Dead tree emerging from white sand with red sand hills in the background against a blue sky

Astro Turf

by Gaele Sobott

deserts stalk the earth

at ever-increasing kilometers per year

                    annihilate soil that nurtures new growth

              fill the girlchild’s eyes with grit

         at ever-increasing kilometers per year

                 the Gobi the Sahara the Kalahari

                               fill the girlchild’s eyes with grit

                 propelled forward like dehydrated race walkers

              the Gobi the Sahara the Kalahari

                         whip up disease-laden dust storms

                                     propelled forward like dehydrated race walkers

                         valley fever whooping cough meningitis Kawasaki disease …

I Was Born (Misfit)

Indie Shorts Awards New York Interview with Gaele Sobott

Portrait of Gaele Sobott in a dark setting. She is looking at the camera and rests her chin on her hand.

For many disabled people, existence is a continuous act of resistance. I wrote this poem as an act of resistance and because of my growing concern about prenatal screening and diagnosis during pregnancy and Pre-implantation Genetic screening.

Two prominent human rights speakers with Down syndrome, John Franklin Stephens and Charlotte Fien, called on the United Nations to take action against countries that actively aim to eradicate the birth of babies with Down syndrome. Stephens said, “We are the canary in the eugenics coal mine. Genomic research is not going to stop at screening for Down syndrome. We have an opportunity right now to slow down and think about the ethics of deciding that certain humans do not get a chance at life.”

But slowing down is not foreseeable when the prenatal testing market is such an extremely lucrative segment of active growth for the diagnostics industry, estimated to be worth up to US $1.3 billion a year. A report by Fact.MR estimates the global market for Pre-implantation Genetic Testing will reach US $575 million revenue by the end of 2022. Of course, profit is not the stated motivation for genetic testing. It is sold to prospective parents as a means to eliminating disease, illness and impairment with the expectation of eradicating the existence of various groups of people with genetic mutation. But the critical concepts and protocols involved in deciding who should not be born have not been clearly defined by governments, the medical fraternity, genetic technological corporations or the health insurance industry.

“For many disabled people, existence is a continuous act of resistance. I wrote this poem as an act of resistance…”

A still from the animation I was born (Misfit).Four people facing a circle of solid black in a square. They have different coloured heads (green, yellow, red and blue). The smallest person is reaching up to touch the circle. Drawn by Daria Lytvynenko.

Earthly: poems by Gaele Sobott

I allow unarticulated feelings, thoughts and knowing to direct the course of my poems. Floating, allowing the parts of my brain that daydream, intuit, engage in parallel-interactive logic to take over. Maybe, in the end, poetry is a process of interpreting the knowing that exists within bodily experiences, around the body and between one body and other bodies. Surprises and dilemmas emerge along the way and when I work out which direction to take, I spend time crafting a poem.

Some describe elements of my writing as magical. I see these elements as reflections of cultural realities; myth, turns of phrase, musicality of spoken language, the way imagination can be part of the everyday and accepted by a community as such.

I believe my writing is informed by a combination of the joy of imagining, anger, grief, love and disdain. Growing up working class, losing memory, I demand the right to get grammar and other bits and pieces technically wrong, but seek to be subjectively and poetically authentic.

Full article and poems published in Disability Arts Online Showcase

Disability Arts Online is an organisation led by disabled people, set up to advance disability arts and culture through the pages of our journal. Their raison d’être is to support disabled artists, as much as anything by getting the word out about the fantastic art being produced by artists within the sector.

Disability Arts Online give disabled artists a platform to blog and share thoughts and images describing artistic practice, projects and just the daily stuff of finding inspiration to be creative.

Head shot of Scotty Foster. He has a beard and dreadlocks and is wearing a wide-brimmed, leather hat

An Interview with Scotty Foster

Now is the time, with climate disaster upon us, to stop concentrating on fighting the boss and make the changes we want to see.

Scotty Foster is a solar powered, radio broadcasting, organic growing, co-operative creating, earth and people-protecting worker from Canberra, Australia. He currently earns a meagre living doing on and off-grid solar and general electrical work. Scotty is creating a co-operative commonwealth, through community groups, and on Community Radio 2XXFM98.3 with the ‘Behind the Lines’ show.

This interview is the fourth of four interviews with volunteers involved in the building of an earthbag water tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary, Bywong. Vanuatu Earthbag Building assisted in this project. They have provided free plans, support and the materials required to build water tanks for people in need in fire zones in NSW Australia, cyclone zones in Vanuatu and Pacifica.

Gaele Sobott: How did you hear about this earthbag tank building project?

Scotty Foster: I heard through my dad. Someone told the Rural Fire Service that the project was happening. He’s with them, so he passed it on to me in case I was interested.

GS: Does the Rural Fire Service support this type of project?

SF: Yeah, I reckon they would love it. The more places that have tanks next to them specifically for fire protection, the easier their job is.

GS: Was the lack of water a problem in the last fires?

SF: It’s always been a problem around here, yeah.

GS: Why did you decide to get involved?

SF: Well, I can see that it is a simple construction technique that anybody can do. It’s not costly, and all you need is to raise some of your community to come and give a bit of a hand. It’s a very useful method of construction to know about.  We’ve got a block out in the bush but we don’t want to be out there in fire season. Given the right conditions, it will go up in flames just like the last fires. We used to go there but now it’s too dangerous. In the previous ten years, fire danger conditions and the ferocity of fires have increased. We now have the new classification of ‘catastrophic’ fire danger. This earthbag technique would be perfect for building a fire shelter that meets the increased fire danger.  

GS: How? Tell me more.

SF: The massive, thick walls would hold a lot of heat before transferring it through to the centre of the building. We need that mass in the walls and the sturdiness of the structure. It’s very strong and fireproof.

Working on the tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary

GS: Do you see other applications for this method of building?

SF: Yeah, it is now almost a year since the last fires began in NSW and there are still a lot of people down the south coast living in tents and caravans. Perhaps this method of building would be useful down there as well and help people to help themselves. If you look back 150 years, communities had building societies, where a bunch of people would get together and pool their resources. They’d then build one house after another after another until everybody had a home. It was a cheap and efficient way for the community to come together, and building codes weren’t such an issue back then.

GS: Are there currently barriers, laws, etc., that make it difficult for communities to go ahead and build as you are suggesting?

SF: Yes, there are many. The Extinction Rebellion mob have come up with a concept called a  ‘dilemma action’ where a group of people take some form of action like blocking a road, or in this case building unapproved houses. If the government acts against the group, it will end up looking heavy-handed and idiotic.  If they leave the group alone, then it sets a precedent. Building sturdy houses at this time for people who have been forced by fire and lack of government action to live in tents and caravans, is a great moment for that sort of action.  I can’t see anything wrong with people getting together and just building their own good-quality houses. The need is huge. If you do it well enough, you can always come back with an engineer who says, ‘Yeah, that’s alright’.

GS: Some politicians are saying as far as climate emergency goes, we just have to adapt. What does adaption mean to you?

SF: Well if we keep putting carbon into the air, there is no adaption. We can’t cope with a climate that is three degrees hotter, let alone six degrees. I don’t know why they are doing this. There is no logic to it. They either deny that climate disasters are happening or they’re like Scott Morrison, who is part of a brand of Christianity which believes in the ‘rapture’, where the world ends and god takes all the true believers to heaven, leaving all the unbelievers to an eternity of hellfire. Of course their church is the only true one. There’s a possibility they believe that it’s time to end the world. Who knows what the motivations of these people are, but they do need to be stopped.

GS: What do you think the alternatives are?

SF: Adaption is one part of survival. Climate change is happening in a significant way, and we are locked into that. They talk about geoengineering. Most of those schemes are extremely risky and pretty crazy but there is one form of geoengineering that would be a really sound way forward. That is to convert the world’s agriculture into organic techniques that take the carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil. We could take all of the world’s agriculture and use it to take carbon out of the atmosphere and to put that carbon back in the soil where it came from. That would go a long way. But we also need to stop damaging our habitat as a way of life.

GS: For this local area and the south coast, what do you think the immediate ways forward are?

SF: We need to change our building techniques for one thing. The way we keep building these crazy English houses here in Australia, particularly with the climate getting way out of control with fire season, bloody pyro cumulus nimbus clouds and firestorms. The earthbag design used to build this water tank protects against fire. Bring it on. Build houses, animal shelters, bunkers. You could build a house by bulldozing up four dam walls in a square, and put a roof on it, if you wanted to. Site it properly of course. 

GS: What work do you do? What are you working on at the moment?

SF: I’m an electrician. I have been an organic farmer for many years. I’ve been a blockader and an activist. At the moment I’m building co-operatives to try and create a new economy that will make this crazy one, that is eating the earth and eating people, obsolete. Build an economy that is good for people and good for the planet.

GS: I had the impression that various regulatory hurdles and laws constrained co-operatives in Australia. Is that the case?

SF: It used to be that the co-operative laws were different in every state, which made it quite difficult to trade across state boundaries. That’s been fixed now.  The Co-operatives National Law has reduced red tape and simplified financial reporting for smaller co-operatives. I mean you can use any form of governance as long as the registrar lets you do it.

GS: How are your co-ops going?

SF: So far, so good. We’re still in the set-up stage of the community-run farming co-op. We’ve got a renewable energy co-op which has put in one set of solar panels already. It’s called the Pre Power One Renewable Energy Co-operative. It’s designed to enable people who have a roof with a lot of sun shining on it but no money, access to solar energy. It also allows people in the area who would like to take their money out of fossil fuels and put it into something that is reasonably ethical, to do so.

GS: How does the investment bring a return?

SF: So the way it works is that when you become a member of the co-operative, you get the right to do one of two things or both. If you have a roof that you would like the co-op to install solar equipment on, then you can put up your hand and ask for that. We will come around and make sure your house is suitable, for example,  check that there is not a great big blue gum on the north side or something basic like that. If it’s good to go, then we will get a couple of quotes. Then we open up an investment opportunity for the other members who can choose to invest. We get the equipment installed for that member. That gets paid back to the investor when people pay their bills. A portion of that bill will go straight to the investor, and another portion will go to the co-op. The investor will double their money over about twenty years which is a lot better than super.  It’s different from perpetual investment which is what most companies offer where if you invest once, you get the right to profits from that company forever. In our case, we prearrange precisely how much we will pay you back. We pay that amount, and the deal is done. You can invest again if you like. The beauty is that all the equipment winds up under the ownership of the people who are using it. That is a major problem in our society. Almost all the productive assets are owned by people who are either extremely rich or completely imaginary, i.e. a corporation. The purpose of corporate ownership is to extract as much wealth out of the community as possible.

First Pre Power installation – Dunlop, ACT

GS: How do you maintain the solar units?

SF: There are two ways. You can either put a surcharge, a couple of cents on each payment. As hundreds of people are paying regular bills, we will have a pool of money that we can dip into. Or we can just raise another investment opportunity when the time arises that we need to buy something.

GS: How do you manage the co-operative?

SF: Management is critical. Currently in our society, management is almost always a very top-down, hierarchical, do-as-I-say model. We reckon that it is one of the leading causes of a lot of problems, certainly a lot of mental health problems. If we’re spending a large part of our time at a workplace where we have no control over our work situation, it’s going to affect us. We go through school under that model, and we leave school and face that model again in the workplace. Our families are that model because our parents were taught that model, and their parents too. So how do we do it differently? Luckily, people have been thinking about this for quite a while. We didn’t have to come up with an answer by ourselves. The intentional communities movement uses the sociocracy method of governance and decision making.

This is a system whereby the people who are involved in the community make the rules.  The organisational units in the group are “circles” of people who have a defined way of meeting. A lot of the political and power problems that arise in groups these days are from a lack of structure in decision making. There is a lack of knowledge about how the organisation works. So, what happens is the members of the group have to make it up as they go along. Of course, the people who are very forceful and perhaps manipulative tend to rise to the top of that sort of organisation. Sociocracy and holacracy, which I’ll talk about later, are both flatter forms of organisation than the usual hierarchical forms of decision making we find in our society. Meetings are very structured and use a form of decision making called consent which is quite different from consensus. Consensus is where you all need to agree on something before it can go ahead. It can take a lot of negotiation. It is easily stalled by someone who is bent on getting their own way and doesn’t care about anybody else. It’s good for certain things. If people want to form the purpose of their organisation. Then it might be important to use consensus, so everybody is on the same page. Consent is slightly different. A proposal is put forward, and members ask themselves if it is good enough for now and if it is safe enough to try. It is an iterative process. If there are no objections, then the proposal can go ahead. If there is some doubt, the group can say, well let’s try it and come back to assess in a week or six months or a year.

GS: Are there cases where the iterative process should be applied regularly, anyway?

SF: Many of the newer organisational models that have come out of the tech revolution use iteration frequently. Lean methodology is an example of that type of management, but I’m not really up on that. I believe they use iteration a lot.

GS: I imagine it allows for more experimentation, but also it would assist with transparency and accountability.

SF: Absolutely. Our current organisational models do not make transparency and accountability a priority. Transparency and accountability are crucial to creating more humanised ways of organising where people are comfortable and in control.

GS: You said you are also starting up a community-owned farming co-operative. What management model are you applying to that group?

SF: We will be using holacracy which evolved from sociocracy. Sociocracy is an effective form of self-management in situations where there is a community of people living together, like housing co-operatives and other intentional communities. Holacracy is more structured and business-focused. It uses documentation and software, so it’s clear to everybody what the organisation is about. A new member can join the organisation, look up the website and know exactly what the group is about. 

GS: Did you establish the purpose of the co-operatives before starting? 

SF: We’ve tried both ways now. I came into the Pre power co-op as a bit of a ring-in. It was after the business people involved couldn’t get the concept of a co-op not being for-profit and needing to be controlled by the community. They graciously dipped their lids and bowed out, but then they needed to find someone else to be on the board, who was more aligned with the ideas we are now putting into practice. So, I wound up taking the position. We did have a few things to sort out like a purpose that really fits the bill. There are four of us involved and a couple of other people who come in and out, so it’s taking some time. There’s a lot of work to do in setting up a business.

