People of the Townships episode 3
Strange, really. Another wily, strong, young woman greets me as she passes me now. A bit like Palesa, but taller. I remember her, some time ago a male friend of mine had led me to her mukhukhu (shanty house). “She’s a friendly lady,” he said. “I know I’ll have to buy her a drink, but that’s a cross we men have to bear, every time we are with our ladies.”
And so we went to her place, a small, shanty house built in front of the more modern family house. And yes, the first thing this tall lady asked for was a drink. My friend obligingly did so. We sat in front of her shanty, talking. “She’s quite a lady you know,” my friend said. And he chuckled. “You know she built this small house herself.”
She smiled deprecatingly. “I had a little help from one or two friends,” she said. “It’s nothing special. A woman has to be strong to survive.” It was clear my friend liked her very much. He added: “A strong, lovely lady. Even her handshake is so strong! Shake him please!” he appealed to her.
The lady, perhaps like myself, thought all this to be childish nonsense, but she did offer her hand for a handshake. She deliberately put steel in her grip, and I pretended to grimace. “Ah, at least no man can beat you up!” I said.
She shook her head. “You don’t know what you are saying. No matter how strong a woman is (and I don’t think I’m strong at all) a man can always bruise us around when he’s angry. Knife, stone, club, anything used by men.” She paused. “Look at this black scar near my eye. My former boyfriend almost blinded me in a fight…”
“Why,” my male friend looked outraged. “How dare he? …the swine…”
She hugged him. “He’s my number one fan,” she said.
I grinned. “Anytime from now I expect him to go down on his knees and propose.” Yes, it was a memorable visit to the lady’s place. Though I was not too pleased when my friend told me later on. “You know what that lady said about you? She said you struck her as being strange. Even dangerous.”
“Hey, boy, you don’t even see me!” An elderly gentleman says to me. I look at him, and yes, I know him. I have called him “elderly”, but I suppose in the eurocentric (“white”) world he would just be “middle-aged”. A life of suffering, deprivation and frustration made him appear to be “old”, but he was probably just close to 50. He was a nice man who belonged to that genre of gentlemen from the townships who claimed to work at the “golf-course”.
A caddie, really.
There are quite a number of them. Of course they were unemployed, or perhaps ‘under-employed’ is a better term. Their services were rarely needed, and they could hardly scrape R100 together in a week.
“Nice to see you, sir,” I say. “And how’s the golf course?”
He grins. “A bit quiet these days, and as I’m getting on a bit, it is even more difficult for me. But I try. When I manage to scrape some money together at the course, I come back home and buy a few drinks for myself. You are welcome to visit me one of those days. My woman (he did not say ‘wife’) sometimes asks for you.”
“Say hello to her, sir”.
A few minutes later I run into another acquaintance, drunk as usual. I never quite figured out what his name was. What I did know was that he was always fresh from what he called an “African drinking house”, to wit one of those many places where pineapple, skokiaan, papsak, etc. are sold. Once I had jokingly told him: “You must have your own mattress perched at the drinking house.” Very early in the morning, or late in the night, you could see him, lolling and lurching, to and from his favorite drinking spots.
Now he says: “My friend! (he hardly knew my own name too) you have some coins for me?”
“Regretfully no,” says I. “And how’s the smuggling run?” Another interesting aspect about people like him is the extraordinary candour and forthrightness with which they vouchsafed any illegal, even criminal activities they were involved in. I knew this guy in particular used to boast about smuggling marijuana, dagga. Not the “very hard” stuff like cocaine, ecstasy, etc.
“Ah, my brother, I’ve not crossed the border for some time,” he retorts. “Other guys now control the distribution of the stuff.”
“So you’ve retired?”
He smiles. “Not exactly. For the meantime I’m a consumer, not a seller. The younger guys have brought a ruthlessness into the distribution network. For example they deal with the real drugs, cocaine and the like. You know most blacks here, no matter the misconceptions, do not actually indulge in the very strong stuff.”
“So who buys them?”
He grins. “Some whites of course. Discreetly done at nights. I’m telling you that you can never believe how much those whites are ready to spend to buy those drugs. Hardly any blacks can afford to buy them anyway.”
I nod. I suddenly remember a young white man I used to do a part-time job with who once confessed to me: ” You think I’m a nice, quiet guy, eh? My thing is drugs…you don’t take them? All I’ll say is that drugs are many times better than sex.”
