I still go into the city sometimes. When it cannot be avoided, I, as we used to say, very nice myself. I powder my face, paint my lips red, and subdue my body into skintight jeans. I brace myself for the city center and its deceptions.
This time, it was the pain in my body that was unavoidable, and so I found myself amid the music and the voices of vendors.
“Ausi! Ausi!” An insistent male voice made me bristle. “Mama! Ausi! Ha’e sorry.”
A much older man in navy-blue overalls stood beside me, smiling. The old contempt born out of a lifetime of parrying admirers rose in my chest, and I hardened my face.
“I was saying, Mama,” the man said. “You have been staring at this place…”
“Oh,” I laughed. “There used to be a pharmacy here.”
“Botsogo,” he said. “Owai. They closed down, what, maybe it’s been one month, two months.”
Corner Supermarket, Capitol Cinema, that bar behind the President Hotel, now Botsogo Pharmacy. Two women—their full faces gleaming with youth and laughter—walked out of the Chinese clothing store that had replaced the pharmacy. Another pair, bankers probably, click-clacked past us in pantsuits, sipping from green plastic bottles. The best breakfast in the city—fatcakes and tripe—used to come from Mma-Malebogo’s table, outside Trinity Church, next to the morula tree where men used to gather to talk football.
The old man had propped a cigarette in his mouth. He struck a match and cupped his left hand over the flame and the cigarette. I watched his hand, its taut skin covering the protruding veins, its soiled nails.
“You needed something urgently?” the old man asked. A headache throbbed above my left eye.
There are new remedies and supplements coming into the market every day, all promising the same things—to cleanse blood, to relieve headaches and pains, to lower blood pressure, to boost energy. Phuza-O-Phele, Energy Boost, Black Health & Detox Tea, even the old monepenepe, whose barks and roots my mother used to steep in hot, darkening water, has now been crushed into a powder and packaged. Yet I cannot find the remedy that I am looking for—not in the pharmacies, not on the tables of the street vendors, not in the bags of the black market women who trade illegally in foreign currency and abortion pills.
In the small of my back the persistent tenderness awoke, thrummed, and I reached around to massage it as if to quiet an inconsolable child. The old man walked away to expel the smoke from his mouth and shrugged his shoulders at me. Without looking at him or the Chinese shop, I turned and headed toward the combi stop.
Nobody knows the origins of this remedy, but posters advertising its many benefits taunt me from the backs of combis and the sides of tuckshops. Sometimes I find leaflets about the remedy rolled into hollow pipes and poked into the diamond-shaped holes of my mesh-wire fence, sometimes I find two or three flyers littering my front yard. Sometimes I imagine they must be floating in from a merciful time, back when my friends and I, when we talked about it—at our jobs, at parties, having drinks that we never paid for at hotel bars—we talked of grabbing the city, as if by its neck, and having it right here, right in the palms of our hands.
There was a boy in my neighborhood, Thuso, Thato, whatever his name was, Mma-Tshiamo’s son, who would not stop bothering me. He was unfortunate, really. Braces on his teeth that he had since he started secondary school. Skinnier than the homeless dogs that scavenged in our neighborhood. His skin—the color of undercooked fatcakes—would have been his saving grace, was it not for the black scars littering his face, probably from pimples he had split open.
When I returned from the city, he saw me from his stoep and leaped up to help me with my bags.
“Ausi! Ausi!” he shouted. A familiar feeling of quick anger stirred in me.
“Sorry hoo!” he called. “Ausi! Sorry!”
I whirled around, watched him jog toward me, panting. His oversized T-shirt, its orange loud, billowed around him.
“Ausi?” I asked. “Didn’t I tell you that my name is not Ausi?”
“Askies,” he said.
“Do I look like an Ausi?” I asked. His eyes traveled from my face to take in my pink halter-neck top, my tight-fitting dark-blue jeans, my heels.
“I am nobody’s aunty,” I said. Nobody’s mother. Nobody’s wife. There are no names to lend to me, no names to decorate mine with. But the boy has been taught that a woman’s name, on its own, is not enough. So every time he needed to talk, this issue of my name hung between us.
