Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Now far away from the place she called home as a child it is with a mix of yearning and sadness that Pamela talks about Kundulu. Just a sprinkling of huts on a rugged natural landscape, from a distance her childhood village in the Eastern Cape midlands could be seen as an idyllic place in which to grow up. Together with her younger brother, sister and four cousins she lived in a small cosy dwelling in the loving care of a wise and attentive grandmother. While not without it’s hardships, Pamela certainly talks about the place with fondness and for good reason.

Born in 1980s apartheid South Africa

During the 1980s many men and women of colour sought jobs in the big cities to support their families. Pamela’s mother, was one of those forced to leave her small children in the care of family. They didn’t see her much, not by choice on either side, but she would regularly send money home to provide for her children. Holiday homecomings were happy family reunions that would always end with her heading off again to find work as a domestic worker.

Rich in other ways

Some necessities that most people take for granted like easy access to water, microwaves and electricity were unfamiliar to Pamela and her family. While she didn’t have fancy clothes or elaborate furniture, there was always fire to warm her, food to eat, plenty of singing, drumming, dancing and traditional Xhosa cultural values. By village standards they might even have been considered ‘well off’.

Accepting responsibility

For Pamela, walking a fair distance to the mountain to collect water, tending the cows and goats (both usually the jobs of a boy), and cooking over an open fire were commonplace. These daily chores were not without the moments of resentment any young girl in her place would experience from time to time. Still, she was the oldest. There was no man of the house, her brother was little more than a toddler, and her grandmother couldn’t do it all on her own.

Each day would begin with waking up early to go to the kraal (animal enclosure) to milk the cow and goats, to make fire for tea and the breakfast maize porridge, and to prepare grandmother’s morning bath. Morning chores completed, Pamela would head off on foot to school.

Learning in the sand

Early school life was rudimentary at best. A typical classroom was a small rondavel (a traditional circular hut-type structure with a conical thatched roof made from locally found materials). There were no books and no pens or pencils with which to write. They would write in the sand on the playground outside, and the teacher would go around and mark their work. They used pebbles for arithmetic.

Ignoring the calling

Her grandmother was a respected member of the community. She’d had the ‘calling’ to be a sangoma (traditional healer) like her mother before her but had rejected this in favour of Western religion. As Pamela was bright and eager to learn, the other children would say her grandmother used magic to make her more clever than the rest of the class.

A question of survival

After school, she would go home for lunch, and set off to fetch water from the mountain. Then she would pound the maize in preparation for the next day’s breakfast porridge, collect the livestock, count them and close them in the kraal for the night. There were times when she would fetch water in the pouring rain or have to chase a cow out from behind a bush on a cold winter’s day. Her bare feet would get so desperately frosty that she would slip them into a fresh pile of warm cow dung. 

Sometimes one of the cows or goats would hoof the milk pail and send the contents flying. Frustrated, she would cry but then her grandmother would come. Together they would finish what needed to be done - it was a question of survival, a way of life. She says, “from my grandmother I learned how to appreciate the old ways, to be independent, to do things for myself, to be patient and accepting. I learned how to be a proud Xhosa woman”.

Old ways new ways

In 1995, Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s first democratically elected president, the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup and ten-year old Pamela, now in grade six finally had a proper school with walls, windows and writing materials. Life was full of responsibilities but she was happy.

Early one morning Pamela found her three-year old twin cousins playfully tugging at gran in an effort to wake her. Intuitively, Pamela ran to the neighbours for help but her grandmother never woke up. She remembers feeling both devastated that her grandmother was gone forever and happy that her mother was coming to fetch them to live with her in the big city of George.

Having bright electrical light at night was odd at first. An easy flick of a switch brightened up an entire room and there was a stove! No collecting of wood to make fire to cook, no pounding of maize, no milking livestock, and no grandmother. Pamela missed her terribly.

Becoming a woman

Adapting to all the changes that come with loss and moving home is tough. Having to deal with the unkindness of other children is worse. Her aunt purchased brand new brown school shoes for her in Cape Town. All the other kids at school had black shoes. On her first day at her new school, waiting outside the staff room, some of the kids laughed at her and called her “no transfer”. In time though she settled in, worked hard at school and made friends.

Pamela’s mother was fair but strict. There was little leisure time. Education was important and Pamela matriculated in 2003. At the time, she thought of becoming a social worker. She’d been through so much herself, had witnessed the desperate circumstances of others, people far worse off than herself and her family, and she wanted to do some good in the world.

Painful decisions

Sadly, this was not to be. Shortly after she matriculated, the following year her mother passed away. Suddenly, Pamela was catapulted into a new set of circumstances. Barely an adult herself, she had to become provider and mother to her brother (fourteen) and sister (seven).

