“Welcome to the place of the frog,” Godfrey says to the wide, slow street as we drive into Tsumeb. We roll the windows down, breathe in the smell of green. It’s a thick, doughy smell. Like overripe fruit and cowpat.
“Is this when I kiss you and you turn into a prince?” It’s been four hours of trying to put out fires in the office. I don’t know when the hills shed their dusty brown and turned luscious.
“You can try,” he leans in towards me like a Disney princess. My cell yelps again.
“Sorry, it’s the airport.”
The main road winds through the centre of town like a heavy river. There are signs of industry: a car dealership, a hardware store, and a couple of petrol stations, but the road is deserted. A truck with two trailers full of cows comes careening past.
“No deposit, no reservation, Fritz?” The signal is patchy.
He points at a mall on the left and mouths: ‘Lunch?’
“I think there’s a Yaris due back at two.” I nod back. “OK. Don’t call me again unless there’s a fire. Thanks, bye.” We pull into the parking lot. All the shops are closed except for KFC.
That smell, of oil and secret spices, fills the car. My stomach growls over the noise of the idling engine. Godfrey pats my belly, “OK. Two-piece coming up…”
“Don’t even play!” I swat his hand. “Come on, I’m starving.”
He’s trying too hard. Smiling too much. My legs stick on the vinyl seats, squeaking as I twist out of the car.
“My lady.” He’s at my door, smiling. This car is ridiculous. Climbing out feels like being birthed. He takes my hand and pulls me out of the canal with grace enough for us both. “Got you,” and then, after I hand him my card, softly into my ear, “Thank you.”
“You don’t have to keep saying that.” I smile and let him hold my hand.
“It’s only for a few months.”
“Godfrey, please. It’s settled.”
“It was a good call, Leo.” He’s still selling this investment to me. The payment has been made. I couldn’t back out now if I wanted to.
The woman behind the red counter has her eyes fixed on a TV above the seating area. The kitchen staff are arching around the warmer to watch the screen too. A handful of customers wait for their chicken; hands in their pockets, eyes resting on the screen or the floor. On the TV a stadium full of people are cheering as a marching band loops around the field. The inauguration streams live from Windhoek.
“Can we order?” I ask.
The cashier starts a mumble of clicks, the staff behind her smother giggles. Godfrey laughs and replies to her in fluent Khoekhoegowab. “M pah re, nepas ti tuma ha.” He pats my hand, they seem to offer him sympathy. Before someone spits in my coleslaw, I decide to smile demurely and walk away. I sit at an open table and watch the parade on screen.
“He’s one of ours! The whole town is celebrating.” Godfrey beams after ordering. He slides my card over to me across the table.
“He’s from Tsumeb?” I want to feel his excitement.
“Well, no. Otjiwarongo, I think. But his first job was teaching at Tsumeb Primary, so, you know, we made him?”
I laugh at his question. “Sure.”
“And he’s Damara, anyway. So, he’s ours.”
Our chicken comes quickly, hot and crispy, seeping through the paper. Godfrey and the cashier talk back and forth in Khoe, their joy shared. He wraps his leg around mine under the table and starts tearing bags open.
“What?” he asks with his shoulders. I’m looking past him. Trying to see the family that lurks behind him, the people I have never met or heard of in our years of being together.
“Nothing,” I shrug and bite into the side of a drumstick. “I didn’t know you could speak Khoe.”
His family’s farm is past the mine heading north but we detour along Main Street, marvelling at the progress of time. Low buildings boast dates more than a century gone, front doors framed by arched roofs. Independence Avenue has a few of these treasures left, I suppose, but they sit in the shadows now.
We drive up and down a few streets turning in circles. He’s looking for his primary school, the one the new president apparently taught at. A donkey cart passes us for the second time. The boy steering the cart looks down on us as we crawl past. His cart is heaped full of small mangoes so red they look like burning coal. We flag him down and step out of the car. He takes N$50 for six.
I want to ask where his parents are or where he goes to school, but even my Afrikaans doesn’t seem to work here. He climbs back up onto his cart and we wave at him. I put my wallet away and walk to the car but there’s a man at my door. He’s small and barefoot, layered in dark, grey clothing. He greets me with “Nawa” but looks away down the street.
I stop in my tracks. “Nawa.”
“Yes boss, nawa.” Godfrey comes up from behind me.
