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Hajira Amla


Hajira Amla

Amla lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has previously been musician, journalist, newspaper sub-editor, radio news anchor, and PRO. Born in England, she lived for two years in the Seychelles before moving to South Africa in 1993. Her writing often reflects the stark realities of life in a changing nation and throws a harsh spotlight on the widespread abuse of women and children in South Africa.


 Anita's Cross

“I’m sorry to tell you this Anita, but your mummy passed away last night in Gandhi hospital.”
Anita looked up at Aunty Kogie’s thin, worn face and noticed that her hair was beginning to grey. Her aunt fidgeted for some time.

“Did you understand what I said, Annie?” Aunt Kogie asked, concluding that Anita had not understood her. Anita always made her feel slightly uneasy, as though the child was much, much older than thirteen.

“My mother is dead,” Anita said, her voice flat.

Surely the child should be crying now, thought Kogie.

“You know, your mummy was very sick for a long time, Annie but she really loved you and wanted to be there for you. When the hospital called me this morning, I was so devastated that my sister passed away while we were all sleeping. But that is God’s way you know, sometimes He takes away the people that we love. Mummy is an angel in heaven now, and she’s not in pain any more. What are you feeling?”

Anita stared at the plastic tablecloth. In the distance she could hear the vegetable wallah calling out his specials over a megaphone that distorted his voice, making it impossible to hear exactly what it was he was selling. A group of neighborhood boys passed by the lounge window, and their boisterous voices floated past, growing fainter as the boys rounded the corner.

Kogie sighed; the conversation was going to be one of the many one-sided talks she had with her niece.

“Your Uncle Neville is at the Unit 8 church now making arrangements for the funeral. I don’t know how we are going to organise it all by this weekend. We have to get a marquee and I have to find someone to do the cooking. By God’s grace we will manage it, right?”

Anita got up and without responding, walked past her aunt and outside into the courtyard of the six-family block of flats where she lived with her aunt and uncle. The block was one of thousands built in the Phoenix settlement by the apartheid government some decades ago, and now they were in various states of disrepair, almost every block infected by the scourge of drug dealers.

Ignoring the angry shouts of her aunt projected towards her from the kitchen door, Anita picked her way past the overflowing rubbish bins on the corner and began the long walk uphill towards the Phoenix Plaza. The day was typically hot, and before she’d walked halfway up the hill, the sweat trickled down her neck. Irritated, Anita removed the shabby facecloth from her pocket and wiped her brow, the beads of sweat soaking into the threadbare cloth.

A police van pulled to a halt alongside her; Anita knew its occupant well. Siraj Naidoo lived in the flat directly above her aunt and uncle’s flat. Siraj’s wife and infant son had lived there with him until the day they were both found dead in the Gandhi Memorial Park, shot in the head at close range. Aunty Salma next door told her aunt that Siraj was supposed to have committed suicide with his wife, but claimed that he had had a change of heart at the last minute. Siraj told his friends at the station that he wasn’t present at the time of the shooting, but, Aunty Salma finished off darkly, the autopsy showed that the wife didn’t shoot herself, and the gun was never found. Still, Siraj continued to work for the police. That was the way of things in Phoenix. “Anita! Where are you going? Can I give you a lift?”

“I’m just going to the Plaza. It’s okay, I can walk.”

“Don’t be a stupid, I’m going to the station anyway. Jump in.”

Getting into the police van, Anita noticed that Siraj’s blue uniform was damp with perspiration. “Feeling tired, eh?” Siraj asked as he pulled off and drove up the hill towards the Plaza.

Anita said nothing. She sat in the passenger seat, clasping her arms against her chest.

“So how’s your mother, Anita? I heard she was still in hospital?” Siraj asked.

For a few seconds Anita remained silent, then in a matter of fact voice, she said, “My mother passed away last night.”

Siraj turned to stare at her, startled less from the content of Anita’s statement, than the cold method in which she delivered it. He swerved just in time at the bend in the road, brought the van to a halt and turned in his seat.

“Seriously? I’m so sorry, are you all right?”

“It’s ok, I don’t feel anything. She has been in hospital so much over the past two years and even when she was at home, she was too sick to worry much about me.”

“What was wrong with her?”

“She had cancer.”

“Anita, I’m so sorry. When is the funeral?”

“I don’t care; I won’t be going for no funeral,” she spat, showing emotion for the first time since she had received the news of her mother’s death. Her tongue formed the parcel of words in her mouth and shot them out, not caring, “I’m going to leave and there’s no-one who can stop me.”

A flame flickered in Siraj’s eyes. “Really? So where are you planning to go?” he enquired, almost too quickly.

“I don’t know and I don’t care; I’ll take my chances out there, I suppose,” She shrugged.

“Let’s go for a drive and we can talk about this,” suggested Siraj. Seeing the protest well up in her sullen face, he added, “I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. I want to help you get out if it’s what you really want. I know somewhere you can go.”

Aware that she was studying his body language, Siraj put on his most concerned expression.