GS: How do you protect yourselves from burn out?

SF: We make sure that if it is too much to do, we do it next week. We don’t pressure each other with timelines or anything but burn out is a real issue. Part of the model is to ensure that the structure will be easily replicable, so it will be easy for other co-ops to join in. A co-op is a business, and running a business is a pain in the arse and running a business as a volunteer after work is just ridiculous. It’s draining, especially if you’re working long hours. So the model we are working with envisages lots of local co-ops. Pre Power One is the first local co-op we’ve set up, and twenty per cent of the revenue from this co-op will go straight up to what we call Pre Power Central. That is a co-op that is owned by all of the local co-ops. Its sole job is to make life easy for the local co-ops. The central co-op will employ people with that twenty per cent of the revenue, whose job it is to assist with running a local co-op. They will be mentoring. There will be templates for co-op policies, insurance, arrangements with installers, basically all of the hard stuff.  It makes it easier for a local co-op to set itself up. All that is left for the local co-ops to do is to hold a certain amount of board meetings per year, run the AGM and figure out what to do with the profits they make.

GS: Are the local co-ops volunteer-run? Are they able to pay themselves? 

SF: The locals are basically volunteer run. We use twenty percent of a local co-op’s revenue to pay the central co-op to do most of the work. If a local decides that it needs to pay someone to do something the central coop is not doing, they can do that by agreement amongst the members. The effect would be that the extra wages bill would come out of the discounts received by the members of that particular local co-op.

GS: Earlier you asked, how we organise in a different way when all we know in our families, schools, businesses, government is top-down decision making with little transparency and less and less accountability. How do you think we can start organising differently?

SF: Well, sociocracy and holacracy is one aspect, but it is a huge task to change the existing systems and culture. Sociocracy has been successfully used in family situations before, but we are also going to have to start implementing these processes through education by opening up schools. How we fund those is going to be interesting. 

GS: How do you see that happening on the ground say in this area?

SF: I see it as a later stage. The first stage we open co-ops like the renewable energy and the farming co-ops, where the people involved pay their bills. People already pay bills. We are encouraging them to stop paying bills to outside entities that make a profit from them. We want them to start paying bills to an organisation that is owned by them and controlled by them. A form of organisation where they get to decide how to spend any profit in a way which will benefit the community.

We are using a  participatory budgeting scheme to distribute our profits. That’s where you have a pool of profits made by the organisation, and the members get to vote and decide how that money is spent. We will have a set of criteria for applicants to pass, and members can vote according to how much they want to give to who.  For example, some of those profits could go to building and staffing a school, and some to say, elder care. These are services that are not suited to privatisation or to purely profit-making concerns.

Comparative diagrams showing climate co-operative and corporate organisational models

GS: If as a community, you are taking on the responsibility of care and education of your members, does that mean you assume that the responsibility for these services does not lie at a state or national level, or do you envisage starting locally in order to make changes at state or federal government level?

SF: I guess the structure of responsibility that we want to build here is called subsidiarity. It means that decisions are made at the smallest possible level, so if your school can make a decision, that’s great, that’s where it should be made. Suppose there is a circle for cleaning within the sociocratic or holacratic structure of the school, and a decision needs to be made about cleaning. In that case, the cleaning circle should make the decision. If there is a kitchen circle, that is who should make decisions about the food. If you have a complaint about the food, go and see the kitchen circle. From there, you work outwards in a federal manner. You make formal arrangements with other entities that are doing the same thing, so with other schools. Anything that needs doing at a broader level like negotiating with the government or raising funds for particular projects can be done by all those schools agreeing to work together. This method or organising has been successful in northern Syria with democratic confederalism in the Kurdish areas. They spent seven years running a system that was working in exactly that way.

GS: I imagine it takes a fair bit of time to build the structures and culture required to run a system like that effectively.

SF: Major changes like this can really only happen where there is a power vacuum. For example, when Assad deployed all his troops to the south of the country to fight the Arab Spring. The Kurds, who have been fighting Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, were well-armed and ready to build alternatives. They’ve been preparing for this for a very long time. Abdullah Öcalan has been around for a long time. He was one of the founders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978. The party was not aligned with Russia when it started, and it didn’t take the official communist line as gospel. Because of this they were shunned by the communist world. They evolved towards democratic confederalism. In their guerrilla camps, they’d have a yarn around the campfire analysing how oppression arose historically and decided the first instance of oppression is probably the oppression of women by men. Gender equality is central to their organisational principles. The Kurds are known for their women’s army, which is also democratically run.

Sovereignty is held at the neighbourhood level. That is the ability to make and enforce rules. Within each neighbourhood, sub-communities are represented. The neighbourhood meetings work on a majority vote basis.

GS: How do you see this type of system dealing with exploitation?

SF: Okay, for example, there’s also a women’s council for each neighbourhood. So when decisions are to be made, the information goes out to a group of women in each sub-community. So, there are parallel structures at work in their social contracts.

GS: And wage exploitation?

SF: Well, the Kurdish example covers a very poor area. Historically, under Assad, it was mainly primary production, a lot of crops but no processing of the crops. It was all exported—the extraction of fossil fuels and that sort of thing. Everything gets taken out and shipped away. They have set up a whole system of co-operatives now to do that work. The local communities are federated. Say you’ve got a town with ten communities in it, they band together to organise water and electricity and all of that through co-ops they create in common.

GS: How do they meet their social needs?

SF: Through neighbourhood meetings, I suppose.

GS: Are you saying there is no need for wages?

SF: Oh, I see. I’m not sure. I haven’t managed to get a source about how the economic system works yet. But they have achieved an enormous amount, very inspiring, much longer-lasting and more peaceful than what the Spanish Civil War achieved. The Kurdish example illustrates to me that the federalist model with local sovereignty is entirely possible. It is a way to create a peaceful, sustainable society out of an absolutely turbulent  situation.

GS: Here in Canberra, what do you do about the role of media which generally supports and enforces current power structures?

SF: We run a radio show, Behind the Lines on community radio 2XX and make a podcast called Align in the Sound. That is a three-way podcast between the New Economy Network of Australia (NENA), Behind the Lines and a group called Co-operatives, Commons and Communities Canberra (CoCanberra). So if there is something we want to learn, we do it in a public manner. We record it and leave it as a public record and information source that anybody can look up at any time. What a lot of people lack at this point are ideas. We don’t even know that alternative ways of organising and living exist. Who has heard of sociocracy or holacracy or what’s going on in northern Syria? Almost nobody.

GS: Tell me a bit about the organisations, CoCanberra and NENA you just mentioned.

SF: Every month CoCanberra and NENA Canberra region combine to hold a community information or study group night. For instance, we recently invited the National Health Co-op and a co-op from Sydney, called The Co-operative Life, who do aged-care and disability help. We sat the video conference TV on the couch at the food co-op, everyone else sat around it, and they talked about their models, with Q&A afterwards. One is a worker co-op, and the other is a consumer co-op. We were able to explore how they work and why, and what problems they face. We also do asset-based community development training. The idea here is that the community is an asset. The strengths and passions of the community need to be uncovered and used to build solutions to whatever problems that community is experiencing. When we discover or come up with new ideas, we run a workshop.

The New Economy Network of Australia is an Australia-wide networking organisation of people who are essentially trying to build a new economy. CoCanberra is about starting up co-ops and getting things implemented on the ground. The Pre Power and Community Owned Farming co-ops are projects that CoCanberra is deeply involved in. Radio Behind the Lines does long format interviews with anyone who is trying to make the world a better place.

Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” That’s what we are all doing.

Of course, we do have to fight the old system as well because it’s very quickly munching its way through the planet. The New Economy Network is a co-operative devoted to building a new economy. They’ve been around since 2016 when a conference was held in Sydney by the University of New South Wales law school and the Australian Earth Laws Alliance. At that point, there was no peak body in Australia, so they decided to form one. You can become a member of NENA. It’s got a really good website. They have geographic hubs, and they also have sectoral hubs like an education hub, a First Nations economics hub, housing, food, you name it. There’s a long list. You might live in a regional area, and you’ve got a passion or in-depth knowledge of renewable energy; you can hook up with people from around Australia who have similar values and skills. Behind the Lines is a community radio show that has been going for thirty-two years. I’ve been doing it for fifteen years. We work together with CoCanberra, and have recorded a lot of the New Economy Network conferences. If it’s appropriate to record the CoCanberra / NENA meetups, we will record them. We run editing training workshops over the web, building a team to polish up all that raw audio. Once we finally get them edited, We put them all up as podcasts.

GS: Do you work with unions?

SF: We’ve been trying to, but we haven’t had the numbers to form what they call a union co-op yet. There is interest in Canberra, and there’s a mob in Melbourne called the Earthworker Co-op. They bring together trade unionists, environmentalists, small business people and others in common cause. They began as a coalition of what was left of the Builders Labourers Federation after they got banned, alongside parts of the Green movement. Earthworker operates parallel to us trying to create a co-operative commonwealth on the ground. We are moving towards meeting our needs and capturing the profits rather than letting them go up to all the crazies who currently run the world.

GS: What are the main problems you see with trade unions in Australia.

SF: I think their principal problem is that they are stuck fighting the boss rather than working to make the boss obsolete. They are stuck in a perpetual fight, and that’s not good for culture, spirit or anything else. From being in the system, you become like that system no matter what principles and community support you start with. 

GS: What is the main message you would like to pass on to people?

SF: We cannot afford to muck around with slow change any more. Now is the time, with climate disaster upon us, to stop concentrating on fighting the boss and make the changes we want to see by ourselves. We cannot wait for big capital to do it or for the government to do it. We have to do it ourselves; otherwise, it’s just not going to happen. We only have a few years, so we better figure out new ways of organising ourselves to displace the system that is currently ruining the world. Care for people, care for the earth. We can create economic systems that support socially just and ecologically sustainable communities. We can do it, but we have to act now to get it done in time.

Interview conducted with Scotty Foster by Gaele Sobott at Lucky Star Sanctuary, Bywong, 11 October 2020.

Links:

Interview 1 in the series: Kerrie Carroll

Interview 2 in the series: Helen Schloss

Interview 3 in the series: Liz Sherborne

Behind the Lines

Align in the Sound

CoCanberra

New Economy Network Australia

An interview with Liz Sherborne

Our climate is becoming more unpredictable and we need options. We need the autonomy of knowing how to put solutions in place ourselves. Knowing how to defend ourselves. Knowing how to protect ourselves. Knowing how to take care of our families, neighbours and communities.

Liz Sherborne is director of NeckTek, a designer and restorer. She and her husband Alex introduced earthbag building to Vanuatu in 2013. They founded Vanuatu Earthbag Building; an eco-building group that links volunteers and schools to water-tank projects in the pacific.

This interview is the third of four interviews with volunteers involved in the building of an earthbag water tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary, Bywong. Vanuatu Earthbag Building assisted in this project. They have provided free plans, support and the materials required to build water tanks for people in need in fire zones in NSW Australia, cyclone zones in Vanuatu and Pacifica.

Gaele Sobott: You have assisted people to build tanks in Vanuatu and have just completed two tanks in Australia. How did you reach the point where you decided to help people build earthbag water tanks?

Liz Sherborne: Well, both Alex, my husband, and I have been volunteering and giving to charity all our lives. We were doing that long before we met each other. Over the years, we became disillusioned with charities and the waste of resources on CEO wages and marketing costs. We thought that there must be a better way to fulfil our moral obligations to society, and we decided to do our own volunteer work.

GS: What does moral obligation mean for you?

LS: I believe very strongly that service to others is the rent we pay for our room here on earth. Muhammad Ali said that. Gandhi is reported to have said,” The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing, would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” I think the idea is very old. We use the earth’s resources. We are part of a community. Those of us who find ourselves on the better end of that deal have an obligation to help those in need. One of the events that spurred us on was when our government cut the Australian aid budget to the Pacific. The idea that we weren’t going to help our neighbours but that we were going to pollute the air and accelerate climate change was not acceptable. We thought, well, we can’t physically go and make our politicians make the right decisions. We can’t force a politician to pay attention to climate justice or what’s happening to the poorest people in our world. But we can contribute to helping our neighbours survive. We began by researching a lot of family volunteer holidays and discovered that most of them have middlemen that take most of the money that is raised. The money doesn’t actually end up with the people who need it for projects. So, we thought, well it can’t be that difficult to go to a country that may want volunteer assistance, make friends, listen to what it is that they need and help them.

GS: How do you finance your volunteer operation?

LS: We started just using our personal savings. Over the years, friends and family have sponsored tank materials, a couple of businesses that we work with and the Corrilee foundation have paid for materials. We are not a charity and we don’t take donations but if someone wants to come along and help or pitch in on the costs on the concrete or the bagging, then we happily accept.

GS: How did you come to the decision to proceed with earthbag building?

LS: First, we travelled to Vanuatu. Once we started getting to know people and listening to their problems, it became evident that they wanted a roadside market. The women we met didn’t have a safe place where they could sell their yams and their woven mats and their local produce. So the focus became providing them with a safe place to sell their goods. We then researched different methods that would be suited to tropical climates. Port Vila is one of the most disaster-prone capital cities in the world. So any structure you build will be hit by a cyclone, volcanic eruption, earthquake or tsunami within several months of building it. So we had to look for something that would survive all of that and we discovered earthbag building.

GS: How did you develop the knowledge and skills to start building?

LS: We corresponded with people overseas who had done this type of building and we learned by doing it. We just did it. The first tank was an experiment to see if it worked and it did.

GS: What were the problems you encountered? What were the successes?

LS: The problems in Vanuatu weren’t with the building process. The problems were more about negotiating land leases, the right to use land. Negotiating the rights of women to participate in the project and the ownership of the building. Project money disappearing. The problems were more culture-based than engineering problems. One of the more surprising successes was that a tank seemed to result in more girls going to school because they didn’t have to fetch water.

GS: Would you mind explaining how the idea for the project came from the community?

