Re­vis­it­ing a sto­ried space

CityPress - - Voices - Jab­u­lani Sikhakhane voices@city­

Iwas re­united with a child­hood friend last Novem­ber. We had last seen each other in 1974. I was nine years old then and in Stan­dard 3 in Corn­fields, my home vil­lage north­east of Est­court in KwaZulu-Na­tal. Back then, we didn’t scru­ti­nise a friend’s back­ground that much; we just en­joyed each other’s com­pany. So I knew very lit­tle whence my friend came. It was after our re­u­nion at a Dur­ban book shop that I learnt of his English parent­age.

Born in 1939 of Geral­dine El­liot, his orig­i­nal name is The Long Grass Whis­pers.

El­liot and her hus­band, Humphrey Bing­ham, lived in cen­tral and north­ern prov­inces of Malawi, where Humphrey worked for the colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tion. There El­liot was drawn into African cul­ture, specif­i­cally the lo­cals’ folk tales. The first com­pi­la­tion of these, New Tales for Old, was pub­lished in 1933.

Whis­pers came about six years later and was adopted by Sa­muel Wil­liam Zulu, who chris­tened him Kun­yenyeza Esikhotheni (which, loosely trans­lated, means Whis­per­ing in the Long Grass) and im­mersed him in ev­ery­thing Zulu. I have scoured the in­ter­net for Mr Zulu’s back­ground, but noth­ing turned up.

Whis­pers first made his en­try on the lo­cal cir­cuit in 1953 and has been a reg­u­lar ever since. As part of his adopted isiZulu iden­tity, he be­came ab­sorbed into the Masi­ham­bisane (mean­ing, let’s walk to­gether) series of isiZulu lit­er­a­ture we read at school.

In re­cent years, he was re­pub­lished as part of the Reprint of South African Clas­sics Project ini­ti­ated by the depart­ment of arts and cul­ture and the Na­tional Li­brary of SA.

I would not have as­so­ci­ated Whis­pers with the English; he has al­ways been too pure to be any­thing but Zulu. But know­ing what I do now about my erst­while friend’s his­tory, I un­der­stand why he took so well to be­ing Zulu. This is not meant to take away from the hard work Mr Zulu put into rais­ing Whis­pers.

My friend has roots that go back to the Nguni peo­ple. The Ngu­nis spread through­out south­ern Africa dur­ing Mfe­cane, the great dis­place­ment and mi­gra­tion of peo­ple trig­gered by King Shaka’s con­sol­i­da­tion of what would be­come the en­larged Zulu king­dom.

When some oc­cu­pied parts of Malawi, Mozam­bique and Tan­za­nia, they be­came known as the Ngo­nis.

Whis­pers says he car­ries forth the folk tales the Ngoni peo­ple told, no doubt tales they mi­grated with from Zu­l­u­land.

The re­u­nion with Whis­pers also re­minded me of my meet­ing in Wash­ing­ton, DC, with Goodall Ed­ward Gondwe in the late 1990s.

A Malaw­ian econ­o­mist, Gondwe was then a di­rec­tor of the Africa di­vi­sion of the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund. He sub­se­quently re­turned to Malawi and is cur­rently do­ing his sec­ond stint as fi­nance min­is­ter.

On hear­ing I was from KwaZulu-Na­tal, Mr Gondwe in­vited me to his res­i­dence for din­ner. He in­tro­duced me to his fam­ily, telling them a Zulu was in the house. He then re­galed me with sto­ries of how Zu­lus had ar­rived in Malawi in the first half of the 19th cen­tury and beaten up the in­dige­nous peo­ple. We had a good laugh about it.

I won­der how Mr Gondwe re­acted when he heard Pres­i­dent Jacob Zuma remark about the state of Malawi’s roads. He prob­a­bly laughed out loud, say­ing to him­self: “These Zulu peo­ple.”

Reread­ing Whis­pers re­minded me so much of the lyrics of that beau­ti­ful Amer­i­can tune Old Folks: “In the evenings after sup­per What sto­ries he tells... Some day there will be no more old folks What a lonely old world this will be.” And what beau­ti­ful sto­ries Whis­pers tells. Of Kalulu (uKhalulu in isiZulu), the wise rab­bit who tricked and cap­tured Gondwa, the iguana who had put up a sack of beans as re­ward to any an­i­mal which cap­tured him. Then there’s Fisi, the greedy hyena (Imp­isi ey­isid­lakudla) who squeezed it­self into the chicken coop but whose ap­petite turned out to be far big­ger than the es­cape gap in the coop’s wall.

What a lonely four decades it has been with­out the plea­sure of your com­pany, Whis­pers, my dear old friend.

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