“I just want you to be happy. You’re such a pretty thing and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you out there. People are sick, you know; I want to protect you – it’s my job as a member of the Police Service.”

Anita looked up at Siraj’s long thin face and smiled. “Do you mean it? Who would I stay with?”
“I’ll put you with a friend of mine in Wentworth. He’s trustworthy and he will keep you safe until we find a more permanent place, right?”

“Can you take me there now?”

“No, you should go back home, wait for everyone to go out, then pack your things and leave a note. I’ll tell you what to write – you must not leave them any clues, ok? Then take a taxi to town and I’ll pick you up in the parking lot by the Workshop.”

Her large brown eyes told him all he needed to know. It would not be long now.

Kogie Nair stood at the front door of her flat and banged on the gate with increasing impatience.

“Annie! Where you?”

Shifting the weight of her frame onto her left foot, Kogie used her right foot to feel for the lump in the mat outside the door. Sure enough, the keys were underneath. Opening the front door, she muttered, “Where has this stupid child gone now? Arrey, and with so much preparations to do!”

On the faded Formica kitchen table, where the family ate their meals, lay a folded note. Kogie picked it up and read:

Aunty Kogie, I have decided to leave home. I won’t be there for Mum’s funeral. I’m going to Johannesburg by taxi to stay with a friend. Don’t try to find me because I won’t ever come home. Anita.

The last words had barely formed on Kogie’s lips when a deep, guttural sound which emanated from the deep recesses of Kogie’s being overtook them. She dropped the letter, ran to Anita’s room and threw open the cupboards and drawers. Anita had not taken many clothes; just enough to fit into her school rucksack. The gold cross Neville had bought Anita for her birthday the previous year lay eerily on the neat bed - a shrine to her life left behind.

Kogie was making roti in the kitchen; the room had not changed much in the two years that had passed since Anita had run away, she reflected. The same old table and chairs in the centre of the kitchen. The same dented aluminum pots on the scuffed Defy stove. The same old torn, yellowed linoleum on the kitchen floor. The same old me, Kogie thought; only older and greyer.

She rolled out the dough with the thin rolling pin, ensuring that the surface was well-dusted with flour first. She rolled each ball of dough into a perfectly round roti with practiced hands, attending to the task as she had been taught to do by her granny when Kogie was still a young girl, about to get married. Each time the roti came out misshapen, her granny had cracked her over the knuckles with the rolling pin.

“What kind of husband will want a wife who can’t make round rotis, eh?” Kogie’s grandmother’s shrill voice echoed in her ear as though it was yesterday.

Kogie thought of Anita and prayed daily for her safety. Kogie had dashed to the police station as soon as she realised Anita had left. That nice policeman from upstairs, Siraj, had been so helpful and caring. After months of following dead ends and wild goose chases, Siraj was the one who helped Kogie accept that Anita was gone for good.

The promise that Kogie had made to her sister when she was first diagnosed with cancer four years previously, was what made it hard for Kogie to move on with her life.. She had promised to raise Anita as if she were her own child and she felt that her sister would not rest in peace unless Anita was found and brought home.

Kogie’s husband Neville had been equally distraught over Anita’s disappearance. He had taken to the girl right from the start, and became very protective of her. Kogie thought that Neville felt paternal towards Anita because her real father abandoned her when she was still a baby. That useless Kuben was more interested in good times and pretty girls than his fatherly duties.

Kogie recalled the nightmares Neville had every night after Anita left, waking up in a cold sweat, a strange, faraway look in his eyes, almost as if he was haunted by Anita’s memory. Eventually he accepted that Anita was out of their lives.

“Koges, you there?” Kogie heard the call at the kitchen security gate and padded over to the door in her house slippers, aware that her hair was still in disarray. It was Salma from next door; the two women had lived side by side for twenty-five years, sharing food, gossip and responsibilities.

Kogie had helped look after Salma’s three children for the ten years Salma had to work at a clothing store in the Plaza. Her husband used to have a gambling habit, so Salma had no choice but to leave her little ones next door with Kogie, and enslave herself for seven days a week, earning a mere thousand rand a month - just enough to put food on the table.

Salma settled into her accustomed place at the table, facing the kitchen door where she could see if any of her girls tried to slip outside and stand with the boys.

“Koges, I got big news, doll. You know Bhabi’s boy, Iqbal? Don’t ask me how he found out and all, but I think we might have a lead on Annie.”

Kogie sipped her tea, unperturbed. “We’ve had so many leads, Sal. I can’t get excited any more. But what he said?”

“Listen to this - he said he remembers Anita because they were in the same class at school and all, remember? He said he bumped into her down on Point Road. If he was doing the kind of ‘bumping’ I think he was, he’s in big trouble with his mother. What would a nice Muslim boy be doing down Point Road, eh?”

Kogie dusted the flour from her hands. “Let’s go talk to him.”

“Ok, ma, but…”


“Get dressed first, eh?”

In the back of Iqbal’s black Citi Golf, the early morning sun, already like a furnace, shone aggressively onto Kogie’s face. She gripped Salma’s hand. What was she doing? Kogie thought, as her head rang with a million things she wanted to say to her niece.

