Friday Night Book Club: Read the first chapter of Sue Nyathi’s The Gold Diggers
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The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Stay in and get cosy with a glass of wine and this extended excerpt from Sue Nyathi’s new book, The Gold Diggers.
It’s 2008 and the height of Zimbabwe’s economic demise. A group of passengers is huddled in a Toyota Quantum about to embark on a treacherous expedition to the City of Gold. Among them is Gugulethu, who is hoping to be reconciled with her mother; Dumisani, an ambitious young man who believes he will strike it rich, Chamunorwa and Chenai, twins running from their troubled past; and Portia and Nkosi, a mother and son desperate to be reunited with a husband and father they see once a year.
They have paid a high price for the dangerous passage to what they believe is a better life; an escape from the vicious vagaries of their present life in Bulawayo. In their minds, the streets of Johannesburg are paved with gold but they will have to dig deep to get close to any gold, dirtying themselves in the process. Told with brave honesty and bold description, the stories of the individual immigrants are simultaneously heart-breaking and heartwarming.
A gleaming white Toyota Quantum with black-tinted windows pulled into a vacant parking space opposite Max’s Garage. Everyone in Bulawayo knew Max’s Garage. It wasn’t just a fuel and service station. It was more like a busy transit terminal. Max’s Garage was the gateway out of Bulawayo to places like Esigodini, Gwanda, Beitbridge and Johannesburg. In the same vein, it was also the entry point for those coming in from the southern parts of the country. It welcomed you into the bosom of the City of Kings. A city whose pulse was faltering as its entire body succumbed to an economic malaise. The Inns fast-food franchise located there also ensured the place was always bustling with activity. The people who thronged there were an easy target for the con artists, petty criminals and vendors milling around.
From his car, the driver had a vantage of the unfolding action around him. His interest was piqued by a woman sitting on the pavement, a child plugged to her breast, punting overripe bananas to every passer-by. How many bananas did she have to sell in a day to break even? Could anyone actually survive on those takings? He shook his head in disdain. Not only was life brutally unfair, it was savagely hard. The thought that in a few minutes he would be driving out of this quagmire gave him a fleeting moment of joy. Fleeting because he would soon return to it and invariably nothing would have improved. In fact, the city’s condition would probably only worsen. This is why the numbers of mobile cargo he carried had increased in the last couple of months. They all had one thing in common: the desire to find refuge in the arms of their South African neighbour. He had listened in on many conversations, many that were grandiose and flowered with adjectives of prosperity. So similar to the one taking place in the back seat.
A young man and woman conversed noisily in Shona. They had arrived together and had insisted on sitting together. Melusi assumed they were a couple. They continued to chat animatedly. He smirked in disgust. That language should never have even been allowed in Matabeleland. He had aspirations of becoming president one day. He would divide the country along tribal lines. Matabeleland. Manicaland. Mashonaland. Those who did not fit into these three categories would have to squeeze into Otherland. When he was president there would be no electricity outages, no fuel shortages and an uninterrupted supply of running water. Bulawayo would be a thriving city with employment opportunities for all the Ndebele; many of whom were disenfranchised and scraping by in South Africa. A livelihood, which they should have easily made from the fruits of this once beautiful land. It now looked like a tired prostitute screwed of all sanity and life. He sneered again and was almost tempted to throw the Shona couple out of the car. It was their fault. Their fault the country was in the quandary it was in. Now they were also making an exodus to South Africa; an exodus he had been forced to make ten years earlier. Why did they not stay and fix the mess they had created? They still had opportunities here; many that had been denied to him.
He’d not been able to get a job simply because he was born of the wrong tribe. Being Ndebele in Zimbabwe was a curse. He had lost his father and three uncles during the Gukurahundi massacres of 1986. His mother now limped around her homestead after she had been beaten by members of the 5th Brigade during a show of defiance when she refused to cook for them. But his family was not the only one that had suffered. Several homesteads from his village just outside Plumtree had been burnt and razed to the ground. Men were denigrated and some killed in cold blood. Women and children were raped repeatedly. Historians called it a period of ‘ethnic’ cleansing. To him it had been a baptism of fire. The memory of which made his blood curdle. He stared at the couple through the rear-view mirror with sheer contempt. He had been raised to hate them.
‘In my car we only speak Ndebele,’ he stated bluntly.
The couple stared at each other in confusion, unsure if they were the intended recipients of the message.
‘You heard me,’ he sniggered. ‘In my car we only speak Ndebele.’
‘Melusi, please,’ chided the woman who sat beside him.