In 2007, she made the painful decision to leave her now seventeen year-old brother and ten-year old sister with her aunt, and moved to Cape Town in search of work. She worked as a security guard. Risky and dangerous, it required long hours and often dealing with unsavoury people. On any given day she would have an altercation with an unruly member of the public and end up riding home on the same public transport as them.

Becoming a mother

While in Cape Town, she met a man and fell pregnant. He responded to the news by saying that he was too young to take on the responsibility of fatherhood and left. Conflicted by what to do about her situation, she drew on her mother’s strength and decided, “If my mother coped, I can too”. So she packed up and headed back to George where she gave birth to twins.

All life is a song

Two years later she was back in Cape Town waitressing at GOLD Restaurant. Everything about the place was an inspiration to her. The people, African cultures coming together, the guests from all over the world, the food, the live entertainment – in particular the singing. From her earliest days in the warmth of her grandmother’s house she loved entertaining people, and singing along with gran to the rhythmic beating of the drum.

One evening, the staff was flitting about checking tables, shining glasses, donning their GOLD issue African-inspired attire in preparation for the night’s dining experience. Then Pamela got wind that one of the singers hadn’t turned up for work so she filled in.

Nowadays she’s a permanent part of the GOLD entertainment repertoire, singing most nights, doing what she loves with people she respects and for people who welcome the music and appreciate her for it. She sings about village life, struggle, war, and cultural pride. She says, “when I sing I feel joy. I feel relief”.

Being part of something special

She stills fills in to lend a hand waitressing when needed. Does she mind? Absolutely not. GOLD’s people are more than a team, they’re family and Pamela has come to value and almost covet her role. She says, “people like coming to GOLD because in one evening, in one space, they find many African cultural experiences and they feel part of something special”. Fortunate to have learned important life lessons from the powerful and brave women in her life, she’s grateful to her mother and grandmother. However, she says the person who inspires her most is Cindy (GOLD Restaurant co-owner). When asked about Cindy she says, “Wow, she’s made me stronger. She’s taught me to be a go-getter, to push harder in life. Yes, she’s the boss but she’s also a mother to me. She cares”.

Back to Kundulu

The last time Pamela was in Kundulu was in 2014. The events leading up to that visit were bitter sweet. Her brother who had left school in grade 11 had been staying in Phillipi township outside Cape Town. They were close growing up but he too had suffered loss and had his own share of disappointments. He wanted to go back to school and she was finally in a position to help him.

One day she got a call from the police to say that there was an incident involving her brother but they didn’t give her any details. She frantically tried calling but couldn’t reach him. Eventually, she discovered that he’d been run over by a car. She says, “He was gone and there were so many things left unsaid. I wished that in our last conversation I had told him that I loved him. I didn’t know how I was going to tell my sister. I had gone back to Kundulu to bury my brother”.

“I never cried”

Looking back she says, “I never cried when he died. I held it in. I wanted to help him in so many ways. I wanted to invest in his future and when the chance came it was too late”. She says, “I wanted to be a good mother to my brother and sister, to close the empty space left first by our grandmother and then our mother. My sister helped me to realise that I could never close that space and so I’m learning to let go and to focus on being a good mother to my own children”.

When she was a small child, her mother carried a dompas or “dumb pass”, which all black people in South Africa were forced to carry when they ventured outside of their designated areas. Pamela grew up petrified of people who had a different colour skin colour to her own. She says, “it wasn’t a good way to grow up. My children won’t have to grow up like that. Their experiences and opportunities will be different. I’ll make sure of it”.

Celebrating the old ways

Brought up with simple, honourable Xhosa values, Pamela’s culture is deeply ingrained in who she is. In fact, she hopes to open her own consulting business one day to preserve her culture and to share it with others. She says, “I want to teach people, I want to remind them of the old ways, why they are still important, and how they can be applied today”.

She wants to show young Xhosa women in particular the significance of Xhosa traditional dress and behaviour (this will become a link to another article on the subject). Everything from behaviour, tone of voice and eye contact to clothing and make up has meaning. Even the way you tie your head-scarf says something about who you are.

Moving on to better things

As for having someone special in her life, she laughs and says, “I have two, my children”. She and her children’s father never reconciled as a couple but he made contact in 2009 and has since made an effort to develop a relationship with his children. He doesn’t do much by way of financial support but she’s happy that her children have a dad. She says, “I know things will be better and one day I will find someone who will love me and my children. I want that for us. For now, I am happy to have work I enjoy, to sing, to be able spend time with my children, to listen to their chatter, and to end each day with something good. Family is everything”.

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