When we arrived at Msinga we were the first white people in history to have settled among the people of the valley and no one believed this was possible. Men arrived in delegations. Sent by distant indunas, headmen, they squatted in our driveway, their sticks laid out warrior style by their sides, wiping the sweat and dust off their faces.
‘Oh sikulekekile ekhaya’ – the customary call of greeting and respect wafted down the driveway echoing faintly into our little stone house.
Khonya and I rattled around our father’s ankles as he strode long-legged up the path, slapping away the biting ants and the little blond kids eager to see who the latest visitor was.
‘I see you madoda, men,’ he greeted them, shaking their hands with the traditional two-handed grip of respect, both parties gazing at the ground. Men do not look into each other’s eyes unless in challenge.
Flat-topped red dolerite rocks were rolled towards the shade of the umncaka tree, the odd scorpion dispatched by the heel of a shoe made out of a car tyre. The men then sat and the to-and-fro of African dialogue commenced.
‘Eyi, it is hot.’
‘Yes and dry.’
‘The crops are withering in the fields.’
‘Ah and the Sikehlenga has dried up.’
‘Kubukhuni’ – life is hard.
‘And where have you men come from?’
‘Far, beyond Dimbi and under the Lenge Mountain.’
‘Ha, it is far, and when did you leave?’
My mother arrived and knelt in front of the little circle placing before them a tray of steaming hot sweet tea in tin mugs, thickly sliced peanut butter sandwiches nestling alongside like doorstops. The men glanced at one another, a white woman serving them, and kneeling before them. Ayibabo, they shifted uncomfortably, how could this be?
‘Oh siyabonga medem,’ they mumbled, not sure what to call her. Others called her makoti, young bride, a term my mother felt far happier with. She moved off and a few minutes later, as the men hungrily scoffed their sandwiches, we heard her typewriter hammering away like a machine gun under the Schotia tree. Men do not talk while they eat, so apart from the buzzing of the Christmas beetles it was silent for a while.
Eventually the men turned to the subject at hand. They had heard this white man’s deeds and mission spoken of along the dusty pathways. The drunks put down their clay pots of traditional beer and spoke in hushed tones of his strangeness. On the taxis others said he could not be trusted. Eyi, but then the induna’s sister was married to Dabluzwane who was brother-in-law of Majozi, and Majozi said this white man was different. He was one to be trusted and listened to.
And so they were here. They had gathered at the meeting tree of their clan and they had spoken of their troubles, the men stopped and drew little circles and lines in the dust. Would Numzaan hear their cries? We cry, they say in Zulu, but it means we have a plea, a desperate need.
Their cries were many and from all corners of the tribal domains. For some it was to ask how they could bring water from a distant hilltop spring to irrigate their fields; others needed a dam to water their drought-stricken cattle, or maybe a brother had been tortured by the police and lay suffering in Tugela Ferry jail as they spoke; old grannies shuffled in, their pensions fraudulently stolen by a crooked clerk in Ezhakeni. They were the powerless, the voiceless, and they flocked to our dusty stony thorn-strewn yard every day, some stories so horrific we children were chased away, some so sad that the storytellers sobbed into their colourful tribal robes as they retold them. Others were hopeful, hesitant. Was it possible? Could it be? Expecting to be turned away but finding hope, hope that let them return home from this white man, their backs straight, their excited chattering echoing behind them as they walked back to report to their distant tribal tree with a spring in their step.
We would set out a few days later to meet the delegation in person. There were no roads, just footpaths that criss-crossed the mountains. These were the highways of Msinga, used by elegant women carrying unbelievably big loads on their heads, plodding along behind trains of donkeys and little trotting herdboys. The valley survived on dagga, every stream and river had thousands of green patches. Old grannies slaved over these little fields and sold their large bags of dagga for a pittance. The tip of each leaf was careful plucked and graded according to the quality. The drug runners were local young men who braved the endless roadblocks with a hundred ruses to get the stuff to the city and to return with cash, guns and cars.
Third World Child is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers.