The JRB presents an excerpt from Botswana Women Write, an anthology of writing by and about Batswana women.
Botswana Women Write
Edited by Maitseo MM Bolaane, Mary S Lederer, Leloba S Molema and Connie Rapoo
UKZN Press, 2019
Read the excerpt:
And Then We Disappeared into Some Guy’s Car
by Siyanda Mohutsiwa
I have a test on Monday. I have a test on Monday, I have to keep reminding myself. Sometimes I forget. I have a test on Monday. But I keep checking my phone. The money is supposed to be in now. I’m supposed to get a little beep-beep and a message from the bank saying that the money is in. He said he would send it today. He said so last week and I don’t want to call him to remind him. I said I wanted it for shoes. I think I meant it at the time. I was even thinking of shoes as I asked for the money in the first place. They are purple shoes at Options in the window display. They have pink laces and they are good for running. My friend Sarah said I should get heels, but I need shoes for running. They aren’t actual running shoes of course. Not Nikes or anything like that. They look nice, and so in addition to running I can wear them with jeans and a tight T-shirt and look fresh. I’m supposed to get a notification on my phone. It’s supposed to be six hundred pula, seven hundred rand, sixty dollars. I always do conversions in my head so I know how much it will be if I have to withdraw it in another country. But don’t think I have some sort of plan.
I have a water biology test on Monday. I don’t attend the lectures. The professor is an asshole. He called me a liar once in front of the whole class. All I said is you promised you’d give us our assignments today. He called me a liar in front of everyone. And they all looked at me. Bright white eyes in deep brown faces. Wondering why I was stupid enough to open my mouth. So I stood up and flipped the desk over. I remember that part because I didn’t plan it. I just saw the table bounce on the floor and the girls in front cover their mouths and stare. The professor stuttered and I walked out. So I don’t go any more.
I don’t need to attend anyway, water isn’t that hard. It’s the same thing over and over again.
Many unique properties of water are due to the hydrogen bonds. [Water does some cool shit because hydrogen is so fucking special.]
Ice floats because hydrogen bonds hold water molecules further apart in a solid than in a liquid, where there is one less hydrogen bond per molecule. [Ice does something that ice has done since earth was invented and the reason is meaningless to anybody too busy living life to give a fuck.]
The unique physical properties, including a high heat of vaporisation, strong surface tension, high specific heat, and nearly universal solvent properties of water are also due to hydrogen bonding. [Blah blah blah … this degree is unmarketable in a third-world country.]
It’s all so meaningless. So what? I once wrote that in a test when I forgot I had a test and showed up twenty minutes late in socks that didn’t match. I wrote, ‘So what?’ After that, someone said the professor was looking for me but I don’t remember whether I went to see him later or not.
The money should be in by now. It’s been an hour. It’s only six hundred pula. It doesn’t take that long to send it. You just press *123*9# and that’s all. He can do that in the toilet while his family watches TV. I don’t even really care. I just need to know I have it. I haven’t eaten in a while. I was supposed to use my allowance to open an account at the cafeteria. I don’t remember why I didn’t. I think it didn’t seem like a good deal and anyway I don’t want to eat there. The food is shit and everybody looks at you. Why are Batswana always looking at each other? Just eat your fucking food, I want to say. It’s gonna run away if you don’t eat it, stupid.
I have a test on Monday. That’s what I should be saying as I get into the car with my friend and her boyfriend. We’re going to his house to drink ciders and smoke cigarettes. We will sit outside on beanbags and his old duvet will be on the dusty ground. Ants will crawl over it and I will keep checking my phone.
My friend will ask me if I’m okay and I’ll say yes. Or maybe I’ll say something else and look away when she asks for more. I’ll tell her she looks good. Has she lost weight? You’re losing too much, I’ll say. Then I will smile.
It’s Monday now and I don’t remember where the test is. I should have written it down. It’s somewhere in the social sciences building. Was it upstairs or downstairs? I don’t have any friends in the class. I don’t have a number to try. I walk around and around. Or at least I think I do. Maybe I’m sitting on the bench and nothing is happening. I feel tired. Maybe I was walking around. I know it’s half done now. My phone is almost empty but the time says 9:30 and I know it’s almost done. Even if I find it now there’s no point. They won’t let me in.
The money comes in on Tuesday and I’m standing in line at Liquorama. There’s a special on boxed wine and I think I will have that. In fact I’ll get two boxes and hug them close while I walk fast. I forgot about the shoes. He didn’t ask. He just sent the money and an SMS, A tsene, Lovie? I reply thank you papa love you! I will avoid his calls for the rest of the week. Probably forever. It’s best to do that because now that he’s sent in this little bit he won’t take giggles and excuses any more. This time I will have to deliver.
