The lost diaries of Tiyo Soga

  • 3

This text contains pejorative terms that readers may find offensive. These terms are quoted in their original context, as used by the author. LitNet editorially discussed the use of the word with the author, and his motivation for the use of the word is published at the bottom of the story.

The lost diaries of Tiyo Soga by Mphuthumi Ntabeni

Always the setting forth was the same,
Same sea, same dangers waiting for him
As though he had got nowhere but older.
Behind him on the receding shore
The identical reproaches, and somewhere
Out before him, the unravelling patience
He was wedded to …  

WS Merwin

 Gravesend — April 15th, 1857

Almost everyone we meet has an edgy lean look. We struggle against the English air, nippy and thin as a memory of the departed.

For a week London has been hit by a freakish snowstorm, blanketing  most of the northwest side. Today the pale sun shines, urine yellowish, on a worthy cause fight against the obdurate ashy skies. Though still crisp, the weather is starting to show signs of tempering, a good nine or ten degrees Fahrenheit, my guess would be.

As the morning ignites Mrs S is eager to get on with things, cold sore reddened arms and all. She rubs my hair as she goes out, complaining and shaking her head in mock disbelief.

“Is fair mochie ootside. No longer jeelit.’ She shouts. Before I can answer she adds; ‘Can't forever have your nose in a book.”

I like to jot down the impressions the day makes before they fade from my mind. Things are more real to me when committed to pen and paper.

I close my notebook and follow her post-haste to meet the day.

We get off The Lady of the Lake, the ship we’ll soon be sailing home on. We mean to purchase supplies that, Deo volente, will carry us for the three or so months—depending on the weather—at sea. We’ve not yet found favourable winds to begin our voyage. We need some kind of medicinal remedies for the seasickness we anticipate.

Outside, a persistent soft rain—a fly-saliva drizzle according to the Xhosa proverb—drives us under the awnings as we walk to the shops. The weak sun, yellow as ale, peeps between the grey clouds. Our gad takes us towards the stained harbour strobe lights. We pass a gaggle of migrating geese mining the marshes for food. Mrs S thought it a sure sign of returning summer. One swallow does not a summer make, my thoughts go. But, indeed, the streets are starting to ooze with sludge, which I particularly dislike.

The floodgates of Mrs S’s whimsy open wide as the morning wears off. She keeps taunting me about exaggerating my cold shivers.

“Afraid of a little smirr are yea?” She asks with a smile. “Not enough even to make a stamp stick. Aye, is just a wee dreich business.”

We laugh it off, hold hands to the suppressed-shock faces of the white folks around who figured us a madam and servant. You’ll be a liar to call Mrs S pernickety.

In Glasgow, my home in the past few years, when it rains it feels as if the rain is raining on top of the rain and you'll never see the end to it. Indeed this one is just an haar by Scottish standards. Still, I prefer not to get the wet over my new suit. It’s better when the snow is dry, more pristine, not this plowetery, showery dirty wet, creating the gurgling brown slush.

All the same: Siyagoduka! We-are-off-to-home soon!

The walls of the red brick buildings we pass are blackened by soot and smog from the belching mills. Mounds of black snow are everywhere in the land of Albion. Mounds of blackened snow forming strange polka-dot decorations on the riverbank. Rows and rows of smoke-breathing chimneys against the river embankment, making everything look stained.

In the evening, the town smells foul from coal-burning fumes—every house has a coal furnace inside for heat. I often excuse myself to go outside to give my weak lungs a break. Otherwise, I start to whistle-breathe, soon followed by a bronchial rattle, leading to a supervening numbness in my head if I don’t break from the toxic fumes.

Black smoke hangs above all modern towns in this country. It is the price they pay for industrialisation. Often I wonder if these things are soon coming to our Kaffirland, and how my people will cope with them. Mrs S is oblivious to it. I miss the clean air of the vast plains of the Cape Colony.

Siyagoduka!

My British tutors hate it when I agglutinate my spelling. I can’t help myself because I think and dream in isiXhosa. In isiXhosa, ‘siyagoduka’ is one word that means ‘we’re going home soon’. Most Western languages, like English, are fusional except for Deutsch which is inflecting and sometimes agglutinating like our Xhosa, or Eastern languages like Tamil and Japanese. Western people struggle with this.

Gravesend — April 16th, 1857

My mind is thrown back to the days of our youth when I could rely on the company of the stars while herding my father’s goats, sheep, or cattle to the grazing veld. I can still picture it in my mind: Waking up at the first crow of the cock to milk the cows with iKhwezi lokusa—the Morning Star—illuminating our way. Making sure to leave some milk in the udders for the calves to have their fill before opening the kraals and pens to let the animals out. The rooster trumpeting in relief at the end of his night shift against the rising of pink-fingered dawn; the bleating goats, easy to lead, leading the sheep to familiar feeding pastures. The bellowing cattle, bobbing their heads with horns silhouetting against the purple skies as they saunter. As such, amaXhosa call early dawn Mpodozankomo—Cow Horns.

By the time we reach the mountain fields, the sun has begun the task of lightening the day with the burning dazzle of gloaming light over the green-grassed grazing fields. Our women folk, wearing smocks over their sheepskin leather skirts, carrying wooden milk pails—from western influence, instead of the traditional ones woven with reeds—driving the milk-drunk calves into the garden enclosures where they gambol and kick divots. And the nodding generosity of geese responding to the commotion by flapping sleep out of their wings.

My brother, Festiri, in charge of the cattle when I was younger, taught me how to harness inkabi—oxen—for ploughing the fields. He likes narrating our oral history, howling winds sometimes robing us of his voice. As one of the first black people to learn how to read and write in our area, he transferred those skills to us before we attended missionary schools.

When he still thought the missionaries were looking after our best interests, our father, Old Soga, encouraged us to attend these transforming centres. Himself a product of his father, Konwana, one of the first converts and coevals of prophet Ntsikana. The missionaries were first treated with guarded affection in our villages before they proved themselves to be the glove hiding the brutal British colonising hand.

