In memory of a trainee-igqirha

In 2002, before embarking on a two-month journey with my husband through central Africa, following part of David Livingstone’s route, we commissioned a Xhosa woman, who was training to be an igqirha, to make us a protective talisman.

“What are afraid of?” she asked.

“Soldiers. Boys with guns. Bandits,” I replied.

A few days before we left, she delivered a charm wrapped in tar-paper which we were to hang at the windscreen for the entire journey, after which it would no longer be potent. It was as slim as a pencil, odourless and expensive.

We felt protected throughout our journey, which took us through wilderness and very remote regions, never once doubting the power of the talisman in warding off malice and harm. We encountered men with guns and were stopped at numerous road blocks, once by a group of young soldiers who wanted cigarettes. In northern Mozambique, we missed a head-on collision by a hair’s breadth. The other vehicle, an open bakkie coming towards us on our side of the road, was overloaded with standing people and a chicken coup. It carried its petrol tank on the roof of the cab. It surely would have exploded if we’d collided.

In western Tanzania, on a remote and poorly maintained road, we passed Jane Goodall, the primatologist, and her researchers, driving in convey. They were protected by government soldiers who had a mounted machine gun on their cab roof.

“What the fuck are doing here?” one of her team called out to us from his rolled down window. “Where’s your back-up?”

“Back-up?” we replied, rather lamely.

“You fools!” he shouted, “there are bandits here” and drove off.

At one of the road blocks, at which it was proposed we had been speeding –impossible on those roads – my husband suggested to the uniformed person who had stopped us that he come for a ride, to test our very accurate speedometer against his measuring device. I got out of the car and the man was about to take my seat, but instead paused and turned to me saying, with a delicate change to his demeanour and voice: “What is it that Madam does?”

I replied: “What do I do? You mean my work? I am an author. I write books.”

Tall, and leaning down to me, he paused, then expressed certain dreams he had for his daughter before saying everything was fine and that we could go, there being no need to check the speedometer after all.

“Maybe God will help me send my daughter to Cape Town, one day, for an opportunity better than here,” he said, before wishing us a good onward journey.

Later that evening we reached a small town. I noticed a fenced-off Catholic church and suggested to my husband we stay there, where the power of angels and saints would surely be concentrated and where our talisman’s energies would be reinforced. But my husband is not drawn to anything Catholic and instead we booked in at a small inn.

There we met two travellers, M. and S., both heading for Kigoma, at the edge of Lake Tanganyika, to investigate the possibility of importing fish to the Congo. On the real level they were just travellers, two young people, but in the magically real tracks of our journey, they were angelic beings garbed, over their safari gear, in lucent material.

I tell you this story because the trainee-igqirha who made our protective talisman died this month and was buried over the Easter weekend. She had led a very hard life and leaves behind her orphaned young grandchildren.

Today, I reflect on her powerful charm, and wonder why she did not make any for herself and her family. Perhaps her strengths lay only in warding off men with guns and defusing malice. Maybe her powers were not developed enough to protect her from the TB, diabetes and cancer that felled her. Perhaps AK47s are easier to deal with than the angels of death in the employ of those slayers of good people.

Nokwayintombi L. D. K. –  Ulale ngoxolo  – Rest in peace


Part extract from my memoir On Writing (Work in progress)

Photograph from BBC News 6 December 2005

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