The Toilet


Fred Khumalo

Art by Alessandro Teoldi


When the first cocks crow, Sakhile throws the flimsy blanket away, jumps up from his sleeping mat which he shares with his older brother. Groaning, his brother reaches for the blanket, covers himself and goes back to sleep. Standing on his feet in the dark room—he can hear his sisters still snoring from their own corner of the room—Sakhile smiles to himself. The day has finally come. He tiptoes across the room. At the window, he parts the curtain. He can see the cattle enclosure silhouetted against the gray sky.

He walks back to the middle of the room, stands, trembling with excitement. Then he strides towards the door, and opens it wide, letting in a gust of fresh air. “Wakey wakey, all of you!”

“What are you doing, you fool?” his brother Siphiwe complains, raising himself on his elbow, rubbing sleep off his eyes. “It’s still dark out there. I’m sure the witches are still up and about. We don’t want to bump into them, do we?”

Sakhile clicks his tongue in exasperation. “People! You can’t do this to me! We still have to take the animals out to pasture. Then eat breakfast, then get dressed. I certainly don’t want to be late on my first day.” He scratches his armpits, yawns.

His sisters, Ntombi and Zanele, have also woken up, sitting up on their sleeping mat. Sakhile, who always sleeps naked in the summer, is suddenly self-conscious in the presence of his sisters. He fumbles on the floor, locates his shorts.

Across the floor, his eldest sister Ntombi gets up from her sleeping mat. She discreetly sheds her hand-me-down nightdress which she inherited from her grandma, and slides into her day dress. She says, “This is Sakhile’s first day of school. He has every right to be anxious, scared. Let’s get going.”

She strides across the room and whips the blanket away from Siphiwe’s sleeping form. Then she picks Sakhile up and plants a kiss on his face. He tries to squirm out of her hands, but she is firm. She plants another kiss. Then she puts him back on the ground. He wipes her kisses away. He runs out of the room, into the yard, all the way to the kitchen, a hut made of mud and a thatched roof. There is a fire roaring from the hearth right at the center of the room. When he enters, her grandmother, kneeling on the floor, looks up at him, a smile spreading on her face. “Ah, my lovely professor doctor!”

He kneels next to her so she can kiss him. Then he gets up and strides towards a collection of buckets at the extreme end of the hut. He picks one up, and wordlessly runs out of the kitchen again.

At his approach, goats inside the enclosure break into a stampede. Laughing, he opens the gate, saying, “Hold on, don’t kill each other!” The goats burst out and start frolicking around the yard, bleating and butting heads.

At the cattle enclosure, he opens the gate and weaves his way among the beasts, patting them reassuringly, singing their praise names. Lizbeth, his favorite cow, walks towards him. He positions his bucket under the bursting udders. He starts pulling the teats like the expert he is. Jets of milk make music as they hit the bottom of the metal bucket—klo-klo-klo!

A few moments later, his brother joins him. He is carrying two buckets big enough for his size and age. They swap stories as they milk the cows. Done, they take the buckets, heavy with fresh creamy milk, to the kitchen. Then they are back at the cattle enclosure. Singing praises to each animal, they coax the beasts out of the enclosure, and out of the main gate. The morning sun warms their faces. Kites crisscross the sky, impatiently searching for breakfast.


At the communal pasture two kilometers away from their house, they greet other herd boys who are eating breakfast by a fire. In the village it is common for boys to leave school as early as fourteen years of age, and take up a job as a full-time herd boy, gardener and errand boy for the more well-off families in the area. These boys who are earning their own upkeep tend to look down upon boys who go to school, leaving their family’s livestock at the mercy of employees. Where is the sense in that? Until last year, Sakhile used to hang out with these big boys, learning from them how to look after cattle without raising a sweat, how to set traps for birds and small game.

Sakhile is sad to turn his back on this life, but extremely happy to be starting school. The agreement is that these boys will look after Sakhile’s grandma’s cattle and she will reward them with pinches of snuff (she makes the best snuff around), eggs, vegetables, and some cash.

After exchanging some pleasantries with the boys who will be looking after their grandma’s cattle from today onwards, Sakhile and his brother Siphiwe run back home. They gobble up their porridge, drink their sugarless tea. They compensate for the lack of sugar by using lots of hot milk in their tea. Sugar is for special days—such as Christmas, Easter weekend, or somebody’s birthday.

