RURAL REFLECTIONS // I THOUGHT I KNEW MY GRANDMOTHER

I spent most of my holiday visiting my grandmother and my uncle who live in a beautiful quiet village called Tyeni on the banks of the Mbashe River near Clarkebury.  I wrote about my trip on Facebook and people so enjoyed the stories that I thought I should share them here.  Here’s the third post after being there for a week.  

It’s day seven out of nine days of my rural escape and I’m considering building some property here and coming a lot more often than I have in the past. Maybe a writing residency because my mind has received exactly what it needed and my inspiration to create has been visited by many an idea. Everything here is a poem. Or maybe it’s because I’m so used to the anxieties of living in Johannesburg apho impilo igqwethekileyo. The way people talk, the ritual inherent in almost everything, the way children are not really children but little people. They are not mollycoddled and a result, they are so independent and say and do the most peculiar things. Like the other day, a 6 year old left the village to go to town, some 40km away, on his own.

I take walks everyday, out to the other houses or to the store to buy sweets or cooldrink and other city treats that I miss. The sweetest things in my grandmother’s house besides her, are the scones she brings back from the many mgidi’s that she and my uncle have been attending everyday since I arrived. She lives alone so she really treasures guests and while I’ve received the best treatment, I’ve also discovered that she’s very peculiar about how she likes things in her house. She has a huge bunch of keys and likes to lock everything including the kitchen and the bedrooms while she’s in the house. She doesn’t like to use up the electricity and is constantly watching the meter, dictating when lights should be on and off. She has two gas stoves and an electric one but hardly uses the electric one. Only one light should be on in the house at all times. If the light is on in my room, the passage light can’t be on. She uses candles. When I’m sitting at night writing or watching a movie on my computer, way past her bedtime of 7pm, she occasionally knocks on my door to “cim’umbane Mili Mili ku late”. On the first two days she insisted I go to get ready for bed at 6.30 pm but knew it was a losing battle. Last night she asked me to come sit with her on the veranda, instructed me to switch off the lights in the house and the veranda so we could sit in the dark with our clothes off so that the neighbours couldn’t see our breasts. She only wore unondrokhwe on her bottom half and a pair of brogues and I was just in my panties. It was nice. We were tired and full from attending umgidi that afternoon and she was telling me about her twin brother and how twins are not allowed to go into the sea otherwise the ancestors take them.

She has unwittingly taught me the wisdom of patience and listening. She is hearing impaired so I have to repeat what I’m saying at least three times or speak really loudly which feels rude so I mostly listen to her speak or sing. She is constantly singing when she’s walking around the house or taking a long waskom bath. “Sizoooooodibanaaaa eeeeeGalili” is her favourite. There is a young man who has been living on the property for three years so that she is not alone but lately he’s had a problem with drink. I’ve noticed that most of the men here are functioning alcoholics. I have very little patience with Thole, the man on the property whom I haven’t seen sober since I arrived. He asks for cigarette money everyday and I’ve lost my temper with him a number of times but my gran says it’s useless to react because he won’t remember, which he doesn’t the following day. He greets us every morning, a little less drunk with no memory of my disapproval. Mama Mama (she calls everyone that and everyone calls her that) gives him money in one hand, while lambasting him to his face, that she doesn’t know this Thole that is lost in drinking. “Hayi Mama Mama, ayisenguye loThole ndimaziyo lona”. I’m learning how to not let someone else’s disharmony ruin my harmony, a valuable lesson considering the work that I do.

Without fail every morning, she wakes me up with a cup of tea at 6.00 while I’m still sleeping and I’m always like “Makhulu ndisalele” to which she laughs and laughs”. Then I feel bad so I wake up and we talk about this and that while she eats oats or porridge going on about how thin I am. She encourages afternoon naps and we take them after isiselo sasemalanga / cooldrink in the afternoon.

Of course she isn’t just a grandmother. She’s a self actualized woman. I saw another side to her yesterday when she was with her friends emgidini. She was dancing, at first in a sweet, old wobbly legs of an elderly woman kind of way and then suddenly, hips, shoulders and feet were moving like a seductive teenage girl with a lit turnup face. When she stopped dancing, some of her toothless friends came to hug and greet her and her response to one one of them in deeper voice was “he wena Mambanbani liphi elagqwirha lingunyoko elabulal’uyihlo”? / “hey you where is your witch of a mother who killed your father”? And I was like

I watched her with her friends. They were killing themselves with this and that, some dressed in western clothing, some in Xhosa clothing, some in Thembu clothing and others dressed as AmaQwathi. Since it was umgidi, there was a lot of singing and dancing, all the different age groups doing their thing, the youth blasting house songs in the tent and dancing, the elders singing begida, bexhentsa. I noticed a beautiful economic approach to imigidi, something my uncle calls “African Communalism”. So the house with umgidi buys food to feed a village and each person who attends donates whatever money they can as a gift to the family and / or a bottle of hard liquor or case of beers and / or a present for the new man and that’s anything from a set of towels, clothing or a double bed. When we walked in for instance, my grandmother and both my uncles donated a couple of hundred each and one bottle of whisky. These donations are written in a book and yesterday when we arrived at 3pm, the women’s house donations were up to R11 000. There’s still the men’s house donations which are usually more because it’s a game of who is the bigger man. This cash subsidises the family hosting the party. My uncle says “Kuhlutha kuhluthe nezinja ngoDecember mtshana, zibenamabhongo xa ukutya kungenamhluzu” / Even the dogs get fat during December, if the food doesn’t have any meat stock on it, they don’t want it”. The effect of this is that for a full month, from about the 5th of December to the 5th of January, no household cooks dinner or lunch because everyone is fed emigidini. Throughout the year, there are similar functions where you donate something to a housewarming, a funeral, an unveiling, a wedding or any other mcimbi and all your donations come back when you have a function.

When I went to bed last night, I felt good because I had done something rare to me which was to witness blackness from within blackness, through a lens that only sees itself even though there’s a perfect fusion of western and African, and thought – nothing is wrong with us.

And yes, that’s a photograph of her on the landing page. 

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