Wisdom, Understanding and Courage

A Short Story

By Mandla Phakathi

It’s a sunny day, clear skies give a clear view of the sunlight. Dust rises in the park that kids have turned into their own soccer field. They run around until the sunset forces them home. They run until the street lights come on. They run until the ball owner gets called home. They are dusty, they know no better, even their parents have become accustomed to them appearing in clothes with dirt stains that logic escapes.

Like, “Mandlenkosi! You think you have a maid here? Were you rolling in the mud with these clothes?” Sis Thandi constantly screams to her youngest son, as he keeps his hands steady on his sides, ready to rise if his mother swings her hand, slowly moves backwards in case her hands seek a taste of his face. “No ma.” He would utter below his breath, knowing that this awkwardness wouldn’t last for too long. Knowing that soon his mother will calm down and direct him to his supper.

Running around all day can be very daunting to a young body, going home for a lunch break seems like a waste of valuable time on the field, so he’d rather starve, then eat supper like a savage. Tearing through the food on his plate, leaving the plate so clean that you’d think it hasn’t been used. He carries his full body to the bathtub, soaks himself in bath foam in hopes that it will heal the tiny ailments he suffered on the soccer field, his personal battlefield and like any soldier, war can be bruising. Life as the number one striker can be daunting, you know, you’re constantly being tackled and Mandlenkosi was no different.

“Mandlenkosi, finish up, you’ll miss the start of the game, are you hoping to come out of that water looking white?” That’s Bennet, Mandlenkosi’s father, a 45-year-old truck driver, loyal to the core, he’s worked for the same company since he was 20. He doesn’t care for much, as long as you let him watch his soccer. Tonight, their favourite team is in action, you’ll hear the “Oohs” and “Aahs” that will ring loud as Bennet and his son point out the players’ mistakes on the field as if they were trained coaches.

Sis Thandi will sit there, clueless, just laughing at how emotional the men in her life become at the sight of 22 men running after a ball for 90 minutes. How a goal for their team can put smiles on their faces, how Bennet would tease, “You’re lucky you’ve already had supper, if our team loses we’d be sleeping on empty stomachs tonight”, the house would erupt in laughter. It’s a good day to be a Mlotshwa.

It’s way past Mandlenkosi’s bedtime, but it’s a Saturday, so who cares. His team won and all he’s thinking about is how he’ll replicate the goals scored by his favourite player tomorrow on their man-made field. For now, the excitement will roam around the house like the scent of a delicious meal after a long day at work. The post-match analysis comes and goes as father and son bond, through a match analysis of their own, criticizing the players, the coach and discussing the changes the team will need for their next game.

Next is a movie with an age restriction the young man will have to wait at least 5 years for him to consider it comfortable enough to sit through it with his parents, even then there will be scenes that will make him look down, or pick up his phone to avoid the awkwardness they come with. To escape the current awkwardness the 11-year-old slowly carries himself to his bed as “Goodnight” rings through the tiny passage that leads to his room. In that tiny room, there is hope of one day owning a bigger house, dreams of becoming more, dreams of being better off.

For now, he’ll put wake dreams to peace, awaken those that sleep as blankly staring at the white ceiling takes him to sleep.

“Why are you still asleep? You know very well that we are going to church!” Sis Thandi screamed as she barged into Mandlenkosi’s room. His eyes popped open, confusion written all over his face, “But, Ma” He muttered below his breath. “Don’t ‘but’ me boy!” She rebutted. He rolls out of bed as instructions are hurled at him. He moves slowly in hopes that if he makes them late, he’ll get left behind, but even that will come with dire consequences, no sin in this house goes unpunished, especially missing a day in the house of the Lord. He doesn’t seem to fit in at Sunday school. Plus, they have this biblical test today and he doesn’t think he’s adequately prepared for it.

After a lecture filled the drive to church, Mandlenkosi settles into the back of his Sunday school class, trying not to attract any attention to himself. They can’t tease you if they don’t notice you, he constantly tells himself. He’s never been the popular kid, he’s always been the weird one, the one people always see flaws in, the one who only feels whole when he’s kicking a ball around, he’s become so good at that, that he never gets teased on the field. He has a tiny, skinny frame so the bigger guys always see him as easy picking. He’s become used to the routine bullying, it’s religious to him, a day without it baffles him.

Here he has no identity. No one even knows his name. This is his second time in Sunday school. He has no friends, he wants it to stay that way. It’s test time, Ausi Mapule hands all of them the question paper, it has 15 questions that the bible holds answers to. Mandlenkosi is nervous, he fears that doing well in this test may attract unnecessary attention towards him. He is the first child to complete the test, he can feel the eyes on his skin as he walks towards the front to hand in his answer sheet. He looks to the floor, places his answers on a table in front of Ausi Mapule, turns and returns to his low-profile seat.