LS: One question I get asked by missionaries and charities is, how do you know you are helping the right people? I always find that a funny question, who are the right people? I see charities over there providing plastic water tanks to communities. They don’t follow up with what happens afterwards. They don’t train members of the community to maintain the tank. They don’t have friends in the community. They just deliver the tank, bring in a water truck, fill up the tank then leave. Sometimes the tank ends up rolled away to someone else’s house and a lock put on it so the community can’t use it. Other tanks are built attached to churches and only the church members who pay their tithe can use it. They are not really community assets. We build a water tank with any woman who asks for one and has organised enough helpers. So far, they have all maintained them really well.

We were lucky to meet a builder from Tanna called Philemon, who was essential to the project. The design of the tank needed to be appropriate to the island. Philemon’s input was imperative for that. We also paid a woman called Rachel, who went out to all the islands and started building tanks. There was no way we could have introduced the tanks to custom islands and remote islands without Rachel. We work with the local people, teach them how to build their own tanks and leave them with enough material to build one for themselves.

Volunteers from Pentecost Island, Vanuatu

GS: How long have you been building the tanks?

LS: We built the women’s roundhouse in March 2013. The first water tank was built in January 2014. Since then we’ve seen more than 60 water tanks built. Some by Rachel, some by the Save The Children volunteers Rachel trained, some by St Augustine’s school, some by the Laurien Novalis Steiner school. We organised building holidays for some families who built tanks and a significant number were built by our friends and us.

GS: What would you like to happen in the future with the earthbag-building initiatives?

LS: I would love for this to be adopted in developing communities, especially coastal Pacific communities. At the moment versions of our tanks are being built in 8 countries on three continents. I just send the plans to anyone who asks.

I never thought we would need to build them in Australia but I found the bushfires towards the end of 2019 and early this year completely paralysing. The very air we were breathing was people’s homes burning, their farms, our forests and wildlife, burnt koalas. It was horrifying. We were breathing that air in Sydney. Alex and I were talking about it and we realised that the one thing we had to offer was the building of fireproof water tanks. We can teach people how to build their own earthbag structures in the fire zones. Then Helen Schloss contacted us about building a tank for the Lucky Stars Sanctuary. We thought, well building a tank for an animal sanctuary is different for us. We had been more focused on building structures that would benefit women, especially mothers. But Helen had organised people to do the work and they all wanted to learn. So we said, yes. COVID delayed the project but we finally got there. We were really amazed at how well run the Sanctuary was and the fantastic group of local people, and people from all over the place, who support the work that Kerrie Carroll does. We discovered that humans are definitely on the list of mammals that get sheltered there. It was the most fun we have had building in years.

In regards to the future, what I would really like to see happen is we vote for a government that acknowledges that climate change exists and addresses the emergency. Then we wouldn’t need to use our weekends doing this work. Failing that, I think it’s like barn-raising where you work in groups and help your neighbour. Building a water tank is really hard, dirty work but it can be fun. It takes four and a half days for a group of eight to ten people to finish a large fire reserve tank. The Lucky Star Sanctuary got a wonderful group of people together. But I don’t know if this form of tank building will take off in Australia.

Volunteers working on the water tank

The two tanks we built in NSW posed some problems. In Vanuatu, we worked with sand which was full of salt and the fill we used for our earthbag tubing was crushed coral. You’re not meant to put salt with concrete because it creates a chemical reaction. But it works in the tropics because the crystals from the chemical reaction inside the concrete seal off the capillaries and seal the tank. In Australia, we are not working that way. We can’t rely on the passage of time to seal our tanks and we can’t afford any seepage. We need to keep them drum tight. On the tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary, we used road base and packed it so tight that it was holding water before we put the ferrocement on. We’ve adjusted the plans quite a bit to suit firefighting. After talking to the Rural Fire Service (RFS), we now fit a STORZ valve so they can connect their fire trucks and quickly refill their water. We had to re-engineer the entire tank design to suit the new conditions. We may refine the design even further according to the different contexts and situations we find when we build.

GS: I believe you are researching more about waterproofing the Australian tanks.

LS: Yes, we just found a fantastic local company that sells a flexible cement membrane that will keep the tank from seeping. This means we don’t have to rely on crystallisation.

GS: Would you describe briefly how the tanks are built.

Cross-section diagram of a tank

LS: We buy polypropylene tubing from Bundaberg Bag Co. It comes in long rolls. The last lot we cut into twelve-meter lengths. We fill that tubing with either earth which we then compact or with road base. Row by row as we build up and compact the fill down. We basically end up with a lot of rings on top of each other that look like flattened sausages. The tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary required eight tons of road base just in the formwork. The entire tank needed eleven-and-a-half tons of material. We use ferrocement as the inner lining, then we put wire and cement down. We use the UNHCR recommendation of a two to one sand-to-cement mix on the inner lining. We work the concrete to reduce the capillaries and reduce leakage. On the outside of the tank, we again use a ferrocement coating. The idea is that you then basically have two structures which are helpful if you get a weather event like Cyclone Pam. If a coconut hits the structure at 260 kilometres an hour, it might smash the outer ferrocement wall. But the internal tank remains intact and this is why they survive, earthquakes, cyclones and fire. The inner tank is protected from natural disaster.

GS: Where has it been tested in a fire situation?

LS: Well, we had no idea about fire until several of our tanks were built on Ambae Island by Rachel. Soon after that, everyone was evacuated because of volcanic eruptions. Those tanks experienced eighteen months of volcanic hot ashfall. When the residents went back to the island, they found that all the fibreglass and plastic tanks had melted. Many houses had been turned to ash and the only tanks standing were the ferrocement tanks and our tanks. The ferrocement tanks were upright but not holding water anymore. Our tanks still worked because only the external wall had been touched.

We build a cone on the top to complete the tank. The reason we create a cone rather than a flat roof is to reduce the amoeba content in the water. You don’t want your water evaporating up to the tank ceiling and sitting there getting mouldy. By building the cone-shaped roof on the tank, it means the droplets run back into the water rather than stick to the roof and breeding bugs. In the tropics we line it with cement, here we now use an extra layer of flexible cement membrane. After that, we cement render the entire outside of the tank, for added strength and so there is no UV damage to the bagging. Sometimes we raise tanks up by building them on a base. In the case of the Lucky Stars Sanctuary, the ground was hard. So we compressed road base for the tank to sit on. I don’t think we’ve ever built two tanks the same way. When we completed the last tank, we asked someone from the RFS to check it out for us.

GS: How much does it cost to build one of the tanks?

LS: If you buy at suburban retail prices and have all your materials delivered. If you use compressed road base and if you use all the fancy fittings we used on the latest tank it costs $1610.00. That’s for a W12000 litre tank. In the islands, we can build one for less than $600

GS: How much would a plastic or ferrocement tank cost?

LS: A plastic tank would cost over $2000.00 and I think a ferrocement tank delivered is between around $10000.00 to $15000.00.

GS: What would you like to say to finish up this interview?

LS: This form of building suits extreme climates with low labour costs or willing volunteers. It is very adaptable. We started this project in Australia not because we thought that this was the best water tank available but because it was the only fireproof one that could be built by an unskilled team. It was all we could offer in the face of such tragedy. You can literally use the burned land to stuff the bags and rebuild. The tank project allows people on the fire front to talk with each other about their losses and exchange information and innovative ideas. Coming together and working as a group of volunteers on building a tank can serve as a kind of therapy. It may also help people to feel more in control of their future. Some of the promised assistance has been non-existent. It is possible to organise and support each other and also support the RFS by providing water reserves. People realise they can actually build a bunker, a water tank, a safe shelter for their animals. You can start small. Build it up bit by bit. There’s no deadline. You can take all the time you need.

On the build at Lucky Stars Sanctuary, we met a guy who is using scoria as his fill, which is like pumice, to build a safe house for his bees and protect them from the next fire. You can’t really put your bees in the back of the car with your kids and your dog when you are evacuating. He has built this fantastic beehive-like structure using earthbag building techniques.

Our climate is becoming more unpredictable and we need options. We need the autonomy of knowing how to put solutions in place ourselves. Knowing how to defend ourselves. Knowing how to protect ourselves. Knowing how to take care of our families, neighbours and communities. When people come together on these tanks projects, it has the potential to provide an antidote to feeling helpless and hopeless about the overwhelming devastation we went through with the last fires.

Interview conducted with Liz Sherborne at Lucky Star Sanctuary by Gaele Sobott, 11 October 2020.

Links:

Interview 1 in the series: Kerrie Carroll

Interview 2 in the series: Helen Schloss

Interview 4 in the series: Scotty Foster

Vanuatu Earthbag Building

Helen Schloss sitting outside with two Eastern Grey joeys in her care. She is wearing a pink jacket and she is smiling.

An Interview with Helen Schloss

I was gobsmacked by the melted tanks I saw on telly. People lost their homes and there has been a long waiting time for them to receive assistance, especially the wait to get a roof over their heads. I was concerned by the need for water, and I thought, surely if you can build a house out of earthbags, you can make a water tank using the same methods.

Helen Schloss lives on a small property in Bywong, New South Wales, near Canberra. A primary caregiver and dedicated wildlife volunteer, Helen prides herself on her strong work ethic and animal rights principles. Some of her voluntary work includes producing ‘Tuesday Tips’ for Lucky Stars Sanctuary. Her passion drives her to help others help and protect the less fortunate.

This interview is the second of four interviews with volunteers involved in the building of an earthbag water tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary, Bywong. Vanuatu Earthbag Building assisted in this project. They have provided free plans, support and the materials required to build water tanks for people in need in fire zones in NSW Australia, cyclone zones in Vanuatu and Pacifica.

Gaele Sobott: I believe you were the person who instigated the building of the earthbag tank. What gave you the idea, and how did you go about finding the expertise to commence this project?

Helen Schloss: I already had an understanding of the sustainability and affordability of earthbag building. I was interested in building a second home from earthbags on our property. Then we experienced the bushfires from early December 2019 and January 2020. I was gobsmacked by the melted tanks I saw on telly. People lost their homes and there has been a long waiting time for them to receive assistance, especially the wait to get a roof over their heads. I was concerned by the need for water, and I thought, surely if you can build a house out of earthbags, you can make a water tank using the same methods.  So I put a few words into Google, and one of the first things I found was the Vanuatu Earthbag Facebook page. That was early February this year. I saw a post that Liz Sherborne had written saying they had been using earthbag-building methods in Vanuatu. She noted that earthbag water tanks would be a valuable resource in fire-prone areas of Australia.  Helpful in protecting people’s properties, their lives and the lives of animals. I wrote a comment asking if they would be interested in doing a workshop down our way at some point. She instantly messaged me, and the project evolved from there. Liz said that if we could find ten people to assist with the building, they would come to Bywong. In some ways, it was serendipity.

GS: You found ten people and provided food for everybody, anything else?

HS: Yes, so I rounded up the volunteers to do the work. Initially, we were going to start building around early March, but then COVID hit, and the restrictions meant people couldn’t travel from Sydney or gather together. We had to postpone it, which meant I had to keep those volunteers interested throughout that time, sending them links and chatting with them online. 

GS: What previous organisational and networking experience do you have in gathering people together for projects like this one? Not everyone would know the importance of keeping that group of volunteers interested.

HS: I have some past experience. My family and I were in Papua New Guinea for a while, and I did fundraising events for various organisations. Maybe through the trial and error of that process, I learned that if you don’t keep your communication going, not everyone, but some people will lose interest. I’m pretty sure now, knowing this crew, if I had put them on hold and not had any contact with them, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Most of them have got properties. Potentially they could use the earthbag building skills on their properties and help neighbours and their communities. But I believe in communication. I’m not fantastic with my friends and family. But when organising events for the animal sanctuary or for people in Papua New Guinea; the hospital there, I feel there’s a lot at stake. Last summer, it was scary because the bushfires were near Lucky Stars Sanctuary at Tallaganda forest and there were various other spot fires around the place. It was really worrying and very stressful for Kerrie and Yee, the founders of the Sanctuary. I think the contingency plan was if a bushfire reached them, they were going to stay and defend. It would be next to impossible to evacuate three hundred animals. That was one of the reasons I felt an affordable, fireproof water tank was necessary. The tank is fitted with a STORZ outlet so fire trucks can connect to it.

Some volunteers building the earthbag tank.

GS: How did you first get involved with the Sanctuary?

HS: In 2017, a year after they opened, I was looking for something to help my daughter, who has been unwell for some time now. She loves animals; in fact, she probably loves them more than most humans. I was looking around for animal sanctuaries and found Lucky Stars on the Internet. We live not too far from the Sanctuary, so I contacted Kerrie and asked her if she would mind if my daughter came over. I remember Kerrie saying, ‘You know it’s not just animals we look after, we look after humans as well.’ My daughter is thrilled working there and now Kerrie and I feel like we’ve known each other a lifetime.

GS: Many people who experienced the bushfires complain that they are still waiting for assistance that was promised by the federal government. I know finding funding for the Sanctuary has been a battle. How do you think a project like building this earthbag tank helps in this regard?

HS: It definitely helps. Earlier in the year, Liz was saying that they like to teach communities the skills involved in the building so that those people can pay it forward. Hopefully, one or two people from each tank-building project can do that. It is one way of getting through this deficit of government funding and developing ways to protect ourselves in the future, especially with sanctuaries. It’s really frustrating that animal sanctuaries don’t get government help, like drought assistance. That’s one way the tank building helps, and I think, also, it helps by promoting awareness. We now have an extra eight or ten people who are aware of Lucky Stars Sanctuary. Hopefully, not only do they know the Sanctuary is here, but they know that we need help from time to time. They also have increased awareness about animals, animal rights, and how tough it is for the animals, especially during bushfire season. Workshops like the tank building initiative serve to increase awareness through social media and word of mouth. More people might contribute to helping financially or by giving Lucky Stars a hand.

GS: Many community projects are continually battling time and funding constraints. People have little time to theorise about what they do, how they do it and where they are heading. How do you think we can solve that problem? How do we begin gathering the data needed to understand our impact and the choices we need to make in the future? 

