Things began to change the moment Thandie's mother left for the diaspora. One day, she came home holding a document, telling Thandie: “It’s a visa.” The 4-year-old girl thought it to be a disease or bad news of some sort, as her mother had uttered the words with no hint of joy on her face. Like a giant, she towered above the little girl and took her by the hand, sat her down, and tried to explain that she would be leaving for the UK; she had gotten a job there or something. Before she even finished the sentence, Thandie had already stopped listening. She felt sad and empty, the kind that makes one puke. She began to cry. She genuinely believed and hoped the tears would convince her mother to stay, but they didn’t. Thandie's crying usually helped her case, but this seemed to be out of her control. She continued wailing. God knows the fear she felt the moment she realised her mother wouldn’t be here anymore, that it would just be herself, the maid and Dad.
Since Mum had gone, Thandie's father began to act strange. He got depressed and stopped going to work, which meant that they depended on money Mum would send from overseas. When he was in a better mood, he would take Thandie with him to see his mistresses.
One day, they walked to a house just somewhere around their neighbourhood. Dusk had fallen, and there was an eeriness to it caused by the electricity supply being cut off. Maybe someone had stolen the copper cables again, or maybe it was just a minor fault, but either way, there was a distinctive, almost suspicious silence.
They got to the house, no gate, with a peach tree just in front of the building. A woman opened the door for them, eying Thandie as if she were an intruder. Thandie asked herself who this woman could be. She jogged up her memory in search for any aunts or other relatives, but was certain she had never seen this woman before.
Thandie sat in a dark room. Immediately, her father and the woman escorted each other into a separate room, and left the little girl in that dainty sitting room infested by mosquitoes. The insects disturbed her so much that by the time she’d fallen asleep, they had become best of friends. All she had the following day were some red and huge cysts to remember them by.
A sudden huge reverberation of noise from outside pulled Thandie out of her slumber. Electricity had returned, and finally she could really tell where she was. She saw the brown layer of dirt that had established itself on this undistinguished upholstery sofa she’d been lying on, dirt so immense one might mistake it for a leather sofa where the skin was peeling off. Disgusted, she sat up straight and looked ahead.
Thandie found everything inside that house appalling. Something like rotten onion and garlic paraded the air. The uneven arrangement of the table cloth, or how the chairs ahead of her looked half-tucked under the dining table, annoyed her. The lack of precision and attention to detail convinced her even more to dislike that woman; she could never replace her mother.
Her father emerged from the room, tucking his shirt into his trousers. The mistress helped him fix his collar, a duty Thandie had been accustomed to watching Mum do. Even though Thandie hadn’t really assimilated to how she looked before the lights came on, the woman did look somewhat roughed up. She had a wrapper around her waist, and Thandie was pretty sure she wore nothing underneath because, as she walked to get Thandie a glass of water, her bottoms jiggled too obnoxiously.
When Thandie's father died of causes unbeknownst to her, she moved in with her rich uncle, whom Mum trusted most to take care of her. She would be living near the Southeastern city of Bulawayo, population around 500,000. More precisely, she moved to a small town called Khumalo, which is further divided into smaller neighborhoods, and around her uncle’s house there are no more than 100 houses. Although elevated well above sea level, the area is quite flat. The soil is red, so autumn is not pleasant at all. There are few natural attractions, except for the various streams that run through the bush. The local vegetation is a mixture of mostly bushes and fruit trees, plus some desert plants. Mopane and Jacaranda trees are most prominent, making the area more bushy than forest-like, but most of the fruits from the bushes are inedible and poisonous.
Her uncle looked tall and full like a giant, had a commanding demeanor about him, and spoke with conviction and confidence. Back when he was fit, he would take Thandie to the museum or the park, and even to cities where he would be delivering some stock to his clients, mostly tourists. After a good week of earning, he would take his wife out, and the two would return home drunk but happy. Thandie was happy there; and compared to the other kids in her neighborhood, she was more than blessed. Sadly, he would fall sick just a few years later. It didn't take Thandie's aunt very long to abandon them; she moved to the countryside, then married someone else.