“How did you meet up with this girl, Iqbal?” Salma asked.

Iqbal looked into the rearview mirror at his aunt uneasily. “Please, Aunty Salma,” he said, his usually cool, sharp features appeared flushed and sweaty. “I’m just trying to help Aunty Kogie. Don’t tell my mother all what I’ve been doing; she’ll never forgive me.”

“I won’t tell her, but you must tell us everything.”

“It was just a boy’s night out, you know? These guys at varsity, they can be quite hectic, man. So we went to this place, right, and well, I went with this girl, Lucinda.”

Ashamed, he continued on in a small voice, “I quite liked her, you know, because she had a bubbly personality. So I visited her a few more times. Then one day I went to the place and she wasn’t in, it was, like, her day off or something. Someone said I should check out this other girl called Desiree. I went into the room and I saw it was her - Anita - from my class. I was so ashamed I didn’t know where to put my face, so I ran out of there.

“Then I remembered that she ran away a few years ago and they never found her. The next day I went back to visit Lucinda and afterwards I asked her a few questions about this Desiree girl. She told me Desiree lived in Wentworth with some guy. I asked her for the house address and she got angry with me, but I persuaded her eventually and she gave it to me. We can’t go to the club to meet her, eksê, there’s too much security.”

Kogie shivered; if Iqbal was right, her niece was a prostitute at the age of just fifteen. She wondered if she was ready to find out any more and toyed with the idea of telling Iqbal to turn the car around and take her home.

Iqbal pulled up outside a run-down house with a dusty-looking porch. The grass on the path was overgrown and Kogie stepped over a pile of rubble lying on the path as she made her way to the front door, leaning on Salma for support. She felt every last one of her fifty-one years. She knocked on the door, timidly at first, then increased the momentum when she realised no-one would be able to hear her.

A child’s scream pierced the cacophony of the music emanating from within, and then the door opened. Kogie was face to face with her niece. With a sharp intake of breath Anita tried to slam the door on her aunt, but Salma was quicker and placed her entire body against the door. “We don’t want anything from you Annie, we just want to talk and see how you are. This is a nice place,” she said, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. “Can we come in for a minute?” Inside the house, Kogie and Salma Picked their way through the debris of toys, dirty clothing and shoes. They cleared the half-eaten bowl of porridge from one of the seats and sat down on the couch. Anita sat opposite them, her eyes glazed. Kogie’s cast a disapproving eye over the tight skirt and tank top, and then with horror she saw the ravages of two years’ worth of drug abuse on the girl’s once-fresh face.

Everyone’s attention was distracted by a baby who crawled into the room making inquisitive noises as he moved towards Anita. She picked him up and pulled him onto her lap in a protective embrace.

“What is his name, Annie?” Salma asked, aware that Kogie was momentarily at a loss for words.

“David,” Anita replied with a defiant look. “You can’t make me come back, you know. I’ll just leave again.”

“I’m not asking you to come back Anita,” said Kogie, her voice faltering. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happened and all I want is to understand why you chose this path for yourself. All you have to do is talk to me about what happened and I will walk out and leave you in peace if that’s what you want.”

“Don’t judge me for what I do, ok? You’ll never be able to understand.”

“I really want to. And I’m not judging you, only God can do that. I need to make my peace with you, my girl. I’m getting old now. If I was at fault, tell me. I just want to know why you left.”

“Please, please just leave. I’m not angry with you, ok. You did your best for me, I know that now. But I need you to go now before anyone sees you. For my sake, could you do that? I don’t want to dwell on the past. I just want to move on. This is the real world.”

As Anita watched her aunt being driven away in the black car, her vision was obscured by the burglar bars that crossed the kitchen window and the tears welled up in her eyes. When the car disappeared out of sight, Anita’s tears finally freed themselves and washed over her cheeks.

She made her way through the living room and into the bedroom she shared with the man who had sheltered her when she first ran away from home, there she opened up the drawer next to her bed and took out the tourniquet.

David was a mere eighteen months old, but he could read the signs. Whenever the tourniquet came out, his mother would be inaccessible to him for hours. Crying, he pulled at her clothes, asking her to pick him up. She shook him off and then immediately felt a pang of guilt as his cries produced tears much like her own.

“Shhh, Davie. Mummy needs this. I know I said I wouldn’t use today, but now I need to. Be a good boy for Mummy, ok? Mummy will give you a sweetie. You want a sweetie?”

David thus appeased, Anita sank down onto the bed, the syringe in her hand. Her arm was sufficiently deadened now. As she shot up, a myriad of thoughts flashed through her mind, and before the stupor set in she recalled how the two men who had promised to protect her, took turns to rape her, even though she was already pregnant when she ran away from home. They had hooked her on heroin, drugs confiscated by Siraj in the line of duty. After she gave birth to David, they had put her to work in the club. She was a good little earner, they said.

The single thought that ran through her mind just before she passed out was how glad she was that her aunt had not noticed how much David resembled her husband, Nevill.

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