The xenophobia in Durban is heartbreaking. It reminded me of my story, Birthday Wishes. I thought today might be a good day to post it. It's included in the book Birthday Wishes and Other Stories published by Vivila Publishers in South Africa.
“They’ve taken all of the jobs,” Bongani spat with his head down, shovelling forkfuls of food into his mouth. Lungile watched him while she played at eating, but stayed quiet.
“People say that, but is it true?” Bongani’s mother got up and turned off the tea kettle whistling on the stove. “I think people are getting excited about nothing. And you, Bongani, should stay away from them. It will lead to no good.”
Bongani’s head shot up, his eyes flashing left and right with anger. “Keep out of it, Mama! How many more Zimbabweans must come here? They will work for nothing; how can a South African like me expect to ever find a decent job when they will work for nothing? Tell me that!”
“Bongani, please,” his mother pleaded, sitting down next to him and running her hand along his arm. “Please, promise me you won’t get mixed up in all of this. It is not your concern. Things will work out, you will find a job soon enough. You’ve finished your matric now, you will find a job. Please Bongani, promise me you’ll stay out of it.”
Lungile watched her brother and her mother. She knew her brother thought what he was saying was right. He pulled away from his mother’s tender touch. “I need to go out.” He stood up, grabbed his coat from the hook and headed for the door.
“Please, Bongani, please don’t go,” his mother tried again, but Bongani turned and left.
Lungile sat at the table pushing her uneaten food around on the plate. She worried about her brother and what he did in the dark, dusty lanes of Alexandra, but she knew that her brother’s activities helped her; they helped her to keep her secret quiet from everyone.
Two weeks ago the talk started. At first, Lungile paid no attention to it. People were jealous and nasty and liked to blame others for problems they created. It didn’t mean anything, and it was best not to pay it any attention. Such random talk could do no real harm.
“Those Somali shopkeepers charge too much. They should go back to
their country and leave us alone.”
“Mugabe’s children have no home here. They just want to steal
our property in the night.”
“The Nigerians are all drug dealers, the government
should send them home.”
“They are taking all of our jobs, is this not the New South Africa?
They must all leave or we will make them leave.”
Talk, talk, talk. Other things filled Lungile’s mind. It was her final year of primary school and she was the head girl. She had a lot of responsibilities; she couldn’t be troubled with silly talk from jealous people. But then something about the talk changed. It was more organised. People were repeating the same things. The words gained momentum, they gathered strength. It was all taking on a sharp edge.
“The foreigners must go home or we will make sure they do.”
From odd corners and crowded streets the words were repeated; repeated enough times they took on a more real, truthful role. Soon they were no longer words, but calls to action. This was when Mudiwa took Lungile to the side and the secret began.
Mudiwa had come to Lungile’s school two years before. Her father was a teacher in Mashvingo, Zimbabwe, but the family had to leave when whispers in the night told them that the war veterans were coming for him, the regional MDC organizer. Mudiwa, her mother, and her father packed up what they could and slipped over the border the same night.
They had friends living in Alexandra. They would stay only until after the elections. They were sure that MDC would win and Mugabe and his friends would be out. Then it would be safe for them to go back to Zimbabwe. It would be safe for them to go back home.
Mudiwa’s father left for Zimbabwe when the elections started. Though Mudiwa and her mother begged for him to stay in South Africa, he knew he could not leave such important work for others. They had heard from him regularly before the elections, but suddenly he stopped calling. Mudiwa’s mother spent hours at the phone shop calling people they knew, trying to get any information about her husband. The last they heard was that he had been arrested with other MDC members. Mudiwa’s uncle spent every waking hour searching for his brother, and Mudiwa and her mother waited in Alexandra for any hopeful word.
Lungile knew all this because soon after Mudiwa arrived in Alexandra, they became friends. Mudiwa, though the same age as Lungile, was much smaller than her with delicate hands and tiny feet. Though they looked very different from each other, they had many things in common, one of which was their birthday- the 22nd of May.
Once her father left, Mudiwa’s bubbly personality disappeared. Lungile was worried about her friend. “Have you heard any news about your father?” Mudiwa asked her that day.
“No, my uncle thinks he knows where they’ve been taken. He is waiting to raise some money then he’ll go there. Then we’ll know more.”
“At least that’s something,” Lungile tried. She changed the subject hoping to carry her friend to a better place. “What are you doing for your science project?”
