Invisible ‘Whites Only’ Signs

One Monday morning in the late nineties I stood at the window of a hotel room overlooking the North Beach in Durban. There were about five or six other colleagues with me and we had arrived in the coastal city just that morning for a week-long course. It was my second time in Durban but my first at the beachfront and as I saw the beauty of the morning sun on the Ocean I couldn’t help but ask: “So how much is the entrance fee to the beach?” That was followed by a moment of stunned silence from my colleagues and then laughter. That’s when it dawned on me that I had asked one of those Jim-comes-to-town sort of questions.

Who could blame me, the place just looked so beautiful it felt like one had to pay to enjoy it. After all, a mere nine years earlier some beaches were a no-go area for Black South Africans. Although we’d already had one democratic election, the signs that declared “Whites Only” or “Europeans Only” were still fresh in the country’s collective memory.

I remember that memorable march by the leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement in which thousands of people turned up to reclaim public amenities that had been declared for “Whites Only”. The beaches were one of those. Others included parks, public toilets and even public transport like certain sections of trains.

That march, led by Desmond Tutu sounded the death knell for petty apartheid and it was only a matter of time before it was repealed from the statute books. Whilst these “Whites Only” signs were physical and visible to everyone, there is a second set of invisible “Whites Only” signs that unfortunately still stand today -(phrase coined by weavergrace,com)

A black child whose family moves to an Afrikaner-dominated area today is free to attend school in that area. That’s what the law says. Practically though, this child would have to adjust to the norms and culture of the said school, in certain cases giving up sports like soccer and be ‘forced’ to take up rugby and other traditionally “white-dominated” sports like hockey. Goodbye personal choice. Oh, but the child has another choice, find another school that offers soccer, in other words, respect the invisible “Whites Only” sign at the school’s front gate.

A few years ago I changed gyms, from the one national franchise to another that was closer to home and was open 24/7, in search of that ever elusive six-pack. As I walked into that gym at 4.30am I could have sworn I was walking into some Nordic enclave or I was ‘violating the Group Areas Act’ as a Facebook acquaintance put it recently. But I was there to work out so I went ahead and did just that.

It became quite clear that I was an unwelcome visitor because when I approached the free weights area which was packed a few moments before it became almost magically empty and I had undisturbed access to the free weights. So what am I complaining about? A coincidence maybe? Well, I tried to believe that it was all in my mind the first time it happened,  but over the next few weeks, my visits to the gym became acts of defiance. So when the gym underwent a reconstruction, I used that as an excuse to self to move to a more socially ‘accepting’ gym environment.

If you’ve ever suffered a proper toothache you would agree with me that Googling a friendly neighbourhood dentist is not on your list of priorities, you just want a dentist to get rid of the problem, now! So off I went to the “dentist/TANDAARTS” place that I passed daily just down the road from where I live. Now, it’s not abnormal to feel a bit uneasy in a new dental surgery but the uneasiness I felt in this particular waiting area multiplied when the dentist popped his head in and acknowledged just me in a room with about 6 waiting patients. Needless to say I was the only sprinkle of colour in there.

When you have to explain that “No I don’t speak Afrikaans” to a receptionist it’s normally a good sign that maybe you should have read the invisible “Whites Only” sign outside. The two patients ahead of me were taken into a room towards the left of the waiting area. When my turn came, I was taken to a room to the right of the waiting area. The dentist chair looked rather old and tattered, but the toothache instructed me to get help, pronto. Lying down with a numb cheek and a drill in your mouth is not the right time to ask why the cleaner walks into the dentist’s room to retrieve their cleaning equipment in a cupboard within that room. Odd I thought.

As I left, I was curious to know what was in the room to the left of the waiting area, and that’s when I saw it. A zebra-coloured newish-looking dental chair in a dentist’s room that looked nothing like the one I had just been assisted on. There were posters on the walls of this one. I attempted to utter something but everything was numb in my mouth as it all dawned on me, the sign was clear, that proper looking room was for “Whites Only”. At least I got help, I just made a mental note to look for a friendly dentist in the neighborhood.

The medical field seems fraught with professionals who would put up such signs outside their practices if they were legally allowed to do so.

I remember wanting to give up on going to a 24-hr medical centre because it just seemed to be filled with such individuals. How does a doctor diagnose a patient with tonsillitis without examining the patient, examining the mouth/throat area. No temperature taken, no “open wide”,  no examination to ascertain that what I said was the problem was actually the problem.

But I should have sensed this was coming when on entering the doctor’s room, the “what can I do for you today?” came out before I had even shut the door behind me. I was  left in no doubt that the intention was to get rid of me as quickly as possible. I must have been in and out of there in two minutes flat, and the bugger charged me the full rate.

As I  waited in the queue to collect my medication the same doctor comes out with the patient who followed me,  sympathetically conversing in Afrikaans and making the right oohing sounds and I  could only marvel at the professionalism that was sorely lacking when it was my turn. And then I  remembered, it must have been that I missed the invisible “Whites Only” sign at the entrance.

If you’ve never been to the year-end preschool concert in an area such as the one I live in you are missing out on a lot Afrikaans music, sokkie-sokkie I believe it’s called. That’s not really a problem because you were told it’s a dual-medium language school before you register your child there. Look, I can only take so much sokkie-sokkie in one evening, but that in a cramped school hall can drive you up the wall if your musical tastes are usually laid back R’nB.

But to then get a 10-year-old white girl frantically wiping herself because our black helper had attempted to pick her up to help her across where we were sitting is positively disgusting. I could only wonder if her parents haven’t been poisoning her mind to enable her to read the invisible “Whites Only” signs. I had an idea to ask our helper to scrub her hands with disinfectant for having touched such an obviously poisoned child but I realized sinking to their level will not help.

These are but a few examples that poison our daily social environment, but like a fellow writer wondered recently about the existence of these kind of signs in the USA where desegregation happened in the 1960s one wonders how long these invisible signs will stay in place in this country.

I applaud the efforts of all people who take it upon themselves to defy these signs daily. In the workplace, In the sport fields, at varsity, at school. It is one thing to be the only person of colour in a group of 20 or 30 people, it is yet another thing for people in that group to actively work towards making sure that you feel unwelcome. I know the feeling, I’ve been in situations where I felt like the unwanted extra. To be felt sorry for and patronized, to be assisted “quickly” so that you can leave “them” alone. Where “listen here my friend” is actually a veiled warning to stop being the cheeky black that you are.

These are only personal anecdotal instances, but from conversations with friends and acquaintances it is quite clear to me that there still a lot of areas where “Whites Only” signs are still up, although invisible. That’s why I take my hat off to my friend who has taken up mountain biking. He does it because he loves cycling, but he’s now noted that he is playing his role in ensuring that those sickening “Whites Only” signs come down.

White is still the norm in Cape Town’ screamed a City Press newspaper headline two Sunday ago. Cape Town possesses a lot of areas that Black people are regarded only as part of the cooking or cleaning staff and not the clientele. That a place like that still exists twenty years into our democracy demonstrates the short-comings of our social engineering policies. Clearly a day visitor to Cape Town can be excused for thinking this is a European city because of the lack of colour in certain establishments. Even worse is that the city as a whole should have been up in arms over the article, unless the leadership of the city likes the ‘norm’.

Until you’ve been mistaken for a member of the cooking or cleaning staff at an establishment it must be quite difficult to grasp the deep-seated embedded racism in that ‘honest mistake’. That places and establishments exist that lead to these kind of ‘honest mistakes’ is a terrible indictment on the City of Cape Town, the flagship of the Official Opposition, the Democratic Alliance.

A facebook friend recently posted this status on his wall. “You are at an establishment for the first time and within a few minutes you realize you are not welcome(you also happen to be the only sprinkle of colour in there, save for the waiters and the kitchen staff. Do you 1) Up and leave and go spend your hard-earned money somewhere else or 2) Exercise your right to freely eat wherever you choose to. Overwhelmingly, the response was to up and leave.