Gravesend — April 17th, 1857

 Morning

It is not easy, waiting for fair sailing weather, permanently watching for the winds to turn. Tempers flare because most men don’t have a stomach for sitting still in one place, preferring to pass time playing card games or gambling, standing to relieve themselves, not even bothering to use a public earth closet, drunkenly encouraging each other to piss against the walls or take a dump downriver. I stayed many years with white people but still don’t understand their restlessness. Someone I can't now recall once said: “All of humanity’s problem stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”1 I believe this applies more to the white race than any other.

One of the things that torment me about being in this land is the inability to go to the wild to relieve myself. These boxes of granulated clay they call earth closets where you’re supposed to take your dump vex me. They’re fetid things that give a stink like an angry polecat. Qha ke, lamaqaqa awaziva kunuka! This Xhosa proverb has become the favourite of Mrs S ever since I explained that it means a person(s) who can’t see their own faults—can’t smell themselves like a polecat. Typical Scot, she applies it almost in everything relating to the English.

It takes forever for my dump to come out when I sit on their earth closets. I’m not able to relieve myself at peace like I would in the open wild. But you’ve no choice when in the city. Mrs S tells me, in fascination, that the public ones along Fleet Street give less stink because they flush the mess down the river. You wonder why the big river stinks.

I don’t understand why someone faced with the prospect of three months at sea would prefer to spend the few days they have sitting, playing cards instead of stretching their legs. Were it up to me Mrs S and I would roam as far as the rural fields outside the city. But we’ve been warned not to stray too far lest a hasty take to the sea is required of us.

Walking around this city is a wonderful thing to do, it delights the flâneur in me to take in the roads of invention and paths of memory their ancestors built for the future.

Gravesend — April 17th, 1857

Evening

Yesterday, at Charing Cross, looking at the bustle of the Thames estuary, we were directed to Cecil Court, through Martin Lane. There we fulfilled our intentions to purchase books that would see us a while in the Eastern Cape Colony.

This voracious city of London is a mirror of a fast-changing world: cog-driven, rickety-clack world of industrial economy with drumming horse hooves and iron-wheeled cart clatter on the cobblestone streets. Like your Romans or Alexandrians of old of the ancient empires, anyone and everyone seeking to broaden their horizons and fortunes come here, provoking xenophobic fears against uppity foreigners.

Yesterday, in a Greek coffee shop we meant to sit in, the owner, one Daliveedovi as he had introduced himself, took exception to my entering his shop.

“I’m afraid we’re not allowed to serve blacks and slaves inside,” said he in amused earnestness.

“I’ll have you know,’ said our host and companion, Dr William Anderson, ‘this here is Right Reverend Tiyo Soga, a dear friend of mine whose esteemed company I am honoured to enjoy.” When he noticed hesitant looks from our host-to-be, he continued. “Mr Soga is a freeman, a reverend and a distinguished gentleman of great intellectual acumen.”

The owner refused to budge, murmuring something about adorned slaves. In the end, we chose to forfeit the pleasure of sipping the Mohammedan dark wine of Arabi. I once tasted it at the Cafe Kaveh, a popular Turkish students’ joint in Edinburgh. Everyone boasted about its potency for sustaining concentration when studying. I had to try it under academic pressure to submit my papers. I didn’t find its bitterness palatable at first, but it became tolerable the second time when taken with a lump of sugar. I’m told it gets even better when mixed with milk. All that, however, escalates its already exorbitant price. In the end, I chose to forego the privilege to guard against both my wallet and my palate.

Gravesend — April 18th, 1857

Morning

Any student of history knows the fast change of circumstances untethers the fears about the future. This induces anxieties in the national psyche of the people. The arrival of white people in our lands had this effect. Too many things radically changed too fast, exposing the inadequacy of the traditional systems to deal with convulsive challenges. An immediate result was the collective psyche of amaXhosa catching millennial fever, bringing the nation to the heights of strange messianic syndrome and desperate need for a supernatural saviour. This need is a poison that blooms in almost all colonially dislocated people with latent susceptibility to raw instincts not yet touched by the enlightening powers of science or right religion. Only science or true religion clarifies natural instinct from superstition into rationality. Where true Revelation encounters people’s natural myths and rituals, it cleanses them to align closer with the Will of God. AmaXhosa are no exception to this rule.

This is the fulcrum of my conflicting thoughts. Is it possible to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time and still preserve one’s sanity? Time will tell.

The important thing for me is for our nation not to be misled by the obduracy of our superstition, nor by the robbing greed of British imperialism.

Afternoon

When last I went back home, before undertaking my theological studies, I discovered to my detriment that the hydra of our superstition had grown another head in the person of Mlanjeni, a very popular diviner among our people then. He spent the greater amount of his waking hours inside the river to associate himself with iminyanya, the river sprites.

When I was studying at Lovedale—a missionary school founded by the Scots in the area—I had several confrontations with the likes of Mlanjeni. I had hoped to finish my forms at Lovedale before venturing abroad, but the 6th Frontier War, known as the War of the Axe by our people, broke out. This was in 1846 or thereabout. Our school was burnt down by Xhosa warriors. We had to abandon our studies as a result. My mother and I were part of the Christian converts who, in fear of our lives, took refuge at Fort Armstrong under the British protectorate.

Nkosi Maqoma, then regent of amaNgqika, was miffed when, on my behalf, my mother refused me to translate some military letter instructions they had intercepted during an ambush of British military wagons. Thereafter my stay in my homeland became untenable.

Due to the humanity and generosity of Revd William Govan, then principal at Lovedale, I was able to travel abroad with him and some schoolmates like John2 to finish my forms. Revd Govan refused to racially segregate our school when compelled by the British Cape Colony government and chose to close it instead.

That year hurried and changed everything in my life.

I feel a headache developing.

Evening

Around 1849 Mlanjeni and I had many public clashes, some of which nearly cost me my life. In 1850, the 8th Frontier War, otherwise known as Mlanjeni’s War, broke out. In despondency, I had to again flee my homeland post-haste. Christian missionaries, like Revd Niven, became not only my colleagues, but a protective family I flew with. He lost his wife in rather tragic circumstances of those years, being unable to cope with the pressures of war. On the flight from the Perie Mission, she literally went mad after encountering and witnessing too many horrific war scenes and never recovered her faculties and health after.

