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Jo'Burg Days: Precious

… He could buy a watch, and a torch, a radio and a pair of shiny leather shoes. He would get Ntombintini a sewing machine, and a handbag, a new thick warm blanket, and a shiny pink dress for their wedding …

But to get these things Precious has to leave his village and go off to the big city to find work.

Barbara Durlacher tells a heart-breaking African story.

The green hills around Kokstad are far, far from the smog and smoke of Egoli, and his thoughts turned back many times to his homestead. He thought of his kraal with its round, mud walled thatched huts. He thought of the waist-high wall surrounding the kraal, the gap closed by thorn branches at night. He thought of the threads of blue smoke that curled lazily into the sunset air as the women lit the cooking fires at dusk, and he remembered the sound of the children’s voices as they scrabbled and played. So intense did his thoughts become, that he could smell the sharp scent of the acacia as it caught fire in the embers and the whiff of the dust settling after the cattle had gone to their boma, shouldering their way into the shelter to be milked for the night.

All his youth he had walked those hills tending his father’s cattle; watched the seasons change; and the animals grow strong and fat as his father’s herd multiplied. He knew every one, recognised each by the way its spreading horns grew, and the colours that made them so special. These were NGuni cattle, the indigenous African breed; sturdy, strong and impervious to disease; the pride of his father’s heart.

Now there was Ntombintini, the pride of his heart. He remembered when he first saw her, a strong, proud young girl, walking back from the spring, the tall column of her lovely neck as she balanced the heavy clay pot on her head, eyes carefully judging the uneven ground ahead. He remembered her, firm breasts swinging, as she knelt at the hollow-stone grinding the hard dry mielies for putu, the small cowhide skirt revealing as much as it covered as he viewed her from the back.

Everyone in the village knew that he had spoken to her father for her hand, and that she had agreed, but they also knew that her father set a high price on his beautiful daughter, and wanted an impossibly large number of cows for her. He knew her worth in the eyes of the other young bloods, and was determined that the lobola would show the village that he valued her above all others.

So, Precious listened to his home-brothers when they came back from the mines, with their talk of money and cars, of the big city and all the wonders they found there. But, most of all, he listened to them talk about the money they earned and watched as they unpacked the presents they brought from the city for their wives.

Perhaps he too could go to Egoli; he too could get a job and earn imali, sufficient to buy the cows his soon-to-be father in-law wanted for his daughter. He could buy a watch, and a torch, a radio and a pair of shiny leather shoes. He would get Ntombintini a sewing machine, and a handbag, a new thick warm blanket, and a shiny pink dress for their wedding …

The plans raced through his mind, tumbling over themselves in their haste to put him on the road to prosperity and happiness, and he did not pause for a moment to wonder how he would achieve these riches, or whether Ntombintini understood his intentions and if she would wait for him.

Many months later, after much hardship and effort he was finally in Johannesburg, but not working on the gold mines. Instead, he had a job as a labourer, digging trenches for the electric company, laying new cables all over the city. His difficulty was two-fold. First, he did not speak any English, so communication was difficult. Then he could not read or write, and despite his obvious quick intelligence, there was very little scope for him except as a manual labourer. So, he dug his way around the suburbs, dirty and tiring work, but at the same time undemanding, as long as he could swing a pick, lift a shovel and trundle a wheelbarrow.

Precious was a diligent man, and spent very little of his weekly wages. These he saved in an old coffee tin he hid behind a loose brick in his quarters, always secreting it away carefully when nobody was about to see his hiding place. One day, when he had enough, he would go to the Post Office with his friend, who would help him to get a money order and send it off to Abdullah’s Trading Store, Westend, Kokstad. There Ntombintini would wait, sometimes for many days, asking timidly every day, if there was a letter addressed to her.

“It is a letter my heart is longing for,” she confided to Ezekiel, counter assistant to Abdullah Saloojee. “Precious is sending his money to buy the cows for lobola so we can get married, and my father, he has set a very high price. It seems it will take many months for Precious to get the money for all the cows, and I will be old before the time!”

More months passed. Precious worked now for a busy contract gardener, and it was better. His wages were more, so his savings grew. He even had a chance to do after hours ‘gardenwek’ for the ‘Meesiss’ where he could earn extra. This paid his food and rent. His English was coming, he knew words like, ‘Clok-in’ and ‘bletfu,’ even started to read words like ‘Coke,’ ‘Castle beer’ and ‘bifstek’ instead of nyama, and he knew he had to find ‘Omo’ in the shops when he wanted to wash his clothes.

