My happiest memories of those early days in Blikkiesdorp are about my brother Jabulani fluttering about in our small tin-can house like a butterfly, scattering clothes and plates and things, singing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica”, blowing a yellow vuvuzela, and sticking posters of the FIFA World Cup on the corrugated walls of our house. He and Thabo, the last kid, had been the wildest in the family since we were evicted from Athlone and camped here. Jabulani was ten and tall already, with hair so big and fluffy and fine. Thabo was three and had hair as rough as a foot mat. Mama said the boys’ brains had gone faulty for turning almost everything in the house into objects of football madness. Jabulani had written the words BAFANA BAFANA in blue ink on all his shirts and on Thabo’s. He had written the same words on the walls of our house, and Mama did not like that. Thabo, who had no vuvuzela of his own, made vuvuzela sounds with his mouth. Now he had begun to upset Mama the most because since we failed to give him a proper toy, he was always straying into other people’s tin houses, looking for something funny. After we saw him playing with a used sanitary pad he picked from God knows where, Mama said Thabo would pick up a snake next.
Watching the boys turn the cold winter house upside down warmed my blood and made me happy. The cold got us. Because our house was constructed of corrugated iron sheets, the inside of it felt too cold at night. Sometimes we felt as though we were living in a fridge. Mama made sure we covered our hands and feet with old Shoprite plastic bags picked from garbage bins in Athlone. And Mama yelled at us the moment we took them off for the ordinary reason that they made us look like we were from the refuse dump.
Chocolate, my sister, was fourteen and fat like a woman. Her hair was short, shorter than Jabulani’s, and she had a round face prettied with quick bright Zulu eyes. She would not let Mama rest with talk of Big Brother Africa. The first time Mama saw the reality show was at our former neighbourhood in Athlone, on a neighbour’s TV. She loved the idea that people from different parts of Africa could come together and live under one roof. But she hated the smoking and drinking and gals showing their bums like prostitutes.
“If you go there, Chocolate,” Mama said, “those people will kill you with smoking.”
“Cha, Mama,” Chocolate disagreed. “You don’t trust your daughter again or what?”
“Trust? Hm. Anyway, if you go there, you won’t win because they won’t like you.”
“Aaaa, Mama, don’t say so. But they will never know.”
“Somehow, they will know.”
Jabulani came in, caught the theme of the conversation and said:
“Mama, if I go there, what do you think will happen?”
“What I think?”
“Yebo,” Jabulani said, nodding.
“You are a fine boy,” Mama said, grabbing two Shoprite plastic bags for her freezing hands. “You will cause a fight among the girls.”
“Haha!” Jabulani said, dancing. “What of Thabo, Mama?”
Thabo, hearing his name bobbed his head up and smiled, his hands and feet swollen with his Shoprite bags. In a way he resembled a child boxer. In another, he looked like a frogman in a wildlife documentary. He hiccupped and giggled.
“Everybody will like Thabo because he is a happy boy,” Mama said.
Thabo, not speaking because he is just three years old, began to nod his head, grin widely as if God had made him the prince of smiles in Blikkiesdorp.
“What of Lindiwe, Mama?” Jabulani asked, pointing at me with an unShoprited hand.
“Lindiwe will be feeling so lonely in that Big Brother house,” Mama said. “Everyone will think she is snubbing them, because Lindiwe doesn’t talk. And because Lindiwe won’t show her ass to anybody, they will evict her fast.”
I buried my head between my legs as Mama talked about me.
Chatting up like this in Blikkiesdorp was one thing that made us laugh and come alive and forget how we came to be. We all, except Thabo, knew that even though Mama carried us in her belly, we had different dads. When we were in Athlone, each of the men visited our shack. Chocolate’s dad, Mr S’bu, was a tubby man from Soweto. A very dark man whose teeth were white like stars and whose tongue was red and spotty like the lung of a goat. He visited us a few times. But he was the funniest man I ever knew. When he came he made me laugh my head off as he clapped for the President and the ANC, Mama’s political party. No one heard his claps because they were claps with two fingers. He was a man of great ironies. When we asked him what he had brought for us he said, “They will come by post! Courier. DHL.” Chocolate was always disappointed in him.
“You can’t buy a loaf of bread and you say you are my dad,” she muttered at him.
“Ah, easy, easy, darling,” he would say, his face swelling with a smile. “Your dad will one day be rich,” he said, slapping his fat, hairy chest and nodding convincingly. “I will make it big! In this life. Hahaha.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“I know better now, darling.”
“Empty talk. Prove it to me.”
He got out a dirty photo of men wearing torch-bearing helmets and boots, men working in a gold mine.
“See this, darling,” he said grinning. “This is where I’ll be working soon.”
