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Text and Pictures: Chris marais. Article from the April 2012 issue of Country Life.
The Eastern Cape’s biggest asset is its people. If you have the open road and a guide like Velile Ndlumbini, you will discover a province that wears its collective heart on its sleeve.
In the early evening of a summer day, about 30 kilometres out of East London, we pass a village where cricket is the game of choice. In soccer-mad South Africa, the Eastern Cape stands out as a cricketer’s province. Like much of Pakistan, India, Barbados and Sri Lanka, children in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape will find any excuse to strap on the pads and wield the willow – even if their cows are the only audience available at the time. And as one knows, farm animals are tough to entertain at the best of times.
Tonight the game is languorous, full of laughter, dodgy LBW decisions, ball-tampering and general high jinks.The next batsman in is dozing next to the stumps. The umpire, equally prone, is studying something in the grass, maybe a worker ant. But the action on the pitch is hot and the ball goes flying in all directions.
I could easily just haul out a camp chair and a cold beer, sit myself down and watch this game until the cows come home – literally. There’s something therapeutic about resting your eyes on a field where country cricket, in whatever spirit, is being played. And who knows, maybe the great Makhaya Ntini will pop over for a chat?
We press on into East London and stay the night at Chamberlain Guest House, the former home of the late anti-apartheid newspaper editor Donald Woods. It was once the scene of midnight meetings between Woods and the likes of Steve Biko, which is why the security police used to fancy taking pot shots through the windows from time to time.
The next morning my wife, Jules, and I meet the third member of our party, Velile Ndlumbini, the man from Imonti Tours.
Velile is quite famous in these parts for being a tourism firebrand, a bit of a livewire who has a great future in the business. He’s mapped out an ‘Inner Xhosa’ route for us and we’re going to spend the next 10 days following it.
As a youth, Velile worked in his aunt’s village shop, selling “sweets that give you red lips’ to his classmates. At high school in Mthatha, he saved his daily bus fare to buy fancy basketball shoes – Converse All-Stars.
Then he organised a school beauty pageant and made a bundle. At the same time he was selling ice cream and jeans, later flogging jewellery on the East London beachfront. Always on the move, always focused.
Velile’s been in tourism since 1998. He regularly visits the annual Tourism Indaba conference in Durban, wins awards for his guiding and tour-operating, and, though based in East London, travels far and wide through the vast Eastern Cape with his clients.
On our way north to Mthatha we pass little clusters of different-coloured rondavels. In the ‘old days’ a certain colour used to designate a particular clan. “Now it just depends on which colour is being offered on a clearance sale at the time of painting,” says Velile. OK. Humour. This I can work with.
We stop at Kei Bridge which, during the apartheid years, used to be the ‘border’ between South Africa and the Transkei homeland. Passports and other permits had to be presented here, at this now-rusting (but still imposing) old bridge.
I ask about the road kill rate, because it seems goats, cattle, donkeys and children are all sharing the highway with us. “They call them N2 traffic lights,” says Velile.
As we pass homesteads and small towns we begin counting all the plastic rainwater tanks. It soon dawns on us that we should have invested all our money in JoJo shares, because they can’t seem to make them fast enough to satisfy local demand.
Finally we’re in Mthatha and it feels like Little Lagos. Chaos, stop-go traffic barricades, rogue taxis, seamstress circles, garden photographers on the City Hall grounds, hawkers and feral livestock are all features of the passing landscape. When you’re picking your way by car through this press of humanity and the animals that hang out with said humanity you wish it would all go away and give you space. If you’re a passenger in said car, it’s a fascinating world out there.
I am the driver.
The Mthatha Museum is a modest place that needs some funds, space and basic TLC. The stuffing is beginning to emerge from some of the displays, which is a pity because the Xhosa cultural material on show is fascinating.
It’s a few months before the nearby Nelson Mandela Museum will be closing for extensive renovations and expansions and, after some red tape involving photographic permission, we are allowed in.
Well. When this exhibition goes up again in a year or so, make the trip down to Mthatha to see it. It’s a world-class display of the Long Walk to Freedom in the old Bunga Building where the Transkei mavens used to sit in power Nelson Mandela and all the people who were important to him at various stages in his life are beautifully portrayed in image and word here.
One photograph of circumcised youths diverts me, and the caption below holds me:
After the initiation ceremony Mandela never forgot the words of the old chief “There sit our sons, young, handsome and healthy, the flower of our youth, the pride of our nation. We are here to promise them manhood; but it is an empty promise, because we are Xhosas and like all black South Africans, we are a conquered people.
We spend the night in Qunu, where Mandela grew up. It’s a village with rutted roads, squadrons of geese flanked by platoons of chickens and bisected by children walking to school, two by two.
On a little outcrop overlooking Qunu, Velile has set up a special stick-fighting master class for us. The sticks are made from a special wood and, after being chosen, are covered in sheep fat and left under rotting manure before being exposed to the sun again. One supposes the purpose of this is to give them character. Some guys take the whole affair a little too far and sharpen the ends of their sticks, or attach metal bolts to them. The lesson here is to choose your opponent with care.
Two Qunu men, Zamikhaya Mandela and Simon Mani, lay into each other with verve and that special battle gleam in their eyes. I am lying under them for wide-angle silhouette shots and feel exposed as they cheerfully lay about each others’ bodies with loud thwacks.
All the boys around here carry two sticks; you never know when someone from another clan is going to emerge from the bushes and challenge your budding manhood. In that respect I would call Qunu a tough neighbourhood indeed.
