In a world obsessed with classifying and assigning people to definitive groupings, sometimes we must wonder whether those described as ordinary are really ordinary after all. What is it that is ordinary about them?
Allow me to tell you about Velemu Khanyile.
Khanyile was a jockey in Zululand, a great orator, and a legend in his own right ̶ a man with a great deal of passion for horses, and an unquenchable love for women with sizable posteriors. He would often say, “Yabona lowaya uhudula icaravan,” or “You see that woman hauls a caravan.”
At a time when discussing sexual encounters was considered taboo, Velemu Khanyile broke barriers, easily earning himself the title of sex expert. He was a self-acclaimed teacher of the matters of the heart, giving unsolicited advice at every opportunity which presented itself.
My first encounter with Khanyile came when I was between 11 and 12 years old. I was a Zulu dancer at a Zulu cultural village, a task I would fulfil daily after school. Khanyile was a horse groom, transporting tourists from their meeting point to the lodge by horseback as part of the guests’ experience. Our paths would cross again years later, when I was my 20s; at this stage I was old enough to hold any conversation with him, or with anyone at all, for that matter.
Khanyile must then have been about 50. For his age, he was as healthy as a stallion. Just like me, he was robbed of the gift of height, however, as the Zulu saying goes: Ingwe idla ngamabala, or “A leopard eats by means of its spots”. Indeed, Khanyile had other spots that people, both men and women, would marvel at.
Khanyile was passionate about grooming and training horses. His beasts, or those he looked after, were beautiful, with names just as fascinating: Vanessa, November, Gems, amongst others. For a man who had never set a foot in a school, these names were interesting. When Khanyile rode to horse, he was some kind of a comic King; women ululated both when he arrived and departed from Zulu beer-drinking venues, Zulu weddings, etc. Khanyile was both dramatic and elegant. The conversations that would take place once he had left, would go something like this: “Umbonile uKhanyile etelebhela ngehhashi lakhe?” Did you see Khanyile showing-off with his horse?” Then you knew that having a herd of cattle was not enough to draw attention from the maidens. A beautiful horse, with the ability to dance and trot, was the equivalent of a Porsche.
Women found Khanyile captivating. It was as though they reeled in disbelief that such a charmer and sweet man could ever exist. This often made me wonder whether they were angry at themselves for not having met him earlier. Youngsters looked up to him. With a horse like his, and exhibiting a personality larger than life, a man could get any girl he desired.
Men his age envied him. They were jealous, just as they are jealous of a certain man from Nkandla whose home upgrades cost South Africans R246 million. Ironically, Khanyile was also from eNkandla. It was there that he excelled at every horse-race, winning prizes such as goats, cattle, and cash. Given the right opportunity, Khanyile could easily have become a world-class jockey.
As brilliant as his horses were, Khanyile was never to be outdone by them. He had a way with words, being a charmer of note, and a great raconteur. He was a marvel to listen to; a storyteller who made his characters just as colourful and alive as he.
On one delightful afternoon, just after we had all finished our daily duties, Khanyile was to share with us a riveting narrative on the culture of ukungena umfazi, or taking over a wife of someone who had deceased; a role often assumed by one of the brothers of the deceased.
Summarized background to ukungena practice:
This was a practice whereby one of the brothers of the deceased would continue his brother’s legacy by taking over his wife in the full sense, a deal usually struck by elders. The widow had very little influence or say over this decision; she was always overruled. This custom of ukungena would be undertaken so that children would have a father figure and so that the widow would not feel lonely for long, perhaps then deciding to abandon the family. Once a union had been made with her brother-in-law (now her husband), she would continue bearing children; who would be taken as belonging to the deceased.
There would also be instances in which the bride was too young, had either no children, or a husband’s brother to “ngena” her. In that case, she could remarry outside the family. However, in-laws still had to approve of the match, and the lobolo cattle would be paid to the woman’s in-laws this time, for cattle had already been paid to her family. This practice is still very much alive in most parts of the Zulu Kingdom, however, it is a dying practice, concomitantly with a vast amount of transformation that has taken place in the lives of the Zulu people.
