Today I learned about the incredible power of women in a rural South African village called Nqileni.
I’m currently volunteering at the community-run tourist guesthouse called Bulungula Lodge, which I’ll write an entire article about later on. Today I’m writing about one of the activities on offer for tourists: a “Women Power” themed tour in the village.
Jabulile, a 27 year old local woman, led the tour for myself and 3 Chinese people. We walked for about 30 minutes up and over the hills of the village, learning interesting facts about the culture and lifestyle along the way.
On this particularly sunny day, the rippling green hills dotted with grazing animals and colorful dwellings looked more beautiful than ever.
On our walk we passed some mud bricks drying in the sun. Women are in charge of making the mud bricks out of clay, cow dung and dry grass, and after drying out for 2 weeks they carry them up to the men who build the houses.
I could barely lift one brick, so the fact that women here carry 4 or 5 up hills is mind-blowing.
Women also have to learn to carry things without their hands, in case they have a child to hold as well. Huge buckets of water and stacks of firewood are always carried on the head, and the locals make it look easy.
On the tour we attempted to carry things like the Xhosa women, and gained a new appreciation for the strength of these heroic ladies. Jabulile carried a massive bucket of water filled to the brim on her head, and walked with grace. I was baffled. Luckily, us weak foreigners had smaller buckets with lids on to practice with.
The firewood was a bit easier to carry, especially because we learned the local technique of tying the sticks together using flexible tree bark.
We spent the morning in Jabulile’s home, where we met her three-month old daughter, her mother, and some of the other local kids. The family loved looking at the photos we took of them using our high-tech cameras.
I sometimes refrain from taking photos of people while traveling out of respect. I don’t want them to feel like an exhibit; I want us to feel like equals.
But the Chinese tourists were snapping photos of everyone at the speed of light, and the locals didn’t mind one bit. So I took some photos as well, and thoroughly enjoyed capturing these joyful, beautiful faces and showing them the photos afterwards.
Families in the Nqileni village tend to be quite large. When a man and woman get married, the man has to pay the woman’s family 10 cows. So parents have lots of children, hoping that most are girls, so that they’ll be paid more cows when their daughters marry. Jabulile has 4 brothers and 4 sisters.
After meeting the family, we painted our faces in traditional Xhosa woman style using white and red clay. The locals do this to protect themselves from the sun, and the dotted decorations are used for traditional ceremonies.
We helped Jabulile prepare lunch, which was a classic Xhosa meal of cabbage and maize meal. While eating we learned about some of the local customs and beliefs.
For example, Christianity is the main organized religion, but ancestors are the driving force behind day to day life. Locals often ask their ancestors for advice, and build circular homes so that evil spirits can’t lurk in corners and hinder communication with the ancestors in the home.
In the afternoon we walked down to the local church for the Sunday ceremony. The priest was happy for us to join, and this turned out to be the most amazing part of the day.
The church is a small circular hut painted pink, with turquoise paint on the inside walls. At 2pm on a sunny day, the room felt like a sauna. I squeezed in between sweaty bodies, and smiled at all the little kids by my feet hugging me and holding my hand.
For the next 20 minutes I watched the priest perform in the middle of the circle.
He preached, he prayed, he laughed, he screamed, he chanted, and he spoke so rapidly I probably couldn’t understand him even if I spoke Xhosa. He hugged people and grabbed kids by the head, blessing those who needed it. He gave a speech for the community members who had been appointed new healers, and a traditional dance encircling the healers followed.
This was the most vibrant, passionate, and musical religious ceremony I’ve ever attended.
After a few minutes of fervent speech from the priest, drums started playing and young girls started belting out hymns. Next thing I knew, the whole room exploded into harmony as everyone sang their hearts out and clapped along. Everyone danced as well, and one teenage girl pushed me into the middle of the dancing circle where I was welcomed with open arms.
In my experience, Christian church has always been a place of order, where rules are followed precisely and the priest reads bible verses above the organized seated crowds. This church, in a rural village of 800 people on the Wild Coast of South Africa, felt like a party.
The Chinese tourists and I were clearly outsiders, not speaking the language and not even following the religion but the locals were thrilled to have us there. They danced around us, laughed with us, and encouraged us to take photos. Age, nationality, religion and race meant nothing in that hot sweaty room; we were all just happy people enjoying the music. I’ll cherish the 20 minutes I spent in there forever.