New original fiction in The JRB.
There’s No Hurry In Botswana
By Masiyaleti Mbewe
The University of Gaborone’s main campus is a fist fight between old architecture—red bricks, steel poles, concrete, glass—and the newer, cheaper cubes made of drywall or repurposed shipping containers, framed by large patches of too-green artificial grass. In a lecture hall inside one of the more recent buildings, lined with collapsible chairs and long rectangular tables, surrounded by warm bodies, I shift uncomfortably in my seat, half listening to a professor of international political economics drone on.
His voice is a low boom that trembles through the hall, concerned with its own seriousness. I shrug off his suggestion that we pay attention and opt instead to lend my brain to the practice of list making. From my tote bag I pull out a notebook I got from Pep and begin to scribble.
– Odourless Target (for the roaches that have been laying silky, bulbous eggs underneath the rusting metal railing by the kitchenette sink)
– Pads and ibuprofen
There’s the issue of food.
– (Even though I’m sick of them) 5 value packs of two-minute noodles
– A loaf of brown bread
– Peanut butter
– Powdered milk
– Bottled water
– A litre of box wine (not technically food but a necessity)
Anything else that’s not too urgent I’ll have to get at the end of the month when my stipend comes in.
I’m trying to bring my attention back to what the professor is saying, when my phone, precariously balanced on a pile of textbooks, vibrates. It’s a text from Sharon.
Here we go again.
12:56 I’m in class right now. I’ll come by as soon as it’s done ok? Try to hold on.
In one of the aging brick buildings on the edge of campus, I spend the afternoon tending to Sharon. I collect the bowls of curdled cereal milk dotted around the edges of her room and wash them in the sink. I open her windows to let a whirl of fresh air break apart the sour scent of unwashed skin. Mostly, I listen.
‘So, was I wrong to tell him I never want to see him again after what he did?’ she says, whimpering and throwing herself backwards onto her pillows. The bedsprings whine back violently. She kicks around, sobbing and forcing tears out of her eyes. When she pauses for a response, I look at her for a moment. Her face, small, dimple-pocked and ironically heart-shaped, peers up at me from behind the covers.
‘Of course not,’ I offer, knowing from doing this enough times that it doesn’t really matter what I say. In a week they’ll get back together and I, half in love with Sharon, will have to watch, through narrowed eyes, their boring displays of heterosexual affection. We’ll be in that asshole’s sedan, again, speeding through Gaborone on our way to a party Sharon will insist I attend.
The hours slide into each other. When I’m finally on my way out, her room is spotless and she is upright. I am slouched over and exhausted. The microwave dings and the empty Savanna Dry bottles clink against each other in the black bag I’m holding.
‘Make sure you finish all that soup, Shar. I’m serious. If you’re going to cry all day you’ve got to at least have some energy, alright?’
‘I will, I promise …’
‘I have to go now, hold on,’ I struggle to reach my phone because my hands are full, so I call for my VA. ‘Bakang, what time is it?”
‘It is 4.47 p.m.’
I wonder if Bakang’s voice has always sounded this preoccupied and suck my teeth. ‘I guess I’ll just go to the shops tomorrow then.’
Sharon waves and I shut the door behind me. I dump the garbage in the massive cobalt blue Skip Hire bin by the wiry hostel gate and begin the long walk to the bus rank.
I stand at the edge of a cracking kerb at the university gates, waiting for the panel-beaten steel of a Broadhurst Route Five kombi. All along the pavement, stalls are being dismantled by the vendors who man them during the day, and their shadows shift on the concrete as the sun sets behind them.
There’s a familiar chill in the air—winter’s dying breath—when my kombi finally pulls into the rank. I get in quickly and sink into a seat near the front and by the window. I’m tired and my hands are ashy from all the dishwashing. Once the van fills up, it joins the heavy twilight traffic; the route home stretches along Tshwane Road. We pass the mosque, the washed-out internet cafe signs, the rows of unisex hair salons and the straight-lined flats rising from construction rubble. Trees shade the pedestrian paths, camel thorns stand low and tall jacarandas attempt to bloom alongside even taller, thick-trunked marula trees.
