Nelani sniffed and swallowed, forcing herself not to cry. She was huddled under the single cover on her bed in the Soul Side girls’ block – but not because she was sick, or trying to sleep, or cold.
They had taken away her clothes, not so much to punish her as to prevent her leaving Soul Side.
“You can’t go. You’ve been approved as one of Father’s worthy girls,” they said.
“He’s a pervert, and your First Lady is pimping for him,” she had told the other girls, and one of them – who? – had reported her to the older sisters.
The mistakes she had made: first coming here, and then speaking out. She should have said nothing and crept away, maybe in the night, even if it meant walking all the way back to Tonga.
All because she had been so hungry for attention. Only, she had attention; maybe not her family’s, but the attention of one or two teachers who liked her work.
Then there was Loyiso Mabila, who always took the trouble to talk to her. Did he ever give her a thought, now that she wasn’t around anymore? Oh God, she really mustn’t cry.
“Lunch for you, sister.” It was Merab, holding out a bowl of watery soup that smelled of cabbage and had pieces of something white floating in it.
Nelani struggled to sit up and keep covered at the same time. “How did you come to join Soul Side, Merab?” she asked.
“After my mother died, my father married again.” Merab handed over the bowl. “His new wife hated me, especially after their baby was born. She used to lock me out of the house. Then I met Rebekah, and it felt like I had a new family.”
Nelani nodded, grasping the spoon that was in the bowl. “I already know the story of how Miriam and Caleb’s father died in an accident, and his family chased them and Rebekah out of the house, and they had nowhere to go until Soul Side took them in. And now they’re part of it. Don’t any of you see? Soul Side preys on people who are lonely or frightened.”
“But they love us. Father Abraham loves us.”
“If you call that love.” Nelani knew there was no getting through to her.
Later, in the middle of the afternoon, Nelani was left alone. She had already searched the long room for any spare clothes left lying around, but found nothing. No wonder the girls wore the same skirts and tops every day.
If she was braver, she would walk out of here naked. As for walking out wrapped in a sheet, it would draw as much attention as if she was naked, but maybe if she did it after everyone was sleeping–
“Quick, Nelani!” Miriam’s voice made her jump. “Your clothes. Hide them somewhere, under the bed, or maybe in it. Then when everyone is asleep, you can leave.”
“What?” Nelani grabbed the bundle of clothes Miriam thrust at her. “Why are you helping me?”
“Because you’ve got someone on the outside who cares about you. We haven’t, or I’d leave too.” Miriam’s smile was shaky. “Our mother Rebekah says this boy came to the Tonga shop looking for you. You don’t need us.”
Nelani’s heart jumped, and she caught her breath. Loyiso? Who else could it be?
“Thank you, Miriam.” She pushed the clothes down under the covers.
“You should go tonight.” Miriam looked over her shoulder, clearly nervous. “When they heard about the boy, there was talk about taking you through to Soul Side’s Swaziland farm. Sorry, what did you call it? Eswatini?”
“They can’t. I haven’t got a passport.”
“They don’t use the regular border posts. Passports are things of the world.”
“I wonder how many laws Soul Side is breaking altogether?”
Miriam looked awkward. “I must go, before they miss me. I’m meant to be weeding.”
“Miriam? Thank you. Really. So much. Sala kahle.”
“Yebo, hamba kahle, Nelani.”
There were tears in Miriam’s eyes as she left. Did she guess Nelani felt she must report some of the things that went on at Soul Side?
That Eswatini story! Nelani jumped out of the bed and started pulling on the clothes Miriam had brought. She couldn’t risk someone coming for her, forcing her into a car, and driving her across the border. No way was she waiting until tonight.
She was leaving right now.
Tell us: Why won’t the organisation simply let Nelani leave if she does not like the rules?