ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

That Space between Places

I have just come back to Kampala from a trip up to north western Uganda where, if you cross the Rwenzori Mountains you would be in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the foot of that mountain range is a section of the Nile river where it shunts through a 6m wide cleft, falling dramatically as it opens onto a stretch of green and vital life. It is also a place where conversations quickly turn to the movements across the mountain - of men with guns or refugees with recent memories of an ongoing conflict. I recall this because I want to make a small point about contrasts.

When you take a road trip in South Africa you quickly exhaust the cities imprint; especially if you fly the like the crow pointing north through the middle of the country. You find yourself gazing upon a straight line that careers off into the horizon as if drawn with a single piece of chalk. And you find these sparsely interrupted with those occasional ‘dorpies’ , towns on  small main roads. These are not in and of themselves peculiar or unusual. But the spaces between them are.  Fill them with what ever adjective you can summon and it will echo back to you in this landscape. Because, you see, as you think to yourself on these national highways, there are often only your thoughts to dialogue with. When it is not winding and mountainous, it is sprawling flat and in most parts browns and reds and rocky and dry.  Sheep, cattle and ostriches seem to just be there, as if they are some living archeological evidence that human beings are about.

These are the innuendos suggesting someone  built those fences  and those roads that slice through the immeasurable .  Or that someone irrigates the swatches of green that block prints the earth’s brown tones geometrically like the back of a tortoise shell. For those of us who have lived with this as the space between spaces, or rather the space between places, it is a landscape that is often celebrated for precisely how it feeds, comforts, consoles and restores.  It is where sparseness and shades of light, sun, earth and soil are the palette we mix to produce the texture of a canvass we spiritually exfoliate ourselves with.

When I travel the road like I just did from Kampala to the  edge of the border at Masindi, there are mostly no real spaces between the spaces. No silences in their sound tracks. There are always little villages and people and things. There are small peasants and markets and traders and cars and trucks and bodo-boda’s all the way through. Here is where the eeriness creeps in. Its when the realisation taps you on the shoulder that the vast emptiness that shoulders South Africa’s national roads left and right to the eye,  those fences that corral animals but where you see no people; those spaces are empty not by dint of the creative forces of natural orders.

They are empty because the small peasant, the subsistence black farmer, the petty land owner, have more or less been wrenched out of time and out of place by colonialism and settler colonialism, and today inhibited from regrowth by the orthodoxies of the agro-industry.  Perhaps this  is the valorisation of scale where vastness is greatness. In countries where  the spaces between places are filled there is the ever present  chatter of community, the gossips and travails of conviviality,  of songs and stories and tales to tell.  Of ties that bind, even if sometimes  too tightly. It has both its charms and its less compelling elements but it is the stuff, if you like of ‘most of the world’, and the issues we  all have to contend with in our bitter sweet ways.

That beautiful vast empty undulating South African landscape can make you think it is different.  It can almost seduce you into thinking it’s an empty commons, especially when the mistral winds  carry you along and you forget yourself.  Walter Benjamin should also have had this landscape  in mind when he said ‘every document of civilisation is also a document of barbarism’.  But then again, this is not a lament shared by all. As someone here said to me when he asked where I was from. ‘Aah South Africa’ he exclaimed enviously, ‘you are first world!’

About Author

<p>Suren Pillay ( is a writer, photographer and academic, based at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, South Africa.</p>
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