Tree of Light

Pandora’s mission is to share her love of water and her concern about the health of our rivers with everyone – children in particular.  For years, she has woven tales about the river involving two friends, Mtini and Mo, as part of creative environmental education programmes in local schools.  Naturally, she takes along her passion for storytelling as she walks, and doesn’t miss an opportunity to inspire the children she meets.  Here she relates her day at Inanda this week.

Driving around Inanda dam is an experience.  It’s a short way from the Umgeni Houses where we are staying, to the Durban Green Corridor Adventure Centre.

Along the way we pass through forest areas and thick valley bushveld, lining the steeply incised valley slopes.

We’ve said our goodbye’s to John, and Wendy is spending the night at home.

The team are in Bart’s capable hands and as we travel, he enthusiastically lays out the day’s smorgasbord for us.  Penny and Mike have the option of walking or cycling the balance of the way along the northern shore, while  Preven, Penz and I will host the education programme.  A cultural tour is planned for later, a visit to the beautiful Unzimyalthi waterfall, cave and resident Rasta community, Ebuhleni, ‘place of beauty’ – home of the Shembe spiritual leader, a trip to the viewpoint and a paddle back across the dam!  As they say, “All in a days walk!”

Bart stops the bakkie and we all spill out like children to grab one of the numerous alien plants lining the roadside to use in our lessons.  We just need to find bonga bonga.  The chromaelena and Mexican sunflower is in full flower.  It’s so pretty in the early morning light but very invasive, what hope is there of ever eradicating these weeds?

 Bart, the Bugman, has told me all about the bio-control of the aquatic weeds on the dam.  “There are bugs for chromaelena and some of the other weeds” he says.  “Well why don’t they just put them all over the place?” I ask.  Bart is patient with me.  It takes time, money, precise environmental conditions, quarantine and great expertise to make enough bugs.

Bart points ahead and pulls over.  The dust settles.  “Khanya Kude” he says.  The zulu word rolls off his tongue and I say it over in my head and try it out aloud.  It doesn’t come out the same.  “The tree of hope.” I take photos.

The Adventure Centre is beautifully laid out with gardens and facilities creatively made from shipping containers. It is part of Gary Cullen and his team’s inspiring vision for the uMngeni River Valley. In a large open grassy area amidst the landscaped gardens is a large green Bedouin tent.  We greet and thank Sponge Nxumalo for all the preparations.

Rosemary Harrison of uMngeni Estuary Conservancy has come along to help with the children.  It is lovely to see Lorainne Ralfe again and to meet her daughter Liesel.  They are taking photo’s today.

We are also happy to have Sibusiso Sikosana and a colleague from DWA and Lungi Makhaye of Umgeni Water.

DUCT Director and KZN Conservancies Association member, Jean Lindsay and Debbi Bennet and her Earthorg. Enviro-Club also join us for the day. We have about a hundred and fifty children coming from schools around the dam!

The day is fun.  We play games, go for walks, tell stories and do a water study.  The children are interested and keen to learn about the dam, about rivers and all the life around them.

Despite living nearby, most of the children have never been to the dam.  They cannot imagine what the valley looked like before the dam was built, they haven’t been to the uMngeni river.  As we sit and count the bird calls that we’ve heard I’m aware that this is probably the first time that they have sat in silence, closed their eyes and opened their ears and senses to the sounds all around them.  A rooster crows incessantly and I take them a little further into a dip in the valley.  We are surrounded by bird calls and I try the exercise again.

Once again the lure of the puppets is irresistible and I get the children to help me with the story (see bottom of the page for the story – Sometimes when it Rains).  I still have to get the hang of having Mtini on one hand and Mo on the other and I get the characters a little confused at times but the children take it in their stride.  I wish I had a puppet for Inkanyamba, the river snake, although he is invisible.

I’ve got the little ones; Prev, the high schools and Penz, the intermediate.  I keep an eye on their activities.  They are doing well.  Bart has brought a whole lot of bug containers and we spend half an hour catching water creatures.  The little ones love to get into the shallow water and we end up with copious quantities of snails and shrimps.  They are fascinated.  Wendy and Caroline have come from the office to help us with refreshments and lunch.  The day is a success.

Penny and Mike arrive on cue from their walk and we pack up.  We thank the DGC staff, they have been wonderful.  Bart has us right on schedule.

Much later we are all back at the shore.  It is my turn to be interviewed and very creative and dedicated cameraman Sphiwe and Nontokozo, his equally dedicated assistant, climb into one Indian canoe and Penz, Mike and I into another.  Somehow I feel less nervous talking in front of the camera out on the water.