But I don’t think of that as I sit in the courtyard outside my hostel. I don’t think of much really. The wine tastes too sweet and it burns my chest. Now, I feel like smiling and joking. I have two full cups from my dirty coffee mug and I say to the girl in 209 why are you walking so fast is your boyfriend that hot, you can’t leave him alone? She laughs because that’s what she is supposed to do. And I think she wants to feel sorry for me. Nobody here drinks. They are so boring. Church this, church that. But it’s all an act. They walk into parked BMWs like the rest of us. And some of their boyfriends have gold teeth. And at 2 a.m. when I’m smoking outside near the laundry-lines they come to me and ask for cigarettes and tell me about God. It’s so stupid.
It’s so hot when I wake up on Tuesday. My roommate has gone to class or whatever. I miss her when she’s gone. All she does is study but at least she reminds me to eat. Sometimes when she can’t sleep she squeezes into my small bed, identical to hers except my bed covers are a dark brown with tan flowers and her bed cover has a smiling Miley Cyrus on it, and she tells me about her family back in her village. They are all teachers and they love her a lot. She says it repeatedly, you know my family really loves me a lot. I ask her to tell me funny stories about her mum and her big sisters. When I wake up she is gone.
It’s so hot when I wake up on Tuesday. I can hear the girl from 201 howling in the bathroom. She loves to sing; I don’t know why she has friends who tell her she can sing. Good friends tell you you suck when you suck and hug you while you cry over your dead dreams. My friends have always been good friends. You can tell by the number of my crushed dreams. It’s all for the best really. What’s the point of dreaming in Gaborone?
I don’t look at the time. My head is heavy and my stomach hurts. Boxed wine. I always promise myself I’ll stick to the stuff I drink when I’m out. Merlot, Chardonnay, Bells, Glenfiddich. But you know how it is, you get to the bottle store and you don’t want the store clerks and everyone else seeing you buy two-hundred-pula wine in dirty flip-flops and ashy hands. A person doesn’t need to have made it past standard seven to recognise a pathetic human being. Wasting her potential.
That’s what I’m doing when I wake up and look at the time. Wasting my potential. As I uncurl myself and slip into my shower shoes I am wasting my potential. With my ass hovering over the toilet seat and my eyes passing mindlessly over the graffiti on the walls I can feel my potential wasting away, crawling under the busted cubicle door and getting stuck in the clogged sink. Wasting away.
I’ve thought about killing myself. There was a phase I had last year where I wrote it down every day at the end of the day. My plan for death. I would sit in bed and tearfully map out every second of my last day. From what I would wear to what I would eat and exactly how many teaspoons. I’d fall asleep while writing it all down. But then I would wake up and realise I forgot to add the part about killing myself. My last day on earth would end without explanation at 8 p.m. And then I would promise myself to Google actual methods. But then I would be drunk at lunch and forget about it.
Nothing really came of it obviously. I just stopped doing it. I don’t remember why. Maybe it’s because I lost the green little notebook I used to do it in. I only know I lost it because some weeks later, when I’d forgotten all about that ritual, my friend CJ found it when she was spending the night in my room. She mumbled something about therapy. I mumbled back. We were drunk. So, I mumbled back something about not having parents who had PhDs and whose grandparents played golf with the first Khama. And then we disappeared into some guy’s car and reappeared on a dance floor in an abandoned bar outside town.
I’m thinking of eating something, I don’t know what. I look at the time now, and I wonder if I really did sleep for twelve hours. I went to bed at 9 p.m., I have some messages on my phone from the guy who sent the money, saying why don’t I answer the phone. Saying I should call him when I’m out of the library, saying I should send a callmeback, saying his family is going to the village over the weekend. Punctuating with a smiley face. I want to reply, ‘Look at your birth certificate, old man.’ But I’ve forgotten about it in five seconds because I’m reading CJ’s text, she’s smoking weed at Vegas and says I should come.
I don’t like weed so much, it makes me nauseated. But I’m rummaging through the heap of clothes on my study table, smelling for something clean. Shorts and a T-shirt it is. I walk quickly past the mirror. There’s no reason to stop.
CJ is sitting on a green bench behind the hostels deemed Vegas by the class of 2007. I know why but I’ve forgotten. Wind is whipping her braids here and there and she’s talking to some guy she’s told me is from the swim team. He’s short and light-skinned and smiling at her too much. I stand in front of her for a long time before she sees I’m there. Finally she says, ‘My friend!’ I smile. I’m dizzy. I squeeze myself between them and hug my elbows.
