Learning from elders of the bush

2008-11-21 00:00

“When white people want to remember something, they write it down. We don’t; our tradition is carried on through tales from wise men, great men. If you want to hide something from a traditional man, hide it in a book.”

These were the words of Bheki Khoza, CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, at a three-day field ranger gathering, organised by Ezemvelo and the Maqubu Ntombela Memorial Foundation held in Hluhluwe nature reserve this week.

“An environment that doesn’t have a history is as good as useless. Every environment changes over time. That history is lost when we forget our tradition and forget to pass our stories on to future generations,” said Khoza.

The legendary Ian Player (82), a former field ranger, loyal nature conservationist and organiser of the Magqubu Ntombela Memorial Foundation, came up with the idea to have a gathering, the aim of which was to encourage the invited guests to share their stories and correct the names of signs given to certain parts of the reserve and outlying areas in the colonial era that are either derogatory or incorrectly spelled.

The wizened faces of the men, all of whom are close on 90, sitting around camp fires, sharing their game ranger stories and their close encounters with dangerous animals in the reserve aided this purpose. As they sipped on their umqombothi (Zulu beer) the stories became more detailed and a lot of information was recovered. Lion tracks, a scorpion and hyena howls in the background were grand scene setters.

They spoke of how the Zulu rangers braved the bush in sandals as they were not allowed boots. How they were stationed in dangerous areas with only a tent for shelter.

“I remember one night, we were in the middle of nowhere and this elephant in musth raided the tent. The only place to run to was the hills, and there we were, four rangers running up the hill, hands in the air and screaming like baboons [he imitates a baboon],” said Baba Gumede, a 93-year-old ranger.

Player shared his memories of Maqubu Ntombela, who was born in 1900 and who was also a field ranger at Hlulhuwe. In 1959, he was responsible for conducting the first guided tour in the reserve.

Player says when he first arrived at Hluhluwe, he thought that he was better or more experienced than Ntombela and quickly learned just how much he still had to learn on their first walk in the reserve.

“It was a very hot day. After walking for some time, Maqubu and I came to a pile of rocks. He picked up a rock, spat on it and placed it on the pile. Then he told me to do the same.”

Player refused this command, saying: “I am a white man, I don’t believe in your traditions”.

The two argued for two hours until eventually Player succumbed, picked up a rock, spat on it and placed it on the pile.

A few metres further on, the two were confronted by a black mamba.

“The snake hovered above us and I thought we were dead. It was hot, we had been walking and a bite would surely have killed us,” said Player.

The snake retreated. Player pulled out his gun and was about to shoot it when Ntombela looked at him and said: “The snake left you alone, now you leave it alone”.

“He told me to sit down at that spot and then lectured me about tradition for another two hours.

He said the reason one spits on those rocks is out of respect for the men who have journeyed that pathway and for protection on your own journey. The snake was just a sign from the ancestors,” said Player.

“From that day on, I knew who the bigger man was and Maqubu became my mentor. We then became friends, learning together. We walked many trails until 1993, the year Maqubu died,” he said.

The reunion of the great rangers was a historic moment — a step forward to correct the unjust legacies of apartheid and re-introduce tradition to a place rich in folk tales and practices aimed at preserving natural resources.

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