Shame

This past summer I lived and worked in a rural village in South Africa. I had the opportunity to meet many different people and hear their various personal stories. “Shame” is not a single voice: it is a combination of the voices of strong but silent women in the village that I had the great fortune to sit down and talk with. “Shame” is not one woman’s story nor is it every woman’s story, but it is a story that I felt needed to be told.

THE DAY I WAS TOLD. The day Dion told me, the chickens died before the knife was brought to their throats. With each of Dion’s words they bowed their necks to the ground. Or were they just really that malleable?

Patricia is standing on the other side of the compound. Her back bent sweeping the already dusted sand. It’s been the same for generations. Her body knows no other position.

Another woman wheels her wheel barrow along the side of our fence. The baby is wrapped up in a faslapi. It needs water. The mother is the only one who would fetch it for the baby.

A drunken man walks past her. He has spent his night at the shabeen. He mocks the woman and her wheelbarrow. He looks at her in the eye. She quickly looks down. He smirks. Their eyes met briefly. He spits at her. The rabid dogs sniff out the devil and chase it away.

Ntsakelo is sleeping on the couch.

I turn off the kettle.

The screaming has not woken up the baby.

There are three ceramic cats on the shelf. One is from Dion’s mother. She was happy to have her son marry me. She hated losing her cows. The second cat was from my mother. She was happy to have turned me into a woman, ecstatic to have cows. The third cat Dion bought for me. I see you like cats, he said, good things come in threes.

At this point our family was turning into three.

I used to hear rumors about Dion. He’s a drunkard. He slept with Monica the other night. He stole from big John’s tuk shop. He has AIDS. He’s a womanizer. We were already having a baby.

It’s five a.m. My water broke.

THE ELECTRIC KETTLE. It is Sunday before Church. Dion is sitting on the couch. The wind rattles the broken door but Dion takes no notice. There are supposed to be no storms in July but what do I understand. I can’t help but to notice. The light of the sun hiding behind the clouds makes my forehead wrinkle. The kettle begins to scream. I pour Dion a cup of hot tea. I pour Ntsakelo’s bath water. I take the jug out to the basin and fill it with more water. I cool Ntsakelo’s bath water. I go to the basin, fill the jug, and fill the kettle. The kettle screams. Half goes to the bath water, half goes to warm Ntsakelo’s bottle. I take the jug to the basin and fill it with more water. The kettle screams again. Ntsakelo’s bath water is too cold. I have to put chicken on the stove. I run to the basin and put more water in the kettle. The kettle and Ntsakelo scream. The bath is over, the water is now cold. Dion wants another cup of tea. The kettle begins to scream again. There is not enough hot water for the chicken. The basin is empty. I take the lid off of the next basin. I fill the jug and fill the kettle. The chicken can start to boil. Ntsakelo is hungry. I am running to get more water from the basin and slip. The water hits the outlet and the kettle sparks.

I sit outside in the rain and the fire burns. Dion wants another cup of tea. He needs his bath water prepared.

MY DUTIES. Cows stick their tongues through fences, eating the leaves of dying trees.

Mother told me that if I slapped the underside of a cow, I would never be able to have a baby. And you would never be loved by any man.

The knives that carved flowers into my skin. Mother took the hot washcloth and wiped away the blood. I winced. My belly burned and the pain was searing. Mother became a blurry ball of light, and I passed out.

You have no choice, Mother said, otherwise a man will never want to see you naked. You’ll have to live with us for the rest of your life and your father and I will never receive lobola. Seeds were planted at the bottom of my stomach and vines began to grow and reached my breasts. They matched the vines on the side of our house. That day it rained. It was August. August was supposed to be the windiest month. No one else seemed to notice.

Our spinach washed away with the sand but our lemon tree grew. I ate lemons. The taste was sweet to me. Ours was the sourest tree in the village.

You mustn’t eat lemons, Mother said, the sour will make your forehead wrinkle. No man will want to pay lobola for a wrinkly woman. You don’t want us to live poorly now, do you.

I walk the sandy roads, my bare feet numb to twigs.  The rays of the sun beat down on the rabid dogs and they lay on the sand. They look dead. I walk to Paulina’s house. She’s a school teacher. I cut her spinach, grind her corn, steam her vegetables, and serve her tea. My hands turn brittle from the constant motions of the kumbe.

But she lets me read. She gives me books and teaches me English. I secretly read with her. Mother would not allow, she would say, it is no place for a woman to learn how to read. She would say, why would a man want an educated woman for a wife. New seeds become planted in my head, the vines begin to grow.

