Soon, Mr Landilesa Mximwa will drive up in his Backie to take Sarah Bridges to the village school. She has been sponsored by the British Goverment to help Mr Maximwa and his Senior Mangement Team implement their school improvement plan at Lower Kroza Junior Secondary Secondary School, here in the Eastern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa. It is the most surreal assignment she will ever undertake.
Sarah is the guest of Mrs Nomtombani Alice Molimbile, for whom she is making tea. Mama Alice is seventy-four years old, and her body is wearying her now, though she still works from dawn to dusk, tending her garden and managing every aspect of this farm that is her home. Five of her grandchildren are resident too, four have left to take the taxi to ‘The Little Flower’ High School in Qumbu. Three year old Zenchose clambers up to the table and fixes Sarah with a wide-eyed stare, now more of curiosity than fear. Sarah Bridges was the first white person Zenchose had seen, and she took a lot of getting used to. She is waiting for Sarah to play ‘Round and Round the Garden, Like a Teddy Bear..’ with her. This is their only means of communication. Sarah carries over the tray. Mama Alice is gazing at nothing. Her lips are drawn into a line, her breath a succession of sighs.
‘PROPER tea Mama. Cold pot, three Five Roses tea bags, scalding water, HOT milk...’ Sarah learns, as well as teaches
“Thank you. my daughter.” Mama looks up, looks down, twisting a handkerchief round and round, knotting it in her hands.
‘Mama Mokokoshewa is only going to Bisho. You can take a taxi. You will be able to visit.’
Gently, as if teaching a child, Mama Alice explains, “I will go to my friend, but where will the ancestors stay? “
This is what occupies Mrs Mombilie’s thoughts and brings her grief.
‘Surely Mama, when YOU are an ancestor, YOU’LL stay in a flat?’
Mama snorts. They both know that ancestors attend weddings, funerals and, most lavish of all, the huge celebration that takes place when a Xhosa man comes of age. Ancestors will come and bless the festivities, but will only stay in round houses with thatched roofs. It’s their way.
She reaches out and pats Sarah’s hand affectionately.
‘Go now! He is here.’ She waves Sarah away, responding to the school principal’s shrill horn.
‘I’ll foot home,’ Sarah calls as she leaves. ‘Expect me at about five o’ clock!’
Zenchose puckers up her face in disappointment at her departure, for the game denied, and climbs down from the table. Mama sips her tea.
Close by, Mrs Voko Mokokoshewa sits disconsolately outside her home. Wearily, her eyes scan the horizon where the village meets the road. She is waiting with a heavy heart for her eldest son, Sicelo Mokokoshewa, the doctor, to take her to his fine villa in Bisho, where the Parliament sits.
This morning, every morning, Mrs Voko Mokokoshewa , has risen with the sun. She has drawn water from the rain-tank that abuts her earth-brown house. She has washed herself, then yesterday’s clothes, which now hang in the yard above the reach of the goats. She has swept clean the one room, the one round room that has sheltered her and her children and her few belongings for more than sixty years. She has eaten maize porridge for her breakfast, washed down with Xhosa tea, and for the last time, the very last time she has thrown husks to the chickens and shooed the geese from their pen.
Now she waits, still as a stone, and watches. She presses her hands together, her nails biting into her palms. Her long brown fingers curling and uncurling in her pale worn palms. With a sigh, she rises, moving to straighten her skirt as it falls beneath her knees. Shivering against the chill July morning, she draws her blanket tightly around her shoulders as she stoops to enter her house.
Light on her feet, she leaves no mark in the dust as she steps over the threshold of her home. Everything she is taking away is packed in two cardboard boxes: her good clothes, three new blankets, a set of glasses, a pretty plate decorated with a transfer of an English cottage garden, and a photograph, framed in black, of her beloved husband.
Mrs Mokokshewa will not take the battered table with its three rickety chairs or the chipped enamel stove. These with the geese and chickens, bed and bowls, have been sold to her neighbour, and oldest friend, Mrs Nomantombi Molimbile, who tuts with disapproval whenever she recalls the doctor-son with his wife, who has no tribe, and the flat house, without thatch, in Bisho.
This house, unneeded, unheeded, will dissolve back into the veldt. It will become a skeleton of shapeless mounds of mud and mouldering thatch, then the ghost of a memory of a laughing man and his beautiful bride, who raised a home and grew a family here.
Dr Sicelo Mokoshewa is not a cruel man. He lowers his voice, reaching towards his wife. He is seeking to reassure her, to calm her. Mrs Pauline Mokokoshewa is shaking. She cannot bring herself to look at her husband.
‘Momma is old, she is sick, she works too hard, she cannot carry on alone.’
‘And I? Am I not growing older ? Have you not noticed? What about me? Our boys? What about them?’
Pauline’s voice rises with a passion that Sicelo has not heard before. Her Scots lilt punctuating her sentences, accentuating her anger. He sighs.
‘I am fetching her today.’
‘As soon as she sets foot in this house, I leave it!’
Softly Sicelo whispers, ‘She is my mother, I must do this.’
To his back, Pauline screams, ‘I hate her! I hate YOU!’
These words will pursue him all the way to his tribal home. The weight of them will beat down on him with the sun, but he will not waiver.
‘She is my mother, I must do this.’
‘Tata’, what would YOU do?’ His longing for his father, the Reverend Father Michael Zacomse Mokokoshewa brings a lump to his throat and tears to his eyes.
