‘ubuntu’: one is human only through others, not in isolation.
In the Beginning
“Lindeee,” His mother’s voice came to him on the wind, calling to him from among the cluster of blue painted mud huts that clung together as if for comfort on the side of a shallow hill.
He patted the lump of clay clutched in his small hands. As yet it bore little resemblance to anything recognizable but it was a work in progress. Reluctantly he laid it aside and rinsed his pink bellied hands in the shallow stream that rippled down the hillside, watching entranced as the water glazed his dark skin with golden light. It reminded him of the honey his mother gathered from the nesting bees near the watermelon field.
There wasn’t always water in the stream, but yesterday the rains had kissed the land and all living things had once more taken a deep breath at its promise of life.
“Lindee!” The call was louder this time, more insistent. He stood up and shook the drops of diamond water from his hands. They sank into the dry ground and in seconds no stain remained to show where they had landed.
Lindisizwe began to scramble across the rough ground towards the huts, bare feet mud splattered, tough skinned, at six years old his brown limbs agile and sure as a mountain goat on rock and grass.
He paused in his progress to watch a widowbird swoop and rise across the grasslands below, its long tail flying like a black satin ribbon in the wind, the scarlet collar bright around its neck.
Turning once more towards the source of his mother’s call he dodged between the red hot pokers that dotted the hillside. Silent and sightless guardians, each flaming sentinel erupting from a spiral of green spikes, frozen fireworks against the dull brown grasses.
“Why do you not come when I call, Lindi?” His mother stood at the door to their hut, hands on hips, eyes full of love despite her words of admonishment. A red turban twisted about her head framed the beauty of the face beneath it. White painted dots on each cheek underlined the brightness of her eyes.
“You know today is very busy for everyone. I need you to help with the work. You must go to your father. He is at the kraal down by the river, choosing the cow for the ceremony tonight. Tell him to help you find a watermelon. But first, here, take this to your aunt. I have prepared enough for an army of men I think!”
Lindi took the large bowl filled with umvubo that she held out to him. His little arms trembled at the weight of it.
“It is too heavy?”
“No, no, my arms are strong enough. See how well I hold it. Every day I grow! I shall be a great herder one day!”
“You will, my son, I know this already! You are my little man!” Her eyes filled with pride as she watched him go.
Lindi staggered off towards the hut of his aunt, who was standing by her door puffing on her long stemmed pipe as she watched him approach.
“Greetings, my Aunt. My mother sends this. She says she thinks it will feed an army of men!”
“Your mother has done a fine job, little one.” She took the bowl from him. “And so have you. We will all eat well this night.”
Tonight was to be a great celebration. It was the wedding feast for his brother Dalumzi, eldest son of his father by his main wife. It would begin when this day’s sun sank behind the purple Amathole Mountains. Dalumzi’s bride to be was Ninami, a chief’s daughter from a tribe whose huts lay beyond the river bed to the west.
Lindisizwe had listened to the women talking that morning by the stream, as they filled their jugs with the fresh rain water.
“It is a good day today,” one of the women had said. “Our Dalumzi will have a fine wife, Ninami was taught at the Mission School and can read and write!!”
“Our chief has paid much lobola for her.”
“That is so, sister.”
“It is good that Dalumzi’s father paid the lobola first. I heard that another also wished for Ninami as his wife.”
“Zilindile from the eastern village. I heard that he speaks ill of Dalumzi, that his heart is filled with anger and bitterness.”
“He who pays the lobola first wins the bride.”
There were some in Zilindile’s tribe who shared his anger. The lobola was too much, they said. Their brother was more worthy, they said. Dalumzi thought himself better than them, they said. And so they muttered beneath their breath, their bitter whispers poisoning the wind.
But the wind of their whispers was not yet a storm and it did not reach as far as Lindisizwe’s village. Few of Lindisizwe’s tribe were even aware of their existence. So no-one paid heed to the gathering black cloud on the distant horizon.
Now Lidisizwe’s thoughts were only of the coming celebration. Watermelon! He remembered his mother’s words. They would have watermelon at the wedding feast, its sweet flesh peppered with shining black pips. The skin would be warm from the sun, the flesh cool, filling his mouth with the taste of happiness – he could hear already the clear crack as the panga sliced its belly apart, the pink juice running like small rivers of pale blood into the dust.
He ran to find his father who was standing beside the kraal below the huts, watching the cattle in the field beyond.
“My father! My father!”
“Here is my little man!” His father scooped him up, strong arms holding him securely. In that embrace Lidisizwe knew the meaning of safe love.
“Have you chosen the cow?”
