We came from nowhere, we’re now here

2008-11-14 00:00

As soon as I noticed the passenger door of my diesel Isuzu pick-up truck being flung open, I applied firm pressure on the brake.

The heavy load of cement bags, combined with twenty 10-kilogram bags of Aunt Caroline rice, caused the Isuzu to seesaw as if it was asking me why it had to be stopped in such an abrupt manner. To prevent the truck from cutting off, my left foot had instinctively rushed to depress the clutch. “Old faithful”, the love of my life, my Isuzu, came to a quick stop.

Its engine rumbled and purred quietly like an obedient pitbull awaiting the next instruction from its master.

I have absolutely no clue how my front passenger had managed to open the door even before the loaded truck had safely come to a complete stop. In order to allow him to shut the door, which I was sure had fallen off its hinges, I engaged the truck into low gear.

Without even receiving a signal from me, I observed that my front passenger’s half a dozen all-male companions had already perched themselves comfortably on the cement bags and on the neatly loaded plastic bags of rice. Even though it was an extremely hot KwaZulu-Natal day, I noted that all my newly acquired passengers were wearing jackets or sweaters. No one was wearing short-sleeved shirts or was shirtless as was the usual custom on a hot day in our rural wear-anything or-wear-nothing area. Inwardly, I cursed myself for having stopped to offer these “questionable” characters a lift.

Many unanswerable questions started assaulting my mind. Who were these guys? Where were they going? Where were they coming from? Why did I stop and offer them a ride?

Ever since my brothers and I had been granted the privilege of driving cars, we had religiously followed the valuable safety driving tips with which our father had equipped us. Dad’s priority number one tip was: “Boys, whenever you sit behind the steering wheel, you must always pay attention to the car following the one immediately in front of you!”

Tick off rule one. I had followed it to the T. The Isuzu was in good hands. So I thought.

Dad’s next rule was the SIPDE safety tip: scan, identify, predict, decide and execute.

Methinks, I violated a big part of rule number two. Sorry, Daddy.

Still transfixed at the lightning speed with which my passengers had climbed on to the truck, I glanced at the fellow who had planted himself rigidly next to me. He was a gangly guy whose age I safely estimated at definitely below 25. From the right side of his jacket, he gingerly pulled out a face cloth that had retained only a few patches of the original white colour. The rest of the cloth was a combination of brown, black and khaki colours.

No way, brother, that face cloth never left the manufacturer’s floor with so many incongruous colours. He wiped his face even though there was not a single trace of sweat on it.

Thanks to the sunglasses I was wearing, from the corner of my eye I was able to take a good look at the man who was sitting at arm’s length. No, I didn’t know this guy from a bale of hay. Another very quick look and rapid assessment convinced me that my new neighbour in the cab was precisely one of those people, who, had he tried to save your life for any reason, you may actually have been better off dying to avoid. Two teeth in his lower jaw were missing. His ring finger wasn’t there. On his right cheek, he had the hugest and the longest scar I had ever seen on a human face. If his scar was the final result of a qualified doctor, he had been patched up by a very incompetent doctor who shouldn’t have been allowed to practise in any clinic, hospital or in private practice.

See, like most patriarchal Zulu men who drive, the vehicles they own are very highly regarded possessions. Dare I say Zulu men rate their cars higher than their wives and/or girlfriends? Regardless of the condition, make or model, a vehicle owned by a Zulu man represents a bull or an ox. Never a cow!

I bought the Isuzu from Pinetown GM Motors. When people yanked open or banged shut the doors of my Isuzu, it was as though I felt its pain. I loved my cream-coloured, long-wheel -base bakkie and therefore I never entertained anyone who treated my Isuzu with disregard, disrespect or disdain. My Isuzu was a special kind of truck. It had never broken down. Not once did any of its tyres have a puncture. It never failed to start, even on the coldest, frosty KwaZulu-Natal morning. It was a loyal truck, the loud sound of which was recognised by everyone in our community.

