The Essential Gifting Guide for People Who Already Have Everything (2020 Edition)

  • Essential olive-infused CBD fruit oil from the community gardens of La Marou
  • Found art earrings by Fontanella Parchesa
  • Twice-spun silk gilet from Plok+Raya’s pre-2021 androgynous range
  • Marshall Tupping’s fair-trade rayon face masks with bouclé ear ties
  • Ready-to-bake vegan banana bread panettone, packed in a copper hat box, from Rosamund’s on Seventh
  • Jemima Inigo’s disinfectant spray gifting box, Artesian Safari edition.
  • Limited release Purdy von Xanthe refillable Le Chiquito-sized hand sanitiser carafe
  • Mink-lined Zoom slippers from Octavia Company
  • Inside-Outside summer pyjama set from Dagny Morgan (order ten weeks in advance for personalised pocket embroidery)
  • ZenSourcePlus wireless dalgona maker with premium app and 12 months support
  • Triple-stranded mood-enhancement wrist band with interchangeable Emotion Inserts TM from Montgomery Works
  • $500 digital voucher entitling the bearer to ten custom video-conferencing backgrounds

I Feel You

Here’s an odd little story I submitted to a local literary magazine for their ‘Siblings’ issue.

It didn’t make it through to selection, and so I share this tale of strangeness with you here.


I Feel You

At 3pm, in the express queue at Checkers, an orgasm begins to jelly Minnie. She pretend-sneezes and squeezes inward to keep her bits together. It passes just as the cashier asks, “Would you like a packet Ma’am?” Minnie shakes her head, hands the cashier a folded plastic samoosa to unravel and fill with four tins of baked beans.

Minnie walks towards her car, plumbing the depths of her handbag for keys when the contractions ripple through her again, this time the feeling is like washing gloves drubbing against a draining board. Minnie is 35 and a generous portion of her life has been complicated by a series of phantom sensations visiting upon her at random intervals.

When she was 15, her left collarbone throbbed for three weeks while her arms felt like fleshy tubes encasing splinters of bone. The x-rays showed nothing unusual. There was also that winter where she walked around barefoot, in shorts and t-shirts, as if the ghost of a holiday sun burned just under her skin. Minnie’s foster mother took her to spiritual healers, convinced of some dark force at play. Minnie was prayed and pissed upon, given distilled water and aloe juice enemas. There was even a doll made in her likeness, soaked in holy oil, and placed in a box with a Bible, to be kept in a cupboard where no ill could reach. That didn’t stop Minnie’s lungs thickening during her Matric Biology exam. She was about to answer Question Five on the Krebs Cycle, when fingers of chlorine pushed into her nose and she fell to the floor in a fit. Minnie remembers her tongue lolling against the coolness of the brown scuffed lino and that Petrus Meyer wasn’t wearing socks. The entire class had to retake the test. No one asked her to the Matric dance.

The orgasms were the most terrifying until she learnt to control her physical responses to them. They rarely came during the day, but when they did, she was able to suppress them, like an urge to scratch her bum in public.

It took some time before she was able to accurately discern between real sensation and what she calls, Spooky Feels. They are almost always preceded by a slight tingling in her stomach or heat radiating from the back of her head. When doctors ask her to describe the experience, she says it is like someone calling her from across a ravine, that the pain, or the elation, is diluted, strained even, as if it has already passed through something.

When Minnie found a job with a good medical aid benefit, she went for a CAT scan. Like the x-rays from years before, the doctors found nothing. She started seeing a psychologist who suggested her episodes were a result of an unresolved childhood trauma. Minnie, who’d never known her real parents, was happy to accept his theory. It made more sense than her foster mother insisting that Mad Aunt Clara was pushing pins into her ragged effigy every night.

As Minnie drives home, a ball of fire rips through her belly. She swerves and misses a telephone pole by centimetres. The pain persists, and though she can tell it’s another Spooky Feel, there’s something different about this one. It burns as it contracts, and with each ebb, it grows distant, fading, and then it’s gone. Minnie is bereft and she doesn’t know why. Other motorists have stopped their cars, they knock at her windows, “Are you okay?” She nods, her eyes just streaming, blind to everything.

She can’t remember how she gets home. She thinks someone may have followed her to make sure she was safe. Strangers are the kindest.

Minnie is in her kitchen looking for her sharpest knife. She knicks it across her thumb. The blood lines the cracks in her palms and it stings. It is real.

