Luck comes before hard work “My tale of two lives”
August 13, 2013 § 31 Comments
*this is where I was born. In this hut. I was not born in a hospital or clinic. I grew up here for the first 10 years of my life. The caption on the picture may seem to contradict what I have written, but I think it captures the point I’m making about hard work after the luck.
This is an extract from my book, To Quote Myself.
I get nostalgic and saddened every time I visit the place of my birth. Dutyini is beautiful and hopeful. I always leave there with a sense of renewed energy and hope, yet the people who live there don’t have that
luxury – of just visiting. Instead, they live their lives with a sense of resigned acceptance. They are neither hopeful nor hopeless. Life is what it is for them and must be lived as it is.
The more things change for the world beyond the mountains that envelop the village of Dutyini, the more they stay exactly as they have been for dec- ades within them. There are still lots of people who work in the mines or in Johannesburg. It is this realisation – that the world I once lived in has not changed much – that makes me sad.
‘There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.’ I found the words of Nelson Mandela ringing in my ears as I entered the village where I’d spent the first 10 years of my life. Life changed and moved on elsewhere but it somehow managed to stand still in my village.
When I read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, I was struck by how his life was so similar to the one I had lived, even though I was born 60 years later. The things he did when he was growing up, I also did: climbing trees to steal peaches, roasting mealies, slaughtering live animals. We also swam naked in the river. There was a game my friends and I liked to play: we would slide down a muddied path on the green bark of an aloe and into the river.
The kids in my village also played what I now know to be a terrible game. We would take bulls from different households and make them fight to establish which family had the strongest and most notorious bull in the village. For a long time, the most feared bull in the village belonged to my grandfather. The bull, named Bossman, was black and muscular, and walked slowly, unbothered. We never hurried Bossman because we, too, feared him as much as the other animals. We approached with great caution because he could turn around at any moment and attack you. One day, Bossman was sold and we lost the supremacy that came from having the most powerful and feared bull in the village.
I had to learn stick-fighting at an early age. I was not a great stick-fighter and I knew it, so when someone wanted to pick a fight with me, I would always insist on a fist fight because I was better than most boys at fighting with my fists. If they refused, I’d call them cowards because they relied on sticks to fight.
Whenever I drive back to my birthplace, all these memories of my child- hood come flooding back.
In 2011, I made a trip to the place of my birth for an uncle’s tombstone unveiling. It had been some years since I had last visited. My grandmother and grandfather were no more and people to visit were in short supply.
As I drove down the winding, hilly road that leads into Dutyini, Mount Ayliff, in the Eastern Cape, I looked to the left and saw the place where I was born: the familiar blue-and-white huts and four-cornered houses sat at the base of the valley before me. I smiled, taken by how picturesque it was, and thought about how this would be prime real estate if life were different.
The gravel roads were, of course, terrible. My silver Mercedes attempted to perform 4×4 duties, allowing me to drive at the dangerous, F1-esque speeds of 20 kilometres per hour.
I smiled as I remembered that as a young boy, I thought this was the whole world.
My first stop was at my old school, Dutyini Junior Secondary. I took a photograph of the classrooms I had spent time in from Sub A (Grade 1) to Standard 3 (Grade 5). These days, the mud-brick rectangular house with
cow-dung-smeared floors is left unused. Modern buildings have replaced my old classroom and are filled with chairs and desks. Where we used to play soccer, there is now a greenhouse and vegetable garden, and a fence now surrounds the school. But even with the additions, I couldn’t help but look at my old school and praise God – and my mother’s resilience – for getting me where I am today.
As I continued along the road, strangers greeted me by raising their hands. It was not because they knew who I was or remembered me from when I was a kid. It was simply the decent thing to do: you see a human being; you greet him. Just like that. I was surprised by my surprise at being greeted. I should have expected this and been used to it because that was how I’d grown up. Had I changed so much that when normal human decency was extended to me, I was surprised?
I stopped to unload my things at my grandfather’s house, where I would be staying for the weekend. No one had lived there since he died in 2004. There had been three recent break-ins; all the electrical appliances had been stolen, I was told by my mother. The village, like many others, had become strangely crime- ridden, filled with alcoholic young men, many of whom had also become drug addicts. Many young men had done stints in prison for one crime or another.
When I was growing up, there were six free-standing houses on the property. Now there are four, as two collapsed from the rains. The building I lived in with a young uncle, who died years ago from an Aids-related illness, is no longer there. It’s no surprise he died in the way he did. When he thought I was asleep, he used to bring in his girlfriends. I’d make out silhouettes of all shapes and sizes as they came into the darkened room, and I’d heard the sounds of the springs from an old single bed and their giggles afterwards, but I’d always be long asleep by the time they left.
The main house isn’t as grand as I remember it to be, but in its time, it was. It was the house that hosted the very first TV in the village. Our lounge used to fill up every evening, as soon as people heard the generator start up. It wasn’t only the TV they were coming for. Elderly villagers and countless relatives came to us to ask for water. Now there are taps along the road. People no longer have to walk to the river; they simply walk to the nearest tap.
Now the main house and its surrounds are overgrown and the dogs, cattle, sheep and horses that once roamed are gone. I took pictures of my grandfather’s home – my home – as if I were a tourist. I opened the metal gate to get a shot of the picturesque Ntsizwa mountains in the background – the view I used to wake up to every day.
Finally, I made it to my uncle’s home. My aunts, uncles, cousins and distant relatives watched my car as I pulled in, but none of them were sure whose it was. When I got out, ululations and singing broke out spontaneously. Many of my relatives hadn’t seen me in more than a decade.
Someone introduced me, saying: ‘This is Khayalethu, Grandson of K.’ Uncle Mlu, who had had more than enough to drink, looked at me vaguely. But after someone else shouted out my childhood nickname, ‘Ngu Mabhuti lo, umzukulu ka K,’ (‘This is Mabhuti, K’s grandson’) he came to life.
‘Ngu Mabhuti lo? Ngu Mabhuti lo?’ (‘Is this Mabhuti? Is this Mabhuti?’) Uncle Mlu repeated, over and over for the next 10 minutes. He couldn’t believe that I had grown, that I had become a city dweller.
Later, he asked me to drive him to town, to the beer hall, saying that people would scream out his name because he was arriving in a fancy car. But when he got out, the villagers simply looked on. Uncle Mlu went inside and bought his nip. He came back excitedly to tell me that he was treated like royalty inside. Now that he had been seen in such a fancy car, he would be respected. It pained me to hear him say that.
As we drove back, he pointed at the houses he had built. I was amazed. I asked him how much he charged and he said he took whatever the contractor gave him. He told me that when someone gave him R200, it could last a whole month. My heart broke. That’s how much I sometimes spend on a meal out in Johannesburg. I tried to tell my uncle that he should charge more, but he waved me away as if to say, ‘This young city boy doesn’t know what life is like.’
The next day, I woke up early. Instinctively, I did everything my grandfather had taught me to do in the morning. I got my cup of water in a tin cup. With a single scoop of water, I washed my face and hands, and brushed my teeth. I took my bath in a 12-litre metal washing basin, filling it with water heated on the paraffin stove. It didn’t cover a tenth of the basin, yet I washed my body sufficiently.
I went to where I used to take my grandfather’s cattle and sheep to graze, and noticed that people weren’t keeping as many livestock as they used to. I went to the river where I once played, swam, fought to earn respect, learnt to stick-fight and made cows of clay – and saw that the river had become nothing more than a brook. I noticed, too, that it had been years since any ploughing had been done. Fifteen years previously, people had planted their own mealies, ground them and made their own mealie-meal. Whatever they didn’t grind, they had sold, saved for the next year or used for umnqusho, samp and beans. Now people go to town to buy their food with money they don’t have.
The local store used to be a gathering place where villagers collected letters from Johannesburg or ordered doors, windows or wood. Now it carries only bread and the basics. People shop in Mount Ayliff, about 20 kilometres away. That weekend, I spent most of my time there, ferrying relatives back and forth. In fact, I ended up missing the unveiling of my uncle’s tombstone as I was constantly sent to town to replenish one thing or another, as happens when a young man visits with a car.
But these are small details. In many significant ways, Dutyini is the same. Although he was talking about a different village, Mandela was right. The place hasn’t changed. But I suppose I haven’t changed that much either. I have only, to borrow a phrase from Oprah Winfrey, become more me. I didn’t have to re-teach myself manners, or the basics of rural civility. I only had to remember. They all came back and I fitted right in even if I did bring the world back with me to Dutyini.
How can two people who started off in life from the same place, the same village and school, end up leading such completely different lives? It is not always our brilliance that takes us out of poverty. Good luck and parents who see further than others are also key – only then does hard work come into play.
The morning after the tombstone unveiling, I emerged from the mud hut I had slept in and stood outside to catch the early morning sun as I used to do as a young boy. A young man walked past with purpose. He was wearing black gumboots to protect his feet from the early morning dew, which tended to gather on the long summer grass that was just below knee height. His jacket was the blue-overall kind.
He greeted me and I greeted back. Then he stopped suddenly in his tracks and said, ‘Khayalethu?’
I realised he knew me because he had said my full name. I also realised that he was probably someone I’d grown up with but sadly, I could not even fake recognising him. I replied and I said, ‘Yes, I am Khayalethu.’
He said that he recognised me by my hairline because, as he said, I’d always had a distinct one. I believed him. Then he pointed to the Mercedes parked in front of the house and asked if it was mine. I nodded and said yes.
I was embarrassed that I had no idea where to place him, even though it was clear he knew who I was. He talked about how we were in class together in Standard 3 in the village; he also remembered that I had been younger than anyone else in the class. I remembered as we spoke that his name was Mongezi.
He congratulated me on how well I was doing. I suppose he made that judgement call based on the car, as some people are prone to judge others by the material possessions they hide behind. Sometimes I feel that the more we feel like moral failures, the more material possessions we adorn ourselves with. Yes, me included.
We spoke for a while. He told me that he had a wife. I do not. He told me that he had two children. I do not have any. Then he told me that I had been lucky to live in a home that understood the importance of education. I thought about what he said as he was saying it. He was right. I was lucky. Lucky to have left the village to study in a good school, Little Flower Junior Secondary School, supposedly the best school in the Transkei at the time. A school my mother could scarcely afford. When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, I started at a white school the following year, another school my mother could barely afford.
The white schools I went to had libraries and swimming pools and all sorts of things that I didn’t know schools could have before I arrived. The village school had no running water and no electricity. The village school I’d gone to didn’t have a library. In fact, I don’t think Mount Ayliff had a library.
I remember going to the town with my sister during my school holidays, as we often did. By then, we were both going to white schools. We got on a bus in the village to head to Mount Ayliff. My former Standard 3 teacher, who we had all feared, got onto the bus and sat in front of us. Then my sister and I spoke English to one another. Of course, looking back, it was a childish act, but we knew it would impress the villagers. There was a great deal of fascination with the phenomenon of two black children speaking English. For the first time in my life, I realised that even though I was only 15, I spoke better English than the woman who had taught me in Standard 3. She spoke to my sister and I in English; it was not very good. That made me sad.
As Mongezi spoke, I thought about the encounter I’d had with my Standard 3 teacher. I realised that this was one of the reasons Mongezi led the life he was leading – that all he could do was make passing comments about my life, instead of being equipped to live the life he had hoped for as a child. His parents had told him to drop out of school and start working after Standard 6. They never saw the value of an education; all they wanted was the benefit of his work now, not later.
Even worse – when I left the village to go to better schools, Mongezi was left with ill-equipped teachers. No wonder his life had not turned out any better than that of his parents. Even though Mongezi wanted to have a better life, the odds were against him. This is why I never blame the poor for their poverty. Only those who have never known poverty, have never seen it and never experienced it, can blame the poor for their circumstances. Unfortunately, in many ways, my village is still the same way it was when I left. Unless something changes, the children who grow up there will have no better opportunities than Mongezi.
Mongezi also didn’t have what he called ‘your luck’ – of being born into a family that knew the value of an education, even in apartheid South Africa. The ‘luck’ he spoke of rings true. When I was nine years old, I had been smoking the weed that grew all over the place, bunking school with the older boys. Had it not been for my mother’s intervention, my life would have turned out to be exactly like Mongezi’s. I would have been walking with him, wearing my own black gum- boots, and I would probably have forgotten a lot of the English I had learnt in school too. Mongezi was right: I am a very lucky human being.
Even though some may look at where I was born and where I grew up as the perfect example of bad luck, I was very fortunate to come from a family who gave me the opportunities and skills to succeed in life. Thereafter, hard work followed. I’ve had to work hard to be lucky.
As I shared my thoughts about rural areas on Twitter, some people desperately wanted to romanticise the experience. But there is no romance in carrying water on your head when you could get it from a tap, and there is no romance in walking kilometres to the forest so that you can get firewood for food and warmth. There is no romance in inferior education or in dropping out of school, in not having the option to better your life. The people who live here accept their lot, but they would rather have indoor plumbing and hot water and opportunities. When I think about my life here, there is no romance in it. There is only nostalgia and sadness.