Tents and a Town in Transkei: Cala

For three consecutive winters, from 2003 to 2005, I joined a team who present a winter school in Cala. This small town in the Eastern Cape Province is part of what use to known as Transkei — a so-called homeland set apart for Xhosa speakers as part of South Africa’s Apartheid policy of separate development. Once one gets there, however, one realises quickly separate, yes, but not equal. Aside from the poverty, Transkei had some of the lowest educational levels in the country. Soon, however, as we drove through beautiful rolling valleys, one Friday, something else struck me. “Why all the tents?” “Funerals,” our driver’s answer came.

Funeral services did not have enough tents to accommodate the customary Saturday burials. We were driving through Transkei during the worst part of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in South Africa, and this was one of the worst-hit parts of the country. Soon, as we walked through Cala, it became apparent that there was almost no one between the ages of 20 and 50 there. “Why,” I asked a Tata [old man] sitting next to the road. He told me young people leave for the city [often Port Elizabeth or Cape Town] and came back to die.

A boy in my class was having trouble with geography even in the smaller groups of the winter school. I decided to work together with him after class. He kept squinting. I took a stab in the dark and lent him my glasses. His face lit up. “I can see,” he said. “Then we have to get you a pair — should I write a note to your parents,” I replied. “I live with my aunt,” he said. “Where are your parents,” I asked? The story he told me, inspired the song I will share with you later.