The Mourning of Monday, July 13th
I thought I would have little to write about since my last blog post. With a lull in teacher training until the 15th and 16th of July, a postponement of the trip to Durban because of an unforeseen delay in the inaccessibility of group monies—which also deems it impossible to engage in historical tourism such as the Hector Petersen Memorial Museum and the Apartheid Museum—Thulani and others not inundating us with the political shortcomings of Kliptown because of the weakening novelty of our presence coupled with our increasing comfort level in the slum, I figured this would be an eventless week.
I was dead wrong.
Although my external surroundings have ceased to provide me with riveting writing material, my most immediate omnipresent reality—living at Sally’s—has made for an unbelievably exhausting, frightening, and irreconcilable last few days.
The Supposed Redevelopment of Kliptown
Last Friday, when John and I were walking home to Sally’s, we walked past a big white pick-up truck that seldom appears in Kliptown, usually property of rich white industry owners. As we walked past the truck surprised, we both caught glimpse of the men inside: they were indeed white. Although I didn’t think to greet them, John instinctively did.
“Hey, white people,” he called out to the plump, redheaded 30-some-year-old man in the passengers seat as we walked past the truck. We almost turned the corner into Sally’s yard when we heard a voice from the truck yell back.
“Eh, come here,” the voice, which sounded to be laced with an English accent—similar to the way Afrikaners speak—shouted at us as we turned around and saw the man’s face in the passenger side mirror and his left arm motioning us to come back.
Intrigued, we turned around and walked back towards the car, both stopping on his side a few moments later. Next to the man who beckoned us sat another equally round and aged man who reminded me of Seinfeld’s Newman. He watched as the other man engaged us.
“What are you doing here,” the man, later to be identified as Eddy, asked us, surely astonished at the odds of seeing any whites—apart from foreigners receiving slum tours—in Kliptown.
“We live here,” John replied of our team’s favorite and most shocking answer to Eddy’s question, begged of us at least twice a day.
“Doing what,” Eddie retorted, as if certain we couldn’t possibly be living here without a sensible reason to do so.
“We’re working for an American NGO donating laptops to children in Dlamini. We’re working with a local youth organization here, too—the Kliptown Youth Program,” I answered, anxious at the chance to receive a reciprocal introduction. “Who are you guys?”
“We’re surveyors,” Eddy replied. “We’re plotting the land here.”
“Does that mean you’re going to redevelop it,” I asked in a tone mixed with elation and disbelief, already bracing myself for a negative answer.
“Yes, we’re going to provide temporary housing for these people while we bulldoze the land,” Eddie bluntly answered, not at all resigned by my curiosity. “And then we’ll redevelop this area, providing decent houses for all these people.”
As my mind raced with the possibility of being privy to a candid conversation that wasn’t meant to seep out of the doors of that truck, the chance that the deserving people of Kliptown would see developmental progress within their and my lifetimes, and the urgency of with which I had to deliver this news to Thulani, I made sure not to let these man pass without a personal inquisition—in case I never saw them again.
“Are you serious,” I quickly asked before their nods signified my immediate posing of the next question. “When will this happen? How long will it take? Do the people have to pay for their temporary housing? What about the housing that you will provide afterwards—will it be subsidized or free of cha--”
“We’re surveying the land now,” he cut me off, “and we’ll begin the work in December. It’ll take about 6 months, maybe more. It won’t cost the people anything while we relocate them, and after that, these houses are theirs free.”
“Is this a nation-wide government initiative to finally eradicate slums—something that was promised in vain in 1994?”
“Yeah, Zuma wants to get rid of all the squatter camps.”
“And will Kliptown’s status then be an ‘informal settlement’ instead of just a squatter camp,” I asked.
“Precisely,” he answered.
Eddie went on to reveal that although, yes, he and his partner represent the main company contracted by the South African government to survey squatter camps in Gauteng, there are a few more private contractors also being paid to do the job. When asked why none of the residents of Kliptown knew about the redevelopment—something that has seemed to relentlessly elude them for decades—Eddy said that once the land has been plotted and marked in December, an Executive Committee of Kliptown leaders would be chosen to represent the voices of the people on the issue.
Thinking of a conversation I had with a soulful Rastafarian named Peteo a few days back about the ample amounts of skilled labor and potential of the Kliptown people and the need for governmental agencies to empower and involve the people instead of delegate and enforce rules that are often times impractical and ineffective, I immediately objected.
