I don’t know why but the December holiday period tends to fill me with nostalgia. I look back at great Christmases past but also at the irreplaceable part of my youth growing up in the village. It’s very funny how I have grown up to make peace with the fact that I grew up in a rural village. Back in the day, being a village boy was an unpardonable sin in urban South Africa.
But times have changed, so much that those without a village background are now looked at the same way we look at snakes in the city: “where the hell do you come from?” So Yes, I’m proud of my village roots and the contribution the village made to my being. Elim
. That’s where I spent the first twelve years of my life before boarding school introduced me to electricity and showers. But the most revolutionary thing that boarding school introduced to a lot of us village bumpkins was tap water, inside the house.
No longer would we have to carry 20litre canisters down to the river and back up just to have a bath. We had water, inside. With basins and all. Damn. And wait for this one. It was goodbye the long-drop toilet. Now, for those not familiar with this form of ablutions, the idea was quite simple. Dig a deep hole in the ground: build a toilet seat over the hole and erect a suitable structure over this and voila, you a have yourself a nun-flush toilet for the next few years, depending on family size(and of course meal size and frequency). This structure deserves a blog in itself and I was reminded recently of the goings-on inside the long-drop toilet by a well-told tale of a facebook friend about his experiences with the long-drop.
There must have been a great deal of good vibes in the village for it to be the place of refuge for my mind whenever we approach these holidays. Our village, before the introduction of ‘locations’ was your typical rural African village. Everything was done in slow motion, almost. You never rushed anywhere. If you wanted to get anywhere on time, you left early. None of this ‘put the foot down’ nonsense because you’re running late. Running late was not even an option.
The only thing you could be late for in the village was school. See, your typical village had just one or two schools. The result was 80% of the students came from outside a 5km radius of the school. Depending on weather conditions, late-coming was acceptable. In extreme cases, those that had to go across a river were excused from coming to school on days that the river was swollen.
But you just never had an adult say I was late for church, a funeral, work. No. Waking up early was part of the village’s DNA. It was part of how things were done. You can imagine the cultural shock to my system when I discovered one could run late for things. But I adapted and before I knew it I too could play my part in being late. So much so that in the very few cases that a lady friend has looked me in the eye and blurted Ím late”, I have a standard answer that is rooted back in my village days: It’s not me(mine). I don’t understand why I’m usually the only one laughing at the joke.
Anyways, a boy growing up in the village and not herding some sort of animals was just unacceptable. If your family had none you found a way to help friends herd their own cattle or goats. The experience of being out in the bushes and fending for yourself is one I can never forget. It was just accepted that once you are out there you would find a way to take care of yourself when it came to food. Not that you were not allowed to go back home and eat, you were. But we just got so wrapped up in whatever we did out there that going back home to eat was a huge inconvenience.
Also you forgot about the longdrop toilet when you were out in the bush. You became one with nature. Also there was no 3-ply nor 2-ply toilet roll out in the bush. There was just no-ply toilet paper. So you improvised. And we lived, and survived and grew up to the point where we can now pamper our behinds with 3-ply toilet roll.
Being one with nature meant eating fruit, fish and wild animals for those who had the skill to catch them. But it also meant that when nature called you went behind a rock a short distance away from your chosen base spot. Of course there were one or two hotheads who never bothered with the accepted behind-the- rock convention. So it was not totally unheard of that in running after that cow or goat your foot could find itself landing in the freshest of you know, human excrement.
The most beautiful aspect of village life was that everyone knew each other. Literally. You could walk from one end of the village to the other over a two-hour period and be guaranteed that every single person you would meet knew you or you knew them. And that’s why it was said ‘’it takes a village to raise a child’’. Any adult was your aunt, uncle, grandmother or grandfather. They could send you to the shops an hour away without consulting your family as long as you were not running an errand for someone else.
The only time of the year when you got an injection of foreign life into the village was at a time like this one, when all the people who worked in the cities made their way home. Bringing with them not only money but Christmas goodies and new clothes for the children in their families.
Like in all close-knit villages strangers stood out like a sore thumb. They didn’t have to do or say anything, they simply had to be and you just knew, ‘not one of us’. Amazingly, back then this meant you had to be extra courteous because you were dealing with someone you didn’t know unlike in the city where not knowing someone means putting on your bigotry hat.
Each family had its own graveyard, usually not far from the family home. Everyone in the family knew all the graves. So it was with agonising horror when the then government decided to disrupt our nice village life by starting a settlement to provide space for people who had been moved from their own areas which were close to or in the then white areas. Part of the process meant the relocation of all graves to a common graveyard to provide space for the new arrivals.
We had grown up to know you don’t mess with people at rest, the dearly departed. But we were quickly disabused of this notion by the arrival of huge earth-moving vehicles that could dig a forty year old grave in two scoops and empty the remains into a small little coffin for reburial at the new gravesite.
The new location brought with it new people, with new behaviours that were not necessarily suited to our village way of life. But we all understood why they had ‘funny’ behaviours. Their settlement was built on the graves of the ancestors of our small picturesque village.
This new village, complete with the mall and everything, is not the village that my mind finds refuge in during times of trouble. My mind finds refuge in that small little green village that had only about three television sets at the beginning of the eighties. The little village in which we knew every car and its registration number without knowing why we knew it.
It is this village that my mind returns to every festive season. It is a village that I cannot physically return to but I guess will stay with me for many more Christmases to come. Happy Holidays and thanks for reading.
“We hates us some poor people. First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags”. I read this line and agreed with it fully before understanding where the writer was going. If there’s one thing you do today, make your way here to read the whole blog, it’s most enlightening.
It’s not just poor people we pass judgement on, we also do it on friends who are going through tough times, we expect them to live by “our logic”. ” I would have sold that car and tablet by now if I was in their situation”. Really?
It’s very difficult to be a poor person. There is an invisible social code that one must learn, know by heart and live by. Don’t believe me? Listen to everyone around you and you’ll hear it: “if only they would stop wasting their money on liquor and clothes they wouldn’t be so poor”. Every Poor Person’s Guide to Living and Looking Poor, henceforth referred to as “The Poverty Handbook”.
Rule number one in the Poverty handbook: don’t do anything that makes you appear like you are having a good time. Dressing well is a no-no, I mean, you are poor for heaven’s sake!
Growing up I didn’t know what poverty was, we had what we had and what we didn’t have we didn’t know. So all was good. Imagine my shock when I was told I grew up in a poor village? What? So wearing shorts in freezing winter was poverty, I just thought legs were meant to freeze in winter, everyone around me thought the same. What, socks? No, those were a luxury item and only a few kids could afford luxuries like that.
“Poor But Clean” is a T-shirt slogan I grew up around, I didn’t own one, and I’m glad I didn’t but I quickly learnt that poor folk were generally regarded as “unclean”, hence the need to make the declaration. I guess the poor folk from my village chose to ignore this rule from the Poverty Handbook because bathing was a ritual there. Ok, so maybe I reluctantly partook of this ritual in my formative years but I knew my grandmother loved me to a point, she loathed a filthy grandchild. Left to my own devices I would have cheated my way around taking this expected daily bath.
Mind you, playing out in the fields didn’t excuse you from a full body scrub, the local river served as an alternative bath place. Peer pressure made sure you too wanted to show off your high regard for bodily hygiene. So weekends and school holidays found us bathing by the river.
The Poverty Handbook must also have some rule about how poor folk must avoid saving money to treat themselves to “expensive” items(read “items that are regarded as a sure sign of upward social mobility into a not-so-poor social class”). Those poor people who defy this rule and save a few bob to treat themselves to these “luxury” items are clearly frowned upon: “I mean really, what’s the logic of installing satellite television whilst living such abject poverty?” Now, hold on, why do we expect logic from poor folk when the authors of the Poverty Handbook themselves are not best friends with logic?
I fraternize with plenty of middle class folk who are barely holding it together but are sporting the latest iPhone and thinnest tablet. Such folk would use the latest iPad to confirm that their bank balance is still at zero, the miracle didn’t happen, but frown upon “poor” Jerry spending his last cents to acquire a “dish”, township slang for satellite TV (to the uninitiated). The authors of the Poverty Handbook also forgot to include some well-known celebrities who think it’s logical to buy a R4m car on installment. I mean really now, give poor people a break. They too deserve their own illogical choices.
Not that I’m one to support the idea of a BMW 7-series parked outside a shack, hell No. That person has no claim to being poor, they are just a middle-class slob going through an identity crisis.
I have seen people frown on “poor” Zandi dressing her two-year-old in Nike sneakers “knowing fully well that she is on the government grant”. Surely she should leave these sort of “illogical” choices to broke middle-class and rich parents, only they deserve to spend money they do not have. The irony of it all is Zandi probably never swiped a credit card to buy the sneakers.
The most demeaning page of the Poverty Handbook has to be the one titled “If you can’t feed them don’t breed them!”, mostly seen on SUV-type vehicles headed towards middle-class and rich suburbs. This is one bumper sticker that always single-handedly manages to up my blood pressure considerably any time of the day. I’ve had visions of myself driving a monster truck that would ride roughshod over any SUV bearing the said sticker, because I’ve concluded such people are not too bright(read stupid) and medication to cure their sickness is proving very elusive to discover.
The supposed logic of this part of the Poverty Handbook is that to get rid of poverty the poor should refrain from procreating, I mean, after all, only food provision qualifies one to be a good parent, right? Let’s see, if poor people stopped having children that would wipe out two thirds of the world and we would have plenty of space to drive our SUVs, right?
