THE STAR: FRAGMENTS OF A TRUE STORY

“Philile is this not your cousin?’ Karabo shouted loudly across the newsroom. “Who?” Philie asked suddenly feeling uneasy. She rose from her desk and ambled across the room to Karabo’s desk who was holding up a copy of the daily newspaper. Philile berated herself for neglecting to read the papers as vociferously as Karabo did. But before she could get close enough to read the story, she saw it, pictured on the front page. She knew that kitchen better than the back of her hand. How could it be she wondered.  She felt her stomach churn and wondered why her childhood home kitchen made the front page of The Star Newspaper.  She cringed. She couldn’t think of anything to say in that moment except to convince herself that it was some kind of mistake. But there was no mistake. The number was there too, as clear and as real as sunshine on Sunday: 7224, in black and yellow, the first number she memorized in her entire life. The picture told a story of black poverty, suffering, persistence and the triumph of the human spirit. The story of the previously disadvantaged.  She moved closer as if approaching a dangerous animal and read that a young girl had written an exceptional essay which touched the heart of the richest, most famous and influential black woman alive, Oprah Winfrey.  She felt as if she was dreaming.  She read the story as if it were about someone else as if it had nothing to do with her. The young girl demonstrated exceptional talent and strength of character the article continued. She dodged the bullet of poverty, she was now the answer, the only hope for the Zwide family who lived on top of each other in near abject poverty, dependent on a government grant. A symbol of unemployment in one single picture, and yet its poverty was unremarkable, she thought sadly. 7224 was a typical black household in which 11 people shared a three bedroom house. It was not a unique situation in black townships in the country.  She couldn’t read any further. She suddenly felt unwell. It was too much to take in. The kitchen was as she remembered it in her mind, the interior was exactly the same as it had been when she was a little girl, except this time the ceiling was falling apart. It was dramatic in its demise – a large square piece of plasterboard hung loose, revealing a darkness which seemed to pour over the green enamel kitchen table with silver legs.  She knew that table too well, that’s where she often sat and plastered her grandmother with a million questions or watched as her Mamani’s square fingers carefully cut slices of buttered brown bread into squares, dip them into her milky tea. Philile would follow her grandmother’s fingers as they placed the bread on the open tongue leaving traces of the caramel coloured tea between the crevices of her tiny lips, blackened from cigarette smoke. Her grandmother would wash down the creamy paste of bread with a gulp of tea and exclaim “mmtah Ahhh” with satisfaction.  It was during those times, usually Saturday mornings during breakfast when her Mamani would look back at her and say “What are you looking at?” puckering her lips into a playful kiss while rolling her big brown eyes. “Nothing” Philile would say smiling. She enjoyed gazing at her Mamani who had the most fascinating face her five-year old self could imagine. Mamani’s face could change from sweet, playful and coy to angry, sad and frightening in a millisecond. Philile studied her face with the concentration of a student cramming for an important exam, the only difference being that she was not going to be tested on it and she enjoyed every single moment of it.  It calmed her to watch her grandmother breath in and out,  inhaling  and puffing out smoke from her favourite Rothmans King Size cigarettes or chewing on her gum, making sharp sounds as if she was hand washing it vigorously in soapy slippery water. This picture worked for news, she thought coming back to reality. She wanted to look away but she could not peel her eyes away from the picture, it suddenly came alive and she was stuck watching her life as if it were a movie. She couldn’t even blink, her eyes were fixated on that kitchen, which stood starkly bare as if stripped of any comfort resembling a home. It looked as if a gush of wind had swept through it taken all the warmth and left a gaping hole in the middle of the kitchen.  The cold hug of shame embraced her, forcing her head to bend over, her knees were weakening.  Her shoulders drooped slightly, her heartbeat perhaps had stopped or maybe it had become too loud to hear. She hoped that her face would not betray any emotion. Was it possible that such good news could strip her naked and make her feel so vulnerable and insecure? The story was not about her after all, she thought. Yet Philile was haunted by the ghost of the kitchen. She just couldn’t believe that it was on the front page of a national newspaper, a national newspaper? “Here” Karabo interrupted her thoughts which seemed to flood her mind faster than the speed of sound. “It says here her mother, Nana Zwide says the family is proud of Pretty. She’s your cousin, didn’t you say Nana was your cousin? I saw you with her the other day” She said glancing at the paper and continuing to read “look, her daughter, pretty, has been chosen  for a scholarship! She’s going to the Oprah school! Why didn’t you tell me?!” Karabo turned to look at Philile who smiled, but couldn’t find anything of significance to say. She was feeling dizzy now. “Wow” she said clearing her throat “I didn’t know Oprah was opening a school for girls” she said pretending to read further but her eyes took her into the kitchen. “Vanessahhh! Melitahhh! Come here my children.”She could hear her grandmother’s sweet voice calling which meant that nice things were about to happen.   “Philile are you listening to me, you didn’t know Kanti?” Karabo nudging her. But Karabo’s voice was drowned out by the music growing in Philile’s head. “Are you lovo this time, forever be my sweety!” Nhlanhla No popi! Wozan’la! Amakhekhe Mntanami. Cula! Ngiyidlabha min’angizi thandi mina! Futhi! Ngiyi dlabha Mina angizithandi Mina!

