It is one of those days where the boys refuse to let me out of their sights. Oaiki, the big one, is talking non stop and asking a lot of questions, while Kgamo, the little one, wants to be carried all the time (it’s usually better when he allows me to put him on my back but today he wants my face turned towards him). I am in the kitchen making them something to eat, yet again, for the fifth or sixth time this morning. Our buzzer rings and I quickly go and answer, while Oaiki is screaming, “mama, suhamba uOaiki ulambile. Mama nicela iwebix” (Mama, don’t go Oaiki is hungry, can I please have some Wit bix), while Kgamo is also shouting, “mama, mama…” probably imitating his brother. I pick up the buzzer, “Hello”, acting cool. “Ndim” (it’s me), replies the feminine voice on the other side. I smile, as I recognise the voice, and I open the gate. Oaiki jumps up and down with excitement, he recognised the voice too, and sprints out the door before I could even stop him. Kgamo, all of the sudden, wants me to put him down. He staggers out, excitedly following his brother. Our dog, Duma, gleefully following the boys, is also skipping towards the car. uMafungwashe wabazali bam (my parent’s firstborn daughter) has arrived. My kids and dog are so excited to see her, she can barely open the door. I observe for a few seconds while Oaiki has wrapped his little arms around her neck and Kgamo has climbed onto her lap, the car door is now open but she is still battling to get out because of all the chaos, with Duma wagging his tail in the mix of it all. I am now happily beaming, the excitement in my heart is more than that of the kids, but of course I keep my cool. I go back inside the house and immediately go to the kitchen, boil the kettle still smiling because for the next couple of hours I will be able to drink my tea and relax in peace while I watch uMamkhulu (maternal eldest aunt) trying to balance the overwhelming attention between my two son’s.
uMafungwashe holds a very important place in homes and community in the African culture. She is the firstborn daughter in the family also known as usisomdala (big sister), in my culture she is usually not addressed by her name but by her title.The name Mafungwashe is derived from ukufunga which means to swear by. Sometimes to show how serious you are about something or you want to prove that you being honest, you would swear by the name of uManfungwashe, for example “ndifunga uBuyiswa” (I bet or I swear by Buyiswa).They are advisors to the family and are usually the ones that mediate peace when there are quarrels. In family and traditional decision making their opinion counts a lot, and nothing culturally gets done in their absence, for example no slaughtering will happen until she arrives. They have certain rights that cannot be questioned, they actually hold a lot of power that sometimes can get to their heads. They are strong, confident and as they grow older they seem to have everything figured out and indirectly become parents to younger siblings, even being referred to as ‘deputy parent’.
I had an interesting conversation with my eldest sister and my lovely friend of two decades and it touched me how they quickly had to grow up to fill these big shoes and what they had to sacrifice. Growing up in different environments and circumstances they share the same heart warming sentiments, I could not resist sharing their stories.
Buyiswa – My beloved sister, uMaNjilo, Sgaya, Phutha , Mzwelanga, Njilo-Njilo kuyasa elwandle (clan praises), usisi wam ononcumo olungapheliyo, onobubele ( my sister who has a never ending smile and kind) and a woman of few words but speaks volumes.
“Ukuba nguMafungwashe is not easy, growing up you are groomed to be tough, independent, reliable and strong to a point that you would even hide your feelings when you feel vulnerable. Not only are you expected to be a role model to your younger siblings, you are also expected not to let those younger than you get into mischief in your presence. If it happens that one of them does something wrong, you are asked, “..how can you let this happen?”, and so you try by all means to be extra vigilant to avoid such accusations”. I remember when we were growing up, elders expected my sister to be perfect and exemplary in everything she did, she was not allowed to make the childish mistakes that we made. As she continued explaining to me, “..when we make mistakes we cover them up and learn from them. In the end you want to make everybody happy as uMafungwashe, your parents and your siblings. Parents have to rely on us to take care of our siblings, their children, maybe that is where the word or phrase deputy parent comes from”. I now understand why my sister is one of the most reliable people I know, listening to her I want to hug her and show her how much I appreciate her but I continue to listen, “..both parents and siblings trust us, because we have a taste of both worlds we understand both perspectives and so we find balance in making sure there is understanding between them”. Indeed my sister is still a mediator even to this day between us siblings and my dad. She has a way of making you feel at ease to open up and confide in her. So many traits that uMafangwashe wasekhaya has that amazes me, one of them is how my kids are naturally drawn to her, how much they love her, she knows this and always manages to give them both the attention and love they demand. I think of this as we continue with our conversation, “..we also don’t get a chance yokuteketiswa nokutefiswa (to be spoiled and be pampered), even though you know you are loved by your parents. So the love and pampering you crave from your parents, you end up showering it abundantly on those that are around you and close to you. You learn to sacrifice and share with others until it becomes the most natural thing to do. This however comes back to bite you a little bit in the long run.
