The Way Home

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I cradle my boy in my arms until his body is cold. The once dark blue school bag holds his head securely against my body. At first, I wonder if the bones protruding from my chest will cause him to bruise, then I remember that he can no longer feel me. The tattered blanket that raised me covers his tiny body, shielding him from the eyes of seasoned grandmothers on the bus.

“Cover the baby. He would rather sweat than catch a cold.” My mother’s words echo. What do I do now, mama, when no blanket can ever make him sweat again? My son is cold, so cold and all I can do is hope no one realises he is dead and kicks us off the crowded bus.

The January sun beats down on us in denial, as if she is distraught that her ember caress cannot warm my child back to life. The dusty road shakes and bumps the old bus making us bob along with and tricks into believing my baby is moving.

We sigh to a stop in front of a rusty fuel station. I can smell the ripening faeces (in the long drop toilet) from the bus. Tired “mhmms” and “euuhs” rise from their seats and become as giddy as children at the thought of relief. I would like to get off with them, but fear has my body shackled to the seat. Fear warns me that if I stand, I will be accepting my baby’s death, someone will notice, and he will be taken from me. Instead, I allow fear to shut my eyes and give them momentary rest from restraining my tears. Awaiting me is not the usual reddish darkness of the inside of my eyelids, but a replay of the exact moment his last breath slipped silently from his lips.


Before the sun rose in Limani. That is when I left him asleep beside my mother warmed by the little ember stones in the rondevaal. I hoped that if I kept him asleep long enough, I would have time to make money and by formula from Idah’s spaza shop. I had squeezed my nipples raw only to draw a few measly drops into his mouth. My mother raised me in prayer, and I was never to question the Lord’s plans, but sometimes (in her absence) I would ask the Lord what the point of living was if we only suffered to meet Him again. He never answered.

I watch my boy while wearing my washed-out overalls and wonder who he wronged to end up with a mother like me. I am a university dropout who lost her scholarship because she got pregnant. I will never forget the sigh and the disappointed look in mama’s eyes when I returned to her with a tightly bound belly and only the clothes I left with. No degree, no money, no husband.

The cushion I place between my buttocks and the hard bicycle seat does little to lessen the force of the uneven dust road on my distended tailbone. It is knowing that I have no choice that keeps my feet firmly on the pedals as I try to outrun the sun.

“Kwanele!” calls a heavy breather. I do not need to turn my head to know that Pricilla is waddling hastily from her hut, almost tripping on her overalls on her way to me. Her bicycle, the only inheritance from her absent father, groans and complains as she boards it, tyres buckling under her fuller body.

“Ndoda, if I was not poor, I would have stayed in bed today.” She sighs as she languidly caresses her swollen belly. She insists on calling me ‘Ndoda’ because she is the only one who knows that I am pretending to be a man to get higher-paying work. Well, you are pregnant with my baby girl. I will provide for her. I retorted months ago, sending her into fits of boisterous laughter. We have no way of knowing the baby’s sex, but the all-knowing eyes of the walking community pregnancy tests told her it was a girl because she carried high.

“Just don’t go into labour on the barley. We are too poor to replace it.” I sigh, feigning concern. She rolls her eyes and pedals ahead of me, knees further apart than the handles themselves.

Priscilla’s husband works in the city and sends back food for the baby as if it feeds itself.

‘We need to prioritise the baby. I cannot be sending you food when you get rations for free. Be reasonable.’ Priscilla mocks him in his pitchy voice. When he was courting her, he did not spare any expense. He lured her with fast food and movie dates and gifts he bought from the city. What he neglected to tell her was that he was spoiling her with money he borrowed from his father. Now that he had gotten her pregnant, she is an expense to him, an unnecessary one.

She keeps the money he sends buried somewhere in the dry garden. She will not touch it. Instead, she ploughs and plants in a corner of her mother’s field, her low-hanging stomach getting in the way of the fork she uses to turn the soil. She will give birth soon.

“I hope my child does not inherit Sphiwo’s big head. God forbid. I don’t even know what I saw in him. Nxn.” She punctuated her anger by feeling her belly for her baby’s head.


There is already a queue of villagers when we arrive at the community centre. Old and young alike wiping off the dew that rested on them as they spent the night waiting so they would not be the unfortunate people who are told that the Barley has run out.

“Mamuka, Limani.” Pricilla greets the villagers as she retrieves the key to open the community hall. Even though you can hear the hints of starvation hiding in their voices, the warmth in their replies is enough to coax a smile.

