Home 9 Literary Archive 9 Fiction & CNF 9 Great Expectations

Great Expectations

by Wonga W. Bottoman


It is indeed a remarkable thing to note how behavioural characteristics are passed from generation to generation.   Mandla Ngubane was, as far as he knew, the last male survivor from his paternal grandfather’s line.   It was left upon him to keep their family name.   No male child from his grandfather’s direct genealogical line ever managed to start and maintain a functional family.   All the existing male Ngubanes held that surname by default.   They were sons born out of wedlock by her aunts, cousins and sisters.

Mandla believed that a real Ngubane was a child sired from the loins of the male of that species.   He had gathered that much in the endless brawls and scolding that were common in the extended family household.   Only his father’s children were above the family innuendos about their origins and genuineness as Ngubanes.   Their one handicap was that their mother had disappeared in their early childhood.   At a late stage in his childhood, he learned that the disappearance of their mother was a result of his father’s cruelty.   Mandla grew up resolved to redress these wrongs in the house of Ngubane.

Like many children born in the boom years of the South African economy in the new millennium, Vusimuzi Ngubane was born amidst unbounded joy of his parents.   On the fragile head of the young boy rested all his father’s frustrated dreams.   From the first day of his birth, the baby enjoyed Mandla’s unstilted love.   Their stay-in housemaid, an illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe bore the worst and best humours of the family.   Vusimuzi’s mother, Sonto Mkhize, not to be outdone by her ‘husband’ in the love of their child proved to be the devil incarnate in the eyes of the poor maid.

The only thing she did in the house was to share the bed with her husband.   Sgada, the maid, was sure that if sharing her husband’s bed were not a form of relaxation, Sonto would have ordered her to do that too.   In her presence, she could not tell how to hold, wash or feed the baby.   One day she put the baby down on the sitting room.   Sonto stormed out from the kitchen demanding if Sgada could not see the baby’s carpet in the sitting room.

The whole flat of the townhouse was carpeted.   Cowed, Sgada apologised and placed the baby on top of the small carpet that sat on top of the wall-to-wall carpet.   Mandla had bought carpet as Vusimuzi’s playing area.   The carpet was easier to clean daily.   Mandla was a reasonable man.   As he sat watching the little boy crawl away from the small carpet’s boundaries, he noticed that the kid was dressed in woollen clothes and would probably not feel any difference on his skin.   He cast a look at Sgada.    She was nonchalantly watching him awaiting his response to their baby’s betrayal.   Their eyes locked.   Sgada dropped hers.   It was an instant of enlightment.

He saw Sgada, after some private considerations, as a possible source of information on the Zimbabwean situation.   In previous attempts to start conversation with her she responded with yes-no answers.   That frustrated him.   He had wanted her to come out gushing with first hand revelations that he could have used to dazzle his friends with in their endless political discussions.   The reluctant yes-no answers’ side effects was to churl into life inside Mandla’s stomach the primitive desires that are so readily provoked by the seemingly hapless woman.

In the absence of his ‘wife’ in Sgada presence, Mandla’s stomach curved inside with gnawing desires.   He wished to make her a mother to a Vusimuzi’s brother.   That would increase the success rate of his grandfather’s progeny.   That was his rationalisation.   His was a passion born out of a likely conquest.   As a perceptive woman, Sgada made sure that she always held his baby in her arms in his presence, especially in the absence of his wife.   Mandla believed that an open advance from his end would go into the sub-consciousness of the baby and disturb the child’s concept of a family unit, giving ground to a possible future collapse or disparagement of his grandfather’s name.

Sonto, Vusimuzi’s mother, was a woman of easily achievable ambitions.   Her dearest wish, engendered in early childhood by her parents, was to get married and to have a family.   After starting a family with Vusimuzi her truly self-attained ambition was to be on top or in par with the most advanced in her circle of friends.   This amounted to the practical desire to dress as the best, go shopping, fill the supermarket trolley with groceries walking side by side with her husband, entertain friends, and to have the occasional argument with their child.

She was the classic homemaker.   Her big problem was that she was in fact not married to her ‘husband’.   They co-existed under the marriage act proclaimed by millions of young and old people in the towns and cities of the country under the name of ‘vat-en-sit’, take and live together.   Mandla was forever promising her to attend to their formal marriage rites as soon as he had saved enough money.   In the community, they were known as husband and wife.   Both their families accepted their child’s partner as wife or husband, according to the man or woman’s people.

Mandla never really knew what he wanted his one and only son, Vusimuzi, to grow up to be.   In his own younger days, he had thought he would grow up to be a lawyer or doctor.   That was what his family encouraged him to be.   He shared that encouragement with almost all his playmates.   As he grew older, he changed tact and announced that he wanted to be a scientist.   In the eyes of his community, a scientist was a highly educated person with skills to perform technological miracles.   All the white man magic gadgets: rockets to the moon, aeroplanes, trains, cars, guns, watches, and so on were in the domain of scientists.   With his then more advanced knowledge of the engineering and research fields he alternately saw Vusimuzi as a physicist, chemist, astronaut, doctor, etc.   Sonto expressed no views on the subject.   She merely agreed and showed enthusiasm to Mandla’s daily musing on the future accomplishments of their child.

Her parents passed away suddenly in a car accident.   Mandla was in shock.   He had delayed too long to marry her lover!   By skilful manoeuvrings he managed to avoid paying the extra funeral expenses relatives are more than keen to shift onto the pockets of sponsors inside or from outside the extended family circles.   Sonto had to make do with the standard burial society assistance.   She paid for all the extra household items form her pocket

After the funeral, Mandla was forced to arrange alternate staying places for his ‘step children’.   These were three plus one of Sonto and her sister’s children born whilst staying with their parents.   After the conclusion of his arrangements and the requisite lapse of six months – the mourning period, Mandla supposed that he could then marry his ‘wife’ without paying lobola (a dowry), by civilian convention.   Upon hearing news of the pending marriage an uncle, a brother to Sonto’s father, stepped in.   He reminded Sonto that Mandla had not paid ‘damages’ for his son; that Vusimuzi like the rest of the children Mandla had not taken under his roof was a Mkhize.

In the shuffling during funeral arrangement, this uncle had told Mandla that he was also not a part of that Mkhize household.   His family was stationed at Nkandla, Msholozi’s[1] hometown.   In the admission, Mandla had supposed that the uncle merely meant to excuse himself from contributing to the funeral expenses.   He could not understand how the same man could now initiate demands for ‘damages’ on their daughter.

‘Damages’ is the colloquial term that refers to an acknowledgement by a family of a young man to the family of a young girl he had deflowered.   In the olden days the acknowledgment was made in the form of beast contribution to the girl’s family stock.   The girl’s family received it as an apology and a means to help in the preparation and upraising of the coming child.   In the socio-economic arrangement of subsistence farming ‘damages’ went all long way to alleviate the extra expenses of a new family member.

Vusimuzi was over a year old.   From birth, he had stayed with his biological parents and Mandla paid for his upbringing.   In his love for his son, he unfortunately tended to overlook Sonto wishes to be truly married, to wear a ring like her friends and to have ‘damages’ paid finally for one of her children.

Mandla’s expressed amazement at the uncle’s suggestion reached the man’s ears.   The uncle was shocked at the young man’s reaction.   He rallied his relatives.   In unison, the brothers and cousins agreed it was time to put to an end the abuse of their sisters and nieces.   They demanded three thousand Rands for ‘damages’ and ten thousand for lobola.   Another uncle thundered aloud the question who were the Ngubanes.   No one had an answer.   Sonto was ecstatic with joy.   She suspected she was pregnant with their second child.   The child could be another boy.   Mandla would finally pay her lobola.   His grand dreams for his grandfather’s name rested in her hands.

Never before had her value been that high in her lifetime.   She would be the envy of all her friends.   In her joy, she overlooked Mandla’s misery.   He thought of all the sacrifices he had made, for a Mkhize!   The shuffling leading to the funeral, the uncle’s machinations and Sonto’s vanity increased his contempt for this family.   Sonto’s behaviour also puzzled him.   More than anyone else, she knew how hard he worked for their family yet she was excited at the news that he had to pay ‘damages’ to uncles who had done nothing for their child nor her for that matter.

Resignedly, he decided to pay the requested double-dowry.   That would rid him of the hypocrites.   As for Sonto, he would teach her a lesson for her double standards.   As she was so keen on African traditions, he was going to be her fully-fledged partner in that venture.   Like traditionalists, he was going to divide his fidelity.   He would start an affair with Sgada.   In the beginning, would have to keep the affair under the carpet.   He was confident of Sgada’s native wits to effect the deception.   After the lobola payment, he would tell Sonto that he was taking Sgada as his second wife.   More than being a reasonable man, Mandla was a dreamer.

Sgada was intrigued.   Mandla was an open book to her.   The decided air that now replaced his generally apologetic attitude disturbed her.   It did not suit him.   In the long run it could bring out the harsh facial lines that were so prominent on his father’s pictures.   In her mind, she always cherished the look of complete surprise and pleasure that jumped to his eyes the first day as their maid she brought him a cup of tea.   The man was original.   He made his own tea.   It would have been her pleasure if fortune had placed the likes of him at her mercy in her days in Harare.   Now, she had to help him increase the chances of the success of his grandfather’s name.

She shared sidesplitting jokes about that with Sonto but, she knew that one wrong step from her, Sonto would kick her out of the house.   She was wary as it was.   Mandla was Sonto’s man.   She loved him despite all her shortcomings.   She, Sgada Makhubu, had to be with the ‘Ngubanes’ for the next year or two.   They were her people.   Mandla said as much when trying to wring her thoughts on the Zimbabwean situation.   His exact words were, ‘Zulus, Xhosas, Swazis, Ndebeles – including those in Zimbabwe – are one people.’   Sgada sincerely hoped that the news of the coming child would ease his anger and frustration.

[1] Jacob Zuma the President of the ANC.