* * *
Thandie is short and light in complexion, with big brown eyes and a short kinky Afro. As she approaches their house, she cannot help but notice that the hedges behind their wall – from within the yard – have become way too long and have begun hanging, thus straining the wall. She could have saved it, but is too short to even dare trim the hedges. Ever since her uncle fell sick, the man they called their ‘garden boy’ stopped working for them, since her uncle could not afford to pay. His other children, who usually helped with the home’s appearance, are nowhere to be found.
The numerous trees in their yard often cast a huge shadow on the road where Thandie and her friends usually play. Whilst the boys who enjoyed playing football on the streets have stopped, given the atrocious condition of the roads – the potholes that never cease to sink deeper make it almost impossible to enjoy the sport – they opted to play on the playground just beyond the neighborhood. So from above, these roads probably look like termites with smallpox.
Someone walking through will see her uncle's house with its black gate and an electric fence around the walls. His exotic trees protrude from the yard and shoot straight up into the air, making them visible from outside. There are also flower beds, and trees on each side of the gate, which have a ‘Beware of the dog’ sign in black and white, even though the dogs are long dead. The main road leading to ‘the city’ stretches out at the end of the neighborhood, crossing a river.
The neighborhood in itself is not terrible at all. Thandie has enjoyed spending weekends getting up to no good with her friends or classmates. What annoys her is the fact that everybody knows everyone else’s business, gossip being a daily bread and misfortune the staple food of this little community. The houses are mostly from post-colonial Zimbabwe, closely built houses with thin walls or no walls at all between them, densely populated and suffocating. The houses themselves are not too big, mostly three bedrooms. After independence, some had made efforts to extend their houses, but most simply could not afford such a luxury. It also is not shocking to see a yard without a gate. This is what differentiates the middle class from the one just an inch below that belt. Yards without gates fall victim to kids like Thandie who will come from all over the neighborhood to climb trees and steal fruits whilst leaving broken branches, footprints, and leaves on the ground. Having no gate means fragility.
In the morning, the women who have conformed and dedicated themselves to be ‘housewives’ bend over, sweeping their yards, almost piercing through the ground as if they will find gold. It used to annoy Thandie because by the time she would get to school, all the dust she had collected before she got to the main road would leave her shoes looking untidy, as if she hadn’t applied whatever bits of polish she managed to salvage the night before. Ever since the economy crashed – Thandie understood that to mean that money had become worthless – not a week has passed without the unsettling news of someone getting stabbed or robbed. She always wonders what the sensation of a knife piercing into skin and invading the abdomen feels like. She imagines it to be cold but thrilling at the same time, but she definitely does not want to find out. It is upsetting to think about that something might have happened to her as she walked to or from school. But luckily, they usually walked in groups. To be more precise, Thandie usually walked behind a group of fellow students; and if anything was to happen, she should have been safe.
Her family has kept to itself, though. Even when her uncle was admitted into hospital, no one knew except for their immediate right-side neighbor, who had seen the home nurse bring him back into the house. She sprang up on the other side of the wall, and said, “How are you? I didn’t know you were sick!” Her imposing nature was the reason why Thandie's uncle even extended the brick wall, but the neighbor did not care. Thandie's uncle just nodded, and the nurse meekly responded to the neighbor by saying, “He is just a little bit tired.”
Once an altercation had erupted when the same neighbor called out loud from her yard to say that one of Thandie's uncle's mango trees, which had also begun to overlap into her yard, was becoming a menace because she had to sweep the leaves from the tree. So she asked Thandie's uncle, “Can one of your children come and take the leaves away?” Thandie's uncle chuckled and more or less threatened her to stop banging on their wall.
It had been a week since he had been about, two weeks since he had been admitted, and Thandie was elated to have him back. But after seeing him in that wheelchair, unresponsive and zombie-like, was when the realization unnervingly dawned on her that things would never be the same.
It had also been two weeks since the schools were opened, which meant that proof of fees payment was overdue; and given the state her uncle found himself in, she could not imagine him sparing any cent.
Her school is relatively big, with spacious classrooms. It is a primary school, meaning there are only 7 grades, each with about 1 block of 6 classes. Lawns with flowers accentuate the general school area. She would walk to school, which is not far from their house. The institution is surrounded by a short fence, has a parking lot, and some trees – fruit trees mostly – to decorate the front.
