AIDS Day at a South African Shelter

by Jesse Scaccia

Author’s note: Over two trips I spent a bit over eight months volunteering at a home for young men looking to break the cycle of poverty in Cape Town, South Africa. The following is one of the stories I found there.

“Hello my boys,” the tall skinny man in the cheap suit said as he vigorously rubbed his hands together. It looked like he was trying to turn a lump of clay into a snake. He took off across the room in these long strides, how a person might glide from one rooftop to the next.

I had walked in late. I sat down next to Simon, a young German volunteer with stoned eyes and a kamikaze serve at the ping pong table.

“It’s AIDS Day,” Simon whispered to me.

“Oh. Okay.”

The man stopped his pacing and squared to face the boys in the center of the room. “Let me ask you all something,” he said. His voice was deep, his pronunciation measured. “And this is something of theutmost importance.”

Attendance at AIDS Day—official name, thank you, South African government—was mandatory, so all 26 of the guys had pushed into the two rows of couches. The man wore the hat of the Xhosa elder, so he was met with respectful stares. He held up a shaking finger for a few moments to build the suspense and, it seemed, to warn us all of something.

“Which one of you,” he started, somewhat accusingly, “has a . . .penis?”

Yho!” The African chorus called.

Aviwe, one of the young men gathered, ran a hand through his cornrows. His mom was dead and his father had dumped him on the streets at the age of five. He was never able to become a man in the Xhosa tradition because he had no family to pay for the cost of sending him to the Bush. He was failing miserably at keeping a straight face. He raised his hand.

“Okay, you sir!” the man said. “You have a penis? Prove it!”

Hearing the word penis twice in the last 30 seconds was too much for Thabo, the youngest at 13. He laughed so hard I worried he was going to choke on his tongue.

“Not today, my man,” Aviwe said. He tapped at a wristwatch that wasn’t there then stood to walk out of the room. “My time is too valuable, you see.” The man chased Aviwe down and gently steered him back to his place on the couches.

“Okay, okay,” the man said, settling into the worn oval at the front of the room. “I suppose I should have properly introduced myself before asking to see your willies. My name is Lunga. I am a reverend at the Helping Hands church. Your house mother, Lucinda, has asked that I come and speak to you about this certain issue we call AIDS . . . but, if I may, back to the man of the hour: Your penis.”

“This is my best friend!” a voice in the back of the room called out to laughter.

“I’ve known him all my life!” The self-proclaimed Preacher shouted to more laughs. The Preacher was a 16-year-old refugee from Zimbabwe. From I could tell he focused his search for divinity under the skirts of the girls in his class, but who was I to judge. On weekends he had this mysterious “job” in the city he refused to talk about, but he never came back bloody so Lucinda didn’t ask too many questions. “You see?” he said as he gave his crotch area a thumb’s up.

“My pah-pah-pah-penis,” stuttered Denis, the little bulldog with the arms full of horribly drawn homemade tattoos from the Coloured townships in wine country. “It has always been very good to me!”

“What about that time your penis didn’t talk to you for two weeks?” The Preacher asked him. “After you met that girl at the shabeen . . .”

“Me bru!” Dennis snapped back. He stood and pointed his stubby yellow forefinger in the Preacher’s direction. “We don’t talk about that time! And plus,” he said, turning to Reverend Lunga, “I’mma-I’mma-I’mma second time virgin.”

You couldn’t hear the wind for all the laughter. The Sabelo brothers bounced against each other like balloons connected by string. Young Thabo looked at me with wide eyes as his head shrunk into his neck, like a turtle contemplating retreat.

“Okay, okay,” Lunga said as he clapped his hands. He smiled at the ruckus he’d created. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirtsleeve. “I know, he’s a funny little gentleman, isn’t he? He sort of looks like this old, one-eyed man who slouches around the township.”

With this, Reverend Lunga bent over and made his body limp as he shuffled across the room. When he was halfway he crooked his whole body in a crescent, The Hunchback of Salt River. The Preacher stamped his feet on the ground then fell backwards on the couch like he just passed out. The Sabelo brothers picked up a pillow and fanned him back to life.

Simon leaned in to me. “This is fucking crazy, dude,” he said. I nodded slowly, trying to bring it all into focus. It was just the guys in the room. The girls had all gone home to let us men be alone with our manhood. I could not possibly fathom what the point of all this was, but there was no way I was going to get up as long as Lunga was talking.

“So please tell me, gentlemen, what is the purpose of the penis?” Reverend Lunga asked.

“To pee!” Thabo cried out.

“To masturbate,” said the Preacher. He cleared his throat. “Which is a sin and none of you should do.”

“What else?” asked Lunga as he scanned the room. “Come now.”

“There is this one other thing,” said Samkelo. Samkelo looked like a miniaturized young Nelson Mandela, but freely admitted to luring starving young girls into sex with the promise of food and some spare change for their pockets. He was maybe 17, maybe 21 (if he ever had a birth certificate, it was long gone now), weighed an honest 100 pounds less than me, and scared me as much as another man can. None of the guys I worked with were angels; the difference with Samkelo is he never bothered to pretend. He stood and gripped the edges of the couch and grinded his hips into the thin worn upholstery. “Maybe you’ve heard of this? It’s called fucking.”

The African chorus cheered.

“That’s the way, my man!”

“We liiiiike this thing, we do!”

Dennis slapped Samkelo five over and over as Samkelo got his hump on.

Lunga tilted his head back so his face was washed in the dirty light from the windows. He nodded in praise. “Yes! That’s it, yes! The purpose of the penis is for having sex. Do you know that this is why God gave us a penis?” He nodded for us all. “It is because God loves us and wants man to be happy. Doesn’t sex make you happy?”

The African Chorus cheered with approval.

“Of course it does!” Lunga verified. “Now let me ask you: Did God give us a penis to have sex with the giraffe?” He climbed onto the edge of a couch and humped the air.

“No!” The African Chorus confirmed.

“Okay, okay,” Lunga said as he hiked up his pants. He ran around the room like he was chasing something, swatting at the air and grunting. He made it to the corner, lowered his hips, and humped that space of air.
“Did God give us penises to have sex with the baboon?”

“No!”

Lunga dropped to the ground and humped the carpet good and proper. He was on a roll now, boy. “Did God give us a penis so that we may sex the crocodiles?”

“No!”

“And what about this,” he asked. He turned around, pulled his shirttail from his pants, and shook his ass like he was the coochie girl a rap video. “Does God want us to put our penises into another man’s ass?”

“No!”

“Hell no!”

“This guy is smoking some bad shit, my man, I’m telling you this as truth!”

“No no no no no NO!” The Reverend Lunga said.

He was a mess, having disheveled himself humping half the savannah all over the room. He took a hard breath and held up his finger. This entire speech, the finger seemed to foretell, had all been leading to this.

“God wants us to be having sex with the woman in order to create more humans that might serve his Good Word. So you must wait for your wife before you have sex, okay?”

These final words were said with finality. The issue had been put to rest, okay?

Reverend Lunga looked to Simon and I.

“So what now, fellas?” he asked, giving Thabo a massage on the shoulders. “What have the ladies left us for supper?”

*

Jesse Scaccia helps create and celebrate local culture through art, music, zombie, and bike events. He collects it all at AltDaily.com.