A Venda Storyteller
“Sophia Nefolovhodwe, the wife of our vhamusanda (the village chief ) at Folovhodwe, also knows many Venda folk tales,” Piet Mavhetha said to me one day. “I think we should go and visit her.”
I packed my usual picnic lunch: peanutbutter sandwiches and hard boiled eggs. I also packed raisins, plenty of marshmallows, chicken feed and dog food and off I set. It was the 30thof September 1992. I met Piet Mavhetha under the ‘baobab with the long root’ as arranged.
We found Sophia Nefolovhodwe standing at the small gate to her home right at the end of Folovhodwe village just before you cross the bridge. I was amazed at the neat, well kept surroundings: a few round thatched huts, a square kitchen hut with a wood burning stove and a beer hut.
“Sophia, you have a beautiful home! Is this the tshitanga – kitchen?”
Sophia beamed, “Khavha dzena – come inside and look at my kitchen.”
Sophia Nefolovhodwe’s kitchen was not the traditional round kitchen hut with an open fireplace in the middle, but a square kitchen. All Venda women and men know exactly how to build a round hut, it is part of the collective memory. The technique is not specifically taught, every child helps and by the age of ten they all know how to build a round clay hut. A round hut with it’s thatched roof is excellent, cool in summer and warm in winter, with its clay floor smeared with cow dung to keep out insects and give it a shine. The materials are freely available right there. But square kitchens have taken on where finances allow, and then it is furnished with a stove and table, chairs and a dresser.
An open fire with a three legged pot in the middle of the round hut is magic, children and mothers sit around on reed mats and that is where they have the evening meal and where Venda folk tales are told. Traditionally the father and grown up sons do not eat with the noisy, talkative mothers and children, they get their food first (the best portions) and they are served in the courtyard.
The square hut is changing that. In the discount furniture shops in Musina and Makado women peer through the windows at the bright blue, green and white panelite kitchen tables. “Khavha dzena, come inside, and look at our kitchen scheme!” the smooth talking salesman says. If they are too nervous to enter the brightly lit shop he herds them firmly into the showroom. “This is our blue kitchen scheme, you get this blue table and two blue chairs and this blue kitchen dresser with two doors here below that can open and close and two shelves and, see, you just slide this glass this way and then the shelf is closed to keep out the dust and the flies and children.” When he mentions a price, because many cannot read, they hold their heads with two hand and wail “yowee yowee yowee.” But the salesman is unfazed, “You both get a pension right? Now we have this very good offer for pensioners. Every month you pay R50 and when you’ve paid half we bring you the kitchen scheme. Which one do you like? The blue one or the pink one or the white one?”
The two Venda grandmothers look at the pink table and the blue dresser and the white chairs and they cannot think anymore.
The salesman continues his attack, “Look at these stoves, Jewel number 5 is on special! This stove does not eat up all the wood so quickly and it comes with a pipe. This is a wonderful stove, this Jewel number 5.” The salesman asks their names and where do they stay and are they the wives of one man or what what…
The two women walk out of the shop, this was too much for one day. On their way back the two Venda women say to each other, “If we want the table and the chairs and the dresser we would need a four corner kitchen.”
“Yes, we need a four corner.”
“The round tshitanga is good for the fire in the middle but not good for the kitchen scheme.”
“Yes it will not be good for the kitchen scheme.”
“We can make the fire outside.”
“Or buy that white stove…” This is a shocking thought and they say nothing more for quite a while.
For many more months they will mull over that shiny bright kitchen scheme that can only live in a four corner kitchen. And so the demise of many round kitchen huts. Out goes the three legged pot and the reed mat for sitting on around the open fire…and out go the folktales.
In Sophia Nefolovhodwe’s kitchen crisp white dishcloths hang to dry in front of a wood burning Jewel No 5 stove. There is a shining kettle and pots.
