Departure time for Train 9497 is 07:10, but at 07:13 it is still stuck at Khayelitsha station. There is no announcement of its estimated departure time. Some commuters stand around with worried faces. Other commuters run up the stairs to the other platforms, so that they can catch the trains going the opposite direction, in the hope that they can stay on and come back with them when they eventually return to town.
Those trains don’t come back.
Across the train station, at the Khayelitsha Mall, where finding silence is usually an impossible task, one can hear the heavy footsteps of commuters running to the station. In the opposite direction, toward the east, I can see the Simonsberg tower above us, bestrewn with snow, even though it is the middle of summer. An old woman, in pursuit of time that has passed by her, runs down the stairs and jumps onto the train. She stands near me. Her face is etched with fatigue.
She didn’t have to hurry. I look at my watch again, and it is now 07:15. At 07:05, there should have been a train from Chris Hani to Cape Town stopping here, but it never came. So now this train – Train 9497 – is fuller than usual. Commuters are standing around, holding on to the steel bars inside the carriages. The announcer makes his announcements laconically. The 07:05 train has now been cancelled. There is no empathy in his words. That was the last announcement. Everything must now be guessed at, or assumed, or taken for granted from those voices in the crowd who, in the chaos, have ascended to the role of experts.
I untangle myself from the cables of my headphones and grab my bag. I gesture to the old woman to have my seat.
“Thank you, my child,” she says. She wipes her face with a facecloth and takes a deep lungful of air.
Forty minutes later, an eternity, a whistle goes. A loud siren follows. At last, we are on our way. There are school kids, these daredevils, who are still standing on the platform, retelling the night to each other, when the train starts to move. They board the carriage in haste. Their cigarette smoke hangs in the air behind them as they force their way into the closing doors. This is a common trend with train commuters. Two days ago, a woman tried to board the train while its doors were closing, but she was flung back to the platform. She wanted to catch the 07:05 train, and didn’t want to wait for the 07:10 train. A five-minute difference makes all the difference, especially if the next train doesn’t come. A school kid I was standing next to when it happened told me that the woman had her technique for embarking all wrong. He told me that school kids, the masters of boarding a moving train, wait nearby the door. When the train begins to depart the station, the kids run alongside on the pavement, matching their own pace with that of the train. They then hold onto the train doors and, as the edge of the platform approaches, they finally jump on, to the applause of their friends and the pulsating hearts of the adults.
“How can you jump into the train, with both your legs, while your arms are clutching your bag?” he had asked. It did seem like a bad technique. You couldn’t fling yourself in. Either way, she was lucky. The woman lived that day.
Before we reach Cape Town, commuters will embark and disembark at 13 stations. It has been a month since I began taking the Metrorail. I still cannot tell which station the train is in or going to without sticking my head out the window. Commuters who have been taking the train since they were young know each station and the departure times without looking outside. The trains on my route to town begin in Chris Hani. It stops in Khayelitsha first, the station next to the mall and only three minutes from the room I rent, and then they make their way to all the other stations on the Central Line, from Nonkqubela, to Nolungile, then Mandalay, Stock Road, Phillipi, Nyanga, Heideveld, Netreg, Bonteheuwel, Langa, Mutual, Ysterplaat, Esplanade and, finally, Cape Town. The journey is about an hour long from Khayelitsha to town. Usually it feels longer.
Metrorail is a fleet of trains that covers short distances. Metrorail covers about 2 400 kilometres of track throughout South Africa. Their slogan is “Getting South Africa to work”, but most of their trains are falling apart. The windows do not have windows. Some windows cannot close. They stay open, letting in the gush of wind, rain and sun. Their doors work – or don’t work – the same way. The train I am in has seen better days. The paint is peeling off. The windows stay open and the rubber that keeps the two sliding doors closed is out. Its body, the very body whose rhythm enchants me every day, is inked with sexual graffiti, penis enlargement posters and flyers for same-day abortions.
