Rural reflections: notes on time well-spent

I spent a recent 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 travelled to the Eastern Cape with my sister and her husband, who gave me a lift on their way from Kokstad to East London. They dropped me off in Dutywa near Mthatha and, upon arrival in a town I have always driven through, I stopped to examine its details and made some notes on my phone:

I’m feeling very far from my regular life this afternoon. I’m at a four-day-old taxi rank in a little town called Dutywa, halfway between Mthatha and Butterworth. I’m en route to my grandmother. I’m in one of those lorry taxis that are usually packed with everything from packets of mealie meal, live sheep and people’s lives inside Ghana Must Go bags, which in this region are called “ooNo Problem”.

I’m sandwiched between an elderly driver and another old man wearing a reflector vest, a scotch print shirt and brown chinos. His shoes are off and the car reeks of feet that have walked in the day’s 37° heat. He’s pretty friendly and we spent the first hour of our acquaintance talking about history. 

My uncle, who is responsible for our travelling in this way, is in the back of the mini lorry, captivating the passengers with his oratory. 

When we arrived at the rank, he said, holding my hand: “Mtshana, you are always writing about how black people live from your comfortable life in Jo’burg. Come and see how black people live.” 

This place is indescribable and it would be a shame for me to try when I have only been here for two-and-a-half hours. 

Moments after my uncle took my hand, two police cars, with flashing blue lights, came into the small rank, where the police harassed vendors, who were used to trading at the main taxi rank until recently when the police swept them out. Nobody flinched but the flies. 

At that point I needed to use the toilet and naively asked my uncle where it was. He looked at me and said: “Where would there be a toilet when these people’s heads are still spinning from being relocated?”

We then walked around town until we found a municipal toilet. It costs R1 despite the fact that it’s a public building. People get arrested for relieving themselves in the street and so some resort to petty thefts just to be able to use the toilet, among other things. 

I squatted over the toilet, which wasn’t bad and looked up to read the graffiti on the door. “Ningamaxelegu maspala waseMbhashe” (you are filthy Mbhashe municipality) and “Imisunu yenu rhulumente” (fuck you government) are two that I remember. 

We walked back to the vehicle and waited for it to fill up, which it did eventually. We are now on our way to Tyeni at the exhilarating speed of 50km per hour. 

Fast forward …
It’s day seven out of nine days of my rural escape and I’m considering building here and coming a lot more often than I have in the past. Maybe I could build 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 I’m naive because I’m so used to the anxieties of living in Johannesburg. 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, as a result, they are quite independent and say and do the most peculiar things. Like the other day, a six-year-old left the village to go to town, some 40km away — on his own. 

I take walks every day to the other houses or to a local store run by two Nigerians, to buy sweets or a cool drink 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 mgidis (ritual celebrations) that she and my uncle have been attending every day 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. For instance, she has a huge bunch of keys and insists on locking 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 in my room in the evenings, writing or watching a movie on my computer, past her bedtime of 7pm, she occasionally knocks on my door to “cim’umbane Mili Mili ku late”. On my first two days here, she insisted I go to bed at 6.30pm but knew it was a losing battle. 

Last night she asked me to sit with her on the veranda, told 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 (an underdress) below her waist 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 every day and I’ve lost my temper with him a number of times. But my grandmother 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 (that’s what everybody calls my grandmother because she calls everyone, including boys and men, mama mama) 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 in the time of transformation.

Without fail every morning, she wakes me up with a cup of tea at 6am while I’m still sleeping and I, barely awake, tell her “Makhulu ndisalele” (Grandmother, I’m still sleeping) 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 what she calls isiselo sasemalanga kaloku mama mama (afternoon cold drink).

Of course she isn’t just a grandmother. She’s a self-actualised 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 boisterous turnup face. 

When she stopped dancing, some of her toothless friends came to hug and greet her and her response to one of them in deeper voice than her usual high pitch was: “He wena Mambanbani liphi elagqwirha lingunyoko elabulal’uyihlo”? (Hey woman, where is your witch of a mother who killed your father?”) I was noticeably shocked but I laughed with the rest of the room. 

Since it was umgidi, there was a lot of singing and dancing. All the different age groups were engaged in their own moves, the youth blasting house songs in the tent and dancing and the elders’ traditional singing and dancing: begida, bexhentsa. I noticed a beautiful economic approach to imigidi, something my uncle calls “African communalism”. The house with umgidi buys food to feed the village and each person who attends donates whatever money they can as a gift to the family, a bottle of hard liquor or case of beers and a present for the new man, which is anything from a set of towels, clothing or a double bed. 

When we walked in, my grandmother and both my uncles donated a couple of hundred each and one bottle of whisky. These donations are written in a book. By about 3pm, the women’s house donations were up to R11 000. 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 is for a full month, from about December 5 to January 5, few 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.

After that mgidi, as my grandmother and I sat on her plastic-covered couches facing a dead TV that we were too tired to watch, I half listened to her repeat the following morning’s schedule as she had done in the last seven days. I was, for the first time, properly reading the wall hanging that reads: “God watches over this house.”

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