August 4, 2008

Life in the Lollys

Several months ago, I first broached to Mkuseli the idea of spending a weekend with him when he went home to his village to visit his mother. Mthatha is surrounded by what are known as “rural areas” in English or “ilala” (I think I’ve spelled that right) in Xhosa. (Non-Xhosa speakers sometimes call the villages “lollys” to show how much they think they know.) People from Itipini are always going to or returning from them and I wanted to see what it was like. He thought this was a terrific idea and promptly invited me for a weekend… in July. I have plenty of time on my hands here and decided I could wait. It was well worth the wait as Mkuseli invited me for the unveiling of five tombstones of his relatives. Often when a person dies, the family can’t afford the tombstone so when they have enough money for one, they have a party when they unveil it. It is such a common occurrence, there’s even a service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer for it. With five tombstones, it was a big party and a huge family reunion and I was happy to be a small part of it.

We left after work on Friday and took two taxis to Mkuseli’s village, called Makhotyana. It was less than an hour from Mthatha but when you’re squeezed in a taxi it can feel much longer. We spent the evening greeting everyone and I was proudly shown off as the token umlungu friend/guest. It was an intense Xhosa experience for me and I found it exhausting. But I did manage to marvel at all the people, the festive atmosphere, the cow and sheep carcasses in one of the rondavels from which people were cutting meat as they needed it, the sheer number of pots cooking a variety of foods over open fires, and much, much more. Mkuseli and his wife have a pleasant, small hut as part of his family’s area. He is the first-born and he showed me parts of the village where he has land and would like to build but no money to do so. Though he has lived in Mthatha for at least 15 years, it was easy to tell that Makhotyana is still his home and he was clearly at ease being here. The village itself is pretty big - I bet it has at least a 1000 residents - but surrounding it is sprawling, open, uncultivated fields. In the distance, you can see similiarly-sized villages and as the sun set (gorgeous, by the way), the twinkling lights of other villages came into view in a way that made me think of Biblical stories of armies facing each other and being able to judge each other only by the number of camp fires the other side has.Mkuseli has one daughter, Lelethu, who in the past has been quiet and shy around me. But my presence on her home turf changed matters considerably and she promptly attached herself to me and displayed a outgoing and bubbling personality I had never seen before. She kept up a constant stream of chatter as well, which I usually find endearing, but found exhausting from her as she doesn’t speak a word of English but expected me to respond to everything she said.On Saturday morning, I took a walk around the village and got promptly lost (or, as I prefer, “temporarily confused”). This happens infrequently to me so it is especially disconcerting when it does but I managed to make my way back in time for the service. The service itself was not unusual in the context of what I’ve experienced here. I mostly remember the heat of the sun, the constant singing, and then our procession to the graves where the tombstones, covered in sheets, were unveiled. The oldest death was from 1967; the most recent from 2005. This family has been saving for a while.Afterwards, the one or two hundred people in attendance ate. The women set up the big cauldrons they have in a row and start passing plates down the line, dishing out as they go. The plates then go to the men who cooked the meat, who put on a big hunk of something before they are distributed around. There were more people than plates so we had to eat in shifts. As always, the food was great.I had an invitation to stay until Monday morning when Mkuseli would be returning to town in time for work but by this point, end-of-the-week exhaustion had caught up with me, compounded, no doubt, by all the Xhosa I had been listening to and speaking. I was also tired of being the one white person and decided I would much rather spend Sunday in church, where I am unremarkably exceptional now, rather than the village, where I was notably exceptional.

I headed out to the main road and caught a taxi back to Mthatha. I was even more squished in this time than on Friday. All my fellow passengers were women on the way back from funerals. Would you believe we fit 17 people in this bakkie?