The series of images of Mr Mbhele were made in December 2019, in a village called KwaMgayi in Umzinto, KwaZulu-Natal.
Mr Mbhele is a pensioner. I never got his exact age — his age was the last thing on my mind. In Zulu culture you are not allowed to ask your elders their age, or look them in the eye. I was only able to stare at him and get a clear view of his eyes, face and battle scars by hiding behind the lens. That’s the only time we ever made eye contact.
It had been several years since I last visited my mother’s home village and her birthplace. During the Christmas holiday, I took it upon myself to spend time with her family, connect with my ancestors, and get the experience of the festive season in a village, because all I’ve known is township and suburban life. I wanted to experience more of my culture, and to clear my head of city life.
After Christmas, I went herding with a few boys and brought my camera along to the mountains. We travelled with cattle along a dusty gravel road, and that is where I saw Mr Mbhele. He was busy in his backyard garden, removing weeds, Boxer tobacco hanging out his mouth.
I wanted to capture that moment, but I couldn’t out of fear and respect for an elder. I approached him and asked to make a picture of him. He said, “I haven’t showered as yet, can you come back later?”
He explained: “The last time I had a photograph of me made was for my ID at home affairs and you were probably not born at that time.”
I told him he looked perfectly fine, and we proceeded to make his portrait. He then told me about his battle scars all over his face and head. He said growing up as a Zulu teenage boy, they used to stick fight, known in Zulu as ukudlal’ induku.
“Nguni stick fighting is a martial art traditionally practiced by teenage Nguni herd boys in South Africa. Each combatant is armed with two long sticks, one of which is used for defence and the other for offence,” as Marié-Heleen Coetzee writes in Zulu Stick Fighting: A Socio-Historical Overview.
Through making the portraits, I learned that not all scars are bad scars. Some people praise and appreciate their battle scars as evidence that they’ve been part of something.
Battle scars have a story and deep meaning behind them: from injuries in village wars and fighting to protect ancestral land to playing stick fighting to make the day pass in the mountains, or by the river, proving who is inkunzi among the boys.
I learned about manhood from Mr Mbhele’s stories and other elders I spoke to during my stay in the village. I haven’t been in touch with Mbhele since that day.