Monday, 6 November 2017

The Heart Of Zululand

A truly beautiful sight - The beautiful Valley of 1000 Hills.

My favourite cow - 1 up, 1 down.
View from my room.
My four months of volunteering at the NGO here in Isithumba, in the heart of the Valley of a 1000 Hills, is nearly over – time has really flown! Time can move slowly here though, at a very different pace to the ‘outside world.’ The area I’m is quite rural – very different from where my friends live in Pietermaritzburg (which is actually the administrative capital of KwaZulu Natal) and Hilton. I will never forget the first moment I laid my eyes on The Valley – I was being driven down to my host family for the first time and it was nearing sunset. Coming off the main highway and along back roads, you don’t get to see The Valley until you hit the Hammersdale interchange, called The Old Main Road which served traffic between Durban and Maritzburg before the motorway, and sits right on top of a hill. The view you get from that vantage point is incredible and for me it was breathtaking! This is where I would be living for some time and I was glad that it looked even more beautiful than any picture I’d seen on Google images. A single, paved road winds it’s way down along kilometres into the heart of Zululand, where tens of thousands of people live a simpler, more traditional way of life. All the other roads that lead off the main one here are unpaved, so it’s hard to get lost, and so we headed down, deep into Zulu territory, and arrived 10kms later at the Isithumba Tourism Office. The drive was interesting too, I’m sure my mouth was half open in wonder and maybe a little worry. The houses looked very basic to me, which although I had been expecting, this was the moment that it really hit me. Goats wandered across the road, right alongside big, African cows and people as well. Small stores supply the people with the basics – there isn’t much else here but houses, no supermarkets, parks, shops or any amenities that you would get in any other town or village. Welcome to the Valley of 1000 Hills.

Zulu sunset.

I call this cow 'The Boss.'

Wildlife everywhere.
The sun was setting off the traditional round houses which populated the rolling hills, cacti and acacia trees marked the boundaries between villages and the Umngeni river popped in and out of view as we wound our way down. Children waved and greeted us from the side of the road – they don’t get many white people down here, let alone foreigners. I was getting more and more nervous, thinking about where I would be living and how I would be living. Once I got to the house of my host family, I was greeted by their very friendly dog, aptly called “Dog.” The family live in a small cluster of buildings – a round house serves to greet people and for large gatherings, there is a kitchen building for cooking and where I take my breakfast and the main house where the living room is and the bedrooms. My room sits just off these buildings, and my ‘bathroom’ just around the corner – a flushing toilet, compared to the long-drops most other people have, is a slight luxury but you still have to venture out into the dark night and get rained on during the trip. The family also run a creche for children, and around 50 little kids, all under the age of 6, run around at lunch time and sing during class time. The view from my room is quite something too – a few small houses sit across the tiny, dry river, the main behind them, and then, behind that, the hills take over and you can see the other villages across the river, colourful points on the hills during the day and twinkling lights at night. There aren’t many sounds around here – no traffic or general city noise – just the calling of baby goats to their mothers, a few cows mooing in the distance and the croaking of the frogs on the river at night. The sounds of nature – peaceful indeed.

My morning alarm clock!

I love chilling by the river.

My view.
A beautiful starling
Something everyone has to do when they come to the village of Isithumba is meet the chief. He has a complex at the beginning of the village on the road, a cluster of round houses and pens for animals. The first thing you notice upon approaching are the huge hunting dogs that he keeps – large, greyhound-looking mutts, but far bulkier than the run-of-the-mill dish-lickers that people love to bet on. His name is Mr Shelembe, and although he doesn’t speak English, we got on just fine. If you’re looking to buy some land in the village, or marry a local girl, you need to come to Mr Shelembe first and ask permission. Marrying isn’t as easy as asking the Chief either, it takes several cows to buy a wife, and cows aren’t cheap – they start at around 8000 Rand ($735 AU! I wonder if I could start with a few chickens or maybe a goat. Apart from the local ‘mall’ as it’s called, there isn’t much to do here in Isithumba. The Mall, my local drinking hole, is run by the coolest guy in the village – I don't know his name but just call him “Boss,” which he’s cool with of course. He sells quarts of beer for 16 rand ($1.50 AU) which he kindly opens for you with another bottle (an artform I haven’t yet mastered), sells cigarettes loose and even lets you use his lighter for them. The store stocks nearly everything you can think of, from drinks (both alcoholic and soft) and snacks to headache tables and band-aids, as well as an assortment of hardware and farming equipment. The Boss also has chickens (which share the outside benches when it’s raining) and cows that graze the grass behind the building. Although it’s not a pub, and no women hang out there, only drunk old guys, I still like it and regularly pop down for a bottle of Castle or Hansa.

The houses of Isithumba.

The Chief's complex.

Going for a walk in the village.
The view of the Umngeni River from Isithumba Mountain.
Very early on, I decided that I was going to do a lot of hiking. It reminded me of the time I was living in Scotland, in a place called Lochgoilhead, where I lived and worked in a hotel on my Working Holiday Visa. The hotel was in a small valley, with a lake (or Loch) in middle, surrounded by mountains. Whenever I had time, I would hike up a mountain, picking one at random and just do it. Behind my new house looms Isithumba Mountain, a huge granite dome that seems to stand guard over the village. In fact, a local man told me that back when local tribes were fighting and the British were also invading, Zulu warriors would stand guard just near the mountain, and when enemy soldiers tried to march through the pass between the river and Isithumba Mountain, they would sally out from the forest and ambush them – it’s a very defensible position, the mountain, a narrow stretch of land, the river and another steep mountain on the other side. This doesn’t happen anything thankfully, so I’m free to roam wherever I like – the people are very friendly here and there is nothing to worry about! The locals do fear for me when I go wandering, telling me of snakes and things, but being Australian this is not something that will deter me. The first time I went up I was supposed to go with a guy from the organisation, but he failed to turn up, and I couldn’t reach him by phone, I decided to head up myself. 35 minutes of some fairly heavy duty walking and it’d reached the top – and the views made the sweat and scratches from the sharp plants all worth it! I had panoramic views of the hills, I could see the townships that spread out on the slopes and dotted the Umngeni River. I’ve been up here at least half a dozen times and I’ve never seen anyone there, apart from a few goats, some adventurous cows and birds of prey soaring above me. It’s a great place to relax, think, get some sun and also mobile reception for Instagram! It is definitely my chill-out place.

