Zebra Crossing by Meg Vandermerwe #47_2015


It is September 2009; the year before South Africa hosts the FIFA World Cup. Chipo is a seventeen-year old Zimbabwean girl who runs away to Cape Town with her older brother, George. Their mother died three years before and their situation in Beitbridge becomes untenable. Life has always been particularly difficult for Chipo because she is an albino. Even her brother calls her names, like “peeled potato”, while many people shun her, spit at her and even stone her to ward off the bad luck they believe she can cause them.

The story is narrated by Chipo herself and switches between the present and reflections on her life when her mother was alive. Sometimes her mother visits her as a spirit. Mama is a wonderful character who loves Manchester United, runs a tavern and is fiercely protective of her daughter. She rejects superstition and will not attend church because of the attitudes most people have to albinos.

George believes Cape Town will be a life of milk and honey but the reality is very different. From the time they are smuggled across the border, they face many challenges and scary moments. Chipo reflects on the manmade nature of borders that “exist only in the minds of politicians” and their psychological significance;

A border is where you must say goodbye. You cannot afford to turn and look back. The past is the past. That is what your brother says.

Borders rhymes with orders. You follow your brother’s orders. You have no choice. Time to go forward, he says. To look forward.

A border is where you swap home for hope. 

Chipo has a quirky habit of finding a word that rhymes with another thus moving to a different thought in a stream of consciousness way. Through this device, everything that troubles her is described. “Nationalities sound like irrationalities” sums up the hostile way foreigners from other African countries are regarded. The irony of the World Cup slogan, “It’s Time. Celebrate Africa’s Humanity”, is not lost on Chipo.

The siblings stay with twins, Peter and David, in a one room flat in a dodgy building in Long Street where the landlord exploits their vulnerability by over-charging them but overlooking the illegalities. George gets a job as a waiter while Chipo stays at home and does housework, cooking and ironing. She has a crush on David who is kind to her and sometimes takes her to museums and art galleries. It is clear that he does not reciprocate her feelings and prefers spending time with his friend, Jeremiah. This unrequited love of hers leads her to do things that she later regrets. Tragedy befalls them all once she has been to see Dr Ongani

Jean-Paul, an enigmatic tailor, who she believes to hail from the Congo shares part of the apartment and pays the lion’s share. He is kind to her and for a while she works as his assistant which is the happiest time she has in Cape Town. She wonders about his sadness and his family but does not dare ask.

This is a very sad story that brings home the fearful limbo that immigrants have to face in South Africa where xenophobia is a sad reality. Superstition is another theme that threads the narrative from the beliefs many people hold about albinism as well as their beliefs about homosexuality. The loneliness of a young girl who is rejected by most of society is poignantly expressed in her own unique voice without any sense of self-pity being conveyed.

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