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Open Features: Taxi To Oshabeni

Violet Wagner was born in South Africa in 1944, and started her working life as a teacher there. In 1970 she moved to the United Kingdom and has lived there since in various parts of England. Currently she lives in Essex.

Her last job was a chief executive post in a National Health Service organisation. It was the culmination of a career which spanned 19 job changes. In preparation for retirement she trained as a genealogist, with additional courses in oral history and history methods.

Since 2004 she has spent up to six months a year in South Africa, researching and spending time with her brothers and sisters who live there.

"Getting back into life in South Africa has been a roller coaster experience fueling many stories,'' says Violet.

And here is one of them.

"Sawubona, I would like to travel to Oshabeni. Can you show me the taxi?"

My polite but ungrammatical Zulu got me the answer I needed with a broad smile.

My quest to connect with the culture of my ancestors was moving on. I was on my way to Assisi Convent to perfect my Zulu. That would take two months a year for the next few years. I squeezed in, greeted my fellow travellers and sat tight. This was not your usual seat-belted Durban cab.

Riding South African minibus taxis is something you do because you have to. If there's an alternative you don't take a taxi. Some city dwellers thought I was mad, or worse still reckless. All kinds of things would happen.

"They'll rob you!"

"Don't you know how dangerous it is?"

Offers were made. "We'll drive you.''

Maybe I was reckless, but no more than I was to drive on the freeway. South African drivers are not the best in the world. Coming from England, even though I live in Essex, I step into the driving seat in KwaZulu Natal gingerly. I could tell you a thing or two.

The taxi was ramshackle, skoro koro as they call it in Zulu. The conductor had to step outside to shut the door at each stop. When we were on our way you could hear the rattles.

My seatmates, four of us in a seat meant for three, were as keen to talk as I was. And, fortunately for me they talked in Zulu. Some had been shopping in Port Shepstone. Shops in Oshabeni didn't sell the larger quantities of rice and mealie meal. They wanted to know where my car was. Someone like me, English speaking and living in town, couldn't be so poor that I had no car.

When I explained that I was learning Zulu they were surprised. Why did I want to do that? I explained that I had Sibiya and Mthembu ancestors, great grandmothers who would be disappointed if I didn't speak their language properly. The three women agreed.

I had my first glimpse of Oshabeni as we drove through and stopped for people to disembark. Beautiful brick built houses stood proudly next to the mud or wood and iron ones. Cows lay on the football pitch. Young boys ran after their goats. People walked about or stood chatting, a normal village scene.

By the time my stop came I had made a few friends and practised my Zulu. As I struggled to get off with my two large bags, I dropped my purse. Immediately one of my new friends shouted and passed it to me.

I learned a few lessons travelling in the Oshabeni taxis. The most important one was that my efforts in learning to speak Zulu properly opened doors to conversation on a different, perhaps more honest level. The language is beautiful in sound and in structure and expressive. My only regret is that access to Zulu lessons in the cities is so sparse. Once in Pietermaritzburg it was back to English.

If I ever came into a lot of money, legally that is, I would provide free Zulu lessons to non-Zulu speakers in KwaZulu Natal. It is the most widely spoken language in South Africa, especially in KwaZulu Natal. It is the language of my ancestors, truly worth learning.


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