When Things Fell Apart

She was busy, pouring drinks and serving sandwiches, while measuring out impuphu for the evening’s meal. The other women, seeing that she was alone, helped
her, then left her to it when everyone had been served. It’s not that she was particularly domesticated, but she knew that impressions were important, and she didn’t want to give anyone anything to talk about.

It’s funny how people never talk about anything good. Oh no, do a good job and nobody notices. They’ll pick apart the small flaws though, and never for a single moment see the great effort that went into making sure that the flaws stayed small.

Sibongile served a dinner of isitshwala lombhida olenyama, the expected meal on a weeknight, even here in this strange country where chicken was cheaper than beef, where you had to search high and low for upehlo to make isitshwala properly. She wondered to herself how she would break the news tonight. How would she tell these surly old men, and the gossipy women that made up her family that she was not going to have a memorial service for her mother? They were all here to discuss that, to set a date and work out contributions. Who would offer his cars? Whose daughters would do the cooking? Of food bought by whom? They thought these were the questions they were going to discuss, but they were wrong.

Sibongile, or Sbho, as everyone called her, sighed heavily. It had been hard enough getting them to come in the evening. These things were usually discussed in the afternoon – weekend afternoons with lots of beer flowing, or wine for the more uppity ones. Everyone would have a chance to say something, reminiscing endlessly about who didn’t contribute at the last function, and gossipping about absent family members. The entire day would be lost, and very little would be resolved and another meeting would be called.

Sbho had better things to do with her weekend afternoons. Saturday was for grooming – breakfast with her girlfriends to start off the day, sometimes even a champagne breakast if she was feeling decadent. It was a different group every week, but there was always a breakfast. After breakfast, she would go shopping – usually underwear (she had enough black panties and bras to change daily for 3 months without doing laundry) because when you come from a time when you had to wash your panties at night so you could wear them in the morning it did impact your spending habits.
Sometimes she would buy a top or a dress, and
if it was monthend she would buy a pair of shoes – but there was always at least one pair of panties and a bra. And always black.

After the shopping she would step into the beauty salon. The girls knew her by name, just as she knew all of them. She would walk in without an appointment, because appointments made it all seem so expensive. Without an appointment she could always claim it was unplanned, impulsive. The girls had started making appointments for her, because if she came in and they were busy she would just sit there reading a magazine and calling the juice bar to deliver wheatgrass shots. She wouldnt make a fuss, just sit and watch them work, and leave at closing time, sometimes without getting a chance to have anything done. She came every Saturday, so they would just put her name in the book, and they never asked why she didn’t make her own appointments, and she never asked why there was always someone ready to do what she asked.

Manicure. Pedicure. Eyebrow wax. Underarm wax. Facial. Bikini wax. Always something different, sometimes two procedures and she always tipped well. When she left the beauty salon she would go into the bookstore downstairs and buy herself a book and a movie. They knew her at the bookstore too and thought she was strange – she bought the expensive bestsellers to read, but the movie always came from the sale bin.

They were meeting on a weeknight because Sbho didn’t want to give up her Saturday. Saturdays were for grooming and relaxing with a movie and a book (yes, simultaneously) and she needed a good reason to change that routine. Meeting with the aunts and the uncles and wives of the uncles to talk about her mother’s umbuyiso was not a good reason, especially since she had no intention of holding such a ceremony.

And Sundays? Sundays were for getting her needs met. Sundays were for spending in bed with a man. Once, with a woman. Sbho was that kind of woman who has been called ‘liberated’. She was in full control of her sexuality and managed it like it was a job. She needed that kind of contact, needed the sweaty breathiness of it all, and she made sure she got it. Sometimes her plans fell through unexpectedly and the ‘chosen one’ didn’t show up and she had to make plan b, which was ok because there was always a plan b.

The grownups in the dining room had finished eating, and it was time to face them. She had been so clever getting them to drive to her place on a weeknight, her own resourcefulness made her chuckle a little. She couldn’t go to them because she had no car, and taxis dont run that late. It couldn’t be a weekend because she was working this weekend. Yes, it was a shame, but she could have them for supper and didn’t they think it was time they had this discussion? The year was almost up and did they want people to think her mother had no family? Sbho didnt work weekends, but since nobody knew what she did or where, it was an easy sell. Saturdays are for grooming and relaxing, and Sundays are for getting needs met. Weeknights are negotiable, just book in advance.

She made sure everyone had a drink, and that Gogo MaSibanda, who wasn’t really a gogo at 39 but was called that because she was the love-child of one of the great-grannies, had her box of snuff close by. Nothing could break the seriousness of a discussion faster than someone needing a refill or a pinch of snuff at the wrong moment.
Sbho needed this meeting over and everyone out of her house as soon as possible. So she cleared her throat and dove right in.
“I don’t want umbuyiso. I asked you all to come here so we could agree on erecting a tombstone. There will be no service, no ceremony, no unveiling. I just want to put up a stone to mark her grave, that’s all.”
And then it began. The hubub. They felt disrespected, she was disrespecting her mother. This was not the family way. The ancestors would turn on her. Why was she alone, anyway? Where were her brothers? Why wasn’t her only sister with her?

