Tag Archives: Sibasa

Consigned to Work for a Young American Family, a MuVenda Woman’s Enduring Gift

Allow me to tell you about Selinah Mahamba of Tshitavha/Sambandou; a village 30-minutes drive north of Thohoyandou/Sibasa, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Vho Selinah with our first born, Daniel.

Vho Selinah with our first-born, Daniel.

Preamble – 

Imagine that you are a black or “non-white” person (South African context), consigned by historical fate to live during either the era of US slavery or South Africa’s apartheid.

Think about what it was like for black people living in those times and contexts. Imagine that every day, and in every conceivable way, you’re forced due to life circumstances to view yourself by and through the mirror of coercive subservience to a white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

If you’re not fond of or good at imagining, then rent The Help. Watch it! – either alone or with friends. But if with friends, choose those who won’t make snide remarks throughout, thereby cheapening the movie’s powerful portrayal of the inherent humanity of individuals who have suffered immense less-than-human injustices, and of the corresponding inhumanity of those who enacted such injustices.

Watch it several more times over the next few months for good measure. Perhaps other movies exist, which equally depict what life is like for individuals forced to work for – and please – people, who hold such prejudicious and contemptive power over them.  If so, I’m unaware of them.

As John W. Blassingame noted in The Slave Community; Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, whereas whites were historically privileged (had de facto and de jure power) to shape their identity upon the social mirror of the savage and heathen black or red “Other,” in America’s slavery and South Africa’s apartheid context, black people were by fateful default consigned to view themselves by the mirror of coercive subservience to the white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

Complimenting this is Edward Said (1935-2003), author of the pioneering and foundational text, Orientalism. He convincingly argued that identity is not natural and static (i.e., fixed, pre-determined). It is constructed and inseparable from the disposition of power and powerlessness within societies.

Story –

My family of (then) three lived in Thohoyandou, Venda, South Africa from 1989 to 1992; a brief, yet important span of time in South Africa’s history, in that, Nelson Mandela went from being decades’ long political prisoner to freed man and future head of state.

We were naive young North Americans, who arrived in town with an over-inflated optimism of the good and change we might bring to the Venda people (A characteristic naiveté of most North Americans, I believe. A result, perhaps, of our heritage, in which we’ve erroneously come to believe we are the par excellent God-nation, a “city upon a hill,” as Puritan, John Winthrop unknowingly popularized in an early 1600 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.”). Fortunately for us, the VhaVenda are (and were) extremely patient, kind and forgiving!

After three years we relocated to South Africa’s southeast coastal region, yet in leaving Venda, we were only too aware that instead of us changing a place and a people, it was they who had changed our lives.

Although I could list several prominent individuals during this 3-year period (for example Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend) – in terms of their effect upon and mentorship of our lives – this blog is singularly about one individual, Selinah Mahamba.

Vho Selinah, somewhat like Mother Teresa but without the global recognition, is an a-typical VIP and mentor, in that, her life is void of any distinguishable secular “success indicators.”  She was a de facto single mother of four, who recounted being shocked when her husband arrived home unannounced with a second wife and then she throwing this woman’s belongings out of the house, and who struggled daily to keep her children fed. She spoke no English, and we were only just learning TshiVenda – one of South Africa’s eleven official languages.

At the recommendation of a Venda caravan camp manager (now a Protea Resort) we hired her as a “domestic worker.” Each weekday exacted a minimum 2-hour roundtrip on public transport for her, plus 7 hours work at our home – where she cooked, cleaned, washed clothes and cared for our two children – then returned home to do the same for her family.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

We employed several inside/outside “domestic helpers” during our time in South Africa, most of whom became second family to us. My wife remarked one day how amazed she was (and respect felt) at the strength, resilience, and kindness-of-character of domestic workers, in that, they tolerated the daily whimsical and sudden and unaccountable changes of demands, moods and behaviors of their many and varied (all races), mostly under-paying employers.

Vho Selinah demonstrated few, if any of the “public persona refinements” typically evidenced by formal education (my written loquaciousness, for example!:), yet lack of formal education and opportunity is not synonymous with lack of potential, or lack of ability, or lack of intelligence. She possessed all of that and much more.