She invites us into her bedroom which contains a large
double bed with a colourful bedspread in the middle of the round room, a few small tables, a pot plant and a calendar on the wall.
Piet Mavhetha explains, unhurriedly, the purpose of our visit. “Vho-Sophia (Mrs Sophia), we all know that you can still remember many ngano (folk tales), but we see that you are getting old and we would like to write down all the stories that you heard from your mother and your grandmother before they are forgotten. We want to write down all your stories in a book and put your photograph also in that book.”
“This is a very good idea. I see you are very clever. I will try and remember all the ngano.”
Then Sophia wants to know more about me and Piet explains that I am a lecturer at the University of Venda. Yes, she knows about the University of Venda.
The talk moved along slowly. In Venda conversations are not rushed. Why rush? There is the whole day and if we don’t finish today, there is tomorrow. At this point I decided to
take out my box of peanut butter sandwiches. Breakfast of peanut butter sandwiches tastes so much better in a thatched hut while getting ready to listen to African folk
tales than you’d imagine. At the door a growing number of smiling children’s faces were peering in to get a glimpse of what was going on. At last Sophia called them and they rushed in and settled on a reed mat. I took out the second box of peanut butter sandwiches and before you could say Jack Robinson they were all gone. I’d planned to keep the marshmallows for later but looking at those dusty faces I couldn’t resist and soon their mouths were full of pink and white sweets.
The children were settled, stomach’s satisfied, fingers licked, and Sophia Nefolovhodwe started telling folk tales in a most melodious voice, quite different to her normal speaking voice. At the very end of each story, she would look up at me and burst out laughing. It is the most wonderful thing about this strong woman: peals of laughter at the end of every folk tale. That is one of the functions of the Venda folk tale: to laugh in the face of hardship, poverty, drought and rejection. Rejection is an ever present threat to women in a polygamous society as
the folktale of “The Rejected Wife” shows very clearly. Many of these stories, like “The Rejected Wife,” have a satisfying ending, though in reality things seldom turn out like that. But, for a short while, the women can chuckle together and feel vindicated. (Read the full story of The Rejected Wife under Venda Folktales.)
One day Sophia’s husband, Chief Folovhodwe, arrived. All of us, including Sophia, greeted him respectfully, on one knee, with bowed head and clasped hands, the way in which you greet a chief. The children also knelt down in front of him. On that particular day we were sitting outside in the shade of a hut. The vhamusanda pretended he did not even see us greeting him and, to my amazement, called for a chair and sat just on the other side of the hut where we could not see him. I moved my chair ever so slightly and noticed that he listened intently to Sophia telling the story of “The Year of Hunger”. I could see his right shoulder in the white shirt and
from time to time it would shake with laughter. Kings also enjoy folk tales.
Some years later I was asked to organise an oral performance at a conference in the Kruger National Park. This large game reserve was set up under the auspices of Paul Kruger in the years prior to the Anglo-Boer War to preserve the game that was being indiscriminately hunted by the settler/farmers in the then Transvaal Republic. I immediately contacted Sophia Nefolovhodwe, Selina Mavhetha and Eni Nenzhelele. The last two, not storytellers, are excellent in the very important chorus parts. It was a wonderful opportunity for these three women to visit the Kruger Park for the first time in their lives. The Kruger Park is only a two hour drive from their villages but transport and the entrance fee is way beyond their means. Elephants, lions and zebra are animals in their folktales – their grandmothers
and great grandmothers knew these animals but now they exist only in their imaginations and on the embroideries.
A friend of mine, Jan Crafford, kindly lent us his double-cab Toyota and even offered to drive us there and back. The three women hardly slept the night before we left. Jan and I slept at Selina’s and we could hear her striking matches every hour to check the time. We left on Friday morning while it was still dark but Sophia was already waiting for us in front of her kitchen hut and a smiling Eni was waiting at her fence. Despite none of us sleeping very well the night before, we were all so excited and nattering away like a flock of mossies (sparrows) that we could hardly hear ourselves think.