The scary part of this logic is that children who struggle to adjust to the rigors of life are mostly from these “let’s breed because we can feed them families”. Poor folk somehow learn to go by without and adjust to their circumstances. The people consuming most of the designer mental health drugs like Prozac are not the poor folk, it’s the folk bearing those “don’t breed if you are” stickers.
Besides, it is the height of hypocrisy to suggest that the act of procreation be there for the sole enjoyment of the upper classes of society, I mean really now, a monopoly on sex?
In my next life, I will come back a Dictator-President-of-the -World-for-Life, “Your Highness” will do thank-you. And I will introduce a Handbook for the rich(and famous): first rule in the book: Money and Fame do not equip your to perform social analysis, keep your Guide To Living In Poverty to yourselves, after all you need more common sense than poor folk.
The authors of the Poverty Handbook are the first to scream that “we are all different you know, we don’t want the same out of life”. Yet, the poor and financially unfortunate are very uniform because frankly “I don’t see why you need satellite television if you are poor”. How about entertainment? Are poor folk not entitled to entertainment? Granted, having a top of the range full bouquet of channels might be pushing the limits of acceptability into the struggling classes but poor people need their daily dosage of entertainment just like the rich bigots.
I’m one those poor souls who was endowed with the special gift of losing important pieces of paper and books all the time. Steve Jobs and the rest of the geniuses at Apple became demigods for me when they invented the iPad. Everything that needs recording is in the tablet. Whilst the super rich see it as an unnecessary luxury(in the hands of the poor), it is a life saver for me. My morning prayers are followed by a very discernible nod in the direction of the Apple Company in California. I guess if it came to sacrificing this gadget in the face of dire financial straits, I would have to sell the clothes off my back before parting with it.
I guess the Poverty Guide to looking poor and financially struggling has not really sank in my head yet. Tasked with designing a replacement for “Poor But Clean” T-shirt I would be very comfortable with one that said “Financially stressed but still with my iPad”.
Vanity is also a chapter in the Guide to living with Poverty(and looking poor). Most people dress really well irrespective of where they come from, and when things really become tough, this is the one area they will not allow to give them away. Sort of like the rich sticking to the sports cars to keep up appearances of all being well when they hit the hard times. Who gave the rich monopoly over vanity?
What it comes down to my friend(thanks Alanis Morissete), is to each according to his own devices, rich or poor. Otherwise we become hypocrites like this lady here:
“There was a woman who looked out of the window, and complained to her husband about how dirty the new neighbours washing was and made fun of her neighbour for not knowing how to do laundry properly. She complained about her neighbour to her husband every day until one day, she looked out the window and to her surprise, the neighbor had beautifully clean laundry hanging on the line.Â The woman expressed her surprise to her husband that the neighbour had finally learned to do laundry decently. The husband said he knew why. He said he had gotten tired of his wife’s complaining and gotten up very early that morning and washed their windows!”(source unknown).
I didn’t realise how hooked I am on the Oscar Pistorius trial till somebody asked me something concerning the expert witness called immediately after Oscar, forensic geologist Dr Roger Dixon who moonlights as a ballistics expert, a pathologist, a light/darkness expert, a materials compositions expert and a wound ballistics expert. A supposed Jack of all trades and yes, master of none.
Having watched the accused duck, bob and weave his way through cross-examination, I expected his defence team to come back really strongly with expert scientific evidence that would leave the less scientifically inclined in a spin. What we got though was this: Gerrie Nel(Prosecutor) asked: Dr Dixon, which instrument did you use to measure the light or darkness in the accused’s bedroom? Dr Dixon(defence expert witness): I used my eyes, M’lady. And he didn’t even laugh when he said that. I couldn’t help but laugh, this man is a scientist and all he used were his eyes!
Now, before you start judging, Dr Roger Dixon has a Doctorate in Geology(hence his title, Dr) and a whole host of other qualifications he gained whilst working in police forensics. What he doesn’t have is a mastery of all the other fields that he managed to convince himself and Oscar’s defence counsel that he has.
This got me thinking, which I do quite a bit these days trying to apply my mind to all the legal principles at play here, what do you call someone who is convinced that they know something, and are able to convince others that they actually do know that something whilst they actually don’t and don’t know that they don’t know? No, not a fraud. A fraud knows he/she doesn’t know what they are claiming to know.
And No, they are not delusional because then the other people would actually pick it up that they do not know their story. This person has all the appearances of a person who knows. They can explain the theory of bullets hitting an object and the what the angle of entry means but they simply do not possess enough knowledge to survive cross examination in a court of law. For lack of a good English word I will call such a person a Roger Dixon. You know, after Oscar Pistorius’ expert witness.