It became clear to me I was no longer safe when Mlanjeni sent his sycophants to intimidate me while I taught catechism at the Uniondale missionary school. The anger in their eyes was terrifying as they tore the red-mouthed book (Holy Bible) saying:

“This is the thing Tiyo is using to destroy our nation, which seeks to annihilate our traditions.”

Henceforth, I became preoccupied with how to pay for a passage to Britain to further my studies. In fact, that very night I escaped by the skin of my teeth when they came back to burn down the house I shared with my sister Tawuse. I later learnt that she saved the white missionaries when the Xhosa warriors tried to intercept their escape. She invoked the protection of Nkosi Maqoma, who was rather fond of the Niven and Ross families for doing missionary work in his area. The Scottish Church, the Cape Colony government, and the helpful means of Andries Stockenström, then Lieutenant Governor of the Eastern Cape, clubbed for my sea passage to Scotland.

Mlanjeni and his sycophants identified us, me, as the grave cause of the dereliction of our traditional ways. Going as far as to accuse me of witchcraft for praying over our people.

As was so during the era of Nxele so it is now in our epoch, and will be so in the future whenever there’s some national pressure in our lands. During convulsive times, many of our people repair to appealing to the mystical powers of clairvoyance. Mlanjeni has recently been at the forefront. His popularity and power knew no bounds. He was feared even by Xhosa kings and chiefs.

Gravesend — April 19th, 1857

Morning

The letters I receive from home inform me that the recent death of Mlanjeni has put a temporary muzzle on his movement. Unfortunately the fatal fangs of superstition are again already kindled; through the misinterpretation of the Nongqawuse prophecies. It is fomented by the confounding astonishment against the power of white people encroachment, by force of persuasion and military violence, to rob amaXhosa of their land and cattle.

Only two ploughing seasons passed from Mlanjeni’s War to the marvelous prophecy of Nongqawuse that lunged our nation on the fatal precipice of the abyss. I’m told it began with the dying of the cattle of amaGcaleka by a strange lung disease, brought to the colony by Friesland cattle from Holland.

This young girl, Nongqawuse, lives with her uncle, Mhlakaza, along the Gxarha stream under Nkosi Mnzabele. She sees ancestral visions, according to the correspondence I received from M.W. Waters. Waters has been rigorously investigating the matter with the intention of writing a book. In his missive he writes in what I equate to the style of Tacitus: placing imagined words as personal speech to convey historical events. This purported speech of Nongqawuse is Waters’s realistic interpretation of the events from the information he has been gathering firsthand:

The spirits of our ancestors are speaking: I, Hintsa, speak. Also I, Gaika; and I, Maqoma, among others whose names are not clearly recorded to the ear. But they are among the ancients of Xosa and warriors of old time. Listen! They are speaking. Their words announce their sorrow. We have seen the oppression of our people by the Whites. We can no longer keep silent. We shall come to save the nation from destruction. The spirit translates me to another country: a land of death. I see a multitude of dead cattle and the heavens are crowded with vultures: the grain pits are empty: the land is obscured by the chaff driven by the wind. My soul is vexed with this country of death. It calls me. It summons me to the third heaven, to a land of resurrection. Listen! Listen! They say that when the winter has passed, spring succeeds; when death has passed, the resurrection comes. I see the land of the Xosa, a great land. The kraals are full of cattle. The cows with sucking calves are lowing, and the fields are ripe to harvest. I see multitudes on multitudes, the armies of Ama-Xosa, great armies. I can distinguish that race among them. There is nothing old ...

I, for one, see very little wrong with the prophecy. I can understand why, from the Xhosa predilection to seek supernatural solutions for astounding natural phenomena, it led to the now moribund Great Cattle Killing thaumaturgical movement. The error, as is almost always the case with these things, is in the interpretation.

I shall afford myself the retrospective privilege of applying the exogenic skills I learnt from my academic studies when I’ve gathered all the facts. For now I’m just laying down the historical context to explain the Xhosa national psyche. The tricky thing with the esoteric things is that the interpretation of the meaning tends to be open to manipulation by power-hungry opportunists. And the purported prophecies always contain a modicum of truth. Hence most Xhosa chiefs, confronted by the loss of cattle and ruling power to clairvoyance powers of amaGqirha, took their cue from Kreli, the Gcaleka young King who was the first to misinterpret the prophecy, leading to many Xhosa kingdoms entering the madness of mass cattle killing. The Cattle Killing Movement became a political shortcut to restoring the royal-chiefly power and authority.

Apparently, the believers who misinterpret the prophecy are referred to as AmaTamba, and the non-believers as AmaGogotya. AmaTamba also refuse to till the land, waiting for the so-called River People to emerge and save them from colonial oppression. They believe the prophecy to imply that the River People will rise from the waters to fight the cause of our people against the whites, bringing with them new, healthier domestic cattle stock and drought-resistant seeds for planting. This has not materialised, prompting the ensued famine that is visiting our land: empty grain pits and skies crowded by vultures, just as Nongqawuse saw in her vision.

All this is what has brought our once proud nation to her knees; is what awaits us when we arrive back home. I'm sad that Mrs S will first encounter my people on their knees, which in her mind would be at variance with the proud nation I told her about.

Afternoon

Death is a powerful impregnating power for the imagination.

The distress of my soul summoned a dream song for me. It’s tune is still humming on my soul, but I can’t recall well the serenity of the melody to properly compose the score. These are its first lyrics:

Lizalise idinga lakho Nkosi yeNyaniso
Ungayithobi phezu kweSizwe sethu ingqumbo yakho,
Luze, lude lufe usapho lwakho lungeka yiboni iNyaniso ...

Naturally, it will have to be more than one verse, but my mind is stuck and refuses to go beyond this like a horse refusing to cross a crocodile-infested river.

Mrs S has asked me to translate it for her. So far, I’ve only managed a rough translation that doesn’t satisfy me. She says it is beautiful and cuts to the core in a poignant manner of the Psalms. She’s my staunchest fan, so whatever she says I take with a pinch of salt. We shall see, when it is finished if it affects other people in a similar manner:

Fulfil your promise, Lord of the Truth
Do not rain your wrath on our Nation,
Lest as your children we die, before we acquire the Truth ...

