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new internationalist
issue 170 - April 1987


[image, unknown]

Boineelo used to rush back to the village every day when the end-of-school bell rang. She wanted to earn a few cents and save up for her fare to go to Johannesburg.

Late on Sunday nights we taught each other languages. She coached me in Tswana, correcting my pronunciation carefully; in return I spoke to her in English, chatting into the night until she could speak quite fluently. Afterwards we would count the money Boineelo had earned, stacking coins carefully on the bare mud floor of the rondavee*. The bright coins glinted in the candlelight, and the heaps grew higher every week.

When the term ended, Boineelo said goodbye to our teachers at the school. I followed behind her as she toured the classrooms to thank each American and British and Scandinavian teacher for final report cards praising her intelligence and hard work. Then she went round the small Botswaaa village saying goodbye to friends and relatives and elders.

[image, unknown] On the last day, I helped her pack. It took only a few minutes. She wrapped her few spare dresses in a green bedsheet. She also prepared a bundle of sugar cane for the journey. 'Don't be sad.' she said. 'I will come back next year. And I will be rich. I will be a city girl.' Boineelo's aunt was a man's maid in Johannesburg. She sent letters praising the big city. She said it was hard to find a job. But she promised to ask the bosses for work.

Boineelo hugged her family goodbye. I helped her carry the sugar cane through the village. Scrawny chickens fluttered to find the shade of flat-topped thorn trees. Goats stood idly in the shade of the green hedge-plant. 'Quick!' Boineelo cried as we rounded a corner and saw the people crowding round the truck already standing in the centre of the village.

We started to run and I fell heavily. Boineelo held out her hand to pull me up. The dust on my knees turned to deep crimson. Boineelo stood frozen. 'Red blood,' she cried in wonder, 'you have red blood In your veins!' Trying not to cry before the older girl, I nodded. She hugged me to her chest, stroking my head. 'Don't cry,' she said. 'Someone told me white people have white blood in their veins.' I shook my head. 'Don't cry,' she said again, looking over one shoulder at the waiting truck. 'We are the same. Don't cry, my friend.'

I limped slightly as we hurried on towards the truck. The passengers let outs great roar as the engine started. Boineelo grabbed her sugar cane from me, running faster and faster. Dust rose behind the truck's wheels. Boineelo was far ahead of me. The people waved and shouted.

'Lekoa!' cried a young man in a tattered red shirt, as he caught sight of me. He clung to the bars which arched over the truck. Lekoa - 'white beggar' is the name they used of the earliest white visitors to this country. 'Go, go!' he shouted to the driver. But with a screech of old brakes, the truck stopped.

Panting heavily, Boineelo reached the wheels. A dozen hands came down to pull her up. The man in tattered red hung high above the ethers. 'So we wait for the Lekoa, eh? Always the way. Her uncles at the big school don't treat us this way.'

'They're not her uncles,' Bolneele said. 'They're white like her, but they're just teachers. They treat us all the same.' The young man turned away. His face was hard.

'Lakoa,' said the driver kindly to me, 'will you climb into the truck?' 'Come, child,' said the women. They stretched their arms out.

'No,' I said. 'I can't.' As the truck started. I waved goodbye. It jolted through the hard-baked ruts. The swirling dust covered Boineelo's smiling face and her pink dress and her arm waving goodbye.

A few weeks later I was back on the dusty road from the school to the village when I saw a small, ragged figure walking towards me. As people do on empty roads, I turned to greet the stranger. The girl was thin. Her hair stuck raggedly around her head. The pink dress, tattered now, flapped in the cold wind. 'Boineelo,' I cried, recognizing her with a sudden shock. Overjoyed to see her, surprised to find her back so soon.

Her bundle was empty, and she had no sugar cane. 'Boineelo!' I cried. Her eyes were hard and seemed to stare right over me. A dark line of scabs hung over one eye. A fly buzzed around the places where spots of blood stood red on her brown skin. 'Boineelo!' I cried again, wondering why she stood there in the dusty road. 'Boineelo.'

She looked down at me. She seemed much bigger than me, and much, much older. 'Look what your uncles did to me,' she said curtly.

This story is based on an episode in Carol Fewster's childhood in Botswana.

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New Internationalist issue 170 magazine cover This article is from the April 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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