The years have flown by for Mbaliyethu; he finds it hard to believe that he has just turned 20 and is doing his first year at varsity. Mbali, as he is known, thinks of all the years gone by and realizes that none of the usual milestones have been marked in his entire 20 years of life. That is, except for one: surviving the hardship of ‘the bush’ where he graduated from being a boy to a man.
Mbali does not remember having a close friend at primary school. All he remembers well is that he was always the shunned boy who no-one wanted to speak to. His peers used to tease him, calling him names:
“Hey Monkey, what do you want here? Where is your red hat?”
Those taunts have been etched forever at the back of his mind.
Years have passed, but he can still hear that squeaky, annoying voice of Lutho. He was a big, bully of a boy in Grade 8, who enjoyed making fun of Mbali any time of the day, every day of the year.
Telling the teachers at school made no difference because even they seemed very reluctant to help, or even listen to Mbali.
Everyone seemed to be uneasy around him, as if he had some kind of sickness, like the dreaded leprosy of old. They just looked at him in pity, as if they also believed something was definitely wrong with him.
Mbali knew that he was different from other children from a very young age. No-one really wanted to be his friend when he started school. His mother, Luleka, was the only one who showed him kindness and affection. He saw how she struggled to bring home food. He knew they were desperately poor. They lived in eNdlovini informal settlement on the outskirts of Khayelitsha, right next to Monwabisi beach.
It was a place where many kids dropped out of school and joined gangs. Mbali swore he would not become one of them; he vowed to study hard so that one day he and his family could live in a better house.
“You are a special child. Do not ever doubt yourself my boy,” his mother would say whenever he came home crying, or with a swollen eye after being punched by some bully at school.
Mbali had been a target of all the boys as far back as he could remember; he had been their punch bag from day one at school. But there was one particular incident that remained so vivid in his mind, it could have happened yesterday.
It was on a Friday evening, when Mbali was 16 years old and in Grade 11. He had gone to the shop to buy bread and eggs. A group of about eight boys were hanging around the corner next to Mr Abdul Hamza’s mini spaza shop. This was their favourite spot to hook up with girls and chat them up. For some it was also an easy way to steal the purses of old ladies as they walked past the shop in the dark.
“Kick him and see what he will do, Jay,” said one of the boys, strutting right up to Mbali, while the others surrounded him.
“A monkey does not feel pain,” said the other.
The boys burst out in a roar of laughter.
“No bafethu, sanuyenza lento – do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” another boy joined in.“Hee mfethu, just tell me, is it true what they say?” he came closer to Mbali and patted him on the shoulder, squinting through the wind and dust at Mbali’s chapped, raw skin and the swollen sores on his upper lip, from sunburn.
“Is it true that people like you just vanish, like ghosts? They don’t die like us humans.”
Mbali could not hold his anger inside any more. He punched the boy in the face.
Within minutes Mbali was lying on the ground, the boys kicking him repeatedly. Some were giggling as they kicked. It was clear that they were high on something. Mbali was saved when suddenly a police van that was patrolling the area appeared at the corner. The rude boys ran away, laughing, because they had taken Mbali’s money.
Tell us: Why is Mbali being mercilessly teased?