What it needs most is a powerful refrain to emphasise the prayerful admonishing, and some transcendental merging point between the order of experience and meaning, something with arresting syntax and covenantal rhymes as songs of distress like, By the rivers of Babylon. But with a clear Xhosa rhythm and abbreviated emotional intensity of isiXhosa in the tradition of Ntsikana’s Intsimbi, The Bell Song. In time, I hope to bring the song along those lines when my mind recovers from the fog of the current national disaster.

I’m told our population has been drastically reduced due to the famine emanating from the cattle killings. As such, many are going through the process of ukuthwasa—seeking mystical answers for worldly problems to tame their anxieties and shame—as a coping mechanism. Diviners are emerging in droves, misleading people yet again into a fatalistic cul-de-sac, as Nxele and Mlanjeni did in the past.

Apparently, Nkosi Maqoma and his brothers have been apprehended for fomenting the movement; and, as we speak, are on their way to incarceration at the Leper Colony. I shall do my best to see them when we get to Cape Town. Perchance, I may even be able to persuade the British officials that this thing is beyond the chiefs. It is a millennial spirit with seeds over fifty years old in our national psyche.

I hear that Nkosi Sandile, Maqoma’s younger brother and heir to the Ngqika’s throne, is the only one spared by the British colonial government with the hope that he shall form a new breed of civilised royalty that is amiable to the British crown. I received an official letter from the Cape Governor that I’m to exert my ‘educated influence’ on the young king.

Kubi! Things are bad for the children of Ngqika. This worries me.

Gravesend — April 19th, 1857

Evening

I’ve spent much time praying and thinking about the future of my nation. I've implored God not to pour His wrath over our nation because of our recalcitrance at accepting His Word. I’ve implored God to send me to open the eyes of my people. If this can only be done through the hand of kings, like uSandile and Kreli, so be it. This, I feel, is what God is calling me to do back home, to evangelise our people into the Gospel truth. From Nxele to Nongqawuse, via Mlanjeni, our nation has never lacked in people that lead them astray, based on nefarious powers of superstition and clairvoyance. My vocational task is to plant a seed that will break the stronghold of this generational curse over us.

The failures of our traditional ideals always unleash false nostalgia for a mythical past. This is what allows diviners to manoeuvre our people for personal/political gain and popularity, by manipulating their despair. I fear by the time I get home, there shall be another diviner who will have replaced Mlanjeni in the task of putting our nation on a collision course with fate. The toll will be hard again like it was when I taught at Uniondale. Many Xhosa men lost respect for me because my father, induced by my mother’s religious beliefs, permitted me to break away from the circumcision custom. Hence, I didn’t go to the school of circumcision. It is also why I wasn’t too successful among my coevals regarding the evangelising efforts. They've no respect for me in whom the old things of traditional customs have passed. I am, like St Paul, a new creature in Christ.

I cannot, for the sake of professing the Gospel, avoid putting myself in harm’s way. Didn’t our good Lord tell us that He brought fire in the world, that it would divide brethren from brethren? Now that the fire is blazing, I hope my courage doesn’t fail, lest I be thrown into the pit like chaff when the harvest is picked.

My mother wrote me through the hand of my niece Tawuse—Oh, how I love that girl, named by my brother Festiri after our late beloved sister. When my sister died of the wasting lung disease, I seem to have contracted, the likes of Mlanjeni promulgated the superstition that the Soga family was cursed by the ancestors for deracinating the Xhosa ways for Western ones. Things flared against us and my father panicked and went back to the ochre. Hence, my mother, Nosuthu, would have preferred I tarry a while longer in Scotland until all this dust settles. But we pass through many troubles to enter the Kingdom of God.

The Holy Spirit has revealed to me, in several ways than one, that my time to spread the Word of God will be short and limited because of the vagaries of my health. My time is already folding. I feel it. I must make hay while the sun shines and the fire in me burns brightly.

Gravesend — April 20th, 1857

Morning

What wonders await us today on the streets of London? We need to be a little circumspect for fear of a new pandemic called cholera in town. If I catch it, or typhoid fever, with my weak lungs, that would be the end of me.

I also hope for a chance encounter with David Livingstone on the streets of London, but for now nothing has come to fruition. No notices of him holding his usual conferences anywhere here.

I can’t handle the bustle along the river Thames. I want to go to the cave-like magnetic fields of knowledge that expand every sense: the bookshops and libraries, the endless and endless rows of calf-bound folios and the smell of fresh-cut wood in those paper kingdoms. I can spend hours sniffing at and poking into this wealth of knowledge. It awakens nostalgia for the years I spent in Glasgow and Edinburgh doing nothing but digging into the university library.

I wish to explore the quieter enchantments of Charing Cross, that oasis of quiet musing for book lovers. My love of reading has blossomed into something of a literary obsession since living in Caledonian land. My burning desire is to transmute the love of reading to the youth of our land. I see this, together with the conversion of souls, as my vocational task.

Mrs S and I vow to touch base with Charing Cross whenever we visit London.

Gravesend — April 20th, 1857

Evening

I am cognisant of Christianity’s shortcomings when dealing with indigenous deities, spiritualities, and cosmology—sometimes erroneously clubbing all under the banner of superstition. This error is blatantly clear when it comes to the veneration of ancestors and the reverence accorded by indigenous people to other spiritual beings. Hence, I always try to explain these things to my fellow missionary colleagues, by way of arming them with means of differentiating chaff from wheat in our indigenous spirituality.

I have to write a letter to our parish back in Glasgow; and try to explain to them why the failure of traditional ways and ideals always unleashes false nostalgia for a mythical past to the politically oppressed. Furthermore, I need to impress upon them my resentment, as a kaffir, for having to beg and motivate for why, like all missionaries, I should be paid a living wage. Why must the kaffir threshing ox be muzzled as if he has no stomach?

She turned down a man that could've taken her to the Americas for me. I ought to justify her faith in me. My fear is I never have enough money when it is most needed in my life.

