We had all thought that peace dealings were eminent. That all the kings had finally come to the realization that we had lost more than we could ever get back, that our mouths had grown tired of being stretched open in war cry. We were old now, the last batch of soldiers who really understood the war. The new generation was already calling us savages at the dinner tables, our own dinner tables. They did not see us as heroes, only little boys who bullied their matriarchs when they had returned home, for that lousy week. There was no gratification received from these senseless killings, we were on the verge of death ourselves, and insanity. There was not a single night that was not full of nightmares, ghosts from everywhere, seeking vengeance. It was time for peace and we all acknowledged that… well most of us. The irony of the king and the servant is that he uses us to do the most gruesome tasks, we are more powerful than he can ever be. There is many of us in numbers and in strength, we have formed all kinds of friendships while in those training camps. We have seen each other through the very most, shielded each other from literal physical and spiritual death. Not the sovereign king, but us. Yet, by virtue of mere royal blood, everyone bows down to the mighty kings’ commands, bends themselves backwards to fulfill his wishes, that is why we could never turn on him, no matter how badly we wished to.
We presumed to know the sombre partition between the dead and the living, but we were laughably mistaken.
We honored the liberty of spirit from flesh with adamant euphoria, boogied until our knees quivered. Leapt into oceans of liquor and laughter while We mounted our men, indulging our glutinous perversions.
My grandmother could bargain with death. She knew who was to die and it was always up to her to let them die or to trade their life for that of someone else. My turn came twice and both times she traded my aunt Mophi and my sister Limpho. Mophi was her least favourite child. She was not quiet and not shy but somehow unmemorable. Limpho on the other hand was sickly, she seemed the better one to die. When my grandmother found a dead pigeon on our doorstep she called for a family meeting. No one came— not even my mother—who lives two streets away. I don’t remember my mother’s face. She only contributes to my existence by showing up once every three years.
It is only in African communities where children are named after any other event. It is as if our families hope that something occurs at the same time we are born. We are named after death, sorrow, happiness, the weather, or even how mothers-in-law feel about our mothers. But the reckless ones are the Zimbabweans, they can even name you meaningless names like ‘No-matter’, ‘Even-though’ or ‘No-can-do’. Why?!! Anyway, we the African community have always had this tendency of naming things after life experiences and events, sometimes it proves useful and less complicated however, it is still mighty lazy of us.
The place that has taught us this naming of things after events or expectations and experiences is a modern day township in the heart of the Free State province of South Africa; a small township which we are proud to say has seen a lot of government sponsored infrastructural developments since ‘94. However, these developments are not what keep the people of this township talking. To show just how talented we Africans are when it comes to onomastics, the township was initially named after a certain Mr NBT who is said to have been a struggle hero. However, when you talk about NBT these days what comes to people’s minds is ‘nothing but the truth’ because for the past plus 15 years, the locals decided that NBT should stand for ‘nothing but the truth’ as this represents their transparency and openness. In this township, truth and facts govern the residents. It is without wonder that everyone from around here knows the business of the next person, or at least they think they do. So, everything around here is named after NBT. They have NBT Primary and High school, NBT Church of Saints, NBT clinic, NBT main and only road, but more important of all is NBT Shebeen and Spaza.
