People of the Townships part 2
Alice’s pregnancy was a disaster for my mother in particular, but I did not mind. In due course, a daughter was born, but I was uneasy. For the last few months, even in her early pregnancy, she was sort of distant. To my shock, soon after giving birth I learnt Alice was seeing another man. Some even hinted men was more like it. It was then that I began to consider her more objectively…
“Hey, my man, are you blind?” I hear now. It is Luke, friend of mine, younger. He is about 19. We are not too close, but now it strikes me his house is just nearby.
“You are just passing my place, without bothering to say `hi’ to me,” he says. I smile. Pleasantries. I remember he considers himself to be a lady-killer, and happily for him he makes a fair living by making video coverages for people from the townships. His reputation is that he’s inexpensive.
He told me earlier: “The day my mum somehow managed to get a video camera for me was the greatest in my life. My mum is wonderful.” I shared his sentiments. I say now: “And how are your ladies? Are you still breaking their hearts?”
“They dig me, man,” he replies. “Without money they can never love you. I learnt that when I was only 15 – 16. Love is equivalent to money with most of them. All that Romeo stuff belongs to fantasy…” he has now warmed up. “Know what these girls first go for, when they see you? What you are wearing, man. How much your shoes are worth…your shirt, trousers, and jewelry. Know how much what I’m wearing now is worth?” Flamboyantly, he preens himself, patting his shirt, chains and the rest.
He is boring me now. “Yeah?” says I. He goes on to give me details. He ends by declaiming, “these shoes I’m wearing now, cost a cool 1000 rand, So what girl would not go for me?”
I smile. If those goddamn shoes on his feet were worth even a quarter of a thousand, I’d throw myself into the Modder Rivier. Not that I cared. I wave, and he takes his ham act elsewhere.
I continue walking on. Ahead of me is the house of a lady friend I know, an actress. I’ve not seen her for quite some time. She’ll be happy to see me, I know. Just 5 minutes to her place.
Oh, I was thinking about Alice, eh? The past. I remember the first time I learnt the child she had by me was not her first. Two years before she met me, she had given birth to a boy who died after only 3 days in this world. So Alice had a child by 15 or 16? I was uneasy. Did I really know anything about her? I was beginning to realise that my mother, as usual, was right.
The next thing 1 got to know – from Alice’s neighbours in fact – was that she was not spending nights in her house again. “She sleeps with different men,” I was told. “You must be careful. Just try to take care of your daughter, and avoid the mother.” As if it was that easy.
I tried to remain friends with her, but she made it difficult with her loose ways and extraordinary dishonesty. For example one day I told her I would like to take her out to a certain well-known club in the Mangaung townships – just to relax a bit. Her reply: “I’ve never been to that place and never will.”
Imagine my surprise to hear from three different sources next day, that on the previous night, Alice had been seen at the same club, being fêted and flirted with by another man! I told myself I would be polite but distant to her from now on. Then one accursed night she appeared from nowhere in my room and made it clear she wanted me. Apprehensive of her reputation now, I wanted to use a condom but she refused.
“So you don’t trust the mother of your daughter,” she said. “With all these books you read, you listen to gossip.” Foolishly I took no precautions. I flinched in the morning. What if she claimed she was pregnant again, since I was her sucker?
Well, she did not get pregnant, but she gave me something else; a “social disease”, to put it politely. It was horrific, and I knew I could never like her again. Where did she pick up such an odious thing? It was over; and apparently, from other reports, I was not the only one she gave this unwanted “gift” or affliction to.
I now focused on my daughter’s welfare, as best as I could.
In front of the house of this well known Mangaung singer and dancer – I think it should be the other way round – is a fine red car. Don’t ask me for more details; let’s just say it’s a fine car. The man behind the steering wheel is about to leave. Dancer Lily is smiling, seeing him off. She introduces me to the owner of the car, presumably. He waves to us, then leaves. Children in the neighborhood are enamoured with the car.
“Seems you’ve made an impressive catch,” I grin.
“John! Where have you been all these days?” Lily says, her hand on her six-year-old daughter’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t be ‘disappearing’ like this, you should come regularly — after all you are my friend.”
“You and your strange, cryptic ways,” she says. “Let me give you a drink and tell you how I made my catch!”
