Author: Botlhale Tema
Cape Town, 2006
Soft cover, 13x20 cm, 272 pages
Two young boys are torn from their families and swept into the informal slave trade of the mid-1800s. They forge a friendship that spans a lifetime and gives rise to this uniquely South African narrative, based on the ancestors of Botlhale Tema.
Released from the shackles of slavery and in search of a lost sister, Maja and Polomane befriend a Swiss missionary and set off to a remote farm in the Pilanesberg region, Welgeval, to establish a mission station and make a new life for themselves. As they raise their families and take in other people who have been dispossessed, we follow the births, deaths, adventures and joys of the farm’s inhabitants in their struggle to build a new community.
Set against the backdrop of slavery, colonialism, the Anglo-Boer War and the rise of apartheid, The People of Welgeval is a superbly crafted and dramatic historical novel. It is an epic story about friendship and family, landownership and learning, and about how people transform themselves from victims to victors.
Botlhale Tema was born in Johannesburg but raised in small villages and townships in the Western Transvaal. She studied the sciences in South Africa and the United Kingdom. She has worked as a teacher, and was first secretary general of the South African National Commission for UNESCO. She is currently general manager responsible for international cooperation at the Department of Science and Technology.
The Star Tonight (Mpho Lukoto)
"The People of Welgeval is a beautifully written epic about life, death, suffering and survival."
Citizen Vibe (Ann Mapham)
"This book blows away the mists of time and ignorance and reveals a world we never suspected."
For days on end a dry southeaster raged, riding roughshod over wisps of clouds that dared to gather in the sky. Parched of all crop and green, the fields lay abandoned at the bottom of the valley. The wind lifted the loose red soil from the empty fields and suspended it like a curtain against the rocky hills on which the village of Moletji nestled, cutting off all view of the horizon. Too weak to move, the cattle spent their hours lying under the few thorn trees that withstood the inhospitable weather. Occasionally, they staggered up to pick at the sour needle leaves like goats. Ploughs and hoes lay idly under piles of tired soil in Moletji's backyards.
It had not rained for two seasons in a row. Small stock died daily, and at first the people secretly celebrated the unexpected supply of meat, which was normally a delicacy reserved for special occasions. But soon they found themselves unable to deal with all of it. The women tried to dry some, but it was simply foolish to leave it hanging outside in the hot and gritty wind. Rotting carcasses began to accumulate and an acrid stench lingered in the air, defying the invading southeaster. A blanket of doom hovered over Moletji with no sign of subsiding.
Chief Moloto was concerned. This was no ordinary drought, he thought. There was too much malice in the howling wind, which left no life in its wake. It could speak only of one thing: serious ancestral wrath. Feeling inadequate about approaching his ancestors on his own, he summoned his advisors to a meeting at his kgotia one morning. Ten representatives attended (one for each clan), taking their rightful seats in the kgotia circle, with the most senior, Mabona and Letsoalo, on either side of the chief. By special instruction, no one brought their usual pieces of leather to work on during the meeting. The chief wanted their full attention. With a quick cursory greeting, he went straight to the point.
"Men, I've called you to come and help me look at the disaster that has gripped our village," he announced. "In all my life, I have never experienced drought as ferocious as this. The forefathers are not pleased."
The men stirred uneasily at the suggestion, which they knew the chief would not make lightly. It was only in times of serious trouble that such conclusions were drawn.
"What is the misdemeanor behind it?" the chief asked, raising his voice to gain the kgotla's attention. "Will we ever be able to heal this rift between ourselves and our departed?"
Chief Moloto stopped suddenly and hung his head for a while, his sizeable belly heaving now and again. His men, fearing an angry response to any untimely intervention, were still. Finally, he raised his head and adjusted his leopard-skin cloak as he called for comments.
The gathering bubbled into life as the men muttered among themselves, offering various reasons for the drought. Sefara, an ambitious man who was ever eager for the chief's approval, leapt up to speak.
"The ancestors never turn their backs on us for no reason," he said shrilly. "Our hands are soiled; we must cleanse them!"
"That, Sefara, is clear enough for all to see," the chief sighed. "Anyone with half the brain of a dying dog can tell you that. The question is: What have we done to bring this upon ourselves?"
Again the men turned to one another, muttering over the matter, until Mabona, a rather wordy counsellor, stepped in to make his point.
"Chief, your words have hit the truth," he began. "It pains me that your trusted doctor Mapadimole has been so unsuccessful in getting reprieve from your ancestors ... I feel our situation is dire enough to require unusual measures. We are caught between the horns of an ox. We have, on this hand, our tribal pride ..." Mabona gestured with his right hand, and in unison the gathering tilted their heads, following his action, "... and then on this hand ..." The communal gaze turned to the left. "... there is our survival. But if we look at it plainly, our choice, Chief and dear compatriots, is simple ..."
"Mabona!" the chief barked with irritation. "Stop going round in circles like a sick cow! Come to the point."
