The white man never learns

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Pub­lished by Umuzi 269 pages R230

The chiefs and el­ders were al­ready gath­ered out­side the Maclear Mag­is­tracy when Mhlontlo ar­rived ac­com­pa­nied by Gxumisa and Malan­gana. The lat­ter was there specif­i­cally to act as Mhlontlo’s in­ter­preter. The three men were on horse­back, with Mhlontlo rid­ing in the middle on Gcaz­im­bane. They were re­splen­dent in Euro­pean pants, rid­ing boots and white beaded blan­kets, and the two older men car­ried knobker­ries while Malan­gana car­ried an assegai and a shield, more as ac­cou­trements than as weapons of war.

De­spite the drought that the el­ders said was the worst in liv­ing mem­ory, the horses still looked fresh af­ter al­most two days on the hilly ter­rain from Su­lenkama to Maclear, a dis­tance of about forty-five miles. They had rested at each stream they crossed so that the beasts could drink and graze, and the men could nib­ble a bit on the iinkobe boiled sorghum ker­nels and sun-dried beef that they car­ried in their rock-rab­bit-skin bags as pro­vi­sion – thanks to Mhlontlo’s wife of the Iqadi House. Most streams had run dry, but the rid­ers moved on un­til they reached the ones that had some wa­ter.

‘The King of amaMpon­domise has ar­rived,’ an­nounced a po­lice­man.

Hamil­ton Hope glared at the po­lice­man. Mr Welsh, the mag­is­trate of Tsolo, smiled. He knew that Hope was very par­tic­u­lar on how the na­tive rulers were to be ad­dressed. They were chiefs and noth­ing more. At best they were paramount chiefs if they – like Mhlontlo – had other chiefs wing al­le­giance to them. They could not be kings or queens. There was only one Sov­er­eign, Her Majesty Queen Vic­to­ria. The na­tives ceased to be kings and queens when they were gra­ciously ush­ered into the civil­is­ing fold of the Bri­tish Em­pire. Mr Thomp­son, the mag­is­trate of Maclear and con­vener of this meet­ing, beck­oned Mhlontlo and in­di­cated that he should join the other el­ders seated on the ground in front of the mag­is­trates and their aides. There must have been a cou­ple of hun­dred men gath­ered that day, and Mhlontlo could see among them a num­ber of amaMpon­domise mil­i­tary lead­ers who had left Su­lenkama in the night and ar­rived at Maclear that morn­ing. They were there to bear wit­ness and to sup­port their king.

The three mag­is­trates, Welsh, Hope and Thomp­son, were sit­ting on the chairs, with the con­vener seated in the middle. A group of white men was stand­ing be­hind them, lean­ing against the sand­stone wall of the Mag­is­tracy. Malan­gana could recog­nise three of them: War­ren, Hen­man and Davis. War­ren was a Cap­tain in the Cape Mounted Ri­fle­men and Hen­man was a clerk of the res­i­dent mag­is­trate of Mthatha cur­rently sec­onded to Hope. Davis was also a Cap­tain in the Cape Mounted Ri­fle­men and Ad­ju­tant in Qumbu. He was known as Sun­duza among amaMpon­domise and was pop­u­lar mostly be­cause his brother was a highly re­garded mis­sion­ary based at Shaw­bury Mis­sion, but also be­cause he spoke isiMpon­domise as if he had suck­led it at his mother’s breast. That was al­most the case be­cause, from the time he was a baby, he was brought up by amaMpon­domise nan­nies and grew up play­ing with na­tive chil­dren. He there­fore spoke the lan­guage of the black peo­ple long be­fore he could mas­ter his mother tongue.

Malan­gana got to know th­ese men when he was a pris­oner. From Sun­duza, par­tic­u­larly, he had learned what he knew of the English lan­guage. the co­op­er­a­tion of the na­tives, they in­dulged them.

