Have I really spent all of Summer without you? We have not seen each other since last November … That time of the year when all the backpackers arrive in Cape Town. It was the same month you found out why your jeans wouldn’t fit anymore and you unexpectedly left for home a day after. I hope you and the one growing inside you are happy and well. And I hope you know that even though your silence is hurtful, I still think about you. You also missed my birthday, but whatever, I can no longer be angry with you for trying to be responsible.
It felt more worthwhile for Zizi to be writing a letter to Sindiswa than to be at yet another party. She had recorded a voice reminder on her phone and written in her notebook more than once, reminding herself to think of Sindi. It was three months since they had spoken, or at least since Sindi had communicated with Zizi. Putting pen to paper felt more real and appropriate for this kind of overdue communication. Touching the paper was like getting closer to the relationship they used to have.
As the Maharani incense wafted around her room she momentarily thought of how the smell had become so familiar in just a few weeks. Now she could not sleep without its scent fortifying the thoughts that would lull her to sleep – secretly selling her grandmother’s peaches during summer holidays, future travels, photography excursions to remote towns, romanticized erratic relationships. The moonlight came in perfectly through her window; it shone a light on one of the walls, allowing her to see the large map of Africa she had posted up on her wall. On the day she’d brought it home she put small red crosses on the countries she wanted to visit and a more noticeable red heart next to Zimbabwe. “Africa’s only liberated country”, she would always think to herself.
On nights like this she memorised the cities, small towns and capitals of each country, looked up images of the major cities and made ever-changing lists of the reasons why each country was important to visit. Nigeria; “to learn Yoruba, visit The Shrine, for the music and the ambitious men and to read a Nigerian book in Nigeria”. Zimbabwe; “just to see for myself”. Cameroon; “for its authentic film industry, the art scene and to meet the people who belong to it”. Burkina Faso; “to walk in Sankara’s land”.
Have you noticed that European and American travelers can be called “tourists, ex-pats, backpackers” and other polite terms while African travellers are plainly labelled as “foreigner”, even on our continent? Or maybe we Africans are never just travelling. You and me noticed everything and that’s why this city drove us crazy. And yazi tshomi, it still drives me crazy.
In the four months that Sindi had been away, Zizi had moved out of her father’s house to share an apartment with her friend Khanya. She had become delirious with the idea of freedom. Delirious because just knowing that she can do whatever, whenever, was much more exciting than the actual realisation of this freedom she did not even know how to define. This delirium was caused by living in a space that expanded and contracted as and when she needed it to. Unlike the stuffy, sanitised Northern Suburbs of Cape Town, the city centre was more welcoming of her mistakes and learning.
It hardly ever stifled her questioning, but when it did she thrived on the challenge of deciphering the origins of her thoughts. Thoughts about race and politics that back in the old neighbourhood felt taboo even in her head. The myth of the Rainbow Nation. The myth of equality. The sheer lie of what Cape Town is, or is not. She was in (White) Liberal Land now, some kind of flashy Bohemia where her thoughts were allowed to become spoken words – even if they were too extreme or radical for some of the people who heard them.
Zizi’s phone buzzed.
“Do you want to split for a banky?” a text from Khanya. She calculated, 100 bucks for drinks in case we end up going out, fifty bucks for anything extra, and quickly replied before she thought about it any longer.
“Cool. I’ve got 50 bucks.” Khanya arrived home with the banky of ganja and a bottle of Pinot Noir, her favourite since she was buying. Zizi rolled three joints, two for now one for later, while Khanya spoke about her day at work. Khanya’s job at a glossy women’s magazine always provided stories that they could fill moments of silence with. They felt the same way about most women’s magazines – oversexualised, non-journalistic, white-gazey fluff. Khanya hated her job because they never took her input seriously. The editors expected her to speak on behalf of the black market yet when she did they questioned her insight.
Zizi was brief about her day, mentioning the chicken livers she cooked for lunch and figuring out their faulty kettle. She meant to deter Khanya from asking about the interview she went for in the morning. She had left the over-polished office of a corporate event company still feeling the odd, limp handshake she was offered as a final sign of rejection.
Drinking wine and smoking in the kitchen was always the best part of Zizi’s nights. The prelude to new experiences that she would start imagining while they listened to Fela or Phillip Tabane or Outkast or a mix of everything because they disagreed on what should be played next.
So I’ve been freelancing since you left and now that Summer is over, I’m doing a lot less shoots – which means it’s job search time. I’m stuck between self-righteous self-pity for not being where I planned to be at twenty-three and being totally disgusted with my laziness. On a good morning when I’m high, I might give myself a brief pat on the back and tell myself that one day I’ll be the most respected and acclaimed photographer out of this vast continent.
The wine finished and they decided it was time to go out. Zizi put the third joint into her bag and they left the house. They walked silently to their usual spot, Bassment. Khanya was hoping to see her on and off again man Tendai, Zizi was just hoping to experience something enlightening.