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“Phi. Li. Le!!!” Karabo was now desperate for her attention. She looked up at her and thought maybe she was still reading. “Philile!!!”  She tried again, but Philile didn’t seem to hear Karabo’s repeated calls. She was listening to something else, a sound she would never forget. The noise the gate made each time someone opened it was unmistakable.  She heard it keenly this time. Maybe a mix of a shrill soprano, the sound of a metal a sheet of glass, the treble and bass were the final sounds which repeatedly banged a hello and goodbye every single day. No, she thought, the sound of thunder was a more accurate description of the sound. She could visualize the gate under her bed-covers while looking through the tiny holes in the crocheted red bedspread at night.  She would try to fit her finger through them, making the holes bigger while willing sleep to come or go away depending on the intensity of conversations in the kitchen. 7224 was a loud and proud household. Her ears never got any rest. They were always pricked up like that of a puppy each time she heard something new.  For as long as 7224 was her home, the black corrugated iron gate was like a door to her heart,  each pull meant love was coming or leaving.  On some very rare occasion she would be able to guess who was coming and who was leaving.  When she was not at school she would sit perched on the family’s apple tree, her eyes pinned on the gate, waiting, for someone to open and come in.

A romantic serenade

Philile shared her bedroom which opened out into the  kitchen door with her older sister Khethiwe.  Together they enjoyed making up stories with characters who came alive in miniature plastic figurines and teeny tiny dolls their Mamani had brought from domestic work. Each character was given names to fit every story her sister Khethiwe came up with. One of Philile’s favourite characters was a green tennis ball whose face had been drawn on with a red crayon. She was particularly proud of the tennis character. It was the best looking of them all she thought, round and pretty like her Mamani. She also enjoyed the shell, a silver and coral seashell. It was her, she was the tiny seashell. Those were her favourite toys. Her sister loved the little dolls with multi-coloured hair. There was never a day without a party in their plastic universe. Romantic ballads were popular with party goers too, even though they were monotonous.  “Are you lovo this time, forever, be my sweety!” That was their Island theme song. Philile loved it because they came up with it all by themselves, it was their song about love. Khethiwe enjoyed telling love stories, she was good at creating beautiful dialogues which often went well into the night and lulled Philile to sleep with her left thumb firmly placed inside the crown of her mouth. Her stories always involved people falling in and out of love, kissing and getting married. Khethiwe was three years older than Philile, and much wiser.  “It’s my turn now” Philile would say, but found she could not make up stories as easily or as creatively as her sister could. So she opted to sing instead, because Khethiwe’s tales were far superior. “Are you lovo this time, forever, be my sweety!” It was Khethiwe who had come up with the song too.  The storytelling and singing would continue indefinitely until their Mamani’s voice would interrupt their carefully constructed scenes with her questioning calls.” Nhlanhla no Popi”?! Her voice would bellow over their plastic story scenes making their heads to spring up, alert like chicken heads. They would respond “Ma?!” in unison hoping they had not done anything wrong. “Nenzani? What are you doing” she would demand, worried that they had become too quiet to be up to something good. “We’re playing” they’d say. In the quiet Khethiwe would look over at Philile and say “Ayeye Phili! What have you done this time!” hoping to scare Philile even more than she already was.  Philile was the naughtiest of the two girls, her inquisitiveness often put her in hot water. They listened for a follow-up question but their grandmother had already moved on to adult conversation. Mamani called them different names for different reasons. The names Nhlanhla and Popi were reserved for serious occasions.

