“The heavy booted feet of workers making their way home after a long day in the fields, the wheels of old trucks that delivered supplies to the village every so often, the feet of school children walking more than two hours to and from the nearest school and heavily laden scotch carts drawn by oxen that had seen better days had all worn the red, cracked gravel road in Buhera, Zimbabwe. The dusty path led to Michero Mitatu village.
As the sun was setting, the inhabitants of the village could be heard settling into their evening routines. There were muted conversations from the men as they made their way home from the village court and the loud whistles of the herdboys as they rounded up the cattle, directing them into the kraals.
Pots were clanking as the women put what meagre rations they could find together into a wholesome meal for their families and some girls could be seen walking back from the well at a leisurely pace, balancing calabashes of water on their heads as they snickered and laughed out loud at whatever rumours were circulating in the village.
I gazed into the distance, following the long winding path with my eyes, and wondered about the world beyond it. The world where I heard meals could be prepared on a contraption that did not require firewood; where people lived in houses that were big enough to hold entire villages; and where both women and men could earn a living and provide a better life for their families. The place I knew I was probably never going to see.
I was a happy fifteen-year-old girl, full of life, with the dream of one day going to the city to study to be a teacher. Unlike my peers, I loved school despite the fact that it was two hours away. I did not care that the school was made up of a tiny office block, two windowless classrooms for the A-level students, and a few Musasa trees scattered around the grounds with old blackboards stuck on their trunks on which all the knowledge I had accumulated thus far had been scribbled with white chalk.
I did not take to heart the remarks of teachers like Ms Pararayi, a science teacher who felt that doing arts subjects (English, history and Shona) was a complete waste of time. She would say, ‘Kutoita maArts? Mxm.’ Ms Pararayi was convinced that all of us doing these subjects were going to end up being traditional healers and believed we would be better off just going to the river and getting captured by a mermaid instead of wasting our time.
After school, I used to go to the borehole, fetch water for the house, gather firewood, take a bath in the river then rush home to assist my mother with cooking supper for the family. I did this almost daily and unlike everyone else around me, who seemed content with the tedious repetition and routine, I felt there was much more to life than being within the confines of Michero Mitatu.”
“Firstly, the discourse on racism in higher learning institutions in South Africa is often centred on the material. We often focus on such things as inequalities among historically Black versus historically White institutions, inequalities pertaining to infrastructure, quality of academic staff, research grants etc. We focus also on racial demographics. What we do not pay great attention to is how all these affect the mental and emotional wellbeing of Black students, who are dominantly on the receiving end of these realities. Secondly, mental health in the Black community in general is a subject we do not speak about enough, and as a result, narratives around it being a ‘White people’s sickness’ continue to find expression. What this does is perpetuate problematic ideas about how Black people who suffer from mental illness are strange, or even worse, attention-seekers. As a microcosm of our society, universities become sites of this perpetuated violence, and therefore sites of mental trauma for Black students, most of whom do not have coping mechanisms or a support structure to negotiate their debilitating conditions. Thirdly, and just as importantly, understanding mental health challenges in Black students and youth would allow us to engage an aspect of justice that we do not often speak about: humanisation. I am in no way claiming that mental health problems are unique to Black students in historically White universities, as the chapter on the struggles of the Tshwane University of Technology students will demonstrate. I am contending only that there are specific experiences that students in these university confront, and that institutionalised racism expresses itself in specific ways that demand critical reflection and engagement.
Because of our history of dispossession and dehumanisation through such processes as colonialism and apartheid, where draconian laws were implemented to disenfranchise and de-civilise Black people, our language of justice revolves greatly around expropriation. This is not wrong. Taking back the land and economy that were violently dispossessed is one of the important ways of seeking justice. This is why movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall are so important. They were struggles for more than just free, decolonised education. They were struggles about belonging, about space and place, about seeking spatial justice. But we must remember, always, that it was more than the land and economy that were taken from Black people. The very essence of what makes us human, our dignity and our humanity, were also taken from us. And so, in seeking justice, we are seeking, above all else, our humanisation. To reclaim this, we must reclaim, first and foremost, our mental health, which has been battered by systematic constructs spanning centuries. This book seeks to document and to humanise Black students, and I hope it will contribute to the urgent and necessary discussion around the many ways in which racism gives birth to mental pathologies in Black people.”
“If you were to tell me 10 years ago that the words in this book would be mine, I would have laughed. Looking back at my life, I see a substantial evolution of consciousness in how my beliefs were shaped. This is something that many people grapple with. In light of this, the continuous questions I had in my mind while writing this book were: How do I continue writing when my views today do not resemble the ideology I had 10 years ago? Would my reader not think I was inconsistent? But another voice added: If you did not change because of suffering from marginalisation, it would be scary. In fact, that is why you are meant to write. Write about the changes – this is part of telling your story. And so, I tell my story, as truthfully as I can.
My relationship with myself – existing in my body – has been a complex one. Physically, spiritually, economically and politically, I have had to grapple with reconciling my existence on this earth. In tracking these complexities, I have noticed that Black women have been prominent in assisting and crafting who I am and how I analyse my environment. My mother sticks out as one of those women who influenced my thinking in ways that scare even her. From my earliest memory, I remember studying her in a way that I could easily formulate into theory. My childhood memory does not serve me well, but it has granted me a vivid memory of an experience with my mother in 1992.
