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African Writing No. 11
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Ret'sepile Makamane

Makamane was born in Lesotho. She studied Philosophy & Theatre at the National University of Lesotho, and Drama & Film at the University of Witwatersrand. She was Commissioning Editor for SABC TV. She went to the UK in 2008 on a Graça Machel Scholarship. She has a Creative Writing MA from the University of East Anglia and is currently a Charles Pick Writing Fellow there.






Sesotho Speakers

Seta stopped breathing in the late afternoon. The lorry carrying him was inches away from reaching the concrete road. The cows were returning home as he slipped from life. The shadows of the mountains were reaching out too far over the dry ground, chasing the lorry like ghosts unfed. He had watched those shadows, thinking they would catch him and freeze him solid – but he had resisted, and said to himself, No, I am not dying yet, not today.

The last thing he heard was a cowbell dinging too slow, its fading sound coming at him in fragments from different directions. Then, in the distance, a long line of grandfathers and great grandfathers wearing yellow blankets emerged, to accompany him on a narrow and steep uphill path. He felt he was all alone on this path, despite the smiling faces of the old men with leathery skins which he recognised but had never seen before. His ripped chest began to feel cold. He tried to look back but realised that he could not turn his head. He could only walk forwards.

People in the lorry saw a green bird, small with a silver tail, fly up, up, up into the sky until it disappeared, its shiny tail the last thing to go.

Some people say that if Molibeli had not driven so fast on the bumpy gravel from St Thomas to Brakfontein where the concrete road starts, Seta could have reached the clinic alive. Others, who have always been jealous of the Solwandle family’s money, say that Molibeli, Ntate Solwandle’s eighth son, is cross-eyed, an unfortunate skilokh who should never drive a person that is on life’s edge to the clinic. Yet these very same doubters run to Molibeli’s shop for transport when their daughters are in labour and the district nurse is away travelling. Such hypocrites! Me, I say anybody who has it in himself to take a knife, sharpen it and listen to its sound, tsiki tsiki tsiki, as it rubs against the whet-stone, then cuts open his own chest and tries to lift out his heart, does not intend to reach the clinic. Full stop.

Seta’s mother has decided to wear the black dress, cape and doek for the rest of her life, because she says a mother does not bury a son, it is the other way round. Now the townspeople call her Magdalena Blacked. Magdalena Blacked sweeps the floors outside her corrugated iron-roofed house every day. She was going to tile it when Seta started working as the town’s water engineer – like his father, who is now drinking Chibuku as though it is running out of fashion. At times she shells peas and throws the rotten ones to her geese, the only three geese in this town, featherless things which she speaks or sings to, always using the same words. Her words implicate me in her loss.

Seta used to throw the discus, and he was extremely good at it. About the only thing he was good at. He was an obu-obu in everything else, including needle-work. His patterns came out with untidy inside-out seams that looked like paths with overgrown weeds. He could never follow directions. He was hasty and disengaged most of the time. If it was not for me, we would have left Seta and his severely bow-legged listing self in Standard 4.

In Standard 6, things changed radically. All of a sudden we had to speak English between 8:00am and 3:00pm. Sesotho Speakers were a group of people – idiots really – that had difficulties shutting up their mouths for the whole day because none of us could speak any English at that age. I had three sentences to last me a day: ‘Pull up your socks!’, ‘It is raining dogs and cats,’ and, ‘With all my heart!’ Seta would whisper, scooting closer to me on the old bench, ‘Mma-the-best, shut up! Your English, it is itching in my ears.’ Most students just pointed at things or mimed to avoid twenty strokes on the buttocks from Sir Justice, our class teacher.

Sir Justice had soft dark hair. Spongy, like it had Inecto Super Black in it. He sported a dark-rimmed pair of educated spectacles, behind which lurked eyes so still – not thoroughly cold, but eyes that seemed to contain a solidity that could never move. He wore those glasses and safari shirts on bad days, days on which the whipping was super manyafunyafu. He stayed in Moeaneng, a part of town whose streets were unlabelled. So he had to cross a huge gulley full of short stubborn shrubs and sweet grass before the last bit to the school. He would have a stick of grass in the corner of his mouth as he breathed in and out, heaving with the rhythm of his fierce cane that slapped the skin and made the sound of sails banging against wind.

