Friday, February 25, 2011

February 23rd – Meeting the Xhosa in East London

Even though we drove down an Oxford Street, a Fleet Street, and passed by a suburb called Belgravia, the city of East London in South Africa couldn't be much more different from London in the UK. For a start the sun was shining, plus there was lots of semi-tropical scenery around town; however, the deprivation here was also fairly prominent, with lots of groups of young unemployed men hanging around.

We were making a trip to a Xhosa cultural village, but on the way, our guide took us on an impromptu visit to the school he used to be a headmaster at. This school was a real showpiece for the Rainbow Nation – a class full of white kids (both English heritage and Afrikaans), Xhosa kids, Indian kids and mixed race kids, all joining together to sing the national anthem for us with pride – it was touching and heart-warming to see, and everyone was struck by how polite and bright the children were.

After that, we went to the Khaya La Bantu cultural village to see traditional Xhosa ways of life and culture – both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were from the Xhosa tribe. When we arrived, we were greeted by a line of women and children singing lustily and dancing enthusiastically to an infectious drum beat. Even though this was obviously a show put on for us tourists, it was great to hear and watch – even a person of no natural rhythm like myself was bobbing up and down to the music.

Without getting too spiritual, the rhythms and harmonies really did touch your soul, and when they sung the national anthem for us, I must admit that I began to get choked up – I guess it was seeing the immense pride that they sung the anthem with, considering that a Xhosa would never have felt any pride in being a South African until 20 years ago, after apartheid fell.

The men were separated from the women, and we went to the kraal (cattle pen) to drink traditional beer (eye-wateringly horrible to my taste buds), and hear stories of the male circumcision rituals that brought tears to your eyes; while the women were treated to an insight into preparing Xhosa girls for married life by a charismatic 92 year old lady called Mama Tofu. Afterwards, we ate some tasty but basic traditional Xhosa food and saw yet more fabulous high-energy dancing. A truly uplifting day.