From 1948, South Africa had been embroiled in an evil regime called apartheid, which marginalised and segregated people according to their race. In March 1992, a referendum to end apartheid was held, brewing mixed reactions from those who benefitted from it, but this signalled freedom for my parents and those who had suffered under the regime. Our country was experiencing a transition. A kind of uncertainty came over South Africans who had wrestled with the chains of oppression. The possibility of a new dawn filled the air.
Even with these moments, it was not unusual to experience adults trickling into our house in Ennerdale, a town situated south of Johannesburg, filling the air with laughter while melodies painted hearts with joy. A sudden groove developed in my parents’ hips, always finding a moment to celebrate.
One ordinary Saturday in 1992, the sun had completed its shift and you could hear the crickets tuning the air with their whistles, a mild breeze joining in on the jingle. My soul hovered above our lounge while the tunes slowly seduced my tiny eight-year-old ears, tickling what was then my unknown relationship with music. I watched my mother with glee, her curled pitch-black hair twinkling under the lights and complementing her black chiffon dress. Her face and teeth sparkled, reflecting mysterious stories. She threw her head back and like a flower in the wind swirled to the tunes of Brenda Fassie’s I’m Your Weekend Special.”
Sechaba Mogale was born in exile in Lusaka, Zambia, where he was raised by his grandparents, while Wandi Nzimande was born and raised in Soweto. They forged a friendship and went on to create the brand Loxion Kulca in 1997. The wordplay of the ‘Loxion’ in the brand’s name is that it is a stylistic take on the vernacular word for the township, ‘elok’shini’ (location). ‘Kulca’ follows this stylisticly, respelling the word ‘culture’. Nzimande explains:
For me, apart from poetic licence: being brave, being young and saying, ‘fuck it, we can do whatever we want’, we knew that we couldn’t spell it in a way that… We knew that if you call it something that people knew, they wouldn’t buy it. We wanted to be as foreign as possible because, for me, anything that is foreign instils fear. And, sometimes, fear instils respect. So, we were excited about the misspelling.
The brand Loxion Kulca was a representation of the cultures that these designers were exposed to. Nzimande and Mogale had started out by selling handmade t-shirts and caps from the boot of their car. They then approached Sales House, known today as Jet Stores, part of the Edgars Consolidated Stores (EDCON). Sales House had started off as a retail clothing store tailored to the interests of migrant labourers. Sales House sold clothes similar to the Brentwoods and Pringles favoured by amapantsula, but at more affordable rates and with extended credit. Edgars was catering to middle class white people at the time.
Mogale and Nzimande approached Sales House with the desire to become a vendor at the store, and one of the EDCON’s suppliers, the late Brian Abrahams, assisted them financially and became their business partner. The period being just after apartheid, the market was incredibly difficult for black people to enter, and Abrahams’s social and economic capital came in handy for the duo. Loxion Kulca became one of the vendors at Sales House stores, but unfortunately the brand didn’t sell very well in the first week, which is usually used to measure how well a product will perform on the market. It was not until they got kwaito artists to endorse the brand that the sales for Loxion Kulca skyrocketed. From there, Loxion Kulca rose to prominence as a brand celebrating the township identity using streetwear. Not long after its inception Loxion Kulca began to be worn by major kwaito artists such as Mshoza and TKZee.
After the death of business partner, Brian Abrahams, the brand then seemed to lose prominence and momentum due to a series of reasons. One major reason given by Nzimande was that, in its popularity, the brand had created such great demand for the products that they were unable to meet required supply. Largely because of this, counterfeiting of their brand increased drastically. At one stage, he recounted for the Sowetan newspaper, there was R10-million worth of bootlegged Loxion Kulca products being sold on the streets.
Loxion Kulca, and Wandi Nzimande agrees with me on this, owed a great deal of its success to the kwaito movement, becoming something of a symbol for the culture. Needless to say, as kwaito left the mainstream, Loxion Kulca followed suit as the genre had facilitated and championed its success. Whatever other reasons may have led to the brand’s decline, it is undeniable that Loxion Kulca paved the way for streetwear brands such as Amakipkip, Eish Hade and the Cape Town based 2Bop. Izipoti (bucket hats) have especially made their way into mainstream streetwear today, propelled even more following the video of Caracara released by KO ft KiDX in 2013, which paid homage specifically to Trompies but to kwaito as a genre and a culture as well.
The song sampled Trompies’s popular hit Bengimngaka, and the artists wore bucket hats and even made reference to TKZee’s 1998 hit, Dlala Mapantsula. The fact that bucket hats have made their way back into the mainstream through hip hop is quite profound. Whether deliberate or not, this move highlights the way in which our identities today, as black people living in postapartheid South Africa but also in the global village, are not as rigid as we like to make them out to be. Is’poti, or the bucket hat, signals that there is a bridge between two different cultures that young black South Africans find themselves grappling with today. Loxion Kulca’s brilliance was also in the brand’s ability to remix history, so to speak. The contemporary youth, just post-apartheid, struggled to place or limit themselves in one cultural space, as this was also around the time when globalisation’s effects became more pronounced on South African society. The first post-apartheid generation could not escape the politics of its past, and yet also sought to find a different identity from the apartheid generations.
