IT’S MIDDAY— burning hot, shimmering. Even the chickens are silent, crouching on bleached sand under a bleached sky. The village looks abandoned, its thatched huts bared to the sun like stranded shells on a vast flat beach.
But one pair of dark eyes sees something move through the heat. A cloud of dust, billowing above stunted acacia trees, proclaims the bus is on its way. The lookout — a ragged, black-tufted kid with legs long as a stork’s — runs around the village summoning passengers.
Resting in the merciful black shade of her hut, Dikeledi hears the call, hoists a blanket-wrapped bundle onto her head and steps blinking into the sun. Her mother and grandmother watch her go — one of a small group that climbs aboard the ramshackle bus bound for a new job and a new life in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.
Gaborone — a shallow lake of concrete fringed by squatter shacks — is only 25 kilometres from the village. But it might be on another planet. In the village mother and grandmother look at each other, shrug sadly, and retreat to their hut to wait for the lesser heat of the afternoon. An hour later Dikeledi alights from the bus into chaos and noise. The city stops for nothing.
Her grandmother, MmaShoro, has never been further than five kilometres from the village. Change, when it has come, has had to come to her. She remembers the first tractor — filthy, oily and red — come chugging into the village pursued by screaming children and barking dogs; she remembers the first school teacher, the first can of beer.
Today the village store is full of unfamiliar items in unfamiliar wrapping. Labels in English, Setswana, Afrikaans are all foreign to her — the smart new school is for children, not their grandmothers.
And she’s suspicious of the changes. As fast as the new things arrive, the young people leave. And each time someone like Dikeledi steps aboard the bus to Gaborone, a little of the old village goes with her. Yes, the standpipe with its clean water is good. But MmaShoro misses her grand-daughter’s vigorous young voice in the singing choruses at beer parties and her old arms ache with lifting the heavy pestle to grind sorghum for the evening meal.
If the new things turn the young away from the village, they turn the old towards each other. Old Semele learnt to speak English during the War, when by some mysterious and absurdly arbitrary dictate, he fought with the Allies in Greece. Today, though he wears his medals with pride and made a special pilgrimage to catch a glimpse of the Queen when she visited Gaborone in 1979, he refuses to speak English. His household, like MmaShoro’s, is unbalanced. A visit to his compound finds him wrinkled and smiling beneath a battered felt hat, surrounded by old friends — and young children. A generation is missing.
As headman of the village, he presides over the kgotla — the village meeting place where disputes are aired, politics debated, decisions made. In the past kgotla meetings were noisy, lively events. Nowadays he knows they look more like an old folks’ tea party — just a small group of dusty elders in the shade of a thorn tree. Something needs to be done. Semele reaches for his walking stick and goes visiting.
Next day the kgotla is nearly full and the chatter gives way to cheers as Semele announces that the committee of elders has decided to revive the bojale — the initiation ceremony of the Batlokwa tribe.
Three months later Dikeledi’s white employers decide to take a holiday and it’s time for her to go home. Sitting on the bus, smearing vaseline on arms and face to make her dark skin gleam, she surveys her feet with satisfaction.
The shoes are all strap and heel — rickety structures like flimsy scaffolding. They make her walk carefully, gingerly, like a new-born giraffe. But they’re precious — a symbol that she’s escaped from the village. And they make the long months polishing ‘madam’s’ floors and ironing her endless clothes worthwhile.
As she arrives she catches sight of the kgotla and gasps. It’s as though the village was preparing for a siege: the once-dilapidated wooden fence has been repaired and a new, much higher, fence is being erected by the old women. She sees MmaShoro struggling stoutly with a pile of wooden posts on her head, while her mother wields an axe near the entrance.
They welcome her warmly, exclaim over her shoes and are delighted with their gifts. But the diffidence and respect she was expecting is lacking. They listen politely to her boasts about city life but then hurry back to the kgotla.
Dikeledi’s pride is hurt. ‘Silly old women’ she mutters. But soon she’s surrounded by admiring friends who whisk her away to the young teacher’s house where someone has a battery-run record-player and a scratched copy of ‘Saturday Night Fever’. There she hears about the bojale. Some of the young women are laughing about it. Others are looking forward to earning the title mosadi — a real woman. But one thing is certain: no-one of the appropriate age is exempt.
With John Travolta crackling in the background, Dikeledi is told what’s in store. Twice a night — once in the early evening, and again two hours before dawn — she and the other initiates are to gather in the new kgotla. She must arrive dressed only in shorts and a vest and is forbidden to wash for the rest of the month. They couldn’t tell her anything else. Only the old women knew what was going to happen.
That night she would have given anything to be back polishing floors. Old women who had tugged a comb through her hair or called her over to eat from their plates when she was an infant, whose authority she later dismissed because they could not read or write or tell her the capital of America — these same old women were transformed that night.
One bent over a drum in the firelight, beating out a complicated rhythm. Others pushed the initiates roughly into a circle and began demonstrating the routines, dances and songs they were to learn. Still more prowled the new kgotla fence armed with heavy sticks to repel intruding male eyes while the remaining old women looked on —laughing, chanting, jeering. The tables were well and truly turned.
That night — and every night that month — the old reigned supreme. Dikeledi was young and supple, could speak English fluently, knew how to use an electric kettle, had a new pair of shoes. But she was no match for her grandmother.
MmaShoro’s energy was boundless. She and her cronies leapt higher, whirled faster, sang louder, danced longer than any young woman. Soon Dikeledi’s shining skin was grey with dust, her knees and feet bleeding from thorns in the sand, her carefully perfumed body streaming with sweat.
Just one night was enough to teach her a new respect for the old village women. But there were another thirty to endure. By the end the initiates stood out clearly from the rest of the village — hair dusty and matted, knees bandaged, clad in filthy ragged shorts, eyes dull from lack of sleep. But if their eyes were dull, those of the old women shone brighter than they had for years. They knew that they had reclaimed just a little of what is lost each time a young woman steps onto the bus to Gaborone.
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