I however differed with that. It might sound like I’m a sucker for deliberate poor service but I feel these “Whites Only” signs can only be brought down by the intended victims frequenting those establishments that would wish they could go elsewhere. I call this Civil Obedience (get it?). I know what you are thinking, why don’t you leave them in peace with their bigotry? If that’s our standard response to things then Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela wasted their time and energy, ‘they should have just left these bigots in peace’ right?

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I’m Only Human…

Originally posted on THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE:

There are issues that I’ve avoided commenting on in my blog. The reason is mainly that they have not been resolved legally or because I deem them too sensitive for me to look at objectively. Today’s blog addresses  one such issue.

On Valentine’s Day this year we woke up to the surreal(or unbelievable?) news that a top South African athlete had shot dead his girlfriend in a case of mistaken identity, thinking she was a burglar. It didn’t take long before we found out that the athlete concerned was the era-defining Paralympic and Olympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius. I was gobsmacked. No, not Oscar, he’s the brightest track star to have come out of our country in years.

His role in changing the face of athletics will be better appreciated in years to come when more disabled athletes take part in the regular Olympics competing against able-bodied athletes. The one person…

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Mistaken Identity

At the beginning of 1995 I decided to get my right ear pierced. I got the piercing and chose a gold plated stud to bling my ear away. I cut my hair short and did an s-curl. It didn’t matter that the hair transformation came at a very painful cost to my scalp.

I had never applied strong hair straighteners to my head till then. The salon lady, in some dingy 7th floor flat in Central Johannesburg gave me a look of disdain when I complained about the burning pain that the s-curl lotion inflicted on my scalp, a look that said, “so you expected this to come painlessly?”. For the first time I understood where the phrase “Bontle ba berekelwa” came from. Loosely translated it means “looking good comes at a cost”. I was happy with the final look though. The gold stud and the s-curl gave me that little extra confidence boost that was necessary to carry favour where it mattered, with the ladies. Remember, no one holds a patent on vanity.

Imagine my shock three months down the line when I discovered that a stud in the right ear was an ‘underground’ signal in the gay community that said “I’m available”. I immediately cast my mind back to the few situations where I may have received unsolicited attention from fellow males. There was one unforgettable instance two weeks prior to my discovery at a nightclub in Yeoville. I had received the most beautiful smile from a gentleman as we passed each other in the passageway to the restrooms. My s-curl and stud were definitely working, only my intended targets if you will, were those of the opposite sex. I realised the stud had me assume an identity that I was personally not aware of. A mistaken identity if you will.

No, I didn’t stop wearing my stud on discovering that I might be sending mixed signals out there. It had taken an enormous amount of courage for me to overcome my shyness to get the damn stud, let alone the risk of being disowned(boys just didn’t do ear jewelry in my dad’s house). If it worked both ways, tough, I couldn’t help it. Unfortunately I got a nasty infection on my right earlobe, and had to go pierce the obviously homophobic left one as I left the right earlobe to heal.

Looking back, I just realized that for the period that I had the stud on the right ear I had led certain people to believe I was someone I wasn’t. There is nothing wrong with what my mistaken identity was taken to be, but I find it fascinating that human beings feel the need to put labels on everything so that their world can make sense to them. Sadly those labels don’t come light, they are loaded labels. Take for instance, this incident that on the face of it seems innocuous, but under different circumstances could mean life or death.

When the first wave of West African immigrants hit the streets of Johannesburg I nearly got arrested for being in the country illegally. One Sunday afternoon I was walking in Joubert Park minding my own business when two undercover cops appeared on either side of me. In the most conversational tone one of them asked to see my ID. I thought this was some kind of a joke, the need to carry Identity Documents on your person at all times had been abolished a few years before. This was a free South Africa, or so I thought. What they didn’t count on was that this ‘illegal’ immigrant could converse in near-perfect Zulu and Tswana, which they were using alternatively, obviously trying to use the languages to establish my claims to being South African.

This illegal immigrant was also cheeky, he was soon talking about his ‘human rights’ and they quickly parted ways with me. That’s when a certain person whom I assumed to be local came up to me and indicated that wearing a national soccer Tshirt in town was one of the ways immigrants used to blend in with the local population. It didn’t help that I’m quite tall and my skin colour not too fair. Add a soccer Tshirt and I was a Ghanain or Nigerian.

This is a mistaken identity I was not about to shake off. As the years went on I have grown to accept that in our country that is so conscious of physical differences, chances of me being identified as “the other” will always be there. The mistaken identity can be an innocuous little mistake. Like the other day at the Carwash.

This lady assisting customers approached me whilst conversing with one of her colleagues in a local language. She immediately switched to English the minute I rolled down my window, a sure sign that I had been identified as “the other”. When I responded in one of the local languages the shock on her face was priceless. She even called a colleague to help her witness this amazing freak of nature, a “foreigner” who spoke the local languages perfectly. The only thing is I didn’t giggle along with her to start with, and nine out of ten times people apologize for the mistake, which tells me their label was negatively loaded. I’m no meanie so I normally ease the tension by letting them know they are not alone in giving me their assumed foreign identity.

But when the ‘Xenophobia’ violence of 2008 broke out, a case of mistaken identity could have meant injury or worse, death, as was the case for 62 other people.

People are so fixated on boxing things that if they cannot get a handle on who you are, they will invent a box to fit you into. Having been a shy and very self-conscious young person, I know what it feels like to want to fit into that box created for you by people who want their own little worlds to make sense by boxing you.

In this social media age one would have thought one’s identity mattered less, as long as they are “like-minded”. But all too often, one gets those comments that make you realize that people’s urge to fit others into their own little boxes remains strong. The danger here is people’s online identities have been shown to be elastic. Online, a person will interact differently with different sets of people.

I have taken a conscious decision to not ‘censor’ my online identity as I did my personal one to fit into boxes people created for me. I mean if one cannot be oneself online and in real life when can I truly be myself in interactions with people?

I will comment on and agree with an atheist’s post as much as I will “Amen” and “Hallelujah” a post by a fellow Christian. The only requirement is that they both make sense to me. “Boys will be boys” when I’m interacting with fellow men on that sexy actress from Isibaya and I will defend women’s rights to dignity because the two do not have to be mutually exclusive, at least till I’m convinced otherwise.

I refuse to censor my thoughts simply because of what my Christian friends would say about my support for gay rights. Rather have them say whatever they want to say than go against my personal principles that tell me that one’s sexual orientation has jack to do with me. As Oprah would say, “you cannot tell adults what to do in the bedroom”. I would hate to be told what to do there too.

To adapt your identity to fit what others want you to be is to exclude a great number of phenomenal people from your life. If you are anti-Islam you have excluded several billion people from having meaningful interactions with you. To stick to interacting with one group of people is to reduce your view of the world to be very narrow indeed. And chances of becoming a hypocrite, a bigot or whatever “-ist” increase exponentially.

 

Who Am I? (Picture used courtesy of Creative Commons, uploaded by moRkiro)

Who Am I? (Picture used courtesy of Creative Commons, uploaded by moRkiro)

So when I grew my beard and the group of East African immigrants mistook me for one of their own and greeted me in Amari, I felt just as proud as I did when that gentleman at the club smiled at me in the sweetest way, thinking I was gay. The way I see it, a mistaken identity that doesn’t put you in a small little box is fine, because it has never stopped me from being who I am.

Simple yet complicated

There is this man called Mulanza. There are quite a few variations to his name, but for the purposes of this piece we’ll use Lazisto. He is a plumber. Not really a qualified plumber you see, no, just a guy who can unblock your toilet when the need arises. And maybe your drain if its not too complex a job. He has limited equipment and experience so sometimes he will struggle with a seemingly simple job for half a day and then declare defeat. When you call a real qualified plumber who does the same job in fifteen minutes, Lazisto will then declare: “And you expected me to do that job without proper equipment”.

In the township economy handymen like Lazisto are necessary. See, unlike your professional plumber he will not charge you an arm a leg, and he does accept IOU’s. And people know that. I have yet to come across Lazisto totally sober. No. He’s always had one or two. Always, no matter what time of the day it is. I guess people do come through for him on all those IOU’s from the various jobs he does, otherwise he wouldn’t be ableto afford those ‘one or two’.

