Image by Sihle Kunene
[Trigger and content warning: mention of death via – anti-LGBTQIA+- hate crime; grief and survivor’s guilt.]
“At this point in my life,
I’d like to live as if only love mattered.
As if redemption was in sight.
As if the search to live honestly,
Was all that anyone needs.
No matter if you find it.” – Tracy Chapman, At this Point in my Life (1995)
December 22nd, 2009
Nearly 30 years since she’d first encountered the house with the white walls and surrounded by dozens of bushes and surreptitious pot plants, Bongiwe entered the home of the woman she had dreamed would one day become her mother-in-law. Mam’Beatrice was seated on a plastic white chair in the backyard of her house; that everyone knew served as the front entrance because she was always there. There were little children running around in the yard. They mostly played amongst themselves; but every once in a while one of them would approach the large old lady to show her something they’d discovered or try include her in the game they were engrossed with.
Bongiwe stood to the side, watching the old woman. Even though her laughter sounded as hearty as it had always been, her smile had lost its zest. She kept patting the inner corners of her eyes with a white handkerchief. Bongiwe’s heart lurched in resonance. She knew all about the relentless tears that weren’t even interrupted by the presence of joyful, adorable young children.
She wondered, yet again, if coming here was a good idea. But it was too late for her to turn away now. If her visit brought the old woman any more sorrow she would make it mercifully short. She only wanted to drop off the scones she had baked and a little money she thought might help her get by.
“Hello sisi!” a little girl with rounded cheeks and very few teeth walked over to Bongiwe and greeted her enthusiastically. Bongiwe granted the child a small, warm smile. Mam’Beatrice turned to look in their direction. Bongiwe felt her hands tremble against the edges of the large Tupperware she was holding.
It had been years since she had stepped into that yard. Years still since she had spoken to the old woman with kind eyes.
“Hi mama,” Bongiwe said softly. She walked towards mam’Beatrice; who looked at her as though she didn’t fully recognize her.
“Hello, my child,” the old woman responded courteously. She held a hand against her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun and looked intently at the younger woman’s face. Bongiwe took a deep breath and stepped even closer to mam’Beatrice.
“My goodness! Is that you Bongiwe?” the old woman rose out of her chair slightly. Her small eyes widened and she allowed her tears to flow freely down her cheeks. “Come here so I can see you properly!”
Bongiwe stood directly in front of the old woman; felt her soft round knees brush against her long striped dress. Mam’Beatrice shifted in her seat and reached out to touch Bongiwe.
“Here, take this inside,” mam’Beatrice took the large Tupperware from Bongiwe and handed it to the nearest child. She quickly turned her attention back to the small, dark woman standing in front of her.
Bongiwe was just as beautiful as she remembered her. She was still short and slender; with a midsection softened by children and age. Her eyes were still bright and intelligent. And her smile; though never flashed with ease, was every bit as charming as it had been when she was a teenager.
To Bongiwe, mam’Beatrice looked like a much more tender and saddened version of her younger self. The old woman had always been fat; had always had a wide soft face with clear light skin. Her hair used to be full and black but time had lessened it and turned it a pale grey. Her eyes looked reddened and pained. Grief tended to do that to eyes.
“I’m sorry that it took me such a long time to come and see you,” Bongiwe said, fighting back her own tears. Seeing the old woman wear her pain so plainly nearly crushed her resolve to remain strong. She had been concerned about how mam’Beatrice would be affected by her visit but hadn’t considered what seeing the old woman’s grief would do to her.
“Oh my child,” mam’Beatrice began, wiping tears off of her chin, “the fact that you came at all. Thula would be so happy to know that you came to see me.”
That was the second time in the space of four months that another person had mentioned Thula’s name to Bongiwe and it sent her emotions into a tailspin. She bit her bottom lip to try stop it from trembling, but tears spilled out of her eyes anyway. Mam’Beatrice pulled the younger woman onto her lap and held her tightly.
Bongiwe unraveled. She allowed her face to pour out all of the pain she had held in since learning of Thula’s death. She could feel her tears soaking mam’Beatrice’s neck and dress; could feel her nose leaking salty tear-mucus. The old woman held her in her lap as though she were a young child, rubbing her back and rocking her back and forth.
With her eyes shut and her body burrowed into mam’Beatrice’s softness, Bongiwe allowed herself to remember.
January 10th, 1979
They had met just before assembly. Bongiwe was a new pupil and a transplant from Orlando, Soweto. Her family had moved to Alex after her young brother succumbed to injuries incurred during the 1976 uprisings. Her mother’s sister had suggested the move. Alex had its own issues but it at least wouldn’t be heavy with the memories of a sickly and then deceased child. Bongiwe wasn’t adjusting well to the move.
