Luyanda Michaels stepped into the bus. The pneumatic doors closed behind him with a gentle hiss. He was the last person to board, and only one seat was available. He wound his way to it as the bus gently lifted off the ground and pulled onto the main flyway.
He made himself comfortable and peered at his reflection in the window. His mother was right. His afro was getting out of control. He tugged at a few unruly tufts and tried to pat them back down again. He hadn’t gotten a haircut in two years, and now that he’d graduated from high school the previous December, he wanted to let his hair grow even longer. It was his way of proclaiming his newfound freedom and independence to the world. He patted his chin thoughtfully and wondered what he’d look like if the fuzz that had stubbornly refused to flourish ever became a fully-fledged beard. His mother would disapprove. All the more reason to nurture it.
He turned his attention to the changing cityscape around him. First were the neat suburban apartments in the area where he lived - Brackenfell Heights. Then the bus flew past the skyscrapers and the malls of the central business district. These gave way to the outdoor markets at the edge of the metropolis. Then came row after row of buses: the central bus stop, where the major hover bus companies had their main terminuses. Soon he was gazing at the rundown apartments on the outskirts of the city. These were several decades old, dating to before the war. Most were falling apart. Still, they were home to hundreds of thousands of people who could not afford anything better. Then the low-rise flats started to give way to shacks.
At first, only a few dotted the landscape here and there, like shiny little islands. In a few minutes, he was staring at an ocean of tin-roofed tiny shacks. It filled up the entire Rochester valley, lying to the east of the capital. It was the lowland that had given the slum its name.
He turned his attention to the news headlines, flashing across the display on the back of the seat in front of him.
“Azania government recognizes three new city states in Africa.”
“Biafra City wins more gold at the 2099 Virtual Olympic Games.”
“China apologizes for crimes against humanity in the Sino-African War.”
Luyanda glanced out the window as the bus slowed down and descended in the middle of a dusty and noisy terminus. He disembarked along with everyone else and scanned his surroundings. He had no idea which direction to head off in. He stuck out his arm and held the shiny gadget wrapped around his wrist up to his mouth. The screen lit up.
“Elsie Dalibwayo, Zone C, Rochester.”
“Shall I guide you there?” his personal assistive device, or PAD, replied in a high-pitched, sing-song female voice.
“No. I don’t want people to realize I’m not from here.”
“Suit yourself. You know where to find me if you need me.”
The screen on his PAD flicked off. Luyanda surveyed his surroundings. He spotted some shady-looking characters checking out the passers-by from behind heavy-lidded eyes. He turned back to the hoverbus and went across to the driver’s window.
“Sorry, sir,” he started. The driver gave him a half-expectant, half-irritated glance. “Where is Zone C?”
Relief swept over the man’s face. Luyanda wondered if he had been expecting an argument.
“You see that stadium?” He pointed off towards the complex of low buildings about a half a kilometre away. Luyanda gazed at it, and took in the vacant lot, full of trees and shrubs, with a swampy marsh beside it.
“You see the houses after it?”
“That’s Zone C.”
Luyanda thanked him, hitched up his backpack and trudged off in the direction of the stadium. He avoided the large, concrete bowl and traced his way along the wide sidewalk beside the main road. It snaked around the marshy swamp and sloped into Zone C.
He followed the path down the hill and soon found himself in the middle of corrugated iron and timber shacks. Tiny footpaths wound their way between them, and there was no room at all for hovercars to pass by. Luyanda shuddered to think that this was where he was from. A wave of shame swept over him. Was this where he was from? If that were so… A stab of guilt shot through him. How could he be ashamed of his roots? If this was who he was, it was who he was, and it didn’t make any sense to be apologetic about it.
He pushed further on, the name of the person he sought etched in his mind: Elsie Dalibwayo. As he wandered along the footpath, weaving past shacks, sheds and shanties, he started to realise the folly of his undertaking. There were hundreds of people in that place. There were likely to be thousands in Zone C alone. Where on earth was he going to start?
As if in answer to his question, he turned a corner and came face-to-face with one of the few concrete buildings he’d spotted in the area. It had a metal gate, and a wide-open yard boasting a solitary tree. The sign outside identified it as the “Mawego Zone C Police Station”. Luyanda veered off the path and walked through the courtyard and into the low-roofed building.
A heavy-set policewoman in a blue uniform sat behind the receptionist’s desk, scrolling through the news on the holographic display of her PAD. Another policeman held an animated conversation with a woman clutching a pile of papers in her hand. Luyanda paused in front of the policewoman reading off her PAD. She glanced up at him and nodded.
“Hi.” Luyanda nodded back. “I am looking for Elsie Dalibwayo.”
The policewoman’s eyes widened in surprise. “Do you have an address?”
“No,” Luyanda shook his head. “I just know she lives in Zone C.”
The policewoman’s lips curled in derision. “There are very many people in Zone C,” she answered. “Unless you can tell me something else, I don’t know if I can help you.”
Luyanda bit his lip. He didn’t have any other information to go on, other than a name and a general address.
“Do you have a phone number, at least?”
Luyanda shook his head. The policewoman glanced at the man seated beside her. He had just finished with the woman loaded with papers and was sliding off his seat.
“Jethro,” the policewoman asked, “Do you know an Elsie Dali - who?”
