Opinionista Mlilo Mpondo 12 January 2016

The Fumes of Joburg

Walking along a road in the city of Johannesburg, you stumble onto a pile of discarded food waste. You realise that you no longer notice the dirt that cloaks each and every alley, street corner, and every building. The dirt that is constantly at your feet. You laugh and think Penny Sparrow has no clue what litter is. That woman must have it good.

If it is a taxi that you are taking, and let’s say perhaps that your eyes are closed on account of the sun gleaming too much in praise of itself. Or, maybe they are closed from day dreams about the house you will one day own in the suburb you have just driven past, a welcome distraction from the pain in your feet, standing too long at the bus shelter waiting for a taxi to take you home.

For whatever reason, your eyes are closed and you are distant somewhere else in a place that your body will one day join you. You are calm, resting, and quiet. It is the fumes that alert you of your arrival, they greet you at its gates and announce your reality. You no longer need to open your eyes to know that you are here, in fact you keep them closed for a moment longer, just to hold on to the peace that you knew just moments before. Your body starts to cringe, the muscles in your legs start to form, and your hands start to find the hand bag rested on your lap. You no longer consider these movements, they have become second nature to you and everyone else, knee jerk reactions. Your lungs expand wider than what is necessary, the fumes take up too much space when you breath. You open your eyes and you are here, you are at a place you loathe to call home, you are in Joburg CBD.

You prepare to get off the taxi at its final stop, and once off, you are a part of its atmosphere. Without a window to close or air conditioning to adjust. There is no escaping the fumes because they are a part of this world, a part of its body, and now a part of you. A burden, a resilient scab, a heavy bag that you walk with each day. Those oblivious to it may refer to it as a bad smell, but how can it be a smell when smells come and go? A smell is testament to something having been there, a dustbin left for too long, a leakage, a bowl with no self-control, the death of a rat which will be found one day and thrown out. A smell belongs to something that has come and gone, but fumes stay. A fume is singular, a moving growing, and producing body. Fertile and breeding, alive.

It is the undertone, but pivotal part in a story, its narrator. The protagonist could never exist without a narrator. The voice that sets the scene, introduces the theme and directs characters; knights and queens across a chess board, we are the pawns

You walk, and it follows you past the lady that sells the plastic combs, thin washing towels and flaky eyeliners. The lady with an infant strapped to her back and a toddler playing with brown coins at her feet. The older child is a dark black, but you cannot tell if she was born with this complexion or if it is from playing in the unkind sun for too long. You move past her little fingers and the fume moves with you. It follows you to the robots at which you stand with handbag clutched at waist side waiting to cross, and heaves robustly for dramatic effect when a taxi almost runs you over, laughing at your stupidity because by now you should know that, here, there is little regard for red robots let alone for human life, but only the pursuit of another load of passengers and their taxi fare. No one really cares whether you make it home alive. But you avert it, as you have done many times before. A quick step to the right and over the grey puddle of water and you are back on the pavement again. The fume is still there, gripping you by the throat so you know that you are still breathing, but also strangling because you do not know for how much longer.

You continue to walk, now you are passing the traffic officer that stands over a grey BMW with what seems to be a pink note clutched into his palm, you recognize him from this morning when he licked his lips and stared at you while you crossed over yet again another robot. He does not notice you now.

You walk past the grey-haired man reading a novel in the same spot that he has for the past two weeks. You do not know where he comes from or where he goes when the chapters end, but each afternoon he is there, reading.

Now at a quicker pace, you meet the same ghost-like boys that hover around aimlessly. Pitch black from lack of water on their bodies, pupils darting about in red eyes, fidgeting, mouths hanging from their heads like they have forgotten how to close. A white infestation at each corner, you have never seen their tongues move to speak or their eyes blink, but you know the quiet mumble they share between them.

Further down the road you almost trip into a pile of discarded food waste, you realize that you no longer notice the dirt that cloaks each and every alley, street corner, and every building. The dirt that is constantly at your feet. You laugh and think Penny Sparrow has no clue what litter is, in fact if she is still calling it litter, that woman must have it good.

On the next street, the one with the fruit and veg stalls, you think you would buy half a water melon, but reconsider because that purchase might just disturb your taxi fare for the rest of the week. You settle for a packet of litchis instead. The fume stands at the stall with you, smirking, both of you know you have no business buying anything, buying for pleasure isn’t for people like you, your job is to get by, your job is to figure out how to pay school fees for your daughter, the school might not take her back this time.

Then for the third time this week you are grateful for a mother that lives in a faraway village somewhere, away from this mess, away from this noisy dirt that snickers from its staying power, away from tired bodies and their buried dreams, broken bottles on sidewalks that make you skip and dance even when you do not want to. Away from the life you live. You are thankful that your mother raises your child in a quieter place, you wonder what the fuck you are going to do with this child that lies growing inside of you now, and you think “wombs really should be more discerning”.

You buy the litchis because you earned it, and think to yourself I might just get a Street Wise Two as well. You are craving hot wings, now you are proud and feel rebellious, you do this every time the world sits too heavily on your shoulders. But why not, you go to work like everyone else, you went to school and got your degree, you send out at least thirty job applications a week. You will make it, you think, you will make it.

You are now five minutes away from your place. You do not call it home because cockroaches live there, and the home you grew up in never had cockroaches. You walk down the street with all the taxis going to East Gate mall, you greet the taxi drivers, this is the street you were almost mugged in. Three men tugged at your shirt and one pulled by the end of your braids, he pulled too hard and they fell out, that’s how you got away.

The group of boys that live on the floor above yours meet you at the corner shop before your final stretch home. They are gay, or transgender or was it queer? You never remember. The last time you went over there to borrow a lighter, they had you falling out and off of your seat from laughing too hard when the really tall one explained what poppers were. Either way what does their body preference matter, they are the same group that babysits for the old lady that lives with her grandchildren at number 201 when she has to go and get her medication from the Hillbrow clinic. You hate that clinic; that clinic reminds you who you are in the world or at least of who the world says that you are.

You had a medical aid, but when you left your old job for your internship, medical aid was not on the table. You knew this internship was a gamble, it was in pursuit of your dreams and you needed the work experience. The government department you worked at before could never decide on a commissioner to last longer than six months and was too busy burying its reputation to focus on giving anyone work experience. So you took the internship, and now you are earning less than should be legal and without medical aid, and so you too have become a number in a long queue that wakes at 5a.m. on leave days to sit and wait for two hours before a public servant hisses your name in between spit and clenched teeth to announce the purpose of your visit to the whole ward. T.O.P, T.O.P she howled a second time. Termination of pregnancy, you got up but chickened out, God wouldn’t forgive you a second time. But this is your new normal, where privacy is a myth, and things like pride and ego belong to the rich. And so you and everyone else in the waiting room sit and wait quietly for their turn. “Don’t get upset” the old lady next to you told you, “never mind what they say, you’ll get used to it”.

The fume calls you back to it and you are closer to home, you come past young women that are having their hair tugged at with tufts of fiber in the hands that do the tugging. You are glad that you chose to cut your hair. You shaved it off this past Christmas because a) you could no longer afford to style it b) you no longer had the patience to sit for hours on end having it styled and c) you wanted a new beginning, a metaphor that things really would be new, that a new harvest would sprout in your garden, that something, anything, would be as freeing as having no hair. But today the fume is yet again a familiar companion.

So you shake the feeling of anxiety that creeps up into your belly every time you consider your life, where it is and where you once dreamt it would be; you keep walking. DM


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