When I first arrived back at village, Aussi Ntsepeng barely looked up across our yard as I walked over to greet my Mme and Ntate. She stayed focused on her stick drawing in the dirt. Only when I walked right over to her and crouched down to level our eyes did she raise her head slightly and murmer, “Lumela”.
Her head had grown larger. Her hair was longer and matted, dull and dirty. I barely recognized her without sparkling eyes. I left her there sitting on the stoop outside the room next door to my rondavel, where she slept with her dying mother. I cowardly walked past to go to my latrine, not ready to greet inside.
The next day I finally found the courage.
“Koo koo,” I sang to announce myself.
“Ke na,” Mme called back. I’m here inside.
Opening the door, I see Mme lying completely covered by a blanket, she is struggling to pull it down far enough to turn and look at her audience. Then her skeletal face appears. “Aussi Nthabeleng!” she says, and smiles with white teeth that pop out from her jaw bone.
The room where she lies is completely bare except for a pile of clothes at the foot of the mattress. I see a Sesotho picture book I had given to Aussi Ntsepeng before my December vacation, it lay abandoned on the window sill. The cover was filthy.
There are dark wet spots on the dirt floor near the left far wall, and I subconsciously register that this is likely where she urinates – she is too weak and unable to walk to the latrine because of her feet. There is a large jug of water next to her head.
She is so sick. So sick it smells like sickness, so sick that my feet grow roots of shame and I’m barely standing inside the door as we begin to talk. She is so sick her breathing takes visible effort and focusing on me seems ellusively challenging.
“Mme, you are still sick.” I can think of nothing else to say to replace the cruel cordial greeting to ask how she is doing.
“Yes, Aussi Nthabeleng, I am still sick.”
“Have you been to the clinic?”
She wails, catching me off guard, and begins to cry. “I have no money, Aussi Nthabeleng. I can’t take the taxi. I’m too weak.”
I stand for a moment, grasping at hope. “Aussi Ntsepeng, is she sick?”
“No.” And we both hold on to this for several seconds.
“Holokile, Kea Leboha,” Ok, Thank you. This is my exit. As I leave, I make a quick sms to my friend who works at the nearest clinic and happens to be visiting that day. He advises me to bring her bukana [health book] to the nurses and to speak with them about getting medicine. I share this with Mme, but am not sure what is understood.
That afternoon I sit with my Ntate and broach the subject of Aussi.
“Aussi, she doesn’t go to school Ntate?” It is prompting him to respond to my implicit additional question – why.
“No. She has no uniform,” and he throws his hand out, casting away his frustration with this mandated expense shackling universal primary education.
“Oh.” Aussi Ntsepeng, it turns out, only has the clothes that she wears. The rest she has outgrown I learn. I never did see her with a pair of shoes.
That night I make zucchini and pumpkin from our garden, and bring some for Aussi and her mother. I have no idea how Aussi has been getting any food. Her mother surely does not cook, and I have not seen my host mother giving her anything. But when I tentatively step forward into the room holding the steaming bowl, the Mme explains and motions her clarification: she can’t eat anything, she vomits it all now. So much for getting her medicine, I think grimly.
So Aussi Ntsepeng eats everything, and she is famished. I watch her skin as she eats, stretching over confined bones. When she finishes she smiles and I see a flicker in her eyes that hunger had extinguished. I know I’ll make extra for her now.
The next morning Aussi Ntsepeng is sitting just outside my door when I open it. My Sesotho teacher comes later to find us doing a puzzle together, and the three of us walk down to the library. I share with him about Aussi and her mother, how they arrived the end of last November, and when I returned to village just recently her mother had become much worse. Aussi looked dangerously thin and was not attending school.
My teacher begins to talk with her, and learns more of her journey before arriving in my village. It turns out she’s been moving around for quite awhile. She stayed in South Africa, where she spoke Zulu. She stayed in another part of Lesotho, where she spoke Xhosa. Now she stays here, where she must speak Sesotho.
I ask my teacher about getting a uniform for her for school, and Aussi Ntsepeng pipes up that she knows of a shopong where they sell them.
