Never say never
In this NEW series, featuring Dr. Tlou Setumu’s works on our own history, heritage and culture, this week the excerpt is from Never Say Never, the biography of radio personality, Max Mojapelo.
Thamagana Maxwell Mojapelo was born on the twenty-sixth of March, nineteen fiftyone (26/03/1951) in a tiny rural village at the foot of the Matome Mountain, in the Zebediela area. Named after the mountain, the village is also known as Matome. He was the first-born child of Ranti Samuel Mojapelo and Ngwanaletaga Nelly Mojapelo. Initially he was named Thema, after his paternal grandfather, but when he became ill for a very long time, through the advice of the elders his name was changed to Thamagane (but came to be known as Thamagana).
That was according to an African belief where a child’s name was changed if it was found that he was uncomfortable with it. It was said, “o gana leina”. Thamagana was later followed by a sister, Mokgadi (Martha), who unfortunately passed away at an early age. Later, Mampaka (Lydia) and Ramakanyane (Peter) were born to his parents.
In typical African tradition Ranti, a champion kiba dancer from his early days at Moduane in the Ga Dikgale area, married his close relative. This original African way of life prescribe that young men marry from their uncles’ households. This trend of marrying one’s cousin or half-sister was done for various reasons. The basic principle of this concept is embodied in the proverb, “Dikgomo di boela šakeng”, which literary means that the magadi cattle price return to the same family kraal, instead of going to outsiders. This arrangement was seen as advantageous, as the married cousins would have compassion for each other and would easily forgive each other in times of conflicts. Their parents would also be able to resolve problems of their married children easily, as that would be a family affair. However, before Ngwanaletaga, Ranti had married a Swazi woman, Mokgadi, from the Dlamini family, with whom he had two sons.
Before settling at Matome, the families of both Ranti and Ngwanaletaga originated from Ga Mmaboi in the Mothiba’s kraal area, a few kilometres to the east of the town of Polokwane. Apparently, the Mojapelos moved from Ga Mmaboi because they could no longer “work for sleeping”, an arrangement which was notoriously known as “go šomela boroko”. This was a cruel exploitation in which blacks worked for white farmers for absolutely nothing. Black families used to toil and labour in the burning sun and cold winters doing heavy jobs for no pay.
The actual founder of the Mojapelo section was, reportedly, Nkhumane, whose breakaway from the Kekanas, resulted in this group, which came to have lehlalerwa, a wild dog, as their totem. The name Mojapelo itself, literally means one who eats a heart, and it came after Nkhumane rebelliously ate the heart of an eland cooked for his father, Kgoši Monwana Kekana. Monwana was a new ruler who was still establishing himself and consolidating his power. Therefore, he took exception to the act and that eventually led to his son breaking away from his father’s community.
Since then, the name of the one who ate the heart came to identify Nkhumane and his followers. After breaking away, the newlynamed Mojapelo people under Nkhumane headed eastwards to Ga Mphahlele, but later crossed the mountain range and settled at Ga Mmaboi. The names Mmaboi and Nkhumane are still found in the Mojapelo praise poems and these people are respectfully referred to as those of Mojapelo ’a Nkhumane.
The movement of the Mojapelos back to the Zebediela area from the eastern side of Polokwane was mainly caused by clashes with a neighbouring white farmers. According to Ngwanaletaga, Thamagana’s mother, it was the generation of her father, Mmaboi Ramakanyane Mojapelo, which moved back to the Zebediela area.
Ngwanaletaga herself attended Ga Rakgwatha Primary School where she did her Standards Five and Six. Upon finishing Standard Six, which was at the time regarded as the most senior class, she received her certificate and helped as a temporary teacher at Morotse village, Ga-Mphahlele. After marrying Ranti Samuel Mojapelo, Ngwanaletaga mostly became a housewife, whose major tasks included working in the fields; grinding corn for meal; and looking after cattle. Ranti worked at Modderfontein Dynamite Factory (African Explosives and Chemical Industry) and due to the then entrenched migrant labour system, he returned home after every six years for a six-month’s leave. As a result, she did most of the home tasks.
Thamagana was about two years when his parents built their new home in 1953. According to Ngwanaletaga, her first born child, Thamagana, was not as fit and healthy as she would have liked. The child’s health came to be a source of concern to his parents. When a child is not in good health, we Africans believe that “o a reka”, which means the child is “buying the process of growth and development” such as teething, crawling or standing on his two legs. Therefore, the child’s ailments are positively interpreted rather than taken as life threating. As such, when the child Thamagana was ailing, his parents felt that he was going through the normal growing changes.
