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The Gift

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The Gift

The wedding of Bongani to his wife Lebo marked the joining of the humble but widely respected Mphalele and Bapela families. White flags hung up outside the house of the bride informed the townspeople that two young people were to wed and that everyone was welcome to join the celebrations. Inside women danced and sang and dozens of men sat in circles laughing and cheering. They drank sorghum beer out of large gourds made from pumpkin husks and ate maize meal, rice, salad and the best meat. As was tradition the festivities went on all weekend under the searing Sotho sun. It was a momentous occasion and Bongani’s father Obed proudly sacrificed a cow to honour his son.
The next winter Lebo gave birth to Bongani’s first child. Outside the house friends and family waited anxiously for news. It was a full moon and the elderly Sotho women were always suspicious of infants born under a full moon. Finally after many hours Bongani emerged from the darkness and held up a tiny, squirming bundle to the sky. Above the cheers he cried, “This is my son! He will be my eldest and strongest and his name shall be Veli.” Afterwards people walked happily back into the village drinking beer and shouting their congratulations in the air. Bongani’s proud father sacrificed another cow.

A year later Lebo gave birth again and this time Bongani emerged with a girl. His smile was as wide as a river. He shouted, “This is my daughter! Isn’t she wonderful? She will be called Kananelo and she will surely be the most beautiful daughter in the world.” Again, there was much cheering and congratulating and Bongani’s father made the obligatory sacrifice.

Over the next five years Lebo gave birth twice more and produced two more girls; Moletje and Tumelo. Bongani loved them all but was desperate for another son. Obed refused to sacrifice any more animals following the births on the basis that he believed his animals now brought bad luck.

Many years passed but Lebo did not fall pregnant again. Bongani was popular in the village and men crowded around him and said he would have another son. They said the local shaman had proclaimed it. They bought him beer and food but it did not make him feel any better.

Bongani was heartbroken because Veli had grown up to be a cruel, callous child. He bullied other children including his sisters and was often caught stealing. No matter what punishment Bongani and his wife gave or what lessons they tried to teach him, Veli continued to be an aggressive and arrogant child. Bongani did not know what to do. He was a gentle man and did not want to beat his son as many fathers did. But the boy was wild and ill disciplined. When Veli was thirteen he was sent away to undertake his initiation rites in the hope it would make him less cruel but he returned the just as mean spirited as before.
Bongani was no longer a young man. His hair was receding at the temples and crown as well as turning grey. He was gaining wrinkles and had grown such a belly that cruel neighbours had remarked that perhaps he was carrying the son his wife was unable to conceive. Bongani’s heart was heavy. Then one day Lebo came into the main room of their house and excitedly told him that she was pregnant again. She was sure it was a boy this time. Bongani was elated. His eyes shone and his heart leapt.

Nine months later Bongani triumphantly emerged out of his house once again with a tiny crying figure. He shouted, “This is my second son! His name is Mpho, which, as you know, means ‘the gift’. He is not my eldest son, but I know he will do a great many things.” The town were ecstatic and Obed, who believed his animals were lucky once more, slaughtered two cows in celebration.

Mpho was a gentle spirit. He was quiet and peaceful and was never cruel or malicious. As a child he sat outside his parents’ house listening for insects and watching the stars shine brightly over the stark plains.

As he grew up Mpho endured much bullying from Veli, who grew ever more malicious and spiteful. Veli associated with friends that stole and were rude to the elders of the town. Once Obed had offered Veli the chance to work on his farm but sent the boy back after he found out Veli had been stealing from his plantation. “That boy is no good!” Obed had cried. 

Occasionally the local police would visit Bongani after they had caught Veli stealing from the nearby shops and fruit markets. Although not terribly old fashioned, Bongani cared greatly about the honour of his family and knew the local people would not respect a family whose eldest son was a thief and a bully. For that reason he was prone to despair over Veli. Often he could be found walking in his father’s fields in torment questioning why God had given him such an ill-disciplined son.
Mpho, on the other hand, was a quiet, thoughtful teenager and spent much of his time reading books about astrology, literature and history. Bongani, now retired, rejoiced in Mpho’s passion for knowledge and devoted most of his spare time encouraging his son’s interest in the great African writers, scientists and political thinkers. At night he kept Lebo awake enthusing about Mpho’s brilliance and indulged himself in all the great things his son would accomplish.