You probably think Lazisto is a very simple man hooked on the ‘sweet waters of King George’ as he likes to refer to his alcoholic beverage of choice. He is not as simple as you would like to think. No. See, I engage Lazisto every time I meet him, and simple he is not.

I’ve taken to playing pool again after years and years of not playing and it is over a game of pool that I get to engage with this plumber/handyman. Although he tends to philosophize before he plays each shot, making each game ever so longer, I try not let show that I enjoy the philosophy lessons more than the game itself. Whenever I play against him I tend to lose focus because of his long winded philosophical observations.

“Being Black is not just a matter of pigmentation – but being black is a reflection of a mental attitude”, Lazisto says before playing one of his shots. I have to tell you, I didn’t see that one coming. Lazisto had just quoted one of my most favourite leaders/authors of all time, Bantu Steven Biko. I’m certain you didn’t see that one coming too, right? So, curious to find out how a township plumber/handyman can quote whole excerpts from the writings of the erstwhile leader of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, I probed a little further.

Alas, Lazisto is not too forth-coming with his biography. Personal questions seem to make him want to concentrate on the game of pool some more. So I do the next best thing, quote Biko back to him and he is taken aback. As if only he had the right to quote that man.

And whilst I had him on the back foot so-to-speak, I ask him: “Tomorrow is the 12th of September, what is significance of this day?”. Lazisto strokes his almost grizzly un-kept beard as he contemplates his next shot on the pool table.  He takes a very hard shot that has the white ball almost bouncing off the pool table. He sinks the ball and I realize he is about to have a philosophical moment.

“The apartheid police killed Steve Biko, transporting him naked in the back of a police van from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria. I was a teenager in 1977 when that happened. But yes, I had forgotten the day was tomorrow Lazisto”. See, he likes calling everybody Lazisto. If you have your back to him and he called out ‘Lazisto’, it’s not unusual to turn around and find him talking to some “other” Lazisto, not you.

I’m not the only one fascinated by his brilliant grasp of Black South African history and his command of the English language. Whilst I notice that the other pool players take his philosophical ramblings as those of a drunken township plumber/handyman, I am totally blown away by his knowledge and apparent “station in life”.

The other day Lazisto turned up in his work-suit, looking all haggard and worn out. Surprisingly he was clutching a very thick Wilbur Smith novel under his armpit. He never ceases to amaze me. A fellow pool player saw the surprise on my face and said to me: “I have no idea what went wrong there, nodding his head in Lazisto’s direction, but if it had not, this man would be very far in life”. I nodded in agreement, but a part of me reckoned this man was very far in life in a manner of speaking. Very few township handymen can claim to escape their world once in a while to a far-away one created by brilliant authors like Wilbur Smith.

Lazisto’s grasp of Black consciousness goes well beyond rehashing a few Steve Biko lines. The other day he was playing pool against a guy who had just come back from a day of unsuccessful job hunting. Constantly lamenting “what a waste” of a day it was, Lazisto lined up for a shot, stopped and looked at the guy and asked him, “so how long are you going to continue looking for a job? Do you know that you were created whole, complete, without defect? Your blackness is not a hindrance, if baas will not give you a job, create your own, become a baas and give others jobs”. Loud laughter followed and Lazisto’s point was lost in the chorus of agreement over “Lazisto is mad”.

Lazisto got me thinking. Biko’s death cut short a process that was meant to make a black man “come to himself, to pump life back into his empty shell, to infuse him with pride and dignity….This is what we mean by an inward looking process. This is the definition of Black Consciousness”. Lazisto made me go back to my copy of Steve Biko’s “I write what I like”.

He made me realize that today, more than ever the need to infuse pride and dignity into the poorest of the poor is as huge as it was in September 1977 when Biko died.

The African Continent, or what others choose to label the dark continent continues to lag behind the rest of the world in bringing stories of hope and pride. What we continue to get are stories of disease(Ebola and AIDS), war, instability and hunger. I don’t see how the majority of the inhabitants of this beautiful continent cannot feel incomplete or hard done by somehow.

Surely Lazisto is right in reminding us that we were born complete. That we too are capable of creating stories of hope.

I really have no idea where Black Consciousness under Steve Biko would have been today but Im almost certain that it would have produced people who would stop looking for jobs and creating jobs themselves. People who would be well aware of their brutalized status but also conscious that their brutalization need not define who they are.

Lazizto has made me realize that because there is nothing lacking in us as people then we too are quite capable of creating something out of nothing. If they won’t give you a job, we should create one for ourselves. That we should continue to unearth and give prominence to stories of Black Excellence, not as a way of proving that we too are capable, but to create conditions for a black child on the African continent to see for himself that indeed “no race possesses a monopoly on intelligence, wealth, innovation or anything”

That a ‘simple’ plumber like Lazisto made me think about deep issues like these only made me realize that nothing is as it seems, that still waters do run deep indeed. Lazisto made me realize that people on the African continent have made a mistake of placing their emancipation in the hands of their leaders and God. Maumar  Gadaffi, Robert Mugabe and plenty others have all fallen short. Lazisto had gotten me to go back and read Steve Biko again. “…people need to realize that God is not in the habit of coming down from heaven and solving people’s problems”.

Thank you Mulanza, a simple yet complicated man.

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We all know someone

RIP. You fought long and hard and we gained from your fight.

RIP. You fought long and hard and we gained from your fight.

This is one of those pieces of writing I have kept away from you because of this incredible pull away from ‘exposing’ myself in public. But I have come to learn that when the writing bug has truly hit you, it will create a time and space for you to share even your most intimate thoughts. In the right context. I published this piece online on Medium in June, I got about six readers and was secretly pleased. It wasn’t time.

With the tragic passing of Robin Williams this week I could not help but pull the piece from obscurity onto your world, with the hope that you will read and without judging contribute to the discussion on depression and suicide. I have close family and very dear friends whose lives have been altered permanently by suicide and depression and as I wrote this, I prayed that it would come out in just the right tone to allow them to read this and not have their pain made worse. Here goes:

I don’t know how I came across James Altucher, but I did. He’s one of those few people who’ve made millions of dollars, lost them all and still had the energy to make them all over again. And he had the courage and passion to write about his journey, in books and blogs.

One particular blog got my attention recently: “Seven things happen when you become completely honest”. He writes light-heartedly about anything. It’s not unusual to find a line in his work that says, “The last time I wanted to kill myself, I decided to….” Not many people can casually admit to ever having wanted to kill themselves, not on a public platform anyway. But he does, and he means it and he writes about it so others can learn from his experiences.

He says one of the seven things that happens when you become completely honest in your written work is people think you want to kill yourself because every blog or post is like a suicide note. That got me thinking. Why have I found it so difficult to put down on paper my struggle with suicide.

Wait, hang on a minute here. You haven’t let yourself fall into that trap have you? Thinking I want to kill myself? If you did, it’s ok, it’s a natural reaction, well almost because not many people bring up a subject like this in polite company.

James Altucher reckons suicide is treated like porn by most people. It’s not discussed often enough but when it is, there’s a lot of emotion and self-righteousness that comes to the fore. I mean, let’s face it: When was the last time you discussed porn. Almost never, because society frowns at people who treat porn as an everyday subject. Ditto suicide.

But sadly, we all know someone close to us who has taken their own life or attempted to. We all know the harrowing feelings that go with the guilt. Could I have done or said something to prevent this? Why didn’t they confide in me? Was I the reason?

I saw a little note on facebook recently that said “suicide is never the solution, it just gives the pain to someone else”. As someone who has fought this battle since I was about 10 I had an instant answer to that little note. Suicidal people are not rational, not in the normal sense anyway. Besides wanting to get rid of their own pain, they reason that they cause more pain to others alive than when they are gone. In other words suicide is chosen as a way out of what is perceived as an even bigger pain. Don’t try to reason it out, like I said, the rationality is not your normal straight forward kind.

Sadly, when the discussion of suicide comes up, there is always all-round condemnation of the person who did or attempted to. “I would never kill myself, life is just too good”. “It’s so stupid to kill yourself over a man/woman, I mean really? Just leave them?” “ There’s always a way out, all you need to do is talk about it”. “Suicide is the coward’s way out” and a whole lot more. Easier said than done. I’m certain the majority of people would be literally freaked out by a friend who comes up to them and says: “you know what, I’ve been thinking about taking my own life for a while now”.

