True Love Waits

A short story about a Zulu who is no longer a maiden

Credit: Rogan Ward/Reuters

Today the King chooses his queen. A horde of Zulu virgins charge towards the royal palace after having been examined. Having been through many other tests like this and a tough initiation, they are finally ready to be viewed by the King. The girls are nervous, you can tell. Some of them are smiling, some of them not, but all of them are nervous. You can just tell.

Those who passed the tests are torn between celebrating and being traumatized by the shrill experience. Imprinted in their minds is the secretive door to the examination room which opens to let them in and out and shuts immediately behind them. The corridors are off bounds but if you’re a young maiden, you don’t want to be there anyway. Though it detested, the most humiliating thing is when you are ordered not to return.

The air outside is dense with pity for those who stand under the tent. The ones who failed the test. The ones who fell pregnant and the ones who just fell. They're helping the older women - those who are unmarried or widowed, whilst others celebrate. Their job now is to chop, cook, clean and brew. They will be on their feet all day and this wretched tent is their only defense from the scorching sun. Some see it as a punishment while others are glad to pay their due.

“Oh, I see them! Can you? There they come!”

There in many lines, they dance and chant for the King. For our beloved young and handsome King. There are tourists of course, who have their own wing, taking pictures of the girls as they approach. Something eerily excites Europeans about 'semi-naked' girls waiting to be taken or not taken. The girls are an exhibition, to be captured and taken home as a souvenir. Obliviously dancing to the songs the virgins sing, they cannot fathom what it really means to be here. If only they knew what the girls are going through. What the parents are going through. What the King is going through. Everyone but the tourists is in some sort of unspeakable agony.

“Heeleeleeleeleelee!” Ma Jola ululates. Poor Ma Jola. Since Buhle was born, Ma Jola has dreamed of this day. Her daughter and the King have been inseparable practically since birth. She has always believed that her daughter would be queen. But today Buhle is with us chopping onions. Ma Jola ululates again for other women’s daughters but we all know that she’s in excruciating pain. We've heard her saying: ‘If only my daughter weren’t such a whore!’ And Buhle here in this tense tent has heard it too. I look at her to show her that I’m here but she can't look back because she just cannot.

Ma Jola ululates again louder this time and the other women join. The girls chant and dance and bow their heads as they draw nearer to the King. Many of them have never met him. Many of them come from far away places. But he's not looking at them. He's looking … broken. His uncles whisper something to him and he makes an effort to recover but … the King is broken. He waves and makes another attempt at enthusiasm but it’s no use.

The tourists don't know that it's their Christianity and their missionaries that have crept so far into our kingdom that they have broken our King. They don't know that it's their civilization that has doomed these star crossed lovers.

As the convoy passes the tent, his gaze in undeniable. Everybody knows, but no one will speak a word of it. Not today. Buhle won’t lift her head for him. The maidens are required to bow their heads, but Buhle isn’t bowing hers. She’s just not lifting it.

From inside the tent, the loudest noise is what's not being said. It seems like only yesterday we were mere children. We had no idea and were thus in no danger. We were frolicking together on the red soil. Our bodies fearlessly enmeshed with what seemed an eternally open world. Today we’re floating about like somnambulists in the lethargic limitations of life. And the tourists shoot on.

Buhle is sixteen. A sweet little thing. She’s quiet yet brave and bold. She has nerve. Unlike the King and I, she won’t break. It's as if everything that is shocking us, she already knew. This pregnancy is happening to her first of all and has cost her everything, but she isn't in any kind of shock. She stands by her station with her head bowed in undeniable defiance, not crying - chopping onions.

The elders remark about the maidens who prance around before the King. He has no stock for it. He is looking for the courage to stand up to his people. As far as he's concerned, they're as ignorant as the tourists. He misses his father in whom he had trusted for abiding guidance. The former King has just recently died leaving his eldest son with the responsibility of leading the tribe and choosing a virgin bride. He will marry whosoever is convenient but he will not stop loving Buhle who is here in the tent. If he does not love her, he does not love at all.

Still, he cannot imagine what their indiscretion has cost Buhle. Even as a mistress, he knows she will lose. Had he waited, she would be out in the open, and ready for his love. But he had to have her and she melted in his arms. Today she's in the tent and news rushes in of which girl he’s looking at and who’s parent’s he’s talking to. As if to drown the excitement Ma Jola ululates louder still. Nothing can be ignored. All Buhle can do is not lift her head.

"… it’s going to be okay, friend” I endeavour.

“No it’s not,” she clarifies.

She’s right. It’s not. The rightful queen is with child and the King is broken and the tourists are clueless. Nothing is okay ..

I hold her hand, look over at the crowd and lead her out of the tent towards the Machi mountains. Screw the onions right now. Let them chop their own onions.

The other women in the tent shout after us to come back but we’re walking on. They’ll have to do without us.

I am nearly in tears because I can’t find the words to comfort my friend. She looks at me and smiles in a most terrifying manner, wipes the sweat off her face with her dirty apron and says, “You know, maybe they’re right …”

I look at her, bewildered, waiting for a continuation. What does she mean? How can they be right? You’re carrying his child and he’s choosing a spouse while you cook their food. How can they possibly be right? She stops walking, looks up to the sky and shields her eyes from the simmering sun saying, “True love waits.”