The whirl of the roundabout is the only disruption to the straight flow. The city takes on a new, urgent tilt at this time of day. I always wonder where everyone is headed, who they are going to see, or whether they’re just desperate to reach the bottle store before it closes. I’m scoffing to myself at the foolishness of the secondary school children holding hands under an unlit streetlight when the gargling begins behind me.
I turn to see an old man hunched over and groaning, a panicked woman by his side, desperately trying to get him to sit up. He jerks sharply and the woman’s panic becomes our own.
‘O eme mo stopong!’ I cry out. We’re not quite at my stop yet but I decide to get off anyway. Whatever is happening in this small metal box, cushioned only by worn seats and tattered carpet, I would rather not witness. The extra three-tenths of a kilometre I’ll have to walk seems favourable to sitting in a confined space with a dying old man.
The kombi slows down and comes to a halt under the bus stop’s metal awning, an advert for fine-grained maize meal on its side. There are broken beer bottles, flat cigarette butts and still-wet piss stains on the ground. As I alight I hand the driver his fare. I’m still watching the old man when he suddenly freezes and starts to speak.
‘Ke a go le ja lotlhe!’
It’s an odd thing to say. There’s laughter from the other passengers, but it’s punctuated by the sort of nervousness people begin to feel whenever they find themselves standing too close to a madman.
‘Ah ah, oa a bo o reng jaanong malome?’ a man asks.
I’m standing outside the kombi now, looking in, and the driver hands me my change and slams the door, so I never get to hear what the old man says back. I wonder about it as I trudge towards home, regret at my hasty decision to get off the bus powering my strides.
The gate to number 5674 Mabele Road is already open. The landlord’s boxy Mazda is sitting in the driveway, engine running, doors thrown wide. The muffled sounds of thuds and screams reach me from an open silver-framed bedroom window. I will watch the bruises yellow away on his wife’s face over the next few weeks, only to reappear after payday. In the early evening’s blue veil, I creep into the yard, past the main house and the browning vegetable garden near the outer wall. I make my way to the powdery-white servant’s quarters at the back and punch the six-digit code into the smart lock. It’s not even finished clicking open when I’m inside and the door is slamming behind me.
In the still of darkness, I pat myself until I find my phone, dead, in my jacket pocket. I scratch around in my bag for my charger, plug it into the socket by my bed and collapse onto my mattress, waiting for the screen to glow white. But then I hear something. Footsteps, followed by the sound of someone trying to enter my security code. I sit up. The smart lock beeps angrily—fail.
Then, ‘Bula lebati Thato.’
It sounds like the landlord’s daughter, but to make sure I ask: ‘Ke mang?’
‘So, o mo teng?’
‘Bula ee! Go rileng?’
‘Le batla eng?’
I start to walk towards the door. On the other side of the polished wood, her chuckle is low and slips into a ghostly hush. It’s disconnected and delirious—like the old man in the kombi.
I am as still as a pin now.
‘Oa itse gore ke batla eng!’ she shrieks, and I hear her start to pace from the door to my bathroom window. She sticks her hand in and knocks the cocoa butter lotion and amla oil pomade from the windowsill into the gaping toilet bowl. They splash and she growls in frustration. She makes her way to the kitchenette window opposite the front door and I can sort of see her, dishevelled and bloody, standing behind the glass.
‘Tha-to,’ she sings, ‘ke a go bona kana, ija!’
She tips back and bangs her head on the window, and I hear it smash; I’m thankful for the burglar bars I insisted her father install before I moved in.