A 20 second sound bite

But she could still hear it. The screeching, treble and bass bangs of the gate as adept fingers hooked and pulled the lever out of its concrete hole, the soft and cold sound was unforgettable. It was as if they pulled the piece of metal out of her very own ears. She touched her ears to dust off imaginary films of earth which trickled down her earlobe as the metal scraped against dry concrete. She had never heard a sound as acute as that of the gate opening. Perhaps she had heard it so many times it had been amplified in her brain. It sometimes made her emotional. The sound was becoming louder and louder and louder and louder and louder.   “Philile!!!” Karabo hit her desk with the newspaper. “Hella ngwana” she demanded. “How many times must I call your name!”  She exclaimed with some exasperation. “Huh” Philile croaked, looking up and  surprised to find herself back at her desk. She didn’t remember when she had stopped reading the paper and returned to her desk.  But with Karabo now standing over her, she feared  it wound sound rather mental to ask her when and how she got to where she was, the best she could do then was  to just go with the flow. She really ought to remember such details she thought.  “What is it?” she asked lifting her head to meet Karabo’s confused penetrating eyes. “Do you have her number?” she asked. “Whose number? Philie asked still in a half dream state. “Your cousin, Nana’s numbers, I want to get a soundbite from her” A soundbite she thought as if she’d never heard that word before. “A soundbite” She repeated out loud urging herself to stay present. “Ja, I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me, how come you didn’t know?” Karabo continued as if Philile had been listening to her all along. “Now the newspapers have beaten me to it” She said dejectedly. Karabo was a former newspaper journalist who specialized in education. She had recently joined the radio newsroom and was very excited that she could update stories as they happened and not have to wait for the paper to go to print to be read the next day.  The idea that all she needed for a new story was a four line paragraph with a 20 second actuality from a newsmaker was the height of her excitement. She detested being the last to know, always aiming to be the first to break the news. She was a petite woman with a wide smile which revealed the gap on her front teeth. She reminded her of her older sister Khethiwe. Her loud boisterous, competitive and sometimes aggressive quest for news was mitigated by an even bigger open heart which won her many admirers.  In her Philile saw the kind of quintessential news-hound she’d only read about in her journalism classes. She not only loved the news, it was the very air she breathed. ”Oh” Philile responded wishing she were someone else, in a different world, living a different life, but she just didn’t have  a picture of that world yet, she had no idea of what this “other” life would look like.  “Yes sure” she said rummaging through her bag in search of her cell phone. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me” Karabo said again trying to get Philile to say more than the monosyllabic responses she’d given so far.  “Oh I’m sorry” Philile said finally managing to say one coherent sentence “I didn’t know” she said in a whisper. “You didn’t know, Hellang Basadi!!!?” Karabo raised her voice like the women who sold corn or mealies on random Sunday mornings. They called out as if in a dirge “Miiiiiilies, Milliiiiiies!”.   “Here” Philile said avoiding her question and giving her Nanas’ numbers on a piece of paper she had torn off her reporter’s notebook on her desk. Her heart was beating fast. “Let me call her first, to let her know you’ll be calling”

“Cool Mosadi” said Karabo giving Philile a second glance before going back to her desk.