HS: Hmmm, that’s a really good question. Time and money are always going to be an issue. There are various organisations and government departments that collect data, for example, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. But whether it’s accessible to charities and communities … I don’t know. A tool that’s simple, affordable and standardised across the sector, could be the answer, like a smartphone app. The majority of people have smartphones now, although not everyone likes mobile apps, I guess they suck up valuable space on their phones. So maybe a website app that has the same functionality as smartphone apps. All the relevant data can be just a fingertip away, no painful paperwork and time saved as a result.

Lucky Stars Sanctuary could gather data such as volunteer info, animal health, fundraising, infrastructure problems or improvements, seasonal conditions. Even information, including photos of soil degradation would be useful for analysis, reporting, planning and decision making. It needs to be well designed, intuitive and easy to use, of course. All the data is there, no more hunting for it down the track. More time saved! Tick!

There’s an app called Farm Tracker, developed by the Department of Primary Industries. It helps farmers collect similar data, including geotagged photo diaries to monitor seasons and dam levels. Some of this information isn’t made public. Perhaps this could be retrofitted to suit charity or community-based work. Then you have the question, who’s going to commission and pay for it? Maybe the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission is a place to start.

Interview conducted with Helen Schloss at Lucky Stars Sanctuary by Gaele Sobott, 11 October 2020.

Links:

Interview 1 in the series: Kerrie Carroll

Interview 3 in the series: Liz Sherborne

Interview 4 in the series: Scotty Foster

Kerrie Carroll standing in front of the completed earthbag tank

An Interview with Kerrie Carroll

“People are starting to think about their choices. They know that current systems and behaviours are not sustainable”

Kerrie Carroll is co-founder of the not-for-profit, Lucky Stars Sanctuary which is home to around three hundred animals in need. The twenty-four-acre property is in Bywong, New South Wales, 30-minutes’ drive from Canberra.

This interview is the first of four interviews with volunteers involved in the building of an earthbag water tank at Lucky Stars Sanctuary. Vanuatu Earthbag Building assisted in this project. They have provided free plans, support and the materials required to build water tanks for people in need in fire zones in NSW Australia, cyclone zones in Vanuatu and Pacifica.

Gaele Sobott: Why did you decide to build an earthbag water tank? How did you go about organising it?

Kerrie Carroll: Well, Helen Schloss had become quite concerned about drought and fires. She began to do the research. I had been into some of the fire-affected areas doing what we call black walks, where we look for injured and burnt animals. We determine whether they need to be euthanised or whether we are able to do a successful rescue. In those areas, I noticed as soon as embers fell on the plastic tanks, they burned.  People had no water at all and lost their homes.  We were on constant alert through the fires and the drought. We had six deliberately-lit fires near us and two major fires that could have easily turned this direction. It was an exhausting time. 

Helen approached me with the idea and forwarded all the information. I thought it was amazing and we definitely needed another tank here at the sanctuary. I got in touch with Liz and Alex from Vanuatu Earthbag Building and we started putting everything into motion then COVID hit so they couldn’t travel from Sydney. We commenced work here as soon as we got the all-clear. Helen kindly did a call out to a range of different groups and we got this fabulous team of volunteers. Incredibly, it’s nearly finished. I love the look of it, smooth, simple, solid. It won’t burn down, which means we will be able to protect that little bit extra.

GS: You mentioned the black walks, can you talk a little about what you found on those walks?

KC: We found some animals and birds that were desperate for food and water. We did food drops, some native vegetation that we collected from other areas. Animals were injured and burnt. Thankfully they were on properties were people loved native wildlife and they allowed us access. We provided fruits and vegetables because it was a source of water for those animals. We had echidnas, wombats, birds. We were hanging the bird feeders with seed on all the burnt-out trees and that was quite eerie because there weren’t many birds left in the area. The one’s that we did come across we made sure they were okay. 

GS: Some birds may fly away from approaching fire. I imagine some are also caught in the smoke, if not the fire.

KC: Yes, so here at the sanctuary, we were surrounded by fires. Birds were flying away from those fires and we ended up with more here. We’ve never had this many cockatoos. Butcherbirds have come in and yellow-tailed black cockatoos, even ibis. We actually had a fire-fighting group that came here from France during that period who put up all bird-nesting boxes throughout the property. That way, we were able to help the birds coming in. 

GS: How big is this property?

KC: It’s only twenty-four acres. That’s enough for us to manage at our age.

GS: There appears to be a huge amount of work in terms of day-to-day chores.

KC: There was quite a bit to do here back then. There was no fencing, no shelters for the animals and a lot of rubbish left around. We basically cleared the land of all the rubbish, erected fences and established all the shelters. During the fires, there were a few goats that came into the sanctuary. The third one passed away from smoke inhalation and stress. It was quite sad but the other two are still here and going well. We had sheep that were brought to our front gate. They had suffered burns and people brought them here in the hope they would be treated but sadly that was not the case. Their hooves were literally burned off. That would mean a lifetime of misery for them. They couldn’t be salvaged. It was a sad time because they were on people’s properties and they didn’t go and look for them. We buried them here. 

GS: Why do you bury animals that die here?

KC: Well we bury all of them but especially if they have been given the drug called Lethabarb, which is a euthanising drug. It can affect other animals so we have to make sure we bury those animals who have been euthanised. We never burn the animals that die here. Firstly it would be unsafe during bushfire season but it is about our land and also about the volunteers and friends. They get very attached to the animals and they will actually go down to the little graveyard. They have memories and emotions that need addressing.

GS: How do you deal with the emotions of finding injured and dying animals, and euthanising animals?

KC: It’s difficult. There is a part of you that gets used to the ugly side of animal rescue, unfortunately. When we lose animals or we have to do euthanasia, your mind and your heart go to another place. You know that you have to prevent or end suffering. With every single rescue, whether it’s wildlife, farm or domestic, we consider whether they are going to have a good quality of life. We have to ask, are they going to have a life of pain? You have to make those decisions around your assessment of suffering. 

GS: That must be extremely difficult.

KC: It is. We have commenced a group decision-making process. The decision shouldn’t be left to one person. We all discuss the case and come to a decision based on the facts in front of us. We have never yet felt that we have made the wrong decision. A lot of thought goes into it. 

GS: Some people ask, Why do you devote time and money to animals? You should be looking after human beings. How do you respond to them? I believe you are a nurse.

KC: Yes, I am a registered nurse and I teach but the animals and the people come together here as one. We help a lot of teenagers, especially during COVID, who became mentally unwell due to isolation. We did separate, private group tours and they were different people by the end of it. We continue to liaise with those groups. We also have older people who come here with support workers and carers. We make time for them to come out. They generally focus on one area, for example, they may have a fascination with chickens or with kangaroos so we get them involved. They take all the information on board and get involved in the care of those animals. When they leave here, they’ve been working in the fresh air, gained knowledge and applied it. They join in with the laughter and the animals are so different when they are interacting with them. Our community has really benefitted from the sanctuary, not just around Canberra but NSW because we get groups from Sydney, Wollongong. They come from Queensland and now a lot of international people come and stay. For people who live in a city, this place really opens their eyes and heart. Coming to an open space, they’re able to breathe again.

In terms of mental wellbeing, the sanctuary really helps people. It also helps with inclusivity, like the LGBTQI community. Members of that community come here because it is a safe space. We don’t charge an entrance fee at the sanctuary because we don’t want affordability to be a barrier. We believe that charging money is a discriminatory practice. People who do not have much money should not miss out on the opportunity of participating in what the sanctuary has to offer. If all they can bring is a quarter of a pumpkin to cut up and feed the animals, well that is contributing and they become a part of the sanctuary.

Mother kangaroo and her joey at Luck Stars Sanctuary

GS: Do some people volunteer to help with the work here?

KC: Yes, they come to see and learn about the animals, and muck in while they’re here. Today we had a gentleman and his daughter visit. They helped collect all the eggs that the chickens lay everywhere. They cleaned some bedding. They also helped fill up the duck ponds for the babies. It depends on people’s skills and capabilities. Someone may be able to do fencing or shovelling, whereas others can only do some light work. There’s plenty to do, even chopping up lettuce for the chickens and the ducks.

GS: How do you delegate and roster work? Sometimes that can be a difficult process.

KC: It can be but we talk about the roster with all our volunteers. Generally, our rostering system works well. It’s incredible how people give their time. Everyone offers based on which days and times they have available. We send the roster out every fortnight. We delegate duties according to the animals’ needs. The animals have to come first. So, food, water, their bedding and shelter are the first priorities, and if they require any medications or veterinary attention. We have a duck on antibiotics at the moment and a kangaroo that is on some medications for muscle issues. All that comes first. We have routines and systems and people go into the shed over there and look on the wall, then they know exactly what food is given to each animal etcetera. The extras come after that. It may be time to rake one area or do some fence repairs or we need to rethink how we deal with some of the animals. Goats can be very cheeky sometimes. No way they’re going to bed and that type of thing so sometimes we have to think outside the box. The volunteers love the work. Look at those two young women, they are thrilled with the work, and we’re getting more men in now of all ages. It used to be predominantly women in caring roles and women who were having trouble in the workforce. Some were treated unfairly because they were older, some couldn’t get work because of their life circumstances, and because no one would give them references. They work with us here. We’re able to help them get public service positions, housing after divorce, that kind of thing because we provide a character reference for them.

GS: I imagine they continue to help the sanctuary.

KC: Yes, they do continue to help in different ways. We have a food pickup roster. Volunteers on that roster will always pick up extra shifts if they can. It’s a whole pay-it-forward system. We get given lots of fresh food for the animals as well as the purchased food. Like the sheep love strawberries, so the supermarkets sometimes give us cases of strawberries, watermelon, seasonal stuff.

GS: You must have a good relationship with your community.

KC: We do. There is one place called Choku Bai Jo, a farmers outlet, who have supported us for years. So that they don’t have waste, it comes in bins to us. That helps them out in terms of disposal. They work towards changing culture; where people want to eat plant-based diets for the benefit of our environment, our world, our health. They’ve started stocking a lot of plant-based products now. That’s amazing. I like their chocolate. They also support a lot of local farmers where they only deal with fruit and veg and don’t deal with animal products. It’s all done very much with a community spirit. They stock environmentally-friendly bags and bowl covers and all that.

GS: Do you see a change happening at the community level concerning protecting our environment and fighting climate disaster. 

KC: I do. I didn’t think I would see such a significant change in my lifetime but it is happening. People are starting to think about their choices. They know that current systems and behaviours are not sustainable. Industrial farming, the release of methane gas, for example, is over the top. It’s going to ruin our planet if we don’t do something urgently. I also find a lot of people come here and visit, and once they find out how pigs are factory farmed for example, they have given up all pork products. Like the terrible way many chicken farms operate. At the end of the day, why would you want to consume an animal kept in such filthy conditions and filled with antibiotics? A girl is working here this weekend who has actually just chosen to become vegetarian. She is thinking about how her lifestyle affects the world and is making changes. That’s good.

GS: Why did you start the sanctuary?

KC: I have always been in animal rescue from a very young age. I’ve never stopped. I have letters from, I think it was Malcolm Fraser, our prime minister back when I was about, I don’t know, ten years old. I was mortified by the clubbing of seals so I sent letters everywhere and put up posters at school and decide then to be vegan. That was a difficult time. There weren’t many products. I ate a lot of fresh fruit and veg and I think it was a Campbell’s tin of four-bean mix. I thought if I have to eat these beans for protein, that’s fine. It was hard to be creative back then on the food front. I never thought of setting up an animal sanctuary. I always thought I would just volunteer at places that needed help, fundraise, provide supplies, that type of thing. I realised that there were many different animal rescue groups out there. Some had various ways of rescuing and caring for animals and that was okay but there were  others where conditions weren’t good. I wasn’t happy with that kind of practice. So many animals were going through those places. We realised there was a need for another shelter. We started looking for a property. It was hard to find the perfect property where we were going to be happy because you have to live your life as well among the animals. We found this one relatively close to Canberra and accessible for people to come here without having to spend a lot of money on petrol or having to pack food or stay overnight. It’s a reasonably easy three-hour run from Sydney. We’ve also got onsite accommodation so people can stay. We don’t charge massive fees or anything like that, just as long as the utilities are covered. We just appreciate all the work everyone does while they’re here. The tank building, for example. Others who stayed here this weekend helped with all the feeding and cleaning.

GS: There was an enormous amount of work done this weekend.

KC: There was. It was huge. It makes us all feel amazing, and knowing that the animals are all so healthy and clean is great. We physically inspect every animal every single day.

Shingleback lizard at Lucky Stars Sanctuary

GS: I assume your nursing experience has come in useful.

KC: My nursing experience has been invaluable, really. Syringing medications, giving needles, wound dressing, and there is a certain element of trust with our vets as well. We save a bit of money if I am supplied with the material then we can do a lot of the veterinary work ourselves on the property. If I had my time over, I possibly would have been a vet but it wasn’t to be. Fortunately, I am able to apply nursing skills to the animals quite a bit.

There is one of our volunteers who has just picked up another load of food. She has a bad back and finds it relatively light work to collect the food. That way, she gets to come out to the sanctuary and be a part of the operations. We work within everyone’s capabilities.

GS: Do you work full time as a nurse?

KC: I work full time and Yee, the other co-founder works full time. That’s why we are keen to develop our lovely volunteer base. Everyone is reliable. If the chips are down, they’ll come and help. There are some nights that we don’t get a lot of sleep but it’s for a good reason and we don’t mind.

GS: Do you get time to rest?

KC: Yes, I do get rest. Every now and then, maybe every three months, I will say to everyone, I need a night to myself. They understand because they see how much goes on. The work with the animals is a full-time job and then there’s the administration and the fundraising. We don’t get any government assistance. Not like farmers do. So we are very reliant on people’s generosity, sponsorship of the animals – a number of them are sponsored. That means all their food and medical bills are covered. COVID affected our fundraising because we had to cancel all the events. Still, we recently had a little festival in the city which went quite well. We get the message out there with our events and that means more visitors come here.

GS: How do you get the message out?

