Birds with lots of Pillows – Boipelo Maetla

This place felt like walking in Israel. Not that I ever walked in Israel, but I assume if I did, I would be expected to walk like I had bricks in my chest, like I wanted to remain alive and was willing to fight for it, that that’s why I’m walking in the first place, and not hiding. But fear is something I was long taught to wear, fearlessly. The irony.

Mama had a lot of kids, we only ever knew that there was a lot of us, and our existence was documented with names and a surname and a chronological organization of who was born before who. Bantu education never taught my parents these fundamental factors of existence, I mean why would a black woman want to know how to count when they could sew and cook and sew and sew… and sew. It never bothered me not knowing how old I was because I was black. And when you are black and growth spurt knocks on your door, you do not answer it personally, your circumstance answers it for you and it comes bearing responsibilities and obligations. It comes wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “it’s time to start finding means of survival, of staying alive and feeding your family”, amongst other things. So when mother started asking me to tag along with the rest of the herd to the market to sell all this apparel that she magically and meticulously conjures up from yarn, I knew I was probably 12 or 14 or getting there.

“Birth certificate? What is that? A piece of paper documenting your birth?” My mother giggled at this, “your ancestors know of your existence because your umbilical cord is buried in their land, we have long documented your birth”. And I would secretly correct her that it was not their land, it was the white man’s land, because they had all the big houses that occupied the most space, and their dogs too lived in miniature palaces, the sort of things landless people like us could not even dream of, because our dreams too are harsh, they never allow us to float into wilderness because our hardships are all we think about, even in that extra-terrestrial realm. We are always unhappy, always… thinking.

Thoughts are good if they lead you somewhere, like most times I wish I was educated, and that I was a boy. When I told this to mama she told me I sounded gay. There is a story she told us once (us, all of her children, the whole nation of us) how a gay spirit is engineered. She had this thing that she did with her hands and hips when she narrated tales to us that sort of looked like she was affirming that she is good at something, that while other mothers sat in offices and understood the language of numeracy, she had a country of ancient knowledge in her chest and that too, was good enough. “If a woman miscarried a child and was not cleansed, and the spirit of that child was a boy and her next baby is a girl, depending on the defiance and wondering spirit of the deceased baby, the spirit is inherited by the new baby and thus, they are gay. But you kids refuse cleansing. We are not trying to wash off that which you claim to be, we understand why you are that way. We are not ashamed”. And mama said this with a particular eye, like she was talking to me directly, her nonsense daughter, born after Tlhago, but before Onthatile. That is how she remembered.

My family continued to grow larger, uneducated people conceive exponentially because children are the only thing that God gave life to that does not need a lot of skill to make and doubles as a form of generating income. In simple English, mama and her peers give birth to employees. But it’s a small sacrifice, when we are grown and the girls know how to sew and slice oranges like we are carving diamonds, and when the boys master the gumboot dance and side-of-the-street begging, we were ripe to head to the market and be a tourists’ experience. And even today, we were an experience.

The day started with mama drilling sergeant orders for us to ditch our slumber and bath (the whole lot of us, although Ontiretse and Seipati did not feel this bathing thing, what was the point, the tourist’s see poor black people and not THE ACTUAL PEOPLE). We then marched like a swarm of bees, barefoot, high of the desire to accomplish duties bestowed on us by puberty and poverty (it almost sounds poetic, just as the newspapers that some of the tourists read to us at the market). Badges of under privilege tattooed on our foreheads, in cursive, mocking, slanted to the side to create an imagery of our askew way of living. Askew was normal, askew was our life. We marched on soil that looked like us but was not ours, and the people that allowed it happen, were no longer present to answer our questions, to reverse the theft or to even account for their silence.

The boys gumboot-danced without boots, this was an expenditure mama simply would not, even remotely, indulge. Phela firstly she must pay for a taxi that goes to town to buy the boots that cost double what it costs to pay for the taxi that goes to town. Paying for this and paying for that makes mama feel weak at the waist, like she will simply fall on her knees and unwittingly bow down to life and its crucifixions. Regular visitors at the market were humored by my brothers and this peculiar dance they do with their feet, some knowledgeable ones actually bought them boots. The first shoes we ever wore.