“Please don’t talk crazy” you’d be tempted to respond. You would most probably be spurred into action by a lot of tears or some form of emotional breakdown. Not many people can manufacture an emotional breakdown so they can convince someone they really want to take their own life. So they normally just go ahead and do it, to spare themselves all the judgement and condemnation that society spews out.

Religion doesn’t help either. The condemnation there is double because one is regarded as having decided to play God. Worse still, heaven is supposedly not welcoming to suicide victims. So how does a well-meaning child of God raise such a matter and still feel holy?

I’m no psychologist so I will not try to talk for all people who have ever attempted suicide or even just thought about it. I just know what goes on within me and that’s what I’m sharing.

The intensity of the thoughts or ideation differs from person to person. Like I said above, I recall my first suicidal thoughts as having come about at age ten. I had done something I felt ashamed of and could see no way out of the situation. Yes, at ten. It all started as a silly feeling in my head. More like, would I feel all this shame if I was not here? And the idea grew. Like, honestly, if I wasn’t here, would I be feeling this shame and pain?.

The idea of not being ‘there’ stayed with me for a long time. Plus I was an emotionally fragile young person, I easily internalized pain. Whenever I was faced with a situation that seemed to offer no way out, I always reverted to thinking ‘not being there’ was the solution.

Somehow this idea of ending it all when pain surfaced got linked to my performance in life. And any perceived failure triggered the thoughts. I cannot remember the first time I actually thought an attempt through. Like think of a way to end it all and when. That only came later in life, in my late teens. I suppose it could be that by then I was exposed to things in life so even the ideation began to take form and shape. So I began to think of various ways in which I could end the pain. This is another thing that people get completely wrong in how they discuss suicide.

There are some bright sparks who like saying things like ‘If she was serious about taking her life she would have shot herself/thrown himself in front of a truck/drank stronger poison’ and some such nonsense like that. I know in my case it was important to me that I felt no pain. I’m generally averse to physical pain and whichever method I was to choose would include little or no pain.

And I constantly fretted over “what if I survive the attempt” question. The bright sparks above never consider that. Things always go wrong. Even in suicide. The one thought that I could never get out of my mind was how a certain girl ingested some poison and survived the attempt, but she went blind. I know it’s a completely irrational thing to ask you to imagine but try this: try imagining surviving a 10-storey fall or being hit by a truck and surviving or surviving a gunshot wound to the head. Highly unlikely but it could happen.

But the emotional pain from the depression grew stronger as I grew older. Pain stopped being a factor. So yes, even the painful methods were in consideration now. When the vortex of depression is swirling around you, escaping that constant pain becomes the only focal point. Funnily though, once decided, to end it all I mean, this calm came over me. It was like some pressure has been taken off. So you start thinking rationally but only as far as the attempt is concerned. Where am I going to do this? Do I leave a note?

I have always avoided going into how many times and when because I feel it detracts from the point I want to make. Whenever possible, wherever possible, don’t avoid talking about it. Also, either keep your silence or be kind when talking about recent suicide victims because you have no freaking idea who else is going through the pain as you senselessly declare: “only cowards take their own lives”.

The first time I sat down in a psychiatrist’s office and answered all her questions she looked at me and asked me: “Do you feel like taking your life right now?” I answered No because I didn’t. She said to me, “You are very lucky to be alive.” Medication and therapy followed. I’m still on the meds. Will be for as long as I live. The urge to go off them has been there before, but the knowledge of the pain that I went through without them is scary. So I take them like clockwork.

Do I still get the thoughts. Yes, but not as often as before, which was almost daily. Do I still get depressed, Yes, but I cope better now.

When I sat down to write this I had intended for it to be a light-hearted look at a difficult subject, and I could feel it getting away from me as I wrote. If it got you a little upset, believe me, that was not my intention.

As a caring friend you are probably thinking did this man ever attempt suicide for real. Did he get help? And just maybe, was it really necessary to share such a personal and maybe even shameful, embarrassing thing?

The answers to the three questions above are yes I did attempt suicide many times. And yes I did get help, and continue to get help. Which is the whole point of my sharing this with you. There are people like me who are born with a chemical imbalance that predisposes them to suicidal depression. And is it really necessary to share such a personal (and shameful secret), then you know it wasn’t meant for you, but for that one person who is going through a similar journey or knows someone who is. If just one of those people can read this and seek help, then I do not care about the shame( or your thoughts).

Lastly, should it be that you read this and were upset by how such a serious subject can be treated so light-heartedly, then my profound apologies to you. You obviously have been affected by suicide and are still dealing with it. My one lesson from all my attempts, nobody could have stopped me. It’s almost impossible to stop someone from committing suicide but I truly believe if we stop treating it like porn, a taboo subject, then we are well on our way to creating conditions where I could have just blurted out to my parents one day: “You know, I have always wanted to end my own life” and they would have sought help for me.

 

(PS When I read that Robin Williams was 63 when he passed I felt so proud that the man had fought this diabolical disease for 6 decades, and managed to entertain us along the way. Anyone whose thoughts are what a waste is selfish, imagine the pain he had to work through to entertain you.)

Why are we so silent?

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imageI’m very disappointed in humanity right now. Deeply disappointed. It’s very easy to look at the situation in the Middle East and conclude “None of My Business, what’s more, I don’t even understand the dynamics at play in that part of the world. Let me just carry on with my own life. What is it to me?” Shocking.

Let me take you down a road you’ve probably never thought of traveling.

My dad has always had some sort of small business or another. Whatever you can think of, he sold. Shoes, chickens, eggs, groceries, everything. This was in the townships in the eighties, at the height of apartheid. State of emergency and all that chaos. Back then he never really owned a shop, we sold these things out of the house we lived in or the garage or the back of the van he had. You are probably thinking, Oh poor them, they must have been squashed in their little township four-roomed house.

You are right, we were, but who wasn’t back then. But there was a certain pride that went with that. We were in business. Yes he didn’t have business cards embossed with golden letters but people looked at us and thought they are quite fortunate. They have a business. School holidays meant leaving the village to spend time selling something, anything in Johannesburg.

The business was not limited to our house only. A bit later, when I was 10 or 11 my dad acquired a Peugeot van. Wasn’t much to look at but it did the business. He’d carry the stock and place me and the wares by an entrance to an all-male hostel very close to where we lived.

These hostels were apartheid’s attempt at providing accommodation to black fathers who had left their loved ones back in the rural homelands, usually five to six hours(or more) away to come and build the urban economy that kept apartheid’s wheels turning. These men survived up to eleven months a year without seeing their loved ones.

My dad understood their material needs, so when he placed me and the goods by the entrance to the hostel we were an instant hit. These were hard men who did back breaking work during the day but never once did I feel threatened by them. In fact, there wasn’t a place safer to do business for an eleven-year-old left alone to look after large quantities of goods. Some of the men got to know me by name.

And then one day, a yellow police van with two white policemen parked some distance away from my selling point. With the exception of the usual dreaded feeling one got in the presence of the Afrikaner members of the force, I was ok. Nothing new. The men who were entering the hostel all cast a glance in the direction of the van and then muttered something that ended with some sort of profanity. After a while, the police car reversed back to where I was.

“Whose goods are these?”, the policeman driving the van asked.
“My father’s”, I replied. Proud to hold my own in a language I was still learning.
“Where is he?”
“At home”.
“How much are your Benson and Hedges Gold cigarettes?”, the policeman asked. After telling him the price he requested that I pass a pack onto him. I must admit I was wasn’t entirely comfortable just looking at these two bulky Afrikaner males both spotting thick mustaches. They kept looking around as if something was wrong. As soon as I handed the pack of twenty cigarettes to him, the police van took off racing away, without paying.

I was shocked. How was I going to explain this to my dad? How would he believe that men of the law could commit such a blatantly unlawful act?

