Being the outsider in our family – the one without knowledge of her own culture, the light one, the „white“ one, the Western one, the European one – many stories that form the basis for our family history, that carry the sense of pride of our family name or sense of belonging to our culture are hidden from me, by virtue of my having grown up in Cape Town, far away from other Vendas except for my father. Who is, as many know, not much of a talker. Unless on those rare occasions where he does decide to talk, then simple time references can expand into seemingly endless soliloquies.
„Papa, when are you working this week?“
„I will be working this week Monday, Tuesday, eeeh, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Sunday.“
„So…the whole week?“
„The whole week, yes, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, through to Sunday. The whole week“
„Okay….thanks for taking a whole week to answer the question“. My disrespect for my elders comes from Europe also, clearly.
A whole world, an entire universe has been hidden, locked away from me and my sisters who have no access to our fathertongue and the culture that it holds.
Now however, on our way to the funeral of my grandmother, Augustina Maria Sebe, the long way on the road from Johannesburg to Limpopo, home of the Vendas, allows for many stories to pass between my cousin and father to my sister and myself. Both personal family stories and stories passed down from generation to generation amongst the Venda people, the people that we come from, this small group of South Africans that long have had an odd reputation amongst South Africans, about strange customs and traditions and in true complex racist history of South Africa „the too darkness“ of their skin. When in reality, we all know the Vendas are the spiritually most powerful, the most beautiful, the kindest. I might be biased but ask a Zimbabwean and he will tell you the story of the kind Venda women in the villages who would feed them on their long journey crossing the Zimbabwean border into South Africa.
I used to doubt the stories my father told me when I was younger, thinking he was embelleshing them for my or perhaps more his own pleasure: „We are descendants of royalty. My grandfather was forced to change his name and flee his village to escape death at the hands of those who were after his thrown.“
Royalty? Princess. My mind conjured up images of girls with straight flowing blond hair and pink dresses that adorned white delicate skin. Not the dark charcoal skin of my fathers, this man who could touch fire without feeling the heat. We are descendants of royalty. In my mind it did not add up.
Now in the car, my cousin was there to confirm the truthfulness of our grand heritage. I learned about my own grandfather, the many wives, one of them, my grandmother, the most caring and loving and generous, never jealous, always good and fair. I learned of the intrigues, the family members that disappeared, the great aunt that upon my grandfather’s death told my father she was not his aunt and did not come to attend the funeral. The man who appeared out of nowhere some years ago, claimed to be a son and promptly moved his entire family into one of the few rooms in my late grandfather’s house. But the room seemed not to be enough and so his scheming to take over the entire Sebe family home in Diepkloof began. How do we know that was his plan? We can only assume. Assume. Assume based on what? Based on a dream? On the dreams of my cousin, of my grandmother. My grandmother was a healer before she turned away from her traditional beliefs to follow the new pastor in the village who asked for sole devotion to Morena Jesu, to the Lord. Everyone should „get up and go to the House of the Lord“. In her last years she was firmly rooted in the House of the Lord, she carried a bible with her everywhere she went – although she was illiterate. My grandmother.
But she had visions. As did my cousin. Visions. Magic. I learned of the magic hidden in the Limpopo valleys, the trees that you may not chop down or cut or else you would disappear in the woods, vanish, never to be seen again. Powerful trees, magic trees. Trees you do not fuck with so to speak. Is this true, I ask my cousin? Yes, everyone knows it. Except for me and my sister. The only unknowing Vendas.
The story, or rather history that most intrigued me is the story of the Venda drum. The drum had belonged to the Vendas hundreds of years ago, it was a powerful drum, a spiritual drum. Upon the arrival of the British who tried to overthrow the Vendas, chase them away from their spiritual lands, the drum would be beaten and the British soldiers, heavy with guns and weapons upon hearing its sound would fall asleep on the spot. The drum rendered them powerless. I thought how beautifully descriptive of the Venda people, so peaceful that a drum would be their weapon and sleep would be their punishment. Of course they should have killed the British soldiers. While The Vendas for a long time were able to defend themselves against the intruders, even amongst Vendas there must have been some traitors who helped the British, for finally they managed to capture the drum. It is said to still be somewhere over there, somewhere in England, far away from its rightful owners. One day I will go to England and find it, I think to myself as we leave behind the tar roads and the gravelroads to the villages begin. I will recapture it, bring it back here to where it belongs. Who knows what else this drum can do for the Venda people. Our people.
