Bahai News -- Songbird and crazy African woman December 06 2001 at 02:48PM

Songbird and crazy African woman

Songbird and former ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson might have been considered wacky for her attempted speech-in-song in parliament a few years ago, but her eccentricity is the caring kind that finds the positive in every painful experience. She's here from Sweden for her annual working visit with a new show she calls Tussen In - "In Between" - expressing a life torn between the stability of Sweden and strong attachment to South Africa.

The day after she arrived in Cape Town last weekend, Jennifer went to the opening of the glitzy Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island with her friend Sheryl Ozinsky, head of Cape Town Tourism.

Some people would be heartened by the way rustic Bertie's Landing has given way to a multimillion rand development worthy of anywhere in the First World, and would be delighted to schmooze with parliamentarians at the water's edge.

But Jennifer was disoriented, trying to reconcile the upscale shopping centre and the ostentatious office block with Nelson Mandela's opening speech which focused on the unspeakable dimensions of poverty and the desperate need for leadership on the issue of AIDS.

'The male sense of identity has been murdered'
"What a city of contrasts," she says. "You come from the airport and there are more and more shacks. Twenty million people under the breadline - how do the leaders sleep at night with those figures?

"And the first news you hear when you hit South Africa is that a baby has been raped. It's a cancer of this society, and at the heart of it, I feel, is that the male sense of identity has been murdered. And that's how it expresses itself.

"We are devoid of rituals: there is no initiation into manhood, no guidance, there are no credible authority figures, there's no church. There's dop and dagga and whatever you can get your hands on. And rage.

"And where do you let your rage out? Where your most intense feelings come from: your sex. So now it's venting itself on the most innocent, and I feel that that's a crisis like anything.

"That's what makes me a bit impatient at a gathering like that: there's a total crisis in terms of Aids and the children, and then you see this kind of consumption - it's just insanity."

'I'm starting to learn to use my head more'
Jennifer was always shamelessly intense, compassionate and outspoken, singing songs in the eighties that were banned for their anti-apartheid lyrics. Her vocal support for the ANC earned her a place in parliament in 1994 - surely the most unlikely MP of them all, with her flaming red hair and warm, fuzzy philosophies.

She was more scorned than admired for wanting to deliver her maiden speech in parliament in song and still finds it hard to understand why the institution of the people should be too stuffy to admit a point illustrated by Berthold Brecht's poetry, tunefully delivered.

But singing or speaking, Jennifer has much to say that's worth listening to if you are open to her naive and emotional style. The abortion legislation was one of the subjects that got her blood up and she is still bitterly opposed to the very late 20-week cut-off and the lack of child support and mandatory maternity leave that would give women real choice.

"I suppose many of my decisions have been made on instinct," she says. "I'm starting to learn to use my head more, but in the end, I can't operate only in my head. I have to have a sense of my heart and integrity. And that integrity has given me big challenges because I sometimes say politically naive things.

Expenditure on defence was another issue she felt strongly about then ("Defence against what?") , and her worst fears have been confirmed by the controversy over the government's arms deal, which she calls an "obscenity".

"The Swedes are involved in the deal as well - we've bought Swedish planes that have fallen out of the sky two or three times at air shows because they're dud planes. No-one else has bought them - only South Africa.

"It's made news in Sweden. Everyone knows about it. But the activists here are fatigued. And there's loyalty to the ANC ..."

Jennifer is married to a Swede, Anders Nyberg, whom she met on a concert tour. Theirs was a totally compatible space, instantly, and they married with the romantic idea of having an eternal summer between Sweden and South Africa.

As it is, it's become four months here and 10 months there, and, with three young children, Jennifer is finding it harder and harder to manage the logistics of uprooting.

Hence the name of her new show, Tussen In (In Between). She feels inseparable from South Africa, but, as she puts it, "I get lost in the forests there - I get lost in my life, because I'm a mom.

"I've had incredible experiences up there - I've encountered incredible souls. It' s the peace you have when the material things of life are a given. The Swedes have an expression: life is "self-evident". It's a sense that nothing will change because it's always been that way.

"It's a total contrast to here. Peace allows you to get on with other things. Here we're just fighting for survival."

Jennifer and Anders live in a village in beautiful, forested Dorlana province , where they hold summer courses for people searching for enlightenment.

"People come - some of them from other parts of Europe - to sing and walk," she says. "It's sharing on a deep level, but there's no agenda. We just sing beautiful songs from all over the world - from the Sufi, the Bahai, the Mystic Christians, the African traditionalists, the Amer-Indians.

"And we have these walks through the forest for anything from seven to 21 days - it's like a pilgrimage."

Spiritually, Jennifer describes herself laughingly as "on my knees crawling, mostly", but in her it's easy to see what people mean when they talk about an "old soul". Through her eyes, something as high on the stress scale as moving house is an exciting opportunity to "unpack your own life".

"I don't have a system, I don't have a theology," she says, "but I have a strong relationship with God, or energy. It's not like God is something outside ourselves, but we need to work spiritually in an integrated way - not separate spirit as something higher and outside ourselves."

She was the single parent of Ralph in her parliament days and she and Anders had a son, Gabriel, in South Africa just before they left. Jennifer's third child, Johanna, born in Sweden three and a half years ago, has Down's Syndrome.

"When it comes to learning, she's my deep teacher, in her innocence and her unconditional love," says Jennifer.

"She's a little miracle child. I'm shooting her life on camera, and I hope in a few years to have enough material to edit into a programme about Down's Syndrome. Upside Downs. Or the Dance-Sing-Drone, as we call her.

"She has turned everything upside down - everything I read about Down's kids - and I want to help other parents. Anders and I were joking that if we ever had another kid (and we won't - we have enough, with three) we would have an amniocentesis and if it was anything but Down's, we would send it back!

"Johanna is a highly emotionally intelligent being. Sweden provides incredible support: she has a personal assistant at school, and a co-ordinated team of people looking after her development.

She is grateful for the chance Sweden has given her children to grow up free and fearless, and she has deliberately not turned the home she still has in Jeppestown, central Johannesburg, into a burglar-barred fortress. It is occupied by an extended 'family' of assorted friends who form her support system when she's here, and her children adjust seamlessly.

"They are chameleons," she says. "Ralph was born here before I met Anders and he loves this place. Gabriel was born under Table Mountain. We planted a yellowwood tree for him where I buried the placenta. It's his tree, we talk about it - it's part of the mythology of our family.

"Gabriel said to me the other day, 'Mom, you're a crazy African woman!'

"I nearly fell off my chair. He's incredibly astute!"

Jennifer will be performing at the Dorp St Theatre, Stellenbosch, on Sunday evening, December 9, and at the Cabaret Cafe at the Theatre on the Bay from December 12-15.

©Copyright 2001, Independent News & Media

Page last updated/revised 021128
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page