I am soon on her couch, drinking some orangeade, and she says, her eyes twinkling: “Well, John, you won’t believe what happened. The guy is the owner of what we might call an ‘Entertainment Agency.’ I found myself in his office, and he was not in the best of moods. Hardly looking at me, he said absent-mindedly: “I’m busy now, lady, I’m not buying any peanuts or dibeko (fat cakes) from you today!” And I replied: “Am I so washed-out and illiterate-looking that you think I’m selling such things? I’m a seasoned dancer who’s entertained audiences in Britain, Turkey, etc.” He straightened up and apologized, said he was sorry. “That’s how we became friends…then he got to know me even better, my family here, and upon seeing I was single, he made his move.”
I grinned: “And you didn’t offer much of a resistance, did you?”
She smiles. “Come on! You’ve seen him yourself, dark, handsome, comfortable, without a wife, car… how could I resist him? He now takes care of me —” she points “that’s the cell-phone he bought for me last week.”
Actually she’s always been a nice lady, so why begrudge her some ‘happiness’ in life? I knew things were quite tough for her over the last few years. “Glad to see you are okay.” I say.
Lily’s face hardens. “Well, I hope so. You cannot believe what happened. One of my fellow actors tried to steal him from me.”
I stare at her: “A friend of yours?”
“So I thought, John. She’s been part of my theatre, we’ve suffered, struggled together. We used to share our small proceeds together. Then she noticed that I had a comfortable man in my life, doing all sorts of things for me. Then she decided to take my man from me, the cheap little hustler!”
I say nothing. My face is bland. She continues: “You know what she did? One day we were at Bethlehem, and in my trusting way I told Dan – that’s my boyfriend – to give the lady (I won’t mention her name, since you’ll know her) a lift back to Bloemfontein. I had to stay in Bethlehem. Two days later when I saw Dan, he confessed to me that that lady tried to seduce him. I did not believe him and he went on to give details. He said: ‘In my car she kept on behaving strangely, asking me all sorts of foolish, funny questions.’ Did Dan really know me? Did he know about men, and me my two children from different men, etc. Dan, a gentleman, answered politely, and drove her to her place. Then he was weak by obliging her request that he should at least enter her sordid room for a small drink.” Here Lily’s displeasure shows clearly. “Men can be so weak, but at least he did not succumb to her seduction. Believe it or not she told him she liked him, and tried to persuade him that she was free, had no ‘baggage’ of children…imagine her effrontery. She actually drew him to her, before he made it clear to her that she was being absurd…”
“What annoys me most,” Lily rounds off, “is that that slut tried to portray me as cheap, whereas she’s not better than those street-pounding whores, even begged Dan not to tell me what happened, but of course he did.”
I stand up and say I have to be on my way. “You want to see Themba next door?” she asks.
“No, I’m in a hurry,” I reply. Themba had been in jail for some time, but was now out on bail. It appeared he had stabbed his girlfriend brutally, late in the night, when a sort of party was going on. As an eyewitness said: “It was terrible, I saw everything for myself, blood was flowing. That brute (Themba) was drunk, and wanted to sleep with the lady right there at the party in a comer. She refused. He pulled out a knife and stabbed her. My small child saw the body on the ground. Happily enough we rushed her to the hospital and her life was saved. And Themba spent only a short while in jail. I don’t know what the world is coming to these days, when murderers and attempted murderers are hardly punished…”
Onto the next street — small lane, actually, past the extremely big, porcine-looking woman. Sort of behemoth. I smile as I wave to her, at what Lily once said about her: “Don’t call her (the big woman) my friend. Imagine it: she never washes, stinks all over the place. How can a woman not wash? An embarrassment to us all.”
But not as embarrassing as another lady I am to meet some minutes later. I am on the main road again, when she seems to materialize from nowhere, and says: “Where’s the loo?” I am non-plussed, when she brushes me aside and moves sideways, and relieves herself right there in public! I’m telling you that she pulls her panties down and to the horror of passers-by, the liquid comes spilling out. Can she be normal? But what is ‘normalcy’? Many people claim I ain’t normal too, but do I feel crazy?
My mind goes back to last night, but I quickly blot it out. Let me just concentrate on my walking, for now.
In this world, I think, many things are a question of perspective. We see a cow, or sheep, being braaied and we smack our lips with culinary anticipation. But if we sec a human being braaied! — we are filled with utter revulsion. How does a fellow sheep feel witnessing its ‘comrade’ being slaughtered for food? Knowing its own time is nigh?
