Don’t Call Me Ugly
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and
incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are
used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any
resemblance to actual events, locales, organisations, or
persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental
Don’t Call me ugly
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be used
or reproduced electronically or in print without written
permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews
Don’t Call Me Ugly
“Can you be here tomorrow at ten in the morning?”
“Yes, boss. I’ll be there.”
“See you tomorrow then.”
Such calls don’t come regularly. I’ve been a regular applicant for three years now, but landing a job in Pretoria has been tough. It can be frustrating seeing that others around me are getting busy while I remain jobless. I don’t know if it has to do with the part of town when I live. But hardly can it be so because, every day, the dailies report new of people getting hired.
Being idle during the day is not a situation I’m happy to find myself in. In a city like ours, one can hardly survive without having a regular job. I’ve submitted my curriculum vitae to all the recruitment agencies I know. I’ve also handed printed copies over to those I know. Despite these efforts, I’m hardly invited for interviews.
The few times I’ve had to crash into an interview session of a retail store, I had to beg to be allowed in. Even at that, they told me that my face would not suit the job or that customers will be discouraged when they see me.
So when I received that call this afternoon, it was music to my ears. It was a call from the owner of a cottage house in Menlyn. He wants to hire a private security guard to complement the services of the security company that watches over his house.
I’d heard about the job opening from John, the guy with whom I share a room. He works in Menlyn as a security man in a private residence. Despite my lack of training as a security guard, I jumped at the opportunity. “If my friend could do a similar job in the area, I was more than qualified.”
At this point, considering the stress I’ve been through trying to get busy with something, it doesn’t matter what job comes my way. I just have to be occupied somehow. I’m that desperate.
What I’m hopeful about is that the security guard job doesn’t require much skill, I think. I just had to be in the security room to open and close the gate. Who needs a formal training to do such? I’m more than capable of doing that without hassle. I’ll go for it.
It’s going to be my first job interview in three years, and I’m looking forward eagerly. I don’t want to give them a reason to turn me down. So, I take a walk to the internet café on Kerk Street. My intention is to do a brief study on how to answer interview questions. After browsing the internet for a while, I ask the operator to print out my selected interview questions and answers. I’ll go through them later at night before I go to bed.
Not wanting to overlook things, I take my time to study the dress modes of security men and how they should look, talk and act; how they must interact with their employer and family members; and how they must react to an attack. I mark out the pictures of well-dressed security personnel from the internet. I’m going to dress as one the next day. If the interviewer sees that I’m well dressed and ready for the job, he’ll be impressed. He may consider hiring me right away.
Before leaving the internet café, I ensure that I have all the information I need for the interview. I pay the operator and walk away.
Before returning home, I branch off to the market on Queen Street where second-hand clothes are sold. I grab a set of security attire with a suitable cap. I put on the clothes right there at the seller’s stall to forestall any wrong size issues.
“How do I look?”
“Sweet! The attire was designed for you I think.”
“No, tell me. With the way I’m dressed, what job do you think suits me?”
“Well, you look like someone who works for a security company.”
“Fine. That’s all I want to hear.”
The clothes are old and worn out, hence the low price. After a bit of haggling, I pay the seller and take my leave.
Later that night, John and I sit down to talk about what is required to work as a security officer. Before now, I’d avoided asking him about the details of his job. He has a security certificate from a school that specialises in training people to be security officers. He is qualified for the job he currently does. My case is a bit different. I want to take up the job because of lack of something better to do. I’ll have a lot to learn from him.
“You don’t need a certificate from a school to do the job. They only demand such documents from us that are not citizens.”
“What kind of questions do you think the interviewer will ask me?”
“Andrew, you have to convince them that you have the experience to do the job. They will also want to know if you have a guarantor. They hardly employ people without references.”
“My sister is there for me. She’ll be my guarantor.”
“Then they will want to know if you can keep records well.”
“That should not be a problem. The attendance book will be there for people to fill.”
“That’s about you need to know. The main thing is about trust. If they can trust you, they will hire you.”
I bring out the security attire that I bought earlier to show him. John burst out laughing about the idea.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to put on a security outfit for your interview. If your employer want you to wear a uniform, they will let you know. Besides, they will provide one for you.”
“Since I don’t have any experience, don’t you think it would be good to give them the impression that I’ve worked somewhere before?”
“You have a point there. It may help you look experienced. Best of luck in that regard.”
I woke up at exactly 5:00 AM the following day. I quickly go through the interview questions that I printed the day before. I’m familiar with them anyways. It’s not the first time I’ll be doing such.
I live in Arcadia, and from here, Menlyn is not far. I have just one taxi to board, and I’ll be there at the interview venue. At 8:00 AM I put on my ‘new’ security attire, ready to leave the house. John had left for work earlier.
I don’t have to wait for long at the bus stop as many taxis are heading that way. I jump into one going to Menlyn Mall. The 14-seater minibus is almost full as I’m the last person to board. The only space left was at the back. I make my way there to sit.
Beside me is a lady who is breastfeeding her baby. I nod my head in greeting, and she did the same to acknowledge. I’m careful this morning not to offend anyone with my actions. Who knows what I’ll do wrong and my first job opportunity in three years will go away.
The lady is in her late twenties, I guess. She is shy as she cuddles her kid carefully. She is conscious that men surround her and so she makes efforts to cover her breast. The baby is facing the other man on her right. I’m to her left. When she is done feeding him, she turns the baby’s head over.
I love babies and enjoy playing with them. As the child now faces me, I lean forward, touch the baby’s cheeks and flash a smile. He begins to cry.
The mother hisses, thinking that she needs to feed the baby some more. She turns him over again to resume feeding him, but the kid doesn’t seem to want more milk. She covers her breast and places his head on her shoulder. The baby stops crying as she plays with him.
Anytime she turns the baby towards me; he starts to cry. The crying baby’s voice is loud, and passengers in the bus are getting worried as to why she would not take care of her kid. The lady doesn’t know what else to do as she makes efforts to calm him. I alone know why the baby is restless.
Babies’ cry anytime they look at me. When they are older, they run away when I come across them. It’s not the first time it would happen like that. I’m used to it, anyway. My face scares kids. Even adults get worried. I know that I’m ugly, but it bothers me when kids cry by looking at me. I like to carry them and play with them, but they get uncomfortable, and I’m forced to stay away. Even when I smile, I expect them to stop crying, but, no, they up the tempo.
As this lady’s baby continues to cry, I had to look out of the window. He stops crying immediately. I had to be in that uncomfortable position until I drop off the bus. There is no way I would turn my face to look at the baby without him yelling again. I had to make that sacrifice. I’m used to it.
Luckily for me, the lady reaches her destination before me. She leaves, and I’m free to sit properly. I stretched my neck to adjust. I feel relieved even if there is a slight strain. I soon jump off the bus. It is 9:47 AM. It doesn’t take long for me to locate the residence where the interview would hold.
At the entrance gate, I knock on the door, and a man peeps through the door.
“Are you Andrew?”
The man assesses me from head to toe. He then looks away, narrows his eyes and tightens his lips.
“Are you here for the security job that we advertised?”
“Yes, please” I smile courteously to make my face look pleasant. My heart jumps into my mouth.
“I’m sorry. The job is not for you.”
“Please give me a chance to prove myself. I’m prepared to do whatever you ask me. As you can see, I have the experience needed. Please don’t disqualify me based on looks only. My heart is different. I’m qualified to take up the job. I have —”
“Sorry, the job is taken already,” He says more frantically.
“ I even have a diploma in -”
He bangs the door, leaving me there to stare at the “Jesus is Lord” poster on the gate.
I stand there confused for some minutes wondering what went wrong. He invited me for an interview, and I’m here before time. Why would he change his mind saying that the job has been taken? I knew he was lying when he said so, but there is nothing I could do to make him change his mind. I tarry a bit, hoping that he might return. When there seems to be no sign of that happening, I walk away.
Getting a job in the city can be tough. Life is hard without having a regular source of income. I move around the streets, jumping from one to the other, dropping my curriculum vitae at every business premises. But I’ve been lucky.
It’s not as if I seek an office job; far from that. My interest is just simple gardening or security jobs. I wonder why such modest household jobs should be a problem in a big place like Pretoria. When I was aiming for an office job with my diploma certificate, the challenges were different. They complained that my face is not customer-friendly.
As I changed my mind to go for the menial jobs – those that would not require me to come in contact with customers – the situation has not improved.
Now apart from the difficulty of getting the scarce jobs, I have to deal with the fact that I’m not good-looking. I’ve been turned down many times on account of my looks. I’m sure this Menlyn fellow did the same because he doesn’t like my face. For how long will people continue to judge others based on their looks?
They can hold on to their jobs, but they can’t kill my determination. I know there is a suitable job for me out there. It’s a matter of time. I’ll be patient, and surely, I’ll overcome.
I’m originally from Bela-Bela in Limpopo. At least that is where my late mum said she originated from. Before she died in 2011, I didn’t have the opportunity of visiting her hometown. I used to live with her in Polokwane. It was there I completed my Grade 12.
My lovely mum could not trace my father. I would have loved to know more about the man. This face of mine must have come from him because my mum was not bad looking. She cared for me so much, and I have fond memories of the times we were together.
As a kid, people advised her to take me to the motherless babies’ home. They said I was unfit to live in the midst of people because of how I looked. They wondered why a beautiful woman would give birth to a monster. But my mum didn’t heed their advice. She would ask them why she should abandon her child.
When leaving the house, she would put me on her back and rather cover my face when I attracted too much attention to her. People would sneer and taunt her whenever she was at the mall. She went through a lot of horrid times those days, and I appreciated her efforts and patience on me.
She braved all odds and registered me in a school. At the earlier years, the jeers were hard for me. But over the years, I developed a thick skin.
“ Am I permitted to rub powder as a man?” That was the question I asked my class teacher way back in high school. I’d asked that question out of frustration. It was during one of our Life Sciences – Biology- classes. Each time the class teacher discussed evolution, asking us if we’d seen pictures of ancient humans, my classmates usually turned their faces towards me.
“I’m like you. I’m of the present generation,” I would tell my classmates.
“No. You’re homo habilis,” they would reply, referring to those ancient pre-human times.
The teacher would ward them off not to insult me, but they only obeyed while she was around. I went through a lot of painful moments at school those days.
When someone farted, I was suspected to be the one. Where there was theft, it might be Andrew. Whenever something horrible happened in class, I was the first suspect. I was always the butt of most jokes that my classmates’ told in class.
At first, I used to cry when they made fun of me. But over time, as I perceived that they would not stop, I got used to it. I accepted the fact that I was not good-looking. I bore all their insults without stress.
Until I left school, I didn’t have many friends amongst my classmates. The closest person to me was John. We got close because we lived in the same neighbourhood in Polokwane. We used to return from school together. He was someone who didn’t care much about people’s gossips. Whenever I was not in class, he updated me on the lessons I missed. Though we both were average students, we got along well. I also helped him around the city when he newly arrived from Tanzania, his home country.
I didn’t have a girlfriend throughout my stay in high school. The girls always stayed away from the guy seen as an outcast. When all the guys started talking about their girlfriends, I could not be left out. I had to do something about it.
I devised a strategy to attract ladies to me. I would rub my mum’s powder before leaving for school. I also kept some in my pocket to apply when it was washed off. To an extent, it got me noticed by people on the street. They would look, smile and wave at me.
In the class, I maintained a happy face as I wore a permanent smile. Whether or not there was something to smile about, I would be seen smiling, even when class lessons were on. My mates warmed up to me a bit as they observed that I was jovial.
It was the Geography teacher that spoiled my plan. He entered the class that day and asked,
“Why are you wearing mascara?”
“I’m not wearing mascarara, sir.”
“What then is that whitish covering on your face?”
“It’s just powder, sir.”
“You’re rubbing powder that much when you are not in a drama class? And you are always smiling these days. Could that be real?”
“It’s the way my face is, sir. Without the powder, you won’t like the face. It is powder-friendly, sir.”
“Stop doing that. It makes you look unserious as if we are here to joke.”
My classmates burst out laughing that day. They got to hear about the reason why I always applied powder. Weeks and months later, they would remind me of the teacher’s taunting words. Some even gave me nicknames. They called me all sorts: “Bushpig”, “Kangaroo”, “Scarface” and even “Salamander.”
But the name that stuck most was “The PoloBeast”- a shortened form of “ The Beast from Polokwane.” I would quarrel and argue with them whenever they called me such horrible names. It made me wonder why I was the most verbally abused student in class. I once spent thirty minutes in front of the mirror wondering why I was so made.
I have a big head with a bump on the right side of my forehead. My face is dark and appears charred on the sides. My eyes are small while my nose is flat, big and wide. With my thick and bulky lips, when I smile I reveal my large set of disorderly teeth. The gaps between my teeth are natural, but I lost the two pair at the front from a tender age. A childhood accident put a mark on my face, giving me a permanent scar.
As I assessed my face more carefully, I could not help but to agree with the folks that I was truly ugly-looking. I stopped fighting with them over the name-calling. They were right. With a face like this, no one needs to argue. I truly was the ugliest man in Polokwane. I’ve since learned to live with it.
I’m not fat or slim. But when I walk, I do so slowly and in a laid back manner. All parts of my body are complete, and I see no reason why people should be worried about me. I’m just one of them.
When my mates shout “PoloBeast”, I just give them thumbs-up and reply back,
“I’m just one of you.” This made them smile back at me, even if some would give me the hate look. But I didn’t mind.
It turned out that I got angry less. Accepting my identity gave me peace. But still, the girls would not date me. I was still lonely.
The only lady I thought was for me, on account of our similar looks was in the class next to mine. She was fat and dark. She was also far from being described as attractive. Melo lacked companionship, just like me. Someone suggested that I had a match in the next class, and I went after her. At first, the girl was reluctant to befriend me.
“Andrew, you are too ugly! Don’t come near me.”
“Melo, you know you’re the biggest girl in the school. And your face is not too different from mine. We can work something out.”
That calmed her down. It was a fact that only a few people got close to her because of that plus size. She managed to get along with me for a while. For once, I had the chance of posing with a female friend in school. Most times, when we walk around the school, students always laughed at us both. But their jibes didn’t bother me. I had someone to chat with for the first time in my life. I loved the girl a lot.
I was not from a wealthy family, so I didn’t have much to share with her materially. But I had lots of time and emotions to shower on the girl. Our friendship developed within just two weeks. And it was fun to be with her. I was in Grade-12 at the time, and I looked forward to having someone that I would associate with after leaving high school. It was a relief knowing that.
But as fate would have it, we didn’t last more than four weeks. I was eager to follow her home, just like most of my classmates used to do with their girlfriends. She’d been to my place once, and my mother was happy to have her around. But the reception I got at her house was different. When we got there, her mum saw me and gave me a hard stare.
“Good afternoon, ma’am.” She didn’t even act like she heard me.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m in the same school with your daughter, ma’am. We are friends.”
“Khai! How can you be friends with my daughter? Are you human or Tokoloshe?”
Melo’s mother outburst hurt me badly. How could she have compared me with a demon? At a time that I thought my loneliness misery was over; when I thought I’d found a lady that could complement me, her mum abused me and cut-short my joy.
Melo stopped seeing me after that day. She said she would not disobey her mother. She boasted that I was not her match. The pain was hard to bear because I’d hoped to marry Melo in future. She was the only girl that ever spoke with me in a romantic manner; the only one who didn’t mind what others said about us. It was a difficult time in my young life. Being rejected by my first love was hurtful.
The approaching matric exam made me forget about the incidence. I focused on my studies to make sure that I pass my matric. Having a good result was going to be my only hope if I was to do well in future. An ugly face and bad results would bring out the worst.
I was determined to do well after high school. I wanted to prove many of my classmates and teachers wrong. Having an ugly face should not determine how far you go in life. My resolve was firm.
I’d also hoped to take good care of my ageing mum. She’d done a lot for me, and I owed her a debt of gratitude. But the events that happened immediately after high school were not in agreement with my plans for her. She was snatched away by the cold hands of death.
My mother’s death was a hard pill to swallow. It didn’t afford me the freedom to celebrate my matric results. Instead of celebrating, I was morning my mother. But my only sister, Noluazi, gave me comfort. We stood together through those troubled times. She later told me that I should move on with life. She was willing to sponsor my college.
I enrolled for a Social Work diploma course at Boston College. My love for kids made me choose that course. With that certificate, I could be of help to many people in my area, especially abandoned children.
But since I left college, it has been tough getting a job. People turn me down on every try. They reject me because of my looks, even if they won’t tell me so to my face. Only if they look closely, they would observe that I’m charming. I make people laugh, and I can be entertaining. Unfortunately, these traits have not landed me any job. For seven years, it’s been tough moving around Polokwane, having nothing to do.
If not for my sister who has been assisting me since I left school, things would have been worse. When I observe that I can’t continue to burden her, I made the decision to go to Pretoria. At 27, I should be able to struggle for myself.
I contacted John, who had left Polokwane for Pretoria immediately after matric, invited me to come over and try my luck there. With lots of security agencies spread around the city, He thinks I might be needed. I joined him in Pretoria, and we have since lived together. He’s been an inspiration. He supports me financially and guides me on how to approach employers. I’m lucky to have him as a friend.
It is John’s idea that I must follow him to work every day to see how he does his job. He doesn’t like to see me spend much of my time at the internet café submitting job applications to companies where I’m not likely to be employed. That aside, sleeping at home most of the time is not good enough.
I agree with the idea, especially when he is ready to pay for my transport to his workplace.
He discusses with his boss that I would be coming daily to understudy him. The man doesn’t have any complaints about it. Since John is seen as a reliable security guard, his boss is delighted that he has more eyes to watch over his house.
I sit close to John and watch how he goes about his daily activities. The tasks look straight forward and simple to do. For two weeks, I learn a lot sitting there with him. It feels nice to know that being vigilant is important while working as a security guard.
Mr Maand drives past me every day when returning to his house. He notices that I always sit idle close to John’s security room and is curious about what I sit there to do every day. Since John is a familiar face, he asks him what I do for a living.
“He’s around looking for a job. He is qualified and responsible.”
“Does he have any certificate?”
“Yes, he has a diploma in social work.”
“That sounds good. Let me meet him.”
John informs me that Mr Maand wants to see me to discuss a job opportunity. He explains that the man is well respected on the street. I walk over to meet the white-haired, gentle-looking old man. He explains that his security guard took a month leave and I can stand in for him until he returns. I’m to start in three days at the beginning of the new month.
I don’t mind that the job will last for a month. It is an opportunity for me to gather experience as a security guard. I’m no longer going to have only my uniform to show that I’ve worked before; after one month, I’d have worked as a security guard.
It is also a chance for me to brag that I’m employed. I’ve not had the privilege of being called an employee. I don’t have much to fear because the house that I’m to guard is just four buildings away from where John works. I can always contact him if I need support.
It is my first day at work today. I’d woken up at 5:00 AM and pressed my clothes. I didn’t sleep much at night as I was thinking about how Mr Maand would receive me when I get to his house. I pinched myself several times to make sure that I was not dreaming. I still found it hard to believe that I’ll be starting a job.
I also asked John repeatedly if it’s not going to be an interview. I fear that word – ‘interview’. I still have sad memories of the last one I attended when I was not allowed to enter the venue.
Before John got ready, I’m already outside the flat waiting for him to join me. I must not slack on my first work day.
“You look good, Andrew.”
“With your cap, you look like you are going to guard the Reserve Bank,” he jokes.
“Please, stop that. I don’t know what awaits me there.”
“Let’s go, brother.”
We got into a taxi and soon arrive at Truman Street, Menlyn. After more than two weeks of going with John, I’m familiar with how to get to Menlyn.
John takes a turn to his place of work, while I walk further down the street. Mr Maand is already at the gate, waiting to see if I would be punctual. His wife and kids are few metres close.
“Welcome, Andrew.” Those words sound pleasant.
“Good Morning, Mister Maand”
He goes ahead with the business of the day.
“You are expected to water the plants every morning. You will also do the same before you leave in the evening. Apart from that, you have to be available to open the gates for visitors after confirming with us that they are expected. The phone you need to do that is here in the security room. Then you will also let us know when our kids return from school.”
“We don’t need much from you other than to be dutiful. We will pay you two thousand rands monthly.”
He shows me around the house and goes ahead to explain the uses of essential items in the security room. He also demonstrates how I would use the electronic gadgets. All that I need to do the job are here in the room. He is happy that he doesn’t have to explain for long. My eagerness to start the job makes me grab his explanations quickly.
“This is my wife, and those are my kids.”
His wife whispers something into his ears, and he smiles at it. As she speaks, my heart skips a beat. I hope she’s not complaining about my face, I imagine. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, I remark:
“I’m a gentleman, ma’am. A man of peace.”
They both smile at my squelch.
My new job seems easy. I’m glad to be working with a man who is soft-spoken and gentle in manners.
I don’t even bother negotiating ~~the salary with Mr Maand. I’m just elated that I finally have an opportunity to work — an opportunity to leave the house in the morning and return in the evening. It’s the first job I’ll be doing since I arrived in Pretoria three years ago. It’s been eight years now since I left college. I appreciate this chance to be seen as a responsible fellow.
Mr Maand lives with his family; he, his wife and three kids. His children are still young, and he does a lot of mentoring for them. The two older ones are in primary school, while the last born is always with her mother inside the house. She is still too young to come out of the house.
Their house is a two-storey duplex. It is covered in white marbles which give it a distinct look. It’s surrounded by vegetation and flowers of all kinds. It is my duty to ensure that the garden is monitored. And I do my bit to make sure the place is well maintained.
It is with joy and fulfilment that I go to work every morning. I would smile from home till I get to my place of work. John cautions that I’m smiling too much. ‘Being a security guard, you are not expected to be smiling that much’. But he doesn’t know where the shoe pinches. I’ve since learned that smiling could improve the look on my face.
Truman Street used to record a lot of visits by intruders. It explains why most houses hire additional security guards to augment the services provided by the security companies. But the number of thefts in the area is on the increase, so the residents decided to take extra steps to stem the tide.
Menlyn as a whole is one suburb with a high level of crime. It is an upscale area where there is always one form of building construction or the other. The types of flashy cars that move around, the beautiful architecture of the houses and the general opulent lifestyle of the residents make it a target for criminals. Although there is a high level of security consciousness, the criminals always look for ways to bypass the security apparatus to achieve their aim of stealing from the people’s homes or high jacking their cars.
One afternoon, I have a first-hand experience of their attempt to enter Mr Maand’s house. Three men rush to the gate and bang on it heavily. I’m not aware that hoodlums could try to break into a private house in broad daylight. They are even confident not to cover their faces. Their affront is surprising. A few minutes ago, Mr Maand drove in from work, and he is inside with his family. I’m inside my security room, and the dog roamed the compound.
It starts as a rustling sound on the gate handle. The handle was chained, and the felons are trying to untie the chain. It is not uncommon for criminals to shoot at the gates and disconnect security alarms. All sorts of security breaches had been experienced on that street, and I’ve been briefed several times about resident’s horrid experiences.
At first, I thought it is the male dogs that usually paraded the street whenever they were on the lookout for female ones. I’d been told about the dogs gathering together in the evening.
But as I hear whispers and the sound of tools, I’m sure they are criminals. These are not going to spoil my stay here. They won’t be the ones to stop me from earning my first salary. With a rare show of courage, the source of which I’m uncertain, I stand up defiantly and rush to open the window of my security room. I peep through the window carefully. While doing that, I switch on the alarm buzzer within the security room and the wailing echoes through the entire neighbourhood.
“Puma!” I shouted at the criminals. They turn to look at where the voice comes from, and they call on each other that their plans have been foiled. They zoom off.
I hear footstep just outside the room where I am. “Have the boys planned an ambush?” I move to the door to unhinge it when I listen to the familiar voice outside.
“Well done,” Says Mr Maand. He has responded to the alarms buzz. “Those guys always come around to terrorise people around here. Now, you see why we hire security guards.”
Basking in the euphoria of my heroic feat, with head lifted up, I remark:
“They are weak. They didn’t even attempt to fight back.”
“I guess your noise got them scared. Or when you peeped through, they got scared of the face they saw.”
I smile at his reply, but I’m surprised that Mr Maand knows about how I chased them away. He was inside the house when the incident happened. Then I recall that the whole area is monitored by cameras installed by the security company.
He returns to the house feeling a bit more confident about the man he has at the gate.
The rest of my days there are without stress or attacks. At the end of the month, to my surprise, Mr Maand relieves me of my duties a day before the former security guard is to resume. He just doesn’t want us to meet.
He calls on me that Thursday evening that is to be my last day and thanks me for a job well done. For the entire month of my watch, there was no theft recorded at the house. He is impressed with my dedication to duty.
“Andrew, you have done well within this short time.” He extends his hand for a handshake.
“Thank you, sir. It has been nice working here. Thank you very much for the opportunity.”
“Can you please do me a favour, sir. Can I use your name on my CV for reference purposes?”
“Sure, no problem about that.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He hands over my salary to me in cash, and I begin to walk out of the premises. I’m leaving that house with mixed feelings. I’m happy to have received my salary, but I’m sad to be returning to my jobless condition. All the same, it has been a worthwhile experience. I’m better off than a month ago.
“Andrew.” Mr Maand calls, and I return to him.
“The dogs that used to parade this area stopped coming the day you reported for work.”
I don’t know why he’s telling me so. I’ve not seen any dog around here, apart from the one in the house.
“Would you want to work at the Kruger Park?”
“I’ll call you when I’ve confirmed.”
I don’t have to think twice before jumping at an opportunity to work anywhere. Since I successfully worked as a security guard without training, I should not have a problem working at the Kruger Park where animals are tamed and looked after.
According to him, the dogs stopped visiting his house when I started work there. Is he suggesting that lions too will run away by looking at me? I’m not sure that is possible.
I just want to inform you that I had the opportunity of receiving my first salary ever. This last month, I was employed as a security guard for just one month. I would have informed you earlier, but I thought the opportunity would be extended for a longer period. As it is now, I have left the place, but the man I worked for promised me another job. When that comes through, I’ll inform you.
Let me thank you for all that you have been doing since I left high school. I hope that sometime soon, things would change for the better.
I must tell you that I still live with John, my friend. He has been very helpful since I moved to Pretoria. Extend my greetings to your husband and kids.
On my way home after leaving Mr Maand’s house, I branch off to Shoprite in Sunnyside to buy a pack of kitchenware. I’ve just one thing in mind: to send my sister a gift for the love she has shown me over the years. With my first salary in my pocket, I must let her know that I appreciate her.
I also pick up a bottle of wine and chicken to eat for the evening.
It’s not my sister only that I need to show appreciation. The wine is for John — the good guy who knows how to keep me encouraged. I’m indebted to him and decided to give the token to him to show that I appreciate all he has done.
I got home and penned some words to my sister, Noluazi. I package the gifts and get it ready to be sent to her the following morning. While doing that, John opens the door. He’s just returning from work. I discuss my sister’s gift with him, and he likes the idea.
“This is for you, John,” I present the wine to him.
“I appreciate your understanding, John. You are a true friend.”
“Common, Andrew. You don’t need to buy me things. I know how much you need the money.”
“It’s from the bottom of my heart. It’s the first salary I earned. Don’t reject it please.”
“Okay then. A toast to your first salary. Hope more doors will open from now on.”
“Mr Maand said he would get back to me on a job opening in Kruger Park.”
“Oh, that would be nice of him.”
“I just hope it comes through”
“Let’s be hopeful.”
Mr Maand raised my hopes when he promised to get back to me on the Kruger Job. With his words, I felt re-energised to get busy again. But I have no knowledge of working with animals. I may just have to develop an interest in it. I’ll not wait until he calls before I start to learn about animals. The idea of visiting a zoo comes to mind, and I feel like inviting John to come along too. It will be necessary to have some knowledge about wildlife, just in case they start interviewing me about previous knowledge of it.
Sundays are usually free days for John. I know he’ll like to follow me to the zoo. If not for any reason, just to unwind. He’d recently complained that he wants to take a trip somewhere far from home to relax.
“How about a visit to the zoo, John?”
“That is not a bad idea,” he says.
It’s Sunday evening, John and I jump into the taxi and soon find ourselves in the large zoological garden in Pretoria. The place had been aptly named ‘The Pretoria Zoo’. It is a vast expanse of land that covers more than 85-hectares of land.
We move around the different sections and soon got lost in the maze of vegetation. After perambulating and returning to see the same baobab tree three times, we realise that we are not exploring enough. We head in a different direction.
It is impressive seeing the different animals on display. I’m thrown aback with the massive size of the hippopotamus and rhinoceroses. I didn’t imagine that they were that big. I try to touch them, but they run away.
We walk towards the area where the primates are kept. As soon as I came close to their large cage, or the ‘Primate House’ as the large board on the cage reads, the animals started to screech excitedly. I laugh at the reaction of the monkeys as they come closer to me.
Sounds of screeching monkeys fill the air. The baboons and gorillas wonder why the monkeys are excited. They make themselves ready just in case someone has brought them food.
I stand at the wire-mesh that barricades the animals from us, and a group of monkeys rushed to my side. I wonder why I would get such celebrity welcome from the animals. I mean that I had not been there before, and I didn’t come with food from them. Why they must be gathered around me is puzzling a bit.
To be sure of what is happening, I leave the place and move further down the mesh. A new set of monkeys comes towards me. It is interesting to see how the animals are attracted to me. They don’t just gather, but they are screeching aloud. The noise attracts the officials of the zoo, and they take their time watching this visitor who is getting their animals excited. They are full of smiles, as I’m seen to be bringing a crowd to the area.
It got me thinking. If I have such impact on these animals that I never saw before, it would be interesting at the Kruger Park should I be lucky enough to be employed there.
“John, what is happening here? The baboons are excited.”
“They’ve seen their brother,” he joked.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Andrew, just look at you. Of all the people in this area, the monkeys are running after you. You are not even giving them bananas, but they are all over you. What does it mean to you?”
John doesn’t joke much. But this evening, he is in a jovial mood. But this kind of jibe doesn’t sound funny to me. So, he’s been thinking that I look like a baboon all these while? Well, I won’t let such jibes spoil my day. I’ll wave it off. He’s always been a cool guy. He probably doesn’t mean to insult me.
“Do you live around here?” says one of the officials at the zoo.
“Yes, I live in Arcadia.”
“Do you come here often?”
“No. My friend and I decided to come today. We’ve not been here before.”
“Err… okay. Uhm can I call you at your office during the week?”
I’m surprised at the direction the discussion is going. I don’t like to tell people that I’m not employed. That I’m putting on a nice-looking outfit shouldn’t be misjudged that I’m doing fine. How am I going to tell this man that I’m not employed? And what does it matter to him if I’m working or not? Well, let me just say the truth. I look at John who has been listening to us, but his face is expressionless.
“I’m out of contract at the moment. I’m currently unemployed.”
The man strokes his beard and closes his eyes. He seems to be recalling something.
“Will you be interested in working with us here? I mean, we can hire you right away, if you feel okay with that.”
That has come as a shock. John is winking and nodding, urging me to give the man a positive response right away. I must say that I’m happy to hear such an offer. It’s been what I‘ve hoped for all these years. But the details of what is on offer are not clear to me yet.
The few weeks that I’ve spent with Mr Maand thought me some lessons. I’d been carried away by the prospect of being employed and didn’t bother to negotiate my salary with him. It turned out that the amount he offered me was less than half of what the former security guard was earning. I got to know that many days after I had started working there. Here at the Pretoria Zoo, I don’t want the same to happen again. Even when we have not got to the stage of discussing salary, I’ll have my ears wide open.
Come to think of it, why is the man suddenly interested in me? I’m here only to catch fun and enjoy the day with wildlife. There is nothing significant about me that stand me out of the hundreds of people moving around the zoo area. Maybe there is something I don’t know yet. Have they been approaching some of the other visitors too? I’m going to discuss with John to find out what he thinks.
“Excuse me, chief. Would you give me a minute?”
“Sure,” he says, looking at me admiringly.
I winked at John to meet me some few yards from where the man is.
“What is this about?”
“They want to employ you, Andrew. They have seen that you can help bring people towards the monkeys. Didn’t you see how the baboons got excited when you appeared? If they have you here permanently, they will pull a crowd to the zoo.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Don’t you want a job? Andrew, for God’s sake, go and tell him you want the job. You don’t have much to think. How many years have you waited for an opportunity?”
I straightened my face and placed my arms akimbo. I walk back to where the man was waiting.
“What job position is available sir, I’m interested.”
“Fantastic! We need someone in the Animal Care and Conservation Department. Follow me, please.”
I look at John and gestures to him to come along. We three walk towards an office area not far from where the animal cage is.
The man begins to explain to me about what he has in mind for me. It is going to be a special position to draw people to the zoo. I would also be assigned to escort the other staff whenever necessary. He says he has been looking for a man with such inborn abilities to change animal behaviour. He praises me and my laid-back manners. He would wish to see me the following day-Monday- to finalise the contract. I’m allowed to start immediately.
It’s been a pleasant evening at the zoo. I’m so happy to have decided to come here. Maybe all these while I’d been wasting my time looking for a job around Pretoria, I’d not been looking in the right places. Just one hour at the zoo and I’m offered a job. What a glorious day?
“It’s your time now, Andrew. I’m happy things are happening for you these days. How lucky you are,” John quips.
John and I begin our return home. I feel happy all over again. The previous months the sky looked gloomy with nothing for me to do. Here I am now: I’ve been promised a job at the Kruger Park; I have one waiting for me the next day there at the Pretoria Zoo. John is right: my time has come.
Moving around the Pretoria Zoo as a visitor is entirely different from being shown around as a staff. Mr Kabo, my new boss, is showing me around the area. He is the head of the Animal Care and Conservation department, but the man has respect for me. I keep wondering why he is doing the introductions himself, given that he has some tasks to do at his table. Ordinarily, he could have directed any of his subordinates to take me round the place.
“This area where we keep the apes is where we want you to focus. We usually feed the animals in the mornings and evenings. When it is the time to feed them, you will have to come along with the zookeeper delegated to feed them for the day. We alternate the workers, and there is a time table for that. When the zookeeper is around to feed them, you don’t have to do much. Just assist him with throwing the food pellets to the baboons.”
“The second task that you will be assigned has to do with the cows. During the day, we usually release them from the cowsheds to roam around the pastures for feeding. In the evening, before it gets dark, they must return to the cowsheds. But the cows can be stubborn and difficult to control. We don’t want them to leave the pastoral lands, so that they won’t be targeted by the big cats. Many times, we have to get more than ten people to do the work because the cows are many. We will need you to join the guys that herd the cows back in the evenings. Do you understand?”
“Very well, boss.”
“The last task I’ll assign to you is a simple one too. We usually have a large number of people visiting during weekends. People come in groups from within Pretoria and other provinces. A lot of foreigners also show up during weekends. We then place them in groups to show them around. So, before the tour guides bring tourist groups to the cages, you will come and appear to the animals first. You will only need to wave at them three or four times. Then the tour guide will begin his work.”
“Just to wave at the animals?”
“Yes, just that. You don’t have to stress yourself much. As stated in your contract, you will work during weekends. I’m sure you’re going to have fun working with us. We are one family here, and you are now part of us. Be free to walk into my office in case you have any questions.”
This morning is a special one for me. I’ve looked forward to this day for long: being told what is expected of me in the organisation that employs me. It is different from that of Mr Maand’s job since that was part-time. I’m willing to take this opportunity and make sure I deliver on the tasks assigned to me.
Earlier in the day, I signed my contract. I’m to report to work every day, Saturdays and Sundays included. Once in a week, I’ll be given a day off. I have the liberty to choose which day it is, so long it’s on a weekday.
I’m to report to Mr Kabo directly. There is a number of other staff that report to him as well. Some of them are recent hires like me while others have been there for close to twenty years. I got to meet them earlier, and they were all happy to receive me. From the vibes I get from them, it’s going to be fun working in this big place. Even if I had no experience with animals, the job looks easy. Chasing after cows, waving at monkeys and baboons are not much of stress, I think. I just have to learn how to do it quickly and adapt to the new environment.
Their salary too is far better than what I got while with Mr Maand. With five thousand rands, I can do a number of things each month, if I save well. I can rent a room, furnish it up, buy my groceries and pay the necessary bills for my upkeep. I would be less dependent on John, and the lad can breathe a sigh of relief. After a year or two, I can even decide to marry and look forward to having my family. I’m going to be thirty soon and the days are counting.
I don’t have many tasks to do today, as I need to get familiar with how things are done here. The accounts officer calls me to her office.
“Have you submitted your bank details?”
“No. I don’t have an account yet.”
“How can you work here without having a bank account? How have you been paid in your previous place of work?”
I’ve goofed by mentioning to her that I don’t have a bank account yet. I’m exposing my lack of experience in organisational matters. It is evident that the lady would know that I’ve not been working before now. But, it doesn’t matter, the boss is aware that I’m new in the zoo business.
“I mean that I need to open a new one.”
“Please do so now that you have some time. You may be too busy during the weekend. I’ll want to have it before the end of the week.”
I move away from the accounts officer to the HR office. I’m told that the lady wants to see me regarding some aspects of the documents I submitted earlier in the day.
“You have not provided any references to us. Although your position as Special Duties Zookeeper is a new one to us, we still have to know a bit more about you. I hope you understand?”
“Very well, ma’am. Can I have a sheet of paper, please?”
As if I knew this moment would come, I’m happy that I asked Mr Maand for the chance to use his name. I scribble it on the paper with the phone number. Since she is requesting for two people, John’s name will be the other one. After all, I’ve been with him long enough. He knows me well, and we have worked together.
“Here they are.” I place the paper on her table since she is on the phone. She picks it up, looks at it and waves at me that all is in order: the names and telephone number of my referees are in order.
I walk alone around the Primate House area to access the place. A zookeeper is there inspecting the containers where the animals drink from. He refills them with water and covers them up. There are water pipes through which the animals pass water to their mouths from the containers. It appears they have been trained on how to use the pipes because as soon as the zookeeper starts to pour water into the container, some baboons pick up the pipes and drink from it.
I’ll have to learn a lot from these people that have been here for long. It’s not just about working and getting paid. A bit of education is important to be able to understand the scope of what is expected of me. I need to upgrade my knowledge about animals and how they are kept.
I approach the zookeeper. He is one of the experienced ones.
“How are you new Zookey?”
These guys can be rude. How can he give me a nickname so fast? He didn’t even check if I like the name.
“I’m Andrew, Mister. I’ll appreciate it if you call me that.”
“Ha ha. Welcome, Andrew. You see, all of us working with the animals call each other a Zookey. Since you have joined us, you are now a Zookey. So you don’t have to get worked up when they call you a Zookey. Otherwise, they will give you a more horrible name. And looking at you carefully, very terrible names will be suggested. So accept the name Zookey and welcome to Pretoria Zoo.”
I like the manner in which the fellow spoke. He seems to be in a mood to educate me on the things I need to know as a new ‘Zookey’. Since these are the fellows I’ll be working with daily, it’s important not to start on a confrontational note. I’ve never been the aggressive type, anyways.
“Okay then. Thanks for the info. How do I call you?”
“My name is Johnson. But I’ll prefer that you call me ZookeyOne. The guy over there is ZookieFour. We will soon work out your Zookey number. ”
I’m enjoying the pride the guy shows as he speaks. He seems to be proud of being described as such. He comes across as a friendly fellow. Johnson has been working at the zoo since 1998. He has seventeen years’ experience working with the animals. He started working at the zoo immediately after leaving high school. His love for animals made him stay here since then. The animals know his face, and this can be seen from how they interact with him.
“Is there something you want to let me know, Mister?” I’m eager.
“There is a lot for you to learn. If you are the type that likes to learn new things about animals, then this place is for you. You can see that we have a lot of animals and birds. But since you are in the animal section, it should not be a problem. The boss told me that I must let you know how we work here. Are you ready for us to start?”
Johnson puts me through the details of what it takes to look after the animals. He took his time to explain the structure of the place and how the departments interrelate. He also advises me on things that I need to do to win the love of others while warning that the place is a big one and it’s easy for people to get hurt by the actions of others. According to him, there are many ways by which staff could attack their colleagues without the managers knowing about it.
Many have been sacked because of carelessness. Much have disappeared without traces.
“But there are cameras to assist with happenings around. Not so?”
Yes, there are cameras in hidden places, but how many cameras can adequately cater for a land of vegetation and structures close to the size of 200 soccer pitches?
“Hello, Chief,” I say, looking at the security officer behind the revolving security door where I am. I’ve come to open a new account at the bank, and the door is having some problems. I’ve been here for close to ten minutes already, and I don’t want to report late for work.
Each time I walk into the door compartment to be scanned before entering the bank, it stops working. I call on to the nearby security personnel who has been suggesting all sorts of things that don’t seem to address the problem.
Last time that I visited a bank with my sister in Limpopo, I didn’t have this kind of experience.
The security officer walks towards the door entrance and asks me to come out.
“Chief, can you please assist me?”
“Do you have a metal object in your pockets?”
“Yes, my keys.”
“Remove them, please. The door would not allow metal objects.”
I remove my keys and put them in my hands. I enter the compartment again, but the door will not let me go.
“Come out, please. Bring out all the metals from your pockets.”
I move to one corner to check that I do not have any metallic object in my pockets. The security man looks at me thoroughly and indicates that I must remove my belt too.
“I hope you won’t ask me to go naked because I want to open a bank account.”
“Sir, this is new to us. People just go through the security doors and come out without issues. Why are you being rejected multiple times?”
“Your machines must be faulty.”
I can see customers entering the bank and passing through the same door that is denying me entry. I have no explanation whatsoever regarding the incidence.
“Please call your technicians to check the doors. I have to report to work with my bank account details.”
“Are you sure that you don’t have anything suspicious in your body?”
“No. I’m clean. I’m not a crook.”
Some customers start to gather to see what is going on at the entrance of the bank. This crowd draws the attention of the senior bank officers who quickly rushes to the door area to see what is amiss.
“What’s going on here?” says a man in a red tie and white shirt.
The security officer who has been giving me trouble rushes towards him to explain what I was experiencing.
“That customer wants to enter the bank, but the door refuses to open for him. I thought he has something dangerous on him, so I asked him to remove all metals from his body, but the door still rejects him.”
“This should not be a serious problem. Get the technical staff to check the door again. It might be having some problems. Since there are two doors, customers can use the other one.”
“But that one is for exit only, sir.”
“You can make it work for both entry and exit. Get the technicians to fix that.”
The security officer diverts all the newly arriving customers to use the designated door. I join in the queue to enter the banking hall. It seems to be working fine as five people are allowed in one after another, while five are allowed to exit the bank. Then the arrangement repeats.
When it is my turn, I enter the revolving door booth. The machine keeps blinking again!
“What is all this mess? For how long will I wait to be attended to in this bank?”
A relatively old lady on the queue behind me laughs aloud. She has been observing proceedings since I had an argument with the security officer. She suddenly pushes forward to tell me that the machine doesn’t like my face. She throws a handkerchief at me that I must cover my face while going through the door. As funny as it sounds, I’m ready to do whatever is necessary to get me into the bank. I’m running late for work already, and I don’t want to start my new job with the impression that I’m not disciplined.
I’m amazed to see that the door opens up allowing me to walk freely into the banking hall. The laughter that erupts as I walk in is embarrassing. Even the security man who had looked tensed up till that moment burst out laughing. It’s been a while since I’ve been mocked like that and it still doesn’t sit well with me. Going to return the handkerchief that was given to me doesn’t come to mind.
I meander my way through the sea of heads in the banking hall. Recalling that half of the people came after me was difficult to bear. If not that the door refused me entry, I would have left the bank. But then, the bank staff makes it easy for me. The process of opening the account doesn’t take long, and the officials attend to me promptly. In less than ten minutes, the registration process is over.
“This is your account number. And here is your debit card that you can use to withdraw from the ATM.”
“Thank you so much.”
I walk towards the exit door again. I don’t want a repeat of what I experienced earlier, and so I quickly place the handkerchief on my face going through the door unhindered. It appears I’ll be covering my face each time I visit the bank premises. That may not even be necessary sine I have my ATM card. I’ll just complete my transactions somewhere convenient.
“Excuse me. Please, where is the lady that gave me her handkerchief?”
“She has left”
“Without the handkerchief?”
“Someone came to pick her up. She had to rush to the car.”
I approach the security officer at the entrance and hand over the handkerchief to him. The guy is still smiling recalling the process I went through earlier.
“I guess you will keep that handkerchief to yourself. It will be useful each time you come here.”
“In case the woman returns, please thank her for me.”
It’s now 10:15 AM and I’m already late for work. It is my second day at work, and they should understand that I’m trying to sort out some documents. I enter the taxi from Arcadia and heads to Menlyn. No one raises an issue on why I’m coming late. I provide my bank details to the accounts officer.
I’m not going to mention my experience at the bank to any of my colleagues. There are lots of personal experiences that I would have to keep to myself every time they occur. A revolving door recognising that I’m ugly is one of such.
The zookeepers are about to feed the apes. Since I’ve been asked to join them whenever they are feeding the animals, I pace towards the Primate House area to meet them.
“Morning, new Zookie. We were wondering what happened to you,” Johnson notes.
“I went to the bank to sort some details.”
“It’s fine. Welcome back.”
“Let me assist you,” I look into the carton in his hands.
He hands over some meatballs to me. The meal was prepared at the zoo kitchen where cooks specially prepare the food to be fed to animals. The meatballs are also mixed with grasses since baboons like such meals.
The animals quickly rushed to me as I got close to where their foods are served. They had been busy with the other zookeepers before then. It would appear like I’ve been the one feeding them for years.
“It’s like the apes like your hands, uh?” Samuel says, looking at Johnson while saying so.
“I guess they are just seeing a new person.”
“They observe that the new person looks like a family member!”
There they go again. These hate mongers have started with their innuendoes. I’ll not be invited to a skirmish with my colleagues. It won’t bode well for a new Zookie like me. No one will listen to me if I complain. It’s still too early in the day.
I continue to partake in feeding the animals. The frenzy of their excitement thrills me myself. The manner they jump from one side to the other just to get the food off my hand made me shudder. My colleagues open their mouth in amazement at the drama. Even the visitors that are moving around stop to look at the zookeeper who is having fun with the animals. The attention I’m getting from people around makes me feel loved again.
Late afternoon, I move over to the grazing area. The number of cattle in the zoo was mind blowing. I place a cursory scan over the cows while trying to estimate their number. I guess they are up to three hundred or more. No wonder Mr Kabo said it is a big issue driving the cows back into their barns. Such a huge number of beasts would take a while to steer.
Six Zookies stride into the wide expanse of land to begin the task of driving the cows back. The time is 4:30 PM and the sun is getting ready to slope down in the horizon. We march in different directions, and the cows begin to take their leave slowly. In about 15 minutes, we were done.
“This is unbelievable!” says Johnson “We usually finish this task in about 45 minutes.” The others agreed that the work was completed earlier than usual.
“Really!” I blurt. We are more in number today, perhaps.
Samuel is not in such lively mood as the others. He seems not to have complimentary words to say.
“Thanks to the new Zookie. His face is a weapon that got the cows scared. He is really talented.”
I pretend as if the insult is not directed at me. The other Zookies turn to look at me to see my reaction, but I’m just calm. It is getting obvious that I won’t be having a good relationship with Samuel. But it’s fine. Not everyone will be friends with a new hire.
“Whats your name, bro?” one of the Zookies asks.
“I’m Andrew. You may call me Zookie999.”
All the lads burst out laughing but for Samuel. He doesn’t find my joke funny, but I don’t care. The general laughter makes me feel better going by the horrible time I had at the bank in the morning.
As I arrive home later in the evening, I lay down stories about my experiences. I carefully skip the bank door incident. I still could not bring myself to talk about that episode to anyone. I consider it embarrassing. Not even John would hear it.
For the rest of the week, I resume at work feeling happy. It is nice to have something to keep me busy after so many years of idleness. I usually jump off the bed in the mornings as my phone alarm is set to buzz at 5:00 AM. By half past six, I’m already cooling my heels at the zoo. It is just one taxi I board from home in Arcadia to the zoo in Marabastad. The trip is just ten minutes, and the taxis are in regular supply. So, the problem of transportation to work is not an issue.
I continue to familiarise myself with the daily tasks. I also try to bond well with my colleagues. Unlike what Johnson made me believe, only a few of the zookeepers have numbers assigned to their nicknames. He is the oldest, and that is why he is named ZookieOne. Each time the oldest zookeeper leaves, the next in line takes the name ZookieOne.
Many of the zookeepers are keen on helping me settle well into the environment. They are also willing to expand my knowledge of the inner workings of the zoo. A good number of them have been there for more than ten years, and they have stacked up lots of skills on animal husbandry and zoo keeping. They have a lot to share with me. They explain the impact of weather on the animals and when best it is to interact with them. I cherish the painstaking manner in which ZookieOne takes me new lessons each day.
I later found out that he is originally from Ladysmith in Kwazulu-Natal. But he has been in Pretoria for more than thirty years. He comes across as an understanding guy. The many challenges of life that he has been through and the long at the zoo have calmed him down. He sees issues philosophically and has a way of comforting people when they feel agitated.
“Be careful with Samuel, Andrew. He doesn’t seem to like your manners. He is a good chap and a hardworking fellow, but he can be jealous sometimes, and we know how to handle him.”
“Okay, chief. I can see that.”
“You are the newest one here, and you should be careful how you go about things. Like I’ve warned you earlier, there are one million ways to hang people here. Your attitudes and manners would set you free.”
“Thank you, I appreciate.”
My first weekend task is as exciting as the weekday chores. The number of visitors multiplied in folds. We zookeepers are busy from 8:00 AM until the end of the day. Many groups are formed for the visitors, and there are those people hired to work specifically during weekends.
Johnson guides me on what to do while in front of the visitors’ groups. I’m to stay ahead of the tour guides and listen to them as they address the groups. The Primate House seems to attract a lot of interest from the visitors. Many of them even have bunches of banana ready to throw at the apes.
Each time a new group of visitors is brought close, I would stand at a vantage position where the apes could easily see me and wave at them. The monkeys would wag their tails endlessly and run up and down the trees. A symphonic flow of loud screech would follow, reverberate across the area and drown every other sound. This got the visitors entertained, and they kept on coming in their numbers.
“Hello, the baboons like you very much,” a young white girl of about eight comes forward to tell me. She’d stepped ahead of her parents.
“Really?” I smile back at her.
“If you remove the mask, are they still going to jump at you?”
“I’m not wearing a mask!”
The girl stops smiling and saunters quickly to meet her parents. It’s the third time that I would be asked if I’m covering my face since I joined. The other time, it was a boy that asked if I was a clown. According to him, he’d seen one of the characters in a TV cartoon appearing exactly the way I did. The parents had asked him to shut his mouth. It was when I smiled at them and replied that I was not a clown that they knew that I overheard them.
I’m used to being asked a lot of personal and inconvenient questions. I’ll get used to it. ZookieOne once mentioned that the job comes with its downsides. He’d warned that I would be compared to animals; insulted from time to time; given uncomplimentary looks and all sorts of embarrassing situations could come up. I’m prepared for all that anyway. They should keep them coming. Being insulted by people around is not a new thing to me. I developed a thick skin to such way back from my high school days.
At the last count, I’ve had to escort more than 24 groups of visitors on Saturday alone. And it’s the same for Sunday. Aside from the repetitiveness involved, I enjoy every aspect of the job. It would appear that I’m seamlessly blending with the demands of my new job here at the zoo.
The week after, I’m given a day off on Wednesday. It is then fixed that Wednesdays will be work-free days for me. I have less time to talk with John because after I return home during the week, the only thing on my mind is to sleep.
This Wednesday, I stroll to the bookstore to buy books. I ended up getting two of them. One is on animal husbandry, and the other is on effective zoo keeping. I want to update myself on how to be a better zoo keeper. With the little I know about working at the zoo, I need to read up and catch up with my colleagues. And I think reading often will go a long way.
I put a call through to my sister.
“Sister Noluazi!. At last, I have a job!”
“Are you sure?”
That she is asking if I’m sure touches me. I’ve not been a liar, and I’m not about to start telling lies now. I’m sure it’s because I’ve not shared such news with her before. Who would blame her? Her poor brother has been an outcast for long. But that has changed once and for all. I have something doing now. I’m a zoo keeper.
“I’m indeed sure, sister. Have I given you wrong information before?”
“Err…It’s not like that Andrew. I just want you to be sure that it’s something permanent. The last time, you said it was for one month. I pray and hope that this time it’s going to be a regular one.”
“I’ve been hired as a zookeeper, and it’s here in Pretoria. I’m to work with others in keeping the animals ready for visitors to be entertained.”
“Okay. It is a suitable job. Please be patient with them and work very hard. With hard work comes reward.”
“Thank God for his blessings. May this be the beginning of many good things to come your way. Please be careful how you interact with people there. You have been patient and focused all these while. Now, you must put in your best and follow the rules of the place. We will be praying for you all the time…”
My sister is effusive with prayers. She goes on and on over the phone encouraging me. It feels nice talking about a job with her. It’s as if this moment would never come.
Since my first week was spectacular in my view, I look forward to better weeks ahead. I quickly sort out my laundries, press my clothes and make preparations for one full week. I don’t have many clothes to deal with; we are usually on uniforms at work. While others have Monday as the beginning of their week, mine is Thursday.
As I pace to the room reserved for us zookeepers early on Thursday, I hope for the best in the new week. I meet Samuel in the room.
He doesn’t act like he hears someone beside him talking. I think he is busy with something. Let me greet again.
“Hello, Big-Sam!” raising my voice louder in a manner that can draw attention to anyone around.
“Don’t shout me down, Mr Ugly Face! I heard you the first time.”
I remain silent.
Samuel is not going to make me change my happy mood. Grumpy people everywhere are always hard to please. Even the zoo animals do better than him regarding being cheerful. I’ve been here for only one week, and this fellow is behaving this way. Does he think that I’m competing with him in any way? All I do is just to follow instructions and do my job. Why he is hostile is not exactly clear.
But I don’t have to wait for long. Johnson enters the room, and Samuel walks out. I’m forced to think that the two are not in good terms.
“Samuel reported you this morning. He said that you don’t greet him whenever you are in the zoo. He complained that you think you know how to do the work better than anyone else and that you are too arrogant and difficult to work with.”
I open my mouth in shock.
“What do you have to say?”
“Chief, I don’t even know what to say at this moment. Is it not you explaining to me how to go about my job? Where and when did I prove to know it all? Secondly, how am I difficult to work with when all I do is follow instructions and the rules of the zoo? I don’t understand where Samuel is coming from. This morning, just some few minutes before you stepped into this room, I greeted him, and he didn’t answer. When I greeted the second time, he shouted that he heard me already. I must not shout him down.”
Johnson blinks severally.
“Err… you see. Andrew, I understand what is happening here. I don’t want you to think too much about this. Just go about your work normally. Try and be friendly to him.”
I didn’t report that Samuel called me an ‘Ugly Face’. It would be as if we are both on each other’s case. Reporting such will even make others feel like I don’t like being insulted. That will get them to coin out new funny names for me. I just have to act like it doesn’t hurt being called nicknames. Actually, it doesn’t bother me anymore.
Later that day, I heed Johnson’s advice. I move close to Samuel and crack some jokes. He doesn’t respond.
“Samuel, do you live close to the zoo? How do you manage to get to the office so early?”
He smiles, eyeing me donnishly. He rubs his chin and pushes out his chest.
“I try to do things in a professional manner. I organise my stuff well and prioritise. ”
It seems Samuel is just someone who likes to be respected. He doesn’t want to be underrated. Someone like that needs some occasional ego-nursing and praises. I’ll include that in my routine. Holding on to my job is uppermost in my mind. I don’t want scuffles with colleagues— certainly not from the grumpy ones.
I’ve enjoyed a seamless time here at the zoo for three months. I’m totally at home with all the tasks assigned to me. I make new friends every day. The visitors find me hilarious with my animal relations. Sometimes they give me tips, and some even bring gifts.
It still surprises me how many of them think that I wear a mask. Since I always stand in front of the tour guides, they refer to me as the group clown. And true to their suggestions, I ‘m the one that waves at the monkeys to get them excited. After my act, the animals would be in the mood to interact with visitors.
My job doesn’t seem to come with lots of stress. It also doesn’t need much training or skills acquisition. Every day, it’s the same routine. The books I read are just what give me a different perspective. But I’m not allowed to change the routines.
I’m just happy to be saving my salary since I don’t have much to worry about. The zoo provides us with free food. The only expense I’ve had to take care of is the cost of transporting myself to work every day.
Last night was candid as John called me for a talk. It was Tuesday night, and he knows that my Wednesdays are work-free.
“Andrew, the situation is different now. I’m happy that you are doing well for yourself. Since you have been here with me, I’ve not asked you to pay a part of the house rent. And this is for more than three years now, if you remember. As you have something doing now, and you have a source of income, it will be better if we can be splitting the house rent 50-50.”
“John. I’m happy to hear this from you. Do you know that I used to think that the rents are paid by your boss at work? You never discussed this with me before. Honestly, I believe that you are a good man to have been paying from your pocket without reminding me of the need to contribute. Now that you have raised this issue, we have to share the bills equally – both the house rents, water and electricity bills.”
Guys like John are hard to come by. He’s so cool-headed and calm. From a distance, one would think that he’s a foolish dude. But he has ways of getting his things done methodically. He doesn’t act like we are age mates or friends. He sees me as a brother, without lording over me. I’m free to touch his gadgets and personal effects anytime, anyhow. Even when he wants to use his hair clipper, he doesn’t grab them from me. He would wait for me to finish up and then take over. Not many people who are not relatives will feed and accommodate you, without rubbing it on your face anytime there is an argument. John never behaves in such manner. That we were classmates aside, he’s truly God-sent.
The guilt of being a jerk overtakes me today as I feel the need to payback John in my own little way. I take a walk to Shoprite to buy all kinds of grocery items and foodstuff. I also pick up some household materials. It behoves me to show that I appreciate his kindness since I joined him in Pretoria.
I know that sooner or later he’ll tell me that he wants to marry. He sometimes hints at it. His only girlfriend visits the house once in a month. I used to suggest to John if I should leave the flat whenever she is around.
“That’s not necessary,” he always quips, “I don’t need you to leave the flat if I’m to have private moments with my woman.”
“If you say so, then it’s fine.”
I have to prepare my mind for that time when he’ll want to have her around permanently. But before then, we have to be splitting the cost of running the house.
I take my time to arrange the grocery items and stuff. I’ll try to make it a recurring deed fortnightly. I won’t wait for John to tell me what to do.
On Thursday morning, I got to the zoo earlier than usual. Having rested well the day before, I feel re-energised again to work for the week. But what I see close to our staff room is shocking. Two staff members of the zoo are locked in a sexual romp.
I’ve seen the guy many times before; he is one of the zookeepers. But he’s not in my department, and he doesn’t work close to the Primates House. I usually see him when I go close to the cattle barn in the evenings. The lady, I think, works in the kitchen.
The kitchen is a place where many ladies are stationed. It is not uncommon for the zookeepers to date them. A good number of them live on the premises while some come from outside. Now that I’ve seen that people are getting amorous with other staff, I’ll want to try my luck. I must say that it has not been comfortable sleeping alone at night as the chilly winds get me turning repeatedly on the bed.
I’ve been observing those ladies that bring food to the staff room for some time. There are many of them. From the information I gathered, my colleagues have relationships with some of them. Each time they bring the food, their boyfriends is who the serve first. They then place the food meant for the others on the centre table.
There is this lady named Zandile who doesn’t keep to that rule. She places all the food collections on the centre table, and each of us goes to pick our food pack one after the other. She is fair in complexion and rather big in size. Perhaps many of my colleagues avoid her because of her plus size. She always looks lonely whenever she comes into our staff room, and I sometimes wonder why she appears forlorn.
For some time, I’ve been developing romantic feelings for her. I’ve had to study my colleagues to know if any one of them is interested. Since no one seems to be keen on her after observing for about six weeks, I’ll try to get close to the lady. Maybe she has something special for me.
After three months of moving around the area, I’m not sure if I’m qualified to be called a new staff anymore. I’ve been treated like a greenhorn for long, and I’m getting tired of it. If some of the visitors find it pleasing to interact with me, why must I continue to see myself as an outcast amongst my colleagues? It’s time to express myself in the manner I see fit. After all, I’m a bona fide Zookie too. If Zandile comes to the staff room again, I’ll chat her up. Who knows? She might be available and free to be dated. And my pocket is no longer empty like it used to be.
“How did you know my name?” she said smiling. It is the first time a lady will smile at me at the zoo.
There is only one other zookeeper in the staff room, and my boldness surprises him. Even me, I’m amazed at where that courage stems from.
“Is it difficult finding the name of the one who prepares the delicious foods that we eat every day?”
“I’m not the only one preparing the food. It’s group-work.”
“It maybe group-work, but I can taste your hand in it.”
“Uyaphapha, wena,” she accuses me of being boisterous.
“Uyaphapha, nawe,” now, it’s my turn to return the ‘favour’.
“I used to think that you don’t talk at all. Every time I come here to serve you food, you are always quiet. You keep to yourself a lot.”
“I was studying you carefully.”
“Studying me for what?”
The zookeeper in the room gets up and leaves. Zandile is not in a hurry to leave. It seems that she is in the mood to chat for long. I saunter to where she is standing. Somehow, I feel emboldened to talk to her. Thoughts of my only affair way back in school come to mind. I suddenly recall all the sweet times I had with Melo. Zandile has the same physical look as Melo. She is equally chubby and big breasted. Those alluring features get me swollen-headed and, I find myself in an intoxicatingly excited state. I recall the romp I witnessed in the morning. And the urge to do same fills my mind. I thought to myself:
“Is this the one that will dis-virgin me?”
I’ve not heard of a thirty-year-old male virgin before. But here I am. I’m one, and I’ll rather not admit it to anyone. But the several wet dreams I’ve been having of late would not let me be. When I was searching for a job, I wasn’t having wet dreams as frequently as I now do. These days it comes twice times in a week. Maybe Zandile will have an answer to it.
I hold onto her arm and pull her close. She looks at me wondering what I’m up to. I wrapped my hands around her to feel her warmth and the lady pushes me off.
“Are you mad?”
I stagger and fall to the ground. Considering the manner she shoved me off, it would seem as if she’s been taking lessons from John Cena. From the ground, I don’t know if I’m to continue my romantic speech or I should be upset at her aggressive move. But she is still there looking at me and refusing to leave the room. Since she is unwilling to go, it means she is interested. But pushing me off doesn’t feel decent of her.
I come to my senses that I’ve not proposed to her. I was blinded by the sudden bulge between my legs. Must I tell her that I’m a virgin and that she should be the first to taste my organ? That will be naïve of me. Men generally boast of how many ladies they’ve laid. Presenting myself as being inexperienced will backfire.
Then I must ask her to meet me later. I’ll have to prepare what to tell her. The guy he saw in the morning must have an answer to the riddle. I’ll approach him for advice.
“Sorry to be so forward, Zandile. My mind is jumping too fast.”
“Oh, good for you. Why did you do that? Can’t you see that I’m working?”
“I must have been carried away. Can I see you later today after work?”
“It’s fine. I’m knocking off at half past five.”
“I’ll be off duty at about the same time. We can meet behind the Rhinos barn.”
True to her words, Zandile appears at the agreed place. It’s obvious that the lady is lonely. Before meeting her, I was briefed on how to make moves on the kitchen ladies. I introduce myself to her more formally and give brief details of my stay in Pretoria. She did same and said she is happy to meet me outside the office hours.
“Sorry about what happened earlier today. I was carried away by your presence. And I think I deserve an apology here.”
“Oh, that. Sorry about the way I pushed you. I was surprised that you could do that during office hours. You could be sacked for that, you know?”
“No one will sack me for being in love. I’m sure you will tell them that we are dating.”
“Are you proposing?”
“Why do you think you are here? You think I want to sing the national anthem to you. Of course, I want to be close to you, Zandile.”
“That’s not a problem. When must I come to your house and where is the place?”
“I live in Arcadia. We can meet Tuesday evening. I’m off work on Wednesday.”
“It’s fine by me.”
As I arrive at the zoo premises the following day, the events of the previous evening fill my heart. I’m so happy having proposed to Zandile and she is willing to roll with me.
As I walk towards our staff room, I heard someone beckon on me from behind. It is Mr Kabo, the department head.
“Can I see you, Andrew?”
He says he has a letter for me and asks me to follow him to his office.
My Kabo never calls anyone to his office except there are some serious issues. As I pace behind him on our way to the office, my mind races through different acts that I might have done wrong. I thought it’s because I tried to hold Zandile in the staff room that made him call me. My heart jumps into my mouth.
Once there, he hands over a letter.
“You have impressed us with your manners and how you go about doing your job. You also don’t complain about any task assigned to you. I’m particularly delighted that I made the decision to hire you that day. This is your letter. You are now a permanent staff. Your entitlements have been adjusted.”
Sweating profusely, I’m overwhelmed with emotions. Now realising that it is about my job, which I’ve done so well and passionately, I’m relieved. But the sweat would not hide my earlier anxiety.
“Thank you very much, sir. I’m pleased to be here.”
“I hope your hard work will continue and we will see more dedication from you?”
“I’ll try my best, sir.”
I walk out of his office happily, with only one thing in my mind: my days as an applicant are long, long gone. I’ve embraced my job with the zeal of a hungry lion that sighted an antelope. I’m happy that it didn’t escape the attention of the authorities.
I can’t wait to tell my sister the news. As I return to the staff room, I pick up my phone.
“Sister, they have made my appointment permanent.”
“Thank God, Andrew. This is good news. I’m so happy for you. All your efforts have not been wasted. I hope you will continue to be cool-headed and treat your bosses right.”
“I will, sister.”
“And I must tell you. You should start planning to get married now. I didn’t want to discuss it with you because of the job issue. Now that you have a stable job, you should think of settling down.”
“I’m working towards that. I just don’t want to rush things.”
“Yes, that’s good. Don’t rush, but have it at the back of your mind. You are old enough now.”
That my sister mentioned the subject of marriage surprises me a bit. She’d never discussed a girlfriend or a wife with me before then. I thought it’s because I was not employed, as she has suggested over the phone. With the job issue now sorted, she seemed to be keen.
I believe in marriage too, but I don’t think that is the next thing for me to do. I don’t even have a place of my own. I also need to be ready before I bring a woman to live with me. As it stands, Zandile, the only lady I’m currently in talks with is who is occupying my heart. She seems to be showing me some green lights in the office. I’m just not happy that she doesn’t accord me the kind of attention that other female staffs give their boyfriends. Most of her interactions with me have been formal. Maybe it’s because I’ve not invited her home. Since we’ve fixed Tuesday evening for her to visit, I must make efforts to make it a happy one for her. I want more from our interactions.
I inform John that I’ve been made a permanent staff at the zoo. He is happy with the news. Like my sister, he advises that I must still be careful about my conducts at work. He specifically emphasised that getting employed is one thing and staying employed is another. I also let him know that I’m dating someone at the zoo.
“I must tell you, John. There is a lady at the zoo that I want to invite home.”
“Oh, Interesting! I thought you would never talk about a woman. You have always kept to yourself. Who is she?”
“Zandile. She works in the kitchen. She is similar in appearance to Melo. You recall her?”
“She is coming to sleep here next Tuesday. I’ve invited her.”
“Coming to sleep here in this one bedroom of ours? How are we going to manage to cope with a lady here?”
“That should not be a problem. It’s just for one night.”
“Even so, Andrew. I’ve not been asking my girlfriend to sleep over for your sake. I don’t want it to inconvenience you. Now, you want to start the habit of bringing ladies here to sleep over? You think I don’t know how to take a girl to bed or I don’t like to have some lovely time with the ladies?”
“John, don’t get it wrong. I’m not trying to punish you or something like that. You know how hard it is for me to find a lady to date. I don’t want this one to leave me. If I don’t bring her home, she would think that I’m not capable. She has been looking at me suspiciously of late. Try and understand me.”
It’s true that John never asked his girlfriend to sleep over. Whenever they want to have their private moments, it is always at those times that I’m not at home. But John doesn’t have a problem wooing ladies. He is just a principled fellow who likes to make it one girl at a time. Many of our female neighbours ask about him, but he doesn’t seem to care for them. He is satisfied with his woman.
But I’m different from John. Aside from the fact that I was jobless for many years, the ladies didn’t even want to come near me. They say that my face frightens them and that they don’t know what I’ll do to them when alone with me in the room. Right from my Polokwane days, the story is still same. I’m close to 30 years, and I’ve not slept with a lady before. I’m not even sure if I’m able to do it.
When will I have the chance of meeting a woman? I have strong desires to have my own kids. I want to have children to give me joy in my own space. If ladies continue to turn me down, when will that opportunity present itself?
I don’t wish to go after a lady that looks dark in complexion and ugly like me. Otherwise, our children will be a walking shadow and may be seen to be a dare-devil. The pains that I go through every day are enough to prevent me from raising children that will experience same. Zandile has a beautiful face. She’ll likely give me some beautiful kids.
I need to let John realise this. He has been a wonderful friend, but we need to plan for the next stage of our lives. I just wish that he’ll understand.
That night, we retire the bed without bidding each other goodnight as we used to. The issue of bringing Zandile home is the cause of the rift.
John gives me the go-ahead the morning after. But he has the view that it’s time for me to look for a place of my own. Since I’m now working and earning for myself, it is important that I look for a room to stay, even if I can’t afford a flat yet.
I thank him for conceding. I’ve not had a quarrel with John before. That he advises me to look for a place shows that the issue touches his heart. He is right anyways. We can’t continue to live together forever. He will have to marry someday, and I’ll do the same. Perhaps it is time we lived our separate lives.
I return from work Tuesday evening with Zandile. It is a jolly evening for me. It’s as If I’ve won a jackpot. I walk as if I have springs under my feet. I smile to anyone that I come across and no insult that’s thrown at me seems to matter.
John had told me earlier in the day that he would not be around. I didn’t even bother to ask him where he would sleep for the night. He doesn’t want to disturb my plans for the evening. I wish him safe night rest wherever he is.
Inviting a lady home is half of the job. Getting her to enjoy the evening is another kettle of fish. I’d bought some fast-food for dinner on our way home, so I don’t need to bother about cooking. I thought Zandile would be shy here at my place, but I’m the one who seems not to know what to do. We settle down to eat and drink. After that, I ask her about where she lives and her experience at work. She narrates that she resides in Pretoria and has been working at the zoo for close to eight years.
“Do you know that I’m from Polokwane?” I enthuse.
“I know a bit about you. You already told me that before.”
“Will you like to watch television?”
“No. my favourite programmes are over already.”
I’m feeling the pressure to get close to Zandile, but I’m not sure how to start. She makes it easy when she says that she wants to shower. I take her to the bathroom and leave her there. When done, she paces quietly to the room and looks at me directly in the eyes.
“Are you ready for me,” she asks.
“Yes. How do you like to sleep?”
“I’m not talking about sleeping. We have been here for three hours, and it will soon be twelve o’clock.”
“Yes, I know. I’m not working tomorrow.”
“But, I am.”
I’m fidgety that I have a lady there with me tonight. All my confidence about being with her suddenly melts away. Getting close to her seems like a herculean task. She looks at me, wondering what is going through my mind.
“Why did you bring me here, Andrew?”
“For companionship. I want to be close to you.”
“Well, I’m here. When you grabbed me in the staff room the other day, I thought you are a fast guy. See you now. You don’t even have a clue. I’ve been alone for a long time, and I don’t get to meet men anyhow. ”
“I have a clue. I’m just taking my time.” I recall that she doesn’t associate with anyone in the office. She must be lonely.
“Continue taking your time until its morning.”
“No. We still have time.”
She hisses and slides into the bed with the towel around her body.
“Do you want the light on or off?” I ask.
“Are you angry with me?”
I put off my clothes, roll into the bed close to her, remove the towel she has on and tickles her a bit. She laughs and mumbles some unclear words. With cajoling and pleading; arguments and counter arguments; whispering and persuasions; I wake up in the morning with a different experience. Andrew is no longer chaste. Now I can talk when my colleagues are opening their mouth about their experience with the opposite sex.
The need to get a place to rent gingers me out of bed this Wednesday morning. I rush to the internet café to search for available flats for lease in Arcadia and Sunnyside. There are a lot of vacant spaces to choose from. Considering that I have just this day to search around, I feel the need to inspect the available rooms.
I don’t have to get a flat yet as the rents for those are out of my reach. The flat agents also ask for additional fees as ‘deposits’. All I crave for now is getting a room. If John and I can live in a single-bedroom apartment, I should be able to live in a single room. After all, I’m not married.
My search on Gumtree.co.za yields a lot of options. It appears there are many blocks of flats in Arcadia looking for tenants. If living in Arcadia is too expensive for me, I’ll try Sunnyside. There are lots of students’ accommodations there, and the rooms are known to be cheaper. I scribble down the details of four available spaces, so I’ll have options to choose from.
I put a call through to them.
“We have single rooms, bachelors, and two bedroom flats.”
“I need just a room that is en suite. Can I come and check?”
“Yes, we have those. You may come and check.”
“I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Who must I ask for when I get there?”
“Just ask for Mr Fixer.”
The man sounds friendly on the phone. His flats must be special, I think.
As I take a taxi to check the room, the experience of the previous night comes to mind. “Oh! What a night?” I whispered aloud. Zandile showed me what I’ve been missing all these years. No wonder my colleagues are always excited when they discuss women. There is a special feeling that comes with sleeping with a woman. Now I know better.
I didn’t even know when she stood up from the bed to take her bath or when she left for work. I had slept off like a log of wood, snoring so loudly, and totally unaware of happenings around me. I thought I heard her bid me goodbye, but I was too weak to lift a finger. I must have had a good time.
I don’t think I’ll want to stop inviting Zandile home. I’ll not like to argue with John over inviting her to the house. It’s important that I leave the flat and stay alone. That will give me the freedom to be with her.
This new urge makes it seem urgent for me to search for a room. I jump off the taxi at Spur Street, where the agent directed me to, over the phone. The building is 10-storey, and it looks nice from the outside.
“Hello, I’m Andrew. I believe you are Mr Fixer?”
Eyeing me suspiciously, he said, “Yes, please.”
“I called your office some minutes ago.”
“Okay. Are you the one who is looking for a single room apartment?”
“Yes, I am.”
The man assesses me more closely and tightens his lips. He doesn’t seem convinced that I’m the one he spoke with on the phone. He looks at my face and quickly turns away as if he’s seen an aberration.
“Are you going to stay in the room yourself, or you are making inquiries on behalf of someone?”
“I want to stay there myself. I work, and I’ll pay my rents.”
Mr Fixer shakes his head slowly.
“It’s not about working, my friend. The place is no longer available.”
“ Awww! But you told me that you have many spaces available- single rooms, one bedroom flats and more.”
“Sorry, Master Andrew. All the available rooms, flats, houses have been occupied. We receive a lot of calls, you know. And you came late.”
“Just within twenty minutes? But I —”
“I said the spaces are taken! Can’t you understand my language? Excuse me please, I have things to attend to.”
He leaves me there outside his office and walks back inside.
With Mr Fixer shouting, I feel something is wrong somewhere. He sounded lively over the phone; but now, he seems to be touchy. I wonder what happened within the short time that I took a taxi there.
I move quietly out of the area. Since there are a number of options to choose from, why would I bother about him? I take a stroll to the next place on my list. It’s on Leyds Street, and it’s not far from the point where I am.
The building is even better than the previous one, and it has a wider balcony. It is also one of the more recently built structures, and it’s closer to the taxi rank. I think I won’t have much problem going to work if I rent a place here. I look forward to seeing the room they have on offer. After speaking with the person in charge, he says I must wait for him for a few minutes. He eventually shows up after 20 minutes.
“Hello, Gentleman. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. I was tied down in some bureaucratic ruckus, hence my delayed appearance. Hope you are not stressed or subjugated in any condescending manner by some insignificant nonentities around the locality?”
I wonder what this one is talking about. Is he an agent or he works at the parliament?
“Sorry, are you the one I’ve been waiting for? I’m Andrew — the person looking for a room.”
“Yeah. I recognise the vocal similarities between the persons I heard on the phone and the entity seated here. I’m in charge of allotting rooms of diverse categories in this intellectual enclave.”
I’m not sure if I want to live in a building where I can’t understand the language of the custodian. I mean that I can’t be carrying a dictionary around before I communicate. Anyway, when he wants to collect money for the rents, I’m sure he would speak Zulu. Maybe he is just marketing the flats with his high-sounding words. Even people living in expensive areas in Menlyn speak standard English. But then, are they looking for certain kinds of tenants? That much, I must know.
“Is it only grammarians that live here or other regular people can stay too?”
“Oh! People of all kinds and hues are welcome. The building is for hoi polloi.”
“It’s alright. Can I see the place?”
“Let’s navigate henceforth, please.”
He takes me to the sixth floor of the building. I must say that it is a well-catered building. The environment is neat, and the lift is working fine. There are flowers of all kinds dotting the seams of the walls and a sweet aroma fill the area as we walk towards the flat.
The place is a three bedroom apartment. We enter the sitting room which is intentionally left unoccupied. Two of the rooms are already occupied, and they are in need of a third renter.
“Here you go. This is the vacant space in this flat. I’m sure the intended occupier would enjoy the grandeur of the serene environment, especially when it oversees the irrefutably grandiose skyline view in the distant, but lucid horizon.”
I ignore his ramblings and concentrates on the colourful room he is showing me. I’m immediately interested in taking the space. The snag is that the toilet is outside the room and the kitchen is shared with the other occupants. I still like the place nonetheless.
“I can see that you are fascinated by the beauty of the piazza.”
“Come again?” I say to him. Did he just say that they give pizza to occupants?
“I mean that it’s a nice place. The person that wants to rent the room will surely like it.”
A girl of about seven years opens the door and steps out of one of the occupied rooms in the flat. I guess she heard some voices from the sitting room and wants to see if we are familiar faces. As soon as she sees us, she screams and runs back into her room. Soon, a man and a lady open the door to see why the young girl is scared. They looked at us, frowned and mumbled some strange language. They stepped back into the room, locking the door behind them.
The agent’s phone rings and he picks it up. I don’t know what is being discussed, but the agent keeps looking at me as he listens on the phone. Perhaps the man that came out earlier is passing some information to him.
As soon as he drops the call, he asks me to come out of the flat that he wants to talk to me outside. I follow him to the balcony.
He assumes a more formal look and speaks like a friend.
“Are you renting the flat yourself or it’s for someone else?”
“I’m renting it myself. I’m working”
“Awww. Okay. You see, we don’t like a situation when the occupants of a shared flat are always in scuffles and imbroglios when the time to pay rents is imminent. From the anatomical nature of your facial construct, it appears there is likely to be some periodic brouhaha, should we go ahead to allot this room to your eminent self.”
I heard him mention ‘facial something’. Is he referring to my face? Do flat owners now resort to rejecting tenants based on their looks? Maybe, I didn’t hear him well. I must have misunderstood him.
“Please talk to me. I like the room.”
“But apparently, the place is not meant for you, my friend.”
He enters the flat, closes and locks the door of the unoccupied room, and puts the keys in his pocket. I watch him with mouth open. He seems not to be interested in discussing further as the excitement on his face has worn off. While pointing to the lift, he takes a walk towards it, and I join him.
Once on the ground floor, he looks at me and remarks:
“My friend, with faces like yours, the city will be unaccommodating to you. I’ll suggest that you look for a proper abode in the village farms or shacks. It will suit better.”
With that comment, I walk out of his place angrily. It is evident that the parents of that young girl didn’t want me as a tenant. “To hell with them and their flat. There are many others.”
I check my paper again and decide to visit the third place. It’s on Plein Street. On getting there, the story is not different. Though I like the flat, and the room is clean like the previous one. I’m being insulted in a manner that I can’t forget in my life.
“Our flats are for South Africans,” the lady agent says.
“I’m South African. I’m from Limpopo,” I say to her in my Limpopo dialect.
“Which zoo in Limpopo are you from?”
“I’m from Pretoria Zoo.”
“No wonder. We don’t have a space for people like you in the city. Go back to the bush.”
Needless I say that I’ll not sleep well when I got home. I spent my entire work-free day searching for a room to rent, but all I could get in return were insults hurled at me on how I look. For how long will people continue to punish me for an ‘offence’ that I didn’t commit?
How crude can people get? I’m being denied a chance to spend my hard-earned money to pay for a space in my country. They make me feel like a foreigner in my mother’s land. Someone even asked if I’m South African? Do all South Africans have to look in a certain way?
I thought the mysteries surrounding my looks had been put to rest when I got a permanent job. I thought I would be allowed to be integrated fully into the society that has denied me the benefit of being a member. I imagined that the benefits that other citizens enjoy on account of being born in this country would be accorded me, but it’s not so. I’m being treated like a piece of an irrelevant and useless being whose view must be ignored and whose opinions don’t count.
Worse still is the fact that people don’t want to identify with me. I’ve done all within my means to make sure that I look better and appear presentable. But the ghost of my face still haunts me everywhere I go. No amount of smile that I put on changes how people view me. It’s saddening.
But it’s not all gloom for me. John has shown me that you don’t have to be blood relatives before you show kindness to others. There will always be that person or people whose behaviour inspires others. John has inspired me in many ways. He accommodated and fed me for more than three years when I was jobless, and never for once shouted at me for a wrong done. He is forever conscious that he is the only one I have in Pretoria.
If not for my sister who inspires me from a distance, I would have been too lonely to survive in the world. I sometimes imagine how life would have been without these two people. With the rejections I get everywhere I go, I would have jumped into the sea long ago. Or I would have choked to death because of depression.
But luckily, I don’t have to despair. So long as John is with me, I have hope. I have the firm believe that even I, with all my shortcomings, I can be an inspiration to someone, someday. I’ll not despair.
“What are you thinking about? Are you sure that you are not still missing the good times you had with Zandile last night.”
John brings me back to my surroundings. Given that I didn’t see him in the morning before I went room-hunting. He had left for work from where he stayed at night. I’m seeing him for the first time in the day, and he has slipped into the room unnoticed. I’d been deep in thought and was feeling weighed down.
“Oh, you are back.”
Observing that I’m in an unhappy mood, John draws close and looks into my face.
“This face is not looking glad today. Is everything alright?”
“Andrew. I’m sorry about how I spoke to you last night. I thought about it at work, and I realised that I was a bit careless with my words. Although we have been good friends, I understand that we will have our little differences. We are not going to behave exactly like each other. Forget about last night. Let it go, please. I’m sure Zandile made you feel special last night. I can see the bed is complaining of too much activity.”
“John. I’m feeling horrible today.”
“Did she hurt you? Tell me what happened? You have to go back to work tomorrow. Cheer up, brother.”
“John. I went to look for a room to rent today, and I was turned down in the three places that I visited.”
“That’s not new. Before I moved —”
“John, listen to me. Someone told me that the room I’m about to rent is for human beings. Do I not look human?”
“Andrew. You have passed this stage in your life. You have faced these issues in the past. People insulted you throughout your stay in high school days, and you didn’t break down then. You were not employed for more than ten years, and you survived it. Now that you have a job to do and a girlfriend to make you happy, you are getting disturbed by one irrelevant comment from someone. Forget about it, Andrew. You can continue to stay here. I’m not chasing you away.”
“John, you don’t understand. This is my country, and my countrymen are discriminating against me. One of the tenants in the place I visited is not even South African, and he asked the agent not to allow me to take the place. Is that not bad enough?”
“Don’t let this issues bring you down, Andrew. You have faced more serious problems, and you overcame them.”
John takes out a bottle of wine from the fridge and throws a glass cup at me. We drink for a while, and my mood improves.
“Have you eaten this evening?”
“No. I’ve not eaten since morning.”
“Let’s take a walk, please. I’m hungry.”
I know John always eats before returning to the house in the evening. He usually complains that he’s too tired to prepare any meal after work. That he’s claiming to be hungry this evening is a bit surprising. I guess he just wants to make me feel better by taking me out.
He takes me to Sunnyside, and we settled at Wimpy restaurant in SunnyPark. With music in the background and people walking around, I have to better my mood. I gradually shelve the sad feelings that overwhelmed me earlier.
After placing orders for chips and chicken, we sit chilling and chatting away, talking about all kinds of issues we never had the time for in the house. As we continue to eat, he updates me on the happenings around Menlyn and how hoodlums have been attacking the residents.
“What about Mr Maand?” I begin.
“I guess he’s okay. His former security guard is still there. He is good. Did he call you about the Kruger Park job?”
“No. I didn’t even bother to remind him of it. He must have forgotten by now. But the job will be similar to what I do now, so I care less.”
“Yes. It will be almost the same. By the way, is it because of what I said yesterday that made you go searching for a room to rent?”
“No, John. I just feel it is the time to stand alone. You have been amazing. You’ve been a good friend. When everyone turns their back on me, you are there. But I know that we can’t be together forever. You will need to marry and start a family someday. I’ll want to do same too. The earlier I start to stand alone the better. I just feel it should start now.”
“I was worried if you were upset. But listening to you now, I understand your position better.”
“No, not at all. I can’t be upset with my pal.”
With our chats diverting from one topic to the other, I totally forgot the horrible experience of that day. John promises to contact some few people he knows that are agents. He will ask them to fix me with one of the vacant spaces. I feel relieved.
At about 11:30 PM, we return to Arcadia to relax for the night. I look forward to the next day when I have to resume at the zoo.
I don’t know that surprises lie in wait for me at work on Thursday morning. First, it is the Zookies that welcomes me with strange sounds.
“Cha-cha-cha” one Zookie said in the staff room as I got in.
“Hello, guys. I hope you are well and good.”
“Welcome, the latest Zookie to take Zandile home.”
I’m shocked to the marrows. I thought I did a clean job disguising Zandile’s visit to my place last Tuesday. I waited for her at the grocery store opposite the entrance gate of the zoo, thinking that we were out of sight to most of the staff. How wrong I was.
“Who told you that I took Zandile home?”
“Stop pretending, Andrew. We know what goes on around here.”
“Tell us, how was your Tuesday night experience?”
Realising that the guys have their facts right, I can’t act like I’m not sure what they are talking about.
“Well, it went well. What do you expect when a man takes a lady home?”
“Give us the details.”
I’m not exactly sure that they want me to state the details of what went on behind the curtains.
“What do you guys want to tell me?”
“Andrew, that lady is everyone’s chick. She is a distributor.”
I’ve heard folks mention that word before. They’ll call a lady a distributor when they know that she sleeps around with different men. But saying the same about Zandile seems unfair. She brings in food and serves them in the staff room. I’ve not seen her being rude to anyone while discharging her duties.
Also, since they know that I’m now involved with her, I wonder why they want to malign the lady. They are disrespectful to me and my girlfriend, I think.
“Please stop this nonsense! Do you realise she is my girlfriend.”
They burst out laughing hysterically. Just when they stop, and I think that would be it. They burst out laughing all over again. There seems to be more that they have to say.
“What did I say wrong?”
“Zookie999 or what do you like to call yourself. You have been here for only a few months. We are your seniors, and we should know people around here better.”
I think there is sense in what they are saying. Is there something they know about Zandile that I don’t? It will be painful to hear that someone in the zoo is already dating her. She didn’t mention that to me.
One of them strides to my desk and leans on the table.
“Andrew, the last time you asked us to advise you on how to approach the ladies in the kitchen we thought it was one of the younger ones you have in mind. We didn’t know it was Zandile. She has four kids from different men, and she has followed everyone here home. We just feel we must let you know these facts.”
“What? Are you sure of this?”
“Let’s see when next she brings food to the staff room. If she places the food on your table, I’ll agree with you that she actually loves you. Otherwise, you are just one of her customers.”
I don’t believe the folks. I move to the wall to check the ladies roster. Zandile will not serve food until Saturday. That is not too far. I’ll see who she serves.
True to his words, John made inquiries about a room space in a flat on Burke Street. As I return home, he gives me the news. He hands over the contact details of the agent in charge, and I quickly put a call through to him.
“Hello, Abdul. I got your number from John in Arcadia, and he says you have rooms for rent.”
“Yes. It’s available here in the building where I stay.”
“Can I come and see as we speak?”
“Yes. It’s just opposite my flat. I’m available. Please come.”
As late as it is, I rush out of the flat. It is hard to find a taxi at this time of the evening, but I’m eager to be there. It is about 7:30 PM and the streets are still busy. The night time businesses are in full swing. I don’t want another person to take the room. It can be tough getting an alternative.
I arrive the building in the middle of Burke Street and Abdul, the agent I spoke with a while ago, is there at the entrance waiting for me. We exchanged pleasantries, and he walks me into the building. It is a two-storey building with lots of rooms facing each other. He immediately informs me that the toilet and bathrooms are shared with other tenants. “I hope you don’t mind?”
Most of the tenants in the building seem to be from other African countries. I could tell from the medley of unrecognised languages I hear while walking through the corridor. Only a few speaks Zulu. As I follow up the stairs into the vacant room, I study the area. Cereal grains and rags litter the grounds. It is also noisy as music from sound systems blazes from different apartments.
“Never mind the noise. We have lots of young chaps here.” He says.
“I can see.”
“Most of the people are from different parts of Africa, but we get along very well. We hardly quarrel with each other. Many of us here work during the day, and the place would be quiet then. But after work, it comes to life, as it is now.”
Once inside the available room, I don’t have an issue with it; although it doesn’t meet the standards of the ones I inspected last Wednesday. It is fairly big and painted in white. From the smell, I can tell that it was recently painted. On the floor is a wall-to-wall checkered carpet. The room is empty but for the wooden wardrobe placed in a corner.
“Do you accept deposits?”
“Not at all. You only pay for one month ahead. Did John tell you that he once lived here?”
“Err… he mentioned something like that. He said he discussed with you about me coming here.”
“Yes, he did. You two have been together for long, and you both live in the same flat.”
“I hope he told you that the rent is one thousand, five hundred rands per month.”
“That’s not a problem.”
Even if not as cosy as the Arcadia flat where we live, I like the fact that many of the occupants are hustlers like me. They cut the picture of people who are just starting out in life.
From the outside, the painting on the building is faded. But it takes nothing away from the secure environment where the building is located. The street itself is quiet, and there seem not to be a lot of rascals around. For the price of 1500 rands per month, I don’t think it is a bad place.
As Abdul further explains the positive things about the area, and the few challenges they face, I got to see a lot of people coming into the building. Some of them are not pleasant-looking, even if I’m the one saying so.
I’m actually more handsome than some of them, in my view. With these people around, I feel very much at home. No one will look at me like an outcast. John has done well to ask me to come live here. It will be a nice place to start out life.
I pay Abdul my first rent right away. I don’t want to take chances at all. He gives me the receipt and keys to the room. I leave the place and return to Arcadia. It is a good feeling to have paid my first rent ever. If I was doubtful before about leaving Arcadia, the doubts are off.
As I arrive back home, I inform John about all that transpired between Abdul and me. He knows how much of a gentleman Abdul is, so he is not surprised at how fast it all went.
“Do you like the place?” John asks.
“Sure. Why do you think I paid?”
“I’m glad to hear that. Now you see that you don’t have to get moody over issues that can be solved quickly. Keep that in mind, please.”
Next Wednesday, I’ll have to buy some items to furnish the room. I look forward to the day with gusto. I’ll also ask Zandile to suggest to me the things I’ll need for the kitchen area. I hope she also knows a bit about interior decoration. My room must be well decorated, and Zandile must play a role in that. She is the one that occupies my heart, and I should carry her along. Probably, she is the person who is motivating me to move out of Arcadia.
I glide into the bed at around 10:05 PM. It is a peaceful sleep.
At the zoo the following day, Zandile walks into the staff room. It is a warm Saturday afternoon. Four of us Zookies are seated at our desk. I focus my gaze on her, hoping to get a wink or a gesture. She seems to be engrossed in the task at hand. She places our meals on the centre table. Then she announced:
“Gentlemen, this is for you all.”
She immediately turns back and heads towards the door.
“Zandile!” I call.
“Yes, can I help you?” She stops walking and turns towards me.
“I’ve been trying to —”
“Andrew. I’m on duty now.” She says and walks away out of the room.
I can hear my colleagues giggling. I can’t even look into their faces. I run after her to see if she would wait outside to talk with me. After several calls to her, she keeps walking away. She will not give me any particular attention, the way other ladies do to their boyfriends. After all, I’m just one of her ‘customers’. My colleagues are right.
As I return to the staff room, they laugh aloud and greet me cynically,
“Guys, just face your business, please!”
That Zandile walked out on me is a bit puzzling. I can’t count how many times I’ve imagined us building a family together? Is it that she doesn’t care for me at all? But she said a lot of wonderful things that night she followed me home. Could it mean that she didn’t mean them or is it me misjudging her? I’ll try to see her later in the day to see where she stands.
Perhaps, it’s true that she has four kids. The sort of stable relationship I have in mind doesn’t tally with what she is giving. I have bigger plans for her than being given this cold-shoulder treatment.
I don’t want to argue about it with my colleagues. We go about our tasks normally without discussing personal matters. Even if I’m still in shock about Zandile’s act, I manage to carry out my duties as expected.
Until I close for the day, there is no chance to speak with her. Normally her phone is always on voicemail while at work. So, making a phone call is out of my options. I’m going to be patient until we close for the day.
After work, I return to the staff room. Some of my colleagues are there changing their uniforms to mufti. I put several calls through to Zandile, but she doesn’t pick them. I sigh and gasp, lamenting her attitude.
“My friend, stop wasting your time. Zandile is a one-night-stand expert. If she tastes you and doesn’t find you to be up to her match, she’ll not come back the second time. You have been deceived.” Samuel hinted. Perhaps he too had a similar experience.
“I agree with you.” I manage to say. Even if I have a contrary opinion, that it is Samuel talking, I need not voice them out. He might just take offence.
I leave the zoo quietly. On my way back home, I rue my situation. While I’m truthful to Zandle, she is taking me for a ride. Is that why she didn’t even call my phone since we went to my place together? Not once did she say ‘hi’ to greet me. All the nice text messages that I’ve been sending are not replied. I should have suspected that she’s not keen on me.
Up until the following Wednesday, I ignore Zandile. Sometimes, I’ll deliberately go to the kitchen, hoping to find her and start a chat. But each time I try to lock eyes with her, she looks away. She doesn’t even seem to remember that we have shared the same bed. She just interacts with me formally as if I’m one unidentified staff.
How she manages to maintain such high level of pretence is surprising to me. So, all the stories that my colleagues have been saying about her are true. All that she is interested in is to distribute ‘resources’ to men and leave. She is a professional ‘hit and run.’
I don’t blame her. It’s because I don’t have any other lady that I’m dating. I wouldn’t have been tied to her thinking that my future is secure with her being my wife. If Zandile doesn’t see me as being worthy of a companion, I’ll have to look elsewhere. After all, where I now live, I can see that there are lots of attractive African ladies there. If I can’t get a South African woman to date, I’ll look elsewhere on the continent. Life continues.
But then, with whom do I decorate my new room? Well, I’ll have to do it myself. Who says I can’t live alone as a bachelor? It will give me the chance to assess the lady I want for a wife.
On Wednesday, my work-free day, I take a trip to Sunnyside. There is a lot of suitable fairly-used furniture available for my needs. For now, I don’t have much to buy. I pick up a cathode-ray television, an average-sized mattress and a small shelf. With the help of a pickup vehicle, I move the items to my new place.
The vehicle operator assists me with carrying the items into my room. He also helps with arranging them within.
“Your place is beautiful,” he remarks.
“Thank you so much.”
I can’t smile enough this evening. I’m making progress, after all. It’s just a matter of time. I’ll achieve.
Departing John’s flat is an emotional thing for me. I pack my few belongings slowly and with a heavy heart. I don’t have a lot of packing to do, anyways. I have just a few clothes to carry and my few books. They all fit in a small bag. The gadgets and stuff in the flat are all John’s items.
As I take my leave, he follows me to my new place on Burke Street. It is not far from our present home in Arcadia, and so we take a stroll up there.
John is carrying an unknown pack in a plastic bag. I guess he has a gift for me because the John that I know always likes to share.
John is obviously still well acquainted with many of the occupants of the building. It seems they have not forgotten the years he lived there with them. The moment we enter the building entrance, noise rents the air. The kids come in their numbers rallying around him. The folks relate with him well and are happy to see him again. He shakes hands with them all, smiling and exchanging pleasantries.
“This is my good friend, Andrew” John announces. “I hope you guys will treat him well. He’s a gentleman and doesn’t annoy others with his conducts. I’ve known him for many years since my days in Polokwane.”
Turning to me, John remarks:
“Andrew, after I left Polokwane, I lived here. I enjoyed my time here, and I don’t have a single regret. I only left when I wanted to be alone. I can assure you that these people are friendly and welcoming. We always resolve issues within ourselves amicably. I’m sure you will enjoy your stay here. So feel free to interact with the people.”
“Thank you,” I mutter.
More than thirteen people are present there at the balcony. It is the beginning of a new month, and they have come out to see their new neighbour. Some of them are with their wives, but a good number stands alone. They are all full of smiles, even if a few could be seen whispering into each other’s ears. Such side talks are no longer strange to me, anyway.
I wonder if it is a tradition in the building to welcome a new neighbour in that manner. Or if it is a culture they have from whatever country they have come from. I’m overwhelmed with the warmness they have accorded me. I feel as if I’m one important dignitary who has come from far to visit.
One slim fellow steps forward to talk. He shakes hands with me and then steps back a bit.
“Hello, Mister Andrew. You are welcome to the building. We have seen you here before, but we didn’t know when you will move here finally. As you may have observed, we all live here as a family. We have people from all parts of Africa living with us. There are Ghanaians, Somalis, Burundians, Nigerians, Ethiopians, Zimbabweans and even Togolese. We speak our different languages, but we understand one another well. Please don’t be shy to tell us if you need something from us since you are new. We will be willing to assist wherever we can. Once again, you are welcome.”
I’ve never been so addressed before. For the first time, I have an opportunity of being welcome without being reminded of how I look. When I assess the face of the people there, I can’t even see any sneer on their faces.
“Thank you very much, Mister…”
“Mister Jaffar. I’m happy to be here too. I’m so glad seeing you all and how peaceful you are. I..I.. I don’t even know what to say. I just know that I’m so happy to be here in the midst of these people.”
John smiles then waves at them all. They waved back at him and dispersed.
“And yes,” he stops to say something.
“I must tell you that Andrew is a South African. He is a son of the soil.”
“We know,” they chorus.
I just smile as John leads me to my room.
“Andrew, this little gift is for you. It is an electric stove. I know how it is when someone is just starting to live alone. You must learn to cook yourself. You can’t be eating out all the time.”
“Thank you so much, John.”
I hand over the Rose wine I bought earlier. He deserves to have something too.
I hug John for close to two minutes and then free him. He turns away to leave. Life as a bachelor begins in earnest for me.
On a typical day, I wake up and take my bath, if there is no one in the bathroom. Sometimes I have to wait in a queue before I get in. The only cooking I do is to make tea and prepare noodles. As bad a cook as I am, I eat whatever it is that I prepare. There is no room for wastage.
After breakfast, I dash out of the house to the taxi rank, which is not far from the building.
When I return home, I’m greeted by my neighbours’ kids. Aside from them, neighbours greet each other several times in the day. There is no time that I walk past someone that I’ll not be greeted in one manner or the other. “Good Morning”, “Good Afternoon”, “Good Evening”, “Happy Weekend”, “Well Done”, “Happy Outing”, “Welcome Back” and so on. There seems to be a form of greeting for everything you do, depending on the time of day.
The height of it is when I put on my jeans pants on Wednesday morning, and a young chap greeted me by saying “Happy blue jeans.” I laughed with him as I thought that he was joking. I later realised that they just want to make sure that all is well. They do it to assure you that you are loved. I love it all as it makes me feel that I’m home. Not even in Polokwane do I get to be shown such love.
After just two weeks of living alone. I discover that I’ve added weight. There seems to be a new sense of satisfaction in living in one’s own space. For someone like me who have been through a lot of denials in the past, it feels nice to know that it is my sweat that pays for everything I see in this little room of mine. Even if the items are few and I can count them on the fingers of my right hand.
My new status of being a room-owner doesn’t go unnoticed at work. Many of my colleagues notice that I smile around the premises more than usual. They reckon that I have gotten over the shock of Zandile’s snub. Little do they know that the issue of Zandile is far away from my mind. With the kind of love that radiates where I now live, I don’t need Zandile’s temporary kind of love. If one lives in the right neighbourhood, with loving people around, one will not feel lonely. I don’t feel isolated at all.
I feel inclined to tell my sister that I’m now living alone. But when I recall that she’ll only remind me of the need to get married, I shelve the idea of informing her. I’ll wait until a later date.
I go about doing my job with increased anxiety and remarkable agility. Every time I think of what I’ll do when I get home. I know I still have some gadgets to buy to make the place comfortable. For now, I’ll make do with the scantily decorated space.
Each evening after work, I lie on the mattress thinking about life. When one doesn’t have a job, it’s as if one’s future is suspended. There is hardly any progress made. If you make plans and there are no means to implement them, it can be frustrating. Things only move on when you have a source of income.
Since its winter, the cold weather has started to bite harder. I sleep easily, and for long and I enjoy the night time rest. The problem is just that I get wet dreams more now than it used to be when I was living with John. I also get bulges in my trouser at any time of the day.
It’s like the night–time experience I had with Zandile is still troubling me. But she has made it clear that there is no future between the two of us. Why do I have to start thinking of her while my pant is swollen? I’ll have to control my emotions and direct it away from her. I’ve been warned several times that the lady is not for me. I’ll not want to get into trouble by being seen to be forcing myself on her.
Sooner or later I’ll have to invite someone to the house. It is far from being pleasant that a man should live alone, especially when he has some spare cash in his pockets. All kinds of thoughts come to mind. If not that I’ve been disciplined by my lengthy jobless status in the past, I might just make some unreasonable moves.
Fresh thoughts come to mind in the evenings. Why don’t I just approach Jaffar and tell him that I’ll like him to arrange one of the ladies in the building for me. That is a gentlemanly way of being introduced to a woman. I don’t want to be rejected after approaching a lady directly. It won’t sound well in this building where I’m shown much love.
One Friday evening, I return home to meet Jaffar in front of the building. He is talking to a young girl I think is his daughter.
“Hello, Mister. Let me see you when you are done, please.” I don’t even bother to go into my room first. If I do so, he might leave, and it is always hard locating someone in the building if you don’t have their phone number.
He disperses the girl and comes to me.
“How may I help you, Andrew?”
“Err… I was just thinking. I see you around and feel you are a leader in this place. Many times I’ve tried to meet you in private, but you are always busy. Today, it feels right to call you aside. I..I.. I just want to seek your advice on something. I’m a bachelor, and I know that I won’t be one forever. I’m also shy with ladies. With the help of someone like you, I feel that I can meet a lady who is available in this building. Can you please arrange for me to meet the single ladies here?”
Before I completed my narrations, Jaffar is smiling already.
“Andrew. We have seen that you live alone, but we think it is by choice. Now that you are asking, let me check around to see if we have single ladies around. Many of the ladies you think are single are married. But I can’t rule out the possibility of some being available. I’ll get back to you soon.”
Jaffar is always a punctual fellow. He also does deliver on his promises. If he says he’ll get back to me on the issue, then I’ll wait.
I enter the room, grab something to eat, pick up one of my zoo books to read and sleep away.
With the hope that something positive will come out of my meeting with Jaffar, I continue to stay calm in my room, enjoying the holiday. My heart would jump anytime I see a young female walking around on the balcony. I also like to look at them whenever I go to the bathroom area. Being a citizen, I think these ladies should find me attractive. I can make things happen for them in the country. If any of them agrees to date me, and I marry her, she automatically becomes a citizen of South Africa. That should motivate them to want to come close.
I, however, have to wait for two days before I get a reply from Jaffar. Knowing him to be someone who takes things seriously, he must be working hard on my ‘case.’
This evening, after returning from the zoo, there is a knock on my door. I suddenly become anxious thinking that Jaffar has found a suitable lady and has sent her to visit me. I quickly arranged my bedsheet, dusted off the TV, and then unhinge the door to open up.
There is Jaffar, smiling and calling me to come out of the room.
I mask my initial disappointment and ask him to come in. He does.
“Andrew, I’ve carried out a careful search around the building for a suitable lady for you. I must tell you that all of them are not available. It’s either that they are already married or attached with someone. If the situation changes or a new lady moves in, I’ll let you know.”
This news is a sad one for me. In fact, it is a blow. My disappointment doubles up. I’ve seen more than fifteen ladies in the building, and not a single one of them is available for dating. It appears to me that Jaffar is hiding something from me. I should be a ‘hotcake’ here in the midst of other Africa ladies. I’m South African, employed, living alone, not a player and ready to mingle.
Even if they are attached, they should be able to jump ship to my side. I have a lot to offer them. I’m sure Jaffar will continue to work on it. At least, he has taken it upon himself to get back to me, and he does so in a respectable manner. I thank him for the pains and bid him good night.
What if he’s saying the fact— that the ladies are not available? It means I won’t have luck in this building regarding women. I must focus my search elsewhere. But then I don’t have much time moving about town to look for a suitable companion. My mind goes to John to fix the issue for me. Then I recall that he had done so in the past. The lady came to see me once and gave an excuse that will be travelling out of South Africa. That was the last I saw of her. If John could, I know he would have gone ahead.
From all indications, I’ll have to register on a dating website. At least that will give me the chance of seeing many faces from where I can choose one. I’ll have the option of viewing their details and select the ones that would be right for me.
On Wednesday, I strolled down to Bayo’s internet café on Esselen Street. I browse to meetme.com,
provide my details and registered.
ANDREW’S MEETME.COM PROFILE
Name: Andrew Makana
Country: South Africa
Email: [email protected]
Marital Status: Single
Job: Zoological Consultant
Likes: animals, children, outdoor activities, meeting people, music, etc
I leave the internet café feeling hopeful. After two days, I return there to see if I’m lucky to have been sent any profile. I’m shocked to see 43 profiles of suitable ladies. I can’t believe my eyes! Whoever started online dating has done something fantastic. Here are the single South African ladies that have been difficult to come by. Amazing.
I was going to stay at the café for one hour. I pay the operator for four more hours. With this number of profiles, I’m not going to do a run through; I’ll give each of them a careful assessment. I just might find the right lady from the list.
As I sit there poring over the profiles, more profiles are pouring into my inbox. I feel blessed. If these people are all eligible for dating, here I am available to be dated. There is no way I’ll not find one or two that’ll like me. If it is necessary to remain there till the café closes, I’m prepared to stay.
For each profile that I find interesting, I’ll copy and paste the details to another file. When the profile impresses me much, I take my pen and write down the details on the paper I have with me. I have an idea of the kind of ladies I want in my head. I’m not the out-going type that visits clubs every weekend. I’m also not into the mascara-wearing types. When I sense that a profile picture is too flashy, I’ll delete it. I don’t earn much. I don’t want any liability-lady that will demand my entire salary to by lipstick only.
After spending three hours, the profile of a calm-looking lady attracts me the most. I carefully write down her details:
BERTHA’S MEETME.COM PROFILE
Name: Bertha Mokoena
Country: South Africa
Email: [email protected]
Marital Status: Single
Job: Animal Curator
Likes: Wildlife, big cats, poultry, and rodents.
When I set my eyes on the picture of Bertha, I just feel a cold chill run down my spine. There is something about Bertha’s profile that hooks me so bad. Immediately after writing down her details, I walk out of the café.
“Good night,” the operator waves.
I look back to see the person and discovers that I’m the last customer to leave the café.
As soon as I step into my room, I put a call through to Bertha’s number. It rings for a while, but no answer from the other end. I try five more times, but no luck. Well, I’ll wait for a callback. She might just be busy, somehow.
While I wait for her call, I juggle her name in my head:
“ Bertha-Bartholomew; Bertata- Berrington; Berristic Bertherway”
The name Bertha sounds romantic. I’m sure the lady too will be pleasant. I have selected her profile out of many available. How I present myself is top on my mind. I don’t want to disappoint.
Ten minutes later, she calls.
“Hello. I missed your calls. I’m sorry. Who is on the line, please?”
I’ve been learning about the art of sounding nice on the telephone. I’ve also upgraded my skills on how to twitch my voice to make the person on the other end of the telephone listen carefully. Bertha’s voice over the phone is so sultry that a suitable sound is what should keep her on the call. It is time for me to put my skills to use.
With a husky voice, the kind of which I’ve never heard myself use, I say to her.
“Hello, princess. I’m Andrew Mack. I came across your profile earlier today, and I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep without talking to you. Never mind that I’ve made several calls. It has to do with the importance I attach to hearing from you. If I’m disturbing you in any manner, I can stop talking right away.”
“No, no, no, continue, please.”
Wow! I’ve come a long way, and I can’t stop now. Now feeling like a Casanova, I must ride on.
“I observe that you are into wildlife. I find that interesting. I also have a special interest in animals. In fact, I work in a zoo. I’m a Zookie where I work, and that is a code for how we are referred.”
Bertha laughs aloud and blurts, “What is a Zookie? It sounds nice.”
The way she laughs tickles me deeply, even as it is over the phone. It appears I’m fascinating her. I must have said some things right. Let me keep holding her attention. But then, what does a Zookie mean? It is just a local name we call ourselves at work. I obviously can’t tell her that because she thinks it is something special than that. I don’t want to burst her bubble. I’ll rather keep her in suspense.
“You sound sweet on the phone. I’ve achieved my aim of talking to you this night. I must say that talking to you is special. We can talk some more tomorrow. Then, I’ll have time to explain to you all the questions you have asked. Have a good night rest, Lady B.”
In a low voice that suggests that she is a bit disappointed to stop talking, she remarks,
“It’s okay. Have a nice night rest.”
“Thanks. You too.”
I can’t express how happy I am. It is with joy that I toss into the bed. I’ve certainly come a long way since those days when I’ll be begging ladies to date me. Now, I’m shutting them up on the phone. And this is not just one kitchen cook or an obscure African lady. This is an animal curator who works in an office. Andrew, you are a gee!
I woke up to find two missed calls the morning after. They are from Bertha. I pick up my phone to see what time the calls came in. It was at 5:38 AM. She also sent me a text message:
Have a great day, Andrew – Berthie
What other sign does a man need that a lady is interested? I feel elated that Bertha is in a position to find a man that suits her personality. It seems the conversation we had last night got her thinking about me. She must have also liked the husky voice that she heard. It’s all good. We can take it on from here.
From my guess of whom I think Bertha is, she should be someone that likes to hang out. She is also bold and daring for her to have called me back after those missed calls. She also sounds educated as her spoken English comes with a city twang.
This morning is certainly a joyous one for me. There is something pleasing to look forward to as I step out of the room to go to work. Right in front of the entrance gate of the zoo, I put on a smile. On my way to the staff room, I greet everyone I come across. It is an unusual show of excitement. Some wonder why I’m friendly. I have no explanations for them. I just stride on in my happy mood. I branch to the tuck-shop nearby to get some cell-phone airtime. It is evident that I’ll have to make calls to Bertha. If she considers it necessary to call me that early in the morning, I should be ready to call her later in the day.
At around midday at work, it is time to break. I hurriedly return to my desk in the staff room, pick up my phone and dialled Bertha. The call went to voicemail. I think the network must be having issues. I hold on for about ten minutes and try again. No response.
As I can’t contain my anxiety any longer, I put together some words and send her a text message.
I’m sorry to have missed your calls this morning. I was in the bathroom and didn’t hear my phone ring. – Andrew
I’m sure she’ll call back. Bertha must be busy. I don’t know where she works or how busy she can be at work, but somehow, I think she should be much occupied otherwise she would have called back.
I search my phone for some e-cards. Luckily, I stumbled on a cute one. I quickly change the message to suit me and then send to her. With my earlier text message and the e-card, she should have enough reason to think about me at work.
I don’t have to wait for long though. She replies my message that she is busy at the moment and will talk with me later. I feel relieved.
As I return home in the evening, I engage in some soul searching. I’m already focusing on this new lady whose voice is enthralling me. I find her love for animals fascinating. If she loves to work with animals much, I interact with them every day. Maybe I even speak their language because the animals always respond to my whistles and gestures.
A tourist once joked that the monkeys and I have family ties. She was not wrong, though. When you have related with animals for a long time, they tend to see you as a member of their extended family.
Since I moved to my place in Burke Street, I’ve been made to feel closer to my neighbours. I’m careful not to upset them, just as they too are always mindful of what might hurt me. We have mutual respect for each other, and I cherish how we maintain it.
When I eventually find a lady to live with me there, perhaps Bertha, I believe she’ll be welcomed.
I quickly control my wishful thinking. How can I be assuming Bertha would be my woman? We just started talking on the phone, and I’ve not even met her. How funny the mind works.
My phone buzzes in the pocket, and I quickly pick it up. I think it must be Bertha. With a smile and dreamy eyes, I look at the display screen only to find that it’s my sister. She is calling to see if I’m okay. “Of course, I’m okay,” I tell her.
It’s not uncommon for my sister to call like that. She always makes it in the morning or evening when I’ve returned home from work.
All the same, I continue with my busy thinking schedule of fantasizing about Bertha. How possible is it that a man would be so smitten with a lady whose voice he heard only once. The wave of thoughts about her totally dominates my mind.
I run into the bathroom to shower. I even endeavour to brush my teeth. I hear doctors say that it’s right to brush twice a day. On a day like this that I’m expecting Bertha to call, I should remember good hygiene. When Bertha calls, I want to be totally at ease with myself.
I waited for the rest of the evening, but her call doesn’t come through. At 11:00 PM, I pick up my phone and call her again. The annoying voicemail message is all I hear. Now, I’m getting worried as to what the issue is. If bertha was busy at work throughout the day, what would be her excuse for not calling this evening? At last, I retire to the bed. It’s not been a good day after all.
For two days, Bertha doesn’t call or send me a text message. Each time I call, it’s always to voicemail. I sent her an e-card each day, expressing how lovely her voice is and how much I wish to hear her talk on the phone again.
With no message from her in three days, I think she is just one of those pranksters on the Internet. Maybe she is in it for the fun of it. I’ll return to the internet café to see if I have other animal-loving ladies.
On my way home from work, on the third day, my phone buzzes and I pick it up. It is Bertha.
“Hello, Andrew. Sorry, I’ve not been picking your calls. We have been busy preparing for some unexpected guests. Thanks for the e-cards. They always come at a time when I’m having some knotty issues to tackle. I enjoy reading them.”
It is a relief to hear her talk again.
“That’s alright. I just could not stop thinking about this animal curator that showed up in my life from nowhere, and brightened it up.”
She burst out laughing.
“Are you always full of humour?”
“Only when necessary.”
“Can I know a little more about you?”
“What exactly do you want to know?”
“Just your background…you know, who you are.”
“Well, I live alone in Burke Street in Pretoria. I moved into my flat recently, and it’s been a pleasant experience discovering myself all over again. Before then, I was with a close friend of mine. We were in Arcadia part of the city. Must I say that I’m single, never married with no kids of my own yet. So, the details you saw on my profile are correct.”
“I didn’t see your profile.”
“Not yet. From which of the dating sites did you get my details?”
“Okay. I’ll check you up there.”
“Do you have other dating sites that you use?” I want to be sure she is not a ‘distributor.’
“Only about three.”
“Do you have your pictures online?”
“Y..Yes. I mean not yet. I change them from time to time. I like having different pictures because my face changes depending on my mood. So sometimes, I take off the pictures when I feel it is old.”
“You sound interesting, Andrew. What are your hobbies?”
“Reading and playing with animals.”
“Wow. We have something in common then. I love animals a lot.”
“I saw that in your profile. I work with animals every day.”
“Andrew, I must tell you this. You made my day when you sent me that e-card today.”
“Oh, thanks. That’s nothing. I have more where that came from.”
Since she is in a happy mood, I feel like asking her some personal questions.
“Bertha. I must say that I’m getting fond on you just these few days we have been talking. I’m not looking for a fling or some lady to keep me happy while chatting with her. Are you in a relationship at the moment?”
She doesn’t reply.
“Are you there, Bertha?”
“I heard you, Andrew. I just think that you are direct with what you want for yourself. I can’t say that I’m in a relationship right now. But I’m not out there waiting for a man to bring about a turnaround in my life. Since you have asked me, are you in a relationship yourself?”
“Like I said before, I’m single and open to meeting a suitable lady. Since yesterday that I spoke to you, I’ve become anxious. I feel like I must continue chatting with you. Where do you work?”
“I’m an animal curator at a private zoo in Brooklyn.”
I recall that Brooklyn is just a taxi away from where I live. It gladdens my heart to know that her workplace is not far away.
“Can we meet somewhere?”
My heart skips a beat. We surely have to meet to decide if we are meant for each other. That she is asking for it soon got me startled. I begin to think about the likely places to meet with her. I settle for Spur in SunnyPark. John used to take me there, and I used to see couples relax at the place. I’m sure she would like the place too.
“Friday evening, six o’clock. Spur in SunnyPark?” I suggest.
“My Friday is free. I think it is okay then.”
I have just four days before meeting with Bertha. It is a dilemma deciding how best to look to meet with her since it’s going to be our first face-to-face meeting. It will not be fun to appear to her in my long-maligned face. I must try and enhance it a bit.
I visit the store to get some face-washing gels and cotton buds. I also pick up a powder pack to use. Each day, when I wake up in the morning, I wash my face for thirty minutes or longer. It comes out glowing, and I think it improves every other day. I then apply powder, and that gives me a much-needed facelift.
On Friday, after returning from work, I take a bath, put on a fitting casual wear and sneakers to match. Before leaving the house, I wash my face for the second time and apply multiple layers of powder. The first impression, they say, goes a long way. Thinking that I’m better looking, I pick up my phone, dust off the powder stains on my shirt and move over to Spur in Sunnyside. On my way there, I receive a text message.
I’ll be about 20 minutes late – Bertha
“That’s fine. If it’s just twenty minutes, it’s fine.” I whisper aloud.
At exactly 6:37 PM, Bertha shows up at Spur. Since I’ve seen her picture before, I immediately recognise her as she walks into the dining hall. She wears a white jeans pant and red flowery top. Her hair was recently braided, I can tell. She has a pair of sunglasses on, but her beauty is unmistakable. I smile and whisper to myself:
“Won’t this be a lovely lady to have as a wife? She looks so decent and beautiful”. I smack my lips as I watch her wriggle amiably through the eating tables.
As she gets close to the corner where I am, I waved at her.
“Andrew?” she whispers.
Bertha draws out the chair opposite me and sits on it.
“Hi,” she says with a puzzle on her face. “Are you the person with whom I’ve been chatting over the phone?”
“Yes.” I find myself sounding like a Caucasian.
“Why are you wearing a mask? It not Halloween yet.”
“I’m not wearing a mask. This is how I am.”
“This is how you are?”
Bertha turns slowly into the distance, apparently trying to remember something. She looks confused, as creases forms on her eyebrows.
“Are you the animal consultant at the Pretoria Zoo?”
“Yes,” I said with a smile. I’m enjoying the game she is trying to play. Her voice is even sweeter now that she is in front of me.
“Excuse me, please. I want to use the bathroom.”
Bertha walks towards the direction from where she came. It seems she’s been here before and therefore knows where their bathroom is.
I call on the waiter to ask for the menu. I’m ready to pay for whatever she orders. With beauties like this, one must not take chances.
For one hour, Bertha doesn’t show up.
“Hello, waiter. Where is your bathroom?” I inquire.
“Bathroom? or toilet you mean?”
“Whatever it is that you call it. Where is it?”
“There at the corner.”
He points to the toilet, and I can see the picture of a man on the door.
“I mean the one for females.”
“It’s just by the side.”
But Bertha didn’t go towards that direction. Does she have another toilet that she uses when around here? With doubts creeping up in my mind, I tarried for Bertha to return. It finally dawned on me that my dear Bertha has taken her leave. I call her phone, but no ring tone; no voicemail; no response.
I’ve been working at the zoo for a year. The need to go on my annual leave suddenly stares at me in the face. I put in my application, and my boss doesn’t hesitate to stamp on it. I’ve been dutiful these last months, and he’ll have no problem letting me stay away for three weeks. As there are lots of Zookies to stand in for me, he doesn’t think there could be any gap while I’m away.
“Thank you, boss.”
“You are welcome, Andrew. Enjoy your three weeks holiday. Your allowances have been paid.”
“Okay boss, I’m grateful.”
Soon after, I receive the bank alert confirming my paid allowances. It is heartening to know that I’m being paid while not working. But the pleasure of my leave allowance being paid on time is short-lived. It can’t douse the pain in my heart. It can’t wipe away the painful feeling that made me apply for annual leave in the first place.
I’ve decided to travel back to Polokwane. There is something I’m not being told by my folks. Of the millions of people in South Africa, I’m the only one with this kind of face that people are running away from. I’m the ugliest. I’m the one that can’t be approached — the only one without a girlfriend.
Why must I be despised so much? Kids run away when they see me. Babies cry for breast-milk when I come across them. Ladies run away, not wanting to associate with me. Where did I get such a face? In church, they say we are made in the image of God, but I’ve been wondering about my case. In whose Image am I made? I must trace back my origin. Someone must explain to me where this face originated. There must be a clarification. If my mother is from Limpopo, and she’s not ugly, where did my father hail from?
The rebuff from Bertha has been too hard on me. She’s one lady whose voice raises my spirit to the heavens. I’d imagined things that we could do together. Everything seemed to be working well when we communicated, only for her to abandon me at the restaurant on our first meeting. She doesn’t consider me worthy to be associated with.
Her words continue to ring in my head.
“Why are you wearing a mask?”
If my face looks like I’m wearing a mask, someone must explain to me where I got the face. I’m not a masquerade; neither am I a mannequin. Why my face would be compared to a mask is heart-breaking.
I’d thought that people would open up to me since I’m employed. But the rejection and isolation continue. My ugly face must be one of a kind. If other African ladies could keep away from me, it means that I’m the ugliest in Africa. Of all the girls in this building of about sixty rooms, none wants to date me.
Even Zandile, who gave me a taste of her apple, did so out of her generosity. If not for her kind of person, she would have snubbed me too.
I wish my parents are alive. I would have been properly briefed about my scary face. I would have looked at each of them to know who I look like. But then, my sister is there to provide answers. Why her face is not similarly creepy is what I want to know. Since she is much older than me, she certainly is privileged to possess some information I don’t have. She must be able to give me a good reason why I’m seen as a monster.
I pack my bags and leave for Polokwane early the following morning. I have some serious business to sort out there with my sister.
At the taxi rank, lots of mini buses line up for the trip. I buy a ticket, hop on the bus and perch in a window-side seat. For the duration of the three-hour trip to Polokwane, I don’t see the reason to talk to anyone.
A jester in the bus is cracking everyone up, but I maintain tight lips. With the bowler hat on my head, tilted slightly forward to cover my face, my scary look remains hidden. I don’t want anyone to get uncomfortable on my account. It’s not strange to me to find out that people drop off a bus when they sit next to me.
As I got off the mini-bus in Polokwane bus terminal, I board a taxi and head straight to my sister’s house. She is likely to be home because her shop is right in front of the building where she lives with her family. She is a wholesaler that supplies eggs to other departmental stores.
The taxi drops me in the dual-carriage road right at the front of her house. I pay him, take out my bags, and the driver moves on.
There across the road is my sister’s house. I squeezed a gaze at the building and observe that it has been repainted. But the structure is still there untouched. Four years of sojourn out of Polokwane will not let me miss this house where I stayed for more than seven years.
I cross the road and pace quietly towards the house.
“Mummy, look at Brother Andrew.” Dineo, one of my sister’s kids stands up to welcome me. The girl is growing fast, and it is obvious that she is doing well. She has two siblings, but they are not at the shop. “How are you Dineo?”
“I’m fine. Welcome.”
I would have loved to continue talking to her. It’s been a while, and there are many questions to ask the 10-year old. But, I’m not in the mood for such. My heart is heavy.
“Good afternoon, Sister Noluazi,” I greet.
She looks at me excitedly, but her face soon changed. She now looks worried.
My sister knows how I look when I’m not happy. She can tell what mood just by looking at me once. This afternoon, it’s obvious to her that I’m not in the right frame of mind. That I didn’t even tell her that I’m visiting is a cause for concern.
She leaves the customer she is attending to and come rushing towards me.
“Andrew, what is the matter. You didn’t tell me that you are coming. Is your job okay?”
“Sister, please let’s talk. There is something you are hiding from me.”
She notices the seriousness in my tone and signals that we move inside the house.
We sit opposite each other; then I begin to vent. The pitch of my voice is higher than usual.
“Sister, where am I from? Can you please tell me where my father and mother come from if you know? I’m tired of the hate and rejections people show me everywhere I go. I’m fed up with the pains I have to experience anytime I’ve something to do. When I didn’t have a job, I thought they are harsh on me because of my joblessness. Now I’m employed, but I’m still not taken seriously. Why so? And where did I get this face? Your face is different from mine, but you are my sister. Can you please explain to me?”
She is taken aback my speech and flood of tears begin to roll down from her eyes. It is then I realise how deeply touched she is. I’m moved to cry too.
She wipes off her tears and postures to reply me. She starts slowly.
“When I saw you across the road, I knew something is bothering you. When you lived with us here, you didn’t ask these questions. Is it the pressure from where you work that’s making you talk like this?”
“Sister, work is okay. I don’t have issues there.”
“What is it that makes you rush down to Polokwane unannounced? And why did you leave your work to come here.”
“I’m on leave. The reason I took leave is to come and find out where I come from. Everyone sees me as a strange person. When I got to Pretoria, Even foreigners are respected more than me. In my country, I could not find a place to rent. Even with money in my pocket, they don’t care. No one wants to identify with me. No one sees me good enough to befriend. I can’t even go out with a woman that I like. For how long will I be different from the other people, Sister Noluazi? Uh, please tell me. Is there a curse on me from my ancestors? Is there something I’ve done wrong or taboo that my parents have violated? Am I the same human being as other people in the community? Where is this face from? Do you know that I’m the ugliest man in Africa? When our ladies do not date me, I tried other African ladies, but no luck. They too reject me…”
My words continue to draw tears from her eyes.
“Andrew. Let me tell you this today. I lived with your mother, and she told me some things before she died.”
“Did you say my mum?”
“Yes, Andrew. You call me sister, but I’m not your mother’s daughter. She was nice to me, and I took her as my mother. When she could not have a child of her own, she took me from the motherless babies’ home. She brought me up as her daughter. Even when I was with her, she didn’t give up. The need to have a child of her own got her close to your father, who came from Zimbabwe to work in the Bela-Bela chrome mines. They were together for some time, and that is when she got pregnant. You were born when I was about twelve years old. I never met your dad, and your mother didn’t discuss where he comes from with me. I’m sure she doesn’t know his hometown in Zimbabwe. I would have given you the address to go find out for yourself.”
I listen with rapt attention to this story that I’d not heard before. It’s like there is something unusual about how I was born. I’ll like to know more from her. She continues,
“Before you mum died, she told me to make sure I continue to encourage you. She said the future is bright for you for so long as you don’t give up. You will face challenges, and people will reject you everywhere you go. But luck will always shine on you if you persist. You must never give up, Andrew. Don’t get weighed down by challenges. You have come far already. We all salute you for your courage and the calmness with which you handle your issues. Many other kids would have taken to crime if they are so treated. They would have carried guns. But you are patient, understanding, courageous and cool-headed. You are strong and brave. Don’t let that change now. You have a job that keeps you busy, and you don’t have a problem there. If you continue to hustle, good things will come your way. Maybe you have found a lady that doesn’t like you. It doesn’t mean that someone that will love you for who you are is not out there. Some women will be willing to have a man like you. You have a strong will to achieve for yourself, and you don’t give up easily. Now that you are close to the next stage of your life, don’t let the rejection from a woman make you turn against your future. If you are bothered that you don’t know your parents, what do you want me to say? I don’t know my father or my mother. I’m not sure if they are from South Africa or Lesotho. I have no one to turn to for these questions. Your case is better since you lived with your mum. You spoke to her, ate with her and felt her hands. I don’t have any family member that I know of. I struggled to survive, since the days of my youth. I had to survive somehow, anyhow. Now, I have to cater for my children and be there for them. Your mother took care of me, and I owe you that favour to be with you till I die. You are the only one I can call a family. Please don’t give up or let someone push you to the wall….”
She bursts out crying uncontrollably. The news that Noluazi is not my sister is a bit puzzling. This lady has sacrificed a lot for me. When my mother died after high school, she was the only one that took care of me through my college years. She fed, clothed and accommodated me in her house. She paid for my college tuition and never for once complained. I recall the patience with which she stood by me those days when I had no job. Noluazi would give me money to attend interviews countless times. Hot tears gather in my eyes as I look at her.
I feel her pains more now. I’m the one now to console her. It is evident that she’d been through a lot in her life.
“Sister, please don’t cry. You have said a lot this afternoon. I came here to find out more about my family background, but you have strengthened me instead. Don’t be the one to break down now. Please, be strong. I’ll not ask you such questions anymore, now that I know more about my parents.”
She wipes her face and looks at me. Her face is still sad.
“Where is Dineo’s father?” I ask for her husband.
“He’s not back from work yet.”
I drop the gift items I brought for her kids. I can’t remain in Polokwane for long. I’d taken three weeks leave hoping to travel to the towns of my father and mother, no matter how far the place may be. But Sister Noluazi has quelled that urge. I must return to Pretoria.
“Will you not wait to eat something and spend some days with us, since you are on leave?”
“No, sister. I must go now. My warm regards to your husband.”
My visit to Polokwane taught me a lesson. I must never, ever despair, no matter how harsh a situation is. I realise that I’m crying with my eyes until I come across someone who is blind. I complain about having no shoes, then I encounter a man with no legs; even if he desires a pair of shoes, how will he wear them. I lament that my food lack nutrients, then I stumble upon the orphan child who is not sure where the next meal will come from.
I’d thought that my situation was the worst, but I forgot that there are millions of people out there, who have no one to listen to their plights. Still, they trudge on, hoping for a better tomorrow.
Some of them are victims of wars that they know nothing about the cause. Others find themselves abandoned in the motherless babies’ homes, with no one to cater to them. Whenever we have cause to deplore our situation, we must remember that there are people somewhere living in worse conditions.
My trip back to Pretoria is a thoughtful one. Bertha’s disappointment took me to Polokwane, but I’m returning home a wiser man. It is my face that is ugly; my mind is not. I can achieve a lot with my two hands if I believe. I just have to believe that things will work out fine for me.
The words of my mother, as reported by my sister, ring loud in my ears. “I must never give up.” Noluazi has succeeded in lifting up my spirit. I’ll continue to trudge on until my hands reach that which I crave. My future is in my hands.
Bertha may have turned me down, after much hope in her, but I’ll look elsewhere for the companion I desire. Rejections and hate don’t demean me; I just have to continue trying; looking at the positive sides of life.
With this new outlook on life, I return to my room in Pretoria. Before entering the room, I extend greetings to those I come across. Since I moved in there, I didn’t bother to check on my next door neighbours. Today that is about to change.
I knock on the door of my neighbour to the right of my room. The door is locked, as it appears that he is not around. I did same to the person to the left. He is indoors.
“Hello, friend,” I say to him, smiling infectiously.
“Hello, Andrew. You look happy today. It’s good to see you in this mood.”
“It’s a cool evening. We hope for a better tomorrow.”
“Yes, yes. It shall be well.”
We shake hands, and I enter my room. It’s been a long day.
As I prepare to sleep for the night, details of the day’s activities come to mind. I travelled to Polokwane and returned the same day. The journey is a valuable one, I must say. Never again will I be weighed down by circumstances. I’ll not let people’s opinion of me affect how I feel within me. I’m responsible for my own happiness.
I dust it off my bed and make it up. I slide into the bed and soon find myself in sleep-land.
The following morning, I feel reluctant to stand up from my bed. It is a Monday and my holiday has only just begun.
I pick up my phone to call John. I feel that I owe him an explanation for not letting him know that I was visiting my sister in Polokwane. John knew her from our days in high school. He might have had a message to send to her, but the urgency of my travel prevented that.
“I must tell you that I’m just back from Polokwane. I was there yesterday. My sister sends her warm regards.”
“Oh. Why did you not say that you are travelling?”
“It was urgent, John. I just jumped into the taxi and took off.”
“Okay. Please let me know next time you want to go.”
I’m feeling relieved this morning. No ill feelings of any kind; no hassles. With my leave allowance bulging in my pocket, I want to spice up my room a bit. I need to get a sound system and play good music. Maybe these African sisters don’t make passes at me because I don’t play music. I also need to know about the political events around the country.
I strolled to Esselen Street to see what the pawn shops have on offer for me. There are many shops with varieties of digital musical system, each begging for attention. Even if they are repossessed ones or outright second-hand products, I just want one that is comfortable for me. I’d never been choosy about gadgets, anyway.
With five hundred rands, I latch onto a good second-hand sound system. The speakers are huge and well designed. From the test done on the gadget, the sound is loud enough for my single room.
With the help of a pickup van, I transfer it to my place. While at the floor of the building, my neighbours sight me and rush towards the taxi. They offer to help with the gadget, and I oblige them.
Thirty minutes later, my room is vibrating with sounds from Metro FM station. My next-door neighbour knocks on the door, and I allow him in.
“Congrats, brother. It is of a high quality.”
“Thanks, brother. It feels nice. These electronic companies know how to make you spend your money.”
“From my room, I can hear how nice it is.”
I’m not sure if he’s there to tell me to always keep the volume in check, or that he wishes to congratulate me on the new buy. I assume the fellow is trying to ask me to keep my volume low. The rooms are demarcated with wooden barriers, and one could hear sounds from the next room.
“I’ll always remember to keep the volume low, brother,” I say, nodding my head to the music from the radio. I like the way my neighbours rally around me for just a single gadget. It shows the openness of their hearts.
With my new sound system, my holiday seems to be going on well. The ambience of my room has changed and staying alone becomes enticing all over again. Only if I can have a nice lady to hang out with, it will be a perfect holiday.
I pick up the dating site list I wrote the other day. The appetite to reach out to any one of them eludes me. If I try to contact those ladies again, I might get my fingers burnt again. The cycle of events might be the same again: We will get to talk well over the phone, develop a fondness for each other and when the time to meet comes, she’ll find out that I’m not who she thinks I am. I’ll be back to square one.
Jaffar knocks on the door, and I let him in.
“Wow, you too have now joined us with the noise making in the building, uh?” He says while dancing into the room. He’s obviously noticed that my hitherto quiet room now has music blaring from it. He wants to come and congratulate me, I think. These lads around here have a way of celebrating with others. Any move they consider progress is not overlooked. Buying a sound system is certainly one of such.
It’s the first time Jaffar is entering my room, and he’s dancing more than I think is necessary.
“I must tell you, Andrew, I have something to ask you. And now that you are in a happy mood, it is the right time.”
“I’m with you, Jaffar. I can guess what you want to ask me.”
“Go ahead, then.”
“You want to know where I got the Samsung systems from.”
“No, Andrew. Electronics are all over town. There are more important things than electronic gadgets. Please come out, let’s discuss.”
This is more like the Jaffar that I know. He never engages in frivolities. That he was dancing was a bit surprising. Now that he’s asked me to have a chat with him, I know something important is in the offing. On the other hand, I hope our discussion is not going to be on rent increase. That I just bought a gadget should not mean that they should shoot up my rent or ask me for some unspecified bills. I would resist such.
All the same, I follow Jaffar’s lead. We stand in front of the building where we usually stay to discuss.
He leans towards me slightly and looks right into my eyes. He starts slowly.
“Are you still interested in one of the ladies around?”
The question came a bit unexpectedly. I rub the back of my head, thinking quickly about where this discussion might lead. I recall that I’d asked him to link me up with a lady in the area. Perhaps he has something regarding that.
“Yes, Jaffar. Do you have something for me?”
“I must be frank with you. The last time you asked me to fix you with a lady here, you were still too new in the building. We didn’t know you much, aside from what John told us about you. We wanted to see how you live and the habits you have. So far, we have not been disappointed. There is an Ethiopian lady in room thirty-five. She has been recently widowed. The lady has a kid. She is considering going back home to Ethiopia since the man that brought her here is no more. If you are interested in meeting her, we can arrange. I’ve personally discussed with her, and she has confirmed to me that she’ll stay on if she remarries.”
The new excites me. I’ve not been the type that discriminates against people. If she is from Ethiopia, that is not a problem for me.
“What happened to the husband and how long ago was it?”
“He was attacked on his way back from a journey, and the robbers killed him. I’m not sure about the exact date, but we knew when she was mourning. She is over it now, and she has since resumed going to her shop.
“And how old is her kid?”
“About three years. They were married for about four years.”
“Can I meet her today?”
“Oh, why not? She has gone to her shop now. When she returns, I will invite you to meet her.”
I’m inclined to be happy with what Jaffar mentions, but then, I remember the Bertha episode. What if the lady doesn’t like me? If she has a mental picture of the kind of man she wants to be with, and I don’t happen to be considered, that would not speak well of me in the building. I’ll confide in Jaffar.
“What if she doesn’t like me? You know they say Ethiopian ladies are beautiful and I’m not a handsome guy.”
“Don’t worry about that, Andrew. We explained your situation to her. She has even seen you before, and she doesn’t seem to mind. All she’s particular about is that a man must be able to take good care of her and the kid.”
Jaffar’s words are sounding like music in my ears. My hands begin to swing unconsciously, and I giggle repeatedly. Is this my lucky girl? She has seen me already, and she doesn’t mind how I look.
In the evening, I find myself in room thirty-five on Jaffar’s request. I would have preferred that we stay outside the building to meet with her, but the lady doesn’t want our meeting to be made public. Jaffar doesn’t waste time at all as he begins the business of the evening. As he speaks, I find myself smiling all the time. I have to make a good impression. The lady herself is shy as she keeps lowering her gaze to the floor. Jaffar praises me to high heavens, and I start to wonder if I’m the one he is talking about. He ends his speech by saying that he knows that I won’t disappoint her.
He asks the lady if she likes me as a man, she answers in the affirmative. The whole thing is happening too fast for me. Has this woman actually made up her mind? She is ready to be mine.
“What is your name, oh lady from the east of Africa?”
I’ve not had a dream in a long while. This night, it flows. And need I say? It is a sweet, sweet, dream.
I’ll describe my feelings after meeting with Neela yesterday as ‘guardedly optimistic’. I had my hopes raised but was mindful of the recent disappointment from Bertha. I’d been excited after meeting a new lady many times before only for my dreams to come down crashing. When Jaffa introduced Neela to me, we were both interested. Once the introduction was over, Jaffar and I left the room.
He told me that he would leave her to think over the matter again at night. We parted, and he promised that he would call me to meet her again today. He warned that the lady is not seeking a boyfriend, but a husband. She didn’t have time for jokers.
“I’m in dire need of a wife too,” I’d blurted.
At exactly 11: 00 AM, Jaffar comes to take my room. He invites Neela and me to his flat – a neutral ground. She shelved going to shop.
As soon as Jaffar asks us to sit down, he takes his leave. I’ve not been that shy in a long while. Neela eases me up when she begins to talk.
“This is my son, Nuru. Any man that wants me must be ready to take care of my kid. Are you interested in a woman who has a child like me?”
Her question doesn’t surprise me— it’s that same issue most single mothers ask when they are interested in a man. She doesn’t have much to worry, though. I love kids a lot. It’s just that I never get to meet them much.
“I’m ready to love you and your son. I was told that you have a kid before I came to you. That is not a problem at all.”
My response disarms her as she flashes a smile, revealing her white teeth. She looks at me in the eyes and smiles for the second time again. I’m not used to such luxuries —being laughed at by the females, especially the beautiful ones. The warmth of her smile gladdens my heart.
Neela is beautiful. She is slim, fair-skinned, and nicely-figured. I have hit the jackpot this time around. To hell with those ladies that have come my way since I became an adult. Away with them all that has refused my proposal or those who would not even look at me? With a lady like this, humble, intelligent and amazingly beautiful, the choice of my life partner is sorted. If this is truly mine, I’m ready to worship her till I die.
We discuss for long telling each other about our family backgrounds. She has been in South Africa for about five years. It was her late husband who brought her into the country. He’d set up a small business for her in 2012 after they got married. They had lived in Johannesburg before they relocated to Pretoria. She enjoys cooking and listening to African music.
She has some relatives in Johannesburg, and those are her godparents.
On my part, I narrate to her what I consider the sweet part of my storied life. She’d listened with rapt attention and sometimes shook her head. She also had cause to laugh, as I presented my experiences to her in a comical manner.
I ask about her son who’s been looking at us as we chat. The boy looks so much like his mother. I wave at him to come to me, but he clings to his mother’s skirt. I’m sure he’ll get used to me later as I see more of his mother.
Words can’t explain how happy I feel meeting Neela. She has a unique listening ability that makes me want to continue talking. I hope this woman stays with me. We agree that we can be seeing every day after work. Our meeting place will be Jaffar’s house.
I’d thought that she would be eager to want to come to my room. Having lost her husband for a while, she must be feeling lonely. That she fixes Jaffar’s flat for our meeting surprises me a bit. But since I’m dealing with someone of a different culture than mine, I have to be patient. There will certainly be a lot for me to learn.
“Are you not working today?” she asks.
“I’m on holiday for three weeks. My leave started on Monday.”
“Okay. Must I arrange something for you to eat?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine for now.”
“Okay then, see you later.”
We exchange numbers, and she leaves for her shop.
What comes to mind is for me to visit the internet café to know more about Ethiopians. The lady is certainly tickling me in a way I can’t explain.
I return to my room, take a bath and dash out to the café. It appears my annual leave came at the right time. As I walk to the restaurant, new thoughts creep into my mind. This lady must be God-sent. There is no way I could have met a beautiful woman like Neela if not that Jaffar match made us. She certainly would not give me a listening ear or even look at me twice. I’m very grateful to Jaffar for this. I must do all I can to make sure she’s happy.
Once at the café, I browse to websites that enlighten me about the eastern African cultures. I then search for some romantic poems to send to her. In fact, I send her five sweet text messages. She replies back after each one, thanking me for the message. According to her, she finds them inspiring. I’m glad that she is picking up my clues; she must be feeling loved again.
On my way back from the café, I see the need to spice things up in my room. Now that I have a lady that may be visiting, I don’t want her to see how messy the place is. I branch to Sunnyside to pick up some couches and flower vases. My intention is to put them in the four corners of my room. I might not be good for interior decoration, but I should not be found wanting for lack of trying.
I move to the jewellery store and grab a few items.
Around 3 o’clock, I put a call through to her to ask how the day is going. She responds that all is well. With music and a bottle of wine in my hand, I relax for the evening.
Neela brings me some fish and chips on her way back from the shop.
“I think you might like these,” she quips, as she bends over through my doorway.
“Thank you, Neela. That’s thoughtful of you.”
“You are welcome,” she says and walks away.
How sweet can life be for a young man? I wish these nice times will continue forever. With the manner this lady is tickling me, It’s better that I make a move fast. What is it that I’m waiting for? The only missing puzzle in my life is here, yet I can’t see.
One hour after she arrived, I move over to Jaffar’s flat. Jaffar has made arrangements with his family that they must only use the other door for entry and exit, during our meetings.
Neela joins me a few minutes later. The time is 7:00 PM, our meeting time. She sits directly opposite me as if we are in a business meeting. I’ll have to get used to her conservative lifestyle; that much I know.
I ask her about the day’s business and how she manages to cope doing things alone.
“I’m used to it now, but it was tough at first. What can I do? I must live on,” She says in a serious manner. She then relaxes a bit and asks, “Do you smoke?”
“No. I don’t smoke or drink. I also don’t womanise.”
“Tell me one bad habit that you have then? All men have something that they hide.”
“I’ll let you find out yourself.”
“Is there something you want to tell me? I enjoyed those messages you sent to me earlier.”
“That’s nothing, dear. That’s the little I can do.”
I dip my hand into my pocket and bring out the necklace I bought earlier in the day.
“This is for you, Neela. Your neckline is incomplete without an adornment.”
I then bring out the toy I got for her son.
She smiles and leans forward to receive the items from me. She assesses the necklace carefully and affirms that she likes it.
“This is good. Thank you very much.”
“You are welcome.”
The toy excites the young chap too.
“Tell me, Neela. Do you like going out? Like to the movies and other such places?”
“I don’t go out much. I like staying in the house. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, not at all. I’m an indoor person too. When you brought the fish to me, I thought you would want to enter the room.”
“I don’t have your permission to enter your room yet. I can’t just go in like that.”
“You are free to enter any time, anyhow. I was hoping to —”
“Not that way, Andrew. We barely know each other much.”
I’ve read that these Ethiopian ladies are very conservative. They don’t like to visit their boyfriends unless their parents are aware that they are dating. I’ll have to make a move to see her people soon. This holiday period seems right to do everything necessary.
“I wish to meet your godfather soon.”
“You will not meet him, except you are ready to do what is necessary.”
“Really. Do you think I’m scared of taking over your upkeep?”
“It doesn’t come from the mouth, you know.”
Is this lady daring me?
I stand up from the chair, march around like a soldier and do a rehearsal of how I’ll introduce myself to her people.
“My name is Andrew Makana: The last soldier of Limpopo. I’m here to seek the hand of your daughter in marriage. Please grant my request. Full stop.”
Neela burst out laughing uncontrollably. Oh! How melodic her laughter is. I wish I can use that sound as my ringtone. It’s melodious, so outlandish. This woman is driving me crazy. My days of being a bachelor are definitely numbered.
From my findings, they don’t like their courtship to last for too long. Why would she be courted for long, anyway? She was married before and enjoyed the comfort of being with a man. It is not as if she was divorced; she was just unfortunate to have lost her husband. Now a replacement husband is here on standby. She’ll wait no much longer.
With Jaffar and John by my side, I take the unprecedented step of going to pay the bride price for Neela. My sister in Polokwane is aware already. She will be around on our wedding day.
I’m totally convinced that Neela will be a good companion. Every time I met her in Jaffar’s apartment, she’d shown me something new about herself and how sweet love can be. She doesn’t make unnecessary demands; she is satisfied with whatever I give to her; she cooks and does it well, and never for once make me doubt that she’ll make a good wife for me.
Although she did nothing to help my urges at night, I’m made to understand that she’ll never visit me unless I meet her people first. The need to meet her people made me pull resources together to pay her bride price. It is a significant step towards marrying her.
We both have a preference for a court wedding. Her previous marriage was done with much fanfare, and she would not want to go through the process of organising another lavish party. Left to me, I don’t mind how she wishes to be wed. My priority is that a wonderful woman should be by my side to start a family with me. I don’t have many friends to impress and no family member to inform, but for my Polokwane-based sister. The less fancy the wedding, the better for me.
This day that we’ve decided to go to Johannesburg and hand over Neela’s bride price, we three have our objectives clear: Once we are done with the payment, we’ll fix the following Thursday for the civil ceremony.
Dr Ahmed is waiting for us when we arrive at his place in Newtown, Johannesburg. He serves us drinks and small chops and makes us feel comfortable. He introduces us to his wife whom he says is Neela aunt. I look at her carefully, so I’ll know those closest to her.
Their house is a fairly large duplex and it well decorated in Ethiopian fashion. Amharic music plays in the background, and a sweet smell of musk fill the big sitting room. The ceremony itself doesn’t take long as they have heard from Neela that we would be visiting, and it was deemed necessary that his godparents meet her husband to be.
In addition to the bride price, we present gift items to them. They offer us words of encouragement and ask for the date chosen for the courthouse visit to legalise the union.
“Coming Thursday, sir,” John informs.
“Okay. Which of the courts?” Dr Ahmed asks.
“It’s the magistrate court in Lynwood. 10:00 AM is fixed.”
“Okay. We will be there.”
We tarry a while to chat with the man’s family. After about an hour later, we return to Pretoria. With the bride price settled, a major hurdle is crossed. It was a happy moment being accepted by a family who doesn’t know where I’ve originated from, but who relied solely on the words of their god-daughter. ‘If Neela is happy with me enough to give me their home address, she must have seen that I’m worthy of her.’
Between that Saturday and Thursday, I have a lot of tasks on my hands. I need to buy our wedding rings and confirm the date earlier booked at the courthouse. Also, I’ll submit our ID documents for the marriage license. Then it is the turn of getting us our wedding day dresses.
A three piece suit is all that I opt for with a matching black shoe. Even if I can’t be seen passing in front of a modelling agency office for any reason, I still have to look good on my wedding day.
Neela demands simple African attire, and I can’t be happy enough to buy her what she wishes. When I ask about the cost of a wedding gown, the price tag gives me a temporary migraine. That she opts for African attire makes her side of the expenses lighter.
On my wedding day, Sister Noluazi shows up at the courthouse in Lynwood. I’d carried her along in the proceedings leading up to that day. I’d informed her that it’s a civil ceremony union; there will be no need for any elaborate gathering.
“If my only brother is getting married, I must be present,” she’d insisted that she must attend when I suggested that it was not necessary for her to go through the stress of travelling to Pretoria for a brief ceremony.
She is not here alone. She is with her friend. According to her, If not that the time gap was short; she would have come with her husband, her kids and some more friends.
Before the court proceedings, I quickly call my sister aside and introduce Neela to her. I’ve told Neela about her several times and even showed her pictures. They also spoke on the phone a couple of occasions. As she is around now, they still have to meet before the union.
Jaffar, John and a couple of other guys from our building grace the events. They are all sharply dressed, looking dapper and well-groomed.
Neela’s people from Johannesburg are also well represented. With a quick headcount, I notice there are about eight of them. She sits in their midst and her son, Nuru, is beside her.
By 10:00 AM we are called to the presence of the Judge. He conducts the session, and we get to exchange rings, vows and sign the necessary documents one after the other.
When it’s time for me to kiss the bride, I suddenly develop cold feet. Neela pulls my shirt close, whispering to me that it is a task for two. Being carried away that the people there are gathered on my account, I find myself being too emotional and tears of joy roll down from my eyes. Before kissing the bride, I had to wipe my face first. The Judge pauses for me to complete that part of the programme. I grab the lady and bit her lips. As gentle as I think I am, she later complained of bruised lips.
“Don’t blame me, woman. I don’t do this every day.” In fact, it’s my first kiss ever. Zandile who gave me my first sexual experience didn’t leave room for kisses. She went straight to the act.
With the ceremony now over, we move outside to take pictures. We take turns to snap pictures with my sister and her friend; then Neela’s people follows. John is the photographer, and he makes sure everyone there take turns.
Unknown to me, my sister had arranged for refreshments to complement the one I made earlier. Neela’s people too are not left out. The open ground opposite the courthouse is temporary turned to a feasting arena. There is a lot to eat and drink. All the attendees are in a happy mood, and it shows in the manner they chatted away as they munch.
I find myself in the seventh moon as Neela, and I move around thanking people for attending. People have a lot to say as they look at us, smiling and making gesticulations. Some even look puzzled and seem to wonder how or where we met each other.
Surprisingly, some guests shower us with gifts. Despite being told that the ceremony is a small gathering, they feel obliged to come with gift packs. Neela is effusive with thanks, as most of the gifts are female household items.
When I got to where my sister and her friend are seated, she is not able to hold back emotions. She burst out crying.
“Stop this, Noluazi. Crying is not for a day like this.” I urge.
“I just wish your mother is here to witness this day of yours.”
“It’s okay sister. Dry your tears.”
Her feelings elicit deep emotions in me and tears well up in my eyes. But I quickly soak it in. It’s been a lovely day so far; I won’t want to change my mood. She hugs Neela and me one after the other. And then shakes of emotions, lifts her head high, and tells Neela to take good care of me.
“From today, you are in control. If he offends you in any manner, please don’t hesitate to report to me. You have my number. But I know he is a gentle soul. He can’t hurt a fly.”
“Okay, ma’am,” Neela retorts.
Soon, guest begins to disperse. If there is a regret I have today, it is that I didn’t invite any of my colleagues at work for the civil ceremony. It would have been nice to have at least one of them present. But the occasion is on a Thursday, and I know they will be on duty. When I return to work, I’ll be them details.
Jaffar and John assist with taking the gifts to the car, and we jump in, both husband and wife.
Jaffar, who’s in the driver seat, and whose car it is we are sitting in, revs the engine to life and takes us back to Burke Street.
We had planned to spend the evening there in my room. It is the first time Neela will be coming over. I’ve had to clean it up and decorate it two days before. The air-freshener that I applied earlier still fills the room with sweet aroma.
That my mattress is on the floor doesn’t seem to bother Neela. She suddenly comes across like an angel that has been long lost. She moves around the room, assessing it carefully. It’s our first night together, and it’s going to be a long one.
I took lessons from Jaffar, the day before on how to wow Neela on the bed. She was married and therefore has some bedroom romantic experience. I’m a novice and still very much new to the game.
What surprises me this evening is that I can’t hear one sound of music or noise from the neighbours. The building looks deserted as if all the occupants have evacuated.
“Where is everyone?” I ask Neela. “Why is there so much quietness this evening? Is everything alright?”
“It’s your wedding day, Andrew. And they know what husband and wife do on their first night together. Stop frowning. This is not the time for questions…”
Neela draws me close to her breast and err…
I can’t talk favourably enough about how sweet it is living under the same roof with a lovely companion. Neela brings out of me the kind of feeling I’ve never felt in my whole life. She brings me peace and pristine joy. Every day, it is a new experience. She seems to have been specially coached on how to make a man happy. The fact that she’s been through this before further helps her cause.
I’ve always been an acrobatic sleeper. I enjoy rolling from side to side on the bed. I may sleep at night in a vertical position, only to wake up in a horizontal position or even folded up. With Neela by my side, I’m adjusting my sleeping techniques. I learned to lie by my side. Though it was tough at first, I’m getting used to it. The difference is just that I don’t have to roll onto synthetic pillows, I roll onto a more delicate and luscious ‘human cushion.’
I wake up to breakfast in the bed every day. Neela is a well-domesticated lady. Getting things done around the house comes to her naturally. She does the house chores with ease and with a smile on her face. She surprises me at her dexterity. My room which was scanty with just a few items of decoration, Neela brought her things from her room and transformed it into a beautiful fortress.
Her words are always a source of joy to me. After breakfast, she would sit with me and talk about our past experiences. Not only that, but she also encourages me on being myself at all times. “Life is stage by stage,” she always reminds me. She tells me stories that I benefit from every day. She says so much in that voice of hers that is slightly above a whisper. I never tire of listenening to her, I must say.
When the sun begins its descent, I usually take her out of the house. We would visit malls and restaurants, basking in the company of each other. Sometimes, I take her to John’s place to see him and his girlfriend. The first time we visited, Neela was introduced to Amanda, John’s girlfriend. The two ladies warmed up to each other. They have since remained friends.
After our evening outings, we return home to a steaming session of passion. We cosy up to each other for the rest of the night.
Every day our routine is almost the same; though slightly changed sometimes. I’ve since learned to listen more to her. I treat her nicely and she, in turn, makes the house sweeter for me. I thought I was having the best time of my life when I was a bachelor. Being with Neela gives me a taste of something that’s different, something superior.
She remains at home without going to her shop for two weeks. As my annual leave holiday wraps up, I feel like it should be extended further. But all holiday must come to an end. After three weeks of staying away, I must return to my only source of livelihood.
The Sunday before my resumption, I call onto Johnson to tell him about my changed marital status. He thought I was joking at first, but soon believed me when I insisted.
Early Monday morning, I leave the house with a kiss from Neela.
“Enjoy your day at work,” she enthuses.
Life at the zoo will never be the same, as a sense of responsibility overwhelms me— the feeling that I’m now married, and must consider my wife in every decision I make.
Entering the zoo compound feels strange. I walk towards the staff room, looking left and right for any known face for me to exchange pleasantries. I’m in such a fabulous mood. Even if I’m hit by a car, I’ll stand up and walk upright!
“Here comes the newest groom in town,” Johnson announces to my fellow zoo keepers. It’s my first day after my leave, and here I am reporting for duty on Monday morning.
Getting to the office today, he assesses me and agrees to my claim. With the glittering ring on my finger, he is fully convinced.
“How did you manage to do it all in just three weeks?”
“It’s God’s doing, brother.”
“Surely, it is. Welcome back to Zookieland.”
At that moment, a kitchen staff comes to our staffroom to tell me that the boss, Mr Kabo, wants to see me. I guess he’s aware that I’m now married and wishes to congratulate me. I rushed to his office to meet him.
“Welcome back, Andrew. I hope you had a wonderful these last few weeks?”
“Yes, sir. I enjoyed my holiday.”
“Okay then. There is a reason I want to see you this early morning. While you were away, some white lady came here that she wants you to visit their zoo in Sydney. It is a very small zoo compared to ours. It is also a private one. I told her that you are on holiday and that I’ll discuss with you when you return.”
I’m not sure of Mr Kabo’s intentions. Did he just say that someone came to look for me regarding a visit somewhere? I hope they have not displaced me at work. Now they are trying to send me to another zoo. Why would he be talking about a zoo somewhere when I’m just returning from my annual leave? Something doesn’t feel right.
“Sorry to interrupt you, boss. Did you say someone came to look for me?”
“Listen carefully, Andrew. I received two guests from a private zoom in Sydney. They have been here before to visit, and they saw the way the animals interacted with you. They were impressed at the manner you got the monkeys excited just by waving at them. They want me to ask you if you would visit their zoo. Is it something you want to consider?”
I’m not sure if Mr Kabo has found something that I did wrong. I can’t remember having offended anyone or if anything went wrong behind me. I also didn’t overstay my leave. Is this a ploy to drive me away? But my colleagues didn’t act like there was a problem in the zoo when I returned this morning. Instead, they congratulated me on my wedding. Perhaps there is a genuine offer for a job somewhere. I’ll not miss the opportunity.
“Y..yes, sir. I’ll like to travel there to learn more, boss.”
“Why are you looking like you are not interested?”
“I don’t know what it is, boss.”
Mr Kabo slams his fist on the table, widens his eyes and looks at me:
“Should I replace you there? I’m telling you that they want you in Sydney and you are acting as if a baboon bit you. Do you want to come and have a seat here? Let me travel to Sydney instead!”
“I’m sorry sir. I..I…since I’m just returning…I…”
I don’t know what I’ll say that will further infuriate him. I’ll rather keep quiet. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“You had better be. How many people that works here do you know that have been invited to Sydney for a visit? Do you think I’m here to joke or something? Leave my office.”
I don’t know if Mr Kabo is having a rough morning, but he has never been this harsh since I started working here. He has always been the cool-headed boss who would explain things carefully when one doesn’t understand. What he is angry about is not clear to me. He is trying to pass a message, and I’m not getting it. I turn and start pacing slowly out of his office. My spirit is dampened already.
As I’m about to step out of the office, he calls me back.
“Come back here. Sorry that I snapped at you like that.” He says in a more tempered tone.
I wasn’t expecting you to react in such a cold manner to the news. You are lucky to be considered for a visit to Sydney in Australia. You will be flown there, by air, to see a private zoo.”
“Oh!” I jumped up several times and banged on the table. This is a shocker. When he mentioned Sydney earlier, I thought it’s somewhere in South Africa. Travelling out of the country has been a dream. It’s an offer I certainly can’t refuse, so long as it doesn’t affect my job.
“Please, don’t break my table,” Mr Kabo cautions in a jovial manner. “I’ll let them know that you are willing to go. When they get back to me, I’ll inform you.”
“Thank you very much, sir.”
“It’s alright. You may leave.”
With excitement, I stroll out of Mr Kabo’s back to the staff room. Once seated, I bring out my wedding pictures and show to my colleagues. They can’t hide the shock on their faces.
With mouth agape, Samuel remarks,
“Where did you meet such a beautiful lady?”
“It’s God’s doing, brother.”
“She doesn’t look South African. Is she?”
“No, she’s Ethiopian.”
They pass the pictures from one hand to the other with each appreciating how beautiful we both look.
“No wonder you are looking more handsome,” says Johnson.
“Yes, he is looking less ugly,” Samuel says.
They threw compliments and jibes at me in equal measure. I soak them all in. As a married man, I do less talking and listen more.
My colleagues don’t want me to do much work. They say it’s their way of honouring me for taking a bold step. So, for the rest of the day, I keep looking at my wedding pictures, recalling details of the events of that day. Somehow, I imagine that things should have happened a little differently. On the whole, I still had a memorable day.
Johnson later informs Mr Kabo that I got married during my leave. He calls me to his office to congratulate me and wonders why I didn’t tell him earlier when I was called to his office. He even queries why I didn’t invite anyone of my colleagues or himself to the event. I explain that it was a small family wedding and the matter was laid to rest.
“Happy married life,” he says.
“Thank you, sir.”
News spread around that I’m married and the ladies in the kitchen troop to the staff room to confirm if it’s true. Zandile is one of those that show up. What shocks me is that she is complaining about how I dumped her! Here she is crying bitterly that I broke her heart. I just watch her perform her drama, finding it amusing. I remain unruffled.
“You are not a good person, Andrew. You promised me on the bed to marry me, but now you went behind to marry someone else. Why did you do this to me? I was waiting for you to return from leave so that we will continue with our plans…”
“Get out of here!” one of the Zookies in the staffroom shouted at her. “Sluts are not to be taken to the altar!”
She turns to the guy giving him the hate look.
“Am I talking to you, pig?”
When she observes that none in the room have time for her theatrics, she retreats and leaves.
“Have you applied for your passport?”
“Please, do that quickly. That should not take long.”
I’ve waited for more than a month for news of the Sydney visit. Since Mr Kabo is the one with the letters, I rely on him to tell me when the ladies comes calling. When I didn’t hear from him, I thought they invited someone else.
Mr Kabo invites me to his office this Thursday morning and tells me that he has heard from them. I must still go ahead with the arrangements.
I quickly take a taxi to the Home Affairs Department to apply for my passport. I submit my ID book and two passport photographs. I’m of the view that the document will be made ready in a few days, but I have to wait for two weeks to get it.
A month after, I start to make preparations to travel to Sydney, Australia. I’d been informed that I’ll be staying there for a week. Hotel arrangements have been done, and all expenses have been paid for.
Around 8:20 AM, August 26, 2015, I step into the Rose Bay Water Airport in Sydney. Two ladies are there eagerly waiting for me at the reception area. They hold a placard with my name boldly written on it. The ladies are the same that Mr Kabo had been in contact with. They look tense as if something bothers them. As I move towards where they are, they loosen up and introduce themselves to me.
I immediately recognise one of the ladies. She was part of a group of tourist at the Pretoria Zoo. The day she came, she was especially curious at how I was able to command the baboons at our zoo. Maybe that day was when she nursed the idea of inviting me over to Sydney.
We leave the airport in a private car.
“Welcome to Australia, Andrew. Is it your first visit here,” Barbara starts. She is in the passenger seat in front, while I’m alone seated behind.
“Yes. It’s my first time here.”
“I’m sure you will love it here. There are varieties of animals in this city. We are going to the hotel where we have booked for you. You must be tired now, so you should relax for the day. Tomorrow is Sunday, and we don’t work at all. On Monday, we will come and pick you in the morning. We have a number of tasks lined up for you.”
“Alright, Barbara. I must say that your country is beautiful.”
“Oh, thanks. Is there anything you want to let us know?”
I’m not sure what she is referring to. I don’t have anything to tell them other than their country is beautiful. Maybe when I get to the hotel, I’ll have some demands. For now, I don’t know what they have in stock for me.
“Nothing for now.”
We soon got to the Sheraton Hotel. It is a 25-storey building located in a quiet neighbourhood in the city centre. Barbara leads me to my room, and I drop my bags. It is an upscale hotel. The room is well catered and exquisite. It feels cosy.
“This is a beautiful place, Barbara.”
“We know you’ll like it.”
With a nice place like this reserved for me. I’m still wondering why they brought me to Sydney. They are not going to be spending money for nothing. I feel inclined to ask.
“Barbara. Why have you brought me to Sydney?”
“I thought you knew already. We have a private zoo on the other side of town. My colleague here is doing some research on human interactions with animals. I’ve seen you do stuff with monkeys in South Africa. I suggested you to her, and she said I must invite you over. We want to know if the influence you have over the monkeys in Africa will be the same here. We’ll then take it from there. I thought your boss told you about this.”
“Yes, he mentioned it, but I want to hear the details from you.”
“Don’t worry, Andrew. Just relax for today and tomorrow. On Monday, we will come and take you to the zoo. You don’t have much work to do, though. ”
She drops her phone number with me reminding me to call her if I need something. She also hands over a mobile phone for me to dial anywhere around the world.
I put a call through to Neela to find out how she is doing. With gasping breaths, she picks up my call to talk. I narrate my experience to her thus far, and how wonderful my trip was. “I’m in a superb space,” I conclude.
I then make calls to John and later my sister. John is full of joy at the news. He got upset that I didn’t inform him before leaving. But he soon calms down and hopes all is well over here. He hopes to see me on my return.
My sister doesn’t believe that I’m out of South Africa. “The call is as clear as when I was in Pretoria,” she says. Aside from the unknown number, there is nothing to suggest that I’m far away. I didn’t tell her when I left Pretoria.
“Please, be careful and take good care of yourself,” she warns, as always. “Is your wife with you there?”
“No, she is in Pretoria.”
Weekends are quiet days for me, and that will not change, even here in Sydney. After sleeping for six hours, it’s time to look around. In this place where I don’t know anyone, I’m feeling lonely. I peep through the windows to see the beautiful skyline of the city. The 22nd floor where I am gives me a good view of the horizon. How beautiful Sydney is. I take some shots on my phone.
How I wish I have Neela or John around me, so we can be together enjoying this holiday. If I ever have the opportunity to travel outside South Africa again, I’ll want to go with someone. All I can do here is to talk to myself. Exhaustion weighs me down, and I soon crash onto the soothing bed to doze off for the night.
My Sunday is not too different from the previous day. The room service lady gives me varieties of food and keeps tabs on me frequently. She once suggested that I may move around the hotel to see the recreational and entertainment facilities. I take to her advice and stroll around the vast hotel complex.
It’s fun seeing all that they have for guests around here. I’m particularly attracted to their Olympic-size swimming pool where people of all kinds are having a good time. My stay at the Sheraton Hotel is one I’ll never forget.
Barbara gives me a ring in the evening asking if all is well.
“Of course, all is well, Barbara. I’m having a good time here,” I reply.
“That’s good to hear. Please be ready tomorrow at eight.”
This evening, my sleep is deeper than usual. I’m thinking about all the horrible times I had while trying to get a job. It all seems to be in a distant past now. How time flies!
On Monday morning, Barbara shows up early as agreed. I’m up and ready for the activities of the day. With a different car from the one we rode from the airport, we head straight for the Crestmore Animals Park.
It is a different kind of zoo from ours. Aside from its smaller size, everything is enclosed and protected in wire meshes. The animals are placed very close to each other in different compartments. Someone stands in front of the compartments to talk to visitors. I can see animals that I never knew existed. Even those that are looking familiar are different in colours and sizes.
Barbara puts a call through to the lady that accompanied her the last time. She quickly joins us and for the first time introduces her name as Natasha.
Natasha comes along with an iPad, pen and paper. She leads us around the different compartments. What I observe is that she always stares at me as we approach each animal section. She wants to know how the animals would react once they set their eyes on me.
As we approach the monkeys, they begin to jump in excitement. I recall a similar experience I had at the Pretoria Zoo. The monkeys begin to chortle here again as if their long lost cousin is back. And it’s not only the monkeys, the gibbons, chimpanzees and marmosets follow suit. I wave at them, and they begin to jump all over the place. Their colourful display gives the impression that it is a circus show of some sorts. Barbara chuckles at the spectacle while Natasha writes some notes on her iPad.
At the primates section, the experience is similar. But this time the animals queues up as if in a military parade. They march on together in regular strides to give me a welcoming salute. It would appear as if they are welcoming a dignitary in a state function. I can’t help but laugh at the show of animated excitement.
The visitors have not seen such before, and they throng in their numbers towards where the baboons are, clapping and whistling at the strange moves.
The gorillas, however, would not exhibit any change in attitude. They just don’t care about me, even when I wave at them, they remain unmoved. I guess those don’t find my face amusing.
After the tour, Barbara takes me back to the hotel. We are done for the day.
The following day, and, in fact, for the rest of the week, our routines are pretty the same. The reactions of the animals towards me are always same. What’s different, however, is that each other day, the number of visitors triples up. By Thursday, the area was filled, and some guests were locked outside.
I guess Natasha is able to gather the data she needs for her studies for. As for me, I’m just enjoying my time being here in Australia. It is a beautiful country that I wish I can return to sometime in future.
On Friday, after Barbara drops me off at the hotel, she asks a puzzling question.
“Andrew. I hope you have it nice here? Would you want to consider working here in Sydney?” Without waiting for an answer, she drives off. I guess she wants me to think about it and reply her the following day when I’ll be returning to Pretoria.
Later that night, Barbara calls and we discuss on the phone. She wishes I would stay in their country to work there. When told that I’m a family man, she explains that the job she would offer me comes with the opportunity of bringing three people with me from home. They have a fully detached house on the premises of the zoo where I would live. There is an SUV vehicle for me to use. She concludes by saying that if I’m interested, she will bring the contract papers for me to sign the following day.
“Please, think about it before tomorrow.”
I wake up pinching myself Saturday morning to be sure that I’m not in a dream. These all seem too good to be true. When Barbara shows up with my offer letter, I become mindful that it is indeed reality.
I know that my people will be happy to join me here. The only consideration I have to make is for my present employer at the Pretoria Zoo. Those folks have been nice to me; I won’t want them to feel betrayed. Well, when we get to that bridge, we will cross it.
“Can I make a call?”
I put a call through to Neela. I lay before her what I’ve been offered, and she asks me to go ahead. John advises the same and ditto for my sister. These are the closest people to me. Since they are all for it, I’m in.
I signed off the contract after reading it carefully. I don’t have much thinking to do, anyways.
Barbara smiles at me and informs that she’ll be glad to have me around. The Crestmore Animals Park is her father’s property, and she is the one managing it. According to her, they have never welcomed such a number of people to the park as they did that week. It was mind-blowing.
“As you have signed our papers, you have four weeks to start work!”
In the flight back to Pretoria, my plans remain clear in my head. I’ll have to drop my resignation letter at the Pretoria Zoo and start making preparations to return to Sydney. One puzzle in my mind is the choice of who to accompany me to Sydney.
The selection of Neela and her son is not in doubt. How do I make up for the other two spaces? I want to bring along one of my sister’s kids, and then John.
John has been an important pillar in my life. He was there when things were tough. Since I have an opportunity like this one, he needs to benefit from it too. That would not be a bad idea. On second thought, John is not married yet, and he has his girlfriend to consider. He also will not have a job to do in Sydney. Even if I bring him along, he might still return to Pretoria. Moreover, he might not have the chance to travel with me if he doesn’t wish to resign from his job.
Even if John is not coming with me, I’ll surely invite him over to Sydney for holidays. I don’t see myself living the rest of my life without being close to that fellow.
On Burke Street, my wife gives me a rousing welcome on my return into the house. It’s as if I’d been away for three years. The excitement on her face is infectious. She has some questions lined up for me, and I’m in that mood to explain things. I suddenly find myself more experienced than the week before I travelled. I see things in a different light, and I’m more receptive to people. I noticed this the moment I stepped out of the aeroplane at the airport.
I ask Neela to begin to prepare to leave South Africa, as we have less than four weeks to travel to Australia.
“I thought you would be going alone?”
“No dear, I and my family. I’m told to come with four other people. Sell the wares in your shop and tell your Godfather. In fact, we have to go to Johannesburg together to inform them. We are leaving South Africa for good.”
“Can I go in this condition?”
Neela sits on the chair and places her two hands on her belly; she looks at me, with her now familiar coyness, she smiles.
“Andrew. I’m pregnant?”
“I am, Andrew. I’m five weeks pregnant.”
What a pleasant piece of news this woman is giving me this quiet Sunday afternoon. These are surely the best of times for me. I’ve just been asked to start work outside the country, and now this good news is being thrown at me. I’m not exactly sure how to react to this. I find myself singing and dancing around the room.
“Did you say that I’m going to be a father?”
I keep spinning in the room until I sink into the bed.
“Neela, please stop going to the shop from today. You have to be careful how you do things. Nuru will have a sibling soon, and we will prosper.”
“Amen,” she replies.
I’ve not been a religious person per se. But words of prayers come to my mouth. Why won’t I be grateful when all these good things are coming my way? I know they are blessings from above, and I, even I, feel abundantly blessed.
The next day at the zoo, I drop my resignation letter. I’ll be leaving after a week. So, it’s my last week at work. My colleagues are shocked to hear the news that I’ll be leaving. They were going to congratulate me for a successful trip to Australia. But instead of that, it’s the news of my resignation that they shared with me.
“You didn’t even stay here for two years?”
“Well, I won’t be as lucky as you guys who have been here for long.”
“So, which zoo are you going now?”
“I’m leaving South Africa for good.”
News spread around that I have another job outside South Africa. Many of my colleagues receive the news in disbelief. Some come to the staff room and mope at me without uttering one word. Others greet me repeatedly each time I come across them.
Samuel is the friendliest of them all. He cleans my chair and asks me not to sit in a dirty place. If there is anything I want, he is willing to get it for me. I only just need to ask him so. I’m a bit taken aback at his gestures, wondering if it is the same Samuel that I used to know.
Zandile comes around to wish me well. She reminds me not to forget the wonderful times we had together.
“I still love you, Andrew.” she reveals.
“Is that all you have to say.”
“I appreciate it, Zandile. I recognise your undying love and genuine passion, which I always see in my dreams. I’ll not forget those lovely moments we had together,” Zandile smiles broadly, thinking that I mean those words. If she had listened carefully, she would have picked up the doses of sarcasm laced in those words.
On Wednesday, Mr Kabo calls me to his office. He is particularly effusive with his tributes. He speaks glowingly about how I conducted myself there at the zoo. He says he has added me to his list of friends. He will not forget how much of a free-spirited person I am.
“Thank you very much, sir, for all that you have done for me. I’ll always remember you as a compassionate boss.”
“You’re welcome. Please keep in touch.”
He prints out a letter of recommendation for me, advising that I might need it to show my future employers. When I look at the wordings in the letter, they were full of sterling qualities about me — enough for me to doubt if I’m the one being referred.
For the rest of the week, I go to the zoo more like a visitor that staff. I want to have a proper handover of my duties. I don’t have much to explain to the man they will assign to take over from me, anyway. Since I went on leave, the fellow did a good job of standing in for me. He just needs to continue from where he stopped. But I will wish to meet him.
“Sir,” I’m with Mr Kabo. “I want to meet the person that will take over from me.”
“Andrew. Your position is unique. We carved out your post because of your unique qualities. Since you have decided to leave, no one will replace you.”
I quietly step out of his office. I’m no longer sure of the man is happy or sad that I’m leaving. He sounds like he would miss my services, and I have nothing to do about that.
I finally bid them goodbye Friday evening. It’s been a lovely time working at the Pretoria Zoo. But it’s time for me to take a bigger challenge elsewhere. I sign out.
Saturday morning, I take a trip to Polokwane. The news of my departure from South Africa is not one that I want to share on the phone. I want my sister to hear it from me.
“I’m leaving for Australia in a few weeks.”
“You are what?”
My sister dances for five minutes. A small crowd gathers around her shop wondering why the usually quiet lady is dancing. She disperses them saying that all is well. Since she is seen to be joyful, they heed her request.
Back to where I’m seated, she begins to praise the Lord over and over. She stands up, unties her wrapper, ties it up again and finally sits down.
“What did I tell you, Andrew? With pains come reward; with hard work comes success. You have suffered a lot in the past, and now you must enjoy.”
I’m just smiling from ear to ear.
My sister bursts out crying. But this time, there is no sign of pains in her face. She’s shedding for joy.
“I wish your mother is here with us. She would have been the happiest person around.”
Convincing my sister about taking one of her daughters with me to Sydney doesn’t pose a problem. She expresses fears about my lack of experience in looking after kids. But remembering that Neela has a child, she’ll be better prepared to take good care of her daughter.
“I must return to Pretoria to get my documents from Home Affairs.”
“Okay, go in peace, my brother. The good Lord will be with you. Please let me know when you get there.”
I leave Polokwane with her last daughter, Dipuo.
The urgency with which I prepare for my journey to Sydney paid off. Perhaps it’s because I already have an idea what I would require after my previous one-week holiday there. Aside from the documents that I waited to receive from Home Affairs, every other item needed is available.
Realising that I have two weeks left before I depart, I decide to take a three-day trip to Durban. Sydney is a coastal city, and there are lots of beaches there. If I get used to being by the beachside here in South Africa, I shouldn’t have a problem getting accustomed there in Australia.
Neela too is in support that we go to Durban together to unwind before Home Affairs Department call us for her Passport.
I take a walk to John’s flat to give him details about my trip. For the first time, John weeps. It surprises how a strong minded fellow like him could break down. I guess the emotions of all we’ve been through got to him.
“Stop that, old friend. Rejoice with me.”
“Andrew, your life is a lesson to me. I salute your courage.”
“But you were always there for me, and I cannot forget that ever. When I get there, please come to visit anytime of the year. I will be ready to receive you and your woman always.”
“It’s okay, Andrew. Keep well. Let me know when you are leaving. If there is any help I can render.”
Along with Nuru and Dipuo, we jump into a bus for a trip to Durban. We lodge in the Blue Waters hotel close to SunCoast in the North Beach area of the city. It is Neela’s first trip to Durban. I, too, have not been there before. So, we both have a lot to learn about the place.
On our first day there, a volunteer takes us around the beaches. I immediately recall the swimming pool experience that I had in Sydney. But this Indian Ocean is a different experience.The numerous layers of huge waves and endless view of the sea is a sight to behold.
We take a casual walk on the pier to the middle of the coastline. It feels great to be here, hearing the water splash while the wind blows fresh.
Soon, a young boy of about 25 runs past us and heads towards the end of the pier. He is topless and has his short only on. I think he’s trying to jump into the water like others who are seen swimming. But the crowd of people that follows him make me have a rethink.
“Stop him, please. He’s going to jump into the ocean. Please!”
True to their words, the boy gets to the end of the pier and jumps into the sea. Soon he begins to drown. Four guys dressed as rescuers jumps into the sea and swims after him. They are able to rescue him and bring him out of the water. They pull him to the shoreline and press his stomach to expel water. The people that ran after him earlier gather around, thanking the rescue team.
When he is fully recovered, they sit him up to talk.
“Why do you want to kill yourself?” one rescuer asks.
A woman in a multi-coloured head tie steps forward to talk.
“Thank you for helping to save his life. He dropped a note in the house that he is going to jump into the river. He says he is tired of life.”
“Madam. What is the problem? Why does he want to die? Are the parents here? ”
“No. He is an orphan, and he lives with me. He received his matric result last night and wondered why he should fail the exams after four attempts. He was promised a job if he passes the exam. We advise him to try again, but he says there is no hope for him. Early this morning, we found a note in his room after he rushes out of the house that he is coming to jump into the sea.”
Hearing the story of the young chap, I smile. What gives me the feeling is that I can identify with the boy’s plight. I used to be miserable after several rejections during interviews. I wonder what challenge the chap is facing that warrants kill himself.
I meander my way through the crowd to get closer to the boy. Maybe he has something important to say.
“Young man. What is the problem?”
He looks at me scornfully, as well as the others around. He then blurts,
“Why did you bring me out of the water? There is no point being alive.”
“What is it that makes you lose hope. We all have our challenges. You are a good-looking young man. Why would you want to take your life?”
“I have been sitting for my Matric exams for four years now, and I keep failing it. I have given it all that I have to give. I want to further my education, but I can’t; there is no fund to do that. The only opportunity I have is to work for some time and save money to do that. Someone promises to hire me if I can pass the exams. Just yesterday, the results are out, and I failed again. I cannot wait for another year to study all over. It is hard. No one wants to hire me without matric. They turn me down everywhere I go. I can’t —”
“What’s your name?”
“Mark. Don’t give up, please. I know what you are going through.”
“No, you don’t even have an Idea.”
“Have you been accused of being a thief before?”
“Then you are lucky. Look at me very well. I have been rejected and insulted many times in my life. You can see how my face is. If I can survive with this kind of face, what do someone like you have to say? You are good looking and healthy. You can make things walk for yourself. Let me tell you; someone called me a thief because of how I look. I was beaten up and accused until I was rescued by the police. I was innocent, and I knew nothing about the smartphone that got missing. I have been turned down during interviews many times that I lost count. They say my face will make customers run away, so they can’t give me the job. Because of joblessness, I left Polokwane to come to Pretoria, but still no luck. For ten years, I could not get a job. No one wanted to associate with me. Life was tough and surviving was hard. Sometimes, for a month, I will be left with five rands in my pocket. I was so frustrated that even at the bank, I was refused entry by the automatic door. I had to cover my face before I entered the bank.”
People around giggled at my narration, but I continued.
“But I did not lose hope. Today, my story is different. When I continued to struggle, things changed for me. The face that I think is a problem paved the way for success. I got a job and worked hard. Luck smiled on me, and my situation improved. This is my wife here; she is going with me to Australia next week. We have a job waiting for us, and our papers are ready. We only came here to while away time.”
Mark opens his mouth and could not close it. His depressed mood changes to that of surprise.
“Mark, you have not faced any problem at all. At least someone believes in you and asks you to come after you have passed your exams. That means that you have opportunities waiting for you. You are failing your exams, because there is something you are not doing right. Maybe you are preparing in a manner that is wrong. I was once a student like you, and I was not intelligent. But I was focused. Give it another try and make sure you concentrate. I’m sure you will get it right. Think of those who don’t even have the opportunity that you have. You have managed to complete your Grade 12, and daily feeding is not even a problem for you. Think of those of your classmates that left school because they can’t survive. Don’t disappoint her. Always remember that whatever you face in life, there are people whose situation is worse than yours. Remember, your foster mother loves you and wants you to do right.”
Mark stands up on his feet and tears well up in his eyes. He looks at me and imagines the magnitude of risk that he just attempted.
“Thank you very much, brother. I’ve been very foolish. Now I see better.”
“That’s it. Keep hope alive. When you run and fall, stand up and continue running. You will get there.”
He moves close to his foster mother—the woman in a head tie. He hugs her dearly and apologises for his foolish decision.
“I’m sorry ma’am for making you go through this stress. It will never happen again. Thank you for being there with me. I love you, mama.”
“I love you too, Mark.”
The duo detaches and gets ready to leave. The crowd gathered gets ready to disperse. An idea suddenly crops up in my mind. I call on Neela to intimate her:
“Can we include this guy on our list? You know we have one more person to take along to Sydney. Do you think you can cope?”
“It’s okay, Andrew. If you feel strongly about it, then go ahead.”
I call on Mark as he is talking to his foster mother.
“Mark, will you want to come along with us to Sydney.”
People around gasped aloud.
“Are you joking, brother?”
“I’m serious. Is it something you want to consider? Will you mum allow you come with us?”
“Yes…yes, please,” the woman retorts.
Mark blinks repeatedly, looking puzzled at what he just heard. Could this man be serious?
“Get your things ready then. We are at the Blue Waters hotel for three days. We are in Room 598. Bring your documents later today so we can begin to process it. We have two weeks to depart.”
Mark rushes back towards the town, placing both hands on his head. He is too delighted to even wait for his mum. As he moves away, eight young guys are seen running towards the end of the pier.
A rescue team member asks, “Where are you guys going?”
“We are going to jump into the sea!”
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Lookman Laneon lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He loves to write about true life experiences and how they affect him and people around. In his Spure time, he enjoys working on the computer and exploring the latest tools technology has to offer. He also enjoys music, movies and playing chess.
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People say he’s facially challenged. He wonders what they mean by that. He may not be good-looking, but he’s just one of many. They turn him down during interviews, he gets rejected by all, and no lady wants to date him. And being an orphan, life seems tough. But they can’t kill Andrew’s drive. Andrew is ugly, and he knows it. Being ugly is frowned at in his clime Even machines deny him access. But he is determined to succeed. He would not let people judge him by his looks only. By a stroke of luck, he gets hired in a zoo to scare away wild animals with his face. He jumps at the opportunity, looking forward to a better future. He soon finds out that his challenge at being integrated into the society is not over. Things got worse as no lady wants to date the ‘PoloBeast’ and he remains chaste at 30. Andrew is bent on having his own family but who will marry him? When turned down by a lady he met online, but loves so much, he returns to his roots to find out where his horrible face originates from. But, instead of being told where his parents hails, he is reminded that he must be grateful for where is in life. Some people’s conditions are worse than his. He picks up the pieces of his life, and becomes determined to trudge on, no matter what people say or the opposition he faces. But he soon experiences a turnaround, and he bumps into beautiful widow. He sets his eyes on her, but how will Andrew get this damsel to like him? He got lucky, and things took turn for the better.