“I am sorry,” he said again. “I just wanted to help.”
He reached out and coaxed two of the plastic bags from my fingers.
“Careful,” I snapped. The bottles in the black plastic bag clinked. He straightened up and looked at me in surprise. I enjoy a bottle of Autumn Harvest wine now and then, nothing wrong with that. As we walked over to my house, giving a wide berth to the pungent puddles on the ground, dodging four little girls playing football in the street, he blabbered on and on about a neighborhood watch group he and his friends were starting. As a little boy he used to come around pushing a wire car, lisping and asking for money for ice pops. There had been so many visitors back then when my house was always open, to little neighborhood boys and girls, to the girls I befriended in bar bathrooms just because I liked their hairstyles or their dresses, to the men who were dying to make all of us love them.
He stood aside and watched me as I pushed the gate open with my hip. At the door, I put my plastic bags on the stoep and reached out for the ones he had.
“Thank you,” I said. He just stood there holding the bags in his hands.
“So,” he said. “You should give me your number.”
He hoisted one of the plastic bags up and hung it from his shoulder, and produced a cell phone from his pocket. He rubbed his right nostril, squirming under my gaze.
“Okay. Sharp.” He cleared his throat. “Take mine, ge. So you have someone to call if something goes wrong. This neighborhood is not safe anymore.”
I do not need the boy to let me know that my neighborhood is no longer safe. I have been living in Gaborone West for twenty-four years, despite my mother’s warnings in my teen years, despite her speaking of the city as though it were a live snarling thing lying in wait for girls like me.
I had not listened and got on the bus from Serowe as soon as I finished my Cambridge. My first year in the city I lived in Old Naledi in a tiny one-room house with four other girls. We went to the pit latrines at the back, we knelt to boil water and cook on a Primus stove, we slept three on the bed, two on a mattress we slipped out of sight during the day. Our favorite dresses and tops fluttered all around the room from nails someone had hammered onto the wall. Our room, the Mansion, we called it, seemed to always be writhing and heaving under the weight of all our bodies, our Sheen Straight and Blue Magic, our wigs, our lipsticks, our perfume, our sweat, our laughter, our worries, our conviction that we could tame the city. We looked for jobs during the day, and at night we dressed up in our best clothes and went to parties and waited for the men who would fall for our charms. Girls moved in, eager for excitement, clothes, everything new. Girls moved out when they found good paying jobs or husbands or cheaper houses.
Finally, at twenty-two, a last refuge from years of moving between Old Naledi and Bontleng and Tsholofelo, I moved in here, when Gaborone West was the city. When the city council bestowed the streets with strange names nobody bothered to learn. I was here when they installed the first streetlights, when kids and adults alike spent evenings under the poles soaking up the orange light bathing the street. I was here when this was the place aspirational government officers nurtured their middle-class dreams. I was here. Who would have known that Gaborone West would become the first stop for the late-coming villagers impatient for the city’s new jobs and pleasures? My neighbors built lodgings for all those looking for cheap accommodation: one yard, one long house with seven, eight separate units going for P100 each. At night, candlelight blinks from each room, as if from a train slugging imperceptibly through mist. Shebeens sprouted up all over the place, becoming the spots for drinkers of cheap home-brewed alcohol, for knife fights every weekend, for heart-wrenching screams in the middle of the night. The neighbors who could afford it ripped out their mesh-wire fences and raised boundary walls to shield themselves from the devastation settling into our neighborhood. That is how I came to have a yellow brick wall on my left and an unplastered wall on my right and my old fence hanging limply at the front. The final insult was when the kwaito kids reduced my beautifully named Gaborone West to G-Wawa.
The following day, the boy brought me four overripe mangoes that bruised at my touch.
“We have a tree in our yard,” he said.
I accepted the mangoes. I considered them his apology for calling me Ausi. I cupped my hands the way my mother had taught my sister and me, and he pressed the fruits onto my palms one after the other.
“Please,” he said. “Tell me if I can get you anything else.”
“Why?” I asked.
He laughed, using his hands to cover his mouth, and I thought of the old men and women who would press my hands to their lips, to their cheeks, to their despicable wrinkles.
“Why?” I asked again.
He saw that I was not laughing and stopped.
“We are neighbors, akere,” he said. “We have to take care of each other. That is why we are starting this neighborhood watch.”
When I was a little girl, my mother would rouse my older sister, Boipuso, and me from bed early Saturday mornings, saying, “Who will bury you? Who will close your eyes upon your death?” These were never questions, just admonitions meant to coax us into trekking behind her to funeral after funeral and into taking food and fetching water for men and women whose children had neglected them into a lonely old age. My sister and I would look at each other and struggle to keep straight faces, the idea of us dying laughable. I was disgusted by the moles and folds populating the old women’s faces. I was disgusted by their tongues, how they lapped in their empty mouths at the memories of their long fallen-out teeth. At their sight, I would elbow Boipuso and murmur under my breath about witches.
The years went by, and I turned thirteen, then fourteen, then fifteen, and my body was revealed to me. It became all I thought of: its gifts and surprises, the pleasures it doled out to me and others. I discovered that I was a girl who had beauty—perfectly curled eyelashes over brown eyes, a dimple puncturing the smooth blackness of my face, muscles in my legs, and my hands with their tiny half-moon nails, their fingers so chubby the skin stretched out taut and shiny, my palms so soft my mother grumbled they announced my laziness.
Discovering my beauty made me bold: on Friday nights I started locking the room my sister and I shared, and on Saturday mornings when my mother knocked I dragged the blankets over my head. Boipuso was weaker; she could not bear to listen to our mother’s angry knocks. She trudged behind our mother to her latest project, tying the same head scarves on her head, throwing the same shawls onto her shoulders, wearing the same sensible shoes. I stayed home with my father, asking him questions about the year he spent working at a gold mine in Johannesburg. I listened to his stories about the men from different countries all sardined together in hostels, their languages bumping up against each other to create a new language. I dreamed about leaving Serowe, leaving my mother, leaving her commands. I wondered what a girl like me could make of herself in the city, of the new life awaiting unexplored just four hours away by bus.
After ten years of life in Gaborone, I went back home for my father’s funeral. I left the city in the full protection of my learned ammunition—my makeup and store-bought clothes, my conviction that I knew so much more about the world than my family did. So many years away and now there was a brickhouse in almost every yard, all painted the same pale yellow. That did not stop Serowe from looking small and desolate, with scraggly grass in need of rain. In my old home I felt I was some kind of giant girl hankering after her childhood toys. I met a man my sister introduced as her husband, and I immediately compared him to the men I had known. I met their child, my niece, who followed me around but would not say anything to me. My mother—from her room of mourning—sent my uncles to tell me that my father died heartbroken from my staying so long in the city. I stayed in Serowe for as long as expected and respectable, and then I took the bus back. Riding into Gaborone and seeing the Onion Tower poking its head above the city, I felt I could breathe again.
I had started on my second glass of wine, listening to my body, as my mother used to say, and watching BTV with hope for any news of the remedy, when BPC plunged the neighborhood into darkness. Almost immediately after I heard tentative knocks on my door.
“Who is it?” I called.
“It’s me.” A tremulous, disembodied voice, like the voices on the radio. “Thuso.”
I stayed quiet, my mind zipping through faces in my head. Thuso. Thuso. Thuso.
“Mma-Tshiamo’s son? I gave you mangoes?”
“Oh,” I realized. “Thuso.”
I unlocked the door.
“Where is the fire?” I asked.
“I just wanted,” he said, “to make sure that nothing happens over the load shedding. You know Ausi K, three houses from here? They were robbed last time the electricity went.”
“I am a witch,” I said. “I am not scared of the dark.
“I am the scariest thing in this neighborhood,” I said.
But I was pleased that he had come.
A lone besieged candle in the corner struggled to keep the room alight. A triangle of light on the wall, as if a deity had her arms pushed wide open. He sat on the plastic chair. I offered him my wine, he said he would have just one glass. I watched him take the first sip, a grimace zipping like lightning across his face.
