As a child, Doubt Mabhena thought his father strong and capable. But when he became an adult, he realised that he was very poor, and fighting a pathetic battle against unrelenting city poverty.
‘When are you going to buy a TV, Baba?’ His four-year-old son Ndlala, his eyes alight, a paper ball under his foot, greeted him as soon as he stepped into the dimness of the lodging room that was their home.
‘Shut up!’ Doubt snapped, the sun a glare behind him through the open doorway. He was tired from a long hot day at Malcolm Steel Industries, and the longer walk back home. He walked every day – he couldn’t afford the transport fare; not even the so-called Freedom train, a recently introduced government gimmick to gain popularity in the face of unprecedented opposition.
On Saturdays he worked a half-day, which should have been a relief, except that it meant walking back home in the stifling summer heat.
He pointed a finger at the child’s nose. ‘When my father was alive I would never have dared ask him such a stupid question!’
The light in Ndlala’s eyes disappeared. Thinly built, with the telltale slightly bulging stomach, he was dressed in a dirty pair of patchwork shorts which were torn at the back, exposing a small dusty buttock. His shirt, carefully sewn by his mother, had once been a banner advertising an expensive Soul Brothers concert at White City stadium. A streak of dry snot was crusted on his left cheek.
Frowning heavily, Doubt closed the door behind him. The room, cut down the middle by a frayed donkey blanket, was furnished with a crude bench that Doubt had knocked together from odd pieces of discarded plank, and a one-plate stove sitting on two concrete blocks.
Apot was on the stove, its lid dancing and puffing out the odour of boiling kapenta.
From the other side of the curtain came the whirring sound of a sewing machine, and, accompanying it, in perfect harmony, a sad female voice softly humming ‘Nkosi Sikelela i-Africa,’ a gentle refrain for help to the Gods that had little to do with the heroics of nationalism.
The life of the late Doubt’s father, with his wife and seven children, had also been an odyssey of single rooms in other people’s houses, his only furniture a sagging iron bed which Doubt had inherited. Most evenings, this creaky bed would shelter the Mabhena children, four boys and three girls, whilst their parents, sometimes with shameless fury, tried to create more babies overhead. It was as if they’d decided that counting offspring was an easier task than counting dollars.
Mabhena sat wearily on the bench. There was a sharp crack, and he found himself on the floor, the bench in pieces around him, his mouth open.
The whirr of the sewing machine abruptly stopped. ‘I will hit you, Ndlala!’ Siphiwe shouted from the other side of the curtain. ‘It’s father!’ Ndlala called back, laughing, pointing at Doubt with his ball. ‘He sat on the bench and it broke!’
‘Ftsek!’ Doubt snapped at him, standing up. Fright jumped into Ndlala‘s eyes. ‘Get out!’ He pointed at the door. A small lizard was frozen against the bare brick wall at head height beside the open door, as if conducting a telepathic conversation with it about how this family could improve their lives if only they would take the trouble to sprinkle snuff on the ground and consult with the omnipotent lizard spirit.
Doubt’s siblings were now scattered across all the townships of Bulawayo, each a lodger and near-vagrant – as if these sad states were a family trait; a curse placed on them by an angry spirit, one from which they could never escape, even with the assistance of all the n’angas of this world. Their straitened circumstances seemed to have strained family relations, because they never bothered to visit each other, as if they each suspected that the other had somehow contributed to their own situation. But, strangely, whenever they happened to meet in the streets, beer-gardens, or refuse sites (where they salvaged anything that could give them dollars) they boldly exchanged mutual accusations of neglect.
Doubt’s mother had tucked in her tail and retired to even more destitution in the drought-stricken rural areas soon after his father’s death. Unfortunately for her, she returned to the land at a time when her body, ravaged by age and city tribulations, was useless for any profitable physical labour in the fields. Sometimes she wrote to her city offspring asking them to send her food – anything – by chicken bus: none of them ever replied – they did not have anything for themselves, so what was the point?
‘Leave the child alone!’ Siphiwe’s voice came again. ‘He didn’t make that bench! Honestly, I don’t know why we can’t have chairs of our own – or sofas – like Ndlovu.’ The sewing machine whirred furiously, as if about to take wing. Ndlovu lodged in the room next to theirs. The house had five rooms in all, each containing lodgers who together totalled twenty-five. Consequently, chaos reigned every morning when everybody wanted to bath as fathers prepared for work, children for school, the more industrious mothers to market, and others to scavenge at Ingozi Mine refuse dump. The owner of the house was a magistrate with many houses around the township. He rented them out to the country’s working homeless at exorbitant prices, the rent, of course, paying for the grandeur of his own home in the low-density suburbs.
A sudden anger gripped Doubt. ‘Shut up!’ he shouted, his face an ugly mask. ‘You talk too much! Do you think sofas grow on trees?’
‘What about benches?’ she shouted back.
‘SHUT UP!’ His sudden anger sometimes frightened Doubt. It was too deep, and too hot. He had not been like this when he was a youth. He had liked telling jokes and laughing – able then to see the funny side of life. But his laughter dried up when, as an adult, he discovered that, after paying his rent and his debts, he was left with nothing to support his new wife. So from one pay day to the next, he lived by the grace of the Mabhena ancestors, gambling, and the dreaded chimbadzo. He had even tried consulting n’angas to see if his ancestors could suggest a money-making formula, but it seemed that they were also too poor in the afterworld to bother about the fate of their earthly progeny.
