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Mfana By J.Ely Batterson

Mfana Umbeki watched his wife, bent over the fire to stir the pot of mealie-meal that would be their only supper. He was not a big man, but he was strong. His skin was deep black, partly because of pigment, and partly from the sun that had made it even blacker. His hands were rough, made that way from an eternity in the fields planting seedlings for the Baas. His wife caught him looking at her, and smiled mysteriously. She was a proud woman, formed that way by a lifetime of hardship that to him seemed like a tableau ripped from the pages of the bible. Her face was smooth and lighter than his was; she came from tribes of the Northern Plains. He was a Zulu and they had struggled to communicate for the first years of their marriage. Now they spoke in pidgin, but this being a predominantly Zulu area, he would do most of the talking when they were in public. When she was just fourteen, she had watched her parents murdered by the South African Police Force, made up of mostly White Afrikaners who treated the Blacks the same way they treated their animals. She had cowered in the doorway of their little township house as her father, and then her mother, were executed at point blank range. The murderers had never given a reason, not had they been tried in the courts. She represented to him the magnificence of god; the way a flower could push up through the dry dirt and somehow still manage to blossom. “Come here my love,” Mfana said quietly. “Wait. It’s not ready,” she replied. “I don’t care about that. I just want to sit next to you,” he said. “And why do you want to do that?” “I don’t need a reason. You are my wife.” Clucking disapprovingly, she covered the pot and plopped down next to him on the ground. The flames danced on the walls of their hut. “I love you, my little chicken,” he said. “Mfana, you’re crazy, man,” she said, a smile lighting up her face. “A man should be crazy for the mother of his child,” he said. His hand fell to her belly, swelled by the first three months of pregnancy.


Mfana By J.Ely Batterson Most of the men he knew grew restless when their wives were pregnant. Pregnancy for them was a long expanse of work, sunburn, and mealie-meal. There wasn’t even the comfort of their women when they came back from the fields exhausted and parched to lie down on the hard floors of their huts. Most of them couldn’t wait the nine full moons it took for the baby to be born. They would sneak off to the shebeens to drink and chase after girls barely into their twenties. The shebeens were small bars that operated wherever they could, and below the radar of the provincial authorities. In these parts, they were usually run out of the servants’ quarters of neighboring farms --a series of tiny concrete rooms connected by metal doors. On any given night, you could find thirty farmhands cramped into such a place, the air thick with the smell of beer and dagga. The farmers usually looked the other way; in many cases they were the ones who trucked the alcohol in, to sell at a marginal profit. Many times Mfana had sat on the back of the Bass’s baakie with the men who frequented the shebeens. The sun would be an orange horizontal line at the edge of the world, and these men still reeked of alcohol and screwing. They would jump onto the baakie still giggling from their moonlight jaunts. They would point at him and call him Oupa, the Afrikaans word for grandfather. Mfana didn’t care what they thought of him. He had no desire to drink with them. He never set foot inside of those places. To him, they represented the further enslavement of his people; a clever device used by the Whites to weaken the hearts of all Africans. And these men who left their wives, and smoked dagga, were the same men who would get into knife-fights over a girl or a lousy Rand. They would boast loudly to their friends that they weren’t afraid of the Baas, and then would cower in his presence like whipped dogs. They had no idea that the Blacks outnumbered the Whites in the country by six-to-one. When you took the entire population of Africa into consideration, the White’s representative fraction grew even smaller. They were a mere blight on the landscape; a small city as viewed from above via satellite. They were here at Africa’s behest, but none of them seemed to know it. Mfana knew it, and many other things, and it gave him a quiet strength. He did not hate the Whites. There were many that were kind and spoke to him with respect. This was mostly in the town where he had visited as a young boy. Many of the White women had stuffed his pockets with koeksisters and cinnamon buns, and called him darling. If he had hated them, he would have hung around the radicals, the younger Blacks who refused to work, and carried guns. These men were fearless, and spoke aggressively of overthrow and Revolution. They didn’t live on the farms, but cultivated the hills, and grew dagga for mass consumption. Sometimes, they would engaged in gun-battles with the Police, and the surrounding countryside would take cover for hours.