The first game we saw were herds of impala. “Look how fat those animals are!” exclaimed Eni. “Much fatter than my goats. They have so much grass here. They would be good to eat.” The chattering carried on full volume – until we encountered a small herd of elephants at a waterhole. There was sudden silence. Then, as these huge creatures lumbered unthreateningly towards us, a small voice piped up, “Please can we go…”
Our chalet had 4 rooms, one each for Jan and me and 2 for the 3 women but they chose to all sleep together and talked so much that we later had to ask them to keep quiet!
That evening Jan suggested that he and I spoil the women, who spend their whole life toiling for their families, and cook supper, serve them and wash up afterwards. Sitting after supper, in the warm African night under the mopani trees, they recalled the giraffe, baboons, hippo, buffalo, zebra and many different antelope we’d seen that day. Sophia turned to Jan and me, “Thank you for showing us this place.” This “place” is eagerly visited by countless local and overseas tourists but is unattainable for the poor who live just two hours away. “Now I know which colours to use for the embroidery of the giraffe and the hippo and…” beamed Eni.
The performances were to be on Saturday and Sunday evening and the organisers suggested we tell just two stories each evening as they didn’t want to bore the delegates, opthalmologists from North and South America and Europe. However, after the two stories, they demanded more, even the same ones again, they enjoyed it so much.
On our way back from the Kruger Park Sophia said to me,
“We’ve told many Venda folk tales this past weekend, but one day I want to tell you my own life story. Will you listen to my own true life story and write it down.”
“I’d love to hear your story, Sophia, and I’ll most certainly write it down.” I couldn’t do it at the end of that wonderful weekend, I had to get back to my own home, but a few months later we were again asked to give an oral performance at the University of the North West in Potchefstroom. I promised myself to write down Sophia’s life story after we came back from that performance and so one evening after supper I made yet another pot of coffee, brought paper and a pen and we all sat around the table, Alice my Venda quilter/helper, Selina Mavhetha and me, waiting to hear Sophia’s life story. Sophia, enjoying the attention, said, “I am now the star but where is the movie camera?”
“My earliest memories go back to the time when there was a great drought in Venda. I must have been 6 or 7 (probably early 1940s – ed). It was so bad that year that many people died of hunger, especially young children and very old grandmothers. I remember that everybody, mothers and fathers, went into the bush early in the mornings when it was still cool to go and collect green leaves – any leaves that the goats had missed or could not reach. To cheer us up my mother used to make up a song as soon as we woke up. She would sing:
“Tsingandede ho-nyana! Let us go and sing
“Riya mugeroni ho-nyana! We are going to the river and singing.
“You must remember, when a child is hungry that child is very unhappy and keeps on whimpering and crying for food. Now this song helped to take our thoughts away from our hunger.
“The mothers picked any green leaves to cook at home and many times after a whole morning in the veld we had collected only a few handfuls of green leaves. The children had to be carried back, they were so tired. The cooked leaves were not nice but when there is nothing else to eat children will eat leaves.
“I remember when the drought was at its worst great locusts swarms arrived and ate even the few leaves that were left, but then we ate the locusts. Mothers fried the locusts and if there is nothing else to eat children will eat fried locusts. For the babies, mothers cooked the locusts, dried them and pounded them and gave locust porridge to the babies. The bags of dried locusts that our parents stored up helped us until the rains came. It was a difficult time, we call it nwaha wa ndala, the time of hunger.”
The locusts saved our lives that year.