In Soweto she had friends she knew and trusted; a vast geographical terrain she was familiar with and – unlike her mother – she was not interested in escaping memories of Nkosinathi. She walked onto the dusty campus of her new high school in a bit of a sulk.
While the other girls her age eyed her with open hostility, Thula had approached her with a welcoming smile.
“You’re new,” the short, light skinned girl with a bald head said. Bongiwe had glared at her silently.
“My name is Nokuthula. Everyone calls me Thula,” the other girl said, making her smile broader.
Bongiwe figured there was no real harm in making allies in this strange new place.
“I’m Bongiwe,” she said.
Something about the way the girl called Thula looked at her made her avoid making direct eye contact with her. It wasn’t a normal kind of friendliness. It felt like a deeper, keener interest.
“Where are you from, Bongiwe?” Thula said.
“I’m from Orlando. Soweto. My family moved here after my brother died,’ she didn’t know why she had volunteered such personal information about herself. But in those days, everyone had some kind of horror story to share.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Was he a freedom fighter?” Thula asked, a knowing look in her eyes.
“No. But he was injured in a protest. June 16,” Bongiwe disclosed.
“Eish. A lot of children were hurt on that day.” They shook their heads in unison.
“We were happy that he had survived. But he never really recovered. The bullet went through his lungs. He died in December last year.”
“You’re very strong,” Thula acknowledged in quiet admiration. “I couldn’t talk about it for a very long time after my brother died. He was a freedom fighter.”
“I think we had enough time to get used to the idea of him no longer being with us. He was very sick,” Bongiwe said. “I’m also sorry about your brother.” She added.
She allowed herself to meet Thula’s gaze. She saw something in the other girl’s black eyes that made her feel less alone. It was a feeling she was grateful for; even if it was just momentary.
A manual bell sounded and students started to form lines all around them. A few girls approached them and stood between Thula and Bongiwe. Thula walked away without a word.
“You should stay away from that girl,” someone whispered into Bongiwe’s ear. She turned to face the speaker; recognizing her as one of the girls who had glowered at her as she had entered the school earlier.
“She’s a pervert,” said her shorter companion.
“Yup. She thinks she’s a boy. She likes girls in that way.”
Bongiwe turned away from them and stared at the sand between her school shoes. She couldn’t understand why, but she felt her face burning with shame. Even though the accusation hadn’t been made about her; she felt exposed by it. During the Lord’s Prayer, she turned to look at the back of the row she was in. She caught Thula staring right at her. She had that knowing look in her eyes again, but this time her face carried none of the friendliness she had shared before.
Bongiwe didn’t see Thula the rest of that day, but she kept an eye out for her.
She spotted her in a park after school. She was playing around with a soccer ball; her white shirt was hanging out of the sides of her short black gym dress and her shoes and grey socks were brown with sand. She kept kicking the ball into a net-less goal post and running to retrieve it; only to repeat the exercise once more.
“And it’s a goal!” Bongiwe yelled after watching Thula score for the fifth time in a row. Even though she was playing alone; she made the goals complicated to achieve. She kicked the ball from further and further away from the goal post, from different angles, varying the speeds of her run ups to the ball.
Thula straightened up and placed her hands on her waist. She didn’t hide her surprise at seeing Bongiwe there.
“Teach me,” Bongiwe said, playfully kicking at the ball. She offered Thula one of her more friendly smiles. Thula received it graciously and grinned back at her.
“First of all, you’re kicking it the wrong way,” Thula said, chuckling. “You have to use your foot to direct the ball. You can’t do that if you kick it with the tip of your big toe. You have to kick it from an angle, like this.”
Bongiwe watched carefully as the other girl placed the inside of her shoe against the roundness of the ball. Thula looked up suddenly.
“You see that dustbin over there?” she said, pointing at a concrete bin a few meters away from them, to the left. Bongiwe nodded. “I’m going to try get the ball there. So I’m going to have to place my foot against the ball in that direction.”
Thula demonstrated what she intended to do and sent the ball whizzing in the direction of the bin. The ball slammed into the side of the bin and bounced off.
“Okay let me try!” Bongiwe said excitedly. She ran after the ball before Thula could stop her. She was pleased when she felt Thula running behind her. When she reached the ball she felt a surge of inspiration and acted quickly. She grabbed the ball by hand and ran further way from Thula with it.
“Hey!” Thula exclaimed, with laughter bubbling in her throat. Bongiwe was small and fast; but Thula was a seasoned runner, so she caught up to the other girl quickly. When Bongiwe felt Thula nearing she quickly swerved in the other direction. Thula had anticipated this move and dived forward. She wrapped an arm around Bongiwe’s waist and the force of her dive sent them both onto the grass.
