A short story by Wame Molefhe has been made into an opera, and will be performed later in November at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town.
The story, “Blood of Mine”, comes from Molefhe’s short story collection Go Tell the Sun, published by Modjaji Books in 2011.
“Blood of Mine” will be performed from 21 to 28 November, alongside three other new homegrown operas, in Four: 30 – Operas made in South Africa, a Cape Town Opera production in collaboration with the UCT Opera School and the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund.
The music for “Blood of Mine” is by Sibusiso Njeza, the libretto by Janice Honeyman. Marcus Desando will direct.
Read Rustum Kozain’s summation of the collection, from Modjaji Books:
Wame Molefhe’s stories have a gentle, unassuming yet intimate and captivating feel to them. Set in Botswana, the stories trace the lives of characters whose paths cross and re-cross each others’, some times in and through love, at other times through tragedy. And through them the author brings to bear a woman’s perspective on the societal mores in which sexual abuse, homophobia and AIDS, among others, flourish and spread. The social content and views are never proclaimed as a loud agenda; instead, it forms a ‘natural’ backdrop to the lives of the characters, something that may raise a wry comment or thought in one character, while eliciting a mere shrug from another. Molefhe’s voice is, to some extent, a world-weary voice, weary of all she has seen of society’s failures, but never without the gentleness often absent and much needed in broken societies, and never without the hope and redemption that can be found in love and the imagination.
Book your tickets, and then read the story:
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Blood of Mine
No, Sethunya thought, this is not how her life was meant to be.
She was educated, with multiple degrees. She gave up a blossoming career to be a home-maker. But in the society in which she lived, in which a woman’s worth was
measured in terms of her marital status and the number of children she bore, Sethunya’s score was middling to low. Granted, she married young, for love, but she struggled to conceive. In the end she had only one child, where four would have been more respectable.
She was married only one year when her in-laws began to remark, when she was in hearing range, about the foolhardiness of Ntsimane, her husband. Served
him right, they said, marrying a woman and paying bogadi without guarantee that she was fertile.
The snide remarks bounced off Ntsimane’s huge frame. He was a towering figure of a man, with a baritone voice to match. When he spoke, it was as though he had a microphone in his throat. He liked to boast that he was as strong and virile as the Brahman bulls he bred. No one ever thought to question that Ntsimane was fertile; he himself least of all.
One day, during the early days of her marriage, Sethunya heard her mother-in-law’s footsteps approaching. She wondered whether or not to hide, but it was too late.
“Mma Ntsimane, Dumela! How lovely to see you!” But Sethunya’s heart sank as she opened the door to her mother-in-law.
“I was in the dress shop down the road, I thought I should come and see how you are looking after my son.” She raised an eyebrow and inspected her daughter-in-law
from head to toe, her gaze lingering at Sethunya’s midriff.
“Tanki, ngwetsi yame.”
Mma Ntsimane shouldered the younger woman out of the way and strode into the kitchen, swinging her child bearing belly and heavy breasts triumphantly before Sethunya.
Sethunya’s face flushed hot, and tears stung her eyes as she filled the kettle.
Her mother-in-law’s words speared her heart, spoken as they were in her shrill voice.
Sethunya thought of her own mother, who always said a good woman was virtuous, kept her own counsel and, by so doing, kept her name out of peoples’ mouths.
Sethunya had been raised in prayer and she trusted in the Good Lord. Every morning when she rose, she thanked God for giving her a fine husband, for the bread on their table and for her good health. She asked Him to help her grow to love her nagging mother-in-law but, most of all, she asked Him to bless her with a child. And
she knew He would answer her prayers, of that she was sure.
But as the months went by and she still did not fall pregnant, desperation sometimes grabbed hold of her and wrested her faith away. She felt incomplete without a child. And lonely.
Ntsimane, however, was engrossed in a never-ending quest to find the perfect bull to mate with his cows and swell his herds. Sometimes when Sethunya felt the time was right, when she knew that all she needed was his seed, he would not be there and so another month would go by. And then another, until the months became years.
As the years dragged by, Sethunya struggled to keep her mind occupied, but sometimes she just got tired and her resolve to be positive waned.
She tried white medicine. She sat patiently in the stark, sterile waiting rooms of different gynaecologists and obstetricians, sandwiched by women in various stages of pregnancy. Hers was the only plank-flat abdomen. She knew the regimen. Fill the clear plastic bottle with urine. Check blood pressure, weight, temperature. Wait. Strip. Don’t tense when the ice-cold metal instrument is pushed deep inside and probing fingers searched to find the reason for her barrenness.
