Do you know that guy, that guy who was always special, like he came out of his mother special? Every place has one. It’s like God decided that guy was the chosen one. The guy is beautiful and sweet and so clever. All teachers adore him. Parents wish their daughters would marry him and daughters dream about kissing him, thinking just one kiss from that guy will change their lives. Bonolo was that guy. In Nokeng, our sprawling township, Bonolo Mpate was that guy.

He was four years ahead of me in school but we all knew Bonolo. He was on the football team, a star striker. He was head boy. He passed his matric with flying colours and went off to Joburg to study engineering at WITS. Now he was graduated and had a high-paying job in the city. Everyone in Nokeng knew everything about Bonolo and we always had.

Growing up, teachers used Bonolo as our example. “Students, I don’t even need to look far for an example of a child from humble circumstances, just like yourselves, who went on to make a success of his life. We have Bonolo. He was always a polite, studious boy and look how his efforts paid off. Now let’s pull up our socks and show the world that Nokeng has more than one Bonolo!”

It was true, Nokeng was not a place synonymous with success. It was mostly made up of unemployed people. Lots of grandmothers living with a collection of grandkids, trying to get by on their old age pensions. Lots of thugs who moved out of the townships and into the richer suburbs at night in search of things to re-home: meaning to take from some rich guy’s home and sell it quick and cheap to a poor guy’s home. There were a lot of single mothers getting social grants. Drug dealers and prostitutes and layabouts. And people like me, still hoping this was just a stop in life, not the place where I was born and the place I’d die without much of any significance happening in-between.

Yeah, I still have hope. Even after everything, I still have hope, and that’s really saying something.

Who am I? I’m Vivian. I failed Matric despite all of the ‘Bonolo motivation’. Right now I’m working at the pre-school, Love Learning, as an assistant teacher. But I’m only nineteen and I’ve got dreams. I’ve re-written Matric, and I’m hoping to go to university and become a proper English teacher, and then I’m hoping to get a good job at one of those posh schools in Joburg. I’ve always had dreams.

My Auntie Resego – more my mother than my aunt, because she’s the one who raised me – likes to call me ‘Cloudhead’ because she says my head is always in the clouds. Most of my life those clouds consisted of Bonolo Mpate dreams. I was sure one day he’d ask me out and he’d see how great I was. We’d start dating and eventually we’d get married. The dream had lots of variations, but it always ended with us getting married. I tried my best to ignore that most girls in Nokeng carried the same dream in their head and hearts as I did. Even my best friend, Poppy.

“When Bonolo and I get married, I think we should move to Cape Town. Cape Town’s nicer than Joburg, neh?” Poppy would say and I’d just roll my eyes and ignore her. Poppy’s beautiful. Plus she’s unusual here with her long hair and light skin thanks to her “white sperm donor” as Poppy’s mother likes to refer to Poppy’s father. He was a passing tourist from “some place in England”. Poppy’s mother is an alcoholic and “some place in England” could mean anywhere not in Africa. The chances of Poppy ever finding her father are zero; luckily she doesn’t care much about it. Mine ran off before I was born, so we have the absent father thing in common as well as our love for Bonolo.

That summer things were changing. I had managed to save up enough to pay the fees to re-write Matric. I’d studied hard and took the exams. It was December, so it was now just a waiting game. I was hoping I had passed. I hoped the new year would show me the path of my new life. The life I always dreamt about; the life I knew was my destiny.

And that December, as if my world was not looking hopeful enough, Bonolo came back to Nokeng for the Christmas holidays. He arrived on the fifteenth and, according to the information my cousin Bibi got from Bonolo’s cousin Koketso, who worked at the Shopway with her, he was going to stay around until after New Year.

I knock-off at the pre-school at three and Poppy’s shift at the Shopway finishes at 3:30 p.m. I always pass by the supermarket and wait for her so we can walk home together and catch up with each other’s news.

That day, I sat outside the shop in the shade of the awning, drinking a Coke and waiting for Poppy. It had been a scorching hot day and the kids had been a nightmare. Of course the owner of the school, Mma Thipe, couldn’t pop out any money for a fan. She’s all about making money, not spending it. We passed most of the day with the kids outside, under the big tree, since the corrugated iron roof with no ceiling made the classrooms unbearable. I felt wiped out, though the Coke was helping to make me human again. I had my head leaning back against the wall of the building and my eyes closed, so I didn’t notice the car until it stopped.

“Hey, Viv! You thinking about me, leaning there with your eyes closed?”

I opened my eyes, ready to shout down some stupid township boy trying to be smart, but I was shocked to see that the guy asking was Bonolo.

“Hi Bonolo.” I was surprised that he even knew my name.

“Don’t you look all grown up and sweet.” He smiled and I looked around. Was anyone witnessing this? Was this really happening?

“I heard you were in town for Christmas,” I said.

“Sure. We should find some time to get together.”

“That’d be nice.”

Still no Poppy. Where was this girl? No-one was going to believe me. Cloudhead would just be making up another story.

“How about you give me your number and I’ll give you a call later?” Bonolo said, as if Bonolo Mpate asking me for my phone number was just a simple, easy, everyday thing. I gave him my number and he drove away. And that was when Poppy came out.

“Fuck it’s hot,” she said opening up her umbrella. “What’s wrong with you? You look like you just won the lottery.”

“I might have,” I said. “I think I might have.”


Tell us: What do you think about Nokeng? Is it difficult to be successful when everything around you screams that you can’t be?