In the mornings before assembly, boys climbed up and stood tall on each other’s shoulders, like meerkats in danger, and watched him coming. The rest of us waited in fear as the uplifted ones squinted their eyes to see through the glare of the scorching sun. He never beat us in winter – no, no, never. Girls from Moeaneng said that it was because the vicious thing that lived inside his wife grazed in peace in that season underneath the snow, and calmed her, subsiding his storms massively as well. Then the eyes of the boys on the high shoulders would adjust to the sun’s white blaze, and they would start to whistle if things were not looking good, and say, ‘Safari for, safari for, safari for what?’

‘Safari for suffering,’ we would reply as the cold mist descended on our hearts. Often things did not look good.

Sir Justice was a handsome man who looked like a taller version of the Malcom X picture he had in his office. Unappeasable, though. We tried. He became animated and charged with anger the more we tried. He owned a crystal rock that he handed to us each morning to circulate amongst Sesotho Speakers. So we spied and listened carefully to each other’s muffled whispers. Then you would hear an excited scream, ‘Sesotho Speaker! Sesotho Speaker!’ Tormenting and chiding the speaker on the spot. At that time whoever was in possession of the crystal rushed to give the accused the ominous rock.

Apart from Seta and a few other boys, all of us were made with scornful blood. We were made so that, instead of feeling sympathy for each other, we detested what belonged to us. What belonged to us shamed us in its simplicity. It assaulted something inside. When the day came to a close, the person holding the crystal would have to say who he got it from, and names would be called backwards till about three quarters of the class were standing under the cold shade of a cyprus tree with faces glum like prisoners manacled, awaiting a transfer to a nowhere place. Somewhere they had never been before.

Seta said to me once, ‘Do you know that that is my crystal?

‘Of course! I suppose one of those mountains belongs to you too!’

‘A cave, not a mountain,’ he said. ‘A cave with spring water older than time, my girl. In that cave you can sit down and still hear the voices of the Elders if you care to leave your rubbish outside,’ and then he walked off like a mysterious figurine that was being pushed from side to side by invisible hands.

Most days Seta could not sit on the hard wooden benches because his bum was bruised. He got himself caned every day, without fail. If he was not speaking Sesotho, he was singing it. He was what one could call a Sesotho addict. Sir Justice took this as an affront and an attack on his own person.

The only thing that Seta understood, besides discus, was volcanoes. He had a deep obsession with the greenery and the rock changes that occur in volcanic areas. He traced the ages of the rocks on the mountains around the town and came up with the idea that we needed a volcano in the nearest future or else we would run out of ground minerals.

One day Sir Justice beat up Seta so bad that boys from Seta’s neighbourhood had to carry him as he lay on a stretcher on his belly, howling. Seta had interred the Sesotho Speakers’ crystal in one of the nearby mountains as a gift to Shembe (his secret god), during first break – so no other Sesotho speakers were caught that day. When the boys reached Friends Fanon Street, our street, they increased the volume of their song for the dead heroes. Seta’s mother rebuked them for wishing death on her only son in the song, but they just laughed as they placed the stretcher on the old woman’s stoep because they knew her too well. Seta laughed too, in spite of the fire burning in his buttocks. His mother fetched a tube of Betadine from the house, still shouting and cursing the boys who delivered him, although they had already left for their own homes. Seta was back at school the following week.

During the weeks leading to my visit to the cave, Seta became more jumpy and frenzied, only talking to me occasionally and in parables. I even got jealous that he had perhaps found himself another helper in Geometry and Geography. His warnings against my speaking English intensified. What had started off as, ‘Mma-the-best, please shut up! Your English. It is itching in my ears,’ became, ‘The day of the eruption is soon to come.’ One day he clutched my hand, making me nearly burn the sleeve of my shirt on the magnesium explosion I was trying out. He stood next to me, facing the opposite direction, and said, ‘Today, I beg you, do not speak English at all. The eyes of the Elders are watching you.’ I laughed.

‘Promise me.’ He spoke in a low voice.

‘With all my heart!’ I replied.

Seta’s mother was a Zionist. His father was the man who gave water to our town. On Sundays, Seta and Mme Magdalena – as she was before she became Magdalena Blacked – would feed the three geese earlier than usual, dress up in identical lime-green overflowing dresses tied with big silver ropes, and go to the top of Khasipe Mountain with other members of their faith where they would stamp the devil out of the ground with their bare feet.

