The JRB presents an original short story by Andile Ndlovu.
Two jugs of water was all Bulelani’s mother permitted him, to wash his trainers. She would watch him attentively as he dipped his arm into the half-full bucket and returned with about a litre of water and decanted it into another bucket, and dipped his arm into the bucket again for a second helping. Just like he did with her sugar bean stew. One. Two.
The stew would be accompanied by ujeqe, her delicious steamed bread. Although she had not cooked it in a while. She had not shown interest in much lately. Sure, the bus left her about two kilometres from home, and the walk felt five times longer after a full day of work at the Steyns. She spent each day mopping, wiping and polishing floors and cooking food she was not permitted to eat—not unless she was asked to throw it out when it had been sitting in the fridge for longer than two days. There was not enough going around, she was told.
Mrs Steyn had asked her once if she was aware how expensive vegetables were, as if she wasn’t the one who was sent to the supermarket with a grocery list the length of the Steyns’ fridge. Mrs Steyn went on to explain that, basically, because of the drought, farmers were struggling to produce sufficient fruit and vegetables, and that the country was now importing more than two million tons of maize to meet the country’s demands, which drove prices even further up. As if Nobomi didn’t know. As if she and Bulelani didn’t live on pap, with canned pilchards every other night. Mrs Steyn continued lecturing her, recalling how in 2018 four avocados had cost sixty rands, and now cost two hundred and fifty rands.
It was 2030.
A dozen years earlier, Bulelani’s parents had been forced to close down their popular car wash service after the government implemented extremely strict restrictions on water usage. It hadn’t rained since 9 February 2018.
The date was etched in people’s memories like the date Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Momentous and joyous and unforgettable.
Everybody remembers 9 February 2018. When they heard the crackling sound of thunder they ran out of their houses in jubilation, clutching their five-litre buckets in anticipation, but the sky flattered to deceive. The rain wasn’t even enough to fill a one-litre jug.
Every year since, on 9 February, everybody in the community congregated to pray for rain. They prayed for God to hear their prayers. ‘Heavenly Father, it is You who said, “I will give you rain at the right time, and the land will yield its produce, and the trees of the field will bear their fruit”,’ they chanted. They wouldn’t question His timing, because He would never forsake His people.
Strangely, for a multiracial, largely Christian country like this, it was only black women who seem to truly believed these meetings would work.
The only public pool in their township had long fallen into disuse. The once blue walls had turned grey, like rainclouds. Nobomi saw the same notices posted at the entrance to their public pool as the ones in the suburb where the Steyns lived; a blue and white A3 poster with PLEASE NOTE! in red block letters, followed by smaller but no less urgent-sounding words: ‘Due to current water restrictions this swimming pool will remain closed for this season. All public pools will be reopened on January 1 2024.’
That was the last time they had cared to update residents. It was a miracle the posters were still plastered on the wall. Usually the boys would have torn them down like they did with everything else. Schools had been closed for a few years. Hospitals were more essential. It made better sense to stay at home. For decades, the government had made promises. Homes. Electricity. Water. Toilets. Homes with consistent electricity and running water; toilets that weren’t used by ten other people. But all they got were communal taps, and when the toilets were finally built, they weren’t enclosed.
There could be no better training than life in the trenches. Finding a way out was actually just about finding a way of living there. It was the women who made sure that their sons still had drinking water, even if it meant they couldn’t wash their pinafores and arrived at work in the same unwashed attire the following day. It was they who ensured that their sons used exactly two litres of water to wash their shoes and clothes, because any more than that would eat into the cooking water, and a mother never went to bed with her children unfed, not even for one night.
Bulelani watched his mother move around the tiny kitchen; her black top had crept up to reveal her tummy, with the effort it took for her to wipe the dust off the tin roof above her. She diligently stacked the pots next to the plates and cups, next to the window. Her Tupperware, with its green and blue lids, was stacked on the other side of the window to dry. Cords hung from the wall and curved in different directions like a busy highway—one connected to her old kettle, the other her secondhand fridge, and the other the stove. She wore a patterned doek and a skirt that looked like it was made from the same material.
