The school looked just the same as she remembered from when she had visited before, big and scary. She remembered standing at the gate waiting for Lelethu, who then went off with her new friends, leaving Pholisa crying on the street. What if Lelethu did that again? What if she was embarrassed to be seen with me? Pholisa wondered.
Look at her, Pholisa thought, glancing over at Lelethu who was greeting everyone with hugs and chatting away … She’s the queen of style. Appearances mean everything to her. And here I am, a dry village girl, wearing a uniform from Pep. I don’t fit in.
“Don’t worry, chommie, I won’t leave your side,” Lelethu’s voice answered her thoughts. “I promise,” she assured Pholisa, taking her hand and walking through the big steel gates of Harmony High.
As they walked in, hand in hand, Pholisa tried to push her anxieties aside. The place looked clean and shiny; Pholisa could almost see their reflections in the red tiles. It was nothing like the small school she attended in the village, made of dung and grass.
“Mantombi, girls, may I help you?” the secretary’s voice was soft and calm. Pholisa looked up and saw the warm smile on the older woman’s face.
“Yes, Miss,” Lelethu walked up to the counter, still clutching Pholisa’s hand. “This is Pholisa Kula from the Eastern Cape. She is to start school today,” Lelethu said with confidence.
“Oh, yes, welcome Nontombi,” the secretary said, smiling even more broadly. They had been informed she would be coming. Gogo had made sure her principal from her old school had made the arrangements. “Did you bring your report and transfer papers?”
Pholisa couldn’t speak, so she just took out the papers and handed them over. The woman looked at them and slipped them into a file. “There you go,” she said handing Pholisa a timetable. “You are in Ms Ntuli’s class,” she smiled.
Pholisa took the timetable and looked at it. This was confirmation that she now belonged. “Thank you, Miss,” she said in her thick Xhosa accent, making the woman smile broadly at her.
“Ready for your first day?” Lazola was standing outside the staffroom.
“She is. Pholisa’s the smartest person I know and she’ll rock all her classes,” Lelethu answered for her.
“No doubt. I’m here to escort you to your class,” Lazola said smiling at Pholisa.
Pholisa didn’t think she needed an escort. She could just walk with Lelethu to find her class. “I’m the prefect, so it’s part of my duties to see that new students don’t get to class late while looking for the right place,” he explained when he saw the worried look on her face.
“See you later, chommie. I’ll be at the sports field at break, so come join me there,” Lelethu said squeezing Pholisa’s hand. Pholisa squeezed back.
“We don’t want to be late,” Lazola said, taking Pholisa’s other hand and walking towards the classrooms.
His hand felt cool against Pholisa’s warm, nervous palm, his grip tight but gentle. Pholisa couldn’t believe she was holding hands with such a hot guy on her first day at school. What would her gogo say? What would Masi say if he saw her? She jerked her hand away from Lazola’s and wiped it on her skirt.
She turned to look behind her and Lelethu was still standing there, looking at them. She disappeared from her view as they turned the corner of the building.
Lazola showed her to her class and then left. It was noisy in the classroom. Everyone knew each other – and it showed. They all talked happily to each other. Pholisa stood alone by the door, surveying the room and trying to find a place to sit. She spotted a table and headed straight for it, silently praying that it didn’t belong to anyone else. It would be terrible if she drew attention to herself. She wanted to stay invisible.
None of the learners was seated at their desks; they were gathered in little groups, chatting about the holidays.
“Hee, d’you hear she got pregnant?” one girl asked in a hushed voice as she walked past them.
“Does she even know who the father is?” another asked.
In the corner, a group of boys stood, some sitting on the edge of a table. One was showing the group some pictures on his phone.
“Tjo, tjo tjo, uyababa lomntana,” one remarked, talking about some girl their friend had hooked up with over the holidays. They all thought she was hot and saluted their friend, laughing their approval.
Pholisa wondered if anyone had noticed her. She doubted it. She felt envious of them. If she were back in her old school she would be doing the same. The teacher walked in but still the chattering did not stop.
“Class!” she yelled. “Settle down, everyone. Settle down!”
Everyone scurried to their desks. Luckily for Pholisa, no one asked her to move from her desk. She had managed to stay unnoticed. Now if only I could keep this up till the end of school, she thought.