After their breakfast, the kids take turns at the huge zinc bathtub which sits behind the kitchen. Because he is the youngest, Sakhile is the first to bath. The water is warm. There’s a bar of blue soap floating. He is quick about it. Then he is followed by his sister Zanele, then Siphiwe. By the time Ntombi, the eldest, is done, the water has turned a deep gray, with a thick layer of scum floating in it.

Sakhile’s grandma applies a generous layer of Vaseline on the boy’s skin. Then she helps him into his brand new underpants, and the uniform of the local school—gray shorts and a white short-sleeved shirt. Sakhile is not used to underpants. He complains to her grandma that they make his bum itch.

“School is a place of civilization, my boy,” she says, “undergarments are the mark of refinement. You better get used to them.”

Grandma inspects Sakhile’s schoolbag—a hand-me-down knapsack she got as a present from her daughter, Sakhile’s mother, who works in the faraway city of Durban. She left the village three years ago, to look for her husband who had gone to the city two years before but never bothered to come back home. She herself has not come back to the village in two years. Although grandma will every now and then start crying about her daughter who has “been consumed by the tall buildings of that horrible city,” she is comforted by the fact that she still sends money home at the end of every month.

“What a pity your mother is not here to see you off on your first day to school!” she says, discreetly using the back of her hand to wipe tears from her eyes.

And then they are off—the two girls leading the way, Sakhile and Siphiwe following at a respectable distance. They must always walk behind their sisters, to make sure they are safe. That is the tradition. Sakhile takes one last look at his home, a collection of four mud huts, their exteriors covered with carefully drawn geometric designs in bright colors. His grandma has schooled him in making these patterns. In the kitchen there’s a huge collection of clay calabashes, all bearing various geometric designs. All of them executed by Sakhile himself, under his grandma’s supervision.


Sakhile wears no shoes. Like all children from the neighborhood his feet are hardened to the rough texture of the ground, immune to the thorns and sharp stones that litter the footpath. Sakhile is talking animatedly to his brother when his right foot sinks into a big mound of cow dung. It is so fresh there’s steam coming out of it. Siphiwe laughs. Sakhile grins back at him, as he wipes the goo on a tuft of grass growing on the side of the footpath. Nothing to it.

It takes them an hour to get to school. The schoolyard is already bustling. It is a massive school with three freestanding buildings. The biggest of these is primary school, where Sakhile is destined. Then there is the higher primary school—the home for his three siblings for the past four to six years. The high school is much smaller, and holds no interest to Sakhile’s siblings.

Siphiwe gives his young brother a tour of the school. First, he takes him to the water tank at the back of the school. “This is where you drink water when you’re thirsty.” Then he points out the playground. It’s dusty patch of ground with rickety goalposts. After that he walks to a structure further away from the school buildings.

“These are the toilets,” he says, “if you want to do number one, you can do that under those trees.” He points in the distance. “But if you want to do number two, you come here.” He pushes the door open. And they are inside a small hut. There are two structures that look like chairs—except they are much higher. “This is a toilet seat. You climb here, and you sit.” He demonstrates by sitting on the toilet seat. This is something new to Sakhile. At home they do number two on a bucket, which they keep inside a small hut at the back of the compound. When the bucket is full, they empty it into a big hole that stays covered with a piece of zinc.

“I thought school had a flushing toilet like we saw in the city?” Sakhile is remembering a visit to a relative in the city.

“It looks almost like a flush toilet, but it is not exactly that.”

As soon as they get out of the toilet, the bell goes. Siphiwe takes Sakhile to his classroom which is already packed with children. Siphiwe waits until Sakhile has found himself a seat on the second row of benches. The class teacher arrives, introduces herself. She teaches them a simple song. They start singing and dancing. That seems to take care of their nerves. Relaxed, smiling, the kids sit down again. The lesson begins. She is teaching them the alphabet—a, e, i, o, u. They recite it over and over again. Then she asks them to copy exactly what she has written on the board, into their exercise books.

Schooled by his grandma in those intricate geometric designs, Sakhile laughs when he realizes that the other kids are struggling to reproduce what the teacher has written on the board.

Now he wants to go to the toilet. Siphiwe told him never to use their home language, Zulu, to ask for permission to go to the toilet. “It’s always done in English.” But Sakhile has forgotten the English words his brother drummed into him. Let’s see: “May toilet go, ma’am?” No, doesn’t sound right. His tummy is growling. He has to go. There are tears of desperation in his eyes now.

“Hey, you, why aren’t you writing?”

Sakhile struggles to his feet, holding his tummy. “Me toilet! Number two.”

The other kids laugh. The teacher says, “Run!”

His friend Sizwe also asks to go to the toilet. They run out together.