The arrival at my grandmother’s yard in the village was astonishing to say the least. Hundreds of people already filled the place, preparing my grandmother’s last big party, cooking (all women), talking (mostly men). Many family, many not. Who was who to a large extent I could not know, many new cousins had been born in the last years that I had never seen, many faces had changed too much since I had last seen them. Even if my face had changed, everyone knew me and my sister. Although often I was confused with Naima, sometimes Singita, but clearly, always „daughter of Tshamano“. Genetics are beautiful of course, because some children I could guess belonged to our family, just by a brief look at the face, those eyes that belonged to my late grandmother, the round face, the dark lashes. I would sometimes place them wrongly: „You must be the child of Benjamin“ „no, David“. Sometimes genes play a trick on us. A son looking more like the uncle than his father. But still traceable to the common denominator, the grandmother that brought us here. Onto this earth and now, here, to this red-earthed village, to say goodbye to her. Vha tshimbile zwavhudi. Goodbye grandmother. What language to speak to her? When she was alive I could not reach her, our languages collided, never met, but now that she is dead, surely she can understand me, even if I speak in English or even in German? Of course we, my sister and myself, could not understand most of what was spoken over the next couple of days, the origin of the laughter when it erupted in large groups could only be guessed by us. Something about my grandmother having been the last to keep dancing, while everyone else was already exhausted, she asked to hit the repeat button on her favourite song…?
On the second day of speeches held in the large white tent – the front rows of white plastic chairs reserved for family were draped with blue ribbons, an attempt to bring urban sophistication to simple ruralness – an interpreter translated the kind Venda words spoken about my grandmother whose body rested in the coffin in front of the tent. Sentence by sentence, the words of family members were translated and my sister and I grew red with shame that the speech-time was doubled despite the blistering heat only because of us, Tshamano’s, „Bra Biza’s“ daughters.
My fathers speech started in Venda and ended in English, stumbling over his mothertongue and finally apologising in the colonisers language „I will always be a Venda but I am sorry, I am struggling to find the words, I have been living in Cape Town for too long“ before he sat down again and cried over the loss of his mother but maybe also a little over the loss of his tongue.
„Let us get up and go to the House of the Lord.“ The pastors speech was the longest, too long, endless, a reminder of eternity. The first time the pastor asked us to get up and go to the House of the Lord, my instinct was to get up and follow, taking the request literally, maybe out of a desperation to finally get away from the tent and go somewhere else, anywhere else, let it be the House of the Lord, just away from the boring and generic speech of the pastor. But he must have said this same thing about fifteen times more in the next half hour that his speech lasted. My atheist heart appreciated the moments that were allocated to prayer, in those moments I could close my eyes and sleep without any body noticing it. Perhaps everyone else did the same. Surely everyone else was tired too? From sleeping on the hard concrete floor – my „white“ sister and I were offered the bed in the brick house, as we were of course too frail to lie on the hard concrete floor like everyone else including the elders, whose bones were reaching the age of one hundred years perhaps, but my sister and I refused, though as soon as my body touched the floor I regretted it, especially when I realised that now no one else would be taking the bed allocated to us, about 100 bodies sleeping around the bed, on the floor of the house, in cars, on mats in the yard – tired from drinking beer, from the long road traveled the day prior, the past two days of getting up at 4.30am? Surely I was not the only one affected by all of this or was it true that my sister and I were weaker? As I closed my eyes I wondered why the pastor was so forceful. Probably my sister and myself were the only atheists present, everyone else surely was already in the House of the Lord. When we got up to bring my grandmother to her final resting place, hundreds of people followed on foot or by car to the graveyard. After the long speeches everything else went far too quickly. By the time we reached the grave – we were one of the last cars following the trail – the coffin was already in the ground and we had to force ourselves through the singing masses to the front so that we could add our hand full of red soil to the sand falling on to the concrete that already fully covered her coffin. I embraced my cousins who cried and as my own tears mixed with theirs the man who had taken care of my grandmother and her yard in her last years, a simple man, took the sleeve of his pullover to gently wipe the tears from our eyes.
We ended our farewell with the unveiling of the tombstone – a massive thing of grey stone – and then endless amounts of selfies posing in front of it followed.
Returning to her yard the rest of the day was spent eating, sleeping, talking, laughing, eating. So much eating. Two cows, a goat and I do not know how many chickens had been slaughtered. I had decided that I would eat meat for this occasion although I did draw a line. My line was: the head of the cow and intestines. That was too far, although I was assured that the head was by far the most delicious part. But I could not bring myself to eat this head that one of my cousins just hours before had chased me with while another cousin pinned me down. A silly moment between cousins. A villager passing by laughed at the „white girl running“. We shared many joyous moments at my grandmother’s funeral. There is beauty and love and joy everywhere.
We left the village filled with sadness and love. On our way back home during a break at a petrol station my father called me to the other side of the parking lot. I thought he needed help with something, but when I arrived next to him he pointed to a tree. „Look up there“. Up there hanging from a branch was a bird’s nest. My father was amazed at the intricate design, he admired the sturdy, yet beautiful architecture that this little bird had constructed.
I had had a trip planned to see my grandmother for just weeks after she passed away; but she could not wait for me. I am blessed and grateful nonetheless that my trip to see her even in her death allowed me to spend time with my family, to discover new things about them and about the culture that is theirs and mine and I wonder whether one day we will be able to sit together in the village and know that the magic drum of the Vendas is returned to the valleys of Limpopo.