They say there was once a widowed Old Man popularly known as Motho wa Batho because of his humility. He lived in the village of Thaba Phatswa with his seven children. The Old Man and his sons and daughter worked together daily as a unit; planning, organizing, and directing their household and its affairs. Every member of the family had a role they played. One was responsible for handling cattle, another the family portion of the village fields, others the trading of the family produce such as milk, eggs, vegetables and so on. Even though everyone would be immersed in their duties during the day – theirs was a five to five working day – in the evening, they had a tradition whereby they would all come together at the fire place outside to discuss the events of the day. Here they would eat, drink and sometimes they would sit watching the stars and the moon and listening to the sounds of night life.
That being so, there was one thing that was constant with these evening gatherings, the Old Man would always remind his children about the reasons why they had to all gather around the fire place in the evening; it was a reminder that they were each a part of a whole.
‘Ke a kgolwa le lemohile hore haesale le tswalwa ha hona mohlang re sa tleng mona tjhebeleng mantsiboa amang le amang. Ntle le ha e le mariha.‘ The children laughed together with their father at his last statement in agreement that it was only during winter that the family did not gather around the fire place in the evenings because in winter they took the fire inside carried in old aluminium tanks that had holes in them to allow the fire to breath. ‘Do you ever wonder why I never allowed you to sit outside this circle?’ he said with a calm grin. ‘This circle represents unity, interdependence, a continuing link of support and thus ensures our stability. Our family circle represents the very nature of humanity and how life should be on earth; none of us is without the other,’ said the Old Man, slowly looking across the circle and maintaining eye contacting with each of his children. He had eyes so full of passion and warmth that they glittered against the moonlight.
It was a natural heritage of the people of Thaba Phatswa to create social meaning from the things that surrounded them, Motho wa Batho was no exception, he liked telling his children about the philosophies of round structures. ‘Look at the moon, the sun, the dam, even our kraals and our huts themselves, you see how they all take a round form. The sun for instance, it rises as a beautiful calm whole that travels through the sky in the same circular form, and although the sun spreads its rays into different directions during the course of the day, the rays shrink back in and the sun resumes the form it took when it rose in the morning. We are like the sunrays; we rise together, spread to our different chores, but return to the centre in the evening.’
This family tradition went on for years and the principle behind it, which the Old Man made it a point to remind his children of every night, kept this family strong for years. Even though some of the sons married, they did not leave their father’s yard, they lived in close proximity to their fathers hut and continued to lead their lives as they had been doing over the years. With time, things were changing around the world and there came the period of industrialization which saw a lot of young men and women from small villages migrating to urban areas. Amid these changes the Old Man did not for once think that any of his children would be attracted to the idea of leaving their own fields and livestock to go and work under the thumb of another. Until one night his youngest daughter, Mmabatho approached him saying that she would soon leave for the urban area to seek for even for greater treasures of the world.
The Old man was disappointed and tried to convince his daughter that there was nothing for her away from her ‘herd’. He said she would not receive the support she needed there and would forever feel in isolation no matter how crowded the place were because everyone there was looking out for themselves. He tried to convince the daughter further saying that, she was approaching marriage age and would soon find a great man to marry and take care of her. The Old man’s words did not penetrate the skull of the daughter because her decision had been long premeditated so, she rejected the advice. In this village the people had a saying for such a situation when a child did not take to heart the advice of elders that, O tla utlwa ka letlalo, ‘if the ear won’t perceive, it is the flash that will suffer.’
There then came the day when the young woman would take off to the City of Lights. A few days before then she took to the nearby town where she bought a new suit case and new clothes with all that she had accumulated from working the asparagus fields – this was big money, and she bought a small brown envelop to store the rest of her cash money. You see, before this period of industrialization, people of Thaba Phatswa battered goods for goods and services for services or goods for services and vice versa, in this way no one ran out of anything, and if you did you could always get it from a neighbour in exchange for a thing that they needed from you. Trade was a circular phenomenon. Even though they did make money from selling from outsider, they barely had a need for it because their earth feed them, and this is how Mmabatho had a lot of savings from her hard work.
