“It’s time for us to move to the girls’ block, Nelani. They’ve been letting you stay here just for now because you’re a guest, and I had permission to stay with you. But that phase is over now,” Miriam said, leading Nelani into Rebekah’s cabin. “Let’s get your things.”
They’d just had their evening meal, sitting at an outside table, and now Caleb and his mother had gone off somewhere. In Nelani’s opinion, it had been another unsatisfying meal, mostly overcooked spinach drenched in something vinegary. No wonder Caleb and Miriam were so thin.
“I still don’t get that. The girls’ block?”
“You saw that long building near the chicken hok? That’s where us girls live,” Miriam explained.
“So most of the time you don’t live with your mother?”
“Our birth mother. We explained that to you – how we’re all one family. Anyway, a lot of Soul Siders come in on their own and don’t have any blood family here. But those born into Soul Side only stay with their birth parents until they’re old enough for the crèche. Then later, they’re sent to the boys’ or girls’ housing, until they’re old enough for the men’s and women’s blocks.”
“And then they get married, have kids, and it all starts again?” Nelani joked, thinking it sounded bizarre.
Miriam didn’t crack a smile. “Well, Soul Side hasn’t existed that long. Marriage visits are by special permission. Couples don’t live together.”
“What?” Nelani couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“You see, couples might be tempted to cut themselves off into the old-fashioned style of family if they were together too much.” Miriam sounded so serious. “That would be against everything Soul Side stands for: our belief that we’re all equal members of one great family.”
“I understand that bit … I think,” Nelani added, trying to be humorous about it, but with an uncomfortable feeling unfolding somewhere inside her. “Only, you said something about men’s and women’s blocks? So how come your mother … birth mother … Rebekah, has this cabin?”
“She’s one of the favoured older sisters.” Miriam was looking unhappy, or perhaps embarrassed. “Favoured by Father Abraham. That’s why she gets to run the Soul Side shop in Tonga. She’s recruited so many people there. I love that they’re letting Caleb and me do some recruiting on our own now.”
“Is that what I am?” Nelani raised her eyes to Miriam’s. “One of your recruits?”
“You’re our dear friend, Nelani.” Miriam reached across the space between them and stroked Nelani’s arm.
Nelani had learned that this was Miriam’s way of showing affection or friendship. She wanted to yield to it, to give Miriam a quick hug of gratitude, but there were so many questions buzzing around in her head.
“This being ‘favoured’?” She smiled so that Miriam wouldn’t think she was criticizing … and she wasn’t; it was just that she wanted to understand. “How does that fit in with everyone being equal?”
Miriam seemed hurt by the question, but then she smiled. “You’ll see how it works when you’ve been here long enough. I know how strange everything must seem to you, dearest, but please – embrace the experience. Be open-minded. We love you.”
Those last three words melted Nelani. No-one at home had ever said them to her. So what if she didn’t understand how Soul Side’s one big happy family could have some members more favoured than others? There had been even less equality in the family she had left behind.
Tell us: Is Nelani doing the right thing, putting aside her doubts about Soul Side, or should she continue to ask questions?