A very unfortunate situation. There is no doubt that drugs destroy people, and those who have seen the cumulative effects of drugs on both men and women will realize that taking to drugs is exactly like inviting the devil himself into one’s life. Precipitating disaster and horror.
My acquaintance is anxious to move on, obviously to continue drinking. “I’ll see you,” he vaguely says. My hand in my pocket, I cross a small bridge to another part of the township. Yes, I know a few people here, but I’m essentially just strolling around. I walk past the main “tuck shop” in the area. A young woman comes out of the shop, and believe you me, I begin to shake like a leaf! I even pray she doesn’t see me. I remember the last time I saw her and I ‘disgraced’ myself by bursting into tears beside her!
Now I reckon you are thinking: he’s in love with her. Well, not in the way you think. The problem is, I like her too much, and she’s the most decent young woman I’ve ever met in my own small world of the townships here. Over the years I got to know her well, as I used to visit a friend in this area (now dead.)
The young woman had the very unusual name of Lupna, and was being courted by a superb young man called Patrick (a man who really believed in God). Patrick was quite friendly too, and even invited me for lunch sometimes.
At such times I noticed his “woman”, Lupna, was the sweetest, nicest, most sincere black lady I knew. Even till date. We live at a time when, being honest about it, it is difficult to describe any woman as “very good”, but I’ve always thought that the example of Lupna should be a beacon for all women. If we have many like her around the society would be much better for it, morality enhanced etc.
And it gave me a lot of satisfaction that she and Patrick were now married, and had a sweet child of their own. “I’ll do anything for her,” he says simply. And who would blame him? He’s a very lucky man, and so is she to get the type of teetotaling, non-smoking, very decent man she deserves. Lupna was always a very gracious hostess and the last time I saw her, I had been a bit drunk. Being a woman, she knew of course (over the years) that I liked her very much. But on that day (when I was tipsy) I had said to her: “Madam, when I think about you, I think about Wordsworth. He must have had you in mind when he formulated his famous quotation on a very good woman…”
“What did he say?”
And I quoted: “A perfect woman Nobly Planned To Warm, to Comfort And Command.”
Then, to my horror, I burst into tears!
She was touched, and knew I meant it. She said she was “just human too, with faults.” Like my mother, eh? She must have had some faults, but she was the first “Good woman” I knew.
So, now I want to avoid Lupna, but I know I cannot. For one thing she is carrying a heavy bag of mealie meal, and I have to help her. Her eyes light up when she sees me. “Let me help you,” I say.
We go to her house, the small house she shares with her husband, Patrick. “He’s off to church, now,” she says. “He went with the baby. Then I remembered I had to buy some phofo.”
Inside her house she says: “Let me fix you something to eat, drink.”
“No,” I protest, but she makes me a cup of tea, anyway. She is a very happy woman, fulfilled. I feel like hell right now, knowing I have made a total mess of my life. I admit as much to her, without going into details.
“You are wrong,” she says. “You forget you are still young, perhaps even I am older than you! Your time will come if you still don’t have a job, it’s just a question of time…”
“It’s not that,” says I. “I’m in big trouble,” I go on bravely, “to be honest, I always think if I’d met someone like you early in my life, my life would not be destroyed like now.”
“John!” she says, alarmed. “Please don’t talk like this.” She stares at me. “It’s woman trouble, eh?”
I nod again. “About as bad as anything can be. You’ll hate me when you find out.” She begs me to tell her what has happened. “Oh, you’ll find out soon enough,” I say. “Whatever it is John, Patrick and I will do our best to help you,” Lupna says. “I was lucky enough to be brought up with quite good morals. I was never the type who flirted with boys, or tried to use them. And I was only 19, fresh from secondary school, when I met Patrick. We both fell in love madly. He thought I was a well brought up girl, and I did not imagine I could get a decent man like him, not drinking or smoking, God-fearing. We knew we both belonged to each other. He always said my love and encouragement gave him the spur to finish his tertiary education, get a job…”
“That’s it, Lupna!” I cut in, uncharacteristically. “So many men are ruined by useless women, women who have no dignity, are dishonest, worthless, drinking outrageously, sleeping around…and there are no many of them! Patrick is a lucky man!”
She is startled by my outburst. I apologise, not able to look her in the eye. I stand up. “Whatever happens to me, please remember my great respect and affection for you.” Tears come to my eyes again. She can’t help it, she’s sobbing too.
“Whatever it is, we’ll do our best to help you,” she says, seeing me to the door. I am anxious to leave. She always has this effect on me. “Please don’t do anything silly!” she shouts.
