MY ZULU MADE IT
Sisonke Msimang’s memorable pap moment
I tell Mummy and Baba I am not feeling well but the truth is my rage will not allow me to sit at the table and pretend this house isn’t haunted by the ghosts of colonialists
I head home for the summer holidays. I am looking forward to seeing everyone — especially my sisters Mandla and Zeng. But I am also anxious about how I will manage my emotions. America has emboldened me and quickened my temper. I have no time for racists — indeed, my identity now hinges on this impatience. Before everything else, I am black and I have little energy for those who don’t understand or respect that. Over the course of the past semester I have done a lot of soul searching. I love my parents but I am convinced they simply don’t understand race and racism. They continue to be naive, to have hope in people and systems that have never been concerned about the wellbeing of black people. I anticipate the trip will be frustrating in many ways. Mandla has started her studies at Cornell University in New York state and we talk on the phone every week. Mummy and Baba and Zeng are living in La Lucia. Their neighbours are all white. Their house has a tiny sliver of a view to the ocean. Mummy is working and so is Baba and Zeng is enrolled in a prestigious girls’ school in the city, where her uniform includes a bonnet. The bonnet — indeed, the entire uniform — is ridiculous and colonial and emblematic of the enduring character of the strange new society into which we have just been transplanted. I am unbearable. I brandish my new radical politics like a sword. I am impatient with Mummy and Baba, and I have absolutely no time for whites.
Mummy takes deep breaths and tries to ignore me. My sisters treat me with a combination of awe and amusement. I am both hilarious and utterly mad.
In the aftermath of Uncle Chris [Hani]’s death a timetable has been put in place for the transition to be finalised. Elections have been scheduled. So, here we are, together for the first time in a while, in South Africa, on the eve of liberation.
Mummy and Baba want us to understand the history and geography of our new country and to understand the clashes between the British, the Boers and the Zulus in particular. They want us to be familiar with the Battle of Isandlwana and the Battle of Blood River and to have an image in our minds of how they played out on the landscape itself. For us to face the future, they want us to know our history.
So Mummy plans a family holiday in the Drakensberg. We load into the car. The three of us are in the back seat, crammed in. I am in a mood. I get why they want us to do this, but I am not so convinced of the modus operandi.
I ask Mummy what we will do if the white owners of the guesthouses she has booked don’t let us sleep on their sheets and in their beds. Mummy is irritated.
She takes the bait. “Stop it Sonke. This attitude is too much now. This racism thing is an obsession. We didn’t send you to America to develop an attitude problem.” I am in no mood to be lectured about racism. “It’s not an attitude Mummy, it’s just the facts. We can’t wish racism away, and we can’t pretend these people are just going to change overnight, so I’m just saying if we are going to be sleeping in their houses we should be aware they might not want us there.”
Mummy has created a file with brochures and details about the trip. At the top there is a flyer for the first place we will stay, a farmhouse called Penny Farthing. I flick through it, looking for more ammunition. “So we’re staying at Penny Farthing. What does ‘penny farthing’ mean any way?” I ask. Scorn drips from my mouth. “It sounds extremely colonial.” Baba explains that a farthing is a British coin from a long time ago. “Classic,” I retort. “This is going to be interesting.”
I read the brochure aloud, informing the family in my best David Attenborough voice that the farm is “three thousand hectares, strategically placed near the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields — near Rorke’s Drift, Isandlwana and Blood River.” Hmmn. “The owners have been on the property since 1847,” I add with a flourish.
I am disgusted. “White people steal our land and decimate our people and we go and sleep in their houses?” “Decimate” is a word I use often. Baba is slightly amused by my disgust. “The Zulu were never decimated,” he says. “They routed us, but ‘decimated’ would imply we were virtually extinguished. That was certainly the experience of the San but it wasn’t the case with the Zulu nation. If you are going to be angry, that is one thing, but do so on the basis of facts,” he says. Mandla and Zeng are tense, sensing a serious confrontation looming. This is a mere technicality but I bite my tongue. I judge Baba silently, but I am still African child enough to hold my fire when it comes to my father.
We pull up to the house after the long drive from Durban and the old woman who comes out to greet us seems both pleased to see us and slightly bewildered. She is faced with an African family of five. Three tall teenage girls, a short mother and an imposing father.