“But the people should be involved now, not later,” I said, trying to prolong the conversation through the open window of the pickup as I noticed Eddy and his partner begin to get agitated, if not by my critical questions then by my persistence. “If what you say is true, and it sounds too good to be, then I’d really like to talk to you further.”
After I told him I was a journalist and he painlessly agreed to talk to me soon, I asked him to see maps of the area that was up for development. Blueprints with numbers, sketches, and in my case, question marks, flashed before my face like a fluttering bird before Eddy put them away.
“Many parts of Kliptown have already been redeveloped,” Eddy said as if to reassure me of his professional integrity and personal sincerity. “The area that’s slated for demolition, the one you’re standing in now,” he said, twirling his finger in a circular motion outside the window, “is called Ward 13. Many of these wards have already been redeveloped.”
Now it made sense. One of the areas on the map I managed to peak at was Ward 12, a plot of land that was home to squatters and beggars before the government provided subsidized housing in the form of apartments—the ones that sit tauntingly across the tracks, offering vacancy only to those who have steady employment and can afford to pay the rent each month.
Despite my skepticism, I pressed him for his number and an interview time of Monday or Tuesday. After I thanked him and watched the men’s black laborer jump onto the back on the truck with a leveler while it drove down the dusty path and out of the corner of my eye, I raced to KYP to inform Thulani of my most enthralling conversation.
My news delivery fell on deaf ears.
“It’s not the first, second, or even third time this supposed redevelopment has been promised to us,” Thulani said to me as we stood underneath the sunshine, both of us squinting to met the others gaze.
“But I saw them, they were here,” I tried to plead with him as if trying to prove the authenticity of Eddy’s words to myself. “I even saw another guy with a leveler and maps, and they said they were going to form an Executive Committee of Kliptown representatives.”
They’ve said it before, Thulani’s eyes said to mine. “Let me come with you when you meet them,” he asked.
I called Eddy that Monday and he said he would phone me for a meeting on Wednesday.
That call never came. And neither did Eddy.
My calls to him have gone unanswered to this day.
A Sour Grape Named Pete
Before he founded and became the Director of KYP in 2007, Thulani used to work for ***, or *********. Although he won’t reveal why he left, or, maybe more appropriately, what drove him away, rumors persist that Thulani’s partner Pete, who bears a striking resemblance to Pete Marley and whose first name is very unlikely to be Pete, embezzled funds from *** to line his own pockets, feed his own family, and, as of late, the most scandalous rumor of them all, to pamper his much younger girlfriends, many of whom are *** members.
For about two years, Pete used to rent Sally’s entire home and sometimes house foreigners in the dwelling—for a fee, of course—for a few nights after he gave them tours of ***, an organization very similar in nature to KYP, save for the fact that it is predominantly performance arts-centered while KYP prides itself on its educational focus. As a result of Pete’s tenants—many of whom did not rent a room but just came through the home—the walls of Sally’s house are covered with writing; most are aphorisms valiantly spoken by Presidents, great leaders, or civil rights activists, others are personal quotes, and still others remain puzzling—brain-teasers meant to both inspire and provoke. Even outside the house, the words, written in a myriad of different fonts, sizes, and markers, follow you like a stubborn conscience. I remember questioning Sally about Pete the day after out midnight arrival in late June.
“Who is this Pete, Sally,” I asked, expecting to get an answer revolving around a bald, middle-aged white man.
“He works for *** and used to rent this house from me,” she replied in perfect English despite her Zulu accent. “He would bring travelers here and they would leave a piece of themselves behind.”
Their pieces were everywhere. Eric from France, Heidi from Boston, Isaac from Germany, their words strewn about like dirty laundry.
“My mother left shoes to walk with,” reads a bold, green, and anonymous message underneath the clothesline in the backyard.
“Whatever you don’t master will master you,” reads another.
“No better day than today.”
The majority praises Pete.
“Pete, you are an inspiration, keep smiling.”
“The world is a better place because you are in it, Pete.”
“What you do for these kids is invaluable, Pete.”
As I start walking down the hallway and towards the front door, the bedroom filled with letters like alphabet soup disappears behind me. I find myself outside, staring at a message at least 9 feet high, smudged and barely legible.
“Do it yourself, Pete,” my common sense finally makes out.
That’s the moment I began to doubt the validity of the writing on the wall.
The next day, Peteo, who also used to volunteer at ***, asked if he could take me to ***, the first and biggest of all of the youth organizations in Kliptown. As we walk through the 4,000 square foot library and around Kliptown’s first soup kitchen, I notice banners, posters, and donations made out to *** in the name of ‘Basketball Without Borders,’ the NBA’s charitable wing. These, along with donations he receives from foreigners, are the funds that have gone missing, funds that instead of going to feed *** members, are going to purchase the GUCCI glasses I notice on Pete’s face as he greets me during a performance at *** that day.
