The Gates of Larger Life

The Gates of Larger Life

On my way home from Kwamhlanga, I pondered how to describe my weekend away.  My host mother had invited me there for a sojourn to her mother’s house.  The town wasn’t far, but we would be staying overnight.

What was the occasion, exactly?  “Church.” 

I suspected there was more involved, since she had broached the subject weeks in advance and invested the days preceding in amassing buckets of handmade amakheki (sweet biscuits or ‘fat cakes’).

“What will we be doing?” I ventured, in my elementary Zulu. 

“Praying.”

Despite the apparent logic of these replies, I couldn’t quell the sense that something more awaited me.

Over the next 48 hours, I exhausted that all-important skill in my new language toolkit: introductions.  A flock of ogogo (grandmothers, or a general term for distinguished lady relatives) descended on our host’s elegant suburban home.  They roosted in the kitchen, on the sofas, and at the dining room table.  Everywhere I turned, my umama would beckon me for another introduction.

After the usual sallies (‘I see you.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How are you?’ ‘I am alive’), my new relative would inevitably inquire: “Wena ungubani?”

“Igama lami ngingu Kittie…” or if I was feeling mischievous, I might answer instead, “Nolwazi wakwa Mahlangu” — for the satisfaction of inspiring delighted laughter or looks of disbelief at my claiming their surname for my own.

Five girls braided my hair simultaneously – at least there was plenty to go around!

After a long day, I was bracing myself for cramped sleeping arrangements, possibly camping on a mattress with five of my new little friends.

My umama puzzled me by guiding me instead to the master bedroom. “My mother will sleep in the living room with the ogogo,” she explained. “This will be yours tonight.”

Tears sprang to my eyes.  The very sight of the room soothed me, with its clouds of creamy white linen and clean geometric lines.  I balked at the lavish offering, but uMama urged me inside.

The beautiful space fortified me for an all-day celebration on Sunday.  The day before, someone had enlightened me: We were gathered in remembrance of my gogo’s husband — departed one year ago.

To properly lay his memory to rest, my gogo threw open her doors to dozens of guests: family, church members, neighbors, and friends of friends.  An army of ogogo whipped up basins of fried chicken, chunky beef, sweet potatoes, potato salad, beets, and carrot salad.  Before the meal, we crammed into an outdoor tent for four hours of intermingled preaching, singing, and, yes, praying.

The pastor crackled with energy, prowling the square of ground left open to him and even leaping onto a chair at the height of his message.  (My gogo is presiding on the right, in the lovely red dress and white shawl)

Whenever new guests arrived, they paraded down the aisle, beating drums and belting out a song. The ceremony ended with a flourish: Immediate family burst on the scene and showered our gogo with gifts

How to share this experience with my curious Peace Corps friends? 

“A lot” would answer best.  A lot of Zulu, a lot of food, and a lot of love.

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