3897 views | Tue, 8th of August, 2017




First Blood



My grandmother, Dadebawo worked full time and also had side businesses. She drove herself around and took daily walks. She was of a medium build, chocolate skin with high cheek bones. She had stern eyes she kept under her small reading glasses. She could bring order just with a glance. The eye would be at work while she sat on her favourite wooden chair reading, and we noisily played around her. She had the stern eye and a brown, leather belt she kept nearby. She never really used the belt except for that one time she found us still in the streets after the sun had set.  That day, she stormed out the small metal gate and into the street with the belt in her hands shouting,

‘Nenza ntoni apha phandle?’

None of us even had the time to answer what we were doing outside after dark, as we darted in different directions but all towards the small gate. Dadebawo and the brown belt ran after us. When she cornered us in the house, the feeling of brown leather stinging on skin bound us. We jumped and leapt as we tried to avoid the swinging belt. When she was satisfied she shouted: ‘Hamb’nohlamba!’

We all sprinted to the bathroom to run a bath. My sisters and I would bathe together. We would pinch our noses and dip our faces in the water. With water dripping down our faces we would shriek breathlessly ‘NdiyaSwima! Ndiyaswima!’


Dadebawo’s words stabbed me in the heart that time she found me praying naked in my room. She walked into my room:

“Ntsiki!!!! uyiSatanist!” as she stood in my doorway with her hands on her head.


She hummed to her own company and kept herself busy with reading and gardening. She drew up budgets for everything. She had separate stashes of cash in labelled envelopes that she kept in a drawer she kept locked. Dadebawo locked many things away. She even locked away her heart when my grandfather died. I had no name for my grandfather he was nobody that we spoke about.

‘He threw himself in front of a train. He moved in with another woman and things went sour and he killed himself.’ 


Dadebawo was a single mother to Tata, Dadebawo Vuyi and Malume Veli, all with different fathers. My father was the first born and she never changed her surname. She was not surrounded by many people. The people I saw around her were the people she helped with transport or funeral stokvel or something other. At the end of every month when she did her groceries, she picked up a distant aunt who was not mobile, so that she too could do her groceries. After church, we would drop off other grannies at their homes and they would ask me about school.

With her acute sense of business, besides her transport schemes she also sold clothes that she got from some white madam she knew from work. Dadebawo’s mom, whom I was named after, was also a business woman. She ran a laundry scheme.


 Mama and Dadebawo were always at war. They did not fight in front of me but I saw two rhinos with steam blowing out their noses when they smiled at each other. Mama would remain in the car when she and tata came to fetch us at the end of the weekend. Dadebawo would stand at the front door with her arms folded. She lived in her big white house with her housekeeper uAnti MaRadebe. Her last-born son, umalume Veli lived in the outside room. In the mornings when I looked out the window, I saw him clutching a newspaper under his arm going to the outside toilet. In the afternoons, he would walk past us, from wherever he came from, as we played and say something under his breath. He only came into the house for food. While I washed the dishes, he came in through the kitchen door in the evenings, gave me a gruff and short greeting. He headed straight for the warmer, opened it and took out his plate, got a spoon from the drawer and then he walked out with his meal. He ate in his room. He did everything in his room. It had a big tv sitting on the dresser in front of his double bed. It was crammed in there with his ashtrays erupting with cigarette butts and a big radio that never played music. The music blared from his car with his unknown comings and goings. He took us to school in his clean white car. It was perfumed and smelt of sweetness. ‘Malum’Veli please don’t smoke in the car, I have asthma.’ I would say. He would click his tongue in annoyance as he hurled the burning cigarette out the window and onto the highway. Then he would turn up the volume of the music.


The two women in the house would gossip about their neighbours while Anti washed the windows and Dadebawo read the papers sitting at the table which was decorated with doilies and a big ukhamba in the middle. Anti had worked for the old woman since the early 80’s.  We lived with our parents in Pimville and Dadebawo lived in Dube about 10kms away. During the week we stayed at home but every second weekend we spent at Dadebawo’s corner house. She lived on an L shaped street and her house was nestled where the two streets met.