I remember how – when Seta and I became friends – I asked him why they stamped the devil out of the ground, setting him loose to run amok on us innocent people and he said it was not his place to say. This was before he became my class duty in Maths and Geography, before he shared with me his love for red hot lava that shoots upwards, and then frees itself loose into streams of ochre-orange. And he would point to a random mountain in the distance and say, ‘It is bending – Watch! Can you see that mountain bending? Aha, a volcano is getting ready, see!’

‘The smell of sulphur, Seta, the smell of sulphur, that is a sure sign of a volcano getting ready.’ I told him again and again.

Even after I thought we had become quite close, which was a hard thing to accept, considering how ugly and slow Seta was, he still said, ‘It is not in my gift,’ when I asked him what he did in the cave at night with the other boys in our class. He would say it was not in his gift, and watch my disappointment, then kick the red soil and run to the water pump ahead of me and rotate the wheel clockwise, vigorously, and the water would splash out like a furious waterfall hitting rock. He would say, ‘Bring your fatty feet here, mountain princess, let the future water-maker cleanse them.’ The top of my feet, like my hands, have always had a loafy bee-bitten look about them due to lipomatosis, and Seta was the only person I knew who was not disgusted by them. He thought he was going to be a water engineer in the future, and would attain his father’s fame.

The mechanics of bringing water to our homes can only be managed by Seta’s father, drunk or sober. The water project began a decade and a half ago. A big company from overseas brought us the technology. The idea was to get river water into pipes, mix it with a purifying concoction when it reached the valley, hurl it up to the foothill – which is where the town is situated – then bring it to our front doors. Great! But no one yet knew how to man the machinery till Seta’s father was retrenched from the mines, sick in the chest and full of shame for being suddenly jobless at forty five. He soon discovered that the engineering behind purifying gold was very similar to that required for purifying water, and he shot to levels of high importance in the whole town. Seta’s mother was the first woman in this town to brew moonshine. Townspeople have always said that her firewater tastes very close to camoli, but Seta would never say how they made it like that.

He taught me things, Seta, he taught me things, though he was secretive. Liturgies that seemed useless at the time. He asked me to learn my family totem for the Fathers and find out the meanings of the symbols. I forgot the symbols and just learned the words:

To the ladies, baroetsana le basali
The elephants, they flap their ears
They stop the suns from burning
They come home to eat before the suns
They will never leave while the ladies
They bring their shields and hold them
to the rains

To the ladies, baroetsana le basali
The elephants – they sit in groups
back to back
They watch the ends of the towns
on guard
They collect the voices of night
prowling men
They chew them bitter before the
women awake
These Elephants are your walls,
Helang Basali!!

After I recited the father’s totem to him, Seta knelt down, scooped and poured sand onto his hair and said to me, ‘I breathe you, my air, my fresh air.’ I spat on his face and ran into our classroom. Maybe it was the carborundum look of his hair that irked me so.

There were signs everywhere that I was going to go to the cave, signs which I chose to ignore. Some girls fled the town and went to live with relatives we had never heard of before. More and more, boys and girls showed up at the school with slings and bandages around their arms. The ones with broken arms escaped Sir Justice’s gruesome beatings. One could be forgiven for assuming that maybe several fathers had chosen around the same time to teach their children how to ride horses. Although people started speaking more Sesotho, not many got punished, which could have meant only one thing: more pupils were holding on to the crystal and deliberately not passing it on. At times I would find myself shouting, ‘Sesotho Speaker!’ to discover that it was just a handful of us who were barking madly like scavenging hounds over a stolen bone.

We celebrated Jubilee on a sweltering Thursday in February. Not a day for new shoes. I wore a crème white dress with crocheted silk flowers knitted onto the chest. The shoes were too tight because of the heat and the ever-swollen tissue. My aunt Jacenta said that she had bought them in a different town from an Indian merchant who said she should buy them because she had ripped the front ribbon slightly. She said she had found the shoe already like that – but Aunt Jacenta likes to tell stories. So after explaining to the man at length that I have a fat thing on top of the feet and that that make of shoe would never fit, the man just said, ‘You rip, you buy.’ I removed the shoes at lunch. Many girls rushed home then, for the elaborate food festivities and Jubilee processions. By three in the afternoon I did not remember where I had placed my shoes, so I started a panicked search for them. Within a short time of running around the classroom lifting desks and pushing derelict benches, the whole school felt very empty. Eerie.

