“My daughter, we are very glad that you have responded so quickly to our request to see you, as you always do.”
So began Thabang’s mother who was addressing her daughter-in-law Mamotse. “Indeed, you have served this family very well since you first joined us many years ago. And as the senior ngwetsi you have been very exemplary to the other ones in this family. And for that we are very grateful. And we are very proud of you,” Matau, for that was her clan name, paused to fill her lungs fully once more. “You not only served this family but you have honoured your husband by always being there when this family needs you and your husband. And you have supported our whole community in your work.”
Upon hearing these words Mamotse lifted her face slowly to look at the old lady who was leaning on her walking stick, her hands holding it loosely as she sat at the head of the table. She looked at her mother-in-law, flawless skin: black, smooth skin that had been exposed to all sorts of weather conditions during many years of ploughing in Rabodipa village in Limpopo, which is infamous for its brutal heat; skin that Mamotse knew women who were thirty years younger than Matau would do anything to have. Mamotse then moved her eyes around the group of elders gathered around the heavy wooden table; her husband’s uncles Phineas and Thapelo in their old black and brown blazers respectively and his aunt Mmapula with her blue and brown floral doek and her blanket with blue and green squares. Rakgadi had never; with all the coaching her daughter had done, been able to get right colour and pattern co-ordination. They all looked anxious, except uncle Thapelo who had a look that made Mamotse uncomfortable. A look of anxiety mixed with self-satisfaction.
Despite the tension, Mamotse managed to move the corner of her mouth in what would have been the beginning of a smile had the situation been different. She refocused on the matter at hand and realised that there was determination too on the faces of the elders. She looked at her husband Thabang, who was sitting between Rakgadi Mmapula and his mother Matau. He was avoiding eye contact and he was taking very shallow breaths at very short intervals. Mamotse knew that under the table, which was covered in a cream coloured table cloth with light pink flowers, Thabang’s left leg was doing a nervous dance. And that he was probably wringing his hands which had by now become sweaty. Her attention went back to the pink flowers on the cream tablecloth once again. So much tension around such soft colours! she thought.
She lifted her face again and looked briefly at her mother-in-law. She could guess from the old woman’s speech what was coming: someone had died and there was no money for the burial or someone’s child was about to be kicked out of school or university because of unpaid fees. She could also guess why Thabang was so nervous; she had told him that she was no longer willing to play the Good Samaritan. Mamotse felt that Thabang’s family was taking advantage of them and made it very clear to him that she would not accede to any more demands. Mamotse had had an outburst after yet another meeting where it was requested by the family that she and her husband “assist” to bury uncle Phineas’s son who had recently died of HIV related complications because he wouldn’t take ARVs. He ignored advice, pleadings and anger directed at him by the two doctors in the family and the elders.
At first, Mamotse had been happy to help where she and Thabang could, but the requests had come flooding in and Thabang could not say no. How could he? He carried with him survivor’s guilt. He was the only one who had succeeded despite his circumstances. She understood but from where she was sitting, the situation was tantamount to abuse of their kindness. How many times had the relatives allowed funeral policies that required payment of a mere R100 to lapse? And didn’t they fail over the years to contribute to the family society started to assist with such matters? Even the relatives who were employed! How many times had she and Thabang been called in the early hours of the morning to attend to a relative who was sick or one who had been badly assaulted after a night of heavy drinking and had had to drive for well over forty kilometres from Midrand to Eesterus when there are health care centres nearby. And how many times were they made to pay the neighbour who had transported the sick relative to hospital? Or being asked to provide food for one of the uncles because his son had once again stolen his pension money? Or being requested to provide clothes for one of Thabang’s pregnant teenage nieces? Mamotse sat up, crossed her arms and straightened her back; she was getting into assertive mode.
“And now that you and your husband need us we shall be here for you.” These words threw her off. She had expected them to ask her for something. “What has happened is difficult for any woman, but you are a strong woman and your strength has been evident throughout the years. And I know that you will be able to take this in your stride.” Again the old lady paused to take a breath, her grey eyes looking into the distance.
“It is true what you say Mogadibo,” Rakgadi Mmapula replied. The two uncles nodded thoughtfully. Mamotse’s mind became fuzzy from all the questions that were racing through her head like medical staff at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital on New Year’s Eve. What is going on? We need them? For what? We don’t have marital problems? Is Thabang ill? But surely I’d know if that was the case. Is that why he was so withdrawn and he walked about with a sad face and all of last week? Or is it because I said I will no longer help…
The old lady resumed with her measured speech. How Mamotse wished she could just get to the point. After being part of this family for a decade, she has never been able to get used to this long-windedness of her mother-in-law. The suspense in this build up to whatever the problem was; was killing her. But it would be rude to ask her to get to the point. She’d have to endure the long speech before all is revealed. Her mother-in-law’s voice invaded her thoughts again: “And now that you and your husband need us we shall be here for you,” she repeated. Mamotse’s head jerked towards Thabang. His eyes were boring a hole on the edge of the table closer to his chair and he was sweating excessively. The smooth brown skin of his face looked as if someone had carelessly plastered Vaseline on it before sprinkling some water all over it. He was also swaying back and forth. Mamotse knew at that point that something was terribly wrong, although she could not guess what it was. Her heart began to kick heavily against her chest and her thoughts raced faster than a series of lightning bolts on a stormy night. How she longed for Thabang to just look at her and reassure her that all was well. He was not even sitting next to her so she could feel him hold her hand reassuringly under the table as the elders spoke about whatever problem there was.
Matau was reminding Mamotse about her commitment to Thabang and the family, how she made a promise to always be by his side. Something about what Matau was saying reminded Mamotse of someone trying to soothe a baby yet it made her feel uneasy. Matau continued to tell Mamotse that women still had their place in society even though “…things in this time of Mbeki were changing.”
By this time Mamotse’s shoulders were becoming tense, her arms were crossed and her perfectly manicured nails were digging into her upper arms. Her massive chest was moving up and down visibly. The suspense was near killing her! She was about to talk when Rakgadi Mmapula shifted in her chair impatiently, coughed and said; “What Mogadibo here is trying to say is that our son here Thabang has impregnated a woman.”
Mamotse’s world came to a sudden standstill like a car driven by a learner driver who has not yet learnt the art of smoothness and balance. Like a grey cloud before a great storm, a heavy silence hung in dining room of the house that she and Thabang had built for his mother. The dining room, just like the rest of the house was modern. All that remained was for the municipality to install electricity and the house would stand out even more among the many mud houses in the village. It would be just like any other in neighbouring Soshanguve.
“Her family was here this past weekend to report the matter to us,” Rakgadi continued. It was only on hearing Rakgadi’s voice again that Mamotse realised that she was still holding her breath. “Thabang has told us that he knows this woman. And that he has no doubt that the child is his.” On hearing this Mamotse turned sharply and looked at her husband for confirmation of what she was hearing. But his long neck had curled into a U-turn sign and his eyes could not look at her. He had stopped rocking his body like a child needing consolation and his thin shoulders and back had frozen.
“Thabang? What are they talking about?” Mamotse said in isiXhosa her voice sounding surprisingly calm, even to her.
“Eish, I wanted to tell you myself boo, but…” He said, struggling to find the right words. Mamotse continued staring at him waiting for him to explain. Uncle Phineas stepped in saving his nephew from the pain of explaining his actions. He reassured Mamotse that no one would take her place as the first woman to have married Thabang and that the family would do all it can to protect her marriage. He did emphasise that Thabang had to do what is right by marrying the other woman. He then coughed and looked at his sister whose face wore a look that suddenly created wrinkles on the face that had, a short while ago, been perfectly smooth.
Tears began streaming down Mamotse’s face. She wanted to scream but her voice failed her, she tried to get up from her chair but her limbs also failed her. Her brown eyes darkened and her vision was blurred, but slowly and unsteadily her limbs began to respond to her mind’s command. And she lost all composure and started shouting.
Rakgadi was nervous. She didn’t know what to say or do. She had never seen Mamotse like this before. Thabang stood up and softly pleaded in English, “Please, boo. Please sit down.”
Rakgadi was about to speak when uncle Thapelo said, “But you shouldn’t be surprised at all by these developments because everyone here knows about your… problem.” He sat up straight and was about to say more when Rakgadi Mmapula coughed disapprovingly. “But it’s true,” he said pushing his chin up and away from her.
Second wife, a baby, my problem, when did all this happen? All these questions were racing inside Mamotse’s mind. She opened her mouth to speak but her vocal folds would not move so she closed it and turned her attention back to Thabang. But he couldn’t look at her for longer than a fraction of a second. The tears that were beginning to stream down her face had stopped. The tears were burning the back of her eyes but refused to come out and roll down her flawless black as soot skin despite the hurt and anger she was feeling.
The questions were torturing her mind. She felt like she was being swept away by a typhoon. My problem? They still believe that I am barren!
She was frustrated because she and her husband had decided together not to have children. But the truth is that she was the one who didn’t want children. She had spoken to Thabang about the matter before they got married. He had said that he had no problem with that and had admitted over the years that he had made peace with the idea of a life with no children. She didn’t want children because she had always had this feeling of dread when she thought about being responsible for another human being in that way. She had never known how to explain her feelings on this matter. This had never made any sense to Thabang, but he had accepted it nonetheless. He loved Mamotse very much, he would do anything for her.
The couple had told Thabang’s mother about their decision. He had insisted on informing her, adamant that doing so would protect her from malicious gossip. But Matau had simply chuckled. “You are just being childish, my children,” she said before getting up from her chair to continue with her business of watering her large food garden with mielies, pumpkin, tomatoes and spinach. It was easy to believe that the young couple was being childish for they were only twenty-five when they married.
As for Mamotse’s parents, they were shocked and insisted that their daughter Thandiwe, for that was the name they had given her, bear children. Her father was worried about what the in-laws and his relatives would say if she never had children. “But why, Thandiwe?” her mother Mandlovu had asked in a quiet voice.
And then there were concerned relatives at family gatherings; “Mamotse, when are you bearing us grandchildren? You’re not getting any younger you know,” they would say playfully. “Or do you need some help?” others would whisper in her ear and give her a conspiring look. How many times over the years had she tried to explain that she was not barren and that she and Thabang had decided not to have any children? This myth had persisted until she decided not to explain herself.
Mamotse suddenly let out a shrill animal-like sound. She jumped from her chair and across to Thabang. She went for his throat. Rakgadi Mmapula also sprung from her chair and so did the uncles. They pulled her away from Thabang. She was shouting angry questions at him. She clamoured and struggled as the family restrained her. Thabang on the other side had jumped up from his seat to stand behind his mother peeping over her shoulder like he had hidden behind her skirt when he was a little boy whenever his father threatened to hit him for some or other offence.
Matau leaned on her walking-stick as she stood up. She begged Mamotse to sit down pointing to a chair with one of her wrinkled hands. Mamotse refused to sit. She was feeling betrayed by not only Thabang, but by this woman she loved and respected as she did her own mother. Rakgadi let go of her. She then turned to her husband. She stared at him with eyes full of pain and with a measured tone thick with pain she said, “I thought you were happy. I thought we were happy.” Thabang could only lower his eyes. “I want a divorce!” she stated. “My life with you has been a lie.” Silence descended uncomfortably once again upon the room like a very hot December day in Limpopo. For a long time Mamotse stood there staring at her husband. The elders pleaded with her again to sit down and finally she took her seat reluctantly.
Matau told her that uncle Phineas would call her father the next day to inform him of the latest developments. She implored her not mention this matter to her family before the two families had met. She reassured Mamotse once again that they would support her.
The tears that had been stuck behind Mamotse’s eyes flooded forward like a river that has just burst its banks. Her voice bounced sorrowfully against the walls of the five bedroom house she had helped Thabang build. The cry pierced through Rakgadi Mapula’s heart, as she remembered how she too had been forced to live in a polygamous marriage for all her married life. It wasn’t easy, even when each of the three women had their privacy in the form of having their own two room houses albeit in the same yard as her.
For a long time the elders sat in silence as Mamotse became overwhelmed with emotion. Rakgadi finally got up from her seat and went over to Mamotse. She touched her shoulders lightly and asked her to go with her to the bedroom so she could rest. Mamotse got up from her chair and glanced sadly at Thabang as she shuffled out of the room with Rakgadi.
Matau glanced at the window. The sky had begun to darken without any of them noticing. Uncle Phineas stood up and lit the lamp before setting it on the table. Matau sighed deeply then looked at her son and in a low voice said; “You should have done things the right way.”
“I know Mma,” Thabang said with a tinge of irritation in his voice. After a while Rakgadi came back. They all looked at her with enquiring eyes. She shrugged then said, “Where do you keep your matches Mogadibo? I want to light the lamp in her bedroom.” Uncle Phineas searched his pockets and pulled out a box.
Matau reminded Rakgadi to check if there was still enough paraffin in the lamp. One of Thabang’s nieces had recently come over to study at the house because it was much quieter than her crowded home. A while later she returned looking tired and worried. She sat next to Matau and vowed to herself that she would do all she could to ensure that Mamotse came out stronger after this ordeal. After a while she got up from her chair saying, “I will go and dish up, so we can all eat and regain our strength.”
Later than night as the elders bid each other good night, Matau reminded her brother Phineas to call the Radasi family the next day.
That night was cool, a contrast with the heat experienced earlier that evening. The silence was back but it was not uncomfortable like the quietness that had followed the announcement of the news. It was not comfortable either. It was just silence. The house was also in darkness as expected in these parts at this time of the night.
But soon an animal-like wail pierced the silence and long red flames danced about the house with ghost-like silhouettes. Mamotse’s voice sliced through the quiet night; “Thabang! Thabang, kutheeeeeni undenza njeeee? Kutheeeeeeeni? Thabang!”
Kwenzekile Ntlati is an aspiring writer. She has trained as an actor and has a B-tech: Drama from the Tshwane University of Technology. She also writes opinion pieces which have been published in local newspapers.