“They burnt down our house,” Bonga says. Everyone else is asleep, but I am still awake and he has come to sit next to me. He never does that.
“I had gone to a friend’s place. When I came back our house was on fire. They had thrown paraffin around the house and jammed the door so they couldn’t get out because we were foreigners. I couldn’t get in to rescue them, but I tried – that’s how I got burned. By the time the fire was out and I got in there was just ash. All that was left of them were bones that I had to bury. They didn’t only kill them, they killed me inside too that day.”
I run my hand down his back, comforting him the only way I know how.
“I remember those xenophobic attacks,” Simon says quietly. I didn’t know he had been awake, listening. “I never thought it would affect anyone I’d know. You’ve been like a brother to me. I don’t know if it does get better.” He shrugs at his own thoughts.
“I don’t know how I escaped, but I did. I got to a clinic and they took me to hospital because of the burns. They burnt us because we were foreigners. They said we didn’t belong. I’m the only one who survived that fire. Sometimes it feels like I’m burning. Like I was inside that house.” He runs his hand across his face, wiping the tear stains away and then he gets up and pulls on his jersey and changes the conversation. “It’s light already; let’s go get something to eat.” And that’s the sign that we can’t talk about it any more.
When Luntu wakes up she has a plan.
We gather behind the car wash in lower Claim Street. At first I think we will be washing cars again, but Luntu tells us the car wash is already occupied and that she has something else in mind. The anticipation builds up in me as Simon removes his hat. I wonder what they are going to do.
“We are trying something different,” Simon says with a beam. His excitement is infectious. He crosses his scarf over his neck and then rubs his fingers together. Luntu clears her throat. Simon nods at her. She closes her eyes as she comes to stand not too far from him. I wonder what they are going to do. Luntu opens her mouth and sings.
The sound is so strange and different from her usual raspy voice. I watch her croon angelically. Her thin eyebrows rise to meet at the centre of her forehead. Lyrically, Simon starts to move to the sound. Bonga beat-boxes in the background and the piece starts to make sense.
They seem so joined, so connected it’s almost as though they have done this their whole lives. The pain in Luntu’s voice is palpable as she pours her heart out to the strangers who regard her no differently than other people who stroll by unbothered.
I wear the sign Luntu wrote for me that reads: ‘Pregnant. No home. No food. Help.’
Some people shake their heads sympathetically but move along just as quickly as they stopped. One lady eventually comes forward and drops three five-rand coins into the hat. I smile and thank her.
Simon continues to dance like he has no bones. Luntu sounds like she has just been invited to a gala dinner in heaven.
A small crowd starts forming around us. Most people clap. Some pour more in the hat that I hold as I circulate through the crowd hoping to earn some sympathy. Some people simply regard us as useless entertainment but those who have hearts give us money. Simon and Luntu seem to be enjoying themselves. Bonga smiles at me.
We are there until the sun starts to set. We are excited as we walk home. Luntu is smiling more widely than I thought she could. She sang beautifully today. I’ve never heard her sing before. I was surprised when she mentioned that her biggest dream was to become a singer. It seemed like a dream long forgotten and abandoned.
The sun sets behind us as a soft wind starts to blow. The sky is a clear blue paper that folds into the coming evening. Sunset is one of my favourite things to see, although here in Hillbrow it is the start of a dangerous time.
Suddenly I realise that Luntu isn’t with us. I look back. She is staring at a poster on a lamppost and she looks grey. She seems terrified. Her arms are wrapped tightly around her. I run back to her and read the headlines: ‘Man arrested for human trafficking and drug dealing.’
Bonga is next to us in seconds.
“Do you know this person?” Bonga points to the face that stares down at us. It’s the front page of yesterday’s Daily Sun paper. Luntu looks at him with eyes swollen with tears. She nods as she runs a shaky hand across her face to wipe her tears.
“Yes. This is the man who made me fall in love with him and then sold me to every man to make himself a quick buck.” Her small teeth clench together furiously. “I hope they never let him out.”
“What’s his name?” Simon says between gritted teeth.
“Mandla,” I say. “His name is Mandla.”
They all look at me.
“That is the same man who gave me a lift here and wanted to sell me too. I escaped.”
Simon hugs Luntu.
“Come on, let’s go – he has no power over you now. He won’t hurt anyone again.”
Simon leads us again and we fall silently behind him. I realise how I have carried tension in my body since I ran from Mandla because now something eases inside me, and I know it does for Luntu too. She takes my hand as we walk and it says more than words ever could.
The street vendors are packing their things and folding their tents. An orange falls from one of the vendors’ tables.
Luntu picks it up and wipes it against her long-sleeved T-shirt. Bonga peels the orange for us and we share it. I haven’t had fruit in a while.
“I didn’t know you sang that good,” I say to Luntu trying to get back to something normal. She smiles and shrugs her shoulders as our footsteps carry us closer to home.