 My parents were a young couple and they savoured the weekends they could spend inside the house enjoying only each other’s voices. Dadebawo and Anti welcomed this arrangement, we were where they could pour their love. Dadebawo loved our inexperienced hands plaiting her hair and she would smile into the mirror at the uneven hairdo. uAnti loved giving us baths, she sat with us and listened to everything we had to tell her. Dadebawo worked for many years at Afrox, a gas company in Johannesburg. Sometimes after school we would have to play quietly in her office when she worked. It was open plan and filled with about seven chatty women. They fussed around us as they gave us pens and paper to draw on while we waited for our granny. Dadebawo ran a lift scheme for some of them. Even Mr Booysens, her boss, would come out of his corner office to give us sweets.


In 1992 Dadebawo had saved up enough money to take her grandchildren to America.


Barely two days in Manhattan, New York and the arrival of my new born brother was announced it. Mama and Tata named him Osagyefo which was Nkwame Nkrumahs second name.

‘He was a very powerful leader in Ghana! You must know these names. Your brother will be named after a great man!’

My father’s study smelt of paper and cigarettes, he pointed to a picture of Nkwame Nkrumah as he gave me this lecture. Mama and Tata were writers and they made us readers. I would wander into tata’s study and open the covers which interested me. There were book covers and titles which made me curious as I ran my fingers on the smooth paper. I wondered what the ancestors were angry at when I picked up ‘The wrath of the Ancestors.’  I saw many books by a light skinned woman called Bessie Head. I picked up a new book which had just been published. I read ‘Mother to Mother.’ The back page said it was about an American student who was killed by a mob in Cape Town. I opened it, sat on the floor and started reading. One night we watched Cry Freedom, I noticed that Steve Biko died on the 12 of September, my mother’s birthday. I was sitting next to mama, I hugged her tight.


We pretended not to know how to pronounce ‘Osagyefo,’ so for the first day we all jokingly called him Coca Cola. Dadebawo started the trend. She called him Coca Cola or AK47 when she gushed about her new grandson.


It was warm and sunny when I looked out the window I saw blue skies and red brick buildings. My sisters and I were stretched out on the tv room floor working through our jetlag. We were switching between cartoons and music channels on tv. My elder sister controlled the remote control. I was lying on the floor, on my back with my leg crossed over my knee and my head resting on my arms. My older sister Thandiswa was 16, I was 11 and my little sister Nomsa was 7 and had a missing tooth. We settled on ordering some movies on cable. We didn’t have cable tv in South Africa, we were excited by the variety as we went back and forth choosing which movies we wanted to watch. We started with a horror movie, Problem Child. There was silence in the room and children glued to the tv screen when the phone rang.


Sis Thandeka and her husband lived on the third floor and we were occupants in their TV room. She had grown up in America. She moved there with her mom and brother when she was young. My aunt, Dadebawo Vuyi married an American man. One day in a manic rage, he pulled out his gun and opened fired on the family. He shot my aunt and my cousin Nkosana and they died on the spot. In the commotion Sis Thandeka ran out the house and hid under the car. He ran after her screaming and shouting. Before he turned the gun to his head, he shot eight times under the car. Sis Thandeka with her eight bullet scars did not like to talk about this. Something happened to my warm fuzzy feeling when they told me Nkosana had died. All I had left was a picture of him carrying me in his arms and smiling proudly at the camera. Sis Thandeka got married to but’ Mlungiseleli in her early twenties.


Buti Mlungiseleli answered the ringing phone in the passage. A few seconds later, he poked his head in the doorway and called Dadebawo who was watching tv with us, there was something strange about his tone. Within about 5 minutes we heard wailing from the bedroom. Loud wailing. Dark wailing. ‘OH NO! OH NO! OH NO! OH NO!’ My stomach dropped. I suddenly felt ill.

My sisters and I looked at each other. Thandiswa told us everything was fine, we shouldn’t worry. In panic I went to the bathroom to pray. When I got to the bathroom, I was so nervous I was about to pee in my pants. I lifted my dress, sat on the toilet and I discovered that my panties were bleeding. And still Dadebawo wailed. I got off the toilet and decided to ignore my pending death. I thought of rinsing my panties in the sink but my mind was too full. I flushed the toilet and went to the window. I burst into tears and said a short prayer...