The floor is cold and hard, reaching my skin through the cushion. I sit behind the chipped door, out of the reach of hungry eyes peeking in to estimate how much longer there is until their next meal. Sindi and Dumi are amongst the children who aid us in sorting the rations until the rest of the working crew get here. They visited me often to check if my baby had arrived, but I had not seen them since he was born (no doubt the work of their grandparents reminding them a newborn can only be seen by outsiders at six weeks). A blind eye is turned when the unofficial sorters each take two sugar canes as their unofficial payment on their way outside to queue once again.

I watch the children’s expert hands freeing the dried corn from its cob. I imagine their stomachs grumbling in anticipation of eating iGwadla from a faded plastic bag that serves as a lunchbox. The grannies place their headscarves on the children’s laps to prevent them from staining their uniforms as they sort. They will have to drop off their rations at home before they make the lengthy journey to school.

I hear the collective, contained relief that announces the arrival of the rations truck. Green vehicle with chipped paint – and enough smog coming from its exhaust pipes to overwhelm the dust it raises – pulls in more people with its hacking.

Five different queues. Pricilla announces that all those who need oil are to line up in front of her with their containers opened and ready to receive. Two men each carry out large plastic buckets filled to the brim with brick cow fat used as a substitute for sunflower oil. This is donated by a wealthy livestock farmer who fled the village after impregnating three teenagers and denied paternity. Anyone could see his wide nose and chubby fingers passed down to them. He ran after his wife (who was grateful for the way out of her marriage) and has been sending food to cover his shameful acts. The same elders who knocked the ground with wooden canes when cursing his name, soon praised him for feeding them.

The queues for Jodo (pumpkin) seeds and iGwadla, go much quicker as the villagers usually keep the seeds they harvest from their crops. Only new residents join this line, novices to poverty.

It is the water and barley queues that summon the frustration hunger creates. This is where I am stationed, among the other men. The truck driver finds his place on top of the truck and threatens to withhold the rations if people do not queue in an orderly manner. His gruff voice and exaggerative gestures have a way of staining my thoughts with malice. It is the way his muddy boots stand on the Barley tank and insists he towers over everyone that make me wish he would fall off, just once and land in a cloud of dust before the villager’s feet.

“A’kusetshenzwe madoda.” He says to us when he is satisfied with the people’s compliance. White buckets fill the air and shake in eagerness. It is as if, while we fill the buckets with barley, they can already feel their stomachs stop growling.

From the top of the truck, I spot Pricilla running to the toilets with my empty bag in tow. I do not bother trying to sneak away unnoticed. Instead, I prepare to boldly state that I am the father of the child she is carrying and was just making sure that she is alright. A thousand thoughts fill my head in the seconds it takes me to walk to the toilet. Could she be in labour? How will I reach her mother, her husband? Will we still get our day’s pay and rations?

Muffled groans sound from the only stall in the toilet and I am certain I will have to deliver her baby myself.

“Are you alright in there?” I ask, fearing the answer.

“No. The Sphiwo’s head is on its way.” She says and clicks her tongue. She loves that baby, no matter how she insults her. Sphiwo once threatened to take her to his family once she was born and Pricilla threw a pot of hot water at him and told him to birth his own. He only insults her over the phone, never in person and never while she cooks.

“Will you make it to the hospital?” I ask. She lifts her dress and the top of a hairy little head peeks back at me.

“Sizani!” I shout for help. The men shovelling barley glance at me then their boss and continue working. The villagers are too scared to leave the food lie in case it runs out. Only the groundsman with a guaranteed meal for the day walks over.

“Kwenzakalani?” He asks, peeking into the toilet. He jumps back when he sees Pricilla’s parted legs and the puddle of fluid beneath her. She will not make it to the hospital. He pulls of his hat and wrings it in his hands unsure of what to do. I tell him to tell his boss to pause the rations so the old ladies can help. He runs, tripping on the short distance to the truck. The grandmothers rush to the toilet, immediately getting to work. Pricilla pushes and curses Sphiwo, his father, his sister, and his dog. When the baby comes out, however, she smiles. She smiles and insults only to smile again. When I hear the baby cry for the first time my breasts fill up with milk.

“She has her moments of bringing good news. And she does not have her father’s head. You have all the time in the world to see her. Menelisi needs you now.” She shoos me with a smile.


The Mopani trees between my mother’s hut and the hall part for me and make my kilometre walk to my baby much shorter. My heartbeat swells my ears and I almost miss my neighbour’s son, Emihle, calling for me. Tears drip into his (usually smiling) mouth as he struggles to breathe.

“Sisi, come with me. Please…” The little boy manages to choke out. Nothing feels all right after he says this. I am not running as fast as my body needs me to. My newly empty womb is telling me only pain awaits me.

I know when I find my mother’s face buried in her tear-soaked shirt, that my womb was right.

It is for the first time I see my son with my mother that he is not in a blanket. She is rocking herself back and forth, uttering no sound, and denying all grief. My elderly neighbour stands behind me, no doubt ready to catch me should my knees buckle from the pain. She knows better than to rub our backs and try to console us. After all, she was there to see first-hand what happens when we are comforted. My father’s funeral was tearless and held during the bargaining phase of our grief. As soon as my mother was pulled into a hug, she jumped into the hole with the casket and refused to be helped unless they could prove that the sand was not too heavy for his chest. I held my c sister in my arms and watched my mother fall apart.

My mother is standing right in front of me when I come to. She used her trembling hand to wipe the single tear that sneaks though my denial. I see her lips form my name over and over again, yet I hear not a single word.

“Mama,” I say. My breasts leak even more. I lift him and squeeze breastmilk into his eyes like I have seen many mothers do to clear infections. All he does is stare at me without blinking and let the milk glide over his cheeks.


They will collect his body in the morning. While everyone mourns in another hut, I pack donated baby clothes into my bag and wait until they fall asleep. He is tucked tightly in his blanket when I close my eyes and I hope while I sleep, he will close his eyes too.

The rooster crows and jolts me awake. I am disoriented from the sudden noise until my baby’s cold skin sobers me up. I move to take my baby away from this place that is thick with sorrow and poverty. My body commands itself as my brain refuses to give orders. I sneak past my mother and neighbours and bolt for the gate. If I hurry, I can still catch the morning bus on its way out.

This time, the trees seem to sprout from nowhere, thriving on wasting what little time I have. The sand swallows my feet with every leaded step I take. In my haste to get away, I knock someone flat on their back and receive insults in my mother tongue.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper.

“Kwanele? What are you doing out with the baby at this time? Mama sent people to my place because something is wrong. Do you know…” This is my sister’s voice. But I cannot stop to help her up, the bus leaves soon. Even though she is shouting, her voice fades into a whisper as I leave her behind.

It is a good thing that I know this place the way I do, otherwise I would have surely missed the last bus. The bus driver, along with the elderly that fill it, scolded me silently for bringing an infant out of the house. Culturally, I am to stay in my room with my baby for at least a month. But hunger had cruelly stolen this luxury from me. Now, I wish I had stayed.


I curse myself for falling asleep. It is because I fell asleep that this nosy woman beside me is screaming as if she has been carrying her dead child for hours. It is because I fell asleep that I am shoving old people out of the crowded bus aisle and making my way to the door. I do not wait for the bus to stop. The rusted door gives way and tosses me out. I do not have time to wince at the pain of landing on my back on the uneven dust road and I am already running into the trees when the bus sighs to a stop. My ears are ringing from the shock gossip I know is taking place on the bus. A mad woman with her baby’s corpse has run into the bush, surely, she has been bewitched. They only thing that has bewitched me is the thought of someone taking my boy from me and putting him in a hole under my feet. He is meant to be in my arms, where he is now.

It is sunset when I simmer down to a slower pace. The nights can be cruelly cold, and I will have to find shelter soon. I walk until my body forces me to acknowledge my earlier injury as well as the hunger I can no longer ignore. The only edible thing I have on me is the breastmilk intended for my baby and a handful of wild fruits I had stuffed in my overall pockets and forgotten about for who knows how long. As I squeeze my breast into my hand, I think about what I could have done to save his life and about what exactly could have ripped him so suddenly from this life. I think about this so thoroughly, I hope and pray that I do not acknowledge how stiff he has become. His little body no longer curves with my arm when I hold him. It is when a little hand flops out of the blanket and onto my exposed arm that I feel his cold skin chill me to my core. My child is dead.

I want to scream into the fading daylight, at the sky, at the little brown birds I see feeding their young. I need to curse at the very ground that will eventually swallow my son, rip out the grass that will grow on his grave, and gnaw on the sand that will be put on him. I know he will not hear me, but part of me still thinks that screaming will wake him from his sleep. Now, the thinking is overwhelming, and I choose to walk through my pain. Anything is better than being left alone with my thoughts.

I walk in the direction of where the bus should have taken me. I know this forest. My feet have conspired with my heart and led me to the one place I did not want to go: into the past.

The college residence seems much bigger than when I left it. Perhaps it is the lights of the students burning the midnight oil against the silhouette of the stars or those who have left their books for a night of partying. I know in which of those groups I will find my child’s father. The walk to the gate of the school I dropped out of is a shameful one. I hear the unsaid whispers on the minds of my peers about how I disappeared months ago and now return to campus in muddy overalls and a baby in my arms. If only they knew.

I stand in front of his dormitory revising its layout and where I will lay my baby down while he screams at me for disappearing. One of us had to stay and have a chance; otherwise, what life could we have hoped to give our child? Not that it matters anymore. Fear of the unknown nails my feet firmly at his door, but I am ready to run should he open the door. My name is called, yet the door remains closed. I know it is him when he rests his hand on my shoulder and beckons me to face him, but I cannot. I cannot look into those eyes after all these months and tell him that I ran from school, from him, because I was pregnant. I cannot tell him that I got to raise our son for only a month. I surely cannot tell him that the son he never got to hold, is dead.

I flinch when he reaches past me and opens the door. He waits for me to get inside and his patience grows the guilt in me. I take small, light steps inside making sure my back is still turned until I reach the sofa in the centre of the room. He still has the stupid cushion I printed a picture of us on. I hear the door close then books fall onto the floor, a sharp inhale then my name exclaimed. The tears fall on my cheeks.

“Kwanele…” His voice frightens me after all these months. My name hangs in the air like a dirty secret, scolding me like a naughty child and I am too scared to say anything.

In a few hesitant steps, he is seated beside me, asking to open the blanket. And when he does, two milky brown eyes stare back at him. Their eyes do not stay closed like they do in movies.

He leaps to his feet for two seconds before shock hammers his knees to give in and he is on the ground. While he is whispering, “Oh my God”, I look at my baby for the first time since he died. Strange. This pale little body is not the one I once held to my empty breast, not the same body that grew in me, not the same body whose warmth got me out of bed and to work in the morning. His skin is so pale, so cold, it does not resemble my little Menelisi at all. Yet, I cannot let him go. It is when I attempt to wipe off the tear drops that fall on his skin that I touch his little hand. I forget all about his wailing father and the people I ran from back home and on the bus.

Suddenly, it is me and my baby in our little hut. His eyes are not milky, they are dark like his father’s. He encases my finger in his whole hand and smiles in jerks while I sing him to sleep as we walk to the bed we share and drift off to sleep. We have a shared dream tonight, one where I see him grow up.


I am chained to a hospital bed when I wake up. I hear my child’s father lie to the police about why we took so long to report a corpse, then I feel the bed sink when he climbs into it and pulls me into his arms. I am sorry. I want to say, but along with my baby, death has taken away my ability to speak. One day I will be able to look him in the eyes again. One day I will explain to him why I ran from him even though I did not want to. One day I will tell him about our son and his dark brown eyes. One day I will ask him to forgive me for robbing him of the chance to nurse my pregnancy cravings. One day I will tell him what it was like to hold our son while he was alive. One day… Just not today.

The day of the funeral is heavy and difficult. I did not know they made coffins that small until I had to pick one out. I chose a small box to put my son into a hole in the ground, where I will never hold him again. I think about how I will bury my son in the only new clothes he will ever have, how I will always blame myself for his death, and how he will never know how safe he would have felt in his father’s arms. I think more about how I have been unable to pray or talk to God. I wanted to know why he put this little boy in my life only to take him back after thirty-five days. When I heard my son’s cause of death, I stopped asking God why, because no reason could ever be enough for me. I am no stranger to grief, but I have never felt this empty before.

The sun is too grief-stricken to shine past the clouds that hide it today. She does not mask her feelings. She let a single tear drop fall on the still budding flower I plucked to comfort my son in his final resting place. Like it, he was taken too soon. And when I drop the flower onto the casket, I drop into the hole with it.

Bongiwe T. Maphosa

Bongiwe T. Maphosa

Bongiwe Maphosa is a budding author with a passion for storytelling. With her thought-provoking narratives, she takes her readers on a literary adventure. Bongiwe's works on the human condition from a fresh perspective have earned her recognition and publications in the Avbob Poetry Anthology of 2019, The Writer's Club of South Africa 2021, and JAY Lit in 2021. She hopes to cement her place in the literary community.