Gran: Ubukulu abubangwa (one does not become great by claiming greatness)

“Happy now”  – Gran upon meeting her great grand-daughter Khaya, Dec 2012.

First name: unknown
Surname: Zauka
Clan name: Qhinebe
Birthdate: Unknown (we think about 80 years ago)
Hometown: Lusikisiki, Transkei, South Africa
Occupation: Pillar of the Earth

I went through much of my life thinking men had it figured out. Women complicated things, men kept it simple. I liked that. Then I learned that it was life itself that was complicated. Women are just more likely to step up to it. They show up. Sure they will fight against you, but they will also fight for you. There is proof all over the place so I won’t waste anymore time belaboring the obvious – women hold up the world.

If you are a liberal, romantic or anyone who watches Oprah, you hope to meet people like Gran. Perhaps even more so given the vagueness of her life details. We don’t know how old she is, where she was born or how many children she has raised . We don’t even know her name. She goes, affectionately by MaQhinebe, translated to mother of her clan. She lives in the rural Transkei- a former black ‘homeland’, the poorest part of South Africa and an epicenter of AIDS and unemployment. She has endured colonialism, mass migration, apartheid and, now, democracy. She doesn’t speak English, has no running water or salary, but makes her own beer, ploughs her own land and feeds a house full of other people’s kids. She raised 2 doctors from no thing, lost 6 out of 7 of her own children and has watched a generation vanish to disease and violence. When they brought electricity to the village in the early 2000s, she complained the lights were keeping the cows awake.

Gran and Mpho

I go Home to her annually. My husband’s belly button is buried there (officially making it Home). As is his mother, brother, uncle and father. Mpho’s mom, Noxolo, was dropped off on the doorstep as an infant by a distant relative. As she does, Gran picked her up and made her her own. Under her guidance, Noxolo grew up to be a mighty woman – a courageous and tenacious visionary willing to fight for what is right and for those she loved. She died in a bed in the middle bedroom from a sudden bout of pneumonia. When we arrive, Mpho slows into 2nd gear and blasts traditional maskandi music from his car stereo. He knows where he comes from.

Gran and Khaya

I love Gran. She has been wholly generous to me and my family. Her presence makes you know greatness is among you. I love what it means to Mpho to go Home and how I catch him secretly smiling to himself while staring into the rolling hills. I love that this history and character are parts of our lives and pulse through Khaya’s veins.

According to culture, as a bride, I must show my worth by how hard I work around the house. I’m supposed to gather, cook and clean until my back hurts. Instead I get lost in translation and patronization. I don’t quite understand what is expected of me, nonetheless my way around a freshly slaughtered sheep. Add centuries of screwed up race relations, my 30% Xhosa vocabulary and the gulping sound I make while trying to stomach (purposely) soured milk and you get both old and young asking me if I need a rest after making a cup of tea.

This last trip, Gran came in one morning carrying 5 bags of chips and 2 bananas on a plate. For breakfast. I’m mortified by the image of my gluttonous self in her eyes, alone in a room 5000 calories deep into junk food (that we brought for the kids) instead of fermented porridge handmade by her. Equally so by the notion that she thinks I want it served to me while everyone else eats outside.

at weddingWe often patronize poverty. It makes it easier to stomach if the poor are content in simple joys or they haven’t seen enough to know any better. Gran has lived her whole life working hardcore manual labour in Lusikisiki. Poverty, death and illness have lived there all along. But don’t ever mistake her for someone who doesn’t know the difference.

Poverty, by rule, is short-sighted. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that without the basics of food, shelter and safety we are unable to truly experience love or self-actualization. Yet Gran gives everything and asks for nothing. Mpho offered her anything in the world for Christmas; she asked for tripe.  In a culture where the elders are meant to be cared for by their young, she just took in 2 needy children.


There are 80(ish) years of the hardest earned wisdom in those bones. She has seen more than I ever will and carries a burden that would crush anyone I know. Her decision to wake up each day and choose optimism and the greater good is at least as difficult as it would be for anybody else who has suffered loss, including those of us living behind white picket fences. Gran is a hero for many reasons, but her willingness to endure is truly remarkable.

I speculate that what makes it possible is perhaps the only thing that is truly sweet about poverty – the number of women bearing the same burden with equal grace. You see, Gran’s sister lives next door.  Yet another octogenarian widow who looks out her window at the graves of her own children while raising a house full of someone else’s.  Up at 4am to chase the chickens but the first to dance over with a beaming smile when we pull up in our dusty car. I sometimes wonder if they stay brave in part for one another –  purposefully making it hard to be the odd one out.

No offence to the great guys out there, but I suspect this blog may end up being about a whole lot of women.

2 thoughts on “Gran: Ubukulu abubangwa (one does not become great by claiming greatness)

  1. Aimee, our paths crossed but for a very short period of time and yet I have been more touched and impacted by who you are than almost anyone else I know. After reading this blog, I have a better idea of why….seeing the world through your eyes and the openness you have in sharing your life with others is humbling. Thank you for sharing about Gran. I may never have the opportunity or privilege to meet someone as amazing as her but I am afforded the opportunity of knowing her and being proud of her as a woman through your words.

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