‘No more English Speakers. No more.’ I looked up to see Seta’s cousin, Maope, wearing his football jersey, smiling and hitting my new shoes against each other. I concentrated on the ribbon that kept jerking up and flopping downwards each time he banged them together. Maope was not a student in our school.

‘I say no more. The time for English speaking is over!’ He threw the shoes at me. I caught them and said, ‘Sorry,’ to him, as if I had wronged him. I walked towards the door he was blocking.

‘Not so quick, Mma-the-best, not so quick. Sorry for what?’ Maope asked, towering over me.

‘Where is Seta?’ I asked with a frail voice.

‘I can take you to him if you want, but first you have to say, No more, No more English Speakers.’

I looked at Maope and thought that the only way to get out of that situation – well, a situation I knew not what it was going to be – the only way to out-manoeuvre him was to make him believe that he had won by saying his stupid words, and then sprinting home as fast as lightning at the nearest opportune moment. I think he read my mind because he slapped me across the face so hard I forgot what I was thinking.

‘Carry her!’ A number of boys appeared from behind him, all of them from Friends Fanon Street. They carried me kicking and yelling and clawing my nails into their arms. When we got to the cave, Seta was sitting by the well. At first, I could not make out anything due to the darkness. Then my eyes adjusted. Seta scooped the water with a hand-made plastic goblet and handed it to me. There were more boys from our school around him.

‘I receive you.’ Seta said, imagining himself to be some king. The other boys cheered, stomped and whistled in approval.

‘Help me, Seta.’ I clutched his hand and the water spilled.

‘You shall not speak until you are spoken to, respect the laws of the Elders, please. You are a guest.’ He said. Again the boys erupted with excitement.

I saw little figurines placed at the bottom of the sparkling stalactite hooks. The figurines were carved out of sandstone and placed in a semi-circle. I suspected they were the Elders Seta had been going on about. Seta and his friends were drinking firewater and feeding some of it to the sculptures.

‘Totem, please’ Seta gulped a mouthful of firewater. His short legs dangled beneath a very high chair which seemed to be made out of a giant sunset-lilac quartz rock. The group of boys kept fetching books from two huge trunks containing everything written in the Sesotho language since 1925, Liapole tsa Khauta, Chaka, Mopheme, Arola Naheng ea Maburu, and so on. Thirteen boys stood up each time Seta asked me if I knew who wrote what book, and could I tell him the moral of the story? They would shout out the answers before I could even think. The cacophony of words, parables, aphorisms and adages echoed in the cave and made me dizzy.

When seated, the boys formed an arc like a beaded necklace set out in a particular order: boy, figurine, boy, figurine, boy, and so on, up to the middle where Seta was sitting – he was the magnificent centre-piece pendant of this necklace – then the order would resume as before: boy, figurine, boy, figurine on the other side. The lock would have been where I was standing, so that I was facing all of them like an actress in an amphitheatre, directly opposite the king himself. I asked myself how a person who had led such a meaningless, dumb life as Seta – even if his father was the town’s most intelligent man and his mother made the best moonshine, he himself was such an ugly shorty – how could he control so many smart boys?

‘Chief Mahalapa said totem, sfebe!’ Maope said as he threw his drink at me.

‘Shush Maope, let me do my work.’ Seta held up his hand, still looking at me. ‘Recite the totem, you.’

‘Gatsheni, when the young ones are fed...’ I started reciting my family totem for the Mothers since I figured he had already heard me recite the one for the Fathers.

‘No No No No, sinyo! For the Fathers, please, man.’ His voice jolted me.

So for a second time, I recited my elephant family totem for the Fathers, and only realised then that Seta’s lessons had been a preparation for this moment.

I thought I gave a stellar performance...

But Seta’s mind had moved on. His eyes were beginning to glare red, making him look like a drunken, frightened toddler. Then he asked me the killer question: he asked me to swear I would never speak English again. I shook my head and said No. He winked at me wildly, like he had a tick in his eye. But I did not get what he was trying to signal. I could have said Yes and changed my mind once I reached the school, but I figured that whatever evil the cave boys had in them in the form of home-made alcohol could not really harm me.

