The South African Balancing Act

Have you ever tried to carry anything on your head? Maybe a book to practice your good posture? What about a bunch of sticks or a 10-liter bucket of water? How about a large bag of maize?

In South Africa we saw women everywhere carrying everything and anything on their heads. Most of the time their hands were free and often babies were on their backs. According to one young woman, the girls begin learning the technique when they are 8-years old. My daughter was 13, and I was a few years older when we tried.

On the “Women’s Power Tour” in Bulungula on the Wild Coast of South Africa, our guide, Mtomboxolo, took us to the village spring. She gave us each a small container (margarine size) and told us to fill it up with water, cover it with a lid, then put it on our heads before carrying it up the hill on a rooted dirt path. Tentatively, I put the tub on my head and walked up the hill, both hands by my sides. A few minutes later we arrived at the hut, our water intact. Proud of myself, I turned to see Mtomboxolo carrying a much larger container on her head.

Now it was time to gather wood. We walked to a wooded area with small trees and shrubs and gathered dead branches. Mtomboxolo gave us fabric to tie up our bundle, then, to my surprise, told us to carry the bundles on our heads as well. I retied mine, placed it on my head and balanced the lopsided bundle back up the hill.

Around a fire that night, we spoke to an orthopedist who volunteers in the village. She told us that many women come to her with back pain yet even after telling them to stop using only their heads, she will see them later that day, balancing heavy loads, their arms and hands empty and free.

Playing Marbles on the Wild Coast

We played marbles, my daughter, a young African boy, and I, one sunny morning on the Wild Coast of South Africa.

I meandered along the fine sandy beach, the morning sun’s warmth increasing, the wind less than the day before. My daughter walked near me, searching for shells or some creatures of the sea.

Around the curve of the coast, a little boy appeared near us, his black eyes big and friendly. Picking up a round seed, the size of a marble, he flicked the seed with his thumb, shooting it far along the wet sand. My daughter followed, taking her turn and learning quickly. He saw me watching and gave me a seed and motioned for me to play, too. Using a stick to create a line in the sand or his hands to dig a shallow hole, he showed us what to do, flicking the seed as if it were a marble. Shooting and flicking and sometimes tossing the marble, we followed his lead, doing what he showed us with no words.

He told us his name was Paul and that he was 6 years old. He counted to 100 in English and drew the alphabet in the sand, reciting each letter as he wrote with a stick for a pencil. He wore a torn Michigan sweatshirt and sweatpants and bare feet and when he tried on my daughter’s sunglasses, he posed in a typical “cool” manner, leaning back, his arms crossed until we laughed.

Around the corner from where we played, several women appeared, with tall buckets on their heads. Wearing long skirts and shirts, their heads covered in fabric, they walked with their hands free, nodding as they passed, continuing on beyond the river mouth to the colorful thatched roof huts on the hills.

When it was time for us to go, we said good bye to Paul and left him playing on the beach, marble in hand.