Check out these digs! This is a touristy example of an Ndebele home. The people you see sitting in front of it are actors. And that’s cool, right? They don’t really live there, so it’s ok. Otherwise, if they did live there, they really should be working a lot harder so that they no longer have to live like that, right?
One of my favorite memories from my fabled nine months in South Africa is of the time I spent visiting with one of my grandfathers who lived in eNtokozweni (formerly known as Machadodorp) in the Mpumalanga Province (formerly known as the Eastern Transvaal). My grandfather had worked for a Boer who, in turn, allowed my grandfather to live on a small piece of land until he died. My grandfather was about 92 years old when I first met him. I have some amazing video that includes him climbing up onto the roof of his storage/multipurpose building to fix it. (As an aside, I hope the video has survived the years. It was shot on Hi8 tape and I haven’t been able to find a Hi8 player. I would be grateful if anyone in the NYC area could point me in the direction of one).
My grandfather’s home sat on a hilltop and it was arranged in a very common Ndebele style. There were three buildings arranged in a squared off “u” – sort of like a staple – forming an open courtyard. To the left was the kitchen, in the middle was a larger building that was partitioned into two rooms, one big, one small. The smaller room was for storage and bathing and the larger one was where the men slept and visitors sat to eat. To the right, directly across from and facing the kitchen, was the indlu were the women and children slept.
Indlu is an Nguni word for house. Saying “the indlu” sounds funny to me. In the context of this word, the prefix “in” actually means “the” while “dlu” actually means “house”. To say “the indlu” sounds to me like saying “the the house”. Still, convention doesn’t allow me to say “the dlu” – which sounds better to me. Except that I like to buck convention.
The dlu (ha!) was brown and round and the walls were built out of mud brick covered with a combination of mud and cured cow dung. The roof was made of thatch. There was a low doorway leading inside and in the center of the room was a round iron ring that had been slightly buried into the earthen floor. It was the fire pit. I remember the fire pit because I spent one unfortunately crowded night trying to sleep with my leg resting on it.
During one of my visits a couple of cousins and I walked to another farm where another set of cousins lived. We spent the night there and walked back to my grandfather’s place in the morning.
Mpumalanga is gorgeous – especially in the summertime. The contrast between the bluest skies, the red earth and the greens and yellows of the grasses and flowers rolling down the hills and through the valleys makes the place look like a veritable paradise. As the sun rises and glistens the dew on blades of grass, the earth comes alive with the music of birds chirping and cows lowing as they are set out to pasture.
I was reveling in all of this when I saw my eldest cousin, who had walked ahead of me and another cousin, do the strangest thing. She had a plastic bag with her and I saw her suddenly stop, stoop over, scoop something up with her hand and slap it into the bag. She walked a little further, stooped over, scooped something up with her hand and slapped it in the bag. I caught up with her the third time she did this and that’s when I saw it: Poo! It was a large, very fresh, steaming mound of cow poo! And there she went, stuck her hand right in it, scooped out a heaping pile of it and slapped it in the bag. I was intrigued.
When we reached home, she plopped the contents of the bag into a large oil drum that had more poo in it and liquid – which I assumed to be water – and perhaps mud and grass that was then left to sit out in the sun to cure. My cousin got to work cleaning the dlu. She used a bundled broom called itshanyela to sweep the floor of the dlu. Then she took some dung that had been cured and methodically paved the floor of the dlu with it. It looked almost like she was laying down cement. She drew beautiful designs into the wet floor which then dried into a hard covering. It smelled wonderful – like fresh grass and sunshine.
The dlu’s architecture and materials made it easy to keep cool during the daytime and body heat was all we needed to stay warm at night. It had zero carbon impact and the materials were totally renewable and eco-friendly.
I would be naive to say that all was paradise in the dlu. I happened to be there in the summertime. Winters can get very, very cold in South Africa (many people are surprised by this – yes it even snows in some parts) and I have never had to try to stay warm in a dlu during the wintertime or to maintain one, for that matter. I can say, however, that I imagine it to be warmer than living in what is supposed to be the more “modern” iteration: a house made of tin.
Tin is a terrible material to live in, from my perspective. The material cannot breath like mud and thatch. It keeps the cold at night – so much so that moisture condenses on its surfaces forming little droplets of cold water on the walls inside the dwelling when the sun rises in the morning. As the day progresses, tin traps heat inside, making the dwelling unbearably hot. When it rains, tin magnifies the sound so that the pounding on the roof drowns out all sound on the inside. And of course there are the issues of rust and expense. There are advantages to using tin – it lasts longer than the natural materials, for example.
