The JRB presents the short fiction debut of Palesa ‘Deejay’ Manaleng.
It’s raining, the roads are slippery, the driver sways the taxi left and right to avoid hitting potholes as big as ponds along the road, the sound of mbaqanga hits my ears hard. The music of my people, the songs of heartbreak, love and death. On any other day I would be dancing away with the other passengers as we head to Johannesburg, leaving our homes and families behind. But not on this day. Instead I look out the window of the red and blue kombi and watch as the rain washes away all of yesterday’s hurt and pain, and makes way for a new beginning.
The plastic bag covering the window a seat ahead of me has an opening that lets little splashes of water in, which hit me violently across the face as the vehicle moves faster and more recklessly. Talk of where we are headed fills the taxi as the women in front laugh about what they had left happening in the great city of lights. The man next to me smells of yesterday’s beer and cigarettes, and he recollects last night’s coming of age ceremony for his younger brother. He takes a swig of the brandy burrowed deep in his oversized grey and black jacket. I look at his long nails, grimed with years of dirt, as I decline his offer of a sip.
The smell of home cooked chicken combines with stale beer, cigarettes and the screams of little babies every time we swerve, and slowly rocks me to another world. I adjust my bag on my lap so I can try to stretch out my cramping legs, while the driver yells out that we will stop in a bit for a toilet break and some food. He instructs us not to take forever, as there are people in Johannesburg waiting for him to take them back to KwaZulu-Natal.
My name is Muvuseni Themba Dumakude, the eldest son to Zinhle Dumakude and Zolani Bhekokwakhe Dumakude. I crawled out of my mother’s womb in the early hours of the morning eighteen years ago, screaming to be set free. My naked body was wrapped in sheepskin as my mother lay on the rondavel floor. The village women ululated, thanking the gods, as the men passed around umqombothi. They poured some onto the ground, letting my ancestors drink. Immediately the mountains rumbled and the sky growled, a sign that my forefathers were appeased.
My parents had seven daughters before my arrival and my father was seen as a poor man because of this. He resented my mother for not being able to bear him a son to carry his name further. He had worried that the family name would die with him and he called my mother useless—until I emerged into the world; the warrior he had been craving for all those years.
When my parents met, in the sixties in Durban, my mother had been working in the kitchens in the suburbs of Durban North, cooking for white people and staying in a back room as big as a toilet. But the madam loved her, she gave her all the old clothes to wear, let her eat the scraps that the family did not want, and at times she would even let her pick first any old furniture she liked before it was thrown out.
My father worked on the railway, it was heavy work for anyone. He and the men he worked with built the railway line with their bare hands, working till they could not physically move, for two shillings a week. He stayed in the hostel with the other men, where they shared what little food they could afford to buy after sending money back home to their families and relatives.
Both Zinhle and Zolani, my parents, were originally from KwaZulu-Natal, and they both went home as often as possible. My mother had been taking the madam’s baby for a stroll when my father saw her, he was coming from the commissioner’s office where he had been fixing problems with his dompas. It is said, when he laid eyes on her, he knew she was to be his wife and bear him children.
It had been years since my parents had lived together and, seven daughters later, my father had not married my mother. This angered the elders, as it brought shame to my mother’s family. But my father had insisted he would only marry my mother the day she decided to give him a son. Until then he would not waste a single cow on a woman who could not strengthen his clan name.
Immediately after my birth my father was true to his word, he married my mother. He paid lobola for her and damages for all my elder siblings without hesitation. My name Mvuzeni means ‘wake him up’, which is what my presence symbolised for my father, the awakening of his clan name. It is said my father insisted on taking me everywhere since he was so delighted to have a son. Even when he attended clan meetings with the other men, he would have me on his lap, which was unusual, but everyone was tied of arguing with Zolani and just let him be to keep the peace.
I was four years old and the winter was bitter when my baby brother was born, tearing out of my mother, nearly killing her. Sphesihle, which means ‘good gift’, made my father overjoyed, now he had two boys to carry his name, he had nothing to worry about. Seven daughters to bring in cows from their lobola and two strong sons to carry his name.
My siblings and I grew up together. We were lucky to have both parents in one household with us and even more blessed that our father only took one wife. Meaning we did not have the problems of the other children in the village, sharing their father with another family, and no one was trying to kill our mother with black magic. I remember when I was a young boy my sisters and I did everything together. They did most of the heavy work, seeing as they were bigger, and I was only too happy to follow them around as my brother clung to my mother’s skirt.
My father had cows, goats, chickens and a lot of dogs. As soon as I was strong enough the duty of taking care of my father’s livestock was put on my shoulders, seeing as I was the eldest son, and automatically my sisters had to show me the utmost respect; I was in charge when my father was not around, I became the head of the house.