Immediately, Mummy charms the old lady with some little chatter about the drive. Baba impresses her with his knowledge of the region. The three of us are gangly and quiet — but we greet her politely and in impeccable English so she seems pleased. She walks us into the house and shows us around wearing an air of indulgent befuddlement.
We settle into our rooms and rest a bit before dinner. Over dinner I am surly and I excuse myself early. I tell Mummy and Baba I am not feeling well but the truth is my rage will not allow me to sit at the table with the other guests and pretend this house isn’t haunted by the ghosts of colonialists. In the morning I am ravenous so there is no avoiding breakfast. We sit at the table and the smell of mdogo wafts through the house. My favourite — sour porridge. I dig in. “You are enjoying your porridge young lady?” says our host. “I am,” I say. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it? My Zulu made it.” I am stunned. Mummy and Baba are stunned. Mandla and Zeng are stunned. I put my spoon down. “Who made it?” I ask, giving her a chance to self-correct. “My Zulu made it,” she says, oblivious to her racism. “Is she yours?” I begin to ask. “Like, as in, you own —” Mummy cuts me off. “Sonke . . .” she warns. I look from her face to Baba’s. He looks amused — as if he is prepared to let the chips fall where they may.
I decide to go for it. Mummy’s warning lingers in the air, though; it has succeeded in slowing me down. “I am just wondering,” I continue, “whether she has a name. The person who makes the porridge. Because she isn’t your Zulu. She is a person.”
A Zulu to cook us porridge
I am angry that I have not been direct enough. If I were at school, in Minnesota with my friends, cloaked in the anonymity of not having Mummy and Baba around, I would simply say, “This is racist bullshit.”
But I am not in Minnesota. I am in South Africa and my parents are watching me so I go easy on the old lady and berate myself internally for it. She does not see it the same way. “Yes I know she has a name but there is nothing wrong with me calling her my Zulu. That is what we do here and nobody minds.” “How do you know?” I am seething now. “No one has ever said a word about it,” she continues blithely. “Well that’s that then,” I say evenly. I look at her with contempt. She looks slightly scared, though she isn’t sure why she is scared. The table is silent for a long uncomfortable moment. No one chews or swallows. We do not touch our food. Mummy breaks the silence. “Well, I think it’s time for us to start our day,” she says in an upbeat and cheery way. “We have a lot of walking to do today.”
The old lady’s Zulu bustles in the background, collecting plates and washing dishes.
We gather our things from the bedrooms. We load them into the car in silence. We get in the car and Baba drives. We sit in silence.
Finally Baba says, “We shall have to make sure there is a Zulu to cook us some porridge at the next place we stay, guys.” We burst into laughter — relieved and angry all at once. ‘Wowowowowow,’ says Mandla, deadpan but with characteristic wryness. “Wow,” agrees Mummy — also deadpan. “Wow,” says Zeng. “Wow,” I add. “What a wow,” says Baba. We drive to the battlefield of Rorke’s Drift, to hear about how our people fought bravely but were defeated.
A future she no longer understands
. . . Years later, I discover a penny-farthing is an odd-shaped bike — the ones with an enormous front wheel and a tiny rear one. I google it and Wikipedia throws me a gem: “An attribute of the penny-farthing is that the rider sits high and nearly over the front axle. When the wheel strikes rocks and ruts, or under hard braking, the rider can be pitched forward off the bicycle head-first. Headers were relatively common and a significant, sometimes fatal, hazard.”
I wish I had known then — I would have had even more biting fodder for Mummy. With the passage of time and everything I now know about what South Africa has become, it seems apt that our attempt to get to know our history better was launched in a farmhouse named after an obsolete British invention.
I imagine the old lady as she was 20 years ago. In my daydream, instead of riding in a bakkie in keeping with her local circumstances, she is sitting atop a high-wheeler bicycle. She is bumping along, propelling herself towards a future in which she no longer understands the landscape. She rides over the fields where Zulu fought Brit and lost. Suddenly she looks down and realises she is riding over the bones of the dead. She loses control. The penny-farthing begins a slow sideways fall. In the process she is hurled off it and into the air. I see her frail frame suspended mid-flight — a grey blot in a blue Midlands sky. Can you see her? She is up in the air like so many of her time and her generation. If you listen closely, you may just hear her calling out for her Zulu.