We caused a stir

I have never been more photographed in my life! The general consensus, in spite of my reservations about white people in Xhosa traditional dress, was that it worked.  The eyebrow pencil instead of calamine for the face painting was a bit of a fail – it smudged and needed touching up all the time (thanks for your patience, Cebisa).

I really resisted the notion of Thabisa in men’s clothes, and me in women’s (you know… the boring “who is the man?” question), but in the end it is how it worked out.

Thabisa and Gail in traditional dress.

Thabisa and Gail in traditional dress.

She looked fab. I must prefer the men's clothing - nice lines.

She looked fab. I must prefer the men’s clothing – nice lines.

Detail of the ibhayi bought in the street in King William's Town - beautiful beadwork.

Detail of the ibhayi bought in the street in King William’s Town – beautiful beadwork.

Beaded bracelet and stick (intonga eraselweyo)

Beaded bracelet and stick (intonga eraselweyo)

The head-dress, called iqhiya, is surprisingly comfy.

The head-dress, called iqhiya, is surprisingly comfy.

In the thick of things, welcoming the makhoti to the groom's homestead

In the thick of things, welcoming the makhoti to the groom’s homestead

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Cellphones and ceremony: a wedding

The Eastern Cape LGBTI Organisation marched down Oxford Street on 10 August. It was a small, but vibrant group of people, carrying placards, singing protests songs.  As usual, I took pictures. But I really struggled this time. There were almost as many people ahead of the main banner, walking quickly backwards with their arms outstreached, taking photographs, as there were behind the banner doing the marching. I got really annoyed. It was difficult to get a shot of the marchers because the cellphone shooters were in the way.  “Are you here to march, or to take pictures of the march?” I caught myself muttering before I got the irony… I am ALWAYS taking pictures.

Thabs and I attended a wedding on Saturday. I quickly realised that I was going to have the same problem. This time I decided to go with the flow and photograph the photographers.  Here they are. The narrative is in the captions.

Urgent calls to make while we wait (an hour and a half) for the bride.

Urgent calls to make while we wait (an hour and a half) for the bride.

The bridesmaids arrive. Notice that the cellphone is colour-coordinated.

The bridesmaids arrive. Notice that the cellphone is colour-coordinated.

A new salute... as the bride enters the church all arms are extended in an attempt to get a post-able picture.

A new salute… as the bride enters the church all arms are extended in an attempt to get a post-able picture.

My first glimpse of the bride is via someone else's iPad.

My first glimpse of the bride is via someone else’s iPad.

Shoot and post... shoot and post...

Shoot and post… shoot and post…

Filming is now called "videorising" and everyone does it (I am guilty too - had to get a clip of Thabs ululuting - watch this space!)

Filming is now called “videorising” and everyone does it (I am guilty too – had to get a clip of Thabs ululuting – watch this space!)

Last one...

Last one…

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Commemorating the Centenary of the 1913 Natives’ Land Act

Upper Gxulu, near Keiskammahoek, Eastern Cape
5 June 2013

Dogs waiting for the sun Early-morning mechanic Yoyo's Tavern child Upper Gxulu, near Keiskammahoek, Eastern Cape Bonani Loliwe of Border Rural Committee
The Mayibuye iAfrica! Caravan arrives... (Zipho Xego and Yandia Gebe) Tshintsha Amakhaya activists lead the children in song Still fresh after 5 days on the road Serious child Gxulu childZipho Xego of the Transkei Land Service Organisation

Direct child Audience Small child Gxulu woman Gxulu man Remembering dispossession Local leader IMG_5820

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IMG_5835Anele Mehlo of Surplus People Project

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I am in Johannesburg

It is different here.
I quite like it.

It is a warm, still, Saturday afternoon in Troyeville.

My friend Pervaiz is cooking up a storm. He was born in a village in Pakistan – the spicy smells wafting down the passage are a nod to his roots.

His partner, Phillippa, has just bounced up to me and said, “You are so opinionated but I love you!” and kissed me on the cheek.

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On marriage

I have been thinking about marriage a lot lately.
Not about getting married, but about the institution itself.

I was chatting this week to my old high school friend, Heidi. She blames me (tongue-in-cheek, but still) for the fact that she struggled to commit for longer than most. Apparently my clearly articulated feminism and rejection of “the house with the picket fence” was a huge influence on her in our teenage years. She was thirty-eight or so when she finally got married. “And then, Gail, you went and got married at 21 and settled down and everything!” (<- outraged tone).

Yes, but it isn’t as simple as that. Too long a story for now.

I have a close friend who separated from her husband for a couple of months earlier this year. She was describing to me the joy expressed by almost everyone that they are now living together again. Society wants us in couples, and wants couples to be married. Is it only because “it is best for the children”? I don’t think so.

Her experience mirrored mine – my close friends and family really struggled when my ex-husband and I publicly split up – even though they knew that the ‘marriage’ was non-existent (I been in a closeted relationship with my previous girlfriend for four years) – they wanted the façade of a marriage to continue. “Why couldn’t you just carry on the way you were, and have relationships on the side like we all do?” someone asked. I am not going to tell you who.

Because I am not comfortable with that. I need to be honest to the world about who I am and who I am with.

