It was the beginning of the school year in Gaborone;
the girls were finally in standard seven. Kenalemang and Sheila were excited
because this was the last year of their primary schooling. They were in the
same school after Kenalemang was transferred from her old school. Sheila was an
average student but Kenalemang was exceptional. Her former teachers were
confident that she was going to get straight A’s for her Primary School Leaving
Examination. Kenalemang was thrilled to start at a new school where no one knew
her parents had died and what they died of. Children were so cruel.
Mmamane Dimakatso had bought Kenalemang’s new school uniform but because
of budgetary constraints, she had to choose between paying for Sheila to do her
hair or buying Kenalemang new school shoes. Mmamane Dimakatso chose the former.
Sheila was favoured because she was Mmamane Dimakatso’s only child and
Kenalemang was her dead sister’s orphaned child. The girls’ first day of school
went swimmingly for Sheila who was coming back to her old friends and familiar
surroundings; Kenalemang’s day was a little less pleasant. As she walked into
her new class, a lanky boy at the back of the class asked her what her shoes
were saying. Kenalemang stood at the front of the class confused by the
question. Her shoes had not made a sound. Kenalemang looked at him as a sly
smile spread across his face.
“My shoes aren’t saying anything.” Kenalemang replied indignantly.
“My sister, are you sure?” The boy asked with a cunning smirk
Kenalemang nodded her head in the affirmative. She suddenly felt self
conscious. Her shoes were not new but they were still as sturdy and stylish as
the day they were bought.
“If you’re sure, walk out and walk back in.”
Kenalemang walked out and walked back into the classroom. A dozen pair
of eyes watched. As she walked in the
second time, the class erupted in laughter.
“Her shoes are talking! Talking shoes on the first day!”
The glue that kept Kenalemang’s shoe and its sole together had worn out
and every time she walked her the sole of her shoe would separate from the shoe
itself. This imitated the mouth movements of a person talking. Kenalemang’s
shoes were talking. The embarrassment sunk in as she walked to an empty desk
and sat down whilst everyone in the class laughed. The whole day they laughed.
Sheila laughed too. Children were so cruel.
Standard seven represented the culmination of your primary schooling. Sheila
struggled, as did the rest of their class but Kenalemang never faltered. When Kenalemang
aced her PSLE exams, all Mmamane Dimakatso said was that at least she was good
for something. There was no reward, no present, no new clothes or a party or
even a cake. Kenalemang didn’t mind. She had fast realised that she was not
going to be celebrated living under Mmamane Dimakatso’s roof.
Motswana child struggles to sleep on the twenty fourth of December. Christmas
eve means an array of different things for different families all over the
world; in Botswana you were sure of three things: Christmas clothes, a seven
colour plate and a lot of meat. Homemade ginger beer quenched the young and old
helping to combat the sweltering heat. Kenalemang and Sheila had giggled
undercovers all night; the two cousins talked excitedly about all the food they
would eat, the games they would play with their other cousins and how they’d be
trying to get at least P10 from Malome Shakes because he was the rich uncle and
he liked to spoil all his nieces and nephews. Kenalemang had been living with
Mmamane Dimakatso, her aunt, and her daughter Sheila, for about two years. It
wasn’t the same as being at home but Kenalemang had no home anymore. Her mother
had died first then a few months later, her father had passed away. Before
death had stained her life, she was a carefree 11-year-old who loved Cartoon
Network and the tomato flavoured Jiggies snacks. Now she carried the grief
everywhere she went. A little sadness was perched on her shoulder, always
nagging her, reminding her that she had no parents. Christmas used to be a
magical time when Kenalemang had parents; her mother would bake and cook enough
food for the village and the village would come. This would be the first
Christmas without her mother to fuss over her and make her wear a pretty dress
that would be dirty by days’ end. There were no expectations for this
Christmas. It would be fun because they’d be going to celebrate at Nkuku’s but
Kenalemang knew that the fuzzy feeling that came with Christmas would never ever
come back. The morning came and Mmamane Dimakatso had laid out some clothes for
the girls to wear. For Shiela, it was a beautiful chiffon dress as well as new
pair of shoes. For Kenalemang it was Sheila’s old church dress, no shoes.
Mmamane Dimakatso fussed over Shiela and made sure her daughter looked regal.
