Spirit of Africa Taxidermy

What I first noticed was the trash. It was everywhere. Old Windhoek bottles, shattered and ground into the sandy earth, Pick ‘n Pay bags speared by the rough branches of the bush, and the occasional condom littered the side of the road all of the way up the N1. My first week in South Africa took me from the walled-off streets of Pretoria—where there is no pedestrian right-of-way and you have to be buzzed in through a gate to bypass the half-meter-thick walls that line the streets—up into the countryside. We passed identical ten by five meter houses built under Mandela’s Rural Development Plan in the 1990s. 

Twenty years later, sixteen Dartmouth students were being shuttled up into the red, dirt-laden land of HaMakuya to stay for half a week in some of the local villages. We passed hundreds of torched fields (September is fire season), cattle and goats with clanging bells around their necks, and village after village as we neared our destination just below the Zimbabwe border.

HaMakuya was once a part of Venda, a homeland the Apartheid regime formed under the guise of creating independent countries for the black population of South Africa. The land, which to this day belongs to the chief, and is allocated to the people through the traditional authority, is hard and infertile, made of thick red dust that gets pulled up into mini tornados of parched leaves and grasses every time the wind picks up. The tornadoes would spin across the cracked yard in front of our hut every afternoon in the heat of the day, when our limbs would seem to melt into the dried cow dung walls we clung to for the sliver of shade. Somewhere in the dusty air were a thousand questions about what on Earth we were doing there.

Three other Dartmouth students and I were placed in a home together with our translator, a soft-spoken twenty-eight-year-old girl from a nearby village named Marilyn, and we immediately became wards of our homestay mother, Josephine. She instructed us on the proper greeting in Tshivenda, the language spoken in Venda and only in Venda, whereby the girls kneel to the ground and prostrate themselves with their hands folded in prayer, and the boys lower themselves to one knee and make the same mock-religious motion. 

She then named each of us in Tshivenda; I became Fhulufhelo (or more colloquially, Fhulu), which means either hope or confidence depending on who you ask. 

***

In the recesses of our hut we had our first meal: stamp, which is a mixture of maize, beans, and something they call peanuts, but they are soft and nothing like what you get at a Cubs game back home. We lounged on our straw mats, picking through the stamp on our plates in front of us with our already dusty fingers. The youngest boy of the household, the two-and-a-half-year-old grandson of Josephine, named Tendani, cautiously poked his head around the corner of the doorway, only to pull it back the second he made eye contact. After several minutes of doing this, he finally crawled in and plopped himself on the mat in the safety of the crook of his grandmother’s arm, intensely fixated on the toy in his hand: a remote control car, sans remote control, that he liked to run up and down his grandmother’s legs.

That afternoon, we walked several homesteads over to the sangoma, the village healer. The old, blind woman, wrapped in decades of scarves, feet barely poking out from under a hem, beckoned us onto the mats in front of her, where we prostrated ourselves once more. We did this often; everyone wanted to meet the “makua,” a non-derogatory term for “white person” that we heard whispered whenever we approached. 

She softly responded to the questions that Marilyn asked her for us, stroking the blue embellished scarf on her head as if she were trying to draw the answers out from her brain as everything shriveled in the heat. We asked to see her medicines and were escorted across her yard, the sangoma clinging to Josephine’s arm, into a hut not unlike our own. 

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see hundreds and hundreds of bottles and jars, stacked on top of one another in the dank gloom of the hut. Each contained a dried plant or animal bit that would cure your flu or sexually transmitted disease, something that the sangoma was quick to share. Some jars were coated in a paint to keep the light out; everything from Black Cat peanut butter to what looked like an old whiskey bottle had been turned into a vessel for her medicines. 
Her bracelets clanged against one another as she motioned to the three certificates that she had hung on her wall, fraying paper in a cheap wooden frame certifying her as a traditional healer. The thick stench of herbs started to make me dizzy, and I stepped out into the light, eyes straining to adjust. We waited for Josephine to deliver the sangoma back to her perch in the shade, and then headed back up the road.

***

When we returned to our hut, the kids were home from school. Of course, that didn’t just mean the kids who lived with Josephine. Every kid from a two-kilometer radius had come to see the makua, to play in Josephine’s dusty yard with their soccer ball made of plastic bags wrapped around rocks. 

At first they were shy, sitting around us as we crouched in the shade to cool down but not daring to say anything. Then one of the girls on my homestay motioned to a little girl in a white and pink dress (Bono, as we soon learned) to play a hand game. Right hand across, clap, left hand across, clap, both hands together, clap. Repeat until the girl becomes too tired and collapses into a ball of laughter. That was enough to open the floodgates. Soon every kid had to have a chance to play a hand game with us, if our hands weren’t already being held by two little girls or boys at once. 

Our cameras passed from hand to hand, while the other kids crammed themselves into the range of the lens, often taking pictures so directly up each others’ noses that the person behind the viewfinder likely had an intimate encounter with their brains. The children found all sorts of ways to occupy us: soccer, the “snake” game (a never-ending game of duck, duck, goose where you have the freedom to run anywhere), and all sorts of hair fashioning. 