After my obligatory wave, I witness something that, as a woman—and in light of allegations of infidelity by statutory rape against Pete—makes my skin crawl.
One by one, their eyes bulging and their hands trying to cover their pubescent breasts and revealed buttocks’ like a game of twister, 10 girls, aged 10-15, I gather, shuffle barefoot out of a building adjacent to *** dressed in animal skins and feathers, ready for a performance.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Timberland boots, GUCCI glasses, and bouncing dreadlocks as Pete makes his way around the pulsating circle of girls.
“We must expose him,” I remember Pam telling me.
Writing on the Wall
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
At the beginning of our stay at Sally’s, we were treated like guests in the house. As our stay progressed, however, we were given more and more undue responsibility, treated with verbal and emotional disdain, and were expected to comply with South Africa’s traditional, rigid, and suppressive gender roles.
Perhaps it began with me doing what I do best: opening my big mouth, speaking my mind regardless of the crudeness of my words, and trying to persuade others to seek justice and defend human dignity in life.
It started two weeks ago on a sunny Thursday afternoon when John, Anastasia, Darion, Sally and I were crossing the tracks out of Kliptown to catch a TAXI bus to Johannesburg to get our hair braided in cornrows.
A few days prior, Anastasia informed me of Sally’s complaints about how Joe, Sally’s live-in boyfriend—who spends most of his time in silence either sleeping or eating—borrows her money to go drinking without her, is possessive of her whereabouts while having the unrestricted luxury to come and go as he pleases, and may be cheating on her.
Having heard what I did, I started to piece together slivers of memory in my mind: a flirtatious glance here, a late night entrance there. What I imagined to be a thousand sleepless nights needn’t turn into a million, I thought before my duty to self-censorship as an allegiance to respecting Sally’s privacy interrupted my wild, run-away indignation. I remembered all the times that Sally said she loved Joe but refused to be dependant on him; if he never proposed to her she could care less, she said with confidence. But as the days wore on, she began referring to Joe as ‘my husband,’ a man whose meals came before our own, whose calls were catered to before our needs, and whose presence warranted no physical activity or domestic labor, unlike our own.
Both having come from compromising relationships, Anastasia—whose nickname in Ukrainian is Nastya—and I were livid upon hearing about Joe from a woman who, at this point, called us her children and whom we had developed a strong personal connection with.
So on that beautiful Thursday afternoon, as I sat outside Kinky’s hair salon on a busy Johannesburg street scrunching my face every time my scalp burned at the pull of the woman whose hands were intertwining my most thinnest hairs, I was less surprised than I was alarmed, when, at the exact moment her cell phone rang, Sally predicted both who it was and what they wanted.
“Oh my God,” she said fearfully, anxiety pitching her voice to a shriek. “It’s my husband, Joe, he’s going to kill me. We were supposed to be home hours ago.”
Although all four of us getting our hair done—a delicately intricate and precise job that takes both skill and patience, lasting about an hour a head, maybe more with Caucasian hair because of it’s relative silk compared to African hair—did delay our plans substantially, we were neither flirting with freedom nor purposely extending out trip to the city. He had no right to demand she—who was not only doing something for herself, but accompanying her paying guests and self-proclaimed family members—live her life according to his suffocating hourglass, chained in steel stipulation and branded in fine print.
“Baby,” she spat out with haste in one breath as if answering the sole lifeline call of a participant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. While the rest of the conversation—as short and pandering as it was—was being conducted in Zulu, Nastya and I fixated each other with our eyes, the pupils doing the talking—and the pitying.
Once she was off the phone, my liberal Western bias, as if with a mind and temper of its own, decided to interject.
“What does he want,” I demanded. “You aren’t even doing anything wrong, Sally, you don’t have to cater to his needs.”
“He wants me home,” she replied. “We’ve been gone so long and he said he went to the house and was surprised not to find me there. He couldn’t get in because we have the spare key.”
“How did the conversation end,” I asked, knowing full well her voice trailed off far later than her hand descended from her ear.
“He hung up on me,” she said, her face contorting with the thought of repercussions. “He’s angry.”
“Fuck him,” I said. “He doesn’t even let you go out while he can do whatever you want.”
“That’s not fair, Sally,” Nastya added.
“Has he ever hit you, Sally,” I asked, hoping her despair towards Joe would melt the armor of loyal honor she wore on her chest and give her no choice but to ignite the all-powerful, ever-burning flame of truth.
