“Goodbye, Mama. See you soon,” Ayanda said in a voice devoid of warmth once the engine of the minibus she had boarded about ten minutes ago coughed to life. She and the other seven people in it were bound for Joburg, where she lived in Sophiatown.
“Hamba kahle, my dear child. Please say hi to Tendai and my grandchild for me,” Ayanda’s mother, Nofoto, a 60-year-old light-skinned woman with full lips and thick eyelashes, retorted in Zulu. Her face lined with wrinkles was distorted with sadness.
“Consider that done!” Ayanda said as tears prickled the corners of her eyes like fishbones.
Like her mother, Ayanda was intensely disturbed about the unfolding event. This was apparent by the anguished expression that arched across her face like a footpath.
About a week earlier, she came to her parents’ town, Nzula, to spend time with her mother and other relatives. She had left Nzula a year after death tossed her father away when she was twenty, eight years earlier for Joburg, shortly after she married Kagiso. As with her previous visits, Ayanda arrived with stock of foodstuffs given by Tendai as a gift to her mother. When her mother had seen the foodstuffs, her deep brown eyes had widened in amazement before her face split into a wide grin.
“Tendai has a kind heart. He never ceases to amaze me. May the Almighty bless and protect him.”
“Amen,” Ayanda said with joy in her voice.
Tendai married her after Kagiso died. She met him weeks after Kagiso died in a crossfire of gun violence between two rival gangs in Joburg when Uluthando, their son, was eight years old. Tendai, a slim honey-coloured thirty-year old man with a well-kept goatee, was the only son in a family of five. He sent money occasionally to his two younger sisters and his parents in Zimbabwe due to the economic situation in his country, a result of the sanctions levied on Robert Mugabe’s government. He’d left to seek a better life weeks after his wife died during childbirth. Upon his arrival, Tendai, who used to work as a lawyer in Zimbabwe before he lost that job when the firm closed down, found a job as a taxi driver. And after ferrying taxis in the four corners of Joburg for years, he finally opened a shop at the heart of Sophiatown where he now sold different grocery items. The coming of Tendai into Ayanda’s life shielded her from being gobbled up by the crabby hand of depression, which she was very much certain would have squeezed her life out of her bit by bit like palm oil in a sponge.
When Ayanda, who worked as a maid for a wealthy Black couple in the heart of Joburg, was sacked because she became inept at her job due to the sadness that had overshadowed her entire being, hardship opened its arms and wrapped them around her and her son since she could not get money to run the affairs of the house.
One afternoon, as Ayanda sat in their stark sitting room, crying over Kagiso’s photo, her son waddled in and started wailing. On enquiring, he told her that pangs of hunger were nibbling at his entrails like a vampire’s teeth. Uluthando’s words ignited the fire of the motherly spirit in her that had gone dormant since Kagiso’s death. So, she brushed the tears off her face and jumped onto the street and began to beg. The first person Ayanda ran into was Tendai. When she halted and begged him to give her money, he did not hesitate; he thrust his hand into his pocket right away and gave her a ten rand note. And after he enquired from her about what drove her to the street to beg, he gave her his shop address and told her to visit him whenever she was in dire need of help in the future. Ayanda had looked at him right in his brown eyes to ascertain that his gesture was coated with ulterior motives and was surprised when they gleamed with sincerity and kindness, not deception. She thanked him and briskly walked away.
About six months after, Tendai, who fell in love with her along the line, proposed and married her. One thing that astonished Ayanda about Tendai was that he failed to have sex with her out of wedlock, because, he said, Allah, the Supreme Being he worshiped, hated zina. In fact, he even added that He ordered both Muslim men and women in the Glorious Qur’an not to get close to it. Shortly after their wedding, Ayanda crawled out of the deep abyss in which Kagiso‘s death had dumped her into, because of the love and concern which Tendai – who provided for her and her child, helped her clean the house in the evenings, and even took her and Uluthando on outings – shrouded on them.
