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Authors: Kopano Matlwa

Coconut

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Further praise forCoconut

“Matlwa is obviously a talent to be reckoned with…This is sassy, in-your-face, intelligent writing.”Margaret von Klemperer, The Witness

 

“One of the most culturally relevant readsof the year…”Lerato Mogoathle, City Press

 

“So finely wrought, so cleverly revealed anduncomfortably familiar… Matlwa tackles anunspoken realm of personal identity in a world wherethe traditional boundaries between black and whiteare as clear as chocolate milkshake.”

Bobby Jordan, Sunday Times Lifestyle

 

“Kopano Matlwa... is soos haar boek – ’n mirakel. [Haar] styl is afwisselend liries en dokumenterend.”

Ronel Nel, Beeld

 

“This is a bold and original novel… This is a youngwriter to watch. I thought it was excellent”.

Helen Schlebusch, The Citizen

 

“It’s a daring and uniquely South African story.”Zodwa Kumalo, Marie Claire

 

“Vir my was die verhaal in baie opsigte’n openbaring...”Jeanne Hugo, Die Burger (Kaapstad)

Published by Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd in 2007First and second impression 2007Third and fourth impression 2008Fifth impression 2009Sixth and seventh impression 2010Eighth impression 2011

 

10 Orange StreetSunnysideAuckland Park 2092South Africa+2711 628 3200www.jacana.co.za

 

© Kopano Matlwa, 2007

 

All rights reserved.

 

ISBN 978-1-77009-336-2

 

Also available as an e-bookd-PDF ISBN 978-1-4314-0389-9ePUB ISBN 978-1-4314-0390-5mobi ISBN 978-1-4314-0409-4

 

Cover design by publicideSet in Sabon 11/14ptJob No. 001515

 

See a complete list of Jacana titles atwww.jacana.co.za

Table of Contents

Further praise forCoconutTitle PageCopyright PageDedicationPart OnePart TwoEuropean Union-Literary AwardPrevious winners of the European Union Literary Award, all available in Jacana paperbackOther fiction titles by Jacana

Dedicated to you, child of my country

Oh goodness, oh my, I cannot believe this has happened, is happening, and that you, my dearest Coconut, are now real. Thank you, Lord! I cannot believe you, you are so sneaky; who would have guessed you had this planned all along! Mama and Papa, what and where would I be without you? You are my greatest teachers and my bestest friends, the most inspiring two people I know. Thank God I was born a Matlwa. J. Tumelo, my sister, my confidante, partner in crime and trusty editor, you’ve been so patient with me, your big sister who so often acts like your little one. Thank you for never tiring of my dramas and always having an ear to listen. Monewa, my favouritest brother in the world, your prayers and your hugs kept me going. The Kekanas and the Matlwas, all my grannies, grandpas, uncles and aunts, you all sacrificed so much for us, your children. Thank you, we owe all we have to you. Motlatsi, for your love, for being my pillar and strength, I don’t know how you put up with me, thank you and 458. And last but not least, my dear friend Mampho Motjidibane Bapela, I do not have the words to thank you enough; you believed in Coconut from the very beginning, and urged me on when I tired of trying. Can you believe it?

 

Kopano Matlwa

Part One

In a pew on the right, a couple of rows ahead of mine, sits a tiny chocolate girl. Her scraggy neck and jabbing elbows make me think of sticky chicken wings served with Sunday lunch. The sermon is not particularly riveting so I am easily distracted by anything that is willing. Braids: plastic, shiny, cheap synthetic strands of dreams-come-true make their way out from her underaged head. Sponono, in a burdensomely layered satin floral dress, sits silently beside her mother, running her fingers through the knotted mess of a little girl’s desires. An old and tattered woollen hair-band makes shapes of eight into and out of the blackness. Over and over again it goes, gawky arms moving almost rhythmically, juxtaposing greedy fingers.

 

Kate Jones had the most beautiful hair I had ever seen in all my eight years of life. Burnt amber. Autumn leaves. The setting sun. Her heavy and soft hair, curled slightly at its ends, would make proud swishes as she rolled around the playground.

