Conversations in Alice

Alice – named after Princess Alice, daughter of the British Queen Victoria is a small town in the Eastern Cape and the first place I saw the sun. I was born in Victoria Hospital on July 11 1984. I grew up in eMpozisa village just outside Alice.

A wake up in eMpozisa is fresh – you wake up, open the window and inhale the air – open the door, step outside barefoot and onto warm cattle dung. The serenity of the place calms your soul. We refer to this place as our home. Alice is a drift away from the escarpment – a place of summer rain and green hills. Clan names are scattered around the region. People visit each other in different villages, whether to send that letter with a message of umcimbi – a traditional ceremony to take place, or to fetch that live chicken you were promised last summer as an incentive to pass well at school.

There is one Mayibuye bus that is transport for everyone in the different villages. This bus comes around to the bus stops of the villages to take every one to town – eDikeni edolopini and by one o’clock everyone must be ready as it would be idling at the bus stop near Champ’s Chicken in town. The considerate mind of a young man is possessed by every boy. As  young boys growing up we had different and wonderful ideas of how we would make this world a better place to be in. We watched fellow brothers and sisters acknowledge an older person walking onto the bus and offering them a seat. When I was young I never thought I’d leave Alice.

The key to our life in Alice was that we lived by keeping hope alive with what we had. When we wanted to play football and did not have a proper football we rolled together papers wrapped around a piece of old pantyhose or plastic – that was our football. We scored goals and the boys from our village called me Radebe as in Lucas Radebe – I was very good playing number five at the back in defense. My boy – Ayanda Msutu we called him Helmen Mkhelele as he had pace and speed – he could also dribble so well.

On days when the sun was scorching we gave up that long pair of pants that was already torn wide open from the knee down and turned it to a much needed pair of shorts. In many parts of the Eastern Cape many kids died swimming in dams and rivers far from residential areas they lived in, we also swam in Alice and I, not being such a good swimmer, had to use an empty table wine plastic container to keep afloat.

When it was full moon there must have been something in the air that went with it, kids my age went wild literally running around topless at night and singing with joy. We also had umxhesho and how this worked was, if you were a group of  ‘young boys’ and saw someone walking alone at night, you would run towards him. This person would start running from you as you would throw stones at them –  not to hurt them, but to scare them away. When it was too late for us to be outside, and of course in December time, we would go inside and I then got to play with father’s beard. He would ask me to comb his beard until he fell asleep after intsomi – fables ayibaliswa emini uzophuma amaphondo – fables or a bedtime story that is not told during the day. It was believed that you would grow horns if you did this. Oh, I always looked forward to those bedtime stories.

We always prayed for the better – a better we were not exposed to but painted in our minds. Our parents looked after us telling and showing us that they had so much faith in us – we believed.

I came back to Alice from Cape Town and caught up with my old friend Zuko. We grew up together here. This morning we went walking up in the hills, where we used to herd the goats.


“You know, Zuko,I woke up with a question.” I turn to my friend.

“Lungsta, you always wake up with a question.” He laughs.

“Zuko, do you wonder WHY all the time? Or do you just think – kuzolunga – (everything will be alright), without setting any deadlines?” Zuko just looks at me like I’m crazy. “Zuko, our friends here in Alice should know that they don’t need to go to Cape Town, or Durban or Johannesburg to be successful. They can be successful here.”

“So why did you move?” Is what he says. He has a point.

“You remember the first time I went on holiday. I was eleven.”

“A laaitie.”

“You know what Zuko, when I first went to eKapa, young boys admired Tupac – they looked up to him. The kids there seemed to be focused on things I had never experienced or heard of. When I spoke of itolofiya – prickle pear or isiphingo – black small bird fruit – they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. But they knew how to dance to Arthur’s song ‘Don’t Call Me a Kaffir’. It was 1995 Zuko.”

“Lungile, Lungile did I not teach you.”

“Teach me what ndoda – man?”

“Girls boy, girls.” He says this holding his chest and rubbing it gently with both hands. “Why the hell would you go and talk about itolofiya and isiphingo to girls in Cape Town man? Were these your pick up lines?”


“Don’t lie, Lungile.”

“Whatever, Zuko.”

“You said they danced so well down there,” he laughs.