Days later, Minnie is back at Checkers to buy baked beans and candles. It is pay-day weekend and the long queues are perdition. Minnie picks up a newspaper, skimming over tired headlines; crime, corruption, loadshedding. She flips through to the entertainment section but is startled by her face on page five. “Woman and Lover Dead. Boyfriend Arrested.” Minnie reads that a woman and a man were found dead by neighbours last weekend. The man had been shot in the head and the woman in her stomach. The boyfriend turned himself over to the police. The article identifies the woman as Diane Ronalds, 35, estate agent. There is no other information. The picture in the newspaper is taken from one of Diane’s real estate ads.

Minnie taps the shoulder of the man standing in front of her. “Do you see this woman?” she says, tapping at the picture. “Does she look like me?” The man, who has just lost on level 75 of Candy Crush, is ready to dismiss Minnie but he looks at the newspaper anyway. “Yah, you do look the same. Identical, check, even your eyes. She could be your twin.” He’s suddenly interested, and wants to ask Minnie what happened, but she’s blanked out, and he thinks maybe it’s just as well, this is chick-drama he can do without.

Fiction Friday: Three Tellings

While editing older writings, I came across this narrative exercise from my MA coursework. For this assignment we had to take a scenario/vignette and write it in three ways, altering tense and POV in each. 

I found that changing focalisations significantly altered the narrative for me, in an invigorating way. The next time you’ve stubbed your head against a writing block, consider switching your POV to one you wouldn’t ordinarily use.

Young Blood

Aunty Usha tells my granny she has seen Parvez kiss Marufah over the fence.

“Ja Haunty, you know, I see them. I see Marufah and that boy. I see her go upstairs to the flat too. It is not good Haunty, it is not good.”

Aunty Usha lives in the garden cottage in the house behind us. She speaks fluent Tamil, wears her false teeth only when eating and swaps most of her A’s for H’s.

Each of her visits to my grandmother is a showcase of arthritis, blood pressure and sugar; they put on their best aches while they swap hospital records and recipes for eucalyptus balms. Until this revelation, with flames licking at its seams, that our 15-year-old-next-door neighbour Marufah, and our twenty-something Pakistani tenant Parvez, are scandalising, by way of Parvez kissing Marufah’s hand, after she’s given him some sort of parcel over the pre-cast fence separating our properties.

And there is also the matter of Marufah gaining entrance to our backyard and going upstairs to the flat Parvez rents from my uncle.

My granny nods, shakes her head, and says, “You know young blood, Aunty, they can do anything.” It is shameful, they all agree, but who will tell Apa Fatima, Marufah’s mother; that formidable force, all hard voice and iron hand? Apa Fatima, who wears her practice of Islam like armour against all that is Western to her mind, whose family eats all their meals seated on the floor, who hosts weekly religious gatherings at her home and who commands the reverence of our community.

For a holy-moly like Marufah, the weight of black-cloaked modesty laid upon her well before she hit puberty, to be getting more action than I could ever write about in my diary, is incredible. And it is unimaginable that she would risk her mother’s wrath by carrying on with a Pakistani man.

But Aunty Usha has seen it, and she has no reason to lie.

After the visit, my granny tells my uncle to have a word with Parvez. No one sees Marufah in our backyard or close to our fence again.

Parvez moves out of the flat a few months after. He tells my uncle he needs a bigger place for when his wife and children arrive from Pakistan.

The man next door

Your mother gives you a Tupperware filled with some of the curry she cooked for supper.

She’s dressed to go out; a long black cloak obliterating her silhouette, her veil perched just above her forehead, ready to drop over her eyes as soon as she’s out the door. She clutches her car keys in one black-gloved hand and holds a thick file in the other. Every Thursday afternoon, she teaches ladies how to wash and prepare bodies for Muslim burial. Your mother tells you to give the curry to Aunty Mabel and to tell her that it is for that Pakistani man next door.

It’s not unusual for your mother to prepare extra meals for others. Beggars who come to your door leave with more than just bread and butter. Your heart is full of love for her and you feel guilty about the the anger you hold just below it. Your mother lives for Allah, and you are still finding your way to Him. You have questions for her but you can’t ask them.

You go out to find Aunty Mabel. She’s worked for your family since before you were born, and is more mother than your own sometimes. You can’t find her and you decide you will give the food to the Pakistani man yourself. You know your mother will be upset if she finds out. She doesn’t approve of you speaking to strange men, even when you are wearing your veil.

You wait just outside your kitchen door. It’s the closest to the gate he uses as an entrance. The wait is not long, you hear his keys. Your veil is in your room and if you go and fetch it, you will miss him. You stand on the flower pot and call out to him with your face exposed. He smiles up at you, a smile that stays in his green eyes. You are suddenly shuffling for words and you tell him that your mother cooked a little extra for him.

His English is just ever so slightly broken. It’s utterly charming. You are charmed. He asks you what your name is. His name is Parvez.

