“Hey, baby girl!”

I hate it when they do that, calling across the street. Other places too. Even at school. Their other favourite name for me is ‘rural’. ‘Hey rural.’

“Moya,” I say. “My name is Moya.”

I don’t know why I still keeping saying it. They don’t listen. I don’t learn.

Sometimes I think that’s all I’ve got going for me. My name: Moya Ngomane. I so don’t get why these Soweto kids think being from Umjindi makes me rural. I mean, please, it’s a whole municipality, covering Emjindini and Barberton.

I try feeling sorry for them because they don’t know any better, but it doesn’t really work, because in so many ways I really am the ignorant country girl they believe I am. I’m learning, slowly, but a lot of the things I’m learning scare me.

“Hey, baby girl, come over here.”

They’re still calling to me from over the road; it’s mostly boys from school. Some are strutting, others slouching, outside the Ndlaphu house. They’re dressed for Friday night, waiting for Leleka, their leader. Thinking about him makes my heart skip.

“Don’t waste your breath on her!”

It’s that boy – that young man – who says it. Sizwe Sekota, something like that. I don’t think he’s still at school. He’s from a different part of Soweto, I’ve heard, a really poor part, which some people think means a bad part, but that’s crazy. He’s part of Leleka’s crew, but only some of the time.

“Exactly! Wasting your breath on that rural.” It’s Leleka’s twin sister, coming out of the Ndlaphu house, saying it loudly.

“Maybe we’ve got an appetite for something fresh, Bonang,” one of the boys drawls, and I think the way he says it disses her as much as me. “Like fresh flesh.”

“Fresh fat, you mean?” Bonang mocks. She’s dressed in something small and shimmery, and looks like a model.

“Hey rural. Hey baby!”

As I draw level with them the comments get even louder. I notice that the Sizwe guy doesn’t join in. I suppose that makes him cool in a way.

“Moya,” I mutter, but under my breath this time, with my face all hot and my heart hammering.

“You too good to speak to us?” Leleka still hasn’t come out, so Puleng is enjoying his minute of being the main man. “Gone from rural to one of those amahaiza, is it?”

I stop. I turn and look straight at them.

“I’ll speak to you when you learn my name.” It comes out loud. “It’s Moya.”

Then I get all shaky inside and start walking again. Shaky outside too. My legs feel feeble and clumsy.

The calling, and the hooting that is their laughter, just get louder.

I wish Ma hadn’t sent me out to the spyzozo place to get Dad’s favourite.

“Grow up, dudes,” I hear, and I think it’s Sizwe’s rough voice. “You’re making fools of yourselves.”

No time to think about that, because now there’s another voice, scratchy like broken glass, a girl’s voice, and she’s saying, “Either stand up to them and stare them down all the time, or keep your head down, act the raw kraal girl and pretend you don’t understand them. Either way, you need to be consistent.”

I stop walking. She’s sitting on a low wall outside someone’s house. One of those edgy girls, spiked and studded, like she’s saying ‘Keep back, don’t touch me’. Nomi Phala. She is mostly absent from school. People hint things about her and use words worse than ‘rural’ or ‘baby girl’.

“Whichever way, I can’t win. If I talk back, I make them angry. If I creep away, it just confirms everything they believe about me and makes them even worse.”

We’re near the railway, and she waits for the squeal and thunder of a train to soften, as it pulls into the local station. Then she says, “Loser talk.”

I look at her and for the first time I notice a whole lot of cuts on her left arm, neat cuts going both ways, crossing each other, like hash tags. This girl doesn’t like herself.

You’re such a winner?” I feel a bit bad saying it. Clearly she has problems, but she comes across so tough, totally street.

She twitches one bare brown shoulder. “Just saying.”

“And FYI, I’m not a ‘raw kraal girl’,” I tell her. “Umjindi, it’s a big place. Like you’ve heard of Barberton, right?”

Stupid me, letting her know that her comment got to me. The way her lips twist tells me I’ve just acted as ‘raw’ as I denied being.

“You won’t last long,” she says, and her tone of voice bites and tears the same way the actual scathing words do.

“Why are you trying to scare her?”

I recognise Sizwe’s hoarse voice. The evening has grown darker, and he’s standing in deep shadow, out of the reach of the light from the house behind Nomi, so I can’t see him properly.

“Maybe because scared is the only way to stay safe,” Nomi says. She gets up from the wall and stomps off in the direction I’ve just come from.

“Where are you going?” Sizwe asks, and first I think he’s talking to Nomi, but then I see he’s looking at me.

“The spyzozo place,” I say.

He moves out of the darkness, and I take a step back. I feel uncomfortable, being this close to him, but in a different way to how I feel around Leleka in our Grade 12 class. With Leleka, it’s that thing of wanting him to notice me at the same time as hoping he won’t, because I’m so not like the fly girls he’s used to: Tumiso Thwala and all those others.

“Take a different way back if you don’t like those guys,” he comments. It’s like he doesn’t want to say it, but feels he has to, so he’s forcing himself to speak.

“What’s with you and Nomi thinking you have to give me all this advice?”

“Don’t you need it?” Now he seems to be mocking me.

“Like I’m some innocent baby! Just because you’re skhokho.” That’s one of the new words I’ve learnt since Dad’s promotion brought us here last year. ‘Streetwise’. It hits me that he and Nomi are two of a kind.

“Like that’s something bad?” He pulls his eyebrows in towards each other.

I shrug. I don’t know if it’s bad, but it makes me nervous. People like Sizwe are part of this Soweto that still scares me after all these months.

“I suppose you’re proud of it?” I say, trying to sound cool so he doesn’t guess how awkward I’m feeling.

“I’m not proud of anything,” he says, and there’s something complicated, almost bitter, in the way the words sound. “It’s dark. I can walk with you if you want? To the spyzozo place and back to wherever you live?”


Tell us what you think: What is Sizwe’s interest in Moya? Should she accept his offer to walk with her?