And of our shadows deep

2013-07-31 00:00

Open category winner 2013

SHE walked with the gait of a tired penguin, one that had narrowly escaped death in a major oil spill at sea. I guess it was due to old age, which I would think was around mid or late fifties, or from being horizontally challenged, which wasn’t and isn’t out of the norm for a Zulu woman of that age.

The kids at Sukuma Comprehensive School in Imbali township named her Luwiza after an elderly petulant character from the small screen’s Sgudi’Snays. Luwiza was a no-nonsense woman who contorted her face in disgust in ways no clown could pull off. She was the sharp-tongued, mother-away-from-home kind of woman who would dish one a small portion of pap at supper frenzy and then cast a look that screamed decibels. Luwiza was definitely a character to loathe, and loathed she was ... until she saved my life.

It was the year 1992 and we were still massaging the wounds that the previous year had brought all the abashana (male newcomers) during the incessant hazing that was the order of the day. Being the beginning of a new year, we would no longer be hazed but had to watch our step as we were considered ozozo, which roughly meant “a wound that never heals”. It was during this very delicate time between being umshana and uzozo that I fell prey to what I, at that time, thought was normal hazing when in fact it was sexual abuse in its worst form.

The school’s existing catering company had to go that year because its contract was not renewed. Many old women and men lost their jobs as the incoming company only took in a few old employees and brought in new people. Grandma Luwiza was among the unfortunate and she lost her job. The only job she knew.

I remember when I first saw her smile. I was standing by the window of our first-floor dorm looking down towards the pathetic excuse for a tuck shop that was run by one of the teachers, Mr Nhlabathi. I noticed her sitting quietly by the car shed with her head bowed in a manner that spelt sorrow and that made me forget my own pain, which had premiered the previous weekend after entertainment in the school hall. I blocked the painful memory and took some food that my mom had brought me, steamed bread and boiled chicken, and walked outside into the January heat and sat next to her.

She thanked me and ate, probably ashamed as she had had the reputation of being stingy when dishing out before she lost her job.

“At my age where will I find work? Who would hire an old woman who is close to retirement age? I will sit here and die here, because here is all I know,” she said with the sternness of a hardened woman who was used to suppressing tears.

Luwiza was a human being that day and not the Amazon that I had come to fear and despise, and even though she held back the tears, I still felt them and they met mine deep inside me and became a bulging well that I feared was going to explode into a mess any time.

I sat almost every weekday after school and chatted to her. She would lay all her troubles before me and mentally I would lay all of mine before her. For six months, she sat there waiting for absolution and an answer that wouldn’t come and we found solace in each other’s company. All that time my heart was screaming and kicking at me. Prodding and nudging me, beckoning me to tell her or anybody about my trouble. I didn’t.

The fuzziness of one entering his teens and the confusion thereof prevented me from telling anyone. I prayed for my guidance teacher, Mr. Murray, to talk about rape during his Friday guidance lessons, but he never did! I wanted to tell everyone how fortunate they were that their childhood had gradually evaporated as they grew into their teens and not been YANKED away like mine, which left me numb and without a voice.

On many occasions, I imagined telling someone how on that dreary Saturday evening, after entertainment night, we all went to our hostels and dorms. We slept four pupils per dorm and used to push two single beds together to make a “double” bed, which is how he first got the chance to touch me and rape me! And raped me! And raped me!

During the rapes (all the numerous times he did), I couldn’t understand why our two dorm mates on the other “double bed” never said anything, because I know they heard everything.

I can’t tell you how many times this went on, but it probably lasted the whole year or longer, or until he was expelled for something. I remember one Saturday morning (Saturday night was my rape time), I decided to move my locker to the ground floor in room 16 where no one would live because it was used as an illegal entrance and exit — the burglar bars on the windows had been cut off.

My rapist came down in a fit of anger demanding that I return to room 33. I refused to open the door. I thought it was the last of the rapes, but I was wrong.

Seven months deep into that year my school marks showed significant signs of decline and I was lucky to pass the mid-year exams. The well inside me was quietly turning into a churning monster that unnerved my senses.

I became distant and spent most weekends in the school hall, teaching ballroom and Latin dancing to my fellow pupils, trying anything to keep me away from the hostels — and away from him.

One afternoon after school, I walked straight into the kitchen (where we weren’t allowed to go) and demanded to speak to the manager. After much pleading he was finally called. I looked him straight in the eye and said: “There’s an old woman who’s been sitting outside for the last six months. She is right there outside where you park your car. I always give her food after school, but I don’t have any today and parents’ day is so far away. Please spare me a few slices of bread and one chicken drumstick and maybe a glass of juice also. She would really appreciate it.” I don’t remember how I felt when I said this. The numbness was at its peak.

The white man stood there towering above me for a long time, gave a huge sigh and then gave me the food that I requested. I went through the back door of the kitchen to where Luwiza was sitting and gave her the food. As I sat down next to her, I noticed that the kitchen manager had followed me and was standing on the ledge, watching us with a distant and sad look on his face.

At 5.30 that evening, after study, we heard the food trolleys making a noise as they came down ugrumama (a concrete road that connected the whole hostel clutter) and we knew that it was supper time. We stood up with a deafening screech of chairs, said grace and then everybody rushed for the queue — except me.

I saw, behind the food trolley, Granny Luwiza doing what she knew best, dishing up for the hungry pupils. Her face had no funny look and no sneer or threatening stare, which were her meal-time signatures. She happened to look up and our eyes met, and I suspect the tears she’d been holding back for months finally popped the lid and she dropped the dishing spoon and ran into the back room. I followed her and found her crying her eyes out. I hugged her and gave her my shoulder. I also cried with her, but mine were those of losing a loved one and hers those of joy and bottled pain and thankfulness.

After that day I was left alone to drown in confusion. A 15-year-old boy who hid his pain behind that of an old woman: now after 20 years I’m telling it. Twenty years of secrecy and attempting to scrub away the dirty feel and the smell of alcohol breath he left me with.

Only “Mr X” and I and our two dorm mates knew this. I was the only one who was devoured by the experience and died many times from it. If it wasn’t for Luwiza’s shadow of pain and the lesson she taught me about not giving up, no matter what, I probably wouldn’t have finished school or worse, would have killed myself. I wonder if Luwiza is still alive. She lives in my memory. I heard that my rapist is born again and is a pastor in his hometown on the North Coast. God must have forgiven him — without consulting me.

• Stories by the finalists in our True Stories of KZN competition will be published in The Witness before the winners are announced in the first week of December.

About the writer:

MZWANDILE Johannes Spirit was born in a small township called Mpumalanga, Hammarsdale, where one sees more cattle between the houses than people. He has three works of Zulu fiction currently under consideration by a publisher. He once had a dog named Pele that hated his singing as much as he hates modern politics. He writes and cannot stop even to save his life.

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