Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Working in the sticks

Working in the sticks of Pondoland

Some of the projects I have worked on this year have been in a tiny municipality called Ntabankulu (In- Tab-un-koo-loo for those who can’t read Xhosa names). It is tucked up against the Drakensberg Mountains, cut through by the Umzimvubu (oum-zim-voo-boo) river and boasts some of the most stunning scenery and tortuous dirt roads. We have had a number of community meetings with traditional leaders and people living in tiny rural villages. Most of our meetings are held outside, often next to the cattle kraal, the most important part of any of these rural homesteads. Poverty is endemic, there is something like 90% unemployment and most families depend on pensions and child grants to survive along with the sale of the illegally grown dagga (Marijuana) known as Pondo Gold.

Yet no matter how poor the dignity of everyone you meet is striking, as is their friendliness. There are places I have been where they have never seen a white woman before and yet they make a place for me as ‘Mama Jayne’. At one homestead I jumped out of the bakkie to open the gate and then walked up to the huts and house where we were to meet. One of the local councilors who had traveled with us was horrified and said, “But what about the dogs, they will bite her.” He was assured by someone else, “Don’t worry, the dogs never bite white people.” This was proved when the dog ran up to me and allowed me to pet it. The context of this is that dogs are kept as working animals – they guard the home, herd the cattle and hunt any game in the area to fill the often empty pots.

Most households have four or five dwellings – one square or western style house for the head of the house, and the rest mud and daub thatched huts or rondavels that house children, wives, grandparents and kitchen. The reason for this is that most amaPondo live in extended family groups and polygamy is still common. They are a very patriarchal people but it is unwise to underestimate the influence of the women, especially the older women who take on something of the status of men once they enter menopause. They may not say much in public meetings but their husbands listen to them in the privacy of their homes.

As the villages are small everyone knows everyone else and there is always someone who will give you directions to a particular person or house. There are also strong clan links and loyalty to the traditional leaders or Nkosi of the area. When there is a marriage, funeral, birth or male puberty rite of passage to celebrate everyone participates, helping to prepare the feast and dressing in their traditional best for the occasion. Africa time is the order of the day in this area. Don’t arrive at a meeting due to start at ten o’clock and expect it to begin on time. Sometimes it will take an hour or longer to gather everyone before a meeting can begin. Patience is one of the virtues you learn working in these areas.

People gathered for meetings – the men sit on one side and the women on the other
Even if the meetings are held outside there are always the niceties to be observed. The Nkosi, his counselors and the visitors will be seated on chairs brought from various houses while low wooden benches or the ground serve for everyone else. The men will often come in their working clothes with sticks or whips in hand. While the women are never seen without their ‘doeks’ (scarves) or hats, the men must remove their hats for the duration of the meeting. Each newcomer greets the iNkosi with his praise name, for example, “Aaaie, Jongilanga!!” The iNkosi will not speak until the end of the meeting. His counselors will address the meeting on his behalf and then each person has their chance to stand and ask questions or make comments. Having listened to everyone, the iNkosi will then make a summarizing speech stating the position or consensus that has been reached. This is an archaic form of democracy – the iNkosi’s word may be final but it is only made once everyone has expressed their opinions. The iNkosi’s have a quiet dignity and serious demeanour in the meetings.

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