Biography of a Venda Storyteller
I met Rosiena Magadani through her daughter Elisa. “Come and visit my mother” she said to me, “she knows very old Venda folk tales, but don’t wait too long she is forgetting many things lately.” Elisa was one of those energetic and optimistic souls with a passion for Christian prayer meetings, Bible studies and conferences, either attending, organising or speaking at these events. Elisa baffled her Venda neighbours because she didn’t fit into the stereotype of an unmarried Venda woman. First of all she was not married, but worse than that, she was not even looking for a husband!
She had three children of her own (‘that happened before I was a Christian’) and now she was caring well for her elderly mother and her children and doing it without a husband. But what really set Elisa apart in the small village of Padzima was that Elisa rode a bicycle. In Venda men ride bicycles, women don’t. A Dutch missionery doctor gave Elisa the bicycle and for many days along the dusty roads of Padzima neighbours watched as the blonde doctor ran beside Elisa trying to steady the wobbly bike. Children ran alongside, dogs ran alongside, grandmothers jumped out of the way and cars stopped for the procession, waiting for the inevitable fall. Then all would rush to pick Elisa up. By the time I met Elisa she rode like a pro.
Rosiena’s home and environment
Rosiena Magadani’s kitchen was built by her son in 1984. When I started visiting Rosiena in 1989 the kitchen hut showed signs of serious neglect but there was always a shining cooking pot in the middle of the floor.
There were also two smaller sleeping huts, one for Elisa’s two boys and one for Elisa and her daughter.
“Where do you sleep Rosiena?”
“I sleep in a quiet place, in our church hall behind the round thatched huts.”
It was obvious that the family was very proud of their “own church”. Somehow Elisa had managed to build an oblong church hall behind the sleeping huts. Inside this hall were several very uncomfortable wooden benches in two rows. If you sat on the edge of one of the wretched benches it would topple over. In the corner of the hall Rosiena kept her bedding, a sleeping mat and two blue checked blankets, rolled up neatly. In this church hall Elisa held church services, and the Sunday school classes for about 40 children were very well attended. On Saturday nights the Youth Group held their boisterous choir practice with loud clapping, drumming and singing while grandmother curled up in her blanket somewhere outside in the warm, still night.
Elisa had managed to get hold of three second hand knitting machines, two Passaps and an Empisal. On weekday mornings there was quite a commotion as the women, without a manual, tried to work out how to use them, everyone telling everyone else what to do. It was a near impossible task without a manual, and even if they’d had a manual it would have been in an incomprehensible language like English. Somehow, surely by the grace of God, Elisa and her knitting team actually managed to knit jerseys and were even able to sell some.
On my first visit to Rosiena Magadani I was welcomed into this church hall where, to my amazement, about twenty small children were already sitting quietly on those uncomfortable benches with their fingers to their lips.
“They have been waiting for you since eight o’clock this morning,” said Rosiena. It was difficult attending to my tape recorder and concentrating on Rosiena telling a folk tale as the children were so adorable. I just wanted to eat them all up, go outside and play with them, tickle them and hug them.
The children knew the song parts in the folk tales, shouting them out with gusto. The first story Rosiena told was how man lost eternal life. Little did I know then that the embroidred images of that first folk tale would be favourite embroideries at many quilt shows.
We ended off a morning of story telling with bags of marshmallows I’d brought along.
I became very fond of Rosiena. She had a lovely humility about her and was always so enthusiastic to tell yet another folk tale. She was often moved to tears by her own folk tales. Her own hands were hard and calloused through long years of working with a hoe in hot fields and no doubt the tales kept her going in many times of sadness and depression.
I often invited Rosiena and Elisa to come and stay at my house for a few days so as to sort out certain obscure passages in folktales. When, after their arrival, I would ask them, ‘What can I offer you, a cup of tea or a cool drink?’ They would invariably say, “Just a bath, may I please have a hot bath.” There are no bathrooms in rural Venda, in many places there is hardly any water. Rosiena and Elisa had to walk about 200 yards down the narrow dirt road to the communal tap. To lie in a hot bath is the ultimate in luxury. It always gave me great joy to run a bath for Venda visitors, adding lots of bubble bath and fragrant bath salts.
One folk tale that I found very difficult to understand was the story of The Lions and the Zebra. Over many weeks Rosiena and her friends patiently explained to me the deeper meaning of this intriguing Venda story. Here are the embroideries of the main characters in this folk tale.
In the folk tale told by Rosiena Magadani a lion family was tormented by a group of arrogant zebras, here the lion returned unexpectedly to punish the zebras.
One afternoon, after the last folk tales for the day had been told and the cute little kiddies had waved goodbye, Rosiena settled down to tell me more about herself.
‘I was born after the flu epidemic of 1918. There were no schools in those days, and even if there had been Venda belief was that schools made little girls mad. My mother found work as a housemaid for a white woman, Mrs Tomas. Mr Tomas was a miller and they came from a city called Paris. Mr Tomas built a flour mill on his farm in Piesanghoek (Banana Corner) and there were always people bringing their sacks of grain on donkey carts or ox wagons and leaving with sacks of fine white mealiemeal (corn flour).
