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A summer day in Rooibok
“I moved to South Africa with a one-way ticket in 2003, less than a decade after the end of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic election. The next one-way ticket wouldn’t come for eight years.” So writes the author at the beginning of her new nonfiction book, The Rainy Season. Messitt embedded herself in the northeast, among the 200 or so Sotho, Shangaan, and Mozambican Tsonga families in the community of Rooibok, on the African side of the “line that once legally separated white and black.” Her book is an account of life in Rooibok through the experiences of three residents interviewed extensively: Thoko Makwakwa, a middle-aged healer; Dankie Mathebula, a young man educated under democracy; and Regina Hlabane, a weaver of tapestries in her sixties, devoutly Catholic.
“It is very bad to commit suicide,” said a woman beside Thoko.
Six middle-aged women and one young man were packed tightly in the back of an enclosed short-wheelbase truck, the final vehicle in a procession of six bound for Mbangu Maduzu Mathebula’s funeral. A small square box, the truck had four pull-down seats and scarcely room for knees to knock and heads to skim the ceiling. Two small sliding windows in the hold let in barely enough air to breathe, as useful as the holes children poke into tin cans with a fork when they’ve caught a butterfly or millipede.
Thoko, like the others, was wearing her finest: a long red dress that hung on her thin, curveless body; a generously sized zebra-print jacket draped over her shoulders; and a wide-brimmed straw hat with a plaid sash tied around its neck, covering her short, untidy hair. An elastic ribbon held the hat in place, cutting a distinct line across the back of her jaw and beneath her chin, preserving itself in her dark, sun-drenched complexion.
From the moment they climbed in, the women had spoken over one another, at one another, and to those who weren’t even listening. They were yelling. It was different from the yelling they do at home when a young person has done something wrong, or to call someone to fetch something they would rather not get up and fetch themselves. It was the yelling that took place in casual conversation, a yelling used when you’re talking to your neighbor across the road, when you’re in a store and your friend is a few aisles over, and, in this case, when there are several of you talking about something very important. It was a conversation turned up to painful decibels.
Thoko had been riding in the final bakkie (pickup truck) of the procession before spotting the empty truck that her nephews Dankie and Jack were climbing inside. Her body had been squeezed like the folds of an accordion into the bed of the metallic-green lowrider with more than a dozen others. At the sight of an open space, she pulled her body up, unfolded her limbs, and leapt from the open vehicle. With her followed five others.
The women continued their conversation as they scrambled into the new vehicle.
“He should have killed his wife first, if he was going to commit suicide,” said Thoko in a considered, yet uncomplicated, tone. “You just can’t commit suicide and leave a wife, stealing away the good life.”
“He should have explained to someone, if he had a problem. Not deciding to take his own life,” a second woman chimed in over Thoko.
“She couldn’t even attend the funeral,” said another.
“No. She can’t come. She’s still frightened,” Thoko said. “It’ll take her some time to see other people, because she knows what she has done is wrong.”
The women mulled over the idea of suicide and their recollections of suicide in the past. One woman remembered a man in the nearby village of Thulamahashe who had “committed himself out of this world” and into another, but—of course—the reason behind his death was debatable.
Thoko’s nephew Dankie, the youngest of her elder sister, was sitting in the passenger seat up front with his window rolled down and the wind in his face. He said nothing. His eyes were fastened to the dusty dashboard, and his mind was in another place. He was the one who had found Maduzu. He was the one who cut him free from the rope.
He heard the women in the back seat skinnering (gossiping), but he preferred not to listen, not to digest. He preferred to wish it all away. Wish it out the window and into the wind, to float out of the car, out of Rooibok, beyond Acornhoek, over the mountains, and into a place he would never have to see.
He turned to his right and all the way around to face his brother, his aunt, and the tangled bodies behind him, acknowledging their presence only once.
The commotion of voices seemed to bother Dankie at first. But the women’s conversation eventually blended into one great static over which his thoughts and non-thoughts meandered.
There are five turns between the Mathebula homestead and the funeral home: left, left, left, right, left. Eastward away from the mountains. Northwest past the roads to Thoko’s house and shebeen (backdoor illegal pub). North away from Rooibok A, past the road to Moholoholo High School, past the mission’s entrance, and parallel to the escarpment painting the skyline of the lowveld. Westward once the dirt road met the only tar road in Acornhoek on which you pass through town, past the open market butcher, past the Spar and Buzi Cash and Carry, past the Indian shop, and past the police station. North again toward a dead end, and then one final westward turn.
And with each turn, seven bodies shifted.
Thoko’s back was up against the right side of the truck’s interior, and she sat crammed between two women and the driver’s seat. The side window behind her was open as far as possible, but the rear window’s inability even to crack created a simmer of suffocating heat, the breath of seven adults in close proximity and the warmth of seven bodies dressed in long sleeves, long skirts, wraps, and formal jackets.
Turning right off the main tar road and down a short, steep driveway, the caravan of cars slowly crept toward a dead end, with the option to go straight over the railroad tracks into Tintswalo Hospital’s emergency entrance or left into the Elite Funeral Parlor parking lot. Elite, locally pronounced as “e-light” (as in the light of God), sat at the base of a hill and along the tracks, invisible to the road but with higher foot traffic than the local market and government grants’ line.
The procession turned left into the parking lot. Other than the road signs directing vehicles to Elite—one of seven parlors within a three-kilometer stretch—there was no exterior sign to be seen.
The sound of voices suddenly burst above a gray cement brick wall at the edge of the lot and filled the air, halting the conversations inside the vehicles. The sounds of claps echoed like drums and kept up a beat, the rhythm solemn but laced with life.
A green hearse pulled through the front gates of Elite, from the confines of the compound’s gray walls and into the gravel parking lot. Walking on either side of the vehicle were three people, six in total, only one of whom was male. Each was dressed in a long white cotton gown, the uniform of the Nazareth Baptist Church. The six mourners left the side of the hearse and climbed onto the back of an eight-wheel flatbed truck parked parallel to the wall. They sat there as they would sit beneath a tree on a hot summer day, legs swept to the side, grass mats protecting their clean gowns. All of this without missing a beat, without slowing the pace, without lowering their harmony.
Thoko looked out the little truck’s open back door and reached for Jack. His right hand stretched out from the sleeve of his thick leather jacket and helped her balance while she jumped from the vehicle and gained her footing below. She landed holding the top of her straw hat, straightened herself up, and began to brush her dress clean and straight.
A line of “cars that carry the coffin” was parked along the right interior wall of the funeral parlor compound, a wall with an exterior lined by tall pine trees used by local farmers as natural fence lines, protecting their crops from strong winds. Each vehicle’s front windshield had Elite Funeral Parlor detailed in white script across its top quarter.
In the center of the cement-walled compound stood a smoky blue, windowless building with a set of large double doors standing wide open. “Elite Funeral Parlor, Open 24 Hours” was painted in large purple lettering above the entrance. Opposite, along the front wall of the compound, were two large, blue, wall-less tents held up by thin metal poles. Underneath were several dozen green plastic chairs, in tidy rows of 12.
Each tent represented one viewing. Friends and family of Thoko’s elder sister’s husband’s nephew Mbangu Maduzu Mathebula filled the first tent. Opposite it, against the front wall and to the right of the building’s open double doors, were two rows of green plastic chairs. Traditionally, these are for immediate family members only: brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, and, sometimes, close cousins or in-laws. Several women, dressed in large draping scarves, and long, ankle-length skirts, and a few men in secondhand tweed jackets and pressed button-down shirts filled the seats against the wall. Thoko took a seat third from the right, beside Maduzu’s elderly mother and his sister, Joyce. Thoko’s nephews took two seats beneath the tent.
The second tent stood empty, but a few people began filtering in to occupy its seats, gain refuge from the summer sun, and wait their turn. The row of family chairs opposite was nearly filled, and those sitting there were being served ice-cold water by two women with trays of plastic cups.
Maduzu’s sister and brother silently signaled to Dankie to join them against the building, but he remained beside his brother. To their left sat a thin gangly man who wore a red, green, and yellow beaded necklace of multiple strands nearly a fistful in width. He had a large, knee-high silver drum, like a bass drum used in a marching band. Its strap was slightly torn and weathered, and the bulbous end of his white drumstick looked worn down from use.
