Black Induna – the last week

KwaZulu-Natal. Where my journey started, it ended. This was the most challenging province, because I know so many people here. It was imposs-ible, for example, to be in Zululand and not pop in for a visit at Rhino River Lodge. I had left this tranquil bush setting 343 days ago and collected so many stories that I was brimful. So much so, that I didn’t really know how to unpack my own emotions.

Thabi is not there any more. Engaged to be married, she is at home now, preparing for her wedding. Miriam, Ntombifuthi, Pretty, Hlengiwe, Lindiwe and I get a chance to reconnect before the place fills up for the weekend. In the end I stay for three nights, during which time we play ball in the pool, have a bit of a cook-off with pap, warthog and chicken, and I get the chance to share some of the embroidery skills I picked up in Dirkiesdorp.

When I share with them my plan to explore the Lebombo Mountains next, a region so remote there must be people there who’ve never once left their patch of ground, they are all a bit worried. A collective decision is made that I should go and stay with Lindiwe’s family. Her father is an induna. I’ve not stayed with an induna or any tribal leader before and am immediately captivated by the idea. This will give me a much better understanding of Zulu culture.

The next day I head to eZimbidleni and get a lift to ‘The Baobab’, a local landmark. Before I have walked very far another vehicle stops to pick me up. Even though I explain that I can’t pay for the fare, the back of the canopy is opened for me and I’m on my way to Mkuze.

When I get there my phone rings. It’s Lindiwe telling me where I can find her brother, Sbu, who has come to town for supplies and has brought what seems like half the village with him. We pile into the back of the dilapidated vehicle, but Sbu insists that I sit in the front with him and another passenger. It’s quite a squeeze and I pray that the passenger door, against which I am tightly jammed, doesn’t fall off. I reassure myself that at least we’re crawling along at less than twenty kilometres an hour. But that’s a random guess, because the speedometer is broken.

We only suffer one puncture on the way up a hill that rises forever, as if it were trying to reach the clouds. When we finally get to the top I see a number of villages spread across a plateau. Before I am taken to the induna’s home we stop to drop off some goods at a spaza shop. I get out to stretch my legs and the next minute I hear excited singing. It comes from a man who stops in front of me, starts talking animatedly and then drops to his knees and begins singing again. Sbu bursts out laughing, ‘You’ve just been proposed to!’

At that the man starts chanting in English, ‘Marry me! Marry me!’

I politely decline amid laughter from everyone around us.

Having escaped from becoming a more permanent resident I am taken to the Nkosi homestead, where I meet Lindiwe’s eldest sister, Hlengiwe. Tall and proud, she takes me to the mud hut where I will be staying to drop off my backpack. The inside of the hut has been plastered and painted a blue that reminds me of an African sunset. The linen and curtains are pink floral and there is a Christmas tree. It is October.

By now it is late afternoon and the air is thick with the smell of wood fires. Hlengiwe takes me to meet the rest of the family in the kitchen of the main house. I see people piped into and onto every conceivable surface, step inside and say, ‘Sawubona.’ Some of them start addressing me in isiZulu, but it all goes over my head. Fortunately Hlengiwe speaks English.

I am shown to a chair at the kitchen table. As I sit down, an umfaan arrives, panting, with a packet of biscuits and a litre of Fanta grape. Hlengiwe empties the cookies onto a plate, and places it, together with a glass jug, one glass and the cold drink, under a pink food net. It is for me. All for me. For one person in a room full of people. This is hard to accept, especially when I look at the faces of the children.

The induna returns home after a day of community business. We do not have a language in common, so we just shake hands and I watch the other women in the room and try to emulate their behaviour.

After dinner what seems like the entire village arrives. Hlengiwe tells me that the villagers have decided to honour my arrival with traditional dancing. Chairs arrive for the induna, the elders and me. It is dark already and a few men push-start a bakkie, so that its headlights can light up the performance.

First up is a group of adult men. They sit on their haunches while a drum is beaten. The gentle, steady beat gradually builds to notes high with expectation. And then, suddenly, the men leap into action. This dance is called indlamu and is usually performed in traditional clothing made of skins and with shields. It is a warriors’ dance where the men take turns to lift their legs as high as they can into the air, before stamping their feet down hard. Hlengiwe explains that it is not a war dance though, it is a welcome dance.

The men are followed by the young boys who clearly have a competitive streak and try to outdance them and each other. When the girls begin I decide to thank the community by joining them. This is obviously unexpected and there is much laughter and ululating. I watch the girls and try to copy their movements, only to be teased later that I dance like a boy. When the drums stop the drummer is shiny with perspiration. I see the contentment that this dancing ritual has brought to the participants and the audience. And I feel it deep within me, too.

I left the Nkosis after a few wonderful days in the same manner in which I arrived – in a bakkie. It had been raining and the journey back to Mkuze was an adventurous one. We slipped and slid down the Lebombo’s spine, all the while picking up or dropping off passengers as we headed for the main road. Back in Mkuze I called Thabi. My journey, in many ways, had started with her. I sensed that the end was in sight. It was time to make my way home.