The first thing Kamvelihle did when she got home was switch on the kettle. Her shoes — practical, black running shoes she bought two years ago before she accepted she wasn’t one for running — were left outside the door. The trousers and visibly dirty t-shirt and bra crumpled next to the dirty clothes basket. She didn’t have the energy to pull the sagging full brief black panties that settled somewhere along the middle of her bum crack. She bent four times over the bath basin that she always placed in the middle room pouring hot water from the boiling kettle and getting a shot of steam each time. Then a knock on the door.
“Titi?” She asked the door.
“It’s me,” came a voice.
She unlocked the door and stepped out of view. It pushed open and Tinyiko stepped inside carrying a full greenbag that Kamvelihle hoped contained nothing but food. Tinyiko eyed her girlfriend sympathetically as she closed the door. She clasped her hand in her keys hand before walking over to the kitchen area. She pushed the greenbag into the microwave just as the kettle boiled. She brought the water to the bath basin and poured it in.
“I can smell it on you,” said Tinyiko, kissing Kamvelihle’s shoulder as she washed her back.
She did not clarify if she meant she could smell the toxin the police used to disperse the young students or the sweat and ache Kamvelihle’s body produced all day. Everything hurt and tomorrow they would do it again. Tinyiko stayed on her knees for a long time. Lathering soap onto the wash cloth, scrubbing and massaging Kamvelihle’s back, rinsing, and rinsing, and rinsing with soapy water.
When a new, dull pain formed in Kamvelihle’s thighs and joints, she took the wash cloth from her girlfriend, absolving her. She washed her neck, under her breasts, her stomach, under her arms, between her thighs. The water was now lukewarm. She could hear the other woman move around the unmade bed to tuck the sheets back in, fluff the pillows.
Tinyiko did not protest. The first and last situation resembling a protest she was a part of happened almost three years ago. It had been two years in the making and when the court case was nearing, a casual friend announced they would be outside that courthouse. Tinyiko had spoken and updated status after status in the two years leading up to the court case. She’d read all three short online articles that were ever written about the matter. Outside the court, the crowd was smaller than she’d hoped, but it had been two years of waiting and being there felt satisfying in those first few minutes. Her friend said, more to the other friend she came with — a girl named Lihle — than to Tinyiko, that to everyone, including the justice system, this was just another black queer girl from a township that something unfortunate happened to after a night at a shebeen.
Tinyiko sang a total of two songs. She wept the rest of the time.
“Is your friend okay?” She’d heard the Lihle girl ask.
She was so obviously not okay. She spent that night on that distant friend’s sofa and called a zebra cab first thing, which was around 10. She spent four hours looking at the white man who — over 12 years — had become one of the few constants in her life, routinely saying, “I felt so helpless. Like I didn’t have control over anything. Least of all my body.”
For reasons unknown to Tinyiko he never reminded her that he’d spent weeks warning her that the situation outside the court might be too much for her. The anxiety. But what did a straight cis white man know about black pain, anyway. What did Tinyiko herself know about black pain other than that her parents’ armed struggle PTSD ate at their family and their love and tolerance for each other at a rapid pace. That her father practically rinses with whiskey after brushing his teeth each morning still.
Hie uKamvelihle, [redacted]’s 4rnd. We met at court. Hope u ok.
Shame meant that Tinyiko only responded to the message almost three weeks later. Paragraphs of explanations, of personal histories that went too far back eventually became “M fine. Thx.”
Kamvelihle covered her sore body in vaseline. Put on a clean sleeping shirt and slightly dirty house socks, slippers. The women fastened their fists on each side of the huge bath filled with dirty water. They carried it to the drainage on the other side of the plot, careful not to shake its contents too much. The first plash of water on the concrete drain made Kamvelihle feel that the day was indeed done. There would be no Facebook or Twitter for her. No news.