Sphiwe asks me if I have a message for the people that live along the river.  I say that they are the ones that are truly rich.  They hold all of our precious resources in their hands.  They are the custodians of the river. In the cities, people have become disconnected from our natural world and without thinking, exploit and abuse our resources. He asks me what I would like to see for education into the future.  “We cannot teach true knowledge and wisdom from books to children in classrooms.   Children need to be active and engaged and learn by example.  We, the grownups, need to show that example. The central message of this programme is about ‘Hlonipha’ – respect.   The river is an analogy for learning about Hlonipha, about ourselves, about one another, about nature and our interconnectedness.  I think we should allow children to experience this more.”

I give the camera Mtini’s high five. Penny, Preven and Sponge have put the other boat in.  It’s time to paddle ‘home’. There was such presence in the children this morning, of shining eyes, shining smiles and shining hearts.  A long yellow sun plays across the sparkling water and Nonto and I follow the rhythm of Penz’ paddle stroke. All is synchronicity. There is a strong wind blowing and it’s not easy to cross the dam.  I’m glad the wind is blowing up the dam.  I have one eye fixed on the lip of the dam wall!  Neither Penz or Nonto can swim, this is their first paddle!  They are naturals.

I recall standing before the majestic fever tree this morning, its bright green branches stretched out towards the early morning light.  In my inner ear I hear Bart’s voice again. “like a light shining in the distance, at the end of a tunnel”  I can see that light shining brightly in this ‘place of beauty’.

Submitted by: Pandora Long

P.S.  A huge thanks from the team to Bart and Sponge for organising the schools logistics and the afternoon tour and paddle.  Thanks to the Durban Green Corridor and staff for the stunning venue, facilities and equipment and their hospitality.  Thanks go to everyone that helped make this day a success.  We were treated to a delicious curry, thanks to uMngeni Estuary Conservancy and to Wendy Ross’s expert cooking!  One unsung heroine supporter that I’d like to give special mention to today is Liz Taylor.  Liz put together the menu and all logistics for our breakfasts, lunches and snack meals on the trip and has re-supplied the team in their various locations over the past month.  Thank you so much Liz, we couldn’t have done this without you!!

Sometimes When it Rains

Mtini and Mo accompany the River Snake on an epic journey down the uMngeni River to the sea, to take Mtini’s message to all the people of the Catchment.

Over the past five years Mtini, the Cape Clawless otter and Mo, the Malachite kingfisher, have been teaching children about healthy rivers and healthy communities.  Many people in Pietermaritzburg, Howick and Durban have started helping to clean up the streets and the rivers, but now Mtini and Mo have received some shocking news!

Mtini sat with his head in his webbed paws.  His long thick tail, usually so agile and active lay silent behind his furry body.  His animal and bird friends sat all around him at Picnic Rocks.  They were very worried.  They had never seen him so upset since that day the farmer blocked their river with his dam, and all the fish and fairy shrimps had died.  “Tell me again what the university said,” asked Mtini.

Mo had flown over from Pietermaritzburg with the news.  Mo adjusted his body on his perch over the Mpushini River, fluffed up his  bright blue feathers and stretched his long red beak, hoping to catch sight of a fish in the pool below.

“A study at Yale University said that South Africa has the worst environmental performance of all the countries in Africa!”  Mtini’s body slumped further.  “But what does that actually mean?” asked Nosey Nyala.  A soft breeze ruffled the pool and broke the antelopes’ reflection into pieces of shining white and russet red.

Mtini lifted his head, “It means that we don’t care about healthy rivers or healthy environments,” he said.  “It means we don’t care about healthy communities either.”

“But that’s not true!” said Mo, shaking his beak from side to side.  “In the last five years we have met so many people that care, why look at all the people we met last year that were taking care of the rivers.  Look at all the help the children have given us!”

Mtini shook his head sadly, “It’s not enough”, he said. “ We need everyone to understand that what they do affects the health of the rivers. Everyone must help. We need to involve the whole catchment otherwise it is not enough!”

The animals listened carefully and nodded in agreement. “But how, Mtini?” asked Bully Bushpig. “Do you want me to threaten people that pollute the river with my tusks?”

Mtini was staring across to where Python was lying basking in the hot midday sun.  Patches of sun and shadow flashed over the rocks and Mtini couldn’t quite work out where Python started or where he ended.  His zigzags seemed to be all over the place!  Suddenly Mtini’s stood up, his whiskers twitched on either side of his little nose.  “I have an idea”, he said. “Listen carefully to what we are going to do!”

Mtini and Mo travelled for many days and many nights to reach the source of the uMngeni River.  This was the start of a great plan to involve everyone in looking after the catchment.  Mtini stood looking at the most beautiful wetland vlei that he had ever seen. Shimmering dewdrops hung like diamonds on the bright green sedges, and all across the shining water, little wisps of silver steam rose to meet the early morning mist.  In the distance, the mountain, uMgeni Poort, stood perfectly still, like a sentinel over the sacred scene.  Behind Mtini, the sun rose higher and higher like a golden orb in a misty sea.  And as he listened to the bird song and the soft sounds of the stream, Mtini could hear the voice of his Grandmother, as she told him stories about this special wetland place.