They go on talking and I stare straight ahead. The smoke from the weed feels like it’s slithering into one nostril and slithering out the other. They don’t offer me a puff. I don’t ask. They pass it over my face and laugh and laugh and laugh. I’m looking at the students walking out of the refec carrying polystyrene plates and chatting. There’s a group wearing lab coats and eating chips out of one small bag. They could be anything, chemistry students, biology students, engineering students, but I tell myself they are medicine students. I tell myself they are heavy under the weight of being the country’s first medicine students. I tell myself a lot of things as I watch one of them take a clipboard from beneath his armpit and point at something. The others laugh and shake their heads.
CJ is talking to me. Her fingers are pinching my elbow. She’s saying something about something. A name I haven’t heard before. Tuelo? She’s pregnant, CJ says and takes a deep drag of the blunt. Okay, I say and my mind is blank. The swim team guy says he wishes he could have a kid. Says he’s planning it actually. To have a baby by next year. He thinks now is the best time because ‘your parents can take care of the child while you hustle.’ Now they are talking about some guy from their neighbourhood who has two kids and is failing as bad as he was before. Smoking weed all day and spending the night at some girl’s house in Broadhurst. Swim team guy says that’s a bad example. ‘A kid can really motivate you.’ He’s sure his will.
I remember I am hungry only when CJ says we should all chip in five pula and buy a meal at the refec. I shove my hand into my pocket and pull out a twenty and say we can pay for two meals and get three plates. One with chicken and one with beef. They like that idea more and we march towards the building.
Once in, we get in a line leading to the counter. On the other side is a sweaty short woman. On her head a hairnet is struggling to cover her elaborate hairstyle. People are handing her money and orders and her face is blank. When we get closer I see there’s an air of annoyance surrounding her. She doesn’t lift her eyes to meet mine when she takes our cash. She mumbles something and we mumble something back.
CJ has gone quiet now and we’re standing in another line to get the food. It’s not moving at all because the chicken has run out and almost everybody prefers the chicken. The kitchen staff is avoiding eye contact and talking quietly amongst themselves.
A pink hand rests itself on my shoulder. Ross is standing behind me with that American grin on his face. It’s supposed to be non-threatening or something. It’s not. He says my name and I smile back. The people behind me in the line stop their conversations to stare at us. Or at least that’s what it feels like. He’s only a bit taller than me but he seems to tower over everyone else.
‘How are you?’
‘I’m great. It’s a bit hot, but what’s new?’ I nod.
‘Are you sure you’re okay?’
I blink hard a few times. I think the weed must have gotten in somehow.
‘I’m fine,’ I say after too many seconds.
He continues to smile at me and then his smile expands to include my friends who I have not introduced and who do not look like they’ve noticed. They are both staring blurrily at the trays of food behind the glass.
‘Call me later, a bunch of us are going to Jesse’s room to watch “Kindergarten Cop”.’ He winks and disappears.
CJ says this chicken is taking too long, to nobody in particular. Swim team guy starts laughing really hard but really quietly in that way weed makes you. I stare at the door Ross walked out of.
I find myself wandering around the library that night. I wake up and now I’ve gone out to buy cigarettes. But it’s dark and the ladies who sell stuff by the gate are gone. Their tables are packed up and chained to something heavy.
Now I’m walking around the library with a book under my arm and a bunch of coins weighing down my pocket. I think I was supposed to walk in. But I know my mind won’t be able to focus. And anyway this isn’t even my book. I must have taken my roommate’s by mistake. Or maybe it’s CJ’s. All I know is I’m almost completely sure that I don’t study Finance.
I leave the library because a security guard is staring too much and looks like he might come by and chat. Chatting to security guards is the worst. They spend too much time alone I think. And there are all these half-baked philosophical questions they think they’ve invented. Once I found myself smoking where I wasn’t supposed to be, near the post office boxes at the bus station, and one guy came up to me and stared thoughtfully into the distance.
‘Why are you smoking?’
I threw my cigarette down unfinished and stepped on it.
He said, ‘No don’t worry, I just want to know.’
I tried to look uncomfortable. He continued to stare at nothing and say he’s always wondered why women smoke because they don’t have any real problems. I laughed, despite myself. Misogyny really isn’t just something white ladies in magazines complain about next to fashion inspiration spreads on clothes that accentuate your cleavage.
I walk away from the library and somehow I end up in the area Ross’s hostel is in. For the first time since this morning, I look at my phone, which I’m glad I remembered to stuff into my back pocket. There’s a message from his number, I think. I haven’t saved it. It’s a reminder about Jesse’s room and watching movies, ironically.