KC: Social media and our website. People print brochures but on that front, we are thinking of the environment and leaning toward just saying look us up. We have a section called Tuesday Tips where we give a lot of information on various recycling ideas. We let people know how to be water-wise, how to rescue wildlife from the side of the road or how to go about contacting the right people. We also recently wrote a piece about sanctuaries that you can stay at. That was both on electronic media with a national reach and printed as hard copy. I’m a bit old fashioned in that way because I like reading a newspaper.  Our message is also spread by word of mouth. That’s important. Someone is always talking to someone else about coming out here, volunteering and they invite people here. 

GS: How is telling stories about the animals important to the sanctuary?

KC: Well, each animal, not all of them but a lot of them, has suffered before coming to us. Shaun is one of our most beautiful sheep. He was tied to a four-meter rope for three years in an industrial area just outside the city. He was in a terrible way. He’d never had any veterinary treatment, never been sheared and he was bloated. He had a foul odour and was miserable. Thankfully, we got called in because he was getting frustrated. The owners knew they couldn’t handle him anymore. He just laid his head on my lap, he was so depressed. I suppose it’s like being stuck in a bedroom for three years. That’s what he was going through. We’ve done a lot of work with him.  He was treated, we sheared him and he now gets fresh food and water. He met other sheep which was a big deal for him because he’d been so isolated. I videoed that moment. He was ecstatic. Sheep are herd animals, not meant to be on their own. They need their own kind.

It is important to tell the animals’ stories to our visitors and online. Even factory farming, chickens are terribly abused. They are only naturally supposed to lay twelve to twenty eggs. The factory-farming industry selectively breeds hens to pump out three hundred to four hundred eggs a year. Most of them usually succumb to cancerous tumours in their reproductive systems, peritonitis and fluids. They get respiratory problems, feet issues. We have just had one little girl brought in. Her wing had been stuck in the factory farm cage. A good Samaritan handed her into us. The wing wasn’t salvageable as all the vascular supply had been ruined. We took her to our vet, who did a successful amputation. She’s only about three months old now.  She doesn’t have that drag on her side anymore. She’s spritely, has lots of energy and has an amazing personality. We called her Ella after Ella Fitzgerald, who was an amputee. Her legs were amputated due to diabetes. People can connect those stories to their food choices as well, right down to the eggs. 

GS: Do those stories also help attract sponsors?

KC:  Yes, they do.People hear about specific animals that way.We had some people here who fell in love with one of the alpacas and ended up sponsoring her.Her name was Dora and she was fascinated by them. She came from a stud that was closing down. We take in older animals too.

GS: Do you shear the alpacas?

KC: Yes, we shear the alpacas once a year. We have specialists come in to do that. We worm them and give them vitamin injections then as well. 

GS: What do you do with the wool?

KC: We let anyone take the wool who wants it for spinning, some people make dog beds out of it.  We leave some out for the birds to collect for their nests but it takes a long time to break down in the environment so we have to be careful. We shear the sheep twice a year; a full shear at the start of summer and their bottoms and tails in winter. 

GS: I notice you don’t take off their tails.

KC: Yeah, it’s a misconception that sheep will always get fly-blown around that area. Mulesing and tail-docking came about because farmers wanted a clean shear and said it was for health reasons. Any sheep we’ve had here that had flystrike got it around the ribcage area. It comes down to good husbandry where you check your sheep regularly.

Sheep express themselves through their tails the same way a dog does. If they’re frightened or unsure, their tails go down between their legs. They wag their tails when they are happy, if you massage their body or when you feed them. You can know a lot about sheep by observing their tails. If they are cut off, it’s a lot more difficult to understand what’s going on. I read a study that proved they have phantom pain from their tails being cut off.

Rescue sheep at Lucky Stars Sanctuary

GS: Is there anything you would like to add?

KC: Come and visit us. Come and stay here with us. It’s accessible and I also think if people have made a donation, it would be great for them to come and see what they are supporting. Come and learn about the animals and what happens to them in our world. COVID is a big lesson for us. Bats and other wild species are in their natural environment and we have no right to mess with that. As we encroach on wildlife habitats, we can expect more spillover of animal diseases to human beings. Our use of pesticides is having devastating effects on the environment. I believe pesticides are the most likely cause of the cancer attacking our Tasmanian devils. The Tasmanian government has been lobbied many times to legislate to cease the use of chemical pesticides. So it’s crucial for us to look at the products we are buying, to find organic products. Farming practices such as introducing rabbits, foxes, then myxomatosis, cane toads, the list is long, have caused havoc on our wildlife.

GS: To finish up, how are love and respect relevant to your operation here at Lucky Stars?  

KC: Well, we respect the animals as individuals and we respect their space. If they want to come to you for affection, they come to you on their own free will and accord. We never force an animal to interact. It is important to respect them as a species. It is no different for humans. We know we must respect personal space. We have a very strong policy at the sanctuary where we all treat each other with respect. I think the animals can feel our emotions. All the volunteers develop a love for the animals and respect their space and routines. We don’t force them, like at night time, we try to put them to bed. Some are just not ready preferring to do something else. We like to know all the animals are safe at night so we try to get them used to bedtime. Some go in later than others. One night, dogs attacked. That was traumatic for one sheep who lost an ear from the attack but fortunately survived. Yeah, so we like to know they are all safe at night. Even pigeons, I think they are the most hated bird on the planet, along with the poor old ibis. We’ve got one hundred pigeons here that were rescued from a hoarding situation. They’re funny. Some will build a nest with a few twigs and lay an egg, others have got the Taj Mahal going on in there. They’ve all got their individual personalities.

We treat all our animals with the utmost respect, including our older and our disabled animals. We make sure they are happy, comfortable and have the best possible life.

Interview conducted with Kerrie Carroll at Lucky Stars Sanctuary by Gaele Sobott, 11 October 2020.

Links:

Interview 2: Helen Schloss

Interview 3: Liz Sherborne

Interview 4: Scotty Foster

Lucky Stars Sanctuary website

Lucky Stars Sanctuary Facebook

Disgust: what is not discussed in Australian politics

The sky is a dark smoke cloud tinged with orange, it’s difficult to breathe outside. I assist my mother to shower, rubbing shampoo into her hair. I hand her a facecloth to wipe soap from her eyes. We’ve closed the windows and doors to stop ash from coming inside. It’s hot. I’m disabled, 63 years old and my parents are in their late 80s. My mother is ill and has been in bed for a few months. It is extremely difficult for her to walk to the shower. There’s no electricity due to the fires that are raging up and down the south coast of New South Wales. No TV, no internet, no phone coverage. Emergency calls only on my mobile phone. Web-based fire apps aren’t any good to us. I’ve packed the car ready to drive to the evacuation centre at Moruya showgrounds. We are relying on the static reception of the ABC and a battery-operated radio for local emergency updates. I am impressed by the local knowledge and articulate reports of people who phone in about their experiences of the fires. Their reports are invaluable to understanding the trauma and loss, the ferocity of the fires and the extent of devastation.

The waiting is frustrating, I feel underlying and supressed fear. Occasionally, anxiety marks my parents’ voices and actions. My father is blocking the down pipes ready to fill the guttering with water. He is determined to stay and defend the house against ember attack and perhaps even approaching fire. His truck is packed and facing the road. He says he will go if necessary. There is no use arguing with him. I oil my mother’s finely wrinkled skin, careful not to press too hard; run my hands over her stomach, silently thanking her for bearing my sister and me. Her thighs are smooth, almost youthful, her ankles thin. I help her into pyjamas and bed and leave her to sleep.

*

Now I reflect as I wait. The ABC’s emergency reporting is serving us well, but disgust takes over at the Australian government’s not particularly subtle dismantling by stealth of this vital community and national asset. In fact, I realise disgust has been a more or less permanent emotion over the course of 2019. I’m not usually one for hyperbole but I think in this case it is warranted, not to be taken literally but illustrative of the proportions of my disgust; multi-directional, multi-dimensional, stretching to every extremes of my existence and beyond. I breathe the particulate matter of disgust into my lungs, into my veins, arteries and capillaries, my heart, my brain. It penetrates the subterranean reaches of our earth; the water tables, the aquifers, even, I suspect, the white-hot, molten metal core. Disgust drifts to where our earth’s atmosphere bleeds into outer space.

Most of the time, disgust accompanies feelings of grief and dread. As in early 2019, when close to one million fish searched for flow, for faster cooler deeper current, desperately fighting to breathe in the lower Darling river. But they failed, suffocated; their bloated, rotting corpses floating on blue-green algae pools, piling up on the banks and dry riverbeds. The deaths of 100-year-old Murray cod, golden and silver perch, bony bream with shining spirit skins haunt me. I grieve for them as I grieve the looming death of the Murray-Darling rivers system. I fear for the lives of farmers, townspeople, wildlife, reptiles, fish, insects, plant life, wetlands and soil that depend on this river system. Geologically speaking, the Murray–Darling Basin is over 200 million years old. The river system stretches 3,200 kilometres from Queensland, down through NSW, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory then into to the Murray Mouth at Goolwa, in South Australia.

My top lip curls up on the right side, my throat constricts and I feel nauseous. Disgust oozes through my body in response to reports that in 2012 after public consultation had ended on the draft Barwon-Darling water management plan, the National Party, Primary Industry Minister, Katrina Hodgkinson changed the rules to allow irrigators to extract 32 per cent more water during low flows. Disgust that corporate farmer irrigators, many of whom are said to be major National Party donors, have been taking water illegally from the Barwon-Darling and the NSW government has turned a blind eye. Disgust at the massive level of corruption and fraud, lack of transparency and obvious disregard for the health of the Murray-Darling river system that are hallmarks of the government’s water buy backs, water-efficiency projects and capturing of water from overland flow and floodplains. For instance, the federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, has family links to those charged with Murray-Darling Basin fraud amounting to A$20 million, yet he is still the Minister overseeing complaints in a separate investigation of the $80 million Murray-Darling Basin scandal involving federal MPs Barnaby Joyce and Angus Taylor.

I feel disgust at the corporate farming of water-guzzling crops that are not suited to our dry climate: like the annual planting of cotton, with an average irrigation requirement of 7.8 megalitres per hectare and the planting of permanent crops like almonds that require an average of 13 megalitres of water a year per hectare. About 90 per cent of Australia’s cotton is grown in the Murray-Darling basin. Cubbie Station, located on the Darling Riverine Plains, is the biggest water user and largest cotton farm in Australia. Its storage dams stretch for more than 28 kilometres. This water is harvested from the floodplains and cannot therefore flow naturally to the river. It is believed floodplain harvesting is a major contributor to the huge drop in flow in the Darling river. A significant portion of the water stored in dams is also lost to evaporation. Cubbie has water licences for 460GL or 184,000 Olympic swimming pools.

Instead of addressing how these actions contribute to reduction of water flow, the Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud and his NSW counterpart Niall Blair blame the drought.

*

I let disgust go. I must take my mother something to drink. She is tiny in her bed, covered by red blankets, sleeping. These days, she has almost no appetite. We offer her smaller servings of food, yogurts, milk drinks; easily digestible with nutritional powder, banana or blueberry or yogurt mixed in. As the electricity is off, I mash a banana with a fork until it is liquid, whisk it into the milk mixture then strain out any lumps. I may try mashed avocado next time. We are on a journey of discovery, finding out the food tastes and textures that please her. She likes some soups, carrots cooked until they are soft and vegetable risotto. Yesterday, she asked for a cup of tea.

            The police knock on the door. My cousin in Perth is worried as she can’t get in touch with us. One policeman tells us that Mogo, Batemans Bay and places like Malua Bay have experienced significant damage from the fire. They say they would prefer my mother and I go to the evacuation centre today.

My father packs a change of clothes and a toothbrush in a bag. I prop Mum crookedly against some pillows on her bed; she manages to drink a small glass of banana milk. I decide to check out the centre and leave her to sleep.

It’s not far to the Moruya showground. There are a lot of caravans and tents around the oval, horses in various enclosures and other livestock in small buildings. I can hear hens clucking and roosters crowing. People are carrying cats and walking their dogs. The evacuation centre volunteers and emergency workers are set up at tables close to the entrance of the indoor basketball court. A man offers his arm to help me walk. I’m thankful. It’s difficult to negotiate the crowd without my mobility scooter. People, strangers, seem to gain comfort from talking to each other about their experiences, their losses, their fears and their plans for the fires approaching Moruya. I talk to a couple from Canberra who can’t get back because of road closures. Another woman tells me the water is off at South Head. Two elderly men say that the leather shop in Mogo has burnt to the ground. There is a white board with the latest information on the fires, road closures, power cuts and the times when food is served. I register my parents, myself and the cat with the triage team. The workers try their best to help find a suitable place for us to stay but the accommodation on offer is not accessible. They advise me to try the retirement village near the hospital which has chairs available for the night. I drive there and speak to the woman in charge. She is efficient and welcoming. The hushed pinks, greens and grey of the interior provide shelter to many elderly people and some disabled young people, all sitting quietly, staff bustling between them. The woman says we should hurry to be assured of a place as they are also expecting elderly people who are being evacuated from the retirement village in Dalmeny.

Back at home, I give my mother a small glass of apple juice. Dad puts an esky full of drinking yogurt and apple juice, a pillow and woollen blanket in my car. I drive to the retirement village with Mum. Two members of staff wheel her inside, I park the car and bring her bag in. She is sitting on a chair, upright, tense, ready to leave. Her eyes are bright blue, buttoned into her pale face, searching for me. I sit next to her, suddenly realising that possibly she thought I had dumped her in a retirement home under the pretext of evacuation and I wasn’t returning. She asks me numerous times why we are here and where my father is. A staff member offers her a sandwich. She refuses to eat with a slight air of indignance. She keeps repeating that she wants to go home. Her confusion and anxiety are increasing rapidly. I tell a member of staff we are leaving, take my mother to the car and we drive.

