The JRB presents an excerpt from In the Midst of It All, the debut novel by Thabile Shange.
In the Midst of It All
‘Bafika oZwide! The Nxumalos have arrived!’ It was Aunt Siphokazi who welcomed them as soon as they got off the bakkie.
Nandi breathed a sigh of relief when her aunt released her from her suffocating hug and felt sorry for her sister who was next. When she finally let Thenjiwe go, she held her shoulders and looked at her from head to toe. Nandi expected Aunt Siphokazi to start complaining that she was too thin, but instead she lamented how they hardly visited. She claimed that she didn’t even remember when last she’d seen them.
‘Eyi!’ Bab’Nxumalo cried. ‘It’s hard, my sister. Blame the busy life eThekwini. One is studying and the other one is working, so there’s no time to bring them here.’
‘Hhawu, Zwide! You must bring them to spend a weekend here at least,’ she suggested.
Nandi hoped that her father would not submit to his older sister’s request. She looked at Thenjiwe’s face and she almost laughed when their eyes met. Nandi knew that she was hoping for the same.
‘But they have grown, look at this one.’ Aunt Siphokazi looked at Nandi. ‘Very soon our kraal will be busy with cattle!’ She winked at her, the wrinkles around her eye becoming noticeable.
Thenjiwe cleared her throat and Nandi shot her a what-are-you-trying-to-do look. She changed the topic and reminded her father that they had groceries in the car.
Aunt Siphokazi shouted at the children playing nearby to come and offload the groceries and take them to the kitchen.
It was still very early and only the Nxumalo family and a few neighbours were at the homestead doing the cooking and the setup in the tent before the guests arrived. The cow had been slaughtered already and the men, most of them dressed in overalls, surrounded the large three-legged pot in which some of the meat was cooking over a fire.
As she expected, the rondavel kitchen was crowded and the air was filled with steam, the smell of different foods and paraffin, and the sound of chatter. There was a lot of peeling and chopping going on and there was a mountain of unwashed dishes piled up in a large plastic basin.
‘These are my brother’s daughters!’ Aunt Siphokazi introduced them after Nandi and her sister greeted the people in the kitchen.
‘It can’t be!’ One of the women Nandi didn’t recognise dropped her knife on the chopping board and looked at them carefully. ‘They have grown!’
‘I’m telling you!’ Aunt Siphokazi said. She went to her station next to the woman. She was cooking a stew on a gas cooker. She added a bowl of chopped beef to the pot.
‘But where is their mother?’ the woman asked. ‘Jonas’s wife?’
‘Mxm!’ Siphokazi sucked her teeth loudly. ‘Don’t ask me about that wayward woman. Don’t you know that my brother divorced her?’
‘It’s been years!’
Nandi purposely interrupted their conversation and asked her aunt what they could assist with in the kitchen even though she knew that most of the tasks were done or almost done. She was annoyed with her aunt’s gossip.
‘One of you can wash those dishes.’ Aunt Siphokazi pointed at the sink. ‘Lindiwe is supposed to be washing them, but I don’t know where that girl is.’
Thenjiwe offered to wash the dishes.
‘Can you cook rice for a lot of people?’ the woman who was gossiping with Aunt Siphokazi asked Nandi. ‘Nobody is brave enough to cook it here. They are all running away!’ She laughed and told Nandi that it must be perfect, not soggy and not undercooked.
‘I’ll cook it.’ She reached for the big pot someone had handed to her. ‘So, neighbour, what happened?’ The woman couldn’t wait to get back to the gossiping. She tapped Aunt Siphokazi’s shoulder.
Their aunt sucked her teeth again. ‘You know, talking about that woman gives me high blood pressure.’ She stopped stirring her pot to tighten the election campaign wrapper around her waist.
‘Ewu, that bad?’ The woman begging for drama pushed.
‘My brother realised that he married a witch!’
Everyone expressed shock. They seemed to be listening to the conversation.
Aunt Siphokazi began passionately listing all her ex-sister-in-law’s flaws and, just like what she was doing to the pot, added some spice. She claimed that Adelaide used to control her brother with witchcraft, which made him neglect his family in Umbumbulu.