I read Mark’s Story: A Child with HIV. The vines grow higher. The wind blows and the smell of burning pap overtakes my senses. Paulina has smelt it also. She runs into the kitchen in a fury. The light from the sun’s rays glistens on her forehead, I am no longer able to read. You will make an awful wife, Paulina said, and a horrible mother. I run home. The vines only reach my breasts.

I change into my cleaning skirt. I was only ever allowed to wear a skirt or mother would hit me. I remember the twitch of her hand after each smack. She didn’t want to, but how else would I become a proper woman. I needed discipline.

I don’t know how we met. My sister introduced me to Dion. Sithole. Sithole does not have an animal meaning, he said, but I can be an animal with you.

I didn’t like him. But mother did. She told him how handsome he was, how she trusted him, the flowers engraved on her body were wilting with these lies. Dion came from a good family. He would give us six cows. My parents would rid themselves of me.

Dion allowed me to wear jeans. He would only let me wear jeans. He liked my legs. He could only see my feet when I wore the skirt.

I took off my skirt after sweeping. I step outside and mother’s shadow is watering the trees. I freeze. Her shadow drops the cup, and begins to weed. I step around the side of the house. Panting. Dion’s house is my house is Mother’s house. She comes as she pleases.

She goes inside the home to do my dishes. I run out the gate. I turn and through the window our eyes meet. She has never brought up this story.

CONCRETE FLOOR. Sitting in our house, sitting on the cold concrete I don’t even bother to pull out a sangoo.

I expect that she’ll walk in any day now. I’m sure she has flowing nappy locks. I’m sure her face does not get washed out in the blinding light of the sun. She has never had a baby.

I hear the wind blow. A sand tunnel forms outside; mother only ever let me watch the television once. The Wizard of Oz was on. I have no time to watch television with Dion. I don’t know what a tornado is. I imagine getting swept in it and out of this life.

Ntsakelo is sound asleep, and I don’t bother to wash the dishes. I don’t dare turn on the kettle. This is July. The dry season. Every day it has rained.

I remember when you first laid down this concrete. You and your brothers were outside with your brooms mixing the mush outside. You built this house with your own hands. Sweetly kissing me every few minutes. We were going to live together. We were going to be together. Our baby is our image for the world to see. This is our family, our home. My shadow on the floor from the sun creeping through the windows is you.

You told me that it never rains in July. And yet I notice a storm unfurl every day.  The tin roof will eventually cave in. It’ll fall in, and everything will break, and water will be all over but I will still be on this concrete floor. It will never leave me.

You bring her home. I want to look her in the eye. I will continue to step on the concrete.

Please, Dion.

SCHOOL DAY. It’s five-thirty in the morning. The rooster crows.

I get water out of the basin, plug in the kettle, brush the sand clean, turn off the kettle, grab my broom, put water into the kettle, step into the basin, bathe my body, pour water into the basin. Then I change Dion’s diaper and kiss Ntsakelo before she leaves for work.

I take off my skirt.

I take off my hair tie.

I put on jeans.

I choose the short-hair wig, and carry Ntsakelo in front of me. Not on my back.

I leave the gate open and the cows start charging in. They eat every leaf they can find.

I leave Ntsakelo with my sister and give her a kiss goodbye. I enter the taxi and I am on my way to Pretoria. I’m going to school. Dion knows and he doesn’t. But at this point, it doesn’t matter. TC mark

image – 2010 World Cup

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504951716 Tau Zaman

    Love love love this. Gorgeous imagery, and great use of understated emotions. 

    Even so, I think the stinted rhythm of short sentences, not all of which are easy to understand (working with what little context we’ve been given), added a certain melodrama to the piece that I wasn’t particularly fond of. For example, “The knives that carved flowers into my skin.” I just thought, “Oh? Well, that’s pretty, I guess?” It led to a larger discussion of how the speaker was forced to undergo some process of mutilation/beautification to find a husband, but immediately the subject changed in the next paragraph to something else completely.

    But on the whole, a hugely refreshing piece! Great writing. =)

  • Rueben

    interesting method, though your stream of consciousness isn’t exactly the most accessible. look forward to reading more from you in the near future

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  • Roshan

    Beautifully written. 

  • http://twitter.com/aluminiyum Soraya

    a breath of fresh air. i liked how this made me feel. 

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  • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

    it took a little for me to get into it, but I ended up loving it.
    seems like not so happy, but ordinary situations that everyone goes through, although in very different ways.

  • Joanna

    Maybe it’s because I just moved to South Africa and thus a lot of the cultural stuff jumped out at me, but this read perfectly. Thank you.

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