The Umuzi -- village -- of Lwako, surrounded in the distance by slowly rising hills with a thick running river flowing through it, had always been considered a tiny place.
Of the 150 families that had inhabited Lwako, only 90 remained. Those who had sought other ways of life, traveled far distances, arriving in large city centers, hoping to find work. Some were successful while others who did find success or who did not, felt the same longing for Lwako’s serenity, decided to return. There, they had a pleasant way of life, farming the rich soil, their culture intact, and a family bond both strong and unbreakable. Tradition glued the Umuzi together, on their land that they owned for over a century. They valued it with a strong passion for they thanked it for having never failed them. Even during periods of drought, the fields of Lwako yielded and the river somehow always managed to flow. Their farming methods were still primitive, yet their fields sprouted some of the finest crops in the country, bringing handsome wealth to the members of Lwako. Although, new ideas were readily available to increase yields, thus wealth, they slipped by like the annual migration of birds passing through. The villagers weren’t against new ideas, only wary of the consequences they would have over the Umuzi’s lifestyle, if introduced. Happiness was their prime concern together with their eternal relationship between the land and their family unity.
It was quite early one morning , the time most of the villagers were well on their way to begin the days’ work, that a car entered the Umuzi, winding its way to the house of Indala, the Chief of Lwako.
Indala opened the front door of his simple home to welcome the unexpected visitor. He had come from Johannesburg nearly three hours away. Both men nodded without shaking hands. For a few minutes they exchanged conversation and while doing so, the visitor pulled out an official envelope, handing it over to Indala who watched his visitor, a representative of the South African Government return to his car. Indala, the Chief of Lwako, feeling weak, silently stared at the envelope then raised his tired eyes to watch the trail of dust lifted by the car as it vanished into the distance.
Inside the house, mostly decorated by colourful beads and traditional artwork, crafted by his villagers; as well as gifts to Indala, waited his wife to hear the news that the White stranger had brought. She followed him into the kitchen, where he sat by the fireplace. His wife took the envelope and placed it on the shelf next to a family portrait. Indala now in his late seventies knew well about life. He had provided well for his family, took care of the children when they became sick; and showed much love for his wife, never having during their long marriage, his voice raised against her.
With all life’s experiences, and education, Indala had failed in but only one thing; he could not read nor write so the official letter inside the envelope remained unread.
“What’s the matter my husband, you look disturbed?” She asked worriedly.
Indala nodded, his wrinkled face fixed on the shelf.
“The White man says that in three days, they are coming to take our Umuzi from us.” The Chief stopped, turning to his wife.
“He says that our land belongs to the White people and we must give it up and that the people of our village will be moved to a new place not far from Pretoria.”
“Pretoria! But my husband we have never been there. We were born here.”
Indala shook his head unknowingly, got up without a word and went to the back of his house where stood a huge Willow tree. This was his private domain, not to be intruded by any outsider, unless invited. So powerful was it for Indala that not even his wife dared to disturb him whilst he sat in contemplation, under its wavy gracious branches.
The sun rose quickly, killing the early morning black shadows cast by a clump of nearby trees that during the afternoon heat served as a welcome retreat. It was under these tall trees that all functions were celebrated, excepting matters that fell under the jurisdiction of tribal law or matters of great concern. These were held under the Willow tree.
Soon after the White man’s departure, word spread out, calling all men to a meeting. Such abrupt callings, quite irregular, ensured full attendance. It did note take long for the surrounding vicinity of the Willow tree to be host to many men, talking to one another in short low whispers. Most had gathered that it had something to do with the surprise visit of the White man. Talk ended abruptly, making way for Chief Indala to make his entrance. All eyes concentrated on him as he motioned the meeting in session by waving his knobkerrie back and forth. Slowly raising his head, Indala began to speak, his voice a little shaky, in a tone that tinged with anger and sadness.
