Leopards live in Fort Nottingham.
Alson Zuma has never actually seen one. He has spotted the spoor, heard unusual growls and observed the remains of a fresh predator kill. He knows they are there. While some might avoid wandering through the forest and exploring the cliffs, Alson is undeterred.
Much of the inspiration for his art comes from Nature. “I like to be alone. I like to walk in these hills as I have done all my life,” he explains quietly.
As far back as he can remember, he has been drawing. “I was amazed by a woman’s head that my mother drew in the book in which she recorded births and deaths,” he recalls, “even though the paper was flat, the head looked rounded. I always opened this book just to look at the picture.” At school, he could not resist drawing in his books – according to his teacher, he was ruining them – and was smacked often for this misdemeanour. “In class, I would stare at someone for a long time – looking at all the details on their face. Faces are funny when you focus on them and I would sometimes burst out laughing.” More trouble from Mrs Mzila. “There was nothing I could do. Drawing was in my blood.”
In those days creativity as a career was unheard of, so Alson took a job tending livestock. Each day he would spend free time sketching with a ballpoint pen on the bag he used to carry his lunch and, in the evenings, draw pictures he stuck up in his cottage window. These were noticed by his employer David Fox, who encouraged him to do more. In the late 1980’s Alson moved to Fort Nottingham and now works at the Fort Nottingham Museum owned by David Fox’s family.
The museum is in the original buildings that housed soldiers of Nottinghamshire’s Regiment, the 45th ‘Sherwood Foresters’, who were stationed in this garrison from 1856 to protect white settlers from raids by Bushmen. Ironically, Alson has Bushman ancestry and the museum shop contains his depictions of Bushman life painted on pieces of rock, along with his wonderful wood carvings.
While he has seen many bushpigs and baboons around Fort Nottingham, there are certainly no rhinos or giraffes as carved on his boxes and panels. He uses books on wild animals for inspiration and has been a member of the Nottingham Road Library forever. The library ladies know the sort of thing that would appeal to him and point them out. “I have paid many fines for late returns,” he laughs, “especially the books about dinosaurs. I am fascinated by dinosaurs.”
Another fascination is radios. Alson has always fixed and fiddled with radios and his carved radio boxes are an absolute delight. They are covered with depictions of the various shows – weather, soaps, news and cooking – and contain a transcript of Radio Alzsum broadcast from Fort Nottingham. Listeners (readers) will be riveted by the politics of the village, the wildlife spotted late on Saturday night when villagers are dressed in their finest feathers, the traffic chaos caused when Mr Dube’s goats and Mr Cele’s sheep met on the main street and the weather report on yesterday’s weather rather than tomorrow’s.
Alson lives a simple life. To sit in the sunshine, listening to the radio, carving a piece of wood is pure pleasure. To walk down the road, through the ouhout trees into the hills is freedom. To teach his sons how to paint brings him great joy. To share his passion for Zulu culture makes him proud. To imagine the leopards roaming nearby makes him smile.
This creative citizen has found his spot in the world. Fort Nottingham is his place.