A fool for love

Later after she’d made the courtesy call to her cousin Nana. Philile wondered if she should tell her mother the news. But she wasn’t sure if it would matter. It was not like they knew Pretty, Nana’s daughter.  She remembered the first time she learnt that Pretty was coming, she had been devastated.  She remembers how sad she had been when Nana wrote her a letter saying that she was pregnant, expecting a child very soon which meant that she would have to give up school. That hurt. Because Philile adored Nana, her beautiful light-skinned cousin with a winning smile. She used to follow her everywhere as a child, she was Nana’s shadow or at least she tried very hard to be.  Philile giggled out loud shaking her head. She was laughing at a famous memory in her collection which she now gently dived into, she was always a sucker for love.  It was a memory of a day when she had forgotten to wear underwear to school because she had been in an unimaginable hurry to take up Nana’s surprise invitation to accompany her on her  trip to drop off  sister Dani to pre-school, before heading to high school.  Philile was in the second grade and her school was not far from Nana’s. In fact she had barely finished taking a bath before she was out the door running after Nana and Dani.   The story would have ended well enough if she had the key to her room and could go back home and correct her error before going to class after she felt a very fresh breeze under her dungarees alerting her of her oversight mid stroll. But even then nobody would have known that she was not wearing any underwear had she not on that very day arrived to find her classmates busily showing off their new underwear in front of very curious young boys and envious girls an event which caused a lot of  commotion and drew the entire class to congregate around an empty desk in the front row,  which happened to be hers. So that even though she could have slipped quietly by without being noticed she was forced to confront the scene. She stared at the girls as they showed each other their brand new pretty panties. She stood right in front of one newly exposed  which  was pure white cotton with a pink pretty doll in front, all the while she was freezing inside, trembling because unlike these girls she had no panties on at all.  “What are you looking at” shouted another bully at her.  How did she end up here? Philile wondered petrified.  “Nothing” she responded defiantly  yet unsure of how her look of terror became a look of contempt in the eyes of her classmates. She didn’t remember the details of what happened next only that she saw her hand pulling a girls tunic up to reveal her leopard print panties in a moment of deranged confidence. Aware of what was to come she stood stoically and accepted her fate as her classmate returned the favour and revealed her nakedness to the entire classroom. She closed her eyes tightly and let the laughter that followed sink into every pore of her body as a chorus of shrill, frenzied laughter overpowered the room, in seconds the classroom resembled scenes from born again Christian prayer lines where congregants fell on top of each other high and drunk on the Holy Spirit. Her classmates were falling over themselves, writhing  like worms on top of each other with laughter which seemed to gain increasing momentum, each wave louder than the last with every passing second. That was the biggest news at school, soon everyone will know including the teachers that she didn’t have her underwear on.  Philile was beyond embarrassed. Her morning which began with a glorious answer to a prayer had turned out to be the most embarrassing event in her short life. But all of it had been caused by love, by answering a blind overpowering desire to walk next her goddess, Nana,  to be loved, valued and accepted, cherished, wanted by her, in her quest to belong in her world she had forgotten to look after herself.  Philile loved everything about Nana, her thick head full of jet black hair, heart-shaped lips, a sharp pointy nose and inquisitive eyes. She was exquisitely beautiful, like a Barbie doll. Nana was Philile’s miss world, queen and princess of the universe, the second princess next to Philile’s own mother, who was as yet unrivaled in her superpowers. But she knew from a thousand and one repeated warnings  from her ultimate icon, her mother gave that pregnancy at a young age was bad news for young girls. It signaled the end of a bright future for all women. Children were bad news in the Zwide family.  So she felt Nana’s pain as keenly as if it were her who had fallen pregnant, as if it were her future which had been stopped mid-flight. No rock would be large enough to hide her bulging belly from her mother’s wrath she thought. She shuddered at the thought. Pregnancy was a frightening consequence of being a woman. It was something to be avoided at all costs. Even so  Philile was secretly glad and pleased in a self-congratulatory way that Nana had chosen to confide in her, that she thought her old enough to handle such adult matters.