Mfana By J.Ely Batterson Mfana knew that change was imminent, but that this change would have to be legitimate. He could see it in the eyes of his fellow Africans, and in the worried gait of the Whites; they now scuttled instead of strutting, and they were weary to stay out after dark. But these Angola Rebels in the hills were as bad as the Conservative Whites. They proposed to exchange one system of racism with another. Africa had suffered enough. He was a spiritual man, and his experiences had molded his worldview into a much larger vision of his own life, and its role in a United Africa -- both White and Black. He realized that the two countries were not separate, but integral. You could not superimpose one will over the other and expect it to go peacefully. Nightly, Mfana would huddle around his transistor radio and listen to the newscasts beaming out of Durban. The broadcasts were actually broadcast from Johannesburg originally, and then rebroadcast by the affiliates, but it was all the same to him. The radio was a small piece of junk, but he loved it dearly. It was his lifeline to the changing world around him. He would sit for hours, his head bowed like some Buddhist Monk, listening in Zulu. The stories were mainly about arguments among the Whites; many of them believed that the Blacks should have the right to vote, but there was strong opposition from men like his Baas -the National Party constituency, and conservative Whites. They were powerful and numerous, and had grown accustomed to their endless supply of power and cheap labor. Their families had grown fat on the suffering of others. They were not accountable for their actions, and the farmhands that did speak up were oftentimes discovered dead, or severely beaten. If they lived, they never looked the same. The light was gone from their eyes, and they worked silently and were unable to laugh. There was even talk that Nelson Mandela might soon be released. This possibility enraged the men like his Baas more than anything, because his release would signal the end of their tenure. Mandela was the implied threat of the closed fist of Africa. Mfana had other worries though than politics. He had a child on the way, a proud African baby that would not suffer as he had. He knew it would be impossible to raise the child on his current salary: fifty Rand per month, and a sack of mealie-meal. He could barely support his wife, and some nights they went hungry. He would have to find another source of income, but from where? He had no skills other than planting. He had been doing it for more than fifteen years. He couldn’t take a job in the town. Nobody would hire him, not even as a cook or dishwasher. The handful of Blacks who owned businesses there and those who worked in the factories looked down their noses at him and his kind. They were too busy trying to prove themselves to worry about solidarity. If his child was to go to school, he would need more money. Schools were expensive; there were uniforms and books to buy, and you had to pay the district for bussing your child in from the country. This meant that only the wealthier Blacks could afford to send their children.


Mfana By J.Ely Batterson He did not give up though. He knew there had to be a way. These worries kept him awake long after his wife had fallen asleep. This was not the Africa of yesterday, it was the Africa of tomorrow, and his children would have a place in it and hold their heads high. They would be the embodiment of the great dream of Nelson Mandela. “What’s troubling you,” his wife asked him. She knew what was troubling him, and she knew he needed to get it off his chest. A quiet man is a dangerous man. There is no way to comfort him. Mfana shoved his plate of mealie-meal aside. It had congealed into a dry consistency, and formed a yellowy crust. The fire burned low. They had been sitting there for over an hour, and it was getting late. In the distance, the voices from the shebeens carried on the wind. “Is it possible to feel hope and fear at the same time?” Mfana fixed his wife with a grave stare as he said this. “Yes. I think it is,” she replied. “But you must allow the hope to come in, or else the fear will break you like an old man.” “It’s always the same. We plan for our lives, but the lives we plan have no way of coming true,” he said. “We do what we’re supposed to, but nothing eases this pain.” “You mustn’t talk like that,” she hissed. A sad little smile surfaced on his face, then disappeared. He would not argue with her. Some men beat their woman when they felt chided, but she only grew more beautiful when she was upset. “We’ll need more money”, he said. “We’ll find a way, then”, she replied. “Our children will not become a part of this”, he said. “They will live in houses, and have radios from America. They will eat meat. Maybe not steaks like the Baases eat, but meat for Gods sake!” His wife pulled him to her chest. She stroked his head with her rough hands, and he was surprised to feel the sting of tears in his eyes. “That would be nice, my Zulu Prince,” she said. “They will have a nice little garden with poppies and sunflowers. They will go to school and become great leaders of Africa. When they are very rich, and we very old, they will buy us our own house in the city, and come for Sunday luncheon in their Peugeot 504.”


