Revisiting a storied space
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.