Molo is the Xhosa word to say hello; molweni is how you greet a group. We’ve spent an amazing time these last four days in a very small very rural Xhosa village right by the ocean. The village is called Bulungula, right at the mouth of a large and gentle river. It’s been indescribably beautiful and peaceful, and at the same time, it’s been a great adventure.
The adventure began as we flew into the tiny Umtata (Umthatha) airport. This airport is about the size of a typical American ranch-style house, and the baggage handlers just personally gave us our bags as they took them inside one by one. It’s a good thing the airport was so small, as about five minutes after we arrived, the power went out. The power was out all over, and it was really dark. Fortunately, we all had our bags, but less fortunately, some of us were in the bathroom at the time. It was a little disconcerting, but we rallied, and between the people carrying flashlights and the people with flashlight apps on their phones, we grouped and rallied out to our new vehicles, a pair of slightly run-down mini-buses hauling trailers. Our drivers did their best to pack us up in the dark, and off we went to a local (urban) Xhosa center, called the Jonopo Traditional Village. I should point out that when I use the word ‘urban,’ I don’t mean it in the sense we might. It’s simply that we were in a comparatively more built-up area than most around here. And the Xhosa community center was not at all Western. In the near dark, we found our way to traditional thatched roundhouses that held only beds with pillows and blankets; it looked like the bedding was perhaps loaned from local families just for the occasion. A few of the roundhouses had a light, but the rest did not. It was quite a welcome to rural and impoverished South Africa.
That same night, a local boys school dance group came to the community center to perform for us and dance with us. These boys raged in age from about 11-18, and were wearing dark blue pants (probably from their school uniforms, and t-shirts, and traditional fur headbands. Some had armbands and other kinds of traditional decoration. As we entered into the community center itself, we saw it was a small, low-ceilinged room made from homemade mud bricks and plastered by cow dung. The boys were already dancing as we came in. There was a boom-box (right out of the 1980’s, probably literally). At first the boys showed us the old dances, and the music was the local old chanting music. The dancing was very much based on foot movements, with quite a lot of intricated foot stepping and stomping. There was not as much high-kicking as the Zulu dancing we saw at Kruger Park. After a few dances, which were highly coordinated, they switched the music. Suddenly the speakers began to thump, and we heard a kind of music that was clearly a mix between Western rap and traditional South African chant-based music. They called it South African club music, and it really is a blend of rap and traditional music, and it comes out of some of the poorest urban townships. Much of the sound comes from instruments that are homemade or found, so there is honking and clanging and lots and lots of drum beat. The melody seems to come almost exclusively from the singing or chanting. It’s a really different—and awesomely danceable—sound and the boys loosened up and started dancing with us. One by one, they pulled us out and tried to show us the steps (each song seemed to have a different set of steps). We tried, and danced and laughed, and even though those boys didn’t or wouldn’t really speak English with us, we managed to have a fabulous time.
Later, the local ladies cooked us a traditional Xhosa dinner, starting with a corn dish made with cooked cornmeal, kernels of dried corn that had been reconstituted, and with a splash of what they called ‘sour milk,’ which tasted like a cross between sour cream and yogurt. Many of us quite liked it, but it wasn’t a taste for everyone. We also had chicken and mutton as well as several beet dishes, carrots, and roasted potatoes. On a small table in the corner, they had some examples of traditional beading for sale. What’s interesting is that much of the jewelry we’ve seen at some of the stands has been a blend of traditional beading techniques but finished in a Western style. This jewelry was traditional in form and style. There are several lovely pieces coming home, let me just say.