Everything seemed normal when I look back through my young eyes, nothing was amiss. I was a man and therefore I had power over my elder female siblings, though I never abused my power as I loved my sisters, as they adored me. I knew I had to get the biggest meal so I could grow stronger and be able to protect them from anyone who wanted to harm them. I had to be wiser so I could groom my younger brother.
As the rain hits hard against the taxi window, the smell of wet sand lingers in my nostrils, taking me back. I remember clearly the dusty homestead with no electricity, no tap water, and no toilets. A simple life, the only life I knew. My sisters walking down to the river to collect water for bathing and cooking. The nights around the fire where the elders told stories of warriors and bravery, the singing and dancing rings deep in my soul. The nights when the men sat around a fire eating meat, talking about what needed to be done to keep the crops alive, where the beasts needed to graze.
All my dreams of success and growth were entangled in my environment. I wanted to be the best herder when I grew up. I had no dreams of anything beyond because I knew only what was in front of me. Every season young men would go off to a faraway land to seek work, as my mother explained, but I had no plans to leave home. I was to head my family like my father. With an iron fist and love, protecting the women in my family until they were married off and became the responsibility of their new families.
One day, when I was fifteen years old, my father called us in and announced that he was leaving for Johannesburg. Before his announcement, a series of events had occurred. My father had stopped working at the railway in Durban because he had fallen seriously ill. He was rushed to hospital, only to be told there was nothing that could be done for him. The elders decided to bring him back home and take him to a traditional healer, who let them know that the ancestors had called upon my father to become a sangoma. If he refused this gift he would die.
My father was taken away for eight months, to the river, to stay with the traditional healers. It is said the giant snake of the river took him under water to train him in his craft. There under water was where all his gifts and powers were passed on to him from his forefathers. After eight long months my father emerged from the river bigger and stronger. Traditional healers from far and wide came to our home to welcome him back from his journey. There was dancing, singing and praising of the ancestors, and my father’s rondavel was erected where he could be with his forefathers when needed.
With his power to heal, people would fill our yard seeking cures for different illnesses that the white man’s medicine could not cure. Some came asking for luck, others for sons, others for healthier crops, and they all came to my father. While my father employed his gift, I tended to the animals, my sisters the crops, while my mother went back to working in the kitchens to help out with things needed in the house.
As my mother came home only once every two weeks, my father made friends with another woman. She would come to our home and, as my father would say, ‘fulfil the duties’ my mother was meant to be taking care off. We as children did not protest, even though we resented this. My father was the head of the house and could do as he pleased.
When my mother found out about the new woman in my father’s life, she stayed away from home more often, which was hard for us as we missed her and could not stand the intruder. This new lover my father adopted came with Western alcohol, and my father started drinking Black Label, a beer in a brown bottle. He would drink with his girlfriend till they could both no longer stand up. At times we would leave them lying outside at night, with me praying wild animals would come and devour this new woman, who had come as a curse from the ancestors.
Our father become a man we did not recognise. But we still loved him. People still came to him for help and he continued to give out medicine. When the sun set, his play time would start. He would long for my mother, the soft-spoken woman who had borne him nine children. The woman who would sing him to sleep when his mind was troubled. Some nights he would call his new fling by my mother’s name with tears in his eyes. She would push a bottle into his hands, telling him to forget about that one, she was not here.
On the rare days my mother came to see us she would at times find my father lying with this new woman and a fight would break out. She would ask him why he was doing this in her home. He would shout at her, calling her names, and at times he would slap her around in front of his girlfriend. This happened time and again when my mother came to see us.
On the occasion when everything fell apart, our cows had roamed into the neighbour’s yard and were eating his crops. My father was called by the neighbour to witness what was happening. My father came home with a crazed look in his eyes, grabbed me by the neck and beat me with his stick till I lay on the floor. He continued to beat me as if I was a snake. My mother tried to intervene, screaming that he was going to kill me. But my father turned and started beating my mother for getting in his way.
She must have had enough on that day because she fought back with all her strength and gave him a difficult time. He was caught off guard. When my father saw that my mother was overpowering him, he bit off her lower lip. And he spat it out in disgust. My mother was bleeding and crying, we all cried with her. My father walked out and was gone for days. When he came back he announced that he was leaving for Johannesburg as he could not stay with a woman who disrespected him in his own house.
My uncles took my mother to hospital to try to save the remainder of her lower lip. Upon her return she beckoned us to her side and announced that she was not going to run after our father, or even look for him. She would remain with us until he decided to return and continue his duty as a husband and father to his children. My mother went back to work and returned every weekend, never asking once about our father, her husband. But every evening it was clear in her eyes that she searched for him in the sunset.
My mother, Zinhle, made sure we went to school. She sold a cow from my father’s cattle yearly to pay for our fees, buy us books and school uniforms. She made us promise we would continue to go to school no matter how hard things became. I would wake in the early hours of the morning and make sure the animals were taken to graze, and I would make sure they were fetched after school. Seeing as my brother was now old enough, we performed this ritual together.
