Remembering the code of black life
“Sithi masizodibanisa amehlo. Akuhlanga lungehliyo. Kunje kuzo zonke izizwe. Tutwini.”
I’ve heard these words many times; as though they were a litany or a poem. These are the words I heard every time I went to umthandazo, a prayer meeting, held at a home when a family member has died. These meetings were largely organised through the church. We would go after church on a Sunday or iGuildas —ulutsha, the youth—would go during the week. Thursday was reserved for uManyano. If the person who passed away was a member of uManyano, Thursday also meant kuxhonywa ibhatyi: a ritual that involves taking the manyano uniform and hanging it up in the home until the funeral. This would be a symbol and reminder to anyone who visits the home that the mother of the home was umama webhatyi, a church mother.
Recently these memories have been creeping up on me slowly, reminding me of the patterns and rituals I’ve been involved with which gave me meaning as a child and teenager. More importantly, they’ve been occupying my mind as a reminder of tangible examples of black life. I’ve only ever witnessed imithandazo and ukuxhonywa kwebhatyi in black communities. These rituals as well as most coming-of-age rituals amongst all cultures and communities are rooted in a code. Some could call it a discourse, a way of being. This code encompasses the language that is used in certain spaces, the dress code, the behaviours and the practices involved in a ritual. These differ for every family and every community, every class and every race, but they exist.
A few months ago one of my colleague’s father-in-law passed away. This was not the first time a colleague had had a bereavement in the family. Usually an email was sent around asking that we “carry so-and-so in your prayers and thoughts as they grieve the loss of so-and-so in their family”. Perhaps colleagues who were better acquainted with the bereaved would send flowers and cards. However, when one of the seSotho teacher’s father-in-law passed away the perfunctory email was followed by an email from Ma'Dlamini* (the isiZulu teacher) suggesting that we visit sis’Vuyi’s* family on Thursday afternoon. The email was addressed to all the black teachers in the school. No-one asked why we were going. There was an understanding silence amongst us that we were going to umthandazo.
On the day of umthandazo I questioned my dress code more than usual: should I wear a skirt? Should I hear a doek? What would be expected of me at sis’Vuyi’s house? Upon arrival at sis’Vuyi’s house, my fears of being inappropriately dressed were allayed when sis'Vuyi appeared in a knee-length (meaning short) shweshwe dress; sans doek. As the makoti of the home this is a surprise given the rules that govern makotis and what they wear. We were ushered into the home and greeted by the family. Before long Ma’Dlamini belted out a familiar verse from a seSotho hymn. Everyone joined in. This was followed by a prayer and only after the prayer did we explain the obvious. The family nodded knowingly throughout the explanation which went something like: we are Vuyi’s colleagues and we felt it was important to visit the family and show that we are in solidarity with her as the family prepares for the funeral. Ma’Dlamini went on to introduce each of us and explain that even though we worked among white people in a white world “Ubuntu bethu” determined that we maintain the culture of ukukhunga: visit and pray with a family during their loss. We performed a ritual that was familiar and valued by everyone in the room.
Since the ritual in sis'Vuyi’s home I’ve been thinking about the rituals I participate in while living in Johannesburg. Visiting sis’Vuyi’s home was the first time since I left home in 2006 that I had been to umthandazo. I was reminded of the multiple codes I have access to, many of which have very little resemblance with the code I used growing up. It led me to consider: if my mother had passed away what code would my sister's and I use to make meaning of the rituals assumed to be part of a funeral? Would my colleagues hold umthandazo? Would we have a Thursday prayer meeting and display her manyano uniform as she has always insisted my sisters and I should do? Would we bury my mother here in Johannesburg or back in the Eastern Cape where she spent most of her life?
I find more and more I’ve been thinking about the shift in how I understand the world since I left home. This is probably just a case of nostalgia. There’s been an obvious change in how my shift into a more middle-class lifestyle has meant different ways of being. Even when I have been in black communities I’ve been excused from certain ways of being because people know I am educated, I live in Johannesburg which means I am exempt from certain expectations. The rules are more relaxed for me and those like me. Perhaps the relaxed rules also have something to do with being geographically removed from the community I was part of as a child. I watch with envy how some friends seem to have maintained the seamless relationship with where they grew up. But I also have a community of young, black professionals who deal with the schism in values when one goes home because they are the first graduate in the family or the one who had a better education than the poorer cousins who remain poor in the township.
This is nothing new: it sounds like another case of double consciousness where identity is contested because that's the nature of growing black in a white supremacist world. But is this the way it ought to be? If I were in another country I would expect all these emotions. But I am in Africa but I question my identity as though I were in another country that makes my difference obvious. Perhaps my nostalgia is irrelevant because identity is supposed to be complex and questioned.
*Not their real names