“There is nothing wrong with you,” they all said. The last one said: “You are strong as a horse. Just keep trying – and enjoy it.”
She thought she must have imagined the wink-wink that accompanied the last rejoinder. She reported back to Ntsimane and suggested that maybe, maybe he should be tested. A sperm count, something, just to make sure.
“No,” he barked.
Perhaps his mother and aunts were right, he thought. He should have married a simple woman, one who knew how to make babies.
Sethunya tried traditional medicine too, though she told no one. She sat on the ground on the skin of a goat which still had the shape of the animal from which it came. The traditional healer scattered the bones from his pouch in the sand and declared that he saw a son in her future. He brewed a bitter tasting concoction from leaves he ground together and instructed her to inhale the vapour as she sipped the hot liquid. Within three months she would be pregnant. For this prognosis, she paid a goat. She returned to the loneliness of her home in the belief that it would happen – soon.
During these times she had plenty of time to fret, alone at home, with nothing to keep her busy save her thoughts. She shunned the company of the young women in her neighbourhood who seemed to taunt her with their protruding stomachs. When Ntsimane came home, she sensed impatience in him. She spoke to God less often and sometimes just sat idle. An idle mind was fertile ground for the Devil.
One Saturday, when she was alone in the house, Ntsimane having left soundlessly that morning, there was a knock on the door.
“Tsena, come in.”
It was Botshelo. She remembered then her husband saying that Botshelo would come and collect some of the sour milk Ntsimane had brought for him from the cattle post. She was happy for the company and they conversed over a cup of bush tea. They spoke about the drought, the potholes, elections. When they finished, he followed her out into the little house that served as both kitchen and storeroom. As she opened the door, she felt his warm breath on her neck.
And then he took her in his arms and held her close. She shook her head but he held her tighter. When he kissed her, Sethunya felt a stirring in her soul. When he
cupped her breast with one hand and foraged inside her skirt with the other, she made as though to say “no”, but her body seemed to belong to someone else. She closed her eyes and imagined it was Ntsimane. She felt her heart beating wildly, in time with Botshelo’s. When it was over, he held her close.
“I love you Sethunya,” he breathed. And those words made it all right.
“You must go.” She handed him the enamel bucket with the sour milk and he left.
That evening, when she heard the roar of the diesel engine as Ntsimane returned, she went straight to him and opened her arms to him. She could smell the faint smell of cow-dung on his khaki overalls and his leather hat. So she peeled them off as she led him into the bedroom.
She opened her arms and legs to him and they made love with an intensity that surprised her. And when it ended, she was sure Ntsimane had flushed all traces of Botshelo from her.
Two months later, after a bowl of bogobe, she felt her insides churning. She figured it was the sour porridge which lately had seemed to emit an overpowering, rancid smell that clogged her nose. But she thought nothing of it. In fact, it was only when her mother-in-law, whose cloying perfume seemed stronger than usual, commented on the size of her breasts that Sethunya suspected she might be pregnant.
The home pregnancy test confirmed her suspicions. After six long years, Sethunya was pregnant. Her mother said it was a miracle.
“Ntsimane, we are going to have a baby. I’m pregnant.”
“Are you sure, Sethunya?”
“I’m sure. The doctor confirmed it this morning.”
That night, husband and wife slept with legs entwined like the branches of the vine that crept up their bedroom wall. But Sethunya slept fitfully. Dreams of Ntsimane and Botshelo made her sit bolt upright in the middle of the night. She disentangled her legs from Ntsimane’s, afraid that he might hear her heart beating as though it would burst through her ribs.
She was grateful she was pregnant. “I’m pregnant” saved her having to explain the niggling feeling that would not let go of her. Sethunya devoured all the baby books in the library, stocked her house with Living and Loving, Baby and You, and all other how-to-be-a-wonderful-mother magazines.
The excitement that filled the house was infectious. Ntsimane came home more often now, and stayed longer. When she felt the baby’s first kicks at four months, he was there. He shared her excitement when she felt a hard mass pressing against her side. Was it his head, or elbow, a knee, they wondered together. She attributed the niggling feeling to the pregnancy. She told herself it was heartburn. The feeling would disappear when the baby was born. When the first pains of labour came, Ntsimane was there to drive her to the hospital.
It was a natural delivery, no complications. “A beautiful baby boy,” the midwife pronounced as she placed the baby in his mother’s arms.