Veli came to be a frustrated, aggressive young man of twenty-three. He still lived at home although he gave his father little or no money towards his keep. Despite his seeming lack of affection for the family, Veli felt inwardly crushed at his father’s barely disguised preference for his brother. This led to him bullying Mpho even more. As with many bullies, Veli’s friends had no great affection for him, but enjoyed the notoriety and respect they gained from associating with someone of Veli’s reputation for fighting and general bad behaviour.

The dynamics of Bongani’s family stayed fairly constant until one night during a thunderous lightening storm. On that night everything changed. In future, the townspeople euphemistically referred to it as ‘the sad night of the wild storm’. It was mid-evening. Pulses of electricity flashed in the dark sky as daggers of light seared the air and stabbed at the ground. Screaming winds rattled through hundreds of houses displacing washing, doors and even roofing.

Just as the storm was breaking Mpho was briskly strolling home from his friend Nobu’s house on the short road that ran along the outskirts of the town. It was quiet. Everyone was inside, anticipating the storm. Mpho was alone, with only the clicking crickets and low hum of mosquitoes for company. The humid, rising wind ruffled his clothes. Ahead of him down the hill he could see the soft twinkling lights of the town glinting like stars.
He had been walking for half an hour when he past suddenly one of Veli’s friends’ houses. He stopped. He cocked his head and listened. From somewhere by the house he heard a muffled cry from within the thicket of long grass. Mpho stood there, unable to move. His heart sped up. His breathing quickened. He knew he should continue on, if for no other reason than to avoid the worst of the storm, and yet he found himself drawn toward the grass and off the road. He pushed through the grass. His wet shoes kicked through the damp, clumpy earth. As he got closer, the noises sounded like punctured whispers lost in the last breaths of the gathering storm.
As Mpho peered through the grass a scene that his young eyes struggled to comprehend confronted him. On the hacked tree stump about a dozen yards in front of him he could see an older girl entwined with a man. He vaguely recognised the girl from his school. She was about seventeen but he could not recall her name. In all the years that followed he tried to never let himself remember it.
He first noticed the girl’s eyes. They were desperate, searching white dots that burned helplessly in the darkness. Mpho noticed how lost they looked, how sad they were. The girl was trapped under the weight of a man, her body rigid with shock. He appeared to be holding her down with one arm whilst he fumbled his trousers with the other. His breath was heavy and fast. The girl seemed to be sobbing, choking on her cries. Mpho noticed her underwear had been pulled down her legs and her blouse had been torn. Mpho thought he heard the rustling of long grass behind him. He looked over his shoulder quickly. Nothing. But he was sure he could hear voices from somewhere, getting closer.
He turned back toward the girl locked in the reluctant embrace with this man. The man now had one of his hands underneath her skirt. He seemed to be searching as if he had lost something of great importance. The two intertwining figures were crudely lit by torchlight from an audience of young men that formed a circle around the duo. They seemed to be encouraging the strange entanglement by sniggering and jeering, although Mpho couldn’t make them out in the dark. He decided to get back to the road and home, maybe tell someone what was happening.
As Mpho stepped to his right he broke some wood under his foot and he felt the attention of the crowd suddenly snap over to him. He stopped dead. He was dazzled for a moment as the beams of light were turned on him and he was blinded. As the spots in his vision cleared his eyes met with the man leaning over the girl. Mpho suddenly felt very cold. It was Veli.
As Mpho’s brother made him out in the light his face changed to fire. At the same time more rustling of grass could be heard, and this time unmistakably voices too. People were coming. In panic, the gang of young men scrambled in the dark, cutting the torchlight and hastily running far from the scene.
Mpho was suddenly enveloped by darkness. He felt someone grab him and push him over toward the girl. For a moment all Mpho could hear was the gasping whimpers of the girl next to him and the shaking of grass. Then he heard the people come through into the clearing. They brought more lights and again Mpho was blinded. He looked frantically around him as they came forward. His brother’s friends had disappeared, as had Veli. There was no sign they had ever been there.
The women ran over to the girl, hysterically wrapping their arms around her. A blanket was found and the girl was covered. She shivered but said nothing. The men shook Mpho and shouted. He felt hot, furious breath and saliva in his face. One of the men hit him. He knew none of them and none of them knew him. He felt more alone than he ever had done before.

