A Short Story.
First Published in African Writing Issue #8
OBI IS Nigerian, you know this before he even introduces himself and you hear the thick staccato- tone of his accent. Staccato, like the rapid reports of the rubber bullets that bruised your skin as you scrambled all over the place like a headless chicken during the university riot back home. Doo doo doo, your aunt Ntombi said of the empty shells fired at the illegal vendors on Lobengula Street when they defied government orders and refused to move. Doo doo doo, instructing mayhem while everyone looted the abandoned stalls, including the policemen themselves.
Doo doo doo, goes the rhythm of Obi's voice, like the thick-paste porridge that Mama loves to cook, struggling to simmer. Doo doo doo.
He is standing a little too close. You guess he is Nigerian before he even opens his mouth because of the heavy chains lolling from his neck and the diamonds drooping from his ears. And that ring with a big 'G' that winks every time his hand catches the glare of the sun.
"All Ngongongos around here are the same," your Aunt Ntombi advised you the day you arrived. “Any one dressed like he's 50cent's cousin is a Nigerian."
More extravagant than the Nigerians back home. Just as enterprising. Nigerians in Zimbabwe. Nigerians here in South Africa. Nigerians everywhere.
Zimbabweans everywhere. Growing like a cancer, your Nigerian Landlord would say, his sagging shoulders in tune with his potbelly as tickles of laughter split him to pieces.
You press yourself into the wall, so as to get away from Obi’s stale-whisky breath. The smell of cigarettes rises from his body like a natural odour.
“Where you from ma sista-oh?”
You look away, the way you did the day the city police asked you, the way you do whenever anyone asks you that question.
"Never look away." Aunt Ntombi. "Never look away, or else they'll know you're not one of them."
"Kwazulu Natal," you say.
"Kwazulu Natal," you said to the city police, inwardly reprimanding your voice for its persistent tremor.
The policeman looked you over. You and Aunt Ntombi. Big eager eyes rushing over your curves with the hunger of a beggar salivating over slabs of juicy meat sizzling on a grill at a street corner. Asked to see your IDs. And when you bit your lower lip and wrung your hands and looked imploringly at Aunt Ntombi, he asked, with polite sarcasm, for you both to enter the police truck parked in the market square. Like a mean bulldog. Patrolling its territory. Wolfing down Joburg’s many thousand illegal immigrants.
When you were inside, trying not to suck the dirt and urine and body odour, you watched as others negotiated their release. Produced hundred rand bills stuffed between water-melon breasts and secret pockets sewn into underwear.
You will never forget how Aunt Ntombi calmly pulled down her panties and lay on the floor. Like an everyday routine. Because she had nothing! she would later shout back as you screamedat her, hysterical. She had nothing else to give you hear! And anyway it was all your fault, all your fault, couldn’t even tell a simple lie with a straight face!
And later, as you sat curled on the floor in her room, angry tears careening across the terrain of your defined cheekbones, she hugged you and said she was sorry, she was sorry, forget now.
Yes, you wanted to forget how they straddled her right there, the policemen, and forced you to watch. Aunt Ntombi, who used to lead the church choir back home, whom the Holy Spirit would befall like a halo and through whom start making divinations in tongues, panting like a bitch on heat in the back of a police truck. There was something in her eyes, something that made you look away. Something you felt when they took you too, kicking and screaming while they punched and laughed.
Afterwards, when you bought an international phone card and called Mpho, you wanted to tell him. You wanted to tell him but you couldn't, and so you listened as he told you how much he missed you and how much he loved you, how the cholera outbreak was getting worse and there was still no government almost a year after elections, can you believe it! Can you believe it! They were going to be another Kenya. It was bad, just bad. You didn’t know how lucky you were, to be away from all of it, having the time of your life in the City of Gold. And when you came for a visit be sure to wrap a Big Mac burger from MacDonald’s in your things? You were so lucky, it was just bad.
Yes, you whispered, yes. You wanted to tell him how you missed the familiarity of home, how you longed for Mama's smooth soft sadza, the folk lores told enigmatically in candle light whenever electricity went. How ugly Joburg city centre was, at least the section in which you lived, the section you saw. You wanted to tell him about the squashed buildings squatting uncomfortably on the dirty streets, burdened by the congestion of human matter ebbing within them. You wanted to tell him how narrow the streets were, how they sped with an untold urgency towards the horizon, trying to flee from the filth and stench with the eagerness of a redeemed sinner. How the sin here had blended into the landscape, strutting down the streets with a revolting openness before disappearing to reconstruct itself within the buildings.
But you said nothing. It was as though something was choking you. Like a knot. Strangling you.
