Listening to memories

2007-12-10 00:00

Sitting on his front stoep, overlooking the dusty path that descends to the main road in kwaMachibisa, Edendale, Mr Mavimbela* has a confession to make. Until recently, no one has been listening.

During the early seventies, the former businessman worked in the local beer hall, which produced a beer so sinister that people, including himself, became ill and disillusioned. It was only when the women stepped in and forced many of the country’s townships to close their beer halls that Mavimbela was able to escape this hardship and start a real life.

It is an overcast Monday morning when Nkosingiphile Malima and I make our way up to Mavimbela’s house, his two old buses and an oil-stained garage a testament to a life spent in business. We sit beside him on his stoep to talk about a dark past, one which was inescapable if you lived in Edendale during apartheid.

He is relieved to be talking about a time that should be remembered, especially because things don’t seem to be changing. “I am very disturbed when I see young people still drinking utshwala be-yeast,” he says.

Mavimbela’s confession first came about because of an oral history workshop conducted by Sinomlando — which conducts oral history and memory work in Africa — for the Greater Edendale Development Initiative (Gedi). Malima, who recorded Mavimbela’s story as part of the workshop, will be employed as a field worker for the Gedi Oral History Project.

“Mr Mavimbela’s story is a sad story, but it is an interesting one,” says Malima, an ANC youth leader in the community. “I decided I needed to interview him because the beer halls had such a huge impact on our community.”

The workshop, held in mid-June this year, was initiated to equip unemployed youths from the various wards of the municipality with oral history interviewing skills. Of the 26 who were trained, 16 fulfilled the requirements for a certificate of competence. Gedi is planning to employ some of them to gather oral history in the Greater Edendale area and then eventually to lodge them in a proposed cultural museum in Georgetown.

“When I heard about the oral history workshop, I knew it was something I wanted to take part in,” Malima says. “I wanted to hear people’s version of the past, because the written history of the area is not always accurate and often does not give the full picture.”

At a separate meeting with Malima, Gedi development officer Chris Nxumalo, Gedi Oral History Project co-ordinator Prem Singh and Sinomlando’s Radikobo Ntsimane at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, I am told of the impact that Malima’s interview had on the oral history community of South Africa.

“On July 18, Sinomlando organised a provincial conference on oral history, to which members from Gedi were also invited,” says Ntsimane. “There was a space for two speakers and I asked Nkosingiphile if he would present his story, which he did.

“It was very well received by the delegates and so we asked him if he would like to come to Polokwane and deliver the story at the national conference.”

Malima and Ntsimane compiled the interview into a conference paper in English, but Malima decided to deliver it in Zulu, to keep the authenticity intact.

“I was able to tell it more accurately because I could represent him better.

“The response was amazing,” Malima says. “People showed a lot of interest in the story and appreciated the language it was told in.”

Recalling how he first got Mavimbela to tell his story, Malima says: “It was hard getting Mr Mavimbela to agree to the interview, but then he said to me: ‘I am very happy, my son, that people like you are returning our history to our community. I will tell you as much as I know so the community will know what happened and, maybe it will be useful to the future of the area.’

“That is when I realised I had a responsibility.”

• Mr Mavimbela did not wish to disclose his first name.

What is the Gedi Oral History project?

The Oral History Project is run by the Greater Edendale Development Initiative, a special municipal project that focuses on the physical, social and cultural development of the greater Edendale area. Msunduzi Mayor Zanele Hlatshwayo has supported this project from the start and recently asked for the oral history field workers to put more emphasis on women’s history. “There needs to be more ‘her-story’ than history, that tells of women’s experiences and history over the years.”

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