Mr Chiwaya walks in and the class goes quiet. He looks dishevelled, which is unlike him. His shirt is not tucked in and his tie hangs loosely. He looks unsettled and the bags under his eyes are a tell-tale of the night of sleep he’s missed.
During break I make an excuse to Nonny about needing help with my Maths assignment. I’m worried about Mr Chiwaya.
“But it’s due, like, next week Friday!” she complains and rolls her eyes at me. “It’s only Monday today. Come on,” she nags and gives me puppy eyes.
But my mind is preoccupied. I don’t want to listen to learners at break talking about the attacks on foreigners and that they are justified any more. I don’t understand how people can be so cruel to each other.
In fact, I would start a campaign against this xenophobia at school but I promised Fana and my parents that I wouldn’t be involved in any campaigns whatsoever this year. I even withdrew from the Student Representative Council so that I could focus solely on my work. I need to get good marks so that I can qualify for university. I’m not like Fana, a natural genius, who’d probably ace all my exams in his sleep! I work hard for the grades I get. I spend sleepless nights to stay on top of things. Everyone calls me a nerd. I call it keeping up.
I promise Nonny that I will hang out at break with her tomorrow.
“Fine! I’ll just go love myself!” she yells after, me and I bury a laugh in my hands before I disappear into the quad.
I knock twice on Mr Chiwaya’s door. No answer. I turn the door handle and push but door is locked.
“Who is it?” he calls and I hear the nervousness in his voice.
“It’s me, Melokuhle.”
I hear the key as he unlocks the door and opens it slightly. He holds the door ajar and checks the hallway before letting me in. His office is an unusual mess.
“Uh, the lady who cleans forgot my office today,” he says and scratches his head. I know he’s lying. He looks like he doesn’t trust me. “Are you sure you came alone?” he asks.
He waves a hand at me as if to dismiss his question. He tries to play it cool now, but I can see through him as I notice the coffee stains on his shirt and his red eyes.
“What brings you here?” he asks after a long pause. He goes to sit down behind his desk.
“I want your opinion on something,” I tell him, making myself useful and starting to tidy up.
“Shoot,” he says and I smile. I can see a glimmer of his usual self in the smile. He is my favourite teacher, the easiest person to talk to.
“Well, I guess you saw how things turned out at assembly this morning,” I start.
Mr Chiwaya fidgets in his seat but nods. I pull up a chair and sit down next to him.
“What do you think? I mean, everyone is so obsessed about it and I honestly want to stay out of it. Do you think what they’re doing is right? Do you think anything at all justifies what’s happening outside?” I ask.
Mr Chiwaya shakes his head. He hesitates, as if he’s deciding whether to tell me something or not.
He laughs, then, but I can see it’s not funny. When he’s done I can see the tears in his eyes. “Melokuhle,” he says, “I’m who they’re fighting. My family … they …”
He trails off and it dawns on me. I’d never noticed before but I ask anyway: “You’re–”
“From Zimbabwe, yes,” he finishes for me.
How stupid of me, I think. There is awkwardness left in the space between us. I don’t know what to say. But now I understand. I understand why he’s been acting strangely lately. Speaking of strange, I think of Tony, and again wonder why he’s been distant. I miss hearing from him terribly.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Mr Chiwaya. It’s the only thing I can think of. I feel helpless. I hate seeing people I respect and love in pain.
Mr Chiwaya changes the subject to something lighter. We talk about anything apart from … that, and he ends up giving me advice about an assignment that is due soon.
Tell us what you think: Is Mr Chiwaya helpful to South Africa, or is he ‘stealing someone’s job’? Why or why not?