“Tears are very close to my eyes,” says Bhonco, son of Ximiya. “Not for pain . . . no . . . I do not cry because of pain. I cry only because of beautiful things.”
And he cries often. Sometimes just a sniffle. Or a single tear down his cheek. As a result he carries a white handkerchief all the time, especially these days when peace has returned to the land and there is enough happiness to go around. It is shared like pinches of snuff. Rivers of salt. They furrow the aged face.
Bhonco is different from the other Unbelievers in his family, for Unbelievers are reputed to be such somber people that they do not believe even in those things that can bring happiness to their lives. They spend most of their time moaning about past injustices and bleeding for the world that would have been had the folly of belief not seized the nation a century and a half ago and spun it around until it was in a woozy stupor that is felt to this day. They also mourn the sufferings of the Middle Generations. That, however, is only whispered.
Bhonco does not believe in grieving. He has long accepted that what has happened has happened. It is cast in cold iron that does not entertain rust. His forebears bore the pain with stoicism. They lived with it until they passed on to the world of the ancestors.
Then came the Middle Generations. In between the forebears and this new world. And the Middle Generations fleeted by like a dream. Often like a nightmare. But now even the sufferings of the Middle Generations have passed. This is a new life, and it must be celebrated. Bhonco, son of Ximiya, celebrates it with tears.
NoPetticoat, his placable wife, is on the verge of losing patience with his tears. Whenever someone does a beautiful thing in the presence of her husband she screams, “Stop! Please stop! Or you’ll make Bhonco cry!”
She dotes on him though, poor thing. People say it is nice to see such an aged couple—who would be having grandchildren if their daughter, Xoliswa Ximiya, had not chosen to remain an old maid—so much in love.
It is a wonderful sight to watch the couple walking side by side from a feast. He, tall and wiry with a deep chocolate face grooved with gullies; and she, a stout matron whose comparatively smooth face makes her look younger than her age. Sometimes they are seen staggering a bit, humming the remnants of a song, their muscles obviously savoring the memory of the final dance of a feast.
The custom is that men walk in front and women follow. But Bhonco and NoPetticoat walk side by side. Sometimes holding hands! A constant source of embarrassment to Xoliswa Ximiya: old people have no right to love. And if they happen to be foolish enough to harbor the slightest affection for each other, they must not display it in public.
“Tears are close to my eyes, NoPetticoat,” snivels the man of the house, dabbing his eyes with the handkerchief.
“A big man like you shouldn’t be bawling like a spoiled baby, Bhonco,” says the woman of the house, nevertheless putting her arm around his shoulders.
A beautiful thing has happened. They have just received the news that Xoliswa Ximiya, their beloved and only child, has been promoted at work. She is now the principal of Qolorha-by-Sea Secondary School.
Xoliswa Ximiya is not called just Xoliswa. People use both her name and surname when they talk about her, because she is an important person in the community. A celebrity, so to speak. She is highly learned too, with a B.A. in education from the University of Fort Hare, and a certificate in teaching English as a second language from some college in America.
“They will not accept her,” laments NoPetticoat, as if to herself.
“But she is a child of this community,” says Bhonco adamantly. “She grew up in front of their eyes. She became educated while others laughed and said I was mad to send a girl to school.”
“They will say she is a woman. Remember the teacher who left? He was a man, yet they didn’t accept him. They made life very difficult for him. How much more for a woman?”
“They made life difficult for him because he was uncircumcised. He was not a man. How could he teach our children with a dangling foreskin?”
“I tell you, Bhonco, they won’t accept her. They will give my baby problems at that school!”
“She is not a baby. She is thirty-six years old. And if they don’t accept her it will be the work of the Believers. They are jealous because they don’t have a daughter who is as educated,” says Bhonco, making it clear that the discussion is terminated.
It had to come back to the war between the Believers and Unbelievers. They are in competition in everything.
The early manifestation of this competition happened a few years ago when the Ximiyas bought a pine dining table with four chairs. The family became the talk of the community, since no one else in the village had a dining table those days. But Zim, of the family of Believers, had to burst the Ximiya bubble by buying exactly the same dining table, but with six chairs. That really irked the son of Ximiya and his supporters.
Since then the war between the two families has become a public one. Their good neighbors await with bated breath the next skulduggery they will do against each other.