She would never have imagined dropping out of school, but her comfort came from the fact that she was not the only one; some of her friends, too, were staying at home. That afternoon, as her uncle was being put to bed by the nurse, Thandie went to his room in order to look for last term’s fees receipts, knowing with certainty that she had been going to school without paying any fees about two terms prior to this one. She looked through her uncle’s drawers, hoping that by some miracle he had paid for it and maybe forgotten to tell her. But that also was impossible since he himself had been struggling to meet his medical bills, let alone buy food. Thandie was aware of it all, but it did not hurt to hope.
She stumbled upon a levy payment dated around mid-2007, which was when she guessed fees had last been paid. She assumed this because it was the closest thing she could find in the jungle of eviction notices, electricity bills and medical bills, water bills, most with figures she could not fathom. With the way electricity outages had become a norm, it was useless to pay the bill, anyway, but they still got charged for the week out of a month where the electricity would show up. As for the water bills, when the water ‘returned,’ it would run with muddy and dirty water before it could even be used. Drinking it raw ensured a bed in the over-crowded public hospitals.
The eviction notice had shocked Thandie. She had thought the house belonged to her uncle outright, but apparently not. She shoved the letter back, and tried not to dwell on issues that were way beyond her. She would think about it later when she tried to fall asleep.
The teacher had made sure she was clear when she spat out the fact that if the pupils did not bring any proof of fees payment, they would be sent home. She decided to take the receipt from months ago, hoping that the teacher wouldn't be thorough enough to spot the date. No such luck.
* * *
He sits on the couch watching TV. From the way he’s looking, Thandie can tell his senses are disconnected from reality. She sits on the couch adjacent to his, watching if he caught the joke the girl on TV just made but nothing, no emotion.
The morning breeze pushes the curtains wide open. She gets up to him, and extends the blanket that has fallen onto the floor back onto his lap. That’s when she begins noticing the foul smell that emanates from his genital area.
“Would you like to go to the bathroom?” she asks, ignoring the embarrassment she knows he must feel.
He looks at Thandie and back at the TV, ignoring her. She is used to this. He is not accustomed to being helpless to such an extent, but has to accept her help at some point. She sighs and sits next to him, watching a trail of dried up tears that left white stains behind. The contrast between his skin and the tears, which are sucked in by the wrinkles on his face, looks like a picture from a geography book, resembling terrains one would not dare to wander on.
She asks him again, this time gently rubbing his back. In response, he slightly nods his head. As she helps place him onto his wheelchair, she look at the couch, which is stained with urine. Luckily, she was smart enough to place a plastic sheet beneath the couch covers, so all she will need to do is wash them by hand, without the couch itself having to rot.
She is now in the bathroom with him. She lifts him back up, and he holds onto the steel handle intended for tissue, beside the toilet. She asks him if he wants to go for a second round, and he vigorously shakes his head in refusal. He’s annoyed by her questioning, she knows. As she wipes his behind, she can’t help it but begin to cry. She does not understand how they got to this point.
She finishes cleaning him up and changing the cushion on his wheelchair, then gets him seated again. She pushes him through the cold and dark corridor until they reach the end. As they enter the kitchen, he abruptly brakes, forcing his wheelchair to a full stop.
“Are you hungry?” she asks, knowing the answer. It’s almost lunch, and she hasn’t had time to prepare anything just yet. She scouts the fridge to find pea soup and samp leftovers from yesterday. She doesn’t want to look too hard, knowing there probably won’t be anything to eat tonight. It’s a worry for later; for now, she’s just glad that he can get something. As for herself, she’s not hungry.
Having retrieved a small pot from the cupboard, she mixes the two ingredients and heats them up on the stove. As she’s waiting for the food to be ready, she finds ways to distract herself, wiping the already clean counters.
He is looking at her, probably aware of the circumstances, his niece distracting herself from reality. He moves his gaze onto the window, and she is relieved.
