He was a great, strapping bear of a man, about six-foot-six tall and almost as wide, and all of it muscle and bone. Stripped for action, he might have starred in a Hollywood action spectacular alongside a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and not been disgraced. His nickname, Inyati, means 'buffalo' in Zulu, referring to the Cape Buffalo of those parts, strong, tough and highly intelligent, and a fearsome opponent. He was well named.
I first met Inyati in 1984. He was working on a gold mine near Johannesburg, South Africa, and had risen to the status of induna (roughly translated as 'head-man' on the mines, or, in tribal context, 'war leader' of an impi or regimental-size battle unit). I was trying to provide some assistance to members of a nearby community, disrupted by violence. (For an example of what that could entail, see my post from Christmas last year.) He used his influence to help me get to local leaders, mediate a truce between opposing factions, and help those 'caught in the middle', who didn't care two hoots about politics, but cared greatly about staying alive and healthy.
Inyati found me puzzling. He was used to White men being either card-carrying racists, supporters of the apartheid policies of South Africa's government at the time, or flaming liberals who would talk a great deal about injustice and oppression, but not do much about it. Here was I (and a few others like me) who didn't talk much, but simply did whatever was in our power to help those in need, irrespective of politics and sectarian or tribal rivalries. Over time, as we got to know each other, he grasped that all of us, from widely differing religious and social backgrounds, were doing this because we felt called to do so by our faith. Whether we worshipped the Christian God, or Allah, or the Hindu pantheon, or whatever, we took our beliefs seriously enough to feel called to help those trapped in the never-ending cycle of violence that gripped our nation at that time: and because of that, we were united in working as one, despite religious differences. We understood one another 'soul-deep', as it were.
Inyati didn't have much religious faith himself (apart from the animist traditions of ancestor-worship and the 'spirits' in which he'd been raised), but he could appreciate faith in action. He observed once to me that all of us made far better missionaries for our respective faiths than all the preachers he'd ever heard, because we weren't afraid to get our hands dirty, and expose ourselves to risk, in practicing what we preached. I pointed out that all too often we were scared s***less, but that hadn't yet stopped us. With a great, booming laugh, he slapped me on the back (it felt like he'd dislocated a couple of vertebrae in the process) and assured me that it wasn't the fear that mattered - it was whether or not we let it control us. "A warrior rules and uses his fear. A coward is ruled and used by it. None of you are cowards."
Somewhat to my surprise, Inyati developed a liking for classical guitar music. In my car one day, he heard a recording of one of Giuliani's guitar concertos. When it was finished, he asked for more information. Over the years I sent him recordings of many pieces, and he and I shared a great love for Rodrigo's 'Fantasia Para Un Gentilhombre'.
In 1987 Inyati's father, the leader of his tribal clan, died. He went home to his tribal village in Zululand for the mourning period, and after it was over, he was anointed as the new Chief of his clan. He sent word to me that he wouldn't be coming back to Johannesburg, and invited me to visit if I ever found myself nearby. I needed no second invitation, and over the next few years made several trips to visit him.
Our visits were wonderfully refreshing. My friends and I would live in a guest hut, crawling through its low entrance on our hands and knees, our only concessions to Western comfort being the air mattresses, sleeping-bags and pillows we'd bring with us. Inyati would always chuckle at our 'softness', insisting that a bed of soft branches and leaves was good for a young man's stamina. However, we couldn't help but notice that he was careful to retain his own inner-spring bed and mattress, and provide each of his wives with their own. We twitted him about that, and he laughed again, pointing out that he was no longer young, and that a Chief - and his wives - had to have some comforts now and then. His grinning wives agreed wholeheartedly.
Inyati would rouse us in the chill mornings, mist curling around the trees and huts, and treat us to coffee made his way (black, so strong you could almost watch the teaspoon dissolve in it, well sugared). When the toxic brew had blasted the sleep from our eyes and brains, he'd lead us out into the fields and brush surrounding the village, to watch the mist dissolve beneath the rising sun, breathing deeply of the fresh, clean air, watching with delight as the world came to life around us. He'd take us hunting for small game, instructing the clan's children in how to go about it, using snares, slings and spears to feed their families. We'd walk among the women, tending maize (corn) in the fields, calling cheery greetings as they spotted us. (Most of their menfolk were far away, working on the mines, earning money to send home to keep their families alive. This 'migrant labor' system was one of the most pernicious aspects of apartheid society in South Africa, dislocating and disrupting family life for generations. Families were forbidden to accompany breadwinners to the mines and cities.)
