Buhlebethu’s Quest – Lereko Mfono

And the time came near for the festivities of Abantwana Expression in the cultural village of eManzini to take place. The Abantwana Expression is one of the most anticipated festive events in the village for it is where the Chief Zimele comes out from his palace to greet the people, watch the young people express themselves and then lastly to hear the grievances of the eManzini people.

The festival is made up of two simple events: The ululation chorals from the young girls and the gumboot dancing from the young boys. The young boys and girls practise for the whole year for this one day event, their parents pressuring them to do the very best they can for Chief Zimele.

This year, a girl called Buhlebethu joins in the festivities. She is tall, strong and not interested in the ululation chorals that young girls form a part of. She grew up watching her two elder brothers practise and perform gumboot dancing for the Chief during their Abantwana Expressions and now has become a great gumboot dancer herself.

“Weh Buhle, have you gone to the ululation trainings at Ma’Gumede’s house like I told you?” MaNtuli, Buhebethu’s mom asks,

“No mama, all they do there is laugh at me and tell me I have a deep voice to be able to ululate, I don’t want to go there again!” Buhlebethu responds.

“Well then what are you going to do then wena Buhle when the Abantwana Expressions take place? O zo hlala la endlini o lale? Heh?”

“No mama, I will still participate “

“Participate? How so if you are refusing to go to practise lapho at Ma’Gumedes”

“I can participate mama, by doing gumboot dancing with the boys””

“Yini heh?! Get out of my house now and go practise your ululation at Ma’Gumedes, that nonsense you are speaking will never happen, I raised two boys not three, hamba!” MaNtuli concludes.

At Ma’Gumede’s, Buhlebethu tries her best to blend her voice with the other girls but her voice keeps taking avenues of its own, so much so that Ma’Gumede begins to accuse her of purposely disrupting the practise class. Humiliated and embarrassed, she runs out of Ma’Gumedes house, she runs fast and runs far away, she runs until she finds herself at the practise ground of the boys gumboot dancing. She watches from a distance as the boys begin to dance, she hears as the rhythm begins and the beating of the boots create a symphony of song in her, she begins to join in the dancing from where she is, following every sequence, movement and routine as if she is right there on the practise ground.

As night comes, she rushes home and meets her mother, MaNtuli, at the gate

“Where are you coming from ntombazana?” MaNtuli asks Buhlebethu

“I come from practise mama” she responds

“Okay, which one Buhlebethu?”

“What do you mean Mama, the practise for the Abantwana Expressions”

“Don’t make me a fool Buhle, you know what I’m saying! I just went to check up on you at Ma’Gumedes house and they told me there that you left, you went out and ran away somewhere, so I want to know where you ran off?”

“Nowhere mama, I was just angry that I couldn’t sing like the other girls, they laugh at me there mama, I don’t want to go back again.”

“You want to be like me heh Buhle, I never got the opportunity to perform for the Chief because I was scared of doing it, scared of being out there and ululating, this is your opportunity to be onstage and make us proud Buhle”.

The day of Abantwana Expressions soon comes and Buhle is as conflicted as ever. She is expected to be ululating with the girls but her heart belongs to the gumboot dancing which she is in no way allowedd to be a part of.

The girls, who start the festivities are arranged and Buhle is placed at the very back with a fierce instruction from Ma’Gumede, “Don’t you dare ruin what we have all worked hard for, in other words, don’t ululate, don’t you dare do anything.”

Chief Zimele appears at the festivities and gets a rousing reaction from the eManzini people. The fevers are high and everyone can’t wait for the young boys and girls to begin. In the crowd is also MaNtuli who waits eagerly for her daughter to ululate.

The festivities begin and the girls start with their ululation. Buhlebethu is nowhere to be seen though. MaNtuli changes positions to check other angles for her daughter but soon realises she’s not there. MaNtuli catches a glimpse of Buhlebethu who is seated at the sidelines, and marches to her.

“Heh wena Buhlebethu, what are you doing here? What did I say to you, why do you not listen to me heh?” MaNtuli shouts at her

“Mama they don’t want me here, Ma’Gumede told me to not to ruin the ululation, she told me to keep quiet and not even do anything because I can’t do it. I thought about you Mama, the dignity of our family and told myself to rather sit down on the sidelines and not embarrass myself and you by keeping quiet within a ululation performance”. Buhlebethu responds

“But what gives that woman the right to do this? MaNtuli shoots back, “Does she not know the festivities have nothing to do with gift and talent, it is about celebrating our heritage and having the Chief and parents see their children happy and joyous”.

“But Mama, you are exactly like her, you too don’t want me to celebrate like the other children and be happy and joyous, I told you I can’t ululate, I cannot do it at all, but what I can do is do gumboot dancing, just like my big brothers mama, that’s what makes me happy”.

MaNtuli looks at her teary eyed daughter and finally makes peace with her daughter’s desires and tells her to “have fun and do the best she can”.

The boys get on to the performance area and Buhlebethu is the last to run in, fully geared in her gumboot apparel. Everyone in the festivities goes silent, including the gumboot boys…Then with all boldness and confidence she can muster, she calls it,

“Weh bafana! ni’khathele? Vukani maan si’shaye lento!” Buhlebethu’s fiery shout surprisingly invigorates the crowd and the boys welcome her to the gumboot dancing. Buhlebethu keeps up with every step, every routine and every chant, the crowd follows the dancing with great excitement and vigour, and MaNtuli is so proud of her daughter that tears begin to stream down her face.

The gumboot dancing comes to an end as the applause works up to an electrifying celebration, the Chief joins the gumboot dancers and pulls out Buhlebethu from them all, encouraging the crowd to clap for her, the whole of eManzini stands to their feet, as the Chief takes over promising to make eManzini better for the future of the children who will become tomorrow’s leaders.

At the end of the festivities, Buhlebethu returns home with her mom and her mom speaks to her,

“Buhle I haven’t been honest with you my daughter, when I was as young as you, my father taught me to do gumboot dancing, I was so good that I taught some of the leaders in the gumboot dancing teams new moves and dances, but I was never allowed to join the boys during our Abantwana festivities. I am proud of you my daughter, because of what you did today, many other girls will try this gumboot and be happy just like you, just like I would have been.”

Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo

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