Ndawo; Nuances from the Ocean
We always witnessed their arrivals. We were taught to be vigilant of their tactics, for the next time they came, they would be coming for you. At first they came in tiny fields. They brought us teachers, liquor, clothes and bibles. While we were blinking our eyes, they had totally engulfed our village, leaving traces of their scents painted on the walls of the homes they broke. Their ships became bigger and bigger. They bulldozed through the ocean, on their trail were boats slightly smaller than the parent-ships. The boats tip-toed through our midst and penetrated through our rivers to suck the life out of our habitat. The inyanga’s knew not their way around them. Their bones had failed to save our people from the slave ships. Their prophecies had become cold air that stung our cheeks. We were told of doom that we had already seen manifest too often right before our eyes. At some point, we wondered whether working at the cotton fields of this America was so bad. When poverty was that rife, even the life of a slave was far more desirable than the tiny pieces of survival we were clinging onto.
It was scorching hot that day when we sat in mama’s compound, thoroughly engrossed in Joshua’s voice. The shallow manner in which he articulated the events that occurred just moments earlier when they came to his side of the village was like a meandering journey into a bottomless pit. His father was one of those that fell into the abyss of misfortune. He was taken away and regardless of how sincerely his mother pleaded that they let him go, he was still thrown onto the boat. Like something of little worth, as though he was not the hero of his family. It was as though they did not care that he was chief of his tribe.
His oration was heart throbbing. We saw through his eyes how every word he uttered was throttling him to death inside. His voice heavy, carrying the responsibilities that would be imposed on him with his father gone. Joshua was not even his real name. He was born Vusimuzi, however he was one of the reformed idiots. His baptism was the first time we had ever seen a white man come so close to a black boy without beating him up for being a black boy, for breathing. We saw this event by peeping through the church window, like the uninvited guests we were. Our mothers were adamant that they gave birth to sons of miscellaneous warriors and not subordinate puppets therefore the baptisms and Anglicism frenzies would miss us. He would thus be called Joshua, an English name. It would bring him closer to God, the baptizer said. When he knocked on heaven’s door, the angels would not fall over their tongues trying to pronounce his name.
Joshua’s story was interrupted by MaNdawo who barged in like a marching tyrant in heated rage. Like lava being expelled from a volcano. “Ndawo has been a trance for over an hour now. He is speaking in tongues. “Please! Help me! Help my son!” she pleaded to every one of us and those that were in the vicinity. None of us were well knowledgeable about how to calm Ndawo. The Inyanga’s had taught us how to do it but it was an uphill battle. Every time the ships came, the more relentless his trances would get. He spoke in voices we did not recognize. Voices of older people. Messengers from the trenches that our ancestors resided in came to life through his body.
We rushed to MaNdawo’s house. On our arrival we chanted “thokoza mkhulu. Phephi mkhulu. Khuluma mkhulu.” While clapping our hands in rhythmic unison, on our knees, with our heads bent not in shame or fear but in sheer respect for those that were in our presence. Indeed, the gift that Ndawo possessed was mighty. It was a tornado of macrocosms swirling around an innocent young boy.
“What is he saying, uthini?” Joshua pushed us to the side and dropped to his knees. “Well if you would just shut up we would hear him”, I could hear the annoyance in my voice bounce off the walls and fly back to smack Joshua in the face. ”He is saying something about the water. What is it son” MaNdawo pleaded. Perhaps his healing was near and he would finally enlighten us on how to bring his agony to an end. “The waters, makhosi. The waters have kept us alive for as long as time had been merciful on us… but they no longer recognize the reflections of themselves when they look in the skies. They harbor the machines that come to subject our people to the final dénouement of their lives. Our salvation will come from the waters nonetheless. Spirituality is our only avenue of solidarity. Ndawo. Makhosi”. With that, his trance subsided with a whimpering “Vumani bo” to which we subconsciously replied “siya vuma”. Ndawo lay on his side and he passed out.