So Khanyile became our “go to” man when it came to the matters of the heart, especially the “taboo” side of Zulu culture. Khanyile was brave in sharing these stories with us, recounting them in a humorous and dramatic way, turning our understanding and preconceived ideas about women upside down.
Khanyile kept us captivated.
From him we learned how the lives of the Zulus had been transformed ̶ the traditional practices still relevant, and what no longer obtained; it turned out that the culture of ukungena umfazi was his favourite subject.
The lecture went something like this:
“You see boys, when a beautiful woman loses her husband and she happens to be young and attractive, the first thing you do is to show her that you care in the deepest possible way, that you are a generous man. And if at all possible, be present at her husband`s funeral. But whatever you do, do not go empty-handed. I repeat, do not go empty-handed.
“You must take with you some notes: money ̶ a couple of R20s, R50s, or R100 notes. Be sure that she sees you while handing over umnikelo, the donation …”usuyothenga amakhandlela”. “Here’s a little change for you to buy some candles during this dark period,” Khanyile would suggest.
“Because it is money in notes, this is a modest way of saying to your intended, “Take this substantial` sum of money and buy a few things for yourself.” Calling the donation a few cents and candle-money will give the widow the impression that there is more money where that came from.” The narrative would continue:
“When the time is right, you must strike — persuading the woman the best way you know how…because widows also need some love, and there’s no way she could reject love forever.”
We were to witness Khanyile in action twice, with two women who had just lost their husbands. As painful as their ordeal was, I guess at some point that they longed to be treated as normal human beings, because that is what they were.
Now, like every player, Khanyile had his rival. Somehow, the two men often found themselves desiring the same woman. Masothosotho was no great catch, however, he had the gift of music, one so many of us could only dream of. Masothosotho sang Maskandi traditional Zulu music, using a 12-string guitar.
I remember the day that three ladies were hired to re-thatch the lodge. Khanyile, being his usual self, wasted no time in making his intentions known ̶ he selected one of the women for his special treatment. Sadly, she was a widow, a coincidence, I might add. Masotho, on the other side, was also flirting outrageously. Somehow, neither of the men knew which woman the other was aiming to approach. In a generous display of hospitality, for which we Zulu people are known, Masotho bought the ladies a litre of Coke. Well! Khanyile discovered this in a matter of seconds. Before the fortunate ones could open their bottle, our hero shot like a bullet into the refreshment area, proclaiming “Ayilungile le drink!” or “This cold drink is not right for you.” Khanyile was referring to the myth that women should not ever imbibe this brand of cold drink.
Khanyile took the bottle back to the shop to exchange it for Sprite, buying a second litre of the favoured brand. Perhaps this was to show the women that he could also afford to spoil them, and that he was the more knowledgeable one when it came to women’s issues — what they should or should not drink.
When these ladies started singing for their evening prayers, Khanyile was in their midst, wearing a doctor’s white coat, despite that, prior to this, he had not adopted the Christian faith.
No rival stood in Khanyile’s way. He was capable of all sort of devious deeds to bad-mouth his rivals. I remember him saying, “Ungamuqomi lo, kade ngibhava naye, itolozi yakhe inezilonda”, or, “Don’t fall for him ̶ I showered with him earlier, and noticed that his penis has sores”. Of course, this was a gross exaggeration, designed to gain his own ends.
I was often intrigued by the way in which Khanyile made it sound simple to make a woman happy ̶ perhaps because it is. I often wondered how he managed to pull these stunts, approaching women of different generations, status, and backgrounds, always using the same approach — perhaps because the more we seek differences in one another, the more commonality we find.
What puzzled me even more was the seemingly easy way Khanyile got away with what I would call “crossing the line, preying on widows, and patronizing them”. Yet I doubt that they shared my sentiments. Women adored Khanyile, perhaps because he treated them as extraordinary, and made them feel wanted, regardless of their circumstances.
Photo Credit: Val Adamson (for Simunye Zulu Lodge)