Winner 2003: Coming out

2008-07-22 00:00

My grandmother was called Makhulomhlophe (Grandmother with a Light Complexion). She had high cheekbones and traditional markings on her face - a black line from the top of her forehead, where her hair ended, to the tip of her nose, and black circles the size of a pencil end in the middle of each cheek.

These markings reminded me of the marks on a buck's face and were very beautiful on her light skin. She was very skinny, as though she had no flesh on her bones. Her skin was very dry and pleated.

Makhulu's name was Maqithi, as she was from the Qithi family. Her ID book said Augustina Ntombemhlophe Mkhwanazi. She met my grandfather, Madoda Mkhwanazi, in Mount Fletcher and they moved to Ndawana when they got married. She was widowed in 1971, before I was born, and never married again.

We seven grandchildren grew up in her house and she cared for us while our mother worked in the fields and our father, the eldest of her four children, was away working in the Welkom mines. She used to advise us on how to speak to boys when they proposed love. "You must trick them by saying something in English. She would imagine the conversation: Boy: "Sawubona ntombi emhlophe njengezihlabathi zolwandle (Hullo, beautiful girl)."

Girl: "Click clock I tonter croffer me."

Boy: "Ntombazana, ngizengothando (I came because I love you)."

Girl: "School boy, school master, uyayitalka le ngrrish mfana safigoroni ngwavu mani i!" The boy would shout at the girl, saying that she thought she was better than him and would leave her in peace.

Makhulu always wore a denim skirt and blouse. She made the skirt herself from cloth donated by the sisters at Lourdes Mission. She cut two pieces that reached to her calves and sewed the seams using a huge sacking needle and thread from an orange bag. She made a seam around the waist and threaded it with rope that she tied in front. She wore a red pinafore to protect her skirt when she was making fuel bricks (amalongwe) from cow dung.

She was a member of the churchwomen's group and on Sundays wore a skirt made from black Crimplene. She didn't like shoes and always walked bare-foot. She was very talkative and popular. To this day, people laugh when they tell me stories about her.

Makhulu painted amazing pictures on the inside wall of her kitchen rondavel. She used red, black and white soil, mixing the colours with water in her hand and using her fingers to paint on the wall. We children would paint horses and cattle with her. She would paint for four hours at a time, applying the paint, moving back to look at what she had done and deciding what the next picture would be.

There were pictures of horses on their own, horses ridden by soldiers wearing breeches and carrying guns on their backs, paintings of people running, and huge bulls. She always painted the bull on the men's side of the kitchen.

The local children used to laugh at us when they saw our grandmother's paintings, saying: "Where was your grandmother when other children were learning to draw at creche or in Sub A? Painting is for children, not such an old woman, so you had better take her back to the cr?che!"

These remarks were very hurtful and we felt ashamed of our grandmother. We didn't tell her what they were saying. Instead, we used to hide the pictures by painting over them with cream-coloured soil. She was angry that we had covered her paintings but also appreciated having a nice, clean wall to begin painting all over again.

At certain times, when Makhulu dreamt about ancestors or when she was thanking them for something good, she made umqombothi (beer). When the umqombothi was ready, she put the clay pot (ukhamba) in the space at the bottom of the umsamo. (Umsamo is the sacred family place in our kitchen where the ancestors are addressed. It was a structure with a clay-covered plank placed on top of two clay pillars. There were shelves above it where we kept ritual objects - gall bladders, jaws from slaughtered goats, and the fatty layer covering the animal's stomach. There were metre-long branches from the indigenous forests near Ndawana. People collected those branches when they brought my grandparents' and my father's ancestral spirits to our home in Ndawana).

Makhulu left the beer at the umsamo for a day and then called the family to the kitchen. Women and girls sat at the left of the umsamo on goat skins and men and boys sat on the right, on stools cut from a tree trunk. Makhulu lit impepho (Helichrysum) and the smoke rose to cover the umsamo and Makhulu's paintings that formed part of that sacred space.

Then she spoke to the ancestors in a low voice, calling them by name: "Nkwali, Bhukula, Buzubuzwana, abagedlumhlanga kwavela izizwe ngezizwe, inkonjane ezindizela emafini. (Nkwali, Bhukula, Buzubuzwana, you people who opened the way for many nations, swallow that flies among the clouds.)

The praise song would continue for about five minutes.

My grandmother would continue to talk in Xhosa and a strange language that I couldn't understand. After that she would ask the ancestors to help the family with some specific need that we had at that time.

I miss the moments in the evenings when we gathered around the fire in the kitchen and listened to her stories about wild animals, cannibals, or people living in water in deep parts of the river.