 

Kate was overfed and hoggish. Kate was spoilt and haughty. Kate was rude and foul-mouthed. But with that hair, Kate was glorious. Dazzled by its radiance, class teachers overlooked the red crosses in Kate’s school workbooks, monstrous bullies exempted Kate from the pushing and prodding that all the juniors endured, popular kids made no fun of Kate’s podgy face and swollen ankles, and little black girls scattered helter-skelter, doing her favours in return for a feel of her hair.

 

I still do not know whether it was earnest, malicious, or out of some sort of contorted curiosity but Kate asked me one day, during Music, if I could plait her hair into thin plaits like the braids that adorned my head. She said my braids were pretty and that she wished she could have hair just like mine so she could be as beautiful as I was. Flabbergasted, I smiled a very broad smile, endeavouring to process the words. I immediately got to work, little hands moving swiftly, but not too swiftly, careful to make every one look exact.

 

The bell rang. Kate abruptly stood up to leave, and then caught her reflection.

 

But I was not finished yet!

 

First tears, then heads turning, then silence, then moretears, then shouting.

“My hair!”But I am not finished yet!“What is the matter, dear Kate?”But Mrs Reed, I am not finished yet!“My hair!”“Fifi, what have you done?”Please Mrs Reed, I am not finished yet!“My hair!”

“Fifi, you insolent child, what have you done to Kate’shair?”

 

“My hair!”

 

Please Kate, let me just finish, then you will see!“Fifi T, answer me! What have you done?”“Take it out, take it out, take it out now!”

 

Something that the preacher says momentarily gets me stuck in the sermon again but my mind soon wriggles back out. My little chocolate distraction, now frustrated with the inept woollen hair-band, yanks it forcefully out of her hair. She flinches. The hair-band falls to the ground, landing at her mother’s feet. Entangled in the hair-band is a long black braid with a tuft of hair at its end. Sponono sees it and begins to cry. The choir ladies are not happy. They rotate their necks around their curved backs and look first at Sponono, then at her mother and then at Sponono again. Sponono continues to cry. When the choir ladies begin to shift uncomfortably in their seats, Sponono’s mother, finding no other solution to the problem, picks up her handbag, the braid (still entangled in the woollen hair-band) and Sponono, and they all leave together.

 

Pain is beauty, grandmother used to say. Well, notmygrandmother, but I am certainsomebody’sgrandmother used to say that, and if my grandmother cared for such, I am sure she would say it too.

 

Ous Beauty would seat me on a high stool, so I could swing my legs while I waited for her to finish washing, blowing, dyeing, cutting, perming and styling her other customer’s hair. Month End was always a frantic time at Ous Beauty’s, because at Month End everybody felt rich. In the drawer at the level of my knees Ous Beauty kept a comb with the finest of teeth. In the mirror in front of me sat a girl with the coarsest of hair. That the two could work in harmony, I would never be convinced. Such pain. Teeth gritted, I watched her artificial red nails part my wiry hair so that she could base my scalp with Vitamin, Shea Butter and Lanolin Hair Food. I held my breath at every pull and attempted to concentrate on the snap of the gum she chewed so explicitly. I knew that by now the palms of my hands were an unbearable shade of red, from digging my nails in too deep. I hid them under a ten-year-old bottom, and shut my eyes tight, refusing to let out the tears that wrestled violently within. The Black Queen hair-straightener cream could be smelt long before it was seen. The black American TV girls on the box of the relaxer cream had hair so straight and so long that Mama assured me it could not be real. Ous Beauty then began to smear the cream on my hair. I always watched her vigilantly, making sure she did not miss a spot. A chemical reaction. A painful exothermic chemical reaction. Burn. Burning. Burnt. When Ous Beauty asked me if I was ready to wash it out, I said no. I wanted every last tiny weenie curl straight.

 

In the mirror I watched the fine-toothed comb slip effortlessly through my silky soft and straight Black Queen hair. I was not bothered by the tenderness of my scalp that sent quivers down my neck as the teeth of the comb slid past it, nor was I alarmed at the white of my roots that had come to the surface. No, I was just delighted to be beautiful again.