The village of Isithumba from across the river.

The Valley of 1000 Hills from Isithumba Mountain.

Isithumba Mountain - or Instagram Mountain if you like.
The village across the river seen from my room.
Apart from hiking and walking, the valley is a quiet place where everything stays the same. If you want to hit the nearest town or Durban, you’ll need to catch a ‘taxi.’ They are called Taxis here but they are more of a bus – Toyota Hiace mini-vans run around, in various states of disrepair and dodginess, carrying as many people as they can get (sometimes more than 16), picking up and dropping off wherever along their route. They are cheap but not reliable nor safe, but my only option living here right now. The shortest trip to get a supermarket or some WiFi (or real coffee!) is to Pinetown, 35 off kilometres away. This trip costs me 20 Rand ($1.80) and takes about 45 minutes, depending on how long you have to wait for a taxi to come along. Although I try not to go too often, for work and personal reasons, It tends to be once or twice a week – the novelty of catching transport with the locals wears off pretty darn quickly. Pinetown is colloquially called ‘Crimetown,’ but although it looks rough and ready, very dirty and noisy as well, I’ve never had a problem here. As the only white guy on the local taxis, I rarely even get a second look (that I notice anyway), and when I get off at the depot in town, amid the chaos of music pumping out of some car, people with their shopping, a car riding a shopping trolley at full tilt down the busy road, nobody sees me. Suits me just fine. I don’t have any photos of Pinetown, as there’s not much to snap, but the vibe and impression you get when you reach that depot is one I’ll never forget – one that I will need to remember with my mind, as I don’t want to get my camera out and put the nickname to the test. The way back to Isithumba is never boring – apart from the cows and goats on the road, you have people taking home their weekly, or even monthly shopping home with them. I’ve seen someone’s shopping take up the whole front row of seats – huge 25kg sacks of maize meal, 10kg bags of rice and potatoes as well as an assortment of corn, flours and anything else you can think of. Sometimes I’ve had to help an old lady with unloading her shopping, hefting the maize meal isn’t easy, but just think how she’s going to take it all the way home from the side of the road. Occasionally the family come out to help carry the load, and sometimes even with wheelbarrows!

The boys just chilling with their friends.

Some of the amazing kids I'm working with.

Boys just want photos!
Lively and active kids.
At the small group of buildings where I'm living, there is a creche for the younger kids. Some days I help out with meal times or taking them home, but to be honest, I'm more of a distraction that an aid - one little girl cries every time she sees me, most of the though are cool but get very over-excited when they see me and want to give the the 'African High-Five.' This is light a handshake for kids, which involves you linking fingers and pressing thumbs together - like you were about to have a 'thumb war.' The adult version of this handshake is a normal grip, then slid your hand up to grab your friend's thumb with your grip, then back again - the 'African Handshake!' These kids are so cute and friendly, even though they can't understand a word I say (or visa-versa), and have stopped calling me Lungu (white man) and instead now call me Melume (uncle). The kids I get to work with at the organisation ICDM are also great. They vary from Primary School age all the way up to young adults out of school. All of them are extremely sweet and friendly, also very active and athletic - they never seen to stop running! We play football (or soccer as they call it here, just like Australia and the US), use the trampoline, indoor games like chess and Uno, but since coming here I have introduced some new sports - cricket, kick-ball (which is my name for a baseball style game where you kick the ball instead) and the big-time favourite - dodge ball! The kids love photos being taken of them, they aren't shy at all, and also love doing some of the shooting themselves - some very good ones actually! Such a pleasure to work with these kids, active, outgoing, self-motivated and not addicted to phones and the internet like most other places!

Two cheeky boys from the creche run by my Host Family.

Kids from the creche.

Watching the day's performances.
The high kick involved in Zulu dancing.
I've done a lot of work with ICDM, not just helping out with the kids, but also business things such as photography, getting them more on-line and helping them organise big events like Heritage Day and Sports Day in the village. I work with some great people here - everyone is friendly and very welcoming! Something that I've managed to set up is a 'digital pen-pal' programme between the local public school and a school in Spain. I'm working with a good friend and fellow teacher who works at the Mare del Divi Pastor school in Sabadell, just outside of Barcelona, to connect these two groups of English learners to help them learn more about each other's culture, traditions, family-life and environment. So far I've recorded short introductions with the Grade 6 class here, working with them to make sure they tell plenty about themselves when the videos are sent to their counterpart on the other side of the World. The kids loved this activity, taking to it with enthusiasm, not getting too nervous during the recording and they are very excited to get their reply! Please take a look at both Blog, for ICDM (the organisation that I volunteer for) and Collegi MDP (the sister-school in Sabadell) by following the below links:

The kids got all dressed up for Heritage Day.

Beautiful costumes on Heritage Day.

My time in The Valley is not up yet and there are still visits to Durban to talk about, as well as up-coming trips to the capital city of Johannesburg. South Africa is an amazing country, full of culture, music, animals and people. There are many 'bad things' about the country, such as the poverty and inequality that still lingers, but there are many good things too - the people themselves and how nature's hold here is still very strong. More from me soon.

Zulu dancing.

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