When I related the story to my dad later, all he could say was “Bastards!”. I didn’t understand why the police acted in the way they did. Why they would target a defenseless little kid like me. Why they would choose to perform that act when no one was watching. They had waited till no one could see them. With all their might and power, they still needed to hide their defenseless acts.

Later, when I was older, I understood that even the mightiest of people felt ashamed when attacking the weak and defenseless. But more to the point, when I grew up I discovered that the actions of those policemen were like those of an occupying army. They were joined in their actions by the South African Defence Force in their day-and-night patrols of the townships. And they spread terror. What happened to me that day was nothing compared to the horrible deeds they carried out on others. It made me scared of them. I detested  them too.

I was therefore heartened when I learned of the many friends we had internationally who helped us put pressure on the occupying force to “leave” us in peace.

In 1988 in London the British people put together a spectacle beyond measure to help us celebrate one of our own, Nelson Mandela, who was then in prison. They put together his 70th birthday celebration through a music concert that gladdened the heart of anyone watching. Freedom in our Lifetime was the demand, by people thousands of miles away. People we had never met. People who could only imagine what our daily lives must have been like.

No one wanted to know how we conducted ourselves in fighting the unjust actions of an occupying force. The system was declared a crime against humanity and could not be justified.

As the death toll in Palestine climbed above the 1000 mark this week I could not help but ask myself why people are asking a million questions about the way the Palestinian people defend themselves in the face of a mighty occupying force. It’s not a force that started occupying when the “war” started, it’s a force that is constantly there, everyday. Spreading fear.

When I think of the actions of those two policemen that day in the eighties I can’t help but think that there is a ten-year-old Palestinian boy somewhere, a boy wondering just like I did why grown men would act like that, attack a small, defenseless child when no one is watching. Why they feel no shame in doing that because it’s only natural to feel ashamed when taking advantage of the weak and helpless.

The child does not care one bit for the politics behind the occupation, the religions that keep being blamed and God’s supposed hand in all of this. That child, like me back then, is just wondering why other human beings would behave like that towards their own kind, unless they don’t see themselves as being of their kind.

That child is asking what kind of a war sees more than 300 children killed out of 1000 dead in a supposed war against terrorists. That child is asking how three four-year-old boys playing on a beach can be killed in a “war” against terrorists.

That child, when he discovers that the world once turned into an international army against another occupying force and staged the biggest birthday party for a jailed leader will ask, why is the same world so silent when that jailed leader had once declared “Our freedom will never be complete without the freedom of the Palestinian” people.

Like me, that child is disappointed in the response of the world because he thinks it’s not about politics, it’s about being human. It’s not about being anti-Semitic or pro-Hamas, it’s about being human. No other human being should be allowed to instill fear in another human being through the might of their weapons. That child hopes you read this and felt sorry for him and his people and not judged the author’s politics, religious beliefs or insensitivity to the plight of the Jewish people.

He asks himself the question, how is this a war when only one side is armed to the teeth and using its might to kill three hundred kids. Kids. And he wonders, could I be next?

Of Diets, Cellulite and Patriarchy.

imageMy daughter stood on my tummy the other day as I lay on my back and lovingly asked me : “Daddy, can I jump up and down?” Oooouuch, who could say no to her angelic little face. “Yes, but just once” I said as I tightened the few remaining muscles in my abdomen. She jumped up and landed back gently and was quite delighted. “Daddy, your tummy is soft like a jumping castle”, she said adorably with her characteristic lisp. That’s love alright but did she have to use that metaphor? Jumping Castle? Really? The D-word started flashing in my mind. Yes you guessed right, diet. Political correctness demand that I call it a weight-loss programme. Stuff PC, I’ll call it a diet.

The women in your family have probably at some stage in their lives embarked on a diet. And men. Mostly on Mondays. It’s not me, it’s scientific research that says most people choose to embark on new diets on Mondays. And most have quit by Tuesday evening. Now I see why Monday is not people’s favourite day of the week. No one looks forward to starving, oops, dieting.

Society being as patriarchal as it is, a man declaring “I’m going on a diet” gets one of those frowns that accompany men who admire David Beckham’s grooming as opposed to his soccer skills. So I’ll be damned if I’m going to declare that my daughter’s likening my tummy to a jumping castle made me want to “go on a diet”. But I do go on diets, periodically. Nothing radical. I just ditch the sugar and its relatives and eat the way human beings are meant to eat. But then again, what is that way?

My most favourite living scientist, Professor Tim Noakes goes into a quite a bit of scientific detail in his book, Challenging Beliefs, about how and what our ancestors hunted down and ate. They obviously hunted down protein, so we must have strayed from their healthy meat(protein-based) diet to today’s carbohydrate-laden diet.

But then again man stopped being a hunter and became more of a gatherer at some point and relied more on agriculture(greens) for survival than on meat. Was this a good move or not? My kids, and most other kids I know would vote against the fundamental values of the Agricultural revolution, purely based on the way vegetables taste. I love kids so I agree with them. I too hate cauliflower. I maintain flowers belong in vases on Mother’s Day and those rare occasions when you can’t afford diamonds for your loved one, not on my plate.

Anyways, being the closet tree-hugger that I am I have a strong natural aversion to ingesting a pill or medication that is supposed to make me lose weight. It’s a science thing I guess, the simple understanding that nothing man-made can “melt away” human fat in a living body, never. Granted, one can mess around with appetite or metabolism but anything beyond that is a bunch of hot air.

Read this quote I came across recently on the often-misunderstood cellulite.

“Amazing how magic creams keep getting sold to help the world get rid of cellulite.Fact is, there is no real difference between cellulite fat, and regular fat. All of the cellulite sponges and creams designed to “dissolve” cellulite and other gimmicky devices are all ripping you off. Unfortunately, cellulite is actually caused by muscular atrophy, a condition that occurs when the layer of muscle becomes weak and undefined, and separates from the skin, making the unattractive fatty deposits visible. So the first thing you need to know is that cellulite treatment has nothing to do with your skin and everything to do with the muscles underneath the skin. And remember, cellulite removal has NOTHING to do with weight loss. Even the skinniest of girls can suffer from cellulite.
The good news is that there is a way to reverse muscular atrophy, and banish annoying cellulite forever. And no matter how much you weigh or how old you are, you can do this naturally without popping pills or using phony lotions. Exercise…”

So you are probably wondering right,if he claims to know so much about human physiology and weight-loss how come he looks BMI-challenged, with a jumping castle for a tummy?

Because, my friend, our relationship with food is not governed by our brains but by our emotions. Basic biology, sympathetic nervous system vs central nervous system. Everything you’ve read until this point comes from my brain(central nervous system) but what I eat, how often I eat and my addictions to ‘nice’ foods are governed by the not-so-logical sympathetic nervous system. I have not mastered the mind over matter technique as yet, mental illnesses do not help either, hence my little problem with accumulating body fat where others can notice it, like my tummy area.

Whilst willpower can help you whittle away the unwanted extras, anybody who’s ever gone on a diet will tell you it takes more than an iron will to keep those pounds from returning. It’s that old adage: reaching the summit is rarely a problem, it’s staying on top that’s the issue. So instead of focussing so much of our energy on losing weight and eating right we should zone in on “feeling right”, reaching our perfect emotional and mental state. More balance than perfection really.

We all know it somehow, it’s been encoded into our genes: When I feel good I eat well, I don’t binge on food, alcohol and other nerve-calming things. But upset your internal balance and you will pay through your waistline. That’s why people say “I tend to eat a lot when I’m moody”.

So, on this, my tenth day on the protein-rich diet based on Professor Tim Noakes scientific based conclusions, as I look forward to more steak-filled days ahead, my mind wonders to why I could not keep the weight off the last time I tried this diet.

I whittled away the fat like a living, walking fat-burner. The amount of clothes I gained back was really amazing. The running made it even easier to shed the kilos. But like all good things, it all came to an end. Sadly, the process seemed to reverse itself. And the fat cells seemed to come back more aggressively this time around, hence my jumping-castle experience with my daughter.

But even as I started the search for a solution, I knew deep down that the fatty deposits on various sections of my body were a result of an imbalance in my emotional make-up than how and what I ate. Yes the sugar made me a bit BMI-challenged, but I know deep down that to return to healthy eating ways I need to get my chemical mental balance right.

