earthen note

The earthen rondavels at Luitingh’s Guest Farm, so similar to the houses of the farm-workers, were no doubt built by the same hands. The Swazi people who inhabited that region were skilled in the erection of houses, which grew by extension into compounds, and they could erect a habitable structure in the hours between sunrise and sunset. I believe it was considered bad manners to pass a house under construction without lending assistance, if necessary until the house was complete, and as a child in the Lowveld, I sometimes saw a busy crowd of people tying up poles and caking the reddish mud onto them by hand. I cannot say whether or not this attitude applied to the erection of the rondavels in which we stayed, for they were all built in Hop-per’s day and, during my years on the farm, I was to witness only their gradual decay and demolition.

055 MadalaThe worker whom I most clearly remember from that time was an old man who was in semi-retirement after being employed by Hopper. He pottered around in the garden. I do not think that I ever knew his name. Everybody called him Madala (old man) and that is how I remember him. To me, he was a man of dignity and wisdom and, fuelled by tales from Rider Haggard, I imagined that he had access to some sort of knowledge beyond the scope of white people. And yet, when I examine his photograph, which my mother included in her album when she reorganised and shed things towards the end of her life, I see that his dignity is clothed in rags. He sits with his galvanised-iron watering can in front of a heap of scaffolding planks, indicating, perhaps, one of Anton Luitingh Junior’s building projects.

As an instructor in the Goju Ryu style of Karate, I have learned to read bodies in a certain way. ‘Stop thinking, Mike. I can see you thinking,’ my master, Sensei Jack Matthews, would say. It was not clear to me how he could see me thinking. But, over the years, and finding myself in the position of the one taking the class, I learned to look at bodies, moving or still, not to interpret but to know immediately what their intentions were as they were expressed through gesture, posture and movement. What we look for is called hara, which refers to the belly, to stability and grace, and to the settled mind.

In the picture, I see a broad and powerful man who has hara in spite of his rags, and I am interested to know what it is that allows one man to retain such ease and poise amid the obvious significations of his oppression. As a jeweller I note his bracelet, which appears to be made of a thick dark substance, perhaps leather or hide. It is as though he has wound the last eighteen inches or so of a sjambok around his right wrist.


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1 comment
  1. johann grove said:

    Hi Michael, We’ve sent a note via Facebook (a mystery to us) and am putting down a note here as well – to make sure that you get a sense of our bit of life from across the sea. RS, Jeanette and Johann.

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