I call him. It rings for a while and as it does I glance at my screen to see the time. 11 p.m. He answers before the last ring. His voice is groggy and as American as ever.
‘I’m outside your building,’ I whisper.
‘What?’ He sounds like he is propping himself up. I can hear the ruffle of his blankets in the background.
‘Do you have cigarettes?’ I ask. He repeats his ‘what?’ once more. I repeat myself, this time I try to sound nicer and add an explanation about the ladies being gone.
In a few minutes, I’m outside his room and suddenly realising that I am cold. My T-shirt is damp with the sweat of a hot afternoon spent napping. When he opens the door he is in shorts and my eyes follow the hair growing from his chest to his stomach.
‘Hi.’ He crouches to meet my eyes and I laugh.
I say hi and suddenly feel like being shy, the way girls are supposed to be.
Ross is a very American name. Like Jesse and Hannah and Emma-Lee, which are actual names exchange students have here. Almost too American. I have found myself in their company only once and felt like an audience at a pantomime, listening to them miss McDonald’s and convenience stores and speak almost entirely in TV-show quotes. Or at least I assume it’s TV-show quotes otherwise I’d have to assume exchanging unrelated one-liners is how the American language works.
Ross is a very American guy. He says he is from the Midwest, whatever that means. He is very average. But kind. And quite easy to understand.
We are sitting on the fire escape steps of his hostel. His room is at the highest level so we have a clear view of the medicine faculty, new and shiny and half made of glass and the hopes of my ancestors. I am wearing one of his jerseys, big, red and not particularly fashionable. We’re smoking cigarettes and drinking gin. I remembered he had a stash of spirits in his closet next to his MacBook. So first I asked casually for a drink. He didn’t respond, became suddenly fixated with the search for his box of cigarettes.
Then I polished the layer of desperation that lies behind almost all of my requests and he made some excuse to himself about not having classes the next day.
So we had two dirty glasses between us when we made our way to the stairs, careful to become quiet when we thought we heard a security guard ascending the stairs. Both alcohol and alcoholic girls are not allowed in the boys’ hostels and I didn’t have the charm to promise a bribe right then.
I’m drinking fast but trying not to look like I’m drinking fast. Between picking up my glass to take a silent glug, I pick his up too when he isn’t looking and take a bigger glug. This way he will think we are drinking at the same pace.
When I wake up it is raining and my head is spinning. There is a small roaring sound coming from someplace that is far and also near. I open my eyes and run them around the contents of an unfamiliar room. They land on a sleeping body, naked and pale on top of bunched up sheets on a bed across from mine.
I’m watching the back move up and down as the body breathes in air. A mop of dark, straight hair hangs over an unshaven face screwed tight in a fitful rest.
Ross’s room is identical to mine. I am sleeping in his roommate’s bed and smelling the boyish sweat of a stranger in the pillow. Normally this would make me nauseated but I’m just glad for the darkness and the sound of rain interrupted infrequently by boys shouting in the corridors. I stare up at the ceiling: cracked paint and a small stream of dancing light from the gap left in the window by too-short UB curtains.
I start humming to myself a song that isn’t a song at first. I’m resting on my back and my hands sit on my belly and then the song becomes a memory of a song, something someone sang to me when I was a small girl, or maybe something I heard in a combi on a hot Sunday and it feels like my eyes close and I melt back to sleep. And this time the darkness doesn’t follow me.
It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m sitting on a golf cart in Mafikeng. Eddy is shouting at his friend in the cart ahead. Middle-aged men in expensive golf shirts and bargain-price golf clubs race each other like dusty boys chasing abandoned tyres with branches. I’m wearing short-shorts and smiling through a whisky daze that feels good.
The sun is on us like an excited commentator, loud and cheerful. Eddy leans in and whispers into my ear about the guy ahead who is the CEO of something somewhere. I laugh and nod and think of other things like where the next stop for whisky is and where is my lighter?
Then I am sitting at the mistress table with four other bored girls. They speak in quick sentences and shut me out but I don’t care. I brought a book with me, an autobiography of some Australian actress I found forgotten in the ladies room at the border. I’m not really reading it, just skimming through the pages for something—I don’t know what—maybe something life-changing. But it’s all about auditions and diets and names I don’t recognise.
