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.


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


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.”


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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Thanks facebook. Depressed as all hell now.

I was at school with Nadine. She is good-humoured and kind.
If she doesn’t get my point, I seriously despair.

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Two Funerals and a Soccer Match

Saturday 1 September
At Tsolo (a four-hour drive from East London – the other side of Mthatha)
The funeral of the mother of a former colleague

Cause of death – the state of health care in rural South Africa.  She was 42 and had flu, which then became gastro.  She died of dehydration from what I can work out.  There were no doctors on duty at the local hospital.  She went from healthy to dead in ten days. It is a devastating story.

The service was held in a marquee at the home of the deceased. The wind was howling and we were sand-blasted through the open back of the structure, throughout the service.  The mfundisi was kind and funny.  I only knew three people at the service – bereaved, the colleague who accompanied me to the funeral, and two other former colleagues.

Sunday 2 September
At Phakamisa (just this side of King William’s Town)
The funeral of the father of a friend.

Cause of death – kidney failure related to diabetes.  He was in his sixties and had been an accountant for the government in Bhisho.  He had excellent health cover.  He spent most of the last nine months at a private hospital in East London, having regular dialysis.  It wasn’t a surprise, but still, incredibly sad for his daughter, Nosipho, who adored him.

The service was in the Phakamisa Community Hall – much more comfortable than the accommodation of the previous day, but also more grey and sterile and gloomy. I knew lots of people there. Nosipho is well known in the local lesbian community, and people turned out in numbers to support her. The mfundisi was of the evangelical kind who shouted and screamed and tried to save souls. Seems he was successful – two people went up at the end when he invited people to ask Jesus into their lives.

Saturday 8 September
At Victoria Grounds, King William’s Town
East London lesbians vs King William’s Town lesbians.

East London won 3 – 2.  The EL goalie was brilliant 🙂 .

East London in white. King William’s Town in blue.

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No we aren’t

Thabo at the Barefoot Café in Chintsa is probably perfect for his job. He is warm and friendly, and tall and good-looking. He chats to the backpackers from Sweden and Germany, and students from Grahamstown. He shoots the breeze with complete charm and is partly responsible for the fact that people love the place. But even Thabo – cool as he is – cannot contain his curiosity:

“So, where are you guys from?”
“East London”
“And you came all the way out here just for lunch – excellent!”
“It isn’t that far, really”
“I guess not. So… do you two work together?”
“No, we aren’t colleagues”
“Ah you’re just friends”
“No, we aren’t just friends”


I decide to leave it there.

More silence.

“Ok then… have a safe trip back…”

Poor Thabo. He really wanted to chat.

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Pretoria / Pitoli / Tshwane

I’ve been away, two weekends in a row.  First to Corana – the rural village outside Mthatha where Thabisa spent her early childhood, and late teens, and where her mother still lives.  We try to go there about once a month.

Then, last weekend, to Pretoria, where her late childhood and early teens were spent, and where much of her family still lives.  Three aunts, and numerous cousins, live in the same large block in the centre of town. The General Pretorius Building used to be an office block. It is HUGE and confusing in its layout. Rooms are rented out without sanitation or water. There are communal ablution facilities which are not maintained. People carry water to their rooms, and cook and wash there. It is South African inner-city working-class accommodation and I have never seen anything like it in my life.  I suppose it is an arrangement similar to a bed-sit in London, but on a very large scale, and with a much denser population.  We spent a lot of time there, and it felt surreal to move between that space and our luxurious hotel a block away.

People often ask me how I am received by Thabisa’s family.  With complete warmth and acceptance.  She is completely out, and her lesbianism is accepted.  She is adored by her large family, and that love is extended to me, as her partner.  We were made a huge fuss of, with people going out of their way to cook special meals for us and generally being hospitable to the full extent that they were able.  I got the sense, from comments in the corridors and hallways, that a white person hadn’t been seen in the building in a very long time, if ever.  I was incredibly touched by the way people attempted to do what was necessary to make me feel comfortable in what was clearly a foreign environment to me, without making me feel too obviously different.

Pretoria itself is an interesting place. It is the administrative capital of South Africa, and home to its military headquarters.  Government buildings are everywhere – the ministerial departments, the national archives and even the national zoo are there. It has a reputation of conservatism  –  it is in the Afrikaner heartland and the legacy of the Old South Africa’s state bureaucracy is palpable. The symbol of Afrikaner nationalism, the Voortrekker Monument, dominates the landscape as you drive into Pretoria from Johannesburg. (We went there – I’ll tell you about it another day). Friends were incredulous when I said that we were going to Pretoria on holiday. “Pretoria? But WHY?”

It wasn’t relaxing – in fact I feel quite worn out – but I am really, really glad we went.

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