One (of many) enduring gift of Vho Selinah to my family was in her mentoring my wife in Venda/African methods of “being” and mothering; specifically how to “sling” and tie one’s child to one’s back, so as to be able to lull a child to sleep, to feel and gauge the well-being of a child’s heartbeat against one’s back, and be able, then, to go places, meet people, and re-engage daily responsibilities, whatever they might be.

My family and I are forever grateful that a portion of our identities have been crafted and shaped by Venda mirrors!

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa - Johannesburg

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa – Johannesburg

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

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Breast-Feeding, Elephant Ears, and Basking Lizards | Meanderings of an American-African Mind

The mind is an amazing thing.

Do you know what I mean?

One minute you’re sitting alone or with others, thinking or discussing one thing or the other, and the next thing you know a random, sub-conscious word, thought or optical image diverts your thought processes to what appears on the surface to be an absurdly different topic altogether.

A case in point:

It’s a sunny yet relatively “cold” day today in Austin – high of 61F.  I’ve placed my seedling tray of tomato plants just behind our all-glass front door, so they will capture the light and warmth of the sun.  As I bent over to position them in full sunlight, I felt the morning sun’s warmth refracted through the door and on to my face, neck and arms.  The warmth and its soothing sensation, combined a moment later with the pleasured taste of a Starbuck’s Americano, drunk while sitting and looking out on an awakening neighborhood, somehow combined to trigger distant yet still close-at-hand memories.

I remember numerous happy childhood days at Kisumu’s Nyanza Club swimming pool, particularly, how good it felt (and feels) climbing out of cold water, then immediately lying face down on a sun-warmed border of the pool. 

From 3rd Wimpy Kid Movie

Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Do you have similar recollections? Can you feel even as you read these words the sun warming your cold body, head to toes?  

This remembrance somehow linked to and triggered in my mind an idiomatic Venda expression for “I need to go to the toilet,” of which, the relevance to water and sun will soon be evident.

One day I asked my Venda tutor, “How do I tell someone, ‘Please excuse me, I need to go to the toilet?'” He thought a minute then replied, “In formal Venda you simply say, ‘Ndi khou toda u di thusa,’ which simply translates ‘I need to help myself.'”  But, he said, “If you want to speak ‘deep Venda’ then you can say, ‘Ndi khou toda u kumbedza tswina,’ which roughly translates ‘I need to blind a lizard.'”

lizard

As you likely are doing now, I chuckled, yet think about its contextual accuracy.  Most Venda people still rely on foot power and foot paths.  Distances are quite far, and if you’ve traveled abroad, you know that relieving oneself outdoors seldom conveys any similar degree of uncouthness as it does in the United States. Given Venda’s proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn, imagine that it’s a 39-degree Celsius day. You’re walking along a foot path when morning tea catches up with you.  You stop to relieve yourself in the shelter of a rocky and sparsely vegetated hill, and lying just before you is a basking lizard!

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Regrettably, all language lessons were not that painless.

The most embarrassingly painful Venda language learning remembrance for my wife and me was over the simplest and most frequently used daily expression – “hello.”

Our mistake?  Young when we arrived in South Africa, we asked an older – you would think more informed – white colleague how to greet, instead of asking someone from Venda.  As our colleague drove us to Venda from Johannesburg, a then six-hour drive, he told us, “Oh, it’s easy.  If it’s a man you say ‘Ndaa’ (masculine tone). If it’s a woman you say, ‘Aaah’ (feminine tone).”  So for the first few weeks, if not months, every man and every woman we greeted with either an “Ndaa” or “Aaah.”  Regrettably, what our colleague neglected to tell us is that only men greet with “Ndaa” and only women greet with “Aaah.”

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

We each received many strange and smiled looks when we greeted people.

My most painful related remembrance is of a woman I gave a lift to.  As she entered my bakkie (equivalent to a pick-up truck), I articulated in my most feminine tone and pitch, “Aaa!”  She must have been desperate for a ride, because rather than leaping out the window, she chose to remain with this seemingly crazed white taxi driver.

My wife’s faux pas was more painful, perhaps.  Soon after our arrival in Venda there was a peaceful coup, and our immediate neighbor in Block G, Thohoyandou (=head of the elephant), a general in Venda’s “air force,” Gabriel Ramushwana became president.  Rather then relocate from Block G to the substantial presidential compound situated mid-point between Thohoyandou and the white suburb of Sibasa on the hill, he chose to live with and among his people (there’s a lesson in there for all current and want-to-be politicians).

