Changing Faces

When I was younger, as I nursed on my mother’s milk, I understood love as unconditional. Though I may have not known it, yet I experienced through my total dependency on her, something extraordinary.

Here she was, this human being who met all my needs.

As I went out of the maternal chamber, I met another kind of love. Through my aunts and cousins, the love I learnt was the kind that was able to tease and laugh with me. It could make me count to ten and then applaud for me.

I went out further, now to school, here I met the love of friends. I identified those who were friends, precisely out of the awareness of the presence of those who were not. Those deemed incapable of giving friendship to me.

When I got out of the township of Madadeni, I entered a foreign world. It felt as though this world had perfected all the deficiencies of my old one. Its streets were cleaner with state-of-the-art organization. Its people wore confident faces, and they all moved as though they had somewhere to go.

But none of them ever seemed to arrive. Their motions though independent, felt as lacking unity for their completion. Arriving was something which could only be done together, but none of them were trustful enough, were ready enough to do so yet.

Neither democratic elections nor political freedoms could hasten the sense of arrival.

It required something which political manoeuvre could not provide, that is love. Love as that creative force capable of bringing strangers to a marriage bed.

There was an empty gap in this instant. As love evacuated, I learnt that it could be replaced by effortless habit—of which I became its star performer.

I became accustomed to habit, as common as the greeting goes ‘How are you?’ and its response ‘I am fine, thank you.’ What it did was to enclose a kind of protection; it protected my feelings that could not be revealed, it also protected those to whom I spoke from doing the same. And slowly as I began to master this art of dilly-dallying, I found that I became less acquainted with how I was really feeling. I did not want to know. No one cared to know!

That rhythm of bamba uyeke, opening up and retreating became the norm. No. It became a duty.

My deeds were now driven by duty, even towards those I was certain I ought to have loved. Like family, friends, life-partners.

As my actions, turned to duty, entered new territory, they became ineffective in meeting my present needs of giving and receiving love.

The more I continued with the enactment, the more strained my voice started to sound. I recognized the same tone in those older than me:

“Hhayi siyatotoba.” “Hhayi siyancenga.” “Sibonga impilo nje kuphela.” “Eish hha kunzima.”

This became a social game, its content rehearsed, grounded in the mundane strain of talk without saying anything. It shielded both me and those I met from a confrontation neither of us were willing to undergo. It also presented us with a sacred awkwardness, cause we lacked the training in a vocabulary that allows us to verbalize our own struggles. Behind the demeanour of the ‘knowing adults’ we were pretending to be, was concealed a secret pain and anguish only detectable in our tone. At least in this way we would both bypass the public undressing of our intimate violence. Maybe things would get better on their own.

Deep inside though, I knew that something needed reigniting, perhaps my child-like innocence or something altogether of more substance than I had ever known.


So I returned to the old surroundings of Madadeni. It was a world whose reality once seemed contingent, and fixed. Most of its street were still gravel as I had left them. Aside from the glossier signage at the shebeens and the children who seemed plenty, nothing had changed.

I watched as city-slickers crowded the township for the festive season, as tent-after-tents were being installed and 4-roomed houses transformed—for the purposes of weddings, ancestral cleansing rituals, imembeso, coming-of-age (umemulo) parties. I watched goats being hurled out of Isuzu bakkies, I heard cows bellowing at odd hours of the night, awaiting the edge of the knife.

I felt an enthusiasm to play along, it was after all these streets that taught me life.

But I soon discovered that one could choose too, its formats and that its propositions could be changed, maybe not for the better (hey I have no power to know that for certain), but for something I understood as my own. For truly that is what freedom is about.

I saw a childhood friend. When we were growing up his family was the wealthiest family in the neighbourhood. He had the privilege of going to private schools in the town before they were fashionable. But his privilege, as I was now realizing, had not made him immune to the predatory tendencies of the township. He too must find a way to unshackle from its cannibalizing demands.

Here was someone who was clearly not happy for me, he was shocked by my return, confused by my actions, but was not going to take responsibility for his own horror. He would have to lay it on me. I would be the one who stutters, who is unsure, yet he seemed so exiled, so wanting of love and a sense of control. I could not give that to him. No. My responsibility was not to initiate talk. For this would truly be under his terms. He would have to approach me, and I would certainly listen, but I refused to come to the rescue. This is a decision I can’t make for him. But I must believe that a day is coming when he too will make a decision for himself. It seemed obvious to me that I should dance with life. I should move with the pace of the times. I could not standstill.

I also saw his nephew, who was now moving quietly into his young adult years. There was something appetizing about his youth—something which could not be regained. A simplicity. A confidence. But this could not make me smile for I had seen the same look in his father’s face 15 years ago, I had also seen the jadedness that gave his face a perpetual aggression as he grew older. A fatigue that could not be reversed. For to have truly experienced life and its happenings cannot be reversed—it can only be overcome. That is the challenge I sensed my friend needed to face right now. Whatever it was that seemed to be standing in the way of his plans, his dreams and aspirations must be dealt with or else it will deal with him.

The greatest travesty in this kind of battle is to be without a vision of your own liberty. For without this you yourself are unable to confront your fate with the imagination required to survive on the other side. Not that I have completely apprehended, I haven’t lived that long. But to deny the inevitability of the choices that we make is to turn me into an anomaly.

I have seen people turn fear into courage, sorrow to joy, resentment into hope. I have also seen people dancing at funerals—whatever the implications were, as they stood side by side, showing-off who they really are.

Whenever they threw away the guises of ukuhlonipha and respectability, they began to laugh, to sing and cry, essentially find meaning in the act of discovering each other and in the process, they discovered themselves.