Volume 23, Number 2


Boletilemang Gabokgatlhe

She was simply called Beauty. Why Beauty, nobody could tell because both her parents had passed away when she was still struggling to crawl. Although beauty is said to be in the eyes of the beholder, for this Beauty there seemed to be an unspoken agreement among the people of Shangwana village that she was the ugliest thing in the village.

Beauty was seventeen years old, slim and ever-serious. Her face was still as butter-smooth as a baby’s. Her facial features were somewhat exaggerated. She had two flaps of ears that jutted from the sides of her head at sharp tangents. Her lips were steak-thick and always zipped together. She had a drum of a nose, and one could see into her nostrils from a good distance. Her eyes were like two shiny moons stuck on her face. She was a tall girl; so much that, giraffe-like, she towered above her age-mates in the village.

Having been brought up by her maternal grandmother, who was old and poor, it was not surprising that she did not complete her secondary school studies, although she was an above-average student academically. She dropped out after having written her Junior Certificate, since life was becoming tougher for her each passing day.

As a young teenager she was becoming conscious of herself—the way she dressed and made herself up. She could not compete with her colleagues in matters of clothing and make-up accessories. She had to do with patched and faded uniforms as well as shoes so worn that no one could guess their original colour. She was continuously ridiculed and laughed at by her fellow students. Occasionally she was punished by teachers for being an untidy student. This had been too much for her and after her Junior Certificate she decided not to be abused any longer. She unceremoniously quit her studies.

Although the old woman was not happy with Beauty’s decision there was nothing she could do. She perfectly understood the predicament of her granddaughter. Besides, she was ailing, and she could barely make ends meet for the two of them. Her illness worried her because if she were to die soon Beauty would be left alone in a harsh world, which teemed with predators of the young. In her wise and ancient voice she called Beauty besides her one morning. “Beauty, my child, do you know that I’m an old woman now?”

“Yes, granny, but do I need to be reminded? I’m aware of that!”

“You see, my beautiful child, I’m not only old but ill as well, and my ancestors may call me at any time,” the old woman pointed out in a matter-of-fact manner.

“What do you mean, ‘being called by your ancestors’—you mean die, right? But that can’t be: you are a strong old woman; and besides, this village is full of people who are several years older than you. Why should you be the one to die?”

“Look, child, I’m worried because should I die you will be left alone in this cruel world, and the heartless beasts will devour you. I would be happy if you could find someone to marry before my ancestors call me. A young woman needs a man to take care of her and.…”

“Please, granny: I do not need a man to take care of me. I need myself to take care of myself and you. Never have I considered marriage a priority in my life. I don’t want to be the property of someone when I’m so young.”

Beauty was one of less than a handful of Shangwana girls who at seventeen were still virgins. From her early teens she had realised that most of her age-mates confused sex with love. For Beauty love and sex were poles apart. There could be love without sex as much as there could be sex without love. Although she was inexperienced in such matters, she believed that it should be love that should lead to eventual sex, not the other way round. Given her convictions, it was no wonder that lusty advances from Shangwana men were repulsed with contempt. Given Beauty’s low social status and the belief that she was the ugliest girl in the village, many men had thought that she would be an easy prey to satisfy their lust. One by one they were disappointed.

What enraged Beauty most was the way men approached her. They approached her with an undisguised arrogance, which could be translated as, “Girl, you’re not of my type but I want to do you a favour by bedding you tonight.” No one sought to know her, to establish a sound relationship step by step before proposing to her.

* * *

As Beauty slept one cold night, she had a terrible dream. She woke up with a start. She was sweating profusely, and her heartbeat was on an erratic marathon. She could not recollect properly what the dream had been about but she knew that it had been a scary one. She tried to assure herself that it was a mere dream, but the fear persisted. As she turned uneasily on her sleeping mat she had an ugly and suffocating feeling that something was terribly wrong. But what could it be? she wondered. It was after some agonising minutes of desperation that what was amiss hit her hard with the force of a sledgehammer.

It was the silence! The hut she shared with her grandmother was silent, and that silence should not have been there. Instantly she knew and started crying hysterically while crawling to where the old woman slept. The old woman was a perpetual snorer, and Beauty had become accustomed to those deep nocturnal snores. Absence of them could only mean one thing—that the old woman had stopped breathing.

