It was the headline that caught her eye.
Ape on the run is shot dead
Sethunya pictured the scene at the zoo: cars filling the parking lot, buses offloading camera-carrying tourists, children laughing, and the clamor of foreign tongues as sightseers jostled for seats in the Land Rovers waiting to take them to the manmade lake. The air at the top of that hill always made her feel like she was closer to heaven.
Visitors followed a gravel path from the lake to the animal enclosures, parents holding their children tightly by the hand to keep them at a respectful distance from the wild creatures. In the middle of the tour, they gathered around the chimpanzees’ fence and listened as the guide pointed out Johnnie and his mate. Cameras flashed, and sometimes a boy would break away from the rest and go close, pounding his fists against his chest and grunting until his mother dragged him back with an angry slap.
Sethunya imagined Johnnie climbing out on a branch this time and shaking it, or maybe loping against the fence, more agitated than usual. Maybe a group of visitors had just finished there and gone on to the crocodile enclosure, when their guide, looking back, saw Johnnie clambering over the fence and escaping.
Sethunya had left her mother’s home to become Thato’s wife. He was a good man, kind and gentle, but at times tiresome with his love for what he called tradition and his need to care for her. But when Father Simon said, “You may kiss your bride,” and Thato lifted her veil and looked into her eyes, she knew she had made the right—the only—choice.
After the church ceremony, she returned for the last time to the home she had grown up in. She stepped out of stilettos into flat sandals, and exchanged the white silk gown for a traditional leteisi to wait with her mother for the relatives who would deliver her to her in-laws.
“Sethunya, you must wear something on your head.”
Her mother searched in her chest of drawers for a scarf. Sethunya wrapped it around her head, carelessly, knotting it at the base of her neck. Her mother pressed her lips together as if to keep in her frustration. “This is the right way to tie it,” she said. Then she rummaged in her sewing box for a pin to secure her shawl across her shoulders. For Sethunya’s mother there was no choice in these matters, nor any reason to want one. “Please listen to what the women tell you, my child,” she said. “They know what marriage is.”
“Don’t worry, Mma. I won’t embarrass you.”
Her mother did not respond.
“Mma . . . why aren’t you coming?”
“It’s not allowed.”
“Why not?” she asked. But she knew the answer before her mother said the words.
“This is how things are done.”
Sethunya’s aunt arrived to fetch her then, and they stood together outside her mother’s home, three good Batswana women, watching as the kist her mother had packed was hauled into the back of a van. It took four muscled men to lift it—her mother had filled it to bursting with fresh new bed linens ordered from her special catalog: down pillows, white sheets with pretty flowers, an embroidered eiderdown, and blankets. When it was time to leave, Sethunya held her mother’s hand.
“Trust in God,” her mother said, “and everything will be fine.”
Tied to the front gate of her in-laws’ home, a triangular white cloth waved in the breeze, announcing that there would be a wedding and everyone was welcome. By the verandah, little girls sang, “Monyadi wa rona. O tshwana le naledi.‘ Our bride looks as lovely as a star.
As Sethunya approached the house, men and women rushed to claim her, and she was swept into the throng of swirling skirts and stomping feet. When the joyous reception lulled, the men and young girls resumed their roles, leaving the married women to complete the last of the rituals.
Sethunya sat village-style, with her legs tucked under her, on a goat skin, looking up at the women who encircled her. They reminded her of her mother: the same age, the same wraparound mateisi dresses and plaited hair hidden under doeks, the same conviction that marriage was a good woman’s trophy.
She had not known what to expect—only what she had gleaned from the whispers of girls who knew no more than she: that married women were going to tell her what society expected of a good Motswana wife.
She toyed with her wedding ring, twisting it round and round and then pulling it off and slipping it back on again. A woman sitting behind her tapped her shoulder and whispered into her ear, “Ga e rolwe.” Sethunya slipped her hands beneath her thighs and smiled. Yes, she would get used to her wedding ring, and as the woman insisted, she would never take it off.
Her father’s sister spoke first.
“When a woman marries, her life changes; she must leave behind unmarried friends.”