That night Mpho was crouched down hugging his legs at the end of the living room. . The room was a cacophony of livid voices. Town elders shouted, pointed, and jostled with each other. Next to him Veli sat shaking and avoiding eye contact with anybody. Bongani sat with his head in his hands while others argued. In the corner Obed sat silently staring at Mpho and Veli. His eyes were sad and reticent. In the kitchen Lebo was sobbing and hugging Mpho’s sister Moletje. 
Mpho recognised only a couple of the men in the room. One was Nobu’s father. In the kitchen a glass was broken. Lebo cried louder. Mpho’s head hurt and his face felt like it was burning.
A girl had been attacked. She did not know who had attacked her. Mpho had been found with her, but she was sure it was not him that attacked her. That was all anyone knew. Many of the men looked at Veli with a hatred he had never seen before. Their eyes seared through him. It terrifying. After a moment Bongani marched over and grabbed Veli, his fists shaking with rage. “Did you do it?” he spat out angrily. “It must have been you! Where were you tonight? Where were your friends? I know you were there! At that house! Speak to me!”
Veli spluttered and sobbed and shook his head. His words were broken and filled with protest. “It wasn’t me father!” he cried. “I was not there. Please, do not hit me!”
“Do not lie to me!” yelled Bongani and landed a strong palm on his son’s face.

For the first time in his life Mpho suddenly saw just how terrified and helpless his brother was. He knew that if his father found out what Veli had done he would certainly beat him. Considering all the terrible things Veli had ever done, everything Bongani had stored up, Mpho realised that beating could perhaps be to within an inch of Veli’s life. He watched as his brother cowered in the shadow of the wall like a cornered animal, as if afraid to breathe. Afraid to even exist. Mpho realised how vulnerable his brother had become. Even if his father did not beat Veli, the townspeople would beat him relentlessly after all the torment he had caused them. Despite everything his brother had done to others, and to him personally, Mpho wished no harm on him.
Suddenly he rose to his feet and calmly said, “It was me, father. I did it.”
For a moment silence filled the house as fully as voices had a moment before. As Mpho uttered the words Bongani turned around to face his younger son, his precious son. His hands let go of Veli as he comprehended what had been said. He stood completely still. His expression was one of betrayal, not from his son but from God. Why had he done this? Why had he deserved it?  He stood completely still and his heart broke.
“No. No, Mpho, I do not believe it. You are covering for your brother. He has threatened you. You are lying.”
“I am not father.”
“Yes, you are! You followed your brother there and were caught up in the confusion. Please, Mpho tell the truth!”
“I am father. Believe me.”
“No! I shall not! I cannot believe you would do this, Mpho. You are a gentle boy. You would not hurt a girl. You would not hurt anyone!”
From the doorway a man spoke, “He has confessed Bongani. Something now must be done.” The other men awkwardly nodded and quietly mumbled agreement.

