Friday, August 12, 2011

I had to return to South Africa for a second time just to finally visit Lumka’s home and family in her rural village near Alice.  Although I was only out of East London for a weekend, it felt like a month’s worth of stories and lessons.  I came back to East London with the feelings of, “wow, I’m lucky to have Lumka as a friend and I just spent my weekend in a less than typical way”.  Because it’s a blur of eating, telling stories and laughing, introductions, mud and smoke, learning about Xhosa traditions, and peeling and chopping vegetables, I’ve written in sections instead of chronologically.  After a cold front and serious rain swept in on Friday night and most of Saturday, I consider myself lucky to have made it out to the main road to East London.  It was a treacherous drive in the dark on Saturday night with the roads either nearly washed out or virtually impassable with potholes and thick wet clay.  I now better understand the frustrations of these rural communities.
Braaing the meat
As the photos may suggest, food is always one of my great interests and loves and I apologize for the lack of pictures of people!  I have never seen an animal slaughtered (and actually still haven’t!) but I think that the relationship with the food you’re eating is very important so I wasn’t worried about feeling squeamish or turning into a vegetarian after.  For example, this ceremony was a thanksgiving to the ancestors from the Mahanjana family and the community.  Perhaps Lumka and I were too busy having tea, but I missed the actual slaughtering although I did see the cow so closely after its death that it was still steaming as they opened it up and removed its hide.  There was a huge gaping hole in the neck and while most of the cow was saved for the next day’s feast, the men and women gathered separately to eat a certain cut of braaied meat.  While the men may get the glory for slaughtering and skinning the meat, something else has to be served on those heaping plates and that’s where the women come in! It was a blur of chopping potatoes, pumpkins, and cabbages and cooking them within the massive three legged black iron pots (imbiza). And those magic pots seem to hold an infinite supply of samp, rice, and vegetables so that no one goes without. While preparing the next meal, it is necessary for a constant supply of sweet and creamy rooibos tea with umbhako, the giant rounds of bread made in the big three legged pots over the open fire.

umbhako (pot bread)
The bread baking fires

Lumka took me on a tour through the family home (there were at least 4 homes for different purposes on the property).  We visited the shed where the homemade African beer was being brewed, where the rounds of bread were being baked, and the open fires in the grass where the other dishes were being prepared by the women who had married into the Mahanjana family.  It is their role to cook the foods on the fire while wearing traditional cloth skirts as a sign of respect to the family.
I thought I would eat anything but I just couldn’t get excited about the Saturday morning breakfast of stewed cow intestines. I may not be a doctor, but after having spent the bulk of the night before on the toilet, I had a pretty strong feeling that a plate of cow stomach washed out in a wheelbarrow with a garden hose was probably not the best remedy. I now have a reputation for acquiring stomach bugs on trips in rural Eastern Cape so my runny stomach was a hot topic of conversation on Saturday morning and I was told: 1) drink milk 2) don’t drink milk 3) drink green tea 4) drink water and vinegar 5) drink camphor oil and my favourite 6) eat so much meat that it overwhelms your stomach and your system adapts. Luckily my intestinal problems were a one-night issue and I was fine for the rest of the weekend!
Chopping pumpkin, potatoes, and cabbage
Saturday morning breakfast of cow stomach
Cleaning the cow stomach
(with the official intestine garden hose and wheelbarrow)

During our girls’ weekend in Butterworth, Lumka warned me that this was just a warmup to the whole Mahanjana clan where you may think people are fighting, but they’re actually just talking.  Lumka’s family seemed to be mostly women who all love each other deeply and know all of each other’s secrets and embarrassing stories (and somehow mine too as my runny stomach and love life were well known by people I had never even met!).  On our arrival and departure from their home, a huge group of women accompanied us with songs, dancing, and hugs.  It was wonderful to put faces to names and stories and I plan on making myself an honourary Mahanjana.  Lumka took me on a round of meeting all the uncles, grandmothers, children, and I felt so welcomed.  The weekend was spent remembering funny stories and sharing new tales with each other.  I especially loved seeing the 4 generations of women working together and loving each other.  Even with so many houses filled with beds, it was a fight for a bed, but sharing it with Lumka and her sister meant more bonding and helped ward off the below freezing weather!
It wouldn’t be an outing to the rural areas without intense questioning of my marital status and plans.   And like all of the other young women there, our love lives were hot topics for discussion and many of the older family members took it upon themselves to play matchmaker!  During the community gathering before the big meal was served, some of the village women inquired about where I came from, where I lived, and who I was with.  When asked if I was married, I replied no and one elderly woman yelled out to the room, “oh good, a virgin!”  I’m not sure if they were more excited about that or my speaking Xhosa.  After Lumka’s uncle prayed and sang in Xhosa, he pointed out to the “little Canadian girl” that this was a thanksgiving and maybe this would be the turning point in finding that South African husband everyone promises me!
Preparing umqombothi (African beer)

Immediately after the slaughtering
As Lumka’s uncle reiterated, this was not a bereavement but a ceremony to give thanks to the ancestors.  On the ride from King William’s Town, he explained that although a person dies, their spirit is still alive and the distance is too vast between a human and an ancestor to speak directly.  In order to speak to them, you must sacrifice an animal with the elders around as they are closer to that world.  I knew from other events that it is crucial that the cow make a sound when it is slaughtered or else the ancestors are not pleased and traditional doctors are called into investigate.  I secretly prayed that this cow make a lot of noise as I didn’t want to be singled out for cursing the event.  Although the cow was slaughtered on Friday, it wasn’t until Saturday that the village arrived for the meal.  In the early afternoon, there was a call for all family and community members to meet in the 6 cornered house.  The house was separated down the middle into male and female while Lumka’s uncle and other family members performed prayers and songs.  The big meal followed with plates of samp, cabbage, pumpkin, and big chunks of meat dished out throughout the day so that everyone was fed.  The next ceremony seemed to be lots of African beer and whiskey!
Preparing the cow

Other observations
In Lumka’s grandmother’s room, I noticed that the curtains were covered in dozing bees.  I had already learned that bees are another sign of ancestors making their home and you are not to disturb them unless you sacrifice an animal.  The bees caused no problem and it looked like they were sewn into the lace. 
The separation between men and women’s interactions and jobs is striking.  There is an obviously unspoken yet established process of who does what and how.  Everyone knows his or her place as a result of growing up and watching your parents, grandparents, great grandparents….
Although I felt very welcome the whole day (especially by the male community members!),on a couple of occasions, people began speaking to me in Afrikaans while I quickly explained that I was from Canada.  Also, one man made a comment to Lumka that it was nice that “she eats the food without looking down at it” and another told me he was happy I was there to take the time to share and learn about his culture.  I wanted to say to him that it should be me being grateful and honoured to be a part of this.

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