Loxion Kulca clothing and gear was not necessarily traditionally township; influences from black American fashion were also prevalent. In fact, Wandi Nzimande and Sechaba Mogale had been people who prided themselves on being fans of hip hop and were also avid basketball players, so this fact shouldn’t be surprising. However, for all its attached sentimental and political meanings, Wandi Nzimande is on record stating that the brand was not born out of some special story to tell, and instead came out of their need to put bread on the table. ‘To us it was a means to an end while to some people it gave them belief, and others created music with it. Some people even thought we were a political party,’ he once recounted for City Press.
Without imposing an unintended meaning, I would say that many of the actions that we make do not necessarily have one meaning. A lot of times, they are in response to actions that have already been made. If we interrogated further, we would find that many of our most significant actions are informed by the world around us.
Fashion, like all other art forms, can also be used as a window to seeing and making meaning out of the experiences that people have of a certain time and place, even when that was not the explicit meaning of the designer. The name ‘Loxion Kulca’ in a South Africa where black people were still trying to figure out where they fit in the world is political in itself, as it shows pride in being from elok’shini, a place which was supposed to be the site of hopelessness. The clothing, reflecting the black South African township experience even as it had been influenced by global super-culture, reflected the one thing that black folks cannot be stripped of: our identities.
Things were slightly different for female kwaito artists, however. Because my engagement with kwaito is with hindsight, as I was a young child when the culture was prominent, there are many things that hold sentimental value to me. Boom Shaka wearing crop tops that were perceived as revealing, for example. Boom Shaka’s style, clearly influenced by African-American fashion even through its music, was critiqued for how ‘loose’ an image it portrayed. This was an aesthetic that even 999’s Abashante followed. The women were clad in revealing tops and long pants as it was the trend at the time, imported from black America.
Considering the role that men played in creating these images, I struggle to think of them as bold attempts at reclaiming their agency. I can’t shake off the feeling that the kwaito men instructed them to cultivate these images, specifically for the male gaze. It is difficult to engage with the clothing style of kwaito artists without engaging with South Africa’s sociopolitical dynamics. At all times, it was about confronting respectability politics. It serves as a window into the socio-political climate of neo-apartheid South Africa, where apartheid is no longer legislated but remains stubbornly reflected in the socioeconomics of its people. The fashion and culture kwaito style ignited paved the way for our generation to be able to express ourselves through unconventional modes of dress, and will live on forever as an inspiration to us.
The Sweetest Ache
Remi struggled to sit up straight in her chair in the coffee shop. The heat and jetlag made it impossible for her to keep her eyes open. She was more hungry than tired, and irritable from no food or sleep for the last few hours. Her flight to Zimbabwe had been sketchy, to say the least. The dubious pilot had insisted on flying through a minor storm and landing in lush green fields just outside Harare. She’d had to endure a hot taxi ride into the city, as well as a delay with checking in to the hotel she’d booked the week before. As a hard-working activist and reporter, this wasn’t the first time Remi wondered whether taking her mother’s advice – to get a ‘real’ degree – would have been a better idea than ‘following her heart’.
As the trendy and obviously popular little cafe started to fill up with more tourists and local patrons, Remi gave herself a few slaps to the cheeks, blinked several times, and used her dirty boots to pull her luggage closer underneath the table. Her legs were stiff and moving her left prosthetic made the stump just under her knee tingle. She suppressed the urge to stretch the leg and lift up her pants to give it air.
‘Weell you be ordering anything ma’am?’ The voice was surprisingly raspy for a girl with such a sweet face.
Remi looked up with interest at the young waitress standing beside her table. She was a dark and tall girl, with the kind of striking features any modelling agency worth their salt would lap up. Wide almond-shaped eyes; a small rounded nose and plump lips a shade or two darker than the rest of her face. She didn’t seem to have any airs and pretences about her though; rare for a conventionally beautiful girl. Her face was kind; the tap of her pen against her notepad was more habit than impatience or boredom.
Remi ordered the club special: a burger with fries. She knew she wouldn’t touch the meal but it bought her more time with the beautiful waitress, even if it was in this hellhole. Lord knew when she’d be cleared to finally go to her hotel room. At least in this place, she could sit for long periods of time and not seem weird. She ran a hand through her matted black curls and pressed the back of the other on her soaking forehead. How the hell did anyone survive this heat? Her eyelids fluttered slightly as the heat began to make her dizzy. She didn’t know how long she’d last in there, but she had no intention of going anywhere any time soon.
It was only when she heard, rather than saw, the sound of the glass being placed on her table that she realised she’d allowed her eyes to close, dozing off. The waitress was back and she’d put a glass of ice cold beer that she hadn’t ordered on the table in front of her. Remi tried to mumble a protest, but it was lost in the parched gulp in her throat as she eyed the sweating glass of cool bliss. The waitress winked at her and quickly turned to serve a table adjacent to Remi’s.
Remi couldn’t remember the last time she’d hit on a woman, let alone allowed herself to flirt with her. She felt rusty and wasn’t sure she could still read any of the signs. She looked around for the beautiful waitress and noticed that no one else seemed to have received any complimentary beers from her. A moment more of this speculation and Remi would pass out from overthinking, exhaustion and starvation. She grabbed at the glass on the table and tipped her head back, taking huge gulps of the heavenly, impossibly cold beverage. A few rivulets of beer streamed out the sides of her mouth and down her chin, catching the attention of a group of Germans sitting at the next table.
