Be it how it will, do right now.

Barriers

“You begin saving the world by saving one man at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.” —Charles Bukowski

The Lebombo Mountains stop most things from leaving this place. On a particularly lovely day, like today, when the sun drags sashes of gold across the sky, it’s impossible not to notice it. Roaring out of Malelane on the N4, as you crest the mottled-green hills rolling into the central Nkomazi valley, the horizon begins to shift before you and suddenly the sky-blue infinity is beaten back by a low, roiling barrier of seething dirt.

Though short in height, the Lebombobergs snake out endlessly to the North and South, forming a formidable geographic demarcation between South Africa and Mozambique. During the summer months, the violently black thunderheads hammer against them most nights before spitefully dropping their payloads on the valley below and gaining passage.

They don’t call this region the Lowveld because of a few rainstorms, though. Those mountains trap people. They block progress, halt modernization, and slow the gradual improvement in quality of life needed so badly here. The Lebombos crush the lifting of anachronistic cultural norms and suck entire villages into cycles of poverty, ignorance, and disease. If war is the devil’s answer to human progress, then these wicked peaks are the Lowveld’s.

After a time, they leave their low perch on the outskirts of town and make their way into the dusty streets. Everywhere you look barriers calcify. They seduce young men and women into dangerous, limiting stereotypes and discourage critical thought. As if intimidated by the approaching cordillera, information technology halts in Malelane, afraid to venture nearer. Ancient prejudices fester and swell in the absence of fresh thought or experience, infecting new generations in this socio-economic Petri dish. Aids is rampant; teen and pre-teen pregnancy commonplace; nutrition an afterthought. The Lebombos pervade Steenbok.

Established as a trust in 1954 by the Apartheid government’s Group Areas Act, it’s no wonder the community originally centered around the rich farmlands of Komatipoort was relocated here. Kilometers away from the closest river (of which there are half a dozen in the region alone) and hemmed in on three sides by national boundaries, the Lebombobergs finally embody the absolute domination of the people of Steenbok so desired by the former government.

I hate those mountains. Every morning, I run alongside them, feeling joy vibrate inside me as the rising sun surmounts those peaks and then surges high above. If it can rise above them, an inanimate object with no will, incapable of truculent obstinacy, then so can I. And so can the people of Steenbok. We can outrun them.

Yesterday, a young man, maybe sixteen, spontaneously joined me on my daily 12km attempt to outrun the Lebombos. We jogged alongside each other in silence for an hour. As we returned to the village and made plans to meet again tomorrow, I thought of my favorite Bukowski quote and smiled quietly. Then I ran on.

[Editor’s note: I’ll be tackling the Longtom Marathon this March as a way of raising funds for the KLM Foundation.  Please consider supporting me and this excellent cause.  Thank you.]

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4 responses

  1. marilyn buehler

    Matt, this essay is wonderful. I especially like the mountain metaphor but more than that I love how you know to run in silence. I honestly believe that you have an old soul and you always astonish all of us who know you. You break my heart. And that is a compliment. Love, B. PS, I am mailing a buffalo donation to the US address. Should I say For Matt Kertman? Let me know.

    February 1, 2011 at 8:49 PM

    • Mrs. B – as always, you are the best. Yes, please put a note in the memo section that you’re sponsoring Matt Kertman.

      February 1, 2011 at 10:31 PM

  2. Jacob Bennett

    “It came from somewhere deep,” you said, “which doesn’t necessarily make it good.” You’re right. But it is both. I’ll be proud of it with you.

    February 2, 2011 at 2:03 AM

  3. jesseosmun

    The Group Areas act really truly created what you see in the rural areas now. Little did the Nationalist party ever know how long their policies would outlast apartheid. Accepting that reality, one must strive to redefine what “dignity” means in a land of lack before we intend to give it to people.. a major challenge I think for all PCV’s.

    February 7, 2011 at 6:26 PM

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