BY Mizzyy Nkwali
The Drakensberg is the name given to the eastern portion of the great escarpment, which encloses the central Southern African plateau. It is located in South Africa and Lesotho. This is such a beautiful, amazing place that it would take your breath away. Tugela Falls in the Drakensberg has the highest waterfall in Africa, a place that is automatically welcoming. This place is also known as the “Dragon Mountains” because of the size of the peaks. This is one of the wonders of South Africa.
Staying in the shadows of these mountains brings peace of mind and joy at heart. It is also regarded as the second-highest waterfall in the world. These two put together mark another wonder of nature in South Africa. However, some say Angela Falls in Venezuela is the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall.
Many travel down south just to get the feel of this wonderful miracle of nature. At the foot of these mountains, next to the giant Tugela River, there once lived the Amahlubi people under Chief Maphela. When he died, his son took over as Chief Nkwali. His father was powerful, very wealthy, and well-known. These were people who respected their traditions “Amasiko” and were proud of their cultures.
Here, lobola (dowry) was still paid in cattle, and girls remained virgins until they got married. It was at this home that a beautiful girl was born by the name of Nqabakazi (fortress). She was raised traditionally as a proper Zulu girl, not forgetting that she was a princess. When the time came, she had to go to school. She furthered her studies at the university like a modern girl. Many disapproved of her decision to get a good education because traditionally she would be married to a prince in the future and would never use that knowledge. But Nqabakazi was her father’s sunshine; Chief Nkwali did everything to make her happy. She went back to fulfill one of the most special rituals as a young woman called “Umemulo.” The whole village waited patiently for this occasion.
It was early spring and Nqabakazi’s first year at home since she had finished her second degree. That morning, the whole village was very busy as they prepared for her Umemulo ceremony. It was going to be a huge ceremony because she was a royal princess. She was kept for a week in a sacred room. She underwent a serious lecture as to how to become a woman. She was not allowed to see the sun until her ceremonial day when she had to go to the river early before sunrise to take a bath.
The day had arrived, and her father was a proud man. It was this day that her parents said thank you to their daughter for her good behavior; she had remained a virgin until the age of twenty-one. Many cows were slaughtered for the ceremony. And a goat was slaughtered for its uMhlwehlwe (a lace-like fat from the belly of the goat). It was a young goat, a virgin just like Nqabakazi. The chief invited many guests. Even heads of state and royal families came.
It was now time for her to go to the river with her entourage to wash away the red ochre that was her only face and body lotion while she was kept in that sacred room. When she was done, her father was there to fetch her to bring her home as part of the tradition. Other girls followed behind them singing. At home, she had to put on a short black skirt, and her uncle put the uMhlwehlwe on her shoulders. Then she had to go out to the crowd waiting for her to sing and dance.
There was jubilation, women ululating, and young men whistling. Everybody was happy. She appeared at the door, beautiful like a sunrise—Indoni—her skin smooth like melted chocolate, and a dimple on her right cheek as she smiled. She had a tall, hourglass body and a sweet, low angelic voice. She was simple and down to earth. Only the boys knew her better, for she never fooled with them. When she was about to go out, a dark cloud quickly blunted the sky, and it drizzled for a while. Just when the crowd was about to give up, it stopped. Suddenly, the dark cloud swiftly moved away, and the sun shone brightly. Her uncle smiled, nodded his head, and said that the ceremony was well-blessed by the ancestors. Nqabakazi was a fortunate young woman. With her melodic voice, she started her song. The girls backed her, and she started to dance. Her mother closed her eyes, praying that the uMhlwehlwe would not fall from her daughter’s shoulders; it would be a disgrace. Nqabakazi knew that well; it would follow her to her grave. She was brave because she knew she had never been touched, nobody broke her virginity, and she had been sealed since birth.
Young men gathered as they licked their lips, mouthwatering, covering her, as they wished to break her virginity. And the fact that she was royal, “Who would not want that?” they gossiped. But they knew her very well. They regarded her as the queen of the mountain because to men she was difficult and full of pride. They wondered who would marry her. Some said that she would be married to the caves; they mocked and laughed. Some royal guests arrived, and the prince was ready to try his luck with this formidable princess.
