arbitrary stuff that comes to mind: whenever I feel like thinking aloud

Monday, March 8, 2010

Stirrings of manhood

I grew up in the Free State, in dusty little towns under high blue skies rising above the long flatlands of mielie fields. That would be corn, if you're an American or Canadian.

A common sight in those days were the black labourers digging trenches and ditches along the roads connecting the towns and along the pavements of villages.
It takes strength to swing a pick. It's backbreaking work, raising it high in the air, pausing, and in bringing down the strength into the hard earth. A motion forwards: the land gives way and crumbles, and the pickax soon rises again for the next blow.
You would see a line of these men, stripped to the waist, sweat runneling down their backs and across their chests. Often these would be prisoners serving time for a trivial offense: sometimes they were employed by the municipality to do the backbreaking work.

To truly do the job properly requires timing. Each man lifts high his pickax in the air, they pause as one, swing down, break and lift.

At the head of the line one man holds the time. He calls out in Zulu, or Sotho, or one of the myriad other tongues: in a singsong voice as one the pickax gang returns the chant. Every breath a pause, every pause connected to the pickax, the deep voices calling to the power, and then down! The earth shudders, breaks, crumbles.

Here were the first stirrings of my manhood. I sensed my power to come, I knew one day my muscles too would fill out, ripple, I too would gather my strength. I understood I was a man in waiting. The irony of the small white boy sensing his own strength and manhood in the song sung by the black labourers, the song of the pickax: this I would only realise many many years later.

The song of the pickax is celebrated by Gerard Sekoto, on a painting on canvas that he did many years ago. I came across it in a book in a shop in Rosebank, Johannesburg this evening. It stirred my memory and sent me back to a time when Labour was honourable, even though it was disrespected.


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