Childhood Sistahoods

724 views | Tue, 7th of August, 2018

(This is a chapter from my thesis which explores the themes that came up for me in white schools)

 

Childhood Sistahoods

 

Keabetswe was sitting under a table with her friend. She was breaking her sweet so she could share it. It was pink and about a pinky-long. I asked if I could have a bite. She asked me not to finish it. I took the sweet and put the whole thing in my mouth. It was so yummy. Keabetswe burst into tears and Mistress Sophie with her greasy perm appeared. Keabetswe told on me. Mistress Sophie called all the kids and they surrounded her. Mistress Sophie was every child’s nightmare she found pleasure in punishing anyone who breathed too loudly. Keabetswe told them what I had done. Mistress Sophie listened hungrily, turned to all the children and told them that they could all hit me. At the sound of my fate my legs gave into a run. I was chased by my crèche peers across the grounds. I fell. They caught up to me, I tasted grass in my mouth and there were cold slaps all over my body and face. They shrieked in pleasure as they caused me pain. I hated crèche.

 

On my first day of big school, we were walking on the long road that separates Zone7 and Zone5, the taxi route. I was in my black and white uniform carrying my brown- box suitcase in my right hand. I was wearing new shoes and they were shining black. I ignored the flurry around me. I still have the photos of me looking serious and focused on my new journey. Owing to the violence in township schools my parents decided to take us to iskolo sabelungu. Schools were burning in Soweto, there were not many options. I was too young to understand violence but excited at this new prospect. My neighbour and best friend Boni had always gone to a Coloured school. When she told me about her experiences at St Theresa’s in a coloured neighbourhood, I would be half in awe and half envious. Boni was my friend, confidante and everything. I met her when I was two years old. Before I met Boni, I used to find a corner, a soft blanket and suck my finger. Most people sucked two fingers. I just sucked my pointing finger, the one I used to point at whatever I needed.

I was silent for the first two years of my life. Silent and anti-social.

 

Boni lived with her mom and dad at 143 Zone 7 Pimville. She was a cute, petite girl who adored her father, Papa Aby. Boni was not exactly an extrovert, she shied away from company and always played in her yard while Papa Aby watched on. Every day I fetched her from the castle next door. It took Boni many years to come knocking on our door to ask for me, and even then her knock was timid. My mother shouted ‘Ntsiki!!!! Nanku uBoni,’ from the kitchen. I ran to my friend ready to start our adventure for the day. Our backyard was our magical playground we turned it into whatever we wanted it to be. Sometimes we ran to the garage to fetch the big black plastic bag filled with toys. We dressed and undressed Barbie and made dialogue for the dolls in our hands.   

Boni was only allowed to visit my house and her cousins. Boni’s parents took turns guarding their precious cargo. Papa Aby was strict, stern and tall. I was always scared of what I saw in his eyes. He was like a leopard on the prowl. He asked me about my grades, as he puffed on a cigarette outside on the stoep. When Papa Aby died, I sat in silence next to Boni, not knowing what to say. My mother died a month later and Boni sat silently next to me, not knowing what to say.

 

Boni’s mom was also strict and stern she kept guard over our friendship. One time Boni told me- her mom was scared that I would dominate her. For someone who gave birth to Boni to say that surprised me. Boni’s body resembled that of a mouse, but she was also a lioness. She was fierce. I was scared of her, well, not exactly. I just knew that she was not someone I would ever want to fight. She was strong. She proved it every time we wrestled. One time we found that my dog had left a big, fresh, brown piece of poop on the green grass. I thought because I was bigger I could push her into it. It was very quick. Sindi’s poop splattered across my hand as Boni overpowered me. She also had this evil laugh. She used it on me just before she helped me clean myself up. She kept giving me that naughty child apology as I used the green bar of sunlight soap to scrub my hands free of stink.

Boni and I did all our childhood together. We wore matching clothes. Our favourite were our pink dresses that we tied around the neck. We spun around and around in laughter, flashing our panties to the world. Our mother hated it when we giggled. It usually meant we were up to trouble. Once we had to tell them that Sipho, the teenage boy from four houses down had locked us in his house. He had led us to his bedroom and he took off our panties and threw them on top of his wardrobe. I don’t remember what Sipho did, but Boni was a year older than me. When our parents called Sipho’s parents for a meeting, she showed them what he did to us. She lay on the floor and humped it. I agreed, that was what Sipho had done to us. We were examined. There were no signs of penetration. And indeed he hadn’t, he was just a stupid teenage boy experimenting with toddlers.

