In the dying hours of that day, with the moon rising orange and heavy into the winter sky, I met a man from eMtshezi. I greeted him at the gate, and his face changed. He smiled. He asked me my name. I replied and said that I was the new utisha wesiZulu at the school. Then a car drove up blindingly behind us, and I had to find a parking space.
“Angibuzanga ngegama, mfowethu”
this collection of nasals and gutturals scatters into the air between us
I round the trees, walking so purposfully that I almost miss the small patch of pink in my peripheral vision – one of my students, off by the cars.
“Oh, usukwazi ukungibiza kanje! Nangesithakazelo! Uyazi ukuthi lithini igama lami?”
“Yebo – lisho ukuthi ‘we are grateful’ ngesiNgisi”
I follow this with something I learnt from my father – the enquiry about origin.
“Uvelaphi nendawo, mfowethu?”
“Emgungundlovu – ngāzalelwa khona, kodwa umndeni wethu wākhela eDalton, ngaseMvoti”
“Uyazi indawo e…bizwa ngoEstcourt?”
“EMtshezi? Yebo ngiyazi”
He smiles more broadly, and it seems I’ve passed the test. We say goodbye and I move into the gathering dusk. I am glad to have met you, I say. He returns it to me.
Walking away, I find that we’ve had an eavesdropper.
“Have you been listening?”
“It’s one of the best things you can do in order to learn a language. I used to sidle up to adult conversations, listening and learning the tricks of isiZulu, English and other languages. It’s the best thing you can do.”