I think I must be dreaming

But that was a very long time ago. Now this gift, Pretty, who caused Nana to lay down her life had grown into an intelligent super human whose story touched the heart of the world’s most soft-hearted person, the queen of talk herself, Oprah. None of them could have dreamt of anything this big.  It was a big story, not only for the Zwide family, but for South Africa. Ms Winfrey had planted  a seed of renewed hope for the country’s promising, yet, disadvantaged young girls. The Oprah Winfrey School for girls was yet another testament to Nelson Mandela’s thriving rainbow nation.   Philile was happy for Nana, because Nana loved books. Philile loved books too, books about love. She hoped to one day write one book at least, a funny tale about love. Nana now had a second chance in life through Pretty, Philile thought. Her dreams of obtaining a great education had been made a reality through her child. She would be receiving the best education money could buy, paid with the best money in the world. She had one less thing to worry about because Ms Winfrey did not spare a dime for her girls. She went all in and all out to give the girls the very best of everything she never had as a child herself. While under Oprah’s able care the girls were guaranteed to receive the best of everything they could collectively wish for. A dream come true for any parent.  A bright future had not been lost after-all, it just came from a very different direction. She was pleased for both of them.

A dive into the rabbit hole

Yet Philile could not erase the picture of that kitchen. These good news had brought up so much confusion to her soul.  It was starkly prominent as a sign of what her parents had saved her from, open gaping ceilings with dark holes, teenage pregnancies, drug addiction, unemployment, lack of inspiration. These were hallmarks of black townships, black lives, of Apartheid. People were tired of that word “Apartheid”. What did it have to do with one teenage girl’s decision to have unprotected sex with another teenager? Did she consent to it? Was she forced? Did she even know she could fall pregnant? In any case what does Apartheid have to do with any of it? She was tired of Apartheid. Philile’s thoughts ran away with her as she packed her bag, clearing her desk to go home. Her day at the office had ended immediately when she saw her childhood kitchen on the front page of the newspaper. She couldn’t focus on anything other than the kitchen, it was on the front page, and a front page story was a big deal, the Holy Grail for any journalist. She was glad she didn’t have a story to cover that day, she needed to recover from the news. If anyone asked why she was leaving early she could just blame it on Apartheid.  It was because of Apartheid that her childhood home had become the post card image for black poverty in the country. Poor Apartheid. She felt herself feeling sorry for it, the word, she wasn’t sure how to even pronounce it, was it Apart- heid, or Apar-th-eid? She preferred the word racism. It was less complicated, it was unambiguous, at least not in her context.  With racism, she was always the victim. She was always at a disadvantage, she was morally justified to feel insecure or hard done by. It was a convenient word. Racism was as powerful as the name of Jesus Christ and likewise many did not enjoy the sound of it.  You can  bring a whole party  to a standstill anywhere in the world by pulling the race card. The word proved too heavy. Too much. Apartheid was more palatable and less overwhelming.  Racism was indiscriminate, every white person living could be accused of racism, they could be deemed racists by association, in fact, she thought there could be a new word for them, previously racist people.  All the black and brown people could be victims.  Apartheid on the other hand offered some room for exclusion – not all white people, just some white South African Afrikaaners or boers (people of Dutch, German and French decent).  Apartheid was easy to fold and pack away in a nice file, it was a deranged regime, created by a specific class of white people – bitter outcasts from Europe. It was by no means as universal as the word Racism. White people from other countries can talk with ease, concern and even display utter disgust at “Apartheid” because they were not implicated in it at all.

Same same Auntie

Apartheid was surpassed only by the Holocaust in its brutality, and crusades by the Klu Klux Klan of America were simplistic by comparison. Yet how did it come about that a minority group could over power, a whole continent of people? Wasn’t it proof that the former is indeed superior?  Even so Apartheid proved very handy, it was a great place to put all your worries, it accommodated everything.  You can place all your fears, troubles, weaknesses and or anything that could go wrong in one’s life in that simple box.  Tick.  Oh what do I know, Philile thought out loud to herself, greater men than I have thought deeply about racism and all forms of oppression. They were still being quoted today as if nothing had changed;  Franz Fanon, Du bois, Amilcar Cabral, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Angela Davis,  Toni Morrison, Steven Bantu Biko, Thomas Sankara, Nina Simone, Kwameh Nkurumah, Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Robert Mugabe even Nelson Mandela himself and thousands more who had written, thought and  spoken about race, racism, colonialism, capitalism, globalization.  Yet  black nations were still crawling.  They were still on their knees, praying, asking, and hoping for freedom to come.  Apartheid. Was it really the cause of all her misery in life? She asked herself as she walked back to her house which was next door to a private home for mentally and physically disabled children, in fact in had been the matrons home until they decided that some distance from the madness would be advisable and opened it up to the public for rent, it was affordable, close to work and a lucky find for Philile. The children’s screams were loud, and present all day and all night. She had become accustomed to the sounds the children made which ranged from wild frantic screams to deep moans, grunts and groans. She made for the bathroom and ran herself a bath, making sure to pour a generous amount of foam bath liquid.