“My brothers of Lwako, we are faced with great danger for we are about to lose our Umuzi to the White man.”
“This was informed to me this morning by a member of the government. The choice for us is hard but clear in what action we must take to prepare ourselves. If we surrender to the White man, then no harm may come to us or our children. The second choice is to stand fast and fight for Lwako which may result in violence and even death.”
The men of the Umuzi remained quiet in thought, absorbing the Chief’s words. Nearby the women had gathered just within hearing range of what Indala was saying. Whatever their fate was to be, it was going to be decided by their husbands, brothers and boyfriends.
“So my brothers of Lwako,” Continued Indala, “After more than a century of family ties to this Umuzi, we are now faced with forced removal to a place far from here, a place that you and I have never seen. I believe it to be near the big city of Pretoria in a valley that has no river flowing through it and whose land is unfit for planting seeds.”
“No river!” queried the men, their voices becoming louder. An Umuzi without a river is a place of doom for they quickly realized that without water nothing could grow and their families would be faced with certain starvation and deep thirst.
The meeting intensified. They saw their position as precarious and whatever action they would eventually undertake it would be limited because they understood the strength of the government. The discussions and arguments wore down to a decision that was clear; they would for all it was worth resist all attempts of removal. On principal they would fight for what belonged to them, against a power whose aims it was, was to secure White domination over all the land and its peoples.
The Chief announced that the next meeting would take place after the White man had returned and that full attendance was required. A path opened the way between the seated villagers, allowing Indala to walk through. Then the villagers rose to carry on their day.
It was a sweaty hot afternoon without a comforting breeze. Clouds bulged quickly, developing into soft drizzle. Sparks of lightening cracked the air and the drizzle became vicious, turning the soft sand road that led to Indala’s house into a pack of moving mud. On it making its way up slowly sliding every few feet, a car stained brown and dripping came to a slithering halt. The unexpected visitor had reappeared, jumping out and dashing up the few stairs. Out of breath, he banged on the door.
Waiting, he turned and faced the land that opened in front of him, which shone bright green that melted into the purple wet sky. The land he saw was very fine, its wheat fields scatteredly planted. His eyes settled on the river that rushed by strongly from the gushing rain, whose banks were lined of unkept bush and trees where birds of all sorts had settled; where flowers bloomed, radiating vibrant colours.
“Nothing like it.” The White official chuckled under his breath.
“Soon it will be ours.”
He was about to knock for the second time, but standing there between the open door, stood Indala, watching his visitor for a brief moment. He turned and led the visitor through the house into the kitchen where his wife had been cooking. As they entered, she left, taking their youngest son with her. Their eldest had left home to attend university.
Indala and the White official sat at opposite sides of the table, eyeing each other out in an uneasy silence. The official sensing that Indala was not about to offer a drink, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, offering one to Indala. He shook his head. The official shrugged his shoulders, lit one for himself and took a deep draw, exhaling loudly. He gazed intensely at the Chief, wiped his forehead using his arm and began to notify him that officially within two days, everyone in the Umuzi must be packed ready to leave.
“Trucks will arrive early to take all your belongings. You must be ready, not to waste our time.” The government official paused. “If you are not, you will be defying the law and all of you will be arrested and taken to jail.”
Indala’s consistent silence had been spent preparing for this moment. Slowly, he raised his weary head.
“We of this village have decided to stay and fight you. As you can see our village is a simple one. No weapons can be found here. Our only weapons that each of us have, are our hearts. With this, we shall fight you even if it means the end of us in death. This Umuzi, a village to you, has lived in peace for many years. Never have we bothered or antagonized anyone and with all the White farmers in the area, exists between us an excellent relationship.”
Indala paused, clearing his throat.
“For this, you want us to give up our land? Our homes? Our birthrights? You want us to move to a place we do not know? I say no!” Indala’s fist smacking the table in defiance.
“We shall fight you in the very way we teach our children. Dignity. His is our weapon from our soul within our hearts.”
Indala stood up walked over to the window, staring at the Willow tree. The slight wind rustled the branches.
“If you and your villagers do not leave peacefully, then there will be sorrow.”
“That will be on your government’s conscience, nor on ours. Your government has forced us into a situation that for the first time we may resort to violence, if need be.”
Indala stopped, rubbed his eyes and twisted his head in the direction of the official who had not budged from his seat.
“We shall defy you even if it means that our blood must run all over our land.”
Indala opened the kitchen door that led to the back of his house. For as long as he could remember, never before had a guest entered through the front and left out the back. As he out the White man stopped and turned to the chief.
“In two days be ready.”
Outside, Lwako had the aroma of being clean and new. The rain had stopped. Switching from harsh streaks of lightening, hovered a twin rainbow wide and vibrant. Birds lifted off flying in zig zag patterns, whistling their tunes, backed up by the splattering sounds of water dripping from roofs and trees. The dense clouds began to break up, revealing a brilliant sun that began its work drying up the earth.
Outside, the people had gathered.
Indala, the Chief of Lwako spoke to his listeners. For so many years they had put their trust in him. Even at this moment of crisis, they would continue to respect his decisions, whatever the cost.
“Tonight,” Paused Indala, looking at his people, “When the moon is high up and the stars full, each family shall gather up their most valuable possessions. These must be placed into a thick plastic bag, strong enough to keep water out. Only those things of value must be placed inside, nothing else. Furniture, pots, and pans, and other large things must remain inside you houses. With our horses and donkeys, we shall carry our valuables down to the river where it curves, the spot where our women do our washing. It is there we shall bury them for safe-keeping. Go now my brothers. Go now and inform you families to start packing. Remember only small important things.”
Silence fell hard on Lwako that night as though a sudden vow of silence had been thrust upon each villager. Packing began earnestly. Indala held a portrait of his family posed in front of their house.
“We look so proud and happy.” He thought to himself, placing it in the last of his plastic bags, securing it tightly shut.
The night crept in. It was pleasantly cool. High up now, the moon, almost full and the stars flickering gently as though touched by a whiff of cold air, groups of people began streaming towards the river, carrying their plastic bags over their shoulders. The strongest men of the Umuzi had prepared holes to bury the bags. The carrying, the walking, the digging went on deep into the night. By the first glimpses of sunrise, the villagers began returning home, exhausted and hungry. At least their possessions would be safe.
During the remainder of the day, only the sprinklers, feeding the crops worked hard. The out-of-date tractor remained idle and as if a curfew had been slapped on Lwako, the villagers remained indoors. Indala occasionally went out to sit under the shade of his Willow tree. There he would meditate, take short naps and then rejoin his family inside.
As the sun sank slowly bringing in the night, restlessness and apprehension overcame Lwako. Children, puzzled by their parents’ sudden change of personality, cried. Husbands and wives held one another in comfort. They touched their children, fed them and sang them to sleep. Sleep came uneasy, but so exhausted were the minds from the fear of the unknowing that when it eventually took over, it was heavy.
The ground was dewy soft. One or two lonely patches of cloud drifted by swiftly. Chickens in the backyards began their crowing whilst running in circles and figure eight’s. In the kraals, cows began to walk about with goats jumping and skipping in between them. Dogs began to bark loudly, then growl menacingly, then bark loudly again.
Indala opened his eyes.
“They are also different today.” He told himself, turning over to face his wife, placing one hand on her soft breast.
Not far from the Umuzi, a rumbling noisy convoy was inching its way towards the village.
The noise became deafening, sending villagers out of their beds to peer out their window, where before them stood a dozen or so vehicles filled with army and police riot unit squads. Out of Ratel APCs’ pointing in all directions, policemen took aim. Some carried shotguns loaded with salt-filled cartridges. Others had in their magazines, live rounds, while others had teargas and rubber bullets. Every policeman had attached to his belt, a long plastic whip. Second in line to the riot units, stood a row of bulldozers, their engines running. Behind them were Bedford trucks and vans ready to carry the belongings and people away.
Groups of four policemen began scattering in all directions taking up positions in front of the houses. A Colonel heading the operation climbed out of his car.
“People of this village, you have exactly five minutes to gather your things and come outside.” He ordered, his voice showing a deep Afrikaner accent, as he spoke using a loudspeaker.
“If you come out now, no harm will come to you. But if you don’t, then we will take you out by force.”
The playoff was stifling as policemen with fingers tightly wrapped around the triggers stood by waiting for orders to go in. Inside the houses, nobody moved, but for the house of Indala, where a minute to go before the deadline, he came out. The Colonel watched his approach carefully as he made his way over to him. Indala the Chief stopped, looked at the Colonel with hate beaming from his eyes, then announced.
“If you want us, then you must take us out of our houses by force. Otherwise we shall not move from this land.”
Indala began walking back to join his wife and son.
“Stop!” if you don’t I’ll shoot!”
A shot rang out, whizzing passed just above Indala’s head that crashed into the wall of his house.
“If you don’t stop right now, the next one will be for real,” The Colonel shouted out threateningly.
Indala taking no notice continue to walk.
The second bullet was fired, hitting Indala in the left leg, causing him to cry out and slump to the ground. Slowly, picking himself up, he stumbled as if drunk towards his front door. His old legs could not keep him up for long and eventually made it to his door There his wife pulled him in and slammed it shut.
The Colonel surveyed the area, looked at his watch, then with a chilling cry, ordered the police to attack. Frenzy broke out as policemen surged forward, firing teargas through windows and indiscriminately firing off live rounds. Some of the villagers, panic stricken, came out running blindly. A few managed to escape into the nearby tall bush while others were beaten or shot.
On one side of a house a group of villagers stood ready waiting. As the policemen reached the front door, they dashed out with speed, hurtling rocks, some of them hitting policemen in the heads. Before they realized what had happened, the villagers disappeared behind the house to re-organize.
A unit of about six policemen sitting and waiting were called to help and once again they approached the house. This time the attack came from above, as boiling water and bricks came falling down from the rooftop, causing some to scream out in agony as they retreated. A third attempt was made. With a helicopter carrying army sharpshooters, firing with precision, and with the help of the forces on the ground, , slowly each house fell victim to the strength of the government forces. After what seemed many hours, the villagers realized that all was lost. Dogs were brought in, snapping viciously at the villagers, bleeding and limbering towards the waiting trucks, their hands behind their backs handcuffed painfully tight.
The Colonel running out of patience and angry over the performance of his squad, ordered the bulldozers in to destroy the houses, regardless of some of the people that had chosen to remain behind. Their engines revved energy and they began to roll forward, clearing everything in their paths. As walls began to cave in, hysterical screams began to emerge from amongst the rubble. One by one the houses were flattened, leaving traces of dust floating in the air.
Indala’s wife had carried him to safety as he watched, his eyes soaked with tears, the bulldozers clawing away at his only home he ever had. His wife held him tightly, knowing that her husband, tough but a gentle man had been destroyed.
As the end of the day approached, the peaceful Umuzi of Lwako no long existed, reduced to nothing.
Indala’s oldest son had arrived from Johannesburg on hearing the news of the removal. He rushed to his father, throwing his arms around him, holding him for a long time. He gazed at the remains of his home where he was born and raised. Slowly leaving his father, he began to walk towards the his house, remembering how the Umuzi once looked, On the ruins he sat. Amongst the torn bricks and cement he spotted the official letter that was once delivered to him by the government official. He picked it up, tore it open and began to read.
Suddenly he screamed, jumping to his feet.
“My God! What have they done my father! They have destroyed the wrong village.”
The branches of the standing Willow tree moved in the wind.