Zuboja township, Bojanala District Municipality, South Africa
As a child, Sithi Nzeogwu's mother had told him that even a small house can hold a hundred friends. She also told him that houses built close together burn together.
Their house in the township wouldn't have held a dozen friends, never mind a hundred. It stood on a ramshackle plot at the edge of the town, the sheeted walls bolted onto one another at random angles like a patchwork quilt. The window frames were devoid of glass and sloughed with dirt. There was no fenced yard, just a wide dustbowl dotted with patches of thorns that sloped slowly downhill towards a creek at the back.
The last of the evening sunshine daubed the horizon orange as a figure ran behind the house in a wide circle. It was a boy, sixteen, but tall and skinny for his age. He had a deflating football bouncing between his feet. Though there was no crowd, he provided a dramatic commentary on the speed and swiftness of his movements, a sidestep here, a feint there. He could hear the cheers of a hundred thousand people as they urged him on.
Standing awkwardly to the left hand side of an invisible line marked with a shirt at each end, a second boy, some five years younger or more, squinted into the light. He had jet black hair and a fat nose, but every other part of his body was hopelessly skinny. As the striker bore down on him, he made no attempt to narrow the angle of the shot that followed, raising his arms in a half-hearted fashion as the ball flashed past him and rocketed into the back of the house. A woman shrieked in the distance.
The older boy let out a victory whoop, blazed past his younger counterpart, almost knocking him aside, and pulled the front of his t-shirt over his head in celebratory fashion. He stood there for a few seconds, saluting a sunset he couldn't see, before pulling the shirt back down and finding himself looking down at an accusing pair of eyes.
'Baako, I don't want to play any more.'
'Sithi, it's more fun if you actually try to save them, you know.' Baako jogged to the ball and flicked it up between his heels and onto his shoulder, where it rested for a second before falling back to the floor and throwing up a tiny cloud of dust.
'I don't want to play any more.'
'Yes, you said,' Baako agreed, lowering his shoulder and jinking past an invisible challenge. 'But if you won't play, who will? My friends aren't around this evening so you have to be in goal.'
The younger boy watched him gloomily. 'I always have to be in goal.'
'It's because you're rubbish at football,' Baako said with evident relish. 'You think they would have asked Pele to play in goal? He's the master, he scores the goals.'
'You're not a master,' Sithi said. 'Pele is much better than you.'
'Maybe,' Baako says, 'but can Pele do this?' He abandoned the ball, sprinted over to Sithi, tripped the younger boy up and then sat on him.
At that moment, an older woman opened the back door and stepped out into the evening. Her face bore the early lines of a hard life, one that had persevered through defeats and sorrows, but more through bloody-mindedness than virtue. She glanced suspiciously at Baako, who was by now wearing a very innocent expression.
'Baako! Get off your brother!'
'Mother, I was just helping him up.' Baako stood and dragged Sithi more or less upright before nudging him in the ribs.
Sithi was a mess, his clothes more dirt than cloth, and his face was caked with mud. 'He tripped me,' he said, in a small reedy voice.
'Sithembile, don't tell tales on your brother. We're supposed to be a family. Can't you two just get along?'
'He's too weak to even play in goal,' Baako grinned.
'I'm not weak!' Sithi yelled back. Unfortunately for him, his voice had yet to break and his yell came out more as a squeak than a shout, which made his brother laugh.
A shadow passed over their mother's face. 'Baako, if you have to play football, don't kick it against the side of the house. You're knocking things off the shelves and you know that you don't want to be waking your father.' The sudden silence that followed this was telling; all of them were afraid of the man sleeping in the front room.
Their mother smiled then, breaking the spell. She said, 'Baako, if you must play, take it down to the creek.'
'The creek!' Baako smiled and lurched at Sithi, grabbing his collar. The younger boy, nimble and well-versed at dodging attempts to dunk him in the creek, slipped away, leaving only his shirt behind as a prize. From a safer distance, he sat and glowered at his brother.
'You'll need to come in soon,' their mother said. 'If you're smart, you'll be in bed before he wakes up.'
Baako waited until his mother's shuffling steps were lost to the wind before pouncing once again on Sithi, who curled up into a ball and lashed out ineffectually with his stumpy legs. It was a brief struggle, and then the younger boy was being held in a headlock and marched towards the creek.
'If you don't want to play football, little brother, maybe it's time for a swimming lesson.'
'No,' Sithi protested feebly.
'Ah, but yes,' Baako said. He had a full foot in height and a significant weight advantage over Sithi. To an observer, it might seem as unnatural a matchup as watching a gorilla wrestle with a dog. The younger boy did have one advantage though; his natural cunning. By letting it appear as though he was even weaker than he was, Sithi was able to manoeuvre his mouth into position. Just as Baako thought he had won the fight, Sithi clamped his teeth down hard onto his brother's arm.
Baako sucked air in as the pain hit and he let his brother go. It was only a temporary respite for Sithi. Before he could gain any distance, the older boy kicked his legs out from under him and before he could regain his feet, he had Baako's knee pressed against his throat. It was not a play-fight any longer.
'Let me up! Let me up!' Sithi shrieked.
'Not till you learn your place, little brother.' Baako's lips were twisted into a sneer that made him look unconscionable and ugly. When he pulled this face, he reminded Sithi of their father, and a hundred other beatings undeserved.
'You were going to dump me in the creek!'
'Now I'm not going to bother. You should just be thankful that I don't snap your neck.' Baako reached down and cuffed the younger boy around the head, like he might do to a errant dog.
'I'm not afraid of you,' Sithi whimpered. But he was.
'Apologise,' Baako demanded, leaning more weight onto his knee. Sithi said nothing. But Baako demanded again, and this time raised his fist and let it hover over Sithi's face, high and slow and dangerous.
'I'm...I'm sorry, Baako,' Sithi said. In the end, it is his sense of injustice and not his fear that reduces him to tears.
'Remember, little brother. I'm the oldest. The oldest, and the strongest. You'll never be stronger than me.' Baako cuffed him again, harder this time. 'Don't you ever forget that.'
Thirty years will pass from the time that his brother's knee is lifted from his throat, but Sithembile Nzeogwu has never forgotten it.