A photo of us is stuck in my grandmother’s room, my grandmother, father and I. It is pasted just above her bedside table. It’s a small old coloured photo that seems to have gone through a lot over the years. The bottom-left corner is marked by water—there is a blurred smudge of green spreading from it. There is a long tear in the middle that has been fixed with sellotape, and a piece of the top right corner is torn off. My grandmother is in bed staring out of the half-open curtains as I take the tray of food I served her earlier.
“Do you want me to get you anything?” I ask her with the tray in my hands.
“No, but could you please open the windows for me?” I sit the tray back on the bedside table, open the windows, and a soft cool breeze of an unwell evening air enters the room almost immediately. I look back towards her direction and catch the photo once again. My grandmother is standing in the middle, my father and I are standing on each side of her. My grandmother is wearing iphinifa with a mixture of pink and red patterns. My father is in a yellow shirt, black tie, black pants and black shoes, and I’m wearing old grey school pants—that I have clearly outgrown—and a green knitted jersey. A fraction of our old-key-lime, house is exposed next to me, and behind us the clouds have a queasy look about them. No one is smiling in the picture, but we look happy. I don’t quite remember the year when we took the picture, but I know it was before I met Laduma.
“You are late young man,” said the new security guard at school. It was the first time I was late for school, but he wouldn’t have known what a diligent child I was.
“Ten minutes late for that matter. All the other children are at the lines,” he said in a dialect that belonged to the village, but with a face I had never seen. Our village wasn’t at all big, and maybe I didn’t know everyone, but his face didn’t share any resemblance to the surnames of our village.
“I’m sorry sir,” I said as I tried to place him to a particular tribe from KwaNolwandle, my little village.
“You can come in though. Straight into my headquarters,” he said, with a grin, pointing at his little cubic security shelter, “I’ll have to report you for coming late,” he said as he opened the gate. That is how I met Laduma.
After lines the new security guard delivered me to my teacher, Mrs. Mkhize, who punished me for missing the Morning Prayer. Since she didn’t believe in corporal punishment I was to stay behind after school and sweep all the classrooms. As the day progressed clouds gathered into giant rocks outside hiding the sun away from the earth. Our teachers taught us what they could, and we tried to remember what our attention spans allowed. I was a good student. I wasn’t a particularly a smart one, but I was a hard worker. My father had promised to come fetch me if I passed well. He taught at in Vryheid at Inkamana High School—six hours away from KwaNolwandle.
But by that age I had learnt not to rely on the man. My grandmother, who I stayed with in KwaNolwandle, said that my mother’s death had affected him greatly. He was never going to be a good father without her by his side, she was his strength. I sometimes feel like I took her away from him on my birth bed, and maybe he blamed me too. How can you love the thing that took the love of your life away from you?
When I had finished sweeping the classes, I locked them and took the keys to my principal. Mr Ndlovu was marking tests from his grade 7 class when I entered. After handing him the keys, I headed for home with the clouds about to break. It wasn’t long before buckets of water gushed down like violent floods from heaven, and I was still in the school premises when it did. The new security man called me to his shelter as I was running past it—hands tightly pulling my bags shoulder straps, so I could run without my books bouncing everywhere.
“Young man I have an umbrella! Just wait for me. I need to close up after your principal,” he shouted as I ran past his shelter. I quickly jumped into his tiny hut. In the distance Mr. Ndlovu ran from his little office towards his yellow Toyota Corolla – his books shielded from the rain inside his blazer. He started the engine almost immediately.
“There he is! I’ll lock up, and we can walk together. We don’t want you to wet your books do we?” Inside his shelter I dried myself like my dog did when he got wet. Everybody who walked from school was from KwaNolwandile, so I didn’t bother to ask where he was headed.
“Sorry for making you sweep all those classes young man. My name is Laduma Maphumulo. What is yours?” he asked as he locked the gate behind Mr. Ndlovu’s car.
“I’m Lovemore Dlamini.”
“Okay, Lovemore! Remember that when one does wrong, one has to be punished. In that way one will try not to repeat the wrong.” I held the umbrella as he locked the gate after Mr. Ndlovu, and after having locked up, he took the umbrella and off we went. The clouds were still spitting out water, but the rain was settling down as we climbed the hills leading home. After walking in an awkward silence for a while, he turned to me and asked if I knew why Zulu people said ‘Iyanetha iMvula’ when it rained.
“Every language has to have a way to express its surroundings and acts of nature. Some expressions don’t have to have a reason behind them. So there is no reason for us Zulu’s saying ‘iyanetha iMvula’. Our ancestors could have said ‘livuza amanzi’ for all we know,” I said feeling pride in my educated answer.
“Rubbish! There is a reason for everything,” he said. He looked at me and gave me a silly little smile. He cleared his throat and began, “My boy this is why we say ‘iyanetha iMvula’ in isiZulu.” I looked at this man whose eyes had caught fire, and in the absent sunlight glistened with excitement.
“Once upon a time, in the time of old, lived King Mvula, the ruler of the Zulu people during the last dynasty of the Taro Kingdom. This was back before books, science and before iNkosi uShaka. It was a simpler time. So the story goes that the King’s people were suffering from a really bad drought. Livestock was perishing, babies were dying, and crops were wilting.
As more children died, the King’s trusted Seer came to the King’s kraal to find the King with his brother Yana. The Seer told the King that the only way the heavens would tear open would be by the blood sacrifice of Eji. Now Eji was the King’s favorite child, and the youngest of his children.
This upset the King very much. Did the gods need to take his heart for the survival of the people? He had been a good King, and he had served his people well, he didn’t deserve such bad luck. He put the Seer to death for giving such a horrid prophecy. Yana was next to die, and this was because he kept pleading that his brother cut the finger to save the hand. Mvula went on a rampage killing all seers in the Kingdom to protect Eji. He was afraid that they too would know what the main cause of the drought was.
But the people had heard about the prophecy, and they knew that the finger had to be sacrificed to save the hand, and eventually their anger boiled over. The people marched with torches to the circle of huts inside the village where the King and his family lived. They demanded that Eji come out or they would burn it to the ground. Eji came out, a shaken thin little boy, and after him came King Mvula. He immediately shielded his son from the mess of angry voices. The people cursed in rage, and the poor king pleaded with them.
‘Take the crown. Take the Kingdom. At the end of it all, Eji is my life,’ he said with tears in his eyes. The crowd’s rage intensified as they told the king about their family members who had died due to the Kings decision. He had spared a life to the detriment of the people. As they shouted in fury, a spear went in through the King’s back. Silence overwhelmed the crowd as the King spat out blood into the crimson-lighted night. The spear was pulled out of the King’s back, and Mvula turned to find Eji with the spear in his hand,
‘The gods forgive me, but there will be no more blood in my name,’ he said. Then he stabbed his father in the heart. It is said that the King died with tears in his eyes. Eji was of course killed, and after much time of drought, it rained that night. To commemorate the last dynasty of the Taro Kingdom, whenever it rains we Zulu’s say ‘iyanetha iMvula’. ‘The King Mvula is crying’—it translates poetically.”
Laduma told me many more stories. I liked all of them, but the story of King Mvula was my favourite. He gave me the opportunity of having a father, a teacher, a mentor and most importantly a friend. He guided me, shaped me, and imparted his stories to me—which he said had always been there. The stories were rooted in the trees, were the aroma of bustling flowers, and they were the first breath of morning.
“Stories are the last magic on earth, and need to be passed down. Otherwise this world would be a miserable place.” When he said this, I was completing my matric year. He had grown to be a sickly old man after contracting TB. His face, after those many years, had started to blend in with KwaNolwandile. It didn’t need a surname or a tribe. It existed safely in solitude. It was me, my grandmother and Laduma. He died that year after his lengthy battle with TB. All his stories and thoughts are now kept safely inside the bosom of KwaNolwandile.
I became an African Studies lecturer, and I’ve since written a number of staged plays – there is a framed photo of me with my grandmother at my graduation fixed on her bedroom wall. It is securely placed just above the old small photo of the three of us—me, my grandmother and my estranged father.
“Lovemore! You should get yourself a wife! I love you my boy, but your cooking skills are appalling. Tomorrow you buy prepared food from the shops. I refuse to die after a bad meal,” she says half smiling from her bed.
“Okay! I’ll get you something from the shops,” I say as I move towards her, “How are you feeling?” She attempts to move as she allows me to take a seat next to her on her bed.
“Don’t worry about me,” she looks at me and slides her fragile hand over to my lap, “I’m proud of you my darling boy.” She says with sincere eyes and a confident smile.
I wish she didn’t have breast cancer, and I wish Laduma had taken his pills religiously back then. But all this wishing seems fruitless. The fact of life is that some days are going to be sunny and others will be dark, but time eventually numbs us to the memory of bad days, and like old wine, gives our good memories a lasting fragrance. The smell of the rain spilling inside the room breaks my train of thoughts. I turn to my grandmother, and give her a smile of gratitude.
“Thank you Gogo.” I allow a little silence to keep us company, and in it I hear King Mvula’s story whispering in my ear. I’ve never shared the story with her,
“Gogo do you know why we Zulu’s say ‘iyanetha iMvula’?” I ask, but I don’t give her the chance to answer. “Well,” I say as I adjust my sitting position. I clear my throat and begin.
“Once upon a time, in the time of old, lived King Mvula…”
Ntando Nzuza was born in Durban, South Africa and grew up in Empangeni—a town up north of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is currently doing his undergraduate degree in UKZN. His first story, “The time maker,” was published by Afreada (an online literary magazine). He spends his writing time between, short stories, poems, and writing a stubborn novel.