Summer Short Story Award 1st Place: “Elbow in Zulu” by Dara Kell

April 8, 2024

“‘Elbow in Zulu’ reveals a nuanced narrative beneath its ostensibly cheerful tone, delving into the complex intersections of South Africa’s race and class divides. Told from a plural, jocular, and occasionally elusive perspective, the story explores the fears and obsessions of an affluent group of friends in Johannesburg. Reading this piece, we may question what it means to be charitable and ask who or what is worthy of our philanthropy. As we reach the denouement, we may not be sure who to champion, vilify, or disdain—an ambiguity that deepens the pleasure of the reading.” — Guest Judge Jai Chakrabarti


One Sunday, Richard was late for our walk. Our dogs missed Dottie, his three-legged Staffie and we missed him, our white-haired Quaker, our leader, our dearest friend. It was Richard who had brought us together in the first place (safety in numbers, he’d said, never less than five), and for the first time in as long as we could remember, Richard had not come.

We waited for him in the Aloe Grove, twisting around like lost tourists. As the Executive Committee of Friends of the Wilds (EXCOFOW for short), it pleased us to no end to see young couples and their babies picnicking here and there, and a bride and groom posing for photos on top of a rock. Less pleasing of course were the inyangas doing their rituals down by the river but it is the New South Africa and we have learned to accept and indeed celebrate the diverse customs of our African brothers and sisters. It’s just that the rituals present a risk of fire around the cycads, which comprise one of the more impressive collections in the Southern Hemisphere.

Richard was nowhere to be seen. We feared, as we do at our age and in our particular corner of the universe, that grisly triumvirate: heart attack, home invasion or hijacking. But in Richard’s case, it was far more likely that he had gotten himself into a pickle. Instead of spending his days in pursuit of pleasure as some of our neighbors did (playing golf, buying vineyards in Cape Town, hunting lions and so on), Richard bankrolled communists in Angola, bought ugly paintings from starving artists and gave Christmas presents to every orphan in Alex. He was known to leave the most outrageous tips. He once met a Kenyan cab driver whose daughter needed cleft palate surgery. Not only did he give the man a small fortune on the spot, he also built a hospital in the remote village in which the man’s daughter lived. We always told him, Richard, you can’t help everyone. But he did.

“Poor Richard,” some said.

“Poor Richard’s wife,” others said. It was true, Bettina was long suffering.

Just then, the chief horticulturalist Thembani, whom we called TJ for short and whose position we in fact, as EXCOFOW had sponsored through our annual wine auction, walked over to the Aloe Grove.

We greeted him fondly. “How are things with you?” we said.

Things were not so great with him, in fact. That very morning, two cycads had been stolen in broad daylight. We were mortified. As I mentioned before, the cycad collection is one of the, if not the most impressive in the Southern Hemisphere and we were now going to have to install electric fences around the trees, thereby denying children the pleasure of stroking the cycads’ knobbly bark. But that was not all, said TJ. There were now bergies squatting in the caves, the inyangas had set fire to the footbridge the week before last, and there had been three muggings that weekend in the Rose Garden. We nodded very fast to reassure him that yes, TJ, we know to avoid the Rose Garden especially during weekdays.

“Please be vigilant,” he said.

“Always,” we replied.

The sun was sinking and that particular lowveld chill was setting in. It was time to go. We went on our not-so-merry way, accompanied only by the sounds of our dogs panting and the crunch of blue gum pods under our shoes.

Just then, a text message came in from Richard.

Doreen, who is the keeper of the sole cellphone we take on our walks, stopped in her tracks, moved her spectacles to the edge of her nose, and read aloud, “SOME THINGS WITH PATRICE TO TAKE CARE OF SORRY.”

“Hunh,” we said.

* * *

For the past few months, we had heard all about Patrice, a young African gentleman whom Richard had met while parking his car in the city center. Many immigrant men gather there to help us park our cars. They appear as if out of nowhere to point you to an empty space or to guide you into a tight spot. They call themselves car guards. They wear bright orange vests and flap their arms about and make desperate circular motions as though marshaling an aircraft. At night on a deserted street, a car guard does afford some peace of mind, but we all know they can’t really do much—they carry no weapons and are largely self-appointed. They always have the biggest smiles, especially, for some reason, the ones from the Congo, which is where this fellow Patrice was from. They are also from Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Mozambique and so on. We used to tip them two or three Rand; it’s recently gone up to five Rand, ten if they help with groceries. They don’t complain if you don’t have any cash; they give a shrug and a good-natured thumbs-up.