Mbangu Mathebula, known more commonly as Maduzu, wasn’t Christian like most of his family members. He didn’t go to church, and only a few people recall ever seeing him read the Bible. He was what some might describe as a traditionalist; others might call him a Muchongolo dancer. Translated from Tsonga, muchongolo simply means “dance session.” It is held on Sundays, which means if you are a Muchongolo dancer you don’t attend church. It isn’t a religion per se, but it is definitely associated with strong spiritual and moral beliefs and connecting with the ancestors; its people follow the old generation’s customs, their ways of dancing, their sharing of traditional beer.
Just inside Elite’s front entrance, a man appeared. He cleared his throat and shouted, “Mathebula. Rooibok.”
Dankie hesitated and slowly lifted himself from his seat. The strong posture that normally framed his back was missing. His shoulders curved forward, following his eyes, trailing his toes. Dankie could hear the echoing cries of Maduzu’s sister and mother.
He shuffled around the left of the building, along the tall gray wall, around a car parked outside an open door, and behind the crowd of community members waiting to enter the viewing parlor.
Nearly everyone had passed through the room, and his brother, Jack, exited just as he contemplated entering. Pushed into position by the brother of Maduzu, Dankie fell third to last in line.
The room was dark. And very small. In the center, on a metal stand with wheels, sat a long coffin made of grey-and-white-grained, plastic-coated wood. It was narrow—so narrow, it was hard to imagine a man of Maduzu’s size could be laid to rest in such confines. It had sharp, abrupt points at the shoulders, much like those raw-wood coffins constructed with as few pieces as possible.
People were crowded around the coffin, allowing just enough room for those still viewing to walk the pathway from left to right, around Maduzu. What space remained was filled by the sound of slow lyrics, lapping like waves in the Indian Ocean, led by one woman, “Alleluiaaaaaaaaa, Alleluiaaaaaaaaa . . . .”
God has just appeared
Descending through the clouds
Dankie walked slowly along the edge of the coffin past the waist and to the shoulders, where his eyes looked away from the gray-and-white exterior and into the coffin’s only window. The triangular opening revealed the face of an older man with round, strong features. A small stream of light let in by the open doors ran across his face, unveiling his lifeless Necco-colored skin. It looked almost like putty or clay, shined, then powdered—a process that brought out each line in his face and the crow’s-feet along his eyes.
Dankie couldn’t see whether Maduzu was wearing traditional Muchongolo clothing or a suit and tie, as his Christian relatives would have preferred. He couldn’t see if there was a Bible inside, something Dankie believed all people should be buried with. He couldn’t see Maduzu’s neck or shoulders. A sheet of thin, white butcher paper was secured to the walls of the coffin’s open hatch. Dankie couldn’t see Maduzu’s ears, the top of his head, or his neck through the narrow opening, only his strong chin and face—like the portals at a carnival that allow you to place your head through and take on the body of another person or animal.
The line of viewers flowed with the music, but Dankie slowed as much as he could. As he curved around the top half of his cousin’s coffin, he stood between Maduzu and a podium on which a Bible lay. Peering down, looking at Maduzu from above, looking at Maduzu upside down and slowly becoming right-side up, he continued to walk, the gap between him and the woman in front of him widening with each step. As he reached Maduzu’s left shoulder, Dankie turned his body to stop, but didn’t. He decided to circle around once again. And he almost did. But his mother pulled him out the door and into the light.
On the left side of the room, Maduzu’s male relatives and several men of Muchongolo were already unfolding a king-size, soft wool blanket with a red, yellow, black, and green pattern. The line had passed, and they were preparing to take Maduzu home.
Dankie stood outside with his back to the viewing room. Facing the grey wall and line of tall trees, he let go. His shoulders shook. His face was buried inside his hands. Tears poured through his fingers and down one wrist.
He stood alone. Several feet away, circling around the green hatchback hearse, people sang and waited for the preacher to speak. An odd orchestra rose up, a blend of slow lyrics about God’s followers, the lung-filled cries of Joyce and her mother, a bird’s repeated call (“pit-may-fro”), and the beeping of the hearse’s open door.
“Thank you very much for giving me this chance to speak to you, and I thank you all for coming to Maduzu’s funeral. I am going to read to you from the Bible,” announced the preacher, standing beside the open hearse door. Dankie wiped his hands across his face to sweep away the sadness and dry away his tears. He rubbed with such force and so repetitively that it seemed as if he wished to wipe away his face altogether.
“Thank you, God,” the preacher continued, “for giving us this chance to speak to you. Now we have to take our friend to the cemetery. Please be with us through to the cemetery. Amen.”
