“What is it like?”: Describing the grey

“If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.” Chinua Achebe

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(Photo by Maynard Manyowa)

I don’t begrudge anyone who asks me what Zimbabwe is like. It’s that weird faraway country CNN refers to every once in awhile with a wild story. It’s better than those who assume based on those stories; make comments or rely on the likes of rumours which makes them experts on how I should feel about my own country. I detest these ones. I never make comments like that without thoughtful research and conversations of citizens of those states. I know what it is like to have millions of people clumped into some giant homogenous black or white blob. I don’t begrudge those who genuinely ask and want to understand. I am not sure how to explain to them what my country is like. How do you describe the color grey? It isn’t like the burst of color that is yellow but it isn’t the complete blank of white… So in a desperate attempt to answer that question, I have spent a long time trying to write about home. Every time I do, I burst into tears at my cold desk thousands of miles away from home or am so angry I can’t write another word. So I’m going to do what my English teacher always suggested – ‘write what you know as simply as you can’. With your patience, I hope I can do that by perhaps telling you a bit of about how I grew up. The aim isn’t to write an autobiography – I have done too little for that big a feat. Further, I can’t stand the idea of writing pages of things I have done. The aim is to explain to you what is happening without diasporan haze or hate.

I will tell you the one thing about my country that has never changed – we still have the best sunsets anywhere and I will fight you on it. I have travelled a lot and nothing is like a Harare dusk. The sky bursts into orange with pink hues on a sinking blue sky and there is a cool breeze that moves clouds over the sun like a coordinated scene of a play. It does this without fail and I am taken away with it each time I am home. I grew up in a good home and was incredibly lucky. I say this to couch my story. Also to remind you that I may not be as representative of the 12 million Zimbabweans who live here as people think I am. My parents grew up in Rhodesia, my father fought in the liberation war and I grew up in a pro-black household. I was reminded regularly of the fact that our blackness is powerful. My parents with their English Christian names refused to have their children grow up with anything but Shona names of happiness and thanks. They dedicated themselves to the service of this country. My father was a research economist in government and my mother was a nurse. They raised us to believe in this country and its future. My father was so desperate we prosper he bought a set of encyclopedias when I started going to school at 6 years old. He also bought a complete set of ‘the classics’. I can’t tell you how many times I read the full version of Robinson Crusoe and Black Beauty with all the ridiculous old English. Rumor is he bought Beethoven CDs and played them to us in our cribs because he had read somewhere that classical music made your children smart. Education was how we would ‘do better’ and my parents were desperate we “do better” than they had. We were the second black family in our neighborhood. My father had gotten a loan and bought the house straight from a family desperate to sell to anyone who could pay up-front. There was a good school in the area and it was near the University of Zimbabwe. My father predicted – correctly – that by the time we were of school-age, the primary school would have diversified and being near the university meant my father’s dream of none of his children ever leaving home was complete. He could monitor our education and progress at close range. Poverty needed to be faraway from us at all costs. I was required to show my homework to them regularly, pushed to read over and above my ordinary readings. By the time I got to Grade 4, I was swimming my way through the Grade 7 library just so my teachers could keep me busy. If there were words in it, I read it. I was the school nerd and was bullied terribly for it, I spent most of my time in the library during break/recess reading or playing chess with the librarian to get away from the other children (yes, I know, I was that nerdy and hiding like that did not help). This was as normal a routine to me as when we had to queue for bread, flour, sugar, cooking oil or petrol after school. That was when it was bad. “It” being the unspoken thing that is our ECONOMY. Somehow a separate looming being that was in the news and meant we queued for everything with a shocking normalcy that we didn’t complain. I marvel now at all of us in uniforms – my mother in her crisp white nursing uniform and her children in their respective school or sports uniforms. Each person could buy one loaf and one liter of oil at a time. So this meant after after-school events included running around between different stores trying to get as many essentials as money and petrol would allow that we would freeze and store. We met other children in the queues, sometimes from my school. My mother would try keep us in control, usually exhausted from having slept too little after her night-shift and in her uniform to go back. My mother was a beast of a woman. She got a nursing degree while pregnant with my brother and caring for two year old me. She attended every prize giving, every play, every parent/teachers conference no matter how tired she was. I love my dad but my mom was and is a beast. And she normalized the madness the country was in as I am sure every mother did and does. Everything was simply normal and for all intent and purposes, I had a normal childhood. We had a dog – a German Shepherd who was the best friend to a nerdy little girl. I fought with my brothers. I had a giant poster of Janet Jackson and her abs on my wall. I think this is important I emphasize . Don’t they say boiling a frog is about raising the temperature slowly? That was what it was like. There wasn’t some great event like the Berlin Wall coming down that marked a change. Everyday was as normal as the day before. Just slightly longer queues, less and less water, more and more sanctions, hundreds became thousands then millions. The government went through a brief socialist phase where it capped the cost on all these items so they remained within reach of everyone. They placed themselves as protectors of the poor. The Basic Commodities Supply Side Intervention programme boastfully dubbed Bacossi. Totally ignoring how it would distort local prices eventually. We were all little economists at this stage. The temperature slowly rising.