“Yes very well, and I wished I could do it too Zuko, you know. But remember back here we had the pm9 battery. It had to be saved for the news, imiphanga – the announcement of deaths on the radio and for the story that came on at 7pm – man uGonondo – a story on the radio. Hey, on those holidays to Cape Town, what was really nice was the food, and being able to sleep late and not having to worry about goats that did not come back from grazing.”

“But that was only for a short time ndoda, only when it is school holidays.”

“Holidays well spent certainly, Zuko.” We fall silent remembering how it was.

“I was born free, here,” I tell Zuko.

“Born free? Lungile are you mad – how can you say that?” Zuko is angry now. “Have you forgotten about the poverty, going to school on an empty stomach, having to try and concentrate the whole day without having eaten anything before the schools feeding scheme started?” He is gripping the left shoulder of my T-shirt so tight.

“No I have not.” I reply looking straight in his eyes.

“You better Lungsta, tell me you did and I am ready to disown you as a friend.” He pushes me away throwing his hands up.

“Wow brother, relax – I don’t even think you understood what I said.” I am fixing my shirt and trying to straighten the crease on the left shoulder.

“Oh so you are going to insult me like that now?” He is saying this standing in a way that I can see he is about to tackle me to the ground. I’m thinking, where is this coming from?

“Zuko, please just hear me out before commenting.” I slowly step backwards.

“Oh, oh so what are you going to do now hey, ha ha? Are you telling me what to do boy, ha?” He is pulling my ears from the back and his right knee is pushed right into my lower spine. I manage to free myself and I turn around – but yo, what pain do I inflict on him now? Ah, not now – when he is least expecting – I think to myself.

We are coming out of bushes and before us is a rocky open piece of land that is sloping up. We can see a few houses from where we are but it is still about another kilometer to get home. We have just been for the nicest swim and picked iingwenye – red small fruit.

“You know Zuko, it was only my father who lived and worked in Cape Town. He sent money for us, but it had to go a long way, which many a times it did not.”

“He was the bread winner for your family man.”

“My mother still hand knits jerseys and shawls to sell. She, on foot, covers the vast areas of the places surrounding Alice to sell her work.” We look out across the hills around Alice up to the mountains of Hogsback.

“Buy her a car.” Zuko suggests. I turn and look into the distance towards a place only known to me as kwaNomtayi. I have never been there.

“That is the plan my friend, but where do I get the money now?” He looks at me carelessly pointing to the side of his head.

“Later, stupid. When you are working. Not now.” Oh Zuko can be rude at times you know.

“I am really going to stop talking to you if you call me that again.”

“Lungsta, shall we sort this thing out here right now before we get home?”

“What thing?”

“Lungile, do you want to fight me?” I stood dazed by this cheek. “Do you want to fight me, Lungile?” He repeats – he perhaps can pick up that I am bewildered.

“Now there is a stupid talking in you. Are friends supposed to be fighting?” What a cheek, something tells him he is much stronger than me.

“Yeah, Lungile, we need to know who the boss is.”

“The ‘boss’? Get out here Zuko! So,  if I beat the stupid man out of you I will be the boss ha?”

“Put your money where your mouth is boy.” He folds his fists and dances in front of me.

“Stop it wena – you.” We walk on a distance before I try a different subject of conversation. Something that he will engage in and not laugh off with some silly comment. “I am proud of my brothers and sisters for not using ‘having less’ as an excuse to turn to criminal ways.” I start.

 “Oh, so you are going to change the subject like that now, ha?”

“Zuko, I don’t ever want to hear you talk about fighting again. Do you hear me?”

“No, you left something out.” He says this showing off, pulling his shirt up from his shoulder tips and letting go.


“You left out the word ‘boss’.” I keep thinking to myself but this boy is cheeky. We have had this argument from when we were small boys.

“Do I have to call you ‘boss’ all the time? Till the day we die?”

“Yeah man.” He confirms with a facial expression that says, ‘I got you.’

“What do you call me Zuko then?”

“My laaitie.” What a nerve this boy has.

“I must get home.”

“No wait Lungsta, you were still telling me about your family.”

“I am hungry now, I better get going.” Then he turns to me and says.

 “Do you remember Mannier?” I laugh. Mannier was one of our teachers.“Do you remember how Mannier used to send us to fetch his lunch box from his house?”

“And you used to tell me I should have a game plan, ‘what is the game plan?’ You used to ask.What game plan would there be on that man? We went to pick up the food and dropped it on his desk if he was not there.”

“Now you see Lungsta. That is why you have to call me boss.” Zuko laughs. Then he puts on this high squeaky voice, which is meant to be me when I was young and says.“You can count me out of any game plans. You can fly solo mfokabawo – brother.”

“I remember how that went” I say, “Lungsta, amaqanda – eggs boy amaqanda – you’ve got to be in on this one. When last did you have eggs, amaqanda boy?” That’s what you said. You called me ‘egg boy’.

“Ja, that was good.” Says Zuko. I give him a look and think to myself I doubt I will ever get him to think like me. “Say something Lungsta. What’s with the chicken face? Since when did you become a Mr. What, what, wena? I don’t even know what to call you these days my man.”

“Just don’t call me your laaitie, Zuko.”


In our Mpozisa village of Sheshegu, we had primary schools in two different directions from where I lived. I went to Elijah Mgijima Primary School but the other one was Lower Shehegu Primary. On days when we had a lot of rain the kids who went there could not go to school as the river would be flooding and overflowing. Getting to school was a challenge but challenges we got used to, it was a long walk. Utat’ omkhulu Mandela confirmed life is indeed a walk and it can be very long especially when you are in search of things you want so bad or that would benefit the entire world.


I am twelve years and have just come back from school. I am sitting next to my house fixing my wire car in a patch of shade, small as ilangalijikile – the sun has turned. I see the shadow and before I can look up I see him, Zuko is talking to me. “Molo, my friend, did you eat last night?” I recognize the voice, but could these caring words really be coming from him?

“Wow Zuko yes I did, that was very sweet of you.”

“You left a word out.”

“Oh my God, here we go again.”

“No, you don’t have to worry about calling me boss today I am a news reporter.” “Ha, a news reporter!” I am curious, but Zuko is always a dreamer.

Ja, a Senior SABC news reporter.”

“Do you even know what that stands for Zuko?”

“‘S’ must be for ‘shush’ ngobandzak’betha – I will hit you.” He knocks an empty Sadie roll on container on my head.

“Oh, a news reporter that beats up people.”

Ja, a news reporter in the real world mfokabawo – brother did you hear of idabi lamakhwenkwe – an ongoing fight between boys from different villages?”

“No Zuko, I did not.”

“Exactly my point, shut up and listen.”

“Ok, just don’t bore me to death.”

“Awu idabi lamakhwenkwe mfondini, an ongoing fight between boys from the one side and boys from the other of the markings. Our village is in the borderline of these separations. Territories are marked and setting foot beyond marked jurisdictions means death for a boy of absolutely any age.”

Zuko holds up an imaginary microphone.

“We cross live to Dalubuhle High School. We have never seen a police van speed up like the one that approached the school five minutes ago. The dust lifted and we knew something was definitely going down. We were not to come closer but from a distance school boys and girls were seen dispersing. No lives were lost and this we should be thankful for yet lives may have been changed.”

“Not bad my friend.” I should know better than to say this to uZuko.

“My laaitie is that all? I just told you something you did not know and you also got to see it and all you say is ‘Not bad’?”

“Do you think we are going to have gangsters here Zuko?” I ask.

“No man, I am sure people will forgive each other and life will go on as it was.”

“You said in your report ‘a boy of any age’, with my school stuck on the other side – what do I do now?”

“Change schools, my man change schools.” He says this reversing his wire car. That would mean a change in my whole uniform, an expense we couldn’t afford in our family.

Later that afternoon when we had just finished counting the goats Zuko and I started talking about eladabi – that war again. We were sitting resting in front of the kraal.

“What is your mother’s name?” Zuko asked.


“Give me her full name she is going down in history as the mother that cared so much for her son.”

“Nozipho Regina Peter – Machisana.”

“I will put her down as the lady chose to see to it that her little boy would get to school and back safely and not be harmed by any one during idabi lamakwenkwe – the war between the boys. I am sure you love her very much for that and for everything else she has done for you.” He wrote my mother’s name with a small stick on his leg leaving a white mark on his dry dark skin.

I do love her very much. She used to wait for me at her sister’s place that was much closer to the school in case boys at the school decided to close books and fold fists, pull out scissors not to cut paper but lives- scarring bodies. Something that did not actually happen but was always on the mouths of class mates.It was boys much older than us that were actively involved edabini – the war.

Zuko looked at his leg and pointed to each name of my mother’s. “Why does your mother have four names Lungsta?” He asked.

“Oh, Machisana is her clan name.”