She fetches a clean towel and wraps it around his neck, but he grabs it and shoves it away so it drops onto the floor. Moments like this make Thandie angry. She knows it’s degrading for him, but why doesn’t he see that she’s trying to spare some work? She lacks the energy to change his clothes again after every meal. She is tired. But she’s gotten used to these situations, so she lets it be.
The stroke left the right side of his body paralyzed. He has a scar that stretches from the corner of his lips and stops right about his cheek. It looks like lightning. At 48, he already had a lot of underlying diseases, including high blood pressure, and the stroke was probably caused by too much stress stemming from his inability to pay his debts and from Zimbabwe's 2007 economic collapse. The sickness had left him appearing frail, thin and shrunken. He used to have an Afro, but cut his hair after the sickness, which somehow made him look even more lost and confused. She cuts his hair using his machine, just like one of her cousins will do hers when they come around.
Before the inflation, her uncle was an independent artist who ripped people off. Customers for his handmade wooden plates in different sizes and designs, along with his workers and suppliers of raw materials, became his creditors, whom he struggled to pay back. Since falling sick, he had been living off his pension, which wasn’t even enough to pay the bills. Her aunt was nowhere to be found; she basically stole money meant for her husband’s upkeep before she left for another man. Some clients Thandie's uncle once duped now randomly show up at the house and demand goods he clearly isn’t able to deliver. It falls on her to explain to them why, and it's Thandie who has to take the insults on his behalf, as he is barely able to speak.
She takes her time feeding him. He struggles to chew with only one side of his mouth. Some of the food he ends up just swallowing unchewed, and the rest lands in his lap and on his wheelchair. Then he is full, she can tell, because he just closes his mouth when he cannot ingest any more. She cleans him up, and brings him back to the living room, where they will be watching lunchtime programs on ZBC.
* * *
Since it’s summer, the heat in the house becomes unbearable at night. It’s around 6 PM, and they’ve already had dinner.
She has looked for a bag mealie-meal in the cupboard, but found none. She looks again for the samp she well knows is spent, which leaves her with one more option: to ask the neighbors. This is a habitual drill to such an extent that she needs to take a minute to think about which neighbors she hasn’t asked for anything this week. Which turns out to be tough because she has asked all of them. She needs to widen her compass, so she heads out to the neighborhood behind their block.
Thandie leaves the house in her slippers, with a bowl in her hand, and begins her search. The trick is to find families her uncle has been good to in the past, so that they are more prone to having mercy on him. She knocks on the door to a family of her crush. His mother opens, and glances at the bowl first without any greeting.
After Thandie introduces herself, the woman starts talking about how she knew her uncle and blah-blah-blah, how shocked they were to hear about his sickness and blah-blah-blah. Food is all Thandie wants. After ten minutes or so of reminiscing on things that don’t matter at this moment, she finally gets a chance to ask, “May I please have some maize-meal?” The woman doesn’t respond, but loudly calls out for her son, her crush, to bring the last bag of maize-meal from the kitchen. He comes out carrying the bag, and Thandie holds her bowl stretched out for her to put some inside, but the woman tells her to take the whole thing instead. Thandie leaves feeling triumphant, although it sucks knowing that she'll probably be back to become a burden. But she doesn’t let that faze her out, yet.
After the meal, she brings her uncle outside for the last round of fresh air before putting him to bed. She has dressed him lightly already, and he’s sitting in his wheelchair feeling light. Her uncle usually wears his cotton trousers and a light sweater, given that he is sick. Here at home during summer, she mainly wears shorts and tennis skirts, along with T-shirts, and they mainly use dark colors because of the water outages. Even though he is unsmiling, there’s a slight expression of contentment and joy emanating from his face, which makes her happy.
The young girl takes the bio oil from his bedroom, and begins massaging his facial wound. She can tell it’s getting smaller and better, but she is unsure whether this is because ‘time heals all wounds’ or because the product is just that good. She continues until she’s content, then moves on to massage his legs. Inasmuch as this brings him relief, it also has a therapeutic effect on her because she gets to think only about that and nothing else.
While Thandie is doing this, the gate opens. The new arrival is his first son, about 28. He happens to be drunk, which is obvious from the way he staggers towards the wheelchair, disturbing the peace, saying, “How are you, old man? Are you good?” He continues repeating this while shaking her poor uncle in the wheelchair. He finally stops, and lets himself drop onto the floor.
