By Mico Pisanti
They started with the Somali shops.
That was the previous night. During the daylight, no one dared to hear anything. No one saw anything. Only the smouldering remains of the gutted shops, the products pilfered through the gaping windows, the meagre security bars of gates guarding doorways tossed aside, and the crying families on the dusty roads of Diepsloot Township told the story.
It was 2008 all over again. Same reasons, same faceless mob, same targets. The foreigners. The job stealers. The Pakistanis. The Malawians. The Zimbaweans. The Tanzanians.
The police arrived – always after the fact. And only after sunrise. Their claim was that it was impossible to police when load shedding power outages turned the township into a dark pit of lawlessness. To us it rang of hollow excuses. A lack of will.
My name is Godfrey Chami and I am afraid they are coming for us tonight.
Our shop was the envy of street number 4. We didn’t have street names in Diepsloot, but it didn’t matter; everyone knew us and where to find us. They’d even done a TV story on our family. Tightly knit. Making South Africa our new home. Best prices. From washing powder to Nikes (we had a Chinese supplier), we knocked out the competition – the local spazza shops that were the staple on every corner of every shanty town in South Africa.
My father was a very religious man. He was Muslim. My mother was Catholic. How this worked, I still do not know. He attended mosque and she church. Her church was actually a hall near the police station where a spark of electricity was to be found.
Don’t get me wrong. We did get electricity, it was all illegal connections courtesy of our neighbour, Mr Maobi, and a daisy chain of extension cords that ran from his window into our kitchen. But when the country is caught in rolling blackouts every day, it doesn’t matter if you’re legal or illegal, you are all in darkness. Another reason for having no electricity was the rats. Rats chew everything, and in Diepsloot – like in most townships – the rats were legion.
So, my parents came from different religions, but my grandmamma, Bibi Zihada, who also left Tanzania with us years back, is of an older faith. My parents didn’t approve of her talking about the old ways to us, but I knew it dealt with all sorts of magical concoctions, and herbs and ancestors. I would see people, even South Africans, coming to her for advice or for potions. The problems they brought seemed to be the universal. Love, Money, Jealousy. Revenge.
On most days I attended school. My little sister, Neema, and my younger brother, Joseph, also attended, but school was something that only happened some of the time. Like, say, the electricity. So I also worked in the shop, which was our pride and joy. We lived in a hastily built shack of corrugated steel and our Bibi Zihada lived in a small brick room behind us. When it rained it leaked everywhere. This was only temporary, my father assured us. He was planning to move us into a house of brick with a decent roof. We were the three little pigs looking for an upgrade.
Of late my mother has been talking about a priest at her gatherings who is passionate about our cause, about foreigners’ rights. Father Emmanuel Andengenye. A clever man, by my mother’s reckoning. Far too good looking to be a priest, by my father’s reckoning. Her devoted visits have caused a few arguments behind the curtain which divided my parents’ bedroom from our three beds.
“That man has no sense. If he did he wouldn’t be making such speeches. Not when there are ears everywhere,” my father would protest. “We don’t have rights. Accept it. All we can do is keep our heads down and stay out of the way. And that includes not looking for these rights.”
But my mother was a headstrong lady. “What about those boys that stand on the street corner? Those boys should be in school. I walk past them every day, and the…the filth they say to me! Such disrespect! Things I wouldn’t even think a fifteen-year-old should know. Godfrey is their age and he doesn’t know these things.”
“They’re just being boys.”
“They are being rude. They have no respect for us. Nobody does. The police are the same.”
“They are our customers, Grace. They keep us from starvation.”
“So we should have full bellies and no rights?”
“It’s better than empty bellies.”
“…and no rights?”
“Yes! Of course!”
A tense silence.
“Everybody thinks 2008 is behind us. But it is not. It never left. Nothing was resolved. It is building up again. Can’t you sense it?”
“Is that you speaking or Father Emmanuel?”
“Tcht!” It was my mother’s favourite expression for anything that was so frustrating it was beyond words. “Now you’re just jealous. I am serious. I don’t feel safe at the shop.”
A harsh whisper. “Keep your voice down, woman. The children.”
Her return whisper, just as fierce. “Do you not care for your family? I am scared, Ahmed. I don’t like how those…those Zulu and Xhosa men look at me. Like I am something they can just take. They all look empty and hungry.”
Placating murmur. “They are not all like that, Grace.”
“Well, if that is so, then why aren’t they stopping those who want to harm us?”
“I do not know.”
More tense silence. But at least I could feel the anger wasn’t being directed at each other anymore. This was good. The worst thing for me was hearing my parents argue.
My father chuckled. “You know what Bibi said the other day?”