I am not afraid of commitment. Part of me would very much like to be married. Part of me wonders why. Why sign an off-the-shelf contract of marriage? Why have a public ceremony in which one pledges fidelity? Why are the whispered promises in the privacy of our own home not enough?

When she was in hospital recently, I wished I could introduce myself to Thabisa’s surgeon as her wife, rather than as her girlfriend – girlfriend sounds so feeble – temporary. Our relationship is way more than that. But isn’t it enough for us to know? Why does it matter to us that other people know? I don’t know, but it does. Particularly for us – where people often assume that Thabisa is my employee. A typical scene… I am at the pharmacy, having a script filled for Thabisa. (She is on my medical aid). The pharmacist looks fascinated. “Is she your maid?”

One thing related to marriage that I absolutely detest is the notion of a proposal. For me it is the most stark reminder of the inequality of the sexes. Women, certain of what they want, wait patiently for their partners to “pop the question”.  The inequality has filtered through to same-sex relationships in a way that makes me feel very uncomfortable.

A friend posted this flash mob gay proposal on her facebook page a little while back. She thought it was lovely.  I thought it was excruciating.  Not only the public spectacle of a very private moment. But…the end bit…

Bennie says, “of COURSE I will!”

If the proposee was so certain that he was ready to get married, why hadn’t HE proposed? You know why, don’t you?

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For the ancestors

Centenary horns

The horns of the cow that was slaughtered to celebrate Clara’s 100th birthday, on a fence-post in her yard

I have owed you some pictures for a while now. This relates to a ceremony held in Thabisa’s village, Corana, just the other side of Mthatha. Thabs and her cousin Mazwi had both been dreaming regularly of their great-grandmother who died, aged 105, a few years ago.

It was clear to Thabs and Mazwi (and everyone else) that a ceremony was called for. It took place around new year. I have delayed writing about it because I have not been sure how to handle it. It is difficult for me to relate these things without coming across disrespectful. Because, in spite of the fact that I don’t believe any of the superstitious or religious stuff, I love the people who do.

Sheep are very quiet in the boots of cars

“I’d like to buy the sheep in East London – it is way cheaper than in Mthatha,” said Thabs. “We can just take it with us when we go.”

That was in mid-November.

Mid-December, when the planning starts to really get underway I ask if the butcher will cut the carcass up or whether we will take it whole. Thabs gives me a look. “Gail, the sheep must be alive.” Of course. I knew that. But I didn’t actually relate it to our sheep.

Home

Close-up of her great-grandmother’s house, where Thabisa and I slept. Mthata in the background.

“It will fit fine in the boot. The guys will tie its legs together – they are good at it. We can stop in Butterworth to give it some water”.

“There is no way in hell I am having a sheep bleating in my ear all the way from East London to Corana!”

Thabs cannot believe my ignorance. “Sheep are very quiet in the boots of cars. Goats… goats go mehhhh mehhhh all the way, but sheep do not.”

🙂

We bought the sheep in Mthatha and Thabisa’s cousin, Dali, took it in a venter trailer attached to a taxi to Corana. It was maaaarginally more expensive than it would have been in East London.

Gin, tobacco and impepho

Umqombothi

Traditional Xhosa beer, umqombothi.

The morning before we left for Mthatha, Thabs and I did some grocery shopping. We started at the bottle store and bought a bottle of gin and some boxer tobacco for Thabisa’s ancestors. Then we went to Checkers. At the check-out, the woman in the queue ahead of us saw that Thabs was holding gin and boxer tobacco. “It is a lovely thing you are doing for your ancestors. You won’t regret it. I did it last year for mine and within three months I got a nice promotion at work.”

gin

For the ancestors: umqombothi, gin, impepho, tobacco and snuff.

Thabs and I slept that night in her great-granny’s bedroom, with the carcasses of two sheep (Mazwi bought one too) on the floor beside us. On the other side of that, next to barrels of umqomboti (Xhosa beer), were the gin and tobacco and bunches of impepho – a herb burnt to drive away evil spirits and to communicate with the ancestors. The yeasty-meaty-impepho smells were almost over powering. Thabs slept like a baby. I lay awake listening to the pop-pop-pop of umqomboti bubbling, and the buzzing of the flies and pondered the meaning of it all.

The next day

Singing. Praying. Speeches. Laughter. Good meal. Big party.

Three months later

Thabisa was offered the job that she has been angling for for the past two years. This is a fact, but I am no way linking this to anything else in this post.

Herbert's baptism certificate

On the wall in Thabisa’s great-grandmother’s house, Herbert Mtolo’s baptism certificate.

Certificate close-up

Baptism certificate, close-up. Herbert is Thabisa’s grand-father. It is his mother, Clara, that we honoured that day.

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Watching The Wire last night.

McNulty and Bunk are eating a huge pile of shellfish.

“Are those crayfish?” asks Thabs.
“Crabs,” I reply.
“I love crayfish,” she murmurs.
“Crabs are good too,” I say.
“I don’t eat crabs, only crayfish.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because crabs could be someone’s ancestors.”

She is absolutely serious.

Her birthplace is 230km from mine, but sometimes it feels like we are off different planets.

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