I was awakened by the gravity of tension and flickering notes on the red table that had my grandmother’s face engraved on it, where my mother hosted her gambling sessions. There was always a toddler oozing with mucus and a hanging diaper, latched on to a mother’s waist, another one crawling to get to the cards and disrupt the game, while a woman’s grocery money, that her husband had sent her from the mines, ping-ponged on the table while her sanity hung by a loose thread. Tension was followed by laughter until a fight broke out because Mutshekwa from the next village kept on stashing coins into the bundle of plastic she’d hid underneath her tshiluvhelo when everyone was watching baby Naki dance to Brenda Fassie’s “Weekend Special.”
Mma was a turbulent host. She would bring her guests–who she called money-making machines–traditional beer made purely from sorghum, and depending on her mood and the person she was serving, she’d add some special ingredient. Sometimes the secret ingredient was sugar, choosing a more alcoholic calabash, saliva, or phlegm–especially if the participant was Rachel, who she secretly hated for snatching her first love during the reed dance period of her youth; or, if it was a new village woman that came to her yard wearing fabric too delicate to be hers.
I walked to the corner where my mates were skipping rope in their uniforms.
“Pretty, if you make me lose this game, you will understand why my name means fear her!” Muofhe shouted from across the table to her teammate Pretty, who was sweating under the headwrap she’d tied on her head. Muofhe had invested One Rand, with hopes of getting Five Rands so she could buy herself a matching munwenda set and Christmas clothes for her children.
Muofhe was building a nine. Nine was a number easy to overlook in Casino. Most people were fascinated by ten, the ultimate power player, but she was not. She was convinced that with her two nine cards–a heart and a club–she would win, calculating that one nine card was already on the deck that my mother won after taking out the ten she had built. One nine was left, which was not in her hands, but her prayer was that it was in Pretty’s hands.
My mother was building a ten again, this time with full assurance that she was the only one who had the last ten, the powerful diamond ten–worth two points, but worth nothing if not used properly. Muofhe’s heart rejoiced at what she thought would soon be my mother’s downfall.
It was my mother’s turn; her eyebrows tensed, signalling a potential failure. She had two cards left: a ten that she was building towards and an anonymous one, most likely an Ace. My mother looked at her teammate, mouthed a faint “I’m sorry”, then vomited her dirty laughter of victory. She had a nine of spades– almost a clean sweep. No one had expected her to have it seeing that she was very nonchalant about the manufacturing behind it. She won. Muofhe tossed her cards to the ground in anger and stormed out, blowing the red loamy soil to the direction of my mother with her feet.
“Hulisani,” Mma called me. “Come see how losers behave.” She laughed, clapping her hands, and increased the volume on her radio. I was already there, watching everything but she had not noticed me in my school uniform.
That mechanism of being a blurred filter on her background described our relationship. She thought of me only after the wins and losses; never the in-betweens, never a How are you, you look sad, tell me what happened? Our relationship was that of a single middle-aged woman and a teenager who happened to end up staying together in one house. The only thing that convinced me that indeed she was my mother and I was not adopted was the bridge of my nose that resembled hers. That was the only thing that aligned us, along with our love for the steaming pot of yellow porridge, the brewed ginger drink, and the corn being burnt over the fire. I was a background in her imagination, a dim dwindling light of no significance, like the extras in a soapie–no one notices them nor remembers how their faces look–they are just there.
I announced my departure to school to the crowd of glistening faces. Mma nodded. Going to school was the one activity we were forced to do to keep us from roaming the streets like wild dogs. The Security Forces scouted around our classrooms and dysfunctional soccer fields, regularly, eyeing any possible future freedom fighters that might be propagated from the group of Bantu schoolchildren. For people that sought to maintain a system of separation from us, they were always within our space–not the other way round. They were obsessed with us in a scary way. To them, we were weapons that had to be guarded and destroyed.