My mother sighs. “What did she say, Ahmed?”
“She said what we need is a little bit of that old magic.”
Then. “Funny enough, Father Emmanuel was saying the same thing.”
One church evening, my mother took Bibi and I to the little hall to pray for our safety. Father Emmanuel was there, greeting everyone at the door. A powerfully built man with clean white teeth that gleamed. His face made me think of those actors on soap operas. He shook and greeted his congregation as we filed into the sparsely decorated hall. Plastic school chairs and a bare dusty stage. It soon occurred to me that we weren’t all foreigners. Yes there were Tanzanians. Zimbabweans, Nigerians, but there were also a few South Africans in the mix.
The father stood up on stage and closed his eyes. He lifted his arms outwards, his black robes hanging like spread wings and he pronounced with ringing clarity: “I am Emmanuel. I am the Nameless Angel.”
“Amen,” the crowd pronounced.
“So good looking. Like your Babu when he was young,” Bibi murmured to my mother. “I can see why you come here so regularly.”
Over the next hour an impassioned Father Emmanuel told us all to fear no evil, for God walked amongst us. That angels were everywhere and that we should have faith. The sweat on his brow was impressive. His movements across the stage left footprints in the dust that made me think of the televangelists I’d seen on the pirated DVDs we sold in the shop. But we never got to see the end of the sermon because something crashed through one of the high windows like a flaming arrow. A skinny old woman in full church attire of hat, handbag and blow-away dandelion hair, screeched and began batting at her flaming head. Others around her threw their jackets over her head to smother the fires. Chairs were already flying every which way, scraping along the wooden floor, as people moved towards the side doors.
“Get Bibi out of here!” My mother screamed, and I hoisted my grandmother, bird-like and brittle, around her waist and carried her over my shoulder like a barrel. I didn’t think twice as I saw more flaming rockets flying through the windows, causing little devils of fire to caper and dance on the floor.
I glanced at the priest. He stood very still. His eyes wide, his chest heaving. He stood like a holy relic. Slowly he lifted his arms, those wings of righteousness, and over the chaos of screams and running, and thudding feet, he boomed: “For the LORD will pass through the land…”
The smell of paraffin and petrol was strong in the air, stinging eyes. Someone was struggling to get the doors open. People were slipping in the glass from the shattered bottle bombs. I put down my grandmother and my mom looked back at the boiling crowd behind us.
“I need to help,” she said. “Get Bibi to safety! Go!” She was a face in a crowd, squeezed between two bodies, then she was gone.
My heart was thudding with real fear now.
My grandmother gripped my arm. “You’re safe with me, mjukuu.”
“… But when he sees the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe, the LORD will pass over your home. He will not permit his angel of death to enter your house and strike you down!” The priest’s voice was like a cry to arms.
People began to scream in fresh pain and it took a moment inside the crush of the crowd for me to register flying bricks, half rocks, pieces of cement, even a flaming tire, hurtling through the windows. Some of the other side doors were rattling like sabres against shields before a battle. The claustrophobic crush was choking me and my heart was a frenzied bird in a cage. Black spots threatened my vision, then, as the doors in front of us gave way, so too did the doors behind us, and what was waiting outside poured in.
At that moment the electricity cut off and everything was plunged into darkness. The mob surged over the trapped crowd inside, and it became a dark grunting maelstrom of sticks, cries, fists, shoves, bodies falling the ground, others being dragged off. My grandmother, the brittle bird, never let me go. She pushed her way through the war zone. Chilled night air mingled with coppery blood. Paraffin, running footsteps. People in our crowd were picking up whatever weapon they could get a hold of. An old rusty dustbin post, complete with nails. I saw it swing and catch a youth not much older than me in the head. I shut my eyes, still fighting to breathe.
It would be an hour before we made it home. My grandmother was covered in cuts and bruises. The side of her head was bleeding. But she shrugged all the concern off of herself, pressing me to my father who covered me in kisses and held me tight. My siblings were hiding under their beds, holding each other’s hands.
Then Neema asked. “Where’s mama?”
“Your Babu was an albino, did you know that?” Bibi said.
I didn’t answer.
They had found her.
“A very powerful man. Revered and feared at the same time was your Babu.”
Raped and strangled.
“Of course, the witch doctors were always hunting him. They wanted his powers.”
I need to help. Get Bibi to safety! Go!
Her final words.
My grandmother laid a bruised hand on my arm; I had gotten away with virtually no injuries. Bibi wore her own wounds well. Like it was nothing. And my mother? Darkness. I couldn’t think of that. Not yet. Maybe never. “It is in times like these that your brother and sister are going to need you.” A pause. “And your father.”
