By Lerato Mensah-Aborampah, Lesotho
“I was part of the Girls’ Junior Basketball Team at school, and later became the captain. My best friend Simphiwe was the co-captain. Uhm, we had a regional basketball trip- a series of matches between local schools basketball teams – I think it was in late June and it was held at the neighbouring school, St. Pauls School for Boys. That’s where I met Kevin. Everybody called him Kay. His friends called him Captain Kay. He was the captain of St. Pauls’ Seniors Boys Basketball team- he was older than us, doing his matric, and he was tall and we all thought he was the hottest guy there ever was-”
I smile, amused. Palesa notices and smiles a little. I do not know where the story is heading. I am imagining Palesa Tefo as a basketball player, as a captain, as anything but who she has chosen to become at my school. It seems like two people I cannot reconcile.
“Okay, let me not bore you with the details. I fell for him like all the other basketball girls. But apparently he wanted me. During the entire four-day tournaments, he was pursuing me and man- I must have been one spineless-”
Palesa suddenly stops talking. She looks away quickly and I see her run her hand across her face.
I pretend to not have taken note of this.
“So yeah,” she continues, turning back to me, her tone evidently of self-mockery, “Palesa Tefo was now dating the Senior Boys Basket Ball Captain from St. Paul School for Boys! Almost everybody in my school knew about us and almost all the boys from his school did too. Kevin Cele. That boy! Hehe! He made me feel like his queen! I was so stupid, I was so hung up- imagine, a Grade 10 Junior basketball captain dating a senior, but not just any senior: The Kevin Cele! Almost scandalous, ha ha!” Palesa lets out a cheerless laugh,
I notice the apparent distaste on her face at this recount.
“It would be a fairly funny story if it weren’t so tragic. Somehow I was caught up in the dreaminess of it and was not aware how much I was being played. He had girls around his finger and I thought I was the only one. Mxm, it is pathetic, really. I had been seeing him for, maybe six months when I found out about his endless flings. I was so angry when I found out. I met him afterschool as we usually did, and I told him I was breaking up with him-”
Palesa clears her throat. She frowns and looks at me curiously like she is trying to find out what I think, what I am thinking about her. She sighs and continues;
“I remember he caressed my cheeks and talked to me softly saying he was sorry and that all those stories were not true. I was angry. But then I realised I was also hurt. I told him to leave me alone. Then I remember he held my hand, first with tenderness and then he tightened his grip, and I was afraid. I was afraid of him that instant. He asked me who the hell I thought I was- he told me that I could easily be the age of his young sister and he said he would not let me break up with him. I freed myself from his painful grip and rushed away from him and he kept shouting and laughing: “You’re my girl Palesa! Don’t forget that! My Sotho girl!”
I let out a deep breath. I feel a bit awkward, learning all these. I cannot explain why. And I guess I am afraid for what she will tell me next because I can tell from her eyes that there is more- way more.
“So what happened, Rapelang, is that a few weeks later, after I broke up with Kevin Cele, I started getting texts on my Facebook from boys that I did not know, they would say they liked me and really thought I was beautiful and all that. At first I thought it was just random texts –you know from those annoying, thirsty Facebook users but then the texts would not stop, one boy after another pestering me with love texts, for a whole month. I blocked them all but I didn’t bother telling Simphiwe about it. It didn’t seem like a big deal then. It was annoying but it didn’t seem like a big deal, you know.”
I nod lightly every now and then, listening intently to her as she speaks.
“Then, it became WhatsApp, an unknown contact started sending me texts- sending me memes, some had my photos on them, Rapelang and they made fun of me, called me slut, shamed my body, shamed me, eh, I don’t really want to mention the whole bunch of the things they called me because-” Her voices breaks away. Palesa Tefo looks away. Her voice was shaking and I think her own tears caught her off guard.
I feel another lurch in my stomach.
“Palesa,” I say quietly. She turns back and looks at me. Even though she has wiped her tears, her eyes are still glassy.