“Only sometimes,” she said with not a hint of shame or embarrassment but with a dose of guilty complicity. “When I get loud or I go out, he hits me, but not all the time.” She gestured with a hard fist when she spoke, adding to my suspicions that he hit her face not with his hand but with a close-knuckled punch.
In South Africa, domestic violence is pandemic: the words of a good friend and South African expert reverberated in my head.
“Sally,” I began, the anger almost eclipsing my diplomatic patience. “Even once is too much.”
“All the men I’ve ever been with have hit me,” she said. “All of them.”
“You don’t have to stay in while he goes out,” Nastya continued. “You should have the same rights as he does, because you two are equals.”
“Leave him alone,” she snapped, her tone unapologetic and sharp. “He is a good man and he loves me.”
The walk to the Jo’burg TAXI stand from Kinky’s hair was marked with brief bits of laughter, conversation, and Sally’s concern for her tardiness and apparent disobedience to a man she did nothing but treat wit regality.
Any comment solicited by Nastya and I about her ‘husband’s’ blatant disrespect and abuse towards her either went unnoticed or were repeatedly met with crass reprimand.
Sally had been quiet and irritable before he arrived, constantly burying her head in her lap, physically losing her appetite because of his absence, and looking at me in a drastically altered light, as if I had told her a lie about the way a human being deserves to be treated.
Joe did not come home until later that night, approximately around 8 PM, when he entered the unlit home just in time to savor a dinner it took us, with the lack of light and the snails pace of the single propane stove, almost two hours to prepare.
They went to the living room to talk as soon as Joe, an attractive 30-some-year old light-skinned man with a Santa Claus belly, walked into the house.
When they arrived back into the kitchen ten minutes later and before my famished team or I could serve ourselves a plate of pap—a cheap yet appetizing and multi-functional white corn meal—and boiled chicken, Sally reached over and above us to build a heaping tower of Piza worth of dinner on Joe’s plate.
Without being provoked into words, she declared, “I have to give my husband his food. He’s hungry.”
I almost lost my appetite. Trying both to change the subject with an imitation of a French theatre director who had been working in Sally’s backyard with Kliptown youth and lighten the stiff mood in the cavern-like kitchen, I summoned for her attention.
“Sally,” I beckoned. “Watch, who am I?” As my group members watched with humor and anticipation while I comically mimicked Eric’s solo, Sally remained absent from my audience.
“Sally, you aren’t even watching!”
Keeping her torso upright facing the sink as she added mashed cinnamon squash to a separate plate that she put down next to the main course, which was, at this point, getting cold while Joe remained seemingly oblivious to his surroundings listening to Darion’s iPod—as he often did—she turned her face towards me. I could see the vindictive malice in her eyes.
“I’m preparing food for my husband,” she said as if I—not my dubious performance, not my food, not even my needs, but my worth—would come not second to his, but last.
Frustrated, I glanced at Joe, who was still sitting, listening, paying no attention to the maid at his feet and the glorious meal in front of his eyes.
“He’s not even eating it, Sally,” I said, certain I may have crossed the line. “You cook and you clean but he’s not even paying attention.”
As she dropped the plate in her hands and slowly turned around, I sensed my group members become tense, their eyes dart from me to the floor, their earlier opinions evaporate into a missed opportunity.
I realized I was on my own. Sally sat with her food in her lap, looked directly at me, and began, in a pitch neither loud nor calm, but certainly full of intimidating righteousness, to talk.
“Ola,” as she called me, “You leave Joe alone.” Her voice was demanding and protective. My throat tightened. She went on. “He is a good man and has done nothing to you. You can call me names, hit me, whatever, but you leave Joe alone. He’s my husband and he’s not going anywhere.”
With Joe’s earphones still tightly in place—yet unbeknownst to me whether or not the volume was turned up or down—I told her that I was kidding, that I just wanted her to watch my stupid dance. But it wasn’t about the dance, and it wasn’t about the food; it was about me persistently talking down her ‘husband’ for hitting her and treating her like a barn animal while she hung on his every unjust principle and bought into his idea of a woman’s supporting, not leading, role in life.
Many parts of South Africa, especially undeveloped, traditional slums like Kliptown, swell of patriarchy and represent a society based not on egalitarianism between the sexes but on historical duty, engrained societal expectations, an unquestionable compliance on the part of women, and a silent culture of victimization. Through my conversations with women in Kliptown, observations of daily interactions, and privies to communal gossip, I have been confronted with a reality where a vast majority of women in Kliptown have been or are beaten, are used to being beaten, and find nothing wrong or unusual about being beaten. These same women spend their days cooking, cleaning, and often times pondering the sexual and emotional fidelity of their unbecoming partners. Men, on the other hand, expect women to speak when spoken to, to cook when ordered to, to scrub without being told, and to assume the position whenever deemed necessary.
