Sorry for keeping you waiting


Najma Mohamed’s fictional account tells of a lifetime in apartheid South Africa coming full circle.

As carefree and joyful as her childhood was, Malikah’s memories were marred by the years when Non-Whites, her brown-self included, were barred from the beaches. Water and sand were barricaded, reserving the rock-free sandy beaches for Whites.




The salty wind smarted against her face as Malikah rolled down the car window. She took in the air and sighed as she beheld the sand and sea, so coveted in her childhood.


As carefree and joyful as her childhood was, Malikah’s memories were marred by the years when Non-Whites, her brown-self included, were barred from the beaches. Water and sand were barricaded, reserving the rock-free sandy beaches for Whites.


Her gaze fell on the plush high-rise apartment blocks lining the beach road. The car snaked slowly along the speed-bumped road. At the bend she gasped at the recently vacated plot.


One beachfront owner had resisted the tidal wave of luxury development projects. Despite sticking out like a weather-beaten, derelict barn among the luxurious, tubular towers that had mushroomed all around, it remained rooted to the ground. The stubborn house had stood fast for years, steady as a rock, but the blasts of the bulldozers and the lure of money had finally won. How had the stench of money overpowered the scent of the sea?


She should have felt a sense of triumph at their destruction for it was from those very houses that the police were informed when Non-Whites ventured beyond the red and white barrier separating the beaches. As children, they used to run across the barrier just for spite, staging their own little protest on the sandy shores. Some of them were picked up by the police, others sped off before the police van arrived, sensing the futility of their meandering. She had never enjoyed the privilege of being locked up though.


Malikah recalled the day when an elderly white couple had stood aghast as a young boy, browned even further by the summer sun, had run across the barrier upon a dare. The woman had pulled her face and uttered remarks of disgust. She swept the sand, sullied by the brown feet, back across the barrier to the Non-White sand where it belonged – erasing his footprints, but not his mark on the world.


Malikah had been deliriously happy that night when the wind had picked up. She imagined the sand being blown back across that barrier. Sand, like water and air, didn’t always obey the rules. She had grown to love the wind. Today, it was blowing again and she prayed it would work its magic and drive away the disgust, dread and death which filled her heart.


She slowed down and scanned the road for a parking space. The beach was nearly deserted. Good. The less people she had to face, the better.


The stinging sand brought a strange sense of comfort, making Malikah feel almost alive. Radiant in her white linen shift and wide-legged pants, scarfed in bright turquoise, the petite thirty-year-old kicked off her sandals and sunk her toes in the shifting sands.


It had been ten years since she left her hometown for the big city. With her nursing qualifications in hand, she landed a job and a husband at one of the big hospitals. The handsome young doctor’s proposal came at the right moment. Twenty-three and ready to settle down, she took easily to marriage and the three children that came in quick succession.


Nothing had prepared her for the husband though – the upstanding doctor that had brought drugs, drink and now death into their home. He had started drinking and using drugs three years into their marriage. Women were his third vice. Marriage counselling filled in the years between. Then he had carried death into her…



Silent tears streamed down her cheeks. She had driven around all morning since she heard the test results, not knowing where to go. Her only brother and three sisters were scattered across the country, as eager as her to escape their sleepy hometown. Her father had died in her teens. Thank God. Only her mother remained in their parent-house, growing her garden now that her children were gone. She only had her mother, the warm heart and soft arms, to comfort her dying body. Her husband had killed her. Her children would lose their mother to HIV/AIDS.



Malikah’s thoughts were cut when she saw an old man, clutching a walking stick, wading into the water. He sunk to his knees. He dropped his stick. He fell to the ground.



The nurse of ten years ran toward the inert figure, her feet pained by the jabs of shells scattered across the shore. His blue pleading eyes held her gaze as she dragged him towards the warm sand. His breathing was laboured. His cheeks were tear-stained.



“My name is Malikah Abdullah. I am a nurse. Can you hear me?”

Blue eyes straining against the mid-day sun beheld the figure in white. Malikah looked angelic.

“Sir, I am a nurse. Do you have any medical conditions?”


The old man pulled at his shirt collar and nodded. The kind mother unbuttoned his shirt. The loving daughter wiped his forehead. The angel nurse took his pulse.


“Do you have your medication with you?”


The grey head swept sideways across the sand. Blue eyes closed tightly to still the pain. Old brown fingers gripped strong young hands.


Malikah searched the old man’s pockets but found no medicine or personal identification. This man needed serious help, not the faded memories of an angel nurse. Malikah dialled the emergency medical number on her cellphone, barking off a clear, detailed account of the man’s condition to the operator. She prayed that they would hurry.


She sank into the sand next to him, soothing him with her gentle, calm voice. Sheltered in the shade of her slight body, she gave him small assurances that the ambulance would come soon, that the pain would be eased and that he would receive the care he needed. He closed his eyes, shutting out the sun and soft brown eyes.


Malikah looked at the lined face of the old man, weather-beaten and tanned from working and walking in the sun. He seemed strangely familiar. Was he perhaps known to her parents? She placed her small, brown hand on his forehead, brushing away the grains of sweat-mixed sand.


His pulse was faint. His breathing was shallow. But he was still alive.



Would she be alive in one year’s time? Who would hold her hand when her body could not fight diseases any more? Would she be alone, like the old man?


Wind and sand swept around the two figures.


The arrival of the ambulance twenty-five minutes later attracted a small crowd. The medical professionals started to lift the old man out of the sand toward the waiting vehicle. He relinquished her hand. Blue eyes smiled in gratitude.


The curious onlookers parted reluctantly as the old man was whisked away. Police continued to prod her for details of the event. The strong police presence baffled Malikah. Who was the old man to have drawn all this attention? It was Snakes, unofficial resident of Bench 334 on the beachfront, who stilled Malikah’s growing curiosity.



Johan Frederik Viljoen. Widower. Father of three children. Retired school principal. Owner of the last beachfront property. Police informant. Racist. Old man. Pained eyes. Brown hands.



Malikah sat on the sand watching the waves. No trace remained of the red and white barrier. Her anger had been swept away. She had crossed the line. She rose and headed towards her mother’s arms.


Dr. Najma Mohamed is an environmental researcher and writer based in South Africa.




Bookshelf: Arrested Mothering