A long way from Marabastad

The story of Bra Zeke



In 1957 Professor Es’kia “Zeke” Mphahlele left South Africa. He didn’t come back for 20 years. When he did come back, a big crowd went to meet him. They kissed him. They hugged him. They shook his hand. They were glad to have him back.


Zeke is a professor. But he doesn’t look like one. He doesn’t wear fancy clothes. He looks like anybody else. And he talks to everybody. He taIks to old ladies and kids. They call him Bra Zeke.


Zeke has had a full life. The little boy from Marabastad has done many things. And he has visited many places. He has come a long way.


Zeke was born in Marabastad 63 years ago. Marabastad was a town­ ship near Pretoria. Zeke’s parents were poor. H is father was a shop messenger. His mother was a washer­ woman.


When Zeke was five years old, his parents sent him to his grandfather’s kraal. His grandfather lived in Pietersburg. In Pietersburg Zeke got his first job. He looked after his grandfather’s goats and sheep.


Zeke started work at half past four in the morning. He walked with the goats and sheep in the mountains. He walked about 15 miles every day. He took the animals back in the evening.


Zeke did not think about school. The nearest school was 10 miles away. Sometimes his grandmother sent him to the school. But Zeke did not like school. He was always behind in class.


Zeke had a good time in Pietersburg. He played with the other children in the evenings. They hunted rabbits and other small animals in the moon­ light. They played stick-fighting with soft sticks from wiIlow trees. And they boxed on the soft river sand.


Then Zeke’s father died. Zeke went back to his mother in Marabastad. Marabastad was different to the mountains of Pietersburg. The houses were close together. The township was crowded. And poor white people lived nearby. The town­ship people called them “Skoenvel” because their skins were so rough.


Zeke’s mother had one big wish. She wanted to give her son an education. So Zeke went back to school. He was 14 years old. He couId not read or write.


Zeke was the eldest son. He helped his mother. He woke up early. He swept the house. He made break­fast for the famiIy. And then he got onto his bicycle. He went to fetch the dirty washing from his mother’s customers.


After school Zeke helped his mother again. He worked until 10 o’clock at night. And when the house was quiet, he studied. He studied hard. He wanted to do well.


Sometimes Zeke helped his mother in another way. His mother sold liquor to make some extra money. Zeke’s job was simple. He stood outside the house and watched for the police.


Zeke loved Marabastad. He loved the people. They were all poor. But they stood together. They were kind to each other. Zeke loved Sundays best of all. On Sundays Zeke dressed in his best clothes. And he went to watch the Malaitas.


The Malaitas were men who worked in the white suburbs. On Sundays they dressed in white shoes, white socks, white shirts and white caps. And white handkerchiefs always hung out of their pockets.


They sang when they marched through town. A crowd of people always followed them. The Malaitas stopped at the open ground in Second Avenue. They made two lines. Then they started boxing. They all boxed at the same time. They boxed until they bled. Their white clothes turned red-brown from the dust.


Now Zeke loved school. He wanted to learn about everything. He did well at school. He got his junior certificate. He was 19 years old.


Zeke went to Adams College in Natal. He studied teaching. When he finished he did not teach straight away. He went to work at a blind peoples’ home. He was a clerk. In his spare time he studied for his matric.


One day the Orlando High School choir came to sing for the blind people. Zeke fell in love with one of the teachers. Her name was Rebecca. He married her a few years later.


Zeke worked at the blind peoples’ home for three years. Then he went to teach at Orlando High School. He taught the children in the day. At night he studied for a university degree.


In 1952 the government started “Bantu Education”. Zeke did not like Bantu education. And he was not scared to say so. He was fired.


Zeke went to teach in Lesotho. But he did not like it. He came back after six months. He got a job with Drum magazine. Now Zeke found a new love. He started writing. He has never stopped writing. He has written many books.


Then Zeke left South Africa. He wanted to see the world. He taught and studied in many places. He lived in Nigeria. Then he lived in France. And then he lived in Kenya. And then he lived in America. And then he lived in Zambia. And then he went back to America.


But Zeke never forgot about the mountains of Pietersburg. He never forgot about the kind people of Marabastad. He knew he would come back to South Africa one day. And he did come back.


He came back to the place where he belongs.


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