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The two Yewandes of Jo’burg

South Africa
Illustration by Sarah John

I bear a Yoruba name. Yewande, iya wa mi de, means ‘mother has come to look for me’. My name is common in Nigeria and obscure in South Africa. Being from many places has a way of tempering all experiences. I have been beautiful in some cities, ugly in others; in a way it’s healthy – at least for the ego – to grow up understanding the balancing powers of context.

A new friend in Jo’burg, a Nigerian, invited me to a picnic. He was going to be late but said the host, a Kenyan woman, knew me and that it would be fine to turn up before him. He mentioned the host’s name and I felt embarrassed at my poor memory, but hoped the minute I saw her face recognition would surface. When I arrived, the host stared perplexed at me, then we smiled as we both got it at the same time – she’d mistaken me for a different Yewande, whom I would go on to meet.

As the two Yewandes there is a lot of fun to be had in the city. It helps our shtick that we are both tall, slender, share a skin tone, and wear our hair in dreadlocks. To provide even more wonder, while my mother was Barbadian and my father Nigerian, Yewande’s dad is Guyanese and her mother Nigerian. Although we’d never known each other until the mistaken picnic, our parents apparently spent some days together in Papua New Guinea. Whatever has conspired to land us both in this city at this time, we take full advantage.

I’m devoutly introverted but one night Yewande persuades me to come out. I know to make an effort and dress up. Despite being unpractised at walking in them I wear tan heels and make my own feeble attempts towards sexy. Yewande wears a short skirt that would make anyone look twice. Sure enough, at the restaurant people are curious. ‘Are you athletes?’ one man would like to know. Another asks us our names (our favourite part of any outing together).

‘Yewande,’ she says.

‘And yours?’ He turns to me.

‘Yewande,’ I say, grinning.

‘Are you sisters?’

Him we exclude purely on the basis of intelligence.

A man called Sylvester eventually comes and asks if we would join his table. We’re performing a gendered script, one at odds with my natural way and, as a result, immensely fascinating. We oblige and apparently that means our drinks are now catered for. Yewande is drinking wine. I nurse a gin and tonic. Sylvester is caressing some very expensive-looking whiskey and his sidekick likes beers. There is also a couple at the table: each time the girlfriend goes to the bathroom the man, to the chagrin of the sidekick, whispers in Yewande’s ear. Later she says he was asking her to have sex with him.

Yewande and I have spoken about dating in Jo’burg before. She is emphatic that there are no single black men in the city. Even if he arrives at the airport unattached, by the time he’s on the highway he’s got a few numbers on his phone and a couple of dates set up for the night. By her account, then, the two men propositioning us, who claim to be single, are rare occurrences.

The night – the script – is pleasant although neither Yewande nor I accept the invitation back to Sylvester’s place. After paying the astronomical bill (largely due to the whiskeys) both men see us to our cars. My feet are in agony; I can barely walk having attempted a display of femininity in which I have no skill. I’m amused when I look down at Yewande’s feet to see elegant, flat slippers encrusted in diamante studs. I drive home foolish but happy.

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