Whenever I began climbing the steep hill that led up to our family shop, herd boys in the veld abandoned their goats and cattle and ran to the side of the road to stand and wave to me as I drove up the hill with a heavy load of groceries. Well, truth be told, I was often the cause of the urchins leaving their herding posts and running to the road. See, sometimes, I gave them toffee sweets. Other times, during very warm and muggy KwaZulu-Natal days, I would give them a ride up the hill and drop them off at the top. Of course, they would have to trudge all the way back to the bottom of the hill where their livestock would be grazing. Through the rear-view mirror I could see the giggling faces of the giddily happy tykes who had perched themselves on bags or boxes of groceries on the back of the truck. The sight of these little fellows shall remain indelibly stamped on my mind.

But there I was with a heavy load plus a group of “unknowns” who didn’t look as innocent and as happy with life as the herd boys to whom I regularly gave rides. Were these fellows perhaps on a more serious and more important mission?

Like an old Zulu man who had just quaffed a big gulp of ice-cold water, my passenger gave a huge sigh that clearly expressed relief, satisfaction and joy.

“Dankie! Siyabonga, boet wami!” (Thanks! We’re grateful, my brother!)

My passenger expressed these words with such an unexpected and profound sense of gratitude that my apprehension and sense of insecurity I had begun to feel were completely dissipated. Also, when he spoke, his enchanting lisp made me like that guy.

Strange though this might sound to some folk, a mixture of Afrikaans with Zulu in a sentence often has a disarming effect on us Zulus. After all, the Afrikaans language and its underlying apartheid connotations have crawled up the legs of dining tables among Zulu households. The following examples are enough to illustrate the point I’m trying to make. We add “black” (brown) sugar to a cup of tea. We use “ummese” (mes/knife) to cut “black” (brown) bread. Zulus never drink black coffee or black tea. Milk is always added.

Multiracial? What beautiful sunny South Africa was meant to be ... Maybe?

“Khululeka, mfanakithi, akunankinga!” (Relax, homeboy, there’s no problem!)” I assured my passenger.

In clear detail he explained that he was the team leader of the group on the back of the truck. They were all trained liberation fighters who had been sent to help the local resistance fighters who were being overwhelmed by foreign elements planted by the then apartheid Pretoria government.

He knew who I was. He was most relieved that I had stopped to give them a ride. For that, he repeated that he and his group were eternally grateful.

His life’s story came pouring out like the Umkhomazi River breaking its banks. After the death of his father caused by toxic fumes in the chemical factory at which his father had worked, my passenger had dropped out of school and had gone to look for employment in Pinetown. His father’s employer did not offer the family any compensation. The family wasn’t assisted with funeral expenses. His father’s boss did not attend the funeral.

As a result of his lack of education and training, my passenger was unemployable. The liberation movement recruited him. He excelled at the shooting range. Hence his appointment as leader of that group.

“Now, you see, boet wami,” he went on. “I came from nowhere. I’m now here. The same applies to our people’s history in this country, boet wam. Our forefathers were dispossessed of land and of their power and of their authority and of their dignity. In the land of their birth, they were forcibly shifted from one place to another just like orphans who are moved like pawns within the government welfare system. Boet wami, I’m now here. Here now, to fight for what’s right.”

The gangly young man’s passion helped me change my priorities. No longer were material possessions the most important things in my life. When I met him and his companions, my motto changed to “less me, more we”, because, truth be told, we came from nowhere, we’re now here!

John Mkhize

John Mkhize is a “cradle Catholic” and is married to Jackie MaCele. He is the father of two boys and grandfather of one very soon-to-be four years old grandson, Khalipha.

He began his teaching career at Mazenod Combined School, Chesterville, and taught English and guidance at St Francis’ College, Mariannhill, from 1968 to 1985. From 1985 to 1993 he worked with the Shongweni community and KwaZulu-Natal and central government authorities to complete projects begun by his father who died of natural causes in 1982. In 1989, he mediated between the UDF (ANC) and the IFP in Shongweni, which was dubbed by the media, “the valley of death”.

In 1992, he received the Dr Martin Luther King, Junior Peace Award and in 1993 he toured seven states in the United States during which he participated in a seminar on mediation and conflict resolution. In 1994, he returned to the U.S. to teach and study.

He currently lectures and does counselling in Edmond and in Oklahoma City, U.S.

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