Dr Moko’s memory of his father is of a huge man with a heart that held everyone, and a laugh that boomed through his childhood, as insistent as a call to prayer. Sicelo knows his father was a hero of the struggle against apartheid, but is too young to remember the gut-wrenching anxiety and sickening fear endured by his mother during the four years the courageous priest spent in prison for his preaching. He never spoke of it except to remark, as if joking, ‘I was rescued by Canterbury!’
More directly, of course, through the intervention of his own bishop, Desmond Tutu, who worked tirelessly to obtain Fr Mokokeshewa’s release.
Could Dr Moko summon his father’s courage? Will he incarnate the wisdom and compassion he has inherited?
The drive from Bisho to Lower Kroza will occupy five hours of Dr Moko’s time. He speeds through the farmlands barely noticing the herdsmen or their scattered cattle. He crawls through bright crowded towns bustling with street vendors, weaving through the people, horn blaring with unaccustomed irritation.
Sicelo reaches for the radio, desperate for something else to think about.
‘Former President Mandela, recovering from the shock of the death of his granddaughter in a car crash last week, is retiring to his home in Qunu for a period of rest. All his public engagements have been cancelled.
And now, a round-up of the latest World Cup news beginning with a report of yesterday’s spectacular victory by the Netherlands over Brazil in the Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein.
An avid soccer fan, Sicelo might have listened eagerly to the sports news, but not today. He flicked off the radio and turned his attention back to the road ahead.
Some three and a half hours from Bisho, on the N2, lies the town of Qunu. It is unremarkable in every respect, except as the tribal home of the location’s most famous son. Dr Moko will drive through it in a fifteen minutes time. He will note the fine terracotta building behind the high wall and he will recall the owners’ insistence on the inclusion in the design of a rondavel in the grounds made of mud bricks and thatched in the traditional manner with grasses from the veldt. Dr Moko will receive the germ of an idea that will bring the ghost of a smile to his face.
Here is the moment:
“Thank you Tata!” he breathes. He now knows what he must do.
Fifty kilometres from Lower Kroza: Umtata. A large, thriving, thrusting town, reasonably safe, if one is vigilant, with shopping malls and traditional markets side by side, car showrooms and taxi-ranks cheek by jowl. Dr Moko will not want to stop here, he will drive out to the Ultra City service station in the University District where he will eat lunch at the Steers Diner and buy flowers for his mother. Then he will make two calls on his cell ‘phone.
Mrs Pauline Mokokoshewa loves her husband. Their marriage has weathered many storms and surmounted many difficulties. Race had never been one of them. The couple had met at medical school in Edinburgh and married six years ago, within months of graduation. Their families shared a confidence that these two would make a way through the complexities of life in the new Republic that was emerging from the old regime. No one thought it would be easy, just possible.
Pauline did not hate her mother-in-law. They were uneasy with one another, trying to reach out, each in her own way, but neither quite knowing how to find what was love in the other. It was in this discovery, that the essence of reconciliation would be distilled. Pauline sensed this, but had no idea of how to make it happen. She wept at the frustration of it all. With the death of her father-in-law, to whom she had been devoted, the bridge between herself and Mama Voko had been swept away.
‘Tata, what would you have me do?’
The undulating rhythm of the ring- tone dedicated to her husband, broke her train of thought. Her heart leapt as she fumbled for her ‘phone. Apologies poured out of her as she slid it open.
Five minutes later, laughing, a huge weight lifted from her shoulders, Pauline puts the ‘phone down.
‘Thank you, Tata,’ she breathes, knowing what she must do.
Two hundred kilometres away, Sicelo scrolls through his contacts and places a call.
‘Good morning. Mr Mhalangala.’
Briefly. Dr Mokokoshewa explains his dilemma to the Province’s foremost builder; a grateful former patient.
‘In the traditional style?’
‘Local materials? ‘
‘Seventy-thousand Rand? ‘
‘By Christmas? ‘
An appointment is made and a site visit arranged. Snapping his cell shut, Dr Moko switches on the engine, adjusts his seat belt and completes the final leg of his journey, a much happier man.
Forty minutes later, the first Mrs Voko Mokokoshewa knows of her son’s arrival is a swirl of dust as his Mercedes, with minimal effort, breasts the rutted dirt road to her kraal. Eagle-eyed and watchful, Mrs Molimbile leaves the shade of the ancient silver bean tree that shelters both farms, and draws to her friend’s side.
They have been united since girlhood, these two. Each sang and danced at the other’s wedding, shared the pain and joy of the deliveries of the eleven children they had borne between them, and, so recently, wept together at the funeral of Father Michael. This will be a hard parting.
Yet Mrs Molimbile will refuse the offer Dr Moko is soon to make to her, to join her friend in the new round house that is to be built adjoining his home in Bisho. There are the grandchildren, still at school, to be cared for, and while she has strength, she will continue to grow her mealies and fatten her geese, here, in the village where she had been born.
Dr Sicelo Mokokoshewa has rehearsed his speech all the way from Umtata. He tumbles out of his car, eager as a boy. He embraces his mother warmly. He greets Mama Molimbile cordially. Before either of the women could open their mouths, he unfolds his plan.
“Yo! Yo! Yo!”
Both women clap their hands in delight. A round house? With a thatched roof? A home where the ancestors will not be ashamed to visit?
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Dr Sicelo Mokokoshewa holds his mother tightly. “For you Momma, for Mama Molimbile, for our ancestors...”
With tears in her eyes Mrs Voko Mokokoshewa pulls away from her son and takes her old friend’s hands in hers.
“Sisi, I may have to stay here, with you, until next summer, but then...”
She pauses and turns her warm brown gaze towards her son,
“I am going home!”