Inyati proved a superb leader for his people. He settled three generations-old blood feuds between his clan and others nearby. No-one could even remember how they'd started, but their young men would still try to kill each other whenever they could. (It's been said that a Zulu will fight at the drop of a hat, and drop it himself if no-one else will - a true saying for many of the tribe's rural clans.) In each case, he used intermediaries (usually sangomas, witch-doctors) to approach the other clan, proposing a peace conference. After much negotiation, the elders of each clan would gather at a neutral spot, with their escorts of young warriors, armed with assegais (short stabbing-spears) and shields, grouped at a safe distance behind them. Inyati would rise and address the elders, always respectfully, but firmly, pointing out the constant drain on both groups of the lives lost through senseless killing, and proposing a formal and permanent peace between them.
There were always objections. Some would argue that (for example) their great-grandmother had been raped by a member of Inyati's clan, and there had not yet been sufficient 'satisfaction' for this crime. In such cases, Inyati would inquire whether compensation could be worked out in money, or cattle, or some other commodity. This usually produced a figure, which after negotiation was mutually agreed to be sufficient to wipe out the 'insult' or 'crime'. Of course, such figures had to be offset against similar depredations perpetrated by the members of the other clan . . .
Days would be spent solemnly discussing each case, agreeing on a settlement figure, and noting it in a sort of ledger. When all such incidents had been dealt with, the two sides of the ledger were compared, sums adjusted, added and subtracted, and a balance agreed. For the sake of fairness, it usually ended up with each side giving the other a gift of cattle and part of that year's harvest - gifts which almost invariably canceled each other out nicely. Honor was satisfied, which was the whole point of the exercise, after all. The honor of the tribe and clan was paramount. There could be no peace unless it was respected and satisfied.
In one case, the other clan's leaders bargained, negotiated, haggled, and eventually came to an agreement - all except one elder and his sub-clan. That worthy rose majestically to his feet and intoned that he could not agree to a settlement of his people's ancient blood feud. The matter was too important for mere cattle or maize to 'satisfy the ancestors', who would surely curse him and his people if they abandoned so deep-rooted a grievance in exchange for mere commodities. No, the fighting would have to continue until blood had paid for blood.
Inyati wasn't fazed. He stood and stripped off his leopard-skin cloak, revealing his massive, oiled, muscular chest, and his immense height and strength. He politely acknowledged his opponent's right to insist on blood satisfaction for their feud, and proposed a solution. He would represent the past chiefs of his people: one of his sangomas (and he gestured to a young witch-doctor, built almost as strongly, who stood and stripped for action as his chief spoke) would represent the spiritual leaders of his clan; and one of his warriors (gesturing to the leader of his young men, who stepped forward, tall and proud, assegai and spear ready, feathered head-dress waving in the wind) would represent his fighting men. Let the opposing chief represent his forebears, and select one of his sangomas and one of his warriors to do the same for their groups. The six of them would fight it out here and now with assegai and shield, chief against chief, sangoma against sangoma, warrior against warrior, before the assembled elders. The clan with the most survivors from the combat would pay to the other whatever compensation they requested, and the matter would then be resolved, both in blood and by payment.
The other sub-chief looked Inyati up and down, noting his heft and build (considerably more imposing than his own), and the size and strength of the two assistants he'd summoned; then he looked around at his own sangomas and warriors, none of whom seemed particularly eager to volunteer their services against such impressive opponents. Stroking his chin, he acknowledged that such an arrangement would, indeed, satisfy the ancestors . . . but perhaps there might be a better way? After all, would it not be a great pity to deprive either tribe of the wise leadership of men such as themselves?
