As soon as I had arrived from the Gauteng province (in time for lunch) and the excitement of my December homecoming now old news, I was given the itinerary for the day:
“Mamela mfana, umnintsi umsebenzi ekumele siwenze ngelixeshana nikhoyo, ungekafiki umghidi.” (Listen young man, there is plenty of work to be done whilst you guys are here, before the homecoming of the young man from the traditional circumcision school)
With that, my leave had summarily ended and my work without compensation started. No later had the food settled in my tummy, and my body finally escaping the punishment I had put it through by waking at 02:00am and driving an eight-hour journey to eMakhaya, one had to change clothes and head to town. If any of you have ever driven into Queenstown or any other town in the Eastern Cape (that services the rural areas) during the days between 16 and 24 December, you will know what a congested, unpleasant and unbearable experience going to town is. Throw in temperatures averaging 40 degree and the odd dust storms, and you get a real-time experience of hell on earth.

“Boy, I need you to go to the bank, draw money and then get me some vegetables. Please remember to buy the potatoes bags from X shop because they are cheap there, the carrots and beetroot from Y shop because they have better quality, and the rest of the stuff in this list from Z shop. When done, please make sure to go by the taxi rank to buy the sheep for umsoko. On your way back, make sure to buy paraffin from the petrol station because elalini umbane uhlal’uhlale ungabikho.” With that, the mother retreats to her chores around the house in the full knowledge that her son is going to deliver on this simple mandate.

With my mandate for that day complete and I return home well into the evening with my face wearing an expression of ‘I have had enough of these holidays and I want to return to my place in Jo’burg’ (and I have not even spent one night emakhaya), my mother duly and in utter appreciation remarks, “uyabona ke mntan’am, ndikuthandela ezizinto.”
“Ulale usazi ke mfana ukuba siya elalini kusasa, kumele niyokukhangele iinkomo zomsebenzi,” as I listen to Mama go on about going to elalini and something about looking for cows, the only thing I care to find is a bed and no interruption for at least six straight hours – if they are generous.

They are not. Before crack of dawn and on the bumpy and dusty roads that have not seen regular traffic in many months, we finally get to our ancestral home where our grandparents once roamed as proud village men and women, and our parents as independent village boys and girls. Here, the houses stand proud and empty the whole year. We are the first visitors in an age. Out come the mops and brooms and feather dusters, as well as spades, fork spades and rakes to make way for our habitation for the next few days. Cleaning ikhaya-khulu (great home) is an accepted way of greeting the ancestors. This is a two day exercise if we are Japanese-factory-workers-efficient, otherwise a week. We are. Just. But mighty exhausted.

It is 04:00 and the first signs of daybreak begin to resonate in the skies and we are a kilometre in the fields, looking for cattle I cannot identify. Here, I am at the sole mercy of umalusi (shepherd) who can spot them from as far as five kilometres out and tell the difference between the black cows and the black cows. Idle chatter interrupts the coffee and bread with Rama breath I hold from my morning breakfast, as we create trails on the morning dew on the knee-high grass. As we continue looking for cows I cannot positively identify, all there is for me to do here is to consume the endless brilliance that are the hills of Hewu. Here and there are patches of water, and streams and rivers where livestock would gather or naked children learn the art of swimming. Here, too, is the village laundromat. All the same, magnificence of a spectacular kind.

And my phone beeps once, twice, three times, four times and on and on. We are at the mountain-top and finally have some signal. The sms and 121 have finally been released: a good time to catch my breath to boot. As I lapse into a comfortable position atop a mountain with views worth Camps Bay millions, Ta Serge (umalusi) reminds me we have not all day and the rays will begin to bite hard soon. We move. And soon enough the shirt is off and around my waste as my chiselled frame detoxes. At noon we spot the cows. Thank goodness. To get to them is another half an hour. To return with them is at least another three. By the way, a watch here is of no consequence. The sun is enough.

Before we can enjoy our lunch at 16:00, we (some village men have come to assist with the control of these unruly beasts) are forced to encircle the cows. Each cow has a story. The red one belongs to the late A, there is its calf; this one with the big horns was your husbands; these black ones belong to your husband’s twin…and the stock taking continues. Silently, I have slipped away to carbo-load. Oros and bread with Rama, followed by samp and beans and potatoes and meat. Sorted!

The real work for the day is catching and tying the cow that is to be offered for the ceremony in two days’ time. For now, it is enough to isolate it into ebuhlanti, where tomorrow afternoon it will fall. The rest of its brethren and cows return to their tranquillity far far away from any sharp knives.

And, unlike Zuma and Racism, #TheCowFalls. Some 15 men take 30 minutes to devise a strategy that is safe to take the cow down, tie it, and stab it – something I will never do – whilst it kicks and moans, but cannot be allowed to be free for it will cause untold damage and injury. Another 15 more grey and weary folk, perched higher ebuhlanti, hurl orders and offer good humour with their war stories of the good old days. Once it is dead dead, not just dead, we can finally begin to race against time (usually 45 minutes) in gutting and piecing the beast. If we take long and the beef toughens, we could be in for the long haul. Some smoke, some sharpen knives, some skilfully carve the beast, some take care of u-pens: usually me. The intestines go to ooMama, as does some warm fresh ox liver as gratuity. ooTata have reserved the majority of the liver and some fresh beef is put on wooden skewers, sprinkled with raw salt and put on live fire, whilst a bottle of Richelieu Brandy does the rounds by the tot. Both the braai-master and barman are trusted folk who usually do a fine job at ensuring equality. Anything but that and war breaks out.

After five days of being emakhaya, I am spent. And the mghidi is yet to come. That means we have to fetch chairs and the tent; erect the tent and pray the winds stay at bay for three days; more slaughtering but only the sheep; fetch those big size 20 three-legged pots from all over the village; drive all over fetching this one and that one; and of course the wood – that is our energy supply for the next three days – we have to spend at least half a day finding thorn-wood in this vast expanse.

All of the above is half the job. The other half is reserved for the mkhwetha in his boma, and matters related therewith. For obvious reasons, I cannot dwell too much on what goes on here. On another day, this is a subject all on its own worthy of examination.

Finally, all this effort pales in comparison to the fun one has at an umghidi. It has been an exacting build-up. Much of my financial and physical muscle has been tested and stretched, if not exhausted. But I tell you, umghidi is whole load of fun. With that, it is time for me to retire from my learning of slaughtering a cow, and for someone else to learn while peeling vegetables. Any takers?

My culture is alive. Still!

© Songezo Mabece
7 eyoMqungu 2016


  • Songezo Mabece is a lawyer, currently employed as a Legal Counsel at the Competition Commission. He has an interest in international economic law. Equally, he is passionate about Afrika and her development.


Songezo Mabece

Songezo Mabece is a lawyer, currently employed as a Legal Counsel at the Competition Commission. He has an interest in international economic law. Equally, he is passionate about Afrika and her development.

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