“Ninja, who framed your father?” asked Johan de Kok, a first-time field reporter for Ghetto Report, a black-owned newspaper in Mrova, on the outskirts of Bethal, Mpumalanga. Ninja was in his chair squeezing a lime-green stress ball in his left hand. He sat with his legs crossed, like a grootman, resting his right elbow on one thigh and stroking his chin absent-mindedly.
Johan looked at Ninja then repeated his question.
“The whole truth and nothing but the truth …” Ninja said under his breath. Then he seemed to snap out of a trance as he turned to Johan.
“My father sent you, didn’t he? He knows I am the only person who can tell you everything, from the beginning, as it happened. He wants people to know the truth. So I will tell you the truth, all of it. But to do that, I need to go back to the beginning.”
Johan took off his glasses and wiped them down using a handkerchief. He also wiped his face with it because sweat was literally dripping off it; they were in a small room where prisoners usually got interrogated by the officers and the warden. There was a nasty smell that reminded Johan of an infected open wound – he could imagine an interrogation gone wrong due to the stubbornness of a prisoner; someone who ended up getting a nasty beating, leaving behind the stench as a warning to others. The heat was pretty intense.
As Johan took a sip from his ice-cold bottled mineral water, he noticed that while his own bottle was half empty Ninja hadn’t touched his bottle and he didn’t seem to be sweating either – he seemed relaxed. Johan took another sip, then turned to Ninja and said, “Okay, Ninja, tell me your story. He fiddled with his cellphone, turning on the voice recorder. Where did you get that nickname, by the way?”
Ninja smiled, then leaned in closer. “I got the nickname Ninja as a kid, after I got in a fight with three others and beat them my father said I was a little ninja. But my real name is Adam Smith, as you know. I was named after my grandfather who was a Boer. My grandfather was white and my grandmother was a Tswana woman, and they lived in Cape Town until they had twins. Then they relocated to Springs in Gauteng.
“After a couple of good years in Springs they had another kid. My grandfather then decided to move to Mrova because they feared for their kids’ safety – they looked different, what with being mixed race, especially my father, who was darker-skinned like me.
“Growing up my father, Simon Smith, regarded himself as neither black nor white: he saw himself as coloured. When he was a young man, he got into a bad crowd and started to drink. After that, his life became a fight with the bottle. Good times and bad times. He was even arrested a couple of times, but he always bounced back. You know, he was proud of his teeth,” Ninja laughed, “even though he got into fights he kept his beautiful teeth, unlike some of the skollies out there.”
Johan chuckled at this description of Ninja’s dad. Ninja had a way of telling a story that showed a sense of humour that had not faded in prison.
Ninja smiled, went on. “All through my father’s childhood, there was a constant struggle between my grandmother and grandfather, mostly about where they lived. It seems my grandfather didn’t want to be the only Boer in Mrova; he wanted to move to a place where he didn’t stand out.
“My grandmother, on the other hand, didn’t want to move any more because she had finally found a safe haven for her children. So the struggle between the two of them went on and on, up until my grandfather moved out of the house.
“My grandfather moved back to Cape Town and stayed with his sister, but he would still visit his boys during the holidays. He carried on doing that for many years, even after I was born, up until I was about three going on four years old. And then we never saw or heard from him again.
Johan checked that the phone was still recording, looked up. “Do you know what happened to him?”
Ninja shook his head. “By the time I was born my father was balancing his life between black and white. It was a tightrope. Sometimes he would slip and fall, but when he succeeded he would excel. He was smart, both book-smart and street-smart and when he was sober he shared this with others: he tutored the local kids in the old location in Mrova in his free time, starting from 1st street down to 4th or 5th street. He tried to give those kids the tools they needed to survive in the new South Africa.
“Everyone knew of the Smith household. It was one of the strongest, most respected households in Mrova. Everyone knew of my father’s deeds, the good and the bad, but they decided to focus mostly on the good ones …”
Ninja tossed Johan the stress ball and continued. “Well that’s pretty much me, Adam Smith – but you can call me Ninja.”
Johan took out a notepad and wrote down a couple of things. Then he picked up the stress ball again.
Ninja grinned. “Eksê, how many devices do you require to do your work? A notebook and voice recorder …?”
Johan just laughed, then wiped his face and glasses once more and turned to Ninja. “You were saying about you and your father?” He tossed the stress ball back to Ninja.
Ninja took it in his hand, squeezed it …
Tell us: What do you think on Ninja so far?