Bassment smelled of the Maharani incense Zizi loved so much, wood-floor polish, pure tobacco and good intentions. It was a compact jazz bar that seemed to stretch as much as it needed to, to fit whoever wanted to enter. On big nights when a popular band was playing, the narrow building never seemed to be full enough; it expanded to fit the people and the energies they brought. This place had its own rules and its own unique crowd of painters, writers, musicians, filmmakers, photographers and dancers. Zizi always thought of Bassment’s regular crowd as the loose ends of the city, just like herself; people she could complain to, about the absurdity of Cape Town.
Khanya separated from Zizi soon after they entered the building. Tendai had pulled her to the dance floor. Zizi caught the bar lady’s eye. Comfort nodded in salutation and raised an empty wine glass, Zizi nodded and smiled. The whole building was vibrating.
It was one of those nights that a movie would depict as a night of a full moon, when everyone transforms and transcends into their true selves in what feels and looks like an underground charismatic church service. A night that would only end after sunrise, after the band had performed an hour over what they were booked for and the DJ had sufficiently tired out his congregants with an electrifying, heavy playlist.
One young woman was in a trance on the dance-floor. Her strapless, vintage dress kept slipping down to reveal her breasts. She wore braids that reached down to her waist. Each time she jumped, the braids covered or exposed her breasts. After the second slip no one even paid her attention. She was part of a sequence of movements and her stomping was only part of the greater piece. Everyone would think about it the next day and remember that it was beautiful and necessary.
Bassment is exactly the way you left it. If not, then it’s probably better. As you might expect I still go there for questionable reasons (sometimes). Questionable in the sense that I would leave my dark room on a still night and carry my wistful mood to the doors of Bassment, just because of the thought of Kwesi. I scold myself Sindi and try to stop myself. But my willpower is low when I haven’t felt his gaze for some time.
Sindi had been there on the night that Kwesi and Zizi met outside the entrance of Bassment. He was in Cape Town from Ghana for an artist’s residency and was considering making his stay more long-term. It was a Tuesday night, one of the calmer nights for the club. Zizi and Sindi were standing outside enjoying fresh air when Kwesi greeted them and walked into the building.
He said, “Good to see you,” and gave a brief nod as he respectfully put his right hand to his chest.
By the end of the night they were sitting on a mattress on the floor of his studio, drinking ginger and honey tea. Zizi and Kwesi spent almost everyday of the next three months with each other in Kwesi’s studio – talking, painting, taking photographs, and making love. She was the one who caught him burning one of his paintings during a bout of self-doubt, she had helped him come up with the title of his exhibition, and on the night that his exhibition opened, she noticed how much Kwesi revelled in the attention, contrary to the bashful man she knew. If his art were a person, it would have a fist raised to the sky.
Then one afternoon, she found him and a blonde woman on the mattress in his studio, lips locked and heedless.
Zizi positioned herself on a bar stool in a corner, Comfort timeously placed a glass of their house red in front of her. The spot gave her a good view of the dance floor and the main door. As much as the mood promised memorable images and conversations, Zizi didn’t quite feel like she would make it to the end of the night. Not unless Kwesi walked in.
“Hey sister,” an American accent broke her gaze from the DJ.
Zizi flinched as if the words were a dirty hand trying to touch her. She took a sip of her wine and looked away. “Excuse me, is this seat taken?” the voice asked. “No.”
The woman sat on the stool next to Zizi. She looked at Zizi and grinned.
“Hi, I’m Alexis.”
“I’m Zizikazi.” They shook hands.
“Wow, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to say that!” Alexis said as she giggled.
Zizi took another sip of her wine and waited for the next affliction.
What do your friends call you?”
“It’s a really pretty name, though.” Alexis bit her lip nervously then smiled before ordering a local beer.
Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’ came on, DJ Sello nodded and smiled coyly to himself as his congregants extolled him. Fist-bumps reigned as some people came on to the small stage to thank him personally for the blessings. Surrounded by crates of vinyls, his turntables and the laudation, it was not clear whether he was on a pulpit or a throne. Khanya caught Zizi’s gaze and called her to the dance floor. Zizi shook her head and Khanya rejoined the rhythm of movements.
“Oh my God, I love your hair,” said Alexis.
Before Zizi had time to respond, Alexis had already run her fingers through her hair. Zizi backed her head away and ran her own hand through her Afro as if to check if it was all still there.
“What makes you think you can do that?” Zizi asked.
“I’m sorry, I just wanted to feel it.”
“Don’t you think you should ask me before you touch me?”
“I’m sorry sister, I just wanted to know how it feels.”
“You didn’t make an effort to say my name, you touch my hair without asking and then you call me ‘sister’?”
“I’m just trying to get into your culture. I’m sorry.”
