There is more noise on the bus than anywhere else. I know because Mama and Siyanda and I sit on it every morning. There is loudness in the school, and with Mandla and Ndumiso when they are playing with each other, but not like on the bus. Sometimes I think all the voices are there at once, because I can’t tell them apart. Even Mama’s voice which is very soft and very safe gets lost on the bus and I have to remind myself that it will be back soon because I get scared if I don’t hear Mama.
Mama holds my hand while we wait for the bus because she knows the loudness scares me.
I know you don’t like it Themba, she says. But how would you get to the school? And how would I get to the big house in Igoli? This is why we have to take the bus.
The big house is where Mama works. It is in Igoli, which is another word for Johannesburg. I am not really sure why there are two. The people who live there are very different than us. They need Mama to make them food because they can’t do it themselves. They’re lucky she goes to their house to help them.
This morning I am wearing my favorite shirt. It was a surprise present for me from Baba when we were at the market. I stared at it for a very long time while I was waiting for him to buy new shoes and while he was paying for them he said, I want that shirt too. For my beautiful daughter he said.
It is white with pink flowers on it and it has a zipper I like to play with. Mama says someday Themba you will break that zipper and then how will you put your favorite shirt on? But I think she does not really mean that.
My favorite shirt is very warm. It makes me feel cozy while we stand by the road waiting for the bus to come. I am not cold, but Mama thinks I am, because she holds me against her legs and puts her arm around me. Siyanda must be cold because she is whining and fussing.
What are you going to do at school today? Mama asks me.
I don’t know. I don’t like going to the school because of all the loudness and because I don’t have Mama’s hand to hold. I don’t like not having a coin to keep in my pocket and trade for snacks. Draw pictures, I say. This is what we always do. The boy next to me is named Nsizwa and he always takes the yellow crayon from me. This is why I don’t like drawing pictures.
Is yours going to be pretty, Themba? Mama asks.
My pictures are always the prettiest, even without Nsizwa and his yellow crayon. I say yes, I will bring the picture to her and we can hang it above her and Baba’s bed.
Siyanda starts to cry for real. She is strapped to Mama’s back with a piece of pretty cloth, but she likes being held in Mama’s arms so she cries. She is probably cold too because her toes poke out of the cloth and so does her little round nose. Siyanda is isinangiso, an annoyance.
The bus comes and Siyanda is still crying. Mama lifts me up and puts me on her hip even though I am very big and heavy. If she carries me and I sit on her lap she only has to give the man at the door one coin instead of two. I plug my ears as she carries me onto the bus because Siyanda’s shrieking is much louder up close by her and then there are all the voices and shouting and even a chicken talking too. Mama squeezes me tight to her and I think she says we will get off soon, but I am not sure because of all the loudness.
Mama says ses’khona, we are here. We get off the bus in the dirt lot by the market, and I slide down off Mama’s hip and stand on my own two feet. On the bus it is alright to be carried by your Mama, but I’m a big girl and can walk by myself. I hold Mama’s hand though. I like to hold it all the way up until she kisses me goodbye in front of my school. As long as I possibly possibly can. I think it maybe makes Mama feel safe to hold my hand, like she won’t lose me.
The market is loud like the bus, but in a good way. Mama knows the people in the market so I feel safe. And if I feel scared I can always look right above my head and there is the sky. The sky makes me feel even safer. There is no sky on the bus and when I see the sky in the market I remember I am not trapped inside anywhere so it is all right.
While we walk through the market, I am supposed to be a very good girl and not ask Mama to buy me a little sweet from her friend Nomsa when they stop to talk to each other. It is very hard to do, especially when all the smells are wrapping around me and the colors of the fruits and the candy are so bright, so I look down at the little buckle on my shoes and play with the zipper on my favorite shirt while I walk.
Once we leave the market, Siyanda stops crying. What a good little girl you are, Mama says to her.
I think that is a very stupid thing to say to a little girl who has just been crying very loudly and I tell that to Mama.
She’s just a baby, Themba, Mama says.
I look back at the zipper on my favorite shirt and tug it up and down, up and down. It makes a noise like a million little clicks all at once. Then I pull it all the way to my chin and put the little plastic ball at the end in my mouth, because it feels very smooth on my tongue which I like very much.
Don’t do that Themba, Mama tells me. She taps me on the cheek to make me spit out the zipper. She says, little babies like Siyanda do that.
My school is painted red and has a black gate that you have to press the button on to get in. When you do an old woman walks up and looks between the bars at you and then smiles like she wants to eat you up like Untombinde. I squeeze Mama’s hand extra tight when she smiles at me.
I want to stay with you and go to the big house, I tell Mama when we are inside the school in the playground. Already the loudness of nasty boys like Nsizwa running in circles and shouting is making my eyes sting and my stomach feel funny. I want to stay with you and Siyanda so I can help you take care of her.
This is not really the reason I want to stay. It is called amanaga, a lie.
The real reason is that I am scared. There are lots of girls who like to sit in the playhouse and whisper to each other and never to me. They are in kindergarten too but they seem so much bigger than me. There are also boys who are noisy and who unzip my favorite shirt when I’m not looking and who chew their snacks with their mouths open and think it’s funny. The real reason is that I just want to hold Mama’s hand and I don’t really care about Siyanda because she is so loud.
Don’t be silly, Mama says. You have to draw a picture for above the bed.
I look around the courtyard, which has a floor made out of rocks and a swing set and slides. There are prickly bushes by the doors with little red flowers that we are not supposed to touch, and two squishy balls that the girls never play with because the boys always run out and get to them first.
I’m going to go now OK Themba? You want to give me a hug?
It’s a silly question for Mama to ask. I always want a hug and I never want to let go. I wrap my arms around her waist and hold her so tight.
Can I have a coin for snack Mama? I ask when she pries me away from her sweet-smelling skirt. I look down at her wide brown feet in her sandals and don’t want to look her in the eye.
Maybe tomorrow Themba, she says.
Teacher comes and holds my hand while Mama and Siyanda leave. Your umama will be back soon Themba, she says. Why don’t you go play with your friends now.
This is a good time to put my zipper in my mouth so I don’t have to talk to Teacher. I am a little scared of her, even though she is very young and round and nice and wears sandals that remind me of Mama’s. Teacher sighs. Do you want to come sit on the bench with me?
Yebo, I say. It sounds like a good idea. It is quiet over there by the prickly bushes, and also shady and far away from Nsizwa who steals my crayons.
After a while Teacher tells me it is almost time for breakfast and would I tell my friends to come and eat? The zipper is in my mouth so I can’t say no but I shake my head. But Thoko overhears us and jumps up and down and says she would like to tell her friends. Thoko scares me because she always loves to talk and talk and talk and never listen.
Today for breakfast is miele pap, which is not like Mama’s at all and is very chewy. I only eat a little. Then I put my plate in the big green box and sit and wait for everybody else to be finished so we can go and color pictures.
When we go into the classroom everybody runs over to the place where Teacher keeps the crayons and markers so they can get the special box with all the colors you could ever imagine. The woman with yellow hair gave it to us as a present before she left. But Teacher says, You only need one crayon today. We are not coloring pictures.
After everybody else has picked out their one crayon, the only color left for me is nsundu, brown. But that is all right because it is Baba’s favorite color. I take my crayon and the piece of paper Teacher is handing out and go sit in a desk that is very far away from Nsizwa who has picked a yellow crayon.
Today you will learn how to write your names, Teacher says. She is holding a handful of paper strips and she hands them out one by one to everybody in the classroom. She gives me a piece of paper that has markings on it in blue crayon that look like this:
I ask her, what is this picture?
That is your name Themba, she says. Those are the letters of your name. Then she hands a piece of paper to the girl next to me.
I stare and stare and stare at the picture that is my name. When Baba writes his name he makes a drawing that looks like inyone, a bird, because that is what his name means. My name is Hope so I do not know what this is a picture of because Hope is a very hard thing to draw.
But Teacher says this is not a picture of anything. It is Letters. The letters of my name are T and H and E and M and B and A. Then she writes her name, Uthisha, which is Teacher. I like the picture my name makes better than any of the others. THEMBA is me.
I draw THEMBA over and over again with the brown crayon. I am so proud of THEMBA I think I will burst open into a million pieces. The lines are straight like soldiers but the B is round and curvy like a lake.
Then Teacher tells us we can write names for everything, like Cow and Dog and Hat and Bee. We write and write until my paper is covered in so many names for things I don’t remember which is which and I don’t even know if there are that many things in the world. But one is happy and familiar and it is THEMBA.
When we are done writing names Teacher lets us color pictures of animals. But pictures are just pictures. Words are things you can say and mean and think and they are what I want to know, so I write instead. I will show Mama when she comes from the big house.
It is funny because even though THEMBA is written in ugly brown it is still the prettiest thing I have ever made.
You are a very good writer Themba, Teacher says when she sees my rows of little name-soldiers. Can I hang this on the wall where everybody will see what a good writer you are?
I say yes because there is nothing else to say. But inside I am thinking, what will I give Mama to show her my writings?
When it is time to go I stand waiting at the gate near the old woman who is scary like the monster Untombinde. I make a T in the dirt with the toe of my shoe, but before I can finish my name-picture I hear Siyanda crying and I know Mama is here.
I run to her and put my face in her sweet red skirt and wrap my arms around one of her thick legs. Mama, I missed you so much! I say, dancing around her wideness and reaching out to hold her hand. I have something to show you! Something so good!
But Mama’s face doesn’t look happy to see me. When she smiles it is weak and not real. Her eyes say she is tired. I need to go back soon to the big house, she says. I cannot take you home on the bus, they are having a party and they need me to cook.
I frown at Mama, because this is not the thing I wanted to happen. I wanted to go home and tell her about writing and eat hot mealie soup which is my favorite with her and Baba.
I do not want to ride the bus alone, I say. I can feel my fingers are shaking.
Mama smiles. I know she says. You can come to the big house with me.
I have never been inside there, only seen the outside when Baba and I take Mama there on Sunday mornings. So I say all right. I wonder who the people are that need Mama to take care of them all day, and why they don’t have their own mama.
Mama holds my hand while we walk. She tells me to be very good and quiet and sit where she tells me to and not hit Siyanda or poke her even a little. She will give me things to eat if I am quiet, but if I am not I have to wait until we get home and by then it will be very late.
I have something to show you, I say.
Mama shakes her head. Not now Themba, she says. Wait until later.
There are lots of trees and grass where the big house is, and there are not so many people so it feels a little lonely. Mama says the people who live there like it quiet that way. There is a whole separate sidewalk that goes up to the big house and a whole garden of yellow flowers in front of it. Mama holds my hand very tight and says remember what I told you Themba.
In the house the floors are soft underneath my feet. There are big wood stairs to climb up and lots of soft places to sit and pictures hanging everywhere that are so pretty I can’t believe they are really real. There is a sign hanging above the fireplace that says HOME on it. Three of the letters are familiar because they are some of the soldiers from my name, but I don’t know the name of the one that looks like an open mouth. I want to tell Mama about the H and the M and the E, but I remember what she said about being very quiet.
She takes me into the big white room that is the kitchen. The floors are slippery and everything around us is shiny silver, even the table and the chair where I sit down. Mama takes Siyanda out of her sling and lays her down on the square of slick floor next to me. My little sister’s mouth is tiny and reminds me of a little fish.
I sit and stare ahead and swing my feet back and forth. I suck on my zipper and Mama doesn’t care because her back is to me. I make popping noises and try to fit my whole hand inside my mouth which is a good idea until it hurts to get it back out again. Then I get down on my hands and knees and stare at Siyanda and her fish mouth. I make faces at her that Mama would not like if she saw them.
First I am a snake with a long wavy tongue.
Then I am a baboon with a smooshed face that makes soft little hooting noises that Mama won’t be able to hear.
Then I am a warthog who snorts and sticks his face in Siyanda’s, which makes her cry and makes me smile.
Stop it Themba, Mama says. Stop it and sit in your chair.
Before I can even sit down like Mama told me to, a woman walks right into the kitchen and says, Isi, could you—
She stops before she finishes her sentence and I think it is because she sees me. I look up at her and see that she is very beautiful, tall and long like a bean with cheeks and lips that are bright and red as berries. Oh Isi, the woman says, is this your daughter? Do I finally get to meet her?
Isi is not my mama’s name, it is only part of it, and I don’t understand why this woman doesn’t say the whole thing.
Yes, this is Themba, Mama says. She wipes her hands off on her skirt and leaves long white streaks on the pretty cloth. Themba, this is Missus E-van-ston.
The woman says oh please, call me Lisa.
I don’t call her anything, because I don’t really understand which one of the words Mama said is her name and what the rest of the words mean. So I look down at the buckles on my shoes and hope the woman looks away.
Themba, would you like some crayons and paper to draw a picture with? she asks.
I don’t say yes, but I look up and nod. She leaves and comes back a little bit later with a big giant box of crayons and lots of paper that is neat and white and not even wrinkled. She puts them in front of me and I have never seen so many colors of crayons. I reach out and touch them to see if they are really there.
The woman goes over to talk to Mama about the food that Mama is making, which has strange names and smells that I don’t recognize. I think she is going to help Mama make the food like Nomsa does when she visits us, but the woman only talks, and then she leaves smiling like Mama has said something funny.
There are so many crayons in the yellow box I don’t know which ones I want to pick. My favorite color is yellow so I pull out all the yellows which there are six of. Then I take out purples and browns which are mama’s and baba’s favorite colors. And pink which I think is Siyanda’s, but she does not know how to tell me so it is just a guess.
Then I start to write. First I make the T with a crayon that is dark yellow like the mouth of a chicken. Then I make the H with a crayon that reminds me of the sun when it touches my face when I want to go to sleep. When I am done my name is so pretty I want to just look at it and look at it forever.
That is me, I think. Nobody else is this picture but me.
Then I take out one of the papers I made in school from my pocket. It is the one with all the words on it that I don’t understand. But there are two words Teacher taught us to write that I made big and tall so I wouldn’t forget them. They are UMAMA and UTHANDO. The letter at the end of the second word is the same letter in HOME, the one that looks like Siyanda’s open mouth when she cries. I am proud of myself for seeing that.
Very carefully I copy the big words onto the paper until it says this:
I open my eyes wide to see how all the lines can make the name-soldiers and the name-soldiers can make real live words. And how the words can mean things that pictures cannot. I look at THEMBA UTHANDO UMAMA until the letters are written on my eyes when I close them.
Mama looks at me and asks what are you drawing Themba?
I smile as big as I can and hold up the drawing I made. Look Mama, I say. Look what I learned at school today. Look what I did.
Mama squints at the picture for a minute and smiles weakly back at me. That’s nice Themba, she says. That’s a nice picture.
But she doesn’t say anything about the name-soldiers on the paper. Did you see it Mama? I ask her again.
Mama doesn’t look back at me. Yes Themba, she says. It was very nice of Missus E-van-ston to let you play with her crayons.
All the time Mama is telling me that I am a big girl and that I should not cry so I squeeze my eyes shut as tight as I can. But that does not stop the crying, because I am angry and sad that Mama did not like the words I drew for her. I lean down and pinch Siyanda as hard as I can so that she is crying too.
Themba did you do that? Mama says when Siyanda starts wailing.
I look away from her so she can’t see the shininess on my cheeks and I hear her sandals flapping against the floor. She hits me on the head with her hand because she is angry with me for making Siyanda cry.
Is everything all right Isi?
Missus E-van-ston has come back into the kitchen but Mama does not look very happy to see her.
Yes I’m sorry, Mama says. She picks up Siyanda and ties her onto her back, and when she walks back to the food she is cooking she squeezes my shoulder tightly which is a way to say that she will hit me again if I pinch Siyanda.
You are a very good writer Themba, Missus E-van-ston tells me. Isi what does her paper say?
Mama looks back at us with a little smile. She just draws things Missus. Sometimes I can’t even tell what they are.
Oh, but Isi she’s written something here, Missus E-van-ston says. In your language, she’s written something.
I look at Mama’s face and something changes in it. She puts her spoon onto the counter and walks toward us and the look she has is not angry anymore. Let me see, she says. Themba did you write something?
She holds the picture up in the air and looks at it very closely. What does it say? she asks me.
I look up at her and am still a little angry with her for hitting me. Themba uthando umama, I say. They are letters and they make words and I wrote them.
Mama puts her big hands on either side of my cheeks and looks at me with her heavy shining eyes and then hugs me so tight against her that all the wetness of my cheeks is dried.
What does it mean? Missus E-van-ston asks.
Themba loves mama, mama says. It means Themba loves mama.
On the bus I am not even afraid because there are letters everywhere for me to show to Mama and Siyanda. We look out the window and I say Mama, there is a T. Mama, there is an A.