There is no judgment here, just trees, trees that stretch infinitely to the sky in hope to reach for the sun, so to filter its rays and appease the birds with shelter during the humid conditions in the heat of Mphaname village. These trees have heard the howling of wolves that hunger for the blood of a shepherd’s fattest.
The next step could be fatal; an apparition dismounts the big rock further up the mountain. The shepherd clinches his handmade slingshot which is hugging his neck with an excruciating grip, itching to save its master from the fear inspiring possibilities, he places the book he had taken from the library on the ground and advances with caution. Down under the main road that connects Gamasemola, Apel Cross, Byl Driff, Lenting, Marulaneng, and Lebowakgomo stretches further south to connect with Moloto road which leads to Johannesburg apparently. All is in view here, except Lepelle (Olifants River), but the shepherd remembers once during a drought walking that far to water his flock.
The city buzzes and never sleeps, a half dead nyaope addict stands bare chested at the door of a 24 hour mini Spar at the corner of Twist and Smit, with a torn hoodie jacket that looks like it has seen better days, barely hanging from his scrawny shoulders.
With his eyes shut and a disposable cup in hand he stands dead as stone until that opportune moment when someone comes to the machine at the door to buy airtime or prepaid electricity. then his eyelids open to expose his blood-shot, almost brown eyes, and then the line, which like a dedicated actor he spends all his life rehearsing, on cue, all the time, “shiya noma yini bhuti wami,” sounding as much like a zombie as one who does not even believe they exist would imagine they sound. It is impossible for one to imagine that a woman could have birthed such a being.
It is midnight and the mini Spar is as empty as it can get, here and there one or two UJ students come in to buy a loaf of bread or some anti-perspirant roll-on. A resident of Fontana Inn comes in to greet his sister who is on duty at the counter and they greet each other in Shona and high five over the counter. Before he leaves he looks back at the girl behind him in the queue and apologizes, she is too emotional to care. She is next at the counter, her hands are covered by the sleeves of her over-sized hoodie jacket which is wet with tears. She is also residing at Fontana Inn, which is just upstairs from this Spar, and as she leaves, has an encounter with a familiar face, “shiya noma yini sister,” she drops into the cup, a R1 coin.
She goes back upstairs, takes the fire escape because the lift has not been working for the second month now. All the way up to flat No. 402, she had left her door unlocked but pays no attention to it, she loads her airtime.
At dusk the shepherd returns with a plastic bag full of mabilo, mahlatswa, marula, ditshidi in the one hand, and in the other he holds a slaughtered rabbit by the ears, his flock stands at the gate of the kraal he built some two years back, he goes to the house to put his backpack down and rushes back to find his flock still waiting at the gate of the kraal.
He jumps over and opens it from the inside. He pulls the hose pipe into the kraal and fills the small brick dam in the centre of the kraal for his flock to drink. Next he skins the rabbit, the neighbour’s children are watching him do this and think to themselves how unfortunate they are that he only caught one. This can only be enough for the shepherd and his grandmother.
He decides he is going to season this meat with salt and spices and dry it, while he is cutting the meat into strips he hears his grandmother calling from inside the house, it is a phone call. He scurries back into the house. He tries to wipe some of the blood off of his hands, a futile effort. His grandmother presses the phone for him and holds it to his ear. It is Matete, his attempt at holding back the giggles of excitement have failed.
She wants to come back home, where would she get the money? He honestly did not mind selling his smallest lamb from the flock for his twin sister’s sake. He was entertaining this thought and it made sense that his father would probably want him to use the flock he left for him as inheritance for the greater good of the family, and besides, his flock had grown now and was going 36 strong, not counting his 4 little lambs, it only made sense for him to sell, the kraal that he built was not giving his flock enough room to move around anyway. He tells his sister what he is planning, and she thinks it is a bad idea, she will make a plan.
Fontana Inn was once a hotel, in its glory days it housed celebrities and at the time. Hillbrow was booming. Right in the middle of Hillbrow, Joubert Park, and Doornfontein, this building in those days was only second to Ponte. A few enthusiasts are conversing about what has become of Hillbrow since the arrival of “these foreigners,” under the shade, in the park, at a table opposite to theirs a man from Malawi defeats a Zulu man in a game of chess, a boastful chap!