The next morning, we were up early and packed back into our buses. We drove down a few miles to reach the village, Quna, where Nelson Mandela grew up, and where he returned after his presidency. His new house is built up by the road, and it looks smallish, modern, and neat. It’s also surrounded by a wall and has a one simple gate and guard booth at the front. But mostly it’s open, to the view of the gently rolling meadows over the hills, and open to the view of the people in the village and those that drive past on the well-paved road. Across the street, in the old village, the homes are mostly the small mud-brick round houses, although there were a few squared one or two room homes as well. There was one bumpy gravel road, and several well-trod walking paths. Chickens, goats, cows, and sheep walk freely. Dogs barked at us or romped up to us. We walked through the village, which is maybe the equivalent of 4 blocks by 2 blocks of an American city, plus a small number of houses that stand a little further out sloped up over the hills. Each little house has a small vegetable patch, or maybe a little puddle with ducks or pigs.
It is Xhosa tradition to bury your family on the land where they lived so the ancestors are closeby. We walked to the Mandela land, which no longer has a roundhouse standing on it (the mud and straw bricks don’t last without a lot of maintenance). The land is now fenced to keep out animals, and there are a few headstones visible, including the son that Mandela lost a few years ago to HIV/AIDS. The other generations of family were in unmarked graves, as was the practice long ago. Mandela himself is buried elsewhere, privately, at the request of his family.
Walking through Quno, we were followed by two young boys, maybe 8 and 10. They were shy by also curious, and eventually came to talk with us. Our guide asked them if they were singers, and they started to sing for us, a song about Mandela and how grateful everyone is that he is the father of the new peaceful South Africa. The boys were barefoot and open, and it was totally possible to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in this beautiful place.
Then we began our epic journey to the coast. It was only four hours by mini-bus, but it is almost impossible to describe the roads. We turned off the paved roads, and began down the gravel roads. At places, the roads were simply dirt trackes. In other places, deep gullies had formed from erosion. There were larger rocks in the middle of the road. Some of the hills were really steep. At places, drivers had clearly thought it would be easier to simply drive through the grass, as we took a few of those shortcuts as well. Nothing was marked with road signs, even though we were passing through a well-populated rural area with small roundhouses visible in small clusters of two or three on the green grassy hills all around us. The houses were painted in the sherbet colors of Xhosa tradition—light green, orange, pink, or white, with a few aqua blue as well. We had to drive rather slowly and kids ran along side of us, and almost everyone we saw smiled and waved. We learned the words Molo and Molweni and we greeted everyone and waved back. Some of our students had brought small presents and started given them out through the windows. At one point, we spotted a traditional medicine man, with his face painted and wearing a fur robe walking barefoot on the road, and we stopped and got off the busses to talk with him. Casey O gave him some apples, and he invited us to his house for a ‘reading.’ We started walking with him, and walked up and down a few hills on the road, and we started to collect a small crowd, included most of the children within a mile, several dogs, some local women walking the same direction as us, several nuns in white and blue, and all lead by the local healer. After talking with several of the local women, our guide finally realized that the “nearby” house was near by Xhosa standards but not by ours, being about 10 miles further walk off the road and over a number of hills. We said goodbye and hopped by on the busses to finish the trip.
As we got closer to the ocean, the hills got a little higher, with the valleys dropping down more sharply, in some places so steep that they were still wooded. The hills were all pasture and covered in green grass, dotted with a few trees, colorful roundhouses, and freely roaming domestic animals. Finally, we could spot the dark blue of the Indian Ocean between the hills. WE wove our way up and down and around until we got to our lodge at the river mouth. The lodge is an eco-lodge, owned and managed by the community. It consists of 11 traditional roundhouses (in pink or blue), with mudbrick design and dung floors. The ceilings are thatched, and there is a single lightbulb hanging down from the center. The doors are split in half, so it’s possible to have the top open while not letting the local dogs or goats or chickens inside. The some of the roundhouses opened right up to the river and the bay, others were nestled into a forested sand-dune. We stayed in groups of three or four in each roundhouse.
