Returning home

Overgrown grass reaching as high as the car windows almost completely hid any signs of the existence of the old road to Nanguene. ‘This is the home of the tindlopfu (elephants) now’, a young woman born in Nanguene said from the back seat as we drove into a field to pass a tree blocking the road, the wood still fresh from only recently having been pushed over by an elephant. Somehow I felt like I had never been there before, even though I still knew by heart the holes, the stumps and the mini topography of each stream bed that I had to cross to get to the location of the old village of Nanguene. One year and four months of no human maintenance of the landscape gave the place a very different feel. Before being resettled, a resident of Nanguene mused out loud as we were driving out of the village for one of the last times, ‘They will turn our road that we maintain by hand into a shiny paved road for white tourists as soon as we are gone’. So far, that image had not materialized. 

We parked in front of the old school and found the group of women who had travelled the day before by foot to visit their old home huddled under a xikutstu tree in a homestead that was once one of their common gathering places. Wrapped in colourful capulanas to guard against the early morning chill, still adjusting their head scarfs after waking up, chattering away and munching on handfuls of dry maize porridge that they had carried with them on their heads in blackened metal pots covered with lacy cloths, their spirits were high.The women had built a ring of five fires, still smouldering, around the tree under which they had slept to scare away animals at night.

Around them half-torn down structures of their old houses stood in all states of disarray, like an abandoned village from another era. It was the first time since being resettled that the residents of Nanguene had returned for a visit to their old territory. They had come on a fishing expedition to the pools of the Shingwedzi; in Chinhangane they could not fish in the deep, swift current of the Olifants River. Small children and babies had been left behind with other relatives; men were nowhere to be seen. They hadn’t come to bring fish home but to feast amongst themselves. ‘Who has the matches?’ someone called out as we were descending into the wide, sandy river bed. The rest of us waited in the shade of a fever tree while a young girl went running to fetch them, a necessary element for cooking their fresh catch. We crossed the river and took a path that cut through the forest to the other side of the bend in the river.


The women collected handfuls of caterpillars from the branches of moping trees (2010)

The women collected handfuls of caterpillars from the branches of moping trees (2010)

Suddenly, one girl screamed something out, and in a chorus of excitement everyone took off running. Before I knew what was going on, some of the women were half-way up trees, clinging to slim, bending branches, shouting and singing. It was matoma season, mopane worms. We filled our buckets with fat, bright orange, yellow and white-spotted caterpillars the length and thickness of my finger, oozing with green juices as they were squished by the frenzy. This delicacy was also scarce in their new home.

The first small depression in a bend in the river that we came to, where the women used to fish when they lived there, was dry, nothing more than a mud pit. As we walked on, back in the direction of Nanguene along the river bed, we came to a more promising spot. Women and girls quickly stripped off their shirts and shoes, dug the new mosquito nets that they had been given just a�er resettlement, probably still heavily impregnated with insecticide, out of their basins and marched into the small pool of brown, stagnant water. With two women on each net they worked in teams of two nets, and by slowly walking towards each other, keeping the nets as low as possible in the water tried to trap fish between them. Sun glistening on their wet skin, concentration was broken with fits of laughter as teams bumped into each other, got stuck in the mud and as mothers taught their daughters to fish. Their new life--although only 26 kilometers away by the road--is a different one.

Women fishing with mosquito nets in the pools of the Shingwedzi River bed (2010). 

Jessica Milgroom