A good chunk of the community turned out on Friday night to honour Umhlali Prep principal Astra Russell, who is retiring after 45 years teaching and 20 years of service to the school. There was even talk of a wedding, but I’ll come to that later.
There are few businesses – I hesitate to call schools institutions because that conjures up visions of a mental hospital or a museum – that become the hub of a community like a well-run school does. Pretty much all the schools in the area are in that mould but, being a government school and 100 years old to boot, Umhlali occupies a special place in the DNA of the community.
A number of people praised Astra for her legendary insistence on discipline, good sportsmanship, manners and so on, but there was no mention of her innate tenderness. A lot of people are prepared to tell you how tough she can be, but then a woman in charge of 80 or something staff and more than 1 000 spirited kids is forced to develop a tough shell. I know another side of her.
We took up road running at the same time and were of the small group that ran around in the early mornings in skimpy clothing. You get to know people well when you spend hours and hours training with them. She was quite shy back then, but with a ready smile and a quirky sense of humour.
We ran our first Comrades in 88 and the 10th in 97, not exactly together but as Dolphins.
Every year her husband, Jimmy, would be waiting near the halfway mark at Drummond, braai sizzling and beer in hand, to give encouragement to Astra and fellow Dolphins. He was a good lad, Jimmy.
I can attest to Astra’s fierce loyalty. She was widowed, I think in ’92. Every year after that she would stop at that spot outside Drummond at the foot of Inchanga, stand in the road and say a prayer for Jimmy.
So whenever people say to me that Astra’s as hard as nails, or a battleaxe, I know the truth. She has a soft streak a mile wide and I recall the quiet, shy young woman I was privileged to spend many hours pounding the road with.
A flash of the quirky humour came out on Friday night when towards the end of her speech she complimented her long-time partner, Peter King, on his support and readiness to produce champagne, and laughed “. . . . and this is a good venue for a wedding, don’t you think?”
He was floored. Dave Tate said “Peter, man to man, I think you’ve just been ambushed!”
We’re waiting for the invitation.
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On Saturday morning we were only 30 km away, but on a different planet. It was the annual “At Home” day of Inanda Seminary, at 149 years old the oldest school for African girls in Southern Africa.
It is a gem, started by American missionaries who also founded Groutville and Adams Mission near ‘Toti. The drive up through KwaMashu is reminiscent of African cities like Dar e Salaam and Nairobi, lined with spaza shops and hairdressers and churches and more, then you emerge at the top of the hill to the spread of the Seminary grounds. Few people on the coast even know it exists, but it has produced many of this country’s leading women.
The Seminary has lovely buildings which haven’t been replaced or much modernised in good times, so there is a lovely olde worlde, almost Dickensian, feel to the place. This is enhanced by the impeccable manners of the pupils, who greet you with respect.
On Saturday about 500 girls, old girls and staff were packed into the chapel for a few speeches, being their awards day, and a whole lot of singing.
My oh my, the singing was great! There’s none of that HA-le-lu-yAH, Ha-le-lu-yAH drone that passes for singing in some churches. This was Alive with a capital A, using voices, hands and feet in perfect two-part harmony. When the choir launched into “Eye of the Tiger”, leaping and dancing with maximum excitement, the noise of the whole school joining in just about lifted the roof.
In the prizegivings of my schooldays, there was only muted clapping. At Inanda, there was a roar for every winner, and a full-throated yelling, waving of hands and stamping of feet for some.
It is hard not to be impressed by the shining enthusiasm in the faces of pupils and staff, who live fully by the school motto: Shine Where You Are.
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Periodically, local government announces in breathless tones that the beaches have been awarded full or pilot Blue Flag status as though it’s some major achievement that they need to be congratulated on.
BF status is supposedly recognition of the healthy state of a beach, of cleanliness and safety. They would have you think that every pink German or American will only dip a toe in the water if they see a BF sign, so we’re supposed to be grateful to the Blue Flag if tourists come here at all.
So by way of goodwill, over the years we’ve carried stories of various mayors patting themselves on the back about Ballito/Westbrook/wherever getting BF status. Thing is, they’re not so quick to tell you when whoever hands out the BF smarties takes them away. This usually happens when a sewer line ruptures all over the bathing beach, followed by fierce denials that anything’s wrong. Oops, don’t tell the children!
Well, the refuse bins on Catfish beach in front of my house are overflowing with smelly junk because they haven’t been emptied for a month or more. If the municipality is going to boast about the beaches, at least make the effort!
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I’m reading a horror story in Braille. Something bad is going to happen.
I can feel it.