The sun remains behind the clouds and tries to break free. There is a slight, cold breeze. The train moves at a high speed. It gets to Nonkqubela, in what feels like a couple of minutes. There are not many commuters waiting at the train station, to my shock. They embark without any shoving or commotion. They squeeze onto seats – there is always a space for just one more commuter to sit, even when the train is packed. Just half the bum will do for most.
There is a sound that is inseparable with trains – ‘cluck, cluck, cluck’ – that starts at the front carriage and works its way toward the back. As it fades into the carriages near the tail of the train, it begins again where it had begun and repeats itself. The rhythm of machines, I have always thought, is something both poetic and industrial.
The train goes past a cluster of shacks. There are no spaces between them, as if by some architectural experiment they are joined together to form one giant shack. A foul smell leaks inside the train and for a few minutes hangs around. The commuter’s conversations, each concerned with its own importance, begin to build up to a cacophony of collective noise, overriding the clucking of the train. I decide to finish God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembene, and dig it out my bag. The book was first published in French as Les bouts de bois de Dieu in 1960, the same year Senegal got independence. In 1962, it was translated to English. I found the book by complete chance. One Saturday morning, I had decided to ransack the library after realizing that there was not a proper shelving system in place. The book was nestled in a stack of history books about the colonization and the Renaissance. I first heard Sembene’s name a few years ago while I was at film school. I knew he had written books, before turning to film in his late age.
When I next take my eyes off the book, the train has left Nolungile station, making its way to Mandalay. After the usual unsettling that happens at every station when commuters embark and disembark, I now find myself stable. Well, not exactly stable – I am standing, pressed on one side by the wall of the carriage and on the other by someone else – but it is good enough. I have become an Elysian ape; I am one with the train’s rocky choreography. I swerve in harmony with its movement – its rhythm is my own once again. I push the chattering voices to the back of my head, negotiating space in the things that inhabit my mind, and continue to read. At odd bits, the conversations of the commuters weave themselves into the book’s narrative, as the unsatisfied workers in God’s Bits of Wood; as the unhappy wife, or the poor man going to bed on an empty stomach.
My concentration is broken by a heavy thudding. A woman is beating on the train wall. I find it odd: she seems to be too old to be a vandal and she has a smile that is not malicious. She eventually stops. I continue to read, but the thudding starts again. I do not look up. I listen. I know the rhythm: it is from an old hymn. It’s called “Wakrazulwa”. When I was young, I had perfected the hymn’s rhythm on a pouch made from leather and stuffed with chicken feathers. The thudding takes me back to a hazy past. I remember being in ironed trousers and a white shirt, armed with a Bible. I remember going to church to fight Satan. My dear mother would drag me and my other brothers from a dusty soccer playground to the house of the Lord every Sunday. I remember descending a molehill, with a wooden chair on my head, because the church did not have chairs. Church members had to take with a chair if you wanted to sit.
It occurs to me then that this is not a crazed woman. This is one of those so-called “moving churches” I have always wanted to experience. Sometimes I hear the remnants of them when all the passengers get off the trains at Cape Town station, but I have never been on one myself. Sometimes I watch the women and the men continue to sing their hymns as they disappear into town, to the chaos of traffic, the evil of the city.
A young man, next to me, joins the thudding, fuelling the song. The thudding continues for a short while without singing. After a chaotic start, the thumping becomes one, becomes a communal rhythm. It is beautiful to hear. The train seems to be moving to the tempo of the beat. Somewhere, a woman breaks into a song, and my memory was right. It is “Wakrazulwa”.
Wakrazulwa ngenxa yam, LiWa la phakade! Kuze ndizifihle kuWe,
Nxeba ka Yesu! Yeyani na le mikrozo,
Kwelo cala lakho? Yeyegazi, yeamanzi,
Ma ndihlanjululwe. Iinyembezi zeminyaka,
Azingefeze nto, NguWe, nKosi, osusayo
Zonk’izoono zomntu. Andinanto esandleni,
Ndize kanye, nKosi! Sendondele ekrusini,
Ekubethwelweni. Wakrazulwa ngenxa yam,
LiWa la phakade! Kuze ndizifihle kuWe,
Nxeba ka Yesu! Amen.