As you pass him the plastic container, your hands brush for a second. The contact is so minimal and yet you flush red. He is still smiling as he walks away.

You hear Aunty Mabel in the kitchen. You rush to tell her that you’ve given the food to Parvez and that she mustn’t tell your mother. Aunty Mabel is so used to indulging you and your siblings, she will lie for you again.

Over Fences

Usha’s sunflowers grew taller than the fence; their faces drooping slightly forward, full and magnificent. She liked to look at them. They reminded her of a time when she and her husband were tall, when they too were something to behold, long before osteoarthritis shrunk her and diabetes claimed his foot. It was during this meditation that she noticed Aunty Hawa’s tenant and the other neighbour’s daughter, Marufah , speaking over the fence.

She knew that those neighbours were very, very strict Muslims. The ones where the women only left their houses covered in those long black dresses and face veils. Not like Aunty Hawa, who was also Muslim but dressed in different colours. Usha knew that Marufah’s mother would not want her speaking to a man she wasn’t related to, especially Aunty Hawa’s handsome young Pakistani tenant. Marufah was laughing and Usha recognised the light in her eyes. The Pakistani had bewitched her.

She saw Marufah extend her hand to the man, who brought it up to his lips. “This is not good,” Usha thought. “Not good at all.” She picked up a broom and knocked it against the fence. She hoped the noise would be loud enough to alert the couple of her presence. It worked. They parted quickly and Usha went back to tending her sunflowers.

It was the next Thursday afternoon and Usha took her crocheting out into the garden. Their cottage didn’t get much natural light and she didn’t want to disturb her napping husband with the fluorescent casting over his bed and her busy needle. Her concentration was broken by the sound of someone climbing the stairs to Aunty Hawa’s tenant’s flat. She looked up, expecting to wave at the Pakistani who always greeted back. She saw Marufah instead, looking like she was concentrating on being invisible.

Usha’s gaze followed Marufah into the flat. “This is bad,” Usha thought. “I must tell Aunty Hawa about this, she won’t want this kind of thing to be carrying on right under her roof.” While the Pakistani was always kind and polite to Usha, she knew they had something of a bad reputation when it came to women. Her own grand-daughter got involved with a foreigner and was now expecting a child. They’d married but Usha was not happy with the union.

With her mind unsettled, Usha looked to her sunflowers.

(Fiction) Words for Wednesday: What we did to Sara

I wrote this opening with the grand plan of developing the story through the manic mechanism of NaNoWriMo. But as I’ve come to expect every single year, I start out fizzy and end up flat. I don’t see these characters living beyond the few lines I’ve put down here. Enjoy, as you can, their brief mortality.


What we did to Sara

It took three of us to hold her down.

“Where’s that fucking coke,” said Layla. Her fingers clamped around Sara’s mouth, prying it open, the thumbs pressing purple into the surrounding skin.

“Pour it into her mouth now. Bitch bit me.”

Sara’s arm spasmed under me and I almost dropped the can. Nadia held onto the legs as they bucked like sheep do after their throats have been cut. Layla poured the coke through the V of her fingers. The violent foam fizzed into Sara’s nostrils, down her chin and into the tight ravines of her neck. I couldn’t tell if the froth was just from the cold drink.

“I think that’s enough Layla, she’s going to choke if you give her any more,” said Nadia. She loosened her grip on the legs and started pulling Layla away. I held onto Sara as she coughed, shifting pressure from tyranny to tenderness. She stared at me, her eyes burnt dark red and flushed through with embarrassment and anger.

“Don’t ever talk to my guy again, you fat bitch,” Layla said, her tone neutral and menacing in one hiss. She walked out of the classroom with Nadia. I let go of Sara, mouthed I’m sorry and followed them. I closed the door behind me, my bowels twisted into ice.

I liked Sara. I never knew her to be anything but a fat girl cliché; jolly and friendly, with a pleasing prettiness squashed into her face. That was until she’d been put onto the right meds for diabetes, lost more than a few kilograms and started coming to school with cheekbones you could cut yourself for.

The first to make a move was Layla’s boyfriend, Rido. He offered her a ride home one afternoon, revving his modified Citi Golf, its suspension so low it scraped sparks off the road if more than two people sat in it. We had just walked out of the school’s office block, holding warning letters with spaces for our parents to sign. It was cigarette smoke this time, doing us in by wafting off our dark green uniforms towards the principal’s capacious nostrils. I saw Sara with Rido and tried to deflect Layla’s attention from the scene ahead but it was too late. She glowered, a bone-splitting stare, as Rido snaked his smile around Sara. To give Sara some credit, she didn’t seem interested but it’s difficult to pull away from the popular guy when you’ve hardly had any time to build up your confidence reserves. It didn’t matter that Sara declined Rido’s offer for a lift and walked home alone hunched over from the weight of her school bag, Layla had been roused. And once she made landfall there was no hope of emerging from her path unscathed.

Fiction: Moon Sonnet (A Short Story)

I submitted this short story for Short Story Day Africa 2014. This year’s theme was Terra Incognita. Though I do read in the genre, writing speculative fiction is indeed unknown ground for me.

My story didn’t make the longlist  so I thought I would share it with you here.


Moon Sonnet
by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee


In a real fuck-you move, Land Affairs named this suburb Dassie Rock. One of the hundred or so hacked through the Klipriviersberg, each a congelation of multi-storied habitations stacked over what used to be one of Johannesburg’s largest nature reserves.

I must’ve been about three-years old when we’d come here on Sunday mornings for walks, bounding up the hiking trail, the sun fresh and leafy, my claps sending the dassies scattering. I wanted to catch one and take it home. Mother said they were social animals, they wouldn’t like being locked up alone in my room. I wonder where they’ve relocated to now.

The building I enter looks like the architect couldn’t decide between modelling it after a spear or a sail. As misshapenly phallic as it is, it is still far slicker than my own flatlet on the cheaper side of Wemmer Pan.

The security guard, however, is standard edition. Bulky brown riot-ready apparel with smart-phone cuffs and recording eyeglass. He has his personal tablet propped up on the table and he’s angling his head towards the light. “Capture. No. Delete. Capture. No. Delete. Capture. Yes. Save to Cloud.” He hears me approach and is all business.

“Place your bag on the tray Sir. Step through the scanner. Look straight ahead.” He taps away at his console as blue rays map out my irises. “I see here that you’re a licensed Companion and Attendant. That must be fun work, the Companion part at least. It must be nice to meet so many new people offline,” he says.

I step out of the scanner and walk towards the table where all my stuff’s been laid out.

“Yeah well, it’s a bit like any other job you know. It pays well enough, by the hour. The people are interesting sometimes. I do meet more than a few douches though.”

The guard passes his bomb-stick over each item on the table, stopping at the small silver case. “Must be really gratifying then to be able to administer these to one of those douches you mention.”

“It’s never the douches who apply for the permit,” I say.

He sets the lift to take me to the 7th floor. The visitor’s card he hands over tells me that flat 785 will be the last one down the passage to my right. I collect my bag, nod at the guard who’s resumed pursing his lips at his tablet and step into the lift. It’s big enough for me to do a hand flip in. The walls are clad in seamless glass, lined with shimmering veins that seem to prickle out towards me.

My clothes, straight off this week’s limited run BidorBuy Curation, cost me the equivalent of the security guard’s quarterly salary and I feel shabby. Even if work was steady, and I got my licenses upgraded, I would never be able to afford the down payment on a unit in a place like this. The reception area alone has the square meterage of three flats in my building. And the security is the most sophisticated I’ve seen for residential. It’s usually standard scan and bomb-stick pat-down at most places. The only other time I’ve had my irises mapped was at Labour Affairs when I was up for business license renewal. The people who live here must be high-ups in Public Administration and Privatisation, or net-celebs.

7th floor.

I step out of the lift and run my hand along the wall of the corridor all the way to 785. Short pulses bounce off my fingers and into the wallpaper. A clever design; the walls have been wired to harness bio-electricity. That explains the crackling feeling I had coming up here. My touch would join with those of others to power my trip back to the ground floor.

The door to 785 is already open.

“Security texted me to let me know that you’re on your way up, please come in”. The voice is thin and tinkly, a bit like the wind chimes that used to hang outside my bedroom window when I was a child. It belongs to a willowy woman with all the physical substance of a feather caught in a tornado.

“Hi, I’m Lala. You must be the Companion. Your profile said your name is Gift. Is that your real name or just a handle?”

“It’s my real name. And Lala? Yours? What does it mean,” I close the door behind me, it’s faux wood and tingling with my current.

“I don’t think it has a real meaning,” she says. “At least one I know of. My parents just liked the sound of it. Lala. I suppose it’s a convenient kind of name. Easy to spell, easy to pronounce. Difficult for online though. I had to pay millions for the domain and social rights.”

I checked out her profile before taking on her booking. Her followings across all social profiles are in the billions. She’s a prolific poster, mostly digi-art and selfie-manipulations, but I can’t say I know anything about her.

Lala’s one of those net celebs whose currency is mystery. I’ve seen fan Instagram accounts set up for the sole purpose of documenting her life. But she gives nothing away. Her images are careful compositions of desire and aspiration. Her selfies; collages of trending beauty norms.

The eyes on the Lala in front of me are very dark. No, completely black. And her irises are larger than possible. I’ve seen pictures where they’ve been purple, all-white with feline slits, the variegated green of what used to be the Klipriviersberg.

Her most well-known artwork is Moon Sonnet, a digitally drawn blue-hued expansive landscape with an androgynous figure reaching out to the sky. I see a printed version of it hung next to her fridge. At least a third of my online contacts have used it as a header image or profile background.

I measure her flat to be around 95 square meters. It’s all open-plan with a door leading to a bathroom. Sun lights on the ceilings and walls wash the space in a warm low-intensity UV. It’s a humming climate-controlled womb.

“Wow, you have your own kitchen and ablution facilities, I haven’t seen a fully self-contained living space in a while.”

I’m embarrassed at the awe that’s cracked through my usual steely sense of professionalism. Since the passing of the revised Land act, most habitation units are serviced by communal kitchens, bathrooms and leisure spaces. I used to think my 35 square meters was generous. Her place was palatial.

“I’ve always found it difficult to share,” she says. “I had to make sure I made enough money to buy a space I could function in.” She bites on a marbled fingernail and gestures for me to sit.

Those black eyes are even harder to read with the swash of ebony fringe obscuring them. Her mouth is tight and her cheeks twitch as if she’s not sure how to direct the muscles.

“I’ve never booked time with a Companion before. But some of my contacts have. Do you remember Cebile? That’s how I came across your profile. You’re highly recommended.”

Cebile was the type of client I’d rather not have as a reference. Despite my firm insistence that licensed Companions were not allowed to provide sexual services, she was persistent. I spent most of that afternoon in the movie theatre with my hands caged around my manhood.

“She said you were a real gentleman. That you didn’t take advantage of her.”

I clear a big ball of cotton from my throat. “As I explained to Cebile, after the general sex worker strike a few years ago, they amended the Sex Act and only licensed sex workers are now able to offer those kinds of services. I could lose my license if I so much as sexted with you.”

The tension in Lala’s face slackens and it opens to me. I can see the pinpricks of her eyebrow transplants and the surgically enhanced cleft in her chin. “Oh I don’t want sex at all. I had it once and it was nothing like I’d seen online.”

I try not to make too much of a connection with my clients. Our contracts are strictly short-term, but a fist is beginning to pound in my stomach and the lining of my mouth is unfurling for this offline Lala who covers her eyes with garish contact lenses and treats her otherwise pretty face like a scrapbook for fads.

My last hook-up was with a guy I met on TinderZA. After that encounter I was no longer certain about my sexual preferences. I just didn’t feel anything for any gender. My work as a Companion is enough. I meet new people, share their worlds for a few billable hours and leave without being collateral damage for when it all falls apart for them.

I know I shouldn’t say anything about her experience, but I do. “That sounds like it must have been an awful experience. The sex you find online is so packaged. I think most people have forgotten what it’s like to just be with someone you like.”

The talk and thought of sex has made the air between us bulky. I ask her about her family.

“My brother wanted to be a baker so he had to move to Australia because of the new anti-Carb laws. And my sister converted to Islam, so she now lives on a New Medinah reserve on the West Rand. I chat to them both online quite often. My parents died years ago. In the energy riots. I used to be bitter about it. But they were being selfish, holding on to their land when they knew we all needed more space for the energy farms.”

My childhood home had also been absorbed by the energy farm roll-out. The government moved us to a flat in Rosettenville, a newly refurbished two-roomed unit in a beanstalk building overlooking a panel beater. I remember spending hours looking out of the windows at the people in the street below, wanting to know what their names were and if they had children I could play with.

I don’t tell Lala any of this, she’s paying me to listen to her. Five hours worth of personal companionship and the preferences she ticked off on her registration form called for me to be a reserved but witty self-assured dark haired man who reads widely and plays acoustic guitar. I’ve already slipped out of character.

“So Gift, why are you a Companion? Why not a musician or a model? Your girl-boy look is very in now.”

I always get asked this question and my stock response is that it’s one of the few jobs that pay me to hang out with offline people and have a good time. I consider my answer to her.

“I used to be a musician, but the market is so saturated. Especially with acoustic guitar. I don’t do covers and my original stuff wasn’t bringing me enough hits on YouTube, my account got axed in one of their annual culls. I don’t have the temperament to be a model, and short of sex-work, a Companion is the only job that pays well enough for someone with my qualifications, or rather lack thereof.”

She looks satisfied, places her hands behind her head and stretches her torso. It’s an open gesture yet curiously intimate and I find my eyes travelling across her.

“Will you watch me sleep?” she asks. Considering some of the things clients have asked of me, it’s not that strange a request.

“I know people usually just want to talk or go out somewhere, but for my time with you, I want to know what it feels like to have someone watch over me when I’m at my most vulnerable. I know you can’t do anything bad to me while I sleep, what with all my security protocols in place. But I know I can trust you Gift. I don’t interact with people much offline, but there’s something about you that feels real. And you’re a licensed Attendant too, and I know they don’t just let anyone do that.”

There’s a shifting in my chest and for the first time since getting my business licenses, it strikes me that these Companion and Attendant gigs are just too big for me to handle.

I do want to watch her sleep though. I want unrestricted access to study her form. The desire isn’t sexual. It’s what I imagine the feeling to be like when one holds a newborn. The counting of fingers and toes, the marvelling at fragility and how it develops its own strength.

“You should take off your contact lenses first. Even with the new tech, it’s still not healthy to sleep with them in.”

Her laugh trills through the room and her smile is a flash of light. She pops the lenses out of her eyes and drops them into a bowl on her bedside.

Her eyes are the colour of the landscape in Moon Sonnet. So many shades of blue caught around her pupils.

“Your eyes are beautiful. Why do you wear contact lenses?”

“Natural isn’t fashionable. Besides, anyone can be real. Artifice is an act of creation. And I am a creator.”

She creates a pocket for herself on her bed and closes her eyes. I sit beside her, willing my hand not to stroke her hair. That would be unprofessional.

I’m woken by the vibration of the bed. We’ve both slept for almost four hours. I nudge Lala awake.

She smiles and stretches her length against me. “It’s nothing sexual,” she says. “I just like this feeling of having a warm body next to me. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to do this.”

I’m usually groggy after naps but it’s as if the whole room has been cradling me, lulling me into a dream that neatly segued into this moment of waking up next to Lala.

My reserves have been chipped away and I don’t have the right words for her. I get up and walk towards what looks like a canvas on an easel propped up in a corner.

“Is this an oil painting? I haven’t seen one around in ages.”

“Yes, I’ve been trying my hand at old art. It’s very difficult. I can’t quite make a proper transition from digital. The canvas demands so much discipline. And I have to learn how to mix all the colours I want.”

She’s painted the beginnings of a girl holding hands with an indistinct shape, both of them standing on the edge of an angry sun.

“This is gorgeous. You’ve captured something here, that digital can’t.”

“Thank you, but I won’t ever finish it.” There’s a new tone in her voice; flippant yet wistful.

I drop my shields. “According to the law, as a licensed Attendant, I’m not allowed to make you change your mind. But I want to put all that stuff aside and speak to you, not as a Companion, but as a person you’ve made some kind of connection with.”

She turns her back to me. I’ve gone too far. Become too familiar. I’m going to lose both my licenses.

“It’s too late Gift. I’ve made all the preparations. Scheduled the updates. See, here’s my permit.”

She hands me a tablet displaying a document from Social Affairs. After an intensive psychological evaluation, Lala’s been certified of sound mind and body, and is permitted by law to end her life with the aid of a licensed Attendant.

“My cousin took the YouTube route,” she says. “Mel shot herself up with Morphex while recording. She only got a million hits. I found out after seeing the updates from her mum. I don’t want to go like that. So alone. I want a real person next to me. Someone who’ll close my eyes and wipe the drool off my chin. Someone who’ll post on their networks about how I painted a real picture and write a song about how I looked when I slept.”

When my parents gassed themselves in the parking lot of our flat, it felt like part of the natural order. If you were unhappy with your life and there was nothing left for you to give to the world, you left. This thing with Lala has scooped raw tissue out of me. But I can’t force her to change her mind.

I show her the metal case. “ There are three capsules in here. They’re meant to be taken in the following order; blue, green and red. The blue sort of prepares your body, it slows you down but not to the point of paralysis. The green begins to halt certain cellular functions and when you take the red, it reacts with the green and starts the termination.”

Lala takes the pills from me and holds them up to the light. “Like jewels. Look how the colours refract. That red, that’s the red I’ve been struggling to mix for my painting.” She goes to the easel and searches through the tubes.

“You can still change your mind after taking the blue capsule. You will feel a bit sick and lethargic for a few days, but it wears off without any long-term side effects. If you stop after the green pill, there’s the risk of cellular damage and there’s no telling how it will present.”

Lala’s not listening to me. She’s plopping big globs of paint onto a plastic palette and mixing with an intensity that makes her whole body shimmer. “This is the colour Gift. This is what I’ve been looking for all this time.” It’s as if she’s not really speaking to me, but thinking out loud.