I grew up in a small village called Helela. There was a school with two class rooms on a nearby citrus farm and sometimes me and my sisters would go to the school. For us
going to school was just fun, school was not serious. To my great joy, I understood the letters very quickly and I could read even before my elder sisters could read! When the teacher wrote a word on the white wall with a piece of charcoal I was first to shout “Madi” (water) or “Ima” (stand) or mbudzi (goat). The teacher told me to keep quiet to give the other children also a time to think and put up their hands to answer, but I could not help it, I kept on shouting out the words even while the teacher was writing, so she told me to leave the class. I stood the whole day outside peering around the corner and crying. School was a wonderful thing to me, but whenever there was work to be done at home, like hoeing our mielie land, my mother would take us out of the school, “There is work to be
done, we must eat, you can’t sit in the class room and say ABC all day. ABC won’t bring food in your stomachs,” my mother would say.
School gave me one thing nobody could take away from me: I could read. Our small shop used pieces of newspaper to wrap the bread and to my utter joy I discovered that those small black lines were not ants crawling over the paper as many people believed, they were all words that I could read! Yes I could read.
I grew up and like all my friends we became interested in boyfriends. I was very pleased when a young man, Frans Ndou, asked to marry me. I left my mother’s home and went to live with him and his parents. It is our Venda custom that a bride should care for her mother-in-law. Mothers-in-law can be very difficult and even cruel. The bride often has to rise at 3 o’clock in the morning to pound mielies, make fire, fetch water from the river even if there are crocodiles lurking in the shallows. Mothers-in-law remember how hard they had worked as young brides and they often do the same to their sons’ wives.
I left my mother’s home and went to live with him and his father and mother. I was prepared to work very hard in my new home, but I was also in love with Frans and that helped. To my utter joy I became good friends with my mother-in-law. We walked down to the river together, we fetched firewood in the mountains. She was to me like a second mother. But I had a more serious problem.
I could not fall pregnant.
“Why are you not pregnant?” Frans would shout at me. “Why don’t you want to give me a child?” How could I answer such a question? I went to the herbalist, he was expensive and wanted two goats before he gave me his secret mix. I gave him two goats and drank his dreadful secret mix but nothing helped.
Frans started beating me, “Now you also make me poorer than I was before I married you! You don’t give me children and now you give our goats away.” I went to the mission hospital. The doctor gave me tablets to drink but nothing helped. Frans beat me some more until his father told him to stop. Frans sent me back to my mother, “You are useless, go back to your mother.”
The morning I left my mother-in-law’s home we cried so much it was like a funeral. Frans was nowhere to be seen. My mother in-law walked with me until she got tired, there we said good bye again and we parted.
Late that same day I arrived home. My mother saw that I was very sad and did not ask why I returned. The next morning I said to my mother, “I will never allow a man to beat me again. Never.”
My mother just looked at me and said, “That is a good decision.”
“Never,” said my mother.
Not far from my mother’s home I found a piece of land and I asked permission from the headman to build a house there. Without hesitation he gave this piece of land to me, it was a very stony piece of land with a small rocky outcrop on the one side. Who would live on this stony, hard piece of land in the baking sun? Here I will make a home for myself, and never again will a man beat me so severely as Frans. On this hard place I will live.
The next morning I built a hut and then I cleared a piece of ground of all the stones and dug a field and planted some mealies but I knew that I would need some money before there was a harvest and so I built a beer hut and started brewing beer. It is an interesting thing that there is very little money but there is always money for beer. I brewed good beer and the people came to buy my beer.
One day the vhamusanda (village chief) arrived at my home. He wanted to make me his wife number two. I refused. I said that I had no need of a husband. I lived very well on my own. Now that I had no husband I could go into my fields when I wanted to or sit and talk with my friends. Why would I want to marry him? He went away, but a few weeks later he came back and asked me again. He said he needed me for my head. I had a good head, I could think and that would help him. And so I became wife number two. Wife number one and I became good friends. He would spend one month with her and then one month with me. And so it is still.
One day he told me to go with him to Musina. So I went and he found a photographer who took a photo of the two of us. He showed me the picture of him and me. Then I knew that he loved me.
Stories told by Sophia
Hippo Swallows a Little Girl
The Year of Hunger
Check out her stories under Folktales.