Land, Possessed

We are the land. We are Africa. We are made from the ancestral spirits of the San and the Khoikhoi and the Bantu peoples. We are not the god of everybody but are the beginning of everything. Many people have sought our counsel in the wind or in bones or in the healing wise whispers of those who passed before them. Ours is the domain that stretches across from ocean to ocean and from the great desert above to the stormy coastline below.

We have been here since the beginning. We have raised mountains by folding great depths of rock over each other. We have grown forests and greened valleys. Along us rivers stream down to the sea and carve canyons out of the stone, sand and soil. And we offer their waters to the sky so that it may rain back down upon everything that lives on us. That water sustains life. Our grass and roots and bark feed elephant and buffalo. Our sable and springbuck feed the mighty lion and cheetah. Our fields are filled with abundance.

We are the land. Ours is the landscape in every image and the origin of every thing ever thought beautiful. On us the first apes started walking. In us you found the remains of the first of your species, getting closer and closer to solving your great mystery. For eons we have shared our plants and our animals with you. Your earliest arrived on this stretch tens of thousands of orbits ago. Over the ages you started painting stone slabs and cave walls in our bellies in the likeness of how you lived, fed and bred. You’ve seen these paintings, studied what they mean. And you announced that this garden, in the very center of us, was the center of you too. You called it the cradle.

We are the land. We watched the San people develop their society around the idea of family, where woman and man were equal and kinsmen joined to form small bands of caramel-colored people. We saw them survive in our scorched corners by gathering edible plants, berries and water droplets, hunting game with spears, fishing by hand. By speaking in clicks and moving across the countryside in a never-ending search for moisture and new food and materials for tools. We saw how some of them gathered fat-tail sheep and longhorn cattle, settled along our coastlines and at our rivers and in our valleys. They learned to rest and take root in stillness. And they became a new people.

These Khoikhoi, men of men, grew taller than the San. They grew into tribes that were larger than a few families, and built more permanent settlements. A “rich” man, one who had the gift—and therefore the power—of consultation, presided over them. Material abundance, need, was not a measure of success. Survival was. These tribes traded across our flats and over our mountains. They made pottery, acquired copper and iron, learned new skills.

And we saw the darker Bantu-speakers cross south over our grand rapids. A slow yet continuous downward shift over many moons, thousands of years ago, caused by the gradual drying of the north. A lapping and overlapping frontier of farmers, moving, seeking new pastures and bringing with them metal, tools and knowledge.

The Bantus cultivated more of our belly than the Khoikhoi did. They planted fruit and wheat and beans, together with maize and grains. They owned large herds of cattle, but used them more as currency than for their meat. Cattle became a way to show wealth and were used for important events and dealings; unions and land purchases and ceremonial tributes. Chicken and goats were grown for the fire and the pot.

Large settlements gradually became their own tribes and were led by chiefs who consulted with elders on matters of significance. We saw these packs of people introduce class, politics and transaction. Power and ego and importance replaced decorum and respect and belonging. And so they chipped themselves off and followed different leaders, splintered, spread out. They became separate dynasties that sowed many fertile fields and promising pastures with their grit and ambition.

We saw the birth of the tribes of today. They called themselves the Venda and the Sotho and the Tswana and the Xhosa and the Ndebele and the Zulu. They segregated by age and gender and affluence and interacted with each other, the San hunters and the Khoikhoi settlers—sometimes trading, sometimes absorbing, sometimes fighting for the same important gifts of our making. The land became dotted with mud-hut villages and cut with foothpaths, only to be battled over and migrated across. Uprisings led by spears of iron and shields of hairy hide; the blood-thirsty and aggressive always conquering the content and the peaceful.

Light-skinned settlers arrived from far by water. They carried with them gunpowder and religion. We saw the pretend peace and real restlessness they brought with them in the name of advancement. Brick and mortar replaced thatch and mud. Great beacons and fortresses and light towers made them feel safe. Paths were paved, trade was forged, books were read and written. Bargaining became buying and selling for profit; purses were sent back across the seas to enrich queens and thrones unheard of. Unimportant ones. Land was defined by name and stake, our clumpy soil swapped for pieces of paper. Great battles and many wars smoked through us, tore into us. Blood dripped deep into our ravines and explosions echoed through our canyons. Our balance broke for a time. But we endure.

We are the land. A blessed place, no matter who your maker or where your station or what your standing. A place where life is hard and fraught and painful. A beautiful bowl of forests and deserts and rivers and animals that prevails, despite your deeds. Where, still, in some parts, all that crosses the straight-lined horizon are galloping antelope chased by a speeding lioness. Where the pride’s roar at dusk and their crunching of freshly-killed bones remain the only sounds breaking the silent setting of the sun.

A place still ruled by us, the ancestral spirits.

One comment

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