Again she was surprised by the waitress’ hands, gently brushing the offending liquid from her chin. The gesture was so subtle that Remi wondered if she hadn’t imagined the whole thing. Walking away once again, the waitress turned around and shared a secret smile with the hot and bothered activist. Remi felt her hard, aggressive face spread into a grin in spite of itself, felt warmth rise into her cheeks and an involuntary brightness seep into her eyes.
She had no idea what was going on here but she liked the feeling of being carried along on something so golden and warm. Eventually everyone else in the café faded into nothingness and there was no one else left but Remi and the enchanting waitress. She watched the girl flirt and smile at customers wearilessly. She watched her deftly handle drunk and disorderly patrons with a stern but patient smile. She made them feel like she remained their friend, even when they were in trouble. Remi could understand why this girl was made to work so many tables. She had the kind of personality that would keep people coming back to a place – on the off chance that she’d send a glance their way.
Remi was so enthralled by this woman that she didn’t even notice that the meal she’d ordered still hadn’t been delivered to her table. Her beer glass was long since emptied, but her thirst was secondary to her admiration and study of this beautiful woman who had so obviously singled her out in a café filled with attractive people, from all over the world. She couldn’t help but notice the very feminine structure of the waitress’s body beneath her flattering uniform.
Her body seemed like that of a goddess underneath the plain black shirt dress she, and all the other waitresses wore to serve everyone. Her legs radiated a rich dark brown goodness and seemed to go on for an eternity. Her breasts pressed against the buttons of her shirt dress and her clavicles stood guard against the longest and most graceful neck Remi had ever seen. Remi watched the girl’s hands and wondered what it would feel like to study them up close, to taste them. She wondered what it would feel like to have that tall, perfect body pressed against her own big imperfections. Hard, sturdy arms, experienced, veined hands, a large belly softened by years of beer-jugging, hardened by bad travel food and occasional beatings from police officers and homophobic thugs.
Remi found herself taking inventory of her body. This battlefield of exhaustion and dried-up excitement. This graveyard of broken hearts and shattered loves, this broken down machine rusty from lack of use, slow and cranky from too much use. She wondered if the waitress would ever be able to accept her. Could she accept the hard arms and broad shoulders, the big belly and thickening thighs, the landscape of tattoos collected from traumatic and beautiful travels across the globe? The leg – which wasn’t really a part of her but was very much a part of her. The result of a freak accident in a place she once called home.
She thought of her face, covered in holes from when the night’s nerves and heartache drove her to dig her nails into her flesh, digging out craters until she resembled the moon. She thought of her hair − looking like the bad aftermath of a good haircut. The thick black curls, locks of which hung low over her hooded brown eyes and large nose. She thought of her complexion, once a caramel yellow but now a golden bronze thanks so very much to the African sun. You’ll have to take me as I am baby, I’ve lived, she found herself muttering as her eyelids once again began a speedy descent onto her cheeks.
This time, she awoke from a deep sleep. Someone was sitting across from her and there was silence all around them. Remi started and sat right up, instantly alert. Her eyes met the eyes of the waitress, and they were swimming with kind mirth.
‘You’ve been asleep for a long time now. I even finished cleaning up the kitchen and putting up all the chairs.’
Remi thought she could listen to the complicated music of her voice forever. A rough smoker’s voice, yet laden with a breaking timbre, as though it was arguing with itself about which octave to settle on. She looked at her face and felt a surprisingly immediate endearment towards her; too many years of heartbreak had made Remi wary of falling too quickly. The waitress looked a lot older up close and in the fluorescent lighting of the now closed and virtually empty cafe. Her eyes were a light honey brown and the laughing lines underneath them didn’t take away from the stark beauty of the large almond-shaped eyes, in any way. Her complexion reminded Remi of late evening skies in countries whose names she couldn’t remember. A wealth of dark brown and midnight black magic.
The waitress had a head covered in the neatest cornrows Remi had ever seen. She smelled of a sweet citrusy perfume and strawberry cupcakes. Remi felt something deep inside of her begin to stir; she felt an urgency right beneath her belly for this lovely woman before her. She wanted nothing more than to take this woman away and make love to her. Preposterous, given that she didn’t exactly have a place to stay herself. And yet she could barely resist the feeling being with this woman created in her.
The sweetest ache.
The waitress seemed to read the look in Remi’s eyes clearly. She dropped her own eyes and smiled a smile so sad it instantly broke Remi’s emerging heart. A heart that had been hidden for the longest time, buried and protected under callousness, holding an inability to be moved. The inability to give any fucks. Well, that heart was beginning to thaw under the shy gaze of this stranger who felt so much like home. Remi allowed her own black eyes to show the miraculous opening happening inside of her. She wanted to show the waitress that she wasn’t alone in her vulnerability, that whatever she had to offer would be matched eagerly. Remi was willing to rise to the highest crescents with her, and descend to the darkest depths. She didn’t even care if they never resurfaced.
Neither woman had ever known a pull this irresistible. The waitress had no idea why she had withheld Remi’s food from her like that. She had known only that she hungered for this tough woman’s attention, that even if all she received was anger and indignation, something deep inside of her would finally breathe. Remi couldn’t imagine ever feeling anything for this woman but adoration.
She leaned across the table and whispered, ‘What is your name?’
‘Vi — Vi,’ the waitress began, but her voice trailed off and she choked slightly. Remi stood up instantly, placing a hand on the other woman’s shoulders, noticing how large her hands were, how tall she actually was. The waitress gasped at the point of contact and looked up at Remi, imploringly. The activist understood that look immediately.
They walked swiftly in the humid Harare night air. The streets were well-lit near the café and along the way, they passed many party-goers and clubbers, people who generally seemed a lot happier than either woman could imagine. The happiness of all these strangers buoyed their own giddiness about the mad thing they were about to do together.
They reached Vi’s apartment in under ten minutes. She threw Remi’s bags onto the floor of her living room, which was cast in darkness. Vi didn’t wait to turn the lights on, but instead reached out for Remi’s hand. Remi latched onto the hand held out to her and entered the apartment after its beautiful owner.
They closed the door behind them hurriedly and instantly began to remove their clothing. In the dark, Remi was certain the waitress wouldn’t be able to make out that one of her legs wasn’t made of flesh. Under the cloak of night, Vi knew Remi would have no way of seeing her entire body in one go. Each woman had her secrets and both hoped that this leap of faith would yield something special for them. Safety. Acceptance. The promise of fulfilment. They both understood that love was an ache – one that two people allowed themselves to feel for each other because of the sweetness hidden inside that ache. The sweetness of whispered words and trembling orgasms. The sweetness of completion and unison.
They kissed. Softly at first, then desperately. Things fell all around them, loudly. It sounded as though a few things broke as well. Neither of them could ignore their need for long enough to care, or to check the extent of the damage they were causing. Remi couldn’t remember the last time she was so completely present with another woman. She was so absorbed by her and into her and so oblivious to anything else but her body, her sounds and her smell.
The waitress struggled to contain herself. She felt her dick growing lush and wanted nothing more than to press it against Remi’s thighs. The feel of Remi’s arms around her back and hands holding onto her thighs was driving the middle-aged waitress absolutely insane. She had not known such sweetness could be found in the arms of another woman. Remi was hard and soft all at once. She was tough and vulnerable, rough and gentle, all at the same time. It drove Vi wild with desire. Eventually, Remi felt as though she would burst – she needed to release the pent up urgency they’d built up between themselves. Feeling herself being pushed against a wall, she reached out for Vi’s underwear, between her legs, clutching, pulling.
There was a pause as Remi gasped. The fullness of the waitress’s cock inside of her was wonderfully shocking. Remi knew she loved the lushness of the waitress and allowed it to fill her up and carry her on waves of ecstasy. The waitress held Remi’s large pale thighs up on either side of her rock hard hips, pushing all of her goodness deep into this strong, beautifully broken woman, she’d picked up in a coffee shop. Remi’s moans blended with her own until neither woman knew which sounds emanated from whose throat.
They rose together, tears of relief spilling down each of their cheeks, pleasure radiating from them with the sweetest ache. Remi started to feel the pressure build up in her pelvis. It spread in delicious contractions to her belly and then shortness of breath in her chest. She cried out as the first orgasm rippled through her body and warm light exploded behind her closed eyes. Vicky slowed her thrusts to allow Remi time to recuperate from cumming. When she was sure the other woman could take it she reverted to her previous speed; felt her own body start to tighten in preparation for her orgasm. Her dick swelled inside Remi and the other woman’s vaginal walls clamped around it. She clutched Remi’s solid thighs as she flooded the inside of the condom; as her body froze and then trembled in climax. Remi’s second orgasm followed a few seconds later and her thighs tightened around Vicky’s waist when she came. They clung to each other, sinking to the floor in a crumpled heap.
Remi’s leg stuck out at an odd angle, because she hadn’t been able to adjust it to bend the right way ’round on her way down. The waitress untangled one of her own beautiful legs from Remi’s and gently moved the prosthetic leg into a position that she instinctively knew would be most comfortable for her. Remi took a hold of one of her hands and brought it up close to her face. The light spilled over them in slivers where they lay, through the blinds in the kitchen window. I get to study these hands up close, to taste them, Remi thought.
But to her sweet waitress she only said, ‘I’m starving.’
The other woman laughed long, deep and hard, until tears streamed down her face and a bemused Remi shook her head, smiling wryly at the woman with whom she knew she wanted to spend the rest of her days.
Mercy Thokozane Minah, who also goes by the moniker X; is a Swati, queer and non-binary multi-disciplinary artist developing skills in theatre and performance, music and literature. They live in South Africa.
MAGGIE OLUWASEUN AYOMIDE
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA, 1991
I wake with a start to the sound of adult voices in the corridor of our little flat. My father’s familiar bass voice and my mother’s defiant responses reverberate through the thin walls. A third voice, my mother’s friend from next door, Chonta, is pleading with my father. The commotion cannot be ignored. I remember where I am, and a heavy, sinking feeling opens in my heart, like an anchor dropping through deep water, farther and farther, until it plops at the bottom of a murky floor.
I have not seen my father since we left London, and that was a long time ago. I was still in grade one. After a long ride in a black cab behind red lights that blurred into snaky lines and a foggy smokescreen from exhaust pipes, mum and I burst through the airport’s doors and winded our way through the luminous jungle of Heathrow.
It was the middle of the night, and it seemed we ran and ran for miles. We were the last ones to get on the plane after mum shouted at the red faced man who had hair plastered to his forehead. She shouted, and then she cried, and then she begged, and finally they opened the gate for us. I dropped my soft doll Eleanor because we had to hurry, and I’ve never seen her again.