So on one summer day, a young unemployed graduate from NBT sat under the shadow of an apricot tree in the corner of her yard. She sat there sipping on her cola flavoured ‘drink-o-pop’, drinking it along with buttered porridge crust claiming to mind her own business, while she observed the up and down movements of passers-by and neighbours. As expected, she eavesdropped on their conversations every chance she got. This young woman, Esther, shared a two room shack with her uncle. They had a four room RDP house, one of government’s sponsorships, but chose to rent it out to a Pakistani fellow who used it as a warehouse for his bedding sales business, which he ran with some of his cousins. For the young woman and her uncle, renting out a free house was a form of Black Economic Empowerment, and they were not the only ones indulging this practice in the township or even the whole of South Africa. So, this is not really an issue of interest for the residents of NBT, aka ‘nothing but the truth’ township. To find out what issues interest the residents of this township one would have to go to NBT Shebeen and Spaza. This is a place in NBT where daughters could be mingling with their biological fathers, without knowing it. It is where wives have lost their husbands to younger women, or men. As for Esther, she was not a type of girl whom you would find in shebeens, she regarded such places as taboo. Even though she did not frequent the shebeen, which is the hub for new news and gossip in the township, Esther was still as informed as everyone else who leisured at the shebeen. The news and gossip came to her, right under the shadow of the tree – on a daily basis. They came bared in the high steps of her uncle who was literally at the shebeen from dusk to dawn. The uncle would be there even before the owner arrived in the morning.
Her uncle, John, was a loud type of a man. You would find him in tight pants and tight fitting tops and sharp pointed Sunday shoes on any day. It is not known anymore whether he has a naturally round shaped tochus or whether he stuffs plastics in his pants. A good man really, lively and sharing. He shares everything that he collects from the shebeen with his niece. Not missing a single detail. The shebeen is like his second home. So, on this particular day, Esther’s uncle emerged from the street corner in a rush like that of a mine worker going on call. As he approached the house, he kept making back and forth movements before he could enter the yard, sighing, and with arms akimbo. Looking as though he was contemplating to go back from where he was coming from. At this point Esther was starting to worry for herself. She was afraid that the news that her uncle had heard might have been about her regarding the latest events that she was involved in. While she waited on her uncle to bust out insults, she began to think up an excuse that would not make her look as bad in her uncle’s eyes. Little did she know that it was not even about her. Uncle John eventually made his entrance and headed straight to his niece, “Ma-E, you will not believe what I have just heard? They say, don’t say that you heard it from me, neh?” he begged. “They say that Phaphama is getting married to Morwesi. Hhee!” Normally, Uncle John preferred to unpack his chest without being interrupted, and Esther knew this very well and like a good niece, she let him continue. “They say that, apparently Morwesi is pregnant. Yes, the 52 year old Morwesi – pregnant. Wonderful things! Which I hear it is why her sudden lover Phaphama, is marrying her. And yet no one ever told me that these two were together!” The uncle went on with a look of a betrayed comrade on his face. “How does Phaphama, with his newly inherited wealth, decide to marry a woman twice his age, with a record of three failed marriages in which she never came out with a single child, not even a miscarriage? Yet, he goes on and marries her while there are young girls like you Ma-E, educated and fertile? Huh? That woman’s sangoma must be a snake. Phamaphama himself is a foetus, how will he handle that magogo?” Uncle John sat on a rock close to his niece as they both seemed to be taking in what was to them, the shocking news of Phaphama and Morwesi.
The Phaphama in question was a 29 year old young man, who all his life, until recently, had experienced poverty first hand. He stayed with his mother and sister, both of whom treated him with scorn. He made put food on the table by working in town helping people with their groceries and walking little children to crèche. All his life, his mother had told telling him that he was a fatherless child; sometimes she would change the story and tell him that his father since went to exile and never came back or that he was crushed by a plane in the sky while chasing the stars. The mother came up with different stories about Phaphama’s absent father every chance she got.
However, Phaphama and the rest of NBT township recently found out that his father was around all these year, not just around, but right front opposite to his house. His father was Ntate Mmota, a taxi tycoon who was notoriously known to have children in every township that his taxi business serviced. Ntate Mmota recently died and surprisingly, he had Phaphama in his Will as the first born boy child of all his children. Throughout the years, no one could understand why Ntate Mmota’s wife who was in Women’s Ministry at church, hated Phaphama’s mother. Anyway, Ntate Mmota had left Phaphama enough property to pull under his mother’s thump. Even so, no one expected that his first project would be to marry a 52 year old woman who was believed to be barren because of her marital history.