 I dried my eyes and went back to join my sisters. When I walked in, I said ‘Guys, please can we pray?’

My sisters did not question: we just all got down on our knees and prayed. We tried to watch tv, but got even more nervous when the neighbours from downstairs joined Dadebawo in the bedroom.

Buti Mlungiseleli finally walked into the TV room. ‘uDadebawo wants you in the bedroom.’

I followed Thandiswa and was followed by Nomsa. When we walked into the room, the female neighbour put Nomsa on her lap. My gran was kneeling over the bed. She was leaning on the bed with her face in her hands, she was looking down. Thandiswa and I went to kneel on the other side of the bed and listened. Everybody in the room has sorrow in their eyes my grandmother was in prayer position and in tears. She stumbled on her words. I don’t know what she said, something about a blood clot and she stumbled over more words and finally she said

‘uMama wenu died.’


For a minute the room was dead silent.

Nomsa broke the ice and broke out into a cry-scream that came from the deepest and loneliest space in a person. We all burst into tears. I cried till I was sore all over my body, in my stomach, and in my throat and in my heart. I cried the cry you cry when you will never see your mother ever again.

I cried till I fell asleep. I cried through the day. When I woke up again in the early evening, I went back to crying.

Sis Thandeka tried to wake me for pizza, but I decided I was going to starve myself and join my mother. Hunger pangs made me eat the tasteless pizza later, but they didn’t stop the pain.



We had to go to New Jersey that day. Between New York and New Jersey there was this long, dark tunnel.  That tunnel was my saving grace that day.

It was hard moving around the streets of New York. There was a lot going on but all I could hear in my head was

‘Mama is dead.’

The little voice in my head did not rest.

It just kept telling me. Over and over and each time it felt worse than the last. It was the most unbelievable thing in my life. How was it possible that mama had died? The more my little voice told me that mama had died, the more I needed to cry.


We were out in public and I carried my heavy body around. Living inside a planet where everything had just been disrupted. My body was present, but my head was burning. My heart was swollen like it was going to explode. My mother’s smile flashed across my mind. I felt cold with pain. Such horrible, horrible pain moved into my heart. The pain soaked my body like my tears soaked my pillows at night. It was like I had an unwelcome guest who had made himself comfortable in my house. I walked around pulling my detached heart on a leash. I dragged it with me at the train station. I dragged it with to the airport when we had to go change our flights.

Sitting there watching my grandmother do the admin all I heard was:

‘They just lost their mother...complications during child birth.’

The South African Airways ladies who were assisting her looked at us with their sad eyes. My pain in my throat and a reassuring smile at them to say

‘I’m fine.’

The pain was building up like a Mount Kilimanjaro inside of me. I was about to have an avalanche.

When that tunnel between New York and New Jersey hit, it came just in time for the bursting rivers in my eyes. In the taxi, in the darkness and stillness, tears sprang freely from my eyes. I cried for all the times when I needed to cry but couldn’t. I cried for that time at the train station, when I lagged behind and pretended to be listening to music on my discman. I cried for everything that the little voice kept reminding me.

When I saw the end of the tunnel coming, I dried my eyes. Ntsiki don’t cry. Ntsiki be strong.


It was a busy day of changing flights and shopping for my mother’s funeral. I found a beautiful black polka dot dress at Macy’s. The dots were small and the dress was very classy. It wrapped around my eleven-year-old body and turned me into a woman.

It was in the change room when I was trying to hide my bleeding panties when mama’s friend, who had joined us for the day asked me if I knew about menstruation. My eyes gave her an angry look and she backed off. I focused on my black polka dot dress. I needed to find matching shoes.

The mall was not big enough to contain my grief. It was a long day and grief was sitting at the bottom of my stomach.


In the still of the night, I was awoken by the sounds of Nomsa crying. My arms were my pillow and I watched with one eye.

Dadebawo asked Nomsa ‘What’s wrong?’  

‘I woke up and heard Thandiswa crying and thought it was time to cry again.’

Fresh tears rolled down my ‘sleeping’ face on the day I became a woman. The day I lost uMama.