Indulging My Nostalgia (a.k.a. On KwaNyavu)

This week has felt like the universe has been smothering me with homesickness for South Africa. The History Department hosted a talk by Janie Cole, who spoke to us about her continuing research on songs of resistance and female political prisoners. The song clips that she played made my heart ache. Mid-way through the talk, I looked on Twitter and my friend, Myra, was tweeting about eating Nik Naks! Ahmed Kathrada died yesterday. South Africa is just in the front of my mind, which is a place it hasn’t occupied since I returned from fieldwork. I needed time and space to remember why I loved it. My year away was hard. It was hard in every way that I could have imagined it would be and then some. But it was beautiful too. I wrote the following bits on the day I left South Africa, thinking about my research site and how long it would be before I could get back there again. So I’m indulging my nostalgia and posting it here.


Driving along the N3 has to be one of the greatest pleasures of living and working in South Africa, as well as one of its greatest threats. The rolling hills and vistas offer stunning views and brilliant greenery as you avoid careening trucks and aggressive drivers that make you question if you will even reach your final destination. But pulling on to this highway always gave me a little jolt of excitement, because I knew I was going somewhere that I loved, be it Durban, KwaNyavu, Ulundi, Howick, Pietermaritzburg. There are too many parts of South Africa that I have fallen in love with to ever name.

The N3 exit to reach KwaNyavu is nondescript enough, save for the Lion Park sign that marks the exit. The drive out to the location is nearly idyllic and panders to those stereotypical images of Africa that romance visitors the world over. A few kilometers off the N3, drivers are often confronted with a herd of zebra (is there a word for a herd of zebra/). These zebras are not wildly roaming their natural habitat, however; they are one of the many attractions awaiting tourists at the Lion Park. But my destination was always beyond this tourist trap, beyond the chicken farm that one has to hold their breath when passing, past the vibrant construction happening on the turn-off, with the homes being built with brilliant views of my destination: Table Mountain. 

The road ebbs and flows, offering glimpses of the big finale, then taking them away as the road winds on. The road also offers impressive potholes that drivers must avoid if they don’t want to deal with a flat tire (or something worse) at least 40 minutes away from the nearest garage.  And the cows. So many cows. As I would drive along this road with my research assistant, it would only be a short time before she was shaking her head, wondering at this umlungu who feels the need to yell out “Cows!” each time a group of Nguni cattle crosses her line of sight. These cows are one of the greatest joys of my time in South Africa. The kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, humps and horns continuously (stun) me, no matter how many of them I see. And the herds of cows become more and more frequent the closer we get to KwaNyavu itself. They especially like the wide stretch of grassy riverbanks hugging the Msunduzi River, sunning themselves in the warming morning sun and finding refuge in the trees that offer shade in blistering afternoon heat. It is at this point in the drive that we begin to pass residents of this area, who seem to be continuously confused by my presence, yelling out “Umlungu!” and waving to get my attention. 

Past the river and around the last curve, KwaNyavu opens up before you, houses shadowed in the mammoth Table Mountain. The five izigodis are all visible from this vista. The weather here is extreme. The winters are painfully cold, both inside and out. On Saturdays, you can only stand to be inside if your host offers you a thick blanket, as they are not allowed to run any heating on Saturdays in order to adhere to Shembe rules. And the summer, it’s just the opposite. One mourns having to go outdoors, longing for those same cool floors and uninsulated ceilings; the things that make the winter so difficult make the summer just a bit more bearable. But people find many forms of relief from the blistering heat. Children wait in line at the local tuck shops for popsicles. Men bathe naked in the cool relief of the Msunduzi River or drink beer in the refuge of their huts. Women use their weekly laundry as a welcome excuse to submerge their arms in its cool waters, scrubbing away the red dirt which is prolific here and across South Africa. The sights of people enjoying the rushing waters of the Msunduzi is such a relief. 2016 brought with it one of the worst droughts ever experienced in South Africa. Many times in the late winter, it was unclear whether the Msunduzi would be flowing like this again. But the breaks and ripples show that things are getting better, and the verdant landscape assures the onlooker that the drought hasn’t taken things past the point of no return.    

I don’t know why KwaNyavu speaks to me in this way. I have felt at home here since the first time I was guided on this dangerous road to meet with Chief Sikhosiphi Mdluli’s wife for our first interview. It was raining that day and some of the beauty of this place was obscured in mist, but I was smitten. I had been to Table Mountain before, but on the other side, in the town of Maqongqo. The views of the mountain are stunning there too, but something just feels different about KwaNyavu.

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