You might say: “but they are just animals?” But they have flesh, blood, head, neck, hands, appendages etc. They too feel pain…as you might have guessed I am one of those who are completely against violence to animals. And I’ve heard human beings described as “higher animals.” Whatever that is…
I walk on, noticing that Felix’s ‘shop’ is still very much around; where he sells things like cigarettes, oranges and sweets. You know, I used to believe there was little or no profit in this type of petty trading, but how wrong I was.
People like Felix, who run a sensible, adroit close ship as regards their small business, are far from being poor. They know the times business moves best, the time people are leaving their houses early for work, and buy their cigarettes and things.
Why do so many people doing business of this ilk fail in the townships? Because they are ignorant; or better (worse?) still, irresponsibly negligent of the basics of elementary business. I smile as I think of Rufus, for example. Rufus, a guy near our house, made a lot of noise about starting a paraffin business a couple of years ago. And the people supported him, snapping up bottles of paraffin regularly from him, at a price clearly over the top. But Rufus kept on claiming he was running his business at a loss.
“It’s a tokoloshe robbing me,” he whined. “I don’t know why I never make any profit, and have to borrow money for new supplies.”
Well, I knew, and as tactless as ever I told him the truth. “Rufus,” said I to him. “You are being absurd. Every day you use the whole money you’ve garnered from your sales to drink alcohol, to the extent that you even lose your reason. Additionally, with your roving eye – and hand – with women, you can’t expect to save money. You know how our women are quick to separate men’s money from them, once you start flirting with them!”
Two young ladies, who had heard me, laughed and said: “You, John! You are crazy!”
Maybe. But then many perceptive women manage to eke out a living via petty trading; they are better at planning, and investing. No wonder somehow, over the decades, an extraordinary number of single mothers in the townships managed to bring up their children despite impossible odds.
“Hi, my friend,” Felix says now. “I’ve not seen you for quite some time. Care to buy some sweets from me?”
I grin. “I reckon” I pick up some sweets and pay for them. Meanwhile he proudly fingers a small transistor radio. Battery-operated. “Picked it up for almost nothing at..” he doesn’t vouchsafe the rest of the information. Traders’ secret. Privileged information.
“It’s around 8:30 now,” he says. “You want to listen to the radio news?”
Certainly not. I moved on. There is a small salon just around the corner, has a grandiose sounding name which is actually meaningless. As I pass it a female hand waves at me. “My friend,” says she. Sally. So she’s working here now? Has certainly been around quite a number of saloons, from various places in the townships, to the city. Her usual grouse was: “Those who employ hairdressers like us exploit us, so we have to move on or the owners might change, and bring in other people to work for them. Or the salons might even close down.”
In Sally’s case, she does make a fairly good living, thanks to her “hirsute proficiency” (what a phrase I’ve invented here!). I know that she has her own private business and works from home, especially during weekends; to augment whatever the salon owners paid her. Extraordinary really the number of our ladies who are hairdressers, work or can easily work at hair salons. Sometimes you wonder how the supply matches up with the demand, or is it the other way round?
Like all those young men who claim to be barbers. In salons, and on the streets. “Fine cut!” they declaim. And they make a lot of money too, hundreds a day, sometimes, which most of them happily spend on their girlfriends. One of them I know bought two cell-phones within months for girlfriends but never for himself. And when I ask him why, he retorts: “Where do I get the money from, my man? I just buy them for my cherries.”
Now Sally, after we exchange greetings, confirms that she’s currently working here. She moves closer and adds: “It’s like slavery, but what can a girl do?” She smiles that dazzling smile of hers. Plump, friendly, and naughty too, as I knew well.
“And how’s your lucky boyfriend,” I ask.
She grins: “He’s still riding me well,” she replies. Ah.
I move on. I notice a big turkey in a house on my right. Very big. But maybe it is not a turkey, as I can’t imagine one as big as this. Could it be something else? After all, one has very little ornithological knowledge in the townships. I mean: for years I’ve read about ducks, drakes, goose, gander etc but do I really know them as a fact? I doubt it.
I pass a certain pub, and find myself smiling. I remember what happened the last time I was inside the pub. Drinking.
