Akua was a tall hard man, I say hard because he could have been made of iron, black as soot with pearly teeth and bulging white eyes. He spoke fast and loudly, seemingly agitated, even when he was being nice. His walk bore the same qualities as his speech; the quick thump of his step could be heard from quite a distance. I am not sure if he was Nigerian, Congolese, or Ghanaian, I could never really tell with them. They were all the same to me—foreigners.
As kids we would tauntingly shout ikwerekwere whenever we saw him, first without realising the vulgarity of the word, then with intended malice, to the shame of our parents. For what they whispered in private, we aired in public in loud haughty voices parading in the streets the heart of our parents for everyone to see. The elders feeling the need to redeem themselves would call out harshly “You little brats! What are you calling him that for? Have you no respect? Come here so I can teach you some.” This of course confused us because we have often heard them utter the very same words. It taught us deceit, and, because evil is easier to grasp than good doctrine, we grew up not to remember the rebukes but the hushed whispers reeking with abhorrence and learnt to despise ikwerekwere with all our hearts. If your tongue twirled differently from ours we dehumanized you. You became an object, a kwerekwere. We nursed this hatred until we had our own children screaming ikwerekwere and unlike our parents we did not reprimand but hid behind our curtains chuckling.
Since we didn’t recognise them as our people but a lower class, not even a people, some sort of specie, slightly beneath our pets, we hated their dirty, sweaty odour. It didn’t matter none that our own working men came home bearing the same odour. It frustrated us that a kwerekwere occupied space in our land, that they owned homes when we rented, had jobs when from factory to factory we were being turned away. Enough was enough; we decided and went on plotting in community meetings, in the privacy of our homes, in tiresome taxi rides home. Wherever we went, there was a kwerekwere pitching up a tent, building another salon, another spaza. Frustration spoilt into vengeful envy. “Mabahambe!” (they should go), someone said in one of the community meetings. We didn’t ask who he was referring to. We all knew. It was in our hearts, and now it was in our ears.
“Calm down,” said the sensible, sensing trouble.
“We have been calm too long. They should leave,” replied Bab’ Duma, our ward councillor, “ ’bout time too!”
“Ha, have you ever seen South Africans hailing to crowd and take over Zimbabwe?”
“But these are our brothers. They helped us during apartheid.”
“Is there apartheid in Zim? No.We will also help them when there is apartheid”
“Apartheid in Zim? Brother, don’t make me laugh. Mugabe chased the white man out.” A roar of laughter increased the spirit of brotherhood. “It’s time we face those leeches!” said Bab’ Duma and the hall shook in agreement. “Why wait? We should go there now. Kick these dogs out and take back what is ours.”
“Ja. These things think we are weaklings.”
“Enough is enough. This is our home.” We went out singing and excited, spellbound by war songs and strife. Akua, in the unfortunate curve of fate, was the first one we met. That’s one of them. We ran to him in one accord. Some people picked up stones, guys ran with their fists clenched. Sticks appeared out of nowhere. For a moment he stood there confused then tried to run. He was too late and too damn old. Stones rained on him followed by kicks and punches and insults. Accusations.
Shock distorted reality. I couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying. It might have been a marriage of both. Bab’ Duma and the boys were in a high, deranged into delirium. The air was pregnant with danger. And something else I couldn’t describe, something sick, foul and unnatural. “No, Mandla! Stop! It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You said we will only scare him a little.” A woman’s voice spoke my mind and was supported and reprimanded. Chaos ensued, a struggle of emotions, guilt verses anger. I wanted to scream at somebody to stop, to quieten the blood parched frenzy but everything was confused. Things were happening in a fast-paced slow motion and I was caught in the frosty, numbing disarray. In the wheel went, adorning thrashing and kicking Akua, who was then tackled to the ground. Someone shouted, “Mayife inja!” The smell of gasoline filled my head and weakened it, making me dizzy. I don’t know what sounded louder the struck of the match or my nagging conscience. Akua staggered to his knees and cheers roared to mock his helplessness. He suddenly got up twitching and screaming, running about. Laughter applauded his performance. The apprehension of what was happening washed over me like a violent fever. Regret solidified into a raging ball of lava granting me weak and dizzy and nauseous. It burnt my heart, clogged my chest so I couldn’t breathe, it seared through my body seeking refuge, untangled my stomach and sat hot on my crotch, I felt like shitting it out for my spirit denied it. Our eyes met and blankness blocked out the terror before me, I turned and stumbled my way out, shoving through the evil throng of my neighbours, my allies. Why? His eyes asked. Why? I sank down to the ground and dissolved like water into soil, never to be reinstated. I took my last breath with him and hurled my burning heart to the ground.
Disgusted by the fruit of our alliance we went home strangers. Even those who walked together, hand in hand, walked alone. Death divided us, dancing like a harlot amid our aroused darkness; we had cheated on humanity for a cheap thrill, made love to the devil and tapped open hell that now refused to close. Who are we? We inquired, searching in each other’s eyes for a different truth than the one that resounded with each breath. We were the ugly truth foreign to our spirit. And so we walked alone. Lost and conflicted.
The police came with their questions unaware how close their probing came to reveal our truth, how their scribbling on limb notebooks threatened to yank open the blankets we cuddled like babies to our chests and discover the torment within. Squealing demons crying out for the blood spilled, denied and fed sour milk from shrunken breasts of pungent souls who soothe them with lulling lies and petty excuses. Only the policemen did not care. They did not want to uncover Hades nor heaven. They only wanted to do their questioning and scribbling, chewing tediously on imaginary food in nostalgia or anticipation. The secret remained ours to keep. The beast whose roars scared us rigid remained ours to cuddle. Death thought we were now friends and began to settle comfortably amid us to our distress. Akua’s eyes, comprehensive and unbelieving haunted me. I thought of nothing but those eyes. I did not eat nor hunger. I did not live. The fear of who I am, a merciless killer, ate at me as scavengers do the dead. I too was dead though I took in breath.
We built high concrete walls to shield us from those who mirrored our guilt and confirmed our sin. But how on earth does one erase memory? We found no solace in solitude. In isolation we withered and died. Some were braver and stepped into the light with newly fashioned masks of pain-stricken smiles. Some, I heard, handed themselves over to the police, delirious with guilt screaming, “I did it. I killed the man. I killed him for not being me.” They were rewarded not with peace but a rhythmic melancholia of cold prison cells. Bab’ Duma hanged himself. His wife found him hanging from the roof of their bedroom. It didn’t come as a shock, she had known it was coming and had been dreading it for some time. A brave few went to the funeral to confront the fate that remains ours. Bottomless, maggot-infested graves. If we can kill ikwerekwere we can kill any man, including our brother. In fact, we have killed our brother. Who then is safe?
Zamo Mbhele, born and bred in Ladysmith, South Africa is a poet and a writer with a burning love for storytelling. Her work confronts social issues such as the seemingly stubborn racial discrimination, xenophobia, misogynistic patriarchy & the angst of poverty.