He was inconsolable. I had learnt that word in English class when we read Bleak House by Charles Dickens. An English writer being studied by African children a century after he died. Random musings.
My father had locked himself up in his shop late at night, not caring about the warnings or the curfews. He didn’t come home for two days. My grandmother had cooked for us. Even though she was in pain, her head giving her pause every now and then, she got on with it. We even went to school.
What else was there to do but dance around the precipice of the hole left by my mother?
“You must eat something, Godfrey. Please. Just a little bit.”
The hole in the air was the same hole in my heart was the same hole in the pit of me. My centre was gone. I was nothing.
A hollow being, waiting to be filled.
The priest came to visit under the cover of darkness.
Since the attack on his congregation things had died down a little. But the tension was there. In the streets. Our mother’s funeral was a rushed affair. And it was complicated by the identification of the corpse (my father tried to be strong, but he seemed to be disappearing into himself day by day). Father Emmanuel had intervened on our behalf.
“It seems you are the man of the house, my young friend.” Father Emmanuel’s face was a terrain of broken cheek and fractured jaw which buried his good looks. His eyes were swollen and bruised. But he was alive, and he seemed to be feeding on the physical pain. For a moment he had struggled to speak, and I saw his swollen lips were cracked and split. “A cowardly stroke of a wooden plank with nails in it. Luckily the nails broke. None pierced my flesh. Hallelujah, it’s a miracle.”
I could not tell through his ruined face what expression he wore. If he was being flippant to a God that hadn’t saved his congregation or my mother. But it took too much energy to care.
“I am here to talk to your Bibi,” he added.
I led him out back. Past the rusty Ford Cortina. A relic from Mr Moabi next door.
“Come in,” she said. Her voice had a faint echo like the dank bottom of a well. It was a tight squeeze but we all managed to fit. We stood straight against the bare brick wall whilst she sat on the floor, her blanket spread on the hard cement. Her throwing bones at the ready. Her herbs were kept in old jars along the walls on shelves of bricks and planks.
“The nameless angel arrives,” my grandmother said. “What does he want from an old lady?”
Father Emmanuel bowed his head and said something in Sawhili. I do not speak the language. I am more fluent in the township lingo, a mishmash of Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho.
“Let the boy understand,” said my grandmother. “He is now having to grow up fast.”
“Your loss is the loss of all our people. And the danger is still imminent. I am a man of the cloth, but I am also a man of our people. And the old ways,” said Father Emmanuel.
My grandmother nodded slowly. “Are you asking for something, Father?”
“I have learnt of an attack. Imminent. Soon. This time it’ll be the shops that will be targeted. They want to steal our livelihood. They want to chase us out of Diepsloot.”
“Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow…”
“The cowards don’t like to attack during the day. Too many faces to recognise. They love the dark.”
The priest stood very still for a long time. So long in fact that I thought he’d gone to sleep, arms hanging at his sides, head down, as if thinking deeply. “The dark is what we need.” I felt a chill ripple up my arms. “We can use it.”
My grandmother leant forward, peering up at that beaten face. “Tell me about the dark and we shall see about the old ways.”
I can feel the flames even from here. No sirens. Just people throwing buckets of water. South Africans, Zimbabweans. Just neighbours trying to put out the flames as the Somali shop owner stands, his arm around his daughter, weeping, watching the fire light up the pitch black sky. The looting was over in minutes; it was more a snarling pack of dogs than people.
I stood chilled, despite the heat pressing to my face. Chilled heart. My grief was something wild and roaring in my ears.
The priest’s and my Bibi’s words slither over one another like snakes, a fork-tongued foreshadowing in my mind.
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
The old ways.
I need your help. We can’t let this keep happening.
For no reason I picked up the soot that was landing like black snow around me and I slowly rubbed it into my cheeks, my forehead, and my lips. The acrid smell of burning wood filled my nose.
Finally the sirens came. But the Somalians were done. They would never come back here.
I turned away and walked back to our shack. My grandmother stood in the doorway. A short squat old woman. White curls, a strong face, the cut down the side of her head was scabbing over, like a badly tarred road, but healing. It would leave a scar.
She had a shawl pulled tightly around her. Her eyes looked yellow in the night fire. “Your grandfather would have wept.”
“We just need a bit of that old magic,” I said.
She stared at me as if she’d never seen me before. It was not something I would never have said. Before. Before her. It was flippant even.
But it could just be the soot on my face that made her look at me that way.
They came only after the armoured Nyalas had left.
The curfew was still in full enforcement.
The one street lamp down the road flickered like a dying firefly. Orange light showing the retreating vehicles.