His eyes roam the space to pass the time. They are in what used to be a supermarket, the tin roof turns into a drum when it rains, but not today. Today is a sunny day, the skies are clear, this room is stuffy, but they’ve been taught to be appreciative of their surroundings. So, they keep the heat to themselves like a hot secret, in here you don’t complain because speaking up makes you a snob. Everyone has finished writing. “We will start marking now, please keep the noise levels down.” Ausi Mapule says. She is the head Sunday school teacher.

This is awkward, Mandlenkosi thinks to himself. He has no friends here, no one to talk to as the chatter rises. He sees the cool kids, they are sitting in front, but one of them seems to be missing. “Hey” he hears. “Oh, hi” he turns to his right and responds, trying not to sound freaked out. “I’m Mahlatse” the girl says. “I’m Mandlenkosi” he responds, waiting to hear what brought her all the way to the back. She tells him that she’s seen him sitting in his little corner and that he should consider joining her in front. “Okay guys, settle down now, we have your marks.” Ausi Mapule announces. Mahlatse places herself next to Mandlenkosi.
“We are going to be calling out names, from the lowest mark to the highest and we have prizes for the top 5.” Ausi Mapule says. After a few names, she calls out Mandlenkosi, at 20%. He walks to the front, takes the script. Confusion hits his face when he realizes that, the handwriting is foreign to him. He returns the script and the rightful owner fetches it. “We are now in the top 10.” Ausi Mapule says with a smile on her face. Mahlatse and Mandlenkosi are yet to receive their rightful scripts.

Mandlenkosi is uneasy. Being in the top 5 will complicate his life he thinks, but with Mahlatse already next to him, there’s no way for him to evade it. Top 5. Mandlenkosi and Mahlatse are still seated. Excitement is now brewing within Mandlenkosi. He has never won any sort of competition, what if this is a change of fortune for him in many lights. At number 3, Mahlatse rises. Number 2 is a boy named Thokozani. Mandlenkosi is the last man standing. He takes first prize, with praise from Ausi Mapule and admiration from all the children, most of which are confused, they have never seen this boy in their class. Mandlenkosi has earned himself a seat at the cool kids’ table.

The ride home from church is always a silent one. Mandlenkosi kept his prize tightly in his hands, squeezed close to his chest, smiling from ear to ear. A gold covered bible, with a bookmark and a small bag of chocolates. His mother had smiled in pride when he told her about his achievement, she’d also used it as an opportunity to make him more enthusiastic about going to church religiously. He’d silenced out the lecture with thoughts of his unexpected victory. His father had responded to his excitement with a blank look accompanied by an emotionless “Okay”, but none of that mattered to him. This was his moment.

The seven-colour aroma became the heartbeat of the household. Sis Thandi was on the pots. Mandlenkosi was changing into his ‘home’ clothes because you don’t want to dirty your church clothes unless of course, your body is itching for some lashes. To the street, he goes in search of those he calls friends, has Jabulani in his hand, a well-cushioned world cup ball. The excitement of last night’s action fresh in his mind, it is the first topic on everyone’s lips. “Yoh! Boy, did you see that goal?” asks Mandlenkosi’s friend. “He was like…” as another attempts to re-enact the goal.

For Bennet, it’s slipping into his sippers, giving his gusheshe a fresh clean for the new week, before setting himself in front of the television for another soccer match. It’s like everyone in the Mlotshwa home lives their own life, the overlap is in the few commonalities they share, like their love for food. Supper is when they look like a family, it is a religion to have supper as a family. It is a religion for Mandlenkosi to enter the house before supper is served on a Sunday evening, take his evening bath, polish his school shoes and his father’s work shoes. This he has to do without fail.

Monday is a school day when the clock hits 8 pm, Mandlenkosi walks his tired body to his bed. It is bedtime, a week he is not looking forward to starts in the morning. This has been a good weekend for him, but weekdays rarely change for the young man. School is something he is never looking forward to, but in this house, you don’t complain, you do what you have to and keep it moving.

“Krrrr krrrrr” The alarm goes off. It’s 6 am. Time for Mandlenkosi to prepare himself for school. His father left half an hour ago. His mother leaves in the next half an hour and at 7 am it will be his turn. A thirty-minute walk to a place he dreads for the most part. Only soccer keeps him sane, that’s where he feels like he fits in. When he’s kicking a ball, it’s not about the popularity or the teasing, or the tears that well up in his eyes when he’s looked down on. It’s just him and the glory that awaits in the few seconds after he scores, and that is a regular occurrence.