“Wait!” cried Bongani, “wait a moment, please.” He knelt down to Mpho and whispered. “Please, Mpho, tell me you are lying. Tell me you are covering for your brother and I will not punish you. I will punish him for what he has done. I will send him away forever. But you must tell me you are not telling the truth.”
Mpho felt pressure behind his eyes. He looked over at Veli who was still cowering in the corner.
“Father, I am telling the truth. “
“But the girl said there were others. Who were they?” Bongani asked desperately.
“Random men, father. I do not know them.”
Bongani suddenly broke down and sobbed. Mpho had never seen his father cry before. It unsettled him. In the room the other men shuffled uncomfortably.
“Why, Mpho? Why?” Bongani asked through his tears. “Oh, God, why? Tell me…I…Please, boy, I can’t…” His words trailed off into a fit of sighs and mutterings. In the corner Veli wore a bewildered expression. Someone had covered for him. Lied for him.
Some of the men quietly exited the house, leaving Bongani sobbing on the floor in the centre of the room holding his youngest sons’ hand. By the wall Veli stared at his father and brother from the shadows. In the kitchen Lebo wailed and held two of her daughters close to her. In the corner of the room Obed sat and shook his head with quiet despair. He said nothing.

Mpho was sixteen. He escaped any beatings himself but weeks after the incident of that night behind the long grass Mpho was found guilty of assaulting the girl and sent away to a correctional facility for boys. The time there was hard for him. He was not like the other boys. Many of them were rough and from terribly poor parts of town. Anything not nailed to the ground was inevitably taken by somebody. The education Mpho received was basic and frequently disrupted by many in the class with no interest in knowledge. Mpho longed for the evenings of discussion with his father and during the nights he got very upset, though he hid it well. Whenever he longed to return to the warmth of his home he simply thought of the terrified look on Veli’s face, and how it would have been so much worse for his brother if he had told the truth.

Mpho was visited by his mother and sisters, but never by Obed or Bongani. The women told Mpho vague details about home and their town, but seldom mentioned specifics. 
“And how is father?” Mpho would ask.
“He is very angry, Mpho. He curses God everyday for this situation.”
The tension at these visits was always palpable. They all believed he had lied for his brother and often his mother would break down in tears and beg him to tell the truth.  In response to this Mpho would move on and ask about Obed’s farm and his sister’s cooking.
Then one day Veli came to see him. The visit lasted only a minute. Once Mpho had sat down Veli stared him down and simply asked, “Why did you do it?” His voice was shaky and he looked close to tears. Mpho thought for a time and then simply replied, “Because you are my brother.”

Veli got up and left.
This scenario was repeated a total of three times whilst Mpho was at the facility. Each time he would sit opposite his brother, who would simply ask, “Why did you do it, Mpho? Why did you lie for me?”

And each time Mpho would just say, “Because you are my brother, Veli.” Veli would then get up and leave, shaking his head.

Mpho came to be a young man of twenty-two. After he left the correctional facility it was agreed that he would not be able to return to his hometown and so would live with his aunt and uncle in the humid Mpumalanga region. He did not return home although sometimes his family would visit. Once Bongani came to see him on the pretext of seeing his brother. The meeting was short and a little awkward, but Mpho was desperate for even this briefest of contact with his father, who he had missed so badly.

The memory of the past between them was like a murky morning fog during the wet season; all the fine lines obscured leaving only general impressions of what was really there. Nothing of the past was mentioned. They mainly spoke of sport and made small talk about politics. Mpho savoured it.