Then, in walks a small group of men in golf shirts and Jordans, led by a similarly dressed obese man. On said fat man’s arm trots a tall gorgeous girl with pinewood skin and a wide, inviting smile. She’s dressed in what, even to my unfocused eye, appear to be expensive clothes. Her face is perfectly made up and her designer sunglasses sit proudly on her prominent cheekbones. She doesn’t come and sit with us—a rag-tag collection of young girls who don’t know anything about anything—she saunters over to the chair beside her fat and dark man. Her arms relax around his shoulders and she laughs beautifully at most of what he says, making her own jokes to his friends when the mood goes quiet.
I know all this because I’ve forgotten about the Australian actress and her dull life. My eyes and ears are on the pretty girl and those guys. I like to look at her. Her —whose price I won’t dare guess—dances calmly in the afternoon breeze. The only thing not perfect about her is her teeth, but even the crookedness of them is endearing.
A few months later, I will meet her in the bathroom of a mid-level Italian place in town and she will remember me. My heart will flutter but we will both be drunk enough to talk freely. She’ll tell me the fat dark guy and her broke up soon after that Mafikeng trip. He took back her black Range Rover and kicked her out of their Phakalane house. She’ll say these things in passing, as if she thinks I won’t believe her if she doesn’t mention things, if she just tells me the truth: that she loved him more than anything and eventually he grew tired of her. I will believe her because I like how she smells when she hugs me goodbye and tells me to call her whenever I’m around.
This whisky tastes cheap. We’re back to riding carts on an old golf course that looks like nobody’s given a fuck about it since apartheid. Eddy’s finished playing his turn. He’s sunk a ball in three turns. He’s really happy, his hand slides up my thigh and my mind returns to the location of my lighter. I bought it at the airport where I dropped my little sister off two months ago. She went to school in the USA.
I’m thinking of the blue and white design on its sides. I couldn’t tell what the lighter looked like through my tears at the time. But when I used it to light a cigarette in the parking lot, my tears dried up and I saw the outline of a frowning woman on its side. Or the waist of a slim girl.
That night, I escape to the balcony. I say something about needing a bathroom and he waits on his bed while reading some emails, his palm resting the base of his phone on his bulging stomach. I climb out the window and wait on the balcony for what feels like hours. Eventually, he falls asleep. And so must I because I wake up shivering outside under a cloudy night sky. I actually think I am awoken by a droplet of rain, but the air feels dry. I drift back to sleep, the whisky I’ve been drinking all day lighting a fire in my belly.
When I wake up, he is gone. Everybody is gone. I knock and knock on the bathroom window. Not even the maid who comes in at eleven hears me. I am sure this time I have disappeared.
And then the sky opens up and an ocean falls upon me in angry bullets. I lay down and spread my arms and legs wide, asking the sky to shoot every last piece of my skin.
Maybe if the rain dissolves into me, I will dissolve into it. I will become dihydrogen monoxide in its angriest form, shooting down from the thankless clouds that have absorbed the gazes of millions of hopeful ancestors before me.
And maybe I will become something.
- Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a writer and speaker from Botswana. She is currently a graduate student in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Iowa in the United States. Follow her on Twitter.
About the book
Botswana Women Write is the first anthology to cover a broad spectrum of writing by and about Batswana women. It provides a record of their lives both now and in the past, and of their thoughts about the joyful and difficult issues they face. At the same time, it reflects the richness and challenges of their particular social, political and cultural context. The fictional worlds created in the anthology echo those documented in the non-fiction selections, and they speak to the lived experiences of women in Botswana and around the world: family tensions, sexual conflict, domestic abuse, poverty and single motherhood are explored alongside descriptions of sexual pleasure, intellectual engagement, expressions of joy and assertions of a political presence.
The writers include women with international reputations (such as Bessie Head, Unity Dow, Lauri Kubuitsile and Tjawangwa Dema), women being published for the first time, and women who probably never expected to find their words reproduced in print. This book also covers a wide range of genres, from archival letters, court statements and speeches to journalism, drama, stories and poems. It reflects the oral traditions that are at the root of Tswana culture as well as experimental and more conventional forms of literary style.
About the editors
Maitseo MM Bolaane is an associate professor of history and director of the San Research Centre at the University of Botswana. She is co-editor of Under the Same Sun: Parallel Issues and Mutual Challenges for San and Sami Peoples in Research (2015).
Mary S Lederer is a Bessie Head scholar and the author of Novels of Botswana in English, 1930–2006 (2014) and In Conversation with Bessie Head (2019).
Leloba S Molema is a senior lecturer in English and African literature at the University of Botswana. She specialises in the introduction of literacy in southern Africa and is currently writing her memoir.
Connie Rapoo is an associate professor of visual and performing arts at the University of Botswana. She is co-editor of New Perspectives in Diasporic Experience (2014) and created a carnival initiative to promote Botswana’s creative industries.