Shoeless and bible blacked, Sandile Dikeni recounts childhood kickabouts on uneven playing fields in the Karoo.
When we formed Shoes Span, nobody had shoes. The reason for our shoelessness was not a secret, it was simply varied. Out of the team of eleven, nine thought that shoes were made for white boys. And the nine also thought it was good that the remaining two had shoes that the parents in one instance vowed never to replace and in another, pledged strict control on. My shoes did not die a natural death but were kicked to death on imaginary footballs like stones, coke cans and some more stones. My father was clear about the point. He understood that boys had the tendency of kicking stones, but in the Karoo, the semi desert landscape allowed for different kinds of stones, he said. One could, if you look carefully, find some sand stones and if one looks more carefully even find some coffee stones. All these stones, my father explained, were softer than the ysterklip, the mother of all stones. My dad was emphatic that his conclusion was reached after years of carefully observation.
He explained to me that before I was born he had four other sons. Four other stonekickers who, he swore, could never look at a stone and not get the urge to kick it. “But you”, he said, “in your eight years, must have kicked more stones to death than these gentleman all combined.” And after making this argument my old man represented it to my mum who always, as household treasurer, welcomes such advice on shoes and boys coming from my dad. The argument got sealed when I retorted that sand stone and coffee stone lacks the roundish shape that ysterklip possesses. And so it was then, that my mother explained that the ball was in her court after hearing the two arguments and she was going to play it. And boy did she play it. She played it rough; back tackle, front tackle and even handball towards my bum when it seemed that my protests were becoming too much. “No shoes until next Christmas,” was the verdict. It was April when the decision was taken. And in between April and Christmas lies what is called winter.
A cruel semi desert winter where frost develops the sharpest teeth and the dew buys itself some saw to work on a boy’s toes while the ysterklip tries to play holy in a white shroud of icicles. As my mom made that cruel decision, Bhayi, the second shoed chap also lost, so to say, his shoes in cruel way. He made the mistake of being friends with Jesus.
‘Jesus’ was a boy named after Andy Jesus Karajinsky who played for Orlando Pirates. Now, Jesus was a very shoeless chap who liked the church very much. And when Good Friday came he badly wanted to go to church to listen to the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. He borrowed that beautiful pair of shoes that Bhayi’s mother bought for Bhayi to be worn by Bhayi and only Bhayi.
The hope, a far cry, was that Bhayi would use them to go church. But after Jesus had spoken to Bhayi about how he got inspiration from Christ in his football the boy lent out his shoes. But Bhayi knowing that Jesus belonged to the stone kicking type, gave the shoes on one condition only: “You must use these new shoes to go to church only. And on your way to church ignore all those stones and cans and especially ysterklip.” Jesus gave his holy word that on his way to church his eyes will be closed to any stones and should he, by some devilish temptation, do some bicycle kick on a perfectly round ysterklip he should be pelted by a full football team with bigger ysterklip than the one he performed a bicycle kick on. “Like it was in the holy book with holy Steven,” he said. But, holy Steven or not, Bhayi said to me, he was going to monitor Jesus for safety sake. I said he should. And he did. He followed Jesus to church. And true to his word the boy kicked no stone not even the plastic guava juice bottle that was rolled by the wind into his path. Jesus just skipped over it the way a good forward would avoid a tackle and walked onto church.
I think that at this point Bhayi should simply have trusted the guy and gone home. But no, he followed him right up to the church and hung around the door where no one could see him but where he could see his shoes. And it is, while he was crouched there, on the left side of the door that he began losing concentration on the shoes and discovered something interesting about the death of Jesus. Bhayi said, the interesting part was that one where they kicked Christ and the priest apparently demonstrated against the pulpit how they did it and immediately exclaimed, “shoo” to the tittering of the congregation. Bhayi said he liked that part very much and he continued listening to the priest in some kind of dream world, until he heard the priest saying in some trance: “And now cometh the hour that Jesus should rise to the heavens to remain there on the throne next to his father forever.”