Apparently a lot of them have university degrees. There are amongst their ranks math teachers, economists, microbiologists, even Air Force pilots. Patrice told Richard that he was a civil engineer and had only just gotten his degree when the war broke out and he’d had to flee. Fearing for his life, he left with only the clothes on his back and without even a moment to grab his passport. Patrice’s tale was not in any way unusual; we hear stories like this every day.

The story goes that Richard, after being assisted most amiably with a particularly tricky parallel park on De Korte Street, was very much taken with Patrice’s friendly smile and in his broken French managed some semblance of a conversation with Patrice, who said that after an arduous journey filled with all the usual ordeals (wild animals, treacherous river crossings, drinking kerosene in the desert and so on), he had arrived in Johannesburg hoping to connect with a man his family from the Congo knew, some religious figure, but so far he had not been able to find this man which was why Patrice was sleeping on the floor of a church with a whole lot of other Congolese refugees, none of whom of course knew this priest or whatever he was, because they were not from Patrice’s tribe. His lodging at the church cost ten Rand a night and he was barely able to afford bus fare plus feed himself plus save for the bribe needed to ensure a successful refugee application with the Department of Home Affairs. So Richard, being Richard had, right there and then, vowed to help in whatever way he could, so that Patrice could get settled and legally work as an engineer. And who could blame him? Lord knows we need engineers, what with all the potholes.

* * *

The next week, EXCOFOW met up at the usual time. We were most relieved to see Richard loping up to us waving both hands high in the air. Dottie hobbled behind him. Our dogs sniffed each others’ private parts, rolled around in feces, dug up dead birds and did all the things they’re not supposed to do. It turned out that Richard had missed our walk the previous week because Patrice had needed to be bailed out of jail. We told Richard that he mustn’t get involved with criminals but apparently car guards get arrested all the time, which we later found out to be actually true, according to The Mail & Guardian. By this point, we were all very curious about this mysterious Patrice fellow and so the next week in lieu of our walk, Doreen invited EXCOFOW to Sunday tea.

To Richard she said, “Bring Patrice.”

Doreen lives on one of Houghton’s more gracious properties, a few doors down from the Mandela estate. It’s awfully grand. There are two sets of gates and then one winds one’s way up a long driveway lined with magnificent white rose bushes, which you sort of whack with your car as you go past, then the tennis court then the swimming pool then the granny flat then the Wendy house and then finally, the house white as sugar sitting atop the graceful curve of a man-made hill, the man in question here being Doreen’s property developer husband Vic. Now, all this happened around the time Doreen and Vic’s marriage disintegrated, after Doreen’s private investigator discovered that Vic had been taking cocaine and having gay sex—GAY SEX—behind her back for years! You think you know someone. At any rate, we kept Vic around because of his more than generous annual contribution to EXCOFOW, enough to keep TJ employed until the cows came home. Doreen and Vic now live together quite amicably; she in the left wing, he in the right.

Richard seemed nervous making introductions, perhaps thinking that we might judge Patrice for being a car guard or basically homeless, but we quickly put Patrice at ease by using all the French we knew, which ran out at “Un petite peu.

Patrice laughed good-naturedly at our ineptitude, flashing the wide smile that Richard had so rightly described as radiant. His eyelashes were tightly curled. He was short, presumably malnourished as a child. He sat on the edge of his chair like one of those slinky springs awaiting release. He was harmless as a mouse! He smelled like soap. Patrice, having gone to church that morning, wore a suit and pointy black shoes; we were all in jeans and sandals. We joked about being (with the exception of Richard of course) lapsed Presbyterians. We sat on the patio and drank cups and cups of tea and Doreen served her famous lavender cookies and then opened up a top notch Pinot Grigio (which Patrice declined). Then Vic started going on and on about President Zuma’s announcement that he was ready take on a fifth wife and how much taxpayer’s money the wedding would cost.