Isiduko, a clan name – do you think we care about clan names when we write history, boy?”

“I don’t see why not, look at Madiba.”

“Lungsta, it is his name you fool.”

“Oh, you are calling me a fool yet you firmly believe something that is incorrect mfokabawo – brother shame on you.” He got up and pointed at me sitting on the dry hard soil.

“I won’t listen to and be misled by you Lungile as the news reporter that I am. I will do my own research on this one.”

“Well Zuko, I would suggest that you get your facts straight and not mislead the world – I would hate to see you do that my friend. Did you know that the first school in Sheshegu was named after Chief Zwelonke.” I asked Zuko.

“Who is he?” He asked very carelessly, knowing very well who he was. This is my big headed best friend Zuko.

“He was the Chief in Sheshegu but the school was later changed to Elijah Mgijima Primary. Zwelonke, the school went up to only grade eight. Elijah Mgijima also held the reigns of chief in this region. He is now commemorated by the primary school that remains named after him.”

“But tell me Lungsta, where do you get all this from?”

“Are you going to put me down in history books?”

“You can’t have it all you know, your mother’s name is already going down. Tell me something you don’t want Lungile hey, why does it seem like you want everything?” I thought to myself – this could not have come at a better time.

“Oh, will you grant it to me?” I asked.

“Yes.” Zuko confirmed.

“I certainly do not want to fight with you and I don’t want to call you boss.” Zuko laughed gently.

“I said one thing, both these have now been disqualified – think of something else.”

“I give up Zuko.”

“Well do that because you are never going to win against me.”

“Whatever Zuko, if that makes you happy I am cool with it.” He jumped towards me and his nose was almost touching mine and I could feel his heavy breath.

“Cool, cool Lungile cool hey. Don’t be cool on me.” He shouted. “You have such big ears; now that I am looking at them I can see that they are not the same. Your left one is sharp and more pointy than the right.”

“Where is it pointing Zuko?” Perhaps he knew better, I thought.

“I do not know, why are you asking me? Maybe you are about to take off.”

“Planes take off Zuko.”

Ja, brother you said it.”

“You know what, thank you Zuko – that really makes me feel good.”

Ja, just don’t be cool on me again.”

“Perhaps I am going to be propelled to greater heights across the globe you know.” I said this to make myself feel better.

Ja, if that makes you happy my laaitie.”


Now we have found our way back to the same place that we sat when we were boys. It is late afternoon again. We are sitting on top of a rock that still feels warm from the fading away sun that was scorching moments ago. Goats run towards the fence to meet their kids. A kid dips its head and buts against its mother to find umbele – a breast, then happily feeds.

“What draws us from our places of work Zuko, or from any other part of the world to make our way back to the Eastern Cape every December and some Easter holidays?  It has to be more than the fact that our ancestors are buried in this soil.” I ask my friend.

“What do you mean ‘What draws us’? You sound like someone that is already working in the city – that must be the plan, ha. How will you communicate with your ancestors, Lungsta?”

“We communicate with ancestors from every corner of South Africa today and to my knowledge worldwide, therefore I guess they have adapted with the times too. The place has its own feel that gets embedded in the heart and it’s difficult not to talk about it, Zuko mfowethu – my brother.”

“Lungsta, would you go and live in Cape Town permanently?”


“Wow, you did not have to think long and hard about that.”


“What is the matter with you boy? What’s with the short answers?”

“I am just thinking man.”

“Come on mfokabawo, share.”

“I am just thinking that if I went to live in Cape Town permanently – would I stay loyal to this place?”

“Don’t go man if you are feeling that way. You speak like you are leaving tomorrow, don’t do that suhamba kabawo – don’t go brother. Who am I going to be left with?”

 “Yourself.” I reply – I say this with a smile on my face and I start laughing.


“Relax for now mnganewam – my friend.” Zuko breathes a sigh of relief.

“Don’t tell your mother where we were, hey,” I say like when we were small. “ She is probably going to have another go at you for disappearing the whole day.” Zuko laughs.

“Sure man, hide your iingweye – red small fruit.” He plays along.

“I will see you in the morning, Zuko.”

“Sharp my laaitie.”

Now everything is different. But still nothing is like Alice, is like home.


May we stay respectful to what already exists and nurture it until there is more.

May the rivers that flow turn into running water for every household.

May the journey home not be started off on tar roads and finished on a bumpy gravel road.

May we vote into power hope for a tomorrow we wish for.


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