Inyati solemnly agreed that this would, indeed, be a great pity, and there might, indeed, be a better way. After further discussion, he offered to present three of his own cattle to the other sub-chief, as a personal token of respect, so he could 'sacrifice them to the ancestors' and thus gain their approval. (The chances of their being so sacrificed were slim to none, of course - they'd end up in the elder's own herd.) Honor being satisfied, peace was duly achieved.
Inyati kept his people away from the frenetic internecine violence that infested South Africa during the late 1980's and early 1990's. He insisted that the welfare of the clan as a whole was what was important. Political discussion, even different points of view, were acceptable: but under no circumstances could they be allowed to break down the unity of the clan. Some hotheads disputed that, but one after another, they mysteriously disappeared after one too many inflammatory incidents. I've no doubt some ended up feeding the crocodiles. Others, wiser men, would have taken the hint and left for greener pastures, one or two (very rapid) steps ahead of the posse.
As South Africa's first democratic elections grew near in 1994, Inyati was approached by emissaries from various political parties, all promising him wealth, patronage and influence if he'd order his people to vote for their candidate. (Such approaches were common in tribal areas.) Inyati was no fool. He'd be polite to each of them, but ask for a visible token of their generosity 'up front', so he could show his people in concrete terms just why they should support this or that party. He took all such 'gifts' and distributed them evenly, without favoritism, among his people, who were very grateful to their Chief for such blessings. Being grateful to him, they listened to his injunctions not to let politics divide them, and each was able to vote for the party of his or her choice without interference.
The outraged party representatives all accused him of cheating - only to have him blandly inquire how this could be so? All of the parties, from one side to the other of the political spectrum, were accusing him of the same thing. How could he have cheated those on the right if those on the left also said he was a cheat, and vice versa? Baffled, the political operators retired in disgust - all except a couple who were so unwise as to threaten retaliation. No-one ever threatened Inyati with impunity. They weren't seen again . . . and the others took note when the next elections came around. Peace was maintained.
I maintained occasional contact with Inyati through mutual friends after I left South Africa in 1997. He continued his wise, level-headed leadership of his clan. Other clans and sub-tribes were known to ask for his assistance and mediation in sorting out conflicts between them, and his reputation grew steadily with every success.
Sadly, time moves on, and the effects of age take their toll. Last year, in his mid-60's, Inyati was diagnosed with cancer. Treatment was offered, but made him very sick: and he decided that this was no way for a man to live. He declined further treatment, went back to his people, and made arrangements for a smooth transition of leadership and power when the time came. Those who learned of his illness were grief-stricken at the prospect of losing him, so he took care to swear them to secrecy, and never complained, even as the pain grew worse. In his last message to me, delivered through a friend, he asked me to pray for him to 'my Christian God', and also to make the traditional offering for him when the time came. (He knew I'd been initiated into some of the mysteries of the sangomas, years before.)
When I checked my P O box this morning, a letter from a friend brought the news. When the pain grew very bad, Inyati rose with the dawn one day, dressed in his warrior finery, and walked into the woods. He did not return. His people found him there later that day, assegai and shield in hand, lying beneath a massive tree venerated as the home of many ancestral spirits. They bore him home, and laid him to rest with all honor. His son now rules in his father's place.
I said my prayers for his soul this morning. This evening, as the sun set, I went outside, taking with me a couple of letters I'd received from him over the years, and the one I received this morning. As the light faded, I lit the fire, and blessed a leafy branch (not from a tree with which he'd be familiar, but I'm sure the ancestors won't have minded), and laid the pages of the letters over the flames, one by one. Waving the sacred branch through the rising smoke, I spoke the words of the ancient ritual for a safe passage from this life, then laid the branch on the burning pages. I hope he heard me, wherever he is now.
In memory of Inyati, out of our shared love for the piece, here's the second movement from Rodrigo's 'Fantasia Para Un Gentilhombre', played by Narcisco Yepes.
Even though he wasn't a believer in my God, Jesus said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers' - and Inyati certainly qualified as such, even if his style of peacemaking wasn't exactly Biblical! I don't think our Lord will turn him away.
Sleep well, Inyati, my brother, my friend . . . until we meet again.