‘Mxxxm, o sale o le makgakga, Thato!’ she screams, and starts to move to her right. I know where she is headed, and I dive and crawl under my bed as quickly as I can, and then she’s right above me. She pulls at the sheets and swings wildly at the curtains through the burglar bars, desperately trying to get at me, and I smell hot rot on her breath, so deep and intestinal it feels like I have buried my head in a river of overflowing flesh. I cover my nose, squeezing snot, saliva and tears back into my face as glass falls behind my bed frame and shards scatter. After a long while, the landlord’s daughter seems to calm. She stalks to the front door and tries the pin again, getting it wrong over and over again until it is one long monotonous beep that hypnotises me and I fall asleep.
When I come to, there is a cat in the centre of my room and I am clutching my phone between my hands like a prayer. The sweet blue chill of the early morning whistles at the edges of my broken windows. I start to move, startling the cat, which jumps out into the yard. I listen hard for the landlord’s daughter. When I hear nothing, I slide out from under the bed and sit, confused and shivering, in the debris. The breeze cuts through me as if I am a wind chime. My bones rattle and I unspool in the memory of what happened the night before. I cannot rationalise the landlord’s daughter’s ghoulish limbs stretching into my room or the rabid sound of her white teeth snapping at the air. I cry because I’ve finally gone mad. I’m seeing things now. Having episodes. But I remember the stench. The fear. The old man on the bus. I know this is real. I know something has happened.
I call out for my VA.
‘Bakang, do I have any messages?’
‘I’m sorry but I don’t have the capacity to perform that task for you right now. Please connect to a stable wifi connection or contact your internet service provider.’
I look down at the screen. There is no signal but there are notifications. Some messages must have come in during the night. Some from Sharon, some from my mother, some from the ministry of health and one from my UTERi app. I open that one first.
Thato, your period is estimated to start in 1 day. Here are some of the symptoms you might experience at this point in your cycle. Switch to UTERi premium to—
I fell out of God’s favour in standard five when, having learned of the shame associated with menstruation, in the middle of an argument with my older sister, I yelled, ‘AT LEAST I DIDN’T LEAVE A DIRTY PAD ON THE BATHROOM SINK UNLIKE SOMEONE I KNOW!’
My sister was four years older than me and very, very cruel. My family casually told stories of how she had shoved nuts and bolts into my toothless infant mouth, in the hope that I would choke, and mixed heaps of washing powder in with my baby formula to poison me.
But when that particular piece of nastiness fell out of my mouth, I felt God physically recoil in his throne—completely disgusted. The next year, when I finally got my period, squirming in pain, dizzy in the sweltering bedroom heat, bloodshed knotting my womb, my sister snickered in the background.
I learned that this was to be my punishment.
‘It’s called dysmenorrhea but, from what your daughter tells me, something else could be the cause. I’d like to rule out endometriosis, for now we’ll start with a standard ultrasound examination and take it from there.’
The gynaecologist’s office was in Dipuladietla, at the back of a supermarket. From my seat I could smell frying lunchtime chip oil in the air. The room was small and white, like any respectable medical establishment, and light streamed in from the great wide window behind Dr Mailula’s head. When Mum told me she was taking me to a specialist, because she had ‘spent way too much money’ on new sheets, bleach and ambulance fees from the fainting spells and wanted to ‘deal with the problem once and for all’, I insisted it at least be a woman.
Detailed charts of wombs, tubes, openings and collapsed folds hung on the walls. On the table, between the thick glass and the deep brown wood, was a series of photographs of genitalia at different stages of STI infection. I absorbed the images.
After some form-filling, the doctor told me to step into the examination room and get ready.
The leather on the stretcher was cold. I lay still on my back, worrying that my striped socks smelled bad, while the doctor, not letting on if they did, smeared thick transparent goop around my lower abdomen and pressed down with a scanning wand. I stared at the monitor, pretending to understand what I could see. There were many black holes on the grey screen.
She clicked her tongue. ‘I see a fibroid,’ she said in a frank, doctorly voice, and a minute later, ‘there’s another one.’
From then on the fibroids just kept coming.
