I finally did it, grin and all

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A view of Lake Fundudzi on an overcast morning in Tshiheni village

Last week I expressed my disappointment at not being expected to observe the traditional greeting of the chieftaincy by Venda women. No sooner had I lamented my exclusion from observing this custom did I find myself lying on the floor, on my side, in a semi-foetal position, with my hands  together, before a chief.

I had given up on this happening so I was caught completely off guard when I was just about tackled in an attempt to prevent me from shaking the chief’s hand. Before you judge me, let me assure you that I know better than to approach a chief in his homestead to shake his hand, but there were extenuating circumstances.

You see, after the haunched humming, people (Ramudingane, the chief’s advisor, the headman and the chief) started shaking hands. This had not been done during our prior meetings with chiefs, so, unsure what to do, I decided to follow Ramudingane’s lead. I too shook the advisor’s hand, then the headman’s. As I moved my extended hand from the headman to the chief, the headman leapt in between us, hurled himself on to the floor, and demonstrated what I was to do.

Ramudingane started to protest on my behalf (I had asked him about this form of greeting on my first day here, and he said it was only expected of Venda women), but I was on the floor before the words fully formed in his mouth. I couldn’t believe I was finally doing it! I was on the floor just like the Venda women I’d seen on television. Except I was all teeth. I couldn’t wipe the humongous grin off my face. At least I wasn’t giggling, which would not have come as a surprise because its not uncommon for me to giggle at the most inopportune times.

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Re-enacting the greeting; I hope I did a better job than this with the chief!

(Something that has had me giggling for days now though is a chat I had with Ramudingane on our way back from one of the villages. I was asking him about the traditional attire of Venda women. He said if I was interested in getting something he would go with me into town to shop around. I told him I had seen some outfits through a shop window, and that I’d also seen them being sewn and sold by street vendors. The second those last two words passed my mouth I was sniggering uncontrollably. I know its silly (read childish), but it gets me every time. [For those who don’t get my ‘humour’, the words ‘street vendors’ only started being funny when I was using them here in Venda.] Tee hee)

Back to the long-awaited traditional greeting, I could see on their faces that the chief and the headman really appreciated my effort. I’m sure the advisor did too, but my back was to him so I couldn’t see his face.

The grin on my face was eventually wiped off a few hours later when Ramudingane and I had to abandon our bakkie on our way to another village because the alleged ‘road’ was so bad. We trekked up the steepest hill, in the scorching heat, with me in flipflops, for 46 minutes! Only to find that the village we were headed to only had two homesteads, one of which had two occupants, the other of which nobody lives in anymore.

We learned that this village used to be like any other village, with plenty of homes spread out over a large area. But the impossible roads (that 4×4 enthusiasts would love) and the remoteness of this village had over the years driven all but one family out and in to the surrounding villages. There wasn’t even a sign of other homesteads ever having been there.

The only occupants of this village – a daughter and her elderly mother – made the trek worth it though. We had such a lovely visit with them. And they turned out to be relatives of Ramudingane that he didn’t even know existed!

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After the tough trek we had a lovely visit with Ramudingane’s long lost relatives

We’ve managed to visit eight villages in eight days, receiving a warm welcome in each home. Even the people we are clearly disturbing by our unannounced visits have not shown even the slightest hint of annoyance; instead  immediately stopping whatever they are doing to sit and answer our long list of questions. My favourite visits have been with the elderly and the younger generation. We were fortunate in one village to interview two young men in their early twenties, together with their grandparents, in one session.

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Interviewing this family was one of the highlights of my week

Oh, and I finally saw Lake Fundudzi! I gasped when I saw it. And I continue to gasp every time I see it. Every time. It’s breathtaking. Breathtaking. (Fellow Seinfeld aficionados will appreciate this description from ‘The Hamptons’/Breathtaking baby episode) Pity my photographs don’t do the lake justice.

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A view of Lake Fundudzi from the road to Tshitangani and Sindande villages

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A view of Lake Fundudzi from Tshiheni village

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Careful what you (don’t) wish for

On the other side of this hill lies Lake Fundudzi

On the other side of this hill in Tshivha lies Lake Fundudzi

Fully aware that I was going into an area that is steeped in tradition, the singular thing I was most nervous about (and extremely uncomfortable with) going into this project was the protocol involved when greeting traditional leaders. I have seen on television how women prostrate themselves in front of the chieftaincy in greeting. All hopes that this practice was only expected of local women was dashed by a colleague, who told me that she had to lie on the floor a couple of times when greeting traditional leaders during a past visit to the area.

