issue 230 - April 1992
The scars of umlungu
Ravaged land. Scarred faces. Sindiwe Magona
meditates upon her South African legacy.
My people have their own ways of doing things. We have always had our ways of doing things. 'The ones scrubbed in hot water' could not see this when they came. They came - 'the ones with coloured eyes' - and found my people living worthwhile lives that were satisfying to them. But the newcomers saw only indolence, ignorance and superstition. They saw nothing commendable, nothing worth preserving, least of all emulating. For them our being alive held no lessons whatsoever. It proved nothing. They had their ways. And, in their eyes, these were far, far superior to ours. So began the destruction of my culture. So began our dying.
My people are a wise people. I do not claim God accorded them special preference in the allocation of grey matter. That would be absurd; as absurd as the claims of superiority made by 'the ones without colour', the ones we came to call umlungu.
But my people are patient. We have a saying: 'These mountains were here when we were born. They will be here long after we are gone.' Patiently my people observed the world of which they knew they were a part - equal with the land, the rivers, the trees, the mountains and every other living thing.
Thus my people knew how to flow with nature's rhythm, dance to its tune and harness its forces for their good. They knew about using and using up. They knew that rest is the beginning of restoration, that it brings healing.
How can one stand under the heavens one night, look up at the sky, point out one star and say: 'That star is mine!'? My people would have thought anyone mad who suddenly pronounced themselves sole owner of such and such a mountain, valley, river or any other piece of the earth.
They had not learnt the greed that brings fences with it. When, later, the newcomers cut up the land, cut it up until it bled, the stakes driven hard into its very heart, the barbed wire strangling it of breath, my people found themselves lessened, reduced. They were fenced in. They could no longer heal the land.
The strangers had come with new laws to the land they had 'discovered'. They imposed these laws on the people they found there and made sure they themselves were not bound by them. They were exclusively for my people. Makhulu used to say to me: 'Grandchild of mine, a person has a definite nature, and if something is good you can be sure they will keep it for themselves.'
My people could no longer heal the land. They could not restore it when it was exhausted. The law forbade them to move pasture. A person's place of dwelling became their place of dying. We lost freedom of movement - the land lost the right to rest and restoration.
Fenced in. Forced to till exhausted land, we could not feed ourselves. But, you see, even that was no accident. The no-colour people had planned it all. They did nothing without planning it through and through - years in advance.
To feed his children, to feed his wife and his aged parents, a man was forced to go to the ones with eyes that have colour. And beg them to use his strength as they would use a horse. For that they would give him the shiny buttons without holes they had brought with them. This had become the only thing of value. It was hard to come by it. The scrubbed ones made sure they kept it under lock and key all the time. And never gave my people enough to get the things it was supposed to give them: food, clothing, medicine, anything. You could be dying, but without this button umlungu, the ones without colour, would not give you medicine.
Umlungu law said we could not dig for roots: it said we could not gather healing herbs. 'Miserly is the white man, indeed. He withholds ochre which he, himself, does not use. Uyabandeza umlungu. Ude abandeze imbola engay-iqabi,' exclaimed my people, flabbergasted. For this kind of stinginess was new to them.
Ochre is the red powder with which we adorned ourselves. Now it was illegal to dig the ground for it. Resistance was strong, there were infringements galore. But by the time my own mother was a young woman ochre had already become a thing of the past.
Umlungu had an even better way of weaning us from our ways. Backward. Heathen. Things of the dark. Those are some of the labels he gave all things essentially us. The things that defined our uniqueness. In time we learnt to hate them ourselves. To scorn those who adhered to them, who refused to 'go with the times', those we saw as hesitant 'to enter the world of electricity, the world of light'.
Instead of ochre and herbs, roots and other powders we started using umlungu's creams. They promised us 'eternal youthfulness, glowing, wrinkle-free skin'. We didn't stop to think that our skin was already free of wrinkles, well into grand old age. We were being civilized. And happily did we stretch out our necks for the yoke.