“Ke bokai?” I ask, and she runs off to find the answer. 90 Rand it turns out, or about $15.
By the afternoon she has told the children at library that we will go to school tomorrow to see what can be done, as I’ve promised her. Lemohang asks me to make sure, “Tomorrow Ntsepeng goes to school?” His voice was full of surprise.
“Yes, tomorrow,” I say with more confidence than I have in the outcome.
That night I save more pumpkin zucchini, this time gourmet with chicken flavor ramen noodles.
The next morning, moments after I wake, she rings my doorbell, a beautiful red robbin given to me as a holiday gift from a best friend from home. I knew she either wanted confirmation that we would still go or food.
“Ema,” I say firmly from inside. Wait. “Re tla ea ka sekolong haufinyane.” We will go to school soon.
Fifteen minutes later, I have about ten bites more of oatmeal with raisin and cranberries than I can finish, so Aussi Ntsepeng has breakfast also. I have to silence the fleeting absurd nightmare that she will be allergic to some strange item of food I’ve introduced her to. It is strikingly simple to make sure she has a meal, my excesses highlighted yet again.
Just after seven she knocks again, and when I open the door she is standing with Aussi Rapelang. Aussi Rapelang wears her bright blue uniform and carries her lunchbox in one hand, waving to me with the other.
“Already?” I say. It’s summer. Everything happens earlier in summer, I had forgotten, and I still need to wash and dress. They both continue standing and smiling and watching me as I hurriedly try to explain in Sesotho. I close the door and prepare myself.
Finally we are on our way. Other children are walking to school and join us. They say her name in surprise, happy to see her, then they take off together talking. Some eat moroho [a leafy green spinach variety] and papa with their hands while they walk.
Then Ntsepeng is beside me again as we walk up the dirt road. Her bare feet are trying to catch my shadow, and the moment I notice what she’s doing I grin and glance at her. With a shared nod, we both declare game on. Round 1 begins.
I go faster, my shadow goes faster, and Aussi Ntsepeng races giggling to keep inside. I stop. Aussi Ntsepeng has run to far, caught alone in the light ahead of us. We laugh, both ready now for Round 2.
On a rocky throne at the top of the hill, past the bus stop and the bar, lie four rectangular buildings that make up the primary school. When we finally reach it, assembly is just starting. The children line up according to grade while I greet the teachers. I know many of the children and they see me. We wave to each other in delight, knowing we’ll be together in the afternoon at the library. School marks time, one year to the next the children’s lives unfold. We have all grown one year older.
After assembly I approach the principal and explain.
“She came with her mother last year, November. Her mother is very very sick. Then I left for December. When I returned, both were still with my family, staying there. Her mother still lives there, even more sick. Aussi has just been staying there at home. She is not going to school. I brought her to see whether she can come join in this school year."
The principal is sympathetic, kind, and starts talking with Aussi. Then she goes to talk with her likely teacher, and some minutes later returns.
“Yes,” she smiles at me and gestures towards Aussi Ntsepeng, “she will start tomorrow.”
“Oh! Really? Thank you!” I wasn’t ready for it to be so simple. I wasn’t ready for my frustration at why it had not been done before yet.
“But she mus thave a uniform?” I ask. I’m uneasy about buying her a uniform because of the precedent that it sets in the village, on the other hand I won’t let $15 be the obstacle barring her from education.
“Ah, it will come. She can come in her dress until it is found somehow. Then she will have a uniform.”
I thank her again. Aussi Ntsepeng has become increasingly nervous and happy, and she bites her thumb.
Then her new teacher comes in, a teacher I know well as she has welcomed me often in her class to help me learn to teach over 80 children in a single room with only a blackboard for a learning aid. She starts to talk with her, trying to ease her anxiety. But Aussi Ntsepeng is so anxious she cannot even raise her head or respond to her questions.
The teacher looks at me and shakes her head in concern. It might be a long year, but Aussi Ntsepeng will start school tomorrow.
[Just one week later, Aussi was provided with a uniform from another girl in the village. Her mother is in the hospital, Aussi is making friends here in the village. :)]