‘It’s my car!’ he replied. ‘I can lay down the law in my car.’ Shona people could dominate elsewhere but not in his car. This was his car, his livelihood. He made a living from carrying goods and people back and forth from South Africa. He was a transporter. Umalayitsha. He reached forward and turned on the radio. The voices of Shwi Nomthekala filled the car as they crooned, ‘Wangisiz’ubaba’. The song always calmed him ahead of a long journey. They had a long passage ahead of them. More than 300 kilometres before they reached the Beitbridge border. You would think after driving all these years the journey would be easier but it was not. The roads did not provide the smoothest passage. His car tyres had to be changed at least twice a year because of deterioration. He snorted again. To add to his irritation the Shona couple were screaming above the loud music.
Had Melusi taken the time to question them he might have dis- covered they were actually not a couple but siblings who not only shared a mom but also shared a womb. His prejudice would not allow him civility towards them. He was tempted to throw them out of the car but his desire for their money surpassed his intolerance. All the passengers in his car were going to be ferried across the border illegally. Just like his name, Melusi, he was shepherding them into the City of Gold. To them it was the promised land; supposedly flowing with milk, honey and other countless opportunities. He held the fate of each one of them in his hands. All nine of them. This was an eclectic bunch he was travelling with.
Beside the noisy Shona couple there was a young woman who he guessed could not be more than twenty-five. She was travelling with her son, a young boy of about five. She was a pretty young woman except for that hideous hair sewed onto her head looking like a hornet’s nest. She had big brown eyes that spoke of untold naivety. He knew her type. They had lived in the rural areas all their lives and only came into the city on special occasions. Now she was going to be thrust into the bosom of Johannesburg. A city ten times bigger than Bulawayo and ten times racier. He was convinced Johannesburg was the Sodom and Gomorrah that they wrote about in the Bible. Many had got caught in the clutches of sin and inebriation. Very few survived it.
Beside the woman was a little girl, probably five or six, with gangly legs dangling from her pretty yellow frock. She was travelling alone. The fear in her innocent eyes was palpable. She had not said a word since she had entered the car. An old woman had dropped her off earlier. How she had cried when the matronly woman had turned to leave. If anything he had been annoyed by her noisy lamentation. Children were the worst kind of cargo to carry.
There was also a young man in his late twenties. An upbeat-looking fellow who walked like he owned the world. They had conversed briefly earlier. The young man spoke with such exuberance and untold optimism. He was degreed and was going to ply his trade in Johannesburg. Melusi had disliked him on sight. He hoped, without genuine sincerity, that the young man would conquer Johannesburg before it conquered him. That city had many fallen heroes and heroines.
The seventh passenger was sitting right beside him. She was a beautiful young thing called Lindani who he’d met in Bulawayo the weekend before. Unlike the others she was not a paying passenger, well not in the conventional way anyway. When she looked at him his heart did somersaults and his loins stirred to life. He could not wait to bed her again. She was manna from heaven. She had fallen from the sky into his hands.
‘Sweetie,’ she spoke, in a soft voice that gently caressed him, ‘what are we still waiting for?’
‘Givie is not here,’ he replied.
Givemore was not a passenger but rather his co-driver. More than that, he was also his best friend. They were both Empandeni boys, their homesteads just metres apart. They had sat together at the back of the class at Mbakwe Mission. Over the school holidays they herded cattle in the savannah grasslands outside Plumtree town. During the hot summer days they would lie down by the riverbanks dreaming about a charmed life beyond the borders of Plumtree. A life Melusi’s grandfather had narrated to them in many bedtime stories as they sat around a fire. Stories about the glamour and glitz of Egoli. Melusi’s grandfather had been a migrant worker employed in the gold mines on the Reef. He told them how he had been to hell as he worked deep below the surface of the earth. He also spoke of the heaven that existed outside the mines. The illicit jazz clubs and the sensuous Xhosa women who frequented them. It was that heaven Melusi and Givemore often dreamt about. A heaven they had pursued and had not yet found. Melusi reached for his cellphone and dialled. There was still no answer. However, before his irritation could gain hold Givemore swung around into view with his hand draped around a young, lanky teenager.
‘She’s coming with us,’ announced Givemore. ‘You think you’re the only one who can pull a hot chick?’
Melusi shrugged. Who was he to complain? The more the merrier. The door of the Quantum slid shut and the engine roared to life. They were on the road again. He reminded himself that he was doing this journey to keep the home fires burning. People depended on him for their sustenance. He longed for the day when he could retire. The day he would park his car and never again have to set eyes on a uniformed border official. But unfortunately it was not going to be today.
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