It wasn’t long, then, before the president’s yard was fitted with razor wire and a 24-hour military presence, much to our young son’s pleasure.  As President Ramushwana was exiting his premises one morning, and my wife was simultaneously closing our gate, she greeted him properly through his open car window.  It caused him to stop and respond kindly, “I see you’ve learned to greet properly in Venda!”

SA's 9 provinces & a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

South Africa’s nine provinces and a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

An important thing you should know about many, if not most of South Africa’s eleven official languages. They are tonal. Practically, this means one word can have multiple meanings depending upon tone and inflection. An example in Venda: “thoho” can communicate either “head” or “monkey.”

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

A personal example of a language miscue related to tone and inflection: It was a hot summer day, and as I arrived at my meeting destination a group of Venda ladies were sitting under a large shade tree.  We exchanged greetings, after which one of the group said something incoherent to me.  I attempted to say, “I didn’t hear well or clearly.” They all immediately yet politely stifled laughter, which, of course, told me my language effort failed miserably.  One of the ladies rose to her feet, walked over to me, and politely told me, “You have just told us that you have big ears like an elephant!”

censoredbreastfeed

A more U.S./European view of breast-feeding – taboo

Speaking of women and language learning . . . my mind again, as if it operates independently from intentional thought, skipped to a different page of memories.  This time a page of memories related to two breast-feeding incidents. Breasts and breast-feeding are viewed in wholesome (pure) and healthy terms in Venda, as in most parts Africa.

African woman breast feeding

African woman breast-feeding

Our arrival in Block G, Thohoyandou, Venda in early November, 1989, caused quite a stir, I’m certain.  The reason being: South Africa, even its so-called “independent” black homelands, existed within a canopy of legislated segregation or apartheid. It was more scandalous than normal for races to mix.  Yet here we were a young, white couple setting up home in what was effectively a new “black housing development.”  Within days of arrival, welcoming guests arrived at our front gate, including two pastors of local churches and their wives – one of whom, had recently given birth.

My wife quickly learned the cultural role of providing “tea” and some form of “pudding” (sweet pastry).  Midway through their visit, the one pastor’s wife decided it was time to feed her newborn.  This was no big event, except for two complicating factors:  In likely her first-ever visit to a white person’s house she had worn her best dress, which was beautiful, yet impractical for nursing purposes, in that, the neck of the dress extended up near her clavicle, making “breast extraction” near impossible.  Secondly, she was a very buxom woman.  These factors did not deter her from trying, though – and repeatedly so!  Given that we all were sharing a small living room space, her efforts and failures became increasingly pronounced as time went on.  Much to all of our relief, I’m sure, the senior pastor finally voiced our discomfiture and what was evident to all of us – “Shame, she’s having trouble getting the pipe out.”

A final humorous story related to language and breast-feeding.  My wife grew up in the Dominican Republic, and is fluent in Spanish (and German).  Inspired by a college professor, she chose – actually, we chose – to raise all five of our children bilingual.  Upon arrival in Venda our eldest, a boy, was a year old.  After two years living in Venda and among the Venda people, he had learned a lot, but also “absorbed” a lot – specifically, the reality that many infants and small children received milk from their mothers’ breasts.

One evening we invited an elderly American couple over for dinner.  They were assisting in the management of a relief project at the time.  She, like the pastor’s wife, was quite a buxom woman, and sitting immediately to the right of my son at the dining table, he couldn’t help but notice.  Given the sights and cultural experiences he had absorbed to that point, he very innocently verbalized midway through dinner to my wife – fortunately in Spanish – “Does she have milk?”  It was obviously a moment of great discomfiture for my wife, but fortunately an anonymously embarrassing moment, which today we remember with great laughter.

Concluding thought: 

Meandering minds and their on-the-surface incoherent and dissonant linkages with past memories and associations frequently result in fond and kind remembrances of happier and simpler periods, events and relationships in life, which if we’ll allow them, just might warm up, encourage, what to that point in time or day we might tend to label as struggle, despondency, heartache or melancholy.

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Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the “F-word”

In our era of high-tech gadgets and high rolling entertainment I’m struck by how prominently small, simple, and insignificant past events figure into consciousness and identity.  An example of mine are memories associated with checking the mail or post.  I’m not referring to the typical U.S. residence mailbox, situated right outside most front doors, but the mailbox you rent on a monthly or yearly basis at the post office.  I still remember distinctive experiences, sights, smells and sounds of many post offices in places I lived in Kenya and Tanzania as a child, and in South Africa as an adult.