Slowly the money in his coffee tin grew bigger. He took it to the bank and they gave him blue notes with pictures of buffalo instead of the old crumpled pale green ones. He could count the coins now, and knew how to make them grow into green notes, and the green notes into blue ones. Month by month he saved, denying himself everything he had ever wanted when first he thought of working in the big city. He still did not have that radio, the torch or the shiny leather shoes, but it would not be long before he would be able to send the money order to Abdullah’s Trading Store for Ntombintini’s father for half the price of the lobola. Surely, then, they could get married?

He would come on the slow train to marry her, travelling 17 hours from the bleak Highveld through the Free State mielie fields to the green hills of home. They would marry, and build their small mud-walled hut. And when she was pregnant, he would return to the city and go back to his job, and earn the rest of the money to pay for her.

Ntombintini still occasionally visited Mr Abdullah’s Trading Store, and now and then, she ventured inside, although the hope in her heart had almost died. “Do you have a letter for me, Ezekiel,” she would ask in her soft, timid voice. Always, he shook his head.

Then, one day, a message came for Precious from his mother’s brother’s taxi-driver cousin. He travelled the route from Kokstad to Bloemfontein and very occasionally drove to Johannesburg, with a boot full of sacks of best quality dagga. This was when he had heard that the Police had been particularly vigilant in destroying the good stuff grown in Lesotho. Then the nightclubs in Hillbrow would be ready for him, and his profit would be big, enough to cover the cost of the long journey from the Transkei. He knew Ntombintini and had wanted her for his own for a long time. He also knew where to find Precious. He relished his news, he licked his lips at the thought of it; sucked his teeth with delight as he turned it over in his mind.

Work the next day was hell for Precious. His head throbbed and his red eyes could hardly focus. His bowels seemed turned to water and he could barely pick up a spade. His workmates moved away from him, the smell of stale liquor was so strong on his breath and in his clothes.

“What the bloody hell’s the matter with you, you idiot?” his boss yelled at him in anger as once again he dropped the length of irrigation pipe he was carrying, staggering and barking his shins against a rock. “You’re drunk, aren’t you? I thought I told you all not to drink on the job and never to come to work drunk, or even show your faces the next day if you’ve been on a binge the night before. YOU’RE FIRED!” and with that, he planted a hefty kick in the seat of Precious’ pants. “Get off the job, before I knock your block off!”

Dejectedly, Precious sat on his bed, surveying the ruins of all his hopes. Lying on the floor was the battered coffee tin, its contents gone. Some had been spent on uncounted bottles of rough brandy, bought by the taxi-driver cousin at the nearby shebeen. But the rest? In Alphonse’s pocket without a doubt.

Precious’ tortured mind struggled to comprehend the enormity of what had happened. He remembered Alphonse’s arrival, his noisy shouts and booming laugh, and the many times he insisted Precious take another drink of brandy to, as he insisted, “Help you heal your emptiness.” He remembered the long hours of talk about the home place, and then the horrible news about Ntombintini. How she had given up waiting for the letter and the money order that never came, and how another man had stolen her heart.

His possessions lay scattered in the mud and foul-smelling water running from the broken sewage pipe on the side of Mrs Mtwetwe’s tin-roofed shack. After he had staggered back inside, wiping the blood from his nose and nursing his aching shoulder at least he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had given the taxi-driver a good wack on his head with the wooden chair, even if the chair now lay in three pieces on the floor. But for all his anger and for all the fighting nothing would change the news that the man had brought him.

“Ntombintini was marrying someone else! She had not waited for him; she had not been faithful as she promised. The little blue and white beaded apron she wore was full of lies; it was not telling others the truth when it said ‘she had a sweetheart far away’”

Then he remembered the green hills around Kokstad that are far, far from the smog and smoke of Egoli, and his thoughts were there, right in the centre of his homestead. He thought of his kraal with its round, mud-walled thatched huts. He thought of the waist-high wall surrounding the kraal, the gap closed by thorn branches at night. He thought of the threads of blue smoke that curled lazily into the sunset air as the women lit the cooking fires at dusk, and he remembered the sound of the children’s voices as they scrabbled and played.

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