Zelwande Mhlongo feels all strength draining away from her legs as the sun sets on the horizon. She crumples to the pavement; her eyes glassy with tears. There is a tightening knot in her heart as she thinks of her siblings Aphile, 10, and Senzo, 14.
Zelwande is 25 and has been the sole breadwinner since their parents passed away in an accident eight years ago. It has been a terrible eight years. Zelwande had to drop out of school in Grade 10 to look for work.
What has brought her to tears is that today she didn’t get any work, despite walking up and down the streets of the suburb of Chatsworth. She does whatever work she can get: washing clothes, cleaning yards and chicken coops. Today she didn’t get anything, not even washing. Tears cascade down her face when she thinks that today her siblings will go to bed hungry.
“Dear God, what am I going to do?” Zelwande pleads to the setting sun. She waits a while for an answer from the heavens. Nothing.
She knows her siblings will look at her with expectant, hungry eyes when she opens the door. She stands up and drags herself to Tin City.
Tin City is a neighbourhood of shacks. It got its name because all the tiny shacks are built with sheets of shiny metal. It is always rowdy in Tin City because there are many taverns in the area. There are loud music, fights and stabbings aplenty.
Zelwande hates that her siblings are growing up in this place. The murder rate and the rape of women and children is high in Tin City. That is why Zelwande is strict about her sister and brother staying safe inside their shack at all times.
She is deep in thought and surprised that she has already arrived when she reaches the small shack she calls home.
“Here is Zelwande!” Aphile greets her sister, her face alight.
Zelwande’s heart breaks further when she is greeted with such joy. She is her sibling’s only hope. She knows they have not eaten anything else since this morning, when she dished porridge for them before school.
“I was getting worried about you, Sisi,” says Senzo.
“I got held up … somewhere,” says Zelwande.
“I’m hungry Sis’Zelwande. What will you cook for us today?” asks Aphile.
“I didn’t get any work today, guys. We have no option but to eat the remainder of the porridge from this morning,” says Zelwande, with guilt all over her voice.
Her eyes redden with tears. Her heart is in such pain that it feels like it is being literally pricked with pins. The disappointment in Aphile’s and Senzo’s eyes is heart-breaking to Zelwande. It presses down on the air inside their small shack. The silence seems louder as thoughts gnaw on their minds, and hunger on their stomachs.
Zelwande zones out for a bit. She comes back to reality when Senzo lights a candle. It has gone dark. The electricity meter is on zero.
“Aphile, come let me help you with your Maths,” says Senzo.
“Eish it is hard,” says Aphile.
“Not really. You just have to follow the rules and all steps, like I told you yesterday. Look. You start with this …”
Zelwande watches them working on their homework around the flicker of a candle. She feels she has let them down because she does not have a cent for food, let alone for recharging electricity.
Tell us: How does this chapter make you feel?