Tea with Melea

The lush green landscape and rolling hills
around Tzaneen in Limpopo province.
(Image: South African Tourism)

Bridget Hilton-Barber

There is always a delightful Madam and Eve quality to my meetings with my mogadibo (darling) Melea Letsoalo. I have known her my whole life – literally from the day I was born. She was our family’s domestic worker for over 40 years, and her life and mine are so entwined we’re practically related.

She was born on my grandfather’s farm, the appropriately colonial-sounding Kings Walden, outside Tzaneen in Limpopo province. Her own parents were born in the area, and are buried on the farm next door. She used to go there every Easter to pay her respects, before she became an old makagulu. She is 94 now.

Melea raised my mother and cousins. She raised me and my two brothers, saw us go from unruly toddlers to 1970s schoolchildren, banner-waving university liberals to young people apparently incapable of holding down a steady job.

She was there the night my grandfather died. She says a wild storm broke out, medumo le magadima (lightning and thunder) thrashing the skies and rattling the windows, and that my grandmother left his body lying in its coffin on the lawn, and drank scotch until daybreak. There are always wild storms in her stories.

When my grandmother died, some 40 years later, Melea was there at her bedside too. She is a fine source of ancestral information for which she exacts payment in the form of sweet champagne, bags of mielie meal, linen, blankets and cash. Nothing for mahala, she says, nothing for nothing.

Melea lives in Lenyenye, a small rural township beyond Tzaneen, not far from where I live. When I visit her, she makes me tea and scrambled eggs and we sit in her lounge where the walls are covered with photographs of her family and ours.

There are about a hundred pictures of assorted daughters, sons, relatives, weddings and funerals. There is a cut-out newspaper photograph of Madiba and Graca kissing on their wedding day, and one of Helen Suzman who Melea mistakenly believes is my granny.

Our interaction is nostalgic. I return to being the baby child, she the comforter and imparter of universal wisdom. Our conversation turns on the fulcrum of her and my families, our various dogs and cats, and the past.

When I sit next to my old nanny, I see, always with faint shock, the tattoo on the inside of her left forearm. It was enormously fascinating to me as a child, and I would rub it and trace with my baby fingers the outline of her initials – ML – in cursive Victorian text.

The tattoo was very sore, she said. It was done by the boss of a citrus farm in Letsitele where she once worked. He had all his staff tattooed so that if they ran away they could be identified and returned to him.

I always ask: “What did you do?”  And she always replies: “I ran away”.

On the wall in her lounge is a huge colour portrait of a chubby-cheeked white man called Fernandez who has faded now to tea-coloured sepia. He was Portuguese and came from then Lourenco-Marques to be foreman at Kings Walden where he soon fell into the arms of the beautiful young Melea Letsoalo.

In 1935 he built a cottage called Stone Cottage (where I now live) into which he and Melea moved, and lived for some thirteen years, raising two boys and a girl. In 1948 they were arrested under the recently legislated Immorality Act which forbade love across the colour line. It happened twice more before my grandfather built Melea a separate house nearby.

The other day I fetched Melea from Lenyenye and took her Kings Walden for a visit. We sat at a table overlooking the mountains, the glorious immutable mountains that have divided and united people like hers and ours over the years. While my lot pulled in with their guns and took the best bits of land, Melea’s people were killed, imprisoned, and thoroughly dispossessed of their land following the Boer Makgoba wars in the late 1880s.

“There’s Mmamathola,” she said, pointing to an area in the mountains, where her ancestors once lived. They were forcibly removed in the late 1950’s by an Order in Council, signed by the new Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd.

Melea was there the day when the police and army arrived. She was also there, in full regalia, when Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs Thoko Didiza officially handed over to the Letsoalo people some 1 900ha of prime agricultural land in the Letsitele Valley in February 2001.

She wore a bright headdress, a traditional cloth over a long sleeved shirt and a long black skirt, beads, bracelets, earrings and nail polish. It was hailed as an historic land claim settlement and cost the government some R3.5-million, although has been racked by controversy and shenanigans ever since.

Melea heckled from near the front, according to one of my cousins whose farm was handed over as part of the deal. “You’re lying,” she shouted out in Sotho. “The government always lies”.

We sat and gazed at the mountains in silence.

“Don’t cry when I’m dead,” she said. “I will sleep nicely in the ground.”

Bridget Hilton-Barber is a well-known travel writer based in Limpopo province. She has worked as editor of South African Airways’ inflight magazine Sawubona, debut editor of Lowveld Living, travel correspondent for Radio 702 and travel editor of FairLady magazine. She is the author of seven books.