Suppose you are sitting on the beach with a friend and see a dolphin leap up into the air, do a somersault and land back in the water tail first and your friend says: “Do you know that Dolphins can travel at speeds of up to 100km per hour on their tails?” You are on the beach and cannot Google this, simply respond “Don’t be a Roger Dixon now” and carry on enjoying the sun.
Look, I have given this a lot of thought. We could have fun inventing all the other categories of people which could then be entered into the Oxford Dictionary: anybody who uses the phrases “I cannot remember/recall”, “I forgot”, “I have no independent recollection” and “I don’t know” in trying to answer the same question could be said to have Pistorian Tendencies.
This person would be totally different from the one who would be scolded by saying ” Don’t be an Oscar Pistorius now” because a Pistorian would not necessarily lie through their teeth or deny an obvious truth.
Being an Oscar Pistorius would refer to lying in the face of insurmountable truth. An example: It is a known fact that a Glock firearm cannot discharge a bullet without the trigger being pulled. A Glock firearm is accepted as having discharged a bullet whilst in Oscar’s hand, but, wait for this, he will not accept that he pulled the trigger! So if someone close to you denies an obvious truth or tells a glaring lie, you can easily dismiss them ” no man, don’t be Oscar Pistorius about this”. Quite different from Pistorian tendencies.
“Don’t Oscar the issue” would refer to someone who when asked a simple question like, “where were you born” they respond: “See, my mom and dad met in the US, and my mother went back to the UK when she was seven months pregnant. My dad tells me there is a chance she gave birth prematurely halfway between the US and the UK. I was raised in South Africa and started school….”, at which point you would interject, “please don’t Oscar the issue, where were you born?”, alternatively, “you are such an Os**r sometimes you know that”, when utterly pissed off by a very evasive person.
The scope for this is huge, humongous. I mean, imagine, there are people like Tony Blair who told lies on the international stage, accusing Iraq of hiding huge amounts of weapons of mass destruction. An official caught lying about the existence or non-existence of a document or such could be punished “because if you were not so Tony Blair about this we would allow you to keep your job”
But Tony was not alone in setting the stage for what was the most blatant plan to topple and then kill Saddam Hussein. He had George Dubya with him. Now, a more despicable leader of a very advanced nation is hard to come by. Besides his “Fool me once and fool me twice” buffoonery, here was a leader who if somebody shouted at you, you are such a “George Dubya” any court of law would acquit you if became violent in response to their clearly insulting provocation.
A person who lies, believes their own lie, convinces others that their own lie is the truth and does not know that they are lying whilst refusing to accept an obvious truth and being evasive in answering the most simple of questions could be accused of being a George W. Bush with Pistorian Tendencies and being a Roger Dixon of Tony Blair Proportions. If that person caused a war whilst at it we would not hesitate to call them a “piece of Os**r”! Excuse my language!
So Christmas is upon us. Once again. I got to thinking about Christmas thanks to my good friend, Jossi Tinga, who blogged about his Christmas experiences in Queensland, away from home in Kenya . See, Jossi Tinga, like me, is a rural boy at heart. Whenever I get to thinking about Christmas I have a myriad of thoughts and past experiences fly through my mind: new clothes, good vibes, plenty food. A time to be merry.
But I also get images of forced church services, overindulgence, excessive ‘festive adverts’ on television, over-the-top Christmas decorations in shops. Christmas trees and snow also come to mind: stop sneering, I know hell would have to freeze many times over before it snowed on Christmas on the Southern tip of Africa, but that’s not the point. The point is through what seems like a hundred Christmases I have no image that counters the snow-covered Christmas tree image! Even my four-year old girl knows the stuff around Christmas trees is snow, even though it’s never snowed on Christmas here.
Before it sounds like I have an axe to grind with anybody who loves the snow-covered Christmas tree image let me make this clear, I celebrate Christmas as the day when Jesus Christ was born. That’s significant to me. It’s also significant that the ‘festive season’ has been transformed into family time, the one time when family feuds are put aside and members can relate without animosity. I’m a sucker for the good vibes that prevail around this time of the year.
What I don’t get is what happened (and when) that the birth of Jesus became a signal to engage in unparalleled frenzied spending. I was once a beneficiary of such spending as a little person. I loved the new clothes, not because it was Christmas but because I wasn’t left out when the rest of the kids in our village paraded their new clothes. The Christmas tree was not in the picture then and snow wasn’t even a concept I could wrap my head around.
Christmas in the villages meant dads coming back home from work in Johannesburg, with goods and goodies. None of this “Mary’s Boy Child” on permanent repeat in malls! The only person who surely loves this is Boney M, who probably looks to Christmas as we all should, the birth of the savior. Only, Boney M expects a different kind of savior, the sound of money hitting the till machine every festive season when everybody suddenly realizes that in last year’s drunken stupor they misplaced their Boney M CD.
