Saturday, November 15, 2008

Zichrono Livracha: (In Memoriam) Peter Esterhuyzen

Peter Esterhuyzen was a creative and beautiful man, marked and made remarkable in that he held his own amongst the best and produced so much while fighting off- in the most heroic and uncomplaining manner - the condition that was to kill him. He wrote poetry and television drama scripts, plays and comics, was a great raconteur and touched the lives of so many disparate people, moving seemingly effortlessly between words and worlds. That's him at bottom left, with the black bear and glasses, making a cameo appearance in one of his storyteller comics.

Peter, tall, black hair , pigeon chest, glasses, rooibos tea with milk,
curious human eyes and understanding smile, embroidered stories of his child
days and wild days, cocreator of Yizo Yizo, playwrite - The Chimp Project at the Market Theatre, Peter and his latest infatuation, Peter with his philo-Semitism, Peter as contributor to
the Apartheid museum, and author of dozens of textbooks, many of which are prescribed text
books in SA, in several disciplines, from maths to history, Peter with his
wide ranging and eclectic friendships which crossed all boundaries, Peter
and Storyteller comics, Peter and his marriage in his last year of life...

The sad-glad news that Peter Esterhuysen died on
Friday April 9th 2004.

Sad because he was a quiet hero who never complained about his Cystic
Fibrosis and who put in 16 hour days creating wonderful comics, scripts and
plays...while living on a daily regime of 80 pills and having only the use
of 20% of his lungs.

Peter was one of the oldest surviving people with CF in SA, and fought a
long and ingenious war with the debilitating condition. He could have held
himself a victim, but he chose to live his life to the full, and you never
knew you were interacting with someone who was engaged in an almost daily
struggle to keep his body functioning...

He was a wonderful raconteur, a bright, alert, enthusiastic and curious
human being, a skilld write and editor, and a good friend who always
encouraged others in their
creative efforts (for example he published an anthology of new SA writing in
in the early 90's), a sweet and lovely and inspiring man whose passing
leaves a void

Glad because his last few weeks were not good and eventually he was put on a
respirator...something he'd said he did not want...

Here is a piece Peter wrote about his play "The Chimp Project" which played at Johannesburg's famous Market Theatre in 2000. The extract is lifted from the Handspring Puppet Company's website

"This play had its genesis one Saturday afternoon when my friend and collaborator Barak Morgan began entertaining me with stories about wild chimps, based on the work of Jane Goodall. He told me stories about the chimps called Goblin, Gremlin and Greybeard: stories that illustrated the complex reciprocal social relationships and power dynamics within chimp communities. He spoke about Jane's discovery that different chimp communities groups appear to have different 'culture': different ways of collecting food, fashioning primitive tools or using medicinal plants to fight disease. Finally, he related the story of the Kasakela chimp community and their four year long furtive war waged against the Kahama community which ended in the latter community being wiped out. The anecdotes, which evoked in my mind a kind of chimp Middle Earth, were startling: chimp behaviour seemed to include acts of empathy, altruism, murder and war - behaviour which I had always regarded as uniquely human.

I had long admired Handspring Puppet Company's work with William Kentridge. When I bumped into Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler at a party that same evening I mentioned the idea of using puppets to explore the world of chimps. Basil and Adrian were intrigued by the idea, and a few months later the four of us found ourselves in the forests of Gombe.

Coming face to face with wild chimps was a profoundly unsettling experience: they were quite unlike any other animal I had ever encountered. So humanlike and yet so completely other: they defied conventional categorisation as animal or human.

In the forest reserve of Gombe it seemed only natural that these unique creatures should be granted the special rights which form the basis of the Great Ape Project's world campaign. But as soon as we ventured beyond Gombe into the eroded landscape and stark poverty of the surrounding villages, the picture started to muddy again. At night, while staring out at the lights of the fishing boats on Lake Tanganyika, we had many a heated discussion about the rights of people versus the rights of chimps. Did the local people get any benefit from a reserve like Gombe? How long would the forest or the chimps last if people were allowed in? Is it blind human arrogance that makes us think that only we have rights? Yet can we talk of chimp rights at all? What would happen if chimps started claiming their rights? What if their idea of rights conflicted with our idea of the rights we wanted to confer on them. If chimps could talk...

We turned to the books we had brought on signing chimps and so began our long sojourn in the controversial, intriguing, often tragic world of cross-fostered chimps that have been raised as human children and taught to communicate using sign language. One of the most famous of the signing chimps was Lucy, who had a vocabulary of 120 words of human sign language. Lucy's life was a caricature of a 70s American teenager. She enjoyed watching soap operas, poured and mixed her own drinks, paged through magazines and became sexually aroused when she saw pictures of naked human men. Lucy thought that she was human.

From our camp outside the forest, Lucy's suburban America seemed a universe away. And yet this great divide was one that Lucy herself was forced to cross. At ten she became too big for her domestic world and was sent to a chimp rehabilitation colony in the Gambia, where she was successfully weaned off gin and tonic and magazines, and taught with other orphan chimps how to survive in the African Forest.

The real Lucy died at the hands of poachers. But the arrival in the forest of a signing chimp and her long-suffering human companion seemed a fitting place to begin a journey into the ever-shifting 'border zones' between human and animal, nature and culture."

ABOUT PETER ESTERHUYZEN (this also from the Handspring website)

"Peter Esterhuyzen is a former academic and literacy teacher turned professional writer. In 1989 he co-foundered a comic publishing company called The Storyteller Group.

Since then he has written more than forty comic books and text books, and helped create three popular comic series. He first collaborated with Handspring Puppet Company on a multimedia educational series for children called Spider's Place. After leaving the Storyteller Group, he freelanced in the television industry for three years before making his television debut as a co-creator and co-writer of the controversial series, Yizo-Yizo. He is currently working on the sequel. The Chimp Project was his second play."

Yehi zichro baruch - may his memory be a blessing, and may he rest in peace,
surrounded by the things he cherished - women, rich friendships,
beautiful words and ideas, and knowing that he was, and is, loved, admired
and appreciated.

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