Couldn’t they see that a knife had been put to the things that used to hold them together, and they had fallen apart? She didnt ask that question out loud, but their blindness amazed her, and silently, she apologised to Chinua Achebe for misquoting him, even if it was only in her head.


feminism and religion, 1


The funny thing about social meetings is that you never know where the conversation will end up. It started with one of the guys asking for food. The three women present, B, V and myself, all looked at each other, and I raised an eyebrow at V. It was her house. She looked back at me and said ‘I don’t know him.’

That was the trump card. I’d invited one of the two boys present; he brought a friend. And even though he’d come along because I’d sort-of set him up with my friend B, he was still, allegedly, my responsibility.
‘B, don’t make me cut you. You know he’s here for you. Got get your man some food.’
B just smiled her lazy smile, but I caught the twinkle in her eyes.
‘I don’t know him,’ she said, continuing to smile, patting the side of her head. You know, like how the Real Housewives do on TV to show how unconcerned they are. She was so pretty, I suddenly hated the thought of any man putting his hands on her. Now where did that come from? B and I have a connection. Everyone knows it. But, it’s not like that.

Anyone who knows me knows I don’t do convention unless it’s in my interests to do so, so I looked at Gus, my old friend Gus whom I hadn’t seen in six years, and said
‘There isn’t a woman here who’ll get up to feed you boys. You know where the kitchen is, I suggest you make your way there.’

I could see the emotions chase themselves across their faces, the two boys. I smiled inwardly, thinking to myself how freeing it was to be able to talk to men like this, and know that there could be no repercussions. I wasn’t planning to sleep with either of them, so what they thought of me was inconsequential, and I wasn’t invested enough in rebuilding my friendship with Gus to play the role he obviously expected, that I knew he expected. You know, cater to his needs, and make him feel all manly and things like that.

Flouting rules you don’t know exist is one thing. Ignorance sometimes can be a defense. But flouting rules you know exist, behaving in a way that you know is the exact antithesis of what is expected – well, is there a greater thrill that that? If so, I’m yet to find it.

Some people get off on ‘forbidden fruit’, and I’m one of them. But what gives me even greater pleasure or to put it another way, gets me off even better, is acting in a way that is ‘wrong’ simply because some power, likely a male power, decided that it should be so. As I get older, I find that it is even easier to disregard the ‘rules’ – I don’t owe anyone an explanation for my behavior; I am answerable to no one but myself. I get giddy just thinking about it. The shrink I used to go to said I had a deep-seated resentment toward any kind of authority. I stopped going to her soon after that. I wasn’t going to pay a hell of a lot of money just to be told stuff I already know. When she start interrogating my childhood on some ‘where did you learn that rules are bad’ tip, I knew it was time to cut ties. I think she kind-of felt that way too, because she never called me to ask why I didn’t keep our next appointment, the cold-hearted bitch.

The boy I didn’t know, Luke, was seemingly caught between what looked like a smile and a frown, like he wasn’t quite sure whether this was an insult or a joke. The expression on his face was priceless – you try smiling and frowning at the same time and see if you don’t look like a schizophrenic idiot. I could understand his confusion – what woman would dare tell a man to serve himself while she did nothing? The sheer audacity. It was unthinkable that this could be real life, and Luke was therefore a man at war with himself: take serious offence, chest-thumping included? Or laugh this off as the joke it so obviously was?

The fact that all us ladies (I use the term loosely) were smiling didn’t help either of the boys choose a reaction though, as Gus continued to look from one face to the other. And we just smiled. Our seemingly concerted effort to toy with them seemed to confuse them even further. They weren’t seated close enough to have overheard our frantic whispering, and since we’re grown women, single women and gossips to boot, we’d perfected the art of whispering, frantically nogal, while smiling and also not moving our lips. It’s an art form. You have to be born in the right place to be able to pull it off properly. The right place in this case being any neighbourhood where survival was directly linked to how good you were at reading the signs that weren’t there and hearing the things that weren’t said. Where else would you learn to talk without actually using your words? You see, the whole ‘heads-together’ thing is for amateurs. As for ‘can I talk to you in the kitchen/lounge/bathroom whatever’ – chile, please. If I need to communicate in private I can do it in a roomful of people, if I so choose. I can talk to my girl from across the room while you stand right next to her, and you won’t hear a thing. I have participated in gossip fests where the men present later swore the topic had been soccer and nothing but soccer and would even testifying to us all being a special breed of woman who could contribute meaningfully to a conversation revolving around a bit of air-filled leather. They didn’t put it that way of course, but the point is, we can and often have had some pretty deep (and shallow) conversations without any tidbits accidentally falling into the wrong ears. It’s an ancient form, and you not being able to do it and never having heard about it doesn’t make it any less real. Just in case you were getting ideas.

