Category: Words

Written pieces

Part 1: Becoming a Man

My mom is a person of perfection. She is elegant and tall and made from obedience. She is also made to be obeyed. Throughout my primary school-years she insisted on piano lessons, extra-mural activities and academic achievement. In the shadow of her pointed finger and clanking gold bangles I spent half-an-hour before school practicing my scales and every weekday afternoon struggling to perfect things like chess and hurdles and my twelve times table. Then things shifted: One ordinary afternoon her car revved up our farm’s driveway and brought with it its usual fume of panic and “have-I-done-all-my-chores?” But when she pulled open the glass sliding door and stepped into the kitchen, Continue reading

Part 2: Orgasms Maketh Man

You feel that new rush of excitement. And you think of him. Dozy, the prefect, and Mr  Walls, the junior House Master, are just finishing their rounds and give your Form I dormitory ten minutes of talking time. They switch off the lights and surround your nervous anticipation with darkness. Around you the other boys compare their days on the sports field and chatter themselves to sleep. You stare up at the ceilings of white, pressed metal patterns that you can only make out with the help of the moonlight and memory. Your entire body is in your throat, beating. Beating at a hundred kilometers per second. Waiting for the chatter to turn into “Good nights,” to turn into deeper breathing. And while you wait, you talk yourself into and out of doing this thing again. Just this morning you promised yourself, “Not again. Never, ever, ever again.” But tonight, as the nasal noises signal to your brain that it is time, your arms take over, moving your fingers out from under your covers and curling them around the steel frame of your hostel bed. Your immature biceps flex as you lift your teenage body off your mattress, and the lat muscles that you’ll work so hard on over the next five years, barely but silently swing you onto the floor. You pause under your bed, listening into the silence.

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Imagine The Horror

You lift your cheek off the brown, salty ground. You try to look over your arm, try to see through the dust. Why is everybody running? Why are you lying on your stomach with a mouth full of soil? It feels like you’ve been pulled through a dreamless sleep that lasted for less than a second and longer than a day. Everything is confusing.

One long, dark heartbeat ago you were holding hands with your classmates, marching peacefully, singing a song. Teboho was carrying a poster that said, “Down with Afrikaans.” Hector’s poster proudly stated, “I will not be taught in the language of the oppressor.” Before that, you were all finishing a mathematics exam. For many long minutes you sat in that small, freezing brick classroom with its zinc roof and bare concrete floor. Sixty-four matric pupils folded over small wooden desks, scratching equations onto second-grade paper with blunt wooden pencils. Sixty-four Bantu school uniforms—grey flannel shorts and black v-neck jerseys covering white collared shirts—worn by every black pupil in every black school in the country. The headmaster finally said, “Time’s up! Pencils down.” Tsietsi looked around, right into your eyes, and said, “Comrades, it is time.”

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Happily Ever After?

It doesn’t happen when you’d expect it to. Not in the burst of celebration and the pomp of ceremony. Not in the perfectly planned I-dos, nor in the afterglow of two glorious honeymoons.

It doesn’t happen when you want it to, pretending not to wish it here. Calmly and then less calmly trying to summon that invisible cable to connect us, for all the world to see.

It doesn’t happen in the raw rub of disappointment or the itch of unmet expectations, even though that’s when I hope it would kick in the strongest.

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South African Brown

It is always brown somewhere in South Africa.

During the frostbitten winter, it’s the flat Highveld that cracks and curls up in chocolate squares of parched soil. These gold- and diamond- and crop-littered plains get their rain in the summer, sometimes in abundance, sometimes not. In the winter that wetness becomes a forgotten fantasy that is swept away in howling dust storms and hearsay. The June air fills with static, the tall grasses splinter, the sky becomes a lighter blue and sunlight is thinner. Dryness envelops the meadows and fields. The earth below loses all its moisture. The land above cracks and curls and parches. In the Highveld winters, the deepest hardness of Africa is seen and felt in its brittle brown ground.

In the searing summer months, it is the fringe of land along the coast—the southern curve of Africa—that tans a deep cocoa in its endless sunshine and on its blonde beaches. These provinces lie south of the Highveld and get fed on an opposite schedule to their upcountry neighbours, when winter fronts arc up from Antarctica with rain and melancholy. In summer, sunburn makes everything tawny, thirsty. Life, previously green, shrinks and shrivels in the hot, deep, dry days of December. The navy of the distant mountains turns deep purple in the bake and the rare flora, found on them and nowehere else in the world, becomes brittle and brown in this cycle of dryness that they know very well. In the Cape summers, a paradox of Africa is felt in the joy of the arid heat and the life it sucks out of the soil.

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Land, Possessed

We are the land. We are Africa. We are made from the ancestral spirits of the San and the Khoikhoi and the Bantu peoples. We are not the god of everybody but are the beginning of everything. Many people have sought our counsel in the wind or in bones or in the healing wise whispers of those who passed before them. Ours is the domain that stretches across from ocean to ocean and from the great desert above to the stormy coastline below.

We have been here since the beginning. We have raised mountains by folding great depths of rock over each other. We have grown forests and greened valleys. Along us rivers stream down to the sea and carve canyons out of the stone, sand and soil. And we offer their waters to the sky so that it may rain back down upon everything that lives on us. That water sustains life. Our grass and roots and bark feed elephant and buffalo. Our sable and springbuck feed the mighty lion and cheetah. Our fields are filled with abundance. Continue reading

His Opus

I was sitting at home one night and a friend of ours—a Pom, working at Blue Circle cement factory—phoned me and said “Dorrian, I’m in big trouble. This dog arrived on our doorstep in town and we made the huge mistake of giving him some food. Now the dog refuses to leave. My wife’s gone to Johannesburg and she said that if the dog’s still here when she gets back, she’s moving into the hotel.”  And he asked “Can’t you take the dog. He is a St Bernard, but he must be a brak because he has short hair.”

So I said “Ja, bring him. We need a big dog.” Continue reading

Thula Baba

I am stuck in the birth canal, inside my mother. All that Doctor Kaizer can see is a tiny patch of my head; pink and blonde. Everything else is swollen folds of red skin stretched into circles and covered in blood, mucus, discharge, remnants of broken water.

My tiny eyes are still shut. Forced shut by being pressed up against the walls of the tunnel everyone is trying to get me out of. So I don’t see the “vanity screens” wheeled around my mother in the labor room, with faded lime cloth scrunched onto the upper and lower rods of a shiny silver frame. Or the hospital-issue, light blue sheet tented over her lower body, her legs stirruped in icy metal holds. Don’t see the white-uniformed nurse handing polished steel tools to the doctor. Or the steel kidney bowl that holds these scalpels, surgical scissors and the glossy new clamp that will grip my umbilical chord when I am finally born. Don’t see my dad holding my mom’s hand but unable to look anywhere near me, or where I’m coming from. Continue reading

Starting a high school chapter

My mom is a person of perfection. She is elegant and tall and made from obedience. She is also made to be obeyed. Throughout my primary school years she insisted on piano lessons, extra-mural activities and academic achievement. In the shadow of her pointed finger and clanking gold bangles I spent half an hour before school practicing my scales and every weekday afternoon struggling to perfect things like chess and hurdles and my twelve times table. Then things shifted: One ordinary afternoon her car revved up our farm’s driveway and brought with it its usual fume of panic and “have-I-done-all-my-chores?” But when she pulled open the glass sliding door and stepped into the kitchen, I knew that today the first question wouldn’t be, “Is all your homework done?” Something significant had happened. Her eyes were alive in a new way; not tired or frustrated from the daily rub of farming and expectations. Instead bright and excited, relieved. And in her hand she held up a big, white envelope. Continue reading

Making Chicken and Children

Tina Turner blasts through speakers that aren’t supposed to be played at their maximum. The deejay sips a fresh, satisfying brandy and coke. He surveys the crowd, smiling, ignoring the cracks and tears pounding out of his tripodded black boxes.

You’re simply the best.

Better than a–ll the rest.

The song is rolling down from one of its crescendos. Many of the folks on the dance floor are howling along with the lyrics, some half a note behind but not caring to catch up. Mom and Dad are facing each other, slightly apart from the cacophony. Every now and again, though, they’ll look over at the mass of arms and legs and bobbing heads, and smile. She’s dancing the way she always dances: shoulders straight, body moving side-to-side, feet taking turns tapping neatly behind the heel of the other. Her arms swing gently to the beat, elbows stiff and wrists limp. The gold bangles from three special Christmases and two birthdays clink against each other and her auburn hair, blown dry in one slow inward curl, sways from shoulder to shoulder. Dad is pretending to be Bruce Springsteen: one leg in front of the other, body open, fingers snapping in a big half-circle, hips following the lead of his clicking fingers, back knee too. That’s exactly how the arm-jabbing rock star does it when he’s beamed onto our curved TV screen from concert stages far away from here. Continue reading

The Start of a Story

Once upon a time there was a farm in the southern round of Africa. This farm lay in a dusty stretch that became known as the Platteland because of its flat horizon. At first this region was overlooked by settlers and pioneers—Voortrekkers—because it didn’t have a bustling port or a roaring river or the promise of gold. It was inland, plain, boring. Eventually, though, government officials of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek drew lines across hand-sketched maps and sliced the land into sellable pieces. Then weary representatives reluctantly traveled from Pretoria and spiked a number of sharp metal stakes into the soil. It took them five days on horseback to get there. They carved out farms from the endless savannah and christened them with names like Graslaagte and Zoetmelkvallei and Rietfontein¹. During the frequent droughts that swept the region, these names became airless jokes. During wet years, however, the farms bloomed into their namesakes and were attractive alternatives to the fevered and overpopulated Witwatersrand, where Johannesburg was being built with bricks of newly-discovered gold and mortar made from the rot of chewing tobacco.  Continue reading

How quickly we forget

The final judgment in Roe v Wade was handed down nearly four years after “Jane Roe” fell pregnant. The African-American Civil Rights Movement spent fourteen very active and costly years fighting for equal and fair treatment. Legislation preventing the next Matthew Shepard hate crime and ensuring equal pay to future Lilly Ledbetters took eleven years to get passed. Sixteen years after the Defense Of Marriage Act first became law we are finally seeing its undoing and the release of a new wave of liberties and equalities, but even after all that time it’s still not fully decided or undone.   Continue reading

Lighting Fires

Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire.  – William Butler Yeats

Our policy is one which is called by an Afrikaans word, “Apartheid”, and I’m afraid that has been misunderstood so often. It could just as easily–and perhaps much better–be described as a policy of good neighborliness.   – Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa, 1961

 

You lift your cheek off the brown, salty ground. You try to look over your arm, try to see through the dust. Why is everybody running? Why are you lying on your stomach with a mouth full of soil? It feels like you’ve been pulled through a dreamless sleep that lasted for less than a second and longer than a day. Everything is confusing.

One long, dark heartbeat ago you were holding hands with your classmates, marching peacefully, singing a song. Teboho was carrying a poster that said, “Down with Afrikaans.” Hector’s poster proudly stated, “I will not be taught in the language of the oppressor.” Before that, you were all finishing a mathematics exam. For many long minutes you sat in that small, freezing brick classroom with its zinc roof and bare concrete floor. Sixty-four matric pupils folded over small wooden desks, scratching equations onto second-grade paper with blunt wooden pencils. Sixty-four Bantu school uniforms—grey flannel shorts and black v-neck jerseys covering white collared shirts—worn by every pupil in every black school in the country. The headmaster finally said, “Time’s up! Pencils down.” Tsietsi looked around, right into your eyes, and said, “Comrades, it is time.” Continue reading

Once More To The Chapel

But last week was so pretty, so warm, so sunny, I think to myself as I look around with despair at the tar-bottomed rivers that follow cars to intersections and flow over each other to swirl and twirl through the bars of the storm drains. My umbrella is shredded by the wind and my shoes are squeakingly acknowledging that they are waterlogged, as I miss busses and dodge cars to get to a certain room, in a specific hall, by a fixed time. Today is the first day of classes and, partly due to the relentless rainstorm, it feels like a world away from the sunny shining of campus during the post-Irene bliss of registration week. Continue reading

A Life Cycle

There are drums. In the distance. The beats join the music in a happy union. I can sense smiling. And a twirl of tulle-ed skirts and can-can costumes. I walk closer, unable to keep myself away. Someone takes my bicycle from me. “Don’t worry, it’s safe here.” The tarred road quickly becomes gravel as I walk further off today’s route. That’s okay. It is safe here. The music gets louder and as I round a corner; a red flash. Then more red, and a torso. First just smiling and shaking and rhythmically undulating. Then a louder flash of music. And the drums again. Always the drums as I walk into what feels like an African tribal ritual of stomps and starts. I walk through the beat. People start writhing around me. More red. Beautiful red that makes me smile. Smile because everything red is a dress and only some of the dresses are women. That feels strange out here in the raw country, where cows stare and butter is churned instead of manufactured. But it feels like home. I walk in deeper. Continue reading