Inside the toilet, he is happy for the relief. Sizwe does his business on the seat next to him. When he is done, Sakhile runs back to the classroom.


“Sakhile wears no shoes. Like all children from the neighborhood his feet are hardened to the rough texture of the ground, immune to the thorns and sharp stones that litter the footpath. Sakhile is talking animatedly to his brother when his right foot sinks into a big mound of cow dung. It is so fresh there’s steam coming out of it.”


About thirty minutes later, the teacher says: “Sakhile, where’s your friend.”

“I left him in the toilet, mistress.”

“Go and fetch him, he’s taking too long.”

Sakhile runs out. Inside the toilet, he is puzzled to see Sizwe’s gray school shorts. But where is he? He looks around the room, shouting, “Sizwe! Why are you hiding? Where are you.”

Then he hears a muffled sound. He listens. “Sizwe, man, stop playing tricks!”

The he realizes that the sound is coming from the depth of the pit latrine. Then it dawns on him: his friend fell into the toilet. He runs back to the classroom.

“Mistress, mistress!” cries Sakhile, “Sizwe has fallen into the toilet.”

It takes the teacher a few moments to make sense of the boy’s panicked shout!


Two hours later, teachers have torn the toilet apart and fished out the lifeless body.

The following day Sakhile’s grandmother says to her grandchildren: “You children are not going to school today.”

The kids stand and watch as their grandmother joins a group of men and women, some armed with sticks and hoes, walking from the village.

“Where are they going?” Sakhile asks of his older brother.

“Let’s follow them.” The kids follow the grown-ups at a respectable distance.

At the school the grown-ups burst into the principal’s office. He comes out running. But some men catch up with him and start beating him with sticks. “You received money to build proper toilets. What happened?”

They beat him until he admits that the provincial government did allocate money but the local chief, who also happens to be a senior member of the Ruling Party, rechanneled it.


Having dealt with the principal the angry mob rushes to the chief’s house. The excited children follow at a respectable distance, some of them laughing. The beating up of the principal seemed like a great game to them.

The rampaging mob drag the chief out of his yard, all the way to school. At the school, they strip him naked, bind his hands behind him and push him, head first, into the toilet.


Because of Covid restrictions, the premier of the province addresses the mourners through a prerecorded video which gets flighted at the graveyard. A tombstone in the shape of a Zulu fighting shield, the emblem of the ruling party, has already been installed. The premier speaks until tears cascade down his cheeks. He tells mourners about this selfless comrade who took his village out from the Dark Ages—installing water taps, flushable toilets at local schools, distributing food parcels among the needy.

Sakhile and his grandma sit under a weeping willow, a distance away from other mourners. After the televised speech, the chief’s wife and son and ten other mourners pack up the TV screen and leave the graveyard.

Sakhile’s grandma gets up from her sitting position. At the grave she reaches into a handbag, fishes out a piece of paper. On the paper is an exquisite drawing of a flushable toilet. A semiliterate scrawl underneath reads: SISALINDILE. (We’re still waiting). She puts the piece of paper at the head of the tombstone, weighing it down with a stone. She inhales a pinch of snuff. Then she sneezes repeatedly. Until blood comes out of her nostrils.


Spring / Summer 2024

Fred Khumalo

Fred Khumalo is a novelist and short story writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The author of eighteen books, his latest work is Crossing the River, a novel for young adults. It was preceded, early in 2022, by Two Tons O’ Fun, a coming-of-age novel. He holds an MA in creative writing from Wits University, and has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, a Fellow of the Academy of the Arts of the World (Cologne, Germany), a Fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, and a Fellow of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study; and is also a PhD (creative writing) candidate at the University of Pretoria. In 2021 he was appointed adjunct professor of African literature at the University of South Africa.

Alessandro Teoldi

Alessandro Teoldi (b. 1987, Milan) received his MFA from ICP-Bard and his BA in Photography from Istituto Europeo di Design, Milan. He has had solo shows at Marinaro and 11 Rivington (both in NY); The Cabin, Los Angeles; Suprainfinit Gallery, Bucharest; Viasaterna, Milan; and Capsule, Shanghai. His work has been included in group exhibitions at FLAG Art Foundation, Klaus von Nichtssagend, International Center of Photography, and Camera Club of New York (all in NY); Magazzino Italian Art, Cold Spring, NY; and Taymour Grahne Projects, London. He was awarded a La Brea Studio Residency (Los Angeles) and a Baxter St Residency at Camera Club of New York. He lives and works in New York.

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