BEFORE EVERYTHING HAPPENED I used to be embarrassed by my father’s hands. No matter what he did, they were always dirty. When my mother was still around, she complained about the grease under his nails and in the cracks where his fingers bent. He would keep quiet, but my mother didn’t mind. She kept at it. It was one of the many things on her long list of evidence as to why she married the wrong man.
She’d list the reasons whenever something bothered her. If there was no money for milk, the list came out. If he came home late, the list was brought out again. Each time it was read out from where it lay written in my mother’s brain, my father kept quiet. It’s not his way to argue and fight. He’d just get a faraway sadness in his eyes and listen carefully as my mother tore him into pieces and stamped those pieces into the dusty ground.
My stomach churned when this happened, even though I knew I agreed with the dirty hands part. Many things on the list I didn’t think were really his fault, but I
used to think he should have tried harder with his dirty hands. Maybe if he had tried a little bit harder, my mother wouldn’t have gone off on that bus. That’s what I used to think, anyway.
His dirty hands were because of his job. My father fixes cars under the wide jacaranda at the back of the house. There’s a proper garage in the centre of the village where the rich people get their cars fixed. Rich people don’t look for mechanics under jacaranda trees at the back of people’s houses. The kind of mechanic my father was, was the kind for poor people.
So the poor brought their cars to my father and paid him however they could. After my mother left, many brought plates of food for me and my father. Some offered to wash our clothes. One man brought a puppy, my dog Shumba. Occasionally they paid with cash. My father was never picky—he knew his customers’ circumstances, because they were his circumstances too.
When my mother left, we were just the two of us. For a while I still slept on the sofa in the other room of our two-room cinder block house, but my father realised that made no sense and soon I took the side of his bed where my mother had slept. I missed her and so did he, but over time there were good things about my mother being gone too. One was getting to sleep on a bed.
I finished primary school after my mother left. I did well and got a place in the junior secondary school on the other side of the village. I was meant to walk the quite lengthy distance, but since most of my father’s customers owed him something, hardly a day passed that I didn’t have a lift both ways.
No matter when I woke, my father was already up and busy. Cars were always waiting with broken radiators, iffy starters or messed-up diffs. He would have tea made and hot water ready on the stove for me to bathe. We found our way without my mother, and soon it felt like it had always been just like that.
Things were more formal at secondary school. Uniforms needed all of their parts, and pens and pencils needed to be kept ready and not lost along the way. At my new school, I met all sorts of new people. Many were from rich homes in the middle of the village where all of the big houses were. Only a few of the students came from the edge of the village where I lived, in houses with no electricity and pit latrines in the backyard. Most of the kids from my side of the village dropped out of school once they could read so that they could go and help at the cattle post. Most parents from my side of the village didn’t care much about school.
The biggest difference at secondary school was Parents’ Day. We were warned about it on the first day of school by the headmaster, Mr Nareetsile. He wanted to let us know that if we misbehaved at school it would all be revealed on Parents’ Day.
My friend Boitumelo told me more about what happened on this day. ‘Your parents must come and sit down and your teachers are going to tell them all about you. Then when they’re finished, the teacher gives your parents your grade report. It’s not a big deal.’
Boitumelo was a tall, handsome boy from a family of tall, handsome people. His mother worked at the bank and his father owned a stationery shop in the village. For him, Parents’ Day was not a problem.
I couldn’t see my father in the tidiness of my secondary school. I couldn’t see him greeting my class teacher, Mma Boago, who was a good-natured midget, with her salon-fixed hair and tidy pink nails. What would the headmaster, the proper Mr Nareetsile, think of my father in his blue coveralls?
The year progressed and we were moving closer and closer to Parents’ Day and I still hadn’t come up with a plan. I hoped something would happen. Maybe my mother would return. She would be fine at Parents’ Day; she’d fit right in. She could wear the blue dress with the white collar she wore for church. No-one would think anything.
At night I’d try to focus my mind very hard, hoping my wish would travel straight to her, wherever she was. I was her child. Maybe we had some sort of cosmic connection. I just hoped it was the case.
My father and I sat at the table the night before Parents’ Day. Mma Kaone had brought over chicken stew and phaletshe. We sat at the table, the paraffin lamp between us, eating in silence. ‘Am I supposed to come around for this Parents’ Day tomorrow?’ my father asked and my heart jumped.
I’d thrown away all of the letters the school sent home about Parents’ Day, so how did he know? ‘No, I know you’re busy. Mma Boago said I could just bring the report home myself,’ I lied.
My father looked at me and a few seconds passed by. Then he nodded his head.
The next day I sat on a stone at the back of the school. I didn’t want to see everyone with their parents. Mothers in doeks and shawls and red high-heeled shoes. I didn’t want to see fathers in ironed collared shirts and trousers with sharp creases at the front. All of them proud and happy to hear about their children, happy to collect their grade reports.
‘Hey, Kago!’ Boitumelo shouted, running up to me. ‘I’ve been calling you forever. Didn’t you hear me? Mma Boago is calling you. She says your parent is there.’
I jumped to my feet. I couldn’t believe it! My mother had come after all! I would get my grade report collected just like all of the other children! I ran to the front of the school where my class was, and I saw a crowd of people near the door.
When I got nearer, Mma Boago turned toward me, opening a gap in the group. In the centre of the crowd I was shocked to see ... my father. My heart jumped in my chest. What were they doing to him? Were they shouting at him for coming to school with his dirty hands? Were they making fun of him? I rushed towards the crowd.
My father was standing with Mr Oagile. An arm rested on my father’s shoulder. When my eyes followed it from hand to elbow and finally to shoulder, I found it belonged to Mr Nareetsile. I was confused. All the people were busy talking to my father and smiling. My father stood in the centre. He wore a clean pair of blue coveralls; clean compared to his everyday pair at least. People were reaching forward and shaking my father’s grease-creased hands, some holding them much longer than they needed to.
‘Kago, come here!’ Mma Boago said. She motioned that I should come near her where she stood next to my father.
I slowly walked towards them, not sure what was going on. ‘Why didn’t you tell me Renalemang was your father?’ Mma Boago asked. I shrugged my shoulders, looking carefully at her face, trying to see what she was about to say.
‘He fixed my mother’s car when she got a flat tyre on the way to Gaborone a couple of years ago.’ Mma Boago smiled at me. ‘He really saved her that night.’
‘Oh my boy,’ Mr Nareetsile said, smiling at me, his arm still around my father’s shoulders. ‘This man is a genius! A regular car engineer. He came over to my house and sorted out the mess the garage in town made of my Land Cruiser. I thought it was a write-off. But I’m still driving it today!’
I listened and watched as everyone had a story about how my father had helped them. No-one noticed his dirty hands or the stains on his coveralls. He was their hero. Why was my father everyone’s hero except for mine?
Mma Boago spoke up through the noise. ‘Let’s get inside Rre Renalemang, and see how this boy of yours is doing.’
I looked at my father and smiled. He reached forward to take my hand and I grabbed his up in mine. We walked into the classroom together and I was happy.
Cattle post: In Botswana, each family traditionally has three homes—a house in the village where they live during school time, land for planting crops, and the cattle post where cows and small livestock are grazed.
Doek: a square of cloth that covers the head.
Mma: a respectful term for women.
fal-et-chay): a stiff porridge made of white corn that’s eaten with meat or soup.
Rre: a respectful term for men.