I found the whole experience of staying with my grandfather and my cousins to be so very restful. At night one could see the universe in the sky. We drank fresh water and breathed clean air. When I returned to the United States I found it extremely difficult to readjust to the speed at which life moves here. My first drive on the freeway was terrifying. The world here felt frenetic and insane. No wonder we suffer from so many stress related illnesses. I could see why my grandfather was living so long.
I once shared these thoughts with a friend of mine, an anthropologist, who was quick to warn me about romanticizing. She talked about the shorter lifespans and lack of advanced health care in “primitive” societies and reminded me that they were not the paradise that many overstressed urbanites dream of. Fine, I said, but they died sane.
There is a subtext to this tension, a thread running through it, an inbred instinct to recoil at the thought of mud huts and cow dung. It is the idea that a person who lives that “primitive” lifestyle is cursed. Yes, cursed. (Keep reading!) This antipathy informs our abandoning our traditional architecture so that, rather than advancing it, we repudiate it and adopt manufactured materials that require us to earn money in order to purchase them and repurchase them when they wear out. And so we find ourselves captured in a market economy. The hut taxes didn’t help, either – but that is a different subject.
So I come to the question: Is it immoral to live in a hut?
Living in a hut is associated with being poor. In the United States, poverty is associated with immorality. The United States was founded upon a religiosity brought over from England that said: God blesses the righteous and punishes (curses) the wicked. Evidence of God’s blessings come in the form of material prosperity. If one is prosperous, one is righteous. If one is poor, it is proof positive that one is wicked. Today we vigorously deny that we still believe it but we do. We express that belief in the way we lash out at people who are on welfare and other forms of public assistance (the infamous 47%). The underlying idea is that since you are poor (punished by God), you must be bad. Poor people live in huts. So people who live in huts are bad.
Christan missionaries to the African continent brought this perspective with them. It inspired a nearly hysterical obsession with wiping out African cultures since those cultures were so directly associated with evil. Writing about Nigeria, author Richard Bleakley says:
“The missionaries completely overlooked any cultural richness that existed in Nigeria. . . . They were absolutely convinced of the superiority of Europeans as an undeniable fact against the assumed inferiority of the natives. . . . Indeed, they often found the Africans themselves, the very subject of their duties, to be utterly repulsive both in appearance and behaviour.”
Perceived indolence, squalor, licentiousness, and the “selling” of women and the like threw the missionaries into quiet but apoplectic frenzies. They believed that Africans not only worshiped the devil but were likely of the devil, what with their dark skin and devilish names. This was the sort of person who lived in a hut.
Thankfully today’s attitudes are generally not so blatant. Still, I can say with certainty that I grew up believing that I was dirty. I still feel a tiny bit embarrassed when white people touch me because of the internalized idea that I will be responsible for soiling them. I know many people who will read this and feel absolutely horrified. My parents will be horrified that I said it out loud. I am foolishly brash about these things.
I believe it is imperative to be candid about this disease, the self-loathing that afflicts so many African people, if the Continent is to make any progress in healing from our collective trauma. Truthfully, the same can be said of any colonized place. And the trauma goes both ways. To loathe someone does damage to the perpetrator, too. So I remember a family friend asking me “what’s your name?” as he helped me to fill out an official document. What’s my name?! “Bathabile”, I replied. I felt as though Wonderland were opening its gates before me. What did he mean, “What’s your name?” How long had we known each other? “No, what’s your other name?” He asked, “your Christian name?” It was 1996.
We are commanded not to recall such things even as they happen in the present. We are made to feel guilty for speaking them because they bring discomfort and embarrassment to White people. It is the essential characteristic of a colonized existence. We must never embarrass the White people. Ubuntu, remember? Ubuntu? And so we don’t name it. Even though it binds us – all. Black and White, African and European, Modern and Primitive. These manufactured dichotomies bind us as they divide us and the looting of souls as well as the earth continues unabated.
As my mother and I were excitedly planning our resort/retreat/ecotourism/cultural immersion experience venture-type thinggy, we came to realize that while we had plans for where our guests would stay, we had neglected to provide for where we would stay. We are still trying to figure that out. My solution? I told my mom that I want a hut. She thinks I’m joking. Just watch.