Five girls at once had their hands in my hair, dividing it up into tiny sections and putting in microscopic braids all over my head. One of the little girls was confused why, when she braided my hair, it didn’t stay—she kept pulling tighter and tighter, perhaps convinced that enough pressure might magically make my hair stay like it was supposed to. I tried to keep from wincing as I watched an older boy tie a piece of string to Tendani’s car and drag it in circles over the earth. Tendani squealed with excitement as he chased it down; the second he made eye contact with me, though, his face turned somber once more. After several hours of being jungle gyms, it was time for dinner and for the children to head home.

***

Josephine ushered us into the hut and laid out the feast: pap, the maize-meal porridge (think savory Jell-O) that they eat for nearly every meal, some cooked spinach with the same mysterious peanuts, and sour milk to go on top of it all. The sour milk was a cross between whole milk and sour cream, with thick curds that splatted out into the liquid as we poured it atop our slices of maize Jell-O. The heat and children had drained us all, but we still went outside after dinner and sat under the stars, the Milky Way’s outline staring us straight in the face. 

Josephine told us stories about the stars and the moon, and Marilyn chimed in with one from her village that warned that if you stared at the moon for too long, it would suck you up into space, never to return to Earth again. As a child, that had been enough to keep her safe in her bed at night.

One spindly wire ran from the main house over to our hut; electricity had come to the village around 2009 and people were retrofitting their homes with lighting. As we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags atop the reed mats we had been given, Marilyn casually asked us if we were afraid of the dark. 

After a chuckle and a response of “no” from all of us, she explained that she could only sleep with the lights on. We all looked at her, aghast that in a place that had only had electricity for five years, there were people wasting it already. At least that’s how we saw it. So began our first night of sleeping in the soft glow of the single light bulb, only bright enough to keep us awake.

***

We awoke at six the next morning to carry out the daily chores: sweeping the patio of the homestead, carrying water to the house from the tap up the dirt road, and beginning the cooking for the day’s meals. 

We watched Josephine slit the throat of the chicken that would be our lunch, trapping its feet beneath her crackled one and sawing through its neck for far too many strokes. We stood solemnly as it bled out in her hands, the thin, crimson liquid dribbling out onto the earth. 
By seven we had finished and were permitted to sit for breakfast, which was Rooibos tea and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We swallowed the sandwiches nearly whole, unsure when the next familiar meal would come. After breakfast, we were ushered into the shade to sit and watch our maize meal boil for the pap we would eat for lunch. The morning was slow and quiet; we all felt as if we should be doing something, but the stifling heat kept us rooted in place. 

The heat has a way of making you feel at once heavy and hollow; your limbs sink into the ground. The pace of life in HaMakuya was perhaps the biggest challenge. There were long stretches of daylight where we lounged in the shade and learned the Tshivenda names for the body parts from whatever eager child happened to be around. 

Mlomo for mouth, ndebe for ear, ningo for nose.

Around noon, Josephine took us to have an audience with the chief. She had once been married to the chief’s brother, but he had divorced her when he fell in love with another woman. Still, Josephine had kept a relationship with his family. “I only divorced him, not his family,” she had explained to us through Marilyn. We sat under a tree by a chicken coop, waiting for him to come and greet us. 

After an hour, a man ambled out and relaxed onto the bench in front of the coop, his bright purple button-down shirt standing out against the gray, wiry mess holding the chicken behind him. He looked at us expectantly, and we knelt to the ground at his feet. We then sat as he conversed with Josephine in Tshivenda. He paused twice: once to ask us where we were from, and once to loudly scold a girl who had snagged one of our cameras and was trying to take a picture of him. It was an uneventful encounter, and we left almost insulted that he hadn’t been as interested in the makua as everyone else had been. Conceit is tricky that way.

***

That afternoon, we took an impromptu three-and-a-half hour journey to the neighboring village to see some other Dartmouth students perform a traditional dance with their homestay family. We trekked across the dry, cracked earth for hours; I had four sweaty hands clinging to mine at all times, one for each hand and one for each wrist. The children flocked around us, running ahead and dancing and singing the entire way, as we dragged ourselves across the bush. 

When we returned to our homestay, Josephine was shocked that we had made it. She said it wasn’t that far, but very far for a makua. The rest of that day was much like the previous one, consisting of pap and stories and lessons in basic Tshivenda. That night we went to church.

Josephine’s daughter (though not Josephine, who was a loyal member of the ZCC congregation and didn’t approve of any other service) led us back out to the dirt road and past the sangoma to the back yard of a half-finished, tin-roofed house. Through the window you could hear the crackle of a television—the soft blue glow of it bathed the darkness of the yard where we sat. About twenty people were gathered, listening to a young man about our age read from a prayer book, and responding with the occasional “Amen.” 

Though the service was in Tshivenda, they did their best to throw in some English to humor the strange guests who had joined them. At one point they even sang an entire song in English, one I remembered from my childhood of youth group sing-a-longs. Though many of them likely had no idea what the words meant (only the older children are truly proficient in English), they joyfully proclaimed the greatness of Jesus to their visitors. Half of us were Jewish. 