Mpho’s uncle employed his nephew in the shop he owned. Mpho immediately put his skills at maths and organisation to work and impressed his uncle with the quality of his work and the hours he put in. He was often the first employee at the shop in the morning and the last to go home in the evening. He became used to rarely ever seeing any of his family.
Then one cool, dry winter night Mpho was closing up the store alone. As he dropped the shop keys into his pocket and began the walk home he saw a car turn in towards the shop. It came slowly, the driver peering dead on at him. Mpho froze, rooted to the spot. He was carrying a large amount of money in the bag under his armpit. He automatically feared robbery, and cursed himself. It was foolish to keep carrying the money home at night. It was an outdated and dangerous method of collecting money. But his uncle had insisted.
Mpho looked around him. He was completely alone save for this figure in the car. His heart pounded and his mouth dried.
As the car slowly rolled up, crunching the dust as it went, Mpho finally saw the face of the driver. Veli. His heart gradually slowed, though he tightened his grip on the bag of money under his arm. He told himself it was purely an instinctual gesture.
Veli killed the engine, and for a while neither of them spoke. Each waited in silence for the other to speak. They waited, listening to the chirp of busy insects in the dry grass. In the distance a minibus passed blasting bright sun-kissed rhythms in the cold night. After some time Veli said, “Okay, enough of this. Tell me again why you lied for me. Is it because you thought father would kill me? Why did you do it? I was always horrible to you.”
“I did it because-”
“Don’t say ‘because you are my brother’. I cannot understand it. I never have. Do you not realise what I was doing that night? What we were all doing? Do not you think I should have been punished? Did you not realise what a person I was then?”
Veli stared ahead, his eyes focusing on nothing in particular. He continued, “It was so strange when you went away, Mpho. Nobody was allowed to mention you or where you had gone. It was like nothing bad had happened. After about six months father began to act warmer to me as if he was embarrassed for accusing me, as if he had buried the truth somewhere within him. He began to treat me well, to encourage me as he had with you. I got a good job and I stopped seeing my old friends. A couple of years ago I met a girl called Mammule, a close friend of one of our sisters.”

Veli had spoken very quickly and took a deep breath. Mpho waited, but no more was forthcoming from Veli. He had finished, or so it seemed. Mpho stood there in the evening chill, making no move to speak.
Veli waited and controlled his breath, then said, “I have changed, Mpho. I have changed.” Mpho felt uneasy by both the explanation and the encounter. Veli had always seemed like a stranger to him, now more so than ever.

Veli offered to drive him home. Mpho sighed and sunk into the seat. As they drove off Veli noticed the package under his brother’s arm. “What is that?” he asked. Mpho looked confused for a moment then remembered the money. He laid his head back, closed his eyes and laughed. He said, “Oh, nothing. Only a few thousand Rand!”
Veli’s eyes sparkled. “A few thousand Rand? Do you carry that much around every night?”
“Some nights, yes.”
Veli shook his head incredulously and laughed. “Man, are you crazy? Carrying that much money around on you – in this area?” He kept shaking his head and looking at the package under Mpho’s arm. He could not take his eyes off it. “Crazy,” he kept saying.
For the rest of the journey they spoke little. At one point Veli said, “It is a great thing you did for me, brother. It is the greatest gift I could ever have been given: the chance to change.”
When they arrived at their aunt and uncles’ home they awkwardly said goodnight and went their separate ways with vague plans to see each other again. Veli promised to write.
“Look after your woman,” Mpho shouted as he walked to the front door.
“Look after all that Rand,” Veli shouted back.

It was about three weeks later that Mpho was attacked after closing up the store one evening. On his walk home three men followed him.  They had kept a steady distance behind Mpho for the first mile until they were alone on the small dirt road. It was then that they sprung into action, grabbing the money off of him as he neared his uncle’s house.
Mpho was stabbed twice during the attack. Whilst he recovered from his injuries his father visited him in hospital. Bongani told him the sad news that his grandfather Obed was dying. Mpho quietly nodded. Bongani sat for hours with his son. He said little but what little he said was enough.
Then the day came when Veli’s letter arrived. Mpho took some water to ease his dry throat and looked at the correspondence. It was brief, scribbled on dirty paper and quite poorly written. In it Veli wrote that he wanted to say how sorry he was to hear of Mpho’s attack and left an illegible number in case Mpho needed to reach him. Veli had moved to Johannesburg and was very busy, so he probably couldn’t speak to Mpho again in the foreseeable future. Veli stated that he had come into some money from work and was now planning to marry his girl. Mpho and all the family were invited, of course, however Mammule wanted to have a traditional wedding in their hometown and he wondered whether Mpho would be able to come. As he signed off the letter, Veli said he wanted to thank Mpho again. He said Mpho had truly been the greatest gift he had ever received.
Mpho reread the letter several times, then placed it back on the bedside table. He drank some more water then folded the letter neatly inside its envelope. As he shuffled on the bed awkwardly, he tried to move place the letter somewhere that would not cause him pain.


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