“A wife does not ask her husband where he has been when he comes home,” said another aunt.
“A woman must cook for her husband.”
“Bear him a son.”
“Care for his parents.”
“Do not discuss your marriage with others.”
She wanted to ask who made these rules. But she knew the answer.
Then her mother-in-law stood up and undid the doek that Sethunya wore on her head, replacing it with one she took out of her bag. She picked up a jug of water and an empty glass and began to pour the water into the glass. It overflowed and spilled onto the sand, but she kept pouring until the jug was empty.
“You’re my daughter now and my heart overflows with love for you,” she said.
Sethunya found herself wiping away tears as she stood up to hug her new mother. Yes, this was how things were meant to be.
Sethunya imagined Johnnie the chimpanzee hurtling over picnic tables, chasing the sun, frightening old men as they hobbled across the park hand in hand with their grandchildren. The first bullet, when it came, cut through his skull, the second found his heart, and in her mind she saw him running slower and slower till he crumpled to the ground in front of a sign with chipped paint that read, “Don’t feed the animals.”
“What’s wrong?” Thato whispered. He moved closer to Sethunya, rousing her from this daydream. But she was still at the zoo, wondering now why the zookeeper hadn’t warned Johnnie first. He could have fired a bullet into the air, or maybe tranquilized him like they did on wildlife programs.
Thato pulled her closer.
She knew what he wanted. She held on tighter to the newspaper.
“Let me finish reading this,” she whispered.
But on this night, Thato did not relent. Nor did Sethunya give in to his insistence. She braced herself for the words that she knew would follow. “When I paid bogadi to marry you, I expected a wife who understood what was expected of a wife. You would cook for me and make a home for me, give me a son.”
Sethunya was thinking Johnnie must have yearned for the wide-open veldt, with its expanse of earth, where he could snack on leaves plucked from green shrubs, his mate picking fleas out of his fur.
“Not now,” she said and slipped out of Thato’s arms. She was tired of trying to be what he wanted her to be. She’d tried so hard. “They killed Johnnie . . . a chimpanzee at the zoo.” She didn’t expect him to understand this sadness. She knew he couldn’t. Still, he was a good husband in other ways: patient and kind and generous, so long as she did the things expected of a good Motswana woman.
When Sethunya was younger, she wore the frilly dresses with tiny flowers that her mother dressed her in. And when her mother pinched her thigh and said, “Sit like a girl,” she crossed her legs tightly and pulled the skirt over her scabbed knees. But even as she sat in church, listening to the Word, she heard the shouts of the boys playing football down the road and wished she could join in.
“Goal-oooo!” they cheered. She wanted so much to play, but her mother chided her: “Good girls play netball, Sethunya.”
Kgomotso, her best friend, played football. Kgomotso’s mother said girls could be anything they wanted to be—just like boys. Sethunya walked home with Kgomotso, held her hand, skipped and laughed with her. When the other girls giggled about boys, she thought only of Kgomotso and how Kgomotso’s eyes smiled when they looked at each other.
Then Kgomotso had kissed her, and all at once Sethunya felt hot in the places that bad girls whispered about. Goosebumps rose on her arms as her friend ran her hands up and down her back. She felt heat in the tips of her fingers and warmth in her cheeks.
Sethunya went to Kgomotso every day after that kiss—wanting more—until a boy from their church saw them and began to whisper. They whispered so loudly that the words finally reached her mother’s ears. One day Sethunya knew, when she looked at her mother’s face, that her mother had heard. She saw the pain and shame that dug the creases on her mother’s face deeper. She felt shame rising in herself also, filling her up. “Is this how you thank me for raising you, struggling all these years to make you a good woman? Is this what you do?” Her mother asked this sadly. Sethunya wished she would shout, the way Kgomotso’s mother did when she was angry, but that was not her mother’s way. “Stay away from there, do you hear me? A good woman does not act like this.”
That warning was enough.
“We can’t be friends anymore,” Sethunya told her friend. She went to church and knelt in front of the Virgin Mary, praying for forgiveness. But prayer did not tame what she felt. When she did not know where else to turn, she walked into the confessional and, head bowed, she spoke.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been too long since my last confession. I’ve had impure thoughts, done terrible things.” She hesitated, and as she did, she felt the walls of the tiny room constrict as if to squeeze the sin from her. “I’ve been with a woman.” She heard her heart pounding in her head and added, “And for that I am truly sorry.”
The silence grew and filled the room, making her want to flee. But then from behind the curtain, a voice said, “Twenty Hail Marys, my child.”
She said many more than that, fervently, and prayer fortified her weak flesh.
Sethunya read the story again and dabbed the corners of her eyes with the sheet. How silly of her to cry for an animal as if it was a person. She thought of Kgomotso then. She was in a combi once when she saw her old friend Kgomotso leaning against a tree. Ebony skin, clean-shaven head, and the ever-present giant hoops in her ears. One of the passengers said he hated women who pretended to be men. “Look at that one over there,” he said. “That one, all she needs is a real man to teach her how to be a woman.” The man in front laughed, and the woman sitting next to her laughed too. Sethunya had shrunk in her seat and taken a lipstick from her bag.
She shook her head to dislodge these thoughts, then folded the paper carefully and placed it on top of the kist. She slid her legs off the bed, slowly, so she wouldn’t wake Thato. She was almost out of the room when he spoke.
“Tell me, Sethunya.”
She froze, and then turned to look at him. “Tell you what?”
“Why I make you sad.”
She wished he hadn’t spoken, that he had left her in her faraway place.
“How can you believe that? I was just thinking. Sundays do that to me. When I was growing up, Mama cooked chicken and rice, and dessert was guavas and custard. I wore frilly frocks and my mother called it ‘The Lord’s Day.’” She could hear herself bubbling over like a pot cooking on a too-high flame.
“But it is the Lord’s Day,” Thato said. He sang, softly, the hymn they’d sung at church that morning. Although they had been married for five years, his voice still had the ability to halt her mid-sentence. She should have followed him, wrapped her voice around his. That was what he expected.
“Come back to bed.” He called her with his eyes too, but she did not move. “It will be fine, Sethunya.”
She sat back down on the bed. Statue-still, she took in the walls that held her captive. Her eyes settled on the kist. On top of it, a framed picture of her and Thabo bore witness to their marriage. Above, her rosary hung beside their wall crucifix, which Father Simon had blessed. She would never leave Thato. The thought of life without him immobilized her.
Sethunya lay down next to Thabo and closed her eyes, praying that on this night they would stay away. But no, as soon as dreams came the chase started. Their feet stomped the earth, spurring her to run, to flee the outstretched arms that wanted to grab her and tie her down: her mother, Father Simon, the sad-eyed women wearing doeks. She ran faster, gulping down air to flush out her fear. The fear lifted her and she ran so fast that her feet barely touched the ground. Then she saw Thabo, at the end of the road, waiting to catch her.
She woke to Monday morning: the sound of her neighbor’s grass broom as the woman swept her yard, combis hooting, schoolchildren laughing, Thato yawning. He pulled her closer and she didn’t resist his hug.
When he got out of bed, she listened as he padded down the passage to the bathroom in his slippers. His voice carried over the spray of the shower as he sang, “Se nkgatele mosadi, ke mo rekile ka dikgomo.” She hummed the melody and then stopped. How many times had she sung those words, a harmless chorus that they all danced to? But today a warning tainted the words. “Tread carefully around my wife, for I paid for her with cows”…A man must buy his own woman—with cows.
She got out of bed and aired the blankets, as her mother had taught her to. She stripped the bed, opened the kist, and unfolded the white sheets with pretty pink flowers embroidered on the edge, but as she did, she heard other voices begin to sing.
Sethunya o rata banyana. Sethunya wa banyana. Sethunya likes girls. Sethunya likes girls better.
Wame Molefhe was born in Francistown, Botswana, and has lived most of her life in Gaborone. Just Once, a collection of short stories for children, was published in 2009, and her other stories have appeared in anthologies and journals. She also writes travel articles and has written for TV documentaries and radio. (updated 10/2010)