The princess does not wear panties

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A story about Botswana and how things work there – The first hint about life in Botswana presented itself at the airport in Johannesburg. My flight to Gaborone was delayed by five hours. This meant I would arrive in the dark and I was not up to the challenge of finding my way to the hotel in a strange new city after sunset.

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I cancelled my rented car, knowing this meant I would be confined to the hotel and the recording studio for a couple of days, relying on my contact person for transport until the producer arrived. I surrendered.

After arriving late at night in Gaborone, I was taken by the hotel shuttle to a clean and functioning living space. I bathed and slept – we would start recording early the next morning. My well-trained, hard working Calvinistic Western background (what I jokingly like to call my inner-German sergeant major) was intact.

But life would have it otherwise. A message from the contact person on this radio production project, Sam*, arrived in my inbox. He wanted me to rest and recover from my trip and he would see me at 11am. I was uncomfortable. In fact, I was on edge.

The custom of slow processes

I was hired to direct 13 episodes of a radio drama within 10 days and I wanted to pull it off successfully. I was raring to see what it would entail, what the challenges would be, but now the challenge was to wait. To not know.

Sam finally arrived at 11:30am. He was a good-looking man with soft eyes. He wanted to have tea in the garden at the back of the hotel. My sense of discomfort grew. His eyes did not meet mine. I have lived and experienced enough of African culture in my life to know that I had to honour this slow process.

Good relationships needed to be forged so that good work could be done. I knew that acting like a pushy know-it-all, who wanted it my way, could be devastating to the process. So we had tea.

Sam said he wanted me to rest after my trip. We would start work at 1pm. He was just going to do a quick errand in Gaborone somewhere and would fetch me in time. I felt sentenced to wait. Again, I surrendered.

Getting to work in Gaborone

Sam finally fetched me and took me to a hugely impressive broadcasting building that would dwarf the studio I used in Cape Town. But first, I had to meet the powers that be. I was taken to offices where I shook hands with strangers, smiled friendly smiles and constantly spoke to myself quietly on the inside. “Calm down,” I said. “This is how it is. Here everything takes time”.

Finally, I got to meet the actors. What a relief! The thought of this bunch of sharp humans, hungry to learn and deeply grateful for anything I had to teach them, still puts a smile on my face to this day.

Botswana is a wealthy country. Its citizens are well-educated and well-nourished. Not once in Gaborone (or in the rest of the country) did I see a homeless person; the painful bane of our beloved South Africa. Education, right up to tertiary levels, is for free. If you want to study something that is not available at university, you get sent anywhere in the world where you can receive that education. At age 21, everyone receives an acre of land.

The humanity of the system, where the wealth of the diamond mines is filtered down to the ordinary citizens, could be felt in the collective. Friendly smiles and informed responses from everyone was the order of the day. I loved meeting and working with these people.

Recording of the radio production started slowly

There was, however, more surrender for me in the pipeline. Even though the building and the studios were elaborate and impressive, the equipment was different to what I was used to. At first, I was terribly confused.

The sound engineer told me that we could not speak to the actors while recording was in progress. We were bound to rely on sign language through the big sound proof glass windows that separated us. If someone stumbled over their words, we would have to start recording again from the top of the page.

This had dire implications. I already envisaged the long nights and weekends of editing that it would require to get one professional track from the numerous recordings. Then I realised that none of the actors had performed in a radio drama before.

The majority of them had their own talk shows and were, in some cases, TV presenters, but had no experience of the ordinary humanness that was required for our product. Acting in a simple way is something that many actors find surprisingly difficult. We had to learn fast.

In the professional world of microphone and film acting that I trained in, it is a no-no for a director to act out a scene and then have the actors copy you. I knew I would have to overstep this boundary. I made the decision and prayed that they would not take offence.

What a joy when the contrary proved to be true. The actors loved it! They soaked up every nuance, every meaningful pause, every implication of tenderness, delicate timing, true connection. The magic of our work came alive. We were a team and the team was cooking.

Good cop, bad cop

At this point in my narrative I want to fast forward; past the challenging but charming sound engineer who stopped working as soon as we finally got going, as she had to breast feed her baby. Past the next day when we started work four hours late because one of the main actors could not be there – he had to take his mom to town for a couple of hours. She had shopping to do, and he was her obliging son, after all. How could we not understand?