‘No No No No, sinyo!’ The boys said in chorus after my No, and I knew right there that I shouldn’t have said it.

‘So, has she kissed you yet, Chief Mahalapa?’ One boy asked – or was it a figurine who asked?

Chief Mahalapa looked to the side where the voice came from. Something inside of me said run. Turn around now and sprint.


I heard Seta say, ‘Leave her, she is mine,’ shouting too loud because he was too close. He tripped me. I fell with my face in the sand. It was now dark outside. I tasted sand in my teeth. He held my right arm and pulled me up. Once I was facing him, he twisted it with both his hands.

‘I am your air, breathe me, with all your heart, like you say in English.’ He put his mouth onto mine. I had an instinct to bite both his thin lips very hard and spit them out. But his breath smelt so stale that I shifted my face. He twisted my arm, steadily, tighter still. I gave out a squeal. ‘Let me go, I will never speak English, I swear.’ He locked the arm, I thought it would not move any further. The pain! ‘It is not in my gift to let you go now. If I don’t break your arm, thirteen messengers of the Elders will come and do it roughly, too roughly. Let me break it for you, put your lips on mine, it will hurt less. I promise I will do it gently, mountain princess.’ The boys were getting nearer and I could hear them shout,

‘Twist it, twist it, kiss her, kiss her!’

‘Kiss my mouth, let’s do this quickly.’

I tried to say No but I did not hear it.

He put his mouth on mine again. I could not see him because my eyes were screwed up in pain. But the wetness of his face made me think that there were tears coming out of his eyes.

‘Kiss her, twist her, twist her, kiss her, English Speaker, English Speaker, English Speaker!’ The boys were forming a circle around us now. I kept thinking I am late, I am going to get a hiding for being out so late. I screamed out louder.

‘Just kiss my mouth, dammit!’ Seta was definitely crying.

‘I would rather die than kiss your mouth you filthy thing, you horrid thing that looks like witches ride you at night, you evil...’

‘Qwah!!’ Up till this day I have never felt an equivalent of the pain that shatters something between one’s temples as an arm gets dislocated. Intense pain can kill, I still believe that. Then Seta hit my shoulder joint with the palm of his hand back into the socket. The bone made a second ‘Qwah!’ This time less noisy. The one thing I remember so vividly is that copious amounts of clear drool came out of my mouth, uncontrollably. Maope must have handed Seta the bandage and sling – which had definitely been stolen from the town football team’s first-aid kit.

‘You cannot take you away from me. You can’t. Forgive me! You are the one thing in my power – you are my mountain princess. I had to do this. Sorry, so sorry.’ He was crying worse than before as he tied my arm to my neck with a sling. I was whimpering, not because the pain had subsided, but because a louder sound would have increased it.

‘Sissy man, you – you are crying over an English Speaker!’ Maope kicked Seta in the buttocks and led the other boys back to the cave. Maybe he was going to be the next King Mahalapa.

‘Who is going to help me carry her home?’ Seta yelled.

‘Yourself. She can teach you some English since you are so keen,’ one boy who had taken Maope’s rug-sack for him said. They started playing Touch as they descended into the stalactite cave.

‘Open your mouth.’

I opened my mouth, sitting straight up from the ground. Something burning, sharp and slightly malty cut through my throat into my oesophagus, and a warm feeling came over me in a rush. Then he made me drink the whole bottle, and had a few drops himself. We must have both slept there, in the middle of the hills and the echoing night sounds because the next thing I remember is lunch hour at the school, and everyone running towards the water pump.

Seta’s breathing was wheezy when I got there. He had punctured a lung trying to carve around his heart, to bring it out and give to me, apparently.

His teary eyes found me holding my arm close to my chest amongst the large group of people surrounding him. He moved his hands towards me with difficulty, both of them, cupped together as if they contained something. The movement was careful, like he had practised it before. He tried to smile at me but it looked like a grimace.

‘Breathe me, take my heart, mountain prin...mountain...Mme...Mme...where is my mother?’ His voice faded.

The lorry arrived and Sir Justice and the other teachers ordered us to move back so that Seta could get some air to breathe. They spoke in Sesotho.



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