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Bringing home a sheep from Mthatha

Business trips frequently take travellers to parts of the world we still know very little about

Performers at a church wedding in Qunu. Photo: Getty Images
Performers at a church wedding in Qunu. Photo: Getty Images

Sikhumbuzo is driving me to the airport on a quiet morning in the South African city of Mthatha. The Drakensberg mountains (or the Mountain of Dragons) are spread out in front of us. Golden light from the rising sun dances gently in the mist that covers the range. Early risers jog along the highway.

“Look," Sikhumbuzo says suddenly, pointing to a large cow on the road—it’s either dead, or will be soon. We see a group of people rushing with knives.

“What’s happening?" I ask.

“Oh, a car must’ve hit the cow. Those guys are rushing to take the meat home," he explains.

Mthatha is Nelson Mandela’s hometown, a hotbed of activity in the days of apartheid. The city is located in a section of the Eastern Cape province, also called Wild Coast. It has a distinct sort of beauty—rough on the edges but gentle inside.

Sikhumbuzo is a doctor. He was an active participant in the healthcare technology workshop that had brought me to Mthatha. Like several other clinicians in the region, he’s not from Eastern Cape. He told me that his father spoke nine languages, including Greek.

People from Mthatha mostly speak Xhosa, clicking their tongues with almost every sentence. I tried it; the hotel receptionist said I did okay. Everyone I met was multilingual, switching languages as easily as we switch from English to Hindi or regional languages in India.

They did just that too—switching from English to a local tongue—during a fiery debate in class. In that exercise, I asked one group to role-play as a vendor selling an Artificial Intelligence system to the hospital. The other group represented the hospital administration, resisting implementation. They sounded exactly like doctors and administrators everywhere.

Mthatha is located in a part of the Eastern Cape also known as Wild Coast. Photo: Praveen Suthrum

During a break, Sikhumbuzo helped me understand the ethnicities in our class. Many were Xhosa, of course. But there were Xulus. And several others from countries further away, like Nigeria. Sikhumbuzo said his wife spoke both Setswana (Botswana’s national language) and Sesotho (Lesotho’s national language). It made me realize how arbitrary national borders really are, dividing up cultures in ways that you can never put together again.

South Africa’s constitution recognizes 11 official languages, including two European languages, and Tswana and Sesotho. The country is multicultural in a way that the world outside Africa cannot easily comprehend.

On the last afternoon, when we were wrapping up, many said the class had changed them for the better. Technology didn’t seem like something to be afraid of. Busisiwe, also a doctor, said, “We usually gift someone like you a sheep, but you are a vegetarian!" Sikhumbuzo joked, “We can give him some cabbages!"

Later, over dinner at a restaurant called Ebony, I learnt more about sheep-gifting. Ziyanda, a doctor, explained that it was a common practice in the local culture to honour someone by gifting a sheep. An uncle had gifted her a live chicken for her graduation, a gesture that touched her—she gave the chicken to a cousin who had a farm.

The wide vistas of multicultural Mthatha. Photo: Praveen Suthrum

I was a bit perplexed. “But how would you take the animal with you?"

Sikhumbuzo answered matter-of-factly, “Oh, just tie up the legs and put it in the car." He continued, “When my family learns that I’m coming home, they cut up an animal in my honour."

“Oh!" I said, digging into the delicious vegetarian fare Ebony’s chef had made for me. My mom makes those rice-flour rotte I love whenever I go home. It must be in my honour, though I usually just eat them without thinking too much about it.

Outside, I noticed that Ebony’s logo has five snakes, one under each alphabet, slithering up together. Up in the sky was a full moon, much bigger than I normally see in the northern hemisphere. The sky seemed to be shining a bright round flashlight, so that we could look around in the darkness.

When I try to look around, I find a big world. Telling me every time that I know very little of it. Sometimes, I think the purpose of business is to ensure people meet each other. People whom we would otherwise never meet. At first, we think about how different they are. And then, a little later, realize that in reality they are exactly like us, in more ways than we can imagine.

Sikhumbuzo and I reach Mthatha Airport. He offers to shake my hand the South African way he taught me. First, we hold out our right hands, as we would usually, then we coil our palms as though we are going to hand-wrestle, then we interlock four fingers, and release by flicking our thumbs (a sound is welcome). Finally, we bring our shoulders together while hugging with our free arms.

On the flight in to Johannesburg, I was seated next to a backpacker from Guatemala. She encouraged me to drive around the Namibian Desert, armed only with a backpack and tent. She kept repeating: Africa is all heart.

I thought about that a lot in Mthatha. It is all heart.

Praveen Suthrum is the founder of a US-based healthcare management and technology company.

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