It’s been a year. The paths are crowding over with the long grass, with puddles filling in potholes, with the imminent beachward flight of Jozi’s residents (and the inevitable binge of mall-cramming shopping preceding it) singing a cloying tension into the air.
It’s been a year. A year of different tongues in different heads with different mouths calling down the sun, talking up the moon, and drawing words in the scattered patternings of the stars.
I’ve made that decision I had to make. I chose isiZulu, over English. And, as I chose, I felt a small piece of my mother-tongue falter. I felt it plead, saying “don’t forget about me”. I sensed it, cornered and fighting back, waging guerilla warfare with the other languages in my head.
I want to tell it that I will never forget it, that it is one of the few things that have remained constant for the almost three decades I’ve been alive. I want to tell it that there is no way I can forget about it. I want to tell it that there are parts of my life which will never be lived in anything other than English.
But, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m not so sure about that anymore.
Next year will be my first full-time isiZulu teaching position at a single institution. I will be teaching, and speaking, isiZulu for 6 to 8 hours a day, with only the evenings, weekends and holidays in English. Effectively, I have cornered my mother tongue. I have fenced it into a smaller space than it originally occupied.
But I take solace from the fact that my Greek and Latin can bolster it. That it won’t be alone in that smaller space. And I’m not going to starve it, not by any means. I will read, and dispute, and discuss, and tell stories in English. I will still write, as I do now, in English.
I wonder, though, what my University professors would say about this – Professor Beale? John van Wyngaard? Dr Woeber? If you’re out there, this is my apology for letting you down. I have moved very far from studying “Lawrence, Hughes and Heaney” with you, John – but I will never forget the way that you taught us to listen to the poetic voice. While I may never teach others about the mock-heroics of the Rape of the Lock, Prof Beale, I will always remember our smokey discussions in the dim closeness of your office, and the passion you had for the Romantic poets. And Catherine, Dr Woeber, I will always remember the moment when you told me to study Classics over English, standing in the door of your office on the second floor of the OMB.
So there is no way that the paths will be completely covered over. Those things I’ve learned, and those people who taught me, will not disappear through disuse. They will, I tell myself, always be there.
Kodwa kumele ngiqhubeke ngendlela yesiZulu, ngoba lokhu likusasa lami. Sengikhethile.