As I stepped out of the train and onto the platform, a cold chill came over me. What I had done dawned suddenly on me. I had stolen money; and a cellphone; but most importantly, I had run away. My knees buckled at the thought and I had to do all I could to keep my self from falling. My hands held on tightly to the handles of the satchel I had used in my few months of schooling, whitening my knuckles as the blood seized to flow. I was scared – no terrified! What had I done? Where was I? Where was I supposed to head to next?
As I scanned the train station, I realized that everybody else was quickly disappearing from the platform. They had places to go and people to see. I was the only one there stuck in place, seemingly ready to become a part of the South African Railway system structure.
I couldn’t risk showing that I was confused and vulnerable, and so I walked into the large train station hall and headed to the first mobile phone company cubicle I could see. It was intimidating as the woman there made me feel like she didn’t want to serve me. My total transaction of the R1 starterpack and R12 airtime was obviously not good enough.
I remember walking out, finding free space on a bench and without hesitation I made a call to the number mama had often called me from in the late night hours when she knew Gumede would be asleep. She had taught me how to erase evidence of our conversations and how to check for airtime so that I could contact her whenever I needed to. Those were the moments in my life that I think kept me sane, but I cannot be certain. I suppose that knowing mama was thinking of me must have given me the strength to open my eyes and brace myself for another day. I remember when she told me that she had defiantly looked for another job a month after Gumede had summoned me, but he was never to know that. Rightly so because in the 3 years I was in Alex Park he had never attempted to go back to the village anyway, and so how did he think that they were surviving?
‘Mama!’ My voice quivered as I spoke.
‘Khethiwe, my child! Are you okay? How are you calling me at this time? Uphi uGumede?’
‘Ngimbalekile ma! Ngi-NgiseKappa!’
I could hear the terror in her voice, but moreso the gratitude that I had escaped the clutches of the evil one. The relief was rather evident because I believe that she had secretly known all along that I was in a bad space, but she was powerless to help me. I wierdly understood her, I knew it was not her fault and so it was not a conversation that I was about to have with her. It wasn’t necessary.
The oxymoron effect of the situation was that whilst relieved, mama still feared deeply for me – for my next step. I was a young teenage girl, lost in the streets of a big city and she didn’t know if I would be able to fend for myself. Mama tried hard to convince me to travel to Durban instead and be with her, but I knew Gumede would eventually end up there and my efforts would have been futile. I felt that I would rather roam the streets of CapeTown freely forever, than be comfortable in Durban with mama for a moment.
You see, although I had became a loner in Alex Park, keeping to myself in the shack; the surroundings of the township had taught me necessary survival skills, and so, my dull face showed very little signs of open fear as I began to roam the streets of the new city, which were much milder for me than the streets of the slums of Alex Park.
Having lived amongst the worst of thieves and thugs, we had had to learn how to carry and spend money in such a way that no one would notice that we had it. My acquaintance with starvation also made it easy for me not to need food often, even for two or so days at a time. I had to ensure that I would not sleep in the same corner twice – not that I had a choice; and neither did I speak to anyone intentionally. I just walked and lived for 45 days in the ever changing, erratic weather patterns of Cape Town.
Ofcourse, non of these days were without incidence. I remember the terrifying night when a rugged young man tried to steal my satchel as I settled down in some shop doorway. I was only saved by the loud shouts of a Nigerian accent telling him that he would soon die if he dared approach the door any further. When the face of the voice appeared, it was a half dressed buff man, with a cold black steel gun waving carelessly in his hand, warning me not to come back the following night as I was attracting unnecessary pests to his front door.
I remember the girls on the streets who pushed and pulled me warning me not to try and walk their corners as they would ‘moor’ me until I forgot my name. Oh and the group of street boys who followed me around for a full day, teasing and jesting at me until I asked a cleaning lady to let me sleep in the toilet by the service station she worked for. I had to pay her ofcourse – 50 whole rands.
It didn’t matter what I came across on any given day though. None of it matched the lifetime of torture I had experienced in the shack, and so I took it all, grateful to wake up every sunrise with one thing I had not been given privy to for so long – willpower!
I had the right to choose, which road to take, which street corner to sleep in and most importantly, which person would have the permission to talk to me, let alone, touch me. To a certain degree, I had attained freedom and that reality was strong enough to give me strength to face the drug filled, blood and money thirsty streets of night and daytime Kappa. I was comforted even though I stood right between a rock and a hard place.
It was on day number 46, in the loudness of morning traffic, that I walked past what looked like a restaurant, where many young ladies were standing in the back entrance, just waiting. They were eager for something to happen, and I was too, but I didn’t know why they stood there. Something pushed me to stand and watch and with every passing minute I edged closer to the group. A few girls I reached and stood close to, lifted their hands to their faces and used their pointy fingers to cover their noses, trying not to show me that they were disgusted by my filthy, pungent and horrid smell. I was embarrassed but I had been through worse and quickly decided that this didn’t deserve the attention of hurt emotions.
After some time, the back door burst open, and three or four men and one woman walked out and roamed the crowd. They were looking weirdly at the girls and commenting as though in appreciation of their beauty. When the tall, dark skinny man came past me, the smell that emanated from my being startled him and he squinted in my direction in utter disgust. They quickly made their selections and walked back in through the door with their five chosen ones. Others hung around, but most simply walked away grunting under their breath and attitudinally shouting how they didn’t care.
As I followed them out the alley way, I looked around for the direction I could head to next. From a distance I absentmindedly saw a 7 seater car parking on the opposite side of the road. 3 women came out of it and looked like they were discussing something. Paying them no mind, I stood and continued to decide on my direction. I knew I had just over R450 left and could survive another 4 weeks eating bread and drinking either a sweet drink or the coffee sold on the sides of the streets on a cold day. Maybe by then, by some miracle I would have found a permanent refuge. If not, so be it.
My thoughts were interrupted by a calm voice of a woman that spoke in Afrikaans. I could tell she may have been greeting me, but I did not understand the language. Seeing my quizzical expressions, she then called for her friend to come and help her speak to me. Her friend spoke in Xhosa and we managed to communicate better as most of the words she spoke, were similar to the Zulu tongue I was accustomed to. This friend introduced herself as Mam’Thandiswa, and the Afrikaaner lady as Mrs Van Niekerk. They mentioned a name of an Organisation that they were working for, and said they were interested in helping the girl child and protecting them from abuse. They said they offered Counselling, training in different jobs and sometimes were occasionally able to help with schooling for those who showed much promise. They only asked that I go with them to the shelter and see if I was interested in their help.
I was suspicious of course, deciding that these were the women we often heard of in Alex Park, who hid under the auspices of good intentions and then kidnapped you and cut up your body parts for witchcraft. I was not having it. I did not run away, this far, and survive this long, just to be turned into juju for a hopeless character willing to pay to involve themselves in evil acts. I vehemently refused to go with them and for some reason, they were genuinely disappointed. However they did insist on pointing out a building that they worked from, across the street; inviting me to come whenever I felt ready.
I was never going to be ready. How does one prepare themselves for their own suicide? It was rather naive of them to think that in this day and age, with all this information, that girls were stupid enough to just follow them blindly. Never! We had all heard the stories and we all had known, even vaguely, the pretty face of a girl that had mysteriously disappeared from the township and been found dead with body parts missing. No! no! no! I was not going to be one of those. I passionately made a vow to myself as I watched them approach more of the girls rejected earlier, wondering where these aged women got the guts to con innocent young girls for murder. This world!
I crouched by the restuarnt wall and watched them for about an hour. They managed to con two girls who seemed older than me and oh how I felt sorry for them. For some reason unknown to me though, it was only once they had left that I was curious. I wanted to know what kind of a place this really was. I wanted to see what happened in that building, but I wanted to do it without being seen; and so a few hours later I walked towards the building but stuck to my side of the street. I stood and leaned into a large gap in the wall which was carved in as a design by some ambitious architect. I comfortably fit into it and felt it provide a safe heaven for my investigative mission. It certainly gave me something to do for the day, my personal form of entertainment.
The building I watched had a big sign at the top with the letters H-E-L-P–F-O-R–Y-O-U. I wondered what that meant, because the only word I knew was ‘YOU’, but ofcourse I didn’t bother to ask anyone. They would snub me anyway and make me the spectacle of their disgust. I crouched down and watched the entrance, as young ladies walked in and out throughout the day. Some came alone, some in twos, and once in a while, a large group would walk out and into a Taxi with the picture of a mop and broom at the side. They always seemed to return after three or four hours, and none of them looked like they were forced to be there.
I watched as some smiled and some spoke with vibrant expressions; some joked as friends and some walked together but in silence. It didn’t look like an intimidating place at all and maybe it really was the shelter I didn’t know I was searching for. I repeated my investigation though, for 4 days, making sure to arrive at different times of the day, just in case I could catch something sinister taking place. However,on the morning of day number 5, the same feeling of certainty that I had felt during my last days in Alex Park returned. I was suddenly sure that I needed to go in, because this could be it – my refuge. I remember finally taking the bold step to cross the road and stand at the large doorway, watching keenly to see what would happen next.
It didn’t take long before a short, old white woman walked towards me with a gentle smile on her face. She extended her hand and beckoned for me to come in, whilst she yelled for someone called Ruth to come quickly. Ruth, a tall lanky colored girl, ran obediently towards us and stood there greeting me and waiting for instruction.
‘Ruthy, my darling, please help this young child get out these clothes and take a bath. She needs a good meal and we must help her.’
Her tone was urgent and her compassion was evident, she never winced once at my smell and most importantly, she gave me no room to refuse.
Ruth swiftly took me by the hand and led me down two corridors into a clean, white tiled room that had multiple shower cubicles and toilets, and little cupboards with little padlocks. She grabbed a key from the hooks behind the main door and looked at the tag for the number. She walked towards one of the cupboards marked S and with the number 28 on it, and unlocked it, removing a bag, the size and shape of a briefcase. Handing it to me, she asked if she could take my satchel and lock it in there, assuring me that she would give me the key and my things would be safe.
I silently obeyed and she followed through everything she had promised. When she was done, Ruth turned to me and led me to a small table where she helped me to lay the briefcase like bag, on top of it. Opening it up, she told me that she would give me some privacy and I could take a shower and refresh myself, using whatever I liked from the bag. Stunned, I just looked at her and she smiled gently and said, ‘Everything is going to be okay, my dear, you came to the right place.’
After a minute of her leaving, I looked down into the briefcase, studying it intently. It was neatly packed in compartments that contained many things. A full bar of wrapped soap; an Afro comb, and a hair brush; a tooth brush and tooth paste; a face towel and a body towel; a small container of lotion and roll-on deodorant; three sanitary pads; a pair of black slippers; and lastly a cotton full panty, a pink t-shirt and a black, flared wrap over skirt that seemed long enough to fall just under my knees. Everything was not only tidy but very clean – and new. The most puzzling part was the Ruth had said it was for ME to use – right now.
This was unreal and had to be a dream, and I decided to enjoy every minute of it until my inevitable rude awakening. I took off my filthy clothes and carefully removed the money from the different areas on my body that I kept it on. I took the key I had been given and opened the cupboard, placing the money in the deepest part of my satchel and shoving the satchel in quickly, locking the cupboard. I did all this whilst looking around carefully to see that no one was watching me and learning my secret.
Then I stepped into the shower with the necessary cosmetics and turned the two nobs, ready for my first real bath in a very long time. The first thing that struck my back was the cold water which should have felt icy and painful, but it didn’t. My hardened skin, layered in dirt, was happy to be touched by the soothing sensations of water in any form. The germs that had made their home on me and were very comfortable, felt like they were escaping for their lives as my skin crawled in an itch that was rather uncomfortable but also very welcome. As the water warmed up, I remember my body relaxing and me just standing there enjoying the feeling of serenity, and the peace that flowing water brings to the mind. It really felt good and it was my moment to finally enjoy the fruit of my sudden decision to escape from that evil man.
I remember finishing off my lovely shower and dressing up in clean smelling clothes which felt like silk on my skin and somehow seemed lighter than my filthy rags that lay there looking greasy, old and disgustingly dirty. It was only then that I realized that the room had no mirror and was disappointed because I suddenly wanted to see what I looked like. I rushed and packed everything, returning my money to its hiding places on my body and waited for Ruth to come back. When she finally arrived she exclaimed that I was beautiful and for the first time since I arrived, looking down at my feet, I opened my mouth and said, Thank you,’ and felt a tiny smile growing on my lips.
She led me to the next big room down a long corridor and it was filled with lots of tables and benches. A tray was waiting at one of the tables and contained a spoon, salt, a bottle of water and a big covered plate. After Ruth announced that it was mine, I sat down and opened the plate and discovered a hot meal of pap, beef and m’roko. It looked so appetizing and smelled just as good, that I dived straight into the plate, with my right hand and ate as fast as I could just in case someone would object, announcing that there had been a mistake. It was so, so good. Hot and fresh and tasty. The flavor of the beef was so succulent on my tongue and all around my mouth. The perfectly salted m’roko swirling all over and was tamed occasionally by the fluffy white pap. My goodness. Who ate like that everyday? They were the luckiest person in the whole world and they deserved to hold the title of King or Queen of the land. I could not believe my luck and thanked the lucky stars that had chosen to suddenly bless me with all of this at one go. Woooooh, this was too much.
Finishing the entire plate alone was the biggest treat I had ever had in my entire life. The portions were size able with three pieces of meat. Hay’! I had hit the jackpot and kicked myself for not walking into this building sooner.
When I was done eating, Ruth, who was now talking to the woman at the dishing counter, showed me where to wash my hands and then led me to a small office near the big entrance of the building. The kind old lady stood from her desk, and walked round and smiled broadly, saying I was the prettiest thing she had ever seen. She asked me to sit and then called another woman, Thoko, to come and help her speak to me in my language.
‘My name is Ouma Francis, I am a counsellor at this place and I want to help you build a good life for yourself.’ All this was said with the help of the interpreter.
‘What is your name my dear?’
Oh no. I struggled in my head, because I remembered that I was still running and did not want to be found. I was mute for I could not say, at that time, that I was Khethiwe Gumede. It would bring all my misery back in an instant and I could not devulge the deep secrets that haunted me and I simply failed to speak.
‘It’s okay my dear, you don’t have to give me your real name, but you can pick a name that you like and we will use that for you.’
These women understood that young girls who roam the streets always had a story and a reason for it. They also understood the fear they carried sometimes and the harsh conditions from they may have come from. Their only mission was to protect, restore and assist without intruding in what the girl child was not ready to deal with yet.
I thought long and hard, allowing the minutes to pass. They allowed me to take my time and finally, waiting patiently as though they knew that what I was going to say was going to define who I was for a very long time. They seemed to know that a name brings power, confidence and hope to the beholder and they allowed me to slowly search my mind and try to find a place and a time where everything seemed alright. It was hard work. I had not allowed myself to go there for years and I didnt know that it probably still existed. My brain journeyed far into the villages of KZN and I saw the small innocent child that I was, who would sit with mama by the fire and hear the folk tales she told with such ease and freedom.
It took me a while, but I finally said the one that always sounded pretty in my ears. I was confident that this was the right one. I had heard it from a story that my mother had told us about a girl who journeyed for miles searching for a beautiful flower all because her mother had told her that it would bring happiness and peace to anyone that found it. I had hoped for a moment that I could be the girl she spoke about because I wanted that flower so much, so that I could give it to mama, whom I knew needed that peace in her complicated, painful life. Yes, the name of that flower made sense to me right at that moment. I not only wanted to be the girl, but I wanted to be the flower too. If I was getting a second chance at life, I wanted to be the flower that would bring happiness and peace to mama. If this moment was about to define the rest of my life, then I knew exactly what I needed to be called right there and then.
‘Primrose.’ I said out loud. ‘My name is Primrose!’