The lodge was solar-powered. There was a shower house, with four paraffin showers that we had to light ourselves each time we wanted hot water. We really only had three usuable showers, however, as a large rooster had decided to take up residency in one of the stalls. The toilets were composting ones, which means they didn’t flush. Each had a seat like a regular toilet, but had two chambers inside, one for compostable solid material, the other at the front for liquid. It did take some getting used to, but it’s all part of the ecological direction that the village is taking. The lodge building had a bar along one side for food and drinks, and had several handmade wood chairs and sofas with handmade cushions. There was a small room off to the side where people could sit on large floor cushions and hang out. There was a kitchen we could use, and another kitchen where several older local ladies cooked lunch and dinner and baked the incredibly delicious Xhosa bread that’s leavened by beer. Out in back, there was a long picnic table and a really inviting fire pit ringed with more handmade wood sofas with cushions. Everything was painted bright colors. Local young people worked there and ran the place, but also saw it as a social center so we had the chance to meet and talk with a number of people from the community. Some of them served as our guides while we were there. There were also a number of happy and friendly local dogs that also hung out at the lodge, some of whom adopted us and followed us wherever we went.
In the late afternoon on the day we arrived, we had a brief tour of the village. This iswhere we got our introduction to the incredible walking stamina we were going to need. It was impossible to get anywhere without climbing at least one steep hill, and the only questions were whether there would be multiple hills and how steep each hill would be. Some of the hills were so steep that even our fittest students had to stop to catch their breath. No distance seemed closer than a mile, so we were really walking. The paths were narrow, single-file dirt paths cut deep into the turn, so even when on the side of a mountain the path was flat. Other paths that were less used were grassy and we had to watch where we stepped as we walked. We also had to watch that we didn’t step in goat pellets or cow dung on the path as we tried to keep up. The further we would walk out into the village, the more dogs and kids we would collect. Everyone would wave and smile, the kids would want to hold our hands or play, and even the dogs just wanted to play as we walked along. On our village tour, we walked back along the river to the house of man who is a master of ecological building, and is teaching these methods to the community. We also visited the colorful local preschool, which is paid for by donations to an NGO. The preschool has its classrooms in different roundhouses, with a common play area in between. One of the teachers explained to us that they see education as not just for the kids, but also for the adults. They regularly invite the community in for evening classes in subjects like community health, democracy, HIV/AIDS prevention, elder-care, etc.
After a wonderful dinner of boer sausage stew (or vegetarian stew) and a dessert of the malva pudding that is so common here, many of us sat out under the glorious stars near the fire. The sky is so clear here that we could easily see the milky way. The mist from the river was lit by the moon and glowed in silver wisps. The roar of the ocean washed over us as a gently backdrop. No phone, no internet, just incredible natural beauty that was almost unbelievable.
The next day, we got a slower start—nothing here runs on chronological time—and we walked up a smaller hill to a site where women were making bricks from mud and straw. They would line the brick mold with wet cow dung, and then fill it with mud that had been mixed with straw. They would pat it in, then put the dung mixture on the top and lift the mold off. The bricks would then harden in the sun for days. They invited us to try, and quite a lot of us did, included several students who even dove in to the cow dung bucket and smeared it right on. Hands were washed about a quarter mile down the path in a little stream. And, OK. We may have used some hand sanitizer too…
We then walked up to the house where our guide lived with her mother and sisters. This was a traditional round house, and inside were straw mats on the dung floor, a table, and a set of cupboards that looked like it could have come from an American dining room set. We sat on the mats and learned about traditional Xhosa face painting. This is something only the women do—usually with white clay. We have seen a number of women with white clay on their faces; also have patterns with red clay dots on the white. It was funny for many of us to learn that the face painting has a very practical purpose: women do much of the outside labor, and the clay is a sort of combination sunscreen and cooler. The ladies set about painting our faces, and the littlest sister came along and made us some patterns using dots, stars, and flowers. Another woman tied our hair in scarves in the local tradition. Even Zack, our lone male, had his face painted, although the ladies carefully found a black man’s scarf for him and tied it in the male headdress style.