Before meeting Tendai, Ayanda, like a large number of Black South Africans, used to think that Islam was not only a religion for Indians, since most of its practitioners in South Africa were people of Indian descent, but she also used to think that all Muslims were terrorists. She also used to view all Black South African Muslims as lost people that abandoned their culture for something else. But through Tendai, she didn’t only learn that Islam was a universal religion for everybody, regardless of race or ethnicity, but also that not all Muslims were terrorists. That the majority of them were kind, warm and generous. In fact, Tendai quoted a verse from the Qur’an that she could not recall now, that made it clear to her that Islam was against terrorism since it heavily condemned the killing of innocent people.
The raving sound of the minibus’ engine rattled Ayanda out of her thoughts. Mass of grey and black clouds hovered overhead. Ayanda forced a smile at her mother and began to wave. And as the taxi started towards Johannesburg she felt as though half of her being had been severed away and cloaked around her mother’s frail body. All of a sudden, she felt a paralysing urge to shout at the driver, order him to stop so that she could rush to her mother and embrace her for the last time. But when she opened her mouth, nothing came out. It was as though the pain brewing inside her had blocked her windpipe. When her mother disappeared from sight, Ayanda rested her head against the headrest and closed her eyes. Soon, images of her mother flooded her mind: she saw her mother bathing her when she was a baby under the pinkish glow of the tangerine sun; saw her cornrowing her hair as the glowing moon scurried across a sky plugged with sparkling stars; she saw her writhing with anguish on the day the love of her life, her father, died; as the sun that refused to shine that afternoon as though to mourn with her mother peeped through thick coal-like clouds. These images filled her with mixed feelings – joy and sadness at the same time. To banish these images from her mind, Ayanda took a deep breath and brushed off her tears with the back of her hand, then she looked at the hills and fields covered with grass and trees that shifted through the open window like shadows.
When Ayanda arrived in Sophiatown about four hours later, the tension that was broiling in the air like signs of an impending storm screamed out to her that all was not well. In every direction she shot her gaze, she saw people in haste, carrying bags of rice, maize, and other items. Her stomach flipped with dread. She clutched her travel bag and approached a teenage boy that was walking with a heavy pace, carrying a bag of maize. His coffee coloured skin gleamed with the sheen of sweat that coated it.
“Unjani, brother? What is going?” Ayanda asked.
The afternoon air was chill, brisk and wintery, at least, for Sophiatown.
“We are taking what is ours from those bloody kwerekweres! Everyone is getting their share. I got this bag of maize. Serves them right! They deserve that! How dare they leave their dirty African countries and come here to steal our jobs, flood our schools, our healthcare system as well as steal our women, eh? They even run businesses in our land without paying taxes! Enough is enough! All fucking kwerekweres must return where they came from!” the youngster said. His voice was warped with bitterness, his face tainted with a triumphant smile as though the foreigners were wild animals he and the others had just gotten rid of.
‘Kwerekwere’ was a word that Ayanda had always found unnerving even before she met Tendai. It was a derogatory term used by most South Africans on Black African immigrants and visitors. Yes, she agreed, foreigners should not be peddling drugs to South Africans – that was disgusting and unacceptable. However, that didn’t give them – Black South Africans – the right to attack and kill foreigners. The government should tighten its grip and apprehend all those involved in drug peddling and jail or deport them. Attacking the properties of Black foreigners and killing some was uncalled for. What she found hypocritical and shocking was that the South Africans that engaged in such xenophobic rage always attacked Black foreigners and left foreigners from other races unscathed. She was not in favour of any sort of violence on anybody, but by logic, if they were determined to get rid of drugs off South Africa’s shores, they ought to spill their rage equally, including the governmental officials that allowed the drugs to flow into the country in the first place.