He had offered to help, but she refused his assistance. ‘If anyone saw my son on his knees mopping the kitchen floor, then they would say I have failed as a mother. They would call me lazy. They would say “What kind of man are you bringing up?”‘
Bulelani sat back on the chair and faced her. ‘It really saddens me to know that these people you have worked for for all these years still treat you this way,’ he finally said.
‘In what way?’
‘How is it that certain individuals can have ownership over a natural resource like water? Doesn’t it make you uncomfortable working for such selfish people, ma?’
‘Bulelani, ungatheth’ into ongayaziyo, do some research. The Steyns own a private dam. They have generously opened sluices and shared their water with everybody. If they were selfish, I wouldn’t still have a job, and we would have died like all the cattle I pass on the side of the road on my way home. Be grateful,’ she said.
‘But doesn’t it depress you, when you’ve been dreaming of one day being self-sufficient? To be let loose and have the choice not to work for a day?’
‘Not work for a day? Wherever have you heard of people like that, Bulelani?’
‘The people you work for.’
Bulelani could not bring himself to mention the Steyns by name anymore, such was his disgust. Once, his mother had told him that she suspected he was so harsh towards her employers because he couldn’t be angry at himself for not pulling his weight around the house. A man always suffered from guilt for not being a provider. This was especially so when a woman was more resourceful, or was seen to have assumed the role of the breadwinner. It was certainly the case with Bulelani’s father, who had killed himself soon after the business closed down and he found he couldn’t land a job to pay off mounting debts. His mother had gone to the Steyns to ask for her old job back, and they had gladly accepted because, Mrs Steyn said, she was trustworthy.
‘I have had to let go of many dreams so I could try and help you realise yours,’ Bulelani’s mother told him. ‘Even now, with you at home and so despondent and directionless, my job is to keep doing what I am doing, so that you can have the space to find yourself and pick yourself up again.’
He was quiet.
‘What do you think we started the business for?’ his mother continued. ‘I never aspired to be where I am for the rest of my life. Do you think when I am summoned by my first name by a sixteen-year-old girl in a bikini sitting on a hammock that I do so gleefully? Do you think I enjoy listening to that man’s racist rants about his workers when he thinks I can’t hear? But you can only dream of what you cannot have—maybe that’s what motherhood is about.’
‘No, ma. You say that because you have never seen yourself as good enough to achieve what you desire. You deserve better. Otherwise what’s the point of dreaming of what you have already? It’s pointless. The point is to wake up and feel inspired. It cannot be that you aspire to toil so others can live happily—not even your children should demand that of you.’
‘I do it because I love it. Because I know it well. I could do it in my sleep. I am happy when my acts of kindness and service are appreciated,’ his mother said softly, as if she was still considering whether what she had said was as convincing as she hoped.
‘That’s not enough,’ Bulelani insisted. ‘That’s why me and my friends are working on a system. A grey-water system that will help us purify water. Water shouldn’t be a privilege for the rich.’
‘Is that where you’ve been disappearing to at night?’ his mother said. ‘I hope you are not thinking about interfering with the water system. I’ve seen too many people killed over illegal access to water, I can’t be worrying about you as well.’
‘No, don’t worry ma,’ Bulelani said. ‘We know what we’re doing.’
In the city’s offices, the mayor had called together all managers for an emergency meeting. ‘I need to hear better ideas. You lot are paid eye-watering amounts of money, but so far you’ve given me nothing by way of solutions to this crisis,’ he said.
Experts from all corners of the world had flown in. Researchers from China theorised about how to induce precipitation—weather modification projects, they were called. There were endless studies about how the Middle East, one of the driest regions in the world, was working to combat drought. The government had spent billions on top of billions to build desalination plants, in an attempt to end the crisis. It had appeared to be a great solution. It was being done in other countries. But desalination didn’t guarantee that water would meet satisfactory standards. There was evidence, elsewhere, to suggest that it still carried a myriad of pollutants. They forged ahead regardless. That’s what politics was about. To be seen to be doing something so you can earn enough time to figure out what you really should be doing. But time was running out.