On the day of her departure, the young woman rose before the sun and went to meet her peers who had already established dwellings in the industrial areas, most of which were mining areas and factories. These other young women and men lived in hostels and always stuck together in the city because they understood the importance of being a part of a group, and Mmabatho was expected to stick with them as one of theirs. She would now have a new circle to rely on for support, away from home. This gave her father some hope. The young people of Thaba Phatswa arrived in the city after long hours in the train. On arrival, Mmabatho could not help but think a fool of her peers who had chosen to stay in overpopulated untidy hostels while just across the bridge there were neater, tall buildings, with ‘houses on top of houses’ as she thought. In the village she had a respectable family and led a respectable life, she was not going to stay in filth. ‘No!’ Out of anger, she left her homeboys and was disappointed that they did not aspire for the better. This was ridiculous according to her.
As she wandered the long streets amidst the tall buildings, the young woman came across a well presented man- neater than those she had seen at the hostel- who appeared to be a hawker, he had in front of him nibbles and cigarettes that were sold to passers-by. He also had a little baby wrapped in blankets besides him. The man seemed to be in distress and he called out to the young woman, “Sister, sister could you please spare me a minute?” plead the man. “I am stuck here and it is getting late. I was supposed to go to the bank office to send money to my child who is in another town to come to the city; the Chinese factories are hiring and he needs to be here before the end of the day. But I cannot go to the bank office because they do not allow small children inside,” he said pointing to the baby wrapped besides him. “Would you please take this envelop, it has 2 Pounds in it to send it to his bank office account? The address is here.” Being the compassionate person that she was at heart, the young woman did not hesitate to help. “Oh, but wait,” said the man. “How do I know that I can trust you? Is there anything of yours that I can hold on to as assurance that you will return?” The man’s proposition sounded in order, and Mmabatho thought, to assure the gentleman that she was transparent and honest; she would leave all her belongs with the man.
She went on as directed by the man, looking for the bank office until she reached a deadlock. Seeing as she was not finding the bank office, the young woman then saw it better to return and perhaps offer to look after the man’s baby while he goes on to the bank office himself. However, on her way back, she found that the man had vanished into thick, cold air of the city space. Her bags including the one with her 1000 pounds 60 pence! For a moment the young woman thought that because the little one wrapped was still there, that the man would come back, but as she looked closely, she realized that it was not even a baby at all. Later on, someone would inform her that there was no way the bank would be open on that day as it was a Sunday. Because of her little knowledge of the city regulations, the young woman wandered the streets of the city past the time restriction that black people were allowed to walked around that part of the city. This led to her arrest and short imprisonment at the Woman’s Jail in the Constitution Court of the City of Lights, Johannesburg. Although she had led herself into isolation, she met other women in the jail who told her stories of their own struggles and national struggles. This became her new circle. She drew inspiration from these other women, realizing the work that needed to be done and this sprout in her a new hope for her life; that she was not lost after all, believing that her subconscious had led her to her new purpose – to be a part of a community of women who after their imprisonment, continued to fight the powers that subordinated their rights as women and those of their communities at large. After her jail time, Mmabatho found shelter with one of her mates from prison who was a shebeen owner and ran a night school in her shebeen too. She introduced Mmabatho to the concept of comradeship. In the long run, Mmabatho came to make Johannesburg her new home, much aware of the tricksters who posed as gentlemen, she would not be deceived ever again.
With the first money she received from working as a waitress at her mate’s shebeen, her first thought was to go home. She took the train back to Thaba Phatswa carrying gifts for her brothers and sisters as well as her father. It was her determination that she would always go back to her roots, to visit her living family and those who have passed; to visit their graveyards and sprinkle snuff over their graves and ask them to guide her and her fellow freedom fighters in Johannesburg. When she left for Johannesburg again, Mmabatho’s father gave her herbs and organic vegetables from the mountains surrounding their area. The herbs where mainly for sale, and she sold them at her mate’s shebeen and at meetings with other comrades, “To make you strong and healthy comrades. And to make you immune to this Western magic that has turned some of us into co-marauders and sell-outs,” she said and the bunch laughed.
Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo