Instinctively I knew they knew me. Being the youngest in my family, I’ve been called “Baby” my whole life, even though my brothers and sisters now have babies of their own. I was and would always be “Baba”, or “Makazi Baba”, or – just for the irony – “Auntie Baby”. It didn’t make sense then that I should feel compelled to turn around and ask this voice “Undazela phi?” – because only someone who knew me would use that name, especially in such an unfamiliar place and time.
It was my second time at the promenade in Sea Point, or ilokishi yabelungu, as a friend who regarded the area with disdain called it. The first time I went to the promenade, I wasn’t even too sure what a promenade was. I went with a friend who insisted that we needed some fresh air in our lungs after hours of writing and poring over research work. Her suggestion made the promenade seem like something important, so when we arrived I was quite disappointed that the promenade was simply a demarcated area to walk along the beach. Even the word – promenade – suggested something special. Growing up in East London, we never referred to a similar area along Eastern Beach as the promenade. It was simply elwandle – the beach.
I soon learned that the promenade is Sea Point’s most important social feature. The public art featured along the path still makes no sense to me, especially the white horses (or ponies) with horns. The sound of the waves crashing against the wall and the railings is often violent, if hypnotising. People walk their dogs, or sit on benches, staring out into the horizon longingly.
But amidst all the happiness – of the children on the swings in the park, the walkers and the confident runners – are brown bodies, often curled like a fetus on a bench or leaning against a tree. Homeless. Hungry. Blemished bodies living nowhere, belonging nowhere. Men, mostly, who wonder the streets of Cape Town carrying a few possessions or, more often, nothing at all. The same ilk of people who filter in and out of the Company’s Garden behind Parliament, watching tourists and locals buy peanuts for the squirrels, but turning away when hungry people approach them asking for food.
I had the choice to carry on walking, or stop and turn around and find the source of my name. But turning around also meant abandoning the animated conversation I was having with a new friend − well, a friend of a friend. I was new in Cape Town and had decided to rekindle an acquaintance with someone I once met at some meeting a long time ago. I was looking for friends and I thought a walk at the promenade would give us enough time to explain ourselves to each other and ourselves; to search for some familiarity.
Maybe it’s all the sea air coursing through your lungs, but there’s something about the promenade, despite all its faults. The sun was warm and perfectly suspended, creating shadows and glints of gold on the windows as we walked by. We were in high spirits that morning, realizing quickly that we weren’t strangers, just almost-friends who might have the opportunity to catch up and confirm that we could be friends. There were commonalities. We both had sisters. We both loved being teachers. We both had difficult relationships with our mothers. My companion was slightly older than me with more life experiences. I enjoyed her stories about her adventures teaching in India, as well as working in the publishing industry – and hating it. Circles were closed: the other day she had come up in a conversation with other friends, who all worked for a youth organization that was caught in a scandal, and central to the scandal was a relationship breaking down – her relationship. The cliché was horribly true: it’s a small world after all.
I told her about my schizophrenic experience of being black in Cape Town and she listened intently, trying to understand but not fully understanding. She was white, privileged and living the quintessential the Cape Town experience. But I liked her. We were coming close to confirming our friendship.
The conversation couldn’t go on, but I was afraid to turn around. Turning around meant acknowledging one of the beggars as someone familiar. Someone weather-beaten, bedraggled and ashy from the gusts of wind from the ocean. A beggar, the very word describing someone as though their entire existence has only ever been at the mercy of strangers for a meal or small change. I could have dismissed the voice as yet another man who feels compelled to discredit my black body as many had shouted before at taxi ranks and in town.
“Ek se baby, awusemhle!”
“Yho lady, jy lyk so kwaai!”
“Yho baby ngaske undifake kuloo mathanga!” (This one was my favourite.)
When I did turn around his face was hidden by the shadow. He was sitting against the wall. I think I asked him “Undazela phi?” – but he just laughed at me. And then I realized he didn’t have to explain himself. There was a knowing in his smile and his name came to me immediately: the one who brings more. (More blessings, apparently. Ironically.)
My childhood tormenter. I had heard that he moved to Cape Town after some strife in the family. I knew he had first found work as a petrol attendant, but later disappeared. There was a vague sense that he didn’t want to be found. He had moved in with some cousins in Philippi, but later he moved out and was lost into the city. The last time I saw him was at my grandmother’s funeral. He looked lost there, as if he wasn’t part of the family, even though my cousins made efforts to find him and bring him home so he wouldn’t miss the funeral. Afterward, while walking through the small kitchen in my grandmother’s house I glanced at him while he sat hunched in a chair. I couldn’t read him; the sadness in his eyes made him unrecognizable. I think I gave him a hug as I walked by. Because that’s the thing to do. Bhele’s funeral was a family reunion and probably the final family reunion our already fractured and dismembered family would have.
When I moved to Cape Town I had no intentions of making him one of my projects. In fact I didn’t even think of looking for him. My mother didn’t mention him when I told her I was moving to Cape Town, so I assumed he had found his feet somehow.
But here he was. His skin was shabby, no longer healthy as one from a well-fed family would be. I knew life had been rough with him. I had to acknowledge him. I didn’t give him a hug. We spoke. My new friend was forgotten. She left, saying she would go find a pen so I could write my number on this stranger’s hand. He asked me for money. I gave him R10. I told him I was going home in a few days. I told him if he met me at the station I would buy him a ticket and we would go home together. He declined, and immediately I was relieved. Standing there on the promenade, I felt like I didn’t have the heart to get into the details that if he was going to come he must wash and be clean so we could sit in the bus together without his vile smells. My friend eventually came back with a pen and I gave him my number.
I remember feeling exposed as I walked away and trying to explain who he was to the new friend. As I explained, I realized it didn’t make sense to me how two people raised in one family could end up worlds apart. Only to meet at the Sea Point promenade: he, the beggar, and I, one of the many people he watched passing by.
He still hasn’t used my number. Still I feel a pang of guilt and anger every time I go the promenade, secretly hoping to see him again. To beg him to go home. But after two years and a few more visits to the promenade, I’ve stopped looking.
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.