"Lion of the north, my point is this," he responded. "I think we should drop our pride and enlist the help of the one whose skills are known far and wide, Queen Modjadji of the Balobedu, the ultimate rainmaker."
Suddenly he paused to check the response and quickly added, "I humbly submit that you consider calling her to come to our aid."
Slowly, without moving his head, the chief turned his gaze to the left where Mabona was sitting, his squint right pupil almost disappearing under his nose. He flicked his whisk and thrashed an invisible fly rather violently.
"Mabona, I can see that you don't know me well," he growled, narrowing his eyes to the size of a cobra's. "What gives you the idea that I can hand over the responsibility bestowed on me by my forebears to some, some, some ...?"
He flicked his whisk again, this time in Mabona's direction, as if to fling him out of his sight.
"In this village," he continued, "I alone can intercede for my people. The day some stranger takes over this duty, my body will be lying cold and dead on the floor. I hope I shall never hear this foolish if not downright wicked suggestion ever again. You are lucky, Mabona, that all your animals are dead or I would have fined you to the last one."
Mabona's cousin, Letsoalo, quickly jumped in to cool the brewing quarrel.
"Chief, let us not get sidetracked," he said, steering the chief's gaze away from Mabona. "In my opinion, our indiscretion is not hard to find. It's been three years since we last sent boys out to the mountain school. Not since the rumour began. We must expect to pay for violating our tradition. The forefathers will not smile at this."
As soon as Letsoalo made mention of the issue, two other men stood up to confirm the effect of this rumour, causing a loud murmur to erupt in the kgotia. A rumour about strangers abducting children was running wild in the villages, with the result that parents simply refused to let their children out of their sight, disrupting the lifestyle and education traditions of the village. Word came first from the village of Matlala that young women collecting water from the river and herd boys had simply and inexplicably disappeared. Similar whispers came from surrounding villages.
"Tsie lala. Quiet," the chief commanded. "Letsoalo, yours are sensitive words. Even though I understand what you aresaying, we must be careful not to antagonise our people. We cannot ignore their fears."
The men stared back at the chief in stony silence, clearly worried about the difficult situation they were facing. Satisfied that he had at least consulted his advisers for a solution, the chief closed the meeting with the conclusion that it was now time to approach the ancestors with his trusted guide and doctor Mapadimole. Mapadimole was responsible for opening communication with the departed spirits of the village, and shared with the chief the responsibility for rainmaking.
Just before sunset, the chief sent out an emissary to request a consultation. The doctor had been expecting the chief's call since hearing of the extraordinary meeting earlier in the day, and he had his special costume prepared for the occasion.
As the sun set, he slowly adorned himself in suitable ritual attire. He placed his lion-skin hat upon his head, and swathed his arms in armbands made up of a selection of feathers from the birds of the marshes. Next, he circled his wrists in a variety of bracelets that had been fortified in secret potions. These would strengthen his hands for successful handling of the cowrie shell. Finally, he slipped his feet into the leather sandals made from skin drawn from the forehead of one of the chief's dead oxen.
Before stepping out of his hut, Mapadimole took a bite of a bitter root to focus his mind and cupped his face in his hands for a minute, dispatching his spirit to alert the ancestors of the meeting. Then he grabbed his divination bag and made his way to the chief's homestead.
Mapadimole entered the chief's compound through the back entrance and headed straight to the secret hut, which was especially reserved for these types of meetings. The chief was waiting for him patiendy in front of a small fire burning in the middle of the hut. This was a special fire made from dry branches of willow trees that grew on the banks of a local stream. Mapadimole settled himself down opposite the chief and greeted him.
"Chief, your servant has heeded your call."
"Man of Bakwena," the chief started, without lifting his eyes from the fire, "I don't have to explain the reason for my call. Our forefathers have turned their backs on us. Throw light on it so that we can make amends."
Mapadimole squatted and laid out his divination mat. He then shook his cowrie shell in the pouch and swiftly blew into it. He threw it down to have a first read. The doctor raised his eyebrows. He was not impressed.
"That's just the first pulse," he consoled himself, quickly collecting the bones and cupping them in his hands. Slowly, he blew into his palms, at the same time pleading with the chief's ancestors for a clearer vision. To get their support, Mapadimole asked the chief to blow on the bones as well, while he called out the chief's ancestors' names, one after another, as far back as he could remember. Once he'd completed the lineage, he threw down the bones for the first true reading. Mapadimole groaned.
"Chief of Bakwena, son of Ramonamane," he sighed. "I don't like what I see."
He adjusted his seat to make himself more comfortable and leant forward to examine them more closely. Still he wasn't happy with their configuration. And so he decided to adjust his vision. Mapadimole dipped his fingers into his bag and collected a pinch of herbs, which he threw into the fire.
A greenish flame leapt up and a thick black smoke billowed, stinging their eyes.
Mapadimole's eyes widened, stretching their socket muscles. He shook his head.
"My master, if you will allow me, I'd like to have time alone with them!" he cried.
Without a word, Chief Moloto stood up and went to bed. [...]