When she first came to the city, Kamvelihle lived in a tiny room organised by someone her mother knew who, while home for two weeks in December, volunteered to help Kamvelihle’s mother organise accommodation for her first year at UJ, and kept saying “uLihle, lo?!” Seemingly shocked anew each time they met over those two weeks that time had not stood still, that Kamvelihle had grown with it. They made phone calls all hours of the day, not waiting for off-peak hours after eight.
Sometimes they phoned three people just to get a number because Dorcas remembered a friend of a friend who said there was a place opening where they stayed. Often, Dorcas would quip, pulling the black label bottle from behind a sofa or from under her pinafore, which she’d have fanned around one of the grey milk crates they used when they sat outside under the guava trees to refill her flask mug, that it was just as well that such and such place was already taken. She’d cite rats, below average electricity availability during winters, or that the person who’d recommended the place would have been a nightmare to live near. They called Zondi and Rockville, and Chiawelo, and Phiri — all in Soweto. They called Thembisa, and Daveyton, and Alexandra, and Sebokeng, and Kagiso, only to end up finding a place in Orlando, Soweto.
A single bed, a cupboard, chest of drawers and maybe a chair, is how the owner described the size room Kamvelihle ended up getting. If they wanted it, they would have to deposit rent for a month and a half for the last days of December and for January. It didn’t matter that she would only be arriving on the 20th of January.
Her parents moved on to arguing about how expensive the place was, especially for its size. Especially since their estimates had been much lower. Kamvelihle had two bursaries: one from an essay competition, which paid for half her first year’s tuition. The other half was paid for by a combination of her father’s bonus, her mother’s stokvel earnings and some money they had fixed when the Road Accident Fund paid out when her younger brother had been hit by a car. The other bursary was a government scheme she heard about at school. They would buy the textbooks. Her parents had planned to squeeze at most R2000 for her each month.
“That place is close. She won’t have to use too much for transport,” said her father about five times.
That seemed to set her mother at ease and a transfer was made the next morning at a supermarket’s money market. Come January, Kamvelihle and her mother — her mother on a four-day sick note that cost R160 — piled a total of four khonzekhaya bags onto the train. There were a few clothes but mostly things you need to make a home: her usual winter blanket — freshly washed — two pots, tupperware containers in place of dishes and plates, a framed family picture, an old two plate stove, the kettle they used before her mother finally got her Russell Hobbs one, same with the iron.
One of the bags contained food. Kamvelihle’s share of her mother’s usual grocery stokvel. The stokvel was as much a part of her upbringing as it was a given that someone would look at the marks on her face and (usually) correctly guess her surname and (predictably) pick from the vast clan names one to call her as though there was never a time they didn’t know that face. The imperishable food they got at the grocery stokvel used to last them a good portion of each new year. Unless an unforeseen bad money situation befell a relative or close neighbour. The heavy bag was filled with Auntie Caroline and Inyala and Hulettes (only one 2kg because she didn’t drink much tea) and joko and krimora.
Kamvelihle imagined a neighbour, maybe in March, exhausted, all their other options having come to nothing, sitting in her mother’s kitchen with a small container in hand and explaining how they got to this point. Her father didn’t like dealing with feelings so he always said he didn’t understand why the neighbours thought they needed to lay their problems bare. It wasn’t as if that’s a price their family demanded for helping out. Her mother knew different. She said the people talking and retracing the steps that led them to the point of having one cup of mealie meal left in the bucket and cherishing the meat fat residue they’d refrigerated during better days was all for them, not to solicit any pity. She would say it’s demoralising to work hard and fail. She believed the neighbours telling her they needed enuf food for three suppers max; that they would be fine in three suppers’ time, was their way of reassuring themselves.
Then there were boys pulling trolleys outside the station, offering to take them to the taxis; her mother carrying a bag on her head down her new, long street while Kamvelihle looked after the remaining three; then there was another boy, pulling a cart on a horse this time.
“Ten ranta, sister,” he said.
It sounded reasonable to Kamvelihle and they would save time. The horse-drawn cart caught up with her mother in no time and she dropped her bag on the cart too. But she would walk. Thank you very much.
