Entlambu- the river where we did our laundry- is where I first heard of the sickness. At that time I never knew exactly what it was, but I later picked that when they mentioned a girl’s name followed with, “It is so,” it meant the sickness had caught her. At the local newspaper, Kascatfulo – the stream where we fetched water from- is where I heard my 16 year old sister had also been caught. I filled up my ten litre bucket and rushed home to tell auntie the rumours. But I found her listening to Gogo’s dream about clear water, which meant someone in the family had been caught. “She is going to bring shame to this family,” Gogo banged her walking stick and shooed me outside before I could ask how the sickness caught her. She was later sent off to my weird aunt who lived by the misty mountains, Ebhandeni.
“It doesn’t see children.” Auntie reassured me one night. “Will it see me when I’m older?” I curled under the blankets. She looked away and fixed her doek. When she realised I could see the glow in her eyes, she blew out the candle. Was it watching me, waiting to catch me when I’m older? I worried then quickly pulled the blankets over my head when the tree hands waved by the window. Granny disliked my sister for getting caught by the sickness, but disregarded Auntie because it could not catch her, that’s what the old uncles said when they brought her back from her marriage home.
When I got to standard 3, the new girl in my class boldly asked our teacher Miss Fakudze how the sickness caught girls. A silence fell on the class. The boys exchanged looks of excitement while the girls looked strangled by discomfort. “They’ll teach you when you get to secondary school,” she turned to the board. “Miss we know these things, stop treating us like children,” the boys rowed. “Girls do yourselves a favour and stay away from boys!” she stared at me. Did Miss think it was going to catch me? The butterflies in my stomach said yes.
One Saturday morning while I waited for my sack of maize meal at the mill, the new girl from class, Tholiwe, also known as the forward girl. With her sack of maize meal carefully placed on her ring worm infected scalp and hands on her waist, strolled towards me. Before I could return her greeting, her long fingers ran all over my magazine while she oohed and aahed at every short skirt and high heeled shoes. “Mdoli by the time you get home you’ll be looking shorter than a grade one student…” she signalled I put my sack down, then bent to place hers on my head because it was lighter. All the way home she told me about how she was going to move to the city and open a big shop that only sells short skirts and high heeled shoes after she retired as a musician. Later that afternoon we met Entlambu to swim and do our laundry. The following Monday I introduced her to Phephelaphi who didn’t quite like her.
When we got to standard 4, Phephelaphi, Tholiwe and I were placed in the same class. We used to clean Miss Fakudze’s house every Friday after school and we’d watch television. She’d give us fried chicken and her old magazines. They were my favourite subject after siSwati. Sweetest eye candy too. My favourite were the dresses and hats. Tholiwe indulged in the short skirts and high heeled shoes, then dance before us like the women she saw on TV saying she’d one day be like them, especially since the sickness won’t catch her. But out of the three of us she was likely to catch it first, suggested Phephelaphi and I’s silence.
It’s after we got to secondary school that the victims of the sickness increased, despite the biology classes. We were placed in one class except for Phephelaphi, but we always made an effort to eat together during breaks and walk together after school. By the end of the first term we hardly saw her. One afternoon at the beginning of the second term, one of her classmates relieved us from our wait when she told us Phephelaphi hadn’t been to school for a week, and she had puked before she left. On our way home we spoke nothing of our suspicion. A few weeks later I saw her carrying a sack of maize meal from the mill, she never said much except her swollen stomach. She looked like a stranger I once knew. Even when we knew each other we never shared much about our personal lives. What I remembered the most is that she was the quiet one and she always needed fixing. If it was not the hem of her tunic, it was her collar, soup stain on her tunic… She had changed in every way except the fixing part: her t-shirt was worn the other way around. When I confirmed the rumours to Tholiwe she shrugged and continued humming a tune by the woman in short skirts and high heeled shoes we often saw on Miss Fakudze’s TV. After seeing Phephelaphi I had nightmares about the sickness catching me. She was the quiet one, boys never came close to her, she must have swallowed something. I ignored the biology lessons.
“I started!” I said timidly to Tholiwe one morning as we marched to school and did a little squat to adjust my heavy underwear. “Hee!” she placed her hands on her waist and shook her finger like I was in trouble. I bit my nails. Tholiwe started when we were in grade 7 and we always accompanied her to buy the ‘biscuits’. I was still too embarrassed to be seen holding them, so she’d buy them and give them to me on our way home.
When we got to grade 9, Tholiwe and I were separated but we still met up at breaks, not after schools because she had to meet up with the taxi driver who’d take her for free rides and buy her chips and drinks and would eventually accompany her to the TV station in the city where she’d dance in short skirts and high heeled shoes like the woman from Miss Fakudze’s TV. My pearls of what I thought was wisdom were returned with, “Risky or not, in life you need to make money, and I’m ready to take my risk,” she sang her self-composed tune and did one of the dance routines we learned in drum majorettes. She began missing school one day a week, three days and then a week. Her excuse was a headache, or lack of ‘biscuits’.
Some girls at the local newspaper said she was seen in the bushes a few times by herders. “And we all know what happens in the bushes,” they laughed and high fived each other. It was first Phephelaphi, now it could be… I couldn’t accept the thought. My friend was going to go to the city to dance in short skirts and high shoes and I was going to see her on TV, I drummed the words in my mind as I rushed home with the bucket of water on my head spilling from my shaking knees. When I finally arrived home I tried to distract my mind with one of the magazines I got from Miss Fakudze. I saw the woman I said I wanted to be like when I grew up. She was wearing a nice suit with a matching hat serving an important man in an aeroplane. I always rushed outside to watch them, as they rarely flew on our side of the sky. I remembered Miss Fakudze’s words after I told her about the woman and promised myself to stay away from boys like she advised so I could be like the woman in the picture. “Tholiwe as well,” Auntie said to Gogo. I dropped the magazine and ran out to confirm what I heard. With Tholiwe gone I felt the sickness ready to attack me, until I met Mandla.
“Mdoli I want to see you after the match,” he gently pulled my arm just as I stepped on the field to do a routine with the drum majorettes squad. Mandla, the bracket-shaped-legs guy, best striker in the entire school if not region, every girls’ crush wanted to see me. My heart throbbed. Those five seconds he stared in my eyes rushed all the blood in my body to my face. How would I survive a minute with him? I dodged him and ran straight home. “Mdoli when will I see you?” He always asked when he saw me at school. “I’m still thinking about it,” I’d say and walk away from the fear of how much I liked him. One day he told me to meet him by the Guava Gate. The excitement and fear I felt drove me there. He brought me a lollipop. It was the sweetest I’d ever had. We spoke until I lost track of time. “Get home safe,” he said, but refused to let my hand go. “You look like a real doll, only prettier,” he squeezed my round cheeks then stole a kiss. I floated on clouds. We began seeing each other almost every day and he started calling me Doli. My bones felt like rubber whenever he said it.
The picture of the woman I pasted on the wall and Miss F’s words no longer carried the weight they used to. And the sickness, Mandla shoved it at the back of my mind. “I’ll serve the king in the skies and you’ll serve him on land,” I said happily one day while he held my waist and spun me around, after we told each other our dream careers. He was going to be a lawyer and defend the king and his household. When I told him of the sickness, he promised that I’d never get it because he wanted me to work in the skies. I loved him more for that, then we started meeting in the bushes.
“Why is the back of your head covered with grass?” Auntie asked one day when I arrived home. Another day Gogo gave me a suspicious look and said I now had holes at the back of my knees. “It’s the drum majorettes training,” I cheekily grabbed my bucket of water and headed to the stream. Every time we were in the bushes he always promised I wouldn’t get the sickness because he wanted me to be like that woman in the picture. “I want to be your wife,” my heart said.
At the end of the year we started seeing less of each other because of the final exams. Then I saw him on the day he left for university applications. “I’ll see you after a month Doli, I promise,” he said excitedly, jumped in the bus and never looked out to wave goodbye. My tears flowed more than the waters of Entlambu when a month turned to
three months. One morning as I got ready for school, Gogo walked in while I was bathing and stared at my naked body. “Hee!” she leaned on her walking stick and walked out. I wondered at her reaction, then stepped out of the water to fix the loose picture of the woman in the picture, but it kept falling.
Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo