Limpopo. Bafana is born to a farmer and a seamstress. It is a cold morning, so cold the doctors worry for their own health too. He is the first son of Mr Nyathi, and his fourth child. He is born, and his mother is dying from uncontrollable bleeding.
From up there where the hills undulated, came Bafana with his sheep. Bla led the way. Apart from being his companion dog and hunt-dog, Bla was his saviour. Down the hill they went. It was drizzling, and Bafana must get his sheep to safety. He caught himself with his stick as his foot slipped on a mossy stone. His slipper rolled down. Gently, he went for it and picked it up with something else. He slid the slipper into his foot and cautiously examined the thing he found together with his slipper. He had found a locket, a finely-designed thing. In it was the picture of a very beautiful girl, and Bafana’s lips were puckered in a familiar way. He kissed the locket and put it carefully into the pocket of his usual green shorts. Bla was barking at the foot of the hill, and Bafana could sense its impatience. He mimicked his dog and led his flock down the hill.
At the foot of the hill, he wiped his dirty hands on his green shorts. His green shorts was badly torn and had been stitched and patched severally that the bottom looked like the tailor was even tired of sewing it, and had carelessly appliqued it with fabrics of different colours. But then, Bafana cared less. He brought out the locket from his pocket and stared at it once more before he shepherded his flock of sheep to their pen, which was not so far from his house. While he was going home, he passed Bra Eggs’ house and wondered what the old man must be doing at that moment. He, even his friends, believed that Bra Eggs was a born-miser. How can a man who owns a poultry farm that produces so many eggs not share with children? He stopped, picked up a stone and made sure it landed on Bra Eggs’ roof. The stone made the sound he had expected, but he was not satisfied yet. He picked another and had raised his arm to send it where it should go when Bra Eggs emerged from his house and started shouting, “Likhathatso moshayana ea! Troublesome boy! Go home to your parents.” He saw the man and ran homewards. While he was running he kept shouting, “Share your eggs, Bra Eggs! Share your eggs!”, and only stopped when he ran into somebody passing by. He extricated himself from the interrupting entity and sadly walked back home.
Boys of Gugu Street entertain no dull moments; they were stubborn, restless and always looking at tree-tops. Fortunately, mangoes were in season and it meant they won’t be looking in vain. It was a Friday afternoon when Bhekizizwe and Banele came to tell Bafana about their plan of going on mango-hunt. They told him they would go on Saturday afternoon, and Bafana pledged his allegiance. He would go with his dog Bla. He went everywhere with his dog. He had to if he must stay alive or, at least, healthy. He had to if the story of his birth and consequence which his father told him was anything to go by. “You were born on a gravely cold morning, so cold you would have died. The native doctor saved you with his herbs, and warned that you must never have close contact with streams or rivers or just any water body. If you do, you shall get sick to your bones. And you may die.” All his life, Bafana had never been close to streams or rivers except in pictures. His dog was trained to smell water from a distance and to warn Bafana of the imminent doom. Bla had always been efficient, and so Bafana’s doom had been kept at bay.
“Bafana!” his father called from the back of the house.
“Yes, papa!” he answered, and dismissed his friends immediately. He passed two of his sisters at the corridor, who were laughing boisterously at a photograph, and was glad none of them talked to him. He disliked their incessant teasing. At the backyard, he saw his father sitting on a slab and peeling an orange.
Raising his head: “Aha, Bafana! How many of the sheep did you say are suffering from foot-and-mouth disease?”
Bafana, scratching his head: “Um, up to ten.”
“Ah! That’s many of them. Did you separate them?”
“That’s good. We will go together and treat them this evening. Don’t forget.”
“Okay, papa,” Bafana answered, and dismissed himself in a haste.
A fortnight ago.
“I heard there are ghosts in that thick forest near Ulunga district. The ghosts there like children, that’s what my friend says.”
“Really?” Bafana asked.
“Yes, my friend even said a particular ghost helped him to pluck some guavas,” replied Uchaka, rolling his eyes mischieviously.
Laughing, even with his fright: “A ghost plucked some guavas for him?”
“Yes, you should have seen the ghost dancing. Man, some ghosts really can dance!”
“Were you there?”
“No. My friend, that my friend, says so.”
“Hm, this your friend must be mysterious…”
“Nah! Uchaka makes no mysterious friends. My friend is a cool boy. He even helps me with school work. Man, he even said he would take me there soon.”
“Ulunga, to the forest of course!”
Staring in utter disbelief: “Come Uchaka, have you taken your father’s palm wine? Tell me.”
Smiling, and striking a silly pose: “Palm wine? Nah, come and smell my mouth. My breath is clear. See, I just want to see for myself.”
“Uchaka, remember the story Mama K tells us by moonlight? Remember the story of the bird that loves visiting dangerous bushes and forests?”
“Of how it lost its head?”
“Yes, its head and its life.”
Laughing: “Bafana, I am not a bird. Man, what has come over you? Me, nonyana?”
“I never said you are a bird. The story was meant to warn us about the dangers of going to certain places…”
“Okay, I get it. I don’t need you to come with me. But don’t beg me for the big guavas or mangoes. Don’t you!”
“I won’t,” replied Bafana as he watched the laughing Uchaka disappear from his sight. Afterwards, he thought he should inform Uchaka’s parents.
Just like the boys planned, they met at their rendezvous on the said Saturday evening. But they were not only boys. A girl came along, even though Bhekizizwe and Banele had tried to dissuade her. Dera was a girl of eleven, which meant she was a year older than the boys. She had come from Lagos to visit a distant uncle. The boys, especially Bafana, felt she was too strong for them. But what could they have done?
“Who invited her?” Bafana asked, seriously.
“Nobody,” replied Dera. “I like mangoes, so I came.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Bafana said with a scowl.
“But I am here, Bafana. Let’s go and get the mangoes.”
To Banele and Bhekizizwe: “You two must be mad to have allowed her. Come on, she is troublesome.”
“We told her not to follow us, but she wouldn’t listen,” Banele said remorsefully.
“Yes, we told her,” Bhekizizwe affirmed.
“Are you two answerable to this daft boy? Please, let’s leave him if he’s not going.”
“Who are you calling daft boy?” Bafana asked. “Just wait till I lay my hands on you!”
“Which hands? Those small hands? Oh, Bafana, I am waiting!”
Feeling dared: “Really? So you want to die? Somebody should hold me o!” He stretched himself and moved his waist here and there. The other boys were now laughing.
“We won’t hold you, Bafana. Go and kill her,” said Bhekizizwe.
Looking timidly at Dera whose arms were now folded upon her chest, Bafana said “I will have mercy on you. It’s just because I pity your mother. I don’t want her to cry her eyes out.”
The children laughed.
“Coward!” shouted Banele.
“Ah, Bafana! I am disappointed in you,” said Bhekizizwe.
“Thank you all, but we must find enough ripe mangoes before it’s night.”
“Let’s take this way!” shouted Dera in a run and the boys ran after her.
They passed cherry trees and cashew trees, and an orange tree before they reached the sought-after mango tree. The fruits were ripe and big, and luscious just the way Bafana loved them. Dera was the first to spot it.
“There, sweet mangoes!” Dera exclaimed.
Bafana picked a stone and made the first throw. A squirrel came landing.
“Ah, Bafana!” shouted Bhekizizwe. “We need mangoes, not squirrels. Better aim next time.”
Banele and Bhekizizwe cast their own stones too. After minutes of throwing and just getting a mango, the boys agreed climbing the tree might be a better option.
“You should climb,” said Dera to Bafana.
“What is wrong with your legs and hands?” Bafana retorted.
“Bhekizizwe, you…” began Banele.
“No, I will continue with the throwing of stones.” Bhekizizwe interrupted. “My mother don’t like my climbing trees…”
“Is alright!” shouted Dera. “I will climb.”
The boys looked at each other. Dera folded her long sleeves and approached the tree trunk.
“Are you sure you want to climb?” Bhekizizwe asked.
“No, go on. Thank goodness you are wearing shorts.” He backed away to watch, while Dera grabbed the trunk with her arms and legs. She climbed gradually, while Bhekizizwe and Banele cheered her on. At last, she was standing on a bough.
“There, pluck that one!” shouted Bafana.
“There is another behind you,” Bhekizizwe informed.
“Please, open the sack well so I can throw them in,” Dera said to Banele who was busy feeling the dead squirrel’s tail with one hand.
“Okay!” Banele replied, and took a comfortably wide stance with the sack.
“We could sell some, if we get so much,” suggested Bafana.
“Yes,” affirmed Bhekizizwe. “And we could buy snacks and drinks. Hey, there are five ripe mangoes above you! Climb more.”
Courageously, Dera climbed further and harvested the ripe mangoes.
“I am done!” Dera announced.
“But the tree still has plenty ripe mangoes!” Bafana informed.
“Then, you should climb. I am plucking no more.” Dera said and stood on the first bough she climbed onto. She watched carefully before she jumped to the ground.
“Let me have the sack,” ordered Dera. Banele handed her the sack.
“We will share it equally,” said Bafana.
Dera, laughing: “Keep dreaming. Bafana, keep dreaming.” She opened the sack and gave Bhekizizwe and Banele one each.
“Here’s yours!” she said, handing Bafana one that looked smaller than Bhekizizwe’s and Banele’s.
“What is this?” Bafana asked angrily.
“Mango! It is mango, Bafana,” Bhekizizwe said.
“Take it from me before I change my mind,” Dera warned.
Bafana accepted the mango. “What happened to those big, juicy mangoes?”
“Just negodu this boy!” Dera said, irritated. “So you believed I would climb this tree as a girl and come down to share the best mangoes with you, eh? Tell me.”
“Alright, you can eat alone and die alone!” Bafana said angrily and began to eat his mango.
“Yes, I…” Dera was saying when something heavy landed from the tree. And when they looked closely, it was not something but someone. It was Uchaka!
“Batho!” exclaimed Uchaka with a smile which was betrayed by his tell-tale mouth wound. “Anybody scared?”
