Khele’s grandchild

2008-11-05 00:00

HE was tall and athletic, and I think my father was a better tennis and cricket player than he was a farmer. Regardless of dipping inspectors, calving problems or the burning of firebreaks, he would (according to the demands of the league timetables) defiantly leave the farm to its own devices while he went off to the village green to play tennis or cricket, depending on the season.

His spectacularly white, knitted V-neck pullover with two thick snakelike cables down the front remains, for me, the epitome of Great Gatsby sporting fashion. I don’t think he would have approved of the colours that have now found their way into Wimbledon and the one-day internationals, and he would have frowned on the baggy, string-tied whites now used in Test cricket. His whites were substantial cream flannel, with knife-edge creases. The only permissible mar in their perfection was a faint tinge of honourable pink on the front where he polished his cricket ball. One of our Zulu houseworkers, Nonanese Langa, was the proud valet of his sporting gear, duties she undertook for many years with the dedication of one caring for church vestments.

Even when he was actually farming, Father managed to remain smart and spruce in a khaki-and-polished-boots sort of a way. He never swore, very rarely lost his temper, in fact his was a modulated, deliberately passive life in most ways. He had an interesting turn of antiquated phrase — an unusual chivalrous vocabulary — and the Zulu he spoke was fluent, albeit with an upper-crust British accent. I think he was better suited to a life in the heydays of colonial Kenya than the one he had acquired — that of a struggling post-war dairy farmer in an unproductive and poorly watered part of Natal.

Let me confess, Father was rather more elitist than his wife and there were interesting rumours that his clean amber skin came, not from the sun, but from a “touch of the tar brush” imparted generations back, although never confirmed. A potentially treacherous state of affairs in colonial South Africa, but if it was true, it never made any difference to him or to us. Mother, on the other hand, was from solid UK Yeoman stock, dauntingly practical, disturbingly efficient and definitely white. As for their children, a rowdy, unsophisticated lot, I think he found the six of us somewhat overpowering, while Mother regarded us as yet another challenge to her administrative skills.

Life on our farm was not a romantic pastoral affair. It was tough and uncomfortable, and everyone came into conflict with the elements. By August our fingers were rough and cracked, the farm dirt acquired during the cold July holidays deeply and painfully embedded in the splits. Our lips were chapped and our hair lank, grubby and darkened from its childhood blonde, for who wants to wash hair in a teacup of lukewarm water on a freezing morning?

My Victorian grandmother, who lived in Durban, traditionally paid for us all to have our hair cut after the long holidays before the start of school and so it came to pass, one year, that the six of us were rounded up and loaded into the back of Father’s boxy brown GMC truck for the trip to town. Normally, the truck did not have any canopy but this time a makeshift canvas contraption, supported by bamboo poles, was tied on the back and Father ignored us when we asked him why. Even so it was icy cold in there and we huddled miserably together under grey army-type injabula (happy) blankets as the old GMC bounced over the dusty corrugations on the main road to the coast.

Father had made our journey even more uncomfortable by loading some assorted crates right under the cab’s back window. This was the warmest “pozie” and he’d compounded his sin by also loading a taciturn black tractor driver, the eldest son of our induna Khele Langa.

Khele we liked and admired, but his son, Shadrack, was a sour, seemingly unapproachable type and not one of our friends. He was a solitary, silent man who always kept to himself, preferring to carve and shape beautiful bowls from the local hardwoods, rather than become involved in the activities at his father’s busy kraal.

So he was not an ideal companion for the trip. He sat silently in the warmest place near the tarpaulin covering Father’s boxes. We crouched down in a windy spot, our backs to a big box, and were blown about all the way to town.

We tried singing London’s Burning and Green Bottles. We tried sleeping and arguing, and we ate the rock buns which were Mother’s staple padkos, but nothing really helped and the

two-hour trip felt like four.

We girls all had long, stringy hair plaited into skinny braids and by the time we reached Durban the top hair had pulled out and we looked like last year’s haystacks. Dry and unappetising.

For well-connected children there was only one fashionable place to go for a “hair snip” and that was to the elegant Mrs Jones who worked in the children’s section of the hair salon at Greenacres Department Store. She was an ultra-smart lady, formidable in her mannered and arrogant mien. I swear, she even crooked her pinkie when holding a teacup.

We had never liked her, but after last summer we had begun to hate her because she had complained in a superior and patronising manner to Grandmother about our hair.

“Why,” she asked, “do the little dears have green hair?”

