08: Gold Mines and Gum Boots (Transcript)

Craig Shank I’m Craig Shank. This is Everything Sounds. Everyone has times where they feel out of place, but usually you can find some way to make it through. Today some people check their phones, others initiate small talk, and sometimes just leaving a situation is an option, but we’re turning back the clock to tell the story about people who endured hard times and managed to work through them without those options. These people used the sounds of language, dance, and music to help them connect to others, remember their loved ones, and endure those awful conditions.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini I’m Dr. Betty Sibongile Dmalini…now..

Craig Shank We needed some help to tell this story.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini I’ve been trying to say Be…because when I say, “Beh-tee,” they think I’m saying, “Betsy.” I was born in Swaziland and I now I work at Indiana University where I teach Isizulu, a language spoken in South Africa, one of the 11 official languages…

Craig Shank Southern African people have a unique relationship with music.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini The Southern African People…singing and dancing is really a part of their everyday life.

Craig Shank Betty grew up in southern Africa and she experienced the role of music while she was working on her father’s farm.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini When we were weeding, we would sing and we would have fun just weeding and then sometimes singing and do it in such a rhythm that we enjoyed weeding. Or when people are doing any kind of work, even lifting up a heavy log or something, any kind of heavy task, then they would start having some kind of a chant or a slogan that would say and encourage one another to do this work or say something that….”Hey, together we can do it.” Those are the kinds of words they would have.

Craig Shank Long before Betty was born, a new tradition would develop from hardships in the southern African region. Settlers and traders in the mid-1800’s discovered gold and diamonds, which led to economic opportunities. And after mining near the surface, miners eventually had to go deeper to find more gold. And the deeper you go, the hotter it gets and it wasn’t uncommon for the mines to collapse. On top of that, the supervisors often treated miners terribly. Sometimes miners would get kicked in the ribs if they were caught taking breaks. On top of that, sometimes the mines were filled with water, sometimes up to their knees.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini And having their feet in water made them develop sores on their feet. And some of these were very, very deadly. People would just lie down and the production….so, the productivity was lessened. So, the Mine owners, instead of solving the problem by dealing with the water, because they were concerned about production, they wanted to get more gold. How they got it wasn’t an issue. So, they decided to give the miners some rubber boots. And they were called, and even today in Southern Africa what the rubber boots or rain boots, we have here, they are called gum boots because of the rubber that is from a gum tree.

Craig Shank Even though working in the mines was dangerous, the owners of the mines still needed to find people to do it.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini Those people that owned the mines realized that there was so much work that needed to be done and they couldn’t it on their own. So, they went to recruit people from all over the world.

Craig Shank Even people from as far away as China and Europe came looking for work in the mines. But the majority of the miners were from what was then known as the Republic of South Africa.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini What you would call South Africa today is just new. It’s only from 1990’s after Mandela was out, but before then it was the Republic of South Africa.

Craig Shank There were people from all over the world working in the gold mines and many of them were far from home. So they were given housing, but as you might have guessed, the conditions were not great and to top it off, these miners had emotional hardships in addition to the physical ones.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini These men, they were together…just men only, and their wives back home, children back home, so they would miss their families, they would miss their food. But, then they would put together, even like, somebody from Malawi somebody from Botswana and Lesotho…they would be put together without the consideration of their backgrounds.

Craig Shank The miners found a few ways to work through their differences.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini The came up with a language that was called “Fanagalo..”

Craig Shank It was a mixture of many different languages…

Betty Sibongile Dlamini Fanagalo was a creole language which incorporated the different black southern African peoples’ languages as well as a little bit of English and Afrikaans, that is the Dutch or the white Afrikaners, the people that were originally Dutch.

Craig Shank Sharing a language let the miners communicate with each other, but there were still more challenges. The work and the conditions were still grueling and difficult to handle without some encouragement.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini They never had time to rest. Sunday afternoon was the only time they would have.

Craig Shank Do you remember what Betty said about music’s role in the work that was done by southern African people?

Betty Sibongile Dlamini …the Southern African people, singing and dancing is really a part of their everyday life.

Craig Shank Well, the mines were no exception..

Betty Sibongile Dlamini When they were working down there they would start making those chants, like, “Hey, let’s do it together,” like, he have one that would say *chant*, that would say, “Let’s lift up man, let’s lift up man, together.” If it’s a very heavy thing that…let’s say maybe ten people wouldn’t be able to lift, once they started chanting…and then they’d do it rhythmically, that thing would move even if it’s a rock, it would get out of place.

