By the end of the day, my own face was alien to me. The next day, a neighbour sent me to town to run his errands. After taking a bath, at around eleven in the morning, I walked to the main road and hitch-hiked a taxi to town. The sun was up and its hot sunrays burned the distant landscape. And then a day later I was seated in a police station in Tsomo. My shirt was torn and my hair dishevelled. I was twitching uncontrollably and then comatose. I am told I was found in the middle of the road at night, on the tar road stretching from Tsomo to the neighbouring town, Cofimvaba. I was lying on the white middle line dissecting the road into two lanes.
The pimples began to grow two days after I arrived home from East London. At first I dismissed them as my skin acclimatising to the air of the village. I had been in the city for ten months and had become a stranger to the climate of my village, Zikhovane. It and I were dancing around one another, trying to find our footing. Much like old friends do when they meet after a long while - their sentences not in sync, their pauses colliding and birthing uncomfortable silences. East London is, by car, two hours away from Zikhovane. The route offers banal farm landscapes that stretch and stretch until they are out of sight. If you're travelling early, the enchanting sight of sunrise slaps you with its great beauty. The road is not straight. The car dips into a dense shadow and then appears on a road fully illuminated by the sun. It curves with the road and straightens and then curves again.
After an hour, we arrived at Ndabakazi – an intersection connecting East London, Butterworth and my hometown Tsomo. When I did finally get off under the mountain that a few homes in my village rests on, I was welcomed by the cold breeze of the afternoon. I ignored it and re-united with the landscape. Before I could see the village, I could hear the villagers whistle and command their livestock to the kraal. I was home.
My mother suspected there was something sinister about the pimples. But she did not say what her thoughts were. Her reluctance to speak was not new. I had seen it before. She had been reluctant when a cousin of mine died suddenly. The cousin was walking with friends in Butterworth and a car hit him. There was something strange about the accident. Eyewitnesses claim that he was walking in the middle of the other two friends he was with. A story the friends confirmed. How is it possible then that the car only hit him and not the two friends he was with? He had no external injuries and an autopsy revealed no internal injuries either. My family began to speculate that the body we buried was not my cousin. He had been taken by witches was the shared sentiment. What we buried was a dummy. This is what witches do: they take a person and to fool their loved ones, leave a dummy behind. My family buried my cousin nonetheless. At least the body that resembled his.
The stories of witches and their tyranny are legendary.
A few years earlier, a story of two elderly women, who were found naked in an old deserted home, rendered an entire village mute. The kids talked about it in whispers. The elderly remained mute, not even a whisper. The drunk talked about it loudly and in the morning they were forced to apologise to the two women and were ordered to brew the entire village sorghum beer. How dare they accuse elderly villagers of witchcraft? Some villagers dismissed the story as myth. The story of the women somehow escaped the mute village and was heard in other villages. The news is scared of dew, as a Xhosa idiom affirms.
It was a Saturday when my neighbour sent me to town to run the errands for him. Three days after I began growing the black pimples on my face. He found me basking in the morning sun and reading The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. When I was in secondary school, it was the only book with enough copies for the students to take home. Every other book, one had to read with extra heads hovering above it and the book had to returned to the teacher by end of period. I took a quick bath and by 11am, I walked to the main road to hitchhike a taxi to town. On the way to the town, I met one of my aunts and she scolded me for not telling her that I was on school holidays. I said my apologies and walked on. I saw an old school teacher of mine. She asked me how I was and how my mother was. She had been with her the previous day. The two are friends. I reached the road, at the same spot I had got off from when I arrived home. A taxi stopped. It was not a taxi in the conventional sense, it was a Toyota venture, but it did the job of a taxi. The Toyota ventures are mostly in derelict condition. When it rains the raindrops penetrate the car’s body. And if you stare at the floor of the car, you see the tarred road going past the car or the car going past it.
I remember arriving in town and being hit with a sense of nostalgia. Nothing about my town had changed since a year ago when I left. The main street dissected the town in equal halves. It begins on the corner opposite the post office and runs down past retail shops, hawkers, municipal buildings and bottle stores, and disappears down a molehill then appears farther away from town, on a bridge stretching to the neighbouring town, Butterworth. That is the only memory of the day I can recall with clarity. Everything else is a blur.
The next thing I remember is being in a police station. My shirt is torn, my hair is dishevelled and I am twitching. I am told that I was found in the middle of the road at night. I do not remember asking ‘What was I doing there?’ It seems, now, an obvious question to ask. I remember there were just two civilians and about five police in the police station. A policewoman attended to me when I regained consciousness. I am assuming that I was regaining my consciousness, as I do not recall anything before. The policewoman could unfortunately not fill in the blanks. She was, understandably, as perplexed as I was. The police station’s door was open– I remember the cold stabbing at my tiny bare arms.
I am not sure how and when I made my way out of the police station but the next thing I remember is, from a distance, at an angle I cannot put my finger on, watching myself get out of a Venture. This is the next thing I remember. What happened between me regaining consciousness at the police station and this memory I cannot tell you. I try, in vain, to fill in the blanks, weave the pieces together, make sense of it, but I fail. I walked up the village and arrived home to a distraught mother. She asked me where I had been. I shook my head, dazed. I retold her my story, or the story I had been told. She was convinced that it must have been witches trying to kidnap me. They failed in their attempt, she said. She thanked her God for my safe return.
I ate and fell asleep. The next morning, my mother told me she was organising money for me to leave, to spend the rest of my holidays with my father in the Free State. I protested but she insisted. I was to leave in a week.
My last week in the village was unbearable. Every morning, I had to go to a cleansing by an exorcist. I drank 10 litres of water mixed with roots and had to vomit them out. I felt my intestines coming and then stopping at my chest and going back to my stomach and coming up again. I did this for three days in a row but nothing came out. My last visit to the exorcist was at 04:00 in the morning. I woke up and made my way to his house with my white chicken tucked underneath my arm as per his orders. I found him and his mixture waiting for me. He slit the chicken’s throat and poured the blood into the mixture. He told me the mixture would itch.
We walked in the dark. His eldest son was with us. We disappeared from the village behind a small molehill. He ordered me to take my clothes off. I immediately felt the cold biting at me. He poured the mixture over me and ordered me to rub it all over my body. Once he was done talking to the ancestors and asking them to heal me, I got dressed and we walked back to his house. Do not take a bath today. He gave me clear instructions. I ate breakfast at his house. I exchanged a few words with my healer’s wife. She is a friend of my mother. And then my entire body began to itch.
I spent the day soiled with chicken blood and the mixture. For the rest of the day, I confined myself to the house.
I woke up the next day and took a long bath. I stared into the mirror and saw black spots on my face but the black pimples were gone. The day went quickly; the next day I was going to leave this place. My mother reminded me not to forget to fetch my medicine from my healer. I promised not to.
The next day I left for the Free State. The news of my disappearance had spread like wildfire in my village. But nobody dared to speak about it. Witchcraft cannot be spoken about in public. It is a topic that can only be discussed in whispers. To avoid painful stares and a thousand questions, I walked into the valley behind my home and into the neighbouring village Kwebulana. There I walked to the road to hitchhike a taxi to town, then to Queenstown via Cofimvaba, where I would catch a train at 16:35. Like that I would be gone.
To this day I do not have a memory of where I disappeared to for a few hours and how I ended up on some tar road in the middle of the night and who found me and took me to the police station. At times I wonder, what if this is not me? What if I never returned from wherever I had gone to? What if, like my cousin, I am only a dummy. What if the real me is trapped where witches live – waiting to be rescued.