At 16 I fell in love for the first time. Those who know me know I fall in love at least once a year, cause I am a romantic and with all my heart believe in romantic love that is deep and holds you. I fell in love at 16 with an older kid who rode a motorbike and smelt the way I imagined men smelt. He was incredibly kind and even gentle to me. Most of our dates included stopping to try find petrol for his bike and in hindsight, God knows how he could afford the thing. We would ride out to a field in the north part of Harare. Lie next to each other and name our children. At that stage, we were completely dollarised. For those wondering what that means – it means I was walking into stores and the milk was priced in good old fashioned United States dollars. In God we trust, right? You could walk into the bank and withdraw dollars. It also meant everything was expensive but it was available. Bread cost $0.50 a loaf. We started going without sugar cause my dad was diabetic and my mother didn’t see the point on wasting money on something that the main breadwinner couldn’t eat. I was in high school and a full on teen. I wanted to leave and see the world. By then my mother had left nursing. In her last few months at the hospice, the City of Harare had not paid their nurses in over 4 months. She figured leaving and trying to pursue any other venture was better than staying hoping for some sort of paycheck. She went on to sell soap, do dressmaking and eventually settled on poultry. At one point we had 50 or so chickens in our yard that our dog nervously avoided. My father had been promoted and often he would disappear late at night in a full suit called in to discuss important matters I am sure. It was important he was responsive. Zimbabwe was under international scrutiny. Continued violence around elections and claims the process was rigged were rife. Land grabs no longer made the news. I need to state my bias here clearly – land redistribution is a necessary component of post-colonial rebuilding. I won’t debate that with you or anyone else. However that discussion never really made the news… We were also under sanctions. That was the word on the news every night – it was sanctions that were destroying this country and the ECONOMY. All in all, it made sneaking out easy and sneak out I did at all hours of the day or night to see the older boyfriend. Hindsight is a bitch but God was I stupid. But I also thought I was in love. The worst of it was 2008, we lost so much. My father’s pension was wiped out in a heartbeat as well as a big part of our savings. Banks closed and people lost everything. There wasn’t anything to protest to or at because almost everyone had lost something. There is a solidarity in loss. When it is that widespread, it also starts to feel normal. There is that word again… We had been a little lucky, my mother had had the sense to squirrel some savings in a South African bank account. I will never forget watching my father walk across my high school yard, chest up to go ask the headmistress if we could delay paying my school fees. Parents across the country were making similar requests and lucky for me I went to a Catholic school where the nuns believed in academic excellence and money should not stop that. My father is a proud man. I know having that conversation killed a small part of him and reminded him that poverty was closer than he liked. His own father had had to do that too many times. He was supposed to have done better and 2008/2009 scared even him.

