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About the Author
Troy Blacklaws is a South African writer whose work uses the lens of his own boyhood to illuminate the reality of living under apartheid. After moving from Natal, South Africa, to the Cape with his family at the age of nine, Blacklaws learned the truth behind the divisions in his country, first as a student at Paarl Boys’ High and then as a draftee for the army, where he spent two bitter years as an objector. Shortlisted for the Prix Femina for Karoo Boy, Blacklaws is a graduate of Rhodes University and has taught at international schools in Frankfurt, Vienna, and Singapore. He now lives and teaches in Luxembourg.
Read an Excerpt
A Story of Soccer, Magic and Mandela
By Troy Blacklaws, Andrew Stooke
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Troy Blacklaws
All rights reserved.
Barefoot boys play soccer in a dusty village in South Africa. The village is far from big towns, like East London. And further still from the cities of Cape Town or Johannesburg. The village is on flat, dry land. Beyond the village is the bundu: that wild and dark place.
School is over and the boys have herded the cows home from their grazing. Now, as the sun goes down, the boys are free to play. They play with an old tennis ball. The dirt field they play on is hard and the grass is worn out. No rains have fallen for over a year.
Dogs sometimes run on to the field to pinch their ball. It is tricky playing soccer with a tennis ball and dogs yapping at your heels.
A boy called Pelé flips himself backwards and flicks his feet up for a bicycle kick. The ball flies high over the goal. Pelé lands in the dirt.
Another boy called Long Foot teases him:
– Pelican, Pelican, you think you can fly with your feet in the sky?
The other boys laugh at Pelé as he picks himself up and smacks the dust off his shorts.
Pelé's father named him after the Brazilian soccer god, Pelé, master of the bicycle kick.
On the first day of schooling years ago his fat-bottomed teacher had said:
– Pelé? Pelé? What kind of monkey name is Pelé? It is not a South African name.
His teacher, she is clever. They have to remember all the things she teaches them as they have no books in school. They have no paper to write on. They write with chalk on a slate. When the slate is full they rub out the chalk.
His teacher knows all about science (that a feather and a stone fall at the same speed in a vacuum) and about history (that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail so all South Africans, black and white, would be equal in the eyes of the law). But she knows zero about soccer.
– I will call you Pelican, his teacher had mocked.
He is 11 now, and still the boys call him by this seabird name.
One night Pelé and the barefoot soccer boys sit on the sand under the stars watching his grandfather's TV wired to a motorcar battery. On the TV Bafana Bafana, the South African soccer squad, play on a grass field.
His grandfather sits on the back seat from a gutted, long-dead motorcar. His hair is gone and so is his left hand. He sips his beer from a bottle. Sometimes his grandfather lets Pelé sip the foam off his beer. Pelé loves his grandfather, hisTat'omkhulu.
Other old men sit on old beer crates. From the sky, through the eyes of flapping Hadeda, the motorcar seat is a goal and his grandfather the goalkeeper. The old men are the sweepers and the scattered boys (their faces as close to the TV as a dog's feet to a fire) are the forwards.
But where are the midfielders? In the village there are no fathers or young men. All the fathers and young men are far away in Johannesburg, down the mines. Their job is to dig up gold for the moneymen. Pelé sees his father once a year, when he comes home for Christmas. He comes with beautiful cloth for his wife and a football or a book for him.
In this TV game no dogs run onto the field to hassle Bafana Bafana. All the whistling, jiving fans are behind a high fence.
Pelé would give his eyeteeth to be there, in the stadium, a stone's throw from his heroes, floating on the whistles of the fans.
How can his mother go on stirring her pot inside their clay, zinc-roofed house? The old men (mumbling their mantra: a beautiful woman is medicine for the creaking bones) beg her to come out. But she just shakes her head. Men are fools to stare after a ball for so long.
Yet this is Pelé's favourite thing in the world: sitting in front of the TV with his grandfather, watching Bafana Bafana, The Boys,The Boys, weave their foot magic.
On the TV a high ball comes towards Pelé's hero, Sibusiso Zuma. Pelé's heart drums. Zuma kicks his feet up high like a dancing African warrior. A bicycle kick! The ball zooms into the goal.
Old men and boys jump up to dance a jiving, high-stepping dance with fists waving in the air. As they dance they chant:
– Zu-ma, Zu-ma, Zu-ma.
His grandfather gulps down his beer, tosses away the bottle and joins in. In his good hand he holds his hardwood fighting stick. He jabs it at the foes of Bafana Bafana. Let them cower. Let them beg for mercy. For a moment he forgets he is no longer a young man. He forgets that women no longer scatter in awe when he stamps his feet in the dust and shakes his fighting stick at the sky. Then he flops down, spent. He winks at Pelé.
Before Pelé can catch the words, they fall out of his mouth:
– One day I will see Bafana Bafana play live.
The boys laugh like cackling hyenas at the fool thing he has said for all the world to hear. The old men giggle at his cockiness.
– Pelican, Pelican, Long Foot baits him. You are just a poor boy. You have no shoes, never mind a bicycle. How will a no-shoe boy find the money for a ticket to see Bafana Bafana? How will a no-bicycle boy travel so far?
Other boys call out: Bafana Bafana, they play in Cape Town. Bafana Bafana, they play overseas.
Pelé bows his head in shame, for it is true that he has no shoes and no bicycle.
After the game is over the old men go to tell their wives how Bafana Bafana played like young warriors, and the boys go to tell the girls about Pelé's crazy dream.
Pelé's grandfather says to Pelé:
– My boy, do not be ashamed. A dream is a magic thing. You must go to Old Jamani. He deals in dreams.
Old Jamani, the medicine man, wears a tatty leopard skin. He has sharp teeth like the canines of a dog. He is forever flicking flies away with his flywhisk. He can cure you. He can talk to animals. It is whispered among the boys in the village that Old Jamani's skinny goat was once a naughty boy he put a spell on.
– I am scared of him.
– You study hard at school and you listen to your mother, Pelé. You need not fear the wise old man.
– I am scared of the bundu animals.
Old Jamani lives all alone in a hut on a hill at the far end of the bundu. Fearsome animals such as Jackal lurk in the bundu.
– If you whistle you need have no fear of the animals, his grandfather tells him.
– I will go.
If he survives the journey through the dark bundu then he will have to beg Old Jamani to cast his bones for him. The old men of the village say that if Old Jamani throws bones and shells down in the dirt he can tell you the future. And he can tell you if your dream is good or evil.
Is my dream a good dream? Pelé wonders as he whistles along the path to the bundu.
Pelé sees neither hide nor hair of animals in the bundu. He wonders if his grandfather's trick works, or if all the animals have been hunted by gunmen.
At the top of the hill, Old Jamani is sitting on his doorstep milking a goat. Pelé feels Old Jamani's eyes spear through him. He shivers.
– You have come about a dream, young Pelé.
How does the old man know my name? Pelé wonders.
– I see your father in you. He too was a dreamer.
Pelé wonders if his father still dreams during the long, dark hours he spends down the mines. His grandfather still has a dream.
– I want to see Bafana Bafana play live.
– Yo, yo, yo. That is a hard dream for a poor, barefoot boy.
Pelé's heart drops like a stone.
– Yet it is a good dream. And a few hard dreams do come true. A boy born in a clay hut not far from here dared to fight a giant python to free his people.
Pelé senses that the python-fighting boy was none other than Nelson Mandela.
– Let me throw the bones, says Old Jamani.
Old Jamani takes a fistful of bones and shells from his pocket and rattles them in his hands. The tied-up goat jiggles its feet at the sound.
Pelé wonders what highjinksy mischief that boy got up to for Jamani to trap him inside the goat.
Jamani breathes over the clinking bones and shells. Then he throws them.