With sexual promiscuity and drinking representing one of the sole pastimes in the squatter camp, Kliptown has a soaring HIV/AIDS rate of at least 10%. For women, there is little to look forward to in life; I recall Nastya saying that one of the only achievements a woman can obtain in Kliptown is childbirth.
Barely-teenage mothers roam the Kliptown markets every day, men with babies draped across their chests wink at me during that transient instant when your eyes lock as you pass the other by, and women are blamed—not only even, but especially—by other women for provoking and escalating an argument that results in a protruding goose egg on her head or a crimson-navy bruise enveloping her eye.
I stood in the kitchen while the room, along with my moral judgments and righteous remarks, fell silent.
Walking to my room on the cold tile that night, I knew tomorrow would not be the same.
Despite multiple apologies to Sally for getting involved in her relationship with Joe and breaking her trust, she was never the same around me. Gone were the days when she endearingly called me ‘Ola’ and took me on random errands around Kliptown. Gone was her infectious laugh and confidence in our blossoming relationship. Anew was a tempestuous and bitter feud that sparked the moment I uttered those fateful words the night before. I had, in a matter of seconds, gone from Sally’s ‘favorite little helper’ to her imprisoned puppet.
Although I got it worse, Nastya also received her fair share of crude remarks and gender-specific responsibility, none of which either of us deserved. But it was dealt—and in heaping proportions. While Darion, John, Joe, and any other males in the home were spared any and all responsibility and nagging, Nastya and I not only had to clean after everybody every night, not only had to sweep the floor and turn on the outside tap at Sally’s beck and call at least a dozen times a day, not only had to re-clean the dishes we carefully washed—in the dark and underneath glacial waters—at the previous night’s dinner, but most tragically of all, we were constantly subjugated to endure belittlement and verbal abuse from a temperamental woman whose wrath we could not escape.
“She is so manipulative,” Nastya said one day. “It’s as if we’re her physical and mental slaves.”
Nastya had no idea. A few days later, on a dreary Saturday afternoon, Sally told me to sweep the room Darion and I share. I peeked into John and Nastya’s room, which was usually synonymous with a war zone, before looking into mine: bed made, luggage and backpacks neatly piled one a top the other, window open to let in the day’s melancholy breeze.
“My room is clean, Sally,” I slowly said to her, confused as to why she would both order me around and single-out my nearly immaculate room out of all the rooms in the house. “What are you talking about?”
That’s when a fusion of barely comprehendible and insidious statements unapologetically made their way out of Sally’s mouth.
“Joe doesn’t like a dirty house,” she plainly said. “Yesterday, visitors came, and what if they looked into that room?” To ensure neither my eyes nor Sally were playing tricks on me, I for the second time looked into my room.
Nothing on the tiled floor besides dust invisible to the human eye. Regardless, I figured Sally did have a point, considering it was her home and I a mere guest within it. She was trying to open a reputable—and one of its kind—Bed and Breakfast in Kliptown, too, so the rooms should always look presentable. Plus, I conceded with myself, she’s right: what harm could a little sweeping do?
Carrying the broom into the house from outside the front door, I brought it, along with the dustpan, into my room and began to sweep. But apparently Sally’s aim was not a clean room. Rather, it was a complete ambush on the character she had meticulously envisioned for me.
“You’re a woman, Ola,” she said as if she were my mother, trying to teach me one of life’s great lessons. “You must keep a clean house.”
Shocked and insulted, I had no words in my defense. I played right into her weaving web.
“Sally,” I began, almost pleading with her, “my room is clean and I do know how to cook. I swept the kitchen floor for you yesterday without you even asking and I always do the dishes. This room is clean.” I bent over to reach the broom under the bed.
“You know, Ola,” she said, still hovering over my every move behind me in the room, “one day you are going to marry an African and he is going to hit you.”
I stood up straight, tears almost swelling in my eyes. My steel strength of the last month had disappeared. I felt young and alone. I bit my lip as she went on.
“Because you don’t know how to clean, Ola,” she said, emotionless. “You have to be a real woman.”
Ill equipped to defend my dignity and at a loss for words and a draining energy count, I mustered the courage to utter: “Sally, you’re offending me.”
