Growing up, Siki’s mother (Zolelwa) lived with makhulu (Her mother’s sister). Makhulus lineage was the blessed one, not Zolelwas’ mothers’ line. From makhulus’ waist emerged the brightest minds. Teachers, nurses, school principles, community leaders and clerks. Her children were of the few who managed to complete form 5 and later on move out of the village, not to toil underground in the mines of eGoli. They moved further – attended night schools – could recite stanzas from Sonnet 116 – became teachers in small towns – married young – bore and or raised children immediately. All in sequence.
Though Zolelwa (Siki’s mother) was in the same age range as makhulus’ first set of grandchildren they were always destined to have a different future to hers. Though they splintered from one trunk, born of the same seed, awakened by the same rhythmic beat that drummed when their clan names were loudly proclaimed, tangled in blood, knotted in the connectedness of their last names… even so, it was clear that she and they would branch out differently.
Zolelwa; her skin blotched, a fusion of countless sunburns. Her crown- patted flocks of jet black kinks. Tall built yet dwarfish. She was an ill-fated branch. Brownish, never having received enough light from the sun. She, an etiolated branch, more likely to have a littler life.
She was like the fig tree that bore no fruit. When you look at it all it would seem natural to think that Jesus walked past her, found no fruit, only limbless leaves and as He did with the fig tree commanded “May no fruit ever come from you again!”
She absorbed those words and alike withered. Forms of fruit would spike from her. Only forms. Occasionally. Not long enough for her to be talked about as a fruitful person. Her roots, her trunk, her branches, her leaves, they were not built in that way.
…to grow strong.
To offer a soft breeze or a satisfying, protective shade on a sunny day.
The splittered-leaves that strived from her branches would never flatter nor green enough to fill passerbyers with a yellow thankfulness for the sweet scents and favours nature offers to mankind.
These are the cards that life deals. The very construct of black families. Some blessed. Others not. Perhaps cursed instead. The blessed ones grow, “like trees planted by streams of living waters. In each season, their leaves do not wither and in everything they do they prosper.”
Guaranteed to branch out. Enough.
To bloom, like purple bougainvillea maybe, persistently growing and glowing, climbing over walls, with beautifully gnarled branches. Unlike Zolelwa they learn to read English fluently and later on use it meaningfully in their day to day life. They pass Standard 10, attend a training college or a university and establish some kind of family structure in homes they call their own.
The very ground, the air in the village welcomed them with this knowing. With a yearning for their presence. Methodically, once they arrived, a succulence exploded on the sugar cane fields, a lushness glimmered on the outstretched ends of her green slopes, a crisp freshness silvered the air infusing gladness in the clouds, in the riverbanks, on the wet mounds, this joy danced on the spines of chameleons, all through the village…almost to announce their arrival. This boastfulness causing the winds, the clouds, the cold valleys of neighbouring villages to shudder with envy.
Imagine mother nature mesmerized, rising from her throne, kowtowing to welcome the cream of her crop. Effortlessly she’d soon smother them with activity; Christmas concerts, mgidi festivities, boys & girls and flings and compliments, hugs and smooches from aunts and friends of family friends, ripe peaches specially picked from makhulus’ garden.
Commonly they arrived in December, two weeks before Christmas and they were set to return home mid-January. The choice boys from across Mbashe river would instantly notice these clean beauties. You could tell ngaba’se’town. This cleanliness, this town’ess, this better’ness that prowled in their ways. It gave them a soft power and a freedom to lightly flounce through the village – to be welcomed favorably on any veranda their feet stepped on.
it is here, at the concert practices for Christmas sketches that fleeting holiday love would flower. The village was a fun playground for them, for first kisses and saying no to boys who were “below their league”. The village was like a stage they could perform on, long enough to stitch new stories and additional family jokes that would strengthen the chords that connected the cousins. For years and years, the stories would stir great laughter among them, like that time when Lonti fell flat off a donkey and just lay there stretched on the ground, arms and legs jutted out. Or how Philo nearly drowned at Mbashe river, how they never ever told the elders about this because they had been warned to never swim after it had rained, that time they were to only wash their clothes, or the other time, the other funny time when Oko stole five cartons of long life milk, Or how Soso showered himself with ma’phakathis (aunt) perfume and though denying it the fragrance tracked him tirelessly, fusing the yard and the kraal, entering the rondavel, into the local shebeen almost to tell on him.
The shortness of their stays made visiting makhulu a delightful experience. The girls learning how to pound samp, attempting to polish mud huts with cow dunk, trying hard to appreciate the charm of the pattern without clenching their noses to berate the stench. Tasting Chibuku, gulping amarhewu, empty sipping on umgqomboti (traditional beer) and then being told again to taste and swallow on the second try. The boys muddling neither here nor there, rising early crouching in the kraal to milk the goat, other days dressing up in an old overall & gumboots to herd cattle. It was a playground.
…not home, not the dusty inescapable ward it was for Zolelwa. She had no choice on the length of her stay. The village was hers and she was the villages. She never coveted the options her cousins had. She had never paused to imagine herself living life as them. Praised as them. Insult free as they. That life did not belong to her. Hers was punctuated with marks of traditional poverty. The usual kind that goes unquestioned.
For Zolelwa there was a helplessness that enforced this reality of inferiority. It was never a personal feeling but the set up was in part symbolic of their tiered privileges. The warm welcomes they received the slaughtering of chickens for their departures. The set up was in part psychological. She welcomed. She said good-byes. None would do the same for her, she stayed and stayed and when she hiked to town she toddled up the hill into the world with no audience to wave goodbye nor to await her return. Zolelwa was defenseless from how different her life would turn out from theirs. The lines had already fallen for her in unpleasant places.
What is it that made them have and her lack? What made them bud and she shrivel? This better’ness that left them with a sustained cleanliness even after weeks of being in the village with her.
Maybe it’s the bright lights that vault timorously in their tarred suburban streets? Maybe it’s the black rubbish bags that line outside their gates on Tuesday mornings.
Maybe it’s the smooth roads, the green & blue telephone booths that stand at the entrance of their neighborhoods, marking the successful delivery of local services. Or maybe it’s the easy access to clinics and trains and libraries and town halls. Or the 7 coloured meals they enjoy on a Sunday after church, peas, beetroots, spiced rice, these might be the preservers. Or maybe the combination of it all. The Love. The regular watering. The standard of Living. Living knowing that at each stage you will have enough care. Enough attention. Maybe it’s the option of living with choices.
I wonder if Zolelwa once contemplated these matters. Who knows?
Maybe she did.
Or maybe not.