Kopano Matlwa: Coconut (excerpts from the novel, 2007)
Ofilwe is a pampered black teenage girl living in a rich white suburb of Johannesburg. The novel "Coconut" only covers one Sunday morning, on which she and her family go to church and afterwards have breakfast in a fancy coffee shop, like every Sunday. All kinds of impressions that day trigger incoherent thoughts about her past and current life. Her wandering thoughts are printed in italics.
At nuptial and burial ceremonies, at thanksgiving days ge re phasa Badimo, I stand in reverence, out of everybody's way, silently taking it all in, feeling most inadequate amongst a group of people who all seem to know exactly what roles they play in the age-old Pedi rituals. As the only female grandchild. I fear that day when my turn comes to run
these sacred occasions.
"Mama, what did we believe in before the missionaries came?"
"Yes, Ofilwe, Badimo."
"Badimo and what else? What else did we believe Mama?"
"Just Badimo, Ofilwe."
"But surely we had our own traditional rites, a name for our God, a form of worship? Whatever happened to that?"
"I do not know, Ofilwe."
"Tshepo [Ofilwe's brother] says they, the missionaries, tricked us Mama. Or doesn't it matter?"
"No. It does not matter, Ofilwe."
"Do you think bo Koko [Ofilwe's grandmother] would know?"
"Or was it before their time? When did the missionaries come?"
"I do not know, Ofilwe. Goodnight."
"OK, Mama, goodnight."
I attend this ancient church because I am comfortable here. I understand nothing of the
history of the church. I do not know what the word 'Anglican' means nor can I explain to you how the church came to arise. lt is simple. I come here because I feel I belong. That is all. The traditions of the church are my own. I do not have any others.
Would I have turned out to be nothing if Mama had not married Daddy? Would I not be
the same Ofilwe I am now if Mama had never made it out of the dreaded location? What if Mama had chosen love, where would I be now? What would I be now? Nothing?
Instead of waking up to my cubed fruit, muesli and mixed nuts on a bed of low-fat granadilla yoghurt, would i begin my day by polishing the red stoep that just out at the front of Koko's two-roomed house? When bored, would I pass the time by naming stones
and creating homes for them in the wet dirt that surrounds Koko 's self-made outside toilet instead of playing Solitaire on Mama's laptop, as I do now? Would I steal handfuls of sugar from the former mielie-meal bucket under the sink a11d run out to lie on the grass to let the sweet crystals melt on my tongue instead of forgetting to give Daddy back
his change, forget it was not mine for the keeping and forget I was not supposed to use it
to buy honey and almond nougat bars from the health shop outside the estate gates. Instead of a decaf Café Latte at Bedazzle on Thursday nights would I freeze my Cool-Aid and save it for a really hot day? Would it matter to me who my clothes were named after?
Would I go into respiratory distress at the thought of wearing garments with no names at all?
Would it be the complex security guard's wandering eye or gunshots drawing ever closer in the night that made me uneasy? Would it be brightly lit tarred roads or whistling dusty streets that I travelled along?
lt is our fault that after numerous breakfasts, one Sunday morning after another, we have
not tried to assimilate ourselves into the Silver Spoon Coffee Shop family tree.
I hate it, Lord. I hate it with every atom of my heart. I am angry, Lord. I am searing within. I am furiozs. I do not understand. Why, Lord? Look at us, Lord, sitting in this corner. A corner. A hole. Daddy believes he enjoys this food. Poor Mama, she still struggles with this fork and knife thing. Poor us. Poor, poor, poor pathetic us. It is pitiful. What are we
doing here? Why did we come? We do not belong.
Lord, I am cross with You. I, they, thousands of us, devote our lives to You. Some, Father, labouring endlessly so that You may be pleased. But still, Lord, still we are shackled. Some shackled around the ankles and wrists, others around their hearts, but most, Lord, are shackled around their minds.
They laugh nastily, Lord. You cannot hear it, but you see it in their eyes. You can feel the coldness of it in the air that you breathe. We are afraid, Lord, that if we think nonanalytical, imprecise, unsystematic, disorderly thoughts, they will shackle us further. until our hearts are unable to beat under the havy chains. So we dare not to use or
We dare not eat with our naked fingertips, walk in generous groups, speak merrily in booming voices and laugh our mqomothi laughs. They will scold us if we dare, not with their lips, Lord, because the laws prevent them from doin so, but with their eyes. They will shout, "Stop acting back!" "Stop acting back!" is what they will shout. And we will pause, perplexed, unsure of what means, for are we not black, Father? No, not in the malls, Lord.
We may not be black in restaurants, in suburbs and in schools. Oh, how it nauseates them if we even fantasise about being black, truly black. The old rules remain and the old sentiments are unchanged. We know, Lord, because those disapproving eyes scold us still; that crisp air of hatred and disgust crawls into our wide-open nosttrils still.
1 ge re phasa Badimo - when we talk to our ancestors (translated from Pedi, a Bantu language)
4 Pedi - a Banu tribe
8 Badimo - name of a traditional Africam religion, usually translated as "ancestors". Many practitioners of Badimo follow other religions as well.
25 Anglican - refers to the Church of England with predominantly white members
33 grandilla - exotic fruit
33 stoep (Afrikaans) - a raised veranda
37 mielie-meal (Afrikaans) - grand maize usually used to make porridge
40 estate gates - gates around the community Ofilwe lives in
42 Cool-Aid - brand of flavoured drink mix, usually spelled Kool-Aid
50 They are usually the only black customers in the coffee shop.
56 to be cross with s.o. - to be angry with s.o.
66 mqombothi - probably referring to umqombothi, a traditional Xhosa beer produced from maize, malt and yeast
Aus: Kopano Matlwa, Coconut, published by Jacana Media (Pty)
Ltd in 2007, pp. 8-32. ©Kopano Matlwa, 2007.