Later that day, mama deployed us to different ends on the market place, like troops trained to defend the army, only this army was our stomachs, and our lives. I was sent to the north-eastern side of the market, with oranges to peel for the visitors and yarn apparel to convince them worthy of gracing their well-fed bodies. Hours went by, the buyers and myself lost and found ourselves back in language barriers and sign language. “Mina I thata this orange and I give wena R50. Yebo?” they keep saying, forcing me to look them in the eyes and mama taught us we never look elders in the eyes, even the ones that feed us, ESPECIALLY the ones that feed us. It was a tedious exercise, they never come here to understand our ways, only to prove to their online friends that they are not afraid of entering Africa, the zoo.

A familiar woman came up to me, a sort of well-fed woman with a big body and a big belly. My eyes were always keen to pin-point people that looked like they ate more than me, than us, and I would under my breath ask them how they do it, how they eat in excess while we dug our appetites into their rubbish bins and try to salvage that they could not get to. She said mama had sent her, she spoke some Setswana but it was not our kind of Setswana, hers sounded like a Shona-speaking a tongue falling over itself and simultaneously trying to redeem its stature by attempting more and more Setswana. I did not trust her, but because we never look elders in the eye and mother had sent her, I climbed into her kombi, we were travelling to a nice place, somewhere where we would get nice food. “Mmemoholo, where are my brothers, this place feels far”, I enquired, from the confines of a tinted-window kombi and an engine that roared inauspicious melodies. I remember my stomach growled at me till I fell asleep. I felt disconnected from my umbilical cord, the air here felt foreign.

The streets in South Africa are as crusty as my life, but here, here they were backward! Mmemoholo’s house had no kettles, they made tea with microwaves. I had seen kettles in white people’s palaces when mama tried to find work as a domestic, but she could not count, never knew what time it was, and her cultured Tswana tongue did not say “madam” as obediently as the madams wanted it to sound. So she stayed at the market. The market! I left them all at the market, my nation family.

“Mmemoholo I do not see mama here, where are we?” I asked, impatiently, staring into her eyes, daring. “No darling, mama could not come with, she does not have a passport”, she replied, coldly. But what mama does not have, how can I have? Where would I possibly get it from? What place was this anyway, which needed a passport for entry? The air, was not South African, the food did not look like the mogudu, ting and sebete from my homeland. It looked like the Fufu that the tourists had described to us, and the educated people at the market would tell them they could only eat that at markets in Zimbabwe, Nigeria or Kenya. She told me I would make a lot of money here, Mmemoholo. “Are you pure?” she asked, inquisition leaking from her eyes. We never spoke about purity with mama, but she told me always that boys were no good. Mama mystified the boys and portrayed them as devious beings that leaked of sperm, sperm that would fall into your vagina and travel up to your uterus and impregnate you just by looking at them. I was pure, and I told Mmemoholo this, and I also wanted to know why she asked.

My body, had always been a safe topic, my sisters and I never discussed it, although amongst ourselves, we would whisper in our chests that it was the most desirable, I had matured into a curvaceous woman, Mmemoholo told me this too. She said “they will love you where I am taking you.” I was excited! I had never been loved before, only accepted. There was too many of us for mama to love, no human heart could stretch that wide. If they would love me, then I would stay, in this land so foreign, the clicks in my tongue drawing attention to me every time I uttered a word. I had never been a foreigner and an emigrant before. I wore better clothes, I felt like a tourist. I know I did not know a lot of things but I know that Harare was in Zimbabwe and I heard that we were here when I eavesdropped from a conversation that Mmemoholo had with this man. This big built brown skin melanin-dripping man. He looked like the security guards from the market. She told him of my purity, and mama always said we never discuss people in their absence that is how I knew I did not trust them both.

In the morning I was woken up by military orders as I had been back home. Did mama notice I was gone, did she feel the gap of the daughter born before Onthatile but after Tlhago. Or was it life as normal but an uncanny feeling in her heart that she was now feeding a mouth less?

