Jo’burg became my poison. We first witnessed the glamour of the city of light glimmering in the eyes of Zuze when he sauntered around the village in his “been-to” swagger. The village boys envied him. We girls hankered after his glamorous masculinity. He was unlike us in many ways. Zuze had been to the big city and had tasted the high life from the purest fountain. He fluttered pauses when he said; “unjani?” and the fine fragrance from his clothes intoxicated our virgin minds. We watched the 2010 World Cup through the eyes of Zuze. He came with colourful tracksuits and vuvuzelas. He narrated to us how the first goal of the competition was scored by a Rastafarian and how he had jumped from his seat in the section of the stadium where the most important people were vested. He was the man and I did not understand how I failed to fall into his arms. But I was just a village girl trying to catch what I could not grab.
That was before my father’s fear of living surpassed the dread of the unknown after death and they found him hanging by the neck in our garden his eyes popping from the sockets on his face, threatening to jump out of his stiff body. We had seen his death coming but we never expected it to strike with such violence. It was the nature of his death and not his actual demise that terrified me. Why did he choose to die that way? Why had he decided to cut to the flesh for the grave? Of course we saw him withering away as the vigour of life slowly left his body like smoke leaving the embers of a smouldering fire. He barely moved his elongated body on his feeble feet that patted the ground delicately as if the surface was covered in burning coal. Father used to be a huge man once. He had a heavy face that hid behind a thicket of beard and shiny black hair. His voice was heavy and cracked such that our souls trembled when he shouted. But he lost all that. His body turned black as tar and the hairs on his head transformed into electrocuted wires. Nobody talked about my father’s sickness.
By the time Zuze visited again from South Africa, my father was gone and we all knew how far he had travelled. For us, life hadn’t been a crystal stair but when father died our whole existence started plunging into the unknown. Our bread winner was gone and we had nowhere else to turn to. When things got tougher, my little brother decided to go to the city to try his luck in Indian shops. When he went there, his fortunes changed and he could afford to buy us some second-hand clothes and bags of fertilizer for the farm. But when the currency was devalued for the seventh time a few months down the line, the Indians could no longer afford to keep some of their staff and so they let him go. My brother did not want to come back to life in the village. He stayed in the city and looked for ways of earning for survival as a man is supposed to do. He tried a lot of things in which he did not succeed. He wanted to be a street musician and he failed. He tried being a minibus conductor but he was not good at addition. He made losses for his boss and he was fired. He tried working as a minibus callboy in the city’s main bus depot but this profession only succeeded at building despair and frustrations in his heart. He finally tried drinking and he succeeded. Right now he is the village drunkard notorious for his foul mouth.
Mother’s constitution also started giving way to slight winds a few months after my father’s savage demise. I remember once seeing blood when she coughed and spat heavy mucus. I shuddered. I feared for the life of those around me more than I feared for my own life. Soon enough the whole family would be looking up to me and I did not even have any means of earning money. School was out of the question. My only options were to go to the city and work as a domestic servant or to get married. The latter was a better option for a village girl like me who nauseated before city lights. So when Zuze came back that second time, I wanted him more although I pretended that I did not. He made deliberate moves at me when he met us on our way from the stream. My friends would deliberately accelerate their paces to leave me talking with Zuze.
“Ukhuluma isiZulu ntombazane?” he would say. I did not understand what he said but it was sweet. I just giggled. He would capitalise on my bliss and continue with his silly mush.
“I want to teach you how to speak Zulu. I want to feed you big chickens so that those hips can resemble South African women. You are a fine chic wena!”
Such words weakened my knees and I felt lacking. I remembered my poverty and my clothes that barely covered my body. What did this well-groomed man who lived beyond our borders see in me? I wondered.
As days turned into weeks Zuze started visiting my mother at home. He brought her fruits and vegetables which he said she needed. My mother was losing her body by each dawn and it was obvious that she needed special care. But I did not want this special care to come from Zuze because I felt that he would take advantage. I wanted him to win me and not to pluck me from a pedestal of poverty. One part of me wanted this man but another part held on to my pride. If Zuze was to have me he was to go through a tough time like any other man. Every girl in our village would have offered their whole being to Zuze at the sound of his sneeze but he wanted me and he had to work for what he wanted. I felt some power when I acted hard to get especially for him. When he visited the house every evening mother would always say, “Maria, can you please see our visitor off.” I would reluctantly leave my mat and escort Zuze up to where the road bent in the undergrowth.