I could go all organic and eat cauliflower and a lot of greens or even start organic farming. But I’m not easily taken in by “new things”. See, my grandmother farmed organically long before it became a fad. She had to grow food for us to eat so we could live. Simple as that. Not much of a choice. See, it’s a bit like people who eat mopani worms or locusts/grasshoppers as a delicacy at some fancy do, I pity them. For long periods those were a major source of my protein growing up. I will not willingly ingest them now so I can feel adventurous. I had far too many of those adventures in my youth. Ditto organic farming.

Not that I have anything against healthy organically-grown food(or even organics bought from Woolworths), no, I’m just ok with them. Ok.

So if I could offer you advice on not developing a jumping castle tummy, it would be simple: 1. Get your mental health right(emotions etc) 2. Feel good about yourself 3. Eat lots of proteins, and some vegetables and 4. Some exercise won’t hurt.

Thank me later, oh you want thank me now, you’re welcome!

Since You’ve been gone.

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It’s been seven years since you’ve been gone. Seven years! Damn, I swear it feels like it was just yesterday when I got that terrible midnight call. “Eish Ndoda, Kavani’s been shot”.

A lot has happened since that day. I’ve been meaning to write to you but I always revert to that self-censoring mode that makes me think I’m too focused on self. But when I realized that I might never outgrow that mode I threw caution to the wind and decided to let you in on what has gone on since that fateful night on 07/07/07.

Where do I start? Do you know you became an uncle five times over in the past six years. Your siblings have been a bit busy. The first one was born six months and 10 days to the day you left us. He bears your initials, MJ. Not only that, you share the same middle name. And the M name is a translation of that middle name. MJ huh? Bet you thought it was Michael Jackson. Oh but you loved that man and his music.

Sadly he has passed on too. I watched his memorial on TV and silently swallowed my tears for fear of being misunderstood. I don’t think anyone but you will understand the connection. Do you remember when you were just ten and I brought back my music cassette case during varsity holidays? Yes, the one I told you not touch under any circumstances. I cannot forgot the look on your face when you told me the tape player had messed up my Michael Jackson original tape of Dangerous.

When Michael Jackson visited South Africa in 1997 you twisted dad’s hand to get tickets for us boys to take you to watch him. I can’t forget the awe and wonder on your face when Michael Jackson did his almost falling over act. I have to admit, I too was convinced he had some invisible ropes holding him in place. And that euphoric feeling after the concert when you just want to buy everything Michael Jackson.

I still have a poster and his History World Tour Magazine somewhere amongst my belongings. They are not in good shape but I cannot get myself to get rid of them, I can’t clean out my closet like Eminem. Oh yes Eminem. My brother, I have to hand it to you, you influenced my attitude towards rap music more than any other person I know. Yes I liked a bit of Tupac’s music but you made me embrace his genius, to see beyond the profanities. Do you remember us rocking ‘Carlifonia Love’ as we entered the King David’s school premises in the Toyota Cressida?

Look, it’s one thing to navigate your way around a parking area teeming with top-of-the-range SUVs in Sandton’s King David School, but to do that in a Toyota Cressida with Tupac’s voice booming “…welcome everybody to the Wild Wild West”. I felt bad. The good kind of bad. And it was all thanks to you. I remember walking into a Look and Listen outlet looking for Marshall Mathers III and you schooling me on why it’s ok when Eminem says he wished his dad dead and a whole lot of other rap higher education besides.

When that midnight call came from my sister on that fateful night, in my mind nothing so terrible could ever happen to you that all I said was “Which hospital has he been taken to?” Even my subconscious could never associate you with such a violent end. Not my little brother, No, Not Him.

It took me a long while to be alone following the hurried, blurred and painful events of that night. But when I was alone, as I bawled my eyes out, I could not stop myself repeating : “No, Not my little brother. It was not your time.”

The dark period that followed, I’m still too mentally fragile to go back to the countless visits that I made to the police station to follow up on the case. My man, My main man. Oh but I tried. See, I felt really responsible for the failure of the police to apprehend your killer. I’m your big brother, I should have protected you, I should have. Protect. You learnt to do that quite early in your life.

I always admired the way you protected our little sister, the baby in the family. You were just a little baby yourself when you guys went to Cresslawn Primary, but I cannot forget how much she depended on you, how she wouldn’t do certain things unless you were there. How you had to wait for her in after-care when she had extra-murals. You never complained.

And when you changed schools to Midrand, you continued to protect her. I was deeply moved when she told me how when you were in varsity you sat down with her to help her make decisions about which subjects she should choose at school. You were a better bigger brother than I was.

Funny to think I was thought you were such a spoilt brat at one stage. You won’t remember this but when you were about three or four you came to visit us in the village. When our grandmother served you tea and bread you turned the slice of bread over and declared “I don’t eat unbuttered bread”. My jaw dropped. The cheek! And granny made a plan, ha! In my wildest dreams I would never have gotten away with such demands.

It must have had something to do with being the fourth child because damn, you always got away with murder. Remember how you called McGyver “my McGyver”. And Michael Night. Our father had to go and get you that talking car, Kitt was it?. I couldn’t understand why the world had to stop for you. You owned the TV in the house. We were all at your mercy.

At your funeral I wanted to tell everyone about all these things. To tell them that my little baby brother who had such a lazy manner about him had these qualities that made me look up to him. No, I did look up to you. When I heard you were the General Secretary of the Pharmacy Students Council at varsity my pride knew no bounds, that’s my boy I said. That’s my boy.

You made me want to be a better big brother. You made me want to impress you. Remember the one time at the Boulders Shopping Centre? You saw this pretty girl and looked at me? Yes, the time you wanted me to make a plan for you to chat to her. You were so impressed when I didn’t hesitate in approaching her and said my little brother wants to chat to you. I never told you but I had met her before, I knew her family so those were the easiest brownies I ever scored. I was heartbroken when I discovered she didn’t hear of your passing for up to two months.

When I told her older sister, she seemed more hurt than her little sister. That’s what you did, you touched more hearts than you intended.

Every once in a while I go back to that video of you giving a talk two weeks before your passing. I watch it and think to myself, he would have made a great pharmacist.

About two years ago I walked into a pharmacy to get some medication. The young man behind the counter stared at me in a very strange way. He continued to serve me whilst stealing these little stares at me, until he got the courage to say, “I don’t want to open closed wounds but are you in any way related to the Majoko kid who passed away in his final year at varsity?”

I assured him that he could speak freely. He said he had just had the freakiest moment of his career because he could see you in me. And after all these years he still spoke reverentially of you. I guess like me, he felt sorry that such a promising life had been cut so short.

That was me right after you passed on. I felt so sorry for you. So sad. I went in to a depression so bad that I contemplated ghastly thoughts of avenging your death. Crazy right? I mean, like really. But I feel you should know. I felt the people you called your friends betrayed you.

That night, you had done the most selfless thing by visiting your friend in hospital, and even taking along another friend(or friends) on the trip there. Sadly, the friend you visited in hospital that night passed away shortly after you passed on. I can’t understand why the people you sacrificed so much for could not feel indebted to you enough to volunteer the truth about that evening.

Officially your death remains unsolved. Unofficially we know you were shot in what we believe was a case of mistaken identity. Your friend’s family know what happened that night, but I figure self-preservation is a much stronger animal instinct than bringing closure to our family. If only they knew that our family’s beyond retribution by now.

I would much rather someone owned up. Apologize. That’s what people don’t get. It’s not about the law, jail, revenge. It’s about people. Living people. People who ask themselves the same question over and over and over again. That’s what that Pistorius boy doesn’t get, it’s about the mother, the father, the siblings, her people. It’s not about him. But that’s just me getting upset.

I think of the people in the house where you lost your life. There were at least two kids your age or younger in that house. The kids and their parents silence cannot be cheap. I hope at some point they know that they can get their freedom back by giving us our closure.

My little brother, I got side-tracked. This was about me remembering you. The spoilt you. The responsible you. The perfect brother. I intended to tell you about Kaizer Chiefs, Man United and a whole lot more. To tell you about Lawu, Rori, Ntwanano, Kona, Lwandle, Nalwo and Rofhiwa.