The previous week, they’d dragged Joshua in his tattered white shirt and khaki shorts, saying the poster he drew for a project defied the laws of South Africa. Mrs. Goodness had asked us to make a dream poster of where we saw ourselves in five years; she was now in hot water with the risk of losing her teaching license.
“This–k-word–drew a provoking poster and he has to be punished for it. Who taught him to write “WE WILL SET OURSELVES FREE?” Which curriculum is this?”
The class listened to the barking voice, and an AK-47 hitting the table for emphasis, all the way from the staffroom. Principal Mudi spitting apologies in a breaking voice. He knew what could happen to educators that taught about anything beyond how to draw caterpillars and fruits, sing hymns, and plough vegetables in the backyard. That was how the government wanted it–we had to, at our maximum capacity and talent, end up being teachers, mid-wives, or policemen. It was strange, we thought that since Venda was now an independent state, we would see less of the faces of those who were always ready to kill us. We’d all heard whispers about the schoolchildren that were killed in Soweto in 1978. We knew we were next.
My classmates were organising a protest for the 12th of September at Thohoyandou Stadium. There was going to be a celebration for the anniversary of Venda being an independent state, hosted by Honourable Gota, the President of the Republic of Venda, and the white people that oversaw him. All decisions passed through the white people in Louis Trichardt. The President and his cabinet were puppets being made to feel as though they were in power, but they were simply the faces indirectly campaigning for Apartheid.
My dream poster was a compilation of books I fiercely loved, words I’d wished I’d written, a Black girl’s picture I found in Drum magazine. She had a blooming afro, smiling while wearing a mustard-yellow dress that was probably made just for her. She was the version I wished I was–happily being, without pummelling into the challenges of being Black and a woman; she was eyeing an invisible horizon, which meant freedom to me. Freedom from the world, freedom from self-loathing. On the upper left corner was a quote from Audre Lorde’s poem, The Litany of Survival: “So it is better to speak, knowing we were never meant to survive.” I did not submit it to Mrs. Goodness.
My mother built everything she has from the ground up. Her house, her thriving business hosting a popular card spot, and all the glass kitchenware. The plate with purple flower petals was her favourite. She said it reminded her of the widening distance between where she came from and where she was now. No one was allowed to eat from it, let alone touch it. My father left for Jo’burg when she was pregnant to seek a job in the mines or railways,any place where they were using Black cheap labour. That was seventeen years ago. I have yet to see the person representing the other half of the chromosomes that formed me.
Gossipers said that he got there and fell in love with a Jozi woman who he probably ended up marrying. When fights broke out during my mother’s Casino sessions, some women hurled insults at my mother, saying things like, “Don’t talk to me like that, Mavis. My husband didn’t leave me for a Jozi woman,” and, “At least my husband still sends me money that he makes in the mines.” My mother fell into attack mode after the insults, reminding them that they did not know what was happening beyond the Venda borders, that their husbands were probably basking in a woman’s warmth.
The protest posters were secretly exchanged as covers for vetkoeks and boiled corn in the streets. The police were too occupied by the big things to notice the small ones: that the number of schoolchildren in the classes was thinning, that some pupils were made to remain in class in order to deviate their attention, that some of the teachers who were in the classrooms were not the licensed ones but merely a façade for the ones who were actively assisting in organising the protest.
Everyone who chooses to go to a protest sheds off their skin before they leave–they know that being alive is a privilege they may not come back home with. Even the ones not protesting, the ones randomly roaming the streets or going about their lives, know that they may catch a bullet, that their eyes could be blinded by teargas, that their wombs may bleed when they see their children’s blood reddening the streets. Card games stopped, only the thickness of grief engulfed the air. That is the way of the police–they don’t care who they shoot, whether it’s a nine-month-old infant bruising its kneecaps while crawling, or a fifty-year-old woman carrying firewood on top of her head–it didn’t matter, as long as the bullets penetrate someone whose skin is dark enough to be tar, or whose hair coiled at the ends.