At once, the pains of labour were erased by the wave of love she felt as she held her son in her arms and he started to suck on her breast. She looked into his eyes
and in that moment she knew that he was her child. But just as soon as the nurse took him away, so the niggling resumed in the pit of her stomach. She scoured the baby’s face for signs of Ntsimane, but there were none. And so she fashioned them herself and her uneasiness was stilled. When Ntsimane walked into the labour room, she was ready.
“He has your nose,” she declared with finality and held the baby out for Ntsimane to hold.
“He does. And those are your ears.”
They named their son Thapelo, which meant “prayer”. He had his father’s nose and maybe his ears too. Even if the father didn’t see it, she did.
As was customary, the proud parents inherited the name of their first-born child. They became known as Mma Thapelo and Rra Thapelo, Mother and Father of Thapelo.
Tradition also dictated that baby and mother stayed indoors for 3 months. So, just as soon as she was discharged from the hospital, she was whisked away to the familiarity of the home in which she was raised. Sequestered in her parents’ home, she was granted a temporary reprieve. Only close relatives were allowed to view the child. After three months, there would be a big celebration as the baby was officially introduced to the rest of the world. Then there would be no more hiding from prying eyes.
“Who does he look like?” the relatives asked over and over again. “Does he look like his father?”
Sethunya bristled every time she heard that question. Who he looked like was inconsequential. She had a son, finally. She and Ntsimane had a son. That was all that
On the morning of the celebration, Sethunya woke up with a resounding headache. The feeling of unease seemed to grow heavier throughout the day, until it felt as though it were lodged permanently in the pit of her stomach. It got so heavy sometimes that even her mother’s tried and tested remedy of Milk of Magnesia failed to dispel it. But somehow she made it through the day. By the time everyone had left and she was on her way to her home with Ntsimane, she felt normal again.
But the relief was fleeting. The next day it was back.
So she strapped Thapelo on her back and swept her yard. When the feeling failed to yield, she took down the curtains, room by room, and washed them. By the time she had dried, pressed and re-hung them, the feeling had disappeared.
When Thapelo started to walk, the fear in her was reawakened. Her own legs were straight as the wooden pestles she used to pound the millet grains into powder for bogobe. Rra Thapelo’s feet faced outwards when he walked. But Thapelo was bow-legged. As she watched him cling onto whatever he could and draw his little body upright, she wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. The feeling rose inside her and voices screamed in her head and she shook her head clear of the images that played in her head. Machinations of a guilty mind.
Sethunya was never ever really free of worry. She thanked the Lord for her son and prayed especially loudly when she got to the part about being forgiven her trespasses. She needn’t have worried so. Thapelo’s legs straightened out. Everyone said he was going to be tall, taller maybe than his father. Rra Thapelo was glad about that. Any son of his had to be tall and strong, like him.
One evening, earlier than usual, when Thapelo had taken his first steps, Sethunya heard the roar of Rra Thapelo’s van as he careened into the yard. He had said that he was going to arrive home early so he could play with Thapelo before he fell asleep. But he was too late. Thapelo was already asleep, with his tiny mouth slightly open and his left leg curled under his body. Rra Thapelo stood quietly, unmoving, watching his son sleep. Something inside him made him want to straighten Thapelo’s little legs and turn him on his back so that he slept like him. But he didn’t touch him. Instead, he pulled the little stool out from under the study table he had bought when Thapelo was born and perched on top of it as he continued to examine his son.
There had been talk. There was always talk when a child did not look like his father. Whispers, like the sound of the dry grass brushed by a cool summer breeze. It irked him sometimes that Thapelo did not look more like him. And when he sat around the fire with other men in the village and one of them glibly said “Ngwana o itsiwe sereto ke mmaagwe*,” he felt a lump rise in his throat but which he flushed down with a few swigs of beer. Sometimes he needed more than a few to drown out the doubts that gnawed at him. But by the time he had had enough, his confidence was restored. He was a strong African man from whose loins sprung strong African sons, just like his bulls.
He picked his son up and lay down on the bed with him. He put Thapelo on top of his chest and he could feel his warm baby breath on his skin. It tickled a little. Thapelo smelt like baby lotion. He loved that smell.
Ntsimane had big plans for his boy. He was going to provide for his son and his son’s mother like a real man was supposed to. Thapelo would be a policeman or a soldier. Or a football star. He could just see him, 2010, a striker on the Botswana national team.
Mma Thapelo lay on her side of the bed, unmoving, pretending to be asleep but watching Rra Thapelo. Thapelo stirred and changed positions. He was fast asleep, on his knees, with his bum in the air. Rra Thapelo smiled. He remembered the first time he had seen him sleeping like that. He had been so worried. But Mma Thapelo had calmed him down.