Bongiwe refused to relinquish the ball, so Thula decided to tickle her for it. They were laughing so hard it became difficult for either of them to do anything with conviction. Bongiwe’s grasp on the ball weakened and Thula’s tickles became inconsequential. Thula tried to take advantage of that moment but Bongiwe caught her rapid movement out of the corner of her eye and pulled the ball out of Thula’s reach.
Thula sighed in exasperation and fell back on her elbows to look down at Bongiwe, who was lying on her back. Another look passed between them and quieted their laughter.
“You’re different,” Thula said. Bongiwe smiled.
“So are you,” she said.
“I know. But you’re a good kind of different.”
“So are you,” Bongiwe said, firmly.
“I know what those girls told you about me. I’m not really like that. I mean, I’m not sure I’m really like that. They just say I’m like that because I cut my hair and play soccer.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being like that,” Bongiwe said softly. They looked at each other intently once more. Thula grinned suddenly.
“I do think there’s something wrong with being like this,” she said and scrambled off the ground and grabbed the ball out of Bongiwe’s hands. Bongiwe laughed in surprise and got up off the ground as well. “If you want me to teach you how to play this game you have to promise not to run off with my ball. Deal?”
Bongiwe smirked. “Okay, deal,” she said, nodding.
“Okay so we’re gonna pass it to each other. I pass it to you and you must try stop it with your foot and kick it back to me. Okay?”
“Okay,” Bongiwe still had a smirk on her face. Thula noticed it and paused.
“Look, don’t try anything funny, okay?” Thula said, although she was giggling as she spoke.
As soon as Thula kicked the ball in Bongiwe’s direction, the other girl bent down and grabbed it into her hands and started running.
After that day, they became inseparable. Fellow students accused them of being a couple; of both being perverted and strange. They were accused of being queer. Thula’s mother, mam’Beatrice, was the only person who trusted the innocence of their friendship. Bongiwe spent almost every day in the big white house with its pot plants and shrubbery. If she and Thula weren’t listening to Thula’s late brother’s music in the dining room; they were helping mam’Beatrice bake in the kitchen. If they weren’t smoking cigarettes on the school grounds, they were skipping classes to go play their unique brand of soccer at the park.
Bongiwe never did learn how to play soccer properly.
When her aunt died and she had to share the responsibility of raising dozens of young children – consisting of her aunt’s children and the children of her mother’s other estranged siblings – with her mother; the only reprieve she had from the growing pains of being a black teenage girl in Apartheid ridden South Africa, was Thula’s friendship.
Initially, their friendship progressed like an ordinary one. They spent a lot of time together; teased each other, got up to generic kinds of mischief with one another. But over time, each girl started developing feelings that didn’t feel very platonic, for the other.
Bongiwe was the first to broach the subject. They were lying on Thula’s bedroom floor listening to Oliver Mtukudzi’s album, Chokwadi Chichabuda. Bongiwe flipped herself over from lying on her back to leaning on her elbows while lying on her stomach. Thula reached up and brushed a strand of hair out of Bongiwe’s face.
“Sometimes, I feel like you would make a really good boyfriend,” Bongiwe said.
“But, I’m not a boy,” Thula said, chuckling.
“I know. But I think I like that. I like that you’re not a boy. But I still want you to be my boyfriend.”
Thula’s face grew concerned. “Are you being serious?” she asked softly.
“Yes. I would never lie to you, Thula.”
“Sometimes I wish I was a boy so I could be your boyfriend,” Thula said. Bongiwe immediately noticed the tears crawling out of the corners of the other girl’s eyes. She leaned forward and planted gentle kisses along the trail of her tears. Thula closed her eyes. Bongiwe shifted so that she was closer to Thula. She took a deep breath and kissed Thula on the mouth.
Thula seemed to exhale before kissing Bongiwe back. They stayed like that for a long time, crying and making out, with Oliver’s distinct tenor crooning in the background.
It didn’t take long for other people to start noticing the shift in their relationship. Rumors made it difficult for them to be around each other without the interruption of judgmental peers and adults alike. Thula was afraid of getting Bongiwe in trouble. She said that, even though that was the first time she had ever admitted to liking a girl in that way, out loud, she was accustomed to the persecution that came with being perceived as a pervert. Bongiwe was determined to love bravely; to remain true to what her heart wanted.
She made the mistake of openly disclosing the nature of her relationship with Thula to her mother, when confronted about it. Her mother sent her away to go live with her paternal relatives in Orlando. She was forbidden from visiting Alexandra or having any contact with Thula.