Before you know it. Two breaks have passed. 7 periods are history and it’s time for soccer trials. This primary school has the south’s best soccer players, Mandlenkosi is counted well amongst the best of them, a great finisher with a lethal right foot, no under 12 primary school coach would leave him out of their starting eleven. Even so, his soccer exploits do little for his popularity. He’s a nerd, a gift many of his peers choose to see as a curse. It’s always the rebels that achieve popularity, but with the bullying, Mandlenkosi has survived at their hands, he does not envy them. They can keep their popularity for all he cares, he’ll keep his brain.

The coach has seen enough, to keep the boys in suspense, he says his final squad will be published on the soccer noticeboard tomorrow at lunch. Mandlenkosi cuts a lonely figure, taking a silent stroll home. He’s anxious. He changes into home clothes when he gets home, starts with his homework, his mother will be home soon. Today he just wants to watch TV once he’s done with homework. Everything goes according to plan and by the time his father is home, supper is almost served. Like everyone else in the house, he changes into his home clothes.

Supper is served. Silence ensues. Sis Thandi asks about everyone’s day, they both respond with quick fired “it was fine”, then she tells them about the elaborate life of a nurse. They crack a few laughs and Mandlenkosi’s reset button hits. It’s 8 pm. The time to stare into the ceiling till sleep arrives. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day.

Break time came with chaos as the noticeboard was surrounded by young hopefuls. Two comprehensive sides had been picked, the A team top of the list with 18 players, the B team below with 16. At number 9 on the A team list was Mandlenkosi Mlotshwa, with a CF next to it to signal the young man’s position, centre forward. Excitement flushed the young man’s face as he saw his name, as he turned to go to the field, to do what had seen him make it into the A team. He couldn’t escape the snide remarks of boys asking their friends how this tiny boy could beat them to the A team. Though his name wasn’t mentioned, he knew they were referring to him, he knew to keep his head down because looking at the boys would only attract more aggression towards him.

No one here would truly be happy that he made it onto the team. He had grown to accept that. He’ll just stay in his lane. They can’t hurt him there. They can’t reach him there, that’s when a crunching slide tackle came his way. He hit the mud with his ankle screaming in pain. He clenched his teeth, closed his eyes, as he heard their laughs. In his tears, they found some joy, that made them trickle down even harder.

He brought himself up, gingerly shaking his right foot, stepping carefully on the grass till he found a comfortable rhythm that allowed him to run. The next pass that found his feet, found him relentless, he trapped the ball with the outside of his right foot, as the defender approached, he pulled the ball back, rolled it between the defender’s feet. One down. He moved his body weight to the left, pushed the ball to the right. Two down. Tapped the ball between his legs and did a 360. Three and four down. One more shibobo, then he passed the ball to a free teammate who easily slotted the ball into the posts, just as the bell rang.

Mandlenkosi carried himself to class with pride. With his grey pants now a solid brown, white shirt following suit. He walked with his shoulders held high, washed his face under tap water and listened as spectators marvelled at what they had just seen. He had just humiliated the best defenders in the A team. Leaving three of them on the floor. “That’s why I was picked” he said as he passed the guys that were teasing their B team friend.

There must be someone watching over me, Mandlenkosi thought. There’s no other way to explain what happened at the break. Maybe the underdog had a shot at winning. Maybe that was the stone he had thrown at Goliath. He smiled to himself, walking home with a bounce in his step. That evening his mother was not feeling well, just a cold she said as she finished making supper. Mandlenkosi had soaked his uniform to escape a heated lecture from his mother about how filthy it was.

He’d keep his victories to himself. Finish eating and take his eyes to his bedroom ceiling.

When Sunday arrived, Mandlenkosi was the first one up, to his mother’s surprise. He couldn’t wait to see Mahlatse again, he’d probably be too nervous to say anything to her, but just seeing her would be enough. She’s the first person to truly notice him, or at least that’s how it felt.

He walked into his Sunday school class. Sat at his usual spot, right at the back and almost immediately he saw Mahlatse walk in. She looked at him, smiled and walked towards him. He was frozen, like in movies when the shy guy sees his crush. “Hey Mandlenkosi”, she said. “Uhm, hi Mahlatse” he responded trying to look cool. “Do you want to join us in front? Or are you going to hide here again?” she asked. “I’m alright here.” He answered. “Well then, move over” she said. “What?” he responded, baffled by her request. He moved over and she sat next to him.

For once he didn’t keep himself in his shell, he stopped looking clueless when questions were asked. He let his hand fly up when the class looked in need of a get out of jail free card. He didn’t care about the attention from everyone else, as long as the girl beside him was intrigued, he was good. For the second time, knowing the word of God had felt good. Another week of heading home smiling from ear to ear, church wasn’t that bad Mandlenkosi thought.

Mandlenkosi excelled in school soccer, winning the league’s top scorer award. His academics did not go unnoticed, as he was top of his class for mathematics, in the top ten of his grade. To top it off, Mahlatse has been his girlfriend for a year. A church romance that was envied by most. They were the coolest couple in Sunday school, the smartest too, but Mandlenkosi soon learnt that God would not raise you to prominence without throwing challenges your way.