She left the room as if nothing had occurred.
And that was that. I never looked at that woman the same again. Far from the loving, hospitable loyal friend I encountered the first few days of my stay at her home and even further from a lost woman in denial trying to protect her abusive boyfriend, the woman who I had just spoken with was a conniving, hateful, wicked creature. Regardless of who started this, I knew it had to end.
I began feeling uneasy around Sally, Joe, and even my group members—whose relationship with the heads of the house were not only cordial, but growing into a harmonious quadruplet—that very instant and distanced myself to solitude in my room for countless nights.
Perhaps in a demented cry for help or guilty shame, whenever possible, I obsessively washed the dishes, swept the floor and the porch, picked up crumbs, and neurotically organized my room.
Nastya would only recently reveal that Sally, who took a delicate liking to her after we had our falling out, also cautioned her of future domestic violence on the part of John.
The Case of the Stolen iPod
I woke up early last Friday morning, as I usually do, with ample energy and a restless mind. My timeless remedy called out to me yet again, and, after I brushed my teeth and put my contact lenses into my eyes, I laced my shoes and set out on my daily run around the Kliptown soccer field. I never go alone, and today I was to meet Cianda, a young man about my age who studies Journalism at a local college by day and attends to his KYP member duties by night, at 8 AM sharp.
Running out of the yard and onto the street, I realized I had forgotten my iPod, an absolute necessity for crisp South African winter mornings and long, introspective, monotonous runs around a bare field.
Searching my daily carry-on, the ironing board, my even ransacking my backpack for the device, I came up empty.
I immediately rushed into the living room, where Sally and Joe slept every night, rolled up into John’s sleeping bags on the floor. I wasn’t worried about waking her; she was an early-riser and liked to know all of our whereabouts, prompting her plea to inform her of our daily plans.
“Sally,” I asked.
Eyes squinting and hair sticking upright like a peacock, her head rose from the covers instantaneously.
“What, Ola,” she replied.
“Have you seen my iPod, it’s missing.”
Despite her personal feelings towards me, she was an aspiring businesswoman who had a B&B and a reputation to uphold; a patron’s missing property would tarnish the stay and impression her first clients had.
She sat upright on the floor. Joe was awake, too.
“Are you sure, Ola,” she asked. “Where and when did you leave it?’
“I put it in my room yesterday after my run,” I answered, scouring my mind for precision and clarity. “I remember having it when I walked into the yard, before I saw Sam, who wanted to talk.”
Both Sally and Joe’s facial expressions seemed to ever-so-delicately-flinch.
“Sam,” Joe said, referring to his cousin, the one who had been frequenting the house very often as of late, at first to help Sally and Joe perfect their B&B business plan, but lately just to be, listening to Nastya’s iPod while we prepared supper and despicably offering the both of as an ‘injection’ whenever the issue of sex aroused.
“Yeah, Sam,” I said, completely oblivious to their having labeled him the culprit. “He wanted to talk, so I went into the house and brushed my teeth. I swear I put the iPod back into my room, either in my bag or on the ironing board,” a temporary holding spot of mine.
“I don’t trust him,” Sally said as Joe kept repeating his name, over and over. “Sam has stolen before. Who else was in the house? Sam told me he saw two girls in the house with John.”
John and Nastya, who had both been awoken by the havoc, shuffled into the living room, still half-asleep.
“They didn’t go into the house,” John said with conviction. “They were with me the whole time. The only time I wasn’t watching the rooms was when I was washing the dishes [one out of the two times any man did them during my stay, and only at mine and Nasty’s request] and when I went for a smoke. Sam was here the whole time.”
“We must find out who took it,” Sally said as she folded the blankets over and began to get dressed. “We’re going to a woman who will tell us.”
The woman, who I presumed to be a local fortune-teller, healer, or a witch with divine powers, wasn’t home.
We walked to Kliptown Square, where John’s female friends sold me a beautiful traditional bead necklace a few nights prior. After a minor interrogation by Sally, we concluded that the girls had no way of being in the house and that Sam’s story didn’t match up. I persuaded Darion to escort me to the soccer field so I could have my run—this time, to clear my mind.
Sally and Nastya met us at the soccer field after returning from Sam’s mothers house, where he now lives unemployed. They brought back stories of Sam being a liar and a thief, certainly the culprit.
When they went back to Sally’s, I headed to KYP, feeling an unexplainable unease. Embarking on my daily ritual of checking my email, I regretfully teased out the most alarming words.
‘Sad News’, the subject line from my dad read. I opened the email expecting the worst. I got it.