Gravesend — April 21st, 1857

Morning

The bitting cold today reminds me how the wind from Siberia, coming in cold gusts, almost froze me to death on Edinburgh’s High Street. But, with the right number of logs for fire in the room, cheap haggis lunch drenched in sharp whisky sauce from the corner shop and books, always books, even the melancholic afternoons of freezing Scottish winters stood no chance.

These were the years I tried to shut everything out, to be immune even to my own memories, not wishing to remember where I came from for the inexplicable shame I felt for being backward interloper in the white world. I nearly drove myself to a mental breakdown. At night I anguished on strange dreams, more like hallucinations, of being cut off from the umbilical cord of my people. I felt like a wanderer without a compass. Adrift. Lost. Alone in a sea of white people. Everything wounded my memory. Watching dusk fall as early as twenty past three irritated me as I got ready for the long nights of winter. The falling snowflakes gave a promise of some epiphany, like manna from heaven. But nothing came from the earth’s elements for me. The only respite, the only epiphanies, I received from the bookshops and libraries. Only in books did I begin to hear the crackling echoes of my past whose inheritance now forms part of my identity.

Gravesend — April 21st, 1857

Afternoon

This will be Mrs S’s first time in Africa. Naturally she’s excited. My feelings are ambivalent. I fear she doesn’t yet comprehend what she’s getting herself into, the far distance she’s creating between herself and civilisation. She has spent all her life in the obscurity of working-class Glasgow. Now I’m tossing her into infamy, plugging her into a future of anxiety. Hence my ambivalence, perhaps even guilt, as if ndiyamthwala, kidnapping her into a dim future she might later resent me for. I’m afraid, lest she later sees in me the vehicle of her life’s ruin. I know that none of us can know for sure what the future brings. That there’s no sure way to determine how things will eventually turn. This is the condition that pleases God to burden the human creature. We must do our best to adapt to the nature of things we’ve little means to alter.

She turned down a man that could’ve taken her to the Americas for me. I ought to justify her faith in me. My fear is I never have enough money when it is most needed in my life.

To save our lives, we need to risk them in love. 

“Ya’ think the Clyde’s River business a wee bit much, but this…?” Mrs S, points across to the Tilbury. As the Glaswegian daughter of a warper, she knows a thing or two about busy ports. Still, the Port of London takes her breath away.

This gilded city grows fat on the spoils of an emerging empire. It felt like yet another milestone in my life, to stand with Mrs S under the statue of King Charles I. Well, strictly speaking, the three of us standing there, since Mrs S chose that august moment to inform me that she is with child. Our firstborn. The news inspired a bliss attack of joy and hope on my person. Try as I might to restrain myself, my pride quickly rose like bread in a hot oven. All the more reasons why we need to be out of London, infants die from summer diarrhea here when the weather gets hot.

Hand in hand, trailing behind our captain and other passengers, we traced our steps back to the ship. My mood, having been unbuttoned, goading my leaping heart to the promising future. Laughing and joking, we make concrete plans for our future while wanting to see as much as we can of this London town in the little time we have before leaving for the open seas. But we're warned not to wander too far as the ship might sail any time that favourable winds were granted by the good Lord.

Mrs S tells me the words, grafs-ham, the town Gravesend is named after, mean “the place at the end of the grove” in the Scottish dialect. We were at pains to discover the location of the implied grove earlier on, to no avail, I am afraid. Alas, we didn’t even have time to consult with the official townsfolk, owing to the multitude of errands we needed to run for our provisions. But I’m rather proud of myself for managing to determine where the main street of the town connects with the ancient Roman Road leading to central London. Sometimes my curiosity about ancient history comes in handy. It made Mrs S extremely proud to see me explain to our esteemed company these things. Many of them, rather with an air of persiflage, do not expect a kaffir to be in possession of such ancient knowledge.

Mrs S likes calling me her Oriel Man, after a university in the town of scholars and cattle herders in Oxfordshire. I’m told this town, Oxford, rests on a sea of books. I wish an opportunity to visit it avails itself before we leave. Dare I say, myself I would not mind a piece of dirt in those lands, to live a quiet life of study and writing books. But the plight of my people is of uppermost importance to me. It weighs heavily on my shoulders in these days of my eating inkobe—living.

Mrs S is eager to learn how to cook inkobe after I told her its corn kernels that is a Xhosa staple food. I’ve not had an opportunity to teach her due to the difficulties of obtaining them in Scotland. I would have loved to teach her how to gqusha, the process by which we grind them with imbokotho—a grinding stone—into samp.

Even among our fellow travelers, there are those who surmise I’m her servant until she disabuses them of such a notion. She’s always much more eager to correct whenever this misunderstanding arises, to the embarrassment of my characteristic modest expectations. Raised on the diet of racial grit in the Cape Colony, my attitude is always to find ways of plodding on despite the hodgepodge of silliness we encounter almost daily because we’re an interracial couple. She’s the complete opposite of that, your typical feisty, auburn-haired Scottish lass who’s not afraid to take the bull by the horns.

Anyway, the ancient Roman road is easy to identify if you know what to look for since it runs parallel to the Kent coast, along the hustle and bustle of the river Thames. They call the river The Great Stink because it spews dead bodies and the dirt of industry in a rather stinking way, I’m afraid, but no one can dispute the ancient salient majesty of her face and nature. Here and there she is dyed and contorted by the lines of industrial abuse, soiling her dignity as an all-knowing ancestor in the homestead, quiet, watching, sooty and wrinkled from the wisdom of ages.

It feels as though the whole city is a construction site. It would be marvelous to visit her in a decade or so when she reaches the economic future she’s currently racing towards. I bet it shall be glitz and glamour, tempting her denizens, like Babylon of old, to reach in pride for the Heavens.

Gravesend — April 21st, 1857

Evening

Fort Gardens, the new Tavern Fort, was pointed out to us from a distance after Mrs S declined an invitation to explore it on our behalf. It looked magnificent. I'm not even easily impressed by the majesty of military things. I have a strong aversion to forts in particular, what with them proving to be the demise of my people back home. When they wanted to subdue our nation, the British built a series of forts on our land. Mrs S, who knows my opinion on these things, thought it best we did not visit its interior. I suspect that is what was behind her polite refusal of the invitation rather than the offered excuse of being tired or pressed for time. I am certain we could have spared twenty minutes or so to accomplish the task had we had the wish and inclination. I rue agreeing with her, thus missing out on what I now regard to have been a lifetime opportunity. But I'm grateful that though we’ve been married less than a year she knows how to anticipate my moods. After all, one of the crucial duties of spouses is the readiness to indulge each other’s foolishness. The Book of Proverbs says, “He who finds a good wife has received a blessing from the Lord.” May I prove to be worthy of her as my lifetime companion in this valley of tears.