“He is comfortable. All babies sleep like that,” she had reassured him.
It was strange how Mma Thapelo had become an expert on all matters of childrearing. When he commented about his son’s legs, his wife was always quick to tell him how their son’s legs were like his own, or like her brother’s brother’s, or uncle’s sister’s brother’s. It made him wonder sometimes. Some people said the baby looked exactly like him. He didn’t really see the resemblance, but whenever someone said so, he acknowledged the likeness.
“Yes, this is my boy,” he would say and he would pull his stomach in just a little and push his chest out, just a little.
He remembered the day he had brought mother and child home from the hospital. The day before they were discharged, he had gone to the mall and spent the whole afternoon looking for a carrycot. He finally found the perfect one just before the shops closed. The friendly lady at the shop had helped him choose it.
“It’s for my son,” he had told her, “my first born.”
And now Thapelo, his son, was nineteen. He had grown tall and strong and was doing well at University. Ntsimane’s only complaint was that he did not come home as much
as he would have liked. His son didn’t spend enough time at the cattle post.
But Thapelo was on his way for such a rare visit. He had phoned earlier the previous afternoon to say that he would be coming home the next day.
Mma Thapelo could hardly sleep. She was like a child on the eve of its birthday, anxious for the sun to rise. Over the years it had become easier to believe that Rra Thapelo was Thapelo’s father. But there it was, that worry whose origins she did not understand.
She busied herself with getting the house ready and a meal cooked for when Thapelo arrived. She was sweeping the yard, deep in thought, when the phone rang. She raced
into the house. It was probably Thapelo calling to ask if she needed anything from the shops.
“Dumela mma. Is that the mother of Thapelo Malatsi?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Mma, I am calling from Princess Marina Hospital. Your son was involved in a car accident early this morning along the Gaborone-Francistown road. He hit a cow. You need to come to the hospital at once. You and his father.”
Mma Thapelo put down the phone. Her hands were shaking. She needed to get hold of Rra Thapelo. But there was no telephone at the cattle post and he could be anywhere. He had left early in the morning with the herd boy to go and find a missing cow. She had to go to the hospital.
She was just getting into the taxi when Rra Thapelo arrived. He had aged visibly since that morning.
“Mma Thapelo, we found the cow. It is the one that Thapelo hit.”
Mma Thapelo did not know what to say. She wanted to scream and shout at him. She wanted to tell him how much she hated those cows of his, how she had hated them all her life, but instead she just cried. They drove in silence to the hospital.
The doctor looked across at them with sad, sorry eyes.
“We need to give your son more blood, but he has a rare blood type. We will need to test your blood and Rra Thapelo’s. You are probably the most likely donors.”
Mma Thapelo was grateful she was sitting down. Blood tests? She prayed that her blood would match Thapelo’s. But behind her eyes a drummer began his drumbeat. He
started slowly at first, and then faster and louder until she felt as though her head would explode.
Mma Thapelo looked at the doctor. The words tumbled out his mouth too fast for her to understand what he was saying. Fear filled her bladder. She stood up to go to
the toilet. When she got back, Rra Thapelo was already folding down the sleeve of his shirt. Mma Thapelo felt like she was careening down the side of a hill, without
“You next, Mma Thapelo. Don’t worry. It’s just a little prick.”
Mma Thapelo hardly heard as she stretched her arm out. She looked the other way when the needle pricked her arm.
“We have not found a match. In fact, the preliminary results indicate that Thapelo cannot be your son.”
Thapelo cannot be your son. Thapelo cannot be your son. The words rang over and over in her head. She tried to search out Rra Thapelo’s eyes but he seemed to be looking at a spot above the picture in the doctor’s office. He had not said a word since they entered the doctor’s rooms.
“I am sorry,” the voice continued. “We did everything we could to save him. We lost him this morning.”
Botshelo was dead. And now her son, her only son, was dead too. His parents killed him. His father’s beast and his mother. When he needed his mother to give her
blood to keep him alive, she could not, neither could his father.
The silence that descended upon their household strangled all the voices that used to sing in her head. At her son’s funeral, Mma Thapelo had wanted to cry, but she
had no tears. They flowed into a reservoir which she had built over the years, into which she had bottled her fears. They buried their son together. Rra Thapelo stood next to her with his head bowed. Since the day the doctor had said the blood tests showed that Thapelo could not be his son, Rra Thapelo had aged. It was as though the weight that Mma Thapelo had carried all these years had shifted to his shoulders and was weighing him down. His son was dead, but he had never had a son. Would never have a son.
No, this was not how things were meant to be.
* The child’s totem is best known by its mother