Craig Shank In addition to sharing a language and work chants, miners brought along their own dance styles too.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini For instance, when the Zulu people dance they are very aggressive…even their talk. So their dancing would be like, “Hey!” and they hit and stomp. They lift up their legs very high and stomp the ground very hard and others like the Botswanas, who are hunters…and when you read their history they’re very skilled hunters. So, their own dance styles, it’s like they were hunting, the moves that the would make. So, when they were together the Botswanas would bring their praying mantis kind of moves, the Zulus, their stomping style, but then those different dances were brought together.

Craig Shank And if you’re wondering what some of those chants sounded like, Betty had a few examples.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini One of them is like, *chant*, that one is for lifting up. Another one is *chant* that is, “Hey, we are not scared of them.”

Craig Shank As you might have guessed by now and based on the second example, miners sometimes needed to conceal their feelings or show non-violent resistance to those in charge.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini …but then they incorporated their own codes. They coded this. They would stomp or sometimes whistle which is part of the dancing, whistling and chanting, but then they would bring in their own communication. So, the dance would mean, like, “Hey, careful! There comes the supervisor.” And the others would just go in a frenzy, not necessarily as entertainment, but as a way of letting (them know) the supervisors were coming.

Craig Shank Many of the supervisors actually liked the dancing and chants. They thought it was helping moral and increasing production, but sometimes the miners would chant things like this:

Betty Sibongile Dlamini *Chant*

Craig Shank …that essentially allowed the miners to call the supervisors stupid to their faces for disrespecting them and calling them, “boys.” However, it’s important to note that the tone of the chants was generally positive and about things such as:

Betty Sibongile Dlamini They had songs which are about the food back home, their wives they miss, and everything…sometimes even cattle…everything that was of value to them which they had left at home, they would sing and chant about, and also words of encouragement, like they would do before they went to the mines.

Craig Shank When the miners returned home they brought some things back with them.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini Whenever they went back home they took their rubber boots with them and they brought so many other things…trinkets and so many other things from the city and when they were back home, people would be like…you know, southern Africa, that’s a tropical area. You don’t have to wear boots on a hot summer day, but these ex-miners would wear their…they would go around as a way of showing off because even their language…they would speak this Fanagalo, and it was cool. Everybody would be like, “Hmm.” They liked that. So, they liked showing off. They had worked very hard, but as a way of rewarding them…this was a reward for them that they are the “been-tos.” They have been to the city of gold.

Craig Shank Everything that they brought back seemed to be a sensation.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini People noticed that the way they danced wasn’t common, but the common thing is that in all these different place, what these people…the way they were dancing was the same because it was a product of their dancing there. The name gumboot dance wasn’t even given by the miners. It was by the people because (they) say, “Hah!” They called it gumboot dance because this is the way they danced when they are wearing those gum boots.

Craig Shank Over time the miners themselves and the people in their communities would add elements to gumboot dancing.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini Even in the early 1900’s they would use guitars, but these days they have electrical organs and these pianos. They bring all of that to gumboot dancing.

Craig Shank After spending time at home, miners returned to work. For many years working conditions were still poor in the mines, but eventually progress was made.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini The miners started having unions and they wanted to challenge all of this and say, “Hey, we are human. We have to be treated right.” It was a struggle, but again, because of the unions they didn’t get their freedom just like that. They fought, but then through the fighting thing became a little bit better.

Craig Shank What’s now known as Gumboot dancing is done primarily as a tribute to the men that worked in the mines. Gumboot dance is about making the best of any situation.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini The beauty of having people going through hardships and being positive. Really being…encouraging one another…just being positive about the situation and having hope that things would be better.

Betty Sibongile Dlamini It is a product of diversity and that in southern Africa really, like South Africa today is an example of people who are so different and it’s not the difference we should focus on, but it is the commonalities that we focus on. Those people are different, but they are a unit. They are people of South Africa.

Craig Shank Gumboot dancing has now spread throughout the world, thanks mostly to students studying abroad and bringing the traditions with them. It may seem unusual if you’re seeing and hearing gumboot dancing for the first time, but as Betty explained:

Betty Sibongile Dlamini …but they stayed strong, they were dancing all the way through as a way of staying positive. It may look stupid to other people, but really, that is powerful.

Craig Shank The audio examples of gumboot dancing are from a recording by Stephen Bess of LeSole’s Dance Project and from the show “UMOJA: The Spirit of Togetherness,” both of which you can learn more about on our website, everythingsounds.org. And don’t forget to keep the ratings and reviews coming on iTunes. If you’ve already done that, consider supporting the show by becoming an Everything Sounds “Audiophile.” You can pay what you’d like and get access to our bonus material as it becomes available. Find out more at everything sounds dot org slash support. I’m Craig Shank. Thanks for listening to Everything Sounds.

One thought on “08: Gold Mines and Gum Boots (Transcript)

  1. Just heard this story on Public Radio Remix. Its inspiring to see people be themeselves and are able to go past the point where they are just who others want them to be, and grow into strong individuals.

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