A Pair of Gifts – Boipelo Maetla

The boys in my street are singing struggle songs again.

And prison songs.

No one knows where or when they learnt these prison songs. There is an irony where these melodies meet. There is so much passion in their voices, you can tell that something dies inside them when these words reach their lips.

They usually did this at 11pm, when they were sure that everyone was listening. No one listens to the black boys during the day. The day is used for shuffling all of them into this or that other hashtag.

There are more boys than girls in my street. I know of two that found love in each other’s company. Mpho and Mpho. A pair of gifts. The first older Mpho had a shady demeanor, the “you-do-not-want-to-mess-with-me” kind, the kind that makes you want to run for safety but also wish to stick around to uncover the mystery. The other Mpho was a darling, you could ask anyone. Some friendship combinations are as confusing as the people in them. I presume that is exactly how the yin and yang works. One Mpho was from a functional family and the other, well, was not. It is fairly easy to assume which one was from which.

Love is a rollercoaster for black boys who love other black boys in the township. I have heard stories about acceptance, from the Bible, in the Life Orientation classroom, in my home, and sometimes in passing sometimes at the spaza.

We lived in a place where it did not really exist. Tolerance did not, either. Not even respect, not even empathy, we just functioned alongside one another, only God knows how. Yet we would come together to meet in the church, and hold hands in prayer, only God knows how we did it. How we threw other people into pits of fire the one day, and returned to pray for their burn wounds, the next.

Both Mpho’s grew into disturbingly evasive personalities. They had probably taught each other how to block out the world, while being each other’s world, in a world that wanted nothing to do with them. It was sore to watch, and beautiful too. A pair of gifts that nobody wanted to be associated with. “Even now”, that was their hello and goodbye. I never got to know them well enough to ask what it meant. I just watched from a distance, prayed for them here and there. Mother taught me that God listens to everything and everyone, and without a doubt I knew that the Mpho’s had called to God a few times. I dare not ask why He has not answered. Perhaps it was a lesson for all of us, to never stray from the normalized and societally accepted version of love. I always seemed to be catching myself thinking about the Mpho’s more than I should have been, especially when the boy’s from my street walked past my house, with mild and forced banter in between their struggle songs.

There had been a scourge of violence in my street, and the boys had stopped walking around at 11pm. Everyone knows that things are pretty rough when boys themselves fear the street. The one place where everything inside them comes to life, when they start opting for their mother’s warmth and avoiding the street corners at whatever cost.

We would tip-toe to school and scurry back, no one would be caught dead in the street, in the fear of ending up dead!

We adjusted, maneuvered and somehow managed to stay alive, for months, for some years. Both Mpho’s had grown deeply into themselves, ventured into some careers that many of us failed to pronounce, with a love that remained as pure as it was when they were young. We envied them mostly (secretly amongst ourselves, no one would ever admit that we were wrong or that they were one up on us, that they have something, actually a lot of things, that we could only ever dream of).

“Maybe you guys can join us at prayer mass this evening”, I say to them. I had too, grown more courageous and daring, did not fear rejection as much, and if anything, would like the Mpho’s to be my friends.

“I am not sure, but it would do us some good, to be out there with the people”, the older Mpho replies.

It dawns on me that they have lived in isolation, almost all their lives. I cannot imagine it, actually I refuse to.

The day of prayer mass arrived, and they arrived, looking as dapper as we had always known them. Perhaps they looked good on the outside to outshine the bad that prevailed on the outside. I will never know, I will never be brave enough to ask.

The day proceeded as splendid I had imagined. They were in fact as interesting as I imagined. Some people gave nasty glances, some confused glances, some did not look at our direction altogether. We parted ways.


Three days after mass, the younger Mpho hastily knocked on my door. Said the older Mpho had been stabbed. They had been lazing at the park as they usually do and were robbed by people they have known since childhood. He said they passed comments about mass, how they flaunted their presence as if they were welcome. Mpho said they took all that there was to take, down to the last strawberry. No one amongst them fought them off, but the robbers turned around and decided to stab the older Mpho, so many times, so fast, he died right there and then. At this point I was beside myself, with a whirlwind of emotion, I could not think of anyone on this entire planet that deserved this. I let him in, mostly to vent, but partly, to cry and scream and die inside. The younger Mpho did have family but that was just blood, Mpho was his life and his world.

“Life without him is just as I imagined”, he often would say, over our regular tea meetings. I never understood how tea made things better, maybe it was the fact that it meant that “I am sharing something of mine with you, you can trust me with your woes.”

Mpho told me a lot of things, mostly about how he dreamt about the older Mpho. He said he heard him often knock on his window as he would when they were young. He would say they are not comforting dreams, they were haunting, at best. Perhaps if he did not answer the knocks, and made friends with other boys instead, the ones that sang struggle songs at 11pm when everyone was listening, he would be alive, loved from afar, but alive.

A pair of gifts, apart.

Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo






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