Never say never

In this NEW se­ries, fea­tur­ing Dr. Tlou Se­tumu’s works on our own his­tory, her­itage and cul­ture, this week the ex­cerpt is from Never Say Never, the biog­ra­phy of ra­dio per­son­al­ity, Max Mo­japelo.

African Times - - African History -

Tham­a­gana Maxwell Mo­japelo was born on the twenty-sixth of March, nine­teen fifty­one (26/03/1951) in a tiny ru­ral vil­lage at the foot of the Matome Moun­tain, in the Zebe­diela area. Named af­ter the moun­tain, the vil­lage is also known as Matome. He was the first-born child of Ranti Samuel Mo­japelo and Ng­wanale­taga Nelly Mo­japelo. Ini­tially he was named Thema, af­ter his pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, but when he be­came ill for a very long time, through the ad­vice of the el­ders his name was changed to Tham­a­gane (but came to be known as Tham­a­gana).

That was ac­cord­ing to an African be­lief where a child’s name was changed if it was found that he was un­com­fort­able with it. It was said, “o gana leina”. Tham­a­gana was later fol­lowed by a sis­ter, Mok­gadi (Martha), who un­for­tu­nately passed away at an early age. Later, Mam­paka (Ly­dia) and Ra­makanyane (Peter) were born to his par­ents.

In typ­i­cal African tra­di­tion Ranti, a cham­pion kiba dancer from his early days at Mo­d­u­ane in the Ga Dik­gale area, mar­ried his close rel­a­tive. This orig­i­nal African way of life pre­scribe that young men marry from their un­cles’ house­holds. This trend of mar­ry­ing one’s cousin or half-sis­ter was done for var­i­ous rea­sons. The ba­sic prin­ci­ple of this con­cept is em­bod­ied in the proverb, “Dik­gomo di boela šak­eng”, which lit­er­ary means that the ma­g­adi cat­tle price re­turn to the same fam­ily kraal, in­stead of go­ing to out­siders. This ar­range­ment was seen as ad­van­ta­geous, as the mar­ried cousins would have com­pas­sion for each other and would eas­ily for­give each other in times of con­flicts. Their par­ents would also be able to re­solve prob­lems of their mar­ried chil­dren eas­ily, as that would be a fam­ily af­fair. How­ever, be­fore Ng­wanale­taga, Ranti had mar­ried a Swazi woman, Mok­gadi, from the Dlamini fam­ily, with whom he had two sons.

Be­fore set­tling at Matome, the fam­i­lies of both Ranti and Ng­wanale­taga orig­i­nated from Ga Mmaboi in the Moth­iba’s kraal area, a few kilo­me­tres to the east of the town of Polok­wane. Ap­par­ently, the Mo­jape­los moved from Ga Mmaboi be­cause they could no longer “work for sleep­ing”, an ar­range­ment which was no­to­ri­ously known as “go šomela boroko”. This was a cruel ex­ploita­tion in which blacks worked for white farm­ers for ab­so­lutely noth­ing. Black fam­i­lies used to toil and labour in the burn­ing sun and cold win­ters do­ing heavy jobs for no pay.

The ac­tual founder of the Mo­japelo sec­tion was, re­port­edly, Nkhu­mane, whose break­away from the Kekanas, re­sulted in this group, which came to have lehlalerwa, a wild dog, as their totem. The name Mo­japelo it­self, lit­er­ally means one who eats a heart, and it came af­ter Nkhu­mane re­bel­liously ate the heart of an eland cooked for his fa­ther, Kgoši Mon­wana Kekana. Mon­wana was a new ruler who was still es­tab­lish­ing him­self and con­sol­i­dat­ing his power. There­fore, he took ex­cep­tion to the act and that even­tu­ally led to his son break­ing away from his fa­ther’s com­mu­nity.

Since then, the name of the one who ate the heart came to iden­tify Nkhu­mane and his fol­low­ers. Af­ter break­ing away, the new­ly­named Mo­japelo peo­ple un­der Nkhu­mane headed east­wards to Ga Mphahlele, but later crossed the moun­tain range and set­tled at Ga Mmaboi. The names Mmaboi and Nkhu­mane are still found in the Mo­japelo praise po­ems and these peo­ple are re­spect­fully re­ferred to as those of Mo­japelo ’a Nkhu­mane.

The move­ment of the Mo­jape­los back to the Zebe­diela area from the eastern side of Polok­wane was mainly caused by clashes with a neigh­bour­ing white farm­ers. Ac­cord­ing to Ng­wanale­taga, Tham­a­gana’s mother, it was the gen­er­a­tion of her fa­ther, Mmaboi Ra­makanyane Mo­japelo, which moved back to the Zebe­diela area.

Ng­wanale­taga her­self at­tended Ga Rakg­watha Pri­mary School where she did her Stan­dards Five and Six. Upon fin­ish­ing Stan­dard Six, which was at the time re­garded as the most se­nior class, she re­ceived her cer­tifi­cate and helped as a tem­po­rary teacher at Morotse vil­lage, Ga-Mphahlele. Af­ter mar­ry­ing Ranti Samuel Mo­japelo, Ng­wanale­taga mostly be­came a house­wife, whose ma­jor tasks in­cluded work­ing in the fields; grind­ing corn for meal; and look­ing af­ter cat­tle. Ranti worked at Mod­der­fontein Dy­na­mite Fac­tory (African Ex­plo­sives and Chem­i­cal In­dus­try) and due to the then en­trenched mi­grant labour sys­tem, he re­turned home af­ter ev­ery six years for a six-month’s leave. As a re­sult, she did most of the home tasks.

Tham­a­gana was about two years when his par­ents built their new home in 1953. Ac­cord­ing to Ng­wanale­taga, her first born child, Tham­a­gana, was not as fit and healthy as she would have liked. The child’s health came to be a source of con­cern to his par­ents. When a child is not in good health, we Africans be­lieve that “o a reka”, which means the child is “buy­ing the process of growth and devel­op­ment” such as teething, crawl­ing or stand­ing on his two legs. There­fore, the child’s ail­ments are pos­i­tively in­ter­preted rather than taken as life threat­ing. As such, when the child Tham­a­gana was ail­ing, his par­ents felt that he was go­ing through the nor­mal grow­ing changes.

But later Tham­a­gana’s health de­te­ri­o­rated. It was just when he started walk­ing on his own, that he be­came so sick that he re­verted to crawl­ing. This must have been a very trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence for the mother who watched her beloved first born child so helpless and weak. There were no nearby clin­ics at that time and the el­ders only said the child was suf­fer­ing from ‘hlog­wana’, lit­er­ally mean­ing “small head”. An African tra­di­tional healer rec­om­mended that his name, Thema be changed to Tham­a­gana.

Later the health of the young Tham­a­gana im­proved to such an ex­tent that he was able to start school at the lo­cal Matome Pri­mary School. In ad­di­tion to school­ing, the young boy was also able to en­gage in other boy­ish ac­tiv­i­ties like his peers. Even though his par­ents had moved to es­tab­lish their new home, the young Tham­a­gana con­tin­ued to help his ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents by look­ing af­ter their goats and calves. He was still too young to look af­ter the cat­tle.

In the morn­ing Tham­a­gana would go to school and in the af­ter­noon, take over the herd­ing of the goats and calves un­til he locked them up at his grand­par­ents’ home in the evening. He would then go to his par­ents’ home for the night, where he would get up in the morn­ing and again start his rou­tine. Ap­par­ently, he slept at his par­ents’ home be­cause it was nearer to the school than his grand­par­ents’ house­hold.

It was dur­ing those early school­ing and the look­ing af­ter goats and calves days that Tham­a­gana met Thebe Jo­hannes Se­gooa, who came to be his life­long com­pan­ion. From their first meet­ing, around the win­ter of 1956, Tham­a­gana and Thebe be­came in­sep­a­ra­ble. They be­came mon­wana le lenala or ntepa le lešago. The close­ness of those two boys was nat­u­ral be­cause they were rel­a­tives. Their grand­par­ents were re­lated. Se­condly, they stayed next to each other and there­fore met very of­ten. Thirdly, they were dithaka, which means they were more or less the same age. Fi­nally, they both looked af­ter the goats and calves of their re­spec­tive grand­par­ents.