A slow meander back down the N2 finds us in the busy market town of Dutywa. I am so inspired by all this stick fighting that I feel the need to acquire a staff of my own. I buy a walking stick from a vendor at the roadside after spending 20 minutes choosing from a large selection.
The young guys standing around ask me who I am going to fight with this stick. No, I’m an old man, I reply. I need it for walking. But I can feel the heft of this great stick, for which I paid R30. We all know it’s really for knocking heads.
In the mid-afternoon we arrive at the village of Ngxingxolo, which I am still learning to pronounce properly. A hint: it’s 10 times easier to write the name down than to run it around your tongue and back.
We are at the homestead of Mama Tofu who, it turns out, would be Julie’s spiritual godmother in a perfect world; the two of them hit it off immediately. Within minutes the bedecked and bejewelled old lady is giving my wife some reasonably intimate info on female Xhosa initiation customs.
These words of hers are forever locked in my head: “You must know his name and where to find him in case you have that naughty sex.”
Mama Tofu is the hottest tourism item in this part of the Eastern Cape. Busloads of visitors arrive most days to sit with her and learn.
Children dance, food is served and a couple of hardy fellows are summoned for a stick fight in the rain.The mock battle takes a serious turn when the two rangy dogs belonging to the fighters join the fray, followed shortly by their girlfriends. It becomes a hectic study in yapping, slapping, shouting and pouting – like mud-wrestling with sticks, partners and pets.
However; in the midst of all this rather marvellous insanity, the main attraction remains the little 90-something-year-old superstar with the twinkling eyes. The Dr Ruth of the OldTranskei…
After a night in the classy Crawford’s Cabins at Cintsa and a session of beach and horse photography, we head into East London and Duncan village in particular.
At first, the poverty is a shock to the system. Like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the tumbledown dwellings and the waterfalls of rubbish piling up in the streets are simply depressing. Like the favelas of Rio, the people of Duncan village are daisies in the dirt.
We visit C Section, aka Mechanic Street. Another priceless tip: (a) if you own a car assembled before 1998 and (b) if your car breaks down in the area, have it towed to Mechanic Street.
They say, like the Cubans who work on pre-Castro American cars, that the mechanics of Mechanic Street are the finest in the land.
Here, right on the street, in between the shacks, in a totally professional atmosphere, entire engine blocks are being hoisted out of cars, carburettors are being fine-tuned, essential parts are being replaced at a fraction of a regular garage tariff. The experts toil away, watched closely by groups of wide-eyed youngsters who will one day take their places.
Over at Zamani Day Care Centre, dozens of rug rats are tumbling all over a crammed jungle gym complex. In the midst of the obvious squalor of Duncan village, Zamani is simply a colour-burst of humanity and hope.
“Molo, teacher,” a little fellow greets me with a grin. Teacher? Me?
“We tell the children it’s rude to call white people mlungus (sea scum),” says the manager, Mrs Ncumisa Yoyo. “We urge them to call you ‘teacher’.”
Between the provincial Social Development people and (mostly foreign) donors, Zamani looks after and feeds 270 children on a tiny but well-used piece of ground.
Some of the babies burst into tears when they see a camera-toting ‘teacher’. Velile darts over and rescues the situation by diverting their attention with a bunny rabbit hand-puppet. Being a good tour guide means being omni-competent – and fast on your feet.
Mdantsane Taxi Rank, as vivid and throbbing with humanity as it is, was not always a safe place for tourists.Then Velile went over to the taxi drivers and said hey chaps, please help to protect my people.
They’re good for everyone’s business. The taxi bosses agreed and put the word out.
“So the next time we visit the taxi rank, and I’m watching, watching.The next thing, I see a gangster coming towards us. Then, like being slapped by an invisible hand, he just goes down! Another one approaches. He goes down! Just crashes to the ground. My clients, they didn’t even notice. The taxi men are looking after us.”
And because the visiting tourists spend time and money at the many stalls around the rank, the vendors are now keeping them safe as well. Ah, there’s nothing sweeter than people power. At the Sincede Women’s Project, a group of crafters are working on ceramics and glassware. Led by Mrs Nomonde Vanga, the team has produced a table full of ducks, fairies, ceramic football boots, mirror mosaics and little huts.
Nearby is a dance studio where a troupe of Pantsula men wearing crazy shoes present a wildly energetic routine to an equally frenetic beat. The Pantsula 4 Life group are available for any social occasion.
But our man Velile is not done with Mdantsane yet. Apart from cricket, East London is a boxing town. At one of the Mdantsane gyms we meet Siyabonga Malotana, who works for Eastern Cape Tourism and Parks Board and is also the general secretary of the Mdantsane Amateur Boxing Association. “Boxing has always been big in the Eastern Cape – there is also a long history of boxing in Mdantsane. At any one time there are 100 boxers here, with about 15 to 30 boxers per gym.”
This great trip with Velile ends on a cricketing note, however. We pass the Makhaya Ntini Cricket Academy and up there, on a massive billboard, is the big guy in full flight – the embodiment of goodwill, sporting achievement and that magical Eastern Cape character at its best.
Eastern Cape Tourism and Parks Board
043 701 9600, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.visiteasterncape.co.za
Nelson Mandela Museum
(phone ahead to ensure the museum is open) 047 532 5110, email@example.com, www.mandelamuseum.org.za
Imonti Tours Velile Ndlumbini 083 487 8975,
Chamberlain Guest House, East London
043 721 1350, firstname.lastname@example.org
Crawford’s Cabins 043 738 5000,
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