Ralston Raft in the Dance Fire

by Kelvin Dennis Hulley

Pages: 250
Imprint: Vanguard Press
ISBN: 978 1 84386 909 2

Ralston Raft in The Dance Fire is an African adventure with a delightful mix of ingredients. The story brings together diverse characters; some are noble and grand, others are boisterous and devil-may-care. Ralston Raft finds himself caught in a chain of events following his controversial resignation from the university where he teaches philosophy.

Does Raft's life, as it unfolds, keep with the existentialist thinking he teaches his students? Unrequited love, a treasure hunt into the Botswana wilderness, and a truly moving encounter with the San Bushmen are some of the elements of this book. Southern Africa is presented with love and sensitivity in a style which provides the reader with a genuine feel, without being hindered by laborious tracts of text.

A rich vein of descriptive humour enhances the book immensely, with each chapter "a must read" story on its own. Roman poet, Horace, asserted that literature should delight and instruct. This book delivers on both promises? They say that the sunsets at Hippocampus Lodge are a sight to behold. Africa is about daytime and night-time, not minutes and seconds.

Unisa alumnus publishes novel

Kelvin Hulley is a Unisa alumnus (who studied political science in the 1980s) who recently wrote and published a novel in January 2012. The Unisa Alumni Relations Office posed a few questions to give us some insights into his life.

Kelvin is a Community Pharmacist who lives on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He completed his schooling at Durban High School and in 1975 obtained a Pharmacy degree from Rhodes University in Grahamstown. During the early 1990s, Kelvin read for a BA degree at Unisa with majors in African Politics and International Relations.

According to Kelvin, his interests are camping safaris into Botswana, angling, golf and mountain biking. In addition, he enjoys reading politics and philosophy. The humour of Spike Milligan and Monty Python played a formative role during his years as a young adult.

Kelvin is a service-minded individual who has belonged to Jaycees International and has been a serving member of the Lions Club of Port Shepstone since 1991. He is married to Anita and they have three young adult children: James, Bradley and Kate.

What is the book about?
"Ralston Raft in the dance fire" is an African adventure with an eclectic mix of ingredients. The story brings together diverse characters: some noble and grand, others boisterous and devil-may-care. Unrequited love, a treasure hunt into the Botswana wilderness, and a truly moving encounter with the San Bushmen are some of the elements of this book. The marginalisation, dispossession and detribalisation of the San are some of the many underlying themes in the book. The "dance fire" refers specifically to the San trance dance; the reader will, however, find it to be a metaphor as the main character, Ralston Raft, faces inescapable existential dilemmas. Southern Africa is presented in a style which provides the reader with a genuine feel, without being hindered by laborious tracts of text. The publisher is Pegasus Publishers.

How did you come up with the story?
I have been a regular visitor to Botswana on camping safaris for the past 10 years. Over this period of time I have gained a good working knowledge of the Okavango Delta, the Central Kalahari, Chobe, Savuti and the Makgadikgadi. In my readings on Botswana, I came across the legend of the founder of Ghanzi, a man called Hendrik van Zyl. He is said to have hidden his fortune in caves west of the Delta. Van Zyl was also known to have exploited the San who inhabited the area in the 1870s. This became the seedbed from which the story evolved.

Why did you associate your novel with the Political Science Department at Unisa?
I firmly believe that my studies in Political Science, together with a second year course in Philosophy, equipped me conceptually to write a novel which speaks to the many issues which characterise the political history of Southern Africa.

Practising as a trained Pharmacist, why did you choose to study politics?
Politics has been a topic of discussion and debate in the Hulley family since my early childhood. Military service and a degree at Rhodes University in the early 1970s served to further conscientise me politically. My early postgraduate years were spent in Pietermaritzburg at Edendale Hospital. It was during that time, that I met Clive Napier. During the late 1980s Clive was able to visit my home while on lecture tours to Durban. South Africa, at that time was in dire straits. I decided, with Clive Napier’s encouragement, to register for a BA at Unisa, the idea being to later engage in politics from a position of insight and knowledge in order to hopefully hasten the transition from apartheid to democracy.

Why did you choose Unisa to study for your degree?
Unisa was the only and obvious choice. I was a community pharmacist with my own business and a young family to provide for.

What are your influences?
I do not think any of us can escape our childhood. My family, uncles and cousins were all politically aware. My father was an early supporter of the Progressive Party under the leadership of Helen Suzman; this at a time when the general political will was heading in the opposite direction. I believe I was exposed to rationalism, fairness and social justice at a young age.

Durban High School taught me discipline and independence, and as a consequence of that, I learnt self-discipline. Military service introduced the ability to endure physical and mental hardship. Those of us who attended boarding school in the late sixties would have found moving from boarding school to the military to be a seamless transition!

I consider myself to be fortunate to have degrees in science and the arts… left brain and right brain? It is not possible to say one has truly lived, without having had the privilege of fatherhood in a family home. I am fortunate to have a devoted and loving wife, and three exceptional, good looking and intelligent children.

Then there are the many grateful senior citizens whose lives one touches in sometimes very small but significant ways, in a community pharmacy. Much like the San, many of the pharmacists in community pharmacies may find themselves marginalised and dispossessed by the powerful.

Are you working on a new writing project?
My intention is to write a trilogy. Having completed "Ralston Raft in the dance fire", I began planning the next book which is provisionally entitled "Ralston Raft in the smoke that thunders", which seemed be an appropriate title for a sequel to the "Dance fire". Writing a book around a preconceived title may have its challenges.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
It has been said that 80% of success is making a start. I totally support this idea. Thoughts and ideas can only take shape when one sits at a desk and starts to write. A notebook of interesting words and phrases can be most useful when one is searching for interesting ways to colour up one’s prose.

What are your favourite books (or authors)?
Having completed my first fictional novel, it is indeed ironic that I do not as a rule read fiction. In fact when I started writing I avoided all fictional books for fear of being drawn into another author’s style of writing. I read a third of Dan Brown’s novel "The da Vinci Code". I learnt that short chapters are useful in holding a reader’s attention… that does not hold true in all instances.

My preferred reading is non-fiction. A book I have read and returned to a number of times is the "End of science" by John Horgan. Recent acquisitions are "Law, life & laughter encore" by Ellison Kahn and "Cry havoc" by Simon Mann. My research for the "Dance fire" led me to the work of Laurens van der Post: "The lost world of the Kalahari" and "A walk with a white bushman".

What will your legacy be?
This is an interesting question as it forces me to reflect on who I really am, and what actually, have I achieved. With specific reference to my writing, I do sincerely hope that I will reawaken interest in a broken people who deserve more in a world obsessed with human rights and political correctness. The San are now incapable of ethnic mobilisation, the sad truth is that the actual process of mobilisation would ironically merely further distance them from the traditionalist cultural identity which they may seek.

Ralston Raft in the Dance fire is prefaced with the following tribute to the San.

Do not stand on his land, and weep
He is not here, but he does not sleep
He is the Kalahari winds that blow
No creature exists there,
that he does not know
He is the glint in an eland’s eye
A falling star in the evening sky
His rock art grows old
And the Dance Fire is cold
Kaggen waits alone today,
for the Hunters to return
can he show the way?
Stand not on his land
With pity and sorrow
Think of what’s done
Where you, will be tomorrow


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