The Cult of the Unbelievers began with Twin-Twin, Bhonco Ximiya’s ancestor, in the days of Prophetess Nongqawuse almost one hundred and fifty years ago. The revered Twin-Twin had elevated unbelieving to the heights of a religion. The cult died during the Middle Generations, for people then were more concerned with surviving and overcoming their oppression. They did not have the time to fight about the perils of belief and unbelief.
But even before the sufferings of the Middle Generations had passed—when it was obvious to everyone that the end was near—Bhonco, son of Ximiya, resurrected the cult.
He does not care that only his close relatives and himself subscribe to it. Nor does it matter to him that people have long forgotten the conflicts of generations ago. He holds to them dearly, for they have shaped his present, and the present of the nation. His role in life is to teach people not to believe. He tells them that even the Middle Generations wouldn’t have suffered if it had not been for the scourge of belief.
Beautiful things are celebrated not only with tears. So Bhonco tells his wife that he will go to Vulindlela Trading Store to buy a tin of corned beef. NoPetticoat laughs and says he must not use the promotion of her baby as an excuse. He needs something salty because he had a lot to drink at the feast yesterday, and now he is nursing a hangover. Whoever heard of sorghum beer giving one a hangover? Bhonco wonders to himself.
“While you are away I’ll go to the hotel to see if they have work for me,” says NoPetticoat as she adjusts her qhiya turban and puts a shawl over her shoulders. But her husband cannot hear her, for he has already walked out of their pink rondavel.
NoPetticoat supplements the income from her old-age pension—or nkamnkam, as the people call it—by working as a babysitter at the Blue Flamingo Hotel. Tourists often come to enjoy the serenity of this place, to admire birds and plants, or to go to the Valley of Nongqawuse to see where the miracles happened. They book in at the Blue Flamingo, and leave their children with part-time nannies while they walk or ride all over the valley, or swim in the rough sea.
NoPetticoat is occasionally called by the hotel management when there are babies to look after. However, when many days have passed without anyone calling her, she walks to the hotel to find out if there is any work. She has had to do that since she discovered that the managers call her only as a last resort. Their first choices are the young women whose bodies are still supple enough to make red-blooded male tourists salivate. Almost always when she goes without being called, she finds that indeed there are babies to look after, but a message has been sent to some shameless filly to come for the job. Invariably she fights her way and takes over.
Bhonco drags his gumboots up the hillock to the trading store. His brown overalls are almost threadbare at the elbows and at the knees. He wears a green woolen hat that the people call a skullcap. He does not carry a stick as men normally do.
Under his breath he curses the trader for building his store on the hill. But the breathtaking view from the top compensates for the arduous climb. Down below, on his right, he can see the wild sea smashing gigantic waves against the rocks, creating mountains of snow-white surf. On his left his eyes feast on the green valleys and the patches of villages with beautiful houses painted pink, powder blue, yellow, and white.
Most of the houses are rondavels. But over the years a new architectural style, the hexagon, has developed. On the roofs of these voguish hexagons, corrugated iron appears under the thatch, like a petticoat that is longer than the dress. This is both for aesthetic reasons and to stop the termites. But Bhonco does not believe in this newfangled fashion of building hexagons instead of the tried and tested rondavel.
From where he stands he can see the Gxarha River and the Intlambo-ka-Nongqawuse—Nongqawuse’s Valley. He can also see Nongqawuse’s Pool and the great lagoon that is often covered by a thick blanket of mist.
Indeed, Qolorha-by-Sea is a place rich in wonders. The rivers do not cease flowing, even when the rest of the country knells a drought. The cattle are round and fat.
Bhonco was born in this village. He grew up in this village. Except for the time he worked in the cities, he has lived in this village all his life. Yet he is always moved to tears by its wistful beauty.
A gale of heat grazes his face. The wind always brings heat from the sea.
Vulindlela Trading Store is a big stone building with a red corrugated-iron roof crowned by an array of television and radio aerials and a satellite dish. In front of the store is a long concrete stoop with a number of wooden yokes and green plows and planters chained together.
Behind the store is the trader’s family home, an off-white rough-cast modern house with big windows. Between the house and the store, a car and a four-wheel-drive bakkie—both of them Mercedes-Benz recent models—are parked.