The next thing that happened is what lost Bhayi his shoes. He ran barefoot into the church, shouting “no ways, no ways there is simply no ways that Jesus is going to heaven with my shoes”. Personally I think that he should not have done that because his parents were in the church. In the row just behind Jesus to be precise. His parents did not ask him to plead. They dubbed him a “Reckless shoe lender, who has no scruples whatsoever, who lends out shoes to renowned shoes haters like Jesus without due consideration of the fact that the shoes that you are lending out were bought by money that did not belong to you at all”.
Then they sentenced him to, “shoes only Sundays” when he must go to church. He says he tried to protest to explain that Jesus did not kick even one stone with the shoes on his way to the church. But as soon as he said “Jesus”, his mother interrupted and told him “You shall not mention the name of the Lord in vain.” He could not even explain that Jesus was a football nickname for Thandazo. Then they said that as soon as he returned from church he should hand over both shoes to his father after he, that is Bhayi, had polish them, to be detained in a place of safety whose whereabouts for rest of the week have absolutely nothing to do with him.
That is how my friend and I, one afternoon of heat after a torturous day at the Victoria West Bantu Community School, were found on our way towards the tiny stream that pretended to flow past our town in drips and drabs. Not even enough water to cool the blistered feet. When we got to the stream we threw ourselves under the shade of the gum tree on its banks and immediately swore at our parents. We said they behaved like white people. Looking at my toe sticking out of the right corner of my Student Prince shoes, I said I think my parents behave whiter than white people.
Bhayi, who had found an acrobatic way of bending his leg towards his head and trying to find the thorn in the left foot, said it was his personal opinion, but his parents where whiter than my parents. And when I spotted that blister on the small toe of his right foot I was inclined to agree, feeling the blister on the palm of my foot where the Karoo soil, mercilessly, had burnt me through the hole in the broken shoe. I told him that his parents were definitely whiter than mine. To fry a fraction of a boy’s foot is really not like frying the whole foot. And so lying there with our feet in the air and facing the side where the sputum of the stream allowed a cooler breeze compared to the rest of the town we swore some more at our parents.
We also swore at them because on that same day at first break, we lost a match we could easily have won. What happened was a simple act of bad luck and an absence of shoes. The way we always chose teams to play against each other was too simple. Twenty-two boys lined up one after other. And then one by one stepped to the left with the following boy stepping to right. After the process one was left with two teams; the right hand team and a left hand squad. These teams then competed against each other. It was always okay, this way of selection of a team until on that day.
Very soon after selection we discovered that the one side had shoes and the other had none. It was a crazy co-incidence, but noticing the shoeless guys I knew these were boys with good skills. I mean there were amongst us guys like Jesus himself, Jazzman, Drakensberg the Mountain, Snakes the Serpent, Dracula the Ugly Bustard, Tornado another Ugly Bustard named after the Bucs forward of the same name, Tarzan the Ape Man who was obvious choice for goalkeeping, then there was Maria-Maria–forty-five-minutes- without-mistakes, but his name was a mistake, he should have been called forty five minutes with ninety mistakes. He made a lot of mistakes. And using my grade two arithmetic I could count two mistakes for every minute.
He was the weak link. But to make up there was also Fire Stone, who got his name from a brand of tyres which looked as strong as his feet but were actually weaker. And then, of course, myself, Shakes, and my friend Bhayi also known as Goodbye My Dear. With a team like this nobody could beat us…. except, we soon found out, guys with shoes. It was an unfair game. They kicked us on the feet with their shoes and when they kicked the ball, a seldom occurrence, they kicked it through the goal posts; two old school desks. They kicked the ball thirteen times. Only thirteen times… through the goal posts. We didn’t kick the ball through the goalposts. Not even once. It did not even help to complain to the referee, he was wearing shoes, you see.
It was while we were lying under the gum trees, just after adding to our list the names of shoe wearing team that beat us at first break that the idea arose. The idea was to form team. A real team. Not a team that was picked from the line of boys at first break. A real regular team that practiced and all that. I said we could pick the team from all the boys that played there this afternoon. But Bhayi said immediately, “No”. And he put his feet down from the stream’s breeze and glanced sideways at me and reminded me, “Some of those guys are the shoe wearing vermin that we just swore at”. I took his point and that’s why later that day we visited all the shoeless creatures who were nursing their big toes, small toes, ankles, heels and very sore egos. We invited them to a meeting the following day, there under the gum trees.