Khanya came to stand next to Zizi, her face gleaming with sweat. Her smile slowly faded as she caught on that this was not a jovial conversation.
“You can’t just get into my culture. Especially not by touching my hair and calling me sister,” Zizi said.
“Come upstairs with me,” Khanya said, “light one up.”
Zizi stood up and took her half-empty glass of wine, leaving Alexis without saying a word or giving her a look. Khanya held Zizi’s hand as they walked up the narrow staircase of Bassment. The upstairs was lit up. Bassment regulars called it The Purple Room. It was painted a dark purple and had mismatched sofas and cushions on the floor. A mural of Sathima Bea Benjamin, her face brooding and shadowed, adorned the wall opposite the stairs. Unlike downstairs, the distinctive smell was not only of incense but also the smoke from different strains of ganja.
The space was lively yet easy going. Small groups occupied different parts of the room; either deep in conversation, smoking, or both.
Zizi and Khanya joined a group, greeted everyone and were soon assimilated into the pace of the room.
Coming to Bassment, Zizi’s mood was already leaden, but the encounter with Alexis weighed her down further. Her sense of autonomy was stolen. Of all the clubs or bars in Cape Town, this was where she was accountable to no one but herself. The experience with Alexis was atypical for Bassment, an aggravating reminder that maybe autonomy didn’t really exist for the black person in Cape Town.
“I’m trying not to be mad so don’t bring it up,” Zizi whispered into Khanya’s ear.
“The usual, my name.”
“Only this time I was called sister. And she touched my hair without asking.”
“Damn. Well, let’s smoke and forget about her.”
Zizi settled against the wall with her almost empty glass of wine still in her hand. The Purple Room didn’t need many people to make it seem full. She felt a serene daze creep up on her as she looked around the room, at the people laughing genuinely and being light about life.
Sindi, this city is too hostile to experience alone. I feel like it forces people to behave in ugly, unnatural ways. Large monuments of men we don’t know tower over us and remind me every day that this city does not belong to us. I can just imagine you say, ‘My friend you can do whatever you want’. Can I really?
Maybe I can do whatever I want but can I say whatever I want?
Can I think whatever I want to think? I don’t know, I’m trying. The only thing I can rely on is a good high. When it gets too complicated I can smoke and feel my mind clear. I start to think of beautiful things like streets void of election banners, trains with no class partitions and a glorious heap of ash – the remains of that stupid statue of a Dutch coloniser that I must walk past every day on my way home.
“Zizi I’m going back downstairs to Tendai. Are you coming?” asked Khanya.
“I think I’ll just get a cab home. I’ll see you in the morning?”
Khanya nodded and smiled. They would probably see each other late afternoon the next day, when Khanya came back from Tendai’s place.
Khanya walked Zizi out of Bassment.
It was still crazy and crowded in the street, the clubs and bars were still a few hours away from closing and the police vans were just starting to become visible.
“There’s your man,” Khanya said, looking across the street to a man who was standing alone smoking a cigarette.
Zizi turned and smiled at him, her heart knocking on her better judgement and her armpits tingling as she willed him to notice her.
“Do you think I should go say ‘hi’?” Zizi asked.
Khanya stayed silent.
“He didn’t tell you he was back in the country,” Khanya said.
Zizi felt Khanya’s eyes on her while she watched Kwesi. The real figure of him and not the lookalikes she had trained herself to ignore. Zizi looked at Khanya. “I’m going to go say ‘hi’.”
Khanya stayed silent.
A woman coming from lower down the street approached him. Kwesi put out his cigarette and watched the beaming woman until she was standing right in front of him. He might have smiled back. They shared a long hug; his hand was on her lower back, pulling her against him. Then she kissed him, the blonde woman. Up until the kiss, Zizi believed that the woman might simply ask for a lighter or where she could find a cab.
Khanya held Zizi’s hand and rubbed gently with her thumb; she pulled her up towards the corner of the street where the cabs always idled. Zizi stopped at the first cab she saw and got inside.
“That was the worst,” Zizi said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Call me when you get home.” “Okay.”
Zizi left with the cab driver.
Anyway I’m trying to grow up you know? Trying to become my real self, whoever that is – without you, without the high walls of my father’s home, without Kwesi and his blondes. I know you’re doing the same where you are and I’ll see you when I see you.
I miss you always, Zizikazi.
Chumisa Ndakisa (@chumisa_n ) lives in Cape Town. She writes to communicate. She attended the 2014 Writivism workshop in Cape Town, facilitated by Rachel Zadok of Short Story Day Africa and was subsequently mentored by Dilman Dila, under whose guidance Friday Night and Home Time were written. Friday Night was longlisted for the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize and included in Fire in the Night and other stories: the 2014 Writivism Annual Short Story Anthology. She also attended the 2015 Writivism workshop in Johannesburg, facilitated by Yewande Omotoso and Saaleha Idrees Bamjee.