Sabata-mpho Mokae (South Africa) writes in two languages; English and Setswana, a southern African language. He is the author of a biography The Story of Sol T Plaatje, a youth novella, Dikeledi [Tears], and a poetry collection, Escaping Trauma. His debut novel, Ga Ke Modisa [I’m Not My Brother’s Keeper] won the M-Net Literary Award for Best Novel in Setswana, as well as the M-Net Film Award in 2013. He also won the South African Literary Award in 2011. His short story Down Sol Plaatje Drive was performed on theatre stage during the Global Express in Iowa City, USA, in 2014. His latest book, Kanakotsame [In My Times], a collection of fiction pieces, was launched in 2015. He holds an MA degree in Creative Writing from Rhodes University. In 2014, he was a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa, where he was also awarded a honorary fellowship. He is a creative writing lecturer at the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, South Africa.
As Time Changes
Dikhudung village was about twenty kilometres west of the city Kimberley. The sparsely populated village of mud houses, zinc structures and several brick houses lay on the eastern foot of the Hill of Witches.
There were many stories why the hill got that name. The most circulated story was that the founder of the village, the first traditional leader of Bakhudu people, was a very paranoid and temperamental man. He always consulted with the village seer, Rradithudi, wanting to know who among the villagers was plotting to kill him. The latter would tell the chief that so and so was the spy for the neighbouring tribe and that soon Dikhudung would be attacked. In turn the chief would ask the seer to create a story that the suspected spy was a witch. The poor fellow would then be taken to the hill to be executed.
The execution was a simple but cruel act of being hanged on a tree until the soul left the body. He would then be buried in a deep grave that would be filled with stones. That is how the hill came to be known to Bakhudu as “Thaba ya Baloi,” the Hill of Witches.
It was not only the spies who met the wrath of the reigning chief. Old and ugly women who were also suspected of having caused the death of some people in the village would also be hanged and buried in the deep graves on the hilltop. The chief would also, with the help of Rradithudi, find someone to blame for the devastating drought or the deaths of livestock.
People hardly went up to the Hill of Witches. Whoever went up there would be suspected of going to consult with the evil spirits that brought bad luck to the village. Even the ones, whose relatives met their death by hanging and were buried on top of the hill, never went up to visit the graves. All graves were unmarked. They were all a heap of stones each.
The village was surrounded by farms. It looked like a dry island in a sea of greenness. No farming was taking place there; only the diamond digging that had already exposed the village’s intestines to the harsh and taunting sun.
On the western foot of the hill was the river that flows throughout the year. It was along the banks of the river where most of the digging was taking place. The villagers had since ceased to fish because they would be chased away by the diggers’ security guards for trespassing.
Even without guards being around, villagers could not get closer to the river because of the many holes that had been dug and left open on its banks. Many feared they would fall into the holes and never found.
Without fish to catch and water for their vegetables, many villagers had come to rely on selling their labour at the diggings so that they could buy food and other essentials. It was almost forgotten that at some point they fished, planted vegetables and kept livestock. But then they had the river.
Things changed the day one bearded white man in a suit came to see the village chief about the possibility of the land being rich in diamonds. The man took soil samples and few months later some big machines were brought to the village.
It has been three generations since then. The villagers could no longer take their livestock to the river. They could no longer fish. They could not fetch water for their vegetable gardens. Women could no longer go to the river to wash clothes. Men could no longer bathe in the river in the early evenings. Young men could no longer wait for young women when they came to fetch water. Boys and girls could no longer swim in the river when days were warm.
Without the river, life changed for the worst in the village.
A water hole was bored and a windmill was put up on the top of the hill, but then instead of more wind, there was more heat and the windmill pumped out very little water. The villagers also had to share borehole water with their horses, cattle, sheep and goats.
The situation became hopeless. They began selling their livestock.
In a short space of time there was no single cow in the village. No sheep. No goats. The only sounds were those of heavy machines that were drilling the village and milking it of all its diamonds day and night, as if they were in a hurry.