As the youngster spoke, blood drained from Ayanda’s face. “Oh my God! Tendai and Chinua might be in trouble! I must go now and find out if they are alright!” she thought as beads of sweat popped out of her body.
Chinua, a tall well-built man in his late twenties, was Tendai’s best friend. Like Tendai, he was also an immigrant. When he had disclosed to Tendai that he came to South Africa to seek refuge because his life could never be safe in his country of birth, he had asked him what he meant with knitted eyebrows.
“My guy, I left that zoo known as Nigeria under a cloud two years ago. I was a pro-Biafran activist there that was striving for the restoration of Biafra,” he had said, his deep voice clogged with aversion.
“Oh! I see,” Tendai said as Chinua reached for his packet of cigarettes. A cold wind picked up and bustled through the neighbourhood.
Biafra was not a foreign word to him. During his high school days, Tendai had read about the Sierra Leonean Civil War that took place from the 1990s to the early 2000s, as well as the Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War, days after he finished reading about his country’s war of liberation in which Robert Mugabe and others fought against the white minority rule that treated his people like animals. Firstly, he learnt that the Biafran War that started on July 6 1967 and ended on January 15 1970 was a conflict that was fought between the then government of Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra months after the first coup that was spearheaded by Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna. And that the Nigerian military officer Odumegawu Ojukwu was the one that declared the first Republic of Biafra. Furthermore, he learnt that political, ethnic, economic, religious and cultural tensions were some of the causes of the war that claimed the lives of over a million Biafran people. And that countries like Ivory Coast, Gabon, Tanzania, and Zambia had recognised Biafra. Also, he had learnt that during the war the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union supported the Nigerian government while Israel and France, and other nations, supported Biafra. When he’d finished reading about it, he had thought that the notion of Biafra totally died after the war ended. So, he was now slightly amazed that some Igbos were still fighting to break away from Nigeria. Piqued with curiosity, he pretended as though he had no knowledge about Biafra and asked Chinua why they would like to restore Biafra.
Chinua blew a puff of smoke into the air. “For the same old reasons our fathers and grandparents fought. We Igbos are being marginalised in Nigeria. There is no development in Igbo land. The Nigerian government don’t have our interest at heart. Those corrupt officers only care about the interest of the Yorubas and Hausas. All development projects are channelled in the parts of the country occupied by those ethnic groups. The amalgamation of Biafra and the rest of Nigeria by Lugard isn’t working. That zoo is a killer of talents of the people of Biafra. Biafra would have been more developed than now if she wasn’t tied to that accursed zoo. Our Biafra is the only hope for Africa. If Nigeria gives us Biafra we will end neocolonialism, and also make Africa reclaim her place as the pioneer of world civilisation. Africa is still in such a state because that zoo that still gnaws at our talents fails to let us go. Do you know that it has almost been fifty years since Nigeria attained independence, yet we haven’t got an Igbo president yet? Just imagine! Nigerians are treating us as slaves. That’s why we want to secede, but those wicked Nigerian politicians are making things hard for us just like our forbearers. Could you believe that I can’t go to Nigeria again because I would be charged with treason like Nnamdi Kanu, our current leader and others if the police catch me?”
“Because of my involvement in rallies calling for the restoration of our country through referendum, I was tagged by government officials as a troublemaker with the other heads of the movement. And those officials had promised that I would pay with my life if I dare go back. So that’s why I am stuck here like a fish in a desert. I have applied for asylum status but up to now it has not been regularised yet. The immigration officers said that I don’t have a strong case since I didn’t present physical evidence. I am currently in limbo. I only hope that everything shall be well at the end of the day.” Chinua said. Then he had taken a deep drag from his cigarette, dropped the butt and stomped it with his shoe as though he was getting rid of a cockroach.
A gentle tap on Ayanda’s hand startled her.
“What is the problem, sister? You look deathly pale all of a sudden as though you have seen a living tiger. Are you married to a one of them?” the teenage boy said. The triumphant smile had melted from his face and a worried look now stood there instead.