Bhonco glances at the television that the trader, John Dalton, has put on a shelf against the wall of the store’s verandah. It plays videos of old movies, and children are always crowding here, watching “bioscope,” as they call it. Some of these children are herdboys who should be looking after cattle in the veld. No wonder there are so many cases these days of parents being sued because their cattle have grazed in other people’s fields.
Bhonco slowly walks into the store, casting a disinterested look at a big blackboard that announces the latest prices for those who want to sell their wool, maize, skins, and hides to the trader, or those who want to grind their corn at his mill. He demands to see his friend the trader. When Missis Dalton says he is away on business, Bhonco insists that he wants to see him all the same. He knows that he is hiding in his office. Dalton has no choice but to skulk out of his tiny office to face the stubborn man.
“What is it now, old man?” he demands.
Dalton is stocky and balding, with hard features and a long rich beard of black and silver-gray streaks. He always wears a khaki safari suit. He looks like a parody of an Afrikaner farmer. But he is neither an Afrikaner nor a farmer. Always been a trader. So was his father before him. And his grandfather was a trader of a different kind. As a missionary he was a merchant of salvation.
Dalton is a white man of English stock. Well, let’s put it this way: his skin is white like the skins of those who caused the sufferings of the Middle Generations. But his heart is an umXhosa heart. He speaks better isiXhosa than most of the amaXhosa people in the village. In his youth, against his father’s wishes, he went to the initiation school and was circumcised in accordance with the customs of the amaXhosa people. He therefore knows the secret of the mountain. He is a man.
Often he laughs at the sneering snobbishness of his fellow English-speaking South Africans. He says they have a deep-seated fear and resentment of everything African, and are apt to glorify their blood-soaked colonial history. And he should know. His own family history is as blood-soaked as any . . . right from the days of one John Dalton, his great-great-grandfather, who was a soldier and then a magistrate in the days of Prophetess Nongqawuse.
“Don’t call me old man. I have a name,” Bhonco protests. Although he is old, and to be old is an honor among his people, he has always hated to be called old man since his hair started graying in his late twenties and people mockingly called him Xhego—old man. Now at sixty-plus—or perhaps seventy, he does not know his real age—his hair is snow white.
“It is well, Bhonco son of Ximiya. We are not at war, are we?” Dalton tries to placate the elder.
“I do not fight wars with children. It was your father who was my age-mate. And, ah, the old Dalton looked after me. He was a kind man, your father.”
“You didn’t come here to talk about my father, did you?”
“I came to ask for ityala . . . for credit. . . I need a tin of beef. And some tobacco for my pipe.”
Dalton shakes his head, and takes out a big black book from under the counter. After a few pages he finds Bhonco’s name.
“You see,” he says, “your ityala is already very long. You have taken too many things on credit, and you have not paid yet. You promised that you were going to get your old-age pension soon.”
Dalton’s wife, who is simply known as Missis by the villagers, thinks it is necessary to rescue her husband. She firmly steps forward and says, “He is not getting any more credit, John.”
Bhonco does not take kindly to this interference. He raises his voice. “Let’s leave women out of this!”
Fortunately Missis understands no isiXhosa; she is a Free State Afrikaner. Dalton met her when he attended the Cherry Festival in Ficksburg many years ago. She was the Cherry Queen, although it would be hard to believe that now—what with her rotten front teeth and all. The trouble is that she eats too many sweets. Her saving grace is that she hardly ever smiles. She still finds it difficult to understand her husband’s cozy relationship with these rustics.
Bhonco adopts a new tactic and becomes very pitiful.
“Ever since Nongqawuse things were never right,” he laments. “Until now. They are becoming right a bit now, although not for me. They are becoming right for others. Me . . . no . . . I am still waiting for my nkamnkam.
“This is my seventh year waiting. My wife came here as a child . . . she is many years younger than me. But she now gets nkamnkam. I am very very old, but the government refuses to give me my pension.”
Then he goes into a litany of the troubles he has gone through working for this country. He began to work half a century ago at a textile factory in East London, then at a dairy, then at a blanket factory, then . . . He even worked at the docks in Cape Town for more than eight years.
He became permanently crippled—although it is impossible to see any sign of that now—when his sister pushed him down a donga, shouting, “When are you going to mourn for your father?” Since then he has never been able to work again.
Why won’t the government give him nkamnkam like all the old men and women of South Africa who are on old-age pensions today? Is it fair that now, even though ravines of maturity run wild on his face, he should still not receive any nkamnkam?
