It’s 5:25, and my last class of the day is about to end. Through the windows I can see the snake of traffic coiling red and orange down Rivonia, showing me the way home. No one has yet looked at their watch, but I’m aware that we’ve already crammed enough into this hour. So I summarize.

“…basically you can use this construction whenever you’d use the word ‘that’ in English – I think THAT you’re an idiot is ‘ngicabanga UKUTHI uyisilima; I hope THAT you are well is ‘ngithemba UKUTHI uphilile'”

I can see the class nodding. They’re getting this. I’m chuffed. So I resort to the usual time-saving device:

“Does anyone have anything else they want to know? Anything?”

There’s a pause, and then Jeanette asks:

“What’s a porcupine?”

After the class has expressed it’s amused astonishment, and Jeanette has explained that there are porcupines on their land near Lidgetton, and that they frequently get in the way of cars on the roads, I answer:


With that the class ends, we say our goodbyes and I gather my things. But the word stays with me, as I descend the lift and bid farewell to the onogada in possession of the front desk. It stays with me as I join the serpentine procession through Sandton, Inanda and Athol, half-listening to Abasikibebunda on Ukhozi FM.

And I begin to piece together the memories.

Black and white quills on my father’s desk, and in the grass bowl in my mother’s muthi room.

A tiny bottle swirling with a concoction of intelezi, tied by strings of three different colours to a tree near our gate eNtumeni, with a single porcupine quill to reinforce it.

I tried to write with one, once. I made some kind of ink, scratching words and lines klwii klwii klwii on old cartridge paper that I’d found in the garage. It made an awesome treasure map.

And then everything changed. We moved from eNtumeni to eNtulini, from KwaZulu to Natal. We were living in a strange cold little house set up against a hill near Nottingham Rd, surrounded by endless green without character, utterly civilized and alien. We sat in the quiet damp of the rooms, longing for the warmth and the chaos we had left behind.

I tried many things to dispel the disquiet of living esiLungwini – exploring, playing, learning to swim in the weedy dam, feigning interest in the workings of the stud-farm on which we found ourselves. I read a lot of books, cultivating the inner world to compensate for the barrenness of that outer world.

Then one morning my mother came to say that they had found an ingungumbane.

I was excited.

I had done a project on them that year at school, while recovering from Mumps, and I wanted to see it. I imagined the beauty of it, the quills bristling to attention.

But I imagined it all wrong.
It was too late.
It’d been trapped, you see. In a little cage, on the hillside.
It’d lost all its quills.
It was just a pink thing, pathetic and in pain.

And sitting there, in that little house, listening to my mother talk about it, I knew just how it felt.