From the moment I wake up in my bed in the curtained off back room of the shack I feel like I have a flock of birds swooping and dipping in my stomach. Why? It’s the 16 December, and that spells p.a.r.t.y here in Khayelitsha. Everyone is set to rock it all day and into the night, blowing year-end bonuses on booze and presents. The fever’s been simmering for weeks, and tonight it’s going to boil.
I jump out of bed and check my reflection in the old cracked mirror hanging on the corrugated metal wall. If I’m looking for a sign that it’s going to be a good day I’ve just found it – I only have one zit, and it’s not a biggie. My dark skin is smooth and clear. This day is green for go.
Better still The Hair is working. Sisipho, you rock! She’s my best friend. And the girl knows how to braid. With my new style I’m sure I look older than sixteen. I wink at my reflection, blow myself a kiss and laugh at myself. Not even the sickly sweet smell of sewerage lurching around the shack can bring me down today.
My phone beeps as an sms arrives.
Hey evry1. Gt da drnks 4 2nght orgnzed. Hp u r rdy 2 prty! Mt @ Xbso Upstrs, Hrare. 5pm. Go bg or go hme.
The birds in my tummy soar, plummet and then wing it skywards again. For the record, I, Buhle Mbeko, am officially ready to party! Well…I think I am. Tonight my Grade 10 class is having its end-of-exam ‘Taking Down The Paper’ party – perfectly timed with the big 16 December celebrations. Somehow we’ve each managed to scrap together Fifty Rand, and we’ve pooled all the money for tonight’s drinking fund. A drinking pool…I can’t help imagine a big swimming pool full to the brim with booze, and the whole of our class sipping away at it through long straws. And I’m on the high diving board ready to jump. It’s gonna be BIG.
Ok, to tell the truth, maybe I am a little bit nervous. No one’s going to find out about that though. I’ve especially upgraded from deodorant to anti-perspirant. It’s my first 16 December in Khayelitsha so I’m still the newbie on the block… but I’ve heard all the stories. Us teenagers are allowed to drink as much as we want to tonight – and do whatever we want to do. It’s our reward for working hard and getting through the school year. That’s the way it rolls here in Khayelitsha. Tonight we go big, or we go home. No sweat.
As I pull on my jeans and t-shirt I can hear the muffled sounds of children outside in the street shouting with excitement as they get their 16 December presents. I know my aunt has bought me a present too. And I’m pretty sure that I’m getting a cool outfit for the party because that’s the only thing I asked for. Everybody in my class has been talking about the clothes they’re going to wear to our party for weeks. It’s been an education. I’d never even heard of Guess, Gucci and Louis Vuitton before now, but I’ve got the picture – brand is beautiful. I wrote down their foreign-sounding names on my wish list. And then I got more specific: skinny jeans; red wedge heels; a beautiful bright vest; and a boys-cut hairpiece. That’s the look I’ll be rocking at our party. In my minds eye I can see myself shimmering and shaking on the dancefloor. Hot. Someone to watch.
I step outside and find my aunt and little cousins outside, drinking tea on the lopsided bench propped up against the shack. Torn wrapping paper lies on the dusty ground. They’ve already opened all their presents. They didn’t wait for me. It hits me like a solid punch in the chest.
“Yours is inside on my bed, Buhle,” says my Aunt, flicking her eyes towards me for an instant, before they flick back to watching the trickle of people slowly emerging from the sprawling mass of shacks propped up against each other. Everybody is home today. Families and friends are together.
I open my present all alone inside the dimly lit shack.
I tear an edge of paper off and peer inside. I see grey. The feeling of that colour sinks down on to me like a heavy cloud. As I rip the paper open I feel my dream tear too. I sink down on to my Aunt’s bed and click my tongue in despair as I see what I’ve got. There are no skinny jeans, platform shoes, vest, or hairpiece for me. Just a plain grey cotton dress from who knows where. My heart hammers hard and angry against my ribs. This is a disaster!
I cover my face with my hands, my head spinning and my mood somersaulting upside down. I ache for my mother. She would have understood about the wish list. That grey storm cloud of a dress has reminded me that she isn’t here. That she’s dead. And that I’ve lived in Khayelitsha this year because I don’t have her anymore. Tears well up in my eyes. I shake my head to make the dark thoughts go away. I promised myself I wouldn’t think about about my mother today. Or about feeling like a nobody without her. I’ve survived this year. I’ve made one good friend. This is the day my new life is meant to begin. It’s time for me to be Someone. But this is the wrong outfit to begin my new life!
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Can you relate to what Buhle must be feeling? Do you care about what clothes you’re wearing to tonight’s party?