Marikana aftermath – My mother and the miners

2012-09-01 11:36

Lucas Ledwaba’s reports from Marikana connected me to those striking workers in the most surprising and intimate way

My mother, Regina Makhosazana, uMaTshabangu, was a modern nurse and a devout Christian.

But every so often, she got the three of us (she, my younger brother, and I) to kneel around an ember-hot piece of coal on which she had sprinkled impepho.

She kept the brown powder in a small newspaper wrapper in a drawer next to her bed.

It was my responsibility to fetch the coal from our Ellis Deluxe stove in the kitchen.

This would be the last ritual of the day before we went to bed.

To get the right piece of coal from the stove could be a tricky manoeuvre.

There were two ways to do it.

The first was more dangerous, but more likely to win my mother’s praise.

It promised a good-sized piece of red hot coal.

When you kneeled close enough, the smoke of impepho curling up from it, you could feel such a coal’s heat on the tip of your nose.

“Mfana!” mother would say if I could obtain so great a prize, “you got just the right coal!” I would swell with pride.

To get such an effective piece of coal, I would have to open the stove from the top.

There was a special metal instrument for doing that.

It was shaped like an upright spoon, the part of the scoop jutting out like a foot at an angle.

You inserted the foot into a special shallow hole on one of the six plates on the surface of the stove and, once it hooked, you levered it up with a downward movement.

The hot plate came off the hot stove and could be lifted away safely.

With the red-hot fire in the stove now exposed, I would peer into the infernal red heat, inspecting it while I searched for a suitable coal to extract for the night’s inhaling.

First I would test the intensity of the fire tentatively with my face slanted backward to avoid being burned.

Invisible, rising heat could sear away eyelashes and brows in seconds.

If the heat was too severe, I would either abandon the approach from the top or, if I had the urge to be brave, I would cautiously use a long poker to manoeuvre a piece of coal onto the end of it, where two metal teeth could secure it in the space between them.

For the second way, I would open the stove from lower down, in front.

Inserting the poker through the grill, I would shove it back and forth rapidly to see how much coal dropped down with ash onto the pan below.

I could then select two or three pieces of coal from the ash pan – the sizes of which had been considerably reduced – bunch them together and rush to the bedroom, where my mother and brother waited.

This usually worked well, but elicited less motherly praise. Best was always the single big, red coal.

Soon my mother would pinch the impepho powder between her thumb and index finger from her newspaper pouch and sprinkle it over the hot coal. As I got older, she allowed me the privilege of sprinkling.

I think about it now.

How did we look from the ceiling: a mother and her two sons in a circle, on their knees and hands, their bodies slanting face first towards the centre of their circle, like cheetahs drinking at the edge of a small pool?

The threesome inhaled the bluish smoke that curled up towards their faces, rising up to the ceiling and beyond.

Soon we rose from the floor and said “good night” to one another, while I took away the remains of coals now cool enough to touch.

My brother and I left our mother in her bedroom, and repaired to ours; all three of us in the house now safe and protected from evil.

Fortified with confidence, we looked forward to the promise of peaceful sleep.

On many occasions, the last thing I would see of my mother’s bedroom was the huge dressing-table mirror. Whenever there was thunder and lightning outside, mother would hurriedly drape a blanket over it.

There is more to remember.

One day, much earlier than my days of being coal master of the house, I was taken ill. My mother, who had plenty of tablets and injections in her midwife’s suitcase, had Bab’uMahlobo come and treat me for whatever was ailing me.

A tall, dark and impressive man, he was one of the township’s izinyanga.

He was as imposing as my grandfather, the Reverend Timothy Peter Tshabangu of the Presbyterian Church of Africa. Often I would think of these two men simultaneously.

I picked up from my mother that we were somehow related to this awesome man, Bab’uMahlobo. Such men were feared by all in the township.

His wife MaNtombela was in and out of our house.

And I would be sent to her house on one errand or another.

Being so close to them, it felt as if we were safe from any danger.

Together with the boys of our street, I enjoyed another “protection”.

It came from Ntate Thobejane, an inyanga who lived at the corner house just opposite the AMC church. To stay protected, we took pleasure in trapping and delivering dead moles to him.

Normally, my mother’s regular healer was Gog’uPhakathi.

She was our constant source of impepho. But whenever my mother resorted to Bab’uMahlobo, something more serious was at hand.

Under Bab’uMahlobo’s supervision, my mother poured boiling water into the yellow enamel washtub we used for daily ablutions.

Bab’uMahlobo sprinkled something into the water and then added some leaves.

I was ordered to kneel before the steaming water, at the same time as I was being pampered with being “umfana kamama” (mum’s own son).

Then Bab’uMahlobo put heavy blankets over me and the steaming water. I was completely covered. No light. No air. Just darkness and steam.

I remember wanting to get out to breathe air, not steam, but Bab’uMahlobo’s hand, now behind my head, and then between my shoulders, pressed me down. Like a lamb, “umfana kamama” endured.

No whimper. No scream. There seemed no end to the tussle between my body (my silent language) and Bab’uMahlobo’s unyielding arm.

Mercifully, this claustrophobic part of my healing ended.

My mother lovingly dried me with a soft towel. I wanted to embrace her, but didn’t.

There was one more ritual for “umfana kamama” to endure.

It involved a razor blade that Bab’uMahlobo pinched between thumb and forefinger and held up purposefully.

I had the consolation of resting my face on my mother’s thighs as she sat on a chair.

This time I embraced her torso as far as my small arms could go. In that position, “umfana kamama” could take any pain.

I felt the sensation of one incision and then another.

He cut me somewhere between my shoulders, at the same spot Bab’uMahlobo had pressed down on me down to keep me sitting in the dark, hot steam.

I remember that the incisions were painless, even ticklish.

Bab’uMahlobo rubbed something into the incisions that felt like soft, grainy powder. His fingers were coarse, very unlike my mother’s, which were soft and smooth.

I was relieved when Bab’uMahlobo was gone, and my mother made soup for me and tucked me into bed. How I loved her.

It was so remarkable that these memories came back so powerfully, so unexpectedly, and so personally out of the recent, horrific, public tragedy at Marikana.

Lucas Ledwaba writes with compassionate precision about the striking miners of Marikana who gathered on a hill to be fortified for struggle against the police circling them near the Lonmin mine.

“The medicine man,” he writes, “used a razor blade on some of the men, making small incisions on their foreheads before smearing a black, gel-like potion on them.”

There! My memories, like impepho, curled out of some of the most formative intimacies of my life.

I felt, at that moment of reading, a deep bond with the men on strike at the hill, some of whom later died in a hail of bullets.

Suddenly, they were a part of me in a manner I could never have imagine


»Ndebele is the author of Rediscovery of the Ordinary, and Fine Lines from the Box

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