 

Boni and I ran up and down the neighbourhood. Our streets were not dusty, but the children still owned them. Everyday about five times a day we strolled to go buy makipkip and ice from the Spaza around the corner, the older we got, the more boys stared at us. We lived in a neighbourhood where every parent was a parent to every child. There was a big red boulder on our block, we called it headquarters. We sat there discussing our plans for the day sometimes we licked the earth tasting boulder.  Boni and I always got into trouble for climbing trees. We liked the world better from up there. We would watch people walking past all day and listen in on their conversations. The only voices we mostly heard though were the sound of our mothers shouting at us to get down from the tree! We later changed the trees to the wall my parents built that finally divided our playground. We used to just climb over the fence: the wall meant that we had to walk all the way around to see each other. We moved from the tree to the wall and continued with our people watching mission, greeting everybody we knew. Mama Mary didn’t like it very much when we climbed onto the roof and jumped into her yard, she said it was dangerous.  In the evenings when Mama Mary missed her child she would stand by the wall and in her melodic way shout

‘Boniiiiiiii!’ And  Boni would jump from whatever she was doing and sprint her skinny little legs back home.

 

It was Mama Mary who told Mama about St Katharine’s school for girls in Parktown West. She too intended on sending Boni there. Parktown West was the wealthy suburb that the English mine owners had occupied. Nestled on a ridge that had magnificent views, its houses did not have yards, but grounds. Most of the houses there had blue plaques marking them as national heritage sites.  Houses with beautiful architecture, sat on manicured grounds. They boasted wooden floors and high ceilings, big entrances you could not see past and surveillance cameras at every gate. Quiet avenues carpeted with jacaranda flowers that were homes to the privileged.

 

It was time for another first day of school. This time however, there were no cameras, just a sea of unfamiliar white faces. I was in a new world.  I was seven and thrust into a world with colourful alphabets on the wall and girls with ponytails.

On my first day, I missed assembly and arrived mid-morning with my parents. The grade two teacher told my parents I would be fine while my mother wrung her hands, as they stood at the door.  “We have another new girl in our class, her name is Cholo.” Her name was Tsholo for Tsholofelo. I asked her what it meant: Hope. She was a soft spoken Tswana girl whose beauty attracted attention. The girls were mesmerised by Tsholo’s beauty as they stood around to touch her hair, and later the boys as they sent love letters on Valentine’s day. Tsholo and I sat next to each other, not knowing each other and not knowing an ounce of English. We survived by watching what the other children did after the teacher spoke. We did more listening than talking as there was no common ground. This led to us forming a strong bond because in our home languages- we could express to each other what we were going through. Like that time I had cramps. I had to run it by Tsholo first.

‘Kana ke eng mmala ka se kgowa?’

After she had translated it as ‘stomach,’ I could tell my teacher that I had a stomach ache. That is how Tsholo and I survived. We would ask each other what to do. Whichever one of us knew the answer to a test question would let the other one copy. So tight was our bond that even when we were fighting, no one could come between us. Tsholo and I stopped talking one time for about two weeks and one of my classmates tried to take her place. One day she asked me, in the presence of Tsholo, ‘Ntsiki, who is your best friend?’I carefully considered the answer, ‘well, my first best friend is Boni, my second best friend is Phephe and you are my third best friend.’ I saw from her face that she was shocked that she was number three, and she was asking herself who Phephe was. She didn’t know that ‘Phephe’ was Tsholo’s second name. Tsholo smiled and walked away. We resumed talks the next day. Tsholo and I used each other for guidance but, there were times we really shouldn’t have. Like that time at the school gala. We had been at St Katharine’s for no longer than three weeks. We were at a swimming gala and sitting in our respective Houses. I was in Nightingale which was the Green House, Tsholo was in Keller, the Red House. During the swimming races, Tsholo came to me and said that we were also supposed to be swimming. I saw nothing wrong with this, despite the fact that I could not swim. In the hood, when we said swimming, we meant splashing each other with water or swimming in the bath. But seemingly, Tsholo and I were unshaken. The whistle blew for the next race. We lined up along with the other swimmers. We lined up at the deep end. Our swimming teacher knew full well that we could not swim so I imagine that must have been quite an awkward moment we created. I did not notice, but girls in the swimming team were put on both sides of the pool. Tsholo and I had decided to take a side each so that we could be close to a wall just in case. On that hot and sunny day, the lady’s voice on the megaphone announced the race and the swimming teacher started the countdown. I had not learnt how to dive yet, so when the sound went off, I just jumped in. I saw water all around, chlorine went up my nose and then hands helping me to the side of the pool. I looked across the pool to see the same had happened to Tsholo. We pushed on. We met up on the other side of the pool, wrapped in towels and shock. At least they had let us finish the race, swimming or whatever it was we were doing. Afterwards, we just looked at each other, sat down and moved on. It was only later in the year, in the school kombi that we got teased about the time we went to a swimming race without being able to swim.

After our incident, there was a new class introduced: lifesaving.