She had never bothered learning Thula’s address or telephone number – she had never had to because they always found a way to be together – so she had no way of explaining her disappearance to Thula when she left.
It was years before she returned to the township that had changed her life forever. Years before she saw Thula; as a grown self-assured woman, who knew exactly who she was and felt no shame about it.
By the time Bongiwe found her way back to Alex, she had been changed by an overzealously religious old woman’s dogma, an abusive marriage and young motherhood. Alex was the place her family went to, in order to escape their troubles. And while it had been the memory of a dying and then dead child that initially brought them to the eclectic township; Bongiwe’s return was spurred by the threat of a brutally violent ex husband.
She had carried no expectations of ever seeing Thula again, let alone reconciling with her. But when they had seen each other in passing, shortly after her return; the look they exchanged filled her chest with bittersweet joy. Thula had acknowledged the three small children clutching onto Bongiwe; the white and green church uniform and averted gaze whenever she saw the people Thula moved around with.
It was clear that Bongiwe had no way of returning to the truth they had bravely shared as teenagers. But it was also clear that Bongiwe still had those same unwavering feelings for the other woman.
Thula kept a respectful distance; while letting Bongiwe know that she still cared, in quiet but significant ways.
Whenever Bongiwe’s ex husband tracked her down; strangers who claimed to know Thula would help her and her children relocate. There was always a safe new home for them to move into instantly; a little bit of money to get them through the adjustment and rent paid ahead for two or more months.
Bongiwe tried many times to approach Thula in public, to thank her, to let her know that she was grateful but the other woman always shook her head slightly, gifted her a small smile and turned away.
About a month or so before Thula was brutally murdered – for living her truth, till the very end – she visited Bongiwe in the dead of the night. They had stood out in the yard Bongiwe and her children shared with a bunch of other families; silently sharing a cigarette. After a while Bongiwe started remembering the day they had played in the park together for the first time.
Thula noticed her smile before it had fully formed.
“Do you remember?” Bongiwe whispered.
Thula stepped closer to her then, a sad smile on her face. She nodded. Bongiwe started crying. Thula held her in her arms. They stood that way for a long time, wrapped in each other’s arms and precious memories. When it looked as though dawn was approaching, Thula kissed Bongiwe’s forehead and quietly walked out of the yard.
The next time they saw each other was in the street, separated by their differing lifestyles. The smile they shared was tender, and hopeful.
That was the last time Bongiwe had seen Thula alive.
December 22nd, 2009
“See when I touch the sky,
Earth’s gravity is pulling me down.
But now I’ve reconciled,
That in this world,
Birds and angels get no wings to fly.
I can’t believe in this heart of mine,
Oh, if you can give it a try,
Then I’ll reach inside and find and give you all the,
Sweetness that I have.” – Tracy Chapman, At this Point in my Life (1995)
It was night time and all of the small children had left mam’Beatrice’s yard. Bongiwe and the old woman were in her kitchen sharing tearful memories over a pot of tea and the scones Bongiwe had brought.
“I feel like, if I had allowed our friendship to remain just a friendship, things would be different. Thula would still be here,” Bongiwe said softly.
“You think you made Thula a lesbian?” mam’Beatrice said incredulously. Bongiwe was taken aback by the old woman’s easy usage of the word. She had never even used it to describe herself or Thula. But she nodded.
“If there’s anything I learned from Thula and her friends it is that, sexuality is a truth much deeper than influence or peer pressure. They found each other because they were similar; had similar values, not because they recruited each other. I didn’t know that you and Thula were the same, at first. I thought you just cared about my child. You were the first true friend she ever had. But over the years I have met many who are like you. Girls who like make up and dresses and long hair.”
Bongiwe smiled; surprised at how affirming the old woman’s words felt to her.
“I wish I could have taken you in when you came back. But Thula said it wasn’t what you wanted. She said we could find other ways to take care of you. But she didn’t want to bring you back into a life that would be hard for you to live.”
“It wouldn’t have been hard, Ma. If anything it was so hard not to be with her.”
“She didn’t know that, my child. She thought that she had caused the trouble between you and your mother.”
“We both blamed ourselves,” Bongiwe said, fresh tears spilling down her cheeks. “She thought it was her fault that I got sent away. And I thought it was my fault that she became like that for real. And ultimately got killed for it.”
“Oh, my child. Please, if you believe nothing else; please understand that neither of you did anything wrong,” the old woman grasped Bongiwe’s hands in hers. “You did nothing wrong by loving each other, Bongiwe. That was the greatest gift you could have given each other.”
This story is a sequel to Gomorrah is Burning
Mercy Thokozane Minah © The Letter X Publishing House, 2019