Mtini sat in a grassland glade, every now and then a soft breeze stroked the fluffy seedheads of Natal redtop and the grasses bent and bobbed in the dappled sunlight. Mtini could feel the quiet calm of his Grandmothers presence.  As a baby otter he would curl up into a tight ball close beside her, safe in the earth burrow deep in the riverbank.  Her chest felt close and comforting and he listened to its rhythm, entranced by the stories she had told.  “The Earth is sacred, Mtini” his Grandmother would say, “but people all over have forgotten.”  Then she would tell him the story of the River Snake, the mountain and the rivers and the sea.   “There is One who protects the headlands of the waters, Mtini” his Grandmother would say at the end of the story. “His name is Inkanyamba.” The Wise remember that He is in charge of all the rivers. He is as invisible as the wind and as resourceful as the sun, Mtini. Though He is one, He is many.  He holds the rain in the folds of his great body, so that all may drink clean water all year round.  In times of great trouble you may ask him to stretch his body from source to sea, and lift his great head to the mountains and send life giving rain that renews the waters of the Earth.  Then you may ask him to make himself visible and encircle the Earth to fill hearts with hope.”

“How will we know when we’ve found Him?” asked Mo.  Mtini thought and thought, trying to find the right answer, but nothing came into his head.  His Grandmother’s stories about the River Snake were so real that Mtini was quite sure that he was here, somewhere!  But how would they see him and know where he was? Mtini and Mo sat at the side of the vlei and ate some of the dried fish and fairy shrimps that Mrs Mtini had packed for them.  A grey heron, perched high in the tree across the water, stretched his long neck into a patch of blue sky that appeared through the fast disappearing morning mist.  Slowly some black duck came down to the water’s edge, a few steps at a time, and then, like little arrows, set off across the water.  A darter stood patiently on a rock, wings outstretched, waiting to catch a fish.  Suddenly a great honking V of Egyptian Geese made three passes at the great expanse of water and then settled gracefully, their chests glittering emerald against the grey green water.

“So you wanted to talk to Me!”  Mtini’s furry body nearly turned inside out with fright!  He looked around.  Mo was sitting on an acacia tree above him.  Mo swallowed hard, as if he had a big fish caught in his throat.  There was nothing to be seen!  The voice was quiet and gentle.

“You want to talk to Me?” the voice asked again.  Mtini strained his eyes, the mist was almost gone, but still there was nothing to be seen.  Mtini knew in his heart that it was Inkanyamba.  Mtini had so many things that he wanted to say, he didn’t know where to begin.

“We want you to come with us down the river to the sea and give the people a message”, said Mtini.

“A message? What do you want me to say?” said the voice.

“I want you to tell them my Grandmother’s story,” said Mtini. “Your story…you are Inkanyamba?!” Mtini said without doubt.  You the guardian of the river!  You can bring hope! The rivers are so dirty and the peoples hearts are hard, they don’t care that the river is in great trouble, and that plants and animals are dying and people are getting sick.”

“So that’s what your Grandmother told you?” the voice asked.

“Yes,” said Mtini, “she told me stories about how Inkanyamba took special care of the wetlands so that all year round the plants and animals and people living along the river can have clean water to drink. She taught me how take care of the river.  She said that that the wetlands were sacred.” Mtini said.  “She said that all the Earth was sacred!”

“Sacred!?” said the voice, “what does that mean?”

“My grandmother spoke about everything having a special presence and a special purpose, ” said Mtini, “She said that the wetlands are the source of the river and that the whole Earth works together in harmony to feed the rivers flow.  My grandmother told me so many things…that what we do must be safe for one another and for the Earth and that we need to be committed and never give up trying.  She said that the source of the river sustains all life and that we need to show love and respect.  Instead of blaming others for messing things up, we need to see what we can do to make things better and encourage one another to take care of the rivers.  She showed me how to have a good attitude and to be helpful and loving, because we are all connected to the mountains, the rivers and the sea.”

I am Inkanyamba, said the voice. “And I will help take this message down the river to the sea. “But it will not be enough for me to accompany you to the sea.   People all over have forgotten how to care for rivers and how to love the source.  It is no use cleaning the uMngeni if all the tributaries that feed it, run dirty! We will need the help of all the River Snakes in the catchment!” said Inkanyamba. Then Inkanyamba spoke again.  “It will not be enough for all the River Snakes to journey with me to the sea, for what will happen to the wetlands once we leave on our journey? We need to keep a presence and protect their purpose! We will need the help of all the birds, animals and children in the catchment too!” he said.

“What shall we do?”asked Mtini and Mo together.

“Now listen carefully,” said the River Snake.