I move on; suppress the cynical, despondent thoughts again. Time enough for that later on. But they say it never rains, but it pours. Can you believe that just a few minutes later I’m reminded of women of questionable virtues again! I am passing a certain house by my right, which used to belong to a woman who sold herself for a living.
Just when I am thinking she can no longer be staying in that house, she comes onto the verandah and looks at passers-by. She even waves to me politely. Who would imagine that this average-looking woman was (still is?) a prostitute? The memories come rushing back.
I was with big Ben, an old friend of mine, who likes women a lot. It was in the evening. He says, with that smirk of philanderers: “I’m going to get myself laid. Care to follow me?”
“With your lady?” He laughed. “A professional. Right in the townships here. Discreet clientele.” “You can’t be serious.” I said. “There’s no whore house in the townships.”
“How charmingly naive you are.” Ben retorted. “All those girls selling themselves on the streets in the city at night? Where do you think they live? Just follow me and learn..”
I did so, and he went on: “The woman I’m going to now, know how I met her? In the city, at night. I know where her type hang out, and since I had a little money in my pocket I went to her and told her I wanted her. Quite friendly, really. I told her I had no money for an hotel or motel, but she said it wasn’t a problem. She took me to a quiet corner in the night, pulled her skirt up and…we made love right there like animals —with the sounds of police cars going up and down nearby.”
I felt a bit sick, but what could one do?
He went on: “She then gave me her address in the townships and said I could call any evening, and pay the same amount for a roll…I’ve been there twice now. So I’m no stranger! Ah, we are almost there now.”
We entered the house. Strangely quiet, sort of ante-room first. Two young ladies around 15/16 moved to us, smiling. Ben talked to them, asking for the lady he wanted (obviously much older than these girls.) One of the girls went to one of the (two) rooms in the house; took her time, came out and said to Ben: “She says you can come to her room.”
Then I remained with the two girls who were giggling and ‘gossiping’ about me. Right in front of me! One of them said: “We’ve never seen you here before.” “Ja,” I said. “Maybe you want to relax with a beer, eh?” she said. “We serve beer here.”
No, thanks,” I said. I looked closely at the faces of the two girls, they certainly were worldly-wise with a looseness of behaviour that shattered me. It was unthinkable at their ages! But I had to face the possibility: were they already selling themselves too? It was clear they (especially the one that first talked to me) wanted to get closer to me. I was relieved when Ben “finished” and came out. The girls stared at him knowingly, smiled, then asked him for some money for ‘drinks.’ He obliged. Then — ‘girl one’ said: “Your friend (me!) is a bit shy.”
Ben grinned: “You can’t blame him, can you?” He prepared to go, looking weary, but satisfied. Then the ‘main woman’ (the prostitute) came out. She was around 24, quite plump, smiling. She greeted me politely, and she and the other girls escorted us to the main road.
When we were alone, Ben said: “That was good. You liked those two small girls?” And before I could ask the frightening question he said himself: “Should have slept with them, but I’m afraid of how the one I consort with, the oldest, would react!”
“You mean those girls also…!” I could not say it.
Ben smiled: “Can’t you see they are used to the situation? My guess is they are professionals too, not as weather-beaten as the ‘big one’, but they certainly know how to get something, using what they have!”
I felt so sad and depressed. It was one thing for an adult to be selling. herself, but young girls! Instinctively I thought about Alice then. Had she been exposed to something like this since she was little? Certainly sex was not something special to her, no sentiments attached.
In the very next house, I almost absent-mindedly watch two women scrubbing away, cleaning. Extraordinary the way our women in townships clean, isn’t it? You might say they normally do this on Sundays, but many of them actually do so daily. All one can say is Thank God this aspect of the ‘heritage’ still remains.
You even get the idea that they enjoy cleaning, don’t you? The fervour and enthusiasm they put into it can be baffling. My sisters for example, whether they claim to be sick or not, still manage to scrub away. My mum was like that too.
Ah, my younger sister — the one with the beautiful voice. Whenever she is angry, and can she be angry sometimes (!) she would start cleaning, scrubbing with such energy that it was unnerving; at such times she would go on complaining, venting her fury more or less in a soliloquy. And heaven help anybody who tries to soothe or placate her at such times.