He sat in my sitting room, telling me about all the new names the BPC had acquired since this load-shedding business began: it was no longer the Botswana Power Corporation, but the Botswana Pau! Corporation, Buy Paraffin and Candles, Be Patient Comrades, Botswana Proudly Chinese.
At his jokes, I laughed and laughed. It had been so long since my laughter had mingled with another person’s. I felt the laughter building inside my chest, and I expelled it, loud, free, wiping the tears from my eyes, slapping at my chest the way my mother used to. The silence after was warm and expansive.
“I am growing older tomorrow,” I told him.
“Serious?” he asked.
“So,” he said. “What’s the plan?”
“Owai,” I said. “I don’t get excited anymore. I have eaten birthdays. I have a lot of birthdays piled on top of this head.”
“Still,” he said. “We should celebrate.” My chest constricted, I felt I could not breathe as I waited an eternity for him to move from the plastic chair and join me on the couch, to reach for my hand, to caress my face. I have never trusted the things men say when they are courting you. Nor the words they say during lovemaking. I have known men to think themselves gods when they desire you; I have known men to promise to not only buy trains, but to build railway lines too.
I wanted to tell him that I have known bodies. I have known men. Tlotlo. Derek. Tabona. Mothusi. Shawn. Thabo. Zachariah. Wadzha. Emmanuel. Moshe. Reginald. Tlotlego. Hugh. Phala. Lekgotla. Moreri. Tiro. Goodwill. Isaiah. Boipelo. Tshepho. Katlego. Moses. Frederick. Billy. Nchi. Thabo. Baboloki. Kabelo. Bushy. Raymond. Temo. Leruo. Kagiso. Ndiye. Simba. Paul. Lesego. Men. Bodies. My body still holds dear its memories: of the weight of another’s body, of the feel of a shoulder, of being slick with sweat, of ragged gasps of breath in my ear, of a hand stilling the back of my head for a kiss.
The lights flooded the room. My face was hot. It always embarrasses me when the lights come back on, no matter what I am doing. It’s the sudden sneaking on, it always makes me feel like I have been caught doing something wrong. Like coming to, naked, in public.
“Go home,” I said.
I did not open my eyes, but I felt his hesitation. I did not see it, but I sensed him raising his head, propping his glasses back up his nose, frowning maybe. I sensed him standing up and heard him as he opened the door then clicked it gently into place.
Before, there had been Phatsimo, my first boyfriend, he who had kept up futile fights against my advances, who used to walk me home from school, all the way to Botalaote even though he lived in Newtown, who was so convinced that we would get married that even back then he called me mother-of-my-children. He had joined the army and I came to the city. I never went back home after my father’s funeral. We never saw each other again.
I sat in the room for a long time, drinking glass after glass of wine on an empty stomach.
I put my pillow over my head.
I shut my eyes even tighter, but the knocking continued, getting even more desperate. Then my phone began to ring.
Oh Thuso. Around the room, all the damage from the night before: specks of vomit clinging to my duvet, my clothes, my shoes, my radio, my plastic daffodils, vomit speckling the full-length mirror on the door.
I was in no condition to be seen. In the mirror, a despicable face, hair clumped and matted, eyes reddening with each throb of the head. I listened to the knocking, my heart thudding in my chest. The knocking and the ringing phone alternated. Eventually, he stopped calling and just rapped at the door, the knocks alternating between frenzied and quiet. I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes but could not go back to sleep. Very soon I realized that tears were sliding down my face. I was no longer sure if Thuso was still out there, or if the sound in my ears was just the echo of his earlier knocking. After a while, It was no longer Thuso I was thinking of. It was my mother, it was my father, it was my sister and her child. It was all my friends who had turned their backs on our lives, on the city. All those girls who returned to Serowe, to Mmadinare, to Makalamabedi, to Molepolole. They had gone back to working at the family tuckshops, back to night school, back to toiling at the lands when the rains came, back to working at their marriages. They had been driven back home by unexpected pregnancies, by duty, by disappointment, by disease. I wondered if, waking up to the wide expanse of their days, they ever thought of me, still here, biding my time for an age my city would again gaze, as a witness, upon me.