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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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