The tale of an African woman
I have been watching the old man with the big beard for a long time now. I see people walk past him without noticing him while others just give a quick glance. Others stand to be photographed beside him. They walk by, stare and point at whatever they find noteworthy. He watches the multiple public events going on around him. Some people want him to leave while others want him to stay. In all this he stands there, staring back at all that passes before him. Does he really care what people say or do? What does he think? What stories can he tell? Today I am going to ask him.
Yes, Fruit Vendor. I have seen you watching me. I know all that humankind is capable of. I have seen so much. I have so many stories to tell … so many.
The old man's weathered face clouds with remembrance, his stare distant. He leans heavily on his kierie, tired and worn by humanity's performance in the concert of life. He speaks sadly, but behind his old voice I sense a glimmer of … what is it? Anticipation? Hope?
This story is not about a person. It is about a place with a soul - a place with a grand future. It is a place deeply scarred by its past. Yet, I think that the scarring, no matter how terrible it seemed, has a purpose. Its history has made it strong.
Pointing to an inscription on a bronze plaque close by, he asks me to read it to him. It is written in Dutch, which I do not understand, but he is adamant that I should try. In uncertain, Africanised Afrikaans, I stumble over the foreign words:
Zoekt in het verledene al het goed en schoone, dat daarin te ontedekken valt vormt daarnaam uw ideal en beproeft voor de toekoms dat de ideal te verwezenlyken.
With the wisdom of an aged chief and experienced storyteller sitting by the fireside, he paraphrases the meaning of the inscription and begins his story.
We must take out of the past all that is good and on that we must build our ideals for the future. We must not focus on the trouble of the past but we must consider what it has taught us. Listen to an old man who knows. Just study an African woman when she walks with a load of wood or water pot on her head, and you will see what I mean. No one can stand straight unless they have learnt to walk beneath a weight. No one can sing unless they have learnt to sing in the wasteland. Yes, the place in the story is much like an African woman - a mosadi who stands straight. She stands with purpose in her stance and with power in her soul - because she has learnt to walk beneath a weight.
… And what a heavy weight she had to bear! She was born on a Boer farm below the Mohale Mountains near the river where the little monkeys live. The Boer farm was on ground that belonged to Africans, so, even before her birth, the contest for her had begun. As she grew it became clear that she had a special destiny - one that would give power to those who could possess her - and the contest for her intensified. It was a contest by two lovers: Boer with his ancestors in Europe and Nguni with his ancestors from Africa. They were not driven by love but by greed and lust for who she would become and the power she would give them … and thus her anguish began.
Like the pestering little monkeys at the river the two men began to woo her. They become like the sharp stones of the river that hurt her feet when she draws water. She knows what her destiny is: from her bosom would come special people and she could not now choose one above the other.
They take her by force and rape her. They rape her again … and again … ploughing her valleys with spears, sowing her hills with gunpowder as they ravage and kill her people. Nguni, in his customary exploitation of women, seeds her flowerbeds; Boer seizes what she births. Still, she grows into the most important place in the province. Nguni and Boer hostilities continue and they dig cavernous pits of hate deep into her bedrock - pits that swallow her children …
Then a third lover comes.
Brit thrusts his Union Jacked flagpole into the navel of her belly. He pitches his white tents on her bosom. He rolls out his canons, saturates her soil with Boer blood, and beats Nguni into submission. The woman's destiny takes shape. As she lies helpless in her naked womanhood, Boer and Brit fight for her. Brit is enspirited by his gluttony and Boer by his greed. Nguni, enspirited by his domination of women, watches.
The old man turns his suffering eyes to another bronze plaque. Compelled, I do not argue but read the strange words:
Met vertrouwen leggen wij onze zaak open voor de gehele wereld. Hetziy wiy overwinner, hetziy wiy sterven, de vryheid zal in Afrika ryzen als de zon uit de morgenwolke.
His coat lies heavily on his still straight shoulders as we fetch fruit from my stall and move into the shade of a tree. We settle down onto the grass and he continues:
Nguni, Boer and Brit did not understand the woman's destiny. Whether in death or in victory, out of her freedom shall arise. Not freedom for one group and slavery for another. She was chosen to be the place where peoples, languages and nations would come together for a very special purpose. As sure as the sun rises from behind the morning clouds, she is the marked and chosen daughter of Africa.