Ayanda broke into a run towards the direction of Tendai’s shop as though she was afraid that the youngster would punch her.
“Whore! You are one of our cheap South African women that leave us for those fucking kwerekweres. I only wish he has been killed!” he shot at Ayanda’s back and she turned briefly, scared that he was following her. She caught the unmistakable inflection of disgust in his words; the corners of boy’s mouth were tugged by a sardonic grin.
His cold words pelted Ayanda like rocks. She had wanted to stop and hurl similar words at him, but the overpowering need to see Tendai and Chinua had gripped her being. So she just kept on going, muttering Tendai and Chinua’s names over and over like a mantra. It was as if by doing that both of them would be free from any danger they might be in. The hatred that had been festering like a cancerous growth in the entrails of some South Africans for the African immigrants was huge and uncontainable like water from a newly broken dam. It had spiralled through them and chewed up all traces of humanity in them like a bout of acid. She only hoped and prayed that the sickle-like hate, which only spoke the language of doom, had not gotten hold of Tendai and Chinua, and that by chance its poking and black eyes had failed to locate them.
On the way, she spotted empty shops that had been looted, and a body that lay in front of one of the shops. When her eyes landed on the body that was shrouded with blood, her heart wreathed with repulsion. She squeezed her belly to quell the sickening feeling that was roving in it like sand dust and trotted away.
When Ayanda arrived at Tendai’s shop about twenty minutes after she left the dead body, what she saw made her heart almost stand still. The shop that was once filled with food, ranging from snacks, bags of maize, cans of oil, was stripped bare, like a dusty football field. Uluthando, who was in his school uniform, was sitting by the entrance of the shop with tears on his face, but Tendai and Chinua were nowhere to be seen. A mixture of sensations warred inside Ayanda like two crazy cheetahs – happiness for seeing her son, anxiety for Tendai’s and Chinua’s whereabouts. Earlier, she didn’t worry about Uluthando because she thought he might still be in school. She shot her gaze around the vicinity of the shop and its environs, hopeful that she would spot her beloved and his friend sitting in the shop, or somewhere else, unscathed. Alas, she didn’t see them. Her heart crashed into the pit of her stomach. She dropped her bag and started towards her son, her legs quaking.
Arriving where he sat, still like a pile of dirty clothes, she gathered him in her hands and her trembling lips connected with her forehead in spite of herself before she asked him about Tendai’s whereabouts. A clump of harsh sobs that filled Ayanda’s being with terror ripped out of the boy.
“Uluthando, talk to me! Where is Uncle Tendai! Did you meet him here when you arrived from school?” she said, her voice was cloaked with fear and desperation.
“Ye…Ye…Yes. I saw him run away as I approached the shop. He is at the back of the building with Uncle Chinua,” the boy said with tears in his eyes.
Ayanda rose to her feet as though she was yanked by a giant hook and dashed for the back of the building. Her heart thrummed in its ribcage.
“Will you always be with me even if I lose all my goods someday?” Tendai’s words, which he had uttered one evening, as they were lying on their bed, swirled around her head. From outside, the amber light of dusk blasted into the sitting room through the open windows. Ayanda could hear the neighbourhood children as they chatted happily. Tendai’s words didn’t take her off guard or fling her into rage because she had an inkling why he uttered them. In another time and place, she would have been mad at him for insinuating that she was with him because of what he owned.
She had given him a brittle laugh. “Of course. Why do you ask such question?” she said, playing dumb. Her eyes twinkled with amusement.
Tendai’s face was gripped by apprehension. “I am afraid of losing you because I love you deeply. See, as a foreigner in this country you know that my life and all the things I own are not secured. Some of your brothers might just get up one day and attack my shop and those of other Black foreigners and loot everything or even kill me. So I am worried that you might abandon me if I lose everything overnight.”