All morning the birds of the uMngeni River arrived at uMngeni Poort to listen to Inkanyamba’s instructions.  Big wattled cranes with crowned crests shining in the sunlight; great black and white Fish Eagle; tiny shimmering black sunbirds; brown hooded kingfishers; swifts and blue swallows; purple crested louries, so many birds that Mtini and Mo lost count!   Soon the birdsong filled the valley and then, just as suddenly as the birds had come, they took off again in a cumulous cloud of coloured feathers.  They flew up all the rivers that fed the big uMngeni.  They flew up the Lionsriver, the uMsunduzi, the Mpushini and the Umlazi.   They flew up the Pata, the Blackburrowspruit and the Dorpspruit.  They flew to every spring and every wetland, to the source of every little tributary in the uMngeni River catchment.  And as they flew over the schools along the rivers, they called to the children to help spread Mtini’s message. All over the catchment Mtini and Mo started teaching the children their High Five.  This was the lesson that Mtini had learnt from his Grandmother. The Children started singing and dancing, painting pictures, writing poems and stories.  Soon the plan was in place.

Mtini and Mo were ready for the long journey to the sea.  At the source of the rivers in every wetland area, the River Snakes were getting ready too.  Gently they spread their invisible bodies from one side of the river bank to the other, and all around the edge of the wetlands the plants and animals joined together to help hold the River Snakes’ tails behind, so that the wetlands could continue to be protected..

Then when everything was ready, Inkanyamba, Mtini and Mo set off to take the message to the sea. Stretched out behind them, the giant invisible Inkanyamba spread his body across the uMngeni River,  and all over the catchment, along every  tributary, the River Snakes started to make their way to the sea. And all along the way, in schools and communities, children learnt about Mtini’s High Five and with singing and dancing, artwork and drama the children helped Mtini’s message get to the sea.

Mtini and Mo followed the uMngeni river for days and days and days, passing over rocks and rapids, through gorges and great big dams until at last they came to the grey mouth of Blue Lagoon.  And as they got near, birds and animals and people from all over Ethekwini joined them along the banks of the estuary at Mangroves.  Mtini turned to Mo, his eyes sparkled with happiness and his little whiskers twitched with excitement “They got the message!” he said.

Mtini’s otter prints left little dents in the soft beach sand over the dunes and as he reached the sea he turned and looked back.  Intertwined with sedge and sand, Inkanyamba’s shining body lay stretched out into the distance from source to sea.  Mtini watched Inkanyamba lift his great head to the mountain, and send huge white billowing clouds into the sky.  Then softly, gently it began to rain.  The late afternoon sun stretched its rays to meet the rain and far in the distance, over the sea, a beautiful rainbow encircled the Earth.  Just for one moment all became one, Inkanyama had returned to the source.  The river was renewed.

Mo sat on a Mangrove tree and fluffed his blue feathers around his neck.  Sea Gulls wheeled in the sandy surf for scraps of sea creatures.  Mtini hit a High Five with his feathered friend. Their journey was at an end.

And everywhere the rain fell people remembered the cycle of the river, and  started to clean up the catchment.  Once again, music, songs and stories, poetry and paintings reminded everyone that the river was sacred.   And people came from faraway places to learn about the uMngeni, about the plants and animals and the people that belonged there.  And as the visitors walked along the banks they listened with renewed hope to the story of Inkanyama.  And they came from far and wide to hear Mtini’s message of healthy rivers and healthy communities.  The message that the children helped bring to the sea.  And there was singing and dancing, laughter and joy along the banks of the uMngeni River and its tributaries again…and soon along the banks of rivers in faraway places too.

Do you like this story?  Can you help bring Mtini’s message to the people of the uMngeni catchment?  What would you like to help Mtini say?  You can paint or draw a picture, write a poem or a story.  What about writing a play and acting it out with your friends?  You could write a song or a special piece of music.  Why don’t you use what you find along the river bank to make an instrument that could share Mtini’s message?  You could carve wood or sculpt clay, weave or plait grass with Mtini’s message.  You could make up a special dance, either by yourself or in a group that tells everyone about the story.  You could use your voice to tell the story, mime it or use puppets.  What about a sand sculpture or painting or rock art?  What about an artwork made of ice!  But you would need to capture it quickly!  What about a beautiful photo or video clip.  Don’t forget that Mtini’s message is about people and place!  And remember that this message is about sharing, can you share this special message with others?  Mtini and Mo will be very happy if you do.

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About Nikki Brighton

I live in a Magic Cottage near the mist-belt forest with my African dog, Dizzy. We enjoy long walks in the fields to gather wild greens, sitting on the verandah with a pot of tea, and harvesting vegetables outside the kitchen door.
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One Response to Tree of Light

  1. Pingback: Take Back Our Rivers | River Walks

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