Village Life

Saturday, March 6
I woke up well before dawn this morning and lay in bed thinking about why Steve and I have cherished this time at Bulungula. We’ve appreciated the staggering physical beauty. I finally got out of bed when I couldn’t sleep and made my way down to watch the sun rise over the Indian Ocean. Alone on a beach that stretched for miles, I witnessed changes in the sky and land that came close to being a religious experience.

But the unspoiled beauty alone wouldn’t justify the harrowing journey and general grubbiness. The facilities aren’t awful. But if the clever design of Mosetlha made camping truly comfortable, in this place, it feels just tolerable. The mattresses on the beds in our rondeval are thinner, and the sea air dampens everything and makes the room smell of mildew at times. I never detect the stink of cow manure, which amazes me, because that’s what the floors are made of. Dried, it produces no dust and feels comfortable under the bare foot. The composting toilets at the lodge do stink, though, and the kerosene-heated showers produce water that you can bear to stand in naked. But it’s hardly pleasurable.

Instead, what’s fantastic about Bulungula is the way that it has allowed us to get to know a few black Africans in a context that feels respectful and mutually beneficial. The lodge is located on communal land, and villagers make up the vast majority of the staff. Moreover, the village works almost as an extension of the lodge. This is a village unlike the image I associate with that word. There’s no central cluster of buildings. Instead the 100 or so dwellings that constitute it are scattered over the hillsides, close enough to be companionable, but separated sufficiently so that you probably can’t hear even screaming arguments among your neighbors. The 800 or so people who live here are scrupulously honest, and violence against strangers is unheard of. There are no locks anywhere, and we leave our valuables out in the open. We’ve heard that this works, in part, because everyone knows everything about every person here. If someone suddenly showed up with a new cell phone or a lot of money, questions would be asked, sanctions meted out (the worst imaginable being banishment from the community.)

Although encouraged, ranging out and wandering throughout the community presents the problem that most of the villagers speak only Xhosa. But the lodge has devised activities to facilitate contact. Steve and I have participated in several. On the first day, 2 young German guys, a young “colored” South African girl, and we were led by an English-speaking 23-year-old woman named Khunjulwa to meet with the village herbalist. The seven of us trooped through the forest, where the herbalist showed us plant after plant that he uses to cure people of ailments ranging from skin rashes to toothache to mental disease. (My favorite was the little root he dug up that supposedly comes in handy when a husband is beating his wife and causing trouble within the family. We were told that if you boil it and both spouses wash with the product, domestic harmony will be restored.)

The second day, while Steve went canoeing on the river, Eva, our Swedish fellow traveler from the first day, and I set off to experience “women power” in the village. For this we had two principal guides named Khululwa and Akhoba (both in their 20s and unmarried, and each the mother of one young child. Apparently, both were able to persuade their parents to let them work (as guides) instead of getting married to whichever local guy could come up with the 10 cows that’s the standard bride price in these parts.) The women took us to Khululwa’s house, where they painted our faces with clay mixed with water in the style considered to be fashionable among women hereabouts. They also tied scarves on our heads and led us down to the stream, where we scooped some water into the plastic containers they gave us, and then tried to walk with these balanced on our heads (the way local women do). This is TOTALLY as hard to do as it looks, and predictably, I sucked at it. (Eva did better.) We also gathered wood from the nearby woods and carried those back to K’s house, where she cooked a tasty lunch of peap (the local version of polenta) topped with chicken and cabbage broth. To eat that, the women threw a bamboo mat on the floor, heaped two plates with the food, and then bade the four of us to join them on the ground and dig in, using our hands.

If these activities sound corny, it wasn’t the specific content of what we did that mattered. What counted was just having an excuse to spend some time together, having the opportunity to ask them questions about themselves and their lives, to see their day unwind as they see it. This meant a lot of time of just hanging out. Sitting on the ground and watching the animals jockey for the bits we dropped. (I was fascinated to see how the big fat hen and her chicks kept the two wistful dogs in their place; she’s lightning fast when she tries to peck out their eyes, Khululwa told me.) Watching various children wander in and pile on the single grimy bed in this room (the family’s kitchen), and watch us back, jostling each other, joking, complaining. Eva and I at times wandered into the other building where Khululwa’s mother was sewing two bags for us (made of cloth printed with images of Nelson Mandela). She worked on an ancient hand-cranked Singer. She spoke a little English and told me she was 48, the mother of 9.

Later, it struck me that I’d made a breakthrough as a traveler. In that village, I was able to flip some kind of mental switch and feel content, even serene, just being with the people there, with no real agenda and no firm sense of when the next thing would happen. And I was pleased by how quickly I could begin to discern their personalities; how quickly the generic Black African Village Women become Khululwa and Ahkoba and Khunjulwa.

This despite the fact that their lives are almost unimaginably harder than mine. All their water comes from those wells (which in recent memory killed 6 children in one bad 18-month period). They live with no electricity, which means every piece of dirty clothing has to be carried to a stream and washed there. The kids (boys, I assume) have to range out over the hills every night to round up the family’s sheep and goats and cows and corral them. It’s easy to believe the villagers are genuinely delighted to have the lodge and its visitors among them, asking silly questions, perhaps, but bringing in desperately needed cash. (Still, the main source of that comes from the men who travel up north to the gold mines. Most of the men of the village do that, the women say.)

There’s talk circulating at the moment that the government has plans to approve that hellacious road to Mthatha. It’s easy to imagine that when that happens the most appealing aspect of life here — the tight family ties and rigorous honesty of the people and freedom that comes from physical safety — may begin to break down. But a better road would mean that it won’t take 2-3 hours to get to a hospital when a child is critically ill. I feel fortunate beyond words to have visited Bulungula now, but if it’s changed in the future, who am I to complain about that?

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