 

The upper half of the walls of our church are made completely of glass. The glass is brightly coloured into images of the saints and is so chunky that when you try to look through it, people on the exterior take on distorted forms. I imagine there are a lot of saints, so I am sure it is not all of them that I see gazing at us from the walls of the church. Our church is named after St. Francis of Assisi. I heard or read somewhere that St. Francis was once a most fashionable, wild and wealthy, reckless young man, celebrated amongst the youth of Assisi. He gave it all up to live a life of simplicity and so peaceful and humble did he become that the birds would come rest on his shoulders while he prayed.

 

In summer the sun shines through the glass of saints, and beams of colour, carrying tiny particles of what looks magical, but is probably just dust, meet at the centre of the aisle. When I was younger I used to think that those tiny particles descended every Sunday to protect the congregation from the evils of the world outside.

 

“Say it, Tshepo, just say it.”“I don’t know, Ofilwe, it’s just…”

“It’s just what, Tshepo? Why can you not just saywhat is on your mind? Speak!”

“It is like advertising. You market a product wellenough and anybody will buy it.”

“Christianity, a product? Lord, are you listening tothis? Are you crazy, Tshepo? Our whole social systemis built on Christianity: our calendar, holidays, laws.Our upbringing. Now you want to tell me that it is allone big scam?”

“All I am saying is that my skin is black.”

“No. Don’t you dare try to take this away from metoo. I am not going to apologise for my beliefs for yourAfricanism.

 

“It is not Africanism.”“Then what is it?”

 

Our family of four – Mama, Daddy, Tshepo and I – has been coming to St. Francis Anglican Church ever since we moved from a vaguely remembered Mabopane to Little Valley Country Estate. Our new home was closer to my father’s Sandton City offices and Tshepo’s preparatory school. I was to begin nursery school that year and Tshepo grade one, although he should have been in grade two but was held back a year, because he did not speak English as well as his new, elite, all-boys’ school would have liked.

 

We commence to sing the Peace Song. The Presentation of the Gifts and the Holy Eucharist follow. I know the proceedings so well that I am certain I could take the service if I so desired. I ceased using the prayer book in grade six when I realised that I knew all the congregation’s responses by heart. When Tshepo used to come to church with us we would say the priest’s part too, to see who knew it best.

 

Dear Diary27 September 1997

 

Tomorrow is the 28th of September, the day of Tim Browning’s sleep-over party. I’m sure they will all be dancing the night away, while I sit in the middle of nowhere doing a whole bunch of fat nothing. Mama says I can’t go. Typical.

 

Nothing in my life is of any importance to anyone in this house. I just don’t understand them. How can they do this to me? I asked Daddy if I could go the same day I got the invitation and he said yes. The whole day at school yesterday, everybody was talking about what they would be wearing to the party. For the first time in a long while I could actually take part in the conversations, because for the first time in a long while I was actually going to a real party and not the stupid grade-one-type jumping castle parties that my dumb friends throw. Well, that’s what I thought anyway.

 

Mama tells me in the car, on our way home yesterday, that a former Headmaster of Thuto Pele Primary School in Atteridgeville was shot last weekend by two men he gave a lift to. She says he is married and that their youngest child is twelve, just as old as I am. She says that we are leaving for the funeral tomorrow morning (the 28th of September!) and that I should tell Tshepo that both of us need to be in bed early because we need to be out of the house by 5am sharp.

 

That’s when I blew. How could they forget about the biggest event of the year? Or do they just not care? They are trying to destroy my life. I’m sure of it! Look, don’t get me wrong, I feel really sorry for the man and his family. I don’t want to even think about life without Daddy. But what difference will me being there make? The people don’t even know me. What will they care?

 

My mother tells me, “It is respect, Ofilwe. Maybe she not know you or even me very very good. But these things we must do. We must be there at the funeral. Hmm? All of us must be there. These things are of immense importance. Very very great importance. We appreciate each other. We support each other. Next thing it is misfortune on our family. Huh? Just think about that. Also us, we will need these people.”

 

Bla dee bla dee bla fishpaste! I shot back, “Not actually, Mama, I do not want a bunch of strangers at my funeral pretending to care when all they are there for is the food!”

 

No, I didn’t say that. I thought it, though, and probably should have said it. It’s high time Mama knows how I feel. Doesn’t she understand that this party is my big chance? Tim Browning doesn’t just invite anybody to his parties. He wants me there for a reason. He told me once that I was different. Tim said that I was not like the other black girls in our class. He said I was calmer, cuter and that I looked a little like Scary Spice.