Fast forward past the fact that Sam got confused with who was playing which role and we had recorded the wrong actors in the wrong roles; having to redo many of the work that was, as we say in the business, in the can.

At some point we recorded up to nine takes for each scene. The scenes were recorded out of sequence. This implied hours and hours of editing. Luckily, the producer, Danie Jansen van Vuuren, arrived a couple of days later when I was ready to strangle Sam.

Danie got to play the good cop as I had, in spite of all my surrender and many good intentions, by now assumed the role of bad cop. He came in time to save me from committing something that could have consequences I would not want to live with afterwards.

He also came with our own transport, a can-do attitude and, thank God, a sense of humour. In the evenings the two of us made lists of all the scenes, pinpointing which actors we had to get back to the studio to fix the mix-up. He dealt with Sam in a calm way that showed me up for being highly strung and – it was painful for me to admit – probably a bit of a drama queen.

The road trip to Moremi Goo

It was the last day of recordings. After we had already left and locked up the studio, I remembered the signature photograph that I usually take after every production. The actors lie in the form of a star on the ground, their heads together and their feet out. “Please will you lie on the ground for me?” I tried my luck in the corridor.

A beautiful young actress, one who impressed me during the recordings, had a problem. She was wearing a tiny mini skirt without underwear, she confessed to me. After much laughter and convincing her that we would only photograph faces the picture was taken and Danie and I set off on another adventure.

The extra editing required did take days and days, as I had anticipated. We finally left it to Sam, while Danie and I took a break. A road trip adventure took us for four hours to a sacred gorge in Moremi Goo, where the chief had not allowed people to disturb a place that was kept intact for the ancestors. On rare occasions, we were told, the chief let people in. We were willing to take the chance that we might be some of the lucky ones.

The journey was fun. Out loud, we wondered whether the chief would approve of us. We were unsure of how to find him. Travelling in a space splattered with silence, laughter and chats, we almost got lost a couple of times but eventually found the lodge. The night was full of velvety blackness and the sounds of stars singing; I could swear we heard stars singing. And perhaps the soft munching of zebras in the bush below our bungalow.

Paradise found

The next morning we bashed through bush for what seemed like hours until we almost accidentally stumbled upon the gorge. No one stopped us from entering. We simply moved into a change of scenery where dry bush and thorns gave way to paradise.

Silence echoed aeons of respect for nature. Mesmerised, we clambered higher and higher in awe at this pristine green land that reflected a time when man and nature understood how to live in unity. The gorge wrapped itself around a soft trickle of water. The crystal-clear stream had never been swum in.

Ancient rocks were embraced lovingly by roots as thick as a strong man’s arms. The power of the presence had us whisper to each other. Even the birds seemed to be silenced. It was as if the feathered folk of the air understood the nature of this place as one of sanctity.

It was a shock to reach the top, where the waterfalls were. The flat rocks were scattered with people. Selfie sticks. Screams and shouts as young people teased and chased each other around. Some wanted us to pose with them and their friends as they took photographs of themselves. Silence shattered in the late afternoon sun. It was a long day.

The princess without panties

Early in the evening, we arrived back at the lodge and gratefully sat down on the stoep for a cold beer. A couple at another table caught my eye. The girl seemed familiar. Laughter bubbled from her as she charmingly tossed her hair. “No,” I thought to myself. “It’s not possible”. But it was. The girl on the stoep was our actress who struggled to lie down for the photograph in her mini dress in Gaborone, a four-hour drive away.

We joined them at their table and slowly the story of Moremi Goo unfolded. The chief had opened the gorge in 2017 for the sake of tourism. People could go up to the waterfall if they were accompanied by a guide. How Danie and I bypassed the guide part, we still don’t know. And then the astonishing revelation; the chief was her grandfather. The actress was now being revealed as a princess. She was the heir to all of this beauty.

Back in South Africa Danie and I met for breakfast. Our minds were still overlayed by sweet memories of our trip. Sam sent the sound files and the funders were happy. We chuckled once more about the princess without panties and quietly admitted to ourselves that she was probably far too successful in conquering the world to be concerned with a sacred gorge and the silence thereof.

At the table next to us a customer shouts for faster service. We looked up from our musings. It has only been 30 minutes of waiting. Don’t they know this is Africa?

*The name was changed to protect the identity of the individual.

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