Smiles and tears of Gxa Town

2008-10-10 00:00

EVEN though Mkhulu has long passed away, my family still gets some Christmas letters from Bab’uKhambule, telling us how Smotie has become a good hunter and his chickens are proliferating. He came from the countryside to the city to work at kwaMagenque-Corobrick, now Midlands Liberty Mall.

Early in the morning before sunrise, Bab’uKhambule would be on his fancy bicycle, the beam of light criss-crossing the dangerous passageways of KwaMachibisa — Gxa Town — as he pedalled off to earn a living for his wife and children back home.

In the afternoon, we knew that Bab’uKhambule would emerge in the passageway with his broad smile pronouncing his pervasive saying in a baritone.

“Zonke manje!” (Everyone now.)

All of us children would respond resonantly. “Sunlight.”

Even now I still wonder what this parlance means. Bab’uKhambule would generously hand us sweets — known as Zulu mottoes — that were colourfully assorted and engraved with idiomatic expressions such as “Amathe no limi” (tongue in cheek) or “Angithi qabu” (simply a kiss).

With a trimmed moustache, new haircut and brittle, clean-shaven chin, Bab’uKhambule announced himself at Mkhulu’s market stall one Saturday afternoon, carrying a brown manila envelope.

“Mthimkhulu. Bhungane.”

He took off his bowler hat, waving and singing praises to the dozing octogenarian on the veranda. “Ngena Khambule.” Mkhulu was roused and bade him in. He sat himself on one of the old chairs and took out his crisp handkerchief to wipe off his solid brown face. Putting his bowler hat on the lap of his crimplene white trousers, he asked for a mug of water.

I dived into the kitchen and quickly resurfaced with an enamel flowery tray carrying a jar brimming with Kool-Aid and two glasses that were reserved for Christmas treats. Bab’uKhambule was now sitting with one leg over the other, one plastic shoe dangling gingerly revealing his rainbow-coloured socks. They were still talking about the weather and other wordplay.

For a while Mkhulu and Bab’uKhambule conversed in serious, inaudible tones, with Mkhulu nodding knowingly. “Yebo kunjalo, Khambule, times are changing and we do not know when the trumpet of the Lord shall sound.”

Mkhulu said these words with a distant look.

“Yebo, Mthimkhulu, that is why I pay you this special visit, so that I may ask your grandson to help me with a letter to my wife.”

They continued the conversation, their glasses remaining half empty. Eventually Mkhulu called me.

“Tokkie,” he sounded urgent.

“Mkhulu.” I came running, pretending to be breathless lest they think I was eavesdropping.

“Come nearer,” he commanded.

I came and kowtowed alongside the two men.

“Listen, don’t venture far, be around, for Khambule would like your assistance in some important matter. As soon as we are finished talking follow him to his place, understand?”

“Yebo Mkhulu.”

Mkhulu was now holding a bulging brown manila envelope. I kept myself at a vantage point to check after Bab’uKhambule when he left. He lived across the fence in a small clean shack with his only companion, Smotie.

I saw them leaving towards the gate. I followed at a reasonable distance. They bade each other farewell. “Lala ngokuthula, Khambule.” (Sleep well, Khambule.) We went to his shack. Smotie came sniffing and wagging his tail. It was a makeshift house of zinc and corrugated iron, plastered with cardboard and plastic to insulate against heat and cold. There was a patch of vegetable garden, a small mealie field and a lonely lemon tree, at the far end of the yard where he chained his two-wheel “Christmas tree”.

“Well ndondana, did you pass at school?” he inquired as he was unlocking the padlock of his flimsy masonite door. “Yebo, I passed.”

He entered his dungeon while I stood outside. Eventually he summoned me inside. He had put a small elementary table in the centre where I would be writing. Underneath his loft bed was a big cream enamel dish. A table on the other side was covered with a flowery plastic tablecloth on which some vessels and plastic buckets were neatly arranged. There was a faint smell of Jeyes Fluid.

A small packet of Blue Bird maize meal, a transistor radio with a PM10 battery, some pots that were so shiny that their reflection split on the primus stove and a Cadac gas cylinder were on the table.

He opened one of the suitcases and took out a batch of Croxley writing pads and an orange Bic ballpoint pen. He put them softly on the table and pulled out his handmade wooden bench from under his raised bed. He then sat down, imperiously cocking his head a little.

I knelt before the table and waited for an order. He cleared his throat and began pouring out his feelings and emotions to his wife, and telling her that he would be coming home that Christmas. I wrote the letter, addressed it and sealed the envelope.

“Now the last one.” He was now pale. I paged through the Croxley pad for a leaf to write on but he quickly stopped me. “No, no, not on this paper.” He was visibly raging.