Rosiena looks back on her life
‘It was a happy farm there in the green valley of Piesanghoek. I used to go along with my mother and one day Mrs Tomas picked me up and put me on a wooden box and told me to wash the dishes. My mother warned me, ‘Don’t drop the cups. Be careful!’ It was, for me, wonderful that Mrs Tomas picked me for this job in the kitchen and I tried my best. So I had my first job before I was ten. Mrs Tomas played the piano. She would call me and taught me to sing. I can still remember one song, “Frere Jacque, frere Jacque…” Later Mrs Tomas taught me to cook and to make pudding with custard and apples. It was a happy time in my life. We always had enough to eat on the farm in the green valley.
‘I grew up and later I was the housemaid and my mother washed the dishes in the house of Mrs Tomas. Then I fell in love with a man called Magadani. He told me he was from a royal family, that his father was a Venda king. I believed him. When he asked me to marry him and go with him to Johannesburg I left Mrs Tomas. I took the train from Louis Trichardt and there at Johannesburg at Park Station Magadani was waiting for me as he said he would. After my second child was born in Johannesburg Magadani and I decided that I should go back to Venda, we did not want our two little girls to grow up in Johannesburg. Mrs Tomas was so happy to see me, she picked up my two girls and kissed them on both cheeks. But I missed Magadani.
‘At first Magadani came to visit me twice a year but later he just stayed away. Mrs Tomas helped me to write letters but he never answered. One day, years later, I saw him in Louis Trichardt but he just walked right past me. He had taken another wife. My heart was broken.
‘Mrs Tomas said, ‘Stay here with us, we will take care of you.’ My two little girls called Mrs Tomas grandmama and Mr Tomas grandpapa. They were not shy like me. They would even climb on Mrs Tomas’ lap and take Mr Tomas by the hand. In the afternoons when Mr Tomas came back from the mill Mrs Tomas would play the piano and the two girls would sing songs that they did not understand but that Mr Tomas understood. He would clap his hands and shout, ‘More, more!’ I could see the singing made Mr and Mrs Tomas very happy. We all thought our happy lives would never end.
‘One day someone came running up from the mill shouting, ‘Khavade! Khavade!’ Come quickly! Come quickly! Mrs Tomas, I and the two girls all rushed down to the mill. Mr Tomas lay on his back with his blue eyes open. Mrs Tomas fell on her knees next to Mr Tomas and we cried and did not know what to do. Someone brought water in a bucket but I tripped over the bucket. Jonas, the foreman, said we must carry Mr Tomas to the house. ‘Once he is in his own bed he will get better.’ We all helped and stumbled up towards the house with Mr Tomas in our arms. But although we managed to put him in his own bed he did not get better.
‘Mrs Tomas sent someone with a message to George and Marlene, the neighbours. Marlene put her arms around our Mrs Tomas and the two ladies cried. I made tea in the kitchen and told Elisa and Maria that grandpapa is very sick. Three days later we buried Mr Tomas under the trees on the farm. It was not a very big funeral. A priest from the mission station came to read out of the Bible and our white neighbours came and all the Venda farm workers. When the strong men lowered the coffin into the grave my two little girls sang Frere Jacque, frere Jacque . . . After the funeral we all walked up to the farmhouse and I made pots of sweet tea.
‘Not long after Mr Tomas died Mrs Tomas decided to sell the farm and move to the house for old people in Louis Trichardt. That was the saddest day of our lives. To say goodbye to Mrs Tomas and the farm and the mill and the garden with the roses and the kitchen that I knew so well. And the piano. Elisa and Maria clung to Mrs Tomas’ neck and cried, ‘Take us with you, take us with you.’ For the four of us that day was like a very big funeral. Bigger than the day when Mr Tomas was buried under the trees.
‘George, our neighbour, waited for us to stop crying and then he helped Mrs Tomas into his car. I covered the two girls with my apron so that they could not see the car driving away down the dirt road.
‘After Mrs Tomas had left I packed all our clothes and all the things Mrs Tomas had given me and my daughters as farewell gifts. We walked down the red dirt road that we knew so well. We turned around and said goodbye to the house and the mill and the roses and the banana trees. Maria did not want to leave. She sat down in the middle of the road and kicked and cried. I had to carry her. It was the end of happy years.
‘I went back to the home of my mother and my father in Padzima where I was born. My mother was very old then but she was still alive and happy to see me and Elisa and Maria. I sent the two girls to school so that they could learn to read and write their own names and not use the right thumb to sign.
‘Many years later I heard that Magadani’s second wife had left him and that he had returned to Padzima an old and sick man. Elisa went to look for him and found him in a hut high up in these mountains behind my house. At first he did not want to return to our house, he was so embarrassed, but in the end he came down with Elisa. He could not look at me, he was so ashamed. He lived with us for the last five years of his life. I helped him, I washed him and gave him food. Before he died he asked me to forgive him.
‘Magadani died in 1985. It was a big funeral. His second wife was also present. At the grave there was a group of strangers weeping – they were coloured people, not Venda people.
”Why are you crying like this?’ we asked them.
”How can you ask such a question? It is our father that we are burying today!’ That is when I heard for the first time that he had a third wife with many many children. But by then I had already forgiven him.’
Stories told by Rosiena Magadani
The Lions and Zebras
How Man Lost Eternal Life
Find these stories here on the website.