She dips her brush in the pigment and begins to work on the canvas, first stippling, then swirling. There’s a new energy to the picture. More than its beautiful ferocity, it holds a fine tension between the life-affirming heat of the sun and the destructiveness of its flames. Lala stops to change brushes.

“I didn’t have a title for it, but I know what I want to call it now. The Gift. And I want you to have it. I hope you don’t thing I’m being too trite.”

Before my brain can command my legs to root, I am behind Lala, holding her.

“This feels nice, Gift. Too nice though. Too neat. I’ve seen the shows where it starts out like this, this relationship thing, and I’ve seen how badly they all seem to end. It’s funny hey. We collect followers like tokens, wondering all the time, what the final prize is going to be. We connect so loosely, safely. But there’s always something missing. This here. Us.” She breaks away from me and reaches for the metal case.

“We’ve forgotten how to take chances on people Lala. Look at the risk you took today. It hasn’t turned out so bad has it? This could’ve gone really badly but it didn’t. We connected. Really connected.”

She smiles at me and picks up the blue pill. It’s the same colour as her eyes.



Writing News: Writivism Short List and poems for Pen Powered Mic 1

The writing life is rough. Gritty as sandpaper against the skin of all four of your cheeks. Some people talk of bleeding onto pages, they’re not that far off from the truth. It really is messy work. And so emotionally complicated. You are only as good as your last thing. Validation becomes lip-balm, continuous application is required. Especially during  a dry season, when poems pool in puddles unfit for mosquitoes. Everything; every word, every image, every idea is slack and windless and your submissions to journals crash into thick-bricked silence.

And then some nice things happen. You get invited to participate in an online literary seminar, sharing the platform with a range of highly-articulate women who express themselves in boldly unique ways. And a short story you wrote is shortlisted for a prize.

To read “Out of the Blue”, my submission that made the short-list for the 2014 Writivism Short Story prize, click here. If you like, leave a comment with your impressions in the comment section underneath the story.

Here follows texts of some of the poems I read for Pen Powered Mic I. Most of these have already appeared on this blog in some form.

After the Miscarriage
It is all for the mother
the glossed eyes
the quiver at the edge
of sympathy and bakery biscuits
for the mourners at tea time.
The door to the nursery is closed.
The talk is of other things except
for that one aunt whose needles
punctuate compassion
have another one soon, it will be good for you.
The father slips out
to hold his nose to the blankness
of the brand new baby wrap.

Arabic lessons in Egypt
At a masjid in Madinat Nasr
just before Maghrib
I find Jidatee with her nose
in His signs while a metronome
of bone on bone
keeps time
with each fatha
with each kasra
she breathes, those knees creak
as much as the scuffed plastic
of the chair under them.
She’s not really my grandmother
I hear only one word out of her hundred.
Ana la atakalam arabiyya the guidebook told me to say.
Ana talibah, min junoob iffrikiya was from today’s class lesson.
Jidatee, who’s not really my jidatee
fingers the dark cloth of my jacket
before pointing to my skin trying to ask:
South Africa but how, you are not black?
Ummi’s ummi’s ummi min Hindeeyah I stumble
I haven’t yet learnt the word for great-grandmother
Jidatee brings her finger to her forehead
makes a little circle with it in the middle
La, la, Muslim I say
sounds a bit like a song.
We laugh before we pray.
When I return home to the real jidatee,
I tell her the Arabic words for jam, love and need
are the same as the ones in Gujerati
and that her prayers asking Allah
to strengthen her in old age
were already made
by a woman in a mosque in Cairo.

I cannot eat dates without wondering
I often feel warm at Muslim funerals.
It must be the black cloaks of the women mourners
enveloping their embraces on the thin grey blankets
spread around the coffin
febrile tears disintegrating fisted wads
of pink and white tissue.
My very first funeral was cold though.
I look back to the camphor and calico,
my father anointed and wrapped
like an offering.
The final kiss on stiff lips.
The crystals of evergreen frost on his eyebrows.
My mother too young, far away in another room,
her world tossed into a corner.
Always in the aftermath of sorrow
guests are fed blankets are folded
the furniture is re-arranged
prayer books get piled up.
And those date stones we saved
to tally our blessings for the dead and to God
return to their plastic buckets.

Growing Bones
Bones begin soft and unknit
to mould through mothers
to start this work of hardening frame
growing upwards to fall free when six
from the top of the world, fracturing fear
and breaking it in three places
a school-term cast in plaster
scribbled on with fruit-scented markers.
Bones, I drink to your strength.
The milk, always, in tall glasses
good for glugging in one go
and skillful lickings
of wet-white milkstaches after.
Under stretched-out bras and holy panties,
I scribble bones into perfumed diaries
that close with a heart-shaped lock
pickable with a paper clip.
Bones, you make good backs
built to bend
under the weight of adolescence
and spring up
when the world becomes
ready for a woman.

