/ 23 June 2017

Lest we forget: Grand histories are built on personal stories

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Milisuthando (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

I don’t know what it is about going home to rural Tyeni in the Eastern Cape that compels me to record every morsel of life unfolding. Notebooks return to Jo’burg fatter and phone storage fuller with videos, audio recordings and photographs of a life that represents the mothership, the source that my wellness depends on the older I become. 

Owing to the brevity of my visits and the evidence of my life’s meaning when I’m there, I do a lot less talking and little laborious thinking in the midst of a place and people I find so much solace in. I listen to hear, watch to learn and smell to remember something that I know is mine too; although I experience this place and its people as a distanced stranger, an inconsolable archaeologist excavating my own belongings for keep’s sake, feeding the need to archive lost knowledges.

For instance, my quartet of aunts probably didn’t notice how I was studying the ways in which they sat triumphantly in front of their big, black cast-iron pots drinking Frisco and Teaspoon Tips from mismatched crockery, talking the time away while their bread baked and their mngqusho softened.

Mama Mama, the only grandmother I have known, perhaps made nothing of my glee every time she said “Tafeni!” where I would angrily say “Jesus!” or cuss at the drop of a cup or the expression of shock. My aunt’s version of this is “aMazizi!”, one of her clan names, which she blurted out when she tripped over a small mound of earth and almost fell.

The family doesn’t know that I recorded the audio of us praying last Saturday night, saying ufefe (grace) and singing what I learned was Tafeni’s (born in 1883) favourite song.

I went home for what we colloquially called a “tea” for my actual grandmother, uZuziwe, who died in 1959 at the age of 38, leaving her very young children in the care of her parents, Tafeni and Mazengele, and siblings NoGate, Dyum, Phind’Phindi, Mbuyisa and his twin Somikazi, whom every-body calls Mama Mama.

I don’t know where the term “tea” comes from but it describes an ancestral ritual held to remember and celebrate uZuziwe as an ancestor, an act that could also be interpreted as an eking out one’s personal history or family archive.

It involves a week of brewing umqombothi, setting up and honouring what I can only describe as a shrine with a variety of eats, sweets, alcohol, cooldrink, snuff, tobacco, candles, impepho and other significant objects, the slaughtering of an animal and ritual observations of protocol in speech, cleaning, sleeping and consuming.

I found it very connective and de-isolating, soothing the pain I felt as a child when my standard three project, “my family tree”, had many a missing leaf compared with those of my classmates.

When we woke on our grass mats and mattresses on Saturday morning, four generations of women in one room, it was the first time most of us, including my mother, heard stories about what kind of person Zuziwe was (a tall, dark-skinned woman with grace in her eyes and a radical love for her siblings), the path she had walked and the spot where she died in the very hut in which we were all sitting. It was new for me to hear different people’s versions of the same events, events that happened 50 years ago, told with bone-warming detail.

The very knowledge of her existence was startling.

We left Tyeni on Father’s Day and, on arrival in East London, I searched my family albums for a picture of my father to post on social media and instead I found something I suspect he wanted me to find from the grave: his side of the family’s history and archives.

I sat in his study looking at paintings and photographs, reading neatly typed-out notes in isiXhosa, recounting and explaining the exact ceremony we had just had for Zuziwe, but one that my father had organised in July 1993 for an ancestor he never met.

Born in 1868, he was Dick Bongela, who worked in Simon’s Town and travelled home to Bawa in the Transkei several times a year and raised his brother Mpahleni’s son as his own. The son was my father’s father, Abraham Dick Bongela.

According to my father’s account, on the day that Dick senior died from an illness in 1935, he asked to be taken outside so that he could spend the afternoon looking at the world for a last time. And, when the sun went down, he left the realm of the living.

Where I usually pray alone — at a shrine I have made in my Johannesburg apartment — on Monday night, I played the recording I had made of my family praying and, suddenly, I was no longer isolated. Culture and the archive had stepped in to intervene in my yearning to connect to something shared and greater than my own life.

The most significant lesson I’m learning from this is the importance of mining this precious knowledge from the living while they are still here, not for any other reason than to fill the hollowed parts of ourselves.

Iimbali! is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis