A town in South Africa was believed to be one of the first in the world to have only men walking the streets. Reporters came in from across the globe to find out about this place that one day only had male inhabitants. Where had all the women gone? Everyone longed to know.

Emily Burger, an up-and-coming reporter, was one of many sent to investigate. When she got the call, she didn’t think twice – the case had been making headlines across all media channels – and it was the kind of story she knew she could sink her teeth into.

At twenty-six, Emily was already gaining recognition in her field as a passionate journalist who believed in giving a voice to the voiceless and changing unconstitutional methods around the world. Her dream of being a reporter had materialised in the busy streets of Johannesburg where she grew up. After she finished her studies in Journalism, she spent time as a field reporter travelling the world. She had been home for a year spending time with her parents while she worked as a writer for one of the city’s newspapers.

“You are telling us you will be the only woman in the whole town?” her mother asked, clearly mortified.

“Why don’t they send a man to report or investigate this story?” added her father.

“They don’t need to. I’m the best they have. Plus, if it makes you feel better, the camera operator and driver will be with me the whole time. They both happen to be men,” said Emily, hoping to reassure her parents as she prepared to leave.

“I heard that women who go into that town don’t come back. What if you don’t come back?” cried her mother.

“That’s crazy! Surely the police would’ve done something about it by now if that was true,” Emily retorted. “There must be another reason why there are no women there?” 

“Sonia’s mom says she knows someone who went to that town and they haven’t heard from her since,” continued her mother.

“Sonia’s mom always knows someone who experienced the latest thing everyone is talking about. She has to know it all. Manson is a just a town with different story,” Emily rolled her eyes before kissing her parents goodbye. They stood at the gate comforting each other, watching her until she disappeared from their sight.

Emily didn’t let the fear in their eyes intimidate her. She had worked on cases more dangerous than this one. Her team had been crucial in bringing down a serial killer that had been terrorising people in Cape Town for years. Maybe her parents weren’t as apprehensive as cases and stories like that involved issues that everybody had gotten used to. But they were rattled by the news of a single-gender town because they did not want to admit how uncertain it made them.

“I’ll be safe,” she whispered as she drove to meet Dave and Senzo.

***

“What do you do for entertainment?” Pearl Thompson, a world-renowned and charismatic American reporter, asked one of the elders in town. A trusted face of an internationally acclaimed news channel that fearlessly sought out cutting-edge stories, her voice was a symbol of their drive and ambition to deliver breaking news.

The men laughed at her. A woman in Manson chasing a sensational story about men who had supposedly driven women away. Their little town was a sight to behold for those who had never seen anything like it before. Not a woman in sight. Well, except Pearl. She’d eventually leave and chase after juicer stories as soon as she realised there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary here.

“So, where did all the women go?” Pearl continued to probe, as she looked at boys running up and down the streets.

“Miss, you are talking like we chased them away. This is just a town that happens to have men living in it and we are happy with it just as it is,” replied one of the men.

“Maybe they went to start their own town. They weren’t happy here for a long time. They were always protesting against some violence or another. I suppose they must have sat and come up with a better solution,” suggested another man.

“This town did have alarming numbers of deaths. Most were women. So, could this have been why they were protesting? Do you think they are safe wherever they are now?” she enquired.

“Your guess is as good as ours,” was heard from the back of the growing group. “When people die there are death certificates and funerals, isn’t it?” the same voice insisted.

“Do you mean, if there are bodies to claim and someone has to identify them?” she asked.

“Are you implying something?” shouted another man, also from the back.

“Hundreds of women don’t just disappear. Someone must know what happened and where they all went,” she continued her line of questioning.

“Come with names. Show us missing person’s reports,” another man said accusatorily. “Then maybe you will have a story. Until then, this is just a town where men live,” he got up to leave.

Pearl could see the group considered the story closed. She signed out for now and the camera operator turned the camera off. They took one last look around as the crowd disassembled and they got into the van and drove off.

***

“That’s all?” asked Emily after she watched the latest report.

“Yep, Pearl said she wanted to keep searching but the channel insisted they leave because there wasn’t much to go on,” said Senzo.

“Are you sure you still want to do this?” asked Dave as he drove them to the town.

“Yes, of course! Obviously, the live interrogation is out as Pearl got nothing from it. If we stay longer, we need to keep our tracking devices on at all times. I’ll have to blend in and see if I can find someone who lost a loved one in all that happened.”

“You really think there is a story here?” asked Senzo.

“There is always a story. This may be less dramatic than what we imagined, or it may be worse,” replied Emily.

“If something bad was going on surely someone would be willing to come forward and talk,” suggested Dave.

“The crowds in the interviews I’ve watched always seem controlled. It’s the same faces, these elders, and they keep saying the same things. Maybe the common man doesn’t have a voice in all this,” added Emily.

“Then, we need to become part of the community and hear what other people are saying about the missing women,” said Senzo.

“Yes! We will collect information and only do a live interrogation once we have facts,” stated Emily.

“How long do you think you will be able to go around as a woman in a town that has none left?” asked Dave.

“We will see. If women are being hunted, then I’ll be the example,” Emily responded.

***

They got to Manson late, stopping first at a petrol station. Senzo went to find something for them to eat while Dave filled up the van. Emily stayed in the back and waited – even though she longed to get out, stretch her legs and use the bathroom. They eventually found a bed and breakfast and got two adjoining rooms. They snuck Emily in with the luggage.

The next morning, after breakfast, Dave and Senzo went into town to explore. Emily stayed in the room. She kept looking out, at the streets and at the other houses to see if she would spot another woman. Only men roamed the streets. She was listening to music on her phone while waiting for Dave and Senzo to return when she heard what she thought was the voice of a woman singing over the sound of a vacuum cleaner. Thinking she might have imagined the singing, she turned off the music on her phone and listened. The vacuum cleaner continued, but then she heard the singing again. This was clearly the person cleaning the rooms. Emily decided to wait where she was instead of sneaking back into the van to hide or going outside to investigate. The singing got closer and closer. Anticipating the cleaner would come into the room, Emily hid in the closet with her suitcase and watched in amazement as a woman cleaned.

Emily was processing what she was seeing when the cleaner heard a voice from outside the door and pressed a button on her neck. Emily watched as a different body – a more masculine one – now stood where a feminine one had been seconds before.

Dave came in and greeted the cleaner while looking around the room.

“I’m almost done here,” said the cleaner.

Dave nodded while looking down at his phone.

Where are you? he texted Emily.

Emily’s phone vibrated loudly, revealing her hiding spot. She jumped out the closet. Dave stared at her, nervous at what might happen next.

The cleaner, startled by Emily’s presence, tried to leave the room. Emily rushed to the door.

“What do you want?” asked the cleaner.

“What are you doing?” Dave asked Emily, as he watched what was going on.

“That’s a woman! The person was singing. Then they came in … right before you came in. A button or something on the neck was pressed and someone else appeared,” she filled Dave in.

As Dave looked from one to the other, Senzo rushed in shouting, “You won’t believe what I just saw?”

The cleaner, now sitting on the bed, pressed the button on their neck again. 

Dave now saw what appeared to be a woman. He closed his eyes. Opened them again. A woman was still sitting on the bed.

“A woman! That is exactly what I saw!” Senzo exclaimed.

Emily moved closer to the bed and sat next to the cleaner, “What is your name?”

“Are you another reporter?”

“Yes, but this is not just a story for us. We were concerned about all the disappearances,” Emily explained.

“As you can see nobody has disappeared. Instead, we found a safety measure to the high levels of violence we were experiencing. We didn’t think it would gather so much attention from the world.”

“So, everything is fine? How does this work then?” asked Dave, pointing at the button.

“It is designed for us to wear when we leave our homes, especially at night or if we ever feel unsafe.”

“Was this meant to be a secret?” Has the town seen a reduction in violent crimes?” asked Emily.

“The leaders, and some of the younger ones in town, were in support of it, but they kept it quiet from the others. We were safe. Peace reigned in Manson, but you know how people talk? Then, once in a while, intrigued tourists or visitors would notice the lack of women in the town,” replied the cleaner. “Nobody knows the reason why yet,” the woman added pleadingly. 

“People have been worried that more women were being killed off in Manson. This is why the world has been on edge,” Emily added.

It was terrifying to imagine a place without women or where they were being hunted down or driven away into the unknown. As the three of them stood in the room listening to the cleaner speak, finding out the real reason behind what was happening in Manson came as a bittersweet relief to them all.

“Many women seem to adopt this form all the time unless they are indoors alone,” Dave pointed out. “Why not wear them only when you walk on the streets?”

“The town became a tourist attraction. I suppose for now everyone wasn’t sure who to trust or what to present to the world. The original designer of the suit was almost killed when even the people in town didn’t understand what was happening,” the woman explained.

“What happened to her?” asked Dave.

“Him,” she corrected. “He still develops the button, but now he gives them out for free only to women who really need it. He gave up ownership rights for his safety. Those kept from the truth believed he was harming us and responsible for our disappearance. Now others have started developing their own suits, and selling to women to make a profit.”

“We need to report something back so the world will stop being curious,” Emily explained to them now they had been told the full story.

They all looked at each other and nodded.

***

“This is Emily Burger, reporting live from Manson, a town in South Africa where it is believed only men live. We’ve spent the last few days interviewing residents of this small town. We have learned that the women of Manson have not disappeared. I have met with close to a hundred women who agreed to be a part of this investigation, so the world knows the truth. All is not well in Manson when it comes to violence, but the women of the town are safe and happy – living in an undisclosed location away from harm. They only agreed to be part of this story, if their identities were obscured to protect their safety.”

Emily’s parents watched the broadcast with pride as their daughter discussed issues of safety and security with the women in Manson – who also highlighted the importance of women fighting for their rights in the world. 

Once they were done, Senzo switched off the camera, and they packed up the equipment.

Emily was already buzzing for the next story.


SINASO MXAKAZA

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