I recently met people working for the San Foundation. They interviewed me and asked me to write down my grandmother's stories. One of my favourites was about a huge animal called Gongqongqo. He attacked different areas of the Earth, swallowing animals and people whole. Many different tribes and animals were trapped in his huge stomach. One day, a young woman woke up very early to visit her relatives. She packed food, a Primus stove, a knife and a frying pan into her large bag, put her baby on her back and led the other child by the hand.

She decided to risk passing near Gongqongqo because the alternative route was too far. The toddler started crying after some time because he was tired. They sat down to rest and eat.

Suddenly, they felt the ground shaking and saw a huge animal moving towards them: "Uqgu! Uqgu! Uqgu! Uqgu!" She could hear the sound "Sebe du! Sebe du!" coming from its huge, open mouth. She threw her children into the mouth, followed by the bag with all the cooking equipment, and then dived in herself, just before the mouth banged shut.

Inside, there were people and animals groaning with hunger. She lit her stove, put a pan on it and then cut and fried pieces of Gongqonqgo's liver. The people ate and stopped groaning. Gongqonggo got very sick and was not able to walk. People noticed he was not chasing them any more and realised something was wrong. A group of men took their weapons and went to attack him. They saw that he was dying but they were too afraid to get any closer to him.

Meanwhile, the people inside were gasping for breath because Gongqgonqo no longer opened his mouth. The woman tried desperately to cut through the skin but it was very tough. At last, she managed to make a small opening. She shouted for help: "Wozani! Come and help!" and the men said to one another: "You go first!" until they all ran together to investigate the shouting. The woman told them to cut a bigger hole so that those inside could escape. Many people and animals came out. The men, women and children living in the area came to help the weaker ones. The local chief rewarded the woman with a large piece of land, where she lived with all who had escaped with her. They made her their chief."

The San Foundation has promised me that they will publish Makhulu's stories in a book when I have finished writing them all down.

When I was in Grade 4, our teacher told us about Bushmen: "They lived in trees and were very short, as short as Zanele. They were more like animals than human beings and people killed them, so you don't find Bushmen any more." The schoolchildren teased me after that and called me "Umthwa" (Bushman). I cried a lot. As I grew older, I began to suspect that I was a Bushman, especially when I looked at my grandmother and heard her speak her strange language. When I say click sounds, people laugh at me because I say them like a Bushman - very loudly.

Two years ago, I joined a course for tourist guides in the Southern Drakensberg. The trainers showed us slides of rock art paintings and asked us to draw an Eland on a piece of rock. My painting was judged the best. The next day, we took a trip to Cobham to one of the beautiful rock art sites called Isiphongweni. I was very excited, while the others complained of tiredness, because we had walked a long distance. I was amazed when I saw the paintings. Many looked just like my grandmother's. I realised that my grandmother's "bull" was an Eland with its rump and dewlap, and that the "running figures" were, in fact, trancing.

I showed my friend a photo of my grandmother. She was very excited and said that there was no doubt that she was a Bushman. I realised why I had been so curious to meet Abathwa, hunter gatherers, Bushmen, San - whatever names people use - and to explore their lifestyle. I was curious about myself - "Zanele the Bushman". I got the courage to tell the other guides about my grandmother. I was surprised when my mother confirmed that Makhulu was a Bushman. I learned that there are many Bushmen living in our area near the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg National Park but that they are in hiding because they are ashamed and fear victimisation. After my experience in school, that reaction is not surprising.

I also know that young Zulus don't believe that Abathwa people still exist, even though history shows that there were friendly relations between these tribes and that they intermarried. Linguistic and genetic evidence shows that Xhosas have more than 45% of Bushman genes and Zulus more than 35%. The clicks in the Zulu and Xhosa languages are of Bushman origin.

Makhulu was very old, some speculated more than 100. She didn't know her date of birth but worked out her age, saying: "My breasts were beginning to form when the Red Wind 'Uthul'ol'bomvu' attacked the world." I have tried without success to find out what this event was. One day in 1999, we overheard her talking to my mother in the kitchen saying: "Makoti, my time is over. Last night the ancestors visited me and I know that I am going to leave you any time from now."

I felt very sad because her words spoke of death, like my father's seven years earlier. On his departure for Welkom, my father had said: "This is the last time you will see me. I won't be coming back again but I will look after you. I am going to visit another world." Makhulu died three days after she had spoken to my mother. I hope I meet Makhulu in heaven so that we can ask forgiveness for hiding her paintings and tell her that we were ignorant. Thank you, Makhulu. I am going to remove the wood and chickens from your kitchen and try to restore it to a heritage site. I am proud of being a Bushman. I want to teach all people in this area the truth about the Bushmen and help Bushmen accept who they are without fear. I am what you are, a Bushman!

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