Ayanda had taken his right hand in hers as the amusement dissipated from her eyes and gave him an assuring smile. If they were in another African country, she might have scolded him for what he had just said, but not in South Africa, where a Black African foreigner was not only welcome with open arms but considered a burden to the country. “Don’t worry yourself for nothing. I promise, I will never abandon you for any reason under the sun. I won’t abandon you not as a means to pay you back for being a tower of strength in my life, but because I love you with all my life, okay. In fact, I will even go with you to Zimbabwe if needs be, okay!” she had said. And her words had spurted sunniness in his agitated being like torrential raindrops.
Tendai had taken a deep breath as a beautiful smile unfurled across his face. “Thank you,” he had muttered. Then he planted a balmy kiss on her mouth.
When Ayanda arrived at the backyard, what she saw pinned her to the ground like a pine tree. Both Tendai and Chinua lay face down with their bodies covered with wounds. The wounds were still bleeding and were gaping and deep.
“Inna lillahi Wa inna ilayhi rajiun!” the phrase ‘indeed to Allah we belong, and indeed to Him we shall return’, which Tendai used to say whenever he was distressed or learnt about the passing of someone he knew, slipped out of her mouth in spite of herself.
A feeling of distaste stirred in Ayanda’s gut, so she doubled over and shot out blobs of mushy vomit.
Tendai, her dear Tendai, who came to her life and flooded it with sunlight when everything was gloomy, was gone, together with Chinua. What would she do now? How would she survive without him? What would she tell his father, his mother, and two sisters in Zimbabwe? How can Black South Africans keep on killing other Africans from countries that stood with them during their dark days of apartheid?
These thoughts, wild and raging like a tornado, kept on whirring around her mind like the blade of a fan.
She crawled as water the colour of orange juice poured out of her and covered Tendai’s right hand with hers. Her hand felt clammy on his. In a split second, his images invaded her mind. She saw him playing football with Uluthando at the beach, she saw him and Uluthando praying on a rug in the sitting room, she saw him and herself dancing in the sitting room shortly before she left for Nzula. “You are so beautiful, Ayanda. In Shaa Allah, I will love you till eternity!” he had said, his eyes brimming with warmth.
“Me too I will love you until eternity,” she had muttered.
She punched those images out of her mind, and gritted her teeth so intensely as though she was suffering from a chronic cold. Afterward, she bit her lower lip until she drew blood, before letting out a fierce cry that sounded like that of a woman in labour. “I am so sorry about what happened to you, Tendai!” she said in a cracked voice. “In a sane world, a Black man shouldn’t have been killed by his fellow Black people for such flimsy reasons. We should all be our brothers’ keeper. May the Allah you worshipped make them pay dearly!”
She sat up, reached for his head and ran her fingers through his hair. A while later, Uluthando came and sat beside her, leaning his head against her shoulders. His eyes were bloodshot and streams of phlegm dripped from his nose. Hours later, she would learn from him how Chinua and Tendai died. He would tell her that a crowd of young South Africans stormed into Tendai’s and Chinua’s shops and chased them away, throwing all dirty words at them, and hacked them with their machetes when they caught up with them before they looted their shops. He would also tell her that he peed on himself as he watched everything that befell Tendai and Chinua from a distance. But right now, both mother and son didn’t exchange words. Their loss was too much for them. It was weighty, intense, and stifling like the oppressive claws of apartheid. So they just sat glued to each other, and kept on crying.
Alieu Bundu is a writer from Sierra Leone. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in French from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. His stories have been published widely in Sierra Leone and abroad. Two of his short stories, ‘The Wretched Being’ and ‘The Riot’ were published in the anthology, The African World in Dialogue: An Appeal to Action. He was the runner-up for April 2014 Africa Book Club Short Reads Competition, and he was also nominated for the 2016 Writivism Short Story Competition for his short story, Bintiya, which is now titled Miremba.
*Image by Ayanfe Olarinde on Unsplash