Time was taken with Sheila’s hair; her caramel complexion glistened underneath
all the Vaseline that was lathered on her skin. Kenalemang smoothed Vaseline on
her own cocoa-toned skin; she pulled her hair into a bun on top of her head and
put on Sheila’s old shoes. When they reached Nkuku’s house, the festivities
were in full swing. Nkuku was at the back of the house and when her Sheila and
Kenalemang saw her, they ran toward her, throwing themselves at their
grandmother. The older woman was happy to see her grandchildren. She took each
of them by the hand and lead them to her bedroom when she pulled two plastic
bags full of goodies from beneath her bed. Toys, books and the second set of
new clothes for Sheila for Christmas. Sheila beamed. Kenalemang was half naked
as she thanked her grandmother. Maybe her Christmas may just be magical after
slipped. Kenalemang doesn’t know how but the glass slipped from her wet fingers
and crashed into the floor, shattering dramatically. Kenalemang paused; she
held her breathe hoping Mmamane Dimakatso didn’t hear the glass breaking. Then
from the other room Kenalemang heard,
“Thuba hela! Break
everything! You want to leave me without any nice glasses akere? It’s not
enough that I took you in when your parents died. This is how you thank me? By
breaking everything? I should have known by your dark skin that Satan sent
Kenalemang quickly knelt
down to pick up the pieces of broken glass. Mmamane Dimakatso’s sililoquy went
on in the other room. Unprompted, Mmamane Dimakatso went onto describe the
curse that fell upon darker skinned people, how they never get anything right.
Kenalemang drowned her out with thoughts of what her mother used to sing as she
bathed her. The words echoed loud in her mind and hardened her resolve.
How wonderful that I have
seen, the dark skin of a queen. How wonderful that I have seen, the dark skin
of a queen.
Over and over the words
drummed around in her mind. Kenalemang held onto the words but she clenched her
jaw in frustration. A piece of glass cut into the webbing between her index and
her thumb. Kenalemang swept the the broken pieces of glass out of the kitchen
door and resumed her daily chores of washing dishes. Sheila and Mmamane
Dimakatso sat watching Generations on SABC 1. Kenalemang watched them through
the crack of kitchen door.
“… her mother wasn’t even
dark! My sister? My sister was as light as me and you Sheila but it was the
sins of that one’s father that made her dark. An omen I tell you…”
Mmamane Dimakatso went on
and on about how dark skin was cursed and how fortunate they were to be
lighter. Sheila smiled contentedly knowing she was free from the dark skin curse.
Kenalemang finished in the kitchen, said goodnight and went straight to bed.
She lay face down in her bed, pushing her mouth into the mattress to muffle her
Sheila walked into their
shared bedroom. Kenalemang had switched off the lights; Sheila switched them on
again and sat on her bed. Kenalemang turned to face Sheila.
“Please turn off the
lights, I am trying to sleep.” Kenalemang asked.
“Yeah yeah, ema pele. I’m
looking for my shoes.” Sheila stated.
Kenalemang rolled her
eyes at Sheila’s selfishness. She could look for her shoes in the morning. It
was not a pressing matter. Sheila had walked into the house with her school
shoes on so they were in their bedroom somewhere.
“Ao Sheila don’t be like
that. I need to sleep; I’ll help you look tomorrow.” Kenalemang pleaded.
“You can help me look
now.” Sheila suggested and knelt down and looked under Kenalemang’s bed.
Kenalemang rarely ever
got angry. But after everything her aunt her said to her, she was livid. She hopped out of bed
and switched the lights off. Sheila stood in the middle of the room with her
“Mxm! Mama is right. Dark skinned people do a have a curse. They’re
stupid. You’re stupid Kenalemang!” Sheila whispered furiously.
Kenalemang cried silently. She would not let Sheila know that her words
had hurt. Kenalemang had thought that Sheila would be on her side because they
were best friends but Sheila had said that Mmamane Dimakatso was right about
what she had said about her. This pained Kenalemang greatly. Her only ally was
now an enemy. Kenalemang felt very alone but exhaustion rescued her from her
despair and she drifted off into the oblivion of sleep.
“…Unfortunately we’re going to have to downsize. This
affects your entire department. We’re going to have to let you go…”
Mmamane Dimakatso read the letter for the third time and sat down at her
desk. The stress came like a freight train and knocked the wind from her lungs.
