I met PJ Mofokeng in Franschhoek, Western Cape. PJ took up space. He was loud, in the sense of a man who knows for sure he is speaking the truth. He told me about his publishing outfit Geko, which published Sabata-mpho Mokae’s Dikeledi, a book written in Setswana and which traveled far even without an English translation. I would later be on a panel with PJ, where he introduced himself in Sesotho, in an earth-shaking fashion that elicited ululations from the crowd. Energies were immediately lifted. You couldn’t help being present.
Now, all writers loved hanging out at Elephant & Barrel. To reach it, you had to tunnel between a stretch of houses that looked cinematic with their perfect hues of blue, green and white. There was the option of staying at the Green Room, where you could drink all the wine they wished. But if you wanted an ‘escape’ you went to Elephant & Barrel, where you sat on hardwood benches, drank Windhoek Lager and Carling Black, as you listened to live bands playing Alternative Rock. We all flocked here at night, spicing our animated conversations with alcohol and smoke.
The very first evening, PJ Mofokeng and I were among the last to leave. We had talked and talked and time just flew by. As we stepped out, I realized that it was difficult to trace my house at 32 Van Wyk Street. So PJ accompanied me as I searched. Now, Franschhoek gleams during the day, with grand houses arranged better than Hollywood facades. But at night this fine layer lifts off. Shadows gather and roads lose their geometrical sensibility. I felt I was in a different place than I was during the day but I kept on, eager to see the sign for 32 Van Wyk. We missed a turn unfortunately, and we kept walking, up to a point where there were no more street lights, where the road vanished inside a cluster of tall trees.
As we turned to walk back, we noticed that we were being trailed by three masked young men, who immediately hid behind trees when they saw us. In that most unholy moment, as I tried to register the danger, PJ leant towards me and whispered, “Be prepared to fight.” As I gathered my breath to speak, I saw PJ unhook his belt, ready to flick it out as a weapon. “After hitting them, we will need to run for our lives Kiprop,” he said. Instinct spoke to me then, and advised me to be bold. I knew I would not fight. I have never been in a street fight of any kind. Still I raised my shoulders high, wrapped my coat tight and began walking up with what I assumed was a mean Nairobi swagger, hoping against hope that they would be deceived. As we came close to them, PJ narrowed his brows in a manner to suggest “Kujeni vile mnakuja, hata sisi ni wanaume.”
The three masked men emerged from their hiding, and walked by us in an Indian file. They maintained their hooded gazes till they vanished in the murk ahead. Now I really wanted to run but I kept on with my confident swagger, and sighed in relief when we finally saw 32 Van Wyk. We walked to my house, unlocked the door and sat on the wicket chairs inside. I felt as if I was being pricked by a thousand needles and it took me a while to realize that PJ was talking to me. His face was the same truthful face I had seen all along when he said, “I would have fought beside you to the end. You know I find it sad that other Africans see us black South Africans as being violent to them. When I was in Nigeria I was shown so much kindness. I insist on being kind as I can to any other African, to show them that a South African can see them as brothers too. I am tired of this xenophobia.”
He then scratched his locks for a while, before adding
“We once had a king called Moshoeshoe. When people ran from wars and famine, and wanted refuge in our Sotho kingdom, his only question would be ‘Are they brown?’ You are a Sotho too Kiprop. You are brown, just like me.