A young woman walks past, she is wearing a black beanie, but it does not hide her hair ,which looks like it has not been washed in a few days, an over-sized hoodie jacket and a pair of baggy track suit pants, a pair of Mr. Price slippers carry her. Her walk through the park is the longest journey for a woman her age. Comments from small crowds of chess players at the park about how she is “ripe” and a few who have the guts to actually say it to her directly. Her pace quickens, she should have gone around the park and not through. But all of Hillbrow is like this, there is no escaping it.
She gets to Park Station, buys her bus ticket and some airtime, on the way out, “noma yini ke sister” she rushes back to her place, unlocks the door, the Fontana Inn staff has made her bed, her room does not smell as bad anymore, now she needs to pack her clothes, she calls home and can’t hold back the tears. She hangs up, she makes another attempt, how could she not speak to them now, she did just fine yesterday, maybe she must save this for when she gets home.
She thinks about Moshikidi and his flock, how a few months back he wanted a bicycle instead of fourteen sheep, but now he has bought more sheep and some of his sheep gave birth, he must have fallen in love with them. They both wanted to come to Johannesburg, but their father’s death meant they could not afford to go to varsity, or at least not at the same time. She decides that she is actually going to pack her clothes first.
Moshikidi’s grandmother is lying on a straw mat in the middle of the courtyard, under the shade of a Jacaranda tree. Somebody calls from inside the house, who could it be? I mean Moshikidi has gone out to go and water his flock, either way the voice is too feminine and feeble to be Moshikidi’s voice.
When Moshikidi comes back home he is thirsty, exhausted and famished. He is the slightest bit later than he usually comes but it is not too alarming, he has come later than this in the past. His pap is not cold though, just hard, it was stored in the pot to keep it warm.
He hurriedly makes his way to the sitting room to find his sister and gogo and an uneasy mood. With the awkwardness of a priest falling during a sermon she stands to hug him.
His excitement though overwhelming, is wilting, a bloated belly, teary eyes and an offish smell to her. “When did you last bath?” Moshikidi is upset. “Moshikidi” his grandmother pleads with him.
“No koko leave him,” Matete, as if to say she deserves it. Moshikidi goes out to his kraal and sits on the small dam with his plate in-hand, dreading his every bite. He walks back into the house to apologise, he can’t stand the thought of sleeping with a heavy heart.
His grandmother is silent, she tells him something that sends him out of the house to the nearest shebeen, Ga Mokhitho he hardly knows any of the regulars, he is always out watering his flock, if not at home reading. How could she be HIV positive? They’re hardly 21. He has not been there in years, I mean he tried his first beer there during his years in high school.
In the shebeen are small groups, the kids of somewhat well-off parents who are too stupid or blind to see past their dependency on their parents’ support, the old men who have seen the village grow from strength to strength, the village girls waiting for a rich prince charming to buy them a beer, even going to the extent of approaching the rich kidsHe sits in a circle of old friends and schoolmates who have given up on the prospects of acquiring an education, this circle makes him regret dropping out of school for this circle even drinks with their old teachers, even in a crowd one can be lonely he sadly finds out. His curiosity is fuelled by the pain he is feeling and the feeling – the feeling of uselessness as he sits with his teachers. He is still a man who wishes to retain his dignity and it hurts that he did not make something of himself when he had the opportunity, this drives him to take a sip.
This is not working well for him, he has gotten too used to being alone or in the company of his flock, alcohol is not just about drinking the thing. It is about the company and enjoying the company of another is about conversation, conversation builds over a period of time, a day at least, time is only shortened by will, and will is a result of trust or curiosity at least but this lot is not for him. After the second sip he leaves the crowd and goes home to a silent house with his sister sitting on the couch. If only life was as simple as that of sheep.
She was meant to be the one who takes their family out of this embarrassing poverty, he thinks of the mountain, but it is too dark, or is it? She goes on to tell him how she can go back and try to make things right, that it is not the end, he can’t help but think that it will never be the same.
The next morning he wakes her and in his hands he has some old clothes, he gets her to wear them and entreats her to a walk outside. At the gate a childhood friend of his is waiting on a donkey cart they agree to meet each other on the mountain.
By the time Moshikidi gets there his friend is a bit tipsy and Matete is laughing at his stories. Moshikidi takes the flask from Matete and pours himself some tea. He knows the feeling of regret and he will not let his sister drown in such pain. The flock is grazing, the air on the mountain is different or maybe it is just the company.
She has found her laughter…
Photo: Hazel Fasah Tobo