I was taught to have no dreams

August 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

*originally appeared in the Cape Times

DSC00798 DSC00808Dutyini in 2011

I wrote a column recently about where I was born and how I was fortunate enough to have a better education than the kids in my neighbourhood in the village I grew up in. This week, I write about how where I grew up forced us to dream small, if to dream at all.

I was born in a village which had major traffic about once a week, as that was when we got to see a car – just once a week. Traffic was caused by cattle being taken to graze in the field by boys. The village is near Mount Ayliff in Transkei. Dutyini is a place where time has stood still for many decades. Few things change as years go by. Those that do change are barely noticeable. History and time pass it by.

When I read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, I was struck by how similar his life almost 70 years before was similar and almost identical to the one that I had lived in the village. This is what I mean when I say time had not moved on. Only people’s faces showed any sense of time. They grew older but their lives never caught up with the modern trappings because they were not there, nor did they even know them.

Dutyini is surrounded by mountain ranges, almost hidden from the world. It is picturesque and the real estate there would cost millions had things turned out differently. It would be paradise for millionaires willing to pay millions for a great view. For the longest time when I was a boy, I believed that the world did not go beyond those mountains.

But as I got older I realized that there were things and places and people beyond them. The village had no young men. It was full of children, women and old men. The only thing I knew about the places beyond the mountains was that that was where men went. They went beyond the mountains and left their wives and children and the elderly behind in the village. They got on buses and taxis which took them to a place called Johannesburg so that they could work in the mines underground. There was a company with a yellow logo called Teba which organized for them to go. I also knew that when I grew up and came of age, I too would grow up to go work underground to become a miner. That was not only my biggest ambition but of those who were around me.

The men went to the big city for jobs. Their jobs were to dig for gold or whatever minerals were underground. I didn’t know what gold was or what it looked like back then, but I knew that it was underground and it was important enough to be dug out, even if cost people’s lives, because every once in a while we would hear that someone’s husband had died underground. The gold was obviously important enough to take men away from their wives and children for six months at a time. The men would come back once every six months for a week or two; to plant mielies in December and to harvest it in April – and to make babies with their wives.

When I was a little boy, whenever an older person saw me lift a heavy object, they would exclaim, “You are so strong! Soon, you too will be strong enough to work in the mines.” Hearing that would feel me with great pride and I would try to get even stronger because it meant I was closer to going to work in the mines, like the young men who were absent from the village.

Many of my uncles were miners in Johannesburg. When they came back they were called amajoyini. I assume that came from whoever ran Teba, a white man who probably spoke to the illiterate men in the village and said, “join” the company so that you can become a miner and feed your family. They didn’t get paid much because their wives and children still remained poor. There is a man in the village who was in Lonmin when the shootings happened. He was lucky enough to have survived. He didn’t get shot. He is a few years older than I am. Had things turned out differently for me, I might have become ijoyini and been one of those men who got shot at in Lonmin.

When you are expected to have no expectations, you have none. This was the environment I grew up. It was an environment designed for low expectations. The most worst thing about oppression is how easy it is to get used to it. How normal it becomes. How ordinary it seems. We become used to and became uncomfortably comfortable with what should never have made us comfortable. When you set someone low standards, they meet them. And I know many people who have met them. I was lucky enough to escape the bondage. Today, Dutyhini is slightly improved. There is running water on the sides of the road and some families have electricity, but people’s dreams are still no bigger. And I believe it has a lot to do with what I wrote about, luck

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