Umlungu's ways have an essential ingredient called Progress. Where Mama started with Metamorphosa, graduated to Karroo Freckle and Complexion Cream and Bu-tone Cream for a Lovelier Complexion, now, in her nineties, she is on Oil of Ulay, that bona fide fountain of youth.
But Mama is far, far luckier than I am.
I am a true product of umlungu's enlightenment. My face never was touched by such crudity as ochre or any of those things rural women - whom, basking in our new-found sophistication, we called backward - used on their faces. I started on Pond's Face Cream as a pre-teen. I was into Karroo Freckle and Complexion Cream by my adolescence. And in my early twenties, like millions of African women my age, I was breaking new ground. By this time, Progress had brought black people an elixir. Skin Lightening Creams.
And umlungu said he was doing what he was doing for our own good. He couldn't understand our gross stupidity. He had a duty to stop us from doing harm to ourselves. The yawning dongas1 crisscrossing the land told umlungu it was the women digging for their cosmetics that were to blame; it was our large herds of cattle, the women gathering firewood. So said the dongas to umlungu.
But, to my people, the bleeding soil sang a different song; a song of mourning. And, in the manner of our tradition, my people passed the history on:
'These white people and their fences! They have killed the land.'
'They came with no cattle. But today we are the ones without cattle, while they boast ever-swelling herds.'
'Our land has been stolen. We live in fenced-in toy plots. Look at their farms! You can ride across them for a whole day without reaching the other side.'
With hearts more sorrow-filled with each dying day, my people watched their cattle getting thinner, their herds dwindle - and the youth of the nation die in rock falls in the mines of the colourless ones, who made them dig for gold they would never own.
'The land died with the coming of the umlungu,' said my people. And the mothers wailed: 'We lose our sons in mines of greed, mines our eyes have never seen, for gold we never touch.'
Young women, their husbands away too long, swallowed by the mines, fretted: 'Do not forget me, my love, in the land of gold. Do not forget me, beloved. My heart, daily, yearns for you.' We became part-time parents to our children.
The fences built for the colourless ones were not yet finished. There was more to come. Umlungu didn't care about the problems he made for my people. What did it matter that a mother, for lack of firewood, could not cook for her children? Umlungu had a bigger problem: deforestation.
We had no experience of hoarding, of planning scarcity when there was enough. We had not learnt that one person might exact a price from another. We gave freely what God had already given.
Umlungu said he was not starving us. We could always buy firewood. Go to the shop and use the button without holes, he said. His brother who owned the shop wanted plenty of that button. But the button didn't like my people at all. It took one look, made a sharp U-turn and went right back whence it came. The coloured-eyed people hoarded it all. And the gold. And the land. To own. While we still wondered: how can a person claim a star as a personal possession?
Our fathers and our brothers, they toiled hard for that button without a hole. They suffered insults, broke their bodies and lost their lives. The button remained unmoved by our sacrifice. It was of one mind with those who had brought it. It would never change allegiance.
Poor as we were - my generation of women - we used a lot of buttons without holes buying the creams that bleached our skin. We listened to umlungu's promises of a better life. If only we could rid ourselves of our colour, scour it off, like some dirty foreign matter. How we pursued the dream! At last we would be like them, the people who had brought us all these things of light. How we 'chased' the mirage: Ambi Skin Lightening Cream, Super Rose, Clear Tone, Astra... and others too many to list here.
Like the fences on the land the creams made umlungu plenty, plenty of buttons without holes... and killed our skin. Just like the fences had killed the land. Today thousands of us walk around with ugly, dark blotches on our faces, a disfigurement. The land has the scarring dongas and we have these hideous marks.
We have no name for this disease in my language, or in any of the indigenous languages of the land. 'Chloasma' umlungu calls that which sits on our faces like fungus on a plant. Chloasma. And he has a cure for it. If you can give him many, many... buttons without a hole.
Sindiwe Magona is a South African writer and broadcaster. She has written To My Children's Children (The Women's Press, 1991) and is currently working on a book of short stories.
1 steep-sided gullies created by soil erosion