So on that night Zuze stopped me in my tracks as I started going back home upon reaching our usual point of separation. It was a night of full moon and most of the adolescents in the village had gone to the village square for night dances where most of them usually danced excessively and bore babies nine months later.
“Do you want to go with me to the dances?” Zuze asked me, his eyes glimmering in the moonlight.
“I would love to but I have to take care of my mother.” I answered.
“But you know that any word spoken before ‘but’ is useless. It means you just don’t want to be with me.”
“I want to be with you but….”
“Ssssshhhhhhh. No more buts,” he put his fore finger on my lips. I trembled and moved a few steps back. He sauntered towards me and craftily curved his arm around my waist. I dawdled in his arms and he pulled me closer to his body. He looked into my eyes and I wanted to close them. There was something in his eyes that I did not want to see under the moonlight. The singing of crickets was all I could hear against the darkness. He pressed his wet lips against my dry mouth and I felt a shiver sweeping through my body. He bit my lower lip and opened my mouth with his tongue. He guided me towards a tree and I felt weak. He rested my lean body against the tree and then stroked my thigh, lifting it up using his left hand such that my knees gave way. He slowly came between my legs and then stroked my neck. He said nothing and I did not speak. He leaked my neck with his long tongue and felt my earlobe between his incisors. He whispered soft breathe in my soul and I felt my body melting under his gentle embrace. He slowly lifted my skirt and I felt his masculinity as he plunged into me. I gulped for breath. He gave a sigh. I felt his chest heaving, my eyes closed in the darkness. He breathed more, he breathed faster. I wanted to breathe more. I wanted to cling on to him. I did not want him to let me go. I wanted to taste Jo’burg on his tongue. He dipped his fingers into my soft tentacles and then whispered into my ear; “I want to take you to Jo’burg. I want to make you happy.” he said these words almost out of breath. I was listening to the sweet singing of crickets in the night; I felt the cool breeze rushing over my skin and into my blood. I was intoxicated by his masculinity; I was beaten down by desire.
It did not take me two weeks to hate Jo’burg. Where was the light in this city of light? The only lights I knew were dim behind the blue windows of Club de Erotica at the heart of Hillbrow. I remembered the words Zuze told me when we were on the bus on our way to this city. “You should not expect an easy life in Jozi,” he had said. “Life is tough especially for makwerekwere like you and me. You have to do what you have to do.” I did not answer him. I just looked out of the window and admired the beauty of creation as the world I knew slowly receded with every pull of the engine of the Marcopolo. Zuze must have known that I had survived tougher conditions. He must have understood why I was the subject of gossip in the village when news broke that I was going to Jo’burg. Wasn’t it jealousy among the village women? Wasn’t it always envy that pumped the blood in their pulmonary arteries such that they failed to catch their breath upon seeing me walking hand in hand with Zuze? What did he mean when he said life was tough? What was more pleasant than sailing across Beitbridge?
My Jo’burg was not the Jo’burg that allured me in the persona of Zuze. Upon reaching the big city, we boarded a taxi that took the direction of a big road with a big signpost that screamed “SOWETO”. We drove out of the city and ventured into riffraff comprising badly erected structures. Some of them made of iron sheets, others made out of cardboards, and I did not even know what the other shacks were made of. The area was clustered with everything and the stench of this Jo’burg lingered in the air, deliberately reluctant to give way to oxygen. The deeper we soared into the township, the thinner fresh air became up to a point when there was no fresh air at all. From a distance, the roofs of the houses from the low lying areas of the township could be seen. Capturing the site, one would be seduced to believe that the area had just survived a heavy thunderstorm of rocks and stones. The remains of the catastrophe could be seen on almost every roof in the neighbourhood. I sighed.
Zuze threw me into a tin house and left me there for the night. “I thought we would be together?” I asked.
“I have business to attend to. I will see you tomorrow.” he said.