I opened the meeting and explained again why they were there. Firestone said he knew why he was there and could I please make it snappy, he has to go and buy paraffin for the oil lamps that evening.
So Bhayi took over and explained quickly. He said that the one thing that bound us was the fact that we had skill and no shoes. He said that if we formed a team and played with those guys with shoes for money we would be able to collect money so quickly we could by shoes for all of us. Shoes that our parents had no jurisdiction over. Real football boots. Someone asked but how do we win against people with shoes to get the money to buy shoes. Bhayi was ready, “We play them on turf that forces them to get rid of their Sunday shoes, he said. Like at Kakdam. There is a lot of clay there. No fancy shoed boy can keep his Sunday shoes on there. Their fathers will kill them coming back with clay on that fancy footwear”.
“But how do we get them there? Nobody with fancy shoes will go there?” Jazzman asked.
“Nobody with fancy shoes ever goes to Kakdam. So, they do not know that there is clay there,” said Bhayi, “except if some of the sissies here can not keep a secret.”
We all said that we are not sissies and we can keep a secret and, we also added that for money, we would keep any secret. The meeting then concentrated on more fundamentals like where else could we take the shoe wearing scum to get them out of their shoes and give them a drubbing. Ideas came up; like the ysterklip field at the end of town where a boy’s shoe could really get hurt.
We also said that since our mission was shoes we should be known as the Shoes Span.
The Shoes Span did well to collect some money for the first bet against the guys we forced to form a team. I say forced, I mean rather Bhayi forced them on account that he challenged them and called them bad names that they could not live with. So they agreed to form a team. And called it iKaroo. We smashed iKaroo when we played against them in the clay pit. We ran circles around them when we played on the ysterklip field. We also licked them on gravel with a tennis ball. But then things changed: they suggested where to play.
They first chose a sand pitch not far from the river and they brought along a big soccer ball because they said that a tennis ball does not have bounce. They kicked us and the ball many times through the makeshift sand piles we called goalposts with their shoes. It did not even help that we narrowed the goalposts by repeatedly kicking the sand and making new ones. Many times when they kicked the ball through the narrow posts, Tarzan the Ape Man was not there. He was nursing an ankle or some other sore place. Then there was that time they took us to a thorn field. The match changed into a gloveless boxing match after Maria-Maria made a mistake of borrowing one of my broken shoes and piercing the front with a pin and asked Tarzan to pass him the ball which he kicked and pierced.
It was after they scored goal ten in the twenty first minutes of the match. We could not play with the deflated ball. And since the match could not continue Shoes Span declared unilaterally a draw. This is where the boxing match began. A boxing match that involved lot of our parents at a later stage. Because that ball was paid for, not by that iKaroo boy who brought it along, but by his dad who wanted it back from Maria-Maria’s father and pronto. Maria’s father said he could not remember his son owning a pair of shoes, let alone, one with a pin. My father said he always thought that Maria-Maria looked like a little thief, but he could expect a boy to turn up bad, brought up by a man like Maria-Maria’s father… With Victoria West being a small town in a semi desert that fight lasted longer than any one expected, what with cousins and every one joining in and nobody talking to nobody for a long time after that. And no Shoes Span existing forever after that.
I met Bhayi the other day in Johannesburg. I was covering a business conference. He turned out a businessman. They say he can sell anything. I do not know that if he is in the shoe business or not. I know that he spends Sundays watching football. And when there is a big match he invites me to one of the suites at the stadium. This is where we saw Shoes Moshoeu scoring that goal in the African Cup of Nations. Bhayi, on seeing that goal said, “Jesus, Shoes!” And I said, “Thou shall not mention the name of the Lord in vain”.
My jaws were stiff as an ysterklip and my feet were in a comfortable pair of shoes.
Sandile Dikeni’s Shoes were originally published in Chimurenga Vol.5: Triptych: Head/Body (&Tools)/Corpses. Another tale from Sandile’s childhood, We Used to Dance, can be read here.