I was born four years before Mmaphuti, I was her leader. Our parents had no more children after her, for that reason Mmaphuti had my full attention and she was my dedicated follower, in every sense of the word. From the time she could speak, Mmaphuti imitated everything I did. From the time she was able to walk, she followed me everywhere. Mmaphuti grew fond of me. We were siblings after all.

We both attended the village school. I was three classes ahead of her since she went to school at an earlier age. When she was in grade two, she used to wait until the grade fives knocked off. She would sit and wait outside of my classroom, tired and hungry. Some learners at school were amused by her trailing me everywhere and they even nicknamed her my “Shadow”. Sometimes I got irritated and tried to sneak away from her. As time went by I accepted her as my shadow and would make plans for the both of us.

One day, I informed Mmaphuti that we were going to the stream that day. She looked at me quizzically and asked what we were going to do there. Giggling, I said that we were going to swim and asked her whether she wasn’t tired of playing dibeke and diketo in the village. I could see that she was a bit nervous. Our mother never allowed us to go close to the stream or to go into the bush alone.

We arrived at the stream at around 3 o’clock. I took my uniform off and stepped into the water. Mmaphuti stood there motionless with her uniform off too. I yelled at her to come into the water and told her that it was a lot of fun. My enthusiasm and demands made the choice easier for her and she stepped into the water. I made the experience more comfortable for her by splashing water on her.

“Lel-e-e!” she screamed as she decided to hit back. We started chasing each other around, each one trying to splash the other. After hours of enjoying ourselves, we left the stream towards evening. We got into our school uniforms and started running towards home. We were both shivering from the cold of the water.

On our way home, we came across a group of boys sitting around a fire eating fried birds. They invited us to join them and because Mmaphuti and I were so cold, we decided to sit around the fire with them for a while. Setumu was there. He shared a table with me in class. Next to him was a dead rabbit.

“Help yourselves girls, you look hungry,” said Setumu. We ate and listened to another boy, Rakosha, telling tales. He told his tales so well that we all wanted to hear more. By the time we left the bush it was already dark outside. I knew that we were in trouble.

When we got home, our mother was lighting the fire. She ignored us and did not talk to us until she had finished stoking the fire.

“You two girls have not come home straight from school. Where have you been?” she asked suspiciously.

“Um, we were looking for firewood,” I replied awkwardly. I didn’t like lying to our mother. Besides, she has punished us before for lying.

“Mmaphuti is that true? Where you looking for firewood?” mother asked.

Mmaphuti didn’t want to betray me so she took what she thought was the safest way out, which also made us look more suspicious. SILENCE. The silence seemed to drag on forever. Although I avoided my mother’s gaze, I could tell she was still searching for clues. Mmaphuti and I were both trembling from fear. Mother came closer to me and sniffed my khaki shirt. Then she sniffed Mmaphuti’s. That was when I raised my head to look at her. I saw confusion then anger on her face.

“You smell of smoke. Where have you two been?” she asked in a frighteningly calm voice.

“We were swimming then we sat-sat-sat by the fire with Setumu and his friends,” I stammered.

There was another silence, then mother turned to me.

“As the older one, I expected you to show more responsibility,” she said as she fetched her belt.

It was a hard, black leather belt. We took turns receiving painful blows from that belt. The beating was accompanied with strong words which felt like a hammer pounding our hearts.

“To show that I am not happy with what you have done, there will be no supper for you tonight. If you wanted supper you would have been here to help me prepare it.” I stared at her in dismay. Mmaphuti had tears running down her face. Other than that she showed no reaction.

Mother started dishing up a meal of prepared pumpkin leaves and mogodu, my favourite. I thought I was going to collapse with hunger. She covered the food and took it inside the house together with thickened maize porridge. Mother then came back into the kitchen. She put the porridge, vegetables and tripe that remained in a metal plate and started eating. Mmaphuti and I watched her hungrily as she swallowed each mouthful.

It might have seemed cruel but we learned a lot from that experience. The most valuable lesson was to be more careful in the future. Mother’s punishment did not prevent us from going to the stream. We just made sure that we collected our share of firewood before we went and that we returned home in good time.

Mother probably thought that we went to play with our friends, but we had discovered that the bush and the stream had become like lifelong friends. There was a certain freedom that we found from being in the water and playing hide and seek in the mountains. We were blessed with feasting on wild animals around an inviting fire. These experiences were more precious than any of the games we played at school. We had even taught ourselves to swim properly and often we would compete over who could swim the furthest. Even so, we still playfully splashed each other every time we went to the stream.

By the time I was seventeen and Mmaphuti was thirteen, we went to an initiation ceremony which was held annually for young girls who had just reached puberty. We giggled and mumbled comments to each other.

Several times the ceremony had to be interrupted as the older women broke off their singing to warn us.

“You are women now, not children. Contain yourselves with dignity or your parents will have to pay four chickens to the committee.”

Yet being women didn’t stop us from doing crazy stuff together. It was now a part of our lives. A year later I was doing matric and Mmaphuti was doing grade nine. I needed money for my tertiary studies the following year. It was a difficult time for all of us because our mother was a single parent.

She was now faced with the challenging task of cultivating the maize field and harvesting enough to not only eat, but also to sell for our livelihood and for our studies too. Now that we weren’t children any more, we usually came home late from school due to the workload. We ended up helping on weekends only.

One Saturday mother told us that there would be a family meeting. The meeting was held in our house that afternoon. Apart from my mother and us, there were her two sisters and her younger brother, who lived in the neighbouring village, and uncle Ramothemi, who lived in the city. Uncle Ramothemi started speaking.

“Last month, your mother came to me. She has been struggling financially since your father passed away. She has asked me to assist her, we made a decision which we all support as your elders.” He turned to her. For the first time in her life, my mother looked nervous.

“Your uncle is right. You all know how we are suffering. I find it hard to find money and it is worse now than ever. Lele and Mmaphuti, every term you are chased away from school because you have no school fees.” She was close to tears now. “I can no longer afford to look after you both and to support you financially. I do not have enough money. Please understand,” she sobbed.

“So…” continued Aunt Letheba, “we have decided that Lele will move to the city with uncle Ramothemi and that I will take Mmaphuti with me. This is your last month in the village my children.”

Mother nodded. “I tried to avoid such a decision, and I have been around the village borrowing money but, it is difficult. I love you both and I want what’s best for you.”

Tears were running down my cheek. I couldn’t imagine my life without Mmaphuti.

Mother continued, “I even spoke to our chairperson about you but he said that he already assists three orphans from this village. He says he does not have enough money for two more children.”

We spent the summer holidays together. For the first time in our lives we spent each day as our last. Before we knew it, it was January and the holidays were over. My matric results were sent to our school. Mmaphuti accompanied me to collect them. I had passed! We went back home and told mother the good news.

That evening, mother prepared our favourite dish of samp and beans. Mmaphuti also passed her grade so we had a good reason to celebrate. After supper we went to our room and packed all our clothes. The moment that we have been dreading had arrived. We spoke and shared our memories. I promised Mmaphuti that I would write to her every two weeks and she promised to do the same.

“Go out there and make mother and I proud, I know that you can do it,” Mmaphuti said with tears in her eyes. I kissed her forehead and nodded.

The next morning, uncle Ramothemi arrived in his Mercedes Benz class E. I hugged mother goodbye and turned to Mmaphuti.

“Regardless of this challenge, regardless of the distance and regardless of the circumstances we are facing, you are and forever will be my life partner.”