“Amen,” the crowd replied.
As quickly as tongues released the last syllable, one of the women began to lead the Zulu lyrics that would carry Maduzu through the compound of Elite and to the procession on the road.
Follow him wherever he goes.
Wherever he is
We will follow him.
Dankie watched the blanket-shrouded coffin until the hearse door was shut. When the engine started and the vehicle began to creep slowly along the side of the building, he followed as the singers surrounded the hearse and walked Maduzu between the rows of mourners waiting their turn to join the cortége. It wasn’t long before their sweet melody was suffocated by the harsh Muchongolo drum.
dong, dong dong, dong
dong, dong dong, dong
The vibration of the drum seeped through the pores of the mourners, forced its way into the bloodstream, and shook the beat of their hearts. Of the singers, only the sight of their song could be seen—as if they were moving their lips, but nothing came forth. Even they could hardly hear their own voices, which collectively could not break through the Muchongolo drum.
Less than 10 minutes after the viewing, Dankie climbed into the front seat of the little square truck. His aunt Thoko—whose tall, bony frame reached the ceiling—sat behind the driver’s seat, with her chin resting on top of the headrest, and stared out the window.
As they drove through town, the sounds of Friday afternoon filled the vehicle. A long cargo container, the kind loaded onto semi trucks, had been offloaded on the north side of the main shopping strip, brought in by a regional radio station. Its sides were embedded with speakers, and Acornhoek’s busy drag was filled with the sounds of pop dance music and disc jockeys. One end of the container sat open, with people standing about in traditional dress. Near the edge of the road stood a barefoot, shirtless man with rings of faux leopard tails around his neck and a short cloth of leopard skin around his waist.
In the truck, the women who had chattered on about getting cool drinks when they first passed through, who had waved to friends at the two stop signs just 20 minutes before, now sat and stared past one another’s shoulders.
Dankie sat in silence. His eyes were closed.
The sun was falling when the lead vehicle—a bakkie filled with Muchongolo men and women, one of whom still maintained the beat of the drum—slowed to turn onto the dirt road bound for Rooibok. The children who filled the roads as Maduzu’s mourners first passed were now inside their homes, or sitting under trees in small numbers, or meandering along the roadside with no place to go. Just a few children were left on the soccer field, no longer playing against one another, but lazily lying on the dusty field, propped up by their stringy arms or leaning back with their heads on the ground.
The escarpment that paints the sky like a city in the distance radiated. A deep line of bright pink laced the edges of its rocky, defined features. A palate of African oranges and pinks splashed across the sky. The shadow of the great mountain tabletop slowly covered the speckle of homes seen across the lowlands, stretching its way to the flats of Rooibok.
As the procession creaked along the eroded roads leading past Dankie’s home to Maduzu’ s homestead, Dankie began to rock his head—not enough for most to notice, but a small nervous beat slowly tapping forward. Maduzu’s home was located on the slow slope of Rooibok’s west side, a short walk from the natural spring where cattle drank, gardens were grown, and community members collected water when the taps ran dry. It faced the mountains with a view unobstructed by any other homesteads, and had no direct neighbors with whom to share a fenceline like the homesteads closer to the main road. The property was larger than others and looked like a collection of three or possibly four plots appointed to Maduzu and rented from the tribal authority. A link fence, wooden poles, and the occasional sheet metal or collection of sticks bordered the outline. The entrance was wide enough to drive through.
As the vehicles rode the curve of the road to the left, a large blue-and-white tent towering at the rear of Maduzu’s home came into sight. Cars in the front of the line had begun to park and unload, and their passengers were entering the property on foot. The green hearse slid in, maneuvering through the crowd.
The rear door of the hearse opened, and the men of Muchongolo reached in with the help of two Elite drivers to pull the coffin of their friend from its interior. Hidden beneath the soft drape of the wool blanket, the coffin was lifted to shoulder height and carried around the side of the hearse, up the single step, onto the cement stoop, and through the front door of Maduzu’s home. Immediate family and a few Muchongolo men followed closely.
Dankie, still separating himself from the crowd, just a few body lengths behind, heard the ululation of Joyce, Maduzu’s sister, leaping from her body into the air like a call for help to the ancestors. Turning to the left, he saw her throw her body flat against the ground, tipping like a signpost. She didn’t even buckle. She gripped the sandy soil, her body, covered in black cloth, quivering as she cried. Two women, Joyce’s friends from her home village, ran to her side and pulled her up by the arms. They carried her around Maduzu’s home to the rear, away from the crowds.
