Most days we are playing tops, spinning and chatting aimlessly. But three times a week we rush back home. We quickly change into our tracksuits, grab something to eat and then head off to church, about two kilos walk. It is shorter by car but none of our parents owns cars.
Along the way, we pop inside Maponya’s for fatcakes and snoekfish. We are not going to church to pray, to be steered towards the right path or to seek divine intervention. Instead, my best friend Ronnie and I are learning the science of self-defence.
Not that I have problems with bullies. I always hang around older mates, most of whom are a grade or two ahead of me. They serve as my bullies deterrent.
So on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays we walk to Moletsane Roman Catholic Church. Bra Steve, our instructor, always arrives after all the hard work is done.
First, we solemnly “baptise” ourselves with the water from little vases on both sides of door like Catholics we have seen in the movies. When no adult is watching, we start water wars. Then the bigger boys heave up the benches and move them to the side to create room for our dojo. The benches on which the parishioners sit on Sundays as they listen to the bespectacled young priest recite the rituals in a call-and-answer fashion now form a rectangle. We’re surrounded by a holy spirit. The air is punctuated by cries of “inch”, “knee”, “sun”, “chi” as we try our damndest to count in Japanese.
To warm up, we run around the dojo and do push-ups while one of the mean assistant senseis, more brutal than the quieter and gentler Bra Steve, makes sure we are not fooling around. When my muscles burn and I get breathless, I join all the boys who suddenly discover they need the loo.
My love for martial arts – karate specifically – started when we began devouring Westerns, and skop, skiet en donner flicks at Mamoriti Crèche two streets from home. My friends now call me Bruce Lee and my hero and I are one. Grandpa’s boss, Principal Tau with the high-pitched voice who likes to pop in uninvited, also calls me china boy.
In my mind’s eye, I break noses, crush bones and make mincemeat of the klevas who always help themselves to my schoolmates’ lunch money.
Bra Pando’s yellowish martial arts magazines and his weekly ritual of making me punch a tyre-padded tree three houses away at his parents’ have also fuelled my desire to become a Lee clone, complete with his cat-like war cry.
But one day after school, Thabo from Naledi painfully bursts my karate bubble. Months of self-defence classes are no match for his cobra-fast kicks and dozens of punches that land on my face outside Entokozweni Community Centre. I try to block, parry some punches, and do what Bra Steve drums into our little heads, but no, we don’t want to listen, we’re always fooling around and not paying attention. Now I am Thabo’s mobile punching bag. I get a pasting on home turf.
My friends do not utter a word. Earlier they egged me on to challenge Thabo. When I get home, I make sure I clean my humiliation quickly before my parents return from work.
I put my head under the tap outside the toilet at the far end of the yard and let cold water run. In slow motion I wash off the blood, snot en trane before my parents come to inflict more pain on me for fighting when I know I’m not supposed to.
A few years later, we move to Orlando East to live with my maternal grandparents. I am excited. There’s always cheese in the fridge and orange squash. They own a colour TV and theirs is a big house, one of a few in the street. Neighbours use Granny’s house as a landmark to direct friends and relatives.
I find a dojo in Klipspruit, about four kilos from Granny’s and walk there twice a week for training after school. I’m not doing karate this time. After Thabo’s beating, who wants to be stuck with karate? I’m doing aikido, thank you very much. Ponytailed Steven Seagal has made this fighting form fashionable. Instead of wasting your energy on the enemy, use their force to inflict as much damage as you can, aikido practitioners preach.
But my back is sore from the backflips we’re expected to do on the wafer-thin mat.
There’s a group of boys I always walk past on the way to the dojo. I never greet them. They also do not attempt to fish a greeting out of me either. We just eye each other suspiciously and I increase my speed to be out of their sight quickly.
One day, a boy my age breaks away from the group and tries to block me. I push him away and continue on my walk to the dojo, where I am learning to defend myself from punks like him. But all the months of somersaults have not prepared me for this. About eight boys descend on me. No questions are asked, no answers given. All I feel are tears cooling my hot cheeks, blinding my vision as I turn and run back to Granny in Fobo Street.
My face is stinging from the blows, my top is red from my nosebleed and I don’t remember any of Segal’s moves.
My uncle, as always, comes to the rescue. No more walking to the dojo for me. He’ll pick me up in his grey Beetle full of books, papers and newspapers. But I can’t block the derisive laughter that plays in my head over and over again as we drive past the boys who beat me up. All the while, from my uncle’s stereo, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack sing ‘be real black for me’.