“Yes, it will be that one there with the brown spot on her head. She is fat and will feed us for many days! What has my little Lindisizwe come to find his father for?”
“Tell me again, father, the meaning of my name.”
“Is that it then? Very well. In our language it means “man in search of a country”.
“And why am I called so?”
“Because you are my little wanderer, the one who will search and find the place that is told of in the holy book – the Promised Land!”
“And what is this Promised Land?”
“It is a land filled with many cattle, and many goats, with rushing streams that never run dry. A land where a man may live in safety and peace and never know thirst or hunger.”
“When I am grown I shall search for this land and I shall find it – then you and mother and all of our village will come to live there!”
The father smiled then placed his child gently back on the dry ground. “This is as it should be, my son.” His eyes gazed towards the distant horizon, his own dreams hidden behind them.
“Father! My mother says I am to choose the watermelon for the feast tonight, and she asks that you help me.” Lindisizwe’s brown eyes shone with excitement.
“So come, we shall go now and you will choose the biggest and the sweetest and you shall have some when it is cut.”
He took the boy’s hand and they set off towards the hills beyond the huts. The father cast a long shadow on the dirt path that led between the dongas, Lindisizwe’s shadow running small beside it.
They passed around the hill above the village, gaining in height as they walked.
Suddenly his father stopped him with an outstretched hand, his eyes fixed on a point in the distance. He crouched down behind a small outcrop of rocks and pulled Lindisizwe in beside him.
“Be still, my boy!” he whispered. “There is a herd of widow makers just there, see?”
Lindisizwe followed the direction of his father’s pointing finger and saw in the distance the black outlines of a small herd of Cape buffalo.
“We must wait until they go away.”
“Why, my father? They look like big cows, why should we fear them then?”
“Because they have killed many men with one throw of those large horns!”
Just then one of the great beasts made a tossing movement with its head and a light brown shape flew above its head and landed with a loud thud on the dry grass.
“It may be they are killing a lion!” His father’s voice held deep respect.
“Will they eat it?” asked Lindisizwe. He knew this as a way of life in Africa – killing for food, just as his father planned to slaughter a cow for the feast tonight.
“No, my son. Widow makers kill for revenge –they eat only grass. The lion must have attacked one of them. They do not forgive. If one of their herd are attacked the others will hunt down the attacker and kill it.”
Lindisizwe waited and watched with his father. The animals were huddled around something that lay on the ground. Finally they began moving away. As they disappeared into the distance he and his father set off once again towards the watermelon field.
Their way took them close to where they had seen the buffalo, and the father’s curiosity made him walk to the spot to see what it was that had attracted the animals’ attention.
The tattered and bloody body of a lion lay lifeless on the ground, its eyes glazed in death.
“It is as I thought.”
Lidisizwe looked down at the limp and bloodied corpse of the lion. The smell of death was thick in the air, a stark reminder that nature has no mercy for those who follow her ways.
“This is why we call the buffalo ‘the Black Death’. Always be respectful of them, my son. Only attack them if your life is in danger.”
His father pulled him away and they set off once more.
At last they came to the field. Lindisizwe pointed at a big watermelon with a rich deep green shell. “Is this one ripe, my father?” He bent down with a small clenched fist and knocked upon the hard skin hot from the African sun. He listened, bent his head sideways, and knocked again. “No, perhaps this one.” He knocked on another. Then he stood upright, white teeth gleaming between dark lips. “It is hollow. I can hear it. This one will be the sweetest!”
“Then that one it shall be!” His father bent down and taking out his machete hacked at the stalk that tethered the great melon to the ground. He hoisted it up on his shoulders and they started back towards the huts.
The boy spun around his father’s legs in delight as they walked, stopping at times to stamp his feet on the ground in a steady rhythm, as the women did when they danced.
Watermelon days were back.
The bridal party had arrived with the setting of the sun and the feast had begun, the last streamers of sunlight flirting with the bright colours of the women’s clothes, the sound of the drums beating in time with the heartbeat of the land. A great fire burned in the centre of the group of rondavels, its flames dancing across the painted walls and the dark smiling faces gathered around it.
The cow had been slaughtered and now was roasting slowly over the flames.
It was a happy time. Lindisizwe watched from the door of his mother’s hut, brown eyes gleaming with delight. The music made him want to dance. He saw his mother dancing by the fire, her feet stamping the dusty earth and her hips swaying to the rhythm of the drums. How beautiful she was, her brown skin warmed by the firelight.
Lindisizwe danced too, in the shadow of the doorway.
And as they all danced and laughed and talked together no-one noticed the dark shadows creeping through the tall grasses and in between the rondavels. Not until the screaming started, and then it was too late.