Who do you think you are?

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Never did a saying ring so true.

Sun rising behind Msikaba River

Here I am in one of the most scenic places on earth (the Transkei Wild Coast, of course!), knocking on the doors of complete strangers’, and asking them to share with me their life stories. I’m tasked with tying to find descendants of survivors of the three ships that wrecked on the short stretch of the coastline – about 50km in length – between the Msikaba and Mzimvubu Rivers; finding out whether the locals have any artifacts from the ship wrecks, and they interact with the sea in their daily lives.

My assignment is just swell. You see, I am so fascinated by people’s stories and experiences that I have been called all manner of things – nosy, prying, snoopy, curious. I like to think of it more as having an inquiring mind, being interested in people, being a great listener … Being able to ask questions that would be considered forward in normal social settings is a fringe benefit in my books.

The mouth of the Msikaba River in Lusikisiki, on the north-eastern Pondolond, is where the Sao Bento, a Portuguese ship, wrecked in 1554. Eight decades later another Portuguese ship, the Nossa Senhora de Belem wrecked near Mzimbubu Mouth in Port St Johns in 1635. About a century-and-a-half after that the Grosvenor, a British ship on a return journey from India to England, wrecked in 1782 between the Msikaba and Mzimvubu Rivers.

Hills and valleys of KwaNdengane village

Hills and valleys of KwaNdengane village

So here in KwaNdengane, the seaside village where the Msikaba River flows, is where my sidekick (SK for short) and I found ourselves – or rather, strategically placed ourselves! – hoping to find said descendants and artifacts. Our camp site manager pointed out a homestead where an elderly woman, umama ka Ngomani (Ngomani’s mother), who digs up beads, presumably from the Sao Bento, resides. Our landmark was her daughter’s homestead behind hers, which is bright purple in colour.

Almost immediately after turning off the main dirt road in the direction of mama ka Ngomani’s home, the road ended and ankle-length grass started. We were able to make out and follow faint tyre tracks, which were thankfully going in the general direction of the homestead we were headed to. Too late we realised that the tracks ended right in front of somebody else’s front door! We could make out our purple land mark in the distance so we knew this was the wrong home. And to make matters worse, the home owners were sitting outside in the shade, a mere four or five meters away, looking at us; no doubt wondering who we were.

As I was getting out of our bakkie to explain ourselves, the woman also got up and walked towards us. After exchanging greetings I apologised for driving right up to her door and told her we had followed the wrong tracks trying to get to umama ka Ngomani’s home. I also told her who we were, where we came from, and why we were looking for umama ka Ngomani. Noticing that her eyes were “different” (a lighter shade of brown, unlike a lot of black people’s eyes), I asked whether she perhaps wasn’t a descendent of one of the ship wreck survivors. (Was I being forward? Perhaps. But my curiosity was piqued and I just had to know!) My suspicions were confirmed and she immediately started to tell me her story.

Matholakele Bhobosane, 3rd generation of survivor Thanki from the Grovernor ship wreck

Matholakele Bhobosane, 3rd generation of survivor Thanki from the Grovernor ship wreck

Growing up, Matholakele Bhobosana, 58, had on numerous occasions heard her father say that he wasn’t from here and that he was from England, but she had never paid him much mind. Years later, after she got married and moved from Rhole – the village where the Grosvenor wrecked – to KwaNdengane, she started having visions of a coloured man dressed in a soldier’s coat coming to meet her half way and leading her back to Rhole. She asked her parents about this man, and her mother told her that it was her paternal grandfather Wana, who had died before she was born. Though he was never a soldier, Wana had a favourite army coat that he wore all the time. According to her father, Wana was the son of one of the male survivors of the Grosvenor.

Her great-grandfather was called Thanki, which is also her clan name. SK and I reckon that he must have said, “thank you” early on during his arrival, and with the language barriers between the local and the new arrivals, the locals must have decided to call him Thanki.

Unfortunately Bhobosana does not know much else about her English great-grandfather, though she, like here father, is very proud of her ancestry. “Ndilikhaladi mna! Ndiyayithandi into yokungafani nabanye abantu.” (“I am colourd. I love the fact that I am different from other people.”)

Following the wrong tyre tracks and driving right up to Bhobosana’s door – though embarrassing at first – worked out very well for us in the end. Not only did she enjoy sharing her story with us, but she also offered to accompany us to KwaRhole village to see where the Grosvenor wrecked.

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