Doreen, who always tries to include people in conversations, said very slowly, “Is polygamy acceptable in your culture as well, Patrice?”

Patrice jerked forward as though he’d been shot in the back of the head. “Excuse me?”

Up until this point, he had not said a word. Richard then explained that Patrice understood everything we were talking about; it was just that his vocabulary was not too hot.

“When we first met on De Korte Street,” Richard explained, “Patrice promised to teach me French and I promised to teach him English in return.”

Richard tapped Patrice’s knee. “Now,” he said, “Patrice speaks very good English and I still speak almost no French.”

We all laughed. Patrice fiddled with his saucer. He said, “Richard is a good teacher and a very good man. Very kind man. He help me a lot. He make me feel like I also have a place here, in South Africa.”

Richard leaned forward and said, “He’s extraordinarily bright. He graduated cum laude.”

Richard beamed. “Isn’t that right, Patrice?”

Patrice said in his very broken but crisply enunciated English that because of the war, there was a lot of destruction in his country, and after things got safer, he hoped to return to the DRC and help rebuild its bridges and roads. We all fell in love with Patrice right there and then. We could see why Richard would want to help.

Doreen asked, “Patrice, when are you leaving?” Patrice was soon going to have to go for his big refugee interview in Pretoria.

Patrice thought Doreen said, ‘Where are you living?’ and replied, “Me myself, I am living at Hands of Mercy Methodist Church.”

One never knows in these situations whether or not to correct the person. Richard really wanted Patrice to learn English, and so he turned his whole body toward Doreen and said, “Doreen, did you mean living or leaving?

“Ah, leaving,” said Patrice. “I will leave in one week time.”

Richard said, “One weeks’ time,” and drew an apostrophe in the air.

* * *

The next Sunday, we all gathered once more in the Aloe Grove at four ‘o clock sharp and once more, Richard did not come. Although we thought Patrice terribly sweet and agreed that it was a terrible shame that he had to be a car guard instead of an engineer, we were concerned about our friend. This was not the first time Richard had taken a young man under his wing.

Several years prior to the Patrice episode, Richard had adopted a doctor (with wife and children in tow) from Zimbabwe. Things seemed to have gone smoothly until Richard’s house was robbed. People began to say that the doctor had fallen in with some tsotsis and that the doctor together with the tsotsis had orchestrated the home invasion that resulted in both Richard and Bettina’s brand new Audis being stolen along with the entire contents of their safe, which included several priceless ruby rings left to Richard by an aunt. Oh, and the thieves stole towels, of all things. Towels! Thankfully no one was seriously injured, but still.

We could not fathom why Richard always went above and beyond for these people. Perhaps, we wondered, it was his religion that drove him to it. Growing up he had always been… different, shall we say, but the whole Quaker thing had taken us quite by surprise. Doreen told us about a documentary she’d seen on TV about another Quaker, a man by the name of Charlie Clements. He was an American pilot who bombed people in Vietnam, then went back to the United States and said he couldn’t do it anymore. He spent the rest of his life as a doctor on the front lines of the war in San Salvador. Can you imagine?

“In the documentary,” Doreen explained, “he said this profound thing, something about each of us doing what we can and it all adds up to history being made.”

She sniffed and threw a gobby tennis ball for Homer, her golden retriever. “It’s like Ubuntu,” she said. “You know, I am because we are.” Doreen had recently started giving after-school Afrikaans lessons to a little Black girl and was suddenly quite the expert on Black culture.

Vic snorted and said, “Ubuntu’s dead, lovey. Richard’s an old fag in love, not a blimming saint.”

“Vic!” we cried in unison.

Granted, Richard did enjoy the company of men, but they were always men he was trying to help. And what else was he to do with his time? He had no hobbies. He was retired, his children were grown and Bettina was always awfully busy running her NGO, which helped child victims of rape and Lord knows if that wasn’t stressful enough to drive one to drink. We all like to take a drink now and again, but people did say that Bettina was known to overdo things in that department.