We did not expect any answers from each other. Not me, MaNdawo nor Joshua. None of us spoke either because we were all drowning in floods of confusion. One would swear we were competing with each other. When Ndawo woke up, he cried as though he had received lashings for deeds that were not orchestrated by his own hands. He was back, but for how long. “What do you mean the waters will save us? You have demons you. You need church”, Joshua’s was the first voice that Ndawo was bombarded with upon his return to his body. The church idea had become so monotonous. The missionaries had perpetuated the absurd ridicule of our native healers. We were suddenly to divert all our prayers and wishes to a god that that hardly even looked like us. Many compounds in had big images of him. My people would have more pictures of Gods son in their houses they did of their own fathers. “We should go see mkhulu Dabulamanzi about this. He might shed some light” MaNdawo suggested.
Mkhulu Dabulamanzi stood outside his compound from long before we even approached it. As if he was expecting us. His shadow forming a cryptic silhouette on the red earth, as if it was resembling the figure of a creature different to the man we had come to consult. Mkhulu did not even wait for our greetings, he just ushered us into his yard that was flagged with traditional red and white clothes beaming with a mélange of patterns. His tiny hut with its deteriorated grass roof. We saw incense smoke that crept to the outside to pull you by your skin and drag you inside. “His ancestors want him to heed the calling. We cannot waste any more time. Ndawo is the only hope for this village”, Joshua and I heard while eavesdropping from outside. Mkhulu uttered these words with strips of faith and urgency embedded on his voice.
While outside, it was the first time in eons since I took the time to marvel at my village. The more it stretched out though, the less was there to admire. Grass never grew in mungu-ni-kungalia anymore. We never had any rain either. People did not plough crops, the sun blazed like the wrath of a god that was punishing us for sins we had no knowledge of. The soil looked so red, red as though it had profusely been coughing blood. The compounds were isolated and scattered. There was less people. Everyone minded their own misery. Making friends was in undeniable vanity, it made it harder to watch as they threw more people onto the boats. Being sent to lands afar. Knowing that their umbilical cords were now burrowing from the earth like earthworms that had lost their right to their habitat.
Amongst ourselves, we smiled with caution. We did our best to never deceive our hearts. To never convince ourselves to surety that things would get better for disappointment was a demon lurking in the shadows. We were born into crippled families. Fathered by broken men. Our fathers were stripped off their manhood, they placed their sorrows in the alcohol brought by the ship men. They abused our mothers for looking at them like fallen agents of patriarchy. Every one of us was coming apart, even our shadows were distorted images. As children, we only smiled for imaginative rainbows, muddy puddles and the ship men. Smiling would make them think that we had forgiven them for disrespecting our kings, stealing our brothers and suffocating our waters with their impurities. We spat on the ground far more frequently than was necessary. We wanted the soil to always recognize us. Our spit on the ground was our way of engraving our DNA into it and should the ships come to take the very last one of us away, should the water go dry before Ndawo goes deep below to heed his calling, we would have etched the little of us that we had deep into the earth. Our fathers’ earth.
My thoughts were disturbed when Ndawo stormed out of mkhulu Dabulamanzi’s hut. His mother followed promptly behind him, with mkhulu Dabulamanzi on their trail, hissing at them to listen to reason. When it was evident that the mother-and-son pair needed time alone to gather their thoughts, mkhulu turned his eyes to me and Joshua and motioned for us to come closer. Joshua looked like a jittering rat. His bible had taught him that shamans were agents of Satan. He was clearly uncomfortable in the ambience we were in. Mkhulu wanted to unveil to us the ancestral beading that Ndawo was expected to wear. They were humble blue and white strings with beads of a constant size and they would adorn Ndawo’s neck, wrists and ankles. It was a bulky bunch. I wondered how Ndawo would be able to walk around with them for the rest of his life. “We will never find our way if we allow external indoctrination to cloud our perceptions of ourselves. Our destiny has long been written and we could never stray away from it. At all times, we must know ourselves”, mkhulu said, suddenly. Both Joshua and I had no idea where that came from or where in our cognition it was supposed to settle. It did however etch itself into our memory. We decided to bid farewell to mkhulu, we were tired and completely overwhelmed by the events of the day.
Walking back home, Joshua and I reminisced on the memories that were created at school. The classroom built the foundations of mine, Ndawo and Joshua’s brotherhood. “Remember when Ndawo’s spirits descended upon him in class and he started dancing like they had placed his feet in a bucket of fleas”, I reflected. We laughed. School was beautiful. A beautiful illusion. When we were twelve years old, school became a home we would never ever step into again. When foreign ideologies started creeping into the curriculum and children started speaking about the Holy Spirit, the schools were burnt to ashes.