The woman leading the song punctuates her singing with a conversation with the woman who began the thudding on the wall. Though it has not been, it all sounds rehearsed. Too rehearsed. It has the same fatigued ritual of church. The impassioned voices of strangers have found each other’s harmonies. They all cling on to it. Prophesying lives here and everywhere else. I close God’s Bits of Wood and join the singing. I imagine Ramatoulaye, Beaugosse, Bakayoko, N’Deye Touti and Monsieur Dejean – all the characters in the book – cursing at me for neglecting them, and choosing the joy in the train instead.
The thudding continues. The singing is hesitant, as if waiting for another hymn to rescue it. It fades, but refuses to end. All voices – alto, soprano, bass, tenor – have joined in, chiming in and out. Some voices are off-key, but there are too few of those to mess up the harmony. Finally, a pastor with a coarse voice rescues the song from its last breaths. He sings a bit too long.
I try to return to my book, but now I am distracted. I stare out the window. The train is flanked on either side by shacks. I take in my aching heart their deplorable sight, their pungent smell, the heaps of rubbish beside them. I watch the people in their numbers come out from them. There must be a walking path dissecting them, but I only see shacks and shacks and more shacks, all joined together. A shack with red and green zinc hangs right on the edge of a high raised mound. It looks like it was born from the other shacks, built from their other parts.
I remember a passage from In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, where he describes the village of Holcomb, and how it “stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” I imagine that those that live in the CBD of Cape Town think of Khayelitsha too as “a lonesome area that is ‘out there’”. The only things that Khayelitsha and Cape Town have in common with each other are the mountains that hang over them. Table Mountain hangs above Khayelitsha, as it does everywhere else in Cape Town, with its giant presence. Sometimes, though, in the morning, when the fog obscures it, one feels as if they have woken up in a different city.
The train gets closer to Cape Town. Tall buildings, traffic, smell of the ocean and fish emerge, at once. Only Ysterplaat and Esplanade stations are left before town. The singing has not stopped. The woman who had begun the thudding still leads it. Her hands are not aching. Pastors are sharing the pulpit. A new song begins.
Makholwa lendawo vumani’zono. Vumani’zono.
Vumani. Vumani izono. Nithethelelwe izono.
Makholwa, vumani’zono. Nithethelwele izono.
I remember when I was young, I would pray and sing hymns with my grandmother in the wee hours of the morning. There is something to an aging voice when it sings. It is tender, fragile, gifted with a particular slow tone and enunciation. The long pauses to take in breath, leaving a vacant space, for both the listener and singer to wonder.
The Cape Town station suddenly swallows the train. In a few minutes, at least a thousand people will disembark from Train 9497. Before it comes to a stop, the crowds move toward the doors, I think, like a good poem whose words bend and flow to each other’s meaning and sound. The singing continues, and it develops a sense of urgency to it, as if it needs to go somewhere before the singers disembark.
The sound of rushing footsteps, stomping the concrete platform with great terror, devoid of rhythm, replace the rhythmic thudding. The singing persists, weaving itself to the hollow sound of the station and the hooting of the taxi rank above it. It escapes to the city through the openings of the station’s roof.
I disembark, squeezed in between an elderly woman, and a school kid. The singing disappears into the city. People take a verse with them; another person, a harmony; both to hum for eternity.
Lidudumalingani is a writer, filmmaker and photographer. He was born in the villages in Transkei, South Africa. In 2016, he won the Caine Prize for African writing. He is currently at work on a novel.
Prufrock is a print quarterly of writing — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — in any South African language, started in 2013. You can subscribe, find out the nearest place to pick up the latest issue, and read the magazine’s submission guidelines here: www.prufrock.co.za. Follow Prufrock on Facebook and Twitter and find a piece of writing from one of their past issues on 10and5 every Wednesday.