After much prayer and supplication I was at peace with it. I actually started to imagine myself lying on the floor, on my side, in a semi-foetal position, with my hands  together. By the time I left for Limpopo it was no longer an issue. I had mentally prepared myself to ‘do as the Vendas do’.

As it happened, the first appointment on the morning after my arrival was with Chief Netshiavha (of Tshiavha village) and his advisers. Of all the villages surrounding Lake Fundudzi, the Tshiava royal family is the only one that practices rituals in the lake.

Me, Ramudingane, Queen (Nemakonde's colleague), 5th from the left is Chief Netshiavha,

Lusanda, Ramudingane, Queen (Nemakonde’s colleague), Chief Netshiavha (5th from the left), Nemakonde (3rd from the right), the chief’s entourage, and Dog

Prior to my arrival, my chaperone-cum-translator-cum-research assistant, Edward Ramudingange had informed the local economic development manager, Nemakonde about the project. Nemakonde set up meetings for us with the relevant chiefs so that we could inform them about the project and request permission to conduct interviews in their villages. His laying of the groundwork was really appreciated as it played a big role in speeding up the consultation process. To quote Nemakonde, “When you do things smart the result will be smart.” Smart move too on Ramudingane’s part to contact him in the first place.

Me and Edward Ramudingane

Lusanda and Ramudingane

So ready was I for the prostration that I wore my darkest sarong. (I’ve learnt from past projects where I’ve spent weeks doing field work in rural villages that the easiest things to pack/wear/wash are sarongs and tops. In the sarongs I have a sensible skirt, scarf, shawl, head wrap and shade – all in one.)

When we entered the chief’s kraal we were shown into an empty rondaval and offered chairs. This was unexpected as I’ve seen on television women sit on the floor while only the men took chairs. As I was about to sit on a chair Nemakonde stopped me and directed me to another chair. Only then did I notice that the chair I was about to sit on was the only one in the room that had a leopard print cloth over it. I nearly sat on the chief’s chair!

Some minutes later four men entered the room.  Everybody who was already inside sprung off their chairs and got on their haunches, hands together, and started murmuring something I could not decipher. I did the same, except the sounds coming out of my mouth were more humming (with lips moving) than murmuring. During the haunched murmuring, which seemed to last forever, I remember thinking, “Thank God I started exercising again last week after many many months or there is no way I would be able to stay on my haunches for this long!”)

We had a very productive meeting, where it was agreed that later in the week we would consult with the Lake Fundudzi steering committee, which is made up of representatives from some of the villages surrounding the lake.

The following day we were scheduled to meet another chief, so I wore another dark sarong in preparation for the prostration. Unbeknownst to me, he was the paramount chief, Chief Kennedy Tshivhase! I needn’t have bothered with the dark sarong because again there was neither prostration nor sitting on the floor for me. I was wiser this time though; when the chief walked in I was on my haunches, hands together and humming at the same time as everybody else in the room. Except they were praise singing (I still couldn’t make out what they were saying), not humming.

Nemakonde, Queen, me, Paramount Chief Tshivhase, Ramudingane

Nemakonde, Queen, Lusanda, Paramount Chief Kennedy Tshivhase, Ramudingane

That consultation meeting also went very well. Chief Tshivhase welcomed me and said he would inform the traditional council, which was sitting the following day, about the research project and my presence in the area.

After the final consultation, which was with the steering committee, I was more than ready to begin the interviews. And to finally see Lake Fundudzi, which I had only heard about and seen in pictures. The closest I’ve gotten to it is a view of a hill from Tshiavha village, behind which lies the lake.

Me, Chief Netshiavha, members of the Lake Fundudzi steering committee, ward councillors, Ramudingane

Lusanda, Chief Netshiavha, members of the Lake Fundudzi steering committee, ward councillors and Edward Ramudingane

It was only at the end of the consultation period that it dawned on me that I was disappointed that I was not required to observe the traditional greeting of the chieftaincy. I had not realised I had been looking forward to it until I was denied the opportunity. A classic case of, ‘careful what you wish for’. But in my case it was more like, ‘careful what you don’t wish for!’.

