by Malini Mohana
The smell of tinned fish reminds me of ma. When she still used to cook. She would make it every Sunday after church in her pink satin blouse with the shoulder pads. The one her employer used to wear at charity dinners for the worried wealthy. Musa hated that she wore hand-me-downs, but she didn’t care for her son’s tastes. She didn’t care for much but the wrath of God and his reasons for wrathing. She wore her long braid down her back, as her mother did, and her mother before her. A sign of health and status among Indian women. Mine never achieved that silken obedience; it held in it the angry curl of my Zulu father. What’s in the space between brown and black? A vacuum. My brother didn’t care for such details of our divergence. He took after our father, stoic and tall and dark. Me? I almost pass as South African walking down Vilakazi street after a drunken braai - provided the sky was dark and the beer ran amber. Mostly I’m mistaken as Ethiopian. Men either find it exotic or offensive, depending on which part of the neighbourhood they’re in. Perhaps that’s why my mother sent us to leafy suburban schools. She didn’t know where to put her no-man’s children.
Edwards High School. It was one of those with a Latin slogan and an emblem that looked oddly like war memorabilia. I was a competent student, with a strange face and a forgettable presence. Deprived of the expectation of connecting with others, I lacked the introspection to conjure any anxiety about it. I made it by; Musa never did. My first memory of his defiance, and perhaps my own, happened during a school rehearsal of The Little Mermaid. We were two months in and Musa and I had, by now, fully appreciated the vibrance of being part of the school of fish that sang the chorus to every song. A boy named Nimrod was chosen to play Sebastian, supposedly because he once sang No Woman No Cry in the urinals. The directing prowess of the teachers extended no further than “ Say your line slowly and clearly! Nimrod, if you say butarielyoucantgotothesurfaceitsdangerous nobody can hear”. This instruction was repeated hourly. On that day, Musa slipped down next to me, tinselled seaweed cascading out of his head, the tip of a delicious joint emerging from the centre.
We’d almost managed to sneak out when Musa suddenly snorted at Nimrod’s slow and improved lines (“You-weeent-toooo-the-suuuurf-aaace”). As Ariel from Cresta began our exit song, hitting her notes like an asthmatic televangelist, we were escorted sans joint into a six week suspension. We took our taxis back to Zola in silence, dropping the letter in our mother’s hands. Musa didn’t assume responsibility for the mess but she beat him senseless all the same, crying about her druggy children. I had always wondered whether her violent innocence would soften with age. She only grew more angry. What was frightening about my mother was not the victimhood she imbued, the fear with which she taught us to engage in the world, the dark spaces we learnt to avoid, the stranger in the night whom we refuse to greet. It was perpetration. Our capacity for hurting, voyeuristic or otherwise. The coils we create from hand-me-down barbed wire, specifically, exclusively, to tie around the neck of the other. I never knew for sure, but perhaps that’s what made her comfortable in her rage toward us. The tiny moments that she could tighten the coil, imperceptible to others – to herself. I felt a deep rage at her in that moment. I wanted to hit her so hard and so badly that her skull would pour out, all at once, the incessant prose she would deliver over her remaining years. I stood and watched her beat Musa instead.
One our school’s conditions for him returning to school after The Little Mermaid was that he attend therapy for his “weed snorting” behaviour. Musa, with his brazen smirk and darker skin, looked more troubled than me. Zola Clinic was our only option. It was the most affordable given that we couldn’t pay anything at the time. Working class problems weren’t nominated for middle class interventions. Economics 101. The clinic, spanning a small soccer field, was a busy marketplace for ailments. Casualty to the north, radiology slightly to the east, social work was a mystery, and psychiatry placed somewhere at the back. The clinic was surrounded by a moat of hooting taxis and burning plastic. Ma insisted I go with him so that he would have no choice but to return home after. We walked toward the sparse waiting room that sometimes served as an extended gurney. A shiny young lady with a choppy haircut arrived in the parking lot, her earrings glistening among a sea of worn-out shirts. She drove a red Volvo with a side dent, small enough for her and perhaps a travel-sized boyfriend. She wore too-sweet perfume and a butterfly tattoo with only a little too much confidence. Her voice, constrained and high-pitched, held the undeniable air of a woman in discomfort. A golden retriever in the fight pit. I smiled, or snarled. Musa never commented on her, but always emerged from the sessions quieter, cranky. He never spoke about it and I never cared to ask. They lasted five weeks.