Mmemoholo dressed me like a doll, I felt pretty, pretty important. We drove down to a shady high-rise with a lot of women outside wearing less than they should. No one would marry them if they carried on like this. Marriage was the alpha and omega of existence, it is true because mama said it was. I never actually asked, why she was not married herself. Something a black parent is not asked, because a black parent is always looking for reasons to give you a hiding, even not receiving a hiding for too long is reason for giving a hiding, even breathing, we got hidings for breathing. Age is something you feel as relative. When it is you on your own, you do not notice it, but relativity arises when there is a ward of different age groups around you. I was not sure about the number or by what range but certainly, everyone in this building was older than me. Anyone that is served whisky and cigars and gyrates on old men’s laps while they stick money notes to their cleavage was indisputably older than me.

Mmemoholo called me to a room, a room with a bed so high, with pillows and rose petals on the floor, I stared down at them as though they were flowers of prayer from mama and my siblings, like they had Setswana written all over them and that I had not heard that language in so long. He said “Is this her, my pure princess?” Mmemoholo obliged, took a large stack of bank notes from the man and left me there. The rattling of the key in the door hole sounded like it too refused that I be subjected to such atrocity. Why was this man’s shirt off, it was chilly, he had to put his shirt back on!

You don’t always need to know mathematics in order to put two and two together. My body was transported at my will from South Africa to this here place for consumption. My virginity was sold to the highest bidder. The bed this man was lying on seemed to complain from his weight. The tswiki-tswiki sounds sounded like cries for mercy, bed springs asking to be spared, and this man ate in excess, the bible taught us nothing good is ever done by anyone that does anything in excess. There were not much windows in this room, only pillows, lots and lots of pillows. Like they were all here waiting for me to cry and wish along with me for this hairy-chested man to release me. That there were a lot of virgin girls out there that they could use for prostitution but just not me. That my body was saved for marriage and there is boy in our squatter camp that I had promised my virginity to. He called me over to lie on the bed with him and his voice was firm and commanding. I learnt from mama that when a man contorts his voice like that, like the cat-callers in town that screamed at mama that they will ride on her big behind, and that they will fuck her raw, that you do as you are told or they will rape you and kill you.

On that filthy bed, only a half of me fully lay on it, he grabbed me closely and laid a peck on my right cheek, he smelt of expensive whisky and newly-acquired wealth. The princess dress that Mmemoholo made me wear was easy to be discarded of, and soon after he did this, the velvet-lit room had an ambience of broken hymens and memories of home. The ones I took for granted, the marching to the market barefoot and innocent, with bearable life problems. Money is an illusion, it has you wanting more and failing to realize its lack of value. Rather live a life of excruciating poverty than sell the one thing you will ever own, your body. With every thrust, I prayed for home, and every time he breathed on my neck I heard God tell me that these prayers could not cross the border because I had come here with a fake passport. “Please stop, first times are not supposed to pan out like this”, I breathed, slow and low, hoping he will not last long. He showered my face with sperm and semen. He said “yes”, but it sounded like “you will be doing this more often.”

I knew that some time had passed because the semen had dried on my face, I never knew time, only relative measurements. And this is also why I never knew how many days I had been away from home and stuck in this madness. With money thrown in my face. I feared the reflection of my face in any size mirror because it reminded me that I was stuck here. When the other prostitutes asked me if I hate it here so much why did I not go back home, it struck my conscience like a lightning rod, to go back home to unrecognized existence, and days and nights of weakened breath because starvation takes too much energy from you. Or to stay here and live like a miner, every night going to the underworld to dig for gold and diamonds. To have you sell your body for way less than you think your body is worth, but still much more than you ever saw with your naked eyes back home.

Staying in Harare was from fear, contemplating going back to South Africa induced fear in itself as well. I walked these streets like I swallowed too many tears and over time they precipitated into bricks, laying heavy on my chest building walls high enough to confine me to this life style.

Of beds with way too much pillows to make up for the absence of love, home, and breathing in Setswana.

Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo


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