‘The disadvantage about this is you put others before you, you sacrifice a lot and you forget about yourself and end up neglecting taking care of yourself. You realise later that you have not really done anything for yourself. It’s a pity you don’t always get the same treatment”. I ask her what she thinks of the fact that most people think they are known to be cheeky and bossy, she responds, “We are called cheeky because we do not agree with everything that everyone says, maybe because we are straight talkers and prefer people to do the same with us. We have always had to stand up not for only us but for those that come after us and others that are around us and so we stand firm and fight for what we believe in. Although we are loving and are always willing to help others we will not force our help onto you if you don’t want it, in other words asicengi (we don’t beg), not because we don’t want to but because we just don’t know how”. I interrupt her and tell her that but you end up helping anyway at the end of it most of the time, “My father always said to me, everything should always pass, and never hold grudges. If someone comes back and changes their mind I don”t judge nor question them, if I am still able to assist I will”. Given a chance would you trade places and be a last born or middle child, I ask, before I even give her a chance to respond, she quickly shakes her head. “No, I would not. Although we are under so much pressure, I really cherish and enjoy being uMafungwashe. We are fortunate to partake in important family decisions and plans which puts us at an advantage to be bestowed knowledge from our elders. Elders make sure they empower you and share all the knowledge you need for that time and for the future. They get to share their wisdom and cultural knowledge with us, as we grow older we realise how precious and special this is. It becomes the best gift given to us and because of this people always say we think we know everything, we don’t. We do however empower ourselves with knowledge not only academic but general and lifestyle knowledge. I am now an independent strong woman, I am proud that my parents relied on me and trust me enough to take care of my siblings and what they have built. I have learned the importance of being able to start something and finish it. I am not afraid to start over and make things work regardless of the situation and circumstance. I don’t just give up because someone tells me I can’t do something, I am capable”. she jokingly says ” We are the true imbokodo”. I have to agree with her, she is indeed a true definition of Imbokodo. She concludes by saying, “It’s just that sometimes we also need to be vulnerable and express our truest sadness and pain but we are not fortunate enough to do that, which is sad”.
Nontembeko – Aaah Nkosazana, humble with a contagious laugh that show off her amazing dimples, always happy. Sukude, Gxarha ka Mkhondwana, Sibiside, Santsaba, Mthi kaSiHula, nxeba elisemphakathweni elingabonwa mntwana libonwa mhla kunzima, Malandelwa yintombi ithi ndizeke noba Awunankomo (clan praises).
Born from a royal family, she is the first of the seven siblings, however there were more other kids that stayed in their home as it was the royal house. So it was not just her and her siblings it was her cousins both close and distant, even those that were not even family. ‘Yho MaThenj, growing up we were a lot and I felt the responsibility of ukuba nguMafungwashe at a very young age. I had to ensure that everything went smoothly when my parents were not around. I also learned to cook at a very young age, and this was not really nice because sometimes you want to go play with other kids but you couldn’t just go because you needed to make sure that your younger siblings have food when they are hungry. Worse for me because there were a lot of us at home so we used to use a size ten three-legged pot to cook outside, I would make sure that at least samp is cooked. When the parents come back the first thing they would ask is if the younger kids have eaten. It never really seemed important if I had eaten or not. My parents had so much pride in having a first born daughter and so they wished upon me beautiful things, that came with so much pressure in a way because you did not want to disappoint them and everything you do ends up being about them. They used to tell me all the time to be an example that should I fall pregnant the younger ones would follow suit and if I focus on books the same will happen. And I have always known that whatever it is that I am doing my younger siblings should learn from me”. As I am listening to her story and thinking about the conversation with my sister earlier on I think to myself surely putting so much pressure on them is not fair and I can’t help but wonder if I would have been able to handle so much pressure. She continues her story, “Growing up in a royal family the responsibility extends to the whole village, everyone is looking up to you and expecting a lot from you. Even with friends I needed to make sure that I choose my friends wisely, friends that will understand where I come from. As much as it seemed like it was too much I am really grateful because this really built my character and disciplined me quite a lot. Even when I went to varsity, you know back home a lot is expected from you and for me it really helped me to focus. At the same time you can’t really be fully yourself, you can’t really do what you want without thinking if your parents would love this or would approve of this, even to this day I can’t really say ndiziphilela impilo yam (I live for myself). You learn to be brave and to fight for other people’s battles and still need to fight your own because most of the time no one really fights and stands up for you. You end up not having anyone to confide in. You are expected to be perfect even though no one is perfect. In all you go through, you deal with it alone which is really hard. You put up a brave face even when you are broken sometimes. Only later in life do you realise that it is okay to breakdown sometimes and cry which is something I still struggle with”.
I have always admired the relationship Ntembi has with her father, it is beautiful to observe. I share my thoughts with her and she beams and responds, “Mna noNkosi, simbiza uNkosi utata (myself and chief that is what we call him) our relationship is that of a brother and sister than of a father and daughter. I have been his advisor from when I was really young, because in most of the things he would ask for my opinion. I think that was one of his ways of teaching me responsibility and showing me that he trusts me as young as I was, the same applies to my mother as well. One of the disadvantages is that you are not allowed to fail because when you fail it’s like you are pulling everyone down. My father is the first born at his home so that means because I am the first born of the first born I then become the first born or advisor to my father’s siblings too. If there are ceremonies or rituals that need to be done they cannot be done if I am not around. This means I needed to take this role seriously as not to mislead the ones after me and those that rely on me. It is my responsibility to teach ooMafungwashe bezindlu zakulotatam (my father’s siblings’ homes). You are always an intervener amongst siblings and between siblings and parents. Sometimes your younger siblings make choices that are not very wise and you have to try and understand things from their perspective and at least guide them to make those choices work for them better. It is then also up to you to make the parents understand those choices. In my culture and at home even though I am the firstborn there is Inkulu (firstborn son) who inherits the homestead, the family wealth and is expected to take care of his siblings, family home and the parents when they no longer have the ability to take care of themselves, the home and the family. In my case this would be my brother who comes after me. However if Inkulu is not responsible and is not able to fulfill his duty, it then becomes the responsibility of uMafungwashe, which is something I had to do, I then had to end up doing all these things”.
I can’t help but ask the same question I did with my sister if she would trade places and not be uMafungwashe given a chance. She replies, without any doubt in her voice, “Although it comes with so many responsibilities I would not want to change it, to be a last born, because I see how amaphelo asekhaya are ( my family’s last borns) , infact I would not even trade it to be a middle child or Inkulu. I am grateful for the lessons learned. The one big lesson I have learned is to be responsible, it taught me sharing, it taught me to always protect those younger than me, not only my siblings, it taught me to love unconditionally, it taught me uBuntu and to always strive to practice it the best way I can. These are the things I want to teach my own child. I am uMafungwashe and I am also blessed with uMafungwanshe, I want her to carry over “the Mafungwashe thing’ . These are the lessons that made me the person I am today and I love the person I am. Besides I really enjoy the role of being an advisor and being consulted, it makes me feel appreciated”.
The profound conversations I have had with these ladies further dispel the notion that the ancient African family and society has been a patriarchal society, in fact the opposite is true. The feminine mind, heart and voice has always been important in decision making around men, it has always been more practical and more caring. Women have always been good at teaching and advising, even being the primary advisors for the kings in the olden days. It fills me up with hope to see that some African families are still practising this. ooMafungwashe sacrifices a lot to a point that they are not able to be fully themselves, from a young age they are groomed to put others before themselves and to be strong. It makes me wonder just how strong a person can be, how responsible one can be. Does this mean they do not have the time to get hurt, feel pain, be selfish and be weak? Does it mean they are not able to enjoy a carefree life, without the constant responsibility of taking care of their siblings? Although I understand that there has to be someone that brings order, peace and practical decisions and this benefits the family and the community, I also feel it can be done in a gentle manner. I feel at a young age children should be allowed to be carefree and just be kids from time to time. We (younger siblings) should be more supportive, appreciative and more understanding to our older siblings, knowing that they have paved a way for us, knowing we will always have someone that will always have our backs wholeheartedly. I personally have experienced my sister’s unconditional and selfless love, her protection, her caring support, she has always been my pillar that I lean on throughout all my life phases. I remember how she immediately took the role of being the mother to me and my siblings when our mother unexpectedly passed away. We were all young, we were all grieving but she took to that role so naturally. She has played that role even with my kids, and we always joke how she behaves more like a grandmother to them than an aunt, in the way she dotes over them and pampers them.Leave a comment