Came to run

Siizabahlula, tina nawe. Together we shall overcome. This is our motto, for me and my companion Lentauw. This has guided us through our many travels, through distances to huge to imagine, since leaving the hills of our home.

I remember us both whispering it to each other when we boarded the ship at Ethekwini, when we left the shore which we didn’t even see recede, when we were busy stoking the roaring heart of flame at the heart of the great vessel.

Sizabahlula, tina nawe. This we have repeated to ourselves many times since.

This is what we are thinking, both of us, as the great brindled dog chases us off course in the middle of the race. This while we are winning, too.

So together we have to deal with the dog. No-one else will. After a mile of being chased, we corner the dog. Lentauw aims a revenge kick at the beast. This gives me time to find a rock, which I throw. A hit!

And so together we beat off the dog. We retreat, this time. We have met this dog before.

But this is only a small part of our story. The story I must return to give to you, baba, my father. But the race is still on. And we are still far from home.

Together we will overcome. This has been a necessary philosophy after the years of the disease, the drought, the war. But then, we can say that, because we have left our country. And by unnatural means.

And so we find ourselves in the great American city of St Louis. It is 1904, the year we remember more for a ship, and the sea, than the land.

To get here, we have fed the great fire that seemed to nourish that ship. We have sweated honest sweat. We have crossed great oceans, and hardly seen a thing of them. But we have eaten well, and slept well, and seen much that will astonish you when I meet you again, Baba.

Now we find ourselves among slaves, freed, yet still slaves in certain ways. But they are a people of music.

We work on a construction site. There is much building in this great city.

There is a notice that gathers much attention on a street corner. I can read, and so read it for Lentauw.

It’s a race, I say. A great running race. With a banquet at the end. For men of all the world, as part of a great celebration of sport. It says they are seeking the swiftest, the highest, the strongest.

“We can run,” Lentauw opines.

“We run all day at work,” I agree.

“We ran behind those horses across much of our country. Yes. We are always running.” This we both think.

“And running generates a respectable appetite,” This is also something we agree on.

We see the notice in the newspaper, on trams, at drinking places. It gives a man’s curiosity a week to rise.

The city becomes distracted by the great sporting contest. Work materials are slow to arrive at the site where we are labouring. We are told not to work for two days.

So we are at the start of the great race. I have my new pair of shoes. Lentauw doesn’t plan to wreck his, so he is barefoot.

The race is explained to us by a man sitting behind a green-covered card table. We are given numbers, on pieces of cloth, and pins to attach them to our shirts. Lentauw is 35. I am 33. The heat they say is 32. These men have heads full of numbers.

We are asked if we are workmen, for workmen are not allowed to enter a gentleman’s race. I answer, for I know this English better than Lentauw.

“We are a chief and his lieutenant from the great amaZulu nation of Africa,” I say evenly (which, forgive me Baba, would be half true anyway), looking the man straight in his eyes, as these men do respect this attitude.

“Then God Speed gentlemen,” the man with the fine hat says, and shakes our hands. His grip is like a girl’s, and he fumbles the thumb grip. But I suppose he means well.

The race, he says, is 26 miles.

“How far is that?” Lentauw whispers to me, as another runner steps up to the table.

“It’s far, but do-able,” I reply through sideways teeth. There must be a hospitable homestead somewhere along the way, I think, where a man might find refreshment. Lentauw stands relaxed. We have run more than this before, and never with a banquet promised at the end. We will be fine.

We runners stand as a crier climbs on a barrel, and introduces us to the crowd that has gathered. He reads from the list the first man has written. There is much ceremony and bluster. Each man has his name, his clan name, and his country. And each draws applause. The crowd responds differently for each.

“Yamasini,” the man bellows, “Kaffir, His Majesty’s Dominion of South Africa.” My clan is Ndlovu, that of the elephant, a noble name, as you well know Baba, and I wrote it so. But this man cannot pronounce it. He has not the right to speak it then, I say within. Lentauw is also introduced in the same manner.

The crowd contains many black people. They cheer wildly when they hear our citation. They say they are also from Africa, but came many years ago, as slaves to this great free land. Lentauw call back to them, cockily “Then we run on your behalf!” More cheers. I almost imagine we are crowd favourites.

Lentauw is taller and more handsome than me. He appears the ladies’ choice, with his glistening skin, his broad hat tacked back on the sides, his finely-formed bare feet. He spreads his smile freely. But he maintains a cautious grip on my elbow, as a younger brother might do. I am uncertain too, but I hope I hide it.

The announcer calls, “WB Harris, His Majesty’s Dominion of South Africa.” A tall, stern man steps forward, and nods curtly to only one side of the crowd. Somehow, they aren’t disposed to cheer for him. He has small green eyes.

Lentauw and I exchange glances. We didn’t know there was another man of our country here to run. But then another knowing look passes between us; we are from different countries anyway.

A man named Lotz from America prances next to us, like a randy young horse. “Why not leave the running for the race?” I say to him. He does not understand my language. He does not appear to hear me. He is too busy being the self-appointed home town hero.

