Biography of a Venda Storyteller
Sophia Magoro, a Venda story teller, lives in one of the most beautiful and lush spots in Venda. Her house, in the last street in Maembeni, overlooks a deep green valley where the Mutshindudi River slowly meanders eastwards to Mozambique.
Pawpaw and mango trees lean up against the kitchen and sleeping huts, her maize grows right up to the footpath, every inch of red fertile soil was cultivated by Sophia and her grown up children. Many grandchildren played around the spotlessly clean huts. The yard in front of the huts was a gleaming clean cement slab.
She cared well for her black chickens; there was always a bowl of clean water for them in a shady spot.
The second time I arrived to visited Sophia a little chap, on seeing the Isuzu, rushed up and as soon as I got out, leaned in and grabbed my cameras and tape recorder and dashed off. I called after him but he was gone in a flash. I hurried down the path to Sophia’s house in quite a state, trying to remember what he looked like, so I could tell her what happened and perhaps recover my precious equipment. When I got to her hut puffing and panting and in a sweat there he was sitting with all my equipment safe and sound next to him and with a triumphant face. He became my regular little helper.
Sophia often reprimanded me for not coming to visit her more often.
“Where were you last week?”
“But I was here the week before!”
“But not last week.”
In Sophia’s home her children and grandchildren knew all the folk tales and fell in with the song parts at the correct moment. The singing went well.
Sophia would not start telling folk tales unless all the children had been bathed. A big tin bath or a wheelbarrow was filled with cold water and every child had to be washed from head to foot. To save time I once tried to help with this operation but the little ones were so scared of the makuwa – “white thing”- that they leapt out of the bath and ran away.
Many times I stood by watching the little naked wet bodies shivering in the early morning sun. At last Sophia was satisfied and we all trooped into her bedroom. Everyone took off their shoes at the door. The room was spotless; a white eiderdown on the double bed explained the need for washing. Finally, with all the kids bundled together on grandmother’s bed, the storytelling began.
Half way through a storytelling morning Sophia called out to a teenage granddaughter who brought us tea in a bright yellow teapot with matching milk jug, sugar bowl and two tea cups. The children drank their cool drink outside, “not in the bedroom!”
Sophia was always willing to tell me about herself.
“I had a happy childhood. My father finished primary school and he insisted that my sisters and I went to school. We were six girls and no brothers but my father said, ‘you must all go to school. That old Venda belief that school is just there for boys and that school makes little girls mad is nonsense, only the dabadaba – fools – think like that. My six daughters must all be educated.’ My father was different from other fathers.
“He taught us that one could do anything if you tried hard.
“One day my father arrived home with a sewing machine on the handle bars of his bicycle. What excitement! We all helped to unpack the machine. It was fitted onto a wooden box and on the right there was a handle that you turned and the needle went up and down. In the box was fabric and a pattern. My father and mother stood on their knees and tried to work out the pattern. By then us children were so bored we went out to play. But, by the end of the day my father had sewn a sleeve! Then came the skirt and the next day my father and my mother had made a dress with short sleeves. The dress was too big for us and too small for my mother but my father took his bicycle and rode to the shop at Figtree where he bought a bigger piece of fabric. During the week my father was a builder, he worked on many farms as a builder, but over weekends he was the dressmaker of Figtree. Other women came to buy dresses from us; they paid with a hen or with eggs, sometimes with money: two shillings for a dress.
“Just to show you how different my father was he allowed us to herd cattle. Usually only boys work with cattle, but my father said that was nonsense, only dabadaba – fools – think like that. Before I was ten I had my first cow. At the end of each year my father would pay us girls for herding his cattle. If we did well the payment was a young cow. It became known in our village that the daughters of Magoro had their own cattle. The young men showed respect and we learnt a lot about caring for cattle. Sometimes my father hired young men to work with the cattle but he also trusted us. My mother made butter from the milk and if there was porridge with butter for breakfast the world became a wonderful place to live in. I was happy as a child.”
Then the white people arrived. The first one was called Hess, a German, who, the people said, had lost his way after the war. Hess went around in a mule cart buying skins. At first he paid two shillings and six pence and later he paid five shillings for a skin. It was difficult to see him because he never stayed long.
Another white person arrived and that was much better for us children who wanted to see white people. He was the doctor at Kuruleng clinic. On Saturdays we would all go together to look at the white man. “Come with us, we are all going to look at the white man!” we said.
There we all sat in the long line with all the sick people in front of the clinic waiting to get a glimpse of this white doctor. We heard his name was Doctor Julian.
The doctor would come out, look at the long line, count the people and take the next one in with him. At the end of the day we would still be sitting there. By then we were brave and we would smile and wave at him. At the end of the day doctor Julian would lock the door of the clinic and walk towards his small car.
Now that was what we were all waiting for: ‘Idani, thusa nne!’ Come on, help me! doctor Julian would shout.
We all rushed forward and pushed his car down the road.
“Bang! Bang! Bang!” The car started and ran away from our hands. Doctor Julian waved at us through the open window. It was a happy time in our lives.
Doctor Julian put a glass pencil under your arm and gave small white pills when someone had malaria. The old people and even my grandmother said, “throw away those little white things, they are just small stones that the white doctor picked up from the river bed. The only thing that helps for dali, malaria, is tshingai , black soot, mixed with fat.”
“Yes, do that,” my father laughed, “throw away the pills and you will see how quickly the dabadaba, the fools, die.”
When the people heard what my father said they decided rather to drink the small white pills of doctor Julian.
I had a happy childhood there in Figtree.
Sophia told me the Venda folk tale “Child of Clay”