There is more to this situation than what meets the eye. Thandie's uncle was quite troublesome even when he was still healthy. He regularly beat his kids, and created a toxic environment for them to grow up in; so when he fell sick, everyone left. The sadistic nature of his kid teasing him like tonight, when he is quite helpless and unable to stand up for himself, looks like payback.
“Anything to eat?”
“No, we don’t. We’ve already eaten.”
Thandie knows exactly what’s going to happen. In a moment, he'll go into the kitchen and waste the mealie-meal she worked so hard for – or rather, asked for but worked for regardless. He will even go out into the garden and pick himself vegetables whilst killing some of them. He will then cook and eat, only to leave tomorrow morning. Come and go, that is, without bringing anything for the old man. Uh, he makes her so angry!
Sensing that her uncle has become upset, she hastily brings him back to his bedroom, puts him to bed, and closes the door. These days, he sleeps with the lights on. She can imagine that he fears the same things she fears, those that force her to sleep with the lights on as well.
Thandie remembers when he was still healthy and fit. She lay in bed feeling scared, as the maid she used to share the bed with had left to visit her parents. Her uncle and then-aunt were sound asleep when she suddenly heard something land on the roof. It sounded like a cat meowing or something similar, but she thought the sound was too odd. She’d contemplated knocked on her uncle’s bedroom door, so that she could share the room with them, but did not even find the courage to leave her bed. Instead, she lay there frozen until she fell asleep. Not much time has passed since that event, but these days the prospect of losing her uncle has become her biggest fear.
She is lying in bed now. Her cousin is in his section next to hers. They share the thin wall that divides their room, so she can hear him having sex with a girl he picked up from Lord-knows-where. She hears every thrust, moan and groan. The naughtiness of it all rouses her curiosity, but Thandie hates how she can’t sleep, knowing that she has her uncle to cater for tomorrow.
She finally gives up and steps outside. The full moon is illuminating everybody with its borrowed light tonight. She likes the restlessness caused by people still loitering or playing outside. Tomorrow is a school day, but she is not bothered at all. She is relieved not to be pressing her only pair of socks every night, or having to write her homework under the moonlight because load-shedding is an ass. When in school, she wears a blue dress with a white collar, long white socks, and a dark blue hat. Thandie’s glad she gets to rest; but since God doesn’t give one everything, she gets embarrassed to be walking in the street while all of her friends are at school. She hates answering all the questions, like when one of her friends' mothers, bent over a dish and doing laundry, asked, “Why aren’t you at school?” Thandie never answered her, but rather walked super fast and acted as if she hadn’t heard what the woman just said. She felt so ashamed, thinking that children ought to be at school minding books instead of staying home and taking care of their sick uncles. She wished she'd found the courage to tell the woman that if she went to school, no one would be taking care of her helpless relative. True, but an even deeper truth was that her fees had been left unpaid for about three months.
How she hated it, with the teacher calling out the names, with herself sitting there with her ass tensed up, waiting for her teacher to say Thandie, praying to her ancestors that her name had somehow miraculously dropped off the list. But nooooo…
Outside here, she can hear the noise of other kids laughing, probably while playing Hide and Seek. She wishes she could join them, but her conscience holds her back.
She goes back to bed, and by now the commotion from her cousin’s room is over and done with. She is glad, as she closes her eyes and falls asleep.
* * *
Thandie never used to trim the row of trees they call hedges; but ever since her uncle got sick, and considering the sad fact that his sons and workers abandoned him, the duty has become hers. She doesn’t do this because it’s expected of her – in fact, it really isn't – but she knows how much he paid for those trees and flowers. They were his children, and he used to pride himself of how well he had them maintained.
She takes the garden scissors and starts trimming the hedges, beginning with the branches at the bottom of the trees. She can’t tell what shape most of them used to have, circular or triangular. With some, she does remember, but with others she just has to improvise. She has to take breaks here and there because she’s afraid a snake might just lash out at her for disrupting their habitat.