“Rapelang,” she breathes heavily, “I just haven’t talked about this in a long time- it is fine hle, don’t look at me so deeply. See, I had always had a tough skin, well I thought I did, but they got to me, Rapelang. And they hurt me. And they would hurt more than I ever thought they would. I told Simphiwe, we tried calling that number but they never picked up. I blocked it from my WhatsApp but out of frustration, ended up deleting my WhatsApp altogether! And somehow I still thought I could deal with all of that without my parents knowing. So I never told them. ”
“It was Kevin, wasn’t it?” I say, feeling a surge of what I think is anger.
“I always knew it was him. Him and his friends. Kevin Cele tormenting a girl who left him- I knew it was him. But what could I do to older boys like them? Everybody knew that it was never wise to get on the wrong side of St. Pauls boys- boys like Kevin. A week later, I would find out, from Simphiwe, about an Instagram account that was in my name- but it wasn’t mine- it posted pictures of half-naked bodies so that it seemed it was me but it wasn’t-”
She swallows hard and tightens her jaws.
“That was the last straw for me, Rapelang. I guess that is when I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take any of it. Simphiwe told me that these pictures were even circling around in some group chats. Simphiwe helped contact Instagram so they could help take that page down. But almost everyone knew about it by then. Even with the page down, I was still in people’s phones, in group chats- I mean, the internet is bigger than we think and that is just scary. Boys from St. Paul whistled and called me names when I passed by. And at my school, it was worse. It was very messed up. Some days I didn’t go to school and faked stomach aches and headaches so my parents would let me stay at home. But the truth is, I could not show my face. I could not take the stares, the whispers, the talks, the judgements, the questions- but the humiliation mostly- I was so humiliated. The humiliation, Rapelang, it was murderous-”
She keeps quiet and stares blankly to the ground.
“This is heavy stuff,” is all I manage to say softly. I feel stupid that this all I could say.
She nods weakly and shrugs her shoulders weakly.
“There is only so much that can happen in silence, you know. I mean, Simphiwe, shame- she was there for me. She would try urge me to report these. But I was afraid. And I think she was also afraid to report without my permission- perhaps she thought I would not want more people knowing- teachers, adults and most of all my parents. And even though she was there for me, always telling that those stupid boys would pay for all that and that I would be okay and helping me get rid of that page- she could not get rid of what the whole thing had already done to me. I don’t know, I guess every post, every picture, every text insulted me until I was convinced I had brought this on myself. It was my fault. I was convinced that the insults could not just stem out of nowhere- that surely they had to be a reflection, in some way of who I was. So yeah, in silence, they tore me, they shredded me-very badly. And there was no tough skin left.”
I find the courage to walk closer to her. I stand by her and I find that I really have nothing to say.
She sighs quietly.
“I think the worst feeling was the loneliness – an image of me was in the hands of the public and it felt like they had all become allies against me and that made me alone. I felt alone in a malicious cyberspace and I also felt alone in the real world-in my room, at my school. Until I could no longer hide it. I could not even will myself out of my bed and pretend I could handle being at school. I couldn’t do it. I just could not do it. I told my coach that I would not play anymore. He had to put Simphiwe as the new captain. And not being able to be in that court, Rapelang, it broke me. Because basketball was everything- I loved it, I loved being in that court with my teammates. But I could not do it anymore. Until my parents noticed that I was miserable, my teachers noticed and Simphiwe was forced to speak and tell them every single thing that had been happening. ”
I close my eyes for a moment and I hear Palesa breathe out heavily, like she has just released mountains of histories. She looks at me in silence, slightly nodding her head as if she too is hearing her own story for the first time, as if she has opened up a section of herself that she has never understood too.
“I don’t know what to say, Palesa,” I whisper audibly.
“You don’t have to say anything Rapelang,” she forces a little smile, “maybe the stitching process is this- you listening and me- well, me talking. . .”
I let out a deep breath. Palesa reaches for another ‘morobei and rolls it around weakly on her palm.
“So, may you do that?” She looks at me intently. “May you listen?”
I nod quietly