With my father gone, I was now truly the head of the house. My childhood fears of things creeping in the night had to disappear before they had seasoned. With every sound that came from outside in the dead of night, I had to be the one who went out to see what was happening. It was my job to make sure the animals were not stolen or that a beast did not kill them. Hardly a teenager and I was making decisions with my mother, and on her behalf when she was at the madam’s house.
Years passed, winters came and left, without word from my father. Not once did he think of his children or my mother. My dear mother aged with a broken heart and the toll of work seeping through her bones. My elder sisters were married off and had families of their own, there was not much they could do for my mother. Only my sister Busisiwe, my brother and I remained at home, and one day my sister would be married off as well.
In December 1995, a year after South Africa’s historic first democratic elections, I turned eighteen years old. I was a full-grown man. Tall as my father, dark in complexion, and slender like my mother. I was the best stick fighter in my village and respected by all the boys my age, and older. My mother came back home for the December holidays one day with a bag full of brand new clothes and a brown suit for me. The suit had the name ‘Henry’ scribbled inside it.
My mother sat me down and said, ‘Mvuseni, my son, you have to go to Johannesburg to find your father. I have taught you all I can but only your father can teach you to be a real man.’ She handed me a piece of paper with the address of a friend of hers who had moved to the city of lights a couple of years earlier, and said this woman would give me shelter and help me find a job while I searched for my father.
Early the next morning my mother and siblings accompanied me to Durban station where I caught a train to Johannesburg. Having never been outside of KZN, I was terrified at what awaited me at the end of my journey. Though the trains were no longer racially divided, races sat separately out of habit. Little children, oblivious of their country’s history, chased each other up and down the passages, sharing toys and sweets as their parents watched uneasily.
For my journey, my mother packed ujeqe and a full chicken, slaughtered the night before. When I hungered I opened my container and dove into my homemade meal. I floated in and out of sleep as the train rocked, fighting faint images of my father. Not knowing what to expect, not sure if he was alive, wondering whether he had married that girlfriend of his from my childhood. Pondering whether he had other sons to carry his name and if that was why he never came back to us.
When I finally arrived at Park Station in Johannesburg, Mama Winnie was there waiting for me in her blue and white kitchen uniform. She spotted me before I could search for her in the sea of bodies. ‘You are your father’s son,’ she said as she hugged me. We went to her home in a township called Soweto, crowded with people and houses made of bricks, cardboard and zinc. Between the sky and the rooftops smoke lingered, as people cooked and heated up their homes.
We arrived at Mama Winnie’s house after walking through tiny streets filled with children playing, taxis hooting and the remains of burnt tyres. The stench of faeces and urine almost knocked me off my feet and overpowered the smell of home cooked meals that crept out of windows. The various smells, sights and sounds confused my senses, as they did not know what to register first.
Upon my arrival I met Mama Winnie’s eldest daughter, Cynthia—this was her Christian name, and I would soon learn that everyone in the city had one that they created or were given by the baas at some point or another, to make things easier for the white employers. Cynthia put a plate of food swimming in oil in front of me to devour, as she boiled the kettle to fill a plastic basin for me to bathe in. After all the pleasantries I was shown a room where the floor had been prepared for me. And there I lay my head for two days, sleeping off the tiredness of the journey, waking only to relieve myself and to eat.
On my third day, when it was felt I had rested long enough, Mama Winnie instructed her son Dumsani to help me gather my things as she was taking me to my father. I had not expected this to happen so soon. I had imagined I would spend years searching for my father and possibly never find him. But it seemed Mama Winnie had known where he was all along, and had probably briefed my mother on the matter, prompting my mother to send me on this journey to my so-called manhood.
As Mama Winnie and I walked in silence, I imagined the different scenarios that could occur when I saw my father. I imagined running to his open arms and crying the years of disappointment away. I saw us walking arm in arm into the sunset. At one point I heard him apologising for his mistakes and telling me we were going home together, to be a family again.
Just a few streets from Mama Winnie’s house, she stopped abruptly in front of an unhinged gate, staring at a house that was meant to be yellow but had turned brown. The paint was peeling in some places, and I noticed traces of blue and a bit of white. The yard was a jungle of untended grass, decorated with brown bottles and cigarettes stompies. The ash whirled around and dropped as if it were being teased by a ghost. As the wind passed through urine flirted with my nostrils.
‘This is your father’s house,’ Mama Winnie announced. ‘Now go and knock and see whether he is home, I will wait here for you,’ She gently pushed me forward.
I dragged my feet towards the house, hoping the damn structure would move backwards as I approached, but to my dismay it stayed put. I knocked on the door, faintly at first and then feverishly. The door was flung open midway through my musical drumming and a face that looked familiar, yet aged, tired and stained from deep within, as if from years of neglect, barked, ‘Who are you and what do you want?’