When she was way younger, she played on the hedges with her cousin. Out of nowhere, this small snake fell onto his neck. They both sprung into the air and ran inside the house, swearing never to play there again.
It is about 11 AM when Thandie finishes, which gives her some time to rest before she begins cooking lunch. The heat inside is overwhelming, and she might have to ask her uncle if he wants to catch some fresh air.
She goes to the henhouse, her heart breaking with less than seven of them in the little room. When days were good, the house would be filled, noisy and full of life. But now, even with the remaining seven, there’s barely any movement or action. They too are tired of it all. She thinks they can sense the desolation that has come upon her family.
The hens have even stopped multiplying, which makes it all the more difficult to keep the business running. She looks around inside, identifying the lack of water and food, then goes to the huge metal tub just by the wall, filling the can with water before she proceeds to fill up the containers. Her worrying intensifies as the water level inside the tub is ever shrinking. It has been almost a week without running tap water, she thinks, but a good deal of water is what she needs to keep her uncle clean. Sometimes, she despises him because she feels like he could simply go ahead and tell her when he’d like to use the bathroom. He doesn’t care about the water situation, his sickness has made him senseless and selfish. He can still speak, it’s just that he doesn’t want to.
Thandie has to go collect money for the chickens she recently sold. Actually, money is worthless these days, so she usually asks for maize meal, cooking oil, salt and sugar in return. She doesn’t even have a book for writing down their names like her uncle used to do. She simply remembers them all by heart. It’s not really the era in which to forget who owes you. On the downside, no one has been visiting to buy more chickens. Everyone is broke, and chickens are for really, really special events nowadays, but there hasn’t been anything special happening lately. Even so, no one would probably tease their mouths with chicken they couldn’t afford.
She is still pondering when to go do this. She'll probably go towards prime time, when the parents will be home and thus unable to avoid her. Thandie's thinking is interrupted by a noise from the wall behind the henhouse. She goes to look, and there is the youngest of her uncle’s sons, trapped between the electric fence wires and the tip of the wall. She helps him get untangled, and he falls onto the ground. She has often wondered who has been destroying the fence, and here is her answer. If only her uncle knew, all hell would break loose. Due to the too frequent power outages and insanely high bills, the fence isn’t electric anymore. It merely serves as a reminder to their neighbors, most of whom don’t even have walls or gates, that her uncle held real money once upon a time.
Her cousin looks at her smilingly, and puts a finger to his mouth, saying “Shhhh!” Thandie is unsure what it really is she needs to keep quiet about: the fact that he’s the fence destroyer or the fact that he was here today. She figures the latter because he’s recently been disappearing and only turns up to recuperate.
Today, he comes with a new hairstyle. His hair is mashed into caterpillar-looking locks, and he even has a piercing on his eyebrow. The more she looks at him, the more uncertain she becomes about what he expects from her. Plus, he smells like a shebeen. She hasn’t actually been to one of those, but she’s sure he smells just like them. His breath smells like he spent the day feeding on dead rats.
She just laughs at him, and he makes way into his room to sleep and recover from the hangover.
He too was forced to drop out of school. That happened right after he turned sixteen. So what he does now is hop from one family to the other; and when he brews trouble, jump to the next one willing to take care of him. Even in this household, he has become known for stealing. Indeed, he steals anything from money to old belongings, even her uncle's most expensive antiques. Her uncle doesn’t notice these days, but Thandie keeps count on his behalf. Unfortunately, she can't even tell her cousin to stop stealing because the last time she tried, he slapped her, sending her to the ground. She’s sure she must have blacked out, because it took her a few moments to recall what had happened. She hasn’t told anyone about the incident – well, she couldn’t disturb her uncle, and who else is there to tell?
She just remembered that today is Saturday. The trucks meant to come with food are probably on their way now; they were supposed to pull through right after lunch. The sharing ground is about 600 meters away. On her way over there, she will see houses. Once she has passed a block of houses, the main road will come up, which is where she’ll cross, going past the alley in the bush. Right after that, she’ll be on the ground, which is surrounded by the bushes and has the bridge from the main road essentially protruding onto it.