Mudiwa turned to her, her tiny face full of worry. “Lungile, I’m scared. “
Lungile took Mudiwa’s hands in her and led her to a bench under a nearby shade tree. “I know, Mudiwa. But you’re uncle is there, he will find your father and get him out of jail and then he will come back to South Africa.”
Mudiwa shook her head. “No, not that. Lungile. I think we’re in danger, my mother and I.”
“Danger? From what?”
“Where we stay, they’re talking. They want the foreigners out. My mother is getting scared, but we don’t have any money to leave. My father took everything. We don’t know what to do, we can’t go anywhere.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.
Lungile reached forward and wiped the tears away. “Do you think it’s that bad? Does your mother think that they will harm you?”
“She doesn’t say it, but I can see it in her eyes. Near our house, the young men are meeting in the night. They leave those meetings shouting that the foreigners must go. They might kill us, Lungile.”
Mudiwa cried into her hands and Lungile grabbed the smaller girl up in her arms. As Mudiwa explained, Lungile knew that the comments made in the dark had changed into something else altogether. She was afraid for her friend, but she vowed that she would not sit by and do nothing.
Two days later, the first attacks started. A Mozambican man was beaten in the street while everyday, ordinary people watched. They were the woman down the road with the baby with long eyelashes, and the man who rode the black Humber, the girl who sold cell phone units and the tall boy who played cards on the corner. They were the couple that had invited Lungile’s family for a braii and the old woman who had an orange and black cat. They were not evil. They were not criminals. They were just the people that lived with them, who had listened one too many times to the whispered words, and now believed that they were true and that action was needed. Perhaps the speakers were right, the foreigners were the problem. They were what kept them from the life the Rainbow Nation had promised them.
After school, Lungile caught Mudiwa by the sleeve before she went out the gate. “I have made a place for you to stay, you and your mother, until all of this is over,” Lungile whispered to her friend who seemed to be shrinking, getting smaller and smaller, until Lungile feared she might disappear altogether.
“A place to stay?” Mudiwa was confused so Lungile took her to her house. They sneaked through the side gate, taking care not to allow its usual squeak. Lungile took Mudiwa to a storeroom at the back of the house. No one ever went in there. It was full of her uncle’s property. He had gone to work at the mine and had left his things with Lungile’s mother. Lungile had managed to break in and moved his things around to create a hidden room at the back. She had set up her uncle’s bed and a small side table with a paraffin lamp on it. The small room was hidden at the back by the remainder of his property.
“You can stay here,” Lungile said. “They won’t find you.”
“But how? How will we manage?” Mudiwa asked confused.
“I’ll bring you food. It’s just for during the night, that’s when they start everything.”
And that was when the secret began. As the foreigners were killed or ran to police stations looking for protection, Mudiwa and her mother were safe in Lungile’s yard. No one would search for foreigners there, especially now with her brother Bongani becoming one of the ring leaders. Though Lungile feared for what Bongani was doing, she knew that without it, the gangs might search their house for hidden foreigners. As long as Bongani kept active, Mudiwa was safe. It was not an easy thought for Lungile, but she also knew that with or without her secret, Bongani would do what he wanted. He had always been ready to blame others for his problems. It was just as easy to blame the foreigners as it was to blame their father who had gone off one day and left them, maybe even easier.
Days passed as Lungile and Mudiwa kept their secret. Mudiwa went to school everyday and her mother went searching for piece jobs outside of the township, and made her daily trip to the phone shop to call home to hear news about her husband. But at night, they snuck into their hiding place and when Lungile’s mother went to sleep, and Bongani went out to be part of his own secret life, Lungile crept to the back of the house and brought food and water to Mudiwa and her mother.
Lungile sat at the table with her mother after Bongani left. She moved her food around on her plate, not eating, trying to save as much as she could for her friend. Suddenly, her mother looked up from her hands; her face was wet with the tears she cried each night for Bongani. “What is the date today?”
“I don’t know,” Lungile said. “Maybe the 21st or the 22nd?”
Her mother got up and went to the calendar from the local service station that hung on the wall. “It is the 22nd! Oh Lungile! In all of this, we have forgotten all about your birthday. You’re twelve today!” Her mother grabbed her up in her strong, working arms. “Oh what kind of mother forgets her own daughter’s birthday?”
Lungile let her cry for a few minutes. “It’s okay, Mama. I know you’re worried about Bongani and all of this violence. We’ll celebrate another time. I don’t mind.” She smiled at her mother to put her at ease. “Let me make you some tea before you go to bed.”
Her mother sat back down on the chair. “You are such a good girl, Lungile.”
Lungile quickly made the tea. What she wanted now was to get her mother off to bed. She had a lot to do for she had forgotten the date too. Her mother drank her tea slowly, bringing the cup up to her lips and sipping the hot liquid. She started telling some of her stories. Tonight they were all about growing up in the lush valleys of the towering Drakensburg Mountain. They were happy days, and when she was calming herself that was where her mind found most comfort. Soon her eyes drooped and her cup emptied. “My daughter, I must get off to bed. Don’t stay up long now.”
“I won’t Mama. I have a bit of maths to do and then I’ll join you,” Lungile lied.
As soon as she heard the rhythmic snore from her mother in the other room, Lungile burst into action. She pulled out the flour, sugar, and eggs from the side cupboard. She mixed a small cake and put it in the oven. When it was ready, she looked around for some decorations. She didn’t have anything for icing, but she found some toothpicks. She dug out her coloured pencils from school and made a small flag written “Happy 12th Birthday”. She stuck it on the toothpick and then stuck the toothpick into the cake. She found a half used candle in a side drawer and, though it was very big, she stuck it into the cake anyway. Every birthday cake needed a candle. Then she carried the cake and the leftover food from dinner carefully out to the shed.
Baking the cake had taken some time, and Mudiwa and her mother were already asleep. Lungile shook Mudiwa awake, careful not to wake her mother. “We forgot something important today.”
Mudiwa turned her sleepy face toward her friend. “I’m too tired. I don’t want to eat.”
“It’s not time for eating. It’s time for a party!”
Mudiwa open her eyes. Lungile lit the candle and she sang very softly, “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!” until the song finished.
When Lungile was through, Mudiwa said, “Happy birthday to you too!” She closed her eyes and made a wish then blew out the candle. Lungile split the cake in half and handed one piece to Mudiwa. They smiled at each other as they ate.
“I was waiting to tell you something”, Mudiwa said, suddenly serious. “My mother spoke with my father today. He’s in Bulawayo, staying with his parents. He’s sending money tomorrow; we’re leaving.”
Lungile wasn’t sure what she was feeling. She wanted her friend to be reunited with her father and she wanted her to be safe again at home, but she also didn’t want her to leave, though she knew that was very selfish. “I’m happy for you, Mudiwa.”
Mudiwa took Lungile’s face in her small hands and kissed her on both cheeks. “This is my best birthday cake ever. Thank you.”
The next morning, Lungile woke up early and got ready for school. She put on her uniform and shined her school shoes. Her mother had long left for her job in the city centre. Just as she was leaving, Bongani burst through the door, only just arriving from his night time activities. Lungile stood at the door. “Do you even know what you’re doing?” she asked him suddenly very angry.
“What does a small girl like you know about anything?” Bongani spat back.
“I know what you are doing is wrong and the time will come when you will look in the mirror and be ashamed of who you see.”
Bongani thinned his eyes and clicked his tongue in annoyance and headed for the bedroom, where he’d sleep all day so as to be ready for the night once again.
Lungile went outside. She found Mudiwa and her mother waiting down the road for her. “We’re leaving, Lungile. Thank you so much for your help,” Mudiwa’s mother said and then she reached forward and hugged her. “You’re a brave little girl. I see a bright future for a girl with such courage.”
Lungile was too shy to answer such big compliments. She looked at Mudiwa. “Good bye. I hope you’ll travel well to your home,” Lungile said keeping her emotions steady with formal words.
Mudiwa rushed forward. Lungile could feel her tears wetting her uniform. “I’ll remember you always. You’ve been the best friend a girl could have had. Do you know what I wished for last night?”
“No,” Lungile said. “What?”
“I wished that on our birthday, sometime in the future when everything is good again, that we will be together. We will have a big party with balloons and games and dancing.... and a big cake... with lots of cream.”
Lungile watched quietly as Mudiwa and her mother made their way down the block. Just as they were about to turn the corner to the bus station, she shouted, “I hope your wish comes true!”
She wasn’t sure if Mudiwa heard her, but somewhere inside she was positive birthday wishes came true and she would see Mudiwa again.