In the village, us kids couldn’t wait to bath on Christmas day, the same can’t be said about bathing on the other days though. We would be dressed in entirely new clothes from head to toe and herded off to church. This was the one day where the “missionary village” part of our heritage came out in full force. Elim, where I was born, was apparently one of the first to receive white missionaries when they arrived. As a result, we had a fully-functional “Swiss Mission” church on a hill, where it still stands to this day. On Christmas, even your sworn heathens went to church, nobody wanted to be left out. The Nativity play was staged on Christmas day. I don’t remember ever being part of one, I suppose my teachers just noted early on, “this one can’t act”, so I was left out of the story of the birth Jesus(sob! sob!). It could be that I was once an extra but who remembers being an extra?
Every family I knew had ‘Christmas food’ on the day, the basis of which was chicken and rice. You had all sorts of other colourful vegetables on the menu but slaughtered chicken was just the thing to do. This was true free range chicken which could take you up to an hour to catch if you had an unfenced yard like most families did. I suppose part of enjoying the chicken came from knowing you had to work your socks off to catch the bugger. God bless you if you had to catch and slaughter two or three different chickens. You’d swear these chickens had been on training to run away from you for the whole year.
And rice. For everybody. Yeah, rice wasn’t always for everybody in those days. Nooo!. The more well-to-do families had it every Sunday, but even they appreciated that rice signified special occasions. It brings a smile to my face that what we considered luxury, rice, is a staple food for billions around the world.
Following the Christmas meal after church, it was time to parade our new clothes, going from one family to another as a group and trying to stay clean. Baked Queen’s cakes with Oros (cool drink if you were lucky) were on offer at most homes so yes, we ate our tummies sore. This generally festive mood lasted just about until New Year’s. Plenty of food and good neighborliness.
Even the village drunkard was welcome into most homes. Those that brewed home-made beer would offer it to their guests on arrival, and the village drunk would always wedge himself in to the group. Nobody would shoo him away like they would during the year. It was a time to be festive. Contrast this with the urban setting where I heard a caller on radio appealing for “consideration for those whose families are not around this festive season”. This would never happen in the villages, everybody became family around this time. Oh, what we gave up for life in the city!
And then one grew up, malls took over and Christmas trees became the norm. And fake snow. The one unparalleled joy of urban Christmas are the Christmas lights. People go to town on those, makes you wish it was Christmas all year round. I suppose the festive spirit makes one ignore all the clutter and zone in on what they like, I like the lights. And the birth of Jesus, lest we forget.
If I could replace the snow-covered Christmas tree with another image it would be an image of a child in new clothes, from head to toe. That’s what Christmas meant to me. What did it mean to you?
Have a merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year, thank you for reading this far, you made my 2013!
Okay, okay, so I’m a sucker for gadgets. Not such a nut though that I would subscribe to STUFF magazine or Apple magazine. No. Just your low-level sucker. I love the idea of owning the latest gadget, I so wish I could afford them but I can’t, so I make do with what I can afford. That’s why the impending demise of Research In Motion(RIM), the makers of Blackberry, brings a tinge of sadness to my heart, maybe even the proverbial tear.
See, I think gadgets, cell phones in particular are a good sign of a nation’s progress. Pause. Just kidding. I hope you did pause right there, otherwise I got you.
No, seriously though, I’m a bit of a dreamer and gadgets probably represent some of my most far-fetched dreams coming to life. Did you know that South Africa has a cellphone penetration of over 100%? There are more SIM cards in this country than people.
I have this belief that technology, especially mobile technology, can and will play a major role in the fight against poverty going forward.
Each time I get to a service delivery area such as a rates payments hall or an overcrowded public hospital I always end up day-dreaming about a day when people, specifically poor people, can use the one technological gadget that 80% of our population can afford to navigate the demeaning wait at a public hospital or rates payment hall, the cellular phone.
Imagine it, if instead of getting to a public hospital at 5am a person could SMS their unique identity number or use an app to book a place in line,get a response to get to the hospital between 11h00 and 12h30, that would remove a 6-hour waiting period, during which hunger and other frustrations set in. I’m certain some IT boffin somewhere can make it happen. I mean, we have apps that can do almost anything, book flight tickets, buy insurance, make coffee…ok it’s not here yet but it’s coming.
What? You think it’s just dreams? I remember my first time in a gym many years ago, I just couldn’t understand how a treadmill could measure the calories I burnt during my running, now there’s an app to measure the distance you run, the calories you burn, the speed at which you run, even where and when you stopped! And you think apps to lighten the load of the poor is not possible? Come on!
Of course this would require technological improvements such as Wifi being freely available, or at least very affordable, instead of marching for economic freedom we should march for technological advancement. Free WiFi everywhere!