It was said that royalties were paid to Chief Kgarubane, the sixth in the lineage of Bakhudu chiefs since the breaking away of the group from the larger Batlhaping tribe. In a stark contrast, villagers were poor, even by their own standards.
His son, the heir apparent, was in a university in England, just like the chief and his brothers. His house, with its brick fencing and white walls, was a mansion.
It had been a decade since the last pitso, the tribal general meeting in which royalties and other tribal affairs were often discussed, was convened.
The chief often had a reason why the pitso could not be held. In the meantime, his village bled its diamonds and no one but he amongst the people got wealthier in the process.
Most healthy-looking men toiled at the diamond diggings. The only hope for better change was the children for whom the Berlin Missionary Society had built a school.
After disembarking from the bus that carried on with its journey to the next town of Campbell, Kedibone and her grandmother entered the village. There was only one entrance and a dirt road went past the royal kraal, then to the rest of the village.
A smoking old truck with men in blue overalls at the back came and passed, leaving them blinded by a cloud of dust.
“These men work at the diamond diggings, my child,” said the old woman.
“E le gore ba epa dikgaraga?” Kedibone asked. Do they dig the ground in search for the diamonds, grandma?
“Yes, my child. This land of our forefathers has been dug for many years now. Maybe it is just hollow underneath our feet,” she said, kicking some sand and pointing animatedly in all directions.
Kedibone laughed in slight disbelief.
“Really, grandma? Won’t the surface collapse if it just hollow underneath our feet?”
“No, my child, there are wooden pillars that hold the roof of the shaft so that the earth would not collapse.”
“And how did you know about all these things, grandma?”
“Your grandfather worked in the diamond mines, not the shallow diggings that you see here. I’m talking about the real mine where men go deep in the intestines of the earth. He had a boss, Van der Merwe, who used to enjoy my homebrewed beer.”
“Was Van der Merwe not a white man, grandma?” she asked.
Van der Merwe was a white man. His father was a mine manager and he also became a mine manager. He came from a long line of gold and diamond mine owners and managers.
“So, a white man enjoyed your homebrew? Grandma, are you talking about the sorghum beer that you always brew?”
“Yes, I’m talking about the very same sorghum beer that you know. Van der Merwe used to enjoy it. In the beginning, other white men used to tell him that it would cause him to run to the toilet too often. Then they came with all sorts of stories. But he never paid attention to them,” the old woman said.
She then laughed out so loud that her granddaughter started laughing as well.
“Grandma, you must have been adding something to that beer that made a white man defy all his friends and come to your house everyday!”
“No, my child. I used the normal ingredients that all the other women used. I just had a good hand.”
“What are those ingredients, grandma?”
“I used wild berries that we gathered from the veld to make beer. If it is a season when there are no wild berries, I would use brown bread flour and brown sugar. The only thing that I added all the time was dry yeast,” the grandmother explained.
“The best homebrew was the one in which wild berries were the main ingredients. The brewer had to crush slightly ripe berries and add them to lukewarm water and then add brown sugar and yeast,” she explained as they walked.
It had to be left for over a period of two days to ferment and then it would have its notoriously potent kick.
“We used to feast on wild berries but they made us thirsty. You also had to be patient because most of the fruit is the seed, which you mustn’t eat. Only the skin tastes sweet. Now, because most people have no patience, they eat the whole thing and would be unable to release anything when they went into the bush.”
“Ao? So, what happened to them?” Kedibone asked, too embarrassed to laugh.
“Their parents had to either get someone with the spyt to help loosen their stomachs or they had to drink lots of milk,” the old woman said, laughing out very loud.
Kedibone was one of the very few people who had the privilege of seeing her grandmother laugh that much.
“But grandma, how did the white man find out about your sorghum beer?”
The villagers used to brew beer when there were ceremonies such as mpho ya badimo, the ancestral offering. Also during weddings and when the boys came back from the mountain.
But Kedibone thought these ceremonies were only attended by black people.
“No, my child. Even the white people who got bored at the diggings when all the workers were attending the ceremony would come along to watch us sing and dance. The next thing they were hungry and we gave them food.”
“And then you, grandma, gave them your beer?”