Some were sent to negotiate (amaqhikiza) with her to see if they could send negotiators (abakhongi) to her home, but she refused all. There was gossip from many in the village that she was no more a virgin since she was at a boarding school and many girls had come back home as broken calabashes. They laughed. Nqabakazi proved them wrong, and jealousy and disappointment filled them.
In her room, her grandmother welcomed her after the dance and blessed her with words of wisdom that she had made the family proud. The celebration continued outside. A week after the ceremony, tongues were still wagging as to who would be the son-in-law to the royals. They watched with hawk eyes because she refused all who tried their luck during her Umemulo ceremony.
That morning, Nqabakazi took a calabash to the river alone to fetch water. The other girls insisted that they go with her, as she was not supposed to go alone because she was a princess. If the chief discovered that risk, they would all be in trouble. Nevertheless, she insisted, and they let her go alone. She was driven by something inside her that she could not identify. She felt uneasy, but she continued alone.
At the river, where people knelt and scooped water, there was a huge brown boulder on her right, and behind the boulder stood a large willow tree, its branches hanging lazily in the river. She knelt to scoop the water, and when she was about to scoop again, she saw the reflection of a man’s face in the water. She scooped, and then the water vibrated. She waited for the water to settle to see the image clearly. When the water settled, there was nothing in the water. She stood to look around, but there was no one. She continued to fill her calabash, and then she stood and took it to her right hip. She turned to put it on her right knee then to her head. Suddenly, there he stood looking firmly at her. She got the fright of her life and let loose her calabash. He acted swiftly and got hold of it. Their eyes met. She froze, but her body felt surprisingly warm.
She had never felt that way in her life; it was the first time. She quickly looked down, remembering as a Zulu girl in her culture that it was disrespectful to look males in the eyes, let alone a stranger.
He did not greet her, but he asked her “What’s your name?”
“Nqabakazi,” she answered.
“A difficult name, but I will practice,” he said. “Let me help you.” He put the calabash gently on her head, and she left him without a word.
The journey from the river was very long for her that day. She put her calabash down and went straight to her room. She sat on her bed and played with her fingers. Who was the young man she met at the river? Why did she feel different after the meeting, and why was she calm with him, not rude or careless, like with other young men approaching her? She became angry with herself.
She visualized him standing there, tall with a fair complexion, broad shoulders, and strong hands. He had a deep voice and was truly remarkable. She had never seen him before in the village or in town. All the girls of umuzi (the village) went out to meet in the open under a man-made shelter to practice beadwork. Nqabakazi did not join them that day. They wondered why. Her mother noticed her silence and went to her room. She opened the door, looked at her for a while, then joined her.
She sat next to Nqabakazi. “What is wrong, my daughter?” she asked with a shrill voice.
Nqabakazi looked at her mom, then down again but said nothing.
“What is there to tell? That you met a stranger then you felt sick and you cannot even tell where the pain is. Those with experience will tell you it is a lovebug. Oh my God, it’s a man. Who is he?” her mother asked.
Nqabakazi kept quiet.
Her mother hugged her tightly and hung on to her for a moment. She left the room and came back with a bowl of soup. She fed her and confessed her love for a daughter, telling her how proud she was for her behavior, how she respected herself as a woman. The silence continued. She stopped for a moment, then she stood in the middle of the room frantically. She held her head lightly and said, “It must be a prince! Oh God, I pray history shouldn’t repeat itself. Oh!” Then she left the room.
Nqabakazi asked herself why her mother was talking about history that should not repeat itself. It dawned on to her that she knew very little about her mother’s background and her family. She realized now that she never even questioned her mother about that. She spoke very little since that day. The girls missed her freedom of speech with them and the girl talk about their future husbands.
Weeks passed then months. Nqabakazi spent sleepless nights over a young man she met at the river. She told no one about this; it was her only secret. At times, she was concerned that she met a ghost, not a human being. She lost weight and spoke very little. People started gossiping. Some said she was bewitched since many suitors were disappointed by her. Some remembered that ever since she went to the river alone, she had never been herself.