My Mother
softer than stone
and stronger,
has run between
Safa and Marwa
for as long as
I’ve breathed.
At her feet
gush the springs
of home and hereafter.
It is as if she has lived five times over,
moving from mountain to mountain,
carrying our hearts on top of her own.

I seek you out
in the cradles of hands
between the creased ditches
and the padded mounds.
My thumbs are search parties
covered in prophets’ ink
rubbing through the woven pile
of a prayer mat.
In a palmful of Joburg snow
children see you clearly.

things to eat & feel in Egypt
you are;
viscous hibiscus
the found ground
in cardamom mud
sentimental syrupy semolina
the crazy comfort of koshary.

Writivism 2014 Flash Fiction: No Juju That Strong

I was selected as a participant at the 2014 Writivism workshop in Cape Town early this year. Further to the workshop, participants were paired with other writers who mentored us as we developed a piece of flash fiction for publication across a range of African media.

After feedback from my mentor Julius C Sseremba, this was the story that appeared in The Observer newspaper in Uganda:


No Juju That Strong

by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee


She sways and spins, her position held by hips as broad as a baobab. The feather-duster in her hand sheds ostrich plumes.

They rain down hope on the woman kneeling before her. Mama Eve raises feet clad in green plastic mock-crocs. She stamps on a heap of cowrie shells, filling the room with brittle crackling. The woman rocks her bowed head reading, chanting softly from the scrap of paper in trembling hands.

Mama Eve lowers her hips and torso and comes face-to-face with the woman. “Come out!” Mama Eve shouts in a voice deeper than the one she was born with. “Come out! And leave this one! Come out and let her bear! Come out!” Her eyes are open to their whites. She places her hands on the woman’s stomach and pushes.

“By all that is good, and all that is not good, come out I command you!”

Mama Eve presses her palms against the unyielding belly once more. The woman falls to the side. Mama Eve strikes up, cobra-like and circles the woman. She picks up the feather-duster again waving it around the supine figure. “It is done,” she proclaims.

The woman stumbles to her feet. Mama Eve leads her out to the cash register. “I won’t charge you for the consultancy but cleansing is R350 and the medicine is R400.”

The woman hands over the money. A mystified gaze floats in her blood-shot eyes.

“You must follow the calendar I gave you. Lie with your man on the days I’ve crossed out. If you still don’t have a baby in three months, come see me again. I do not charge for follow-up visits.”

The woman’s cheeks melt into meek gratitude as she leaves, her hand lightly rubbing her navel. Mama Eve locks the door behind her. She proceeds to a desk stacked high with leaflets. She picks through the names of some competitors.

Those who go by the title Dr. –  Simbwa, Hanifah, Kirumba, Khan and Nyere; there are those who, like her, go by Mama –  Obote, Zainab, Tina and Belinda. There is only one professor, a certain Gibson. Mama Eve glances at the clock. Oliver has still not called after leaving the night before.

If this is like the other times he’s left, he probably found his way to his brother’s house to sober up before work. She should expect his knock within the hour, his trembling hands clutching a bouquet he bought from the man at the robot.

Eve picks up a cork from the table, a reminder that there have been few celebrations in their home since the baby’s funeral. It was not her child but Oliver’s first born from the woman who’d forgotten she had a baby in the car, as she chased tinkling barrels of cherries for cupfuls of coins at the Gold Reef City Casino. Oliver must have run out of his usual poison and started on the wine she kept for love spells and Christmas.

Mama Eve dips the cork in a stain left behind from Oliver’s late night binge and draws a symbol on the table where it evaporates as fast as she sketches. In the same way that psychics aren’t supposed to see lottery numbers or winning horses, Mama cannot heal herself or her man. There is no juju that strong.

She pages through her collection of leaflets again. Dr Kirumba will bring back a lost lover. He can also administer a treatment to double the length and girth of a penis. Eve knows his supplier – the same Chinese herbalist at Dragon City she gets her stock from.

Mama Zainab now has an advert printed in full colour; business must be booming.  Zainab promises to fix an immoral spouse but does not offer the cure for a broken one. Eve sweeps her hand across the table sending the heap of leaflets to the floor where they nestle among beer cans and cigarette ash she will sweep up later.

She reaches for a pen and the stack of phone books of which she keeps a ready pile since the pages are just the right thickness to wrap charms in. She flips through to a section she hasn’t yet ripped out. Her fingers, as a braille reader’s, move down the yellow page. She pauses at M and the number next to — marriage counsellor.