But later Thamagana’s health deteriorated. It was just when he started walking on his own, that he became so sick that he reverted to crawling. This must have been a very traumatic experience for the mother who watched her beloved first born child so helpless and weak. There were no nearby clinics at that time and the elders only said the child was suffering from ‘hlogwana’, literally meaning “small head”. An African traditional healer recommended that his name, Thema be changed to Thamagana.
Later the health of the young Thamagana improved to such an extent that he was able to start school at the local Matome Primary School. In addition to schooling, the young boy was also able to engage in other boyish activities like his peers. Even though his parents had moved to establish their new home, the young Thamagana continued to help his maternal grandparents by looking after their goats and calves. He was still too young to look after the cattle.
In the morning Thamagana would go to school and in the afternoon, take over the herding of the goats and calves until he locked them up at his grandparents’ home in the evening. He would then go to his parents’ home for the night, where he would get up in the morning and again start his routine. Apparently, he slept at his parents’ home because it was nearer to the school than his grandparents’ household.
It was during those early schooling and the looking after goats and calves days that Thamagana met Thebe Johannes Segooa, who came to be his lifelong companion. From their first meeting, around the winter of 1956, Thamagana and Thebe became inseparable. They became monwana le lenala or ntepa le lešago. The closeness of those two boys was natural because they were relatives. Their grandparents were related. Secondly, they stayed next to each other and therefore met very often. Thirdly, they were dithaka, which means they were more or less the same age. Finally, they both looked after the goats and calves of their respective grandparents.
While in the veld Thamagana and Thebe would make toy “vehicles” by cutting corn reeds and dikiti. They called their “vehicles” diphaphapha, because of the kind of sound they made as thy rolled. They would also cut reeds, two of which they planted on the ground, put one across and competed in jumping over those reeds. They also carved small “oxen” out of the mmilo or molatswakaphala tree branches and made them “fight”. Each of them would hold his “ox” and pit them against each other. The “ox” of the boy with the stronger hand would win or the “ox” which broke its “horn” would be the loser.
One of the boys’ favourite activities was milking the goats and making serobela, which in other dialects is called sankgahliša. This boyish yoghurt was prepared by mixing milk with wild fruits such as matšhidi, ditholwana, marula or mabilo. The boys would take a small container such as a sardines’ tin, break one of the mentioned fruits in that tin and mix it with the goat milk. Even though the boys enjoyed that light, tasty meal, they were always worried about the possibility of being caught by the elders. Their parents expected the goats to return home and feed their kids with full udders. As a result, the boys strategically chose goats with big udders because those with small udders would readily reveal the fact that they had been milked in the veld.
The young Thamagana’s health was not actually stable because at one point he had to drop out of school. His companion, Thebe, continued but he missed Thamagana. He could no longer walk with him to school, play with him or go into the veld with him. Even the teachers at Matome Primary School were worried by the dropping out of Thamagana. Their teacher, Mr. Walter Madisha was very concerned about the young boy’s poor health. Mr. Madisha was from Moletlane village and later in life when Thamagana was a teacher at Ditsepu High School, Ga Maja he became his principal. The young boy slowly but surely recovered, resumed his duties and re-joined Thebe.
Although Thamagana loved his school work and was enthusiastic about songs, recitals and rhythms in his subject contents, there was one thing he intensely disliked about school: handwork. Yes, he strongly detested the activity. During those days school children, particularly boys, were expected to use wood to carve all sorts of items such as maho, different kinds of animals, birds and snakes. They were also expected to use grass and sisal to weave mats, baskets and so on. Teachers were merciless when dealing with those who did not take handwork seriously. The boys were given a severe lashing by their handwork teacher if they failed to produce items of the required standard. It was a bit unfair because if you were not naturally gifted in carving or weaving, it was mistakenly construed that you were lazy, careless or stubborn.
In 1962 Thamagana went through an important African institution: initiation. Apparently, the idea of going to the mountain school was masterminded by his companion, Thebe who was then out of formal schooling because of handwork. The two boys felt that they were old enough and wanted to go to the mountain to fetch manhood. They were sick and tired of being boys. By the way, during those days you were not socially respected before you “climbed the mountain”, hence you would be derogatorily referred to as lešoboro. So, going to a mountain school was stepping up to another rung of the social ladder – hence Thamagana went for it. Dr. Tlou Setumu is Author and Researcher of History, Heritage and Culture. His books include: Biographies of Bra Ike Maphoto, TT Cholo and Max Mojapelo; His Story is History; The Land Bought, the Land Never Sold; Ideas with no Space; Footsteps of Our Ancestors; etc. Books are available on www.mak-herp. co.za; and also in Polokwane Academic Bookshop (opposite CNA Checkers Centre); and Budget Bookshop (c/o Rissik and Landros Mare Streets).