I vividly remember sitting on my sister’s shoulders. I was too short to see the black and white television set through the open window and her being my elder sister, she bore the responsibility of taking care of my needs. Like most black children, my siblings and I were raised by my maternal grandmother (uGogo) Rose-Bella, Nozamile Ngquva.
I had parents, capable and loving parents who were able to provide for us. But they decided that for the first years of our lives, we would be raised by my grandmother in the village of my mother’s birth.
She didn’t only raise my siblings and I, but my cousins as well. There could have been more than 10 of us living there at any given time.
I have great memories of my time there. If I try very hard, I can still smell my grandmother’s stew and dumplings and see her smiling face, filled with love and reassurance.
My time in the village was carefree. We wanted for nothing. Our bellies were always full. We were clothed and loved. Our lives were simple but we also had a few luxuries, like the battery-operated radio that sat in the kitchen cupboard in my grandmother’s hut. Her hut served as our bedroom, kitchen and dining room.
We had five other huts and a modern, fully furnished, American Style flat that had four bedrooms, a dining and sitting room, bathroom and kitchen. I have no idea why it was called American Style, but that is what everyone in Xhugxwala Location and the surrounding villages called it and, unlike my children today, I had no desire to question things as much as they do.
News and drama
The radio was switched on during news bulletins and radio drama time only. Deciding that you needed to listen to the radio during the day would be considered suicide by my grandmother’s belt. Few of us had ever actually been flogged with the belt, but it hung behind the door of our hut as a reminder – it was always within reach and that was enough to keep us away from her radio.
Radio dramas were our source of late-evening entertainment because, unlike most grandmothers at the time, mine wasn’t a great storyteller. In fact, she didn’t have any iintsomi (tales) for us and almost hated the idea that it was expected of her to have them on demand.
She would tell us she wasn’t like most grandmothers, in direct contrast with our paternal grandmother, uManhlapho, who apparently made up stories on demand as she thrived on the attention. I never met her, but am told that she loved the sound of her own voice and would tell anyone willing to listen that “ndisisihlakaniphi mna, ndilala emthini ndivuke ndingawanga” (I am so smart I sleep on a tree branch without falling).
I first came became aware of the Xhosa novel Buzani Kubawo by Witness K Tamsanqa through my grandmother’s beloved radio. I can still remember my gogo asking one of my cousins to move away from the radio because she wanted to see it, a statement that is a standing joke in my family to date. “Suka phambi kwe radio andiyiva xa ndingayiboni.” She could not just listen to the radio, she had to see it.
My first encounter with television was through the narration of an episode of uLulu uBuyile by my two brothers. They watched television next door, next door in the village sense. This was when televisions ran on battery power.
I can still remember Lulu’s story, which at that age I viewed as a horror story. Of course, I had no idea that television shows had categories. How could I have? I had never actually seen or watched a television set, I had only ever heard of it. I must have been around five at the time.
The scary tales of uLulu would torment me for days and, once my older brothers uNkululeko and uQaqambile realised that these tales frightened me, they used this to coerce me into doing whatever they wanted or needed. Mostly, it was to get me to stop crying, because if there was anything that could draw my grandmother’s belt from behind the door, it was my tears.
I was my grandmother’s baby. She gave me the nickname Bhabha and that’s what my family calls me to this day – and I am in my 30s. She hated to see me cry and everyone knew it, including myself. I used the threat of tears to get my way and to get away with everything. Even my mother couldn’t touch me in the presence of my grandmother. Life was fantastic.
The one with glasses
I come from a big family. We had first, second and third cousins in the same village but were forbidden to call each other as such, so we were all brothers and sisters. We were one big, happy and sometimes dysfunctional family and that was the African way.
I guess it must have been a Saturday afternoon that I first saw a television set. My sister and I had left a family gathering earlier than the grown-ups and because we had time to ourselves, decided to take a detour to watch a few minutes of television.
There was one television in the corner of the village that my family occupied and Maglassana (the one with glasses) and his family owned it. He was named Maglassana because he wore reading glasses and must have been one of the few in the village at the time of his naming to do so.
My cousin tells me Maglassana didn’t really have eyesight problems. He had inherited them from his white employer in Johannesburg and decided that those glasses would be what set him apart from the normal village folk.
When he eventually went home (as he did once a year) and was given his new name, he didn’t mind it one bit because his glasses gave him a piece of whiteness.
The group of children gathered outside Maglassana’s house was what instigated our detour, because it meant that the television set was on. It was an unwritten rule that local children who wanted to watch television could stand outside the house and watch it through the window, and that arrangement suited everyone just fine.
At the sight of the young crowd, I remember my sister clutching my hand in her own with a newfound determination to give me my first television experience. I don’t know if she had seen or watched one before, I just assumed she had because, well, she was my older sister and knew everything and to this day that’s how I feel about that.
On arrival, I was met with a challenge that I don’t think I had anticipated. At five years old, I was too short to see through the window. But this did not deter my sister, she just lifted me up and placed me on her shoulders.
I don’t know how long we stood there watching. I can’t even remember what was on. It didn’t matter to me, because I had finally watched television.
Soon after that I moved away to live with my parents and my life was completely different. Every house in our street had a television set. It wasn’t such a big deal anymore, although school was a different story altogether.
I attended a government school and that meant I went to school with children who were less fortunate than me in the television department. Most of my classmates came from homes where there was none. I don’t remember when and how I became the television story narrator for my class. I suspect I must have nominated myself because I do have Manhlapho’s blood in my veins, after all.
This was a great task that I took ever so seriously. You got to school every morning to a group of shiny faces, eager for you to start retelling what your family had watched the previous night. I am sure this is when my love for performance was born.
As a narrator, you could take the liberty of adding details that you thought the story lacked. You could introduce a jump where there was none, a soundtrack if you thought the moment was too quiet. The world was your stage to do with as you pleased and the more outrageous your story was, the more captivated your television-hungry audience became.
I not only watched for myself anymore but for my friends and their friends, too. The story was told and retold according to how the storyteller felt at the moment of telling.
There were a lot of cowboy movies on television at that time. I didn’t understand English, let alone the deep American accent, but cowboy stories were my favourite to narrate. I have no idea why, but I assume it must have been because I used my imagination for the dialogue.
Sadly though, when my grandmother finally owned a television, one gifted to her by my sister, she didn’t really like it. She was grateful for the gift and told anyone willing to listen that my sister had bought it for her. But it was only ever used as decoration.
Her television sat in the sitting room of the American Style flat and no one ever watched it. I guess she preferred watching the radio.
Kholosa Sanelisiwe Tshandana is the programme coordinator at the Steve Biko Foundation in King William’s Town. She is also a performing artist and qualified public relations manager.