Darker Tones

Black and white African child

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.

Every 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 all.

It 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 you…”

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 pained wailing.

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 mouth agape.

“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 Dimakatso lied.

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 was Kenalemang.

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.