Thinking of school was like trying to grab ahold of memories that were draped in oil and thus, they slipped from our grip at every attempt. “I hate the school, and the teachers too. Why did they make believe that we could ever become anything? Success and peace go this way and we go the other way. It has always been like this and it always will be. It is the law. They imported teachers to come and blindly motivate us”, Joshua lamented, somberly so. I could not decide which between his face and his voice was coming apart the fastest. I had never seen him like that. I always thought that being a member of the church brought prestige, and with prestige, must come joy. Most definitely. “The church can only do so much for you huh”, I replied, trying to extract some more of this rawness from him. “I am just a glorified servant of the lord. You know I want to be a lawyer. I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. They made me believe that I could do it. All that I am now is an outcast, a spy. The people of the village hate me. I have sacrificed their trust for nothing”, he concluded. I did not perceive being a member of the church to be the alpha-and-omega of existence but they made it look like it came pretty close. I felt sorry for Joshua. His voice was evidence of how they managed to break apart even the strongest of us. They came with their boats to sell us a heaven that had no room for people like us. People that had more than enough time for the sun. Brown people, navy people. People that had no regard for artificial wealth and amongst whom traditional education was the only form of education that was necessary. It may not have manufactured sons that stole from the unwitting but it did teach us survival. It produced philosophers and empowered people. It taught us that we may not have had much but it was always clean. That our names were to always have a meaning lest we walk through time living meaningless lives.
It had been a couple of days since we had seen Ndawo. Joshua and I had been convinced by mama to let them have some time on their own for a while. I had told mama about the beads that Ndawo would wear during and after ancestral initiation. Mama said the spirits of the waters were one of the most formidable in the spirit kingdom for water was the foundation of all life on earth. “When we were young, my mother told me how MaNdawo’s name was chosen for her. Her family line was fraught with healers and shamans. However, there had not been a single one of her siblings that was called to be a healer. Every one of them was shipped to places where they ate food they had not hunted with their own hands. Where our brothers laughed only loud enough to feel the broken pieces of themselves assemble back to their natural state. There was no healer in MaNdawo’s generation, therefore she would give birth to the heir of the gift, Ndawo. Ndawo was the name given to the spirits that resided in the water. They had power over the waters and they changed forms when they engaged with the living. When a Ndawo was out of the water, he could be a tree, a snake, a wounded dog, a filthy old man or even a gorgeous woman. This was how we were taught to respect all living things and nature, for we never knew when we would encounter a Ndawo in his disguise. The way we respected our mothers, the breath in their lungs was equivalent to how we valued ama Ndawo”, mama explained. It was more of a revelation than it was an explanation. Ndawo was a great. He had power over the tides and the waves. Joshua and I had a simultaneous “wooow” moment after we had relished on the very last fragments of mama’s voice. It was funny that Joshua say that at all. He did not believe in these things, what was he excited for. I concluded that Joshua was a confused church mouse that would sacrifice loyalty for cheese and bliss.
Living so close to the river made us experts on the movements of the water. It was the orbit of our lives. When we saw gentle swirling and passive motion, we knew that the maidens were taking baths. We knew that the waters were touching every inch of their pure bodies, that they could present themselves to it in their most sincere and authentic form and it would accept them just as they were. On some days, we would see slight turbulence, splashes and waves, we knew that the shamans were performing their rituals. The blood of the chickens they offered as sacrifice would ease into the water with modesty. It was not much to offer but they pleaded with the god’s to give them better days. To give us better days. For them to remember that we were their children and we needed them at that moment more than any other.
On that day however, the river was divided into two raging portions by a monster we had all come to know very well. It made hooting horn sounds, as if to flaunt its presence. As if we had missed it and the people that controlled it. They had returned. Branches of someone’s family tree would be broken off that day and we could only wail and beg to be spared. Joshua, Ndawo and myself watched as everyone ran to nowhere. In such moments, we had learnt that scattering and being disorderly made it harder for them to capture you, beat you to weakness and throw you onto the boat.