“But you can’t just leave me here, darling….”
“Hush!” he cut in. “Why do you always want to act stubborn? Just listen and stay in your position for once!” he shouted at me for the first time. I trembled from his growls.
“You will spend the night with her,” he pointed to a thin girl with a gaunt face curled at the far corner of the tin house. She had her arms around her knees and she was shaking violently. She was grinning like a devil, her long teeth involuntarily cutting through her lips. Zuze banged the door behind him and left me with this strange girl who kept staring at me as if I was a tribal mask in a British museum. I was terrified.
“What’s your name?” the creature asked.
“Maria.” I responded.
“Are you a dancer?”
“Are you good with men? I mean how good are your lovemaking skills?” she smiled suggestively as she asked this absurd question that caught me off guard.
“I don’t know what you mean.” I answered her looking in the opposite direction.
“You don’t know anything, do you? I see. A shy girl huh?” she gave a gay laugh. I did not answer her.
“You are from Malawi, not so?” she popped another question.
“Yooh! You people really need to step up your game na! You have a lot to learn my friend. My name is Nyasha, I’m from Zimbabwe.” She lifted herself from the corner and made for a pile of clothes heaped in the middle of the small room. “It’s about time we made your bed.” she said.
The first time I took to the pole at Club de Erotica, my legs shook with shame and amateurism. I did not believe that I had sunk that low to be disgraced as such. I was dressed in red lingerie that glittered under the dim lights. Nyasha taught me well. She taught me how I was to undo my brassiere in one stroke when the red lights came on. She spent a considerable amount of time drilling me on how to shake my loins in high heels. She showed me how to “lean in it”; swaying down the pole with one leg in the air and the other curled to the shiny pole, supporting my whole body. That first night was the worst. Zuze was in the woozy audience and he looked intoxicated and mesmerized. He came closer to the stage and stashed 20 Rand in my panties. He smacked my butt cheeks and then went back to join his white friends on their round table. They were smoking. They were drinking. They were laughing. I was dancing. I was crying. The club was banging.
I did not sleep that night. I cried the night away. Nyasha did not sleep as well. She spent most of the night consoling me. She pitied me and I could see it in her eyes.
“You have to be strong Maria. This is your life now. You have to earn a living or go back home.” she told me.
“But this is not what I came here for. I came to be with Zuze. We are engaged Nyasha!” I cried.
“Forget that rubbish Maria. He is a pimp. He just wanted you to come here so that he can use your nakedness to make money. Forget about him.” her words struck me with authority. I was such a fool to believe the pretentiousness of Zuze. I hated myself.
“Look here,” Nyasha turned my face with her gentle hand. She was holding a teaspoon with a small lighter burning underneath it. “Sniff on this little liquid here. This is what keeps me going. It will put you in the mood for Johannesburg.” I looked at her face and her grin terrified me. For a moment I hesitated. I wanted to move away from her. She pulled me closer and said, “Sniff and soar into forgetfulness.” I put my nostrils on the teaspoon and sniffed the liquid. It went straight through my nose and I felt it descending into my veins. I shook violently. I felt a little giddy and elated. I felt good. I laughed and Nyasha laughed with me. We laughed together and fall into each other’s arms. She looked into my eyes and I saw tears forming in her cornea. She shuffled her hand on my belly as our tongues exchanged saliva in the darkness. I felt good to be touched by her. That was the night I was introduced to methamphetamine; that was the night I was introduced to the gentle touch of a woman.
Yesterday I walked into our tin house to face tragedy. The whole place was a mess as usual. There were clothes all over. Unwashed plates and dirty lingerie piled on top of each other and on the far end of the room lay the gruesome figure of the love of my life cold and stiff. Her blank eyes were wide open and her gaunt face shapeless because her jaws were broken. Purple blood marked the two outlets of her nose through which her soul escaped. I shuddered. Looking at her cold and naked body lying there on the cold floor was like looking at the picture of Dorian Gray; everything that I was but wished I was not. How could life be so wicked? I had no answers. Streams of salty water run down my face. Thunder squawked outside the slaughterhouse and it started raining.
IMAGE: Fraser Mummery