Pelé can see no pattern to the way they fall. He was hoping they would form a picture, like the dots you could join up in the colouring-in book his father once got for him in Johannesburg.
Old Jamani spits out his findings:
– The wild animals will give you talismans.
– Magical things to help you on your long journey. There are dangers in the place you are going to that you cannot fight with your slingshot.
– And where will I find the wild animals?
– Just walk and they will find you.
– How will I talk to them?
– Now that is my gift to you, Pelé. Go well, Young Dreamer.
– Stay well, Wise Old Man.
On the path down through the bundu to the village a cat half the size of a lion glides out of shadow. Pelé almost jumps out of his skin.
– Jamani told me about your wild dream, Pelé, the cat murmurs in a lazy voice. Though, I must say, I did not imagine you'd be so jumpy.
Pelé bends his fingers into puny fists.
– What kind of wild cat are you?
– I am Lynx. To follow this dream of yours calls for guts and the hissing fury of a caged lynx.
Pelé thinks: Maybe I should stay and herd cows with the other boys.
– Before you go, please do me a favour. I have a niggling, nagging tooth. Won't you yank it out?
Pelé's heart drums but he wants to show Lynx he does have guts. He puts his fingers into Lynx's razor-toothed mouth and pulls at the bad tooth.
Now the tooth lies in Pelé's hand. The gum end is bloody.
– Hmmm! How good that feels. If ever you're dead scared and need to be plucky ... hold my tooth in your fist. But remember: its magic will work just once.
Pelé puts the tooth in the good pocket of his tatty shorts. His other pocket has a hole in it.
He bows to Lynx as she lopes away. The last thing Pelé sees of Lynx is the tufts of hair on the ends of her ears.
As Pelé crosses a river on a wonky log, a giant lizard puts his head out of the water. Pelé teeters on the log. The lizard is the size of a small crocodile.
– What kind of lizard are you? Pelé cries out.
– I'm Leguaan, Pelé. Jamani told me about your fanciful dream, Leguaan says as his tongue slides in and out. Though, I must say, I did not imagine you would be so skinny. A hard journey lies ahead of you.
Pelé thinks: Maybe I should stay and just watch Bafana Bafana on my grandfather's TV.
– Before you go, please do me a favour. I have a loose, lagging claw on my back foot that bothers me. Won't you tug it off?
Pelé tugs the bothersome claw from Leguaan's scaly foot.
– Aaaah! How soothing that is. If ever you're being hunted and you need to swim swiftly ... put my claw under your tongue. But remember: its magic will work just once.
Pelé puts the claw in his good pocket, where it scratches and jars against the tooth.
He bows as Leguaan zigzags over the water. The last thing Pelé sees of Leguaan is the fiery flicker of his tongue.
Pelé walks on along the path through the bundu until Jackal slinks out of a hole, all sleek and lithe. Pelé has seen Jackal before: lurking about the rat-infested dump behind the village.
Pelé is pee-spit scared of Jackal. His grandfather had told him that Jackal had bitten the fingers off his stubby hand.
What Pelé does not know is that his grandfather's fingers got caught in a machine on the mines. After that he lost his job and came to the village to sit on his red motorcar seat.
And one day Nelson Mandela came out of the glaring sun to shake his good hand and sit down beside him.
The other old men tease his grandfather and say it was a dream. But ever since then his grandfather has not let anyone sit down next to him on the motorcar seat. If Mandela comes again, there must be a free seat for him.
– Don't be afraid. I'm not hunting you. Jamani told me about your tricky dream, Jackal says in a sly, silky voice. Though, I must say, I did not imagine you'd be so young.
– Do you have to be old and wise to dream? Pelé says in a voice that quivers and dithers.
– Well, you have to be old to dream wisely.
Pelé thinks of his grandfather pouring a glass of beer for Mandela every day in the hope that one day he will sit down beside him again. By the time the sun goes down, the beer has gone flat and zizzing flies drown in it. How wise is such a dream?
