I bought Land of my Ancestors by Botlhale Tema because it is literally about the land of my ancestors. She writes a dramatised history of the ownership of the Welgeval farm in the North West from the 19th century. I grew up roughly twenty kilometres from Welgeval, and my sister currently resides in Welgeval. So I was obviously intrigued when I read a synopsis of the book about a place as close to home as I’ve ever read.
I also bought it because I was hunting for nostalgia. I wanted to be transported back to my childhood. I wanted to reminisce the smell of red dust of dusk intermingled with sweet wood smoke. The faint animal smell from every homestead because when I grew up very house had a pen. These small kraals were usually in the from of the yards. A few goats or sheep would be kept in them. Chickens.
Everyone had chickens. No one was too poor to not have a chicken. The colourful ones. Brown. Yellow. Or black. Or brown with patches of red. The ones with personalities. You shooed it and it looked at you and for a second you got so scared because a thought crossed your mind that you have no idea of the level of intelligence of a chicken. Those ones that would grumble quietly to each other like they were conspiring. Probably trading tips about how to run when their times came to face the butchers knife. Then there were a few roosters in the village. Roosters might have been few and far in between but we could all hear them announce dawn before first light even peeped through that wet velvet air in the morning. Back then we they were the alarm clock. But you never eat a rooster. Yet sometimes someone was desperate enough to kill a rooster for a meal. Other times it was to give the rooster a mercy kill because of its old age. The thing would cook all day, making everyone hungrier than usual. Then finally when supper time came hours later, it would still be as tough as a Levi jean. The bones would have no marrow and everyone would go to bed swollen with disappointment at the pot that was on the fire the whole day. The unluckiest was the one who killed it. They usually woke up with a tummy ache. The rooster’s last revenge.
As you can tell I started the book with very high hopes. Maybe unfairly high. I didn’t get all that I was looking for in this book because the plot ran off on its own without rich characters to carry it. But the book is a gem of local indigenous history. Black South African don’t think much about slavery. Speak about colonialism then everyone understands. The book touches on how the latter caused the former.
Then there is the issue of names. Christian names. Baptism names. English names. Whatever you want to call them. I’ve touched a little bit on names in my post Mosi-oa-Tunya (The smoke that thunders) – Victoria Falls. I know many people named after months, September, January, and so on. These names according to Mme Botlhale were given to boys kidnapped from villages and presented as orphans to the state because slavery had been abolished when this happened. The state would give all the boys names after calendar month, January to December and back again, the girls got names from the Bible. Then the raiders would sell them to farmers where they worked and the law stipulated they be released when they turned 25.
I use my second name. My African name. My first name I reserve for taxes and bills. No one calls me by it and when I do hear it as it happens from time to time, it feels wrong to my soul. I’ve thought of changing it multiple times. I still have plans to change it eventually. For now I carry it like a semi-secret shame. Flinching a little each time a teller from a government office calls me when on queue. Knowing this is not what God calls me.
There is power in continuity and traditions. I believe this statement almost from an intellectual point of view. It pains me that I don’t live it. It pains me that traditions I grew up with are lost and the post-millennials in my family will never know it. The family values. The community spirit. That absolutely annoying but sweet thing called lack of privacy. Sharing. It is dying because like so many of my peers, I don’t live it. But I also hate tradition. I don’t honour tradition when it propagates historical inequalities and gender disparities. When it refuses to be questioned, or interrogated. When it refuses to adapt, not change, but adapt for its own survival. But the older I grow the more I realise that at its core, it a question of values. The traditional way of life harmonises human to human, and human to nature. Never taking more than you need, and sharing with your neighbour. The values now being promoted from the West through sustainable development. But values most Africans have abandoned because they made them predisposed to being plundered. A source of internal conflict for me.
Read the book if you’re looking for a light read with loose historical context about Transvaal’s people both natives and settlers. Mostly if you want context about the area around Welgeval and the origins of its historical dwellers.