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Natalie Williams / Eddie Blatt

African Princess


Natalie Williams


I grabbed the wood of my staff, the thick walking stick I had now become accustomed to. It was warm in the hot baking sun. Without it I would have been lost―my steady friend. I moved it in my fingers. It was rough, and the heat it had absorbed in the hours of my journey pulsed through the teakwood fibers, through into my skin and bones. The wood was uneven and I cautiously ran my fingers down to its base, expecting a splinter, but I felt no stab or prick. The knobbles and dark markings that mottled its fibrous coat were part of my staff. Just like the African earth I stood in and was covered with, my staff’s damaged parts were beautiful. I looked down at my hands, happy in the silence. The lines in my hands were marked out from the red earth I’d climbed up in. There is a legend, you know. They say the earth in Africa is so red that you can see the blood of fallen warriors flowing through it. I imagined the Zulu warriors of old fighting with spears and skin shields in the midday hours in the same grasslands I had passed through only moments before.


Disturbed from my reverie by the team, I turned to see what was happening behind me. Our guide was poised on one of the outlying boulders looking over the grasslands by the waterhole. One of the men whispered to him, “what is it būt?”


 “Sssh.” Our team leader held his hand up to silence him and pointed to the left of the horizon. We stood marking the silence, the heat cascading off the earth in mirage-like waves, until towards the left-rising slope we saw a herd of antelope strolling through the grasslands. The majestic herd leader strode tall, chewing the cud at the front of the herd and looking over to where we stood, watching.  He locked eyes with me, moment to moment, as keen to understand my presence as I was to understand his.


Two little ones skipped underfoot from the herd, tumbling, forward from the back, play-fighting, and as they spied the waterhole they raced forward, eager to drink from the cold, fresh water. The bull, graceful and in control, tipped his antlers forward to trip them both up, never moving his locked eyes from mine. The little ones plunged forward ahead of him and locked together antlers in red clouds of dust and excitement. We’d seen crocodiles warming in the sun when we’d passed by before. I wondered how he’d known. Perhaps he believed he should drink before the others.


It was strange how the herd marked us but did not run. Perhaps we had become like them, part of the bush. We had our part to play.


“Come on everyone, the mountain won’t climb itself, and the hardest part is yet to come. Probably be cool ‘round mid afternoon, so use your water now if you need it. We should hit the next water spot in a couple of hours.”  Our guide was an agile young man called Thulani, whose name meant happiness in the native language of Zimbabwe, and I, along with many others, was climbing its highest mountain. It had taken us three days to get to this point on the shadow plains, and as the grass underfoot turned to red earth and then red rock, I knew it would become harder.


We moved up the red rocks, and with the sweat pouring off my legs, the dirt that clung to my skin became like glue. Hands reached down for hands, and muscles strained as we climbed farther and farther. My legs were burning with the effort each step took, but the feeling of the hot rocks and sun on my skin was a comfort I knew I would never forget. I felt like I belonged.


Thulani reached the largest rock ahead of us, and stopped to look down. I smiled. He was like a cat, stretched out in his glory, and his glory was his comfort in this wildness. I lunged forward, using my staff to pull me up, and he grabbed my shoulders, placing me on the mossy rock beside him.


“Tired?” Thulani patted me on the arm.


“I’m okay. How do we go any further?” I gulped, looking downward at the red drop. The red earth had turned to clay, with rocks embedded inside like souls trapped in a coffin. It was a long way down, and I had no idea how I would gather the strength to pass through here. There was a small, winding path snaking its way down through the clay―only wide enough for one person and a staff.


Thulani pointed downward. The others sat around me, breathing heavily. “Single file. Down the pass. It’s the only way to get up; we have to go down first. Go slowly; use the staff to get a hold in the ground and you won’t fall. If you lose your grip, try not to get in anyone’s way or you’ll take us all down with you. Now go, one at a time.”


I swallowed hard, I didn’t expect this. The earth was so beautiful but yet, for us, so small and insignificant, it was beyond threatening. It held the promise of death. Frozen in the spot I sat in, the boys went first and then the girls. Thulani nodded to me. His face was set in grave lines; maybe he could sense my fear, our fear. The air was filled with it. I wanted to say I couldn’t, but my body got up before my mouth could form the words.


I began to make my way down. The clay swallowed our feet, and dyed our hands red. The rocks inside it were sharp and my fingers began to bleed. The blood marked the wood in my staff. I felt tears sting my eyes and blend into the russet-coloured sweat on my face. Thulani was behind me. I turned to see where he was so I could keep enough space between us, and as I did, I stepped too hard on the rock ahead of me and slipped. The air rushed in my nose, and the hot air turned to cold as I fell. I didn’t know where I was, or what would happen. I only felt the fear. I could not control these next moments.


“There. Got you.” It was Thulani. Somehow he’d stopped me from falling.


“H-how?” I stammered, shaking. I felt like a dead weight. I could see the others, as he pulled me up, one-handed. I could smell the strain as he pulled me closer, back onto the path.


“I jumped.” He smiled again, his face was red-black and his white teeth shone uncomfortably in the sun.


There was no “thank you” or time to experience the moment. We moved on, down and down until we slipped out at the bottom through a curtain of sweet-smelling green firs, into a cold jet stream of water. Gasping with shock, I heard Thulani shout something in Ndebele, and jump. We were behind a waterfall. The water was like the thinnest glass, a cold diamond, and in its reflection I could see our faces, reddened by the dust we had climbed through. We all jumped into the water, one after the other.


I couldn’t see the bottom, but the fear had been taken from me. We reached the shore and clamoured out. I sat there in my own thoughts until night fell.


Thulani had built a fire in the warm space between two huge boulders, and the others sat rubbing their hands together. It was dark so suddenly, as it always was in Africa, but night fell so much darker here. Our guide sat on the boulder staring up into the sky.


We were right under the Milky Way. There were millions of stars, more than my eyes could take in or count. They looked so close to the touch, I climbed up to sit with Thulani and reached up to grab one for me to keep.


“Have you eaten?” He looked up at me in the darkness.


“No. Not hungry yet.” My hand was empty. There were no stars to keep, only to see.


“Sit.” He patted the granite beside him.


“I fell today.” I was ashamed, and whispered. “You caught me.”


“Yes. Shall I tell you a story?” He held out his hand, and placed a rock, still warm from the heat, in one of my hands, and a lump of clay in the other. As he spoke he was sitting on the edge of the granite, pointing out to the horizon. I could see the soft lines in his face by the starlight as he spoke softly. “You see, we have walked today in grass as high as the antelope, and drunk from the steam of the storm. We have bathed in the earth, and washed ourselves of past and future. We have become covered in the soil, and we shall always carry these things with us, like these here in your hands. We have hair, like the grass, and skin, like the clay. We have hearts like the proud granite, and our souls will always give glory to the stars, here.” Thulani pointed out to the African horizon and the bright stars twinkling in the sky.


I looked down at the rock and clay, and up at the stars, frowning. “I don’t understand.”


“You have fallen in Africa and Africa caught you. You are part of it now, child. You’re an African princess now.” He closed my fingers over the stone and clay I held in my hands. He stood up and placed his hand on my shoulder. The silence was heavy and I swallowed, unable to speak. As he jumped down the rock to the camp below, I could hear his words echoing, as if they had been heard by the dark African night, and I was changed.



Natalie Williams was born in 1981 of African-Irish descent, in the newly formed country of Zimbabwe on the purple carpeted Jacaranda Lane. Life was filled in her early years with Irish fairy tales written by her grandfather, and the inspirational imaginings of the world of Narnia and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In the inspiring world of Africa, she began her journey as a writer, winning an Honours award for her poem 'The Thicket and the Musgrove' at the age of nine, and the author of poetry collections Daydreams in Mermaid Grass and Theodore in November. Her website is:

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Eddie Blatt


As I sit in my warm and comfortable house, belly full, free to come and go and not concerned about where my next meal will come from, or how I will survive another day, I find myself in front of the computer wanting to write something insightful about poverty. It’s an exercise from my writer’s group and I feel like a pundit who has read all the major religious texts and can quote numerous passages from the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita, but has not understood one thing about real spirituality. Do I know anything about real poverty?

I could probably produce an essay with some academic value or literary merit on this topic. It might begin with a definition taken from a dictionary like ‘poverty is the state of not having enough money to take care of basic needs such as food, clothing and housing.’ It might take a statistical look at the issue and come up with facts such as ‘more than 852 million people—about 13 percent of the world population—do not have enough food each day to sustain a healthy life.’ Or ‘hunger kills six million children each year.’ That’s a staggering 16,400 kids per day. It could contain facts about poverty of the psyche as reflected in the amount of depression and the number of youth suicides, or it might take a more esoteric viewpoint regarding the spiritually impoverished.

Decades ago while visiting Australia, Mother Teresa commented that she felt sorry for Australians because they were spiritually impoverished. She who dwelled and toiled in the black holes of Calcutta. I had been to India and seen, felt and smelt the overwhelming deprivations endured by the people there. It had been my first trip overseas—Melbourne to New Delhi—and I had spent two months in a state of shock. What a fool I thought Mother Teresa was. Thirty years down the track, I’m not so sure.

I have not personally experienced poverty of the kind that saps one’s desire to live another minute, let alone another day or year; the kind that drives people to despair and utter hopelessness; the kind that one hears on news broadcasts and current affair programs year in, year out; the kind my parents experienced as they struggled to stay alive in Auschwitz during the Holocaust of the Second World War.

The truth be told, I live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world in one of the freest countries in the world; Australia. The weather is warm—not too hot, not too cold. My family gets fresh fruit and vegetables from the veggie patch my partner manages. Hot and cold water always flows through the plumbing for drinking or bathing or flushing human waste to some unknown destination far away from the sensitivities of my nasal passages. Free-flowing electricity powers a cohort of appliances and entertainment modules. My need for aesthetic beauty is fulfilled by an outlook of hills, full of trees and greenery, through the large sliding doors of my spacious office where I am now writing.

In short, I have more than enough food, shelter, entertainments and good company, and there are no immediate curtailments to my freedoms of speech and association. If I don’t like the government I vote for the others. At least it worked last election. My fortuitous circumstance has been enjoyed by only a small percentage of people in the entire history of the human race. So, what do I know what poverty truly is about or what it might feel like?

As a kid growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my family lived on top of a fruit-shop in Richmond, an inner suburb of Melbourne. We had boxes covered with blankets that substituted for a couch, and I shared a small bedroom with my brother. A major train-line ran outside our room within 20 meters of earshot. There were no videos or computer games. Transistor radios hadn’t yet been introduced into the country, let alone DVDs and color TVs. We had one phone, a heavy contraption where a finger had to be placed inside a turning mechanism in order to dial a number, and one car, an old Austin A50 that didn’t always get us to our intended destination.

I remember one occasion where my parents could not afford sending me to both the school train trip and the school annual camp so I had to decide between the two. I hid feelings of despair as I watched my school-friends prepare for the impending train journey. At least I got to go to the camp.

Some years later my parents bought a milk bar and again we found ourselves living on top of a shop, this time in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Melbourne. Where friends and neighbors had properties enclosing tennis courts and houses with central air-conditioning (and slot-car racing tracks that filled entire rooms), we would curtail the effects of a hot summer’s night by sleeping on the floor next to fridges in the shop itself. We called those occasions ‘going to the mattresses,’ a reference to the men of the Corleone Mafia family in The Godfather who would gather in one house during rival gang wars. When it got very hot in the middle of some nights, I would open a fridge and drink a bottle of coke.

Throughout those challenging years of childhood and up to around the fourth decade of my life not once did I feel impoverished. Certainly I wanted more than my parents could provide at particular points in time, as every child does irrespective of the level of wealth, and at times I endured depressive states as a result of typical adolescent uncertainty, but none of these events ever amounted to a sustained feeling of lack. By most criteria and definitions, especially when compared to third-world countries, I did not experience ‘poverty.’ I attribute this circumstance in part to the love and creative positivity shown by my parents in times of difficulty, financial or otherwise.

Then, as is often the case, things changed.

After achieving much in my chosen careers and vocations, I became acutely aware of a sense of separation that permeated every aspect of my life. It was clear that no amount of worldly goods, clever ideas or anything that might be attainable, real or imaginary, could dispel or affect that sense of separation in the slightest. Indeed, it became obvious that all of my fear and suffering was the result of feeling separate from everything else. As it says in the Upanishads, which constitute the core teachings of the Hindu Vedantic scriptures, as long as there is another, fear arises. I had discovered my sense of poverty.

And therein lies what the essence of poverty might ultimately be—the feeling of separation from Reality or God. I am inclined to make this recognition all-encompassing; to declare that the deepest level of poverty pervading all other feelings of lack stems from feeling separate from a sustaining force, call it God, Reality, or what you will. Tempting as it may be, however, I decline to assert it universally, for its assertion might be counter-productive or even grossly offensive to a mother in India whose child is starving to death in her arms, or a nation of people whose liberties have been denied for centuries by invaders and occupying forces. Or the millions of others whose primary concern in life is one purely of daily survival.

What can be said, hopefully with little concern for treading on the sensitivities of others, is that there is no solely political solution to world poverty of this kind without spiritual awakening. The words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a dialogue that has been known as the ‘Desmond Tutu Ubuntu Speech’ points to this understanding:

The only way we can be human is together! The only way we can be free is together! The only way we can ever be secure is together! The only way we can ever be free... is together. That is the logic of God’s creation.

The more I am sensitized to my own feeling of separation, rather than seek some avoiding consolation, the more the essence of existence is exposed and the less I feel spiritually impoverished. I am grateful for being given the necessities of life as a preliminary, for it has freed-up energy to uncover this fundamental aspect of suffering. It made the acquisition of things as a remedy for my ‘poverty’ completely futile.

And as much as I am appalled by the consequences resulting from the sex-repressive beliefs and attitudes of Mother Teresa and the doctrines of a church she so abidingly advocated, I must confess she knew a thing or two about what genuine poverty truly is.



After receiving his PhD in 1982, Eddie Blatt worked as a research scientist and had over 30 papers and articles published in scientific journals. He has since worked as a Web-page designer, musician, teacher and tutor. Eddie is currently writing a memoir focusing on the spiritual dimension of his life’s journey.

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