Eventually, Musa stopped going to school altogether. Perhaps he had always known that this world was not ours. This world of smoked vienas in lunchboxes and tinkling Jesus songs, of crepe paper fish and redheads singing about forks and knives. Musa lived for the open air fires, the chaos of these streets, the moonlight shining in the skin of dark women. He was arrogant and loud and wordy. We were never the same, but he was all I understood. He didn’t mind that my Zulu came out jilted and twangy, that I inherited my mother’s nose and my father’s flightiness. He didn’t laugh when I watched Tamil movies and straightened my ‘fro. He didn’t mind the boys I fucked. Or enquire about their absence. When ma stopped coming out of her room, or combing her long hair, or greeting us in the mornings, I looked to Musa. He rarely looked back and sometimes I didn’t understand why I even liked him. We lived like strangers in a foster home, a pernicious silence growing between us and ma. Musa would leave the house for hours or days. Ma would leave in other ways, reduced to sunken silence in her Tamil serials. I began an obsession with Ethopia. I was lost for hours on the school computers Googling the country, its politics, its fashion, cuisine, architecture, and the hundreds of faces of Ethopian women – their slight noses and bony shoulders, hair that held thousands of tight ringlets. I studied how they wore their head scarves and I printed out pictures of women who looked like me. Women named Maaza, Nyala, Behati, Kamali. Listen to that, Kamali. It rolled off my tongue in a way that English or Zulu never did. I became compulsive. Every Sunday, I would place these women on the floor before me, and wrap my head in my doek the way they did. Ma would be at church meetings and Musa would be anywhere but here. I was certain that I could become an Ethiopian. I wondered if they’d notice me the way they do here. Maybe they’re bloodhounds, like us. Maybe they’d be able to smell my otherness. Maybe they would be convinced if I moved like them – speak to them in the pale language of gait and touch. I performed the Eskista to no one but the mirror. Musa found me the one afternoon. Perhaps he had walked in early, but I had a feeling he had watched me the entire time.
“What are you doing?” he said.
He’d startled me, the scarf pouring to the ground from my head and pooling at my feet. I continued to stare at him, shame trickling into my stomach.
“You want to leave us, don’t you?” he said, after a beat.
“You wanna go to those people”, he crossed his arms, match stick hanging limply out the side of his mouth. “Presenting to you, Miss Ethiopia”
When I didn’t respond he laughed in that jagged way men laugh at silly women. I shut the door in his face, grabbing my pictures and shoving them all under the bed.
In the following weeks, I prepared a speech by collecting hurtful things to say to him. But when he walked past me in the kitchen, all I could say, perhaps a little too loudly, was: “Did you know that Ethiopian women used to be warriors? Owned and sold land and everything!”
“Good for them, it’s turned out great for em now.”
He was callous, but maybe he was right. There is no sanity in shifting one’s life to yet another country frayed at the edges. But sanity wasn’t my concern. People have done the most insane in the name of sanity.
“You won’t get it”
“Do I need to?” he asked, walking out the door with a backpack.
He returned a week later with wads of cash, new trainers and two one-way tickets to Addis.
Our flight was in month. Whatever his reasons for doing this had little to do with me. His quiet persistence in organising visas, collecting notes of cash taped clumsily to the beams bellow his sleeper couch, buying headscarves and clothes, wasn’t clear to me. Weeks flew past but he never allowed me to witness his dealings or the, undoubtedly, questionable men with whom he dealt. He came and went with more and more - accommodation options, shiny gifts, tourism books. The RDP magpie.
“Where do you go in the evenings?” I asked, as he returned a finalised passport. We were to leave tomorrow.
“Business” he was tying his shoelaces, the luminescent tick like full marks against a dusty wall. I asked more honestly.
“Why are you doing this for me?”
“Because you are my sister”
I heard him as one would hear a reality show family, a resounding “aww” resonating from a studio audience. But as I watched him tie his other lace and walk past a photo of a family long forgotten, I knew he’d simply meant “because you have no one else”.
On my last day of school I didn’t tell my friends I was leaving, but hugged them each in turn just the same. I bunked maths and waited for Musa to come home, looking out the curtain every few minutes. He was an hour late when I saw a car pull up, the sun pooling in smoggy clots beyond the Soweto towers. I stopped dead in my tracks. A red Volvo with a side dent slowed to a stop in front of me. A too-sweet perfume wafted out the window. The number plate was different. Of course, it was.
“What have you done?”, I stared at him.
“We’re in for a bit of a roadtrip before the airport. A few days maybe. Gotta pick up a favour and we’re set”, he was smirking.
“And her?” I gestured to the car and its absent owner.
He waved his hand as though swatting a fly and made a show of picking up a packet. A black bag of groceries. Ginger and chillies, garlic and jasmine rice. He answered none of my questions and started chopping things up in the kitchen. He crushed the garlic with the back of the knife, ran the onions under water, checked on the steaming rice. He looked like ma. The arterial red of tinned fish simmered in the pot as he added each ingredient, brows furrowed. Ma walked in then, standing silently in the doorway. She looked older these days, the angled glow of her face sloughed off, her jowls longer, eyes smaller. She moved slowly, holding on the edge of the table as she sat down opposite us, the pink satin blouse with the shoulder pads drooping at her waist. We ate together for the first time in a year that night. We ate without words as darkness fell upon the dusty streets and children’s shouting became distant echoes. A last supper in a house of the mismatched. We sat in stillness after the meal, unformed words lodged gently between us. Ma cleared the table and looked at us a second too long, as though she thought better of saying something. She walked past Musa, grazing her hand over his shoulder before shutting her door with a click. We never spoke about her again, Musa and I. That night we cleaned up, washed the dishes and scrubbed the floors. We packed away our things neatly, swept up hair and old clothes. I handled my schoolbooks and uniform with care. Folded them deliberately and slowly, as though they belonged to a dead person. It was the early hours of the morning when we left, sharing a joint on the stoep before a word was spoken.
Musa warmed up the car while I retrieved the rest of our belongings. We took very little from the house. A bottle of tap water, a bar of chocolate, a few pieces of stale bread soaked in last night’s fish. I twisted my hair into curls and wore my Ethiopian doek. As we drove out the city, the sky opened to dusty pink horizons, the creamed smoothness of rolling hills beyond our reach, broken only by a disappearing road. No man’s land.
Work in progress.