Mfana By J.Ely Batterson Mfana pulled his head away from her bosom, and looked at her. Her face had taken on a strange quality. Her eyes had a glazed look in them, and her mouth was open slightly to give her the appearance of an idiot. He felt suddenly such a deep sadness that he was certain his heart would break. He could see that her hope was a vision of the future she did not believe in; it was a daydream, a place where she could escape to, but never possess. She did not believe that such things were possible, and it stung him at the very center of his being. He did not feel hatred then, only emptiness so terrifying, he thought he would do anything to make it go away. He pulled her to him, and planted kisses on her face. “You’ll see,” he whispered fiercely. “It will come to pass. Our children will someday be rulers and businessmen, and all of Africa will be free.” He did not sleep that night. The need for money pounded in his belly. He felt cold and small, an insignificant being beneath the Universe. His thoughts turned to his child. If it was a boy, he would name it Peter. If it was a girl -- Beauty. He hoped it would have its mother’s features. His own were hard and narrow and not very handsome. He forced himself to think of the child, because he was perched on an internal precipice that was deep and filled with things that could only live in the dark. Mfana’s life had taught him patience. It had taught him compassion. His people were like the Israelites, and their suffering was infinite. But a man must be able to have a family; it is the thing that makes him a man the most. A man’s family is his kingdom, and without it, he becomes a beast of one sort or the other. Mfana would not allow himself to become broken. He would not run off and join those Angola bastards. He would not sell dagga on the streets of Durban. If he were to be arrested, who would look after his wife and children? The money he needed would have to come from legitimate sources, but from where? Tears coursed down his cheeks now, as he thought of all of the Fatherless sons of Africa. How many millions had grown up in the dirty slums, or on farms like this one? How many men had brought the mystery of life into this world, only to leave it to die in slavery and filth? He would not become such a man. He would not do it if it meant that he did not eat himself. The roosters crowed in the darkness. In a few minutes, the Baases baakie would rumble by to pick him up. He dressed hurriedly, being careful not to wake his wife. He had not slept during the night, and he felt lightheaded, the way he had felt when he had taken his first and last drink of alcohol as a teen. But there were other emotions he felt as well: hope, anger, fear, courage -they had become some dangerous animal in his breast, and he was not certain how much longer he could contain it. It was later in the day when the Baas drove into the fields to check their progress. The sun beat down so hotly that the air around Mfana shimmered. He turned when he heard the far-away roar of a baakie. The vehicle raced towards them, kicking up trails of dirt along the road. “Get up!” somebody cried. “The Baas is coming!”


Mfana By J.Ely Batterson Mfana and the other farmhands, about twelve of them, had been taking a smoke break. These breaks were long and luxurious, especially on days like this when intelligence indicated that the Baas had driven into town for supplies. During these breaks, they would pass huge handmade cigarettes around a circle. They were nothing more than newspaper filled with Schwag tobacco. They tasted terrible, but they were a communal way to kill time, and nobody could afford the manufactured ones. Mfana and the others broke quickly and scattered across the field. They moved so fast, that by the time the Baas had pulled up perpendicular to them, they had all been busily at work. Apparently somebody had gotten it wrong. The Baas hadn’t gone to town. And he they had been caught in a lie. Mfana became acutely aware of the men around him. He couldn’t see any of them; he was bent over and filling the shallow holes he had dug with seed, but he could sense them. His wife had once pinched a book from the Baas’s house. It had been a book with paintings in it, and her one transgression from God. One of the paintings had been by a man named Edward Munch. In the painting, figures had been connected by ghostly threads that ran from each person to the next. Mfana felt those same threads running between himself and the other men now. Only it was a single thread. It was fear. The sound of the Baas’s boots crunched in the dirt behind them. His shadow fell over Mfana’s shoulder but didn’t stop. Sweat dripped from Mfana’s downward face, and his whole body trembled. “You!” the Baas shouted at someone Mfana could not see. Everyone turned around briefly to see who the Baas wanted. Mfana had time to see his own terror reflected in the faces of the men around him, before the Baas had roared: “Not you, you bloody bastards! Samuel!” The Baas pointed at a tiny African with an almost boyish face. He was the youngest of the lot, and by far the weakest. The Baas had made him the manager of the crew though because he was tireless, and quick, and put the rest of them to shame. It was evident that he had betrayed the Baas, and would now pay the price. “You come right now, boy,” the Baas screamed. He was furious. His fists were doubled at his sides, and his eyes were bloodshot. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and his bulbous gut hung over the edge of his khaki pants. It was the worst possible day to be caught, because the Baas had been drinking. The boy Samuel turned white. It is a frightening thing to see an African turn white; it is an indication of bad things. Mfana felt sick to his stomach.