When you finally put down the phone, you wondered why you had called him in the first place. He had sounded like a stranger. You had now become a stranger. A stranger unto yourself. You laughed bitterly at this as you stared at yourself in the mirror, thought how bloody poetic it sounded. The girl in the mirror laughed back at you but the look never left her eyes. That look you have no words for.
You look Obi over. You wonder what his story is.
“I loove you ma sista-oh,” he coos, flashing a gold tooth.
You wonder if it is real. Why anyone would coat his tooth with gold in a place where they chop off old ladies’ fingers for their wedding rings.
“Tell me, what you do- oh? I can make you very happy ma sista now. I wan take care o you.”
You want to laugh even though it is not really funny. It is as if the men around here write a script and go about practising it on all the women they encounter.
You sigh at Obi, that sigh that should tell him to get lost. Then it occurs to you that at this very moment in time, you can be absolutely anyone you want to be.
“I’m at school,” You say. “I’m doing my final BA year.”
Obi nods repeatedly.
“I loove you,” he says again, as though this should equate a university degree.
BA would be the degree you would be pursuing had all things been fair, if you had managed to get a decent job here in South Africa like you had always planned and managed to save up for a degree. If this place had turned out to be the mesh of dreams everyone back home used to claim it to be, everyone who arrived in the polished BMWs they forgot to mention had been hired specifically for the trip home. Everyone who brought their mothers sleek LG flats screens they forgot to mention had been pawned hot off the streets. Everyone who said ‘Mara-ne?’ more often than the South Africans themselves, so everyone else would know where they had been.
Vendor at work.
Yes, BA would be what you would be doing here, but not back home, no. Back home you would still be using outdated textbooks and well-used instruments to conduct your experiments in the Chemical Engineering Department of the Science University, had the lecturers not put down their pens until they could get a decent salary with which to repair the tattered dignities parading in scuffed shoes and torn collars. The University had to close down thanks to the brain-drain frenzy which offered trampled dignities a more lucrative taste of Diaspora honey.
You would definitely not be pursuing a BA degree back home. Because BA was useless back home. Because you would end up being a teacher back home.
Did you want to be a teacher? Did you want to earn a salary that was enough to buy only two kgs of chicken one month, a stale loaf of bread the next? Whose increments were always a bitter bickering with the Ministry of Education, always gobbled up by the greedy inflation? Did you? Your dreams? What about them? What?
You still hear your father’s voice loud and clear.
You look up at Obi. You are hoping he will be looking higher up, into your eyes when you look at him, the way the boys back home do, so that you can pretend for the moment to be having a normal conversation, a genuine discussion about things that should matter to you. But his eyes are rummaging through the cleavage peeking from your low neck-line top, perusing like they have important business there. You smile, a twisted smile that cannot hide the things you are feeling. You open your mouth to tell Obi to get lost.
Then, the next moment, a police truck is rolling slowly past and the vendor squatting next to you is managing to scoop up her sweets and cigarettes and burnt scones in one hand and scoop up her toddler in the other. You hear her shout and the surprise slaps itself onto your face, even though it no longer should, when you hear the Ndebele dialect and realise that she, too, is Zimbabwean. You watch her for a moment, cringe at the twisted way in which the toddler is dangling from her grip. Your eyes meet. You want to say something even though you don’t know what it is you will say. Something that will tighten the ties that already bind you. Something that can obliterate the alarm riddling her face.
The next moment mayhem is bursting at the seams and everyone is clobbering the streets like they are at a rally gone mad. The next moment, Obi is pushing you into the safety of his stall, behind the washed out leather jackets and patched up trousers. The next moment, his hands are pulling your hips towards him and his lips are squashing yours and his tongue is probing like it has important business there. His fingers are moving up your skirt and squeezing through your underwear and probing like they have important business there. That is the moment he chooses to look up, into your eyes, the way boys around here do, so that for the moment you can pretend to be having a normal conversation, a genuine discussion about the things that matter to him. He grins. You open your mouth to scream something indignant, something a genuine South African girl from Kwazulu Natal would scream. Then your eyes catch the streets and feel the mean bull dog rolling slowly past, hear the scrambling, see the shouting. You look back at Obi and gulp down the cigarette tasting bile sitting in your throat. And so he is busy probing and you are busy smiling, a twisted smile that cannot hide the things you are feeling.
