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With an old photograph found buried in his village and a strange dream, a Zulu goat herder goes to the big city to seek work. When he meets his employer’s daughter, he is stunned. She bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman in the photograph.
A Zulu herd boy finds an old photograph in his village and is fascinated by the white girl pictured in the photograph. Later, he leaves his village and finds work as a gardener for a well-to-do Jewish family in Durban and falls in love with his employer's daughter, who strangely resembles the girl in the photograph.
Zululand, March 1995
Nathi sat cross-legged on the sand outside his mother’s hut and held up the photograph to the sun’s dying rays. The glass of the frame glinted and cast an orange square on the hut’s thatch. He studied it closely. The frame, made from beech wood, was elegant and shiny. A thread of gold ran along its edge. On the back was an inscription in black ink: “Durban, 1945” and next to the date two overlapping triangles. Underneath was an illegible scribble, some curves and dots, a foreign tongue.
It wasn’t the frame which had grabbed his attention, the unfamiliar symbol of two intertwining triangles or the strange text. It was the white woman in the photograph who’d captivated him. She looked to be in her early twenties and sat next to a man of slender build of about the same age, with a curled-up moustache and a straight face. Hers was lit up and in her arms she held a baby. The woman’s beauty and grace were beyond anything he’d ever seen. Wearing a long, white robe, she looked like a Zulu princess, regal, with high cheekbones and hair that swept along the line of her eyes, twisting and falling to adorn her delicate shoulders. Her eyes were as deep as the Valley of a Thousand Hills. He wished he could see their true colour.
Nomthandazo stooped in the hut’s opening and observed her son. She narrowed her eyes and ran her fingers through the beads of her necklace.
“Woza, mntanami,” she called to him across the enclosure. “Come and wash your hands. It’s time to eat.”
He looked up for a moment in the direction of the hut. Ignoring his mother’s call, he continued to inspect the photograph, blowing slowly on the glass, wiping away his condensed breath with the side of his hand.
He loved sitting under the marula tree outside the entrance to the umuzi. Usually, he’d hold a piece of wood tightly between his knees as he carved. Other times he’d daydream and try to spot wildebeest grazing in the valley below.
Out of all his siblings, he knew he was his mother’s favourite. Ever since he could remember, the bond between them had been strong and impenetrable to outsiders. His fifteen years belied the maturity of a boy beyond his years. One day, he wanted to make his mother proud. He’d find a steady job with a good wage, enough to support her. Of that he was certain.
Thandi and Mbali, his twin sisters, were twelve years older than him, naive and childish for their age and knew nothing of life outside the umuzi. They were quite content to serve their husbands and bear their children. His eldest brother, Sizwe had left the homestead a few years earlier to look for work in Durban. He’d been arrested on two occasions for stealing car parts which he resold to dealers for a small profit. Now he sat in Westville Prison for armed robbery and rape. Nathi felt his mother’s sadness and knew his father’s anger. Chief Vusumuzi wanted only one thing and that was for Sizwe to one day take over the reins of the Egqumeni homestead.
He heard Nomthandazo’s voice again. It was one that could remove fear and give encouragment. He recalled telling her how he spent hours watching the anthill down by the river, seeing how the legions of worker ants marched in perfect unison, carrying tiny bits of dirt in their mouths and depositing them at the entrance to the colony. He said they reminded him of the great Shaka’s relentless impi warriors. She once found him sitting on a rock at the river’s edge in the gorge of the valley, embraced by the tranquil silence of the hills that were their home. When she asked what he was doing, he replied that he was listening for the voices of the past’s great kings as they proclaimed triumphant victories on bloody battlegrounds.
“Yebo, mama, I’m coming,” he shouted back, hearing his mother’s voice as it mingled with the sounds of indistinct chatter and cackling fires from the adjacent huts. He was deep in thought as he got up and walked towards the hut, tripping over a stone, yet refusing to take his eyes off the photograph in his hands.
“Hurry up, it’s getting late. What’s that you’re holding?”
She went back inside and knelt in front of a steaming cast iron pot, resting on four bricks in the centre of an open fire. She made no attempt to dispel the smoke but allowed it to rise and seep randomly through the thatch.
“It’s an old photograph I found under by the bushes near Gogo’s hut,” he said. “Part of it was sticking out of the ground and twinkling like a diamond. When I pulled it loose and wiped away the sand I found this.”
He handed it to his mother using his right hand while the palm of his left hand supported the right forearm, a sign of respect serving to assure the receiver that there was nothing hidden and nothing to fear. She studied the yellowed snaphot, marred by a fine crack running down its center, while simultaneously stirring hot phutu with a large wooden
spoon Nathi himself had carved.
“Who are these people?” she asked, not expecting an answer.
“It looks like a young, white family. Perhaps they lived here many years ago. There was also a silver cup next to it with strange writing on it. I gave it to Gogo. She clapped her hands with joy. Mama, why do you think this was buried right here in the umuzi?”
“I don’t know.” She cast a lingering glance at the couple. “Anyway, it’s not important. Throw it away and let’s eat.”
She gave him back the photograph and removed the pot from the glowing embers, placing it gently on the ground. But Nathi had no intention of discarding it. He slipped it carefully under the mat. He’d look at it again later when he was alone in his hut.
Oblivious to the impact this photograph was going to have on his destiny, they sat quietly on mats of dried reeds, eating from the same bowl, while a breeze whispered to the languid day and the sound of a lone cricket chirped intermittently across the hills.