Xhosa ladies do all the cooking, and they gather their own wood for the fire. So our guide took us up a very long hill to a pocket of forest tucked deep down into a very steep valley. She showed us how to collect only the dried sticks, and bundle them. Most of us braved the steep hill and plunged into the forest. We came out with smaller bundles of sticks, which we tied with rag strips and carried back to her house on our heads. Of course, Xhosa women gather and carry huge bundles, and ours were small, but it was still a challenge. We didn’t get much time to rest, however, as we still had to pick the wild spinach for lunch. So we set out down a steep hill and up another, into a patch of brush were the wild spinach grew. We chopped it and carried it back to the house, where we then had to wash and cut it to size. We put it into large black pots that had 3 legs, and carried it out to the fire pit. One of the sisters had started the fire while we were gone. The greens cooked for about a half hour, and then we added cornmeal and salt, waited for it to thicken, and then we ate it out of shared tin dishes. After all that work, it was pretty delicious!
Of course this whole time we had collected most of the village dogs and a number of kids, so we were playing around, handing out little toys and candies we had brought. Some of us showed some of the kids how to use the rags from the wood bundles as a jump rope, and they hopped around jumping and jumping. Then the kids figured out how to tie them together and made a giant jump rope which they used to all jump together in some kind of game that made them laugh and laugh. The view in all direction was glorious, the air was so fresh, it was just an amazing experience.
When we got back to the lodge—after walking more hills—we had some free time. Some students decided to try horseback riding and arranged for the horses to be at the lodge on our return. These horses were small and a little skinny, clearly not thoroughbreds, but they saddled up and headed out for the beaches and dunes. They came back through the village, waving at the houses they passed, and every now and then, the guide would call out to the horses or crack his small stick and they would start to trot, whereupon most of the riders would squeal or scream. At the final stretch, the horses spotted the end and broke into a full run, with many of us screaming in laughter all the way home.
Other students headed out to the beach, some walking in the tidal pools looking for shells, others fording the river mouth and walking way out along the gorgeous white sand of the completely undeveloped beach. At times, we were the only ones we could see for miles. Some other students got right into their bathing suits and headed out to lie in the sun.
We also had a group interested in meeting the local Headman. So one of the guides from the lodge just took a group of us up one of the steepest hills, and our group knocked on the door. An older woman answered, greeted us, and told us that the Headman was sleeping. She went to wake him up but it turns out he’d had a bit much to drink celebrating election day that day, so we didn’t get to meet him. Undeterred, that group headed out to one of the local shabeens (an informal sort of a bar) to join the local celebrators. Beer here is brewed locally and glasses are shared. The shabeen is a ‘modern’ building, basically two low dark cement block buildings side by side, ringed by a few local men socializing and celebrating.
We didn’t plan it, of course, but we happened to be in South Africa during their national election, only the fifth one since South Africa became a real democracy. Voting is taken very seriously here, as within the lifetime of many people this kind of democracy didn’t exist. Earlier in the day, in fact, some of the ladies who stopped to say hello to us had clearly just been celebrating their votes, and they sang and danced and talked with us, perhaps with the help of a little local beer.
Our last full day in Bulungula was a very active one. We split the group in half, and some of us climbed up and up and up to one of the highest hills in the village. This hill had an amazing view in all directions, but it was both steep and high. At the top, we stopped to see the local Sangoma, or traditional herbalist. First we greeted his wives and kids, who were outside the second house (men with multiple wives build a house for each wife). Then we were invited inside the main roundhouse, and we sat on mats while the Sangoma told us about his work. This man was a mix of traditional and modern. The roundhouse was traditional mud-brick, but it was roofed in corrugated iron instead of thatch. It was also powered by a small solar panel. Along with the straw mats inside, he also had a western-style bed against one wall. Along the wall, he had hooks loaded with things like flashlights, plastic bags of herbs or clothes, small electronic goods, etc. There was a clock on the wall, the first we saw in the East Cape. The Sangoma himself was dressed in men’s dress pants with a belt, a t-shirt, and no shoes. He was middle-aged and thin. At one point, when he told us of his education—most through apprenticeship with another older Sangoma—he pulled out a battered old hard-sided briefcase and showed us his diploma. The state now registers local Sangomas.
