This last weekend, I accepted an invitation from Professor Hlungwane to go with him to his home town. Hlungwane is a professor in the Xitsonga section, not Tshivenda, but has been extremely helpful to me in my time here — he helped me get set up with a space to work in on campus, introduced me to the department and much of the administration of UniVen, and is now helping me prepare to collect a bit of data on Xitsonga for another project I’m working on. Early on in my stay he suggested that I should accompany him out to his home town so that I could see real, rural South Africa; this last weekend (my last weekend in Limpopo!) we were able to make this work.

His home town is called Muxiyani (or Mushiyane, depending on how Anglicized you like your orthography). To get there, we drove southeast out of Thohoyandou down past the small town of Giyani, onto a smaller highway inexplicably littered with speed bumps, then finally on to a dirt track for a few km. Here’s a Google Earth link. The town sits on a seasonal river, now just dry sand, with nothing but thick mopane veld around.

Hlungwane and his family, and indeed the entire town, were extremely welcoming. I had a feast of home-cooked pap and chicken with spinach and beetroot from their own garden; Hlungwane and I drove around the town so I could be introduced to very nearly everyone; and on Sunday I was given a warm welcome at their church. The town is a small grid of dirt roads surrounding fenced-in plots, some built up with modern houses, a few with rondavels (though those are typically built from modern materials), gardens everywhere. It’s rather amazing to see such lush gardens in a place as dry as this, and as salty — in much of the town the well-water is so loaded with salts it clogs the pipes, but the plants don’t seem to mind.

There was one thing about Muxiyani that I found very surprising. The town is isolated, with poor access to services and no local jobs, the farmland serviceable but hardly enough for growing cash crops. If it were an American town, it would be shrinking, all the young people moving away for jobs in the cities. But that wasn’t the case: Instead of boarded up abandoned houses, I saw new construction. Muxiyani isn’t shrinking, but expanding! As we drove around town that day, we stopped in at three or four different construction sites (in each case, Hlungwane knew both the owner and the construction workers, so stopping to chat was a must). These are not small homes going up — they are, to a one, four or five bedrooms with generous sitting rooms, large kitchens, and verandahs.

It’s not that new people are moving into Muxiyani. Rather, it’s that the people who grew up there simply don’t move away. A large number of them do what Hlungwane himself does: They keep a house in town near their work and stay there through the week, but then return home on the weekend. Hlungwane’s four daughters are all going to school in Thohoyandou, but every Friday the family all loads into the car and drives back home to Muxiyani.

I asked Hlungwane about this. He offered a number of explanations for the phenomenon which I suspect all contribute. A common thread runs through all of them: The importance of family. For one, a lot of these houses are obviously intended as status symbols, but it seems that for the residents of Muxiyani the most important people to display your status to are your extended family. How are the people you grew up with supposed to know that you’ve gotten a well-paying job in Polokwane if you don’t use it to build a beautiful home back in the village? Besides, the house isn’t just representing your status, but the status of your family — if your pensioner father can’t point down the road at the beautiful house his son built, what good is your fancy job in town?

Another explanation had to do with keeping wealth in the family. If you move to town and marry a local there, suddenly you’re investing all of your wealth in a place where the in-laws might get at it. Much wiser to invest that money back home so that if you die suddenly it stays in the family!

And last was this: Families around there are big, and there are a lot of occasions that necessitate a full family reunion. Any birth, any death, any wedding, any holiday — none of those can be celebrated without the entire extended family coming together. Where can you gather such a large group of people? Where will there possibly be enough beds to host them all? Only at home, and then only if everyone with the means does their part to construct new living-space.

And so, Muxiyani frankly looks like a little boom-town — you’d think some new industry had sprung up there. Hlungwane isn’t convinced this will continue to the next generation: His daughters are growing up primarily in town, and haven’t spent their childhood herding goats or gathering firewood in the bush around town. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they, too, keep returning home. None of the explanations he offered hinged in the least on some sense of nostalgia for a childhood in village, but rather on close blood ties and the support of one’s community. I suspect his daughters feel that just as strongly has he does.

This is my last week in Thohoyandou! I’m busily collecting all the last data want, five or six meetings a day. There are many things I won’t have the chance to do in town before I leave — looks like I’m not going to make it back to the tea factory while it’s open, or down to the dam to go boating, or up any of the local mountains. I suppose I have to save some things for the next trip! I leave on Friday morning, very early, to spend a few days in Cape Town before returning home.