Sometimes I think of my womb as a sentient spirit. A river snake that uncoils itself along the length of my body, growing thicker and thicker until it takes me over completely and I burst—that’s where the blood comes from. The spirit doesn’t want to see me happy. It lies in wait for the days when I want no interruptions: birthday parties, final exams, first dates. And although it can be so diligent in its arrivals, it knows how to delay itself and emerge at the very second I’m hoping it won’t. I hear its shrill laughter in my ears as it knocks against the walls and stirs at my insides like a detached arm in a witch’s broth.
My stomach growls, and underneath a slow throb has already begun. It is high noon and the cicadas buzz like it’s just another day, as if everything is normal, bar the screaming car alarms and the barking of stray dogs. I force myself to reread the ministry of health’s message.
20:02 STAY SAFE: The Botswana Ministry of Health would like to assure citizens that everything is under control. Stay indoors and avoid contact with anyone you suspect might have been bitten. Please be patient and await further instructions.
I run my tongue over my teeth and read Sharon’s texts again.
21:27 Thato, I’m scared. There’s something going on outside.
22:22 I have to go and find Kabelo, what if something has happened to him bathong??
23:16 It’s so fucking weird out here, OMG!
23:33 I can’t find Kabelo, do you think you can come back to campus?
23:34 Thato …
23:44 I’ve always wondered how you tasted.
23:58 Meat … MEAT … let me bite you!
I want to be numb, but I feel the heaviness hanging low in my abdomen, an ocean of thermometer-red blood, threatening to spill out. I imagine what it would be like just to sit here and forgo the white ibuprofen tablets and the grooved cotton sanitary pads. There would be vomit—lots of it, in fact, I’m already gagging away waves of nausea. There would be splashes of toilet water on my ass, as shit mixed in with the blood dripping into the bowl, while I bend over, the pain making my eyes roll back into my head, turning me into an image of possession. If I succumbed to this loosening of my body, they’d never find me rotting here, surrounded by cats and glass, because nobody is looking for anybody now.
I should have had that hysterectomy when I had the chance, but I had assured my mother I would be fine. That we could postpone the operation and schedule it for the December holidays.
I read my mother’s text.
21:22 Ngwanaka, ithlokomele.
I check the tap. It chokes and splatters brown and nothing more. I could risk drinking the rainwater that’s been collecting with roof-rust and bird shit in the Jojo tank beside the main house, but perhaps that should be a last resort. Dying of dysentery could be an ordeal to look forward to if I survive this.
In my one and only bag, I pack the bottle of water I abandoned in the fridge because it took on the smell of a half-eaten onion. For good measure, I decide to carry the small knife I’ve only ever used to open sellotaped packages and to cut Russian sausages in half.
I don’t have a solid plan but I’m sure I can make it to the shopping centre at the edge of the neighbourhood. There at least there’s a pharmacy where I can get the ibuprofen and, right in the centre of the complex, a supermarket where I know I can find winged sanitary pads, food and some water.
Before I push open the black, sun-soaked security gate, I slide my hand into my underwear and rest my fingers on the entrance of my vagina. It’s moist, so I pull my hand out and examine my fingers. The discharge is still creamy, not yet the brown that will turn red, but from the texture of it, I know I don’t have much time.
When I’m out in the open, I wonder if I can turn back and punch the code into the smart lock fast enough, before the landlord’s daughter gets to me. But nothing happens.
I move through the yard as I did the evening before—cautiously—but then the taunting begins. Deep in the bowels of the house, voices rise like spirits in a catacomb. A long hard stripe of fear runs through me and I’m suddenly fastened to the ground.
And then she’s standing there, watching me through the slits of the windows where the opaque glass slants outwards. I get a good look at the landlord’s daughter, and it is as though she is amplified, choking on restraint.
‘O lucky waitse! Ga nne ese ka letsatsi, nkabo ke go lomile molala!’ she shrills.
Her father stands beside her, his eyes as dead as they have always been, beer-soaked and teary. I do not see her mother.
As I walk down the long potholed road towards the faded blue No-Mathata shopping centre, I smell rubber, charred by asphalt, and watch the smoke from the fires rise. I see abandoned cars and blood-splattered boundary walks that wrap around vandalised yards.