He told us a lot about his approach to healing, usually with herbs that he finds and prepares himself. But he does use some western ingredients that he gets from a pharmacy. He also often works with western doctors and hospitals; for example, we asked him how he treated HIV/AIDS, and he said he doesn’t, he just refers patients to the local clinic. He also told us how he will get the patient to tell him what’s wrong. At first we assumed he just asked them, but then we saw that he meant that he asked the ‘spirit body’ what was wrong. He showed us a small vial that he uses to help diagnose. When he took the lid off and put a bit on his hand, it started smoking. Christine went up to smell the vial, and she said it didn’t smell chemical, but rather natural. He would lick his hand and then go into a kind of dream state where the ancestors might help diagnose.
After we saw some demonstrations—and got to smell a VERY sharp bottle of some kind of mixture that helps with all kinds of headaches—and yes, it did clear things out pretty well!—the Sangoma took us down into the forest to show us how he finds and collects his herbs and roots. This forest, like the other, was in a very steep-sided valley and the path was barely visible. It was slippery and tangled with branches and roots. We had to walk with our feet planted sideways in some points. If we grabbed at branches or vines to help steady ourselves, we sometimes grabbed onto thorns. Every now and then, he stopped and showed us some kind of a root or leaf or plant that he would use, and describe how he would prepare and administer it. We finally came out into a grassy clearing and thought we were done with the woods, but no, we now had to climb back into the forest and go up a steep hill in the woods on the other side of the steep valley! When we got to the top, we said goodbye to the Sangoma and went to the small local restaurant where we were meeting the other group, who had gone canoeing.
This local restaurant was another traditional roundhouse with the dung floor and thatch roof. The only furniture was the grass mats, and the cupboard and table where they stored and prepared the food. Everything here was served as a pancake, sweet, nutty, or savory. It took about an hour to prepare food for half the group, and then another hour for the other half. Then we went off in different directions: the canoe group to visit the Sangoma and the first group to canoe.
Canoeing was interesting, starting from probably the steepest walk we had yet. We hefted our paddles and our life jackets and started down an incredibly steep gradient. When we got to the bottom, we found canoe/kayak hybrids just waiting for us in the middle of a field with no person or house around. A cow watched from under a tree on the beach. Our canoe guide, without explanation, pulled out our canoes and handed us in, and then we all figured out how to paddle as we tried to make our way upriver. Most of us zigzagged all over the river as we laughed and shouted and tried not to run down other canoes. We all managed to get the hang of it and made it way up around the river bend where the river met the ocean and a glorious white sand beach waited for us. We got out of the canoes and some of us went for a short swim. One of the little dogs from the lodge—who we affectionately called Dirty Dog, for obvious reasons—had followed us the whole way, running along the shore, swimming little channels, and waiting to greet us as we disembarked. He followed the other group as well, and then followed us as we walked all the way back to the lodge.
I’m not sure how anyone had any energy left, but once we got back, a number of people went back out to swim in the ocean, walk, and collect shells.
On our last night, we sat around the fire. Our local guide, Zuiks, told us some old Xhosa stories. We looked up at the stars, listened to the ocean, and just breathed in all the wonder.
Our whole day today is spent in transit, with a 7 hour drive from the lodge to the airport in East London, where we will board a plane to Cape Town and the next phase of our class. Xhosa country is amazing, and I think this will be an experience that will stick with us all, from the composting toilets to the glorious nature and wonderfully open people. And yes, we did it all without internet or phones connecting us to the outside world. While I’m sure everyone is looking forward to being in touch back home, I’ve overheard more than one student talking about how it was actually nice not to be constantly looking at their phones.
I’m writing this on the minibus and we just pulled into the East London airport. Cape Town here we come…