“Come,” said Jack.
“No,” Dankie replied.
“Come,” Jack insisted, holding his brother’s arm.
Dankie stepped around the crowds, past the hearse, and through the closed-in stoop to enter Maduzu’s home for the first time in seven days. Inside, every curtain was drawn. A step behind his brother, Dankie stopped in the center of the kitchen, beside the Muchongolo man holding the oversized silver drum.
Each side of the main room—a kitchen and living room—had two wooden doors leading to small rooms. The doors were closed with the exception of the first room to the right. Inside, Maduzu was carried and placed on his bed to rest. Family members followed, filling the room and leaving little space for movement or light to break through.
Dankie turned around to look at the kitchen. The drum began to bang. It filled the small room—a room in which Dankie wished to never walk again—with violent force. An older man, the brother of Maduzu, left the bedroom door’s entrance and signaled to the drummer, pushing his hands downward as if waving away the chords of Muchongolo. Stop, he was trying to say. Stop. Another elderly man joined him in motioning away the beat. The drum eventually quieted, and the drummer walked out.
Dankie took a few steps closer to Maduzu’s room to hear the preacher speaking, but as his view of the room’s interior became clearer he turned around and walked away. Inside the room, above the heads of too many people, hung the rope from which his cousin had hanged himself. Serrated in the effort to save, the rope attached to the roof’s wooden beams hadn’t been pulled down. It was a candid way of telling the tale; the remnants of the rope that pulled the breath of life from Maduzu’s body.
Maduzu was buried in the community cemetery near the mission. Regina’s late husband also made this journey in the arms of others, the coffin traveling from place to place until he was finally laid to rest. The evening after Regina buried her husband, 10 women had remained in her home, each of them a widow. As they surrounded her, stayed in her room into the night, Regina was unable to sleep. She knew that they were there to take her, but she knew no more than that. Restlessly, she lay in her bed waiting—anxious of what might be to come and unsure whether to be filled with fear or, since the women around here were all Christian in heart, to be filled with calm. She waited until the women told her, “It is time.”
There was a full moon that night. The women walked in silence by the light of the moon and the Southern Cross above, walking down the dirt roads and passing houses of friends and neighbors. They walked and walked, and, finally, several kilometers away, they arrived at the Nwandlamare River: a place where women fetch water, where their mothers were traditionally courted, vital to the livelihood of each and every villager.
It is at this place that traditions begin and the story often ends.
“They took me to the river, and in the river they gave me laws and some other things. I am not allowed to tell you more than the laws they have given me,” explained Regina. It is a mystery to every woman, one solved only at the death of her husband.
Although Regina showed no fear, Emerencia, her daughter, had been terrified. Every young woman hears rumors about what happens to the widows down by the river. She had heard that the women are put into the cold water and struck repeatedly. She was afraid that the other widows would beat her mother. She had also heard whispers about the women being cut with scissors on their bodies. But nothing she had ever heard could be confirmed. The widows return home, every time, with a new set of black clothing and a haircut cropped close to the scalp. Regina wouldn’t share beyond what she’d been permitted.
The laws presented to her governed her actions for the following six months—simple laws, but crucial for the widowed Shangaan. Regina was not allowed to look in any direction other than forward. There was no looking to her right, no looking to her left, and no looking back. She was not allowed to raise her voice above a soft and respectful tone. Nor was she allowed to walk without her hands behind her back or crossed over her chest. Regina, for the next six months, would honor her husband—a man who had abandoned her and her children many years earlier—with these rules of obedience.
Regina arrived where Emerencia waited with tearful eyes. “I was wearing a black dress, black shoes, black jersey, and a black fabric to cover my shoulders,” she recalled, “and a rosary.”
An independent narrative and immersion journalist, Maggie Messitt ’01 lived and worked in northeast South Africa from 2003 to 2011. During this time, she founded a writing school for rural African women, edited a community newspaper and literary magazine, and reported across southern Africa. She is currently a doctoral student in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. Her essay is drawn and adapted with permission from her forthcoming book The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa, published by the University of Iowa Press (© 2015 by the University of Iowa Press). All rights reserved.