 

Tsholo and I became partners. At times Boni was intimidated by this friendship as she was a year ahead of us. The only time she spent with us was on the kombi with Ntate Mofokeng. Ntate Mofokeng, was the driver and the enemy. All the children who lived in Soweto formed a lift scheme and our parents hired him. Ntate Mofokeng had a face that looked like a vampire. It was dark and long with piercing eyes. He didn’t speak much and walked like a commander in the army.

I was never going to choose between Tsholo and Boni so we settled into a threesome,

Boni played with her classmates during school hours, but in the Kombi she belonged to Tsholo and I. The three of us would sit next to each other in the back seat. Ntate Mofokeng would sometimes make us sit closer to him to make sure we were behaving, he treated us like scoundrels. We always managed to find some kind of trouble to make in the back seat. He stopped the car on the side of the road. He got out the driver’s seat and walked around the Kombi. Opened the door and said, ‘Ke tlo le chakela.’ Who said we wanted him to visit us anyways? He would then climb into the back row and place himself between us. He started with a very short lecture; usually a question and then he pinched our little thighs. The worst was on the days we would misbehave after ballet practice. My brown thighs would go grey and ashy on the areas where his fingers had gripped at my skin. We did our best to behave with Ntate Mofokeng, we really didn’t like his visits.

 

We loved Friday afternoons though. We knew that Ntate Mofokeng would be jolly and in a good mood. He loved to chat on Fridays. Like the time he pointed at Tsholo and said

‘Wena, when these two are not around- oJesu! You sit in the corner like a sweet little thing, when we get to Pimville, the devil comes out.’ We roared out in laughter as Ntate Mofokeng dished out the files on us on Fridays, because on Monday mornings he had a headache was always very grumpy. We had our ways and codes around Ntate Mofokeng. Part of our uniform was a floppy blue hat with the school badge sewn onto the front. When we sat in the backseat, we always had an eye on the rear view mirror. Ntate Mofokeng would make eye contact and point his long bony finger at us to let us know that he was watching. When any of us caught his eye, we would secretly whisper to others,

‘M.’ M meant Mirror, M meant we were being watched. M meant ‘ladies, pull your hat down.’

We would pull our hats down when M was a threat. We would pull them right down so that he could not make eye contact with any of us. Then we would giggle under our hats.

Ntate Mofokeng drove us from being naughty little girls to being young ladies. To punish us, he dropped us off a few blocks away from our homes. We had to walk the rest of the way. The older we got, the more we liked this punishment. He realised we had ulterior motives when we specifically asked to be dropped off ‘emakhoneni.’ We were getting older, our uniforms were getting shorter and the boys were paying us attention. We really upset him the one time though, so that he even went to see our head mistress. One morning in assembly, Mrs Rivett-Carnac asked to see all the girls who used the Kombi to get home. This meant that all the black girls were packed in her office. Like in the movies when the white teacher has to address all the rebel black kids. We stood there with our black girl attitudes as she expressed her disappointment in us. She said, “I’m ashamed you girls are wearing my school uniform right now.”  I don’t remember what we had done to Ntate Mofokeng but from then on order was restored. He even took the opportunity to let us know that he would no longer tolerate hair gel on his windows and seats.

 

St Katharine’s was the first place I was not allowed to speak my language. I didn’t listen to them. I spoke my language anyways. We all did. We sat on the stairs and make a big black noise before some teacher madam came to shout at us for ‘bellowing in African languages.’  I also insisted that my name be pronounced correctly. My name was Nontsikelelo. It meant ‘the mother of blessings.’ I wanted to be known by my name. I told them ‘Seeki’ did not mean anything, and neither did ‘Nasiki.’ After I taught them how to pronounce TS, I settled on being called Nontsiki. My mother was fond of this nickname she said, ‘as long as you do not call yourself ‘Blessings’ mntanam.’ I got used to it, at school I was Nontsiki, at home I was Nontsiki. My younger sister Nomi, five years my junior, killed my argument when she took to calling me ‘Seekerd.’ She spoke it so fragile, I had to carry it. But everybody else knew the rule: you do not mispronounce Ntsiki’s name.

White teachers were shocked when I asked them if they were racist at any point I felt that a white child was being treated as superior to me. The white teachers did that thing where they were up in arms in the staff room, but smiled to my face. 

 

All the black girls had to take extra English classes. I didn’t mind so much. When the white girls had Zulu class, we had English. What I did mind was how the white girls expected us to want to play with their hair. Some of the black girls would comply. After trying it out once or twice, I decided it was not for me. Story time went by without me playing with other people’s hair. The white girls never played with each other’s hair.

 

When there were flare-ups of violence in the townships, we would have to sleep over at a white friend’s house. We black girls always found this most amusing as we shared stories on how differently white people lived. Every time we saw each other in the morning after a stay away we would ask each other ‘Ugezile?’ We would roar out in laughter as each of us said no. Seemingly, white people didn’t bath in the mornings.

