, maybe we will wake up and the Centre for Women’s Independence will have been renamed the Centre of Interdependence because there will be no more need for women to fight for their survival anymore and in amongst the trees and food gardens the leopard will be respected, and the Nyala will leap.
Jane is the Director of realife and Board member on the Zingela Ulwazi Trust. She has no doubt that we will find our way back to a respectful and compassionate relationship with our Earth home.