As the service came to a close, we bowed our heads as a woman spoke in quick Tshivenda. We were equally clueless about the content, but nonetheless kept our heads bent in religious solemnity.

***

The third day began as we fulfilled one of the academic missions that we were given in coming to the village. A Dartmouth student had done her Fulbright in HaMakuya several years prior, and had taught women to garden using a two-liter bottle underground irrigation system. 

There were several gardens still running in our village, and we were sent to check up on them. Only one was still using the irrigation system, which was confusing in that the women thought that it wouldn’t properly water their gardens if they didn’t pour water atop the plants, too. Josephine shuffled along in front of us, her legs bound by the traditional garment that we had all shed in protest against the scorching heat. Her cell phone necklace swayed back and forth as she waddled. She had already shown us her garden, which she fertilized with goat feces and decomposed reeds she collected from the bank of the parasite-infested river. She had also rushed inside to bring out the certificate she had been given for completing the garden training years ago, a laminated slip attesting to her competence. 

We visited several of her friends, including a woman with beets larger than her baby’s head, photographing all of them, inquiring about their crops and irrigation techniques, and recording everything that we were told so that it could be relayed back.

The rest of the day was spent, once more, lying around the homestead with the children. Our attempts to help Josephine cook were met with great protest; we were her guests, and we were leaving tomorrow, so we shouldn’t do any work. We were desperate for a task. It was the not doing anything that was often the hardest, and I occupied myself by continuing my undertaking of getting Tendani to respond to me with anything but a grumpy frown, to no avail. 

***

As the sun was setting, some of the mothers of our posse of children came over to dance with us. After watching a few dances and clapping along, they asked two of us to get up and perform a special dance for a man and woman. They began demonstrating it, and I was immediately put off by the first move: me, on my knees, bowing down as they instructed the boy to saunter toward me cockily. 

He was clearly just as uncomfortable as I was, but as he neared where I was laid out on the ground, they told me to stand up. 

Then came the instruction: “now pretend to hit her.”

His expression turned from mild discomfort to horror as they told me to pretend to shy away as he hit me; then we were supposed to hug one another, all to the sounds of the upbeat drum. They looked at us with expectation after finishing their demonstration, waiting for us to start. 

The boy raised a protest, and I tried to explain that popularized spousal abuse was not really something that we were okay with where we came from (though in fewer words, and hindered greatly by the language barrier). 

At the end of thirty awkward seconds, the drums started up again and we found ourselves moving through the motions of the dance. The circle of people around us clapped and laughed as we danced; I was sick to my stomach. Thankfully, the dance ended quickly and we were ushered onto the next one. 

Dancing devolved into storytelling that lasted until dinner, when we said our goodbyes and piled into our hut to consume our last meal of pap. Josephine bought us a Coca-Cola (which she simply called “cold drink”) at the village store that she brought out for us that night. We sipped on it as she told us a ghost story that had a strange religious twist to it: she repelled the ghost with the light that reflected off of her little ZCC pin that was always attached to whatever ANC t-shirt she was wearing. 

After her stories, we crawled into our sleeping bags for one final night of sleeping in the light.

***

The next morning we awoke and did our chores and ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and packed in preparation for our retrieval. Josephine had a big surprise for us, and informed us that she would allow us to help redecorate the patio before we left. 

With a huge grin on her face, she walked around the back of her house and emerged with a huge tub of cow dung, to which she added a little water, stirring the mixture with her hands. She then plopped a big heap of it onto the ground and began to spread it with her fingers, evenly and thinly so as to match the rest of the patio. 

After a few smearings, she looked up at us and motioned for us to join her. We found ourselves on our knees spreading the dung over the warm earth. Tendani watched over us, chewing on the body of his car, which had somehow lost many of its parts since we last saw it. 

Josephine left and returned with a charcoal substance so that we could trace out our names in the thick, black mixture. I carefully stenciled “Fhulu” with my finger and then colored it in with a gnarled toothbrush that she used to paint. One of the girls in my group spelled her Tshivenda name wrong; at least everyone would know it was done by a makua. 

Our professor and homestay coordinator were back to collect us and return us to the camp we were staying at in the mountains. Josephine fawned over us, telling us how much she would miss us. We waved goodbye; Tendani scowled.

***

What was a perhaps misguided, but nonetheless honest, desire to see the world outside of our carefully crafted American existence quickly came to a close. The greater understanding of the Tshivenda culture that we sought never came; I left much more confused than satisfied. There are certain things from our village that I have come to cherish: the slow pace of an afternoon hiding from the sun, the vast expanse of stars that appear when the cities recede, and the sense of trust and community that I found there.

Other things still perplex me: the subtle racial tension that we found, obviously much complicated by our presence, the quiet suppression of women, and the sense that (maybe unwanted) change was coming all too quickly. 

As we head south down the N3, further and further from HaMakuya, past the billboards advertising “The Jesus Factory” and “Spirit of Africa Taxidermy,” all I can see in my memory is Tendani’s frown. It makes me uneasy; there is so much I still do not know