Gus abruptly stood up, hitching his pants and sniffing semi-disdainfully at us, before stalking off toward the kitchen, back ramrod straight like a hero off to confront his nemesis. An air of insultedness wafted after him as Luke allowed his face to decide on a smile then he too got up, stating ‘I’m a modern man, I can do this’, before also disappearing into the kitchen.

We collapsed in giggles. V, between pants for breath, her breasts looking like they’d jump out of her strap-top any moment, laughingly said, ‘Bet they’re angry as hell right now’. B laughed harder.

‘What kind women are we?’ she gasped the question, hand on her stomach to try and soothe the pain beginning over her ribs. ‘Those poor boys don’t know their way around your kitchen V, why are we being so mean?’

‘We? What we?’ I managed to ask between my own gasps for air, I was laughing so hard. ‘There is no ‘we’. I’m not part of this. He’s YOUR date; you should make sure he’s fed!’

‘Well, he brought you his friend, so you should have gotten YOUR date fed’ she returned, still cackling.

‘Hell no, he didn’t tell me he was bringing a friend so I’m not being set up. He was just too scared to come on his own.’

‘So what do you think I’m going to do with a scaredy-cat then? What man brings a friend without prior arrangement? If I want him to sleep-over at my house, what is he going to tell the friend? Obviously the friend is going to sleep over at yours.’

Again we collapsed in laugher at the idiocy of the plan. B talks a big game and is always flirting. Ok, I’ll be honest. B and I talk a big game, and we’re always flirting. B is celibate for personal reasons (she’s pining over her last boyfriend) and doesn’t want to have sex again until she’s engaged. For B, first date sex was never on the cards, certainly not first blind-date sex. As for me, I’m very choosey when it comes to my lovers (no really), so I certainly wasn’t taking anyone home, most certainly not just because he needed somewhere to spend the night while his friend got laid. So they’d driven over 6ookm to come to this braai; they could just as easily drive 600km back. And if they’d drunk too much to drive – you’d think I’d care about that, right? You’d be so wrong.

It didn’t make sense to me, this plan B thought the boys had, but obviously she knew the male psyche far better than I, because it turned out that that is exactly what the boys had in mind. I keep calling them boys because I’m sure that ‘real men’ the kind that don’t drink pink drinks, would never have come with such an idiotic plan. This is how it unfolded later than night: Gus pulled me aside and asked me what plans B had for him. I looked at him eyebrow cocked and retort on the tip of my tongue. You know that song that goes ‘Goodbye’s on the tip of my tongue’ by Jojo (I think)? Kelly Clarkson? Avril Lavigne? One of them. Well, fuck-off was certainly on the tip of mine. I wanted to ask him where he came from where this conversation was any kind of normal. Sure I was the ‘mutual friend’ but I really hadn’t done much. They’d decided to meet today with V and myself as buffers in case they didn’t like each other, and now this fool was asking me if my friend was going to sleep with him. Really? You can’t approach the woman you’ve been talking to on the phone every day for two weeks because what, exactly? I get that times have changed and all, but I ask you again, in what universe is this a normal conversation for two adults who are not planning to fluck each other?

And it’s not like Gus and I regularly spoke about sex – I hadn’t seen him in 6 years, during which time I’d had exactly two phone conversations, the last of which had included him talking to B and them deciding to bug me for each other’s numbers. The rest is history. Don’t ask me why and how he ended up talking to her, that is not relevant to this story.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. When the boys came back with the food, it was inevitable that the talk would turn to religion. Not. Of course when the boys came back we didn’t talk about religion. Not at that point, anyway. We talked about feminism. Of course. It started with Luke asking us why, as black women, we needed white women to come to Africa and tell us that we were oppressed and being denied our rights. Surely, he argued, someone who is being ill-treated in whatever way KNOWS this? Yet African women didn’t start shouting oppression till the ’60s, with white women leading the fray. This was of course a thinly veiled dig at us for daring to make them serve themselves. In essence what he was saying was this: I saw what you did there, you wanna-be white women.

I could tell he thought he impressed us with his pellucidity and I sighed inwardly. This would not end well. V is a rabid feminist, and I mean that. Rabid. Someone should have warned Luke, but well, that would teach him. Don’t engage people you don’t know in discussions of that sort – all deep and intellectual. Chile, no. Get to know people first. Know thine enemy. That’s rule number one of something or other. I watched V take a deep breath, her pendulous breasts rising and falling with each movement, (I need to ask this woman where she shops) and settled down for the fireworks.