Biography of a Venda Storyteller
My first visit to Tambani Mamavhulo was on the 9th of March 1991. I had arranged to meet Piet Mavhetha, my Venda interpretor, at “the baobab tree with very long roots” where he was waiting for me with a big smile. I parked my Isuzu van and after many energetic handshakes I opend a flask of tea, took out the sandwiches and hard boiled eggs I had packed the night before. We enjoyed our breakfast in the African bush under a baobab tree.
“Tambani is my mother’s sister”, Piet Mavhetha said “and
she still remembers many Venda folk tales, but her memory is failing fast. I think you’d better make recordings of everything she knows right now before all the stories are forgotten and lost.”
After breakfast we slowly picked our way to where Vho-Tambani Mamavhulo lived. Three mud huts facing each other, a freshly swept yard, low mud walls connecting the three huts, symbolic of deeply rooted bonds with family and earth. I was moved by the poverty around me, great scarcity, but neat, clean, sun-baked.
Vho-Tambani, bent over a stick came shuffling towards us, reprimanding Piet for not visiting her often enough.
“But I was here last week!” Piet laughed.
“That I cannot remember,” she mumbled.
Vho-Tambani greeted me and invited us all into her sleeping hut.
A few children took one look at me, screeched ‘white thing, white thing’ and ran away.
A panelite chair was brought for Piet to sit on. In Venda tradition men sit on chairs, women sit on the floor. I made myself quite comfortable on the reed mat next to Tambani and took out my notebook, camera and tape recorder. Inside the cool, dark hut the dire poverty was even more evident: a reed sleeping mat rolled up neatly, a folded blanket, a faded dress hanging on a nail, a broken piece of mirror on a niche in the wall, two bags of seed corn. A shaft of sunlight fell through the open doorway.
Piet explained the purpose of our visit: “We want to listen to all the Venda folk tales that you can remember and write them down in a book.”
“That is a very good idea,” Vho-Tambani said, “my grand children do not want to listen to my stories anymore. They go to the shop and listen to the radio that plays jive-jive music. They are forgetting their Venda tradition. To write my stories in a book is a very good idea.
Vho-Tambani called and about seven youngsters stuck their heads through the doorway, then diffidently jumped over my legs and sat down next to their grandmother, as far away from me as possible, never once taking their eyes off me and my tape recorder.
‘Salungano! Salungano!’ Vho-Tambani started with the opening phrase of all Venda
folk tales. We answered, ‘Salungano!’ which means, ‘We are here, we are listening.’
After every sentence throughout the narration the audience will repeat the word, ‘salungano’. A storyteller, usually elderly grandmother, will quickly reprimand the audience if they do not punctuate all her sentences, ‘Are you sleeping? Are you listening?’
Vho-Tambani told three stories which I recorded and then, before we left, she handed something to one of the smaller boys who dashed off. After a while he came back with a family-size Coca-Cola and two glasses, one for Piet and one for me. I was totally taken aback. This family lives in abject poverty and yet she goes out of her way to treat her guests to an unheard of luxury.
At the end of the day, with great pleasure, I made out a slip and paid Vho-Tambani well for her stories. That was the first of many days I spent with her. Sometimes she would say, ‘Now I cannot remember any more’ or, ‘Now I am tired. Remembering old things makes me sad and tired.’
One day I said to her, ‘Tell me about yourself, Vho-Tambani. Today I don’t want to listen to stories, today I want to hear about your own life.’
She chuckled and said. ‘ Ndo be bwa nwaha wa ganunu.’ I was born in the year of the
canon. ‘That is why my mother called me Tambani. Tambani means place of washing. I was born when there was a lot of blood to be washed out.’
In 1898 General Piet Joubert clashed with the Venda king Mphephu at the foot of the Zoutpansberg mountains. The white pioneers had a cannon and shots were fired at Mphephu’s stronghold high up the mountain. ‘Many, many lives were lost and much blood was spilled. Many children born during those years were called Tambani, wash out the blood. Let’s forget the terrible time of bloodshed. We Venda people hate conflict, we are not like the Zulus who love fighting, we want peace. That is why we always retreat higher into the mountain, and even here to this corner behind the mountain where no rain falls.’
“When I was little there were no shops to buy things. When we wanted blankets we had to make them. We collected wild cotton. When we had picked much cotton we rolled it and took out the seeds, rolled it again until it was soft. We spun the cotton using a calabash with a little hole and a hook at the bottom and this is how we wove the cotton and made blankets. These blankets were very rough and heavy and it was difficult for us children to lie beneath them.
“My parents tried to move to a place where there was more rain. For a while we lived in the Makonde Mountains but soon there was not enough grazing for our goats and so we returned to where I am living now. There were few people living together and we were often invaded by stronger tribes. One day when I was still very little the women were busy making mukumbi – marula – beer for Mphephu, the Venda king. The beer was just ready when some Zulus attacked us. They cried out in loud voices and we shouted, ‘Here come that enemy.’ The men were frightened but tried to fight back. My mother and other women quickly made a big fire as a sign to our neighbours that we were in desperate trouble. While the fire was still burning the Zulus just pulled apart our kraal – they were so strong that all the thorn branches meant nothing to them. When the Zulus arrived at the Nwanedzi River with our cattle and goats, the goats refused to go through the water but all the cattle went through. The Zulus stole all our cattle.”
Tambani was very aware of the supernatural world, it was absolute reality to her. She often used the word, shanduka, when a human being changes into an animal. I would suggest to her that she was speaking of symbolic change but she was adamant that it was a real transformation. “In this area of Muswodi there were 2 newly wed young men and they were harassed by a marauding wild boar. During the night the boar would destroy large sections of their mielies. One morning while it was still dark outside one young man crept out of his hut and at the mealie land he grabbed the boar and shouted to his wife, ‘Bring the ax.’ When the young wife arrived at the scene they saw that it was actually her father who was caught by the ankle. The young man went to the Vhamasonda and said to him, ‘I don’t love this wife any more. She belongs to her family that has the ability to shanduka.’ He left and went back to his home without his wife. This incident is not something that happened far away. It happened nearby us. The father of the woman had to leave Muswodi because everybody knew he changed into a pig at night and that his son-in-law grabbed him by the ankle and that his own daughter nearly cut off his head with an ax. He now lives in Musina.”
At the the end of the day, as I was packing up all my equipment, I saw a boy coming towards me leading a goat. ‘Before you go I have a gift for you,’ Tambani said.
‘Vho-Tambani, I cannot accept this very generous gift, this is a very big gift, really I cannot accept the goat.’
‘Why not? You can eat the goat and think of me.’
‘Vho-Tambani, really I cannot, the goat will eat my garden.’
‘Yes, that is good, the goat will get fat and you can eat the fat goat.’
After some wrangling she relented, but insisted on giving me a chicken. ‘You can eat the chicken.’ The youngster caught a scrawny, rust-coloured hen who I called Tambani. She grew fat and became a much loved pet.
The Rejected Wife
Child of Clay