“Tear one from that,” he pointed at the small black notebook full of addresses. I tore a page and waited for a command again, confused. He seemed to be in a pensive mood “What should I write? Should I say to dear ... ?” I asked him. He leapt from the bench and protested. “No, no, don’t say dear, say ‘where is my money, damn!’ ” He peered over my shoulder. “Do you write ‘damn’?”

“Yebo, Baba,” I lied. I crafted this letter with proper polite wording, bearing in mind that I had to regurgitate all the words as he had ordered.

Times were changing, however Bab’uKhambule continued to play his nostalgic countryside songs on the concertina under the lemon tree, with Zulu beer in his clay pot.

He never understood the Freedom Charter or cultural boycotts. The following breezy Sunday afternoon, he was still enjoying his countryside songs when a crew of young men with uncombed hair and wearing takkies and jeans approached him under the lemon tree.

“Heita, madala,” someone greeted him. The sweet music stopped.

“Awu! Yebo madodana, how could I help you?” he inquired, his whiskers quivering a little.

“We understand you know that since it’s December 16, we have a meeting down at the hall?” The leader was explaining, flailing his long rude fingers.

“Awu! Ndodana, but since I am a simpleton who does not understand your town life, how can I help you if I come to your meetings, besides I was trying to practise some … ”

“Lalela — ke, mdala [listen here old man]. Forget about stories, can you give us a R100 collection?” The boy twisted his thin lips.

“Eh, what collection, mfana wami?”

“I’m not your boy, okay? Does your boy look like me? What collection? As you go to work during the day who protects your stuff here and as you sleep at night who protects you, eh? Ek sê mdala shine up,” he extended his dirty hand.

“But madodana,” he was pleading.

“Ek sê jittas — as Mam Betty has said lomdala is a *theleweni’ [this old man is theleweni].” Bab’uKhambule glanced around, seemingly for help. He could see Mkhulu with the Bible on the veranda. Something connected them. He was gulping like a fish out of water.

“Ja, he is a theleweni,” they all confirmed.

“You — theleweni we will come back to sort you out.”

They swore at him, while others physically demonstrated their lower body parts obscenely at him.

People had shut themselves indoors and were peeping through the flipped curtains expecting the worst. Loteni was miles away. Shadows of the night slowly enveloped the world. Bab’uKhambule dragged himself into his shack. He came out and give Smotie his supper, then went back inside and shut himself off from the changing world outside.

Silent flashes of lightning were licking the treacherous sky, the storm and wind were forthcoming. Darkness closed in, whistles were exchanged and encoded through the night. We had supper, prayers and slept.

Later I heard the creaking of the front door and some whispering voices. I thought granny and Mkhulu were arguing again. Mkhulu used to roam around the yard at night, saying he was inspecting his property. Late that night I heard strange drumming sounds of footsteps and whizzing shadows at Bab’uKhambule’s yard. A big explosion was heard, renting and shaking the sky. A ball of fire tore up the sky like a scud missile, billows of smoke engulfed the heaven and gunshots crackled around the shack. A shrieking sound flew up, there was acrid smoke and something was burning like human flesh. It was like an air crash in the desert. No one came out. Shadows like zombies dashed away.

“Theleweni! Chappies!” A woman’s voice was heard cursing Bab’uKhambule’s mother anatomically amid the roaring flames.

At sunrise, the molten rubble that had been Bab’uKhambule’s house was still smoking. Shocked and surprised people streamed endlessly to survey the disaster. Smotie was lying under the tree lazily eyeing the comforters.

Mkhulu was nowhere and his bedroom was locked. I thought he had gone for some orders at the market since it was Monday. At noon a private car pulled up at the yard in front of our house. It was a Valiant with plastic shutters at the back window. Two people got out. It was Mkhulu and the driver carrying a big parcel. They entered the bedroom and soon I heard Mkhulu making a fervent prayer.

My granny summoned me and sent me to the shop to buy bread and milk for the visitor. I looked at her hesitantly, for the stuff was available, but she chafed at me. “Go now,” she interjected.

I spun round and flew off. However, I soon realised that I had forgotten to take the bag for the groceries. I rushed back through the kitchen door and behold! I glanced at the two figures and Mkhulu going through the front door. One figure was wrapped in a heavy blanket and wore a conical Basotho hat. The figure resembled Bab’uKhambule.

When I came back from the tearoom the visitor and car were gone, and Mkhulu was sitting on the veranda holding his Bible, his gleaming eyes so far away.

* “Theleweni” is an insulting word that was used during the height of violence in KwaZulu-Natal to denote members of a certain political party.

Thokoza radebe

Thokoza “Tokyo” Radebe was born and bred in KwaMachibisa. He has been writing poems, articles and short stories since high school in Georgetown, and is currently writing a novel. He is a teacher at Fundokuhle Senior Secondary School in Imbali and is completing his honours in public administration through the University of South Africa (Unisa).

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