“They wanted to taste it. I remember Van der Merwe asking me what’s been added to that beer when so many people were drunk. I said nothing. He wanted to taste it. He came back the following day asking for what’s left.”
She brewed for him and he came back after two days for it.
“He gulped once and the jug was half. When he was done, he looked me straight in the eye and asked how much I wanted for the whole calabash,” she said, opening her hands wide to show that it might have been the size of an oil gallon.
He gave her five shillings for it. “His workers said they drank half and he knocked himself with another half. Before I knew it, I had to brew sorghum beer for him every Thursday morning so that it was ready by Friday late afternoon!”
Kedibone’s grandmother had such a good hand that even the chief always asked her to lead the women when they had to brew for the biggest pitso of the year. During the time of the pitso, the annual village general meeting, everything in the village came to a standstill. People kept their livestock in the kraals, men who worked in the city came back to the village and women cleaned their houses and cooked for their families very early, before going to the royal kraal, to start cooking meat for the whole village. Normally the kgosi would get the young men to slaughter up to ten fat cows. The day began with the sound of a lepatata, the kudu horn, from the entrance of the kgotla, the royal kraal. That was a day which every villager, no matter where work and school might have thrown them, never wanted to miss.
“Then the young men would slaughter cows and all the women had to go to the royal kraal to cook and brew traditional beer.”
The young men who slaughtered the cows did so under the supervision of older men and women who cooked had their supervisors just as the women who brewed beer were supervised by Kedibone’s grandmother, then an energetic young woman.
Then the old woman, on whom the conversation and direction of the journey depended, stopped and threw her eyes far into the horizon. And then a tear fell down on the ground, creating a little dot on the earth surface. “You know, we used to live happily here when I was your age. Times have gone and the world has changed.”
Kedibone didn’t know what to say. She took out some toilet paper, passed it on to her grandmother and held her left hand. She went back to their original conversation.
“So, this beer is special?”
“Yes, my child. It was special. It no longer is. In my time young men were initiated by older men into drinking beer. Women were frowned upon if they were seen drinking. Nowadays, everybody drinks. They even drink in public, without hiding it from their children!”
Women bore children and were homemakers, she told her granddaughter.
“Where have you seen a drunken woman taking good care of her children and husband?” she asked.
“My child’s child, if you are drunk, you will burn your food and it will not taste good. You will also fall over and kill your newborn baby. Men are beasts. They have no food to cook. They have no children to give birth to, breastfeed or take care of. They can drink all the time. Women cannot be like that, my child.”
“I sometimes wish I had lived then, grandma. Not now.”
“My child, God has decided that we must live now. Just like those who have lived before us, we also have a reason to be here at this moment. God is not a fool,” the old woman said.
The arrival of a new family in the village had to be reported at the royal kraal. The chief and his council had to be satisfied that the new family had its origins in the village. Most people had surnames that every villager knew. Others pointed at the graves of the ancestors while the rest brought documents like baptism certificates. Thereafter the new family could settle on a piece of land that the kgosi or his chosen delegate would allocate them. This would be as close as possible to where the family lived before.
The year was nearing its end and many working people and children of school-going age were at home for holidays. But the narrow streets, most of which were basically a network of pathways, seemed deserted and lonely.
The village was vastly different from the sprawling township of Galeshewe. The first thing that Kedibone noticed was the absence of electricity pylons in the village. And then she saw the pit lavatories that were located about hundred metres or so away from the houses.
Unlike in the townships, there were no houses that looked the same and village streets had no names. Almost every house had a kraal next to it. Most had sizable vegetable gardens. Some houses were built with mud, others with corrugated iron and very few with cement bricks. But these houses did not have numbers. Households were identified by family names. Why her grandmother had decided that they should relocate to such a place, only the old woman and her god knew.
After the chief had given them a piece of land, young men came to help them set up a shack and erect a simple fence, which mainly served to mark the boundaries.
The new family had to be introduced to the neighbours. The greetings normally took a form of a traditional praise poem known by every member of the Bakhudung tribe and having been passed from an older generation to a younger generation.