Imagine several thousand phones beeping to tell residents of a planned water shortage tomorrow between 09:00 and 15:00, in a village somewhere, instead of the indignity of finding out when trying to flush the toilet… It’s probably happening in the developed world, why not for the poor.
Who would have thought, a few years ago, that a person could walk into a little shop somewhere and send money 500km away, it’s happening now. Previously people needed to take up to three taxis and use quite a bit of money to send their loved ones money. Not anymore.
If you thought the love of gadgets should be the preserve of geeks and IT boffins think again. If you don’t want to believe this then tell me why a 10 or 15 year old today doesn’t know what a telegram is? Somebody had a dream and look how you are reading a telegram today, on your phone or computer! Only you call it email, SMS, WeChat or Whatsapp.
I couldn’t help but wonder if technology would not have come to the aid of the people of Cape Town a week ago. See, the weather people saw the adverse weather coming. What if the mobile phones of the people in the shack areas had beeped, sending out a warning a day before the floods? Or even hours before? “Move to safety, terrible storm coming”. I don’t think it’s impossible. It’s quite doable.
How about in war-ravaged countries, prior warnings through the mobile device could save thousands. “Sick, bloodthirsty rebels approaching, move to next town”. Ok so I’m dreaming , allow me to.
I hope you too will become a gadget-to-improve-lives sucker.
In my daydreaming days I used to wonder why it is that a virtual soccer stadium could not be created so tickets didn’t have to be sold out. Imagine it, a full stadium with life-size virtual images (holograms) that are beamed live onto the pitch as things would be happening in the original game. I have read one or two reports that suggest that this will not remain a dream forever. After all, TuPac Shakur was brought back to life on stage for the purposes of a performance.
What do you dream technology could do to improve lives?
Funerals are, by nature, sombre affairs. Unless of course, the dearly departed was a social butterfly. In that case, their send-off tends to be a tad less than sombre. People dress up for such send-offs, in their Sunday best too. And forget black, who wants to be caught dead in black at a funeral of a mover and shaker? Speakers at the memorial even share a joke or two, and those in attendance aren’t too encumbered by grief to stifle their laughter.
The atmosphere itself tells you a lot about the dearly departed, the more outgoing they were, the livelier their send-off. If you don’t identify with any of this it’s ok, you’ve just never been to a South African township funeral. These days an ‘after-tears’ mourners gathering is part of the unscripted programme, with alcohol flowing freely to drown mourners’ tears. So, by-and-large, township funerals are becoming jovial affairs.
This hasn’t always been the case the case though. At the turn of the century, only hushed tones were an acceptable means of communication during funeral proceedings. A glaring stare from an old lady two rows away from you at church was enough to remind you that this isn’t a party but a wake. A ringing cellphone during the proceedings was considered an undoubted sign of disrespect for the dearly departed and the bereaved. Not that this has changed lately, but it’s not uncommon to have people leaving a funeral church service to attend to an incessantly ringing (or is vibrating?) cellphone.
I suppose it’s a bit too much to expect people to give up their lives for two hours for a church service for someone who’s no longer here, and they not coming back anytime soon anyway. The older generation saw this last journey as one that could not be compromised, it had to be given the solemn dignity it deserves. One could not carry on as usual. The tone of one’s voice in the week leading up to the funeral could not simply be as one wished. Tradition ruled. More so on the day than any other time.
The bereaved are almost excused from this solemnness. They can walk upright, they can converse almost normally, after all, they have a funeral to organize. Being the bereaved requires two contradictory things from you in a way. Be sombre enough to look like you have indeed lost a loved one but zealous/busy or strong enough to organize a ‘fitting’ send-off for your loved one. Quite a tough balancing act if you have a small family. Neighbours do chip in, if you yourself was neighborly enough in their hour of need. Otherwise you’ll have to contend with preparing a huge feast for a multitude of mourners, with limited hands and sometimes resources.
I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it. Mark Twain
Mind you, a loss in the family does not excuse your family from the judgemental appraisals that normally follow a celebratory occasion, “it was well-organized”, “the food was good”, “terrible coffin, they should have gone for a casket”, “terrible programme director”. Really? I suppose in mourning, as in normal life, you are expected to keep up with the Joneses’ as well as maintain good taste and organizational skills, at your lowest emotional point.
Death has become so common people are finding new ways of keeping track of who is or isn’t mourning with them. Whilst in the past financial contributions made by mourners could be discreetly passed onto the elder in the family “mourning room”, now a book is used to capture who made a contribution or how much, a little black book of sorts in a way. The idea of keeping track of who “mourned with you” is in itself an alien culture, because Ubuntu dictates that when one mourns, we all mourn. Yet, records are kept. Just you wait till you lose someone, I will show you. Maybe not as bizarre as it appears, after all, what has our love for money not affected?