I wanted to tell you that I still live my life to make you proud because you were deprived of that chance. That our mom’s gotten better since that terrible time. And dad, I know he still has this question: “What had my boy done wrong to be killed like that?” I know because the weeks following your death we sat and spoke for hours. We never got an answer to that question.

But I also know that like me, he appreciates that the twenty three years that you spent here, could not have been spent better. I have gotten better too. I have my moments. Some good, some really bad but I’ve discovered ‘better living through chemistry’. More about that some other time.

A while after you passed on it hit me that our world stopped for you when you were a baby because your time was limited on this earth. You had to spread all the love you could in that twenty three years. And you did.

In the year that you passed on I didn’t celebrate my birthday. My birthday month partner was gone. I have toyed with the idea of celebrating my birthday on the 16th of August instead of the 11th, but it’s a little difficult to explain this to the world. I haven’t given up on this though, I mean, what’s five days between brothers?

I’m off to play Eminem’s “When I’m gone”. You were crazy about this song. Wish I could ask you, Did you know? I’ll throw in a bit of MJ’s “Gone too soon”. And Eternal too. Damn, I’ll play all the songs that I had intended to put onto your memorial CD back then.

07/07/07. Like I said in your obituary, our pain will get better, but we will never forget you.

With love,
Your Big Brother.

Getting Old

Father  time catches up with everyone...Pic used courtesy of Creative Commons

Father time catches up with everyone…Pic used courtesy of Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I  think I’m getting old. No, really, I am. Oh, stop sneering. I know I’m only 40, (emphasis on only), and still have a good few months to lay claim to being that young.

One recent Sunday on a lazy drive contemplating another five-day interruption of my weekends, I had a moment of clarity. A revelation. See, I listen to talk radio on weekdays but on weekends they play crap music so I switch stations. This particular Sunday I quietly hummed along to a Rick Astley song, followed by Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on”, Mike and the Mechanics and so on. At the end of my 30 minute drive I realised I had enjoyed seven songs back-to-back on a programme dubbed the Golden Oldies, and it hit me, OMG, I’m old. I listened to a Golden Oldies show on a talk radio station on a weekend, and enjoyed it! Death. By aging!

Look, I know some youngsters who listen to ‘adult contemporary’ music. But this was different. Enjoying seven Golden Oldies in a row is inconvertible evidence that Mother Nature has caught up with me.

Growing old creeps up on you, it doesn’t just happen. No. It starts with little things like that newspaper vendor whom you thought of as being in the same ballpark as you age-wise thanking you for a tip with the words, “thanks Malume!(thanks uncle!)”. The poor guy didn’t understand why I did a double take when he said those words, he had no idea he had gone to my core and made a tiny but visible crack on my fragile ‘youthful’ ego. When the petrol attendant does the same you know something about is not the same anymore.

Not that I’m in denial and think being twenty four forever is cool or anything, No. I just didn’t think I was “uncle” material just yet. It’s one thing to be excluded from applying for that business subsidy for the youth because you are over 35 but to be placed in the “uncle” category? Damn, that’s something else. Some bones in my body don’t take kindly to being “uncle” material.

The aging process is really sneaky. You stand a better chance of catching a six-year-old peeling off that one sugar crystal from your tea saucer than you do of catching the aging process in action. You don’t go to bed one night being young and wake up old in the morning. No it’s a process that’s eerily silent, insidious in a way.

Look I’d be lying if I told you the aging process leaves no clues along the way. You get plenty of clues. No, I’m not referring to 21st birthday invitations drying up. That’s not growing old, it’s just growing growing up.

I’m talking about realizing that current fashion trends are skinny this and skinny that, and if like me you’ve sworn you would never be caught dead in skinny jeans and pointy shoes, you’re in trouble. You know something’s not right when that clothing retail store that you were so loyal to in your twenties and thirties stocks nothing but skinny jeans and pointy shoes. As if that’s not bad enough, the shops on either side of your once-favourite shop stock even more skinnier jeans and shoes so pointy you can walk right into a circus act.

And it’s not as though I own vinyl records or anything. I’m trying to stay relevant you know. Honestly, I try. It’s not my fault that I don’t think pointed shoes and skinny jeans look funny on a grown man. But the more I look around me, the more I realize that I have to hunt down that special shop that still keeps “normal” fit jeans. On the bright side, the aging process does give you clues.

The clues, just like the aging process are there for everyone to see. If you suddenly develop interest in mature activities that require a lot of patience then Father Time is announcing his presence in your life. Take going fishing for instance, at twenty-five I would have never given the activity a second thought. Recently I’ve taken to spending a whole Saturday trying to persuade very elusive fish that their interests lie outside their natural habitat. The fish haven’t taken a liking to me so far but I still get home to announce proudly that “I spent a brilliant day out fishing with the boys”. I suspect the lack of evidence in the form of fish makes it difficult for anyone to argue against suspect aging-related afflictions.

Some clues are just direct. I’m talking real life clues like your little sister saying to your face, “Damn, my brother is old”, and having a good old chuckle for effect. Or suddenly realizing that staying awake past 10pm takes a lot of effort and planning. That 10pm World Cup game will cost you plenty in the days ahead.

I thought something was not quite right when people whom I thought are my age always took a reverential step backwards for me at weddings and funerals and always seemed to have this little uncomfortable looks on their faces if I stayed beyond the greeting stage. Being politely offered a chair a respectful distance away made me a little suspicious, and when the young man said, ” there you are groot maan(old man), no need for you to stand like these young people”. The crack on my youthful ego widened.

The most conclusive evidence that I am old came from my own flesh and blood. It all happened one morning before our trip for school. We were running a little late and as I hurriedly dressed up in the bedroom I overheard the following most painful conversation between my four-year old daughter and her six year old brother. And you thought they were just innocent little children, ha!!

“My brother, you are six years old, right?”
“Yes, and you are four years old”, my little boy responded with confidence.
” Do you know what I’m gonna do when I’m very old, when I’m twenty four – “
“You want to be twenty four? I don’t want to be twenty four. That’s grown up”, my wise six-year-old boy said. I could only imagine the look on his face.
“Don’t you ever want to grow up, like mommy and daddy?” His little sister asked.
” No, I don’t want to be grown up like them. Do you know what happens when you grow up to be as old as mommy and daddy? Do you know? You have to look after yourself. Just like the teenage mutant ninja turtles do. Do you want that?”
My little girl is silent now. Obviously considering the ramifications of looking after herself should she grow up.

“Ok, I won’t grow up. Do you know how old mommy and daddy are?” She asks.
“They are very old, very old – “
” They are so old we’ll never know how old they are”, my little girl adds.

I was mortified. Listening to this serious exchange between the two little people who are the apples of my eye reaching the conclusion that I’m so old it’s beyond their grasp shattered any remaining notion in me that some people could view me as looking too young for my age. My own flesh and blood consigning me to that group of people who’ve ‘been there and done that’.

At that point I walked out of the bedroom before they got silly notions in the head of taking over the house because their old man’s past it. Not on my watch. Wait till you are ten. Me, very old, ha!

See, I’ve always harboured this silly belief that I look good for my age and I had ‘proof’ of this. Last November at the beginning of a 10k race I got into a conversation with a 50 year old lady. I know her age because we exchanged ages for the purposes of our discussion on ultra marathons.”F…k, you don’t look that at all, I was guessing you’re in you’re in your early thirties”. See, I told you I had proof. Sadly I had no camera to record the look on her face to cheer myself up every time I’m reminded that “youth” is not a category I should tick on application forms.

But as with all traumatic processes, acceptance comes after denial. And with acceptance, peace.

With acceptance came new realizations. Realization that there are a few things that I’ve seen that some youths haven’t. I got to watch tennis before the ladies outfits came to resemble the Rio Carnival in terms of colour, way back when Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova always wore white and there was nothing to distract you when watching tennis. You know, when Andre Agassi’s hairdo resembled a drummer from a heavy-metal band. These days a tennis player looks odd when they wear all-white.