While in the veld Tham­a­gana and Thebe would make toy “ve­hi­cles” by cut­ting corn reeds and dik­iti. They called their “ve­hi­cles” diphaphapha, be­cause of the kind of sound they made as thy rolled. They would also cut reeds, two of which they planted on the ground, put one across and com­peted in jump­ing over those reeds. They also carved small “oxen” out of the mmilo or mo­latswakaphala tree branches and made them “fight”. Each of them would hold his “ox” and pit them against each other. The “ox” of the boy with the stronger hand would win or the “ox” which broke its “horn” would be the loser.

One of the boys’ favourite ac­tiv­i­ties was milk­ing the goats and mak­ing ser­o­bela, which in other di­alects is called sankgahliša. This boy­ish yo­ghurt was pre­pared by mix­ing milk with wild fruits such as matšhidi, dithol­wana, marula or ma­bilo. The boys would take a small con­tainer such as a sar­dines’ tin, break one of the men­tioned fruits in that tin and mix it with the goat milk. Even though the boys en­joyed that light, tasty meal, they were al­ways wor­ried about the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing caught by the el­ders. Their par­ents ex­pected the goats to re­turn home and feed their kids with full ud­ders. As a re­sult, the boys strate­gi­cally chose goats with big ud­ders be­cause those with small ud­ders would read­ily re­veal the fact that they had been milked in the veld.

The young Tham­a­gana’s health was not ac­tu­ally sta­ble be­cause at one point he had to drop out of school. His com­pan­ion, Thebe, con­tin­ued but he missed Tham­a­gana. He could no longer walk with him to school, play with him or go into the veld with him. Even the teach­ers at Matome Pri­mary School were wor­ried by the drop­ping out of Tham­a­gana. Their teacher, Mr. Wal­ter Madisha was very con­cerned about the young boy’s poor health. Mr. Madisha was from Mo­let­lane vil­lage and later in life when Tham­a­gana was a teacher at Dit­sepu High School, Ga Maja he be­came his prin­ci­pal. The young boy slowly but surely re­cov­ered, re­sumed his du­ties and re-joined Thebe.

Al­though Tham­a­gana loved his school work and was en­thu­si­as­tic about songs, recitals and rhythms in his sub­ject con­tents, there was one thing he in­tensely dis­liked about school: hand­work. Yes, he strongly de­tested the ac­tiv­ity. Dur­ing those days school chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly boys, were ex­pected to use wood to carve all sorts of items such as maho, dif­fer­ent kinds of an­i­mals, birds and snakes. They were also ex­pected to use grass and sisal to weave mats, bas­kets and so on. Teach­ers were mer­ci­less when deal­ing with those who did not take hand­work se­ri­ously. The boys were given a se­vere lash­ing by their hand­work teacher if they failed to pro­duce items of the re­quired stan­dard. It was a bit un­fair be­cause if you were not nat­u­rally gifted in carv­ing or weav­ing, it was mis­tak­enly con­strued that you were lazy, care­less or stub­born.

In 1962 Tham­a­gana went through an im­por­tant African in­sti­tu­tion: ini­ti­a­tion. Ap­par­ently, the idea of go­ing to the moun­tain school was mas­ter­minded by his com­pan­ion, Thebe who was then out of for­mal school­ing be­cause of hand­work. The two boys felt that they were old enough and wanted to go to the moun­tain to fetch man­hood. They were sick and tired of be­ing boys. By the way, dur­ing those days you were not so­cially re­spected be­fore you “climbed the moun­tain”, hence you would be deroga­to­rily re­ferred to as lešoboro. So, go­ing to a moun­tain school was step­ping up to an­other rung of the so­cial lad­der – hence Tham­a­gana went for it. Dr. Tlou Se­tumu is Au­thor and Re­searcher of His­tory, Her­itage and Cul­ture. His books in­clude: Bi­ogra­phies of Bra Ike Maphoto, TT Cholo and Max Mo­japelo; His Story is His­tory; The Land Bought, the Land Never Sold; Ideas with no Space; Foot­steps of Our An­ces­tors; etc. Books are avail­able on www.mak-herp. co.za; and also in Polok­wane Aca­demic Book­shop (op­po­site CNA Check­ers Cen­tre); and Bud­get Book­shop (c/o Ris­sik and Lan­dros Mare Streets).

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