The policeman paused in thought, then shrugged.
“Did you say Elsie Dalibwayo?” The woman with the pile of papers under her arms stood at the door.
Luyanda’s heart raced. “Yes,” he nodded. “Elsie Dalibwayo. Do you know her?”
“No, I don’t. But there’s someone who might. Come with me and I will take you to her.”
Luyanda turned and shot a questioning glance at the cops.
The policeman’s eyes locked on his. “It’s okay. We know her.”
Luyanda thanked them both and accompanied the woman out of the police station. They turned onto a path that took them deeper into the corrugated metal jungle that was Zone C. Luyanda wondered how on earth he would find his way out of this morass when the time came to leave.
“Why are you looking for her?” the woman asked as they swung into yet another track.
“She is a relative,” he answered. “You said you know someone that knows her?”
“Yes. Her name is Selina. Ma Selina. She’s the oldest resident in Zone C. She’s more than ninety and she’s lived here forever. She’s like a living database. If anyone knows this Elsie, it’s Ma Selina.”
They walked on in silence for a few more minutes.
“What’s your name?”
“Luyanda. Pleased to meet you.”
She extended a hand and shook his. “I hope you carried enough money.”
“What do you mean?”
Gigi laughed. “Oh, you’ll see,” she said. “The woman may be old, but she’s as sharp as an arrow. You’ll see for yourself just now.”
Soon they turned up a narrow, winding path that led to a modest house. Unlike most of the surrounding structures, it had brick walls that looked out onto a narrow veranda. An old woman sat on a bench there, dozing as she basked in the sun. She cracked one eye open when she heard them approaching and regarded them with a lazy stare.
“Ma Selina. I’ve brought you a visitor.”
“Oh,” Ma Selina sat up. “Who is he?”
“My name is Luyanda Michaels.”
“What do you want, Luyanda Michaels?”
“I am looking for someone.”
“I don’t know ‘em,” Ma Selina grunted. “Didn’t see anything. Didn’t do anything. I’m just an old woman.” She closed her eyes again.
Gigi laughed. “No, it’s not those kinds of questions, Ma Selina.”
“Are you a journalist? Is this about my time in the war?”
Luyanda cleared his throat. “I am looking for Elsie Dalibwayo. Do you know anything about her?”
Though her eyes remained closed, Luyanda noticed the old woman stiffen. “No, I don’t. Go away.”
Luyanda glanced at his guide. Gigi saw the desperation etched on his face.
“Please just help the boy, Ma Selina. This Elsie woman is his relative.”
“Please leave. I don’t know anything.”
Luyanda and Gigi exchanged a look.
“I’ve got money,” Luyanda blurted out.
Ma Selina’s breath caught. Then, she shook her head. Gigi turned around.
“Let’s go. There’s nothing you can do when she gets like this.” She trudged away.
Luyanda’s chest tightened in anger. He wheeled around and stamped down the path after Gigi. Then he paused mid-step. This woman knew something, and she was refusing to help. There was nobody else who could help him. He did a one-eighty and tramped back up the trail again. He stopped in front of Ma Selina. Her eyelids were still firmly pressed together.
“Just so you know, Elsie Dalibwayo was my mother.”
Ma Selina did not stir. Luyanda waited for a second, turned on his heel and stormed off down the track.
He froze in his steps.
“Boy!” Ma Selina’s cracked voice rang out after him again.
He scanned the path ahead of him. Gigi was already disappearing into the crowd of people and shacks all around them. He angled back up the track and made his way to Ma Selina’s veranda.
“Sit down.” She regarded him through wary eyes. Luyanda set himself on the space beside her. “You say you’ve got money?”
“And Elsie was your mother?”
Luyanda shuddered at the word ‘was.’ “What do you mean ‘was’?”
“Two thousand. Two thousand and I will tell you everything.”
“I don’t have that kind of money.”
“How much you got?”
Luyanda tapped at his PAD. “Msiza, what’s my bank balance?”
“Two hundred and fifty-seven afris.”
“That’s not enough,” the old woman wheezed. “Come back when you have more. You know where to find me.” She pushed herself onto her feet and hobbled towards the door.
“Wait! How do I know you’re not lying to me?”
She spun around and regarded him though narrowed eyes. “Are you calling me a liar?”
“No. I can leave here and come back with more money. But how do I know I can trust you?”
The old woman’s face wrinkled into a smile. “So, you are Elsie’s son, are you?” she started. “You must be what? Twenty?”
“Nineteen. How do you know my mother?”
She sighed and leaned back on the chair, brow furrowed. She reminded Luyanda of a computer pulling up data from an archive. He wondered how long he was going to have to wait. “You’re just like your mother. Rebellious. She first came here shortly after the war. She had been living in the north. Way up north. She’d been training with the guerrilla forces up there, getting ready for the big revolution.”
“So, my mother was a rebel?” Luyanda asked.
“Yes. Now you know where you get it from. She was pregnant when she got here. I had the pleasure of delivering you, young man. It’s nice to see how you’ve grown.”
Luyanda blurted out his next question. “Why did she give me away?”
Ma Selina scowled. “You come back with the two thousand, and I will tell you all that I know.” With that, she hobbled into her house and slammed the door in his face.