Walking back, we spied, with the ocean pull of the moon behind the horizon, the ant-colony wharf busyness of the dock workers off-loading the ships on the harbour, whereupon I thought of my favourite English poet, John Donne:

It is an astonishment to be alive, and it behoves you to be astonished.

The ancients had a saying, first written down by the Roman philosopher, Seneca, who was also the tutor of the mad emperor Nero: If a man knows not which port they’re sailing to no wind is favourable.

We know our port. We’ve now found favourable winds.

Word is out from the captain: The Lady of the Lake will be sea-bound in a matter of hours, DV. She’s spick-and-span with shinning bright polished brass, painted bulkheads and chipped decks.

In announcing the captain puns “God Willing” with “God Blowing”; then throws a wink at me. I had to relieve the confounded looks of our fellow travellers by explaining that the Latin word ‘volente’ also means to blow or breathe out. Only then did everyone understand.

Our progress always depends on God’s blowing, the Holy Spirit, the Giver and Renewer of all Life. I’m afraid the preacher in me took the opportunity to pass the message while dotting things down for my next Sunday sermon. The captain tasked me to conduct Sunday service during our journey to the Cape. “It keeps the peace on board.” This was his only motive.

The English Channel — April 22nd, 1857

Morning

Throwing our lot in with the haunting sea, our ship hauled anchor and clicked to high sail mpondozankomo. Happy to show our backs to the contrived grandeur of the land of Albion we made the watery wilderness our temporary abode. Already, I’ve begun missing, just a little, the forked spires of London, the giant assegais that punch her smoky skies.

When once we visited Sussex I was taken to South Downs National Park, near Brighton, and is how I was able to observe closer the wonder of the Dover Cliffs of the towering Seven Sisters. Today the crowning green of the cliffs is wrapped in mist as we pass. It makes me miss the white tablecloth of Table Mountain. The chalk-like cliffs are constantly pounded by breakers from the rolling weight of the sea. To the numerous riven immigrants of the British empire, who are compelled to come to her cities, the cliffs of Dover are a landscape sight of regret, loss and forebodings of imposed impotence.

The further we go away from England, the higher the golden stalk of the moon rises to the skies like a burning shield. We meet the calm vast smoothness of the encouraging sea and the air sparkles clear as the expansive quiet takes over. I can just about make out the English coastal town of Deal as the ship drills the ocean into the open sea.

It feels like another lifetime since, as a sixteen-year-old, I first sailed these waters, anxious for what I would find in Caledonian land. I looked forward to the unfolding of my life, excited in anticipation, with a fair amount of fear and trembling.

It is a marvellous thing to see white people’s cities lit by artificial light at night. But when you learn how they harvest that oil, from whale flesh, you rethink the barbarism behind their so-called civilisation. Once we visited one of their stinking, floating-wharf factories. Day in and night out they rip blubber from whale corpses, chopping it up into manageable pieces to boil for oil they use to artificially light their houses, streets, and everything. I don’t think producing artificial light should be worth the life of a single whale, let alone hundreds. The stink of emissions from the process adds to the foul pall that hangs over the sooty city. It stinks, it all very much stinks, Sir, especially in the early evenings.

Accelerated monomaniac profligacy and cruelty are the price you pay for commercial industrial progress. Added to that, is the regrettable fact that humans are degraded as mere tools of technical progress in the process. It’s a heartless, murderous business of sickening zeal for endless profit-making at its core.

The English Channel — April 22nd, 1857

Afternoon

With nothing much else to do, I basically read and write all day now, as long as there’s still light. Otherwise, we’re just being fed like capons.

When I first left the Cape for Scotland, lunging into the open sea felt as though I had been flung by harsh fate on uncertain waters. A deep, perennial sense of uprootedness dogged me like a hound of Heaven ever since; as though I was being sent into exile, uprooted from everything I knew and loved: my family, home, land and people. As familiar mountains sank behind the horizon, reality dawned: I was, and would always be, alone. From that day onwards, a deep sense of loneliness dogged me until I met Mrs S during that fateful Quaker meeting in Dundee I almost failed to attend. That year changed my life in more ways than one. It is forever marked as the reprieve of my melancholic disposition. Meeting Mrs S was one thing, but listening to how black Americans were able to articulate in intellectual language, our pain as the black race was the pinnacle of my life experience, next to baptism. I sat at the meeting mesmerised, absorbing every word until she gently nudged my elbow, offering me tea.

“Fancy a cuppa? Is awfully jeelit today.” I drank her offering in a trance-like state as the waters of my blindness parted. Before I met her, I often swooned with shame at almost every new encounter. I wept when I was sure no one would see me, coming to hate even the desire for education placed on my shoulders by my family since I began attending school at Lovedale.

Like Odysseus at the beach of Calypso’s Island, I knew from then that my freedom and salvation lay in braving the sea, away from the limiting comforts of familiar lands and traditions. Abram had to leave Ur, his land of birth, for God to accomplish his plan of establishing him as the father of a faithful nation. That was the only way he could transform into Abraham.       

Consulting my diary entries of June 1851, when I first travelled to Scotland, I can see how raw my emotional state was:

I am shot to sea, to leak the boy into a man I must become.
The rain gives birth from the pregnancy of this foggy day.
The day is closing in tantrum: lightning and thunder tantrum.
I am compassing the sea.

At home I could recognise myself, my life, by the ancient mountains that ring our land. Now, I find myself in a horrible dreamscape and the company of strangers whose kindness I must trust and depend upon for a secure future.

I am in the loneliest of the lonely air.
The golden ointment shoots rays behind the sea horizon.

I take courage on the wings of prayer as my mother taught me. Numerous things have been achieved by maternal prayers. Samuel, the quintessential product of maternal prayer, anointed kings from the strength of those prayers: “Where you go, God goes with you…” Such faith of mothers. Ah, Nosuthu, such faith as yours shames my doubting heart.