My grandmother had insisted we all gather in my father’s shop. She had spent the day spreading the word to every household up and down our section of Street 4.
We gathered: the car guards, gardeners, car washers, tree fellers, the domestic workers of Gauteng who left for the city before first light and came back home after dark. We communicated in broken English or Xhosa. People brought their blankets, for it was going to be an all-nighter. My father didn’t seem to see any of them as they filed in through the front door. To him the world was all shadows and ash.
It was a sombre atmosphere. The little children didn’t even whine or wriggle as they tended to do, especially when confined to one space. We kept all the lights on inside, but still we jumped at any sudden loud noises. Most of us had endured refugee camps. Border crossings. Interrogations. Bribing officials. This was just another chapter in our long migration.
“You said my Babu was an albino. Was that true?” I asked my Grandmother. I had never known my grandfather. Not even seen a picture of him.
“Yes, Godfrey. He was a powerful man.”
“How?” We never seemed to have been wealthy. “How was he powerful?”
“Albino blood makes a person very special, in our belief. But even if he hadn’t been an albino, your Babu would have been special anyway.”
In my experience, albinos weren’t any different from other people. But I’d heard the stories from Tanzania. They were called ghosts, walking spirits, demons. Reviled. Hunted, even. Their body parts fetched a high price from witch doctors.
We need a bit of that old magic.
I shivered. “What happened to him?”
“He died of the skin cancer. An albino weakness. His skin didn’t do well in the light.”
“Bibi?” My voice hitched, I suddenly felt five years old again. The numb grief for my mother had cracks growing in it. And underneath waiting… the molten lava of pain. I felt a tremor. “What are we waiting for?”
She thought for a moment. Her gaze was outside, scanning the waiting darkness.
“The old ways.”
Another hour passed. The shop lights were attracting bugs to the window panes. Past the wings of a moth I saw something move down the dirty track we called a street.
At first a shadow, then a blur, then a man. Father Emmanuel. Running at full tilt. His robes flapping. Head up, teeth bared. His swollen face still a horror of violence. Running for his life. He slammed on the glass of the door with the flat of his hand, startling children to awaken and cry. Adults blinked, rubbing their eyes.
My father turned his head, but made no move. I got up and went to the door, unlocking the flimsy chain and bolt. The shop wasn’t the strongest built place; a converted RDP house that my father was renting from a South African man for an exorbitant price. I’d heard my father complain of the rent many times to my mother.
My heart choked.
The priest pushed his way in.
“Don’t bother locking it,” he said. “They’re coming.” Sweat coated his brow. That righteous gleam was back in his eyes and he was filled with crackling energy. “Stand up everyone! Stand up. They’re coming. They’re coming for us.”
Now people were awake. They stood up, all of them, and made a weary rank and file towards the front of the shop.
The priest looked around. “No matter what happens. Do not be afraid. Let’s pray.” Everyone lowered their heads.
When he started to pray my back and scalp tightened with gooseflesh. “For the LORD will pass through the land to strike down the Egyptians. But when he sees the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe, the LORD will pass over your home. He will not permit his death angel to enter your house and strike you down.”
The lights buzzed, and suddenly everything was in darkness.
People screamed involuntarily.
“Don’t be afraid.” The priest reminded everyone. “It is load shedding. Like clockwork. You can set your watch to the darkness. And darkness that is timely is fortuitous.”
Then we could hear them. A mob shouting something. Men. Angry men. Shirtless. Drunk. Their blood high on exacting vengeance for a perceived wrong. I could almost hear it in multiple veins and muscle. A hundred hearts, beating, marching, kicking up dust.
And what wrong had we done? Being different? That we were from over there and not from here? Was that our wrongdoing? I pushed Joseph and Neema under the counter and I put my finger to my lips. “Shhh.”
They were two pairs of eyes. But I knew they understood.
I thought of my mother, and my hands curled into fists. The chanting and shouting grew closer. And suddenly the windows were a jagged symphony of breaking and shattering. The fire had arrived too. Flames in bottles. Torches on sticks. They must have seen us all, just standing there in the dark. Not moving not saying anything. Like sacrificial lambs awaiting the eternal darkness. I wondered if that darkness tasted like velvet tears. Like relief.
For a brief moment the mob actually paused, unsure.
Father Emmanuel stepped over broken glass and went outside through the front door. Alone. A black cut-out in the flames of the mob.
“I would ask that you turn away. Before there is death,” he said to the crowd.
A thin man, clad only in torn red overalls tied around his waist and holding an old garden rake in one hand, suddenly skipped forward and swung a bottle crashing it into the priest’s head. The priest collapsed, and I felt the resolve of those in my father’s shop fall with him.
