Age of Zinc is proud to present the tenth installment in the memoirs of a South African slum dweller.
Little Flower Primary School was a German-funded missionary school that I attended between 1965 and 1972. These years were responsible for teaching me English and religion. This is important because my mother brought me up as a Zulu. Even today I still practice the tradition of abakwaKhumalo. I also do not or may not have personal love relations with people of that clan. This applies to my children as well. My parents were not religious and never went to church. I remember clearly that my father, even at death, had to be begged to see a priest and have a confession.
But I came to this school and had to be taught English. This school became my home during school days. Boarding fees had to be paid and, because I could not afford to pay the boarding fees, I had to do some work at the premises. These included cutting the lawns with a lawn mower. I also milked the cows and every afternoon after school there would be different chores like hoeing in the orchards.
It is at Little Flower where I also developed as a very talented footballer. I became a favorite with students and some teachers. But I also made enemies with others because of the nature of the game I played. There was a time where I could do almost anything with a football. I could almost make it talk. I could tap a ball with almost any part of my body. You would swear I had a magnet in me.
I would spend many hours with my little brother Bob heading, tapping, weaving, talking, and crying while I made love to the ball. I told the ball all my pains, sorrows, dreams and wishes. This would also help me to hide my loneliness and fears of the future, beginning with tomorrow.
My nights would be a time for me to think deeply of where or what would happen during the holidays. I also became a Catholic at this school and later an altar boy. The football was my mother and father. This was one of the only ways I could get attention and happiness, and this was one of the only ways I could express myself. So it did not surprise me when one of the school teachers, who was very fat but fast, would become offended by some of the things I could make a football ball say and do. Every time I played against a team he was involved in, his team’s plan would be, “kick him, stop him from playing, harass him, and call him names.” Some of the names he called me still have stains in my mind.
I would leave them on the ground groaning and moaning. I would skip over them like they were fallen trees, like a hare giving dogs a run for their next meal. The spectators urged me to run for my dear life as this leader and his equally big defenders called me “a kaffir,” “a scoundrel,” “a hound” and “a piece of shit.” It was as if I had to prove with my skills on the pitch that I was not what they were calling me.
I did not get satisfaction from winning because he would follow me to the dining room after the game and continue the name-calling. He would continuously hit me from behind my neck with his open hand and sometimes shove my head in my food. You see, some students would enjoy this and laugh and this would make me mad.
I was then baptized and became an altar boy and, besides needing the protection and prayers from the church, this taught me to think and listen to another voice in my head and also to find peace with myself. While all this was happening, my brothers were also fighting their battles on the fields and school-yards and I was a role model. To be honest, sometimes I did not see them for weeks because I was busy with my battles.
At this school I also developed other skills like acting and poetry. I just loved reciting poems and acting because this helped me hide behind the different characters I played. This, I think, became a way of life and survival because I believe that I have played these different characters for the rest of my life. I became a father to my brothers and sisters and other disadvantaged children. I became a backstop to those kids who were being bullied by bullies. I became an entertainer through football and acting. I also became an example of how to take it on the chin and move on.
I went through high school almost the same way. It was a bit different here because my football did the talking and paid for education and boarding fees. The principal even bought school uniforms for me and I just had to play. I represented the school on many a victory.
Age of Zinc is proud to present the ninth installment in the memoirs of a South African slum dweller.
Now I want to go back to where I said that we were never poor. We sometimes never had because of certain circumstances. But the opportunity to survive was much more available.
The men and their dogs in the community had special relationships and the dogs wer named as people would be named. Even the knobkerries had names. My father’s knobkerrie was “uMagayi” meaning, “crush the livers.”
This was a special stick used to defend from attack and also as a sign of status. Men had either a dog or a rooster, as well as a special stick that was an image of importance. Many hours would be spent on this thing, whatever it was. If a man had cattle he was elevated to become a complete human being with a wife, his dogs, chicken, children and his stick. This stick would be sometimes decorated with beads of beautiful colours.
My father later had a bicycle and this was a sign of progress. Many more then started riding these bicycles that were called “baboons with two legs.” This bicycle was also decorated in such a way that it became a show piece. This was all about making a statement. The clay pots out of which the men drank Zulu beer were neatly decorated and this was status and beauty. These were the simple things that made a difference and gave a man his dignity.
Today we will build our shacks, decorate and paint them. We will put in colouring paper from fashion magazines and newspapers. We wear expensive jeans and t-shirts and some even drive VW Golfs and Toyotas. But still this is not enough. Today life is more dangerous because these things do not come easily to poor people. If you have a wife or partner, it’s even more dangerous because of the diseases that now prowl our neighborhoods.
The car thieves, the burglars, and the HIV. These all destroy our dignity and status. I remember the clear water springs with cool, clean water, I remember mielie fields and chicken and birds chirping and calling in the yard. Was this not richness? It was almost of unheard of to call yourself poor or declare yourself poor.
If a family had no oxen to plough their fields, they would borrow from their neighbours to do so and keep some milk cows for a certain period until they were also self-reliant. I wonder if this cannot be done instead of these subsidies for rural communities.
Today if you are hungry and have nothing, you become a subject for discussion and resource for those who would then spend the first five years discussing and strategizing how to desist you from your poverty. There will be workshops, seminars and conferences to discuss how to give you a meal.
Where I come from this was not an issue. You could be given or borrowed two oxen to plough, two to milk, and a bull for security and company and you would survive. We are victims of self-made poverty.
Today poverty has become a reason for those who have to continue enriching themselves by declaring they can eradicate it and they know how to help poor people. They then declare themselves the experts and are given massive resources through government departments. This has become just another way of ripping off the fat of the land.
There are no poor people. There are only deprived people. Go back to the land of plenty. Rebuild the dams. Plough the land. Talk to the birds and people. They have the answers and hands. They will provide the energy and reap the fruits of the harvest.
We were always proud and never went around telling people we were poor. It would have been something very serious not to have. Even not having a wife was something bad because it meant you were either not fertile or something was wrong with your organs or you were cursed or you screwed other people’s wives. You were sorted out. By this, I mean that some elders would discuss your situation and then you would be saved by being offered someone who was supportive to your situation.