I woke up stung to the core on a bobbing ship, hemmed in by her wooden walls and sea-ploughing stern.

The claustrophobia is built by the ship’s low ceilings.

Where am I taking my life? What adventures await it there? Am running away from or towards my life.

When I see the stars, those lamps of courage, I feel slightly better. They’re now the shining shroud of my internal grief.

I am living my life already in a memory, posthumously as the witness of its times and experiences.

That is why I write—to give witness to my life.

Perhaps Mother Nosuthu and I were too hasty in trusting the kindness of strangers.

Perhaps my hunger will heighten my perception. Perhaps…

Open Seas — April 23rd, 1857

Second day at sea. Feeling the quicksilver dazzle of dawn. I woke up with a cramp on my heart. To escape the cabin congestion, I dust my jacket, waking my soul from the prison bars of the flesh as I climb up to the poop.

From here I tear off the heaviness on my shoulders, watching the doings of the newly minted day.

I stand in silence, hoping nobody spies on me while chafing my lice-bruised arm skin.

I’m mesmerised by the salmon dawn skies

The limbs grow heavy at sea.

The morning needle-sharp wind stabs my face, howls through my ears, tempting me back to the lice-infested bunker belly of the ship.

I’m struggling with the frigid air ballooning my jacket. It blows the paper sheets of my journal. I rue being so curious. Must I go back to the condensed warmth of the polluted enclosure below?

The brine stings my eyes. The exotic tang of the sea licks my cheeks.

During clear nights the ship’s prow cut a rift in the water reflection of the sparkling stars, forming a bubble phosphorescent foam to open up a long and deep water furrow for sailors and wanders, like me, to sow their dreams.

Many thoughts cross my mind.

I go sit on the fore part of the ship’s hull for endless hours, thoughts rolling up and down inside my head about my past until Mrs S come calling me for the grub.

“Come on down now, the sailor’s mess is setup.” She calls.

A strange dread overtakes me.

I wonder what would happen if a whale, of biblical leviathan proportions, rammed up against the ship. It would surely sink it. I never learned to swim.

I send a prayer dart to the good Lord to preserve us from ending up in the belly of a fish, unless He has other plans for us, like He had for Jonah, whom He sent to Nineveh but instead went to Tarshish because of his mule-stubborn mind.

God’s ways are indecipherable to us. Just as you think, like Jonah, you’ve found a bush to rest under its shade, God sends a worm to destroy it.

Open Seas — April 25th, 1857

Fifth day at sea.

Things feel close to midnight by the clock of my soul.

We’re joined by a pod of sea-shouldering whales. It is amazing to watch these majestic animals churn the waters, often breaching the surface in strange, unguarded suddenness before falling back to the embrace of the sea.

I forgot to mention that at the University in Edinburgh, I read from a scientific journal that the throat size of a whale, on average, is a mere man’s fist in size. It would therefore have been impossible for one to swallow Jonah. Unless, of course, the biblical leviathan was some earlier form of a now-extinct sea monster. This teaches us not to always take scripture literally.

The morning or evening hours are more auroral in the crepuscular northern skies. They're lustral in our southern ones.

Strange thoughts come to my head again.

I was born between worlds, a conflicted man of Dangerous Nowhere. Were I European, I would call myself a Renaissance man. But as a Xhosa man, I’m more like Nxele, that limb of our perennial infirmity. In a better mood, I call myself a living sentinel of the River People—the ones who do not age and but exist to be the rudder of our nation, especially when in crisis. We call them Iminyanya—the Shades.

I wonder who knows what clairvoyant sea forces crush in our ribcages. Or if dreams, conjured by our infirm minds, are a prophetic landscape for our doom or salvation.

Lizalise idinga lakho, nkosi yenyaniso!

I’m just an African boy, born amidst arid rocks like an aloe. Like an aloe, I’m meant to thrive against all odds on the edges, to ripple bittersweet medicine against the degradation of a nation in crisis.

I find myself surrounded by the sea, daily becoming a thalassophyte.  This landlubber kaffir has stayed too long in the lands of white people.

Open Seas — May 10th, 1857

I’ve been thrown out of commission for a few days by a sore throat and mouth boils that make it difficult to speak. Preaching is impossible. Mrs S is telling people that I have a preacher’s ailment. But I’m afraid it is more complicated than that. We both fear and recognise the symptoms of this influenza because it has cut many at the stem in Glasgow where we lived. From what we noticed it is extremely contagious and doesn’t shy away from mowing down entire families at a time.

I need to be careful around other passengers. I wrap a scarf around my mouth all the time and make use of my handkerchief whenever I cough among others. I notice blood particles in my mucous when I cough, which is not a good thing. This is why I prefer spending most of my time up on the poop; not only does it relieve my breathing it is also means for  guarding against others catching what I have.

I shall have to waste our meagre allowance on consulting the medicals when we get to Cape Town.

Open Seas — May 12th, 1857

When I was studying in Scotland my circumstances became a little harsh and awkward sometimes, often reminding me I'm not on the same footing with white men, that I am just an ill-bred, clumsy kaffir. As an underling, with no natural clever brains to write home about, I depended on hard work, efficacy and stamina, like a foundered horse, to reach my academic achievements. I did it at a great exacting toll on my health. The Scottish weather did my frail lungs no favours either.

Humiliated sometimes over petty things, like lack of party clothes—lavender waistcoats, cutaway coats and other civil possessions—I often chose not to attend school events and champagne parties that required expensive wear. This somehow gave me more opportunity to study in silence in my own room. I much preferred this to having to utter false laughs at jokes I didn’t find funny, some of which were made at my expense. It’s very tiring to be treated like an exotic creature, even if no malice is intended. Besides, I had a wad of academic work to catch up on because my years of study had been concentrated into an intense curriculum so I could soon get back to my own land and minister to my own people. 

In foreign lands no one cares about your tears. You swallow your own salts and get on with things. My father put it another way: Even as the cow wail from the burden of the plough, it is sjambokked to pull the yoke.

Such are the methods of the crushing boulder of time.

