“I don’t think you’ll be going back to Tonga, will you, Nelani?” Caleb said, at the end of Nelani’s first few hours on the Soul Side farm, a few kilometres outside town.
Nelani looked at him and Miriam uncertainly as they sat outside their mother’s cabin. “Well, I was always planning to sleep over tonight – at the very least,” she added.
“Of course. I meant when the weekend is over.”
“We can see how happy and relaxed you’ve been here in the compound,” Miriam said.
“Compound? You know how that word upsets people, right? Problematic, they call it,” Nelani teased. But Miriam and Caleb both looked blank, so she went on, “I thought it was a farm.”
If some beds of thirsty-looking spinach, a row of cabbages, and a few stinky goats and dusty chickens made a farm, then she supposed this was one.
“I know this doesn’t look like much, but you should see the other Soul Side farm in Swaziland.” Caleb was enthusiastic.
“Eswatini,” Nelani couldn’t help correcting.
“The country changed its name, remember?”
But maybe they didn’t remember, or more likely, they didn’t know. She had noticed this about them before. When she talked about music or TV shows or sports stars, it was like the world outside Soul Side meant nothing to them, or didn’t even exist.
“Oh!” Miriam clapped her hands. “Like we all had to change our names. I wonder what name Father Abraham will choose for you, Nelani?”
“When do I get to see him?” She had heard a lot about Soul Side’s leader.
“Well, our First Lady Bathsheba has to meet all the new girls first, and decide if they’re worthy,” Caleb explained. “Don’t worry, she’ll love you, Nelani. You’re so pretty and quiet. Father doesn’t like mouthy girls, so those ones have to wait until they’ve learned humility.”
“Or until they decide that Soul Side isn’t for them?” Nelani guessed.
“Hardly anyone walks away,” Miriam said. “I’ve never known anyone who did, but our mother knows about some. Older people, I think; not young like us.”
“You’ll put Nelani off, talking about people not staying,” Caleb warned his sister, and turned to Nelani. “I promise, you’ll never regret it, if you stay.”
Nelani looked away, remembering the one regret she had already had, from back in Tonga. It came from when she had said goodbye to Loyiso Mabila, and realised she might not see him again. She would miss the sweet surprise of having him greet her. She would also miss his smile that was so much more than a stretching of his lips, warmth sparking in his deep-set eyes.
“What’s wrong, Nelani?” Miriam asked.
Shaking off the memory, Nelani smiled. These people were her true friends. What was she doing, thinking about Loyiso?
“Nothing. Oh, I’m so lucky to have met you guys.”
“There’s no such thing as luck,” Caleb said. “You were drawn to us. The Soul Side shop in town acts as a magnet to those who need us.”
Nelani shrugged. “I still haven’t got Soul Side beliefs properly sorted in my head. It’s like you’ve picked bits from different beliefs: Christian, Pagan, Afrikan, Buddhist – the lot.”
“Like we told you, no one religion is the way. Or rather, all faiths are one,” Caleb said.
“Then why are all your new names only from the Old Testament?” Nelani wondered.
“I’m not sure.” Miriam gestured uncertainly.
“They just are,” Caleb said.
This wasn’t the first time they couldn’t answer her questions, but Nelani didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was that she’d found people who actually noticed she was alive, who made her feel like a somebody instead of the nobody she was at home and school – people who cared about her.
Tell us: Why is being friends with Caleb and Miriam more important to Nelani than any doubts she may be having?