As a child in a small village nestled in one of the many almost-forgotten corners of the world, Dikeledi had known three things for certain: she did not want to be like her mother; she did not want a husband or children; she did not live in a community that would allow her to be unmarried and childless. Dikeledi had always been a perceptive and intelligent child, but knowing these three things had made her an exceedingly shrewd child indeed, because she had had to imagine and think of ways to be free in the future.
When other girls had spent their playing hours dreaming up families and imagining future husbands, Dikeledi had prepared for her freedom. When she cooked in make-believe pots, she always cooked for one. When the boys of her youth made clay cattle and offered them to her as a pretend bride price so that she would start playing house with them, she would take the cattle and continue cooking for one.
Dikeledi had inherited her mother’s beauty, and it was because of this taken-for-granted beauty that she experienced a freedom the other girls in the village did not know they could even dream of. When she herded cattle with the boys and fought with them or scratched her knees and elbows climbing up trees or sliding down smooth hills, the boys did not mind because they could convince themselves that this was what the clay cattle had really been in exchange for—time with Dikeledi in the bush. The girls did not mind Dikeledi’s time in the bush because they knew (it had been repeated often enough in their presence) that she was the prettiest girl in the village, and they were therefore happy to spend hours not being silently or verbally compared to her. The adults did not mind that Dikeledi preferred boyish pursuits because they were sure that she would, one day, as all children eventually did, leave all childhood things behind and embrace the softness and gentleness that came with womanhood.
Disguising the unsavoriness of their actions with laughter and a jocular tone, they would say to her, “Some very lucky man is going to be made very happy by you someday soon.”
None of them could have known that what terrified Dikeledi more than anything in the world was the softness and gentleness of womanhood, which reminded her so much of her mother, Daisy, who had leaned her softness and gentleness toward men so readily and so casually until one day she leaned toward a man who, in exchange, had killed her. Brutally.
Since Dikeledi was a perceptive and intelligent child, she knew, almost from the first, what was expected of her beauty. It helped elucidate things, of course, that the village women would often say to her, “That pretty face of yours will be sure to bring you a good husband,” and some village men would reach out and try to touch her unformed breasts; disguising the unsavoriness of their actions with laughter and a jocular tone, they would say to her, “Some very lucky man is going to be made very happy by you someday soon.” Dikeledi swatted such hands away and had, on more than one occasion, bitten a finger that had proved to be a little too determined. The owners of the hands and fingers had laughed away her rejection, appreciating the wildness in the child and envying the man who would tame the woman that she would become.
Dikeledi had understood clearly, as clearly as she understood the pristineness of the color white, that what those men had been reaching for were the soft places of her body and that it was her duty to herself, even as she loathed the softness and gentleness of womanhood, to safeguard those soft places against the wanton touches of men who really should have known, and done, better.
She realized that it was the custom for men to reach out and touch the unmarried bodies of girls and young women. Every day she witnessed a hand brushing a chest, pinching a bottom, and sometimes even raising a skirt, and every day she witnessed the shy giggle that responded to the touch. She had never found a shy giggle within herself. She knew that were it not for her taken-for-granted beauty, every man whose hand she swatted away would have tried to denigrate her looks—the best weapon the men in the village had for putting women in their place.
But Dikeledi had known that the beauty she’d inherited from her mother could only protect her for so long, and as soon as she could demand it she had taken to dressing in boys’ school uniforms and making sure that all those soft places made accessible by dresses, blouses, and skirts were well and truly protected by sensible trousers, shorts, and shirts with formidable pockets over her flat chest. The only time she wore a dress was when she put on her own school uniform to go to the nearby government school, which strictly forbade her from wearing the boys’ uniform to class. She immediately changed back into the boys’ uniform after school.
Dikeledi absolutely adored boys’ and men’s uniforms and had done so ever since she was very young and had seen Spokes Moloi in his crisp and starched British South Africa Police uniform with its shiny brass buttons stepping out of the Idlazonke General Goods and Bottle Store to deliver the news that her mother was dead. Whatever she was going to do with her life as an adult, Dikeledi knew then that it would involve wearing a uniform—a man’s uniform.
