My mother gave me the name of Makoma three days after I was born, but that has never been important. I have three sisters who are all older than I. We were all raised in Taung.

Some might call Taung beautiful for there are colorful, wild flowers and a clean, wide river. In summer, the sun shines beautifully upon the rocks and the red earth. Birds can be heard singing every spring; and the fall of the leaves in autumn is always an awaited sight. The winters are not too cold and the sky is often very blue. It is said that at night the moon glows unlike it does in any other valley. I suppose some might call Taung beautiful.

My mother used to tell me I was born in a good year; it was the year of the great harvest. She told me that in that year no family slept unfed, and no livestock died of thirst. The great skies had been kind enough to pour good rains into the valley; they were the sort of rains which did not turn into floods and drown children. Even the sun had not been harsh; it shone only to warm the people and then hid itself. The land was not burdened with drought that year.

“There hasn’t been another year like that one, Makoma,” she said with dreamy eyes and a longing voice.

My father used to tell me I was born in a bad year; it was the year he went to a ngaka—a traditional healer and prophet, for news of the future. The ngaka told my father that the child in my mother’s womb would be his first son. My father said he had been so overjoyed with the news of a son that he paid the ngaka with his best three cows.

The three cows left in my father’s kraal after the payment were not as fat, young, and fertile as the ones he had used to pay the ngaka; so that year there were no new calves born in my father’s kraal. Two months before I was born, one of the old cows in my father’s kraal died. He was not saddened since I would be enough compensation.

“There has not been another year like that, child,” he said with reddened eyes and a sorrowful voice.

In the end, it was because I was born that my first sister was married to Phetole—an old man who was a friend of my paternal grandfather’s. Phetole was a man who had lived many summers. He had five grown children much older than my sister and several grandchildren. His wife had died the previous year from the coughing disease. They say he did not want a wife, but he married my sister as a favor to my grandfather.

My sister had only lived fourteen summers when she married Phetole. She still had the eyes of a child. But the year had been hard for my father, so my mother gave my sister to the old man. My parents received six cows and a bull for the marriage. My father’s kraal now had two bulls and eight cows.

My sister’s husband died only three months after they were married. But my sister was not returned to my parents. Instead she was inherited by her husband’s family. A year after the death of her husband, she became the second wife of his younger brother—Talane. Unlike her childless first marriage, my sister’s second marriage produced four sons and two daughters.

After my sister’s marriage, my father felt he had grown rich enough to become extravagant once more. The year after I was born he used the two old cows and one of the new ones to buy a farming veld.

He used the old bull to buy ploughs and picks and other farming equipment from Maake—an old man known to have worked with white people in the big city. The same big city with many lights and men digging for gold. It was said that Maake had received the equipment from a cousin of one of the white men for whom he worked. The equipment was old and rusty. But Maake was a man known for his clever way with words.

“But it ploughs the land. What does it matter if the iron is rusted? In the end you will have the best crop in the valley, child of my old friend,” he said to my father. Maake was a man who always smiled a very kind and endearing smile. When he spoke these words to my father, he was smiling that smile.

My father saw the kind smile and heard the soothing words. So he bought the rusted equipment with no qualms.

But that was not a good year for farming; the sun became harsh, and it burnt the land. The skies did not open to bless us with its rains. Every time my father tried to plough the dry land, one of the equipment failed to work. There was creaking and grinding, but there was no land being turned, and there was no seed placed in the earth.

Maake was summoned to come and help in fixing the equipment, but he had already returned to the city. My father was stranded with dysfunctional equipment and the great drought. He did not have crop to harvest. To add to his troubles, three of his cows died in the drought and the ones that were left proved to be infertile. So he found a man to marry my second sister.

The man was called Sekgale. Unlike Phetole and Talane, Sekgale was not an old man. He had lived twenty-seven summers when he married my sister, who had lived only thirteen summers. Sekgale had never been married, and so he did not have children. His family gave my parents ten cows and two bulls for my sister.

My second sister produced five daughters from her marriage. Six months after her fifth daughter was born, my sister’s husband took a second wife to remedy the faults of my sister. The second wife has since produced four sons for him.

Yet, even with his disappointment in my sister, Sekgale has not returned my sister to my parents’ kraal. He sees that it would not do him good to give back a woman for whom he lost healthy cows and bulls.

All the same, it has not been a complete loss for Sekgale. As soon as my sister’s daughters reached a marriageable age, husbands were found for them, and new herds of cattle were added to Sekgale’s kraal. Only one daughter remains with my sister. This remaining daughter has lived twelve summers, and there are already whispers saying that Sekgale promised to give her hand in marriage to Maila—a man currently with three wives and twelve sons.