– You are a clever boy, Pelé. You have learnt the things your teacher taught you. But to follow your dream to the end you'll need the cunning of a jackal.
Pelé thinks: Maybe I should stay and play soccer with a tennis ball.
– Before you go, I need you to do me a favour. I have a tickling, teasing hair in my ear. Won't you pull it out?
Pelé pulls the ticklish hair from Jackal's ear.
– Yai, yai, yai! How free I feel. If ever you're cornered and need to think fast ... lick this hair and put it behind your ear. But remember: its magic will work just once.
Pelé puts the hair in his good pocket, where it dances between killer tooth and snagging claw.
He bows to Jackal as he skulks into shadow. The last thing Pelé sees of Jackal is the flick of his furry tail.
Pelé comes out of the bundu. The path is flat now and he can see the village ahead when he hears a whisper.
– Hey you. Dream boy.
Pelé looks around but all he sees is a lonely coral tree with a few flaming orange flowers. Then he sees that one of the knots on the bark of the tree is in fact an eye. The eye swivels, now looking up at the sky, now down at him. It is Chameleon, camouflaged in the same sandy colour as the bark of the tree. The last time Pelé saw him he was all aloe green.
– Hello, Chameleon.
– Jamani told me about your tall dream, Chameleon whispers in a wispy voice. Though, I must say, I did not imagine you'd throw such a flat, stark shadow.
Pelé thinks: Maybe I should stay in my mother's hut with her smoking, three-legged pot and the smell of soap on her skin.
– Before you go, please do me a favour. The tip of my tail is dangling and dying after the butcherbird pecked at me. Won't you twist it off?
Pelé pinches the dangling tip of Chameleon's tail in his fingers and twists it off.
Chameleon shoots out his long, pink tongue with glee.
– Now my tail will heal. If ever you're trapped and need to vanish ... just rub the tip of my tail between your fingers. But remember: its magic will work just once.
Pelé puts the tail tip in his good pocket, where it tangles and tangos with Jackal's hair.
Chameleon winds up his long tongue. The last thing Pelé sees of Chameleon as he fades out is his beady eye. Then Chameleon shuts his eyelids ... and he's gone.
On the edge of the village he hears Hadeda cry out to him: ha ha haaaa.
The dull-feathered bird is sitting on one of the goal posts.
– Hello, Hadeda.
– Hello, Pelé. Jamani told me about your crazy dream. Though I did not imagine you'd be so flat-footed. Ha ha haaaa.
Pelé thinks: Maybe I should just stay and make play oxen out of clay.
– Before you go, I need you to do me a favour. I have an itchy, irksome feather behind my head that I can't scratch with my beak. Won't you pluck it out?
Pelé plucks Hadeda's restless feather.
– Haaaa! That feels good. If ever you need to fly like a bird ... slide this feather into your hair and you'll fly as far as a man can throw a spear.
How Pelé would love to fly now over his grandfather's red motorcar seat and call down to him and the other boys. Pelé laughs at the thought of them running after him and yelling: Au! Au! Au! Pelican can indeed fly through the sky!
As if Hadeda reads his mind, she warns Pelé:
– But remember: its magic will work just once. So do not use it lightly.
Then Hadeda cries ha ha haaaa and flies towards the rusty roof of the old tin church.
Pelé puts the feather in his good pocket, where it hovers over tooth, claw, hair and tail tip. Now he has all the charms he'll need for his trip.
The last thing Pelé sees of Hadeda is a glint of green in her feathers.
Pelé's mother cries when she hears he plans to go to Cape Town to see Bafana Bafana play.
– Aaaai! I will not let you go. You will still sleep in my hut for another few years, until it is time for you to go into the bundu to become a man.
Excerpted from Bafana Bafana by Troy Blacklaws, Andrew Stooke. Copyright © 2009 Troy Blacklaws. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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