Water restrictions and fines imposed had hardly worked. Of course, people in the townships argued they had always made less than fifty litres of water a day work. They could stretch that: the children shared the bathwater and washed their socks and underwear in it once they were done. The same water was used to mop the floors. They had always rationed their water. But their counterparts in the suburbs—well, vast gardens were still being watered for hours per day, and private swimming pools still glistened a shade of blue that brought an instant thirst. Yes, this was a question of the poor behaving well and the rich behaving poorly.
Nobomi had settled on her grave site many years earlier. While her husband was alive, they had agreed on a double-depth grave. Together, eternally. Their joint final resting place was just metres away from his parents’. It wouldn’t change, they agreed, unless they divorced.
Yet, it did change. Or rather, it had to change. Even though they never divorced, and even though after he died Nobomi never remarried.
In her box of documents, where she kept everything from her utility bills to pictures of their wedding day and of Bulelani as a baby, Nobomi had kept a receipt she had obtained at the cemetery where her husband was buried and where she would one day be buried. Once, after misplacing the vital piece of paper, she had to endure a traumatic week of running between the cemetery and the municipal offices, trying to prove that it was her husband who had died, and that she was very much still alive, and that all she was trying to do was gain access to the site so she could fix his tombstone and neaten her husband’s final home.
She ironed her favourite brown headwrap and pinafore and wore a cardigan over it. Her pantyhose and shoes didn’t match the rest of the outfit, but that didn’t matter, because they were the ones she loved the most, and felt confident in. She was ready to fight. For her husband. For her future. For her community.
Nobomi stopped at the shops to collect her older persons’ grant, so she could afford the bus fare and to pick up some groceries for supper. She brought a bottle of water to take with her because it was cheaper than buying it in town. ‘You’re lucky, ma. That’s the last litre in stock. We’ve been waiting for water to be delivered for two weeks now,’ the cashier said.
‘The man on radio said so. He said we were importing water from other water-stressed countries,’ Nobomi said.
‘Is that why it’s been delayed?’
‘Who knows? But it’s only logical that if you’re going to be charitable, you must make sure that your house is secure first,’ she said.
‘In the meantime, people will have to do with cooldrinks,’ he said, laughing.
‘It’s alright. I prefer bathing in Coca-Cola anyway,’ Nobomi said, and the man laughed even louder.
She laughed just as heartily as the man, as if two decades of drought had not sapped the community of all its energy, as if their hopes weren’t running on reserve. But you couldn’t survive living in this country without resilience, and resilience was impossible without laughter. Trouble doesn’t last. This too shall pass. And such.
At the department building, Nobomi collected her ticket number and sat towards the back of a series of rows of chairs. Every seat ahead of her was taken. She looked around the stuffy room, and saw many others like her—ageing women, women accompanied by their children or grandchildren, women in wheelchairs, women draped in blankets, women who had limped all the way to the department offices in an almost certainly futile attempt to save what was theirs. It was just like all the other queues she had encountered on her way. Women queuing for their weekly bus coupons to get them to work, queuing for child support grants, for vegetables at the market, and for a bit of water to wash and cook the same vegetables later that night.
By 11.30 am, security guards were asked to lock the doors. It was unlikely people arriving now would be helped before the offices closed at 3 pm.
‘It’s Friday, why would you expect anybody to come back to work after lunch?’ said a security guard to an elderly woman who had been refused entry.
‘What will happen to my mother’s grave?’ she demanded.
Before long, the elderly woman had drawn a crowd, and they threatened to run over the guards and storm the offices. It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes before the sound of sirens drew louder and closer.
‘Asijiki, we’ve triumphed over intimidation many times before,’ the crowd shouted. The women began to sing as policemen climbed out of their vehicles and formed a line in front of the building, like a royal guard of honour. The women sang louder, ‘uNkulunkulu uyalalela, ngiyanisabela mhla ephendula, the most high always listens, you better fear the day He responds.’
They sang and stomped on the dusty roads.
By 2040, water had run out everywhere but the suburbs, the streets remained untarred and unmarked and dirty buses stopped wherever. The blackened bandanas the old women wore helped keep the dust at bay, along with sewage water that ran along the thirsty ground.
