Finding my way
This excerpt comes from Chapter 1 of African Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 1959), and is reproduced with kind permission of Freedom Farm Trust, which manages the Estate of Ndabaningi Sithole.
My father, Jim Sithole, at the age of 18, left Gazaland, his home district, to seek adventure and fortune in Umtali. He was only four months in Umtali when he decided to leave for Salisbury, where he worked as a ‘kitchen boy’ for two years. It was in Salisbury that he acquired a smattering of English and Afrikaans, which he could neither write nor read, just as he was unable to read or write any of the existing vernaculars of Southern Rhodesia. Allured by fortune stories told to him by his home boys who worked in Gwelo, he left Salisbury and found work with the Grand Hotel, Gwelo. Still spurred on by his love of adventure and fortune, he resigned his post and went to work in Bulawayo.
One fine morning as he was running an errand, an intelligent-looking country girl drew his attention. He halted, as he always said, “to admire the killing beauty of this girl”. But however, the urgency of the errand demanded that he go on without stopping. He stood torn between his master's orders and his heart's desire. He soon forgot all about the errand and one and a half hours silently passed by unnoticed. He took all the particulars of this girl—her name Siyapi Tshuma, her home district Nyamandlovu. The girl was pleased that she had favourably impressed someone as handsome as my father.
Five visits to Nyamandlovu during weekends soon rewarded my father’s efforts. Six months after the engagement my father was married to Siyapi Tshuma according to native rites. On 21 July 1920, I was born to my father and mother—Siyapi Tshuma. I had a low mud-and-pole hut with a dirt floor for a maternity clinic, bits of old skins for my mattress, a reed mat for my bed, a goat's skin for my blanket, and a folded buckskin for my pillow. On the same day that I arrived I was made to inhale the smoke from a burning goat's horn so that no evil would befall me. This smoking process was continued for three weeks and after that I was considered immune from all the evil intentions of our neighbours.
I grew up to the age of seven playing hide-and-seek and making clay oxen. At night we gathered round granny to hear her tell us the wonderful stories of old. Granny was a thrilling story teller, and it was not easy to forget her stories-so vivid, so appealing, so hair-raising, and told with such animation. She could tell a story, then introduce some singing, then continue the story and even dance the story if it had some dancing in it. We could join the singing and dancing. ‘Behave yourself, or no story from granny’ became a real warning that made us behave ourselves.
From the age seven onwards my life was spent among bellowing bulls, lowing oxen, bleating sheep and goats, and baaing lambs. Herding was one of those irksome drudgeries. Like all other boys I disliked it. I envied men because they had done their stint. I longed to grow into a man quickly and be done with it.
There were many difficulties incidental to herding. Hunger was the commonest hardship. We had breakfast at about ten in the morning. Then we drove the cattle to the pasture, usually between five and ten miles away from home. Except for the wild fruit when in season, we did not have anything to eat until late in the evening. We made many silent prayers that the sun should set quickly so that we might return home to fill our bellies. We were not allowed to bring the cattle home before sunset. The next trouble came from the senior boys. They were the bosses and we, juniors, did all the hard work of herding. They gave orders and we carried them out. We were forbidden on pain of severe thrashing to disclose to people at home any unsavoury happening of the forest, which usually included senior boys' bullyism, cruelty and garden-raiding.
I remember one day when Zenzo, our senior boy, warned us, ‘Don't tell anybody at home that we have taken watermelons from Menzelwa's garden’. We all promised not to. As we sat round the fire with some of our elders, I proudly remarked to Zenzo, ‘You thought we were going to tell the old people that we took some watermelons. You see, I haven't.’ Poor me!
I learned the lesson the hard way. The next day every boy gave me some whipping on the legs saying, 'We don't say such things at home'. I pleaded, 'I will never do it again'.
One day as we were herding cattle, we saw a very strange thing. We thought it was a hut, but then it was moving very fast. In great fear we dashed into the forest nearby, but curiosity checked our fear. We halted, and with panting hearts we carefully hid ourselves behind the bushes and made our observations from there. The strange moving hut then pulled up. 'It has seen us!' we cried in a chorus and rushed into the depths of the forest for dear life. Coming out through the other side of the forest we ran home as fast as our legs could carry us. Fearfully we reported the incident, and those who had been to Bulawayo and who had seen motorcars nearly split their sides with laughter!
Like most children of our district, I had amabetshu– cow skin aprons, one covering the back and the other the front. These amabetshu were tied round the waist so that they looked more like two rough triangular patches than clothing. The whole trunk remained bare. On cold days an old sack was used as a raincoat, by the simple method of pushing in one corner against the opposite corner so that the two corners stuck out at one point forming a kind of hood for my head. Round my neck was an intebe – talisman, supposed to protect me from the evil spirits believed to dwell in the big dark forests of Nyamandlovu. Round my waist was yet another intebe supposed to protect me from the evil intentions of our neighbours. These articles constituted the entire stock of my clothing.