It is not uncommon now to see a member of the bereaved family hogging all the ‘limelight’, if you want to call it that. This person normally looks disheveled, hurried and talks a bit loud, for all mourners to hear how hectic the last couple of days have been. They issue curt instructions to whoever is at the receiving end of their endless calls. It’s not unheard of for mourners to overhear this ‘funeral conductor’ settling inheritance disputes whilst organizing the wake. “That woman will not set her foot here, it’s only my brother’s money she’s after.” Which is to say, with all the joviality and after-parties, drama is never far off the programme. Especially if family relations were not strengthened whilst the departed could still walk and talk.
Bizarre as it might sound, an estranged wife has been known to hijack the corpse from the morgue, and if she does so legally, with a court order, the funeral week could create family drama the likes of which is too much for our normally dour funeral processions. ‘Spectators’ might actually turn up at the funeral in the hope of catching some unpaid-for drama.
Picture this. The family patriarch passes on. The known children of the family discover that there was an unknown branch of the family, with a mother and several grown children, the works. The unknown branch of the family decides they cannot remain unknown any longer because you guessed it, there’s an inheritance at stake. If the unknown mother and children have the means and know-how, they can hijack the funeral preparations via legal means. Mourners have been known to have turned up only to be told the funeral is now 500kms away, where parallel funeral preparations were underway, with the unknown family branch in charge.
The right to settle a deceased’s estate seems to be inextricably linked to who buries the corpse. Where the unknown family and the known family are both legally knowledgeable it’s not uncommon to have the departed kept on ice, no pun intended, until the right to the corpse is sorted out. Undignified as this might sound, the unknown family ends up conducting a ‘closed’ funeral, to the exclusion of the known. To hell with a dignified send-off, the right to the deceased’s estate is so much bigger. Who said money was the root of all kinds of evil again? Ah, the good book.
Mind you, the estate might actually turn out to be a mountain of debt, in which case the known widow is left alone to carry the burden of having married a husband with a roving eye.
Amazing how in the old days these scandals seemed to be kept under wraps, at least until the funeral’s gone past. They just appeared much less frequently than they do now. The moves towards a more open society means the hidden and sometimes ugly truth is aired for all to see. I blame it all on the tabloids, not the happenings, but our getting to know the warts-and-all goings on of all these hard to digest issues. Ironically, African customs point to the mourning period as an open-house period, with the whole house opened to mourners, nothing hidden. The person closest to the departed is normally based in the main house or bedroom for the mourning week, as if to say, ‘see, nothing to hide’.
Today’s open society has brought with it an attitude of ‘out with the old, in with the new’, much to the chagrin of those hankering for the good old days. The after-tears get-together, normally a house or two away from the bereaved family is one result of this ‘in with new’ phenomenon. Ten years ago it was the preserve of the young at heart, now it’s become quite common for the bereaved to actually provide a select few mourners with alcoholic beverages immediately after the wake. Evolution creeps up on society, could it be that South African society is moving towards a more celebratory funeral? Celebratory funeral, an oxymoron?
Whatever turns out to be the case, in the meantime, new expensive outfits, new expensive hairstyles and the more unsavoury figure-hugging mini-dress/skirt seem to be the ‘in-thing’ at township funerals, for now. Perhaps just a fitting reminder to all and sundry that once you depart, you have no control over anything, not who comes to your funeral, not what they will wear, drink, say or do. Once gone, you stay gone.
I suppose you simply have to live the best life you can, and through it hope that once you are gone, your funeral is not remembered for who it attracted, how they were dressed or even more bizarrely(at a party animal’s or gangster’s funerals), if any twerking happened at the gravesite.
OF MYTHS AND LEGENDS
There’s something about books that’s always scared kids away, well, the kids I went to school with. Maybe your school was different and you all loved books. The majority of primary school and high school pupils I went to school with preferred doing other things to reading, reading for pleasure that is. At school, when I started being into books, reading for pleasure I mean, I was quickly christened a Bookworm.
It got worse when I went to boarding school when I turned thirteen. The new school had a library! What a treasure that was. But loving a library and its contents at my boarding school set you apart as one of those special kids, your peers pitied you.
I used to read all the time, and I guess I still do. I came to learn later that this was a form of escape for me. Anyway, kids my age frowned upon this indulgence, so much so that being the little shy guy that I was, I would try to read without being noticed. I still got comments like, “you keep that up and your eyes will be buggered by the time you’re 30” or my personal favourite, “guys like you never really get the girls, you’ll never get married”. At 15 that didn’t sound like such a bad thing. Needless to say I’m well past 30, with what I regard perfect vision and very married(with kids too). Just amazing what sort of stuff little minds can come up with in their teens. Some of these little myths and legends stay for generations.