“We have a new learner in our class this year,” Ms Ntuli announced.
Oh no, no no … Pholisa felt like hiding.
“Would you stand up and introduce yourself?” the teacher asked, looking straight at her.
Pholisa got up slowly. She had to speak in English because Ms Ntuli had addressed her in English. And the timetable said she was the English teacher. Keeping her eyes fixed on her trembling hands, Pholisa introduced herself.
“My name is Pholisa Kula, from Dumazile village in the Eastern Cape.”
The class erupted in laughter and Pholisa sank down in her chair. She couldn’t even look around to see who was laughing and who wasn’t. It was her thick accent they were laughing at, she knew it.
The teacher ordered them to stop laughing, that it wasn’t polite to make fun of someone because they were different. At her words, Pholisa could feel her eyes sting with fresh, new pain. Tears immediately welled up in her eyes. She couldn’t be seen crying now – that would be the ultimate embarrassment. She turned to the window and wiped them before they fell down her face.
Gogo, I need you, she thought as the voices faded off into the background.
When break time came, she went to sit by the fence, far away from all the students. All the teachers had made her introduce herself, and in each class the kids had laughed like it was something new. She sat there and cried, hating Cape Town and missing her gogo and her village.
“There you are,” a familiar voice brought her back. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” Lelethu said sitting on the grass next to her. “What’s wrong?” she asked when she noticed Pholisa’s red eyes and tear-stained face.
Pholisa told Lelethu how horrible her first day had been. Lelethu listened and gave her a hug.
“You got off easy, my friend. Mna, I got into a fight with the school’s bully when I first arrived,” Lelethu said.
“Tjo, what happened? You never told me that.”
“Eish, some fool called me umafikizolo, and I klapped him,” Lelethu said.
“That hot head of yours, wena,” Pholisa said knocking on Lelethu’s head. The girls laughed. Already Pholisa was feeling better.
“You must do an afterschool activity,” Lelethu advised. “Yes, you loved netball at primary, remember? You can play it here too. When they see how good you are, nobody will dare laugh at their star player.”
Pholisa listened. Lelethu was right. It would be an easy way to make friends; people always liked you if you had something in common with them.
“Or you could join me in the drama club – it’s fun and it’ll help you lose the accent just like that,” Lelethu said snapping her fingers for effect.
“What’s wrong with my accent?” asked Pholisa defiantly.
“Oh, nothing,” Lelethu said quickly, seeing that Pholisa was hurt. “But come to drama. Lazola will be there.”
Pholisa blushed at the thought. “Is he any good?” she asked, trying to mask her smile.
“Yes, but not as good as me,” laughed Lelethu. “One day I’ll be on Generations. The ‘new-and-improved’ Dineo Mashaba.” Lelethu got up and did an impersonation of Dineo’s feisty walk. She walked four steps and turned, like the models do on TV. Then she started posing for Pholisa’s imaginary camera.
The girls laughed until their stomachs were sore.
Before Pholisa knew it, school was over. It wasn’t so bad, especially Maths and English class. She stood at the gate and waited for Lelethu to say her goodbyes to her classmates. Then they headed to Asanda’s house to get Pholisa’s hair plaited.
“Umflerhe kak’hle, with a nice zigzag design,” Lelethu gave instructions.
Pholisa didn’t mind what the plaits looked like, as long she didn’t have to comb her coarse hair every morning.
They were sitting in Asanda’s living room watching TV. Well, Lelethu was. Asanda was busy plaiting and Pholisa had to keep moving her head around. She could only listen to the show, Jerseylicious on the Style network. Asanda’s house, like Lelethu’s, had DStv.
“Sies, she’s got no shame,” Lelethu commented when one woman started flirting with another’s husband. “Klap her!” she yelled to the screen.
“You know they can’t hear you, right?” Asanda teased and Pholisa cracked up.
“I don’t know why you watch that nonsense,” Asanda said. “It’s all acting, none of it’s real,” she said, pulling Pholisa’s head up to start another row of cornrows.
Asanda hadn’t taken long, and soon they were escorting Pholisa home. As they walked, Pholisa noticed the first of the streetlights flicker on. Where did the time go? Masixole would be home by now. She had to hurry. Masixole had a temper, but she didn’t want to tell the girls that.