“Maybe it is not fair,” says Dalton. “But how are you going to pay me since you get no nkamnkam? Are you going to take your wife’s money to pay for your tobacco and luxury items like canned beef?”
“Did you not hear? My daughter is now the principal. I’ll pay you.”
It is late in the afternoon when Bhonco arrives home. NoPetticoat is busy cooking the evening umphokoqo—the maize porridge that is specially eaten with sour milk—on the Primus stove. When the white man has smiled—in other words, when NoPetticoat has been paid at the Blue Flamingo or has received her nkamnkam—she cooks on the Primus stove rather than outside with a three-legged pot.
“I didn’t know that the white man has smiled at you,” says Bhonco, as he puts the can of corned beef on the table. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have humiliated myself begging for ityala from that uppity Dalton.”
Before NoPetticoat can admonish him for piling debt on their shoulders, Xoliswa Ximiya walks in. She looks like the “mistress” she is—which is what pupils call unmarried female teachers—in a navy-blue two-piece costume with a white frilly blouse. She has her father’s bone structure, and is quite tall and well proportioned—which is good if you want to be a model in Johannesburg, but works against you in a village where men prefer their women plump and juicy. And indeed this is the language they use when they describe them, as if they are talking about a piece of meat. She has a charmingly triste face, and brown-dyed hair that she braids with extensions in Butterworth. But people never stop wondering how she is able to walk among the rocks and gorges of Qolorha-by-Sea in those high heels.
She has just come to see how her parents are doing. She takes it as an obligation to see them occasionally. Her parents—especially her mother—were not happy when she moved out a year ago to stay in a two-room staff house in the schoolyard. At first they insisted that no unmarried daughter of theirs would live alone in her own house. It was unheard of. They had to relent when she concocted something to the effect that as a senior teacher she had to live at school or lose her job. It really frustrates her that her parents insist on treating her like a child.
Bhonco and NoPetticoat are all over Xoliswa Ximiya, congratulating her on her promotion.
“You are going to be the best principal that school has ever had,” says her father proudly. “At least you’ll be better than that uncircumcised boy the community kicked out.”
Such talk makes Xoliswa Ximiya uncomfortable. But she ignores it and announces that although she appreciates the honor of being principal of her alma matter, she would very much like to work for the government.
“But you are working for the government now as a headmistress, are you not?” says Bhonco.
“As a teacher are you not being paid by the government?” echoes NoPetticoat.
“I want to be a civil servant. I want to work for the Ministry of Education in Pretoria, or at the very least in Bisho.”
“Bisho! Do you know where Bisho is from here? And Pretoria! Pretoria! No one in our family has ever been there,” cries Bhonco. He is choking with anger.
“You want to kill your father?” asks NoPetticoat.
“I know where Bisho is, father,” responds the daughter in a cold, sarcastic tone. “It is the capital town of our province. I have been there many times. And Pretoria is the capital city of our country. I have not been to Pretoria, but I have been much farther, father, where none of my family has ever been. I have been to America . . . across the oceans.”
“You see, Bhonco, you should never have allowed this child to take that scholarship to America,” says NoPetticoat tiredly.
“So now it’s my fault, NoPetticoat?”
“If you like towns and cities so much, my child, we have never stopped you from visiting Centani or even Butterworth.” NoPetticoat tries to strike a compromise.
“I do not care for towns and cities, mother. Anyway, Centani is just a big village and Butterworth is a small town. Don’t you understand? People I have been to school with are earning a lot of money as directors of departments in the civil service. I am sitting here in this village, with all my education, earning peanuts as a schoolteacher. I am going. I must go from this stifling village. I have made applications. As soon as I get a job I am going,” says Xoliswa Ximiya with finality.
It is an ungrateful night, and sleep refuses to come to Bhonco. His eyelids are heavy, but sleep just won’t come. Oh, why do children ever grow up? How huggable they are when they are little boys and girls, when their parents’ word is still gospel, before the poison of the world contaminates their heads. He envies NoPetticoat, who can sleep and snore in the midst of such turbulence.
On nights like this his scars become itchy. He rubs them a bit. He cannot reach them properly, because they cover his back. And the person who usually helps him is fast asleep. Why he has to be burdened with the scars of history, he does not understand. Perhaps that’s what prompted him to bring the Cult of the Unbelievers back from the recesses of time.