At any rate, we thought it was high time that Richard stopped his nonsense with Patrice. That afternoon, we cut our walk short and marched our dogs and ourselves over to Richard and Bettina’s house on 18 Aubrey Drive. We rang the doorbell until Happiness let us in. Bettina was up on all the latest home decorating trends and one of those must have been mirrors, because their house was full of them. And so it seemed that a large crowd had gathered that Sunday in Richard’s living room.

Richard was hunched over on the couch, wringing his hands and staring at his tennis shoes.

“Is everything okay, Richie?” we asked.

“No,” he said. “Patrice has been through the most terrible ordeal.”

We folded our arms and thought, oh no, what now? We sat down as instructed and Happiness brought a pot of tea and a plate of crunchies for us, and bowls of water for the dogs, and Richard told us the whole story from beginning to end.

Apparently when Patrice arrived at Home Affairs for his refugee interview, he was told that they had no record whatsoever of his case. He left the building, devastated and exhausted, for he had been waiting in line since five o’ clock that morning. But his nightmare had only just begun. He walked into the parking lot where asylum seekers from all over Africa were gathered. Dozens of languages could be heard. All of a sudden, they were surrounded by intimidating men who claimed to be officials of the Department of Home Affairs. The terrified crowd was told that unless they paid the men a bribe of six thousand Rand per head, they would all be put on a bus north and sent home. Many, like Patrice, came from war zones and if they were sent back, their lives would be endangered. They were given a few hours to come up with the money. A man from Uganda threatened to set himself on fire. The men carted him away.

Of course, Patrice called Richard in a flat panic, asking for money. Richard raced to the bank just before it closed and as instructed, delivered the cash wrapped in a newspaper to some dodgy guys who were parked in a white minivan at the Engen garage on Oxford Street. Apparently, only four out of the forty people rounded up could pay the bribe. Those four, one of whom was Patrice, got to stay in South Africa. The others, as promised, were put on a bus headed north.

Of course it was no use going to the police; they’re all a bunch of crooks. We scratched our heads, unfolded our arms and crossed our legs. Our reflections in the mirrors followed suit. Finally, Vic spoke.


“Yes, Vic?”

“Are you sure you trust Patrice? I mean, this story sounds a bit fishy, doesn’t it?”

“Of course I trust him, Vic. You have no idea, absolutely no idea what these guys go through.”

Richard thrust both hands into his thick white hair. “He’s not sleeping, he’s not eating. He has to go back for another interview before his temporary permit runs out, but he refuses to leave the church. He says he wants to go back to the Congo.”

Richard was on the verge of tears.

“Shame,” we said. “Poor Patrice.”

* * *

Before the inner city emptied out, Hands of Mercy Methodist, in its heyday, was the church our grandparents and great-grandparents attended, dressed in their starched Sunday best, themselves and their outfits shipped all the way from England. Now the church was blackened with soot and in a woeful state of disrepair. Some of the stained glass windows were still in place, giving the place a spooky glow. A group of wide-eyed children let us in and led us through a labyrinth of mattresses. People were washing dishes in buckets, shaving in front of mirror shards, braiding hair and sleeping on makeshift beds with their elbows shading their eyes. The stench was unbelievable.

We came to Patrice’s corner. At first, he wouldn’t let us in. He stood at his “door” which was a blanket emblazoned with a hideous fluorescent horse motif. It was hard to hear anything above the din of competing wirelesses, blasting sermons, talk shows and music, all in French. No wonder Patrice was depressed—you couldn’t hear yourself think in that place. He held out both hands to accept our gifts of lavender cookies, rose petal jam and daffodils. After much gesticulation and shouting, Doreen finally made Patrice understand that she wanted to do Reiki on him. She had just finished her Reiki certification and wanted someone to practice on.

We sat on beer crates. Doreen took a scented candle out of her bag, lit it and placed it on the floor on top of the bible that was next to Patrice’s mattress.

“Shall we begin?” she said. “Close your eyes.”

Patrice closed his eyes. The entire church seemed to hush on cue. Children peered at us through the horse blanket as though we were aliens. Doreen’s fluid hands stroked the air above Patrice’s head, then motioned over his temples, his shoulders, his torso. She didn’t touch him. Tears began to stream down his face.

Doreen whispered, “This often happens. It’s the release of blocked emotions.”

Patrice began to quietly sob. We patted his back and soothed him like a baby.

Afterwards, Patrice said he would offer to make us tea, but his hot plate and pots had been stolen. The thieves were Congolese but from a different tribe, one that bore longstanding animosity toward his own.

“Good grief,” we said, “your own people?”

We were horrified. We asked what he was doing for food. He pointed to a box of Corn Flakes.

“Oh, Patrice,” Doreen said. “Why didn’t you ask Richard to get you a new hot plate?”

“I can’t,” he said.

We went out right away to Game and bought him a new hot plate and pot, as well as a kettle and a flask, so he could have tea or coffee while he was car guarding. We came back to the church with the boxes. Patrice thanked us profusely and said that he couldn’t wait to use his new things as soon as the electricity was reconnected. Of course we don’t approve of stealing electricity (what with all the blackouts) but Patrice seemed in such good spirits that we left it there and said our goodbyes.

* * *

For the next few months, things started to go better for Patrice. Richard secured for him the services of one of Johannesburg’s best silks (overkill, we thought) and so we were not surprised to learn that Patrice had been granted refugee status. He could not work as an engineer until he got his engineering certificate sent from the Congo (they were working on that) but in the meantime, he supplemented his daytime car guarding income by working nights as a security guard and Sundays as a golf caddy at the Country Club. He even started making those beaded wire animal sculptures that are so popular with tourists, hawking them at Rosebank Mall on Saturday mornings. He really had quite the knack for it. He made giant two-headed rhinoceroses with yellow horns, giraffes with polka-dotted legs that went on forever, and purple hadadas. What’s more, he bought cheap toy cars made in China, removed the motors, and made his animals move. The motors whirred and the wings flapped and the eyes made of marbles blinked blue and green. We were so impressed. So he was a real engineer, after all! You just never know.

In a few months’ time, everyone on our block had Patrice’s magnificent animal sculptures proudly displayed on their front lawns. Everyone except Bettina, that is.

Richard and Patrice were becoming quite the item around town. They would shop together at Woolworths, Patrice pushing the cart and Richard picking Chardonnay and ready-made dinners for two. People began to whisper about the two of them. There was a rumor going around that Patrice, unbeknownst to Bettina, had moved out of Hands of Mercy Methodist Church, and into the Wendy house at the bottom of Richard and Bettina’s garden. Some people wondered if it did not perhaps set a bad example. Our gardeners and maids and sentry men had all at some point asked—during one of the string of unfortunate personal crises they always seem to be having—if they could stay in our granny flats or our Wendy houses, even just for a weekend or a week or a month, but one has to say no to these kinds of requests otherwise the children come to stay as well, and then of course you can’t very well tell the children, No, you can’t swim in the swimming pool on a hot summer’s day, when one’s own children and grandchildren are swimming in that self same swimming pool. It’s a slippery slope.

Our suspicions were confirmed when late one night, everyone on our block was woken up by the burglar alarm on 18 Aubrey Drive. The Neighborhood Watch bicycle crew (also known as, our darling husbands) had reported a suspicious-looking Black man entering Richard and Bettina’s front gate. In less than thirty seconds, the armored cars arrived. It’s amazing how fast these guys pitch up; it’s almost as though they know when the burglaries are going to happen. Come to think of it, maybe they do. At any rate, five bullet-proof-vested men marched into their driveway and pointed their AK-47’s at none other than poor Patrice, who was still in his security guard uniform. He was coming home from his night shift and had set off the alarm by mistake. Of course, Bettina threw him out and back to Hands of Mercy Methodist Church he went.

The next day, Richard came to us with hat in hand, asking if Patrice could stay with any of us for a little while. The church, Richard explained, had been bought by property developers, and the occupiers would soon be thrown out on the streets. Of course, we felt for all those poor people in the church, especially the children and we really did want to help.

But we couldn’t, for the reasons I mentioned before. We all do what we can.

