When I turned 5 my mother came to fetch me to go and stay with her in the city. When I turned 16 I wanted to return to the village because life in the city seemed complicated and it needed too many sacrifices for me to make it work. After I left the village I returned once when I was 12 to bury my grandmother and never returned since. My mother said there was nothing for us there, but late at night, I would sit in the dark and count all the things that were for me back at the village. One thing I always counted twice was the people, the people who knew how to say my name, who knew my great grandfather, people who knew how my family got to stay at the village of Motsewabatho. But my mother was too shiny and proper and she spent enough time convincing herself that she no longer needed the people of her village of birth that she now believed it and she was trying to convince me to believe the same thing.
My mother never called me by my full name, Kgalalelo, she never even called me by my nick name, Kgali, she introduced me to all her fancy friends as K, and even her husband knew me as K. On some days, all I wanted was to hear my name, for someone to say “Kgalalelo, dumela”, but the people at my school called me Khalalewloh, and I just had to deal with it or get an English name along with a weave. My grandmother had always kept my hair in a brush cut and I insisted on keeping it that way to honour her.
I have never asked my mother who my father was because that was not the tradition of the village. What we knew was that young women left their homes without their parents blessings and came back either to leave their new born babies for their poor parents to raise, or came back in a coffin. The village school had long been closed and operated as a church and sometimes as a community hall because no one had an interest in education, no one in my village had experienced its power. My uncle, who had attended the school when it was still run by missionaries, had went to University and went crazy during his final years of becoming a teacher, so the people of my village concluded that too much education drives one insane and everyone wanted to closely guard their sanity, so when I turned five years old, my mother came to get me and enrolled me at a private school. I woke up every day at 5 am and slept at 10 pm every night after long intense lessons of science and extra English lessons. My beautiful mother had been married by a rich man and bore him two spoiled children, who introduced me as their half-sister to their other spoiled friends, something you would never hear in the village. It is either I’m your sister or I am not. At first all I wanted to do was to impress my mother, so I learned as hard as I could, assumed a new accent and faked happiness and within no time, I was close to shining and twinkling just like my mother Boipelo, who was now called Elo, the beautician. She hosted dinner parties for her husband’s potential clients and their wives and served them plates with a lot of empty space, at my village, the food almost fell off the plate and when you sat opposite someone on the table to eat, you only saw their face after you’ve dealt with your mountain of food.
“K,” my other would call out, pointing to me with her devil nail, as though I didn’t know that she was talking to me “come on over darling, to greet our guests”, they were never my guests, because I would always find a reason to hide in the bedroom while my two brothers took turns impressing the guests with their piano or violin skills, but for some reason, I was the one they always wanted to see, the rescued village girl. A project my mother’s husband had gladly took on.
When I turned 16, along with the many gifts I couldn’t care for, my mother told me that we, me and her, will be taking French cooking classes for us to spend more time together and get to know each other, courtesy of her husband. I was supposed to be excited, judging by the look my mother gave me when she noticed my blank look. Off all the things that they could have given me, none of them thought a trip to the village would be what I really wanted. But because my mother had not made a habit of asking me if I wanted to do something, the following day we were out of the door and ready to deal with French cuisine.
After a few lessons, she insisted that I start to practice at home, and that was when I learned that French food was her husband’s favourite, and I wondered why they didn’t take the lessons together, but because I didn’t know that no existed, I started to practise under the guide of our chef, Mike, who was given strict instructions to start serving French food for dinner. And so it started, my mother’s husband started frequenting the kitchen during our lessons, making small talk and telling me how excited he was about this progress in my life. Telling me how he can’t wait to start eating my food. On some days, I’d hear him open the door of his study and walk slowly down the stairs, he would stand at the door of the kitchen, stare at me and Mike working, he would walk towards the fridge, open it to take out a bottle of water, take a sip, and when the water didn’t quench his thirst, he would come to where I am, and before I knew it, he would brush against me and rub my hand. “Good,” he would say in the manner paedophiles do when they see a thigh of a four year old.
One day we were in the middle of preparing a Gruyere and leek pie for a lunch that we were having as a ‘family’, when Mike’s cell phone rang, he left the kitchen and my mother’s husband waltzed into the kitchen, and without wincing or any amount of shame, he grabbed my bum and when I turned to face him, he winked.
I knew that my mother’s marriage was falling apart as soon as I learned the word apart. I also knew that she worked hard to keep it together and that she sacrificed a lot of herself to maintain her life. This kind of things happen in movies, they seem farfetched and Hollywood, but two weeks after the grab and the wink, my mother and I took our last French cooking lesson and she invited her fancy friends to enjoy food cooked by me. She made a fuss of everything and for some reason, kept saying that I must be strong, which made no sense because I was now used to being the spectacle of her parties.
The strict instructions were that my mother’s husband had requested a French onion soup and I was to prepare it as an appetiser and Mike would help with the main course that had a name I couldn’t pronounce. My mother bought me a new dress, one of the many I didn’t like but couldn’t say so. The party started at the usual time of 19h00 and the same routine was followed, drinks, tiring tired complements, appetiser. My mother walked into the kitchen, pointing with her devil nail for me to come and greet the guests, and I noticed that she had substituted her usual champagne with a glass of sparkling water and her husband wore the smug of someone who knew the secret to toppling our president. The kind of smug paedophiles wear when they realise how innocent their victims are. After the dessert I went to my bedroom and took off my dress, ready to lie on my bed, look at the ceiling, wonder what life must be like at the village and to convince myself that I liked something about staying with my mother even though I wasn’t sure what it was, I should hold on to it. Two hours later, the house was silent and all I could hear was my mother sobbing at my door and repeating “Please”. Then the door to my bedroom opened and my mother’s husband walked in, wearing a dressing gown and the smug on his face replaced by a broad smile of a lion about to devour its prey. My mother stayed outside the door, sobbing as her husband advanced towards me. I have never said no to my mother, in fact the only time I remember saying no is when the girl who sat next to me at school asked if I had Instagram. I have always kept silent or said what I thought was the right answer, which was never no. My mother stayed sobbing as her husband started heaving on top of me, I stayed silent and he took his time.
When my mother came to fetch me from the village, she arrived shortly after my grandmother had finished labouring over laundry. We were sitting under the tree closest to the gate, my grandmother was cutting my hair, telling me stories about the hero that my grandfather was when he was winning her heart. I was young but my grandmother had told me this story many times and had always reminded me that when happiness is the guarantied end result of whatever toil, one will fight and endure without complaint and that when someone loves you, their instinct will always be to protect you.
I jumped up to go and open the gate when I saw the car and my grandmother just stared as if she was not believing what she was seeing. Out of the car came a woman more beautiful, who I later came to know as my mother, she was more beautiful than the women I saw on our neighbour’s television, she wore high heels that kept on sinking into the sand as she walked towards us and my grandmother remained sitting and I was now standing next to her.
She, my mother, bent down to pinch my cheeks and my grandmother looked at her and said, “some sacrifices will never be worth it, their value is never on how much we care to justify them.”
Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo