The skies wept that night.
It had begun like an ordinary day, with chilly winds and brown leaves flying off dancing trees, as most mornings of Stellenbosch are. I remember how lost I felt when I first arrived in this small village in the Western Cape. It did not feel like the rest of South Africa. It had no loud music blasting out of taxis, no fraudsters roaming the streets looking for foreigners to take advantage of, and none of what most people out there think South Africa is about. This was a town that isolated you and left you thinking of where you really belonged in this world. Stellenbosch doesn’t swallow you the way big cities do – it casts you to the wind.
This was not my first time in the Western Cape. I was somehow used to Cape Town where I had attended several writing workshops and Queer Rights conferences before. I always loved how the city welcomed you with the stench of the ocean, which carried old salts and wet fish into the atmosphere. Mixed with the smell of rotting algae, this city almost forced you to taste the bittersweet memories of its history.
But these functions I attended did not prepare me for my experience as a doctoral student at Stellenbosch University. There is a thing I have repulsively gotten used to about academic conferences like the ones I had been attending in Cape Town. These are mostly austere events where people smile at each other under the strong fragrance of coffee and indulge in sterile laughs from lifeless small talk. These are functions where you meet people who pretend to be very interested in learning about where you come from and always feel obliged to remind you that, “Oh! It is such a beautiful country!”, as if you need their sympathy.
I always have a problem when people talk about Malawi as a beautiful country. Most times I want to ask them what they mean by that but there is something that always chokes me when I want to do that. It is like my spirit wrestles my body and this anger that has been swelling from my stomach to confront this pretender in front of me is suddenly caught by the balls in my throat and I am left speechless. I never ask my host, or another conference attendee from Spain, what may be beautiful about one of the poorest countries in the world. I never ask what beauty may mean where people are wasting away to hunger and can’t even afford to put a roof on top of their naked bodies. I just smile the pain away – amused at these strangers who know nothing.
As a doctoral student, I had a lot of things to do and I wasted my days studying in the library or attending seminars that run throughout the day, leaving you exhausted. After such seminars, all you want is a long sip of cold beer and perhaps a cigarette to get this life over with as soon as possible. I had savoured the town with my fellow PhD students a few times before I settled on the one spot I frequented for a night’s drink. The fact is that I did not really like hanging out with these eccentric scholars from across Africa who behaved too sophisticated to be in the same company with – my lesson was that enlightened company is too much.
Most of these students had come to study on bursaries that demanded that you be extremely poor before they considered you for selection. Most times, scholarship organizations, especially in Africa, are not very much concerned with your academic potential or previous achievements. What catches their eye the most is your poverty – first, you must be as poor as that infamous church rat before they see the contents of your mind. As such, it was disgusting to watch students who were recipients of these awards acting as if they once dated Prince Charles.
There was this other woman who came from Uganda but she always reminded you that she was now a permanent resident of Britain. She said her husband was a big man at some oil company there and that she didn’t even know what she was doing in South Africa. We watched her as she slipped on her rehearsed accents and scrunched her face to the disgust of food that was not good enough. They did not make bacon that dry in England. Don’t you people love tuna? You eat so much meat, I don’t get you people. She was a load of work and I could not stand her for longer. Fortunately, she saw herself out of the group when the pressure of research blew the pretentiousness off her lips leaving her mouth dry on a haggard face.
As days turned into weeks and the sun refused to shine, the town became colder. The winter was settling in and it was strong enough to dismantle our small group of doctoral students that used to drink on Dorp Street. It is the winter that opened my eyes to the town, and with most of my student friends out of the equation, I had time to think and reflect on the world around me. It was on one of these lonesome evenings that Shumi, our regular bartender from Zimbabwe, talked to me for the first time. I had always seen her eyes melting and I knew she wanted to talk, but I wanted her to do it first. She was the one interested after all.
“What happened to your friends?”, she asked when she finally let loose of her tongue.
“Well, I guess they don’t drink as much.”
“Ha! Ha! I always knew you were the drinker. It was as if you forced them to be here.”
“Ha! Ha! Really? Forced them? Or you mean seduced them?
“I don’t see you as somebody who can seduce….” She laughed.
Suddenly, she had this serious look on her face as if she had something more burning than passion she wanted to release from her body. She asked me if I needed one more drink, but I told her that I had to leave for it was getting chilly out there.
“I guess I will see you tomorrow then.”
“By the way, why do you love this place so much?”
I failed to understand her loaded question, but I still tried to find something to say about it. I told her that I did not really like the bar, but it seemed like it was a good place to spend an evening after a long day.
“Look around you…”
I obeyed her and wondered what it was she wanted me to see.
“It is beautiful,” I replied almost absent-mindedly.
“It is. But don’t you sometimes feel like being around people like us?”
“You mean beautiful women?” I was being smug, but she seemed not to be amused. She forced a tight grin that melted into a serious expressing on her face.
“I mean people like you and me.”
Then it struck me. I looked around again and this time understood what she meant by her question. Shumi wasn’t sexually attracted to me (or she may have been), but she was concerned for a lonely man on a lonely street. Everybody around me was white. The people spoke in either foreign English or Afrikaans. I was the only black man with a beer on the table. The other black people I saw were either waiters or security guards. I cast my eyes across the street where there stood a BP Gas Station and the other black people I could see stood against that facility and they were fuel attendants. That’s when I opened my eyes to the reality of this South Africa.
In all the weeks I had spent in this town, I failed to notice that people walked and laughed in strictly defined groups. There were the whites who dominated every spot on Dorp Street – the street me and my friends had unknowingly considered ours. Then there were the coloureds who smoked together while pushing trolleys to Ida’s Valley where they lived. And the blacks were mostly the hands of the city – always hurrying from work with serious faces projected ahead as if they were peering into the future. Did these groups ever mix? I wondered. And that is when I realised that I was too far away from home.
“Where can I go?” I asked Shumi, shaking the embarrassment out of my voice.
“Well for a start you can try Ikhaya Lounge, four blocks away. Black people drink there….”
She wanted to say more but I did not want to hear anymore.
‘Thanks, Shumi,” I took out my wallet to pay for my drink and tip her.
“I hope I will see you there one of these days….”
I smiled as I tucked my hands into my jacket and hurried down the street. That evening, I finally noticed how some white women picked up their paces or trotted to lock their cars when I walked behind them.
Shumi was right. Ikhaya Lounge was a place where blacks really met, and it was one of the few places I had experienced some warmth in the winters of Stellenbosch. I quickly made friends with one of the regular barmen there who, like Shumi, also came from Zimbabwe. His name was George. He told me that he had just finished his master’s degree in Agricultural Engineering, but he did not want to go back to Zimbabwe.
“You know the economic situation in my country, my brother. Unfortunately, I have no work permit here but these people will let me work illegally in this bar, and I make tips,” he shrugged.
He was unsure of his precarious situation, but I understood him. There was a longing in his eyes that you could not easily define, but it was there. I understood that, just like myself, this man was looking for something. He was an ambitious man in a world that had denied him his dreams. Where some of us come from, life happens, and it stops us from dreaming.
It is George who told me that the other bartender who assisted him was from Malawi but that he did not want people to know his nationality and so he kept speaking in broken English or other broken versions of IsiXhosa that he had picked up on the streets. I saw some light beaming in this guy’s eyes every time there were two to three people from Malawi, speaking in our local language at the bar. He wanted to join the conversations, but he was a slave to his own secrets. He looked as if he would bite his tongue and continued in his tired IsiXhosa like a lost dog. I never told him that I knew about him – every man deserves the respect they choose for themselves.
On this night, I had come back to Ikhaya Lounge after being away for two weeks. I had first gone to present a conference paper at the University of Zambia, then I travelled further down to Malawi for the Easter break. When I came back, things were different. One of my friends from campus told me that he had heard that Ikhaya was closing. He said the real reason behind this was not known. He said a lot had happened and since there were reports of fresh xenophobic attacks, the owners did not want to take any chances on a place that mostly entertained foreigners. But being the academic he was, my friend concluded that it was just a simple issue of gentrification – the rich wanting everything to themselves.
I stepped into Ikhaya on this final night to have one last drink with George and the other guys who were friendly enough to laugh. It was strange to see that on a day like this, the bar was not full. The atmosphere was somehow sombre, and people did not seem interested to say goodbye to this homely place. They must have been in denial of the end of an era. I looked for George, but he was not behind the counter where he usually leaned against a fridge full of Black Label beers. I did not want to talk to his confused Malawian counterpart, but I had no choice – I needed to know where George was on this big day.
When I asked him, he looked straight into my eyes and his lips trembled as if he wanted to say something he had forgotten. As if he wanted to lie. I deduced that he was trying to recollect bits and pieces of his English, good enough to impress a homeboy studying for a PhD. But the words that came out shook me off the ground for they were in our vernacular language. His tongue was flat. For the first time since I knew him, he had taken off his mask and spoke to me as a Malawian.
“You walk up here with your educated friends, drink and laugh, get Ubers and go back home at night, and you think everybody is happy.”
I did not answer him because I did not think he had asked any question. Then his face contorted in what may have been anger, bitterness, or pain. But he became disfigured as he continued to speak.
“We also want a good life. That is why we are here pretending to be exotic and happy!” his voice almost cracked.
“Do you think….” Then I saw tears breaking from his eyes only to suddenly freeze on his plump cheeks that had not been oiled for days.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you….” I was lost for words as he stood there frozen as were his tears.
“I just wanted to talk to George…. I wanted….”
“George is dead!” the thunder in his voice cut through my veins.
“They killed him! They put a burning tyre over his head! They killed him! We are not white people like you – living here in Stellenbosch among your fellow whites! Do you think you are like us? They kill us in the townships for being foreign! Here the police protect you when you wave your student cards, and you think drinking with us makes us equals?”
I wanted to say something – anything that could be said – but the man in front of me was in tears. I could not open my mouth. He had said too much in so little time that I was losing my balance.
“We don’t belong here!”
He turned his back on me and headed for the kitchen, leaving the counter vacant and the bar almost empty. I looked out of the window into the darkness. That it when I noticed that it was raining outside. It had been raining the whole time.
Wesley Macheso is a Malawian writer currently reading for his PhD in literature at Stellenbosch University. He teaches literature at the University of Malawi to survive and he writes to live. His short story “This Land is Mine” is published in Water: new short story fiction from Africa (2016) by Short Story Day Africa. He won the 2014/ 2015 Peer Gynt Literary Award in Malawi for his children’s book Akuzike and the Gods. He is a columnist with Malawi’s, The Daily Times, hosting a weekly column under the title “The Write Stuff”. He edits for www.africanwriter.com
This entry appeared in The Limits Issue