When I am far away from home, especially in the freezing winters of the Free State, I often yearn for a time when we would sit around in our traditional rondavel in Qumbu with a fire and lintsomi to warm us. I used to think we were poor, people sometimes looked down on us, but I know now that our lintsomi (stories) made us rich.
Qumbu is a beautiful village about 60 km north of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. They say the name has something to do with regional wars that raged around the time of the amazimba aqumbu or swollen corn season in 1876 when it was founded.
When the winter frost descended on Qumbu we sat around the fire every evening. My mother was the master of Iintsomi, the name for our traditional myths and fairy tales. Before we went to bed my mother would tell us stories that she had heard from her mother. There were eight of us children sitting closely together, helping the fire along with body heat.
We did not have fine clothes or fancy furniture but my parents knew how to access our real resources. It made me an Igqiyazana, the strong woman I am today.
Our home was very traditional. We believed in simple values. My mom would wear long dresses; have a doek on her head, with a scarf around her waist, which was a symbol of respect to her in-laws. She would speak softly to my dad. A Xhosa woman is not allowed to raise her voice or be loud towards her husband.
All we could see as kids was happiness. My parents were full of humour, always smiling. You did not even know when one of them was not feeling well. They would not show it because they wanted us to be happy at all times.
The fairy story evenings were the happiest. My favourite Iintsomi was the one about Dema and Demazana, twins who were sent to their uncle’s house far from their home to collect mealies. Probably in the times of the amazimba aqumbu or swollen corn season.
The twins’ mother told them they would encounter a crossroad on the way. She said they should avoid taking the route to the left. Dema the boy and Demazana the girl set out. They had hardly left when they started arguing, like typical siblings, about which route to take. The boy insisted his mother had said they should take the right route because the one on the left was full of danger. Demazana was known for not listening to her brother or her mother. She defiantly told Dema that she would take the road to the left and they would meet at their uncle’s home. And so they took separate routes. When Dema arrived at kwa Malume, the uncle’s place, his aunt asked; “Where is your twin? You’re always together.”
The boy told his relatives what had happened. The family became worried and went back to look for Demazana.
Dema and Demazana had a song they loved. They sang it when they were together and they sang it when they were apart. The boy started singing the song, in the hope that he would find his sister. He sang:
“Demazana yho, Demazana ka mama ndivulele ndingene kwelo litye lintunja mbili”.
To this day I can remember my mother’s soft voice singing that song. It is still a very comforting memory.
There was no response to Dema’s singing. Now next to the river was a big Monster known as Izim. The Monster Izim desired the ability to sing just like the beautiful young Demazana, whose voice was as enchanting as her looks.
The monster Izim took the young girl to his place. He told her that she would be his wife. The girl cried and said she wanted to go home. But the monster threatened her that if she did not become his wife, he would swallow her and steal her beautiful voice.
Sometime later an old lady from the village went to the river to fetch water and heard the girl singing. But she could not see Demazana. All she could see was the house of Izim the monster across the river. By now Izim had swallowed Demazana for refusing to become his wife.
The old woman went back home with the water and called all the people of the village, telling them about what she heard. They all went down to the river and the twin brother started singing. His sister responded from deep inside the Monster. The people killed the monster and the girl came out. Everyone in the village was so happy and had a celebration.
The fire, the story and the soft singing of that special song meant some of us were asleep before the happy celebration. Now that I am older I realise the true value of our traditions and stories. It bound us together as a family. It defined us as a people.
The elders found it difficult to talk with us about sensitive things. Young girls approaching puberty should be extra careful to obey their elders because there are unscrupulous men who will harm you if you are unprotected and wandering around on your own.
Inyathi ibuzwa kwabaphambili… Wisdom is gained from the elders. Stories like the one about Dema and Demazana is not only part of our rich oral tradition but it is also an ancient way of passing on information and warnings. A way for the elders to address delicate matters like sexual predators without being too explicit and making us scared. The moral of the story of the twins became ever more clear as I got older.
My mother was not the only one taking responsibility for our education. My father taught us to respect and love our traditions. He would tell us the importance of our culture and how a young Xhosa girl should dress or behave. I remember him always saying:
“Intombazana ligugu lekhaya.” A girl is the pride and joy of the family. When he said these words it made me feel important and loved.
From early in the morning and with his pipe in his mouth he looked after his cattle, the Umhlambi, out in the veld. All my father’s cows had names and each animal was special to him. We had a horse that he loved so much. He called his horse “Ntabeziyoni”, the mountain of Zion. I don’t know why a horse would have such a holy, lofty name.
It was the best time of my life, growing up in a home that was fun, warmed by a wood fire and stories.
Our village Qumbu, close to the banks of the Tsitsa River, is in the Ngwemnyama Administration Areas in Gandana Location. It is where you will find mostly the Mpondomise people. I belong in the Ngxabane, Rhibela, and Bhabhanomhlehlo clan.
Living near to such a big river was exciting. The Tsitsa River is one of the biggest in the Eastern Cape and it runs across the N2 route. The Tsitsa falls attract tourists from all over the world.
I grew up in these valleys where the grass was green. We were surrounded with big trees that we climbed and listened to beautiful birds singing.
We used candles and paraffin lamps to light up our tiny home. My mother taught me and my eight sibblings how to be independent people. She showed the girls how to use cow dung to smear onto floors.
The floor of a traditional rondavel is finished with a dung mixture to make it hard and smooth. After cleaning the houses rural people spread cow dung paste on the floors. Recent research has proved that cow dung has the power to kill bacteria that are harmful for humans. Small insects like scorpions, centipedes etc don’t come near to the places that are coated with the paste, also a natural mosquito repellent. Our elders knew all this long before the scientists made their discoveries.
I trusted my parents’ teachings and knowledge. They taught me how one has to be strong and work hard in life. Oxhela eyakhe akabuzwa is an idiom that means those who work hard should not be questioned. You have to be able to stand strong on your own.
In my village we went to the river to fetch water every day after school. I walked with other girls from the village, singing songs and dancing on the way. Afterwards we would prepare food for the family.
My brothers had their tasks too. They had to use donkeys to help us carry the water home. After that they helped my father herd the cattle back home.
We were so happy doing everything together. The little money my parents could provide was enough for all our needs. Of course there were days when I cried. But I can’t recall that happening too often or that it was more serious than falling out of a tree or being upset by somebody taking something small that belonged to me.
I recall only joy and happiness on that dusty road to school every day. While the lintsomi ruled the roost at home, school was a place where we learnt about our heritage, “ukunyamezela”. I was taught different values that that I have carried with me all my life.
My Grade 3 teacher, Miss Songca, once said; “You have a big head, and that head is not just big, but full of intelligence. So use it and you will see where it will take you in life.”
She really kept me going and was such a good motivator. Looking back at those days, I smile and say to myself; “Growing up in a less privileged home does not mean you cannot be given a good education.”
Education was very important to my father who would say; “I never got a chance to go further with my studies, due to circumstances at home, but I want the best for my kids. The best I can give you is education, a weapon that no human being can take away from you.”
At that time I never really understood what he meant, but his words would always come back to me as I left home to study and work elsewhere with the weapons they gave me.
I sometimes think about those people who looked down on us in our rondavel with the cow dung floors. I’m sure they never thought that one day I would be a graduate. a professional pursuing my career in the city.
But deep down I know that the treasures of the lintsomi, the teachings about the crossroads in life and the warmth of my mother’s fireside singing hold more value than anything I could achieve here in Bloemfontein.