The children moved back, except Bafana.
“Uchaka, is this you?” Bafana asked.
“Yes,” he replied as he struggled to rise to his feet. “It is Uchaka, the son of the palm wine tapper.”
Bla was barking and baying.
“Did you just fall from the tree?” Bafana asked.
“Bafana,” began Uchaka who was now standing on wobbling feet, “You like questions. Does it look like I fell from the skies?”
“I don’t know.’
“Please, give me some mangoes before they come.”
“Who are they?” Dera asked quickly.
“Just give me mangoes.”
“What, are you okay? Please, tell us about those coming.” Bhekizizwe said in panic. “Tell us now!”
Uchaka fell to the ground and was laughing in a strange manner. He looked like a boy who had seen too much. Too much for his little mind.
“They will soon come, you fools. Quick with the mangoes!”
Dera rushed towards him with a big mango.
“Aha! Yummy mango.” He bit into the fruit revealing teeth with mango fibres stuck in them, like fangs with pieces of flesh. “Let’s pray they don’t even come.”
Bafana, panic-stricken and fidgeting: “Who are they? Ghosts?”
Uchaka, nodding his head: “Yeah, man! Ghosts! Not ghosts as in ghosts; they are people called Ghosts.”
“From the forest near Ulunga district?” Bafana asked curiously.
“Yes, Bafana! They took my friend.” He stood up and started to approach Bafana. “Sure, they can dance. But their dance is bait, a trap!”
“Please, slow down. What happened to your friend?”
“They took him away!” cried Uchaka as he dropped his mango seed. “They pursued me, but I escaped.”
“This is serious,” said Dera. “What were you two looking for in the forest?”
“Don’t ask me that!” shouted Uchaka as he rushed towards Dera, eventually grabbing her by the collar roughly. “You think it’s a joke? Who are you?”
The boys tried to rescue Dera from his hands, while their feet on the leaf-swathed ground squeezed sounds from the dry leaves. The music of the dry leaves must have hindered their hearing to a large extent that they did not hear the barking of Bla until it was shot dead. Frightened to their marrows, they all dispersed to hide behind trees. They could see men on white garments approaching further and so all ran as much as their heels could carry them.
“Ghosts! They are ghosts!” shouted Uchaka, who struggled to keep up with his tired legs.
Bafana and Dera were in front, running as much as their legs could permit.
“Uchaka, run o!” Bafana shouted when he turned to see him behind. Bhekizizwe and Banele had just taken other escape routes. There was a stream in front of Bafana and Dera, and both quickly ran through it to the land ahead. They continued with their run until they were obviously in a new village. They remained in the bush and peered at the villagers through leaves and stems. Dera slumped to the ground for a rest, and Bafana went to sit beside her. They looked at each other but lowered their heads afterwards. Bafana suddenly began to whimper, and Dera placed her hand on his shoulder.
“You don’t need to cry, we will be fine.” Dera assured.
“How? It is almost dusk and we don’t know where our friends are. How?”
Dera looked on in silence.
“Uchaka could be dead or captured. Ah, Uchaka! I wonder if his father remembered to warn him.”
“Don’t worry, God is in control. We should seek help from this village. Maybe, they could help us.”
Bafana looked at Dera and began to walk down the hilly place where they sat, where it was easy to have a broad view of the village. Dera followed him without a word, and they went down to the foot of the hillock. They walked a little bit only to stop at a stream. Dera rushed to the stream and bent over for a drink, while Bafana came afterwards to wash his face. When he raised his face, he was enveloped with surprise and confusion. He was not dead! How come, when he had made two encounters with a stream? He squatted there, looking at his reflection.
“Hoko hoko!” he mumbled, and stood to ponder. Perhaps his father misunderstood the native doctor, perhaps the native doctor exaggerated, perhaps it was a miracle. He was still enveloped with thoughts when Dera touched him.
He turned immediately to look at her, but bent again and slapped the water. He was obviously annoyed for many reasons: having his life tied to a dog, confining his knowledge of streams and rivers to books and not being able to go swimming with other children. He stood up and walked ahead of Dera.
“Okay, let’s go,” he said.
Dera had wanted to ask him why he had to do what he did, but nobody pursues rats when his house is on fire. So, they walked together to find help. They had not covered so much a distance when a girl carrying a basket emerged with a dog. Bafana looked carefully at her and walked quickly to meet her. Dera kept up with his pace.
When he approached her, he said: “Hey, my name is Bafana. We need some help.”
The girl looked at him carefully and blinked her eyes the way proud beautiful girls do. Bafana immediately felt he recognised something.
“How may I help you?” she asked.
“Yes,” he began as he put his hand into the pocket of his shorts, “Is this yours?”
No sooner had the girl looked at the locket than she began to jump up. “Yes, yes! I thought I would never find it. Thank you, my father must be glad to meet you. Come with me!”
They followed her and Dera kept wondering if they were going to find help or to meet a stranger’s father.
Image: Cropped Fabrice Florin (Janey Fritsche painting) image from Flickr