I love watching him stick fight; something about how he motions his body in rhythm with the stick and then strikes drives me crazy – in a good way. He moves from an elegant dance to a deadly attack – in seconds. Only a courageous man can master such a skill. From an early age, boys in our village are taught how to stick fight. We, the girls hide behind trees and watch them on our way from fetching wood or water. We pick our favourites and secretly cheer for them. I’ve always had a mystical desire to stick fight but women are prohibited from participating or watching unless it's an open tournament; like today.
Mnqobi has been a stick fighting champion since he was 10 years old. His name means conquerer and it suits him perfectly. He is the third born child of the notorious Mbhele family. They are rich and famous for their ruthlessness. There are over 30 people in that family. A total of 20 young men, their father, his three wives, 4 young women (the sisters) and a lot of cousins that come and go, it is hard to keep up with them. The Mbhele yard looks like a village on its own; so much so its called ‘EMabheleni’ which means the Mbhele area. We have been ‘friends’ for as long as I can remember. He is 4 years older than me but he’s my best friend. Well him and Makhosazane.
Mnqobi had accompanied me and Makhosi to take the water home and we came back with him to watch the tournament. My mother let me go because it is Mnqobi who asked for permission. My family has a soft spot for him – my future husband.
“Sphiwe is a good fighter though,” Makhosazane begins.
She likes supporting Mnqobi’s opponent just to create a competitive atmosphere – even though she knows Mnqobi will win eventually. Today he is fighting a champion from a neighbouring village. It promises to be a good fight.
“He is,” the guy next to her responds,”and he will break that Mbhele boy. He is too arrogant now”
“Arrogant?” I ask
The guy faces us, “All these Mbhele boys think they own this place. They need to be taught a lesson.”
Makhosazane laughs and says, “The lesson that will be learned here is that you don’t talk about the Mbheles like that.”
Yes – they are that type of family. Mostly feared but also hated in and around the village. I think wealth brought in a lot of enemies and those who stick around just want to be given money. The Mbheles don’t have many friends because they are a large family. The boys, especially, travel in packs and they like fighting. Mbhele brothers are famous for these fights and mostly hated for winning them.
I was promised to Mnqobi when I was a little girl. Our fathers made some sort of deal. It is a tradition that ties a relationship between families. I grew up knowing my fate. I would marry Mnqobi and be a Mbhele wife. I have never been with another man – with the intention of a relationship or even a friendship. Mnqobi is very possessive. Everyone in our village knows I’m his wife; when a guy approaches me he fights. He doesn’t want me to go to the reed dance because he feels all those girls parade just to get husbands. So there is no need for me to go because I already have one. We haven’t been intimate; this is not allowed before I have umemulo. This is a ceremony that my family is to do for me as a way of relieving me and welcoming me to womanhood. My mother told me I would only have umemulo just before I get married. I don’t know when that will happen because I want to go to university next year and I don’t think we will get married this year. The Zulu wedding process is too long but that’s a story for another day.
And he strikes! Mnqobi wins again. Sphiwe was coming on well but he let his guard down for just a second and Mnqobi used the opportunity. He is very unpredictable; you can never say he has a certain style of fighting. I am very proud of him – I’m marrying a champion. Just as we stand to cheer, a group of men from Emadlangeni (Sphiwe’s village) get into the ‘ring’ and attack Mnqobi. He falls down carelessly as he wasn’t expecting this. I’m shocked and scared. The Mbhele group comes running and fights. There were only two of them watching the fight but the others arrived almost immediately to protect Mnqobi. I can’t see him anymore. The crowd is too big, there is blood and screams and sticks flying around. People start running around screaming. The grounds are dry and there is just so much dust I can hardly tell who is who in all that fighting. I try to get closer. I need to see Mnqobi.
“Let’s go,” Makhosi grabs me away from the mayhem.
“Makhosi I need to see him. Where is he? I can’t see him,” I scream hysterically.
Mzuvele, the Mbhele’s eldest son, comes towards me from the fighting crowd. He looks calm; as if he wasn’t just fighting. I was taught not to look at him in the eye as he is an elder so I am to treat him like a father in-law. But right now I don’t care about all that; I want Mnqobi and I want him now.
“Mzu where is he?” I ask as he comes closer.
“Go home,” he says quickly. He isn’t much of a talker so I never get used to his deep voice. He turns to Makhosi, “Khosi take her home, now!”
It sounds more like a bark than an instruction. I’ve seen him like this before and it’s never a good sign. People will die today; if one isn’t dead already. Mzuvele only talks to us when it’s necessary and that’s usually when there is grave danger. Makhosi grabs me by my arm and we run off. From the distance I can still hear the screams and see the dust above the trees like a cloud of smoke.
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