 

I always went to Frances’ house. Frances’ mom had represented Tata in some court case or other.  Frances’ dad was the MD at Anglo American Mines. He stayed in his office while Trish entertained us. Frances had a cool mom. She was a lot like mama. She was full of life and conversation. She had an open heart and a smiling mouth.  I enjoyed sleeping over at Frances’ house overnight or for the weekend. The one time my parents travelled to Europe for their second honey-moon, we had to stay there a whole month. I really missed home. Frances had many things. Frances had everything, a beautiful room, a swimming pool and a tennis court. But that was not my home, to do as I pleased. We enjoyed the blue pool on hot days. Their big home had shutters on every window. I looked up from the pool and it looked like a dolls house. We ran around in our brightly coloured bathing suits shrieking while her dogs chased us. I missed my own dog Sindi, who was at home. At school and at home- Frances led. She was from one of the richer families so the teachers all treated her like the golden egg. She could have been one, with her yellow blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. She could have been a golden egg with two big sapphires. She had the confidence of someone who was continually being loved. She was never insecure. She scored great grades in school and all the boys at our brother school idolised her. In a movie, she definitely was the most popular girl, she moved seamlessly between people and everybody loved her dimples. She sat on a throne. Frances and I grew up as sisters in her home, but never in mine. She never knew where I lived. I wondered if she was ever curious or simply didn’t care?

 

Tsholo sat on one side of me, and Frances sat on the other in class. I was never going to choose so I sat in the middle.

Frances and I got increasingly close owing to our anti-apartheid bond. She shocked me in high school though, when she suddenly discovered her whiteness. In primary school we did not see colour. No, in primary school we did see colour, but we just looked through it. Much of our popular influences were from black America. Most of these influences were being introduced by the black girls. When we were done with St Katharine’s, we had brainwashed the white kids into RnB and Hip Hop. My class was that ‘special’ class. Every few years, every institute of learning has a ‘special’ class and in the 90’s my class was that special class. We were either always in trouble or winning inter class competitions. Sometimes in the classroom, teachers had to buffer potential race wars, as heated moments would occur in the peaceful suburb of Parktown.

An alliance was formed in my class. This alliance trumped any kind of power dynamics that had previously existed. It included three black girls, one coloured girl and two white girls. Our acronym was P.B.W.B.F.F.E.F.A.B  (Peace Be With Best Friends Forever Farts And Burps.) As the name made clear, we were a force, united by farting and burping. We were bad girls. This gang started to control the mass of our class. We led and controlled popular culture. A school bus full of white girls would be singing songs by Boyz to Men and Shai. On the stage at talent shows the music teacher played some Hip Hop track on the piano. During break-time we practiced our dance routines in the courtyard outside our classroom. My reality shifted when this utopia ended. When we reached high school, the white girls distanced themselves from the black friendships they had formed at St Katharines. It was like they didn’t want the real world to know that they had black friends, like they were ashamed. Frances, under the pressure of whiteness, had to play a double life, one which did not involve her two worlds colliding. I was left confused. I was left wondering if the friendship was ever real. I began to ask myself if the friendship was ever founded on mutual respect.

 

For my fourteenth birthday I invited my mostly white class to my party at home. We always went to their homes for their parties. Only two white girls came to my party, the rest said Soweto was too dangerous. Even Frances said so. I never told her how betrayed I felt by that, as if I would invite her somewhere she could get killed. And how ignorant was it to think that the whole of Soweto was on fire? Why did Frances make me feel like where I came from was inferior?

 

A few years after discovering my own blackness, long after high school, I was having conversations on white supremacy on my Facebook account. Another racial incident had happened in South Africa and judging from the comments on my post, we black people were getting to point “sick and tired of the bullshit.” I got a notification that I had a message in my inbox. It was Frances.

“Hi Ntsiki, I see your posts are getting very racist and I cannot associate myself with people like that.”

“Hi Frances, I would appreciate it if you did not dictate to me on how I should feel about black pain. Also, may I just state that racism stems from a place of superiority, when have black people ever been superior to whites?”

“That is beside the point. We are now living in the new South Africa and it is all our responsibility to make this country work. Whatever colour we are.”

“Yes, Fran, you can speak like that because you were raised on white privilege. You don’t have a clue about the black experience. Babes, you can’t even speak my language...”

“I am not good with any languages, it is not about South Africa.”

“I suppose you think I woke up good at English?” I never understood why white people didn’t get this, like?

“Well your Facebook posts are very negative and angry and I don’t think you are making a positive difference. We must forgive and forget.”

“That’s the thing Fran, you’re not thinking at all.”

We never spoke to each other again.