When I get there, loitering in the parking lot are a handful of unbitten who, like me, have figured out that there is safety in the sunlight. I recognise some of them, the car guards I’d ignored often, some workers with seemingly nowhere to go, and a pair of sharp-eyed teenage boys who look at me like the bitten do.
In the deep shadows underneath the massive M-shaped roof, the grocery store sits next to a Chinese shop that sells Botstel sim cards, yaki braids and colourful jumpsuits displayed on beheaded mannequins. But today, the plastic bodies are scattered on the ground and there are signs of looting. The owners and some of their customers stand in an organised swarm at the jammed automatic doors, not daring to cross the threshold. They look quite normal from afar, as if at any second they might snap out of it and remember their old lives, go back to packing shelves and browsing the aisles. But there is no way into the store.
‘Just come into the shade, girl,’ one of them says. Her child, as shy as he’s probably always been, hides behind her hip, his white school shirt now red.
The others nod the way townsfolk would at a city hall meeting. Diplomatic.
The river snake slithers inside me, and I walk to the end of the lot, to the pharmacy, where there is less shadow. I squint and peer in through the window. Maybe I can just raid the shop. Grab the ibuprofen. Go home. Sit on an old shirt. Free bleed. It could be liberating. But there are more bitten inside, milling around in their lab coats. I move towards the back of the complex, hoping to find a large bin to boost myself onto the roof, but then I remember that the corrugated iron would sear the palms of my hands off. That this isn’t one of those terrible action films Shar used to make me watch. That I don’t know what the fuck I am doing. While I’m spinning in this realisation, the boys come towards me, from opposite ends of the building.
I decide to try to extend grace to them. Maybe they are just as scared and as panicked as I am and want to talk—want to be my friend. Want to survive this together, and all that …
‘O nale eng mo bekeng?’
I remember the water and the knife and the bag feels pitifully flat on my back. I try to spin it around quickly, to get to the knife, but I’ve already been knocked to the ground. They yank the bag off me, open it, casually. They pass the onion water to each other until it is gone and one of them tosses the empty bottle at my head. They take the knife and the bag and walk back.
I just sit there. Tears wash down my hot face and it is humiliating.
When I make an effort to stand up, I feel it, the warm burst of blood between my legs. I’m already in pain and my body goes limp. I retch and this, this is such a private undoing, that to have it in the open, among the stink of dumpsters, enrages me.
I am squirming. Heaving on all fours. Throwing up nothing but bile and collapsing into it.
I slip in and out of consciousness. I am sizzling in a fever dream. I am crossing the Tshwane Bridge and looking down at the smooth river sand, the green shrubs and the pools of stagnant algae. In the dream, I look like a person who is capable of figuring out how to get into a supermarket, like I know how to swing a knife blade and get what I need. But then the sky turns red before I can reach the other side and it starts to rain and I am soaked.
The light beyond my eyelids darkens and I know the sun has set.
When they finally come, the bites feel like kisses and the cool breeze dries the sweat on my forehead. The sound of blunt teeth tearing into my arms is ugly and urgent so I scream until I am empty. But if this is the world of the bitten, it is instant relief. I feel the river snake shrivel up and die, reptile skin and crescent-moon scales dissolving so deep into me they become nothing.
I’ll never have to worry about curved plastic applicators lubricated with KY jelly again. I’ll only ever seek blood, and now, my body will hold it. I’ll hide gracefully in the dark until the sun buries itself in the ground long enough for me to crawl all over the Phakatsotlhe suburbs, knocking on doors and climbing through windows. I want to find everyone like me and tell them that this is our way out. But for now, I have other things to worry about. I am hungry.
- Masiyaleti Mbewe is a Zambian writer and photographer. They are a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA, where they were a Miles Morland Scholar. Their culture writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Refinery29, Chatham House, Amaka Studio and elsewhere. Their fiction has been longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize as well as the Kalemba Short Story Prize.