“I’m glad we don’t have a TV. I would get no work done and watch it night and day,” Pholisa said as they walked.
“I only watch it when we eat. My mother loves Generations and makes sure she dishes just before it starts,” Asanda said.
“There’s something wrong with you two. If you don’t watch TV how will you know what’s in and what’s not?” Lelethu said. “You need to be clued up, girls,” she added and they laughed with her.
When they got to her house, Pholisa noticed that the door was open, but the lights were not on yet. She opened the gate slowly, not wanting it to creak, in case Masi was asleep.
“Thanks, guys, I’m safe now,” she said standing outside the gate.
“Oh, okay, we’ll see you tomorrow then. Sleep tight,” Asanda said hugging her.
“Yhu, this one won’t sleep. She’ll be staring at the mirror all night,” Lelethu said, licking her finger and placing it on Pholisa’s shoulder, making a sizzling sound as she did so, meaning Pholisa was looking hot with her new hairstyle.
“Stop being such a drama queen,” Pholisa said softly, trying to keep her voice down. The last thing she wanted was for Masi to come outside.
Lelethu walked past her and tried to open the gate.
“Chommie, it’s late, you should head back.”
“Let me say hi kubhuti k’qala,” Lelethu said walking in.
“He’s probably sleeping, maybe tomorrow,” Pholisa urged, following behind Lelethu. She didn’t know what mood Masi would be in and she didn’t want to be embarrassed.
“I won’t keep him,” Lelethu smiled.
Lelethu hadn’t seen Masi since Gogo’s funeral, and Pholisa realised that her friend still liked him. She also knew better than to try to stop her. Lelethu was strong-headed – what she wanted, she usually got. Pholisa turned and waved to Asanda, mouthing a thank-you as she stepped inside the house.
“Pholisa, is this the time to come home?” Masixole roared.
“Xolo,” Pholisa answered shyly.
“Hurry up, the house won’t light itself,” he said getting up.
“Molo, bhuti,” Lelethu greeted, standing at the door. Masixole didn’t answer. He walked to the door and took his jacket from the hook. He pulled it on and walked right past Lelethu and out the door. Pholisa was relieved he was gone, embarrassed at his rudeness.
“Sorry, he was in a rush,” she said, as she searched for matches to light the paraffin lamps.
But Lelethu didn’t appear worried. “He’s still as hot as ever,” she replied. They hugged goodbye and then Pholisa watched from the door as Lelethu ran and danced down the street to a melody in her own head.
Masixole came back some minutes later with chicken wrapped in a newspaper. He had gone to the Somalian shop down the road to get supper.
“You’re wasting paraffin,” he grumbled when he found Pholisa kneeling at the little table doing her homework. “Why didn’t you do this when the sun was still out, instead of giggling all day with those girls talking nonsense?”
Pholisa immediately closed her books and slipped them back in her backpack. She feared him in this mood. And talking back to him now would just make things worse.
She cooked in awkward silence as Masi sprawled on the sofa. When she was done she dished and took his plate to him. She sat to eat on the floor, like she used to back in her village.
“Ibinjan’imini yakho namhlanje? How was your day today?” she asked, trying to ease the tension.
“Do I ask you what you did in school? When did my work become indaba zabafazi, women’s business?” he shouted at her.
Things couldn’t have gone well today, she thought. Maybe tomorrow he will get a job. These things took time and they had only been in Cape Town for a week. But her bhuti was under pressure, and he needed to find a job fast. “Amadoda can’t cope when they don’t work. Work is their sanity, their calling in life; to provide for and protect their families,” she remembered Gogo saying.
“Switch off that light and go to bed,” Masixole ordered as he shrugged on his jacket.
Uyaphi, where are you going? Pholisa wanted to ask but knew better. She watched him walk out into the night; she heard him lock the door from the outside. Pholisa did as she was told. She went to bed. She knew he had started drinking again. And when he drank his temper was worse.
All she could do was hope that he would not get into trouble – something Masixole enjoyed.
Tell us: Lelethu and Pholisa are quite different characters. Do you think it’s possible for such different kinds of people to be friends? Why/why not?