“Beautiful stones for a beautiful lady,” the man says, revealing a tattered beer box with a couple dozen gemstones in every conceivable colour. Many of them are small and smooth, already processed and prepared for jewelry settings. A few are large and jagged, like the onyx. It shines black, like the Namibian night sky. The darker the night the brighter the stars.
“I’m actually looking for a diamond,” Godfrey jokes. I don’t laugh.
“Can get for you, baas. But it’s dangerous.”
“Nah, thank you. I was kidding.” He opens the door for me.
“This one, then,” the man insists, showing us a cut-open rock with teal crystals formed inside. “Like meme’s eyes.”
I look at him, he looks squarely back at me for a moment and then goes back to not looking at me. I feel exposed but also seen. I take a note out of my wallet and pay for the stone.
“There’s a million of those around, you shouldn’t have paid so much for it.” Godfrey says pulling the car into the road.
“I like it,” is all I say and we slip into silence as we drive out of town to his family’s plot.
“Is this it?” I say. “It looks more like a wedding.”
There is a white stretch tent filling the riverbed along the gravel road towards the house. An event planner in cerise pink is at the tent’s entrance with a clipboard in the hook of her arm. She directs a few teenage boys who carry crates of soda cans.
“Goddy!” She calls, wobbling towards us in her high strappy sandals. “Goddy, come. Park here!”
“Don’t even,” he warns me while smiling with all his teeth at this pink woman. She arrives at the car window. “Harriet! I should have known you’d be making things happen here today. How are you?”
“Ogh, Goddy! Is it really you?” she says in Khoe. Then in English: “Hello.” She checks her clipboard. “You didn’t RSVP for a plus-one.”
“I’ve brought my girlfriend, Leo. To meet Ouma Soetietjie and Mama. It seemed like a good time.” He puts his hand on my knee.
“Hello, Goddy’s girlfriend, Leo.” Harriet searches her clipboard.
“Hello Goddy’s Harriet.” I say under my breath. Godfrey squeezes my knee but keeps smiling.
“You can park up there by the buses.” She points to an open area between the house and the marquee tent where two buses are parked alongside some black mercs with green number plates.
“Wow, there’s so much to unpack. ‘Ouma Soetie-tjie’? No, wait, let’s start with ‘Goddy’?”
“What? It was my nickname,” He says already out the door.
“Goddy? As in God-y. Little god?” I ask squirming my way out.
“That’s not how they meant it!” This time I laugh. Outside the car, the heat is intoxicating, sticky.
Harriet guides us into Godfrey’s childhood home; a series of modest extensions with arches and passages connecting sitting rooms and bedrooms like arteries. Each new section is tiled in a slightly different shade of sand. While the kitchen swarms with heat and activity, Harriet walks us down a cool, dark passage to the main bedroom.
Godfrey stops me in the passage after Harriet has walked through the door. “Just follow my lead. With my family there’s protocol.” We walk into the cavernous room and he greets two small, fat ladies sitting next to each other in the double bed.
“Ouma Soetiejie! Tais Damire! You are looking fit.” He walks over to the far side of the bed and kisses the fat woman on the cheek. The curtains are drawn and the lights are off. The room is at least cool, if a little stale.
She replies in Khoe looking anything but fit.
“This is Leo, my girlfriend.” He gestures to me and then crosses to greet the other woman: his mother.
I follow his lead, greeting the women in order with a kiss on the cheek and a curtsey because I have nothing else to offer.
“Who is your family?” Soetietjie asks after a few moments of gossipy talk in the language I do not understand.
I look to Godfrey for help but he is part of the expectant audience waiting for an answer. “My mother is– Elsie Kiefer.”
“Elsie who?” Soetietjie’s eyes stretch.
“Kiefer,” I emphasise the ‘ie’ sound. “It’s Kiefer. It means ‘pine tree’ in German. You know, like a Christmas tree?”
“And your father?” She asks without a pause.
“I don’t know. I didn’t know him.” The two older women argue back and forth in their language. I look to Godfrey for translation but he’s playing with the TV remote.
“Today is an important day for us, for Godfrey’s family.” Soetietjie says, glancing at him as he changes channels. “You can not be dressed like this.”
“I’m sorry.” I don’t know if I mean ‘excuse me for not meeting your approval’ or just ‘excuse me?’ but she isn’t about to split hairs. She yells for Harriet who comes in immediately and starts pulling bright yellow and green dresses out of the cupboard.