I’ve lost awareness of dates, days. It’s a weekday, mid-afternoon. No cars on the road, no people walk the streets and everything seems to glow a dirty, apocalyptic orange. We drive past the Queens Street Medical Centre. There is a sign on the door that reads ‘Closed due to fires’. Some businesses that rely heavily on the tourist season have decided to call it quits for good. ATMs don’t work and the few shops that are open require cash. The chemist in the main street and Woolworths are closed. I drive home, hoping it will be possible for Mum to stay one more night in the comfort and familiarity of her own bed.

Dad agrees with this decision. The fire glows red on the ridge north of Moruya. I’m on edge, wondering how I will know if there is an ember attack or if fire approaches during the night. I manage to sleep soundly, waking to the alarm at 6am. Dad helps Mum into the car. We find parking in front of the evacuation centre. It is not too far to walk. I keep talking to her, explaining that we will be staying here for the whole day and night. An emergency worker asks if we would like someone to bring us our meals. I appreciate her assistance. It means we don’t have to join the long queues at the building that serves as a kitchen. A charity volunteer talks to me about finding a mattress for my mother. Soon, a young man appears with an air mattress. He proceeds to blow air into it. Another volunteer brings sheets and pillows that have been donated. People are helpful. They assist me to walk and carry things. When the electricity goes off, a woman in a bed nearby tells me she is a nurse. She offers to take over from me for a while to fan my mother. Her husband has Parkinson’s and is waiting for his daily medication to take effect. Their two teenage sons are with them. Like many people in here, this family knows the fire has already been through their area but don’t know if their house is still standing. I keep Mum’s fluids up and give her mouthfuls of yogurt from the esky. When a volunteer brings spam and salad sandwiches, surprisingly she eats most of it. The small dogs are yapping, the parrots squawking but generally the animals in the hall are well behaved.

Time passes slowly. I keep talking to Mum, reassuring her. Someone says the fire is at North Moruya, firefighters are water bombing near the airport. A volunteer offers me two wet cloths. I put one at the back of Mum’s neck and one in the esky. She asks about Dad a few times, then asks if we can go home soon. I tell her we are staying the night. I don’t know how I am going to help her up from the mattress when she wants to go to the toilet. I speak to the emergency workers about it. The hair around my forehead is wet with sweat. People stop and talk to us. I notice various disabled people of different ages with varied impairments and health conditions. They are accompanied by family and friends. The strength of community in this hall is palpable. People seem to know intuitively how to help each other, their skills are apparent. It is clear that, even without resources, we will make the best of the distressing situation we find ourselves in.

Mum wants to go to the toilet. She tries to get up but cannot. I ask an emergency worker for assistance. She calls another woman. They try to help but hurt Mum by pulling on her arms. She doesn’t complain. An elderly woman sitting across the way gets up and walks over. Her name is Val, she was a geriatric nurse in England. She demonstrates to the women how to help a frail person up from the floor. Mum is on her feet. I guide her to sit on the walker and push her. We move slowly. I’m not physically strong. The walker helps me balance. There are four toilets and a row of metal basins on the wall. One toilet has a piece of paper taped to the door with ‘For people with upset stomachs’ written across it. Apparently, some form of gastritis is raging through the dogs and the humans in the centre. When Mum is finished, I rub her hands with sanitiser and we return to our mattress. Even though this experience is hard for her, she is quietly persevering. She lives in the immediate present or in her childhood. She talks to me now about her father, telling me that he was a gentle man.

*

I lay next to her and I think about resilience and about how we are made vulnerable by a system that has let us down. How communities that lack resources – poor communities, the disabled, the elderly, First Peoples’ communities – are particularly impacted by disasters like this one. My guts twist in anger and hurt for those in need who are disregarded or, worse, stigmatised and punished by government policies. Disgust sets in again at the repeal of Medevac, stripping away the only pathway to evacuation from offshore detention for sick refugees. Disgust at the decision to axe funding to the main body representing First Peoples women survivors of domestic abuse. Disgust at Robo-debt’s cruel assault on our welfare system causing extreme distress and, in some cases, suicide. Disgust at the refusal of government to increase the New Start support allowance which, at around $40 a day, which condemns people to live well below the poverty line, barely covering rent, let alone other essentials.

Disgust that people on the cashless welfare card will not be able to buy goods during this disaster when the shops are demanding payment in cash. Disgust that the expansion of the cashless welfare card is costing between $4,000 to $10,000 per person to implement and manage. This money could be going directly to income support or work programs, education or additional resources and infrastructure in areas impacted by high unemployment. It goes instead to Indue Pty Ltd, a corporation said to donate to various Liberal and National Party branches nationally. In August 2019, Indue is reported to have received up to $21.9 million. If the card is extended to every person receiving benefits, the cost to the taxpayer for administration alone will be in the billions. Disgust also that the Indue card is the result of the sustained efforts of billionaire mining magnate, Andrew Forrest, who dictates that the solution to what he perceives as the ‘welfare dependency’ of First Peoples is income management.

*

Women bring us our evening meal; a sausage with mashed potato and fried onions. One woman asks if she can bring some water with electrolytes.

I say, ‘Yes, please.’

 ‘It’s cold and it’s electric-blue,’ she adds.

When she returns, Mum has a long drink from the flask. Then tries to get up. An emergency worker brings two young army reservists who offer their help. Val explains to them how to lift. They do a great job. I ask them how they feel about helping citizens at home. ‘It makes me feel valued,’ one says.

I help Mum to the washbasin and pour water from a bottled so she can clean her teeth. We return to our place on the floor and lay down with every intention of sleeping. It is noisy and hot.

Mum turns to face me. Her eyes seem to look right into who I am as if she has some kind of superpower.

She asks, ‘How are you? How are you really going in your life?’

I say, ‘I am good Mum. I have friends. I’m good.’

She continues to look at me.

I have not asked myself this question. Every day is a struggle. I am self-employed, work non-stop and make very little money. My work–life balance is terrible.

Children run up and down the hall, laughing and screaming. The main light in the hall is just above us, secured to the backboard of a basketball hoop.

*

I return my thoughts to Andrew Forrest and the big mining companies in Australia. Miners of fossil fuels like Adani only expect to be viable if they depend on subsidies, favourable deals and tax concessions. Over its thirty-year life, Adani’s Carmichael coal project would be given at least $4.4 billion in taxpayer subsidies. The miners bring in huge revenues but pay little or no tax at all. The latest Australian taxation figures record that massive oil and gas producers, like Exxon Mobil with $9.23 billion in Australian revenues, Chevron with $5.27 billion and Woodside with $6.28 billion, all paid no tax. Gina Rinehart’s company, Hope Downs, with $3.8 billion revenue, does not pay tax. That both our two major political parties support coal exports when we could be developing other export industries including renewables, makes no sense. I want to see a breakdown of who exactly benefits from the US$87.7 billion income from our 2018 exports of mineral fuels. Given that the demand to decommission coal mines includes a just transition of jobs to renewables, I wonder why there is so much emphasis on jobs in the coal industry when just over 37,000 jobs are involved and many mines, including Adani, are automating. There is also little discussion on how the increase in our exchange rate caused by the resources boom negatively affects other job sectors — industries such as tourism, tertiary education, manufacturing, agriculture that employ vastly more people in widely dispersed locations. I feel disgust that we are lied to by politicians like Scott Morrison and the billionaire-owned media. We are not given the information we need to make decisions, we are discouraged from thinking critically.

I feel disgust that Gina Rinehart’s company, Hancock Prospecting, donates millions to the right-wing, climate-denying think tank, Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) which has close links to the Liberal party and to Murdoch’s media. Murdoch News Australia pays no tax, despite $2.4 billion in revenues from its papers and websites. The same media spreads clearly disproven disinformation that arsonists, not climate change, are responsible for the continuing fire disaster we are experiencing in Australia.

I am equally disgusted when, in September 2019, Donald Trump hosts a state dinner in honour of Scott Morrison accompanied by guests Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest, billionaire media magnates, Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes, News Corp’s Lachlan Murdoch and billionaire Anthony Pratt. These are the important players in Australia’s oligarchy. This is where power resides.

I assume oligarchs can helicopter out of a danger zone if they ever find themselves in one. They can afford to ‘adapt’ to climate change by building bunkers into their holiday homes. We never expect to share space with an oligarch in an evacuation centre.

*

The generator stops. The lights go out. An emergency worker fiddles with an electricity cable.

My mother asks, ‘Can we go home in the morning?’

 ‘I think so,’ I say and turn over to sleep.

The generator starts up again. I wake to the light flickering in my face. Most people in the hall appear to be asleep. Mum is trying to get out of bed. She thinks she is at home. I explain that we are in the hall, that we have evacuated. She asks where my father is. A volunteer comes to help her up. I can now see bruises on Mum’s arms, her hips and knees are sore. Val comes over and instructs the woman how to lift. Val also lifts. I wheel Mum to the toilet. It is too late. She has wet herself. I wheel her back to the bed and pack our bag. We pass by the tables near the entrance and sign out. I explain that I can’t continue to put Mum through this. A young man helps us to the car. I don’t know if we are still under threat from fire. We drive home.

Both Mum and Dad sleep through the next day. I listen to the ABC. A neighbour knocks. He tells me we must boil our drinking water because it is now being mixed with water that comes directly from the river. He says the supermarkets are empty. There is no food, no fuel. I take two cans of Irish stew from the cupboard. That will do us.

As the days roll by, we are lucky; the electricity is back on and so is the phone and Internet. Many communities are still waiting for the electricity to be restored. A truck load of supplies gets through under police escort. The food is gone from the supermarket by lunchtime.

*

My father has an appointment with an Aged Care Assessor who will assess him for Home Care Packages (HCP) level 2. She tells us that her house, north of Moruya, is under threat from the renewed fire danger forecast for the weekend. She will move into town with her in-laws. As we talk, the lack of transparency and brokenness of the aged care system become obvious. Unlike the NDIS, where disabled people at least have the option of self-management, the elderly must use providers. Some providers are said to charge elderly people up to 50% of their government subsidy for administration. Comparing provider charges is an almost impossible task as the formats are not standardised. I ask the assessor if she can explain the announcement made over Christmas by the federal government that private companies will deliver assessments from April 2021. She doesn’t know about it. More than 400,000 assessments are done every year for home-care packages and residential care, at a cost of $800 per assessment.

Disgust settles in the room once again as I realise this is another opportunity for private enterprise to pocket public funds. The assessor explains how, to date, state-employed nurses, social workers and geriatricians work through community health and public hospitals to assess the level of care required by individual elderly people. She doesn’t think private providers will have the community knowledge, expertise or concern for the individual to provide this service. She is worried that, without the involvement of state and local government structures, there will be even less transparency and little accountability. She gets up to go, saying to Dad that it will take up to two years for his package to come through once it is approved.

He says, ‘Well, I may not be here by then.’ He adds, ‘But I don’t want to shoot the messenger.’

I follow her out the door, holding onto the wall for support.

*

The road to Batemans Bay has just opened. I want quotes for an adjustable bed for my parents, so Mum can sit up in bed to eat. I drive through smouldering, blackened forests. Twisted sheets of roofing iron mark the spot where houses, sheds and businesses have burned to the ground. Smells of burnt wood intermingle with the acridity of charcoaled animal flesh. The agony of a young kangaroo, its body seared to a fence, is captured by a photographer, singeing the psyche of the world. One billion animals estimated killed in the fires. Unknown numbers of invertebrates, insects, frogs, bats dead. Possible catastrophic consequences to ecosystems. More than 2,000 homes and eight million hectares burned. Vast areas of bushland will not regenerate. At least twenty-four people killed and the fires continue.

People in Sydney have been breathing toxic, smoke-filled air for months. People on the south coast are breathing smoke. On the 1 January 2020, Canberra’s air quality is the worst of any major city in the world. On 8 January, the Bureau of Meteorology announces that 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Yet our government acts as if it is business as usual, touting that we’ve had fires since time began.

The 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review examined the scientific evidence around the impacts on Australia of climate change and predicted that, without adequate action, the nation would face a longer and more intense fire season by 2020. Disgust almost overpowers me that this and other warnings are ignored. That Scott Morrison chooses not to meet with the twenty-three former fire and emergency leaders who ask to discuss early preparation and the equipment needed to fight the impending fire disaster. Disgust that, under the 2019-20 NSW state budget, fire and rescue capital expenditure is cut by $28.5 million or 35 per cent. The Rural Fire Service capital expenditure budget is cut by $49.9 million or 75 per cent. Disgust that the Prime Minister sees fit to go on holiday to Hawaii, the NSW Minister for Emergency Services goes on holiday to Europe, and the Federal Defence Minister goes on holiday to Bali while this land is suffering a profound disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Disgust runs out my ears, oozes from every pore and orifice at the arrogance with which the Prime Minister responds to public concerns on how to compensate and properly equip volunteer fire crews who have been battling the fires since September. Disgust at the forced handshakes and thuggish behaviour he imposes upon the traumatised community of Cobargo. I cannot possibly talk about everything that disgusts me. There is too much. This is why I choose to represent my disgust through hyperbole.

*

The bleak, ashen husks of trees that now comprise Eurobodalla Botanical Gardens are a blur as I drive back to Moruya. It dawns on me that, just like hyperbole, disgust has a purpose. Feelings of disgust are an evolutionary response to protect us from pathogens, infectious threats. Disgust helps us protect and preserve the social order from something that is offensive, poisonous or dangerous. Disgust is about survival.

My disgust calls for totally different ways of living and producing, and different ways of relating to each other and the earth. I don’t think anybody knows yet what this will look like, but I’m sure the oligarchs must not have any say in shaping it. Carbon-fuelled accumulation of capital, greed and ever-increasing profit margins are dangerous to life on earth. Our survival will involve us developing confidence in our ability to respect life, to love and help each other, confidence in our skills and our knowledge, so that we may work within our communities, upwards and outwards, joining with other communities for the common good. Our survival will depend on us learning how to recognise and actively fight corruption, fraud and lies. It will mean we find ways to make reliable information available to all, support and build progressive, independent media, develop critical thinking and make decisions based on facts not lies.

