/ 8 April 2020

Mourning for Martha

Tshepiso Mabula
Feeding the mourners: The outside cooking area at Martha's funeral, with charcoal-stained, drie-voet pots on the fire. (Tshepiso Mabula)

Here lies Martha Mabula. Her body is cold and stiff; her eyes are shut, never to open again. Her cells are silent; rigor mortis has set in, and all her organs are quiet. Blood no longer rushes through her veins and the contents of her stomach are turning into the organisms that will take her back to the dust with which she was formed. 

Her family is sombre; their hearts, still beating, are heavy with sorrow. Martha was skilled in the fine art of surviving the trauma of black, working-class existence — a poverty connoisseur of sorts. When it was necessary she made it rain. Carrying plastic bags filled with love and light, she was the soft, subtle and comforting voice of her ancestors, the ones she now lies with at the Fighters FC cemetery in Ga-Shongoane. 

Martha was a peacemaker; she was a builder. Her hands were responsible for the feedings, spankings, warm meals and the heartfelt hugs that helped to brighten the bleak futures of the next generation of Mabula. 

The week leading up to Martha’s burial is like a play performed on a dusty, unorthodox stage. It is as dramatic as it is funny. Many have travelled to bid her farewell. The women spend their days feeding the mourners, while the men slaughter, dig and drink their way to the day of her final bon voyage. The event is marked by charcoal-stained, drie-voet pots on the fire, and fresh cow skin that has been hung to dry on the fence.

Every evening one can hear a sombre hymn coming from the bedroom where bakgekolo (old women) sit on the floor in a straight line, with legs outstretched, some with half-empty snuff containers and tobacco-stained tissue paper. Their singing is heavy, and sluggish, reflecting the gravity of their grief. The room is filled with silent whispers, from gossiping about village life to reminiscing about the good and bad times they shared with the late usingaye.  

Outside the house, where the drie-voets churn with meat and pap, it is a different story. The mood seems oddly festive; the consumption is colossal. Every few minutes plates of pap leave the makeshift, corrugated-iron kitchen. They carry mountains of bogobe le nama ea tshotlo. They come back empty; they are washed and wait so they can be refilled — in and out. All in memory of Martha, who lays frozen inside one of Motsitsi’s Mortuary fridges.

Two tents have been erected. They fill the small yard that Martha called home; they make it hard to move around. They stand tall and give shelter to the mourners. On some days the tension is thick; from a distance the important members of Martha’s family can be seen sitting and discussing the pertinent matters regarding her burial.

Martha grew up poor; she and her siblings left school before they could finish, to work on the various farms that fill the Lephalale landscape. Some of these farms belong to their forefathers; men like Martha’s late great-grandfather, who died aboard the SS Mendi troopship going to France to join an unknown European battle. Alphael had a small, humble farm, which he nurtured so that his children and their children would live on it and create a life they deemed worthy. 

This same farm is where Martha toiled for an Afrikaner family. It is here that her body began deteriorating. Her sweat and blood nourished its soil and, when she had given all of herself, she was disposed of and relegated to a quiet life in Ga-Shongoane. While she lived there, she raised her siblings’ children while they toiled on the farms, under the belly of the earth in the mines and in the opulent kitchens belonging to glamorous madams in the city of gold. 

Martha fought to the bitter end; she refused to let go of life even when her lungs started to decay because of the asbestos she would inhale from her old roof. Even after one of her kidneys was removed because it no longer served her, she fought. She wrestled death with all her might, even as it pinned her down during the vicious winter months; she fought so that she could buy custard and jelly in the joyous summer days.

Martha was like the rising sun after a stormy night; she reminded us that there is always something to hope for; that even when the kryptonite of poverty drove us to the depth of darkness, the scent of imphepho and the words Lesedi Kganya could just as easily become the wheelchair that carries us back to life. 

And so even on the day we bid her well; even as we watch her mortal remains descend into the ground that once warmed her feet, we will eat, drink and be merry.