I have asked my sister of the whispers. She hung her head heavily and spoke in a low voice that had a slight quiver.

“I also heard the rumours, child of my mother. But I am a bad wife, and so he tells me nothing, child of my mother.” there were tears sitting at the corners of my sister’s eyes as she said the words.

But my sister can never leave Sekgale. You see, we have a word for women who are returned by their husbands in our language. Seboya—the returned, is the word. For fear of this word, my sister will remain with Sekgale.

My third sister had lived fifteen summers when she was married. She had been allowed to grow so old before being married because my father was trying to get as big a herd of cattle as he could negotiate.

You see, my third sister is very beautiful. It is said by the old people and the young alike that no woman as beautiful as she has ever lived in the valley. Even when she was a child my father understood that many men would pay many cattle to have her.

As soon as my sister reached the age of twelve summers, negotiations for her marriage were held. With each negotiation, the number of cattle was raised. And with each raise, more men came to my father for more negotiations.

First there came Sekela. He was a man who had lived thirty-five summers. He had many cattle in his kraal and he was willing to give ten cows and three bulls in exchange for my sister: this was a bull for every two cows; a very good price. My father listened intently as Sekela and his elder uncles spoke through the negotiation.

When they were finished, my father smiled a gentle smile and said with confidence, “I hear you. But the cattle are too little. We have received better offers and we will be considering them.”

Second came Molapi. He was a man who had lived forty summers. He was not a man as rich as Sekala. But he was more eager to have my sister as his wife. He offered fifteen cows and three cattle; these were all but ten of the cattle in his own kraal. Once more my father listened intently and rejected respectfully.

Molapi and his company retreated disappointed. He was not willing to increase the number of cattle he would give since that would leave him with nothing in his kraal. He never returned to make another offer.

Three years since Sekela first came to ask for my sister’s hand, he returned with an offer of thirty-five cows and ten bulls. That was half his kraal. In addition, he would pay five sheep and seven goats. They say in the three years since he first came to my father, Sekela was expanding his wealth so that he could return to my father with a certain offer. When Sekela returned, my father did not smile the respectful smile and refuse the respectful offer.

My sister has not produced any children for Sekela. We have a word in our language for this curse—moopa, one without a womb.

Yet, Sekela has found a purpose for her. Men from near valleys and far villages have traveled to our valley to see my sister. As the sun visits the sky every morning, she bathes and adorns herself with the many gifts Sekala buys for her from the Indian man’s store.

When the men flock to Sekela’s kraal to see the beauty unmatched by anyone else’s, they find my sister ready and as pretty as the sunset. The marveling crowds have increased since the day Sekela bought her the skin-lightening cream and wig from the Indian man’s store.

In my seventeenth summer, Nkwe, a man who had lived fifty summers, came to my father’s kraal and asked for my hand in marriage. No man had come to ask for my hand before him for a rather simple and obvious reason: all the people of the valley are frightened of the curses which haunt the women of my family.

Nkwe came for one simple reason: he was very poor. He only had two cows and a calf to offer for me. My father already had enough cattle in his kraal so he did not see the need in keeping me.

“We accept,” my father said at the first negotiation.

Two years after we were married, I gave birth to our first child. It was a girl child, small and simple. On her first night she cried loudly, as is the way of babies. When the morning came she closed her eyes to rest.

When the time came for her to wake, she did not do so. She remained sleeping, forever small and simple. A day later we placed her small body in the ground behind our biggest hut. The place was not marked.

The next summer I gave birth to a boy child. Nkwe gave him the name of Tau. The child did not perish as his sister had done.

And like that the births of my children continued: a girl then a boy and a girl again. It is now many summers since I married Nkwe. I have given birth to ten children; five have been girls. The boys grow strong. In the summer they swim in the river, and in the winter they tell tales by the fire. They are good boys, healthy and tall.

But I have a curse, you see: all my girl children did not live longer than a day. They all have small graves behind the big hut. We have not marked the places.

I now understand that this is a simple curse. There have been no unkind whispers and rumors of my dead daughters. Each time another daughter from my womb dies with a cold breath, the people of Taung say with untouched faces and ordinary voices, “You don’t have the womb for daughters. Perhaps the next one will live.”

They say the words as though they are speaking of an old tale that holds no particular significance. A tale none can remember, yet all can attest to its triviality.

I have found comfort in the knowledge that the people of Taung do not know this: in each of my daughters’ graves is a name I dare not whisper. When this life has ended, and I meet their ghosts, they will ask why I stopped their breaths and buried them unnamed. When I confess, I shall call out their names.

With each call, the names will echo.