I heave my giant belly off my lumpy mattress.
It’s laid on the cold concrete floor, and it feels like I am attempting to reach the sky as I stand up. Careful not to wake the three sleeping bodies who remain, I eek my aching bones out of the cocoon of our communal body-heat and edge towards the door.
My bladder feels like it has given in on me. A friend tells me this is a common side effect of pregnancy, but the inconvenience makes me wonder why such a burden is bestowed on women.
When the mattress is down at night, there isn’t much space between our sleeping place and the door. I pause in the small gap and wait to ensure there’s nobody immediately outside.
The outside of our shack shakes as people walk past, it creeks as ‘omalume’ lean against it and chat about the taxi routes on their way back in the evenings.
But tonight I can’t hear anyone too close, just the hum of the shebeen a few streets down and the crackle of the fires all around. I open the door just enough to slip out and gently pull it closed behind me.
The nearest toilet is about 100m away, through a rabbit warren of other signpost clad ‘homes’, stitched with old scrap metal and sheltering many bodies hiding from the cold Johannesburg night.
The air is smoke laden and heavy, thin from the low temperatures but thick from the smog escaping our rooms, holding onto any shred of warmth we can find.
I wonder who may see me. Before I was pregnant, I made sure not to need to use the bathroom between dusk and dawn, the risk was too great. It’s no secret that the tsotsis lurke in the shadows, waiting for girls like me to come past.
It’s inevitable that they will find us at some point. Don’t I know. I’m carrying a reminder of this harsh reality, daily.
I speed up at the thought. Would my protruding belly be a deterrent to potential chance takers? I can only hope. I’m up to a brisk walk now, as fast as my swollen feet can manage. I can see the green casing of the toilet, begrudgingly erected by the local government, but totally derelict from overuse and lack of maintenance.
It’s cold, but the hum of the flies persists. The mosquitoes don’t let up. A cesspool of germs, this must be where the term comes from. The stench hits me from meters away. I wonder if I can hold my breath the whole time, my stomach churns just from this little life growing inside of me, I hardly need the rotting smell of unprocessed human excrement to encourage it.
I shoot in and do my business, perched with my belly throwing me off balance – never mind I can almost not close the door as it protrudes off my slender frame.
Each day as I clean my madam’s beautiful porcelain bowl, I wonder whether she knows about this hole I frequent. The shame makes me shudder. The embarrassment overwhelms me.
I’m done as quick as I can be and I start making my way back to my room. It’s 2am, the frosty ground crunches beneath my feet and I stumble over an old beer bottle someone has left behind in the path.
I am out of breath when I get back to my ‘house’. I pause and wonder what kind of life this child is going to lead, holed up here in this pieced together shack. The bed is already full, I wonder where I will keep her at night. But I have been warned about adoption. And when I went the abortion clinic, the mlungus from the church were screaming ‘MURDERER’ and I got scared. I am not a murderer. I am scared.
She comes flying into this world a few nights later and I bundle her up in the hand-me-down blankets I’ve been given and return to the sheets of metal that I call home.
I call her Amahle – the ‘beautiful one’.
We find a spot for her on that bed. And I nurse her through the night. She goes with me everywhere, nestled into my back.
And the days continue and her and I frequent the cesspool as seldom as I can possibly manage, I hate exposing her to that place. But there is nowhere to leave her when I must go.
My milk is slow – food is scarce, I have no running water to keep myself hydrated. She sucks and cries and squirms with hunger. I visit the clinic for her vaccinations and the sisters scold me for her lack of weight gain. ‘Aren’t you a real woman, where is your milk’ they gaff.
Her name is Amahle. She is my beautiful one.
At night I dream I had just abandoned her.
I picture where we’d be now if I had.
She’d have been found by a garbage collector as he looked for his wares one morning.
He’d have called the police.
She’d have been whisked off to a warm home, with food every day.
She’d make the news.
She’d be famous.
The whole would see her.
Everyone would be talk about the sweet little girl who was found by the river.
The world would be incensed, disgusted yet enamoured by this helpless little beauty who survived against the odds.
Donations would pour in for the home where she was taken.
The world would praise her new caregivers as saints, her guardian angels.
She would bask in the attention and be adopted by a loving family who was praised for changing her life.
She’d be welcomed and loved and have a bottle when she needed it.
She’d be warm and dry, and have a new nappy every time one was dirty.
She’d get educated and have clothing and maybe even some toys.
Me, I’d also make the news.
I too would be famous.
The whole would see me.
There would be a rage.
Everyone would talk about the heartless mother who left her baby girl by the river.
They’d form search parties and hunt me down.
Reporters speak about how merciless I am.
There is passion and venom in their dialog.
I am hated, but I am seen.
When they find me they put me in jail.
It’s crowded but I get three meals a day and have somewhere to sleep.
The walls are made of bricks and the wind doesn’t creep through.
I even have a toilet to use every time I needed to.
At night I dream I had abandoned her. And her life was different.
But in real life I didn’t abandon Amahle.
In real life, I did the ‘right’ thing.
And now we live in squalor, invisible to everyone.
I did the ‘right’ thing. Look where it got me.