The white man never learns
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.