‘I greet you all, chil­dren of abaMbo. I am Mhlontlo, King of amaMpon­domise,’ he said in a singsong voice. His body moved rhyth­mi­cally and he gen­tly hit his open palm with his knobker­rie as he men­tioned the name of each an­ces­tor. ‘I de­scend from Sibi­side who led abaMbo from the land of the blue lakes. Sibi­side be­got Njanya, Dlamini and Mkhize. Dlamini is the one who founded amaSwati peo­ple; Mkhize is the father of those who later merged into a na­tion that be­came known as amaZulu. Njanya be­got the twins Mpondo and Mpon­domise, and Xe­sibe. Mpondo branched off to found his own na­tion called amaMpondo and Xe­sibe orig­i­nated amaXe­sibe. Mpon­domise es­tab­lished amaMpon­domise.’

‘I’m sure your fel­low chiefs know all those sto­ries al­ready,’ in­ter­rupted Thomp­son. ‘We don’t have all day.’

You don’t in­ter­rupt a man in the middle of recit­ing his ge­neal­ogy. Malan­gana shook his head; the white man never learns. Mhlontlo ig­nored Thomp­son and con­tin­ued. ‘Mpon­domise be­got Ntose, and Ntose be­got Ngcwina. Ngcwina be­got Dosini, Ngqukatha and Gcaka from the Great House, and Nx­otwe from the Right­hand House. Ngcwina also be­got Cirha from the Iqadi House, and that was where the dust-storm be­gan. Cirha’s mother was a Bush­man woman, Manxan­gashe, yet still Ngcwina in­sisted that he be the heir to the throne even though he was from a ju­nior house. Ngcwina felt that the right­ful heir, Dosini, was an im­be­cile who would dis­grace the throne. It is where our praise-name, Thole loMth­wakazi, be­gan.’

Thomp­son was los­ing his cool; the meet­ing should have started al­ready. He was about to in­ter­rupt with much firm­ness this time, but Welsh stopped him.

‘We need the na­tives’ co­op­er­a­tion,’ he said to Thomp­son be­tween his teeth. ‘Let’s show them that we re­spect their pro­to­col. It’s a small price to pay.’

‘Cirha be­got Mhle,’ con­tin­ued Mhlontlo. ‘Mhle be­got Sabe. Sabe be­got Qengebe. Qengebe be­got Ma­jola, the one who was born with the snake, set­ting a tra­di­tion of snake vis­its to all ba­bies de­scend­ing from him. Ma­jola be­got Ng­wanya. Ng­wanya be­got Phahlo. Phahlo be­got Ng­cambe, Ng­cambe be­got Myeki. Myeki be­got Mati­wane. I, Mhlontlo, am of Mati­wane’s tes­ti­cle.’

There was si­lence for a while, as if the men were di­gest­ing the four hun­dred years of beget­ting.

To the white men whose pa­tience had been taxed, this was just a litany of names that meant noth­ing, but to the del­e­gates sit­ting on the ground, as Sun­duza was at pains to ex­plain to the mag­is­trates and their aides, they were stowage of mem­ory. Each name con­nected to a story of hero­ism or vil­lainy, once told by bards at the fire­side or at spe­cial cer­e­monies. In­deed, some of the peo­ple on the ground found some of the names link­ing snugly in the chain of their own an­ces­tries. That’s how his­tory was pre­served and trans­mit­ted to the next gen­er­a­tions – through the recita­tion of ge­nealo­gies and of pan­e­gyrics. […]

Malan­gana’s mind wan­dered to his own Mth­wakazi. That was how he thought of her. As his own. Even though noth­ing had hap­pened be­tween them in the twenty-two days since they ar­gued about the num­ber of suns in the heav­ens.

He had been count­ing as each day passed very slowly and his yearn­ing mounted. He was seen loi­ter­ing out­side the Great House at the Great Place. No one sus­pected that Mth­wakazi was the ob­ject of his de­sire. Usu­ally when he went to the Great Place it was for Gcaz­im­bane. And in­deed Gcaz­im­bane be­came his ex­cuse for dawdling around. Even when he was groom­ing the horse at the kraal his eyes kept dart­ing to the path that led to the Great House.

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