Extract from ‘Bantu Knots’: The time of budding breasts

I sank my body into the water, my head stroking the surface. Eyes shut, I drifted into nothingness. When I dried myself, my chest felt unfamiliar to my touch. I touched again. My nipples had grown larger and thicker. They were darker in colour, protruding more than they had before. When I pressed and poked them, they felt like two large nuts.

She had swept over them over the last full moon. Whatever my grandmother’s intentions — to make my breasts grow or, more likely, to stop them from growing — my breasts began growing at a pace that was noticeably faster than the rest of the other girls in my class.

That morning, I was anxious to get to school. I needed to tell someone. My only friend at school was Sindiswa — Sindi, for short. I pulled her into the toilet cubicle during break-time and lifted my tunic.

“Sheba,” I whispered, showing her my little secret.

Sindi prodded and gently squeezed my small, cone-shaped nipples. “Ngempela ayakhula. Yho, you actually have real breasts now, Naledi.”

She started thinking of ways to ask her mother to sweep over her flat chest.

“It wasn’t my mother, Sindi. It was my grandmother,” I explained.

“Oh, so it has to be uGogo who sweeps over them?”

“Ya, otherwise I don’t think they will grow.”

“Yoh mara uGogo uhlala eMlazi. How and when will I get to Umlazi to my grandmother?”

“You’ll have to wait, I guess.”

“Until June holidays, Naledi? Yho haa, I can’t wait phela; I’m getting older every day. I’m older than you — nearly 13,” she protested.

Sindi and I pondered for a moment before Sindi jumped up into the air in excitement, remembering what having breasts meant for a girl.

“Ow we ma, so you are going to start wearing bras, Naledi?”

I beamed, imagining the snug, cupped material holding together my womanly assets. We ran out of the girls’ toilets giggling, to gorge on our packed lunch.

In class I didn’t focus much. I was too busy dreaming about the day I would go bra shopping for the first time. What sort of panties would I get to go along with my bras? Would I buy those three in-a-pack panties like I had always done, or would I finally get the single panties that sit pretty on a hanger? Would I start matching my bras with my panties and when was the decent age for a girl to start wearing G-strings?

“Naledi!” my teacher shouted. My body jolted.

“Keng nkare o robetse! Are you listening?”

Everyone was staring at me. I was being reprimanded. I never got reprimanded. I always listened, kept quiet in class and worked diligently.

“Yes, Ma’am, I’m listening.”

When the school bell rang, I couldn’t get out of class fast enough. Sindi found me waiting for her at the gate. We would usually walk home together and part ways halfway between my house and hers. That afternoon we had an in-depth discussion about Minenhle’s hair. Minenhle was the pastor’s daughter, who had the prestigious task of reading out the announcements before the close of service. Sindi and I were in awe of Minenhle’s beauty and eloquence. Even better was how long her ponytail was. My little bantu knots and Sindi’s short afro were no match for Minenhle’s straight, long pushback that could be tied into a phondo. Her ponytail would move in the opposite direction when she turned her head. And on those occasional Sundays when Minenhle would let her hair loose (just neatly held together with her floral Alice band to match her pink A-line dress), her raven hair would flow elegantly down her nape, kissing her shoulders.

“Ngithi, even when she walks, iphondo lakhe, it swings from side to side. And uyazi ke, a girl like that will never tell anyone what she relaxes her hair with,” Sindi went on. She paused, then in a burst of passion said, “Dark and Lovely! It must be it. But the one that has uNonhle Thema on the box, not the one with the little girl.”

“Haa, no, Sindi, it can’t be. Her head would burn if she used that. That one is for grown-ups.”

“Oho ke wena, have you tried it?’

“No, I still use Beautiful Beginnings, the one for kids.”

“Uyabona ke, Naledi, that’s why your hair is growing so slow. And worse njalo, you are always plaiting and twisting your hair into these funny popcorn knots. And these things eat away your hair if you didn’t know.”

Sindi was a fine one to talk, considering that my hair was much longer than hers. I was well on my way to getting my hair to where Minenhle’s hair was — my mother was making sure of that. How could Sindi have all these facts and ideas about growing hair when her mother refused for her to put any chemical in her hair to begin with? She told me herself that chemicals made her hair fall out.

When we reached our halfway point, we said goodbye and I walked down to the Somali man’s shop to buy myself a kota. I had waited on purpose for Sindi to leave because I didn’t want to have to share it. I deserved a really good one — I had saved up for two weeks for this kota.

Instead of studying, I sat at the kitchen table at home with my books open in front of me, guzzling my russian, polony, cheese, chips and atchar filled bread. My grandmother’s arrival at six woke me up — I had fallen asleep with my head on my books. There was no greeting, just the usual question about my mother’s whereabouts.

I told her that I had no idea, and as usual she sucked her teeth. “Mxm.”

My grandmother and I both knew very well that my mother was either out with her best friend looking for a man or she was with a man. With the air turned sour from the question, Mama went on to prepare dinner. I called my grandmother “Mama” and my mother by name, because I mistook her for my mother as a baby. I saw more of my grandmother than I did my mother. Mama and I sat quietly at the kitchen table to partake of our meal: morogo, wors and pap.

“Naledi,” my grandmother said, before adding with careful intent, “a girl oils her body and spirit in sin when she spreads her legs for a man before he marries her. A punishable act in the eyes of God. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Mama.” I nodded and we continued to eat in silence.

My grandmother always made it a point to remind me of the many things that God hated and sent people to hell for. I feared going to hell. I feared being engulfed by flames for all eternity. So during our nightly prayer, I asked God to forgive me for not concentrating in class earlier, but instead daydreaming about buying G-strings and bras. I asked God to forgive me for coveting Minenhle’s hair and, for good measure, I also asked Him to forgive me for not wanting to share my kota with Sindi. I promised Him to be better and not to oil my body in sin like my mother was doing. I assured God that I would do everything in my power to keep as far away as possible from boys.

This edited extract is from the chapter titled Kwasukasukela in Bantu Knots by Lebohang Mazibuko (Kwela, 2021)

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