A tiny man named Felix Caravel is announced. He is the colour of tobacco. He is a postman from a nation called Cuba. He calls to the crowd that he has lost all his money gambling. This brings appreciative cheers. He calls on people to take bets on him, so they might share their winnings with him, and thus help him get home to his island. He drapes his arms around Lentauw and I, and his feet hang above the ground. He mimics running in the air. The crowd loves it.

There are 32 runners. They have come from many countries of the world for this race. It is an important race, we are told. They call this race the Olympics.

The man with the megaphone then makes a great play of words, as full-blown as any orator in the amaZulu nation. His words rise in cadence, they swirl like great gusts of wind before a storm. He has the habit of stretching each runner’s name, as if to make the name itself appear as long as the race.

He constructs a grand analogy on the number 30. Today is August 30. There are 32 runners – the cream of the world, he roars. And he finishes with a great flourish, reminding all (although runners have already been told) that the heat of the day is already 32 degrees.

WB Harris looks across at me. And suddenly I recognise him. Our land is not so big after all.

I remember a cavalry officer, rifle resting on his thigh, and a tall roan horse turning skittishly in the centre of our kraal. I remember him taking a beast – a beautiful Nguni heifer, of the flies in the buttermilk pattern – for his men. In the white man’s war, he said, his men needed food. He spoke at us from the height of his mount. And we had no option but to comply. He took the cow without asking, without payment, without thanks.

But this was long ago.

He does not recognise me. He looks at Lentaauw and I blankly. Lentauw returns with his dazzling smile. I return blank. For now, it’s the race that matters. And the banquet at the end.

The race is started by a man with a gun, and for a while it appears a stampede. Runners, the crowds, cars, horses and bicycles all taking off together into a growing cloud of dust.

Lotz is away like the show-off he is. Harris runs weakly, as white men town men cavalry men do. We leave him behind. Lotz and his compatriots from the United States, Hicks, Corey and Newton, take the leading places. Caravel sticks with us. He’s good company, and hums (and sometime makes little drumming sounds with his lips and cheeks) as he shuffles along on his short legs.

Lentauw and I settle into the distance, and soon strike up a conversation of our impressions of the morning so far. Lentauw remembers a girl at the start line. He hopes she will still be there at the finish.

Steadily we gain on the lead runners. We pass them while still chatting. We are on the edge of the city now, but the cars are still with us. It is like being servants at a moving party. We are running, they are drinking. We are drinking dust.

We pass Hick while he is taking medicine from his supporters. I see them giving him raw eggs and brandy. I see them washing his body with hot water. He is convulsing. It is not a pretty sight. Lentauw and I agree to run until we find a stream, and some simple water to drink. Caravel agrees. Till then, we continue.

Suddenly the huge yellow brindled dog appears from the dust, and sinks his teeth into Lentauw’s backside. This is enough to startle the strongest man. Caravel sprints away without looking back. I find a stick, and beat the dogs head. It lets go, but lunges again. Lentauw is not hanging around for seconds, and runs through a field. The dog gives chase. I chase the dog. The carnival in the cars considers this part of the entertainment. We also hear Caravel’s tinkling laugh as he stays with the race along the road.

The dog is stubborn and holds its focus on Lentauw. We diverge from the race course far enough to lose sight of the road.

We corner the dog against a fence. Lentuaw arms himself with handfuls of stones. We retreat, running backwards, all the while throwing stones, and the best curses. The dog, finally, appears to understand.

We angle back to the road, to re-enter the race well back from the leaders. Even WB Harris has almost caught us.

Lotz passes us in an open-top motor car. He waves with his shoes in his hands, he smiles. He entwines with a woman. His feet are in the breeze of the car’s motion. He is wiggling his toes. He has given up the race. And also the banquet, I guess.

Later, we pass the car. It is broken. Lotz is gone. The woman says, “Not far now.”

And so we come to the end of the race. We understand Lotz has won. And Hicks was second. Lentauw is ninth. I am grumpy with him for speeding up at the end. My shoes were hurting. He said his feet had more speed. Two men are between us, so I am the twelfth man home.

But this is not the half of the story: at the night of the banquet, there is a fight. The supporters of Hicks interrupt while Lotz is being photographed with the daughter of the King of this country. They claim he cheated. They are shouting. They are pushing.

Lentauw has a mouthful of fine food. But he nods vigorously. We remember the car.

And so the gold medal is taken from around Lotz’s neck, and given to Hicks. Lotz pretends it is all a joke. But we see him leaving soon after, and he is not smiling.

But Lentauw is smiling. He has found the girl from the start of the race. She is dressed in fine silk clothes. She is teaching him to waltz in the manner of these people. I go looking for more food and drink. What else did we run this race for?

But still this story is not ended. With conversation, drink and food, I forget about my brother Lentauw. I do not see him again that night. I return to our lodgings, singing well to myself, alone.

I have not seen Lentauw since. This is an endless country to go and find him. And that is why I write to you, Baba.

Lentauw has disappeared. So I must keep running.