I read that on 31 December in Victoria, Veronica Marie Nelson Walker, a 37-year-old Yorta Yorta woman is charged with shoplifting and refused bail after representing herself at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, instead she is remanded at the Dame Phyllis Frost maximum security women’s prison. On 2 January she is found dead in her cell. Our survival depends on urgently building solidarity with those who are discriminated against, racialised, criminalised and murdered by the laws and system that are supposed to protect us. We know the violence against First Peoples, disabled people, women, refugees, the elderly and other oppressed groups of people is linked. The brutality of this system is lethal.

*

I stand by Mum’s bed, looking at her curled warm in her blankets.

She asks, ‘Do we have to evacuate again?’

‘No,’ I say, lying next to her. She talks about her father being on the susso. She describes how, during the war, at school they did drills, practised climbing down into trenches in the Exhibition gardens.

‘I don’t think the world has ever been in as much danger as it is in now,’ she says, placing her hand on my hand.

Gaele Sobott

Grandmother by Gaele Sobott

A Profile portrait of an African man, pensive, sitting with his arms resting on his lap and his hands clasped in front of him. He is wearing colourful print clothing and head gear. Blocks of yellow, navy and red make up the background wall.

Front cover art by Buhle Nkalashe

This story appears in New Contrast, one of the first South African literary journals. New Contrast is devoted to publishing the best of poetry and prose, art, reviews and interviews from both local and international authors. I am thrilled to be keeping company with such outstanding poets, prose writers, artists and photographers in this Autumn 2020 edition. Please go the New Contrast website and support this journal which relies on sales of hard-copy print editions. 

Grandmother

I smell meat cooking on the barbeque, innocuous in a typical suburban yard in Blacktown. The warmth of the winter sun penetrates my skin, the grass is cut, the deck needs oil, a scrawny rose bush winds its way too high, clinging to the asbestos wall, clambering up and over into the guttering. My granddaughter, Yasmina, throws a red ball into the blueness of the sky. The smoke twists up through my hair. I close my eyes, listening to the spitting fat.

*

Insignificant popping sounds, spitting, getting louder. A vehicle speeding so late in the winter dark pulls up, brakes screaming. Tyres graze the gravel outside. It seems my feet are walking the icy tiles before my torso leaves the bed. My hands feel for jeans, one leg in and then the other, I pull the denim up over my thighs, scrunching folds  of floral nightdress between the waistband and my skin. The zip bites down hard on the cotton fabric. Beating, clattering, chattering. Giant insects flying frantic against glass, wings flapping.

Running now down the passage into their room. I lift baby warm from her cot curled in blankets and stride skin silent on the floor across to her sister’s bed.

“Boni, Boni, I want you to lie here under the bed. Hold Moratiwa. Don’t let her go. Don’t talk. Whatever happens stay quiet.”

“Yes Mama,” she whispers.

I’m pushing the quilt and a pillow and Boni and Moratiwa under the bed.

Bre-bre-bre-bre-bre … not insects flapping wings  …  bre-bre-bre- bre … no they are not insects. Ghost men with rounded backs, bent men swarm from a white combi van. They run into our neighbours’ yard, the old colonial house is dark behind the trees, its wide veranda grimacing. The servants’ quarters, submissive and small in front of the house near the road.

Bre-bre-bra-bra, lines of yellow light burst from stumpy machine guns into the blackness, into the brick quarters where two young women live.

Peering from the side of the lounge-room window, through the crack where the curtain doesn’t quite cover the night, the grass  quivers, long and colourless under moonlight. The men throw grenades. White light flares up the lounge-room wall. The numbers on the clock flash bright. Short thuds of sound. I drop down, moving on hands and knees across the rug. The sofa and baby’s teddy in the hallway gleam iridescent razor-blade blue, every atom of my body is noise, intense loud limpet, cracking, reverberating circles, flattening my belly to the floor, shuddering walls, shattering windows, pieces of glass falling into my hair.

I crawl up the hallway, into the bedroom, crunch my hipbone cold into the white tiles, clinging to my children, not moving. They  are quiet. The dead night is quiet. There are no sirens, no dogs bark. Gaborone is acrid silence.

*

My son-in-law turns the steaks. The sausages spatter fat at his big-pony Ralph Lauren shirt and he jumps back, his body curves like a letter C. His sneakers are never-been-worn white.

I say, “I like your hair cut Walid. Really smart.”

“Thanks Lena. Got it cut this morning.”

Boni yells from across the yard, “He’s so particular about his hair! He’s been going to the same barber for fifteen years. Won’t let anyone else but Joe cut it.”

“Baby, he’s an expert blender. Not many guys know how to blend.”

“I think he’s got a bit of a bromance going with Joe,” Boni says. She’s wearing a light denim dress that criss-crosses over her back and sticks out like a tent over her pregnant belly, my second grandchild. We already know a boy is on his way.

Walid leaves the meat, comes over and bends his head down in front of me.

“Look here, he cuts with a zero, then a half, then a one, faded high like navy cut with no lines. You know what I mean?”

I nod, “Yeah, I can see.”

“The fade’s the most important part, very difficult to blend from zero to half into one without showing lines. It has to look smooth and crisp. Other hairdressers stop halfway up the back of the head because it’s too hard. Not Joe, he brings the fade right up to the top of the head, seamless. Then he scissor-cuts the top. Strictly scissors. No blade.”

Walid strolls back to the barbeque and starts putting the steaks onto a plate.

“Yeah, he thins out the top so it doesn’t look so thick and the hair sits edgy not flat. That’s the beauty of this cut. I can wear it gelled up like now or I can wear it flattened down to either side, neat like, for work.”

“It’s a smart cut,” I add.

Yasmina runs towards Walid, her arms flailing above her head like a windmill,

“I wanna help Baba,” she says grabbing hold of a steak with her plump little fingers, quickly dropping it in the dirt, looking stunned, about to cry.

“It’s hot Yasmina. Don’t touch anything. Go to Nanna.” He holds their two little white dogs back with his foot as if he’s playing soccer and guides his daughter away from the barbeque.

I call, “Come here Yasmina.”

She walks over, nonchalantly, slightly bow-legged, curly hair dancing in the breeze. Her body is solid in pink and green leggings, a green mouse dances on her tee shirt. Yasmina climbs onto my lap. I hug her, tender skin warm against mine. Boni drags a chair over to where we’re sitting. She’s puffing and as if her tiredness is contagious, I feel deep fatigue, a dark uneasiness.

“Mum, will you come to the delivery again?” “Yes, sure I’d love to.”

“Good, Walid and Moratiwa and you, just like Yasmina’s birth hey?”

“Will they do a caesarean straight away this time?” I ask.

“No, I want to try for a natural birth first. Prefer to avoid caesarean. It’s a pretty major operation.”

My granddaughter sits moist against my body, listening.

“Ok, come and help yourselves to the food,” Walid yells.

Yasmina jumps off my lap and sprints towards him. I half-expect her to fall but she doesn’t.

*

Going home, Homebush Bay Drive exit, diesel fumes slip through the vents. A mammoth truck next to me, another in front. My car, dark- green, 1998, shabby, gets me from A to B, and I fantasise, if I had money, which car would I buy? Not the Mercedes C200, maybe the black Mazda 3 in front, or the orange Toyota Camry with black mag wheels that roars when it takes off from the traffic lights. Roberts Road. Bunnings looms like a military bunker on my left, a red and yellow Maccas flag flies next to the Australian union jack and stars, my country of exile, the bright lights of a petrol station, Oporto chicken. Cruising through the green light across Juno, right up to Punchbowl Road.

I park, trying not to scrape the fence. The outside lights at Koh I Noor Court stopped working last time it rained. We want to pay to get the electrics sorted but strata fees don’t keep up with all the burst pipes and broken windows. A patchy lawn in front of the apartment block. The geraniums flower orange-pink next to the bay tree. The leaves on the dwarf mandarin curl, white with some kind of fungus. I pass my neighbour’s door, climb the stairs, to the same children’s songs I hear every day and every night… and if one green bottle should accidentally fall, there’d be five green bottles hanging on the wall…

Two and a half years since I first became a grandmother, now another grandchild is about to be, being, humans being. Strip off, shower, let the warm water flow down my arms, my legs. Curled up on the bed, comforted by the towelling of my robe, textured against moist skin. Sleep comes easily but briefly, I drift in the space behind closed eyes assailed by gruesome images, flickering faces, distorted, ugly. Unclench my hands one finger at a time, stretch out my arms, try to relax the muscles in my neck.

My  grandchildren  will  never  know  their  maternal  grandfather.  I conjure up the face of RraBoni. He rolls a joint, relaxed, laughing, listening to his favourite fusion. Tilting his head back, he blows wispy, white circles of smoke that hover, gently falling apart over the trumpet lines, the congas, the guitar snaking through Miles Davis, Bitches Brew, the bluesy keyboard on Weather Report’s Birdland. My children’s baby faces — Boni, her brown skin, freckled by the sun, a smiling dimple on her left cheek. These images relieve my nightmares. Moratiwa, more petite, darker skin, darker hair that falls in spirals over her shoulders. The one who is loved. My granddaughter, her brown, gold-tipped curls that spring in all directions, her alert eyes observing me. My yet-to-be- born grandson, another gift from the ancestors.

*

The reflection of my body moves ethereal in the sliding mirror doors of the wardrobe. My existence is enmeshed in history, some parts fluid, some parts rotting, torpid beneath my living. After almost thirty years, I feel an urgent need to tear away the scabs, dig down to the core, the agony. I begin searching, frantic, closed up in my flat. I claw at the skin of apartheid, searching for details of what happened that night. I want to know about the men who planned the killing, the men who murdered, those who justified and covered up the crimes. I trawl the Internet, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission documents, reports, SABC  videos. There are so many submissions, so much brutality, over 20,000 statements from victims, nearly 8,000 applications for amnesty from perpetrators of crimes against humanity, a small but somehow representative taste of apartheid from the 1st March 1960 to the 10th May 1994.

Still and stiffened into a monstrously crooked position, I read like an addict craving horror, ripping open and exposing the cruel core of a desperate regime. Under the heading, ‘cross-border military operations’, I find testimonies. On 14 June 1985, twelve people were killed in Operation Plecksy … in Gaborone, Botswana. Eight of the dead were South Africans. The others were a Somali citizen, a Basotho child and two citizens of Botswana. Some of the Security Branch operatives who identified the targets and planned the raid applied for amnesty. I read their names. Their words avoid the truth. Their words are small truths, just enough to get amnesty, no more. Some are obvious lies.

A rooster crows next door, another rooster answers from the darkness across the road. I unbend my body, stand and stretch my arms in the air. I can see the tree in our neighbour’s yard. The half-moon has fallen, pale, from the sky and lies trapped in the tree’s branches. I move from one room to another without purpose, walking in the gloom.

Mrs Hilda Phahle addresses the Human Rights Violations Hearing in Alexandra. Our children fled this oppression of this country … the land of their birth, the land of their forefathers. They were tortured beyond reason and fled. The enemy followed them and brutally massacred them … the SADF arrived swearing and behaving like people well-drugged and drunk, ordering George to open the door. The door was blown open … the piano fell against Levi’s bed under which he was hiding. God spared him to tell the story. He watched from under the bed as they pumped bullets into his brother and his wife, bullets penetrating them simultaneously. They turned them over face upwards and one asked, “Is hulle dood?” (“Are they dead?”). “Morsdood” (“stone dead”) was their reply.

My eyes are scratchy in their sockets, my limbs creak like heavy machinery in need of oil. My head, an abandoned factory, echoing the vicious cruelty. Someone walks around the flat below, a door closes, a toilet flushes.

Mrs Phahle wears large, metallic pink-rimmed glasses. A woollen green and red scarf protects her neck from the winter cold. She wraps a Basotho blanket around her shoulders. Her voice has the timbre of mother love, woven loosely with threads of grief and anger. I hear her weariness. Her face is light-skinned, gentle. She says to a television camera,

As Christians we’ve got to accept what has come our way, more so that we cannot repair the damage. The only thing is for us to accept and we pray that such a thing never happens again. That’s all.

I lay on mounds of blanket twisted in sheet. Sleep rises up in the blackness and falls like a small boat on large waves. So many of the living are suffering. I’m fearful the waves will break, and the boat will smash into many pieces.

An insistent electronic pulse draws me from sleep. My fingers fumble with my phone, sliding across the small screen. Turn the alarm off. There is wind blowing outside. A branch of the bay tree scrapes against my bedroom window. I call work. My voice deliberately weak,

“Hi Maureen, I’m so sorry I won’t be coming in today. I’ve got a really bad migraine.”

*

The broken windows allow the frosty morning to creep into the lounge room, over the shattered glass, up the hallway into the bedroom. A bird dares to twitter. I hear the front door open. RraBoni has come home with two friends. They’re holding multi-pronged, metal spikes.

“Look what they threw on the roads. Eeesh, everyone has flat tyres.” My husband is a big man, wide shoulders hunched now. He puts his arm around me and I lean further into the balminess of his body, alcohol and sweat. His face is red from a night of drinking.

“Are the girls alright?”

“They’re fine. Sleeping in our bed.”

“Anyone like a coffee?” I ask.

“I’d love one thanks Lena,” the smaller man says. He is hunched over, shivering.

I turn on the kettle, go to the bedroom and lift the quilt from Boni’s bed.

“Here Motusi.” He wraps it around his shoulders, pastel green, pink, brown squares, elephant, crocodile, monkey and lion.

“Danke Mma.”

“Still no sign of the police,” says RraBoni

I’m careful not to cut myself, fingers like tweezers, picking up the bigger pieces of glass and putting them in a bucket. Sweep the kitchen floor and the hallway.

A BDF army jeep pulls up. We file outside. The grass sways yellow in winter. Everything is sepia, the trees, the gravel, the rusting wire fence. A tabby cat follows us, mewing. Confusing, smoky-meat odour clings to my skin, sweet like almonds. Pieces of the young women’s bodies grasp the fence, the grass, hang from the syringa trees. People come slowly from the flats, from the surrounding houses. Two soldiers throw a long metal box on the ground. We collect a shoe, a bloodied bra, a hand. We collect burnt chunks of flesh. No one speaks. No one cries. We gather the remains of our neighbours into the metal box.