Pot of gold

On our first day back in the field to conduct Phase Two of our research, SK and I went to Noqhekwane, a village in Port St Johns near which, we had heard, the Nossa Senhora de Belem (NS de Belem), a Portuguese ship, wrecked in 1635. The day we visited Noqhekwana coincided with a community meeting at the headman’s homestead. “Great,” we thought, “All these different people in one place”! What we were not expecting, however, is for the headman to give us a slot in the agenda to introduce ourselves and to state the reason for our presence in the village.

The headman introduced himself as Tata Belem (Mr Belem). YES! BELEM! SK and I stared at each other, four eyeballs popping out of their sockets! Could it be? Could this man, standing right in front of us, be a descendent of a survivor from the NS de Belem!? Our suspicions were based on Belem not at all sounding like a Xhosa or Pondo surname; and on the fact that most Nguni surnames end with a vowel, not a consonant. (Going through several surnames in my head, I can’t think of a single one that ends with a consonant. But I digress …)

I sat there with ants in my pants, hardly able to wait for the community meeting to end so we could take Mr Belem aside and ask him his life story. (The reference to ants in my pants in not merely a metaphor; we were sitting on the floor in the front yard, and I did feel an itch, or five …) Mr Belem handed over to me, and I told the community the purpose of our visit. I spoke about the project and our particular interest in the ship that wrecked on their shores, and what became of the survivors who were in it. I mentioned the ship’s name and enquired if Mr Belem was not in fact a descendant of the NS de Belem; or if his surname could be linked to the ship. (I told you I could hardly wait for the meeting to end so I could talk to Mr Belem alone! As it turned out, I was not able to wait. I blurted out my question in front of everyone in the community meeting.)

The answer, I’m afraid, was a disappointing “Andazi.” (I don’t know.) Mr Belem and his fellow villagers that I spoke to were aware that a ship had wrecked on their shores many many years ago, but they did not know when it happened, where the ship had come from, or what it was called. Nor, more disappointedly, was Mr Belem particularly interested in this possible connection that SK and I had made with the NS de Belem. Mr Belem’s younger sister – in her late 60s/early 70s – was also at the meeting, said she too knew nothing about a family connection to the ship wreck. I was really hoping they could lead us to a family member or an elder in the community who knew the Belem family history, but alas … these siblings are the oldest surviving members of the Belem family.

SK and our three companions walking down the hill from which we viewed where the ship is believed to have sunk.

SK and our three companions walking down the hill from which we viewed where the ship is believed to have sunk.

Feeling rather deflated, SK and I, accompanied by Ma Mtunasi (Mr Belem’s sister), Ma Mathanzima and  Ma Tshezi, set off to see where the NS de Belem is believed to have wrecked and sunk. They took us to a hill overlooking the ocean, where a rusted metal rod, about 3cm wide and 60cm long, was sticking out of the ground at a 45 degree angle (it had clearly been there for a long time). They told us that “abelungu” (white people) had stuck it in the ground as a landmark to indicate where the ship went under. Looking out on to the ocean, there was no sign of a ship wreck.

Ma Mtunasi (nee Belem) points out the location where the NS de Belem is believed to have sunk. The rusted metal rod that acts as a landmark is next to her feet.

Ma Mtunasi (nee Belem) points out the location where the NS de Belem is believed to have sunk. The rusted metal rod that acts as a landmark is next to her feet.

Everyone we spoke to at the community meeting said the ship had sunk to the depths of the sea, and that although many abelungu had tried to get to it, nobody had been successful so far. Legend has it that the ship is filled with gold (others think it may be made of gold!) and that a inyoke yolwandle (sea snake – which I imagine must be enormous!) wraps itself around the ship to prevent anyone from having access to the treasure. The question of whether any of the local community members had ever tried to reach the treasure was met with incredulous laughter and protests. None of them had actually seen the snake, but nobody doubted the abelungu’s story of the sea snake that protects the treasure.

A view from Noqhekwana village, looking out on to the sea. Just around the corner is Mzimvubu River.

A view from Noqhekwana village, looking out on to the sea. Just around the corner is Mzimvubu River.

Interestingly, the people who live in Lambasi, the region where the Grosvenor wrecked in 1782, also believe that isilwane solwandle (a sea creature) wraps itself around the Grosvenor wreck and that is why, after decades of trying, nobody has ever been successful in getting the gold that is believed to be inside the wreck. None of the people we spoke to there had ever seen this creature either, but that’s what abelungu said, and none of the locals were willing to test it’s existence for themselves.

