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I GREW up in the area famously called the midlands, specifically in Lions River. I have grown up to realise that everyone brags about the area he or she grew up in. I am no exception. You can take your Cape Town and eat it; I don’t care a damn, but, just leave me alone with that God-blessed piece in the belly of the old Natal. Do you recall someone saying: “Mr Blair; Keep your England and I will keep my Zimbabwe”? That’s it!
I sometimes sympathise with my son who finds it difficult even to imagine how we, the now under-60s, spent our vacations as farm boys. There were no playstations, DVDs, cellphones or television. I was in Standard 5 — Grade 7 in today’s parlance — when we sat around a transistor radio, I think it was a Blaupunkt, listening to the live transmission of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. I only saw the landing on television 20 years later.
You do not miss what you do not know. Those days the only blackberry we knew was ijikijolo, a thorny shrub which bears delicious berries in summer. Yet without nowadays’ gadgets, I swear to you, there was not a single lousy moment. We were damn creative. I think guys like the Wright brothers were brewed in their own kind of “the midlands”. We invented games with almost anything at our disposal.
The game that still fascinates me to date (maybe not our creation really because I later found out that it was played in places as far away as Impendle), was also actually not a game. What kind of sport involves blood, iron and death? The only common denominator with sport is the adrenalin rush on both teams. Now that I have, at pains, accepted that there are members of my tribe called humankind who, not only accept but idolise angling and call it a sport, I am no longer ashamed of our “sport”. They even have angling World Championships for that matter.
We would come together as a group of about 10 or so and proceed to any of the farmers’ maize fields. It must have been in late winter when the harvest was long over and the fields were ploughed. The only portion of the field under vegetation at that time would be the tracks that belt across the field, dividing it, and which are meant to protect against soil erosion. We called it umngcele, the boundary in Zulu. That’s where the rodent community relocates to in winter. Imbiba is a reed rat, brownish in colour and strongly defined by two, maybe three, stripes at the back. We only found them in the maize fields. I can swear I have never seen one in summer. Ibuzi is just a rat found in the wild. It is distinctively larger and darker than the rat in your ceiling. It was rare to find ibuzi.
As they say, let the games begin! About five boys would lie on their bellies alongside one another and hide under the grass and shrubs covering the width of umngcele. Each would have a sling and an arrow (made of wire stolen from the railway line) fully pulled and ready to strike, directed at one of the pathways created by these creatures and along which they invariably ran. The rest would engage in ukubhula, a hunting war cry akin to the hakka of Jonah Lomu, stomping the ground as hard as we could.
One such song that comes to mind runs as follows;
Khele mbiba kheleza (Limp along, mbiba, come on)
Refrain: Mbiba kayivumi (Mbiba is resisting)
Kheleza ngomlenz’owodwa (Even on one leg, limp along)
Isono sembiba sincane (Imbiba committed a minor sin)
For singing purposes the group theoretically divided itself in two. One would run through the first line and the other would follow with the refrain at the end of every line and so on. This was meant to scare the opponents and make them run in the opposite direction not knowing that the backline is ready to tackle anything on sight. Boy! The arrow would pierce the little thing through the chest, right across the torso resulting in instant elimination. Poor things, instead of remaining in the safety of their holes they responded to the chaos by running out. A classic fatal mistake, as they say. The innings would run the whole day until we got tired, house chores beckoned or the loot sufficed.
The pro side of our sport was simply to get meat. We would cut the skin off, remove the insides and, boy, just add salt and throw it onto the wattle fire coal. When something is too delicious the Zulus say you wouldn’t share it with a blind old woman. Imbiba is not supposed to be eaten by adults and girls. It’s the only delicacy I know that is dedicated to the young of my gender. By contrast, in our tradition a bird is never on the menu for the young. It is said, inyoni ishayelwa abadala, meaning, the bird is hunted for the adults. It was, however, not uncommon for a adult to plead for “just a taste” of imbiba. My rule was that you take it out of the fire and eat it immediately lest you see your sisters’ lips glowing.
The downside of this sport, forward stroke, hunt, was not as simple as you would imagine. I used to be ashamed at the failure rate of success that we had in ukubhula engagements. These things are so fast, so agile, so clever and downright evasive at the slightest sight of danger. We would spend a whole day moving from one farm to another and end up with a number fewer than ours. In such circumstances tensions and fights would ensue over distribution. The accepted imbiba-sharing manner was equal distribution, one each, two each and so on. Abacibi would always clamour for a lion’s share. Why? In their own small minds they reckoned they were doing the actual job and referred to us shouters who contributed little. Tell me, who woke up imbiba from its slumbers and directed it to the so-called gladiators? It was us. I only ventured once as umcibi. The result? To borrow from cricket lingua, I was out for a duck. It’s no surprise that I always pushed from the shouters’ side of the scrum. When the kills were good, the sharing process was classic ubuntu.
Africans admire these two rodents for their elusiveness and agility. They are put in the same league as the legendary hare. In Zulu if you are elusive and dodgy with the truth it is said: “Ubika imbiba nebuzi”.
In my not-so-usual trips along the madala road that meanders from Tweedie to Mooi River, I notice that the farms where we used to do our things have drastically changed. The one we frequented near where my home was is now a horse stud. It used to be owned by the Smiths in its agrarian days.
Those were our kinds of fun. What did you do with your Blackberry today, my son?
• The winners of the True Stories of KZN competition will be announced in early December.
About the author
MOKGOTSI Ngcobo was born in 1955 in Lions River, KwaZulu-Natal to farmworker parents. He is a divorcee who lives in Westville, Durban. He is an attorney and used to run his own firm. He is currently a legal consultant.