Thandie hurriedly gets inside to cook and feed her uncle, then leaves the house without telling him that his son is here. She parked him in the lounge and turned the TV on. Luckily, electricity has returned.
When she gets to the ground where sharing will take place, she finds it swarmed. She sees men dressed in T-shirts, regular shirts and jeans. She sees women with babies on their backs, wrappers around their waists. Some have brought with them doeks to place on their heads when carrying the food. The trucks still aren't there. She can’t even tell if there are queues or not. Some old ladies sit under the shade of trees on this ground, which has turned into a camping site overnight.
The sun blazes from above, penetrating her skin, leaving her dehydrated and lazy. She regrets forgetting to bring a bottle of water, as happens all the time. She is only 8 years old, but in the queues, there are boys and girls her age and even younger. She envies the older ladies sitting under the trees, imagining how cool their bodies must feel. They are probably the ones with the youngsters waiting in the queue for them, and will only get up when the trucks finally arrive.
Moments like this is when Thandie feels so utterly alone. Here she is, all by herself, with no one to hold her hand. Her antenna has to be fully alert, her feet ready to run, and her body ready to withstand the strain from handling sacks of food.
The last time she was here, she waited in the queue for hours, then got a fifty kilogram sack of maize and two bottles of cooking oil. Because of the immense weight, she decided to take a shortcut. Just as she was about to make it out of the bushes, two young men approached her. Both were wearing tattered bucket hats, and one smelled like ‘mbanje’ (weed). They pushed her around, with one touching her breasts in the process, asking if she wanted help with carrying the sack. She was only approaching puberty, so her breasts were tiny, but enough to show through the T-shirt. Her heart racing, Thandie said no, but their voices grew louder, and they took the sack and carried it between them, each holding one of the bottles of the oil she had already begun budgeting for in her head. They ran off, making weird monkey noises, all comic but leaving Thandie with a sadness she could not explain. She wasn’t even mad that one had harassed her and violated her body; no, she bemoaned the loss of food and oil. When she got home, she told her uncle that she had not managed to get any food, without mentioning the men.
Today will be different. She has learned her lesson. Thandie knows she has to take the longer road regardless of the weight.
It’s getting late. The sun is beginning to set, and still no sign of the trucks. She can smell disappointment, anger and hunger in the air. There’s something desperately evil about this. Just as they stand waiting for the trucks that never seem to come, she notices that the crowd’s gaze has shifted to the bridge at the edge of the ground. She looks up to see men falling off the bridge and onto the ground. Luckily, the elevation is modest, so most make it without hurting themselves. There’re men throwing maize meal and basic food from the bridge to people at the bottom. Then further away, people running from the food delivery guys holding sjamboks, which they use to beat looters.
It seems as if trucks have been hijacked at the bridge. Thandie is now worried that she’ll leave empty-handed, so she joins the crowd in running towards the bridge. She is not really using her own strength; the air and bumping into adults push her towards the goal, almost as if she’s being carried. There’s something dangerous but fun about this.
The trucks are lined up by the road. Any cars that are lucky enough to still be running in this economy have halted and joined the raucous crowd. Drivers and passengers take their share and drive off. She envies them.
After struggling against the crowds, she sees a huge man towering above her gesturing to a bag of maize and a couple of other basic needs. Thandie is confused. Up to this point, she has felt like she was just watching an action movie, an observer detached from what was really going on. He screams at her, and now she knows what he means: he’s offering these items to her. She runs towards where he is pointing, grabbing everything. She puts the oil, sugar and salt inside her T-shirt, and holds the maize with the other hand, dragging it across the gravel while hoping the sack won’t break. Luckily, it doesn’t. Once she gets to a more chilled spot with less people, she rests and catches her breath, but not for too long lest someone bullies her possessions off her.
* * *
Thandie drops the things on the kitchen floor, and rests. It’s hot, so she’s lying on the cold kitchen floor, proud of recent events. It’s only then she actually realizes that it’s past her uncle’s scheduled time for taking his pills, but she can’t do that now because he has to eat first.
She goes to the lounge where she left him. She finds her uncle on the floor, with saliva drooling out of his mouth. He’s still responsive. She doesn’t know what happened. Maybe he had one of his strokes or... The girl doesn’t know, she’s just confused and scared.