Trying hard not wince at her sour breath, I said, ‘I am Muvuseni Themba Dumakude, the first son to Zinhle Dumakude and Zolani Bhekokwakhe Dumakude.’
Before I could continue, she snapped at me, ‘Hey wena, I said what do you want, I did not ask for your life story, sies.’ Taken aback but determined to stand my ground, I let her know that I have travelled all the way from KZN to find my father, Zolani Bhekokwakhe Dumakude.
‘Who the hell told you that rubbish stays here? Who said you should come knocking at my door? Do I look like I know where Zolani is?’ she spat out. As she was berating me, Mama Winnie walked into the yard, and the woman went quiet.
‘I told this boy that his father lives here, are you calling me a liar?’ Mama Winnie asked. The woman, who I then recognised clearly as my father’s girlfriend, looked past Mama Winnie and I and said that my father was not home. Before we could question her the door slammed in our faces. What followed from behind the door was a missile of insults directed at my mother and a demand to be left in peace in her house or someone would get hurt.
Mama Winnie suggested that we go back to her home and come back in two days’ time, but I refused. I had travelled all that way to see my father and that is what I planned to do. I let Mama Winnie know that I would stand outside and lean against the wall until my father came home. I would not move from that spot until I saw him. Seeing that there was nothing she could say to convince me otherwise, Mama Winnie headed back to her street to get reinforcements, people that she knew could extract information about my father’s whereabouts from his girlfriend.
An hour passed, when suddenly the door of the house opened and out walked my father, or a shadow of the man I called my father. Once upon a time I had looked at him with pride. Not anymore. He walked straight to me with a brown bottle in his hand and smoke coming out of his mouth. ‘Why did you come here, are you trying to upset my family?’ he said.
Tears rolled down my face, and though I was silent my mind was screaming, I want my father who took me to village meetings. I want the father who called me his number one, who checked on me when I cried at night, I want you, daddy!
My chest tightened, and nothing came out. ‘What kind of man are you, crying? Men don’t cry,’ my father said. ‘I don’t know why your mother sent a weakling like you to come and see me. You are as useless as your mother. She never knew how to treat a real man.’
Betrayed, I realised that the man in front of me could do nothing to help me, he couldn’t even help himself. He was not my father. I left Zolani standing at his wall with his beer, struggling to keep his trembling hands still long enough to light a cigarette.
I returned to Mama Winnie’s house and announced that I had seen my father and wanted to go back home to my mother. No one protested. I was walked to the street corner where a taxi to Park Station was hailed. I decided upon a bus trip. Crying the whole way home I disowned my father, I erased him from my mind and soul. I pronounced him dead to my heart. This was how things were to be from now on. I would be the father my siblings never had.
Unexpected by my family I arrived home. My mother was confused but happy to see me, and asked whether I had found my father. I pulled her to the side so as not to upset my siblings with the details of my trip.
Sobbing, my mother called all of her children to her side. ‘My children, your father is fighting with me, not you. What I want you to know is that he will one day come back and I want you to respect him as your father when he does.’
Years came and passed and I forgot I had a father, until the year 2000, mid-August, when a blue Toyota pulled up into the yard as I was helping my mother to grind mielie meal. A beer bellied giant of a man emerged from the car and said he had someone in the back to see us. My mother and I approached and saw someone lying on the black leather seat. I opened the door to get a better look, confused as to who this man was. I heard my mother gasp, as tears rolled down her aged face. ‘It’s your father.’
‘Zinhle, my wife,’ he coughed, ‘how I have longed to see you, you have not aged a day.’ I stared at a skeleton of a man as the driver lifted him up and my mother directed him to my fathers’ sangoma hut. ‘Zinhle, Muvuseni,’ he cried, ‘I have come home to apologise for leaving you without a husband and without a father.’ I wanted to walk away, but my mother gripped my hand. ‘But now I am back to die at home in the presence of my loving wife and children.’
For months my mother took care of what was left of her husband while I avoided his hut at all costs. I did not want to be tainted by the hatred that arose in my heart every time I laid eyes on the man. I preferred to continue believing my father had passed many years ago. I told myself the river snake had swallowed him during his initiation as a sangoma and now he is forever living under water with it.
One night in January 2001, my mother’s husband, Zolani, passed away. It is said he was calling out my name as the ancestors stole his last breath. He is to be buried tomorrow and I won’t attend the funeral. Instead I am in this taxi, headed to Johannesburg, where Mama Winnie’s son Dumsani has found me some work. My younger brother will take over my duties at home.
- Palesa ‘Deejay’ Manaleng is a writer, journalist and para-athlete based in Johannesburg. This is her debut short story. Follow her on Twitter.