The First Time


I wrote this from a prompt – The first time – at a class on Writing the Real with Mark Tredinnick.

The first time I went into the black part of Pretoria, I was fourteen. My friend and I were bored by the boys we hung out with, tired of their talk of 50cc Hondas and Deep Purple and the Northern Transvaal rugby team. We wanted an adventure. So we decided to go to Marabastad, a kilometre or so from the city’s cold heart, Church Square.

We took the whites-only bus to our usual stop and walked the rest of the way. Department stores and record bars gave way to a street of little shops selling shiny two-tone shoes, colourful saris and rough grey blankets. Indian shopkeepers tempted us with cheap Levi’s and novelty tee-shirts, but we weren’t there to buy. We were exploring. As we walked down Boom Street, the dead air began to carry the tang of masala and coriander. Soon these gave way to the herbal smells for which we had no names that drifted from the stalls where traditional healers bought their muti.

Gone were the empty, silent streets we knew. Marabastad was full of people who looked like our maids and gardeners, but weren’t. Women strolled past with babies in blankets tied to their backs. Old men called out to one another across the street. I knew the sound of their words, but I didn’t know their language.

Here, nobody adjusted themselves to the expectations of white girls. Teenage boys kept on slouching down to the takeaway. Children giggled in surprise at seeing us there, then mock-shimmied and jived to the kwela music bubbling from a narrow doorway. That afternoon, for the first time, I understood that I was the minority.

The Soweto uprising was still a year away. Apartheid would endure another twenty. Visiting a black township would become fraught and often dangerous. But on that afternoon in 1975, I saw life, real and throbbing and fragrant and unconcerned that I was an ignorant fourteen-year-old white girl from the suburbs.

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