I’m now in grade three, and I’ve almost forgotten the rhythmic thump-thump of dad’s heartbeat through his freshly pressed button-down shirts and the croon of his voice as he read to me before bedtime. His chin was always prickly after a shave, and I’d push my finger into the dimple at its centre when he came back from the barber.
I float out of my room, still hoping that this is an extension of my dream, that I will wake again to realise it’s not happening. The hem of my floral nightdress shakes violently. I stand still, trembling, unable to take in what I see. Our once perfect world is upside down.
My mother stands at an angle, her neck in the forceful crook of my father’s left arm, like the innocent person in the movies whose body is being used as a bullet shield. My father holds a knife to her neck. To be more accurate, a sand knife, the one Ba Mailesi uses to prepare thickly buttered bread in the mornings, to cut through chicken thighs and backs as she makes us stew, nshima, and impwa. The sand knife which she so carefully rubs against the dry rock outside the kitchen door to ensure it is sharp enough to slice through bone. Its tip now pierces the soft skin of my mother’s neck, drawing a thin line of blood.
Father is crying; mother is crying. Chonta, the neighbour is pleading, her voice shaky but steady – one moment she is begging, the next chastising. Finally, she settles on a convincing tone, the kind you use on a child when you want them to do something for you but are not sure what the power of their own volition will ultimately reveal.
My father is not listening. ‘Stella, you are still my wife. Maggie is our only child. You will do as I say and come with me to Nigeria!’ His eyes are wild with fury, and without his spectacles, they look unhinged from their sockets. His once smooth chin is a knotted mass of curls. He smells different, like a man who will do anything in this moment. He reeks of desperation.
‘Oh, so today I’m your wife? Where have you been, Abs? It’s been over a year since we last saw you. Look around; we’ve moved on! We’ve survived without you! Kill me if you must! The only person going to Nigeria is you!’ my mother spits through clenched teeth.
‘Please, Mr Abisola, put the knife down,’ Chonta says.
The scene carries on like this for what feels like many hours, but it is probably over in five minutes. Warm lines of urine slide down my thighs, and my nightdress clings to my legs. My eyes tear. My nose burns, and it is moist. I say nothing. I stand there.
Finally, he sinks to his knees. My father releases his weapon, and it clinks on the floor tile. He cries softly into his palms. ‘Let’s go home, Stella. We are a family.’
Weeks in darkness ensue. My existence dwindles to endless days that turn into nights, to faraway voices and whispering shadows. I am being kept ‘safe’ at homes of family friends. The custody case is in court. Every time they say it, in muted tones, it sounds like a bad disease. Custody. They look at me like I’m the man in my little Bible who Jesus healed from leprosy. Custody doesn’t sound so bad to me – in fact, it makes me smile.
I imagine mum and dad in a courtroom full of yummy custard, the pair of them before a judge explaining what happened. In my imagination, dad is leaning back in a chair with his hands steepled while he adjusts his round spectacles with his forefingers. I imagine he is wearing a tie, even though he loathes them and has never owned one. Mum must be perched upright. Her face, brown, and bony, cold and composed like the wooden carving in our living room. Her hands, one over the other, resting against the colourful stripes of her chitenge skirt.
I picture the judge with the face of my Zambian grandfather – Grandpa Charles – big, dark, and round. I have only seen him in photographs and history textbooks.
The judge of my imagination has a curly, white wig like the ones everyone wears in ‘My Book of Nursery Rhymes’. He listens to them while he scoops gooey yellow custard out of a large wooden bowl. He wipes his brow because the air is hot. I know he will understand that grownups fight sometimes, and then he will give them sage advice. He will let them go, and then they can both come and get me. Maybe we can go back to London. Or maybe mum will say yes, and we can all go to Nigeria. Or maybe daddy will nod his head and join us here in Lusaka.
Mummy finally comes to pick me up one day in a gleaming white Cressida. She comes right in between the day and the night, when the sky is a mix of watermelon and tangerine, when the sun is about to give way to the moon, when the birds flock and flap their way to their nests.
She’s smiling and happy. She glows bright, and I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t seen her in a long time, but she looks golden, like she’s been scrubbed and polished and scrubbed again. She looks like an Egyptian goddess. Like an angel. She puts my bag in the back of her new car, and she thanks the people I have been staying with. She says to me, ‘Let’s go home’.
I agree, even though I don’t know any more what that is.
Home is fleeting, beautiful, and fragile. It flutters away like the orange and black butterflies in the garden that I try to catch with my open palms.
After that, I do not see daddy again. Not for many, many years. My parents’ lives continue, each of them finding new lovers and new lives, fresh starts – playing the game of divide and multiply, leaving me in no man’s land. A remnant of dreams gone wrong, of pain and despair. A family that will never again be. Or was it ever? Maybe it is all in my imagination.
This I do know, though: it is the beginning, even though it feels like the end.
When asked to read from The Broken River Tent I often select this passage which I regard as the thesis of the novel:
“The landscapes retain the memory of the departed. Beside your blood it is what you have in common with ages that came before you. The landscapes retain the ghost of the disposed and silently sing out their grief. This is why in the sigh of the sea you taste the breath of ghosts. And the mountains are like unmarkedgraves. Do not be afraid to take plunge on the depth of the abyss, because sooner or later you shall emerge on the side where you meet anew the stranger that is yourself…”
The book is aimed to be an answer to the challenge set by James Baldwin, that the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him. One of the crucial element in the human psyche is the need for belonging, to have a story, a historical narrative that defines and places you in space and time. Not only as an individual, but as a community, complete with mores, legends and myths.
African writers of fiction are in a process of redefining their identity by reinterpreting the facts of the past, telling them in the voices of Africans who, for a long time, haven’t been part of the telling, in written form, of their own history. This history has been written from a point of prejudice by those who socioeconomically and politically lorded over Africans during the colonial era.
Toni Morrison says this “…exercise is also critical for any person who is black, or who belongs to any marginalised category, for, historically, we were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its topic.” She speaks about reaping open the veil of terrible deeds and things that were done and said about us as black people. Hence memory weighs heavily in what we write.
As black people this memory weighs not only on stories we grew up with as legends and myths, but we feel the heaviness of it in our genes and the ancestral lands we’ve been dispossessed of. Zora Neale Hurston puts it this way: “Like the dead-seeming cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me.” The historical novel, then, is collection and coloration of things that made us. These ‘memories within’ are the sub soil of our work. Because historical facts, memories and recollections do not give us total access to the unwritten interior life of our people in the past we lean also on the imagination, informed imagination. Only the act of an informed imagination can give the psychological insight into historical facts.
Historical fiction is what Morison calls the Literary Archeology: On the basis of some information and a little bit of guess work you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply. What makes it fiction is the nature of the imaginative act: my reliance on the image on the remains in addition to recollection, to yield up a kind of a truth.
During interviews I often get asked the question about whether historical fiction is fantasy, myth, magical realism, biographical or romance? My answer is: It is some and none of that. It transcends all these labels. The single gravest responsibility of a historical novelist is not to lie. Morrison again. She says: When I hear someone say, “Truth is stranger than fiction” I think that old chestnut is truer than we know, because it doesn’t say that truth is truer than fiction; just that it’s stranger, meaning that it’s odd. It may be excessive, it maybe more interesting, but the important thing is that it’s random and fiction is not random.
According to Morrison the crucial distinction is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot. Just because people didn’t write their history or their interior reactions to the happenings of history it doesn’t mean they didn’t/don’t have them. The question is how, as the writers are we now going to be able to access those interior lives. This is the gap the historical novel seeks to bridge. As people who’ve been lied to and vandalised to prop up other civilisation by our sweat and blood our real authentic access to our history is our bodies, the blood that runs through them, the genetic and oral memories told in our being alive into the zeitgeist we were born into.
Authors arrive at text and subtext in thousands of ways, but no matter how “fictional” the account of our writers, or how much it was a product of invention, our act of imagination is always bound up with memory. [Morrison] The Japanese art of origami teaches us that paper has perfect memory. No matter how many folds you make on it the paper remembers it all, because its malleability. The folds to it are like scars of experience/history. According to Morrison water also has perfect memory. She says:
You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our “flooding.” Along with personal recollection, the matrix of the work I do is the wish to extend, fill in and complement slave autobiographical narratives. But only the matrix. What comes of all that is dictated by other concerns, not least among them the novel’s own integrity. Still, like water, I remember where I was before I was “straightened out.”
A historical novel then is much more than just an artistic impression of history, or reinterpretation of history. It is an act of re-remembering the rock we were hewn from, an ancient path before we were straightened out. A process of building a coherent narrative of the past. Of finding out how all that relates to the present, because how we deal with our past informs our identity. I venture to say that the historical novel is a necessary scaffold to national consciousness, and a crucial part of the mystical strife towards universal humanism that transcends the fracturing effect of factional past.
The strength of a historical novel is in exploring psychological and emotional terrain of history, not competing with historians. Like bees they suckle at the pollen from the flowers historians plant, to weave from it palatable combs of honey for the ease of public consumption. They interrogate gaps and unhealthy silences of history; confront sometimes even the bias interpretation of facts by some historians. They put flesh and blood by breathing into the dry bones of history, to give mobility to the static facts of history. They provide a way of thinking about society as a place where history is still unfolding, where individuals can still play a role in shaping it. When historical fiction is done well it doesn’t betray history but opens it up for inspection.
The aim of historical novels should be to put readers in the vitality of historical moments and places in time. Common to architecture the historical novel has the ability to mine the genius of the landscape/place into becoming a metaphor for the geometry of sustainable habitation for us in this little environmental space our bodies have adapted to called the earth. Hence I gave my protagonist, Phila, an architectural profession.
As a way of introducing people to The Broken River Tent, I often read this passage at the beginning of the book, when Phila learns of his own father’s death. He feels the weight of wasted time being distant to his father until they ran out of time. Running out of time, the river collapsing to the vast sea—deep calling unto deep—is essentially what death is:
Rivers are instructive and fascinating. In a river stream there are levels of flow.Where inhibitions occur, swirls develop. A swirl creates noise but does not run deep. If it tries to take short-cuts it often eddies, spins off and dies. This is due to lack of depth. Or else it scatters into a swamp that festers with either life or disease. If the eddy is lucky, it gets caught up again in the deeper current of the river to become part of the wider, silent stream.
