23 June 1898. Mqanduli, Tembuland.
“But who’s going to teach our sons to become men?”
Gcinikhaya asked this while squashing the newspaper within her clenched fist. Her lips were quivering, her face contorted to hold back the tears of anger and fear.
“My brother went to the mines in Kimberly and came back dead. As did so many people we know. Now you want to go to Johannesburg and leave me with a life of suffering?” she asked rhetorically to her husband, Sakhumzi.
“But I won’t be working on the mines” he responds apologetically.
“What’s the difference? You’re leaving your responsibilities as the head of your father’s house to go and be someone’s slave? Who’s going to make sure the cattle are not stolen? What’s my place on your father’s land when you’re not here? Why can’t we come with you?” she continuously questioned.
“You know the laws of the land there. I can only go by myself. And they’re looking for those of us who went to the mission schools to work on some of the farms there. If you open the newspaper, you can see the advert for Witkoppen cattle farm. We really need the money. We need money to pay this tax on the land to the government, and maybe even have money to send the boys to that Zonnebloem College in Cape Town” he tried to explain.
“Cape Town!” she screamed, as she started making her way towards the door of their rectangular stone house. “Wasn’t the reason of going to the mission school so that we can improve our lives here? You carry your father’s name, and now you want to throw his legacy away in someone else’s cow dung, as someone’s boy?” She opened the door to the cold evening’s winter breeze, flickering the candle mounted on the surface of her crumbling foundation.
He grabbed her by the arm before she could walk out of the door. “You don’t talk to me like that. I’m still the man of this house. The world we live in now is not the world my forefathers lived in.”
He paused and looked at her face moistened by drips of tears. “I’m doing what’s best for our home”.
Gcinikhaya slowly made her way back to the table in the middle of the room. She sat down in silence for 10 minutes, staring at the newspaper advert.
“So, when do you leave?”
“Next week Thursday, I’m going with Rev. Samuels to East London. From there, I’ll take the train to Aliwal North, then to Bloemfontein, and take the last train to Park Station in Johannesburg.”
13 February 2022, Fourways Gardens, Johannesburg.
“Nkosivumile! Hurry up, your dad and I are already late!”, Phatizizwe shouted to her daughter in her usual use-her-full-name angry tone.
“Why do we even have to have someone come and stay with us?” Vumi asked in her usual pre-teen whine as she dragged her feet down the stairs. “We are fine just the way we are”.
“I’ve told you 100 times Vumi, with the new job I’ll be travelling out of the country a lot and your dad’s job also gets hectic at times.” Phatizizwe tried to explain.
“So you just handing me over to someone else then” Vumi sarcastically retorted, while rolling her eyes. She walked past her mother flicking her blonde braids in the air with attitude.
“Hey little Miss. Don’t forget you’re talking to your mother here. Don’t come here with that attitude. We will still be here”, she tried to reassure. “Nothing much will change, don’t worry. We’ll still be very much here. You know that we love you and would never abandon you”.
Vumi stopped walking and stared at the ground for a few seconds. She turned around slowly and asked, “Then why did you even have to take this new job?” as if the question had never been answered.
“So that you can go on your nice expensive hockey tours in your nice expensive school” Phatizizwe answered, returning the sarcasm back.
Mark had already reversed the car and was waiting in the driveway. Phatizizwe entered through the passenger door, opened the window and reminded Vumi: “we’ll pick you up from Jackie’s house once we’re back, we just need to talk to her first. Please just make sure her room is in order before you go.”
The first 15 minutes of the trip was carried by deafening silence, fuelled by the tension of this decision which was never actually agreed upon. The irritation of the traffic jam caused by malfunctioning traffic lights added to the volcanic mountain of unvoiced strain.
“At least I managed to get someone from back home. They’re more trustworthy and loyal than those you find here”, Phatizizwe said to break the ice.
“Ya, I guess”, Mark shrugged. He kept looking through the driver’s side window to avoid eye contact.
“How is Vumi taking it?” he asked.
“I think she’ll be fine. She’ll get used to it.”
They arrived in the parking lot of Park Station and made their way to the platform. In front of the bus ticket office, they saw Ncamisa standing with her bags, looking lost.
“Molo mkhaya! Welcome to Johannesburg! I hope the trip from Mthatha was comfortable” welcomed Phatizizwe. “This is Mark, the father of the house.” Mark stretched his hand to greet her as she turned her eyes to the ground in reverence. “Let’s get your bags to the car” he said.
As they drove up the M1 North back home, Mark tried making small talk: “so do you know anyone in Johannesburg?”.
“Yes Tata. My brother moved here when I was younger, but I haven’t seen him since”, she answered.
“Ya, it’s the thing about that place. Maybe you’ll bump into him soon” Mark said, not knowing what else to say.
Burdened by the weight of responsibility of the awkwardness, Phatizizwe jumped in:
“You’ll meet our daughter when we get home. She’ll take some time to get used to you, but she’s a great girl”.
“Ok Mama. How old is she?” Ncamisa asked.
“She’s 12 but thinks she is 16” Phatizizwe laughed. “I may be travelling a lot, so you’ll get to spend a lot of time with her”.
“Umm Mama. Has she, umm.. started the way of women?” Ncamisa sheepishly asked.
“Not yet, but some of her friends have. So it may be at any moment now”.
They all sat quietly for some time, with Ncamisa’s eyes staring at the bright billboards along the highway, and the tall buildings lining the distant landscape, yet her mind pondering more distant questions.
“And Mama, what if it’s when you’re away?”, Ncamisa whispered.