Her breathing became labored. The air seemed thinner. Mmamane Dimakatso sat
down in her office chair and took a couple of deep breaths. She held the letter
in front of her eyes but the letters swam about the page. Quickly she reached
for a coke in the bar fridge next to her desk and drank it. The lightheadedness
subsided but the shock from the letter did not. Mmamane Dimakatso was in her
late fifties. Finding a job now would be close to impossible. The last
qualification she had acquired was a certificate for basic accounting but she
had no formal schooling, she had no degree. Mmamane Dimakatso’s husband had
left years ago and all she had was herself and her girls. When her sister died
she had left nothing behind and Mmamane Dimakatso was left with the burden of
taking on Kenalemang’s care without any financial assistance from anyone.
Working at Botswana Housing Corporation had supported her and her daughter for
the last eight years.
“Please find the time to visit the Human Resources department so as to
discuss your exit package and pension pay out arrangements.”
Sheila and Kenalemang were only eleven years old. Mmamane Dimakatso
still had five more years of schooling to put them through before she could
take a step back and hope that the government of Botswana awarded them the
scholarship money for tertiary education. It was a dark day and Mmamane
Dimakatso didn’t know what she was going to do. She had a mortgage and no other
skills or sources of income. Yet, things would get darker still.
Kenalemang opened the
fridge once again. The contents had not magically changed. There was half an
onion and some tomato paste. There was nothing else. In the pantry there was
only maize meal and a can of baked beans. Kenalemang was the resident cook,
Sheila only helped her when she was in a good mood. Today, Sheila was
enthralled in an episode of The Queen and had no time to worry about what was
to be eaten. Kenalemang chopped the onion and fried it then added the baked
beans and tomato paste to make gravy. Then she made paletŝhe with the maize
meal and waited for her aunt to get home. When Mmamane Dimakatso walked in, she
didn’t even eat. The girls looked at one another in confusion. Kenalemang
dished for herself and Sheila and cleaned up after they were finished. Mmamane
Dimakatso never emerged from her room again that evening.
Mmamane Dimakatso got the news of Nkuku’s stroke by
telephone from the hospital. Nkuku had been cleaning the yard when she
collapsed. Neighbors had rushed her to Princess Marina Referral Hospital. It
was only there that they had called Mmamane Dimakatso. She had left the girls
watching TV to rush to her mother’s bedside. Kenalemang’s mother had passed
away just over a year ago and Mmamane Dimakatso was not ready to face death
again; her sister’s death had thrust a lot of responsibility upon her and
Nkuku’s death was sure to do the same. After transferring Nkuku to Gaborone
Private Hospital, she sat the girls down to explain what had happened. It was a
minor stroke and the doctor’s expected Nkuku to make a full recovery.
Kenalemang took it the hardest. She cried when she saw her grandmother in the
hospital for the first time. Mmamane Dimakatso had put her mother on her
medical aid but now she struggled to make the payments. There was no money and
the hospital had charged an extra twelve thousand for Nkuku’s stay there. The
older woman told her daughter to take her back to Princess Marina where her
care would be cheaper. Mmamane Dimakatso was drowning in debt in order to make
ends meet but she also wanted to afford her mother the best care possible. And
so she paid, heavily. Kenalemang could not sleep. She thought that if she did,
she would wake up to the news of her grandmother’s passing. Death affects you
like that. When your mother and father die within a short period of time, you
end up thinking everyone you love is going to follow the same fate. Nkuku was
discharged after two weeks and went to live with her daughter and two nieces.
Kenalemang’s chores stayed the same. Clean the house, cook the meals and
wash the laundry. Nkuku noticed that Sheila wasn’t expected to do anything.
“Ngwanake why are you spoiling Sheila? She should help Kenalemang with
the housework.” Nkuku commented to Mmamane Dimakatso one evening.
“Oh Mama don’t worry, she does. You just haven’t noticed.” Mmamane
The older woman had no energy to press further on the matter. Food was scarce.
Things were tough for a while. Mmamane Dimakatso couldn’t afford to have her
mother stay with them but she was insistent, at least until Nkuku got better.
