The day could not have started any worse. Overnight the storm had flooded the kitchen. MaSelebi was mopping up the mess. Her daughter, Angela was standing up to her ankles in water helping her. Suddenly she stopped, leaned back, put her hand on her back and gave a small groan. That’s when her mother saw it – her stomach- the bulge, round and smooth -as clear as anything.
“Huh?” she said, dropping down the bucket with a crash.
Suddenly all hell broke loose.
“What’s that? Eh? Ai, ai!”
“Ma! I’m doing my best. This mop is ancient,” cried Angela.
“I’m not talking about that! Hey wena! You’ve kept it from me all this time?”
She’s rapping again! thought Angela, which is what she called it when her mother started ranting. But then she saw her mouth. It was wide open. So were her eyes which were glaring at her tummy. Angela knew this was it. The moment she had been dreading had come.
“I name my own daughter Angela – after the angel that I thought you were. But no! You’re not an angel! Far from one!”
“Ai ma!” said Angela softly, tears in her eyes.
“How long have you been like this?” her ma shrieked.
What could Angela say? Her best friend had told her how your period stops when you’re pregnant and you get morning sickness. Well, her period had stopped and the gory stories about morning sickness had happened; that was six months ago. She hadn’t wanted to believe it then, but all the signs were there.
“You thought you could hide it from me? Uh?”
Yes, Angela thought, I really did. Angela had even hidden the unused pads which her mother bought her every month; she had worn her one size too big school jersey to cover the bump, and a loose night dress at night. At weekends she hid it with large sweaters and oversized
“How dare you lie to me, you little…you sinful…you…”
At this point her mum ran out of words and burst out crying.
“Ai Ai, Lord! Must I carry this burden, this shame, this horror with me, all over again?”
Angela stood frozen to the floor. She knew what her mother was saying. Once in a moment of intimacy, and to warn her off having a boyfriend, her ma had told her how she had become pregnant as a teenager and how she had been left alone to cope. “That will never happen to you”, she had said. “You stay good. You are my little angel.”
But now MaSelebi’s worst fears had come true.
“How could I be so blind?” her mother cried. “Why didn’t I notice before?”
“Because why, you never take any interest in me,” said Angela softly. “You never look at me when I wash or get undressed, like there was something wrong with my body. I always feel weird, awkward somehow, in front of you.”
“When did you know?” she hissed, ignoring what Angela had just said.
“Angazi,” Angela whispered through her sobs.
“You don’t know?” Her mother mocked her, throwing the mop with a crash to the floor.
“Last September I went to stay with Uncle Billy. I met this boy. But I didn’t know anything.
I mean I only felt something around Christmas time.”
“Aiwah! This is too much! I’ve worked SO HARD to keep you in line! Did you ever listen to a word I said?”
How could I not? thought Angela. Every day you said the same thing, over and over. And in her head she could still hear how her ma used to rant: Don’t stay out after dark; don’t play with the other children; don’t talk to boys; don’t ask questions; don’t talk dirty. That was the worst. What was dirty about asking questions?
Angela gritted her teeth as her mother slapped her face.
Angela walked as fast as she could to catch the taxi in time for school. With no breakfast inside her, she felt sick with hunger. And fear. All day she worried about what her ma would do to her when she got home from school.
The last period was Biology and the teacher was going on about ovaries and fallopian tubes. What did that funny Y-shaped diagram in the science book have to do with her or anything she was feeling? Nothing, she thought. But whatever was going inside her, that was for real.
The last bell finally rang.
She arrived home with a heavy heart. Her ma was waiting for her with a look of thunder on her face.
“Angela Selebi, sit down!”
Angela’s mouth was dry.
“I trusted you when I sent you to stay with your cousins. You have gone against all that I’ve taught you and the Lord’s Commandment.”
Angela waited. What was coming next?
“I will not live with you and your illegitimate child. That…that boy…that man…whoever he is, has to either marry you…”
“Marry you,” her mother went on, “or pay for damages!”
Angela’s heart stopped.
“You want me to marry? Leave home?” Angela was sobbing now.
“Well you are not living here. What’s his name?” she heard her ma ask. “Manje?” she insisted leaning forward threateningly.
“Pisto,” Angela said between her tears.
“Pisto?” She spat his name out in disgust. “What sort of a name is that? And he lives next door to my brother, you say?”
Angela nodded. “Yes ma.”