That first night, she lay head to feet with her mother on her brand new three quarter bed. Her father had sat on the phone with the furniture shop (R285 per month for 36 months) arranging for the bed, a two-door cupboard and three-drawer chest to be delivered and liaising with Kamvelihle’s new people to sign for it and put it in the room. As they packed things away, she agreed convincingly each time her mother talked about how small the place is. All the while thinking it was all hers. All of it.
At least the yard was secured. At least the gate locked.
The two days of collecting her information packs and buying books came and went. the government bursary for books turned out to be a loan but everyone was at ease because the amount she would take wouldn’t be that much. Her mother left. She settled into her life, speaking to her father nightly so he could tell her what happened on their story. And briefly speaking to her younger siblings and mother.
“Bathi bangamakholwa!” She heard her mother say and her father add they need Jesus.
This phone call came days before she would be going home for her semester break. The little of the Johannesburg cold she’d experienced was so harsh, she couldn’t wait for three weeks of home. Then her father phoned saying while she could still come home, it would have to be a short visit because they would again have to look for a place. Her land people were kicking her out.
“Bathi abavumelani nobutabane,” her father said.
Again her mother commented loudly in the background about these people’s so-called God. How could Kamvelihle have guessed that watching bootleg copies of Nollywood films in her room with a girl from up the road giving astute criticism and cackling loudly would out her to her homophobic land people?
The move was relatively easier. She got a slightly bigger room on a nicer street of the same area for R450 within days of the phone call with her parents. Friends from the Queers on Campus club came and helped her move — five trips in the Citi Golf. She went home a day after moving and got to bask in the familiar for nearly two weeks: Doing ratchet things with her friends, drinking tea with her dad at least once a day and only pretending to grumble when her mother insisted that the curtains needed washing.
They were all sitting together watching Kamvelihle and her father’s story when her phone vibrated and started flashing red.
“Ukhohlakele lo mfazi,” her father commented.
Kamvelihle was pretty sure that it was a sexual tone. Not too gross but very “hello my size.” She chuckled to herself and unlocked her phone. It was an SMS from that girl who cried outside court.
“Hy. Sori it 2k so long 2 rply. Sori my 1st txt ws abrupt. Thx agen for ur msg.”
The crying girl from court again.
They would end up having long chats on bbm and sharing at least five pirated songs while Kamvelihle tried to make the most of her short time at home. And when she returned to Johannesburg, they would meet at a park with no grass or benches and eating Kamvelihle’s new favourite: braaied chicken feet with the barbecue spice and hot sauce.
After having the supper that came in an enormous skhaftin and helping Tinyiko do inventory of the supplies she had in her car boot that they would drop off at campus in the morning for protesters, Kamvelihle lay her head on Tinyiko’s lap and spoke to her father on the phone: their story was spicier than ever and the lead character had been murdered for inheritance.
“Uyazinakekela, Kamva?” asked her father, deviating from the conversation.
“Yebo, baba,” She said.
The rest of her answer translated to “I’m in the house. I took a bath. I ate. I’m about to sleep.”
He went into an abbreviated version of his speech: They should remember why they are protesting. They shouldn’t destroy so much that there isn’t a foundation left to build on. Her mother worries, especially knowing the sort of daughter they raised. She should be safe at all times. She should have a wet cloth and water close. When is she coming home.
Her mother got on the phone and talked about something or other. Expertly avoiding the reason she had demanded the handset to begin with. After about five minutes — free call minutes had changed the game — she told Kamvelihle to not get too involved. This is something she and her mother constantly disagreed on. The idea that there were things her mother considered too much when trying to get free.
“Izwe lethu leli, Ma.” She said in almost a whisper.
Her mother, as always when she was trying to get her way, seemed to not hear her instead contradicting herself by reminding Kamvelihle what she is named for. And this is where they their praxis differed, ikamva elihle did not come gift wrapped.
Tinyiko planted a long kiss on her temple.
“Yebo, mama. Ngiyakuzwa,” said Kamvelive, reaching up to stroke Tinyiko’s head, thankful for the anchoring.