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Memoirs of a Shangaan

My first struggle in life is being a Shangaan; it was never an issue until we moved to Gauteng. I suddenly felt foreign overnight; I had to learn Sesotho and isiZulu so they could stop laughing at me when I spoke Xitsonga. I made a lot of sounds as a kid when I played with the other kids, I didn’t speak much. I preferred hanging around Sotho people; they were more welcoming than the Zulu people in the neighborhood. It was at Bheki’s house where I felt like a joke more than anywhere, they referred to me as “Umnghani kaBheki weShangaane” and they would laugh at me, his brother would shove me now and then. The Sotho people hardly singled me out as a “Shangaane”, their kids even offered me refuge; they said it was ok for me to claim I am Sotho…

There were only five Tsonga families in my neighborhood and we didn’t get along that much, we tolerated each other more than anything. The Manganyi and Rivombo were better off than the rest of us, and they sounded different to the rest of us, they came from Bush and the kids went to model C schools. We were divided by class, and the dialects we spoke, I grew up knowing that the Manganyi and Rivombo spoke funny Tsonga. But I wanted to speak Xitsonga so badly, I hated speaking Sesotho with Matimu, we were the only two Tsonga kids in the crew but we struggled to speak our own language to each other…

First day of school arrived, the Zulu and Sotho kids were assigned classes and the rest of us were in one line and we were told to choose between the two languages. I was so confused; my parents didn’t brief me about this choice, so I picked the Zulu class because the other kids who spoke a language similar to mine picked it. But I changed from isiZulu to Sesotho the following day; I spent my first day of school being singled out as “iShangaan”. And I had to change languages, my parents knew no Zulu people to help me with my homework. School made being Shangaan 10x more difficult than before, when I asked my father what was wrong with us, he told me not to be ashamed of being who I am. However, my parents sent me to a non-Tsonga school because according to them, the Tsonga primary school taught “Xichangani xa Xizambikwa” (Mozambican sounding Tsonga).

I grew up thinking that Vatsonga from Mozambique are our inferior cousins, and we were the superior Vatsonga. My grandparents took in a Mozambican guy as a herder, and in my village, Mozambicans live by the far end of the village called Mazimbikweni/Swipurapureni. They have smaller houses than us, their houses are built with mud and we have brick houses. I could not deny this reality, being “Shangaan” was better than being “Xizambikwani”, especially after my uncle almost got arrested for being too dark and it was assumed he was a Kwerekwere. We all had to get off the taxi, luckily my uncle had his ID, but the police rejected my mother as iShangaan because she is too light and beautiful to be related to my uncle. And when those Afrikaaner police officers trained their dogs on Mozambican nationals, I knew right there that by all means I must be a local Shangaan for my safety. I heard those Mozambicans scream in a language similar to mine, and I remember my friends making jokes about it…

I now understand why my parents sent me to a non-Tsonga school; it was safer to blend in than be open about being Shangaane, especially since we lived close to a Hostel in Vosloorus. It explains why my parents let it slide that my Zulu class teacher changed my name from Shitshembiso to Sthembiso because she could not pronounce it and it too long for her. I first used my real name when I got to high school, all along I was Sthembiso Mabasa; I wonder how my surname survived. I grew up hearing stories of amashangaane being set on fire and beaten up for not knowing what an elbow is in Zulu. I grew up fearing and hating Zulu people; they made being Shangaan miserable and they do not regard us as human beings…

Over the years, I wish I could get rid of Shangaan and remain with Tsonga, but I could not explain Tsonga without Shangaan. This is because when I said I was Tsonga the other kids were curious and did not make fun of me or do their stupid Shangaan dance. But that did not last long, as soon as they asked me to explain Tsonga, I would spoil it with mentioning Shangaan. It was tough in primary school, I was afraid to speak my language or go to the bathroom; on initiation day, they bullied me extra for being Shangaan, they made me stretch out my legs and kicked me like a ball while I spun in the bathrooms. The only Tsonga person I knew in my grade was Nyeleti, we were the only open Tsonga kids at school, and one day MamZulu told us to speak our “sGrigamba” (foreign language) after school. She was a very tough teacher and feared by the whole school, but she took it too far with the Shangaan kids; she beat Nyeleti until her parents came to school to complain about her bruises on her hands. I stayed clear of MamZulu, she used to make fun of my big head and call me “leShangaane”. After the first grade, all was well, until I got to MamMkhabela’s class; I doubt I’ll ever get over her rejecting me in front of the whole class after I told everyone that she was Tsonga. I told them this because they were busy saying that “amashangaane” only sell fruits and fix gates. MamMkhabela denied being Tsonga in front of a classroom full of kids; she said she was Ndebele, the class laughed at me and I cried. Guess what, MamMkhabela called me to the side afterwards and spoke Tsonga to me, and my mom did say my teacher was a fake Tsonga, but you see my mom dislikes a lot on Tsonga people so I dismissed her…

We moved from the Eastrand and headed to Soweto; the “Shangaans” of Soweto acted more Zulu than anything, they even speak Zulu to each other, even at school.  My school, just like all the Tsonga schools in Soweto, allowed Mozambican kids in and that is how I started hanging out with Mozambicans, and in their circles they identified as Vatshwa, Vacopi and Vanyembani. But to everyone else, they said they were Shangaan. It didn’t matter if indeed they were Shangaan or not, it was better off than being Xizambikwani. See, South African forces us to pick an identity it is comfortable with, which is any group part of its historical narration of this land. I am not Shangaan, but my parents could only teach me what they grew up knowing. I am Hlengwe and in no way a subject or descendant of the Nxumalo’s (Shangaans) and there is no historic evidence of amaNdwandwe (amashangaan) assimilating Vahlengwe. I now know that I speak Xiluleke and not Xichangani, but you see the way things are setup – it doesn’t matter, “ngiyishangaane”. My diverse identity is no more, its either I am Tsonga or Shangaan or worse. I cannot separate Tsonga and Shangaan; it’s actually anti-Tsonga to exclude Shangaan. However, just like many Vatsonga, we have suffered, cried and fought for Shangaan for so many years – it now means Tsonga. The accurate history and truth don’t matter, what matters is what we know; we were raised to believe that Shangaan is the father of Tsonga. We know nothing else about who/what we are other than Soshangaane and the horrors of Mfecane.  See, we don’t care anymore, we just trying to survive and do right by our families. It’s a burden being Tsonga or Shangaan or whatever the fcuk we are…

 

 
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2 Comments

  1. I tsalwa ra kahle leriwani, mi vulavula ntiyiso ntsena buti. We Vatsonga / Machangana should not be ashamed of who we are, speak Tsonga proudly wherever you are

     

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