Inside the department building, two women were being escorted out before they had even seen a consultant. They were being accused of feigning dehydration and attempting to deceive authorities so they could receive some water. It was against the law for government institutions to provide free water to patrons under any circumstance. Only employees were given water. The security guards dragged the stubborn women like a man would a dog that refused a bath. They would be charged with ‘Water Treason’ in due course.
Finally, Nobomi’s number was called. She slipped her empty water bottle back into her handbag, and pulled out her ID card and a receipt showing that she was Jongikhaya’s widow, and that the lease for his grave was up to date.
‘Ma’am, we have already been granted permission to exhume the one-hundred-and-twenty graves from the cemetery, which includes your husband’s,’ the white man sitting behind the bullet-proof glass window told her.
‘Will you speak to my late husband yourself and tell him why you’re moving him from his home? Will you?’ she asked, her voice a few decibels higher.
‘It was not my decision, ma’am. Like I have explained already, this is a matter that is being taken quite seriously—many more people than just yourself are affected.’
‘What? Are you telling me you’re taking it seriously, yet telling me my husband’s exhumation is not as serious as I am making it out to be? Who will pay for this, tell me?’
He sighed and looked behind her, preparing himself for another long day of fighting with elderly men and women who wanted to know why their families were being exhumed. Next to his station stood a three-quarter-full cooler holding pristine drinking water.
Behind Nobomi, an old woman in the queue behind her began to address the room, saying she had been told that they couldn’t help find her husband’s grave because he had been buried more than fifty years ago and there were no legible names on most of the tombstones. The woman unfolded and flashed a letter for the room to see, saying she had not read it because she didn’t understand it. It was in English, as if they didn’t care who they were addressing. ‘How do you care about me if you don’t even speak to me in a fashion I can understand?’ she asked. She said she had had to ask one of the smart children down the street to read it for her.
The letter was a final notice for persons with information about the next-of-kin of those buried in the cemetery to come forward immediately. It further said that sufficient notice had been given, yet there was no information about the graves or the date of death or sex of those buried there. It said that because of the refusal by the people of her community to move away from Ematendeni, the government had no other option but to move the graves instead. It needed to install sprinklers to settle the harmful dust that blew there. It had become so dry that the persistent wind over the years had eaten several metres of ground, like maggots picking at dead tissue, exposing some of the graves. At the entrance of the soon-to-expire cemetery stood policemen, who alternated in shifts, guarding against grave robbers and adventurous children.
The woman with the letter sniffed and wiped away tears from her eyes. ‘You think this is just a bunch of bones you can wipe and display somewhere. These are not artefacts for your museums. Our husbands lie there. Our wives lie there. Our fathers and mothers, our grandparents and theirs. What do we tell their spirits? Do you have no respect for the dead?’
The man sighed again, and looked around him as if searching for a colleague, or his manager, someone to help explain.
‘Ma’am. Can you not see this is for your benefit?’ suddenly came a voice. It was another
man. His hair swept to one side, silver-framed glasses and a flushed face, and a pair of pants that sat higher than necessary.
‘Who are you?’ Nobomi asked.
‘I’m the project manager—’
‘Project?’ the old woman exclaimed. ‘You all have no shame. Is it because your ancestors lie in the Dutch East Indies? Is that why this doesn’t matter?’
‘Will all due respect, that is rather offensive, ma’am.’
‘Do you know what being offended feels like, young man? It is to witness your loved ones displaced from their final home, and to be told it is for your own good, when really, it is just a project to others.’
The old woman put her empty water bottle on the floor and unfolded the letter again, and started singing as loudly as she could, as if she was trying to summon the same ancestors to come and witness the callousness of those who still trampled all over this feverishly contested land.
‘We Naphakade. Kwazi wena kungani. We Simakade, kwazi wena kungani sinjenje eAfrica. Kunje. You who is forever. Only You know why. You who stands forever. Only You know why we are like this, why our homes are like this,’ she sang.
Within seconds she was escorted out of the building. Another disturbance. She wasn’t making an argument officials had not heard. Projects have timelines attached to them. Time was of the essence.