“I haven’t sang in a while,” she admits. “I felt so good today.” It’s the first time she’s admitted this out loud. Even the new-found twinkle in her eyes makes me happy for her. I wish she sang all the time. I wish she could always be happy.
I don’t think I have any hidden talent like Bonga, Luntu and Simon seem to. But I hope someday I find my own calling to something I’ll feel as passionately about.
When they performed for that small crowd, they reminded me of my own dreams buried deep beneath seeds of doubt and uncertainty. I’m not sure any more of what I want to be. Growing up, I thought I’d become a doctor and work at a hospital just like my mom. But things have changed for me and I have a different perspective in life. Now that I know how it feels like to need and not have anything. I think I’d want to spend the rest of my life helping people. Seeing them happy.
The further we get from Mandla hanging on that poster, the lighter I feel and I know Luntu does too. To know he can’t hurt us or any other girls any more is a deep relief. There is a new bounce in Luntu’s step. It’s like she’s gained a fraction of her confidence and self-esteem back.
Later Simon comes back to our crib with a loaf of bread and a two-litre cold drink. We all smile and cheer as he sets them in the middle of our circle. “We made a lot today.” He nods proudly and tears opens the plastic covering the bread.
“Maybe we should do this often.” Bonga adds with his excitement. I saw him enjoying himself too.
We eat silently and reflect on the day’s activities. Maybe Fetta would have had fun too. Maybe he would have been proud. As the sun goes to rest, the light disappears in our little corner. It’s been a long day. But it’s the best day we’ve had here on the streets.
Luntu and Simon help make a fire. I join Bonga, who moves into his corner. Maybe he is not yet ready to face the flames. I draw my legs up just as he does his. He acknowledges my presence with a smile. We listen to Luntu and Simon talking about what they did today. They’re proud of themselves too.
“Twenty questions?” I whisper to Bonga. He peeks at me over his lean shoulder. He nods.
“What are the rules?” he asks with a big grin.
“You don’t repeat a question that’s been asked.” He nods as I explain the rules of this little game to him. I think it’s a good game to get to know someone better.
“You start.” He smiles and leans further back against the wall. I do too.
“No, you start,” I urge him. We both burst into laughter. Bonga shrugs his shoulders.
“Okay,” he sighs and seems to think of a question.
Luntu and Simon continue chatting unmindful of us. Their conversation drowns in our laughter and we can no longer hear them. It’s the first time I see Luntu speak so animatedly. Simon listens to her with a smile of his own and nods occasionally.
“Favourite colour?” Bonga asks.
I roll my eyes at him. “Really?”
“Don’t ask a question with a question. That’s another rule,” he says, waving his index finger at me.
“Okay,” I laugh and acquiesce. “I love violet.” I think about the first violet I fell in love with. It was a painting by one of the boys in class. It was beautiful. The colour was beautiful. It looked like the best of both worlds. And I’ve always wanted to have it. You don’t have to choose between purple and blue, which also happen to be colours I like. Instead you can have them both, mixed together. I love violet. Bonga nods as he waits for me to ask.
“Action, Romance, or documentaries?”
“Documentaries.” He doesn’t even think about it. “Well, I’d like to know about things that actually happen. Things that people have to deal with and face rather than fictional things people wish existed.”
I nod slowly at his point. “Ahem-nerd,” I cough mockingly.
He pinches my arm and I scream between giggles of laughter. Simon and Luntu still don’t mind us.
“My turn.” Bonga moves closer, offering his blanket to me. We wrap ourselves into it. I have gotten used to the dust and I no longer sneeze when we sleep with something that looks like it was bathed in sand.
“Money or love?” he asks finally and his face is suddenly serious.
I think about it for a while. It’s not the kind of question you could ask to someone as desperate as we are. We’d do anything to get by.
“If you’d asked me a year back, I’d have definitely chosen love. But now …” I think of Mr Hlomla walking away. “I choose money.” I look at Bonga who looks downcast.
“I guess … it would never matter to you that I like you then. More than quite a lot. I mean, I think …” he whispers in a shaky breath. “I think I’m in love with you.”
It’s the first time someone has said those words to me. Not even Mr Hlomla uttered them. His so-called love clung to unmeant words and actions that only benefited him. They were based on compromises only I had to make. Often I’d felt like I was the only one who wanted it to work. He never really gave anything. He only took from me until I had nothing else left to give and cursed my fragile hands for being empty. And here is Bonga, right beside me, confessing words I’d never come close to hearing.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to feel anything like that. I want to focus on my baby. I want to focus on surviving for the both of us …” My words piece themselves into sentences that could never really be finished.
Bonga nods and looks away shyly.
“What I know is that it would be a privilege to be loved by someone like you,” I offer him a small smile that comes from the depths of my heart. “But not here … Not now.”
He doesn’t say anything. He just holds my hand.
We all scream as Fetta jumps from the last step. He smiles as he stands there in his dirty clothes, stronger than we’ve ever remembered him.
Tell us: Do you think Yenzokuhle is right to tell Bonga that the time isn’t right?