Indeed the old woman had been called by her ancestors. Beauty went from one compound to another to report the passing-away of her grandmother. She was wailing, thinking about life in Shangwana without the old woman. Her grandmother had been her only close relative and friend. After her rounds of informing the neighbours, she returned home, only to find out that nobody had bothered to come. She lit the homemade paraffin lamp and sat next to the corpse, waiting for daybreak.

* * *

The village of Shangwana was made up of two main ethnic groups, the Wayeyi and the Bakalanga. The two got along fine. They were like cousins. It was common to find a Moyeyi who could speak both Shiyeyi and Tjikalanga fluently and a Nkalanga who could do the same. But although ethnicity was not a problem in the village there was a disease that had slowly but surely entrenched itself upon the people of Shangwana.

Social classification was the disease that was slowly eating the fabrics of the community. The village was divided into small groups, a sort of birds of the same feather flocking together. The wealthy socialised with the wealthy and the poor with the poor. The poor were shunned and despised. They were tools of convenience for the wealthy. The wealthy remembered the poor only when there were dirty jobs to be done.

In the village gatherings, more often than not ideas that were adopted were those mooted by the well-off. There was always vigorous applause at the end of a wealthy person’s speech no matter how nonsensical it was. The poor were always booed and received subdued applause regardless of their eloquence and reasoned contribution.

An illustrative incident regarding this division happened during an auction of cattle one day. There was a young bull, which undoubtedly was the best-bred in the kraal. All the big shots were there. Some of them were boasting that they were going to part with thousands if that was what it would take to acquire the young bull.

Seeing the interest being shown in the bull, the registrar approached and declared excitedly, “This bull is owned by Swalika. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” There was no reply. The murmur from the big shots died mysteriously. One big shot was heard to say, “It is beautiful, all right, but the snag is it belongs to a nobody, and I can’t pay a thousand for it.”

* * *

The funeral of Beauty’s grandmother was a little affair. She was given a pauper’s funeral in an obscure cemetery a mile away from the main one. Present were the grief-stricken Beauty, a disinterested priest who was in too much of a hurry, two impatient social workers, two shabbily dressed gravediggers, the village chief and the poor villagers. The well-to-do were nowhere to be seen. Who could go to a funeral where there was no feast? Real funerals to be attended were those where tempting dishes were served. Funerals had degenerated into fashion parades and high-class gossiping.

Three weeks after the funeral, a sad and dejected Beauty was lucky enough to be employed by an understanding businessman as a bar assistant. Although the pay was low, through disciplined budgeting Beauty could make ends meet. Her sadness over the passing away of her grandmother was slowly disappearing. She was enjoying her job, especially serving customers from outside the village who were not clouded by their superiority complex over her.

Customers from Shangwana, especially men, were a pain in the working day of Beauty. They made crude advances towards her but when she turned them down, they insulted her, telling her that after all she was an ugly thing, not worth their love. Beauty wondered why those vile men kept on pestering her if she was so ugly. She was becoming stronger and confident with each passing day. She could fight her wars against those beasts and win most of the time.

She was determined that she was not going to cheapen herself by letting herself being an object of pleasure to men. She was prepared to die before falling in love if the right man did not come her way. In her heart she had dismissed ever falling in love with any of the Shangwana men. They were arrogant and empty bastards. One even had the nerve to tell her that if he had been the owner of the bar, he could not have employed such an ugly person, as she scared customers.

The other customers had laughed heartily at this, but not for long. Her reaction had been uncharacteristically explosive. She had called the culprit a son of a bitch and without warning had broken a bottle of wine against his forehead. The man had woken up at the hospital, his mind confused. The trial after the man’s recovery had been short. Beauty was sentenced to six months imprisonment, wholly suspended due to the fact that she acted under extreme provocation.

All the weekly newspapers carried Beauty’s picture. Some newspapers were sympathetic to Beauty, while others called her a danger to society who should not have been given a suspended sentence. Beauty was fired from her job the moment she arrived at the bar. She was given two weeks’ pay and told it was over. She resigned herself to her fate and went home with a heavy heart.

* * *

Three days after Beauty had been fired, an air hostess of Air Botswana was busy distributing newspapers on a morning flight from Johannesburg to Gaborone. Before she had finished distributing the newspapers to all the passengers there was a shout—in fact, an ear-piercing scream—from the back. “Eureka! I’ve found a gem!” A middle-aged man was shouting excitedly and pointing at something in the newspaper.