Mfana By J.Ely Batterson “Please Baas” Samuel pleaded. “I said now, boy!” Samuel approached the Baas the way a child approaches an abusive parent. His back was bent and he held his hands out in front of him. “Get back to work, or I’ll beat your black asses as well!” Mfana swung back around and stared mutely at the dirt. Samuel had started crying, whispering: “Please...please...please” over and over again in his broken voice. “Shut the fuck up, man,” the Baas roared. Again, Mfana could sense the men around him. They were waiting for the beating to begin, for the beating to be over. Any minute now it would start, and it would go on for what seemed like forever. Finally, Mfana could take it no longer. “You will not hurt this boy”, he said. He had turned around, and was facing the Baas. His voice felt thick and alien, the way it did whenever he spoke in Afrikaans. His hands had balled into fists, but he was only now aware of this. The Baas blinked. A moment of confusion rippled across his face. No, not confusion. Fear. Mfana felt quite certain now that the Baas had always known this moment would come. The Blacks were not the only ones who felt the shifting of the paradigm. This confidence quickly abandoned him, when the Baas’s face flushed bright red, and Mfana saw the depth and extent of his hatred. “What did you say, Kaffir?” he said in a hushed tone. The Baas pushed Samuel to the ground, but his anger was now directed squarely at Mfana. “I asked you a question, you fucking Kaffir!” He walked briskly towards Mfana, and there was murder in his face. Instead of fear, a coldness seeped through Mfana’s blood. He saw now that he could take this man in a fight. Whereas the Bass’s muscle was layered beneath a band of fat, Mfana’s body was lean and hard. It would be tough, and it would be bloody, but he could beat this man. Instead of looking down, Mfana locked eyes with the Baas. “I am not a Kaffir, Baas. I am an African. My name is Mfana.”


Mfana By J.Ely Batterson The Baas didn’t know he was beaten, not yet, but he had a suspicion. He reached the spot where Mfana stood and got right in his face. But he made no other move. “Are you out of your mind?” The Baas’s breath smelled like alcohol and shit, but as much as it repulsed him, Mfana stood his ground. Spittle flew from the man’s mouth as he shrieked. “You won’t hurt me,” Mfana said. “You will not hurt the boy, either. If you do, I will come to your house in the night, and you will wish you hadn’t. If you kill me, others will come in my place.” The look on the Bass’s face changed from rage to fear, and Mfana knew he had won without exchanging a single blow. The Baas stumbled backward. Now it was he who was pale. “We’ll...we’ll kill you! We’ll end you, Kaffir.” His voice was now a whisper. The alcohol had now caught up with him and he looked old and defeated. All of his demons caught up to him in an instant, and it was more than he could take. “Then why don’t you do it now?” Mfana said. All around him, Mfana could sense that the men were no longer bound by the thread of fear; they were bound by the thread of a solidarity. He had never felt such joy in all of his life. He took a little step forward and pointed his finger at the Baas. He would never again have the power that was in him now. “You will pay us more money”, Mfana said. “Twenty Rand more each month, per worker.” A bitter laugh erupted from the Baas. “That’ll be the day, Kaffir!” he said and marched back to his truck. He slammed the door and drove off quickly, weaving recklessly on the little dirt road. Chaos erupted around Mfana. The other farmhands clamored around him, patting him on the back, on the head, anywhere they could touch him. “Do you think he will pay?” somebody asked. “He will pay,” said Mfana. It seemed an eternity to Mfana, before payday arrived. He had spent more sleepless nights than he could remember, waiting for it to come. The Baas had stopped picking them up in the mornings as was customary. Instead, another farmhand who knew how to drive would carry them to the fields in the baakie.


Mfana By J.Ely Batterson In the night he waited expectantly for the sound of an engine; for the footsteps of White men to intrude upon his home. He hoped there would be a lot of them to make it go quicker. He had sent his wife to stay with her sister in a little Dorp down the road. He smoothed her anxieties by telling her she would eat better there, and that the baby needed better nutrition, at least until it was born. But he kept on living, thinking each day his last. On payday, when the door had opened, it wasn’t the Baas, but the Baas’s son who stepped into the sunlit farmyard. All of the farmhands stood quietly in it. There was not a single sound that day other than the crickets in the veldt. Mfana watched very closely as the first of the farmhands opened his envelope. The farmhand reached into the envelope and pulled the cash from inside. There were three bills inside: a red fifty, a brown twenty, and a green ten. The farmhand let fly a triumphant whoop, and held the notes in the air for all to see. The Baas had not given them a raise of twenty Rand; he had given them thirty. When Mfana’s name was called, everyone applauded loudly as he took his pay from the Baas’s son.