For the longest time, Dikeledi’s mind and body were in perfect harmony. During puberty, her body refused to blossom into curves of voluptuousness—her chest stayed flat and her hips narrow. Dikeledi had been happy with this turn of events or, rather, this non-event; the village less so. Because of her beauty, the entire village had anticipated an easy marriage for her. But now it began to perceive that there might be a problem where Dikeledi was concerned. There was a whisper that began to be heard throughout the village: “She may have her mother’s face, but she has her father’s body and ways.”
When Dikeledi’s body did not develop the expected soft places, the villagers became vultures and descended on their prey. Girls, long jealous of her beauty and happy to finally have something to fault in her, made fun of Dikeledi’s manliness and were surprised and then wounded when she did not respond with the shame and hurt that they expected. Boys, long intimidated by her beauty and her ability to beat them in the classroom and on the grazing fields and happy to finally have something in their power with which to bruise her too-healthy self-esteem, made fun of Dikeledi’s flatness and straightness (they would never dare to call it “manliness”) and were surprised and then wounded when she did not respond with the shame and hurt that they expected.
Women, now afraid that Dikeledi’s wayward ways would prove attractive to their own daughters and thus upset the order of things, chastised her for dressing and behaving in a most unwomanly fashion and were surprised and then wounded when she did not respond with the shame and hurt that they expected. Men, long tired of Dikeledi’s determined rejection of their advances and increasingly confused by their continued desire of her unfeminine body, decided to put an end to her waywardness and demanded that she start behaving properly (by which they meant like a girl) and were surprised and then wounded when she did not respond with the shame and hurt that they expected.
Dikeledi was definitely outnumbered, but she was not without resources. She wrote a letter to the two people in the world she truly admired, the magnificent Molois, Spokes Moloi and his wife, the lovely Loveness, and told them of her plight. Before the village knew what had befallen it, the Molois descended upon it and proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, that Dikeledi was perfect as she was and that she was to be left alone. To cement what they had said, the Molois gifted Dikeledi with more and better boys’ uniforms, uniforms from various schools in the City of Kings. The village cowered under the collective wisdom and fury of the Molois, and it was only after they had left—weeks after, just to be completely sure—that a whisper began that as the Molois had no children of their own, they, although wise about most else, were not particularly wise about Dikeledi. They were spoiling her and unwittingly destroying whatever future happiness she might have. However, the whisper had no choice but to watch Dikeledi as she went on her merry way wearing shirts, trousers with suspenders, veldskoene and seersucker ivy caps, her hands in her pockets as she whistled a tune merry enough for her way.
Dikeledi would never lean. She had always been clever about her body, and she would continue being so.
The magnificent Molois had saved Dikeledi, and she was grateful; in fact, she was more than grateful, she was happy: until her body betrayed her during her seventeenth year, when her hips flared and her chest grew two rather determined mounds. The softness that she had run away from all her life was upon her without warning.
The village sighed a sigh of relief because at last Dikeledi would have no choice but to act like a woman.
For her part, Dikeledi took to standing naked in front of the tarnished mirror in her grandmother’s hut. In the paltry light provided by a wax candle, she tried to bring herself to hate her soft places—her breasts, her belly, her thighs, her behind—but found she could not. They were a part of her, and she could not hate herself, no matter how hard she tried.
She remembered how her mother Daisy had leaned her softness across a counter and used it to bargain for something that she wanted in exchange. She remembered the hands—black, brown, white—that had touched Daisy’s soft places and the shy giggle that they had received in return for their endeavors. She remembered how the shy giggle allowed Daisy to walk away with a packet of toffees, a few yards of fabric, an exercise book. Dikeledi remembered the rich buttery taste of those toffees, the feel of the blue and white dress that had been made from the fabric, the stick figures she had drawn ad nauseam in the exercise book, and the shaky handwriting that had written her name for the first time, the D looking like an A.
Dikeledi looked at her soft places and decided that she would never use them as her mother had used hers—to curry the favor of men. She, Dikeledi, would never lean. She had always been clever about her body, and she would continue being so.
When, at eighteen, Dikeledi finished her schooling, she knew that only a few options were open to her. She could leave the village and make her way to a teachers’ or nurses’ training institution. She could stay in the village and take some home-craft classes. After doing one of these three things, she could go to the City of Kings and make a living. She knew that whichever option she chose did not really matter because at some point in all of this, she would have to find herself a husband, have his children, and become a wife and mother. Only after she had had the husband and children would she be deemed a successful woman.