All this talk of vessels sinking deep into the ocean made me think of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, a mystery that has grabbed my over active imagination by the horns! I wonder if – had the jet been believed to have disappeared closer to the Wild Coast stretch of the Indian Ocean – talks of treasure (in the jet) and isilwane solwandle or inyoka yolwandle protecting it would eventually weave themselves into the local mythologies to explain why it can not be found.

Ma Mtunasi, who is not afraid of (land) snakes, and kills them rather than runs away from them when they cross her path, said she had no desire to ever go anywhere near the sea snake wrapped around the NS de Belem. Her reasoning was that if trained divers, using the most modern technology, had not been able to reach the treasure because of the sea snake, she certainly had no business trying. “You don’t disturb something in it’s natural habitat,” she said matter-of-factly.

Now that’s a golden rule if ever there was one.

The business of treasure…

So you read about the ‘chance meeting’ with Matholakele Bhobosana.

We later meant with 56-year-old Ngomani Mhlolivele, the son of the woman we we looking for when we drove right up to Bhobosana’s front door.

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Ngomani Mhlolivele with his partner, Nofezile Memani, and grandchildren, Sanele, 14 months and Oluhle 4.

He has been digging up beads on the rock island next to Msikaba Mouth since he was a little boy. Though he has had other forms of work outside his village of KwaNdengane, digging up beads, broken pieces of crockery and clay pots has been his longest form of earning an income. He also currently works as a night security guard for the ten or so holiday homes along the beach.

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Beads from shipwrecks

Ngomane says he sells each regular-sized individual bead for R100. (A regular-sized bead is more or less the same size of the beans you’d use in samp and beans.) Some of the beads are broken, and these he sells for about R30. His clients are the white holiday home owners who come to Msikaba during the holidays. The broken pieces of crockery and clay pots don’t seem to have much of a market, he hasn’t sold any in a long time.

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Ngomani Mhlolivele with pottery shards

Last year Ngomani found a bell-shaped gold artifact, which he has not yet sold. He says one of the white men who own a holiday home in the area took a photograph of it which he left with Ngomani before taking the artifact away to the city to be evaluated. He brought it back on his next visit to Msikaba but did not tell him what it is valued at.

Gold bell from a shipwreck

Gold bell from a shipwreck

I asked Ngomane what he thought of the idea of having some sort of museum to keep and display all the shipwreck artifacts that he and his fellow villagers find. He was said that one of his customers had recently asked him the same question, and that he is very open to the idea, especially because it would be a legacy that he could leave to his grandchildren.

The following day we eventually met uMama ka Ngomani, a feisty old lady with a great sense of humour. Having arrived at her house at about 07:30am, I was concerned about it being too early and perhaps waking her/her household up. Our self-appointed escort, Mama Bhobosana, insisted that it wasn’t too early because people in the villages rise at the crack of dawn.

Not convinced, SK and I lagged far behind and let Bhobosana go way ahead of us, only for her to return within minutes with uMama kaNgomani in tow. She found her already working in her garden!

Born in 1937, Majajini Mhlolivele (uMama kaNgomani) has been digging up beads and other other artifacts from shipwrecks with her grandmother since she was a little girl. She couldn’t wait to get our interview over and done with so she could go and see if the tide was low enough for her to get to the rock island and start digging. She however, unlike the men, digs in the sand because it is less strenuous for her body, which is not as strong as it used to be.

uMama kaNgomani with beads she recovered from the beach

uMama kaNgomani with beads she recovered from the beach

UMama kaNgomani says she used to sell her beads for as little as R25 or R30 for an average-sized bead that is intact. I asked how she came up with that price, and she said it was not her, but her buyers who set that price. The same buyers her son Ngomani sells to.

uMama kaNgomani with recovered clay pot shards

uMama kaNgomani with recovered clay pot shards

She said uTata kaZwelinzima, a village who also digs up artifacts from shipwrecks, was motivating for all the villagers to not only increase their prices but also to agree on what prices to sell their wares. While this gave her the courage to increase her bead price to R50 a bead, and she fully agrees with uTata kaZwelinzima in principle about setting a unified price, she is all too aware that poverty and desperation is what causes people to go behind each others’ backs and sell the artifacts for cheaper. Rather go home with a little bit of money than with no money at all.

Two years ago uMama kaNgomani convinced her widowed daughter to start digging for beads in order to support her two children. We’re meeting her next.

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.