I watched the most beautiful little person with her grandmother today. She must have been about two years old. Brown curls peeking out of an ice-pink woollen hat. Her milk teeth beaming from all the love and energy her grandmother was giving her. They loved each other so much it was impossible not to stare. Granny moved from her side of the table to sit next to the little girl so they could take a selfie. Watching the child trying to keep her lips over the straw of their duplicate citrus smoothies while the elder took the picture was the most delightful sight. They were truly together. In each other’s company in a way that made me temporarily forget my own loneliness.
I’m not that intimately close to anybody anymore. And even if I do have close friends and family, I no longer know how to ask someone to “khapha” me, be with me, talk to me with ease. There’s a sizeable territory between the world, my friends and relatives and the true me. It’s not that I don’t want that territory traversed by the presence of another, it’s just that things have not turned out that way. I don’t mind my state of general solitude. I get a lot done. But the sight of pure love occasionally makes me question my life. Is this how it is meant to be?
In my childhood, one would never go to the shops or to someone’s house alone. One always asked someone to khapha you, so that one always had a witness, another’s humanity to rub up against one’s own. A visitor would never visit by themselves. They always brought their husband or wife, children or extended relatives with them. During the 130km trips between Butterworth and East London my mother and father would take every weekend, they always gave a lift to hikers carrying cardboard signs with the number plates CE for East London, XA for Mthatha or XB for Gcuwa, written out in a blue, black or red ballpoint pen. It was rare not to give someone a lift. These days they carry the same signs, but pay between R30 and R50 to khapha the driver.
To witness the depth of this concept of ukukhapha in difficult times is comforting. At the devastating funeral of a seven-year-old girl I attended two months ago, each of the speakers who went up to give tributes and eulogies to the little girl were accompanied by family members, so that nobody stood alone at the podium. uMntu ngamye ebekhatshwa. When it was her turn to speak, one of the little girl’s schoolteachers, a white woman in her 30s, walked up to the podium alone. Before she began her eulogy, she looked at the packed church and with tears in her eyes, told us that, in her culture, she had never experienced this practice of being accompanied (ukukha-tshwa) in the way that she had witnessed that morning. So she asked a group of fellow teachers to come up to the stage and stand behind her. Three teachers walked up and held her as she expressed her love for the child. I could hardly see their faces through my own tears, which flowed at this beautiful moment of different cultures touching.
In some Xhosa traditions, when umakoti leaves her home and goes to her mother-in-law’s home to begin the period of ukuhota, she is accompanied by umngqungu, a young girl from her family or village to help her with her domestic duties and for emotional support, so that she is not alone.
uKuhota is still practised by some families, but it used to be standard that, for up to six months, the new bride went through a stringent period of being trained in the laborious tasks of being umakoti in the homestead of the in-laws. uMngqungu was a necessity not only as a set of extra hands, but also for someone familiar to umakoti in this new, often difficult environment.
My teacher finds it funny that I live alone. He says that, back in the day, if one was moving into a new place in the city, an older family member would be sent to live with you for at least a month so that you were not alone. They would stay in your flat while you were at work, studying the neighbours, walking round the neighbourhood to learn its landscape, making small talk with neighbours to determine who’s best to befriend, borrow sugar from or stay away from, on your behalf.
uKukhapha is the bedrock of isiNtu. This untranslatable notion of uMntu ngumntu ngabantu. Awuhambi wedwa, ukhatshwa ngabanye abantu, including this idea that one is always with their ancestors, whether you believe it or not. That is why it is normal, especially when I’m in the Eastern Cape, to ask ninjani, instead of unjani to one person because the assumption is that that person does not walk alone. “The state of being alone is an oppositional state to who you are and how you construct your humanity. You are not meant to be alone, ever,” my teacher tells me.
“We live alone, we are by ourselves and call that civilisation,” he says. The cornerstone of our societies, our communities as abantu, was to build and maintain communities. Strong communities, so that unomntu wokukhapa. In joy and in sorrow, one should not be alone. “How are you going to survive being alone in sadness?” And yet here we are.
Not to romanticise the practices of yore, but these things like loneliness were carefully thought about and planned for by the people who came before. The organisation of a society was consciously implemented to avoid the state of isolation that many suffer from today. There is a long litany of respects for ukukhapha and it makes up the threads of a culture.
In a confusing, frightening and deeply lonely world where the “I” is given priority over the “we”, where blood relations are far apart, where trust between family members, colleagues and communities is so little, I’m glad that there are linguistic tools such as “ndicela undikhaphe”, I wish to cultivate the courage to express the need for another person.