 

At nuptial and burial ceremonies, at thanksgiving daysge re phasa Badimo, I stand in reverence, out of everybody’s way, silently taking it all in, feeling most inadequate amongst a group of people who all seem to know exactly what roles they play in the age-old Pedi rituals. As the only female grandchild, I fear that day when my turn comes to run these sacred occasions. Organise, arrange, coordinate, sort out, control, fix… Speak! What is it that one is supposed to say? Perhaps there was a class I missed, lessons in my youth that I was supposed to attend and for some unexplored reason did not. I do not know what the mourning woman should wear, which way her yellow mattress should face, how long she should dress in black for, pray for, kneel for, cry for. I do not know who to call or who to send. What now if I command the guests to sing before the rain has fallen or beckon the children to sit on the left at the back instead of in the front on the side? I do not know how the sensitive messages are relayed, whether it is too soon or getting too late. I do not know how I am supposed to know, and whether I will ever know.

 

“Mama, what did we believe in before the missionariescame?”

“Badimo.”“Badimo?”“Yes, Ofilwe,Badimo.”

“Badimoand what else? What else did we believeMama?”

“JustBadimo,Ofilwe.”

“But surely we had our own traditional rites, a namefor our God, a form of worship? Whatever happenedto that?”

“I do not know, Ofilwe.”

“Tshepo says they, the missionaries, tricked us Mama.Or doesn’t it matter?”

“No. It does not matter, Ofilwe.”“Do you think bo Koko would know?”“Maybe, Ofilwe.”

“Or was it before their time? When did the missionariescome?”

“ I do not know, Ofilwe. Goodnight.”“OK, Mama, goodnight.”

 

I attend this ancient church because I am comfortable here. I understand nothing of the history of the church. I do not know what the word ‘Anglican’ means nor can I explain to you how the church came to arise. It is simple. I come here because I feel I belong. That is all. The traditions of the church are my own. I do not have any others.

After the service we follow our shadows down the white stony path to where our car is parked. In the days when there were four shadows, I used to watch them as they awkwardly moved ahead of us, sometimes catching them looking back to see if we were still behind them. I wondered how they knew where we wanted to go. In the days when there were four of them, Tshepo’s long and gangly shadow would glide ahead of all of ours as Tshepo ran to secure the front seat. Every Sunday Mama would futilely try to beat Tshepo to it and then scold him for taking her seat when her high heels and years prevented her from getting there before him. Every Sunday Daddy would remind Tshepo that in car accidents the passenger in the front seat is always the worst hit. Every Sunday Tshepo would smugly buckle up and pretend that he could not hear either of them.

 

After the 9.30am Family Service, all members of our church are invited to juice and biscuits in the hall-cum-school-cum-gymnasium across from the chapel. Even though it is seldom both juice and biscuits that the tea ladies provide, I often wish that we could stay. Watching our shadows lead us away from the soaring walls of the church and to our car as they have done every Sunday since I can remember, I realise that with age I have come to accept my family of four just the way it is. Mama is amiable but has no time to get too involved in the happenings of St. Francis Anglican Church. And Daddy – well, Daddy plays golf.

 

I didn’t tell Tshepo because I knew that he would believe me. I needed somebody to convince me that

 

I was lying. You see, the problem with Tshepo is that he thinks too much. Tshepo and Daddy had not been getting along very well and I didn’t want to exacerbate the tension between them.

 

I swear. It happened innocently. I do not pry. I would have been better off not knowing (whatever it is I think I now know). I needed to urgently call Maritza so that we could plan whether it would be wiser to dress in pants or skirts for school the next day, but Mama had been hogging the phone. I was getting anxious because it was getting late and Maritza’s parents did not take kindly to calls coming in after eight.

 

I discreetly picked up the study-room phone and used my pyjama top to cover the voice-piece. I wanted to know why Mama was still on the line. She was crying. Mama never cries. Koko was on the other end, which is not anything out of the ordinary because Mama and her mother speak daily. However, this conversation was different. Koko was speaking softly and so sternly with Mama. Koko said that Mama needed to stop acting like a spoilt child. Koko said that John – Daddy – was a man and that men do these things with other women, but that it does not mean he does not care for Mama. Koko said that Mama lives a life that many women from where she comes from can only dream of and that she cannot jeopardise that by ‘this crazy talk of divorce’.