Open Seas — May 15th, 1857

I’m still feeling a little fatigued most of the time. I try to keep my spirits up by thinking about the stories we grew up on, intsomi and legends. I was quite surprised to discover some of what I thought were our ntsomis in the book of Aesop Fables. The fact that they preceded the arrival of white men to our lands means we must have somehow acquired them through the Arabs, or before we left the Great Lake Regions for Southern Africa. I must further investigate this.

The story that comes to mind today is how Qamata, the Xhosa God of creation, in creating the (mythological) father of the Xhosa nation, Hlanga, called all the animals to assist Him. He wanted to discuss with them how to hide the fact that He wanted humans to be His co-creators in the world.

The Eagle was the first to suggest a solution. “You’re Mvelinqangi, the Divine Consciousness, the source of everything. If you give the secret to me, I’ll fly up and hide it in the deep sky close to the moon and sun.”

Qamata replied. “No. One day, they’ll go there and find it.”

The Salmon said. “I shall bury the secret on the bottom of the ocean where no human dares to swim. That way only the Shades can adumbrate it to the humans. You can create a boundary between the Living and the Dead only I will be able to traverse. I’ll remind them by giving a clue of throwing a reflection of my beauty on the sky at the start and end of each day.”

Qamata demurred with a sigh. “No use, they’ll reach the deepest deep too.”

The Buffalo horned its way through to declare. “Let me scatter it on the plains and valleys of the earth. And if they ask, I shall tell them I lost it along the tall grass veldt where I roam. That I eat the grass and shrubs to see if I can digest the meaning.”

Staid, Qamata uttered with a sigh. “They’ll cut into the skin of the earth, into yours and every animal that eats grass and consume your flesh and that of your calves looking for it.”

Then the Supreme Spirit, Mdali, the womb Mother centre of Creation, proceeding from the Powers of Qamata and his son Tayi spoke a quiet sound that silenced all the rambling of animals, winds and earthquakes. “Put it inside them. I shall whisper it into their ears each time they escape my womb in birth.”

This saying brought awe, fear and trembling to all the animals of the earth that took away their powers of speech. With enormous relief, Qamata ka Tayi exclaimed. “It is done!”

This is why human babies cry when they are born because they hear for the first time the shock of their responsibility to be Qamata’s co-creators and stewards of the planets Mdali whispers to them. Many shrink from the responsibility. As such, the earth is full of Evil, the mischannelled creative energy people fail to use for creative Goodness.

Open Seas — May 16th, 1857

After a few weeks at sea, regardless of daily walks from stern to prow, to get blood flow on your sea legs, you discover you miss little things and the diversity of natural sounds, like the trilling of insects and chirping of birds; things you took for granted all your life. Or the general assembly of silence in the air beyond the crashing stutter of the sea waves. I miss even the sounds of the irritating hadedas in the evenings, the gossip of guinea fowls and murmuration of starlings. I miss the sound of wind rushing between trees, rustling the leaves, which I recently learned is called psithurism.

On this ship, all I do is move around to harvest either warm sunlight, or the moonlight for my reading. How I look forward to waving the sickle against the riotous sounds of a summer’s day: chirping birds, cooing doves, whirring locusts, fluffing butterflies, and lowing cattle.

Open Seas — May 18th, 1857

When the wind-lashed sea started tossing violently, bringing a quality of fear to the nature of things, I came down from the poop. The wind gave a fury howl that cracked the water surface into deep water cliffs. Following this was tons of water pummelling the ship deck. Mountain tall sheaves of wave after wave came tumbling on the deck like a crash of doom causing the ship to constantly dive into the lee side with violent of movements that throws off most of the barrels carrying fresh water and other provisions. Even bilge water started leaking to the lower cabins on the windward side. This gave me most worries.

For now we're safely secured in the cabin, huddling and clustering in fear like hens with suitcases in the bunkers constantly scoot all over the floors.

I thought it wise to jot a few lines down lest we don’t make it through the storm. I hope my writing is legible because it is almost impossible to write now while the ship is thrown into the dark eye of the raging storm.

Poseidon has opened his disquiet with a menacing eye of the storm.

The rolling weight of the sea is violently whipping the ship. Poseidon’s sledgehammer of fury is upon us. We’re thrown about by the tossing waves the roar and hiss of is like a living monster.

If we never see the rising sun again, know that: Despite being in the Dangerous Nowhere, touched by apprehensions and strong currents of fear, we go down burning with bright dreams and unshaken faith in God.

Those who come after us must find us and raise our dreams …3

Footnotes

1 Blaise Pascal

2 John A. Chalmers, first biographer of Tiyo Soga

3 This is a reimagined (fiction) Vol 2 of Tiyo Soga’s Journal. The original went missing during the WW II. 

  • Note from Mphuthumi Ntabeni, author of the above: “I understand why the LitNet editorial team is not comfortable about my character’s use of the k-word. In the Vol I of the Journal and his other writings Soga uses the k-word freely, without prejudice, as was common practice in his era. It was a way of distinguishing the Xhosas from other black people. My first duty as an author here is to be true to the integrity of Soga’s character in reimagining the now lost Vol II of his Journal. Hence I chose to also use the k-word without prejudice.”
  • 3

Kommentaar

  • Just when I had concluded that Mpush had exhausted his cabinet of creative options, and could no longer startle me, he comes up with this masterpiece.
    What an interesting work!
    LitNet was correct to be careful of publishing a piece containing 'kaffir', but Mpush's explanation is the right one. All works, prejudices and perjorative words are best seen within the time and the context of their use.
    A wonderful piece, and so worth reading.
    Rory Riordan

  • David Willers

    A really fascinating vignette. The lived experience of writers is a really big deal these days. Only women can properly write about other women and black writers are best placed to describe what’s going on in the minds of other black writers and so on. I have no problem about his employment of language in the context of this story. Very much rooted in a lived experience of his character. Strength to this authors elbow. I look forward to reading his future output. On another tangent he has really brought home to me how little I know about the Other in the story and how limited and inadequate my own literary horizons are as a result.
    I am actually writing this on a bitters winter day in Glasgow and boy has he nailed the weather and Glasgow itself!

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.


     

    Top