She lifts him back into the wheelchair, his weight slightly dislocating her shoulder since she’s already exhausted, but Thandie is sure she’ll be fine, it’s nothing too serious. She doesn’t know what to do, call the neighbors? The ambulance, which will not even come?
She begins pressing his body, asking him where it hurts. Vexed and displeased, he shrugs, which she takes as a ’nowhere.’ He has not broken any bones. She is sad, not knowing for how long he lay helpless on the floor.
“I have food that will last us a month now,” she says to him.
He looks at her, smiles, then looks at the TV, which Thandie takes as her cue to start cooking in preparation of giving him his tablets.
About an hour later, she finds herself at yet another household, begging for Cotrimoxazol tablets. The house is dark, and the lady towers above Thandie as she hands her the huge white jar of the medication. It has been about two days since the last batch ran out. Thandie can tell that the lady is displeased and only agrees to help her out of pity, but her heart wills a payment she must know will not come in the nearest future.
The nurse that usually brings him tablets was supposed to come sometime this week, but there hasn’t been a sign of her. His medical aid does not assist much, as her uncle has to live off tablets from the black market. And how do they get there? Maybe the nurse knows the answer.
* * *
Her aunt, a very loud and annoying lady, opens the gate wide and sits in by the rail as she wails. Thandie knows exactly what this means. It echoes the day when her other aunt, who was still married to her sick uncle at the time, behaved the same way. Relatives and neighbors would lift her up on the veranda, where the aunt further rolled her body on the ground, tearing her blouse.
Thandie stood to the side, not sure if that was the right place for her. She joined others in crying, unsure exactly what everybody was crying about. It was only after a while that she connected the dots. See, her older cousin, the second youngest of her aunt, had passed away. She wasn’t certain about what disease he suffered from, but knew for a fact that he experienced pain between the legs from time to time. When he was sick, he would walk as if carrying a brick between his thighs. This had been going on for a week or so, and he had been admitted into a hospital before her aunt came home crying because he was no more.
She is familiar with this scenario, only it’s her uncle this time. For about a month before he was admitted into hospital, he was bedridden. She’d go check on his room in the mornings, and he would refuse to eat, bathe or even take his pills. Other relatives were informed, so this aunt came to help.
She has a good idea of where all her relatives are arriving from. Most stay in similar housing, high density areas, a ghetto-type setting, houses with 3 bedrooms at most, all kind of squashed together. One exception is her estranged aunt, who lives about 200 kilometers away in another town. She has a post-colonial house with a relatively huge yard in the suburbs, complete with gigantic gum trees and a substantial orchard.
Thandie is sitting in the garden, overlooking his flowers. The sun has wilted them to a point of no return. Actually, she cannot remember the last time she watered them.
She hears people come into this homestead. She can tell by the wails. Every new wail sounds different, but also similar to the previous ones. She sits in this garden thinking about her own life. She finally gathers enough courage to go and sit on the veranda, next to no one. She notices how many of the relatives who never paid them a visit during his sickness – including her cousins, their wives, and their babies – are all here now. She despises them for the fact that the only time they are willing to stay as long as they can is when the sick old man is finally dead.
Thandie begins to think about her own life. She needs to continue grade five, but how and where to go from here are the questions her uncle has left her with.
* * *
The events that unfolded after the funeral confused Thandie. His property was shared amongst the relatives, but she noticed that most of his expensive valuables and antiques landed in his half-sister’s home, the aunt she is staying with now. The aunt had dubiously taken ownership of the deceased man's house, even though it was meant for his firstborn. The supposed heir is not in the country at the moment, and couldn’t even be at his father’s funeral.
People are sitting around the dining table, including her aunt and uncle. It’s surreal that Thandie is even here because she would never have contemplated the need to move in with her aunt. The table happens to be the same one her uncle cherished. Back then, it was always well maintained, oiled up. It would be covered with a cloth, and mats were always placed beneath during meals. She feels sick just watching the steam from a lid leave droplets of water on the naked table. Her aunt’s “Eat!” takes her out of her slumber. Not noticing that she has been staring at the table for way too long, she continues eating.