The airhostess rushed to the man to see if he was all right. “Is everything OK, sir?” the airhostess enquired politely.

“Yes; I’ve found the elusive gem, see?”

The airhostess peered at the paper and saw the picture of an ordinary girl and a headline that said, “Bar Assistant Sentenced.” The airhostess frowned uncomprehendingly and politely asked the gentleman to keep his safety belt fastened. Madness comes in many forms and can strike from anywhere, the airhostess thought as she left to complete her tasks.

* * *

A week after that incident, Shangwana woke up to the roar of two off-road, overloaded vans. The vehicles had four occupants, a lady and three gentlemen, all of European descent. They asked directions to the chief’s place from the early risers. From the chief’s house, they drove straight to Beauty’s hut. Inquisitive villagers, like flies to sour milk, gathered a distance away from the hut. They started gossiping, all sorts of rumours going forth and back.

“Hey! You know what, mate: this gorilla girl has become a tourist attraction!” one gentleman said unkindly. The four tourists stayed with Beauty for about an hour in her hut. When they emerged, it was clear that they had cleared the hut of all Beauty’s possessions. They were carrying three large suitcases bursting at the seams. As they boarded the vehicles with Beauty, the unkind gentlemen remarked gleefully, “They must be taking her to a zoo in their country.”

For two years nothing was heard of Beauty. Slowly the people of Shangwana began to forget her. With the collapsing of her hut she became completely extinct from the memories of the people. For those two years nothing changed in Shangwana. The social dividing line still remained stuck stubbornly across the village, refusing to go, like a satiated puff adder. The wealthy still stuck together against the poor.

* * *

The third year after Beauty’s unceremonious departure brought with it the unexpected and unbelievable. Shangwana’s poor ululated and danced publicly. The wealthy gathered in small groups and in low voices discussed the new development. It was apparent that they needed a potent strategy to meet the occurrence.

The unexpected and unbelievable was the resurrection of Beauty. The resurrection was a big affair, which put the village of Shangwana on the international map. Each and every newspaper had something to say about Beauty, and Shangwana where she had come from. Headlines screamed, “Exotic Beauty Catwalks into Million World Hearts,” “From Rags to Beautiful Millions,” “The Extraordinary Shangwana Beauty Tops the Modeling World,” and one paper further declared that Beauty’s beauty was hypnotic and incomparable. Radio stations carried daily news about how the beautiful Beauty was raking in millions as a top model overseas.

Everybody in Shangwana wanted to be associated with Beauty. People searched painfully within their past to see if there was anything positive they had done towards her. Although the wealthy could not come up with any good favour they had accorded Beauty, still they were optimistic that she would join their circle. After all she had become wealthy, and they reasoned that she would be ashamed to socialise with nobodies. It was natural that it should be that way, they concurred unashamedly.

When BTV announced that it would interview Beauty one Sunday evening, the people of Shangwana noted the date and time with infectious eagerness. When the date and time came, the village became glued to its screens. Those who did not own television sets were packed in the local bar like sardines.

The programme started by showing the interviewer alone, wearing an infectious African smile. After adjusting his tie, he declared with a booming voice, “This is the week, the day, the hour and the minute you have been waiting for. Our own supermodel is going to share with you the story of her success.”

The camera angle shifted slightly to the right, and next to the interviewer an elegant Beauty appeared, a confident and cultured smile playing on her lips.

The interview was thirty minutes long. Beauty talked about life overseas and the professionalism that existed there. Although she was modest in admitting that she had made millions in her new career, she assured her viewers that money was no longer an issue in her life. As the interview progressed, the interviewer pressed Beauty to talk about her life when she was growing up in Shangwana and whether she missed it.

“I was born in Shangwana and grew up in that village. I buried my loving grandmother in that village, and I must say I don’t have any happy memories about that village. Talking about it makes me sad. I intend giving the remains of my granny a proper burial and then moving as far away from Shangwana as possible. I don’t want to be associated with the village. It’s a cold and dead one. However, I won’t forget to do something for lovely Shangwana’s poor, who taught me to be strong during difficult times.’

The interview came to the end with a determined and decisive Beauty starring intently into the camera. In Shangwana, disappointment was written on everyone’s face. The village had lost its gem. Within thirty minutes the village had been wiped from the international map.