Wolfishly lean of body, Doubt had a fast receding hairline, a few white hairs on his temples, and his cheeks sagged, giving his face a permanently disconsolate look. The neighbourhood children called him ‘khulu’, grandfather. He was twenty-eight years old. Doubt’s father had also worked for Malcolm Steel as a general hand until, a little the worse for spiritual wear, he’d been smeared to the tar in a hit-and-run by an army truck one pay-day attempting to cross a busy street. As fortune would have it, a semi-illiterate Doubt had been employed to take his father‘s place by the company. Like all his siblings, Doubt had only reached Grade 2 and could barely scrawl his name. Mabhena senior felt that too much schooling left too big a hole in his wallet and deprived him of the chance to indulge in tototo. He did not think of the larger holes left in his children’s minds.
Doubt had welcomed the offer of employment with wide-open arms. The job afforded him the chance to be a lodger, and to have a wife, for as they say, the fall of one man is the rise of another, family loyalties aside. He had previously lived with one of his unmarried brothers, Jasper, a chef at the Bantu Café in town, owned by an elderly Greek man who had a penchant for pinching the buttocks of his male black workers, something they did not take seriously – they thought the entrepreneur liked them.
Jasper always came home with plenty of left-overs he’d retrieved from the café tables. Using them as bait, he screwed a lot of hungry neighbourhood women, some as young as twelve, and had contracted STDs many times. He was a sworn non-condom user who strongly believed AIDS was a foolish white myth designed to make blacks buy condoms in order to curb their birth rate.
Ten years down the line, Doubt was now a disillusioned old-young man. Added to all his other woes, his wife still clung to visions of a grand lifestyle – with a colour TV, a double bed, a sideboard with a glass front, a fridge, and a big store-bought four-plate stove – and she had her own subtle ways of reminding him. Like most township women, she believed that it was the duty of the man to furnish the luxurious lifestyle, and that of the woman to indulge in it – provide the husband with food and plenty of sex, do the washing, perm her hair, and bear as many children as her womb could safely carry and her vagina safely eject.
‘Beware Ndlala, my child!’ Siphiwe called in a cheery voice, which she used on days like this. ‘Father is angry today, just like yesterday, and the day before that! But is it us who make him angry? No, it is not. He simply regrets that we are here in his very nice one-roomed accommodation. He regrets that we’re in his life. How can a man insult a five-year-old child if he loves it?’
‘A mad person talks better sense than you!’ Mabhena muttered, half to himself. ‘Doesn’t your mouth ever get tired? You should go and look for a job at an Indian’s shop calling in customers, but the way you talk, the shop would go broke!’
Before they got ‘married’, Siphiwe used to walk the township streets selling tomatoes, and sometimes her body on the sly.
One extremely hot afternoon, she had found a shirtless Doubt sitting on the stoep of Jasper’s lodging room, eating a meat pie left over from the Bantu Café, and washing it down with a Superkool. She had tried to sell him her juicy tomatoes, but Doubt had politely declined, his eyes fixed instead on the bigger and juicer tomatoes of her breasts, which were revealed in all their nubile splendour through a flimsy red T-shirt.
She was not bad looking, had a fair full face with sexy eyes – if one ignored the goo at their corners – and a good sized pair of buttocks. Her eyes had been fixed on the pie. Her tongue had run around her lips, and she’d asked for water. Doubt had fulfilled her wish and then, seizing the opportunity, had boldly told her that he wanted her. She had gazed at the pie, dipped her eyes, and drawn circles on the ground with her right toe. He then broke off a piece of pie and, Jesus-like, had offered it to her. She had accepted it, and he had watched her eating it silently, washing it down with sips of Zambezi River wine. He had then taken her hand and, without any word being said, drawn her into Jasper‘s room, pulled her knickers down and, in the steaming heat, screwed her hard four times. She had been very agile, and had given him her best, for she had liked the pie very much.
The following day she’d returned with her basket of tomatoes. This time Doubt had been waiting for her with a packet of stale, half-eaten chips, courtesy of the Bantu Café. They had sex, and she had the chips. She had told him her name was Siphiwe Ncube. From then on a pattern was established: they had sex every day, and he would share his Bantu Café left-overs. Then his father had died, and Doubt had acquired the job at Malcolm Steel. A few months after his father died, Jasper also succumbed to AIDS.
About the Author
Christopher Mlalazi, is currently Writer in Residence in Hanover city, Germany. In 2012 he was a participant of the Iowa Writing
Program, in 2011 he was Guest Writer at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala Sweden, and in 2010 he was the Guest Writer at the
Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, USA. Prolific as a prose writer and
playwright, in 2008 he was the co-winner of the Oxfam Novib PEN Freedom of Expression Award at the Hague for theatre, and in 2009 was awarded a NAMA award for his short story collection, Dancing With Life: Tales From The Township. He was nominated for another NAMA for his novel 2009 novel, Many Rivers. In 2010 he won a NAMA for his play Election Day. His latest play Colors of Dreams, also opened to a full house at HIFA 2011. His latest novel is Running with Mother (2012).Post published in: Arts