Urban hipster Khaya Dlanga heads home
‘There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” I found the words of Nelson Mandela ringing in my ears as I entered the village where I spent the first 10 years of my life.
On the windy and hilly road that leads into Dutyini, Mount Ayliff, in the Eastern Cape, I looked to the left and saw the place I was born: the familiar blue and white huts and four-cornered houses sat at the base of the valley before me.
The gravel roads were, of course, terrible. My silver Mercedes performed 4x4 duties, allowing me to drive at dangerously F1-esque speeds of 20km per hour.
I smiled as I remembered that as a young boy I thought this was the whole world.
That weekend in July I was home for the tombstone unveiling of my great uncle.
It had been a while since I had been back.
In Dutyini I am known as the grandson of Kaiser Alfred Boyce. In spite of the name he was a black man with the clan name of uS’nama. “Us’nama, Rhadu, Somadoda, amalendelwa yintombi ithi ndizeke noba awuna nkomo”, the saying of the clan went: “The ones who girls follow and say: ‘Marry me, even if you have no cattle for lobola’.”
When a cow died, whether by slaughter or natural death, it was my grandfather’s duty to record it. He was feared for his strict ways and, as a result of that and his standing in the village, nobody ever really messed with me.
My first stop was at my old school, Dutyini Junior Secondary. I took a photograph of the classrooms I had attended from sub A [grade one] to standard three [grade five]. The mud-brick rectangular house with cow dung-smeared floors is left unused. Modern buildings have replaced my old classroom and they are filled with chairs and desks. There is a greenhouse vegetable garden where we used to play soccer and a fence now surrounds the school. But even with the new additions I couldn’t help but look at the school and praise God—and my mother’s resilience—for getting me where I am today.
When I was nine and in standard three I was the youngest in my class by five years. My future looked bleak. I was already bunking school and smoking the weed that used to grow freely around the village. But my mother left Dutyini for East London to work when I was still young, after my father disappeared in Johannesburg, and died not long after that. Still, that move was my saving grace.
I now live in Johannesburg, the far-off place I imagined as a child where young men from our village would go to work in the mines, returning only in December to plough the fields and again in March to harvest them. I remember the elders telling me when I carried heavy objects: “You are strong now, you are now ready to go work in the mines.” Johannesburg, in my child’s mind, was a place where men lived and worked underground.
As I continued along the road, strangers greeted me by raising their hands. It was not because they knew who I was or remembered me from when I was a kid. It was just the decent thing to do: you see a human being, you greet him. Just that simple.
I stopped to unload my things at my grandfather’s house, where I would be staying for the weekend. No one has lived there since he died in 2004 and there had been three break-ins in the past two weeks, all the electrical appliances stolen.
It used to be a proud kraal. When I was growing up, there were six free-standing houses on the property. Now there are four. The others have collapsed from the rains. The main house isn’t as grand as I remembered it, but in its time, it was. It was the house that hosted the very first TV in the village.
Our lounge would be filled every evening as soon as people heard the petrol generator start up. It wasn’t just the TV they were coming for either. Elderly villagers and countless relatives would come to us to ask for water. Now there are taps along the road. People no longer have to walk to the river, they just walk to the nearest tap.
The building that I lived in with a young uncle, who died years ago from an Aids-related illness, is no longer there. It’s no surprise he died in the way he did. When he thought I was asleep he’d bring in girlfriends. I’d make out silhouettes of all shapes and sizes as they came into the darkened room, and heard the sounds of the springs from an old single bed and their giggles afterwards, but I’d always be long asleep by the time they left.
Now the main house and its surrounds are overgrown and the dogs, cattle, sheep and horses that once roamed are gone. I took pictures of my grandfather’s home—my home—as if I was a tourist. I opened the metal gate to get a shot of the picturesque Nsizwa mountains in the background—the view I woke up to every day.
Finally, I made it to my uncle’s home. My aunts, uncles, cousins and distant relatives watched my car as I pulled in, but none of them was sure whose it was. When I got out, ululations and singing broke out spontaneously. Many of my relatives hadn’t seen me in more than a decade, not because I don’t visit, but because I hadn’t been to one of these family gatherings in a long while.
Someone introduced me, saying: “This is Khayalethu. Grandson of K.” Uncle Mlu, who had had more than enough to drink, looked at me vaguely. But after someone else shouted out my childhood nickname “Ngu Mabhuti lo, umzukulu ka K”, he came to life.
“Ngu Mabhuti lo? Ngu Mabhuti lo?” Uncle Mlu repeated over and over for the next 10 minutes. He couldn’t believe that I had grown, that I had become a city dweller.
Later he asked me to drive him to town, to the beer hall, saying that people would scream out his name because he was arriving in a fancy car. But when he got out, the villagers just looked on. Uncle Mlu went inside and bought his nip. He came back excitedly to tell me that he was treated like royalty. Now that he had been seen in such a fancy car, he would be respected. It pained me to hear him say that.
As we drove back, he pointed at the houses he had built. I was amazed. I asked him how much he charged and he said he just took whatever the contractor gave him. He told me that when someone gave him R200, it could last a whole month. My heart broke. That’s how much I sometimes spend on a meal out in Johannesburg. I tried to tell my uncle that he should charge more, but he waved me away as if to say: “This young city boy doesn’t know what life is like.”
The next day I woke up early. Instinctively, I did the things my grandfather had taught me to do in the morning. I got my cup of water in a tin cup. With a single scoop I washed my face and hands and brushed my teeth. I took my bath in a metal 12-litre washing basin, filling it with water heated on the paraffin stove. It didn’t cover a tenth of the basin, yet I washed my body sufficiently.
I went where I used to take my grandfather’s cattle and sheep to graze and noticed that people weren’t keeping as much livestock as they used to. I went to the river where I played, swam, fought to earn respect, learned to stick fight and made cows of clay—and saw the river had become nothing more than a brook. I noticed, too, that it had been years since any ploughing had been done. Fifteen years ago people planted their own mealies, ground them and made their own mealie meal. Whatever they didn’t grind, they sold, saved for next year’s grain or used for umnqusho, samp and beans. Now people go to town to buy their food with money they don’t have.
The local store used to be a gathering place where villagers collected letters from Johannesburg or ordered doors, windows or wood. Now it carries only bread and the basics. People shop in town at the Spar in Mount Ayliff, about 20km away. I spent most of my time there, ferrying relatives back and forth. I ended up missing the unveiling of my uncle’s tombstone as I was constantly sent to town to replenish one thing or another, as happens when a young man visits with a car.
As I shared my thoughts on the rural areas on Twitter, some desperately wanted to romanticise the experience. But there is no romance in carrying water on your head when you could get it from a tap, or in walking kilometres to the forest so that you can get firewood for food and warmth. The people who live here accept their lot, but they would rather have indoor plumbing and hot water. When I think about my life here there is no romance in it. There is only nostalgia.
Mandela was right, the place hasn’t changed. And I suppose I haven’t changed that much either. I have only, to borrow a phrase from Oprah Winfrey, become more me. I didn’t have to reteach myself manners, or the basics of rural civility. It all came back and I fitted right in—even if I did bring the world back with me to Dutyini.
Khaya Dlanga is an obsessive tweeter and blogger whose day job is in advertising for a multinational