When watching soccer I can excitedly shout to my wife during a game, “see that guy there, yes, the one in the suit, yes yes the Manchester United team manager, Ryan Giggs, I watched him make his debut, today he’s managing the team”. Come to think of it, most of my childhood heroes are now team managers, balding or TV soccer pundits.

It’s ok to age gracefully though, to look your age. It’s ok to be part of that generation of people whose childhood heroes and megastars are now into their golden years or have passed on, without making any “reality” shows on TV to hang on to their fame. That tells me I too can lay claim to having seen a thing or two in my time.

Although I have accepted my fate in aging gracefully, I refuse to understand that a normal human being can wear sun glasses indoors, carry on a conversation with headphones stuck in their ears, chat on their phone whilst sending that all-important instant message on their smartphone. When I see a “youth” carrying on like that, then I get a warm fuzzy feeling in my tummy that reassures me that it’s ok to be “uncle” age.

The other day I sat watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles with my six-year old boy. I could see the awe in his eyes. He thinks the world of those mutants and their Mutagen Gel that solves all their problems. And that’s when it hit me. When he said to his little sister that when you are old you look after yourself like the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles, that was the highest sign of respect he could accord to his “very old parents”, so old that he could never possibly know our ages. So old that they can look after themselves and their kids, without Mutagen Gel.

I suddenly like being old. I am a Teenage Mutant Ninja turtle.

The (Once) Beautiful Game

Soccer - simple, yet beautiful. (Picture used courtesy of Creative Commons)

Soccer – simple, yet beautiful. (Picture used courtesy of Creative Commons)

Hi, my name is Sydney and I’m addicted to soccer. I got addicted at 8 years old. I remember the day like it was yesterday because that was the first day I got asked what my most favourite soccer club was and I responded with the peace sign and said without a doubt in my heart : “Kaizer Chiefs”. Before this particular day, I always just giggled and ran off without saying anything, but on this day, I had listened to my first full game on a “wireless”, aka the “fm” but generally known as a radio. Kaizer Chiefs had beaten the other local giants Orlando Pirates FC 3 – 1 in a Mainstay Cup Final. And that’s it, I was hooked.

Before that day I had only played soccer with other kids with a ball made out of discarded plastic bags. It took a bit of skill to get the ball together, the trick was ensuring you had enough of these plastic bags to give your ball a bouncy feel.  You also had to weave the plastics such that if the outside layer came off during the game, there were enough inner bags to keep the game going.

I don’t remember when I started playing, but I must have been six or seven years old. This was nothing special, any boy who could walk played soccer in my village. You didn’t have to be good at all. No, if you could walk you played. The older boys always assigned you where to play based on your skill level. The year I got hooked to listening to professional soccer games on the “wireless” was the year I discovered I had a gift for keeping goals. In those days, school holidays were basically just soccer playing days.

We played soccer every chance we got, interrupted only by errands adults seemed to want to send you on right in the middle of that exciting game. We only did other stuff if we couldn’t play soccer.

Then something magical happened one year. Over the school holidays my parents bought me a plastic soccer ball. It was white with black hexagonal shapes on it. I cannot forget that “new plastic” smell that came with it. I could not wait to get back to the village to become the centre of football decision-making. Look, everybody played but not everybody made the decisions. To make the decisions you had to be one of the older boys or alternatively, own the ball. Overnight, I became a decision-maker. If we had more players than we needed, I never had to wait on the side-lines. I was the ball owner. If we needed to put a few cents together to play the other team for money, I didn’t have to pop out a cent, I was a football owner. For obvious reasons the game could not start without me. And as unpalatable as this might sound, I could literally end a game. That was power I tell you.

But all good things come to an end, my black-and-white plastic soccer ball lasted a full six months before one of those abundant thorn trees decided to play catch with the ball but never returned it. It was a little miracle that mine had lasted as long as it had. I remember kids whose decision-making time was a mere three hours. For some it was days. And the thorns got it. And when it happened a lot of finger-pointing and tears followed. The poor decision-maker would be left clutching his now-deflated plastic ball and tearfully threatening the last person to kick the ball that his older brother/cousin/uncle would “deflate” him too.

My ball was actually jinxed by an older cousin. I had had that ball for so long that in my own childish mind I actually believed it would last forever. We had a game against another village that day. And as usual I was keeping goal. We must have been winning the game because I had plenty of time to chit-chat with people, including my cousin who said “Are you aware that you’ve had that ball for six months? Something will happen to it soon”. A few moments later the ball was on top of a rather large thorn tree. Had it not been my cousin who jinxed it things would have been pretty ugly for them that day, they would have had to deal with a lot of accusations and tears from me.

When I “graduated” to listening to games on the “fm” I got immersed into another world. That meant that every Saturday and Sunday between 15H00 and 18H00 I made my way across the rather lushly-vegetated fields to the homestead that we listened to the radio from. It was not every family that took their wireless outside for everybody to listen. Some families saved their battery for the evening “story” and the news.
But we had relatives who were soccer addicts and didn’t mind adding newer addicts to their group. From that day, the day of the Mainstay cup final, I learned to exercise my imagination.

Radio commentary was a skill that required the listener to have an active imagination. You had to “see” the players in your mind’s eye. Imagine their shapes and their heights and their walk and their mannerisms such that the day you saw them on TV, you could almost swear you knew them. Here was the most beautiful thing: back in those days I never questioned why an Afrikaner man, Jimmy Joubert, was my most favourite defender, or why an Englishman, Peter Balac, chose to play for my most favourite team, Kaizer Chiefs, when he could just so easily have chosen to turn his back on the beautiful game because of the politics of the day. When I was between the poles, keeping goal, I was Peter Balac. I never read Cinderella or Pinnochio as a young boy, I never had the privilege of imagining fairy tale characters or learn about Robin Hood. I learned to use my imagination visualizing the soccer skills of my heroes from listening to the wireless.

I began to live for Saturday and Sunday afternoons. However “painful” the intervening days were, Sunday afternoon was coming where the wireless could transport me from our tiny village to Ellis Park stadium 500kms away, for a full 90-minutes of using mental pictures to escape our little world. And when we returned to the soccer field on Monday following our professional clubs’ triumph, we would use our little imaginations to put ourselves in the shoes of our heroes. And the world was a better place, because of the beautiful game.

So my addiction is incurable. When my significant other complains that she sometimes feels like a “second wife” when soccer is on television and I don’t respond it’s not because I don’t agree. Soccer and I have come a long way. I have expended a lot of energy trying to find a way to explain my connection to soccer, it’s inexplicable. It’s not even a connection. It’s part of me. I cannot explain how when I felt like I don’t “belong” anywhere the only place that I felt at home was on a soccer field.

I find it impossible to explain that Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Andreas Iniesta are cut from the same cloth that I too had the privilege of hanging onto, a pure undiluted love for the game. Playing it from the heart. The magic of Maradona in ’86 only served to cement my love for the game. Roger Milla of Cameroon in Italia ’90, Bebeto of Brazil in USA ’94(the heartbreak of Roberto Baggio of Italy missing a penalty in the final), Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Zidane, the list is endless. All of these I watched on television, but a part of me thinks a “wireless fm” would have done just fine if they had found me in that little village back then.

As I selfishly wish for the poor folks of Brazil to “respect my other religion” and shelve their demands for a better life, my heart yearns for the days when the beautiful game was not as affected by greed as it is now.

When FIFA decided to bring the World Cup to my country in 2010, I understood fully that the money men would milk us dry, but my addiction, my love for the beautiful game allowed me to turn a blind eye to that. It allowed me to go and watch a Brazil led by Dunga demolish Chile 3-0 at Ellis Park. I too sang along with the Brazillian supporters, “Ade Chile”. That night had the same magical feeling that I got each time I celebrated a goal listening to a game on the wireless, a feeling that wants you to scream, “did you see that?” even though the game is relayed to you through the radio. It’s pure magic.

When a football federation takes over a country for a whole month just to make as much money as they can from the beautiful game, I feel guilty that yet again, the magic on the field of play will make me forget my problems and the problems of Brazil’s poor people. Karl Marx got it wrong when he said “Religion is the opium the masses”, football is. Ask me, I’m an addict.

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