Hell on a hill

The air was filled with excitement. It was a long weekend and most people were planning trips to the lake or recreational spots to unwind and have fun. At age 15, I was just so excited about the excitement and my nephews and I were running around sharing in everything from people just passing, carrying large water- melons or some lugging crates of beer and meat for their barbecues. It felt like Christmas, yet it was the first day in May. It was also the last month of Fall or Autumn as we know it. The weather was unusually warm, though windy. The hustle and bustle of the day continued well into the late afternoon and it suddenly died down. Everyone had gone to their respective lake trips or picnic areas and the township was quiet.

My nephews and I went back in the house to play “Karate Kid” moves. The two boys adored me, and they’d hang onto my every word. I loved telling stories. I used to be able to just make up a tale and tell it. They most especially loved the story of “Vera, the ghost lady”. I believed that story since it was an urban legend as I grew up. They were my older sister’s sons. Ronny, the older and Reggy, 6yrs old. He was younger by just a year and a half. Ronny was much closer to me. He’d shadow me in whatever chores I was given and he’d follow me everywhere. The house they lived in was their mother and their stepdad’s. It was an ordinary four-roomed house in a busy township in Soweto. Most people who lived on the same street knew one another. I was relatively new there as I had recently moved in at my sisters house to keep her boys company after school, during the day while my sister and her husband were at work.

On this bright sunny afternoon, my brother in law sent us on a errand. He used the train to work and his monthly train-stub had expired. He gave me the exact amount to go buy him another monthly stub at the train station, about three kilometers away. My nephew Ronny and I were excited because it’d give us the chance to take a nice long walk, watching people’s comings and goings along the way. We made it to the station, and bought the ticket. The long walk back suddenly didn’t seem so nice anymore because we were so tired and thirsty. Most times we had to keep jumping out of the way of a reckless driver or watch some very drunk people swearing their way through the streets of Soweto. I pocketed the stub and we started our trek back home. A few meters away from the station, we were walking on a gravel path in a very rocky part of the area. It had a nice view over the nearby neighborhood and was very quiet. Suddenly I hear my nephew cry out. I thought he might have stepped on something and I ignored him. Then it went eerily quiet and I turned around. A young man, probably in his early twenties was pulling my nephew by his arm and I could see he was hurting him. The guy stood there sneering at me with his bloodshot eyes and two missing front teeth. I asked him what he thought he was doing and demanded that he let go of my nephew. He asked me in the Zulu dialect what I was gonna do for him to let my nephew go. I was so naive for not understanding what he was getting at and I feebly answered that I’d say thank you to him. Someone behind me laughed out loud and there were three of his friends approaching. My nephew started crying and I was suddenly very scared. People were passing by and no one stopped to see what was going on. The guy behind me pushed something into my rib cage and ordered me to start walking. I resisted and begged him to let us go, but he kept laughing, then he whispered something in my ear. He told me his name was Themba and he was the leader of the gang in that area and everyone was scared of them. He showed me a pistol and told me killed many people and was wanted by the police, but even they couldn’t catch him. He then pointed the weapon at my nephew. I started screaming but he hit me so hard on the side of my head, I saw stars. The guy who had my nephew started slapping him around and I screamed at him to leave him alone. I begged them to let him go. He was just a little boy. My captor, Themba, started pushing me against a huge rock and told me to lift my skirt. I started crying even harder, because I was terrified. I’ve heard people talk about what men do to women once they lifted their skirts or take off their clothes and I had sworn that I’d rather die than ever do that. I heard my nephew cry again and this other guy threatened to use a weapon on him if I don’t hurry up. I cried and held on tightly to my skirts. The guy Themba slapped me dizzy and while I put my hands up to my face to ward off more slaps, his filthy, smelly, crusty hands found their way up my skirts and I felt my underwear rip. I started screaming, but he held his smelly hand over my mouth and nose, while with the other hand he unzipped his pants. I couldn’t breath and fought him with my free hands. I felt my neck twist at some stage and I must have lost consciousness. When I resurfaced, the guy who had my nephew captive was on top of me. My hands were held by the other two who had, until then, not said anything. They were laughing and pushing one another to have another “go” at me.

Somewhere during the confusion, I heard a dog bark. I saw a large Alsatian coming from behind the huge rock they’ve been keeping me. It barked viciously at them then a voice from behind the rock came. An older man came leeping from behind the rock and started shouting at them. The guys scattered around and the one who was still on top of me was pulled roughly by his neck. The scuffling brought the dog in a hurry and I could hear screaming. The dog must have sunk its teeth into one of them. The old man came to me and pulled down my skirt and fastened my shirt around me. Suddenly I remembered my nephew. I told the old man I was not alone. I heard whimpering a few steps away and my nephew was lying there, bleeding from his nose. Those thugs had really worked him over. I started crying again and when he saw me, he cried even louder. The old man asked us a lot of questions, but we (my nephew and I) were just too happy to see each other. We grabbed one another and started running. All the way home, I felt so sad. I felt bad for what had happened and my biggest relief was when I found the ticket stub still in my pocket. I wondered what I had done wrong for those men to do that to us. All the time we were running home, we never stopped or spoke to one another or anyone, although we kept looking over our shoulders. Once home, no one was around. My sister and her husband were out and I was even more relieved. I’m not sure how I was going to explain my torn shirt and underwear. I made sure the ticket stub was in a safe place where my brother in law would find it and I ran straight to the back of the house where there was an out-house. I filled a tub with cold water, added washing powder and some bleach and got inside. I sat in there for a long time, washing off the stench of those men. Trying to wash away everything that happened. I scrubbed myself so hard till my skin burned. I never cried while I did that. I took the clothes I was wearing and the underwear and dumped it in the dustbin. Afterwards, I flushed the water down the drain and every single memory of what happened that afternoon.

It all came back to me like a ton of bricks seventeen years later as I was taking a nap. It returned with such an overwhelming rush, I felt I was drowning. At first I thought I was dreaming, then it hit me. I was re-living every moment of that horrible day. For all those years I managed to carry on with my life. I got married, had a child, miscarriages and even managed to fall in love. I went to see a physiatrist who told me that I was able to lock away all the bad experiences at the back of my mind, and it was just waiting to come back out without warning. This experience had a life altering effect on my nephew, because he had to watch. I’m still filled with guilt for his ordeal at the age of seven. He never deserved to see something so cruel. We spoke about it once after it came back to me in a dream. He told me he never forgot and he always wondered how I could just carry on living my life as though nothing happened to me. Today, he is married and has a brilliant son. I pray daily that he is happy. My life changed at a few moments’ notice. Today, houses are built on that hill and the place is called Mountain-side. I can’t help staring at the very spot every time I drive past the place, on my way to visit relatives in Soweto.
Because I dared to dream bout what happened to me on a hill in Soweto on the first day of May, I live with a large wound in the pit of my stomach, and it does not allow me to trust or to love again. I am divorced now, and living with my son in our home.
I dream of finding the best of what this world has to offer me. I know I will find it. I live with hope, but also with the inability to forget.

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