The beams of sunlight behind my back hide the contents of the small screen. I lifted the phone closer: 7:58, January 14, 2018. I had two minutes until my first day of eighth grade in a new town, country, and continent. Just five months before, my family, against all reason and warning, abandoned our home in the United States and began traveling worldwide for a year. Four days ago, we finally reached South Africa. My finger searched the side of my phone for the familiar ridge. I clicked it on again. The screen lacked both notifications and reassurance, but I feigned popularity with my thumbs’ movement. Now they’d think I was too busy for their conversations and that I had hoards of people desperately awaiting a text from me. I surveyed them again; the children across the garden giggled and gossiped knowingly with each other. They were familiar with this place; they had attended this school for years, their entire lives maybe. I was the black sheep, a pale, freckled American who arrived four days earlier from the Philippines. Although, they hadn’t even bothered asking that. Just as I gave up hope for a friendly face, an introduction, acknowledgment, anything, her figure broke into view. She strutted towards me, slender and tall. Her long braided hair spilled down her back in huge twisted mounds. This was one of the most beautiful people I had ever laid eyes upon. She wore a neat cotton blouse and a stiff navy skirt. Dust covered her shoes and the edges of the sole separated revealing the entrails of glue and cardboard. The girl lowered herself onto my lonely bench.
“Hi, my name is Siziphiwe Ntlaningeshe, but you can call me Sizi or Phiwe. It’s nice to meet you.” She blurted.
“Oh hi, my name is Morgan. It’s my first day here. I’m new,” I confessed shamefully.
“I am also new,” Sizi revealed.
I blushed, comforted by her wide smile. Her teeth, white and perfect, resembled porcelain. Before we could continue our clumsy conversation, a wide-eyed twenty-something teacher poked his head out of the main door.
“Alright guys, it’s 8:00. Come on in.”
Sizi and I exchanged nervous glances and slowly shuffled towards the door together.
Together. After our brief introduction, Siziphiwe and I spent all our time together. Attached at the hip. I needed only her. I quickly discovered the reason for Sizi’s newness at this private school; she had enrolled on a scholarship. When a teacher asked a question, Sizi knew the answer. She responded eloquently to simple mathematical equations or complex dilemmas, like rationing water during droughts. I admired her intellect, but the person I became in her presence is what truly gravitated me towards her. She made me fearless.
I stared down into icy Atlantic water; the jagged stones and slippery moss not far beneath triggered anxiety within me. Salty air filled my lungs as I gazed at Sizi’s face beside me. She nodded.
“We have to do it, Morgan,” she explained.
The warm January breeze brushed my back; it was summertime in the Southern Hemisphere. Summer, however, did not mean the water welcomed us with warmth. The bravest souls still wore wetsuits when they explored her icy abyss. Yet here we stood, on the edge of a lagoon, bracing ourselves for the frigid water with nothing more than jeans and t-shirts. I looked beyond the stone confines of the lagoon. The ocean was angrier on the horizon: spitting and spinning in turbulent surges. Did we dare test her? Sizi extended her hand, and I took it.
“One, two THREE!” she shouted.
Together, we thrust ourselves forward into the freezing depths. Our bodies collided with the surface at the same moment. The second I submerged, my muscles rejected this environment, convulsing in the cold. I emerged from the water, laughing and screaming, even though I could barely breathe. I glanced at Sizi; she smiled broadly.
“We did it,” she smirked.
“Yes we did and now let’s get out,” I sputtered.
That was the person I became around Siziphiwe: the girl who impulsively jumped into sixty-three degree water in her jeans. But I loved that girl; she felt alive. Siziphiwe existed not only as my friend, but as my protector.
It seemed that for everyone at that school, except Sizi, I represented an object of ridicule and mockery: the loud, ignorant American who couldn’t even tell the difference between Xhosa and Afrikaans. Imagine that. My naivety intrigued the other children at school. Testing my knowledge of typical South African slang quickly transformed into their favorite game.
“Okay Morgan, what about this one, braai?” Kyle Saville asked me teasingly.
“What the heck is a brye?” I responded.
The sound of my thick American accent embarrassed me deeply, with its stark contrast to the voices around me. I did not know what a braai was, or biltong, or bru, or any of these probably made-up words they chucked at me for amusement. I felt utterly clueless and ignorant of the culture, history, and norms of this mysterious land. I knew only Siziphiwe.
“Morgan,” she coaxed after the other children’s interest in my humiliation finally subsided for the day, “the difference between Xhosa and Afrikaans is easy; Xhosa has the clicks.”
The clicks. They immediately entranced me with their brightness and distinction, refusing to be lost in sloppy pronunciation. The second Sizi explained Xhosa, my notions of language structure shattered.
“Xhosa has 3 clicks. The c, the x and the q.” She demonstrated, her mouth producing three distinct noises. The c possessed a certain subtlety; her tongue connected with the back of her teeth and retracted in soft tsk, sounding almost disappointed. The simplicity of the x soothed me. It formed as her tongue swept the roof of her mouth and fell away in a loud clack. The production of the last one, the q, eluded me. It sounded like someone took their hand and rapped on wood. Generated from a mouth, however, it held undeniable power. Siziphiwe successfully taught me the pronunciation of the first two, but the last, no matter how hard I tried, I never produced.
“Xhosa is my language; it is for the black people. I do not speak Afrikaans because I am not white or colored and was never taught it.”