‘Your grandfather passed away this morning. He died of a heart attack. He looked so well when your mother and I visited last week, but grandma says he mobilized himself the for the visit.’
A political term such as ‘mobilize’ being used to describe my grandfather’s efforts to sustain his health in the face of family was heart wrenching.
My heart sunk. Images of him stroking my hair while I pretended to sleep during a visit to Ukraine last summer danced in my mind. I walked home from KYP that afternoon in a sullen daze.
Later that night, Nastya announced her iPod was also missing.
Joe called Sam to the house, hoping he would either confess or return the stolen property; he did neither. Sally and Sam began screaming at one another while Joe stood between them, separating their furies.
That night we went to Joe’s aunt’s house—the same house Sam lives—with Sam, who remained either a foot ahead or behind us at all times. While Sally and I were watching a Michael Jackson tribute, a big-breasted, demanding, alcohol-wreaking woman with short hair and a fried chicken foot in her mouth walked into the house asking for Joe. Sally looked disturbed and agitated but mentioned nothing of the incident. I would later find out the woman was Joe’s ex-girlfriend, the one who bore his child only a few months prior.
Most of us returned home sober around 11 PM that night; Joe had had a few beers.
The Next 48 Hours
I knew we had to get out the instant I heard her scream. It was a shrill more damning than anything I’d seen in a movie, more painful than any physical harm I’d ever felt, more memorable than my most vivid nightmare.
The piercing cry traveled through the walls like a ghost, instantaneous and hollow.
It was Sally, screaming, crying, hysterical. I had retired to bed about 10 minutes prior and was about to meet slumber when I heard her. She is a loud woman, I though, she plays around; maybe it will go away.
But it persists.
Next came running footsteps, a crash, and the loud bang of a door. More shouting. Then Nastya’s feeble voice. My heart beats faster and faster as I rush out of my bed. I open the door just enough to see Nastya standing in the kitchen, timid and quiet, defending herself against some sort of allegations.
Arming myself with a flashlight, I come into the kitchen, only to find John and Nastya’s distraught faces.
“What happened,” I ask the both of them.
“Sally’s crazy,” John says matter-of-factly. “She just lunged at Nastya because she thought she heard her and Joe saying that Kliptown was the ‘hood.”
“I heard noises. What happened,” I ask John, trying intently to decipher his words amidst Sally’s frantic cries behind the wall.
“She was acting erratic, screaming and throwing things, so Joe threw a phone at her,” he explains. “It exploded against the wall. She ran out and he went after her. He’s trying to restrain her. She’s acting irration—”
His words were interrupted by Sally’s plea.
“OLA!” I heard her scream. “Come here.”
I walk towards her, truly not knowing which step would be my last.
“Olesta [Sally’s nickname for Nastya] and Joe, they didn’t think I would hear them, but they were talking about me behind my back,” she says, her eyes wide with terror and filled with tears, half of which were running down her face. “I’m NOT drunk, Ola, I know what I heard. They betrayed me.”
“Sally, I didn’t say anything, I swear,” Nastya says, herself on the verge of tears.
Joe approaches and tries to take her firmly by the arm, her feet still planted in the floor, screaming for him to let go. “OLA, OLA,” she screams, grabbing my arm as if to hold on to me and escape a savage beating.
He drags her out of sight. The screams continue. I hear muffled cries and distorted breathing. He’s suffocating her, I think.
“John!” I scream, “Come here!”
Only Nastya comes. We hold hands as I slowly approach, ensuring we make our presence known with the intermittent calling of her name. As I shine my flashlight into the living room, knowing full well that I may be hurt, I see only Joe’s back and Sally’s weeping face in front of him.
We stand there until fear grips us hard and fast. Quietly, we rush back to John, comforted by his masculine presence.
“John,” I say as Sally’s piercing screams resume, this time more desperate then ever. “He’s beating her, aren’t you going to do something?”
John, patiently looking me in the eye, says: “Have you ever heard of the expression, T.I.A.?”
“Of course,” I answer back, outraged at his justification of the situation yet understanding of his immobile vigilance.
“This is the custom in Africa,” he said, compromising his own values. “It’s typical.”
Although I knew he was right, it didn’t make the gruesome, filthy act we were being made compliant to right.
I had to do something.
I slowly walked back to the living room, this time so paralyzed with fear that I only shone my flashlight into the room corner, not at the chaotic couple. Her awareness of my presence gives her a newfound confidence—strength to confront him. She begins a new.
