My tears over the grave of my father
In December 2013, I had an experience that I will never forget in my life. It is the experience that changed my life and strengthened relations with my mother and siblings and the rest of my extended family. To find the grave of my father was an extraordinary feeling and experience. This is the experience I need to share with you. In fact, I want to share the significance, value and meaning of family memories in tracing and understanding the opaque collective family memories. It is the experience that gave legitimacy to the memory processes of the family elders.
I remember the night in June 1977, when I was just seven years old, and my father Mr Thamsanqa Kotta Booi fell ill at midnight. Apparently he suffered from a stomachache that might have been caused by a particular poison in his system. Although I donâ€™t remember it, I have been told that the whole family was unsettled that night as everyone was anxious about my fatherâ€™s condition. I have also been told that a neighbour, Mr Mxolisi Mali, an ex-Robben Islander was called to the family scene. Mr Mali made available his car that took my father to Victoria Hospital in Alice, where he was declared dead. My mother said, at some point, that death of my father in front of his wife and in the hands of medical personnel was the most traumatic experience the family had ever experienced.
I didnâ€™t actually comprehend what was happening at the time. I heard everyone crying; I saw village elders coming in one by one. One thing that I do remember very clearly is that I saw my grandfather Mr Gweki Kotta Booi entering into the house and after that everyone sang a church hymn, â€œBawo xa Ndilahlekayoâ€¦.â€. Even then it did not register in my mind that the village elders and my grandfather were coming to comfort my mother, Mrs Nomendile Booi, and us her children over the death of my father.
The next morning came and I prepared to go to school at Old Ntselamanzi Hall where I was doing Sub-A, or Grade 1 as it is known today. When I got into my class one of the older classmates came to me and asked me, â€œVuyani, where is your father?â€ And I responded, â€œMy father went to visit Port Elizabeth.â€ This fellow beat me, wanting me to tell him and others about the real whereabouts of my father. I cried and insisted, â€œMy father went to visit Port Elizabethâ€ and so he released me. It became clear to me that he knew that my father had passed away. Surely somebody in the family drilled me to think and act as if everything was normal at home at a time when my home was besieged by a dark cloud of death.
A few days later my younger brother Thembani (who was only three years old) and I were taken to the house of our grandfather at a place called Esijingolweni at Ntselamanzi. We were kept inside the house for the whole day with our cousins. As I was playing inside the house I saw the elder cousins looking out through a window and I peeped too. I saw a long queue of people leading their way to the Ntselamanzi graveyard and even then my mind could not make sense of what was happening. But my older cousins were aware that it was my fatherâ€™s funeral. My father was buried without my younger brother and me ever knowing the exact location of his grave. For 37 years, no one was bold enough to talk about the death of my father or even tell me and my brother where he was buried. They buried the memory of my father when they buried him, and no one dared to share those memories.
The issue of not knowing the grave of my father disturbed me as I was growing up. One day I asked my mother about the exact location of my fatherâ€™s grave and her answer was simple and straightforward, â€œVuyani, I cannot remember its exact location since it was long ago since your father died and was buried.â€ This response disturbed me, but I guess it was worse for my mother because it seemed that I was rubbing salt on an old wound.
I could not rest as I was looking for an answer to my question. I went to the house of my aunt, my fatherâ€™s sister. I asked her the same question about the exact location of my fatherâ€™s grave. There was no difference between her answer and the response of my mother. Since I was never satisfied with their answers I brought together my older brothers and sisters and asked them the same question.
One of them said that the grave might be flat now, since it was so long ago since he had been buried. My brothers Mkhululi and Luzuko and my sister Lulama all agreed that the grave of my father was not marked with a cross as you might find on other graves. But they remembered that there was a small, light-coloured asbestos square on which my fatherâ€™s name, date of birth and death was written. But they thought that the paint used for the inscription may have been washed away by rain and hostile weather conditions.
One of my siblings said the only way to identify the grave of our father would be to find the grave of a Mr Tshuka who had been buried alongside him. I had a great deal of confidence in the recollections of my brothers and sisters as they had been present at the funeral, so I noted their comments carefully.
In December of 2013, I had a particular feeling which I find hard to describe. As I was resting on my bed on a hot afternoon in Alice, I stood up and I drove my car straight to the old Ntselamanzi graveyard. When I got there, I stopped the engine of my car, got out, opened the gate of the old cemetery and I made my way straight to a set of old, flat graves. There I started to look for the grave of my father using the information that was provided by my brothers and sisters.
The first grave I saw was old and flat, but still intact, with a fallen black cross written on in white. I picked it up and read it. It said, â€œTshuka, died in June 1977â€. This filled my heart with hope and a strong faith that I was indeed going to find the grave of my father. I looked at the grave which was next to the one of Tshuka. I saw a square of small and light asbestos with no words written on it. A voice whispered quietly in me, and said that â€œThis is your fatherâ€™s grave.â€ This was evidenced by all the elements that were described to me by my brothers and sisters.
One thing that convinced me that this was my fatherâ€™s grave was when I looked at it I shivered. I knelt down, crying over his grave. I called out his name, clan name and I invoked his ancestral spirits and I invoked his spirit saying:
â€œIt is me Vuyani, your son standing over your grave after long time looking for it. I am glad now that I have found it. My younger brother Thembani, my children and grandchildren will now know the location of your grave. They will come over this grave in time of challenges. They will invoke your spirit and I will invoke your spirit when we need your intervention in our livesâ€¦.â€
I could not stop crying over the grave of my father with no cross on it. As of now I could not understand whether I shed tears of joy or what, but my tears marked the long journey of locating my fatherâ€™s grave. I drove back home quickly to tell everyone at home about my encounter. When I got there I found my mother and I told her, â€œI have found the grave of my father.â€ She looked at me sadly and said, â€œYour father was a great man.â€ She asked me what I was going to do now that I had seen the grave and I told her that I had resolved to build a tombstone in memory of my father and the journey I had travelled in search of his grave.
This is the story that illustrates the profundity of family memory that resides within the elders of our families. The shared family memories have a way of connecting the living and the dead and to make possible the communication of spiritual messages from the world of our ancestors of which I believe my father is a part. I believe that without the collective memories of our families we would not be able to know who we are, nor would we be able to connect the past with the present and future. Memory is fundamental to our quest to define our family genealogies and identities.
The significance of a grave as a cultural and spiritual asset that connects the living and the dead cannot be undermined. I imagine now the memories that are invoked when my brothers and sisters, mother and aunts pass the grave of my father. One could argue that within an African context, graves are archival assets that invoke particular stories, experiences and memories both about the dead and the living. They need to be protected and conserved because they play a powerful role in our lives.
Vuyani Booi is an Archival Platform Correspondent living in the Eastern Cape. He is the Senior Manager and Curator of collections at the National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) at the University of Fort Hare.