“Fine! Well, I will phone my brother and tell him to get hold of this Pisto and tell him the good news!” MaSelebi said, sarcastically. “There will be consequences, wena!”
Angela felt so ashamed. What would Uncle Billy think? How would she even look at her cousins again? And Pisto? She didn’t even know him, only from that one night, and she hadn’t talked to him even once since then. How could she ever move in with him? Did her mother really mean it? Must she leave home? What about school and her matric?
Suddenly a hundred questions piled on top of her and she felt crushed under the weight. Sobbing quietly, she lay on her bed and went over everything that had happened on that day, six months ago. She had no one to talk to, just her own voice in her head.
It all happened last September, she whispered to herself through her tears.
Ma had gone to a funeral. She didn’t want to leave me on my own. She doesn’t trust me to be alone in the house. So she sent me to Uncle Billy’s. He’s not strict like Ma. Palesa, Lerato and me were allowed to go out and jol at the local braai on that Saturday. That’s where we met Simba and Pisto.
Simba did all the talking, but I liked Pisto because he was quiet, like me. We spoke about bands and hobbies and we both liked the same things. It was so cool! He had CDs I’d never heard of. So when he said let’s all go back to my place to listen, I said yes. My cousins were not in the mood and went home. I said I’d be along in a minute. I really believed it. But then we had a few drinks, too many, I admit. He kept telling me how beautiful I was and how he wanted to be with me.
I don’t really know what happened next, except that we went on drinking some more and began doing all sorts of things which were new to me. I liked the warm feeling of being held in his arms. I was so happy, happier than I’d ever been. I wanted to stay with him forever. It was my first time. I told Pisto and asked him nicely to be gentle. And he was. My best friend always said I might bleed and I did. But it felt great. I felt oh so special. After an hour we woke up. The alcohol had worn off. All I had was a bad taste in my mouth. I said goodbye and sneaked back to uncle’s.
I knew from that day on, everything would be different, but I had no idea how. Why didn’t I ever think that sleeping with Pisto could make me pregnant, or worse? Where was my brain that night?
Meanwhile, Ma Selebi sat in the kitchen in the dark. She could hear Angela sobbing in her room and couldn’t help but recall that day when she was a young girl and like her daughter, had also fallen pregnant, at 17. She had also sobbed for hours alone and been afraid.
What is a mother supposed to do? MaSelebi thought to herself. I had no guidance before I got pregnant. My mother taught me not to ask dirty things. My boyfriend, Sipho, seemed to know everything. I thought he was so grown up. But when I told him I was pregnant, he turned into a little boy and put his hands over his ears.
‘YOUR baby, not mine!’ he had cried. His parents shrugged it off when I told them. They didn’t care. Their son was just being a man. ‘You are the one who should have taken more care!’
They blamed me. So did I. So did everyone else. It was immoral and I had to be punished. Only my teacher had a kind word to say to me: ‘Anita, no matter what bad names other people call you, remember, there’s an angel in everyone!’
So that’s why I called my baby Angela. I prayed that the angel in her would protect her from harm. I did all I could. I didn’t allow her to play with other children, especially not the boys. I always made sure she came home straight after school. Even if she was five minutes late I gave her a beating because her school was just down the road. We went to church and she enjoyed Sunday school and knew her Bible very well. I prayed every night she would be a good girl, an angel, and never make the same mistakes as me.
Oh Lord, why didn’t my Angela turn out to be a good girl? Is it really all my fault?
The heavy rains had finally stopped, thank goodness. No more messy kitchen floors and buckets to catch the drips. The trees grew green again and Angela sat on the stoep feeling the rhythm of her life around her. Maybe it was the heartbeat of the tiny baby inside her.
Her mother interrupted the moment.
“Angela! Have you been for a checkup at the clinic yet?”
Angela shook her head quietly.
“No, of course not,” MaSelebi said angrily. “Well, you must go. The sooner the better.”
Angel knew her mother was right. Of course. Why hadn’t she thought of it herself? She really must be more responsible. She had two lives to think about now.
The teacher didn’t turn up for class so Angela used the time to go the clinic. It was full of women and children but there were also so many teenagers with bulging tummies, like her own. The doctor was in a foul mood. She would get no sympathy from him.
“I need to take some blood for a test.”
He was irritated and clicked his tongue as he pricked her finger.
“Tsa! Why are you young girls not using condoms? You must all know the dangers of unprotected sex! Not just pregnancy. What about the STIs and HIV? Uh? Here!”
He pushed a pamphlet into her hands.
“Sit out in the corridor and read this. I’ll call you back for your results. Go! Next!”
She waited and flicked through the pages. It was clear. She had been really stupid to have sex without a condom. She knew the dangers of HIV and how it spreads. Why hadn’t she thought then, at the time? The doctor finally called her back in.
“Positive!” he said not even looking up. “That’s what you get for sleeping around.”
“That was my first time, sir,” said Angela softly.
“You were a virgin? Well, you’re positive.”
“Yes, positive girl. Don’t you understand?”
Angela felt her ears humming. Is that good? Angela had heard of positive living. It sounded like she was OK.
The room was turning. He was shouting stuff at her that she couldn’t understand.
“You must start the PMTCT programme. See Sister Grace in the VCT and make an appointment at the ANC. Next!”
PMTCT? VCT? ANC? Angela couldn’t understand a word. The room began to sway. Her head was spinning. Suddenly her legs turned to jelly and she collapsed in a heap.
Angela had no idea how she got through that next week? HIV positive? The words echoed inside her head. Her mother asked how it had been at the clinic but Angela kept silent about her test and the results. She didn’t have the courage to tell her ma the whole truth.
“Oh well,” said MaSelebi, “at least you can give birth in the clinic properly and have the child registered. And registered at your new address.”
“New?” said Angela, trembling.
“Yes. I’m taking you to your Pisto’s house.”
How she liked to spit out that name.
Angel was in a daze. What? So soon? The noise in her head grew louder. Her mother seemed to have planned everything without once asking her what she wanted. School was no better. Her class teacher had finally noticed Angela’s new shape and taken her to one side.
“Leave school,” she had whispered. “You will have to. It’s school policy.”
Everyone had plans for her. Only she seemed to have none. Things were happening to her. She was pregnant; she was HIV positive. She was losing her home and her school. Had she lost total control over her own life?
That night, Angela slept badly. She dreamed of staircases going up and down, leading nowhere, winding round and round, taking her in different directions. But the next morning when she saw the leaflet by her bed, she suddenly felt her head clearing.
“Counseling! I must get counseling. This pamphlet says VCT is free. That’s where I have to go next.”
She decided to skip school and go looking for Sister Grace that same day. There was a long queue but at last it was her turn.
How wonderful Sister Grace’s soft voice sounded compared to her mother’s icy tongue.
“Being positive is not a death sentence, my dear.”
“I’m scared, Sister,” Angela said, fiddling with her dress and almost in tears.
“Now sit down and let’s talk.”
And talk they did. For ages. At last Angela felt able to ask all sorts of questions.
“PMTCT? What’s that?”
Sister Grace answered her kindly.
“Prevention of mother-to-child transmission. We do our best to stop the HI virus getting into your unborn baby at birth.”
“And ANC? Do I have to be a member?”
Sister Grace laughed sweetly. “No Miss Selebi. ANC stands for ante natal clinic.”
At last someone who had time to talk to her and explain things nicely, without laughing at her! Angela was just so grateful. Sister Grace could explain clearly, without freaking her out, what it meant to be HIV positive.
“I’ll be counseling you on a regular basis. You can talk to me about anything and I promise you that what we talk about remains between you and me, and will never leave the four walls of this room.”
What a relief! Her mother need never know.
“You can disclose your status when you feel ready. Give yourself time.”
But how much time would she need? She had kept her pregnancy quiet. Now she had to keep her status a secret. For how long?
It was so hot, so humid the day that MaSelebi took Angela to meet the future. Thunder clouds were building up again. Angela could not keep up with her ma who marched straight past Uncle Billy’s house. MaSelebi was not speaking to her brother anymore. If he had been stricter this would never have happened, she had shouted at him angrily down the phone.
Now they were in front of a small brick house with no curtains and old weeds in the garden. Pisto lived here.
MaSelebi gave three almighty knocks, as if they were at the doors of hell. Angela had no time to catch her breath. The door opened and a tall shy boy stood before them.
“Young man,” MaSelebi hissed, “you have brought shame to my family’s name!”
Pisto looked lost for a moment. His eyes went straight to Angela’s bulging tummy and her swollen feet. Then he caught MaSelebi’s eyes wide with anger and ringed with lines of disappointment.
Uncle Billy had already given Pisto notice the day before that they were coming.
“Angela’s mother is on the way. She has been spitting fire on the phone.”
It was Uncle Billy who finally told Pisto that Angela was six months pregnant. And he agreed with his sister: Pisto and Angela had to face the consequences.
“You will have to learn to be responsible, young man.”
But hadn’t Pisto been responsible all these years? Living alone, looking after himself? Getting himself to school, cooking for himself? Life had become such a lonely burden.
Uncle Billy could see Pisto’s sadness.
“Look young man, people make these kinds of mistakes. It’s part of life.”
He remembered the state his own sister had been in when she got pregnant.
“Listen. I’m there for the both of you. I’m right next door,” he said, giving Pisto’s arm a squeeze.
Now, as Pisto stood facing Angela’s mother, he was humble and polite, hoping it would help to calm things down.
“Won’t you come in, ma?”
Angela was amazed. How could he be so chilled?
But her mother’s voice cut through like a knife.
“I will not enter your house. Who do you think I am? She’s your responsibility now! Goodbye wena!”
And with those words she left. Angela watched her disappear as Pisto carried her bags into his house.
“Welcome,” he said softly.
“Thank you,” she replied.
This, she thought, is the first day of the rest of my life.
Their first night together was strange. Pisto didn’t know what to say to Angela or where he should sleep. Her tummy was so big he offered her the whole bed while he balanced cushions together across two chairs. But in the night when he started coughing violently, she felt bad.
“Come into your own bed Pisto,” she urged. “There’s enough room.”
And so they spent their first night together side by side. But she couldn’t sleep.
Should I tell him I’m HIV positive? What if he throws me out too, like ma?
After a few days, Uncle Billy came round. He was worried about how they were coping. He felt responsible for his niece. She had after all got pregnant during her weekend stay with him. And he could see Pisto was a sick man.
“He’s coughing a lot, wena,” he whispered to Angela when Pisto went out to boil some water. “I can hear him through the walls. It’s so loud! He’s sick. You need to take him with you next time you go to the clinic for a checkup.”
Angela panicked. He knows? How can he know I’m HIV positive? But then he asked:
“And how is the baby, Angela? Hey! You’re so big now!”
Angela was so relieved! He was talking about her ANC checkups. But she promised him she would talk to someone at the clinic and get help.
Sister Grace was very worried when Angela described Pistol’s cough.
“It might be TB. It might be HIV. Listen, Angela. You were a virgin when you had sex with Pisto which means Pisto must have passed the virus on to you. That means he is HIV positive. He might need to go straight on to antiretrovirals. He needs to get tested for TB and HIV and have his viral load checked.”
“Sister, I’m scared…really scared to tell him I am positive.”
“Oh Angela, I can understand that and I will help you with that. But what about him? Do you think he knows his status?”
“Maybe he does deep down, I don’t know. We haven’t talked about anything like that.”
“You both need to, especially now that you are living together and bringing up a baby together. I do couple counseling. I can help you both talk about being HIV positive, about how to have safe sex and live positively with a baby that may not be infected.”
“Sister,” Angela sobbed, “I so want our baby to be healthy and I don’t want Pisto to die. I don’t want to bring our baby up without a father.”
“Shh. Don’t cry. Let me come round and talk to you both this evening. You know what they say? There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Fresh rain was falling in the night as Pisto thought about Sister Grace’s visit and what she had said. At first he had felt anger that she could think he could be HIV positive. Now he felt deep shame that he had tried to fool himself for so long.
“You could live so much longer if you take antiretrovirals,” Sister Grace had told him softly. He looked down, his arms crossed in silence.
“You can live with the virus, Pisto. It’s the fear that kills.”
Now as he lay next to Angela listening to her tummy, he could feel the life pulsating inside her – a life he had helped to create.
“He’s such a kicker. Let’s call him Drogba!” He stroked her bump gently. She laughed, but then turned towards him with a serious look on her face.
“You want to see him grow up don’t you Pisto?”
“What sort of question is that? Of course I do.”
“Well we could help each other, like Sister Grace said. We could take our medication together. Now you know I’m HIV positive. You know what that means. Please Pisto. Let’s do this together. I want to grow old with you. If we take our pills we can live longer. Our baby needs us to live. And he will be such an angel.”
Through the window they could see a misty rainbow round the new moon that shone through the clouds.
“Do you think if I am HIV positive I can be an angel?”
Angela reached out and put her arms round him.
“Of course. But not just in heaven. We need angels here on earth too! And yes, there is an angel in everyone, Pisto. In everyone.”
And for the first time since that night in September, they held each other tight, and kissed.