It used to remind me of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, where Pip’s sister used to go on so-called rampages, complaining and cleaning away, busy with her comprehensive cleaning, with Pip and ‘good old Joe’ cowering with misery. Another aspect that used to puzzle me, especially on Sundays in the townships, when the women really embarked on a cleaning spree is this: so many of them, despite their fervour in cleaning the house for hours on end, would be very unclean themselves, not bothering to wash themselves. I used to say to my sisters: “Don’t you think you should be clean yourself before worrying so much about inanimate, intangible things like the floor?” But of course, my views were always unpopular, since I was ‘abnormal.’
Okay, so I admit: I have been trying to avoid the issue of prostitution (by women) that is such a big problem. As many men are wont to say: “How does one even differentiate between the various shades and hues of prostitution?” As I stroll around the townships today, we have been able to uncover some aspects of this syndrome and perhaps before I return home (if I’m that lucky) more enlightenment might come.
Many men complain for example that: “our partners allow us to sleep with them, only after we have managed to put money on the table, or the night before payday! It’s like I have to cough out something before I can have my so-called marital rights.”
Others complain that they are certain their woman have other men in their lives that they are getting money, and other things, from. And it is a particularly devastating thing to contract a ‘social disease’ from one’s so-called partner. Even worse, AIDS gets spread in this way. How many people die daily from this in our townships?
I pass a tall, striking, classy-looking young woman and cannot but wonder about ladies like her. The first time I would encounter the so-called ‘high class hookers’ I could hardly believe it. I was in a sort of restaurant, right in the city, and a striking-looking young black woman sat all alone, not even drinking. A guy, on my right, said after some time: “That lady. You know she sells herself?”
I was staggered. He went on: “She’s — ah — waiting for one of her clients to pick her up, maybe a white man. I happen to know the lady. She lives in the township with her sick mother, who does not know what her lovely daughter does. She can be found at nights in front of the XXXX hotel. Any man who can afford her will have her. Normally it’s guys with good jobs — many important people — who ‘entertain’ ladies like her.”
True enough, after some time a fine car is parked outside, a man comes out, peeps into the pub. The lady upon seeing him stands up and moves towards him. Soon, they depart in his car. My companion, a smile on his face, says: “You know who that guy is?” He tells me. I’m incredulous! A well-known, happily married ‘businessman’.
Another time, I was at a decent restaurant in the night when a lovely young lady who had been sipping drinks beside me for some time, sighed: “You are a quiet man. If you want we can have some fun. I work at an escort agency”.
Puzzled, I said: “I beg your pardon?” Seeing how rattled I was, she smiled and added: “I mean, I don’t mind you. Just give me — rand and we can have some fun.” It was an embarrassing situation for me, and I had to wriggle politely out of her proposition.
Ah, I am at a small business center now. Though it’s a Sunday there are many people around at the various shops, the main one itself, a rather minuscule supermarket (is that a contradiction in terms?), the adjacent liquor store, the place where you phone and send faxes, the chips shop, where you repair your TV and the like, a butchery, etc.
I wonder whether I might be “embarrassed” here now. Maybe it’s still too early, I consider. Nevertheless I decide to go back to my place, taking another route this time. Sort of circumlocutory. They say: all roads lead home. Unless if you are a street kid!
Actually a lot of bunkum is said, or believed, about street kids, even by we blacks. In actual fact most ‘street kids’ are not actually street kids. They certainly do not sleep on the streets as many believe. They are just ordinary, jobless young men from townships who make some money by helping car-owners in the city, to avoid problems of parking, etc.
Also in most cases, these ‘kids’ are not really criminals. Yes, they ‘relax’ a lot after the day’s work is over, drinking (alcohol) and smoking, but they are just like other people from the townships. Almost all of them would never dream of stealing a car, or engaging in real crime.
Apart from looking after the cars, making sure they are parked safely, they try to make some extra money by washing cars. As one of them tells me: “Saturday is the best time for this. The car owners mainly come to do shopping in the city and leave their cars with us to wash, and we do so cheaply.”
Another thing: many of these ‘street kids’ are certainly not kids, they are adults with children of their own. They might give the impression with their servile manner that they are wet under the cars, but they are not. I know that a large number of even the youngest of them arc “family men”, struggling to put food on the table for their woman and children.
Some people are apt to confuse them with the real gangster, the vicious hoodlum ready to do anything to make a quick buck. Well, the phalanx of people trying to survive on the streets – including the petty trader who stays up till late on the streets plying his wares like fruits, vegetables, etc – are certainly NOT criminals.
Criminals are not so hard-working!
To be continued in the next issue of herri.
You can read episode 1 here.
You can read episode 2 here.