No stream runs higher than its source…
—You literally came from nowhere…
I cannot accurately remember who said this to me but I know I was in Cape Town, South Africa, at the Open Book Festival in 2019. It was my first authorial outing. My debut novel, The Eternal Audience of One, had been out for two months or so and the festival organisers had read my book, bought into my charlatanry, and decided to field me with some of the biggest names in literature. I had never been to a literary festival as a published author before. The last time I had attended the festival had been in 2013 as a Brainwavez writer covering Teju Cole’s talk about the African supercity. I was excited by the prospect of attending the festival and being back in Cape Town. To this day, the Open Book Festival has played host to some of my fondest memories, allowing me to connect with other writers, and, most importantly, readers.
In 2019, so many things were new to me: I had to sit on panels with people who, until then, were merely names on books in my bookshelf; I had to answer literary questions about representation and identity and “liminality” (I looked up this concept and I am not sure I fully understand it); and I had to sign books (tip: fountain pens with always let you down—carry a nice felt tip marker) and meet readers. I was between panels—or maybe I had just attended one—when I was engaged in a conversation with someone who had read my book. Most of the conversation is a haze—I think we spoke about my past life in Cape Town.
But I remember this part well: You literally came from nowhere and here you are, dude.
I also remember my reaction to that statement: a weird hahaha.
I was not impressed with my response at the time. (I still am not.)
Perhaps I was too new to the literary scene. Perhaps the absurdity of the statement took me by surprise. Either way, as hindsight usually shows, I did not know what I know now. So, I let it slide. That awkward hahaha is what echoes into embarrassing eternity.
I wish I had said what writers from my background—from similarly placed, disadvantaged, underfunded, and under-published literary communities—know all too well: Nowhere is not nowhere. It is Luanda, Angola, or Maputo, Mozambique. It is Antananarivo, Madagascar, or Cotonou, Benin. Nowhere is actually Bangui, in the Central African Republic, or Asmara, in Eritrea.
And Nowhere has people: Chadians, Burundians, Mauritanians, Gabonese, and Santomeans.
Nowhere has histories. It has cultures, languages, art, and ways of life.
It has writers and storytellers.
And just because we might not be recognised on international literary platforms does not mean we do not exist, or that our places are not producing work. The absence of broadcasting opportunities is not the evidence of silence.
On the one hand, I get it—I understand what that person meant: that, perhaps, they had never met a Rwandan-Namibian writer before; or that they had never read a story set in Windhoek; or that, yes, I was not one of those festival headliners or big shots and look where I was, at the Open Book Festival with the likes of Mohale Mashigo and Sarah Ladipo Manyika.
I understand that.
It is my feeling that this place called Nowhere, really, is shorthand for any place without privilege (cultural, political, social, economic, and all of the other etceteras that make some places better known than others). The reality, though, is that few places in the world have that kind of privilege, and even when they have, pockets of “nowhereness” exist even within their own geographies. Flatbush, I am told, is nowhere to Manhattan in New York City; Willesden is nowhere to Chelsea in London; and Soweto, apparently, is nowhere to Sandton in Johannesburg.
That hahaha haunts me to this day.
And, now, of late, I have been thinking about that exchange.
I wish I had said this:
—No, I came from Kigali, in Rwanda, and Windhoek, in Namibia; from Florence Nightingale Street in Windhoek West. And from the Holy Cross Convent and from St Paul’s College. I came from the Windhoek Public Library. I came from all the English literature seminars I slept through at the University of Cape Town (Cormac McCarthy gave me troubled naps; I slept just fine in the T. S. Elliot workshops, though). You could also say I come from Blackbird Books, a publishing house led by a black woman, publishing emerging black voices.
—You literally cannot be from nowhere.
I really want to ask that person this: Where must one come from to not be from nowhere?
Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. His debut novel “The Eternal Audience Of One” is available from Blackbird Books (in SADC) and is forthcoming worldwide from Scout Press (S&S). He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek!, Namibia’s first literary magazine.
His work has appeared in Litro Magazine, AFREADA, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Brainwavez, The Amistad, The Kalahari Review, American Chordata, Doek!, Azure, Sultan’s Seal, Santa Ana River Review, Columbia Journal, New Contrast, Necessary Fiction, Silver Pinion, and Lolwe.
He was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020. He was also longlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. More of his writing can be read on his website: remythequill.com
Blackbird Books is proud to announce that the English rights for The Eternal Audience of One, Rémy Ngamije’s debut novel, have been sold to Scout Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster in the United States.
The Eternal Audience of One follows the life of Seraphin Turihamwe, a young man whose life is characterised by movement. After leaving Rwanda under duress and never feeling at rest in Namibia, which he believes is slow and boring, he finds himself fighting to fit in in Cape Town. So much about the city is designed to push people like him out. Through his interactions with a few reluctant mentors, loyal friends, and the women he carries on relationships with, he explores and performs different parts of his identity while dealing with other issues of family, race, immigrant life and love.
On the opportunity to have his work available worldwide Ngamije says ‘I am thrilled to be able to share this story with the wider world. Being a Blackbird author has been an enriching experience. It has driven home the importance of African writers being discovered by African publishers. Without Thabiso Mahlape’s vision, determination, and energy this milestone would not have been reached.”
Our mission at Blackbird Books is to be a launchpad for brilliant African writers starting out on their writing careers and we are especially proud of Ngamije.
This move comes from the dedication and care put in by Cecile Barendsma of Cecil B Literary Agency, the title’s representative. We are eternally grateful for her hard work in marketing and promoting this work.