That our hair was green was undeniable. You couldn’t spend most of your hot Christmas holidays in our slimy farm dam without picking up some algae. But we were furious with her because Grandmother had immediately (from a distance) organised a strict hair-washing regime, once a week with Sunlight soap and cold water in a galvanised bath on the lawn outside the kitchen. But her rule had been tacitly ignored as the weather turned colder.

True to character, Mrs Jones grizzled fussily about the tangles. But that Christmas we had planned our bold revenge. On cue we subtly hummed in unison to make her believe a swarm of bees had invaded West Street. If we could pull the wool over her eyes she was just the sort of “towney” to go into an entertaining, hysterical panic.

It had been fun to plan how to trick her, but I don’t think we ever really believed our ruse would work. It came as a pleasant surprise to realise we were actually having some success for we could see we had definitely raised doubts in her mind. Then Bessie (the littlest one) spoilt the whole trick by too obviously humming when it was her turn in the maroon leather barber’s chair. It all fell rather flat. But Mrs Jones never said a thing to Grandmother so perhaps she’d learnt her lesson.

Afterwards Grandmother took us to tea and peach cream cake at Paynes, and bought each of us girls a pair of new knickers before we returned to her spacious flat on the beach front. Grandmother’s flat was always filled with violets and we never knew where they came from, but month in month out, no matter the season, the soft violet perfume pervaded Grandmother’s home.

That day Mother and Father took longer than usual to finish their chores in town, and when they came back to collect us, the back of the GMC was loaded even further with three of Khele’s woman cousins.

The four Zulus were predictably sitting in the warmest part of the truck, silent and morose, wrapped in their blankets, while we six were shoved right down to the GMC’s tailgate.

The return trip was torture, hugely worse than the trip down. We hugged each other for warmth, but the icy afternoon winds engulfed us. Molly said her intestines were frozen, Benjie said his brain was blue, we others were too miserably cold to grab the opportunity to make, what for us normally would have been predictable sarcastic rejoinders.

It was twilight and the oil lamps had already been lit when we trundled up the road to the farmhouse. Unusually, we saw all our Zulu staff, as well as some strangers, standing in a silent circle by the turning bay in front of the house.

Father unceremoniously chivvied us out of the bakkie and as we hurried to the warmth of the kitchen, he motioned us back, curtly admonishing us in a pedantic fashion.

“Stay now, silent now, observe. The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land, you may almost hear the beating of his wings. Learn from the traditions of a proud race.”

We were puzzling his words when the 40 silent Zulus as one sighed, an eerie plaintive sound like wind through the wattles, then began a soft moaning chant punctuated now and then by a melodious descant. Bowed heads were covered by blankets and men stood erect and hard-faced.

Khele came forward to the battered dusty GMC and spoke softly to Father. They shook hands the Zulu way and Father stood back ceremoniously.

Khele’s sons, led by second-eldest Wozangazu, came forward and following their father’s quiet but imperious instructions helped the three female cousins out of the GMC. Then working at a measured pace, modestly and silently, with Shadrack’s help they removed the olive green tarpaulin covering the boxes in the truck.

Two coffins, beautifully crafted and carved, one large and the other very tiny, were gently lifted off the truck and carried with loving care and with ritual rhythm out of our garden and up the rocky hill towards Khele Langa’s kraal.

The chanting, sighing people softly closed ranks behind the cortege and disappeared into the dusk.

“Man proposes, God disposes,” said Father, striding into the house for his evening dry sherry.

It was Mother who explained that Shadrack’s wife had died while giving birth to his first-born, a stillborn son.

“Khele and Shadrack wanted her buried on the farm, so we collected them from the hospital. Poor Shadrack worked day and night to make those exquisite coffins for his wife and baby. It was better you didn’t know what was under the tarp.”

We girls cried ourselves to sleep that night. I’m not certain if we were more scared of the prospect of dying in childbirth or terrified of seeing “spooks”. The boys said they weren’t scared at all but we noticed their oil lamp, burning late into the cold night.

Su Hennessy

Su Hennessy was born in Durban but spent much of her life in rural KwaZulu-Natal where she is now retired with her husband of 50 years. She has spent several stints working in foreign climes and has five children born on three continents, and 10 grandchildren of whom the sole granddaughter is the only white member of a gospel choir at St John’s.

“My mentor on the family farm was a wise Zulu steeped in tribal lore who taught me much, including a love of the Nguni cattle which I have researched and now have started painting.

“This story is part of an anthology I have compiled as a legacy for my children to remind them of a better time when there was an easier relationship between the Zulu farm worker and and his or her English employer.”

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