The woman who was now being said to be pregnant at age 52, Morwesi, confirmed that this was indeed nothing but the truth. The rumours developed further and it transpired that at the same time Phaphama and his future wife were keeping their relationship a secret, Morwesi had at some point been in a secret love affair with Ntate Mmota. Some say she just wanted to keep it in the family. Either way, those who have lived long enough like to believe that it is Ntate Mmota who impregnated Morwesi before he died. Given that he proved himself as real baby maker if we’re judging by the number of children he has, known and unknown.
No matter what the rumours say, Esther’s uncle reports that, Phaphama has been going around telling people that he is adamant about marrying Morwesi. Some say he is blinded by love and desperate for the affection of an older woman since his mother deprived him of it. Nonetheless, the young man feels that it is for love, the love that knows no judgement and that is nothing but his truth, for now. And who knows, their child might be named: Nothing-but-the-truth.
Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo
On the eve of Mobu’s death, the sky waged war against us. The rain assaulted our tin roofs while the winds barged into our homes sweeping away anything that was in its place. The thunder crawled under our skin and sank fear in our hearts.
Our homes are a collage of historical pain, overlooked by the high way. Our homes don’t know how to swim, and so that night, everything we have ever owned —drowned. We watched from a near-by hill. A chorus of hysteria. The following morning the water had made its way back to the sky, down the earth and only some parts of it stayed behind to tell of its glorious win.
We are clearing the mess and rebuilding. The children are tasked to find small items that can be salvaged. A group of men wearing balaclavas appear from the hill. We call them Marussia. They wear blankets over their shoulders, carry likota and their feet wiggle in white or black gumboots. They pride themselves in terrorizing their own kind. Most of them are herd boys from Lesotho who came to work on the mines.
They came for a girl.
It is said that Mobu never dies, that once he is tired of a body, he disappears and comes back with a new one. Those who grew up with Mobu say he was born a woman. Mobu’s great grandmother was a notorious witch, feared all over Lesotho and here in The Free State. I have never seen Mobu but it is said that he is the reason it rained last night.
Mobu’s house is the only one that survived the storm. The group of men make their way to Mobu’s house, singing a song that calls upon the spirit of death. Everyone is gathered to watch. “Tswaha!” “Hlaha Moloi!” “Ntsa ngwaneno!” The men throw a brick through the window. The girl comes running out. A few moments later, they set his house on fire. Singing and chanting. They pour a black substance over his fence and gate. “Ha o notswa!”
The sun pierces through the smoke. The men are now gone. Mputhi instructs everyone to go looking for Mobu’s body. We are not moved by what just happened. We ignore Mputhi and go back to rebuilding. No one asks about the girl, no one cares about whom she is, what was she doing at Mobu’s house? How did the men know that she was there? What did they want with her? Who sent them? What was the black substance that they poured?
It is two weeks since Mobu’s death; we need the space that his house occupies. We are not brave enough to go near it. This will go on for years. Thieves will take what they can. A hill will bury the rest and the legend of Mobu will be born.
Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo
The night finds me wondering if news anchors generally have no feelings and no heart or whether they’re trained to deliver gut-wrenching headlines without even flinching.
Earlier today, the lady read out a bulletin about six illegal miners who were said to be trapped for several hours underground. The spotlight of the story was taken from the angle of “another closed mine hijacked by zama-zamas”. She flew past the bulletin delivery, past the interviews with few of the families and dwelled rather too much on how many closed mines had been invaded by people digging for their share of the promised Gauteng gold. “Statistics, statistics”, I think to myself. That is all these people care about, One day, everyone on earth will eventually end up shuffled into some or other statistic.
My idle pondering lands me swiftly into a gorgeous nap, the kind that feels like it was brought to you by Jesus himself, the kind of nap that is synonymous with unconsciousness.