 

“Divorce? You must never. Do not be selfish, Gemina. You must think, my child. Think. Use your head. Huh, Gemina? Have you forgotten your responsibilities,

 

Gemina? You have two young children… you must for them care. Two. Where do you think you will go if you leave John? Back home? Where, Gemina? Where do you have to go? What will become of all of you? Huh? Nothing. Without him, my girl, you is nothing.”

 

Nothing. Such a strong word. Nothing. I wondered about many things after Koko put down the phone and Mama walked up the stairs to slam her bedroom door. Was Koko right? Would I have turned out to be nothing if Mama had not married Daddy? Would I not be the same Ofilwe I am now if Mama had never made it out of the dreaded location? What if Mama had chosen love, where would I be now? What would I be now? Nothing?

 

Instead of waking up to my cubed fruit, muesli and mixed nuts on a bed of low-fat granadilla yoghurt, would I begin my day by polishing the red stoep that juts out at the front of Koko’s two-roomed house? When bored, would I pass the time by naming stones and creating homes for them in the wet dirt that surrounds Koko’s self-made outside toilet instead of playing Solitaire on Mama’s laptop, as I do now? Would I steal handfuls of sugar from the former mielie-meal bucket under the sink and run out to lie on the grass to let the sweet crystals melt on my tongue instead of forgetting to give Daddy back his change, forget it was not mine for the keeping and forget I was not supposed to use it to buy honey and almond nougat bars from the health shop outside the estate gates. Instead of a decaf Café Latte at Bedazzle on

 

Thursday nights would I freeze my Cool-Aid and save it for a really hot day? Would it matter to me who my clothes were named after?

 

Would I go into respiratory distress at the thought of wearing garments with no names at all? Would it be the complex security guard’s wandering eye or gunshots drawing ever closer in the night that made me uneasy? Would it be brightly lit tarred roads or whistling dusty streets that I travelled along?

 

As we climb into the car, there is a loud crashing sound that comes from the hall-cum-school-cum-gymnasium across from the chapel. A sound like cutlery, crockery, jars of jam and empty ice-cream tubs sliding off high shelves and crashing, smashing, shattering and thumping onto the floor… and some people’s heads. It gives all of us a fright and Daddy drops the car keys under the seat. A roar of laughter from the hall-cum-school-cum-gymnasium follows the loud crashing sound. It is obviously nothing serious.

 

“Where were you born, Fifi?”“In Johannesburg, Mrs Williamson.”“Don’t lie, Ofilwe, you were born in a stinky shack!”“No I wasn’t, Zama! Shut up.”“Stop being nasty, Zama. Fifi was not born in any sortof shack, were you, Fifi?”“No, Mrs Williamson.”

 

Our ageing car jitters slightly, sending tingles up my spine, as we drive on the gravel, out of the chalky churchyard, into the black road. Today I sit in the back seat alone. Mama sits in the front, alongside Daddy. Tshepo is at home, most likely lying in the hammock he claimed as his own when we discovered it at the bottom of the garden in our playing days. At one stage in my life my body was just short enough to fit along the length of the backseat. However, I never had it to myself then, so could never enjoy the luxury of using its cream hide as a bed when my eyes tired of watching trees flash past the window. Besides being far too tall and far too old for that now, I am no longer exhilarated by the idea of spreading my body across the back of Daddy’s car.

 

Stuart Simons is an obnoxious pig. What does he know about my family? I was so excited for Daddy. He had yearned for this specific car for almost a year, and could now finally afford it. Before the car came, Daddy used to page longingly through the automobile magazines and point out that in that specific car he would have ‘all the right machinery to roll with the big dogs’. Daddy would pick me up and put me on his shoulders and whisper that in that specific car he would cut all the right deals for sure, and with all the money he would make he would buy his precious Ofilwe all the chocolate-covered gobstoppers her heart desired. We had all gone to help him choose a colour, and had agreed that a silver-grey suited that specific car best.

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