Kenalemang enjoyed every moment of Nkuku’s stay; they stood side by side in the
kitchen, cooking the day’s meals as Mmamane Dimakatso and Sheila watched
soapies. Nkuku would take the time to soothe Kenalemang’s ache for her parents
by telling her stories of her mother when she was younger. Nkuku brought the
memory of Kenalemang’s mother back so vividly. The kitchen became Kenalemang’s
favorite room; she could make a delicious meal out of the bare necessities. One
day Mmamane Dimakatso took Nkuku to Julia Molefe clinic for a doctor’s
appointment. The clinic usually took hours to attend to patients, they were
severely understaffed. Kenalemang and Sheila played outside in the dusty yard,
barefoot. They climbed trees and built mud houses. The girls forgot their
chores and threw themselves into unencumbered fun. It was only at three that Kenalemang started
to cook. Abandoning her cousin, Kenalemang began her daily chores by boiling
water for the rice. After putting the rice on the stove, Kenalemang took a
quick bath. The heat of the stove had been too high and the stench of burning
rice meandered throughout the house. The smell met Mmamane Dimakatso at the
door and she became enraged.
“Kenalemang! Come here right now!”
Kenalemang heard her aunt screaming her name. She rushed to the living
room still in ignorance of her misdeed.
“Kenalemang, go and fetch a stick right now! I’m going to teach you a
lesson about wasting food.”
The young girl scurried away to break of a small branch from the hedge
that was intertwined with the fence. This was a ritual countless Batswana
children knew: going to forage for the stick that was going to mete out your
punishment. The bush smelt fresh and painful as she let it dance between her
fingers; she picked a medium sized branch.
“I-I’m sorry Mmamane. I-I wanted to bath b-because we were playing
outside…” Kenalemang stuttered trying to save herself. Sheila watched it all
unfold but couldn’t save her cousin. Nkuku stood back, allowing her daughter’s
anger toward Kenalemang to fester.
“Heela ngwanyana o montsho! Don’t waste my time, bring that stick here
let me show you how I feel when you waste food.” Mmamane Dimakatso shrieked.
Mmamane Dimakatso grabbed the stick from Kenalemang’s small hands and brought
it against her fragile frame. Mmamane Dimakatso’s hand would raise up as far up
in the air as she could then it would descend in the direction of Kenalemang’s
body. Kenalemang felt the whipping from every angle; she yelped and screamed,
bolting about the house. Mmamane Dimakatso was quick and agile, she blocked the
young girl at every turn. The stick licked Dimakatso’s skin across her back as
she tried to escape outside. Her foot caught on the carpet and she fell forward
hitting the corner of the coffee table as she went down. Kenalemang lost
consciousness and everything faded to black. Mmamane Dimakatso held the stick
in the air, unsure of it’s fate as its’ target lay still on the ground; she
lowered her hand slowly. Nkuku came closer to see if Kenalemang was alright. Turning
her over slowly, Nkuku cradled Kenalemang in her arms. Three pairs of eyes saw
the slow and steady ooze of blood from a gash in Kenalemang’s forehead. She
bled. The blood stained Nkuku’s clothes and the carpet. The smell of burning
rice went unnoticed. No one had switched the stove off. The sight of blood and the
smell of burnt rice played on the senses of those who came to help. Disaster enveloped
the and constricted their sense of safety. The rice was burnt and in a way, so
Kenalemang came to slowly. First one eye opened then
the other. Her body felt stiff so she tried to stretch, a mistake she quickly
regretted. Her skin was on fire, the beaten skin screaming at the movement of
the muscle beneath it. Moving her head had awoken a demon of a headache that was
steadily dragging her to hell. Wincing and whimpering she got out bed and
walked slowly to the toilet. When she walked back into the room, Nkuku was
walking in. When Kenalemang saw her, her eyes watered.
“Nkuku what happened?” Kenalemang asked
Nkuku sat down and said, “Ngwanake, your aunt was not treating you well.
I’m sorry I didn’t see it. I wish you would have told me.”
“I don’t remember how I got here Nkuku.”
The older woman recounted what had happened. Kenalemang held her
forehead and felt her bandaged head. That’s why everything hurt. That’s why her
heart hurt. Nkuku sat and explained that Kenalemang would no longer have to
live with Mmamane Dimakatso. Elation vibrated through Kenalemang’s being and
for the first time in a long time, she was happy.
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