Sweeping the world away

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I have lived in Africa all my life, specifically Southern Africa; Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa.  I love walking and exploring and finding out about anywhere I am living or staying and I spend hours exploring new towns and cities.  I find it very relaxing, as well as fulfilling and educational.  It has certainly trained me to be more observant of all that is around me, for my safety as well as for the knowledge factor.  My favourite time for my walks is the early mornings, although I go at any time of the day whenever I feel the urge or interest in something or when I have a problem which needs a lot of thought.  But early mornings, starting just before the sun rises, are my best times.  There is something so encouraging and exciting to watch the world wake up.  A whole new beginning starting for every living thing.  Be the first to hear the birds wake up, to see the owls going to bed, to make my footprints in the newly washed beach.

Something I have noticed in all my walks is the sweeping!!  Is sweeping a cultural tradition to Africans?  I certainly cannot remember reading about it anywhere, or learning about it in Culture and Geography in school.  Where and why did it star? Now it seems a very set tradition, practised, seemingly, by a certain class level, either male or female, young or old.

Growing up on farms and ranches in Zimbabwe I used to watch the mothers and wives sweeping their little areas of ground surrounding their round, beehive huts.  From my memory this wasn’t done first thing in the morning but it seems more like after the breakfast period, so I would say mid morning.  It always seemed the wife or mother of the family group did the sweeping and cleaning, never do I remember a male or a child doing it.  I used to watch their bent  bodies, invariably with a baby tied on their backs, leaning close to the ground with a hand brush made of sticks or twigs and using only one arm rhythmically sweeping the ground in front of them.  Step by step, from one end of their home space to the other.  Then they would turn around and make their way back again.  There was always a rhythm and pattern to the procedure, around obstacles, over mounds, until they reached something too large to go around, or the edge, then they would turn around.

At the end there would be a work of art with sweeping rows of arcs on the earth.  They never stood up until the whole job was done, I could never bend over at that angle for that long!!!  The wiser people sprinkled water before sweeping – if they had enough to spare – otherwise this was all carried out with billowing dust clouds.  It fascinated me to be driving through the bushveld checking for cattle or animals and to suddenly come upon one of these clearings.  The earth is swept to hard ground and most trees are chopped out so you find an area of bare, hard trodden earth with a hut or two and a fire circle and a table for pots etc then, the bare earth comes to an abrupt end and the surrounding bush, litter or crops continue again.

I have seen this all over in the rural areas in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.  In a way I understand the reason for this, protection as you can see approaching danger i.e. snakes, wild animals, cleanliness, tidiness.  But now I see it in towns as well so I cannot understand what it is about.  Why would someone sweep the small area of road outside their property wall up to the half way line and only to the borders of their property?

Now  I see the same rhythmic method of sweeping everywhere.  I know it annoys people who are trying to sleep to have the swishing noise start up outside their windows before the sun has even risen.  I can turn into a road on one of my walks in the mornings and  for as far as I can see down the road there will be the bent bodies of people sweeping, men or women or children.  What has happened?  They sweep and sweep with brooms made from sticks, twigs, palm leaves.  They sweep right into the roots of trees growing on the side of the roads so they look like startled old ladies holding up their petticoats and trying to tiptoe to a more earth with their exposed roots.  You see huge holes in the pavings and road edges as all the soil is swept away daily into piles which is carried away and dumped on a rubbish pile.  If there is a broken area of road, wall or pavement, they sweep around each piece of crumbled concrete and tar, but don’t pick it up.  It is left in exactly the same place.  I have seen areas where the road edge has been swept away to such an extent it is now a hazard for vehicles to drive off the road.  Some yards are swept so much they are now below the street level and you can see the foundations of the buildings.

Its no longer the wives or mothers who do this, it seems every household has a designated person to sweep in the morning.  Are they a poor relation, a useless, unemployed member of the family or a destitute person who does it for a meal and bed?

They are sweeping the world away.  Why do they have to do it, don’t they understand the sand and earth s there for a reason and if it is swept away grass and trees will not grow.

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