* * *

Then things really started to go South. One day, a bedraggled-looking woman arrived on Richard and Bettina’s doorstep, asking after Patrice. She had a small child in tow, a little girl. She said, in very broken English, that she had been traveling for four months and had lost touch with her husband. Did they know where he was?

Bettina took them in, fed them and arranged for new clothes for both mother and child. Richard, of course, had no idea that Patrice was married. He had no idea that Patrice had a child. Moreover, the wife had shown Bettina some photographs of their home in the Congo. It was a perfectly nice home, small but with a big tree in the front. It wasn’t like they were living in a shack or anything. Evidently, Patrice had not escaped the war fearing for his life, but like so many others, had come to the City of Gold to make his fortune. He had lied to us, he had lied to the Department of Home Affairs, but most of all, he had lied to Richard.

Richard insisted that it was a simple miscommunication that could be quite easily cleared up. Perhaps the wife and child were extended family members and wife and husband were the only English words the woman knew, and what she really meant to say was “second cousin.”

Richard drove out to Jeppestown with the wife and child in the back seat, but when they got to Hands of Mercy, they found it empty, a hollowed-out shell.

They waited for Patrice to call, but he never did.

In the meantime, Bettina insisted that the wife and child stay in the Wendy house at the bottom of their garden. The wife, whose name was Lucy and the child, whose name was Patricia, slowly worked their way into our hearts. We all hired Lucy to help with extra ironing and invented tasks for her to do. Doreen gave them English lessons and soon they were getting along just fine.

Richard, meanwhile, was sick for a long time. Every now and then we would see Bettina at dusk when she would take Dottie for a walk around the block. She would totter down the middle of the street in her high heels. We would gently inquire after Richard’s health, and Bettina would always reply that he was getting better and “couldn’t wait” to return to his duties as EXCOFOW chair. But he never did.

The next time we saw Richard was around the time of the xenophobic attacks. A Somali shopkeeper was set on fire, then it spread to the Rwandans, to the Mozambicans, and to the Congolese. It was about jobs, that’s what the newspapers were saying. The foreigners taking jobs away from the locals. People were being stopped in the street and asked what the Zulu word for elbow was. If they didn’t know, they would be attacked with machetes.

Richard suddenly emerged from his sick bed. He was determined to find Patrice and tell him what the Zulu word for elbow was, just in case. Night after night, Richard drove around Jeppestown looking for Patrice. He even hatched a plan, which never materialized, to rent a Cessna, and fly it over the city center with this word, this magical word, written in the sky. I can’t for the life of me remember what it is.

Several months later, Doreen got a phone call in the middle of the night. It was TJ. He had apprehended a young man squatting in the caves at The Wilds. He had taken the man, who seemed mentally disturbed, to the police station. The police asked this young man for his asylum papers, which the man could not produce. And so the man was carted off to Lindela Detention Camp, which is where he remains to this day. The man, of course, was Patrice.

* * *

Lucy and Patricia still live in the Wendy house at the bottom of 18 Aubrey Drive. Bettina, aided by her daughters, wrested control of Richard’s endowment from him and forbade him to spend any more money on trying to get Patrice out of Lindela.

No one meets at The Wilds anymore. It’s gotten too dangerous. Students who went rock climbing there the other day got mugged, a knife held to their throats, a gun to their heads. We dismantled Friends of the Wilds and had to let go of TJ, shame. Who knows what’s happened to the cycads.

Every now and then, Doreen comes over to do Reiki on our dogs and we reminisce about Patrice. The giant beaded animals he made still live at the bottom of our gardens, rusted now. Their mechanical wings and tails no longer move but their eyes made of blue-green marbles glint at us while we water our plants at dusk beneath Johannesburg’s indigo skies.

Dara Kell is a South African filmmaker and writer. Her work has been featured in
The New York Times, GQ, Zoetrope: All-Story and The Masters Review, among others. An investigative journalist by training, her award-winning documentaries have screened at film festivals worldwide and have broadcast on Netflix, PBS, and the Sundance Channel. Dara lives in Cape Town, where she is completing an MA in Visual History and writing a short story collection about South Africa. Her forthcoming documentary about the legacy of Martin Luther King’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign will be released in summer 2024.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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