You are thinking of your Manager as you smile that smile, back at the Wimpy food outlet where you do the dishes when you’re not plaiting people’s hair out in the open at the corner of Bree and Small Street. You are thinking how much smaller his white fingers were, how it was not cigarette breath that made the bile rise but hot, garlic air. How the threat to hand over an illegal immigrant to the authorities was so subtle, burdened by many layers of money talk and how-hard-it-is-to-find-a-job talk and my-friend-from-the-police-has-been-asking-questions-and-I’m-still-considering-what-to-tell-him talk. You are thinking that even though he’s an immigrant from Greece and speaks English like he’s holding something between his teeth and knows not a word of an indigenous language in spite of being here ten years, nobody would have dared touch him during the xenophobic attacks. During the time when he almost fired you because you spent a whole month locked up in Aunt Ntombi’s room, listening to the pandemonium outside and peeping through tightly drawn curtains to read the placards screaming
‘Zimbagwenz Go Bac 2 Yo Mugabe! Nigerias Go Bac 2 Yo Umaru!….Dont Want You Here…. Thivz!...Stealing Our Woman, Our Job, Our Money, Thivz!’
Trying not to piss on yourselves.
Your twisted smile becomes even more twisted as you think about your Manager. There are things concerning your Manager that you do not want to think about, that you would prefer to remain safely locked in that part of your mind where the things you want to forget are imprisoned. But these things are naughty; sometimes they reconstruct themselves, like fluid particles, escape through the bars of your subconscious, and make themselves prominent in the fore front of your thoughts.
And now, as Obi is probing, they are also probing. He reminds you of the other Nigerian, Obi. The one whom your Manager hauled you to, as you screamed that you weren’t going anywhere, anywhere, did he hear? even though you were going as you were screaming. The one who made you lie down and spread eagle your legs, so he could use his gloved finger to push the pill inside of you. The one with the empty eyes, whose finger squirmed without excitement, without art. And afterwards, as you clung to the bars running down the suffocating little box your Nigerian Landlord calls a balcony, felt the first trickles of the blood soaking into your underwear, you cried, and you laughed, though why you were laughing, you do not know.
And later, as you walked past the grimy posters littering the city centre, saying that Lizzie did abortions but Ujo was a trained doctor and did them at a cheaper price, you were tempted to tear down every one of them, until there was no more Lizzie and no more Doctor Ujo. It had been for the best, you would later tell yourself over and over. Because you had never been really sure if it had belonged to your Manager anyway, although you had prayed many times that it would be pale with blue Greek eyes when it did finally come out. Because, you had reasoned, who had ever seen a white man’s child digging the dust bins in the streets?
You do not want to think of Obi, and so you are thinking of other things. You are thinking of the last of Mama’s letters. The long one with the short paragraph that chided you for your silence, and the long paragraph that told you that your Father was ill but there were no doctors in the hospitals, that your brother was doing well at school but had no school fees, that ended with a long list of the things they were expecting you to send home. Now the rest of the letters remain uncollected from your neighbour who jumps the border once in a while, who your Mama uses to relay messages that can no longer reach you because you’ve changed your number. You are thinking of Mpho and praying that he has managed to find himself a decent girl back home, hopefully from the church that you both used to attend. You used to be devoted to the Evangelism Ministry and the Faith Ministry and used to laugh so gleefully each time someone called you ‘Mrs Mpho’. You used to pray so faithfully and now you laugh so painfully each time one of those Evangelical-Wanna-Be-Good-Boys stop you in the street to introduce you to their best friend Jesus. You fling the pamphlets back in their faces, shout at them to leave-you-the-hell-alone, and inwardly marvel at their calm. Jesus doesn’t live around here, you shout. Not in this Sodom and Gomorrah, you scream. There aren’t any Lots left to save. You are always hysterical.
They always remain calm.
Obi pulls away. The mayhem in the streets has died. He moves away, walks to the open entrance of the stall. Shouts something down the street, in a language you do not understand. Picks up a doughnut that has appeared out of nowhere, begins to munch happily. Licks those fingers that have been probing. He no longer looks at you.
You do not look up at him as you squeeze past, out into the open air. The muddy water is still dancing in the gutter where frenzied feet have splashed. The hum of the drilling machine at a near by construction site blends in with the chatter on the streets.
The vendor has returned to her corner, is busy setting up her wares as her toddler busies himself with a cigarette butt he has managed to grab amidst rushing feet. You stare at the vendor. You wonder what her story is. Does she prefer squatting on the street side with her feet on the ready to standing in long lazy queues all day in the flaming Zimbabwean sun? Is skidding all over the place away from the South African police like she’s running after something important, any better than scrambling all over the place away from the Zimbabwean police like she’s lost something important?
You pull down your skirt, look up to see that the dread-locked youth with the soccer ball tucked beneath his arm is still grinning down at you, fluttering thumbs up next to the words ‘ 2010, here we come!’. You are calm as you walk down the street. A gang of raucous youth clutch their crotches and hurl obscenities your way. A taxi hoots at you. You lose yourself to the noise..