‘Listen, before my brother retired, he was earning so well as a principal, but you won’t believe me if I tell you that we never saw a cent of his money!’ she said bitterly.
The overzealous woman who prompted the conversation encouraged her with sounds expressing her shock.
Nandi was enraged by all the lies her aunt was telling. She suddenly wished her mother could walk through the door and call her ex-sister-in-law out for spewing nonsense. She knew that her father had sent Aunt Siphokazi’s kids to school and wondered why her aunt would lie like that.
‘But I don’t blame my mother’s son,’ she continued. ‘He was blinded by all the fake beauty, what was he supposed to do? I’m just glad that he corrected his mistake even though that witch almost finished all his money.’
Nandi had to hold herself back from pouring the boiling rice water on her malicious aunt’s back. She could feel her sister’s equal rage as they exchanged looks.
‘None of the things you are saying about our mother is true, aunty.’ Nandi heard herself say.
‘Yes, you clearly don’t know our mother,’ Thenjiwe agreed.
‘Mmh, see? Do you see what I am talking about?’ Siphokazi pointed at the sisters. ‘Imagine, children that talk back to their elders like this. Do you see the influence that Edelaide has had on my brother’s children?’
Nandi felt like snatching the worn-out doek from the woman’s head. She ground her teeth to stop herself from saying anything that would support her aunt’s comments. But if her mother had been there, she would have told Aunt Siphokazi off, shutting her dirty mouth. She would have shut down anyone who dared to start with her. Maybe that was why she was considered the ‘rude’ wife—because she had the ability to stand up for herself.
Nandi sometimes blamed her father for not defending her mother even when they were still married. Not once did he stand up for her when his family rained insults on her. Nandi knew that her mother was better than them in so many ways. For one, she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing an election campaign T-shirt like most of the gossipers in the kitchen, not even when cleaning the house. She took care of herself, her husband and her children. She had a positive and tremendous vibe, which was probably why their ‘precious’ Jonas fell in love with her.
‘If she was here, she would just be ordering everyone around the kitchen!’ Aunt Siphokazi continued. ‘She thinks that we don’t know that she can’t cook, always bringing food from restaurants, thinking she’s better than us! And those long red claws!’
‘But I miss her desserts,’ Aunt Siphokazi’s gossip partner commented.
The comment seemed to add fuel to the fire Aunt Siphokazi was spitting. She accused the woman of still being under the influence of the magical charms her ex-sister-in-law used in her food.
‘Haibo, what’s with all this bickering?’ Aunt Busi walked into the kitchen. She had her youngest child, Mnotho, on her hip.
She was the youngest of the Nxumalo siblings. Nandi adored her calm and quiet personality. She was usually the mediator when an argument broke out.
Nandi rushed to greet her little cousin and take him from her aunt. ‘Mnotho! He’s so big!’ She kissed the toddler on his cheeks. ‘Hello, boy! Do you remember me?’ she asked the confused four-year-old.
Aunt Busi laughed. ‘I doubt it. The last time you held him was when he was a baby.’
Her heart sank a little. She sometimes wished she could select her family members, because if that were the case, she would only choose Aunt Busi on her father’s side of the family and visit her more often.
- Thabile Shange is a writer from Durban. She has qualifications in communications, journalism and media studies as well as education. She published a youth novel titled The Morning After in 2018. In the Midst of It All is her first novel for adults.
Nandi Nxumalo finds herself in a complex situation. As her relationship with her Nigerian lover, Femi Adewoye, progresses, she needs to tell her very strict and prejudiced father about him.
When Bab’Nxumalo learns who she is dating, his stubborn resistance is not the only thing threatening Nandi and Femi’s happiness. An old flame from Femi’s past enters the picture, leaving Nandi doubting his faithfulness and her place in his life.
Then xenophobic attacks break out all over South Africa, and Nandi and Femi do not escape unaffected. Nandi feels she has to do something, even if she faces immense opposition from various quarters—she can no longer be silent.