As usual I was alone, drinking my beer quietly, when two young men came towards me. “My friend!” one of them said theatrically. “I’ve not seen you for a long time!”
To which his friend added: “You know this gentleman?” And the first one sat beside me, staring at my beer. He said: “This here guy used to be my good buddy. Good buddy!” He reached forward, and got set to pour some of my beer into a plastic cup he had. “Yes, my good buddy!”
Firmly I took my bottle of beer from him. I know the tricks of these guys, when they desperately want a drink. Among these they can pretend to be your long-lost friend, and inveigle you to share your drink with them; and of course (if you could afford it) order more bottles for them.
I said to the “buddy-buddy” guy: “Look, Mr Man, I don’t know you and I certainly have never seen you in my life before. Maybe there are some people who do not know their good-buddy mates, but I’m not one of them. We are not friends, and please leave my hard-earned beer alone, eh?”
Disappointed he left with his mate, who said under his breath: “The guy’s nuts!”
And a few minutes’ walk from this pub is the family house of a lady I used to be sweet on, about a year before I met Alice. Her name is Palesa, a name which of course signifies a flower. Not that she is “flower-like”; more like a good-looking tomboy. When I first met her, on hindsight she must have been in something of a good mood. She smiled and said to me: “You look so far-away! That guy was greeting you and you hardly heard.”
I did not hear at all. I stared at Palesa and I liked what I saw. There was a suggestion of strength in her attractive frame. Her oval face was pretty enough, without being out of the ordinary. She could see that I was a bit overwhelmed beside her. She said diplomatically: “Actually it seems you don’t remember me. I used to sing in the same choir with your sister.” Ah, my younger sister— she’s the one that sings. “You met me with her last year or so, near a certain butchery.” I certainly could not remember. It must have been very brief. But then most women have an uncanny ability to remember people and faces.
I shrugged. “You stay around this place?”
“Yeah,” she replied. We talked, seated on a certain big stone; I bought her the cheap cold orange drink. It was nice talking with her, she seemed so unaffected. It must be admitted that I do not usually find it facile to make conversation with ladies, but she seemed different.
Well — we know how these things happen. As a man you meet a lady you fancy, and sooner or later if the affection seems to be mutual, you make your move. About a week after being “friends” with Palesa I made my move. Her reaction was a bit strange, she touched my arm and said: “You are spoiling things now, you’ll start to dislike me if you want something more from me.”
I was to learn that she was right. But at the time, I suggested we should give it a try. And immediately she unleashed a litany of demands: I had to feed her daily, buy clothes for her, get a special blanket for her, etc.
In the beginning I was foolish enough to inveigle my mother into giving me money, which I passed onto Palesa. But trust my perceptive mum. She said: “These demands of yours, now, Obviously you have fallen for a girl, eh? I can see it written all over you. And I shan’t give you anything again. If you have to impress a woman by spending on her every time, such a relationship cannot work you understand? You modern children don’t believe in love again, you just want to worship material things. In the old days it was different. People must have affection for each other and the rest follows…look at all the tsotsis in the townships these days, created largely by the demands of young women. So the boys steal from shops, steal phones, steal cars, etc, just to satisfy women. Is that the path you want to walk? Let me die first!”
She was right. I could not satisfy Palesa; even the little I did was inadequate and farcical to her. I had to let her go. It would have been nice to say we still remained friends, but things do not work out that way. In fact these day she seems to really dislike me.
So we avoid each other.
I pass the main library; of course it is closed today because it is Sunday. Oh, the joys of a library, I firmly believe libraries can reform, or largely prevent countless people from becoming criminals, skelms, and the like. I for example discovered early that it is much more meaningful to spend hours at a library, rather than smoking dagga, or plotting nefarious activities. And I have got ideas for many part-time jobs from the library.
Yet, my sisters — at best semi-literate — do not appreciate the importance of reading, but they are not alone. That is why the children from the townships should be introduced into reading for pleasure from a very young age. This reminds me of a book written by leading Mangaung writer, Flaxman Qoopane, titled: View from my window. Read it and see importance of literature for we blacks.
So, I pass the library thinking of the endless knowledge to be gleaned from the contents of the building. It can be no coincidence that all those great people are avid readers, ranging from Tata Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki to many others.
Continued in the next issue of herri.
Read part 1 here.