Dikeledi did not want to be a teacher. She did not want to be a nurse. She did not want to be a homemaker. She did not want to bring just knowledge, wellbeing, or joy to others. She wanted to bring the thing that could contain all these things and more—she wanted to bring the post. Dikeledi’s ambition was to be a postman. She loved the idea of delivering the world to her small village nestled in one of the many almost-forgotten corners of the world.
Dikeledi had been fascinated by the post from a young age. Sometime after her mother had been killed and her distraught and heartbroken father, S’jumba, had left the country to try and start his life anew in South Africa, a letter had arrived all the way from Johannesburg. The letter had been addressed to her illiterate grandfather; in order to collect it, he had had to walk the many miles to the school where it had been delivered. Her wary and weary grandfather had given the letter to Dikeledi, trusting and believing that the three years of education she had under her belt would be more than sufficient to enable her to read and understand the letter. Her grandmother proudly called other members of the homestead and other villagers to hear her granddaughter read the letter. Dikeledi, who was still struggling with literacy herself, read the letter haltingly but assuredly, confidently mispronouncing most of the English words, not all of which had been spelled correctly. The nine-year-old Dikeledi read to an appreciative audience that was for the most part none the wiser.
The letter said that the father-son had settled in Johannesburg (a city brighter than anything they could ever imagine), had found a job at a gold mine, and was doing relatively well. Enclosed in the envelope, along with the letter, was a money order whose amount proved how well settled the father-son was in his new land. The letter, which could have carried with it sad news, brought joy. Her grandmother ululated, and her grandfather danced a jig as he balanced on his walking-stick-cum-knobkerrie. They said that their troubles—troubles that Dikeledi had not known about—were over and that happy days were here again.
As Dikeledi held the letter in her hands, she understood its power, and decided there and then that she wanted to be a postman. Even when, during her sixteenth year, another letter, not written in the handwriting of the father-son, was received from Johannesburg and contained within it news of his death, not in a mining accident, as his mother had always feared, but from a corruption that had surreptitiously entered his lungs when he had worked in a factory that made asbestos roofing shingles in the City of Kings, Dikeledi did not give up her desire to become a postman.
At eighteen, she had known that there was only one way she could realize her dream to be a postman—she would have to marry, and marry very wisely. She would have to choose a man who would give her her freedom without knowing that that was what he was doing. In Immanuel Moyana she found the perfect man for her purposes. He had a roving eye, a weak resolve, and a highly suggestible mind. He loved what he saw when he looked in the mirror and believed that others would be as enamored of him as he was of himself, and so when Dikeledi, the most beautiful girl in the village, smiled at him, he was not surprised. He believed that he had been half-expecting it all along.
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Even before Dikeledi hinted to Immanuel that they should marry, she had cannily put it in his head that he should go and find his fortune in the mines of Johannesburg or Kimberley. She spoke with genuine admiration of the many things her father had managed to attain from such a great distance—school fees for his daughter, eye surgery for his father, a donkey-drawn Scotch cart for the fields, a brick house, a communal well. Immanuel saw himself building a brick house that would be the envy of the entire village. He saw himself living in that house with Dikeledi and their beautiful children, and he could not wait to leave the village. His wedding night was a near disaster because of the warring excitements of being both in the room with Dikeledi and on his way to South Africa. It did not help matters, of course, that Dikeledi was reluctant to let him touch her soft places.
Soon enough, Immanuel was gone, and Dikeledi found herself that rarest of things: a married woman who was free to do as she pleased. And Dikeledi definitely did as she pleased. For two years she went through the motions of preparing a home for herself and her husband, all the while knowing full well that Immanuel would never return from the bright lights of Johannesburg, where he had chosen to settle. As Dikeledi cooked for one and ate alone and contentedly in her hut, the villagers, waiting in vain for a letter and a money order, began to whisper. They had always known that Immanuel was no good, and now here he was proving it by neglecting Dikeledi, their very own jewel. They should never have sanctioned such an obviously ill-fated union—and they would not have, but she had been so very determined, hadn’t she?