Nobomi had not been removed, but she sensed it wouldn’t take much longer. The man supposedly helping her was getting increasingly flustered, and he kept looking at the queue behind her, like a man trying to buy a lottery ticket before the cutoff time.
‘Will you explain to my husband’s spirit why you’re upsetting it once it wakes up from its rest?’ Nobomi persisted. ‘Will you? No wonder this city has been ignored by God. You don’t respect ancestors. Soon we will have nowhere to live, because you’re driving us out. Soon, we will have no country to speak of, because you failed to nurture its beautiful flowers—its people. Shame on you,’ she said, as if she intended the remark for his colleagues, too. Behind her, she heard affirmation, and she knew she wasn’t alone.
In any other century, it would have been a beautiful day to take your children to the park for a picnic or to the swimming pool. The sky was a gorgeous light blue; the only blemish on the canvas was a luminous and unyielding yellow sun. Save for a handful of cloudy mornings, the weather had remained consistent since 2018—each day characterised by harsh and unwanted hours of sunlight. The air was dry and warm, like the initial burst of air from the vents of a car that has been parked in the heat. This seldom relented. In the winter months, the air was a different kind of harsh—biting. Winds blew at freakish speeds, and lifted sands like a careless worker sweeping a dirty carpet. Mothers tied bandanas around their children’s mouths like face masks, so they could go outside and play.
Nobomi walked slowly out of the building, no more appeased than when she walked in. She checked her small purse for bus fare, and decided she was going to go tell Jongikhaya of what had happened. And Bulelani. She would promise to fight for them, because she knew they walked with her even in their physical absence.
A decade earlier, Nobomi had earmarked Tuesday, December 31st 2030 for a prayer meeting. She knew it was going to be a Tuesday because the weather app on her phone had suggested the possibility of rain in exactly two weeks’ time. Her phone screen read: 07:34 Tuesday, 17 December 2030. Tuesday.
Admittedly, checking the weather had become a fruitless and heartbreaking exercise. But they needed renewal. Animal carcasses could be found every few kilometers, as if they were bus stops. ‘Cattle’ was just a word now. Playgrounds everywhere had been abandoned, and buildings were caked in years-old dust. Each passing bus or truck swept up yet more sand and ash, which rose up people’s noses and prompted endless, painful coughs and sneezes.
Hope was running as low as the water tanks that were positioned at police stations under armed guard. It was now down to twenty litres of water a day. Barely enough to wash and cook supper.
Her phone screen abruptly changed from 07:34 Tuesday, 17 December 2030 to Madam Steyn +27 (21) 7190374. She gasped, all of a sudden panicked and worried that she had forgotten to go to work. Did Mrs Steyn need her to come in for something? Had she forgotten about a possible trip out of the country for Samantha, and not ironed and packed her clothes? Had it perhaps slipped her mind that the Steyns were hosting the Zilles for a dinner party? Was there a Super Rugby match that Mr Steyn was hosting at home? Who would wipe the toilet seats and the floor after his friends had done pissing all over them, if she was not there?
‘Nobomi, it … it’s me … Chantelle,’ Mrs Steyn said. She sounded distressed. Not the kind of distress over her girlfriends coming over when the dip had run out, but the kind that would make her say in a single breath:
She spoke as if she was being throttled. She took a break to gasp for some air, as if she had to use an asthma pump.
‘What’s wrong, ma’am?’
‘Nobomi, it’s … all gone … wrong. I …’
‘Did you try cooking again?’ Nobomi giggled, trying to put her at ease.
‘Nobomi, it … just come now. Immediately.’
The bus arrived an hour later and it was another hour before Nobomi arrived at her destination. The Steyns’ home was a couple of kilometres from the bus stop, usually nothing to a woman used to walking long distances. She always joked that she had bigger calves than Bulelani, and she would stand next to him—her left leg against his right—and compare them, and they would laugh. But it was her day off, she had worked over the weekend, and it showed. She was tired, and almost limped up Sussex Avenue. She thought it unusual that the quiet suburban street was as busy as it was. She walked past the Bezuidenhouts, who stood in front of their gate in their robes and their wide eyes awash with something like curiosity and fear.