“Was there not seven of us in here, where is Sibongakonke? Sibo?” asks a voice leading a file of black male miners hollers. The five men following him shout out Sibo’s name as well, “Sibo!” How these people were comfortable with hollering underground without the fear of waking up their ancestors, was questionable. Sibo, however, does not heed their call. If the mine had no ceiling we would have easily seen how these men went in a zigzag maze form trying to find their exit. The cumulative light on their helmets made them look like a bumblebee trying to find its way back home. For hours they circled. Some corners they made a turn twice. Occasionally, they holler Sibo’s name and every single time without fail, they are met with dead, earthly silence. The men concluded that the circling was unproductive. None of them kept a watch so no one knew how long they had been at it. Decisions had to be made. Food supply was running out. The gold was heavy on their bags but the glittery thoughts of what they would do with the money that they would get from selling it on the black market kept them going.
In between their singing, they share fond memories of the people waiting for them at the end of this unkind tunnel. Collectively, there are 6 children, 4 wives and innumerable siblings. Gossip too does find itself on these men’s tongues, they are comfortable with talking about their neighbors and family in here. Where no one but the rocks and carbon fossils were listening. The complaints were all the same, they were anticipating new relatives to spring out of nowhere to share their stake in the zama-zama money. “You are nothing when you are broke but everyone suddenly knows you when you succeed.” They share a laugh.
A tingle of greed suddenly caught them all at the same time, as if there was a smell in the air and they all caught a whiff of it at the same time. The men decided that the gold on their backs was nowhere near enough. They were there anyway so why not try and accumulate some more? They justified this in every way possible “my daughter will be in university soon, university is expensive” “my mother too deserves a brick house and not the zinc mess that she cannot even breathe in”, “maybe while we are digging, we will find our way out of here”. When you try hard enough, anything can be justifiable and sound rational, regardless of how untrue or un-urgent the justifications are at the time. They proceeded to bulldoze through the already apparent cracks on the earth. They were no longer meticulous in their mining. They hammered as if they did not care if the rocks fell on them and harmed them, they wanted gold and they wanted gold now. Suicide is not always taking your life, sometimes it is putting yourself in situations where you have less and less reasons to be alive. And with every hammer they depleted their reasons to be alive, eliminated the justifications that they put forth for digging for more gold. These men were hungry and had essentially lost their minds! No one initiated the hollering of Sibo’s name anymore. Perhaps they had made peace with the reality that he had died along the way, that is the way of the war, they concluded. Some soldiers will die but some others must march on. Funny they never had conversations like these before heading underground, of what should happen if one of them were to arrive at their very probable but untimely death underground. Do they tell their families when they leave that they might not come back, if not immediately, then never at all? Are they insured? Do their stokvels recognize this which they are doing as a form of “dying on duty”? Do they think with their brains, or with their stomachs? If none of them never make it out alive, will we ever know?
Forward they went, six patriarchs turned into meek little puppies when an enormous rock came tumbling down. The familiar feeling of death cuts through the men. One of them has been struck dead by an enormous boulder. They are not shaken by it anymore, instead they stare blankly at each other, one waiting for the other to come with a solution. Navigating to the exit of this hell would certainly be more exhausting if they carried a dead man to the end.
They would tell his family where he had died, police would be alerted and his body would be dug up. At this moment however, he would have to stay behind. This sudden death left them anxious and more confused. They were walking without intent as if the guilt of leaving one of their men behind was clouding their already bleak navigational senses. They stopped digging for more gold and searched for their exit with a refreshed urgency. Sometimes they paused for no reason at all, they were not tired, not hungry or thirsty, at that very moment, they were nothing at all.
Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo
The fence is a sluggish sign to keep us out. It is split into two faces with a mouth, wide open, in the form of two wooden poles wanting to touch. This mouth we call a gate. The police arrive. They look like biltong and smell of the sun. They are both scrawny and absent minded. My father’s face falls into the hands of their sight and greets them with relief. My father was fortunate to escape his birth place. He is the only one who walks upright. Everyone else in our family is bent someway. He visits at least four times in a year and drags us here with him. I don’t know him as well as I should. He is visible but not present. The policemen circle the remains. They will stand here for a while before asking for something to drink. In the house, a vacant body sways to the music of fear. My aunt is my aunt because time has woven her into our family tree. She is beautiful in a way that says poverty has never touched her face. I am making tea that no one will drink. They will all kiss it until it is cold. The police men thank me in contempt and continue to mince their surroundings. There were three shacks erected in the form of an L, two belonged to tenants and one was a backroom for my two boy cousins. The family house looks misanthropic. The walls inside are painted a deep ocean blue and the windows are the size of my uncle’s face. The three shacks were now a pile of horror. The sun had worked its way into everyone’s patience when the policemen promise to return later.
My uncle started a fire and left his family to burn in it. When the policemen return, we find out that it was not an act of arson but that of sacrifice. That there were two other fires reported in the area and they were all related. My uncle and his friends found a new depot in which to mine for gold. Their ngaka had told them that sacrificing a boy child by fire would not only guarantee them riches but that it would protect them and ensure that they never get caught. Hunger has a way of kneading out good sense in a man. The policemen have filed a case for attempted murder. We will not find my uncle for another year.
I watch my father try to make sense of it all — bent in some way. I figure that that is how he cries. I stand next to him and listen to his sadness. In the year we find my uncle, we will learn that the boys survived because he intended them to.
Photo : Hazel Fasaha Tobo
The first time I met Mary, my great grandmother, Anna, had gathered a couple of kids from our neighbourhood. We were all kneeling in our living room around the table that my uncle will break, when I turn twenty. Mary’s face was different from the other kids. It had something I cannot name. And this is why I befriended her.
Our friendship was a home for silence. We both took turns in our shared awkwardness. We would sit for hours drawing figures in the sand. After Sunday school, I would walk her home. Mary never spoke but I always knew what she was thinking. On good Sundays, my great grandmother would give us one rand each and with glee we would pass by the spaza shop for what we call seqhuba beke. We would walk in silence while the jaw breaker swirled in our mouths. Occasionally, we would swap the wet candy and take turns with each other’s joy. On this Sunday, a good Sunday, Mary didn’t pitch for our ritual.
Mary spoke once on this day. She whispered a secret. The spirit of the world had made its way into her bed. It first appeared on a Saturday when no one was home. Now—it awaited her every night while everyone was asleep. She asked if she could sleep over that night. My great grandmother agreed. The following morning Mary’s face was different
The last time I saw Mary I was twenty years old. My family held Mpho Ea Badimo for my great grandmother. My great aunt brewed the most potent beer ever—it is said to this day. This is how my uncle came to break the table. It was my first time home in three years. It was my first time seeing Mary in five years. This time her face blended with the women cooking in the backyard. Loud—with legs wide open—and tubs of beer at their feet. I joined them. Mary pulled me aside and whispered:
“Kea Gauteng le wena. Bophelo habo’o mona.”
There is no life in the city too, if only she knew. We were all drunk when she pulled me to the side again. This time Mary spoke. She told me of the baby corpses she kept in a shack in her backyard at home. Of the many times she had tried to kill herself. Of the baby growing inside of her. That the baby belonged to the spirit of the world. She apologized for abandoning me. The spirit of the world had made her do it. She began to weep and instead of comforting her I was in the living room in front of the table. My uncle and hers took turns with Mary’s innocence. I managed to tell everyone what was happening to Mary but they were more concerned about the broken table. I left for the city—without Mary.
I am at Mary’s funeral.
Today is a day of celebration. My first 14 chapter story is published by FunDza Literacy Trust. I wrote the story under the impeccable mentorship of Rosamund Haden.
Join thousands of FunDza readers by reading the story here: Losses and Detours.
Photo: Baeletsi Tsatsi