Dikeledi listened to the whispers and smiled to herself in the dark recesses of her hut. She let the matter move through the village like an errant whirlwind that picked up both wanted and forgotten things. In the third year of what was now spoken of as her abandonment, Dikeledi made a plaintive plea to her community. As they could see, her husband had never, not even once, provided for her, and she had had to live on their charity and good will for the embarrassingly long time during which she had waited for Immanuel to do his duty by her. But he had not. And now she was left with no other choice but to look for work herself. She did not want to leave the village and go to the City of Kings. She had made a comfortable and lovely home for herself and her husband, and she did not want to leave it.
As everyone remembered, she had received a good education, and it would make sense for her to go for teachers’ or nurses’ training, but she feared that too much time had passed and that she would need to relearn so many things that she had already forgotten. Would it not be better, did they not all think so, if she found a job right here in the village? Perhaps…and this was just occurring to her, so they should please excuse its unformedness as a thought…but perhaps she could collect the post that was delivered to the school and bring it to the residents of the village. It was some distance to and from the school, and often the journey to collect the letters had to be done by the very old or the very young because everyone else was busy, either in the fields tilling sustenance out of the land or in the city eking a living out of the factories. Would it not be a wonderful thing if the village had its own postman who delivered letters to each homestead?
There were murmurs of approval from the villagers before Chief Cele Mkhize said, “But the very word itself is prohibitive. Postman. You cannot do a man’s job.” There were immediate murmurs agreeing to the headman’s sagacity. “However, it is a brilliant idea, and I am surprised I never thought of it,” Chief Cele Mkhize continued. “I will speak to both the postmaster and the schoolmaster and see if such a job can be created forthwith—for a man.” The chief was not without understanding, and so he added, “All the other things you say are true, we have all seen them. To rectify your problem, I will write to Immanuel and demand that he do right by you.”
The murmurs of approval after Chief Cele Mkhize’s proclamation were loud, and Dikeledi knew better than to challenge him directly. So, as the headman worked with the postmaster to create the paid position of postman, Dikeledi wrote a letter to the magnificent Molois and told them of her plight. Before the village knew what had befallen it, the Molois descended upon it and proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, that Dikeledi was the perfect candidate for the postman job. To cement what they had said, the Molois visited the schoolmaster and gave Dikeledi a glowing reference. The village cowered under the collective wisdom and fury of the Molois, and it was only after they had left—weeks after, just to be completely sure—when Dikeledi was already donning the uniform of a postman and delivering the post by bicycle, that a whisper began that Chief Cele Mkhize had been wrong to have someone else prosper from what had been Dikeledi’s brainchild.
What she loved best was the warm, oven-baked smell of the envelopes and packages that she delivered.
Some time later a letter, addressed to the postman and written in a hand that she remembered well, arrived at the time that all letters arrived in the small village nestled in one of the many almost-forgotten corners of the world: early in the morning, having been delivered with the fresh bread from Downing’s Bakery in the same truck that had journeyed all the way from the City of Kings. Of all the things that Dikeledi loved about her job—and there were many—what she loved best was the warm, oven-baked smell of the envelopes and packages that she delivered. She felt, in this way, that with each letter or present, she delivered the promise of the city and the wider world. Dikeledi was not a romantic or poetic sort—far from it—but when it came to the post and its many possibilities, she allowed herself to acknowledge that some things in life could be perfect.
As far as the villagers knew, no letter was ever received from Immanuel. The letter, addressed to the postman and written in a hand that she remembered well, became one of those unfortunate letters that get lost in the post.
It had taken some doing, but Dikeledi had finally realized her dream and become that even rarer thing: a woman who gets exactly what she wants in life. Here, in this village, in one of the many almost-forgotten corners of the world, she had managed to carve for herself an element of freedom. With her first bonus check, she bought a full-length mirror and placed it in her hut. And at the break of each working day, she stood naked in the temperamental light of a paraffin lamp and watched as her postman’s uniform gradually covered all her soft places…places she would never lean.
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean writer, scholar, and filmmaker. She is the author of the novels The Theory of Flight, The History of Man, and The Quality of Mercy. She holds a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University, an MA in African Studies and an MFA in Film from Ohio University, and a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College.
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