Fana is furious when I return home late. He tells me how worried he’s been, what with everything happening outside, and how he wouldn’t forgive himself if anything were to happen to me.
I know he means well. I apologize to my annoyingly protective big brother and he dishes up supper for me. He asks me about my day and I tell him nothing important happened. But my mind wanders to what Tony desperately needed to tell me.
Fana tells me Mom and Dad are coming to visit this weekend. I’m relieved. We haven’t seen them in months now – they both had to take jobs away from home to make the money we need to live here. I miss them deeply.
The riots are worse the following morning. I tell Fana I’ll walk with Tony to school instead, turning down his offer to give me a lift. He is unconvinced, but he lets me be anyway. I promise him I’ll be safe.
There are people carrying signs on the street. I read two of them. ‘These dogs must go home,’ and ‘Burn them down or chase them out!’ are scrawled on cardboard.
Some people are burning tyres in the streets and chanting. I don’t understand how any of this will help with unemployment.
My heart misses a beat when I reach Tony’s house. The glass door is spray painted in bold red words that say, ‘Go home’. I don’t understand. I see a broken window and broken bricks in the yard. My heart leaps.
“They’re not here,” someone says behind me.
It’s Azole, Tony’s best friend.
“What do you mean they’re not here?” I ask, still confused. My heart races at the thought of something horrible happening to Tony.
“Come.” Azole looks around cautiously and then pulls my hand. “I’ll show you where they are.”
Azole leads me towards a small path. We walk a long way until I am convinced that we are almost at the outskirts of Soweto. Azole is quiet. He doesn’t say anything. He leads the way in silence, like he already knows everything I don’t. I can’t understand why Tony’s house was marked and why he had to run. It’s not like he’s a foreigner. I know that he’s originally from KZN, which is what makes his Zulu so distinct. But he is fluent.
Azole leads me towards Tshieundulu street in Meadowlands. I can see the face brick church from a distance. When we walk in, we are met by a myriad of people. The pastor meets us by the door and asks what we want. Azole talks to him; he seems to recognize him.
“This is the house of the Lord, everyone is welcome,” the pastor says, giving us a welcoming smile. Azole leads me inside the church. There are women and children who have fled from the riots. I still can’t quite comprehend why Tony would be here. Azole leads up a small flight of stairs into what looks like an attic.
“He’s expecting you,” Azole says and tells me he’ll wait outside.
I see Tony with his little brothers before they can see me. He is bathing the younger one, Samson, in a small washing basin. I clear my throat. He stops abruptly and turns almost in fright. Then his eyes soften when they meet mine. Something close to shame is scribbled across his face.
And before he says anything at all, I finally understand – I see him. Beyond the creases on his forehead and beneath his cracked lips.
“I wanted to tell you,” he says walking slowly towards me. Tears streak his cheeks. He wipes them away.
“We’ve been running for years. My mother and sister were burnt in our house back in KZN. That’s why we came here. And I figured if I hid who we are, we would be safe. That’s why I joined the soccer team, because I could hang out with the guys without them getting close enough to know me. And then you …”
He starts drying Samson and then helping him get dressed.
“I didn’t know if you’d still love me, you know? If you knew who I was. What I am.”
I’ve never seen him this despondent. My hurt lurches and sinks to the bottom of my stomach. Parts very deep down inside of me ache for him. My heart breaks as I remember the first time I met him, with his dusty shoes and faded old uniform.
I walk to him and place my hands cautiously on his chest, without breaking our gaze. I can feel his heart thumping loudly beneath my hands. And then he holds me. I hold him too and let him cry into my neck. The tears trickle down my skin. I cry with him. We are inseparable. Not even this difference will break us apart.
And I know I have to fight, for him – for us.
Tell us what you think: Was Tony justified in trying to hide his country of birth?