“Great!” I said smiling. “That’s good.”
I always believed him. I don’t know why he disappointed us. Mama told us later one night that he never got to work in a gold mine. He had joined a robbery gang and was shot dead in Joburg.
Jabulani’s dad, Mr Lucky, was a cute tall man who smoked dagga in rows and drank too much Castle beer. He gambled a lot. He was the most generous of our dads. When he made a big win, he visited us. I remember him visiting, often when it rained, wearing Wellington boots, which Jabulani would strip him of. I also remember him bringing a large plastic bag that contained cans of Castle beer, Coca-cola, rice, cheese, burgers…. He was a man that should have been rich. But I hated to see him drunk. He would strip himself nude and trouble Mama and Chocolate all through the night for sex, but no one was ready to give it to him. Then he would swear and spit and call all of us prostitutes. He made Jabulani cry and Jabulani always pinched his things night after night until he ran away from us nearly naked.
I’ve never seen my dad before. Mama said she had been raped in Athlone by a big white man. She had wanted an abortion, but decided it was no good shedding innocent blood. So it is not a surprise that I look so different from my siblings, that my skin is light and my hair is long and very soft, softer than Jabulani’s.
As for Thabo, his dad was a handsome cop with shaggy hair. He moved to Lesotho and then we stopped seeing him.
We had all been happy, except Mama, about the World Cup. While we were generally happy and proud of the World Cup, stunned by the breath-taking transformation of Cape Town and the wonder of the Calabash, Mama behaved as if the whole idea of hosting the World Cup was evil.
“The Cup is a curse!” Mama always said.
She always referred to the World Cup as “the Cup”, and it carried a greater meaning for us. It became frightening for me when she said she was not going to drink her medicines anymore because Jabulani had scattered them and her old steel cup with the sound of the vuvuzela.
“Is Satan making a camp inside your head, Jabu!” Mama thundered.
“Aaaah, sorry,” Jabulani said, rushing forward to gather up the scattered medicines and steel cup.
“Another bad sign!” she moaned.
“What, Mama?” I asked.
“That cup is cursed, Jabulani,” she said to Jabulani. “I’m not drinking out of it again.”
“Don’t worry, Mama,” Jabulani said, with a cute smile. “When we win the World Cup, I’ll tell President Zuma that you want to drink from the gold cup.”
“That cup has no cavity,” I said. “Nobody can drink with it.”
“That cup is cursed,” Mama said, referring perhaps to her steel cup. “And the medicines. I will throw them away!”
“This is no time for superstition, Mama,” Jabulani said, smiling. “There is a World Cup in our country. Bafana Bafana will get the cup, Mama.”
“Bafana Bafana my foot!” Mama spat. “Don’t even start hoping, Jabu.”
“Why are you talking like this, Mama?”
“Disappointment.” She stood up from her bed, snatched the vuvuzela from Jabulani. “Blessed are those who do not hope, for they will not be disappointed.”
“That is not in the bible, Mama.”
She waved the vuvuzela in the air, searched for where to throw it into. “Who says the bible says everything?”
“Your faith is changing, Ma,” I said, looking at the FIFA posters on the wall.
“You don’t preach faith to me, Brenda,” Mama snarled at me. “You are not Desmond Tutu.”
“Sorry, Mama,” I apologized. “I was only joking.”
“Well, your Mama is not in a mood for joking. Not as long as I am in this camp,” she snapped, knocking Jabulani’s vuvuzela against the tin wall.
Jabulani stared long at Mama, shaking his head. She didn’t use to bite anybody’s liver like this when we were in Athlone.
“Well, I know one thing, Mama. I am going to make you happy,” Jabulani said.
“Where is Thabo?”
“Playing football outside.”
“Eish!” Mama yelled. “Your brain is faulty, Jabu. You leave your brother outside, playing Satan’s game. Go get him, idiot!”
Mama had always been superstitious, but now she behaved as if a secret god of this camp was eating up her soul. We had always been poor, for all I remember, but Mama had never been depressed. She had been a strong wilful woman who never married and yet brought Chocolate and Jabulani and me and Thabo into this world. She always talked to us about freedom, about Nelson Mandela, about the ANC and how it fought for the blacks of my country. She said we could be poor and still be free. But when we came to Blikkiesdorp, she said we could no longer be free. We would queue up for charities. But we would never get enough food for ourselves. We were far away from everything. We could not leave Blikkiesdorp after 10 in the night. We were sent armed policemen to keep us in leash so that the tourists from different corners of the world coming for the World Cup would not see us. On the day we relocated to this place, a bad wind was blowing, throwing sand into everybody’s eyes. Mama bent down and packed the grey sand in both her hands. She let the sand stream out between her fingers back to the ground. She looked here and there like one who had just woken up on another planet.
