September 1985. The State of Emergency raged on across
South African townships, schooling was disrupted, government property assaulted by both protest graffiti and flames.
There were hushed conversations among grown-ups, conspiratorial almost, on how Tembisa Township was a dangerous place for young, impressionable minds. For my brothers and I who, for eight years of our lives, had been creatures of the city. City lights. City ambience. City food. A metropolitan existence.
The hushed conversations yielded an unforeseen «cultural» shock — a Great Trek to the bundus. to my grandparents’ headquarters in the Hill of Mice, a small village northeast of Polokwane. But 1 never saw a single mouse during my six-month stay, which translated into a 1
3-year sojourn! No television. Zero traffic. One car passing every two hours. There was an almost regimental change in diet, for at the Hill of Mice people lived off the land. Fresh greens. Peach trees. Bean harvests, vast mealie fields, colourful salads fit for an emperor.
Two things struck me like a bolt of lightning: time suddenly froze and I, for the first time in my young life, experienced and appreciated the power and terrors of true darkness, of nights so black I feared the sun would never rise again.
I recall the sweltering summer days, the brutal winters that seemed otherworldly, as the body yearned for coal-stove heat, the miracle of (luorescent-bulb lighting in the fading memory of city living. Yet all this was a trick for, below the surface simplicity of the village’s «backwardness», there lay a sophisticated grand design in the order and texture of life, an order that matured over many years and soon became second nature to us.
A sixth sense slowly developed: an appreciation of the mountain ranges that bordered the village on all sides, the Mphogodiba River at the foot of the mountains, the darkness that sharpened the beauty of starry nights, and the giant moon that occasionally bathed everything in silver light. I learned, like my newfound friends, the true art of listening — picking and distinguishing the voices and laughter of particular friends in the dark, a distant cricket conducting a solitary orchestra, and the rows and rows of mud huts that housed fellow villagers. Their thatch roofs. Their wallflower decor painted with deep red and mauve soil, their floors adorned with fresh cow dung — hinting at earthy, ancient and almost sacred scents.
Most gates were not outlandish in design but were pinewood entrances that, although humble, distinctly differentiated one house-hold from the next. The same went for the kraals, some circular and others square. built from the strongest of logs, from trees rumoured to be stronger than steel.
Bisecting the village from all directions were our crescents and boulevards, narrow footpaths that linked the Hill of Mice to other villages, mountain retreats, and to water streams so pure they put bottled water to shame. These footpaths, without names of prime real-estate addresses, punctuated wild shrubs and vegetation that bloomed the most colourful flowers (bright yellows, modest pinks, fiery reds) to the foot of most marula trees — trees that doubled as outdoor courtrooms, conference centres and amusement parks.
There were a few cement houses, some design pretensions that aped suburban living, attempts at electrification. Seen from the hilltops, during bone-cracking winters, the village was a picturesque haven, where a trained eye and car could make out otherwise slippery details: the occasional drone of bakery trucks delivering bread, a herd of cattle mowing grass on their way home, and pockets of blue smoke rising from various huts to signal dinnertime or heating, and the neat rows of dusty streets without street names.
Winters forced early retreats into houses where, escaping tyrant chills, fellow villagers assembled around crackling fires, listening to elders narrating the many transformations the village endured. How the village started with just one hut. Which ruins belonged to which family and why. What happened at which wedding 23 years ago — and. in hushed gossipy tones, whose child was fathered by whom. despite known and generally accepted knowledge of parentage. An account of a particular winter decades ago. so cold it assassinated livestock and reckless drunks.
There remained a fondness, a resolute love for the village and its simplicity, which in hindsight turned out to be remarkably complex. Beautiful. Of varied charms. Picturesque.