Ndawo was just telling us how reluctant he was to becoming a healer. “So much is imposed on me. The people look at me with eyes pregnant with expectation, they have placed their lives in my hands. It is too much”, he spoke and suddenly his voice started breaking. It started becoming huskier, the old-man voices that crept into his body had returned. He broke into a trance just as one of the ship-men ran with a whip in his hand to our direction. I was the first to run. I tried to pull Ndawo along but his clothes ripped from my grip. Joshua stumbled and fell alongside him. The ship-man caught up with them and I watched in dismay as he captured my friends. “What is going on with this one”, the man projected the question to no one in particular. “He is in a trance master, spare him”, Joshua replied, trying to be a hero. “Trance? Well he can trance all he likes on the boat. I do not have all day”, the man commanded with impatience reeking from his voice. Just as he was lifting and dragging Joshua and Ndawo to the boat by their collars, he noticed a rosary around Joshua’s neck. He stopped instantly. “No, No. You will not do. We do not take Christians. Too many laws that side. Too many people on your side”, he said and threw Joshua to the ground. I was just as confused as Joshua looked. I watched as the man walk past Joshua with Ndawo in tow. Trance-bound, my friend was thrown onto the boat. I had never cried that hard since the day I was circumcised. I could see my shadow fall to pieces on the ground.
When they had completed their gruesome task of gathering slaves to deliver to their masters in a silver platter, we all came together to mourn. We watched the boat that carried the boy that carried the onus of bringing our village salvation. We watched as it became smaller and smaller and we just had no more energy for anything at that stage. “Haibo! Look, they are placing him on the edge of the boat”, mama yelled suddenly. We all immediately squeezed our eyes to see who it was. “My son! My only son”, MaNdawo wailed as she fell to the ground in agony. Indeed, Ndawo was thrown off the boat into the river moments later. Perhaps his trance had not subsided, perhaps he would make a peculiar and demanding slave so they could do without him. They probably thought he had issues. “Psychological issues”. We all formulated theories and muttered them under our breath, theories to why they would do such a thing. Through the speculation and guessing, it suddenly became overcast. “It looks like it is going to rain”, I felt obliged to state the obvious. The people laughed. The thought was absurd. We had even forgot what rain sounded like. Yet on that day, when Ndawo was thrown out the boat and into the water, it rained like the heavens were playing tricks on us. It felt that a delusional thunderstorm. We felt tingles when the rain fell on our parched earth.
The boat on the river approaching the intersection between the ocean and the river suddenly overturned and drowned, obviously not built for such storms. The turbulence of the waves were far too strong. “HE IS HOME! THE JOURNEY TO OUR SALVATION HAS BEGAN, NEVER AGAIN WILL THEY CREEP INTO OUR MIDST VIA THE WATER TO LEAVE US EMPTY AND SHAMED. THOKOZA NDAWO!”, mkhulu Dabulamanzi roared with pride, faith and sheer joy swirling around his voice. The rain began to make sense. It was to wash all our miseries away. We were not mourning the death of a friend but we were now celebrating the birth of a hero. We hoped to live long enough to tell the tale of the beautiful irony of our day; how our redemption came from the hands of those we were to be redeemed from.
Boipelo Maetla is a South African public speaker, educator, debater, author, free-lance columnist and all round creative. Recently, she came in the top three of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation speech contest which awarded her the privilege to share the stage with deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, struggle icon Ahmed Kathrada and Business Day editor, Songezo Zibi.
She is a once-off contributor for internationally based women and girl child empowerment company, Global Girl Media and a former volunteer for the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA).
Boipelo Maetla is a published author, having been the youngest of the writers featured in the short story anthology by South African publishing house Black Letter Media, titled My Holiday Shorts (www.myholidayshorts.com).
With the belief that solidarity for global cohesion is a social responsibility, the 18-year-old is also an on-call poet for the NGO, Palestinian Solidarity Alliance (PSA), a platform that managed to her learn from and share dialogues and stages with Gauteng premier, David Makhura and Road and Transport minister Ismail Vadi amongst others.
“I always advocate for the empowerment of the youth through literature. Literacy is the first form of liberation. I also believe that creativity exists in all forms and in every context and is an underrated agent of social change”- Boipelo.
As a poet, Boipelo has graced various stages, including Solidarity for Women of Palestine, Sandton Poetry Show and Poets in Offices under the pseudonym, Ben Jackson.
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Cover Photo: Walter Savage (http://wjacksavage.com/)