“MAANDLA,” she forces out between sobs and a choking breath. “I love you, I do everything for you, but you betray me. You cheat on me and you talk about me behind my back. You don’t love me the way I love you.”
His back is towards me, her painfully contorting face looking in my eyes. Knowing I am behind him, he tries to console her by thrusting her towards him. Her weeping quiets and I walk back towards the kitchen, knowing our safety is at a pivotal threat.
“I don’t like this,” I say to John and Nastya’s frozen faces, hers dug deep into the shoulder of his jacket, her tears forming a pool in its crevices. “We have to leave.”
I meant now, this instant, this second, tonight, today, now. No longer could I bear responsibility for the brutal beating and unrelenting pain of this woman, the knowledge of this domestic fight, and the memory of what was happening between these walls.
As her cries ascended and descended in pitch like a rollercoaster about to jump its rails, we decided to share the same bed for the night. I was too petrified to sleep alone, wondering if she might implicate me by running into my room for safety or he may try to silence the one who put the thought of liberated women into her head, the one who may have seen everything with her flashlight.
“John,” Nastya whispered, “Lock the door.”
“We’ll be fine, relax,” he said.
“Please, John,” I begged. He got up and turned the key. We clung to each other and listened to our breath.
Over the next half hour, the only words we were able to get in came during rare respites in Sally’s crying, this time more painful and enduring than before. Although there is no way to tell, it was obvious he was sodomizing her. No words can describe the anger, pain, sadness, and revolt that I felt.
Her voice sang a scarring melody of cries and screams, agonizing in helpless pain.
And it went on. Soon she started moaning, pleasured by what he gave her, followed by more fighting and crying.
I fell asleep nauseous and scared, the voices and images of that night burned deep in my retina until the morning, when Sally emerged from the house silent with dark circles underneath her eyes.
“Are you OK,” I whispered, almost mouthing it out of fear he’d hear us.
She shook her head as tears swelled in her eyes.
He followed her outside.
“Good Morning, Ola,” he said effortlessly. “How are you?”
“Good, Joe,” I answered without spite, still reeling from his gestures a few hours back. “How are you?”
I made myself sick. I needed to tell someone, to do something, but I couldn’t. All I could do was leave.
The next few days are like a frenzied hurricane in my mind, happening so fast and destroying everything in their wake.
Sally took her raped shame out on Sam, who she called over to accuse of stealing our iPod’s again. She decried me for telling Thulani my iPod was stolen and accused me of having broken her trust again.
The next morning, her uncle sat us down and told us that Sally wanted another $1,000 for our stay. He warned us that our things went missing because we let strangers into the house and can we please help with the cleaning after we cook.
Outraged, shocked, exploited and betrayed, I finally burst.
“Sally,” I began, trying to calm my boiling blood. “You have treated us with nothing but disrespect and contempt. You have made us your slaves, physically and physiologically. You know it was a family member who took the iPod and now you’re trying to have us pay 100 RAND a day to live in a home with no electricity and no power? We already buy your propane and paraffin for you, and now this? Well, we’ve had it. I feel my personal security is compromised here and I refuse to spend another minute in this house, being spat on by you.”
“The girls could have stolen the iPod,” she lied through her teeth as I narrowed my eyes at her.
Hours later, as I was preparing burgers in the kitchen with Nastya, Sally asked John, someone who has always garnered her respect because of his gender, if he had bought detergent.
“Ahhh, I forgot,” John said, almost unapologetically.
“Why do we have to pay for it?” I interjected, disgusted.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” she hissed. “Don’t twist my words, Ola.”
I said nothing, my back turned to her.
“Look at me,” she vehemently demanded.
Mistakenly, I did, landing in her trap.
Winding vile treacherous Zulu phrases off her tongue as if she were possessed, I imagined her putting a spell on me.
I kept silent, kept cooking.
Moments later, Nastya said she saw Sally pointing through the window at us with numerous people.
“We’ve been marked,” she said. “We gotta go.”
When we rushed to tell Thulani what we saw, he had no choice but to agree.
“It’s no longer safe for you here,” he said with concerned eyes. “You have to leave tonight.”
I called a woman named Christine—you’re a lifesaver, Dave—to ask for accommodation. She only had one room, she told me apologetically, but I should call Peggy, who should have room for all four of us, and lives nearby.
Luckily, Peggy answered the phone and agreed to host us for the duration of our deployment.
We packed our bags and hoisted them into Thulani’s car in a matter of minutes.
As we began our rocky retreat from Kliptown, I put my hand against the window and watched, through barbed wire and watery eyes, the sunset across the tracks and the rusted tin shacks disappear behind me.