Then, amazingly, the priest struggled to his feet, swaying unsteadily. He spread those wings of his, and roared: “Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” He paused and then asked. “Are we not all brothers?”
The shirtless man shoved the priest back into the dirt. He then lifted the rake over his head and brought it down on Father Emmanuel’s leg with a meaty chunk. The rake’s cruel teeth found their mark, and the crowd cheered, their greedy eyes burning as bright as their torches. The priest screamed, his voice breaking off as the skinny man tried to unhook his garden rake from his thigh, but dragged him along in the dirt instead. My heart was thumping in my throat. Salty adrenaline. Bile and fury.
And then the priest’s hand caught the skinny man’s wrist, and his voice, horse and ragged said, “‘For am I not my brother’s keeper? Should I not forgive him…?’” A gasp. “Forgive him for his trespasses?”
I turned to my Bibi. Her eyes were closed and she was whispering to herself. Then she opened her eyes. They were blind and pale.
Above us, on the tiled roof we heard a loud thump, we all jumped.
The rake man never knew what hit him. Something black flapped onto him as if an eagle was attacking him from above. There was a gasp from the mob as well as those of us in the dark shop. Something snapped, and then the skinny man howled like an animal. The rake was lifted by the shadow and an instant later it drew back the gristle and skin off of the skinny man’s face, revealing bone. The skinny man collapsed, writhing on the ground. Then the rake embedded itself in his head, cutting off the skinny man’s cries. The black silhouette of the stranger hulked over him.
The crowd in the shop shrank back in fright. The mob was silenced.
Only the priest made a sound.
“Brother,” he whispered to the black shape. “You came.”
The dark shape turned towards us in the shop. It wore a fearsome visage of vengeance. Blind, red-rimmed eyes bleached blue by the sun. Wisps of yellow and grey hair. He was dressed in what looked like a monk’s robes, the cowl collected around his thick, powerful neck, and he stood with his arms wide.
But it was the smile, I am sure of it even now. Not the violence. That smile stopped the entire mob in its tracks.
Rows of ivory fangs, sharper than a Gabon viper’s.
“She called. And I came.” The faded eyes and my Bibi’s met. And then he turned to the mob. “You like to hunt? I know a thing or two about being hunted.” He lifted a steel claw from under his sleeve. “Albino hunters lost me my hand.”
In a move swifter than the eye could read, he lifted the skinny man by his scrawl of a neck. The man’s one eye was a staring nothing, yet he twitched. Then the stranger bit down, sinking all of that ivory death into the man’s throat.
And he drank deeply.
I do not know for how long we stood, the mob on one side, the shop of foreigners to the other, this horror beast in the great divide, drinking the blood of a dying man. All I know is, by the time he was done, what was once a man was more a fleshy husk that he cast aside. By this stage Father Emmanuel had pulled himself to his feet, favouring one leg. His trousers were already blackening with blood, but he didn’t seem to care.
“Demon!” spat someone in the mob, and there was a half-hearted jeer, which curdled and died, as the hulking thing took one step forward.
“This is no demon,” the priest’s voice was weakening, even though he still stood firm. “He is my brother. And he belongs to the old ways.”
“You will be cursed for this!” Someone else cried.
“I already am.” The stranger’s smooth silken voice caressed the night.
The mob, like an animal surged forward, wounded but still dangerous.
And again it was halted.
Suddenly my grandmother was there, between the priest and the monstrous albino, facing the mob.
My grandmother spoke then like she was lecturing a bunch of misbehaved children with monster stories: “He is blind. But by night he sees all. And with darkness being so regular these days, so regulated, you could set your watch to it. With that darkness, will come our vengeance.”
The priest continued. “Can you really take that chance? Do you really want to challenge an angel of God?”
The mob moved backwards imperceptibly, away from the shop. And slowly, they turned, and began to disappear into the black night where only the rats ran free.
The violence ceased. Over the next few days there were protest marches in the cities arranged by South Africans who embraced their fellow Africans. Politicians condemned the violence, and a certain amount of peace was restored.
I too found my own peace. A purpose. I wrote my goodbyes and left them on the till of my father’s shop. I then found my grandmother in her tiny brick room. “I would like to learn the old ways,” I demanded.
“To what purpose?”
“My mother died before her time. Those who harmed her need to be found. Will you help me, Bibi?”
She sighed: “This vengeance business is a snake eating its tail, Godfrey. I don’t wish it on you.” She sighed again and shook her head. “Just like your grandfather, you are.”
“Will Babu help me?”
She looked at me for a long time before she said, “Vengeance is in your blood.”
I smiled, and it was a smile best served cold.