The wedding feel of the tent doesn’t extend inside. There are a few bare steel trestle tables down the middle with plastic chairs that have “Min of Edu” written on the back. Bain-maries hide braai meat and pasta salad on either side. There are no flowers or flickering lights, just two large flat screen TVs on either end of the tent live-streaming the inauguration.
The dress that Soetietjie and Godfrey’s mother settled on is lime green and embroidered with taffeta, three layers and a headwrap that is slowly lilting. The dress is too tight across my shoulders, squashing my chest. I rustle in, immediately catching everyone’s attention. Harriet walks in behind me and starts introducing me as “Goddy’s Leo” and everyone I shake hands with or kiss on the cheek “Oohs” and “Aahs” until a slim grey man in a suit asks: “Isn’t that a boy’s name?”
Harriet pulls me on dismissing the man’s question. Goddy is next to Ouma Soetietjie in the two seater couch facing the TV. She holds one of his hands in both of her small bird-like hands, gold nails matching her head wrap. He chats away at her and she watches him, the TV, the guests, and me. Godfrey’s mother sits on her own to the left of them, her eyes fixed on the TV.
“Whoa.” Godfrey sees me approach. “You look, I mean, she’s stunning right?” He asks the people around him for confirmation.
“Very impressive,” Soetietjie says, “like a Christmas Tree.”
“I…I… Hage Gottfried Geingob…”
We all hush as Namibia’s third president is sworn in on-screen.
The family eat and drink and ululate until it rains. Then they drink while the kids dance in the rain. The sun sets and they eat and sing, slosh through the mud, ululating some more, and drinking all the while. I wish I could say I was part of it all but mostly I dance along and try to follow what is being said around me.
Now Ouma Soetietjie calls us all to attention. She sways on her feet. She was not part of the dancing or the singing but from her couch she could eat, ululate, and certainly drink.
“Where’s Goddy?” she asks, smothering a hiccup. He squeezes my side and walks forward onto her stage. “Now, my Engels is uit vir vannaand— so you will have to translate for your girlfriend.”
They tell the story of a young Soetietjie: eldest of her father’s daughters, married young and eager for the signs of life to come from her womb; she began working as a teacher at Tsumeb Primary. There she had met our newest president and had known immediately that he was a man with a destiny.
Her barrenness was a curse she bore with dignity as each year passed. She excelled at teaching. Soon she was teaching the teachers. The Ministry of Education would eventually take note of her talent and she would begin her sojourn in the civil service. But first, some years into her childless marriage, her younger sister, Anna was married. They each nod towards Godfrey’s mother. Within the year, Anna presented her family with a baby boy: Godfrey. Godfrey tips an imaginary hat. From the back, someone ululates.
Anna knew her sister’s pain and asked Soetietjie to name the child. He would be raised in her house and be her child. Soetietjie remembers the young teacher she had worked with those years and chose the name Godfrey to honour her people and to bestow on the child a destiny. The performers bow to much applause.
While I’m trying to figure out if Soetietjie could really have been teaching in 1961, she walks towards me, suddenly sober and steady. “Come, let’s go for a walk.” I follow her out of the tent. She moves with grace and precision in the dark. It’s still raining lightly and my wrap has long since fallen off. I stumble after her, sloshing into the puddles that she instinctively side steps. When I catch up to her, she stands regal and calm on a ridge overlooking the town. I can see the shape of Godfrey’s nose in her profile.
“Leo,” she draws a breath and holds it. My takkies squash fermented marulas beneath. The bodice of my dress refuses to let me catch my breath. “After my sister gave me Godfrey as a baby, her husband died. He is our shared child. The only boy among a generation of girl cousins.”
“That’s the past,” she cuts me off. “We are talking about the future now. Godfrey has a destiny. There is a plan for his life that is here with his people. Look,” she shows me the town and the landscape around her farm. “Do you see any Christmas trees here?”
Kay-Leigh is a Namibian freelance writer and editor from Windhoek. She holds a BA in English literature and drama at Rhodes University in South Africa, two disciplines reliant on the art of storytelling. A reader, foremost, Kay-Leigh is an advocate for African stories being heard around the world. In 2019 she co-wrote and published an ebook on mental health in the African context: Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. She served on Doek!’s fiction editing team from November, 2020 to November, 2021. Kay-Leigh is a member of the 2022-2023 Doek Collective.