Apartheid. Really? Get her a Kleenex

Hadn’t she, a reporter with the national radio station, received a good enough education in spite of it? She  thought as she turned on her  radio dial and listened as the newsreader announced the latest news. Had her parents not sent her to the best schools their money could offer? Had she not learnt about journalism at best place for the profession?  Wasn’t she a success? But why did they have to show this, this, this poverty. Why didn’t she know about it? Of course she had long-lost the right to know anything about Nana’s life. Even if it was a good story. But she felt her heart sink as she sunk into the warm water, she couldn’t get that picture of the kitchen out of her mind. This was her family. This was her home. But she wanted to hide it, sweep it under the carpet and pretend the whole thing never happened. But Oprah, Oprah Winfrey had opened Pandora’s Box. She giggled to herself.  Oprah was her favourite, she was everyone’s favourite in fact. Philile had read her biography in her early teens and hoped that one day she would also become as successful. The memory of afternoons spent watching Oprah were now projected on the white bubbles in soft foam that covered her hands and the length of her near naked body, she had the habit of bathing with her underwear on, it was the last thing she removed. Back then watching the Oprah show with her mother was the best part of Philile’s day, the highlight of her life in those days. She often dreamed of going back home and having jam and butter sandwiches with her mother and little brother Christian. Those unremarkable afternoons in Newcastle were a great comfort to her. She loved Christian who was then only a few months old, she made it her business to wash him, to make him milk. She thought of him as her friend, a silent understanding  friend who never judged her and was always happy to see her. She learnt how love felt like with Christian, even though she couldn’t explain it at the time that is how she learnt to love.  There were times she thought that  her mother physically resembled the image of Oprah, except that her mother of course was more beautiful. Both were incredible storytellers.  Philile admired Oprah, looked up to her because in many ways she saw her mother in Oprah. Philile’s mother was just as giving and  open to helping people. She often made other people’s problems her own.  But Oprah and Philile’s mother were separated by one crucial difference.   Oprah bared her life, her private struggles and pain to the world. Oprah cried often, every day in fact and made millions with her tears. Kleenex was making money from her show.  Instead of popcorn her audience received a box of tissues  and then some.  The Oprah show had become a free therapy session for a world full of hurting hearts.   Philile’s mother never cried. She was an extremely private person who kept the details of her daily struggles safely secured and sealed in invisible vaults. There were two big scary eyes which could stop anyone attempting to approach anywhere near the vicinity of those vaults.  Philile’s mother was also equally if not more protective of those she loved. She was more fearsome than a hungry lioness when the lives of those she loved were under threat.  So Philile’s love for her mother was one which vacillated from intense tender love and admiration to extreme debilitating fear. Now Oprah had gone and done it this time! Philile knew that her mother who didn’t read the papers would at least be spared the sight of her cherished home. But she, Philie couldn’t deny that she was from that decrepit, poverty-stricken house. And she wanted to hide it. Sweep it under and pretend it never happened. She wanted to build a new house.  She didn’t want to admit to anyone, that she was ashamed – embarrassed in front of the entire newsroom room to see her childhood home, her great-grand mother’s house, the house her mother grew up in h, displayed so unapologeticly for all to see. She was deeply ashamed of everything it represented the less said about it, the better. But there was a time when she had been proud to be there.

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