I did not consider myself a freedom fighter per se, but knew that in order to get the life I wanted, I had to do something, and not just sit around the yard watching women break off each other’s braids over coins and clothes. The backyard was where I allowed people to host meetings. We would sit in a circle and pretend to be playing ndode, throwing stones in the air while discussing our plan. My mother did not know, and could not know.
“As soon as the cabinet stands on the stage, we enter holding our placards and start chanting. The Police will be ready to shoot, so the best way to protect ourselves from the intensity of the bullets is to put on two hardened cow skins inside our uniform. Mma Tshedza is handing them out for free. Hopefully, the bullets will not penetrate them,”Madzanga, the student leader whispered. He didn’t know the speed of the bullet, and neither did we, but we trusted that if it was aimed at the heart we would survive. None of us spoke about the likelihood of the bullet tearing our legs, piercing the scalp, the possibility of haemorrhaging to death..
“The protest is tomorrow. We know the procedure. Comrades, be ready for anything.” He paused. “Including death. We might not all come back alive, but such is the sacrifice for being Black. Our blood waters the dusty streets.”
I wasn’t sure if I was ready to sacrifice myself for something that would never be solved..
That evening, the steaming pot of porridge rumbled between my mother and I in the cooking hut. She added maize to three-legged pot and continued in her stirring and swirling motion . Making porridge was an art of patience and concentration. There was something about the silence and the fire that forced a communication between us, with no questions asked, my mother started peeling the folds of her crusty heart off.
“You know, I never loved your father. He was just there the one time when I thought I needed a man’s touch. Even the marriage was a farce. I was groomed by a blanket and swerved through the dusty roads to come to this village. I am happy that he never came back. That was always my prayer. These women that you see me love and loathe are what make me happy.”
I listened attentively, waiting to hear the source of her sudden vulnerability. Did she suddenly want to kindle a relationship with her only daughter, could she feel that I was on the death row, waiting to die like the students of Soweto? She passed me her favourite plate, told me I was allowed to use it that one time only, then filled it with porridge and kale.
“I wanted more for myself too, like you. When I was a child playing in the mud, we would hear aeroplanes roaring in the air. That was when I decided I wanted to fly one. I went to school till standard two. My parents could not afford to pay for me to be taught how to draw butterflies. That is when I started following my mother like a shadow when she went to play card games with the women in her village. I did not understand what my fate would be then, or what she derived from the long hours exchanging gossip there, but it was better than sulking about her husband who had been sucked away by the gold mines. No one knows what happens to the men when they get to the city of gold, no one can tell us. Some of them just disappeared, most times not to Jozi women but to the white man. My father was one of them. We thought he would come back, at least during holidays and funerals of close family members, but he never came. . One day, a cousin brought us the news that he was one of the dead in the Sharpeville Massacre. We didn’t know where he was buried, what the colour of his coffin was, or even how he looked in his final years. My mother cried herself to death.”
We lined up in four rows, our backs facing each other, forming a square, unable to see each other’s faces and the anticipation of danger that was engraved in our pupils. We were at the centre of the stadium, the area closest to the eye of a cyclone–where calamity happens. It has been said that seconds before one dies, their life flashes before them. The stadium went silent, a brief calm before the storm. The tissue of my heart ready to break loose at any given moment. It seemed easier to prepare for death than a life full of wounds.
I was ready to say goodbye to the relationship my mother and I had never had, the legacy of playing cards that I was supposed to pass on to my children, the fabric and texture of joy like the woman in my dream poster. President Gota stood with his mouth agape, reading the posters we held up high. One read King Makhado is turning in his grave!, another We want to be free! My poster read: I want to be me.
About the Author:
Bono Sigudu is a South African writer, fourth year medical student at the University of Pretoria, and spoken word poet. She is twenty-years-old and writes to set her mind free. Isele is her debut publication.