Molweni! A Xhosa Hello from East London
April 15, 2019, East London, South Africa — Nobody told me Portugal discovered East London, so maybe they missed this one port. Probably because it isn’t on the coast — it’s a ways inland, up the Buffalo River. The Brits arrived in 1836 and established a port and built forts for protection from the native Xhosa tribe and enemy ships. Around 2,000 German farmers and craftsmen arrived in the 1850s.
Todays it’s a major auto manufacturing center and boasts a museum whose proudest possessions are a Dodo egg (which must be 400 years old by now) and a specimen of a coelacanth fish thought to be extinct 80 million years ago — but caught by local fishermen in 1938.
Outstanding buildings include the Victorian Renaissance-style City Hall, built in 1897, plus its later clock tower celebrating Queen Victoria’s silver jubilee. But I didn’t see that. I saw these instead...
Continuing my tribal education, I chose to go to the Khaya la Bantu Cultural Village, which resembled the previous day’s Zulu village experience. We traveled through the countryside to get there — 20% of the population owns 80% of the land. The next three shots are not where the 20% lives.
Our bus guide Lungalo gave us a lot of insight into this tribe’s heritage, culture and traditions. They were hunter-gatherers: the men hunted, the women gathered. They believe in God — and their ancestors.
As a tour guide, Lungalo has a decent job — and he supports 11 family members. He is one of 11 children. He makes (unlicensed) hooch to sell on weekends to earn money for his kids’ school fees. Many local Xhosa work in mines in ‘Jo'burg,’ and come home when they can. Women make clothes, grow and sell vegetables, run day care centers. Anything to earn some income. A small house (or shack) might have several rows of corn and a cow in the small yard. Normally people eat meat only once a week, usually chicken. They’ll slaughter a goat to celebrate an event, like a birth or a circumcision.
Only people who make more than 4000 Rand per month pay taxes — that’s $285 a month... less than what I made in my first editorial job after college, 50 years ago.
Another source of income, Lungalo told us, is crime, including drugs and theft. Now you know why I’ve told you there are fences and gates around most houses.
When we arrived at Khaya la Bantu, the women and girls drummed and danced to welcome us...
... and beckoned us to dance across the red blanket before we all entered the wattle enclosure that serves as their meeting hall and auditorium. (Remember, this is a ‘cultural village,’ not an actual village.)
Eventually, all the girls and women danced. The three youngest took turns doing a sort of Rockette mock battle, high-kicking and twisting and bending their legs as if they wanted to make contact and send the other girl tumbling. But they avoided that. At times their movements were unsettlingly provocative, for 7- or 8-year-olds.
Only two men were involved in the exhibition: the drummer and the host, Michael. As they danced, one woman’s cell phone went off in her pocket. You would recognize the universal ring!
The white man is Michael, our host. He is young enough, he went to an integrated school, post- apartheid, where he met and studied with native people, learning their language and their culture. This is more than just a job for him — it is obvious he loves the people and their culture. He is dancing here with Mazizi, whom I would call the matriarch of the village. At least, she was in charge.
Mazizi explained that her 3 aprons and 2 shawls indicate she is married. She always wears a hat — she says it means she doesn’t have to hear all the blah-blah-blah that goes on. She didn’t actually say blah-blah-blah, she indicated it with her hands.
According to Xhosa custom, after the dancing the men and women in our group were separated. The men went off to learn about circumcision and drink beer (our cruise director said, Watch out — it has lumps!). If a man is not circumcised (at the age of 18!), no one will share secrets with him, we were told.
We women went off with Mazizi to learn about how engagements and marriages come about (very similar to the Zulu way, involving family negotiations and cows) and how to get pregnant by staying alone for three months in a hut like this one. I don’t quite understand how that works.
We also learned that unmarried women do the dishes but married women get a good piece of meat. It is a polygamous society.
A traditional lunch followed the gender-specific talks, of wild spinach and maize rice, pot breads and beef stew. There were beautiful steers on the property: they graze on the lush green grass and spend their nights in the ‘croft,’ which is also the men’s conference center where important discussions are held. Cattle are a sign of wealth. And the need for good grazing land led to many battles between the indigenous people and new settlers in this and other countries.
The daily grind: Women or daughters get up early to grind maize for their family’s breakfast porridge.
Kids will be kids. After all that dancing they still had enough energy to do this again...and again...and again.
On the way out of the village... it was laundry day.
Returning to East London. I think we can safely conclude, these belong to the 20%. Probably the top 1%.
One political poster along the road: ‘JOBS NOT CORRUPTION. VOTE DA.’ Which stands for Democratic Alliance, the direct opposition to the ruling African National Congress (Mandela’s party).
Next day, something completely different. #