30 July 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Roadside Encounters: Mama Tofu

Mama Nomathathana Tofu emerges from one of the huts at her homestead near East London, her eyes still bright at 91.

“I am a real Xhosa,” she announces.

Mama Tofu must be the oldest tour guide in the country. Maybe the world.

She is a vision. On her head is a blue cloth turban, wound about with an orange cloth. She wears an orange shirt with beading, a long white skirt overlain with a beaded white cloth tucked in at her waist. Then two aprons, spotted green and pinkish colour.

“Marriage is at 23 for most girls, but it depends if she can make food. The woman must grind maize. Because if she doesn’t, and if she can’t make samp, she is useless. Useless!

“But we like girls because girls bring in riches whereas boys, boys take them away. When a girl gets married, she gets up to 18 cows.

“Do you see how I’m dressed? Look here: long skirt, no slit in front. I have a marriage bib I wear around my waist or, here over my chest. That is my wedding ring. These two aprons here? These show that I am a widow.”

Mama Tofu takes me over to a large indented and smooth stone where one of her granddaughters demonstrates the grinding of dried corn. The chickens flutter around, frantic at the chance of a snack.

I take the heavy grinding stone, the Imbokodu, and find that I am severely impaired when it comes to the first requirement of being a good Xhosa woman. In short, I am useless, and my ground corn is lumpy and full of half-worked bits. You could break your teeth on porridge made by me.

A skinny girl takes over and turns the seeds into something resembling a robust powder. Much better. This will make good mielie pap. Even the chickens approve.

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