“Visions of the future bring them face to face with their most agonising fears, but they reject them. How long will they allow themselves to be dazzled by only that which is agreeable to them? It is difficult to predict, and they themselves do not know.
— Rakesh Khairalia

Age of Zinc presents the sixth installment in the memoirs of a South African slum dweller.

Chapter 6

The incidents, the stories and the experiences. These were my way of expressing myself.

For example, I remember that one day in a large wildberry field I was almost bitten by a snake. This was very special amongst the children of the reformatory because this could not have happened to a city boy. So I was about to talk about an incident that was unique. Everyone was present in their beds getting ready to sleep or thinking of their mothers or girlfriends or thinking of the next day and fearing what might be in store. Then, they would suddenly pay attention. I would hear hushing sounds and others pleading for silence. This was like walking into a cinema in Joburg, Cape Town, or Durban. You see, many of these guys here came from very bad backgrounds. Some were from good ones but because of circumstance landed up here. Nevertheless, the issue was that I was lucky to be here this evening and telling of an incident that almost cost me my life.

You could feel the suspense, the anxiety, the fear, and the joy and excitement of those who dared where the angels feared. Patrick was the main event. Tonight I was taking these guys on a trip to my home in Melmoth. Most of them had never in their lives seen a snake and such a dangerous one like black mamba. “Shut up, listen, hey please man, hey fuck you bitches!” These were some of the words used to keep these guys quiet. Eventually, you could hear a pin drop.

They never realized that this, for me, was a painful incident. These berries were to be filled in a big bucket, and if they were not, I was going to be punished that very day. My voice turned in such a way that it would provide for those who were now getting ready to sleep and at the time pumping the adrenaline and excitement into those who wanted action. Because I could not cut down the berry bushes and they had hundreds of wicked thorns on them, I had to find a way of getting in and picking them. I used to use two pieces of a half a metre zinc sheets to stand on because I was always bare footed. At that time it was a very rare thing to have takkies or shoes. I don’t think I even had them at that time.

Some of these guys had never seen or even heard of berries and I had to describe their colour, their sweetness, and of the thorns that they grew on. This was also an opportunity to explain that good things come from struggle. I had to tell them how delicious they were and that the jam they ate in the city came from these berries that almost got me killed.

Stamping on the zinc, I picked the berries and had to jump on the one that was in front as I moved to the next bushes that had berries. I then turned around and carefully lifted the second zinc behind to put in front of the one I was standing. This was my way of getting forward and back on the hundreds of thorny bushes without even a half a foot between them to stand. I remember how one day, while loading sacks of maize, a span of oxen dragged me through these thorns while I was on the sledge. On that day as well, I think a snake frightened them. You see some snakes are not aggressive but if they are continuously threatened, maybe by cattle trampling on them or dogs or people scaring them, they become aggressive.

This added spice to the incident. Already I was advertising my next presentation for the next day as these guys kept on asking for silence and attention. In this incident I was still picking the berries using the corrugated irons as a platform to protect my feet. I had now covered about twenty meters of berry, thorny bush and because I could pull the thorny bush I had to always first pull the branch, which was also thorny and carefully pick the berries without getting pricked. These thorns are curly and very painful. They are also hard to take out of your hands and feet or body if they prick and break inside your skin. It was at this time that I saw a thicker but also darker and smoother branch.

You should have heard how they started shifting under the blankets, others stood out of their beds, others covered their heads and others yelled at me to continue. I then slowly bent forward, balancing on the zinc and leaned forward to pull the branch. As I caught the branch, before I even blinked, this black mamba was standing a metre high in front of me. I stared into its dark black mouth.

Others told me to run. Others told me to fight, others told me to stand still and others told me to make as if I was dead. I bolted, ran for my dear life as the thorns ripped through my feet and tore my body open. I tripped and fell into the recently ploughed field. I am sure this black mamba was as surprised as I was and must have fled in the opposite direction. I often wander why it did not strike at me that day. Mambas can be very aggressive.

When I got home I was first scolded and then told to wash up and go to my granny where she spent the whole day taking out the thorns from my feet and body.

I then heard the snorts and people turning uneasily in their beds, with others complaining of having bad dreams. These were special nights and memories.