Young minds are very impressionable, quick to reach “logical” conclusions. As a nine or ten year old, I couldn’t swim. One December evening there was a torrential downpour, the kind that’s accompanied by loud scary thunder, and before you know it, we had to turn off the television and radio. I got a bit worried when water started seeping into our council house under the metal kitchen door, the kind that went with your old-school apartheid Matchbox houses.
We had a visitor that night and he looked at my disquiet as something amusing. He casually asked me if I could swim and I quickly answered in the negative. His small eyes grew quite large and he let out one of those soft little whistles, the kind that tell you the brown stuff’s gonna hit the fan. The water came into the house relentlessly now. The visitor suggested that we wait for my dad who was out before arranging to sleep because even though he could swim he couldn’t figure out how he could save himself and me because the water would be waist-high at some point during the night. I never slept a wink that night and of course there was no flood. I’m not quite sure I’ve forgiven the gentleman for that.
Some myhths downright silly of course. High school seems to be the breeding ground for these sort of “teenage” wisdoms. It was in high school that I first heard the one about the most popular cola in the world being such a potent contraceptive. The trick, I was led to believe, was the lady had to drink quite a bit of this cola before, you know, the deed. If the guy drank this cola before the deed it would lead to failure to launch! To a 15-year-old’s curious mind this was absolutely believable. And when I happened to come across some pregnant teenager I used to think, “you couldn’t wait till you could afford the cola could you, look at you now”!
I was born in a rural village in Limpopo and before the advent of “locations” or urban settlements, there were vast amounts of lands between homesteads. You had to walk a kilometer or two to have a quiet chat with your neighbour. There was a disused piece of land which was said to be haunted by a ghost. People told stories of their encounters with this gentleman. He would apparently ask you for a smoke and if you didn’t have a cigarette he would slap you silly and pull you by your legs on your backside till your pants were worn out.
I absolutely believed in the existence of this ghost. Sadly, there was no way of avoiding this place to get home from another part of the village. Curiously, he’d never appeared to two people at once, so whilst people told similar stories, none had ever been slapped black and blue together, at the same time. I personally never encounterd him but when I had to pass through this area I would always pretend to be two people having a conversation, using different tones of voice. It appears to have worked because I was never asked for a cigarette by this ghost, let alone be slapped for no reason.
Funny how the more educated you become, the sillier the stories sound. Or is it the older you become? Ever heard the one about driving over a snake? Well, I knew from a very young age that you should never, ever drive over a snake crossing the road. If you did, the snake would coil itself up the insides of your car and you might just find yourself with an unwelcome mamba by your foot pedals, imagine experiencing that at 120km/h! I’ve neve had to choose between driving over a black mamba and taking to the gravel at high speed but the jury’s still out on which one I’d choose.
On a recent family trip to Limpopo, my birthplace, my dad shared a few stories from his generation. This family trip was necessitated by the passing on of one of our family members back there. Anyway, my dad kept coming up with these little gems of stories. One that I cannot get out of my head is about two of the village delinquents. These are the sort of guys who were always the oldest in whatever class you found them in. Back then there was no age restriction in schools, so it was perfectly normal to have an 18yr old in a class of eleven-year olds. John and Archie were two such students, they were so naughty that they smoked, cigarettes that is! Back then smoking cigarettes was a sign of serious rebellion. To top it, they drank, alcohol!!
One Saturday evening on their way back from a local drinking hole,as they walked past the school principals house they decided to solve their hunger pangs by helping themselves to one of the chickens feeding in his yard. They made a bonfire and proceeded to barbaque the chicken, head and all. Putting the roasted chicken between them, they methodically worked their way starting with one wing each, one drumstic each and so on. Because their fire had died down, eating in the dark whilst slightly tipsy proved to be a challenge. Soon there was only the head left and they found themselves going for it at the same time. Archie’s hand got there first and he quickly chucked the whole head in his mouth. John was not impressed.
Now, chickens in the villages in those days were left to roam the yard and eat freely, free-range for you. It wasn’t uncommon to find a chicken feeding on baby poo.Disgusting I know, but hey, such was life. Pit toilets were considered unsafe for toddlers so it was not totally uncommon for kids to help themselves in the fields a little distance from the house, this contributed to the organic compost in the vegetable gardens. The chicken Archie and John had captured and roasted had just had generous helpings of baby poo. As soon as Archie realized that the chicken head in his mouth was what shall we say, foul, he let out an “mmmhmhmhm” that startled John who asked, “what is it, is the pepper too hot for you”. “Mmmm” Archie responded. John immediately extended his hand, saying, “bring it here, let me show you how it’s done” . Archie gladly obliged. He wasn’t going to eat that foul head alone.
When my dad finished recounting the story, everyone in the car was in stitches, it took a while for me to pull myself together I never really asked him whether this was a true story or just one of those village stories that got passed down over the years. Either way, it just reminded me of the rich heritage that all villages around our country has. What myths, legends and other stories do you remember from your youth?