They called me Copper but I felt dirty and black inside; a lump of coal rather than a gleaming metal.
This part of my story began three years ago. Tired of life in rural Africa, tired of fetching water and working in the fields, tired of being surrounded by family, I kissed them goodbye and walked out of their lives.
I ended up in Johannesburg, a city of 12 million. It was ugly compared to my village. A boiling pot of
cultures. A sprawling monster scarred by flat-topped mine dumps - synthetic yellow hills that
breathed fine dust across the land. The locals called it Egoli, the city of gold.
I had hoped to make my fortune there and in some ways I did. After walking the streets for a month,
I met Luyanda. “So you need a job?” she questioned, pushing my head this way and that. “Walk
across the room for me.” She was a sophisticated woman, beautiful and poised and I didn’t hesitate
to sign on the dotted line.
For a month she drilled me. Taught me how to hold myself and paid for skin treatments and
elaborate hair extensions. Finally I was ready. “You look beautiful, Thandi. The next thing you need is
a new name.” She sat and stared at me for a while. “You remind me of a sculpture. Maybe in bronze
or copper... or steel or silver. “She ran a finger across my cheek bone. “Your skin is dark but has
warm contrasts. I think we’ll call you Copper.”
My first day on the job was a shock. Instead of modelling as I had anticipated, I was part of an
escort agency, a group of upper class prostitutes. My pleas fell on deaf ears. “We’ve invested a lot
of money in you. You’ll have to work for six months to cancel your debt.” I lay awake, night after
night, my soul consumed with grief and guilt.
I thought many times of running away. I missed my home, the rustling corn fields and roosters that
strutted like kings. I envied them for they were with my family. Then I would think of the adobe
church where Father loved to preach. I would think of the Bible stories I’d heard at Mother’s knee
and would hang my head in shame.
I hadn’t contacted them since I left although I had a number tucked into my heart. My eldest
Brother, Philemon, had a cell phone and had pulled me aside the day I left. “If you need help,
anytime of day or night, call me.” I never had the courage to do so.
Months stretched into years and I grew accustomed to the way of life, to the money. Then the
unthinkable happened. I fell pregnant. Hormones and fear swirled like raging torrents but I was too
afraid to tell anyone. Eventually Luyanda noticed the gentle swell of new life and called me in. “You
slut!” She slapped my face, her hand stinging as much as her words. “No one’s going to want you like
this. Get rid of it.” I packed my bags and moved out.
It was 2am on a warm summer’s morning when I dialled the number that nestled deep in my heart. I
had never heard a grown man cry the way Philemon did. “Thank God you’re alive, Thandi. It doesn’t
matter what you’ve done.”
I used the last of my savings to catch a minibus home. My parents were waiting at the stop and we
huddled together, our tears mingling as we held each other, as my mother caressed my swollen
abdomen. “We love you.” They told me over and over again.
That day was the best of my life. As evening approached more and more relatives arrived. Little
cousins I’d never met, my brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. Some were a little offish but most
embraced me with love. In the yard, Father was roasting a goat over the fire and a table sagged
under fizzy drinks, pots of putu and bowls of salad.
After we had eaten, Father called the family together. “Come and stand with us. Let’s pray for
Thandi and thank God for bringing her back to us.”
For the first time in years I had hope for the future. For the little stranger within. I was no longer
Copper, no longer a lump of coal. I was Thandi and back where I belonged. Back in the arms of my
Putu is a thick porridge like mixture made from corn meal and water. It is the staple diet of
the majority of people in Southern Africa.
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