For instance, when we lived in Thohoyandou (= “head of the elephant”), Venda, South Africa, our post box was a ten minute drive up the hill to a mostly white suburb called Sibasa.  The reason I reference “white suburb” is that my family’s experiences in Venda included both “apartheid South Africa,” as well as a free Nelson Mandela, yet pre-1994 constitutional democratic South Africa.  Thohoyandou was a mostly “black” town in Venda.

Neighboring Shangaan women sitting at a post office.

Immediately adjacent to the Sibasa post office was an OK Bazaar (grocer) and a PEP store (comparable to a Dollar Tree in the U.S.).  In deep, traditional Venda culture, when a young girl or a woman greets a man, especially an elderly man, she shows formal respect by at minimum kneeling on her knees, averting her eyes and head away from direct eye contact with the man, positioning both hands together and with them outstretched and curled upward “losha(ing)” (greeting) with the Venda feminine greeting “Aaah.”

A Venda woman's respectful posture of greeting.

A Venda woman’s respectful posture of greeting.

The man is expected to cup his hands together, perhaps, even, softly clap them repeatedly (if you’ve seen the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the bumbling scientist, Marius Weyers demonstrates this when greeting the Bushman Xixo or his given name Nǃxau ǂToma), and with them on the outside of his right thigh, respond with “Ndaa.”

One day as I exited the Sibasa post office, a young girl in bright and beautiful Venda traditional dress and I encountered each other face-to-face on the sidewalk. Each time we tried to sidestep and get out-of-the-way of the other, we simply kept moving in the same direction and impeding each other’s forward momentum.  I won’t forget what occurred as we both simultaneously saw the humor in our respective and awkward positions.  I simply smiled and greeted her in Tshivenda. She, on the other hand, immediately prostrated herself full-length on the red clay-dirtied and people congested sidewalk, and extended to me the highest and most respectful of Venda greetings.

Venda hands in greeting.

Venda hands in greeting.

Yes, one could read into her “respectful display” a racialized political context, from which she merely acted out of abject fear of a white man.  On the other hand, I’ve chosen to remember it as a memory snapshot of how a young Venda girl chose to acknowledge and respect me, a stranger (the “wow effect”). I wish I could inform this young girl today, what an impression she made on this “mutshena” or “mukhuwa” (white or white person).

As a transition story from post office to coarse cultural language memory is a post office and coarse language memory I have from my childhood years in Kisumu, Kenya (the same place I reference in my blog “Fly fishing for sheep and slingshotting for ‘ndeges.'”

A daily family ritual, as it were, was to drive downtown to the post office and check the mail.  My favorite “check time” was evening after dinner – in the absence of TV, the drive to town served as a surrogate.  I recall how my five siblings and I competed for who got to check the mail, much as we also competed for who got to have their piece of pie in the pie pan, instead of a dessert plate, because then it meant you might have a few extra crushed graham cracker crumbs or sweet pie filling residue.

Lest you mock the importance we placed on the mail event, and its lasting place in my memory hard drive, is the fact that this occurred prior to the age of internet and email, and therefore mail was our primary means of news and “goodies.”  By goodies I mean American food care packages from family in Texas, or even a letter from my aunt, who used to send me envelopes stuffed with stamps for my stamp collection from places all over the world that she collected from work.  Or as I’m told by my parents, the first and only letter written by my dad’s dad, who worked for decades at an agriculture and feed store, and wrote to inform me – an aspiring fourth or fifth-grade millionaire chicken farmer (I sold my broiler chickens to my parents) – the prices of chicks, feed, and poultry supplies, from which I then devised my get-super rich-schemes.

On one particular night time mail run, I recall sitting in the front across from my dad, and as we neared and rounded one of Kisumu’s many traffic roundabouts, belting out for all the car’s occupants to hear Neil Diamond’s “High Rolling Man,” specifically the refrain “Hot damn, hot damn, hot damn, you know that he could.”