After six months, her agony subsided. She slowly accepted that she would never see the stranger again. Her body was now starting to recuperate, though she still had a vision of him. Her nipples stood when he came to her mind. That Friday she went to bed early, though it was a sleepless night. She had nightmares, causing her to scream. Her mother heard her, and she came to cuddle her. She slept in her mother’s arms. In the early hours of the morning, they were awakened by the screams of people ululating. It was strange. Nqabakazi wondered what it was.
The chief sent the messenger to go call Nqabakazi’s mom. The messenger whispered in her ear, and then she left the room with the messenger. She was still very tired. In about thirty minutes, a woman knocked on the door and entered Nqabakazi’s room. The woman knelt down and politely told her that she had been sent, that Nqabakazi was to prepare herself because Abakhona had arrived and was waiting outside.
Nqabakazi gasped for breath. “Who are they? Where do they come from?”
The woman replied, “I don’t know, ma’am.” Then she left.
Nqabakazi sat on her bed and started sweating. She wondered, Who are these negotiators? Could it be the ghost from the river? It’s been such a long time if it’s him, how would I know? If it’s not him, how would I know?
She said a little prayer to uMvelinqangi (God) of her ancestors. She felt weak again so she lay down. She visualized this tall man with a deep voice. He had a strange accent, though he spoke fluent English, he was obviously not Zulu and obviously not from the neighboring villages because they were are all Zulu-speaking people. Who was he? Another message arrived at nine o’clock. She must be at Emacekeni where the negotiations were taking place outside the royal palace. Her knees were weak. She was finally called with her Iqikiza to the gathering. She came out beautiful. “Indoni ya manzi,” the woman ululated, her big eyes lowering. Nqabakazi’s two maids followed her. Nqabakazi’s father was seated on his throne. Her uncle ordered Nqabakazi, her Iqikiza, and the maids to sit at a distance from the gathering. She was trembling. Her Iqikiza held her hand and brushed it softly. Her uncle introduced them to the family that came to ask for her hand in marriage. In the middle of the introduction, she lifted her head to look at the three young men behind the negotiators. She saw him, the ghost from the river sitting between the two. He looked straight at her. Her big eyes widened. He squinted and smiled. She looked down, her heart thumping.
These people were not of royal background. She looked for all the signs. Though they looked well-off, they were commoners. That is why the negotiations took so long. Again, she prayed for God to have mercy on her; she never felt this way with a man. She wanted to run to him and let him hold her, but she remembered this was a sacred meeting, so she remained seated.
With his stern voice, the chief’s brother said, “These people came from Khalakhadi. It has been a long journey from the land of Sir Seretse Kgama in Botswana. They are here to ask for your hand in marriage for their son Boipelo. They say you met at the river. Do you know them?”
Nqabakazi kept quiet for a while, then she remembered she would be sent off and that she would never be given another chance to say something. With a quivering voice, she said, “Yes.” She lifted her eyes a little. Her uncle looked scornfully at her, and her father’s eyes lowered. She knew she meant everything to her father. An elderly man from the visitor’s section stood up and said all his clan names, stamping his feet down. The women heard that and started ululating. The palace workers knew that Nqabakazi agreed. Then they were ordered to leave. The royal princess and the commoner. The news spread widely like a wildfire. Some said, “How can she? There were royals during her ceremonial day who asked for her hand in marriage, but she refused.”
Her father was unhappy too, but he knew that her daughter needed his blessings, so he just gave in. She was mocked by others who said Boipelo was a medical doctor, born and raised in a wealthy Botswana tribe. Back home he left a hopeful young maid. When they heard he is about to marry a young Zulu princess, there was so much gossip in the village and his town. Even some relatives predicted that the marriage wouldn’t last. Both ancestors agreed and blessed the union. The date was set, and the wedding preparation. Nqabakazi had to leave her home on the Tugela River and the Drakensberg Mountains to join Boipelo in the blasting hot temperatures of Botswana, learn the language, and learn how to cook their food.
This is a South African short story
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