Opposite them the Anelkas, whom Mrs Steyn said were planning on moving their wine business to France, were walking out of their gates. ‘Oh, my dear Nobomi,’ said Mrs Anelka. She pulled her by the hand and gripped it firmly. Her husband put his arm on Nobomi’s shoulder and massaged it tentatively. They walked her up the road, where Mrs Steyn was crying politely, as if she didn’t want to wake any more neighbours.
Nobomi rushed to her. ‘What is happening, ma’am?’
‘I’m so … sorry Nobomi,’ she said, crying freely now.
‘Why? What has happened?’
‘It was … an accident, I swear.’
‘What was? You’re not making any sense, ma’am.’
‘It’s Bulelani … he was … shot.’
‘What? What would my Bulelani be doing here? Who are you talking about, Chantelle?’ Nobomi immediately covered her mouth, alarmed that she had called her by her first name. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘No, I’m really… sorry, Nobomi. Dawid found him. He was shot. We don’t know how and by whom or why. I identified him. He is wearing the same clothes you took for him from Wiaan.’
Nobomi pushed Chantelle off of her and walked into the front yard. Chantelle followed her, almost running to catch up, as if she didn’t want her to enter the house. As she approached the door, a policeman asked her to stand back. She tried to push past him, but he and Chantelle stopped her. She demanded to see if it was her son who had been shot down. She could see all the way across the lounge to the pool area, but there was no sign of a body. In the dining room, two policemen were talking to Mr Steyn. He was in his navy pyjama pants and his navy slippers. She ran across the floor and opened the sliding door. At the bottom of the yard, she saw more policemen and paramedics. Nobomi summoned all of her energy and dragged herself down towards them.
‘What is happening? Is that my son, please?’ she asked, but she was already crying. It was Bulelani. She saw his Lacoste sneakers, which she had spent almost all of her wages to buy for him for his birthday. She remembered how he washed them every time after he had worn them, and she collapsed to her knees.
‘No, no, no, Bulelani, wenzeni? What have you done now?’ she cried.
Mrs Steyn attempted to pull her up again, but she couldn’t. Nobomi fell on her side and howled. The men covered Bulelani and walked back towards the house.
‘It is such a heinous thing to happen,’ Mrs Steyn said. ‘What is happening in this country? How could someone gun down a young, innocent man?’ She tried to serve Nobomi some sugar water, saying glucose would help her recover her energy levels. Nobomi attempted to drink, but could only manage a few sips.
Mrs Steyn was looking behind her to see what was happening with her husband. ‘I wish I could hear what the police are saying to him,’ she said.
One of the policemen approached the two women at the end of the backyard, and sat on his haunches so he could speak to Nobomi.
‘Officer, what can you tell us?’ asked Mrs Steyn.
‘We suspect the deceased and some other men were trying to open the sluices, so water could flow out of the dam,’ the officer said.
‘Oh hini, Bulelani,’ Nobomi cried.
‘Did anyone see where these men ran off to?’ asked Mrs Steyn.
‘We are busy investigating all of that. They will be crucial in helping us determine what happened,’ said the officer.
‘Okay. I hope they can help,’ Mrs Steyn said.
‘Were you aware that your son was not home during the night?’ the officer asked Nobomi.
‘He said something about going to work with his friends on a system of sorts,’ she said.
‘What system?’ asked Mrs Steyn, as if she was taking over the questioning.
‘He said it was a system to help us purify water.’
‘He was such an ambitious young man,’ said Mrs Steyn, rubbing Nobomi’s back. She glanced towards the house for the umpteenth time, and stared. Dawid was being handcuffed. One officer took what looked like his muddied slippers and placed them in a plastic bag. She pushed Nobomi off of her and stumbled towards the house, but a policeman intercepted her and blocked her from entering.
- Andile Ndlovu is a Johannesburg-based communications specialist and journalist who can’t afford to quit his full-time paying job and focus on his manuscript. He was shortlisted for the inaugural Brittle Paper Awards in 2017. For now, he continues to write short stories and seek writing fellowships all around the world. Follow him on Twitter.