My parents, well, especially my mom, but on this occasion my dad, too, clear their throats when they’re undergoing and experiencing uncomfortable situations (an example of my mom’s quick onset of throat obstruction was at a viewing of the movie In Her Shoes, which my wife and I watched together with my parents at Bedfordview Mall, South Africa.  My mom’s throat clearing occurred during Cameron Diaz’s toilet stall sex scene). By the way, in case you’re wondering, yes, despite any ribbing of my parents I’m very grateful to them for the examples they were and continue to be.  They will celebrate sixty years of marriage in 2013.

A Kisumu roundabout.

A Kisumu roundabout.

When I started belting out loud the refrain to “High Rolling Man” my dad first cleared his throat, then proceeded with eyes averted straight ahead, to say something to the effect, “Uh, um, son, do you know what you’re singing?”  It says something as to the Puritan-like sensibilities I grew up with, as well as to the time period of my childhood, but I honestly was naive to the possible inappropriateness of the words I was singing.  I don’t remember us laughing about it then, nor was I punished, but it’s humorous to think back upon now.  Especially in light of the following two “swearing stories” that occurred in South Africa years later.

During postgraduate studies my mentor and primary instructor was a South African, but of Scandinavian descent. He could regale people with stories, both historical, as well as with a combination of “creative thought” and energy.  Of the latter, possibly, he frequently told students that the Zulus had to create words to fit mostly British sport and culture.  For instance, when soccer arrived on the scene, they simply called it “e-football,” and when cricket arrived, “e-cricket.”  Golf was a particular problem since few if any non-whites played the sport.  What the Zulus consistently heard white players saying during rounds of golf was “dammit.”  So, according to my professor, golf came to be referred to by Zulus by the “Zulu word” “e-dammit.”

When my family and I moved to Johannesburg in 2003 we, like the majority of South Africans, urban and rural, rich and even poor, employed a part-time outside yard worker. “Eddie” was from Tzaneen, a city in the north-eastern part of the country.  He spoke Pedi (northern Sotho) and little English.  I spoke mediocre Venda, but not Pedi.  Due to rampant crime, my wife insisted we get a few dogs.  We found a few “township dogs” (mixed breed) on the outskirts of Soshanguve township, situated 25 kms north of Pretoria.  Both dogs were less than one year old, and despite our efforts to prevent them, they chewed up everything, including a large dog bed made from sisal, which was advertised as “dog chew resistant”!  Hah, I have pictures to prove the fallacy of that marketing assertion.

One morning I went outside to water the flower bed and could not find the attachments for our water hose. Eventually I asked Eddie if he knew where they were.  His face told me “yes, ” but now the difficulty was telling me where or what happened to them.  I do not presume to know whether what I am about to tell you is a culturally and socially accepted expression among all South Africans or not, but I can tell you it is very common, nor is it looked aghast at, as it would be, and is, among conservative and “Christian” American.  Eddie spoke hesitantly and communicated this short and very clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

One of the culprits!

One of the culprits!

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is “beyond repair.”  So Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed, were the culprits responsible for destroying my water hose attachments.

About a year later, I was advocating for a group of young women, who were part of a HIV/AIDS home-based caregiver support group, started by a retired Zulu school teacher, Thokozile, or simply “Thoko,” as a service to her community of Emdeni, Soweto.  These ladies were remarkable in their compassionate care and commitment to help people and families infected and affected by HIV/AIDS for little financial remuneration.  One day a year or so after working with them, I received a call from Thoko.  Her voice didn’t sound itself, but at the same time I was not immediately concerned or alarmed.  I answered the phone “Hello?”  She replied, “Scott?”  I said, “Thoko, is that you? How are you?”  She answered, “Oh, Scott, I’m f#@cked up.”  I had never heard that expression used by persons referring to themselves before, and so did not immediately clue in to its implied severity.  Sadly, Thoko passed away before that week ended. She was telling me, in effect, “Scott, I’m beyond repair. Goodbye.”

Thoko, fourth from right

Thoko, fourth from right

I end this blog with two thoughts. Why is it that many North Americans, in particular, especially many among my former community of meaning – “Christian America” – still chafe so painfully under the discomfort of swear words, when many to most of them frequently or regularly use slang or “Christian cursing” themselves (e.g., effin’, dang, frickin, darnit, gosh dangit, dadgummit, heck, shoot, shitzu, fudge, etc.)?  And, why do sensibilities about coarse language loom so disproportionately large compared to far more serious “real sensibility” issues like child and wife abuse, hunger and homelessness, child trafficking, racial bigotry, ad infinitum?


			

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