*

It is suburban quiet. Children with shiny skin and bright white socks pass my window on their way to school. My kitchen, fake marble benches, white cupboards, is small but filled with light. I chop apple and banana into a bowl, drink green tea. I will not go to work. Bare feet, hair unbrushed, hunching over the laptop, four days and nights melt into a blistered mass of knobbled ash and grit. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, searching for detail. Gentle people murdered  in their beds, intellectuals, artists and writers, musicians and teachers. Seven of the twelve associated with the ANC. The killers shot open the front door of Tami Mnyele’s home and machine-gunned the artist as he ran across the backyard. They joked, kicked his corpse and took trophy photographs. Blasted his artwork, splintering his easels and paintbrushes, splattering paint.

Swallow painkillers, stretch my neck, bend my back, my hands dangling at my feet. I fall onto my bed again and stare at the ceiling. The Scottish woman who lives in number nine is talking to our neighbour about his fruit trees. I close my bedroom window and pull the blind.

At two o’clock Tuesday morning, I sit crunched  over  the  laptop. The men in combi vans murdered Duke Mashobane. His six-year-old nephew, Peter Mofoka, fled screaming from the bedroom, wearing flannel pyjamas. They pumped bullets into his small body, continuing at close range long after the boy was dead. Dick Mtsweni, ‘Mkhulu’, was shot and his house set alight. His body burnt to nothing. Michael Hamlyn was executed as he knelt on the floor at the end of his bed, looking up at the attackers, his red hair tousled from sleeping. He was a conscientious objector, who refused to serve in the South African Defence Force. They murdered Somali refugee and Dutch national, Ahmed Geer. His wife, Roeli, eight months pregnant, escaped with bullet wounds to her legs.

Most of those who took responsibility for planning the attack were granted amnesty from human rights abuses. The names of the 5 Recce SADF commandos and the Barnacle operatives from Special Forces are not listed. Those men who drove across the border to take the lives of twelve people didn’t apply for amnesty. I can’t find anything to say they were ever charged for their crimes. One working as a mercenary in Iraq was killed in Al Kut in 2004. His mutilated body was hung up for public display.

My phone rings. “Hi Lena.”

“Walid, what’s happening?”

“Everything is fine. We are at Westmead. Boni’s waters broke about an hour ago. Can you come?”

“I’m on my way. See you soon.”

“Great.”

Travelling through the early morning is like watching a film on the plane without headphones, everything is hushed, just the sound of my car’s engine as I drive the M4 to Westmead.

I’m at the hospital, walking into the birthing room. The lights are dull and Boni is moaning. She’s hooked up to monitors.

Walid smiles, “She’s doing well Lena.”

The nurse says, “Yes, she’s doing very well. She’s dilated to seven centimetres. The cervix has softened. I think it will be a vaginal birth this time.”

I place my hand on Boni’s forehead. Her hair sticks to her skin. She’s groaning and her lips are dry. I offer her some lip moisturiser. She digs some out of the small pot, her finger shakes. Smears it greasy over her mouth.

“Is Yasmina with your sister?” I ask Walid.

“Yes, she’s sleeping. Anisa’s at home with her.”

Boni moans and yells, “I can’t stand this pain.” She breathes out, grabs the gas and sucks on it.

“I’ll just be waiting outside.” I stroke Boni’s arm, then leave the room, walking across the shiny floor into the corridor. Sitting on a hospital chair, dread filters through my pores like grimy smog.

The passageway is empty, no sound other than the groans and she-wolf howls of women giving birth. I take a pen from my bag, bend down and scratch hard into the vinyl floor. Gladys Kelope Kesupile and Eugenia Kakale Kobole. A man pads around the corner wearing  a surgical gown. I pretend I’m picking up the pen from the ground.  He doesn’t look at me. Bending again I write, We have not forgotten. I scratch the words over and over, so they are etched deep and black into the beige vinyl. Gladys and Eugenia came to Gaborone for work, one  a typist, the other a domestic worker, not even twenty years old. That night they walked home from a prayer meeting. The killers came as they lay sleeping in their beds.

In the corridor under neon lights, I unlatch my consciousness, trying hard not to sink into pools of unarticulated fear. I sit waiting for my second grandchild, waiting for everything to be all right.

J.D. Salinger’s daughter quotes her father as saying he never really got the smell of burning flesh out of his nose entirely. No matter how long you live, that smell remains. I remember our neighbours, the two young women blown apart that indignant night. The fragrance of their lives is as fluid and volatile as the corpuscles in my blood.

 

In this issue of New Contrast:

Interviews:

  • An Interview with Buhle Nkalashe by David Griessel

Poetry

  • Kobus Moolman, Henry and June / The Earth is Flat / I Am Made
  • Juanita Louw, Homogeen / Love Machine
  • Rizwan Akhtar, Last Year / Now We Will Say “Happy New Year”
  • Steve Lambert, Unbecoming / Ars Poetica
  • Fiona Zerbst, Closer to Light / On the Edge of Darkness / Portrait of Three Lions
  • Bibhu Padhi, Another Need / The Address
  • Warren Jeremy Rourke, Washing Up / Double Rainbow
  • Johann Lodewyk Marais, Die stasiewa / Die eerste wens
  • Stuart Payne, The Planet
  • Justin Fox, Building Wall
  • Stephanie Williams, Mother / Let’s Talk
  • Alessio Zanelli, Hiker and Lines / Dear Old Beloved Padan Fog
  • Sarah Frost, Gold
  • Ian Salvaña, This Town We Left To Miss, You Said, Is Home / The Birthing of a Poem
  • Tom Paine, Seeds / Kamikaze Bees / That’s All

Prose

  • Gaele Sobott, Grandmother
  • Melissa Gow, One of Us Is Bleeding
  • Jonathan Tager, Guidestar
  • Rémy Ngamije, Black, Coloured And Blue (or, The Gangster’s Girlfriend)

Artworks

  • Jono Dry, In My Silence / Restrained I Unravel / Wrapped in Tradition / Separation

 

To purchase this issue (R120) email the business manager at business@newcontrast.net

Separation جدایی by Gaele Sobott

Colour photograph of a woman standing in a black coat in a forest. Her face is completely covered by her long black hair.

Photo by OVAN on Pexels.com

It seems my mother bore me for grief that grows of separation (from Hafez 352)

 

When I was a little girl in Iran I loved spinning around until my brain became fuzzy, I’d lose control and sometimes I’d fall. The roses in our garden swirled red, pink and white as I turned, and I’d smell their sweetness.

My husband has gone. There is a space where he used to be. That space loops brittle-boned into my body, across my apartment, out the window into the heavens. I water my plants on the window sill and I feed my canary, who sings yellow in his confinement. Little bird condemned to this boredom until you die. A huge bat hangs camouflaged black in the fig tree next door, across the broken concrete of the driveway. I walk fearful, careful like Mooch, my cat, soft on my toes. The moon, swollen with light, shudders as the bat takes off and I squeal. If I ran my fingers over those wings, they’d feel thin, stretched rubber or maybe silk. Shwoosh, shwoosh, stupid woman, it flies an elegant ellipse of protest high above our rows and rows of apartments to return and hang again black in the fig tree next door. My daughter weaves a life of her own in America with her husband. My grandchildren are far from me.

The evenings are cooling ever so slightly on my sadness as summer gives way to autumn. Lakemba days are shortening and people spend more time inside. Conversations in Arabic, Bengali, Mandarin drift with smoke from a wood fire, and smells of curry leaves and cumin frying. Death and rebirth, good and evil, the goldfish swims in its bowl ready for Norooz.

In Iran, I sat on my father’s lap enclosed like a Russian doll in our house, in the room with carpets, surrounded by the architecture of my father’s body, the warmth and murmured rumblings of his chest. His arms wrapped around me so I was almost in darkness. My father and his friends laughed and talked. The volume of their voices crescendoed and lulled in concentric circles. I peeked out to see my mother swinging a brass censer filled with coals. She seemed entranced by the swinging chain. The coals glowed in their cage. I broke from my father’s arms and ran to her. Pulling on the folds of her long robe, I wanted to feel the motion, the weight of the censer. I wanted to do as my mother did and make the coals breathe red. My brother followed me and my mother allowed us to swing the censer very gently before she took it to the brazier in the middle of the room. My father prepared two of his favourite vafoor. One pipe had a gold rim and paintings of blue birds with long tails on the bulb. It belonged to my grandfather who was growing smaller and smaller, sitting in the quieter shadows of the house, storm clouds under his eyes, and dark thin lips.

My uncle had returned from the edge of the desert where the air is crisp. He returned from Kerman with pistachios and the golden-brown tariaak they called senatori. The men joked about the senators smoking the highest quality opium. Now the ayatollahs have taken over from the senators. My father broke off a small piece of opium and put it in the pipe. My uncle held a burning coal in the tongs.

Grief has made its untidy nest in my apartment, in this body of mine. I try to sleep but the night is restless, the darkness is full of angst. I try to rest sitting on my couch reading but sentences scramble, scratching the paper like scuttling cockroaches. The words scream a cacophony of meaning at me and I feel their rage because I am porous. I have no boundaries.

In the morning, I leave my flat at 7am and walk to the train station. I walk tall, long feet and long fingers, wearing a dark suit. My hair long and black swings in time to my steps. Back and forth I walk every day, past discarded TVs and old mattresses. I walk past piles of clothes and curtains, and couches, broken tables and packaging that recently held a new refrigerator or television. Every day the train sways, stops and starts. People get on and people get off. Some play games on their phones. Some stare glassy-eyed into corners of their lives I cannot see. Belmore backyards flash by, we rattle through the inner west, Redfern platforms, sniffer dogs assiduous, salivating for a bust. I get off at Town Hall, moving at the same pace as everyone else, trotting up the escalator, across George Street, a fast-moving mass of people who seem to know their way, know what they want in life. Lines of square windows and grey concrete stretch to the sky but I rarely lift my head to look. I don’t stop in the city. In the city, I’m a lawyer. My work holds me tight like a corset. Keeps me going.

The lift zooms up to level thirty-two. I greet Helen, the receptionist. “How you doing today?”

She says, “My cat’s sick,”

“Sorry to hear that.” I commiserate.

“Yeah, she’s not eating. Just lies there. If she’s still like that after work, I’ll take her to the vet.”

The phone rings, she puts on head phones and her receptionist voice to answer. She winks at me and I continue to my office. Sexual harassment cases splayed across my desk, on chairs, clusters of papers, book upon book with fawn covers, gold titles on red binding. I click on my inbox. Emails like hordes of insects. I click, answer, click, answer. Read some specialist medical reports. So much reading. Reading consumes my day. Rowena’s complaint with the AHRC, the respondents denied the allegations. All attempts to bring the parties together have failed. Not the best-case scenario for Rowena. The alleged perpetrator relies on entitlement, on his positioning in the hierarchy of power. The offensive sexual jokes, suggestive and lurid remarks, sly rubbing of his cock against her body, always in tight spaces, in the kitchen, at the photocopier, fingers pinching her bottom, prodding. All that disappears with his denial and confident smirk. Rowena’s supporting evidence is weak. She’s depressed, experiencing reactive anxiety. She resigns from the job. Her marriage breaks apart. I’m not sure how she’s going to cope with the pain, the anger, shame, the humiliation of the public process. I’m a lawyer, a professional, but sometimes emotion and passion leak through my lawyer skin onto the desk, across the papers, like dark, golden sap escaping from the inside of a tree. When that happens, I am not useful to my client. When that happens, I want to cry.

On the train back home, the hurt under my breasts and the desire to cry are desperate, they rage against my false calm. The train doors whoosh shut, I climb the stairs, walk, unlock the front door, the cat rubs against my legs. Tip dry food into its bowl. Feed myself. White cheese, walnuts, dates, Persian cucumber, tomatoes, olives, nuts. I sip black tea from a glass and let lumps of sugar dissolve slowly in my mouth, longing for my mother’s sweets.

My mother put rose petals in with the tea leaves. She carried the teapot and glasses clinking on a tray. Her thick hair pinned up in a French roll. On one side of the manghal sat plates of honey crisps with almonds and the pistachios my Uncle brought us as a gift. Dates and figs, and small biscuits kept my father’s blood pressure from dropping too low. I sat on my father’s lap. My tooth ached. He inhaled, and the pipe whistled. He held his breath, his cheeks bulged, he blew smoke across the top of my head. Haalaa bekesh too. I inhaled and the woody perfume was purple or maybe turquoise, the most sensuous bitterness. I was transported away from pain.

Cat footprints mark the dust on my bookshelves like fallen blossoms, Mar Name leans neglected against a Farsi translation of Nietzsche. Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus balances on Grammatology. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts lies on the floor alongside classical music CDs I no longer play. I sit on the couch. My fingers habitually exploring the patch that covers a small hole burned by my cigarette into the fabric. Above me hang crooked on the wall, cheap copies from the seventies turning brown. I ran from Iran over twenty years ago, first to Pakistan, then here. I am forever a kharjee spirit, an outsider, an adventurer, maybe a heretic … at day and at night, branded by love, like Hafez, with nightingales of dawn, I cry songs, woes of separation.

Mooch stretches his tabby body across my thigh, heavy, snoring like the man of the house he is. He brings me lizards and mice and small birds. He lays them wet at my feet, sometimes moving, sometimes still.

I am still, here with my cat, and the canary asleep in its cage, and the fish.

The city on the edge of the desert, the ancient city called Kerman, where the air is crisp and very cold at night, is surrounded by fields of poppies but was once surrounded by fields of barley. I would lay on my stomach on our carpet from Kerman, rolling from one end to the other over the pastel shades, the blues and creams, back and forth until my brain was fuzzy. I imagined I was lying in fields of yellow barley ready for harvest, looking up at the sky so very blue. My father sat with his friends drinking tea, eating cakes and sweets. They laughed and they cried. They talked as if to stop talking would show weakness. They talked over the top of each other. Their conversation infinite, uninhibited…

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Published 8th November 2019 in Prometheus Dreaming