Her analysis of race shocked and discomforted me. In America, no one spoke so blatantly about this divide between humans. Languages never exclusively depended on race, maybe some correlation existed, but people never discussed it openly. In demonstrating Xhosa, Sizi did more than showcase her beautiful language. She ripped away the flowery exterior of this country and exposed its twisted roots. South African society existed as a hierarchy of color, and she resided on the bottom. Race penetrated through everything: the hatred of Apartheid looming just behind the curtain. The white people were the luckiest, she explained, they obtained higher-paying jobs and extravagant homes. They remained on the far side of town, with the bustling square and fine-dining restaurants. In between the black and white existed the colored people. The government provided them identical modest housing just outside of town. The black people also applied for government housing, but it never came. Thousands of names populated the waiting list. Siziphiwe, a young black woman, lived in a township named Zwelihle: a place carefully hidden away from oblivious tourists.
I leaned on the passenger side of our small, bright red rental car, waiting for my father. The spotless blue mass above soothed my soul. Our small thatch-roof home stood in front of me. Twists of vine and moss marked their territory on our precious space. The massive iron gate of the garden creaked open as my father emerged.
“Lets GO! We are late. I told her we would be there at 6,” I urged.
He continued strolling towards the car, clicking it open, and I slid inside.
“She didn’t give me an address. All she told me was to go to Zwehlihle and wait by this store,” I explained. My father and I drove silently as I admired our beautiful town; it reminded me of classic suburban America, cloaked in green manicured lawns, white mothers with their toddlers, and golden retrievers. Abruptly, we took a sharp left into a community hidden by fat, concrete slabs. We entered another world: a congested mass of tiny, decaying, corrugated steel homes. Adults, infants, and boney, wild-eyed hounds packed the grimy streets. On every corner huddled small crowds around a man grilling something on a fire. Our bright red rental stood out like a black sheep. As we traversed this land, people gawked at my pale face and wondered why I dared come here.
We approached the modest shop Sizi mentioned, and I saw her standing there waving aggressively at me.
“Hi, I am so sorry but I cannot come to dinner tonight. My mother needs me to take care of my sister.”
“Oh. That’s fine,” I uttered, clearly frustrated with her actions.
“I am sorry. My phone was broken. Can I see you Sunday in the afternoon,” she requested softly.
I agreed to reschedule, reassuring myself that tomorrow would be fine.
Tomorrow never arrived. The tension within Siziphiwe’s township erupted into horrific violence, holding her hostage there. Our white neighbors dismissed the rioters as rebellious blacks ungrateful for their lives. Until my father and I decided we must see things for ourselves, the danger for Sizi remained unknown. We turned onto the highway and gazed into Zwelihle; policemen in extensive riot gear jammed every inch of the road leading inside. Beyond them existed a mass of black bodies, shrieking and moving in unity towards the town. I texted Siziphiwe frantically, begging her to stay with us. Each time she responded with horrifying news: I can’t leave. If I try to get a taxi, they will kill me. I can’t stay at home. I have to join the riot, or they will set my house on fire.
I did not see Sizi for weeks. Updates on her safety came through sporadic photographs. She showed me the police’s discarded weapons: shotgun shells, empty tear gas cans, and rubber bullets. In punishment for their disturbances, the town shut off their water. The communal spout produced only a viscous brown sludge. She also captured what happened when someone attempted to escape; the protestors burned their cars. The police and protestors trapped her inside the township. I felt utterly helpless and terrified for her. Siziphiwe assured me her safety as long as she appeased the protestors.
Finally, after weeks of constant violence, a golden opportunity arose. Sizi could finally escape. I stood outside my home, barefoot on the grass, nervously awaiting her taxi. The second it broke into view I sprinted forward. The door opened gently, and she stepped out with the same wide smile. We embraced, and I told her how much I missed her. I had set up the garden flawlessly for her arrival. Heaps of blankets covered the damp grass, decorated with large pillows. I made a fruit salad with luscious mango and the sweet, tangy kiwi I knew she enjoyed. We rested on the blankets spilling out summaries of our weeks apart, anticipating our entertainment for the night: the stars. Darkness finally came, flooding into every corner of the garden. Sizi and I lay flat on our backs on top of the tall, damp grass. I felt the water seep up through the thin cotton blankets, uniting with my skin. Siziphiwe sat up suddenly, half her face illuminated by the moonlight. A single tear ran down her cheek and vanished into the earth.
“Sizi what’s wrong? Are you okay.”
“Last night, when I was trying to sleep, I heard cries on the street. There was a woman. She was screaming. She kept pleading ‘please don’t kill him, please do not’ and I couldn’t sleep I just…” she said, her voice trailing into silence.
My heart sank, and I began sobbing with her. Siziphiwe deserved a safe and protected life. A life where she slept peacefully, not haunted with the cries of humans pleading for their lives. She deserved the same stability I had.
Siziphiwe Ntlaningeshe is the bravest person I have ever met. I think of her often, especially in my moments of discomfort. I try to face challenges like she did, with poise and strength. Her kindness taught me that our environment does not limit or shape our personalities. Life is not fair; it will steal from you until you have nothing left. The only thing you can control is your reaction. You can choose anger and bitterness, or you can live like Sizi. Every morning she wakes in her tiny corrugated steel home and chooses compassion and love, even though the world does not offer her the same in return.