Brit and Boer come to an agreement and the Vierkleur replaces the Union Jack in the woman's navel. The woman grows in status and becomes the capital of the first republic. Her hills and valleys fill with streets and buildings built around the pits of hate, now permanent sinkholes scarring her beauty. Business and industry, seeded by the labour of Nguni, swell her womb.
Brit and Boer continue to quibble, tension rises between Boer and his brothers and both use Nguni to feed their coffers. Brit finally stops his advances on the woman, while Boer and his brothers unite.
By now the woman has matured into a city of promise. She is the capital from which all the administration is done for the entire country. Public servants flock to her, and a building, symbolising a newfound union, is built on one of her eastern koppies.
Boer has now taken the woman for himself. His strength, built on Nguni's bent back, increases. He changes his name to Nationalist and he carves deep boundaries into the woman's body. This side of a scar the Nationalists will live; on the other the strangers from India. Nguni and his brothers must still feed the coffers but they have to live far beyond the most dreadful scar. As Nguni increases in number, Nationalist subjects him to the most inhumane treatment. Every time a leader arises that can rally Nguni and his brothers to stand up for themselves, Nationalist imprisons or kills him.
The old man, distressed by the words he speaks, lowers his voice to a whisper. I lean closer to hear.
For years, with the orange, white and blue flag thrust into her naval, she has to bear the pain as more demons of hate rise from the pits that Boer and Nguni dug. The very psyche of Brit, Nguni, Boer's brothers who did not change their name to Nationalist, and Nationalist alike became pockmarks of bitterness, contention and suffering. Together, in the search for power, they subject the woman to destruction and abuse. The woman herself ultimately becomes an object of hate throughout the world - her beauty now a wasteland of hate.
Then … sensible brothers of Nationalist, Brit, Nguni and Boer arise. In a long, scary and painful process they reconcile the woman's children. The woman leaves the wasteland of hate where the world has discarded her. She baths and dresses in clean clothes. Her children gather around her, many trying to erase the scars of the past - both hers and theirs.
Men begin to notice her again. This time, however, they agree to take care of her together. But in the process, some still try to enrich themselves while others are plain thieves. Many of her children are destitute, crime erects its fences in the streets and stark inequalities become the new dividing borders. Little ones live in the streets and begging becomes a profession. She and her children inherit the legacy of immoral life - a fatal disease.
Nguni, Boer and Brit, however, persist with purposefully and actively correcting the combined errors of their past. The woman undergoes a dramatic change. The once bitter city becomes a cosmopolitan metropolis and home to a million fun-loving, ordinary yet courageous people, entrepreneurs, talented musicians and artists from around the world. Her children, with their different cultures, now have a strong new sense of identity and hope for a grand future. She houses the ministries of the government, key national institutions, renowned institutions of higher learning and research and world-class businesses. Landmarks commemorate part of her history while Boer, Nguni and Brit are planning together for landmarks that will encompass her whole history and untold suffering.
… A suffering that has tempered the clay of her children with mortar. Boer and Brit tempered Nguni. Brit and Boer tempered each other. Boer tempered Boer. Nguni tempered Boer and Brit. Without knowing it, they reduced, tempered and moderated one another. Now Nguni, Brit and Boer, toughened and shaped by the rigours and suffering of past experiences, are becoming a sure mould - a mould into which the heated liquid out of the woman's destiny will be poured. Brit, Nguni and Boer have made each one another suitable and the woman more desirable.
That is why I keep watching. I see the woman stand with purpose in her stance and with power in her soul. She has learnt to walk beneath the weight of death and destruction. She has learnt to sing in the wastelands of hate. Experience has now moulded the toughened mortar of her children and I am waiting to see her liquid gold destiny poured into the mould.
Next time, Fruit Vendor, when you hear talk of the woman, warn the speakers not to judge her by her past but by her potential. Look not to her background but to who she is to become.
Look ahead Fruit Vendor, look ahead ...
The old man with the big beard, kierie, and heavy coat walks to where the bronze plaques are mounted. From behind the sandstone he retrieves his book and top hat and takes up his place among the people and pigeons of the woman Tshwane.
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