“No tree grows here,” she said. “No grass. It is a cursed ground!”
On the day of the opening World Cup match, the day Bafana Bafana would play against Mexico, Chocolate painted her face with the colours of our country’s flag.
“Where are you going, Chocolate?”
“To make new friends, Mama,” she answered.
“Be careful, baby.”
“I will, Mama. I am always careful. I’m not like you.”
“Don’t let anybody without a condom say hello to you.”
“Heard you, Mama. I’m not like you. Or I would have been ten times pregnant.”
“Don’t insult your mama.”
“Oh, Mama, you’re too serious, I was joking.”
“Where is Jabu?”
“Sneaked out like a rat,” I said.
“He’s been saying he wants to see Lionel Messi ever since we came here,” Chocolate said.
“Who is Messi?” Mama asked, squeezing her face. “Is he Jabu’s father or what?”
“He is a very rich player, Mama,” Chocolate said, smoothening her tight trousers and pulling off her Shoprite hand gloves.
“Leave him alone, Mama,” I said. “He might make big friends. You know he is a magnet.”
“Stop hoping on these things,” she said. “Disappointment is everywhere in South Africa like the air we breathe. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
“Ah, Mama, I need to leave this place before you kill me with disappointment,” Chocolate said, grabbing her bag.
But now someone was standing in the doorway, dark like the inside of a gold mine. He was very big, and he wore a gold watch, a blue jacket and brown chinos trousers. He cleared his throat. Chocolate froze. I scrambled up and grabbed Mama’s arms, screaming. But Mama was not scared. Chocolate wanted to fly out of the room, but there was no space to run out from because Mr S’bu was standing in the doorway.
“Ninjani?” Mr S’bu said.
“A ghost!” I screamed.
“Eish! Who are you calling a ghost?” Mr S’bu said, exposing his red and spotty tongue, his white eyes turning this way and that.
“You are dead,” Chocolate said.
“Your mama said that?”
“What is the difference?” Mama said slowly. “Dead or alive, what can you do, Sibusiso? You are not here for food, because this is a camp. You better leave.”
Mr S’bu, turning to us, began to act as if Mama were not serious, as if Mama were only a comedian gifted in irony, and then he smiled as if everything in the world was good.
“Sweet girls, don’t mind your mama,” he said. “I told you I would make it big. I am here to fulfil my promise.”
“With what?” Chocolate said. “Another talk?”
“I have money now,” he said, bringing out of his pocket a wad of Rand notes. He shook it before our eyes.
“Who did you rob, Sibusiso?” Mama said, her face black with spite.
He ignored her. “Where is Jabu?”
“Gone to see Lionel Messi,” I said.
“He is playing outside.”
“I am taking you out of this camp,” Mr S’bu said. He had the air of a big guy. But I liked it. Chocolate began to warm up to him and to believe him this time. She put her hand on his chest as if all at once he had changed into a sweet boyfriend he never was before now. I joined her to hold Mr S’bu’s arms and torso.
Mama was adamant. “He is a thief.”
But Mr S’bu took it all easy, smiling like Mama were her waiting convert. He went to her, knelt down on one knee as if he was going to propose and said, “Ruth, I have a job now. I sell diamonds.”
“Liar. You stole diamonds from a tourist.”
Mama and Mr S’bu went round and round in this game of accusation and denial, and I got tired of it and prayed to God to bring back Mama’s faith.
“You are not going to stay here,” Mr S’bu said. “I have a house for you already. I have a car to drive you all round to see the World Cup.”
“I am not going anywhere with you, Sibusiso.”
“Why, Mama?” Chocolate yelled.
“I am staying here.”
“I am taking you out of this bad camp,” Mr S’bu said.
“Mama, as for me, I am going,” Chocolate said. “Lindiwe, make up your mind,” she said to me. “Thabooo!” she shouted, searching for Thabo outside
My mind was made up on going. I reached for Mama’s arm, begging. She pulled her arm away.
We left her in Blikkiesdorp Camp. She didn’t turn to look at us waving a goodbye at her. Mr S’bu was a big man. He could bribe his way in and out of the camp. It was strange to see some cops respect him because he had money.
We drove in Mr S’bu’s car to see the Calabash, to see Jabulani and Messi. Chocolate was so happy he leaned over to Mr S’bu and kissed him on the cheek. Though I was happy to leave the camp in Blikkiesdorp, I could not stop thinking about Mama.
Nnamdi Oguike was raised in parsonages, where storytelling, music and poetry were integral to life. His writing has appeared in The Dalhousie Review and on the literary blog Brittle Paper. His story ‘Preparations for Easter in Ajegunle’ won the first runner-up prize in the Africa Book Club short story competition. He plays the violin and collects world music.