Reflections on Centocow

Reflections on Centocow

The hostel; my window on the world

view from the window

In the hostel I had a one way window on the world. I could watch through the lens of a white woman and my assumptions and interpretations of the way things are would not be challenged. Walking was strictly limited; I had been warned by everyone I had spoken to, that I must not go for a walk alone as I was a vulnerable white woman in a community that suffered from enough outbreaks of gender and gun violence to make it extremely unwise, and I heeded that.

The hostel is a large three storey brick building, built by the monks as part of a plan for the Zulus to generate an income at the turn of the 20th Century. It has recently been restored for the same purpose. A weaving workshop takes up the middle storey and the top storey is a hostel. It is little used and I was the only guest for the sixteen nights that I stayed there.

My way of seeing the world through a western 24/7 time frame was challenged. I was dependent on others for transport and when no visits to pre-schools had been arranged I was in my ivory tower, totally freed from time constraints; I could read, cook, write, eat, sketch or sleep whenever I felt like it. Or, when not doing any of the above, I could look out of the window. It was on the whole a restful time but the window was compelling viewing. There was no television, radio or computer.

From the moment I walked through the long lounge area to the kitchen each morning my gaze was drawn to it. As light dawned the hills on the far side of the Umzimkhulu River were blanketed in swathes of white mist. They rose gradually unveiling the imposing, fortress topped, forested hills which in turn were dwarfed by a huge canvas of skies. I took many pictures from the windows but the picture in my mind’s eye was far more spectacular. (How often when you show friends your travel pictures are you utterly disappointed that they don’t convey the wonders that you saw?) My favourites were the piles upon piles of pure white cloud rising against an intense azure blue backdrop.

Between the highest range of hills on the left of the window’s picture frame and the nearer, lower range on the right, I could see the meeting of two roads. From the right, the winding road from Creighton, hidden from view, took a dramatic left turn behind the hill to emerge in full view of the two St Apollinaris churches and the cluster of brick buildings from which I looked. Just at this critical bend it met a junction with a long straight road parallel to the river and the horizon. If I looked slightly to the right of the emerging Creighton road I could see a gap in the hills where cars or trucks could be seen briefly before reaching this bend. I would wait and see how fast they were travelling to this point. I could also gauge whether there was a possibility of traffic on the two roads meeting at this junction.

This was of interest because I feared road accidents which are reportedly still far too frequent and horrific. It seemed that some of the Toyota crammed with twenty plus people trundled along the dusty road slower than I had remembered but there was also a good deal of traffic which rattled along the dirt roads at ridiculous speeds.

Most of the vehicles you see are Isuzu Buckies, (pronounced Bakkie). Now I had to look that up because I wasn’t sure about that word which means different things in different places, (including Boris giving his wife a ride on the back of his bike!)

BAKKIE (bucky): What Americans would term a “pick up”. A two seater light vehicle with an open rear cargo area. The rear is often used to transport an impossible number of workers who stare back at you in traffic and make you feel awkward and a bit guilty. From a website called, ‘Extraordinary travel, South African slang you supposed to know.’

There you are! Immediately I am an onlooker and this is what I see. It is a common sight. I wondered how three large women picked up from the road below the hostel managed to keep their balance, squatting, holding bags of shopping in the middle of the truck as it shot off down the road. I also reflected on the Good Friday church service which I watched a few years back. It takes place on the grassy hill next to the building I am in. At midday every truck, car and backie on the road stopped still as a mark of respect. This is a country where there is an almost universal acceptance that God is. I was also on several occasions waiting for my Zulu friend who runs a business in an old ‘Bakkie’, and ran down to meet and greet her when she arrived. Shocked at first that she had brought her baby grandson without any safety seat, I soon realised that any such safety items would be luxury items.

There were also many times when I was waiting for friends from Creighton to pick me up and I would try to identify their car or Bakkie as they descended the hill and crossed the river.

Despite the relatively frequent traffic on the road immediately below the window there is a lot of livestock wandering across the road in both directions;

Nguni cattle, with their long curved horns, characteristic bony hides and slow swinging walk. Egrets lunch on the ticks and bugs which feed on the cattle who nonchalantly stroll and munch on regardless. It amazed me to see how the birds almost threw themselves at the hides of the cattle in pursuit of their lunch.

Cattle at Centocow
Cattle at Centocow Mission. The Hostel is the foreground building

At times there were groups of goats although these, true to stereotype, seemed to stay on the hill by the side of the building. The horses delighted me. When I first came in 2001, I only saw one horse but now there were at least a dozen or so grazing on the flood plains either side of the river or on the hill beside the building. There were two foals born whilst I was there but I never saw anyone giving them any attention. One day I saw their wobbly legs as they followed the mother closely, the next they looked strong and confident. One morning I watched fascinated as three men came onto the grass with a dog or two and appeared to be trying to catch a horse. There were plenty to choose from and it was unclear which they were aiming for as there were no field boundaries or fences either side of the river and the horses were giving them a run for their money. It was probably about an hour later when a man on horseback could be seen riding off onto the far side of the river, but I wasn’t checking the time either.

Cattle herding also seemed to be carried out in the same relaxed way. It was a while before three dogs meandering around the field began to drift in the same way as the cattle. I wasn’t sure whether dog or cattle were being herded.

There is a new smart pavilion on the far left of the field. Football is a popular pastime and seriously practised most evenings, before 6.30 when darkness started to fall rapidly. At the weekends the pitch was usually busy with a game and plenty of cheering spectators. When it wasn’t used for football it reverted to being common grazing land.

The other sight which never ceases to amaze me is of women carrying trees. From the far left of the window frame, emerging from the forest figures small and distant emerge with trees on their heads. As they traverse the field diagonally it is clear that they are women, no hands, walking incredibly upright, each with a tree the size of a telegraph pole on their head. Enough firewood to keep their kitchen fires burning for a week at least I hope. I watched this a few times, groups of three or four women and felt weak at the thought of it.

From my place of safety my window on the world was only a brief but timeless experience of Centocow. It is after all only the backdrop of the story…………

Jane Habermehl October 2017