Sis Thandi has been bedridden for three weeks now. Bennet has moved to long-distance driving to cover the medical costs. That means he spends less time at home, leaving Mandlenkosi with the burden of adapting to high school while taking care of his sick mother. His relationship is suffering because his father has started looking for traditional alternatives to western medicine, which confuses him. In his church, ancestors cannot combine with Christ. It’s one or the other, never both. The blackness of his skin will never allow him to turn his back on the traditional beliefs that have swallowed his home whole. That means less time with Mahlatse.

Mahlatse finds solace in Thokozani’s arms. This leads her to terminate her relationship with Mandlenkosi. Lost in a world that holds no fairness. God has forgotten his soul; the promised land seems out of his reach. His mother is ill. His girlfriend has become an ex. His father is always at work. These herbs are not healing his mother. School is an added burden, the curse that keeps on giving. Maintaining good grades seems impossible. The odds are stacked against him.

His mother prays for him every night before she sleeps, she prays he never loses his way, she prays he doesn’t duplicate his father, she prays God looks upon him with favour. He’s a good child, he doesn’t deserve what life is dishing out to him, she thinks as he hands her a plate of pap and Nkomazi. He had to learn how to make pap or let his mother drink her meds on an empty stomach and bread was becoming a tiring alternative.

Sis Thandi, is holding a secret that could open her road to healing, but she’s in denial, so she’ll take the traditional healers saying that she has a calling. That she should be one of them when she knows that her blood tested positive for HIV. She doesn’t want Mandlenkosi finding out, so she drinks the herbs knowing that, healing will only come with her accepting her situation and taking her medication. Luckily her viral load has not reached the point where she needs ARVs, otherwise, Mandlenkosi would have noticed already.

Mandlenkosi does not believe in tradition. His belief in Christ has started becoming shaky. He’s been questioning the bible and when no one could answer how Cain and Abel bore children without committing incest, he finally gave in to losing his connection with Christ.

Though Mandlenkosi was losing touch with God, he still got on his knees and prayed for understanding, wisdom and courage. The understanding of his current situation, the wisdom to know how to overcome it and the courage to execute the act of overcoming it. The answers came in a simple conversation with his father.

“Why have you never liked going to church?” Mandlenkosi asked his father. “It’s not that I don’t like going to church, it’s just that church comes with politics that overshadow its purpose.” His father responded. “What do you mean?” Mandlenkosi asked. “You are old enough to distinguish right from wrong now, what are the 10 commandments?” His father said. “Love thy neighbour, do not steal, do not kill…” Mandlenkosi answered until all ten commandments were covered. “Now with your logic, do you believe that it is right to kill?” His father asked. “No.” He answered with no hesitation. “Okay, you see son, if people believe in different things, it’s hard to unite them. I believe that hundreds of years ago, maybe even thousands. A group of people created religion as an act of uniting people under a common belief, they created the idea of a higher power. Together with heaven and hell, as consequences of the positive and negative acts that we choose while on earth.” His father said. “Wow.” Mandlenkosi said. “I am a logical being who does things because I believe they are right, not because an old book tells me to. That’s why I don’t need a pastor to validate my actions.” His father said.

That conversation put life into perspective for Mandlenkosi who had been broken since his life started tearing apart. His father explained that religion is doing something that you believe in so routinely that it becomes a part of your lifestyle. “Like watching soccer every weekend?” Mandlenkosi had asked inquisitively as his father nodded. “Polishing our shoes?” another nod followed from his father. “Having supper together?” another nod. “See, you already know what right and wrong are and by the looks of things, you follow a lot of religions already, so do you really need the church?” this time his father said this while walking away. Leaving Mandlenkosi baffled at his father’s wisdom, they had never had any real exchanges about life unless it revolves around soccer and this moment left him frozen in shock.

Sis Thandi overheard this conversation between father and son. She believed it was time. Time to accept her illness and the first step was telling her son. He stood a better chance at assisting her if he knew what was killing her. She told him about her status and together they picked up the pieces. Her husband’s promotion at work meant she could afford to be a stay at home mom, as she got better she decided against returning to work in order to repay Mandlenkosi for the bravery he had shown in taking care of her. He passed with flying colours and is on his way to becoming a surgeon.

The fact that religion is not in a place, or going to a place, or an act done once in a while. It’s in how routinely you do it, it’s how you stay true to it as you go along, how you believe in it so strongly that you can’t just walk away from it. Breathing, fighting, keeping his head high, loving, never giving up, have all become a religion for Mandlenkosi. They are what carried him to 8 distinctions in matric. They are what have paved the way for his success. They are the reason he is who he is today.

Artwork by Katharine Ambrose