By the time I was getting ready for university, it was clear to my father that I wouldn’t be getting a degree in Zimbabwe. Majority of lecturers had left the country. Our once world class university education were falling apart. My father had to make sure we got what we needed elsewhere. So South Africa was the obvious choice. Close enough that they could check on me but still good universities. My parents borrowed and scraped that first year through. That first year was a combination of my relatives in the US lending us money, my mother’s growing poultry business and my father’s ability to get a loan out of any bank to support my mother’s entrepreneurship. What saved us was the unexpected (but actually should not have been a surprise) fact that my mother was actually an excellent businesswoman and a good farmer. She had a knack for running our farm. By the time I got to second year, my mother commanded a farm of 1000+ chickens (including layers), 20+ cows, tobacco, maize and groundnuts with 10 farm workers on site. She glowed in her success. I think she even surprised herself, more so when she got commended in a local newspaper. She read every book she could on poultry and tobacco. She watched every farming show on our local tv and attended courses GMB used to provide at the time. And lo and behold, by the time I was in my third year, my mother’s farm was paying for both my brother and I to do law. She defied all the times I had been told that black farmers could not run large plots of land. At that stage, things felt like they were looking up. I should explain what I mean. I mean that there were goods in stores. Still expensive but at least no one was driving to Musina in South Africa to buy groceries. It also meant I debated coming home briefly. Xenophobia in South Africa was rife. I was scared to speak on public transport because anyone could hear I was Zimbabwean. I mean that literally. With the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa, we were a ripe target. I had been cornered by one girl on my way home from class in Pretoria who screamed at me and pushed my back up against the fence. She called me Mugabe, told me to go back to my country and said I killed the Ndebele people. There was allegedly blood on my hands. She screamed in my face, her eyes popping wide and I was frightened properly. Busses were being attacked that came over the border from Zimbabwe then. What if she hurt me? I was saved by a passerby from my building and cried into my then-boyfriend’s arms that night. He was struggling as well. His previous employer had fired half the staff and so he was technically in the country illegally since his work visa was tied to his employment. He started waiting tables at local restaurants till he could make management somewhere and get his visa renewed under that. Till then, he was treated like trash. They would pay him irregularly, force him to work double shifts and kept the threat of being reported to Home Affairs over his head if he insisted on arguing back. It was a relief when he finally found a management post. It meant he was safe but it gave me a glimpse into how bad being Zimbabwean in South Africa could get especially without a permit. We started to talk about getting married eventually. We would move to Johannesburg. He would run a restaurant, I would be a high-flying lawyer; we would be happy. We dreamt of this all the time. We couldn’t forget things were steadily getting worse back home. His father was ill with a bad heart and could barely afford medical attention. Private healthcare was expensive. My father had fought to keep all his children on his government funded healthcare but this didn’t cover the trips he had to make to Johannesburg for his cataracts. All in all, we were well aware that no matter what happened, our respective families needed us to have good jobs. You don’t have to guess it didn’t work out. Money is a hell of a burden on any relationship. After five years together we went our separate ways. I think part of him didn’t see what his success looked like in my world and the world told him it was weakness to admit that to me. So we ended in a painful, cold silence and the deafening heartbreak afterwards meant I didn’t leave my bed for two days. I eventually left cause there was a Criminal Law test coming up. I had to prepare. Losing the man I had built a home with didn’t change that.

I started working at a small law firm in Johannesburg. A job I wasn’t sure I would get. Hiring a foreigner into a law firm as a candidate attorney was unlikely in South Africa. You needed to be a permanent residence to practice. It normally took two years to qualify as an attorney. A foreigner would have to wait several more to get permanent residence and only then could they practice. So for a firm it was a loss – why hire a foreigner out of school who can’t bring you money till 5 years are up when a local would bring bank in 2 years? I received multiple offers that informed me that if I was South African, I would be a sure thing. But here we are, am I right? So this little firm took a chance on me though again, in hindsight, I was at the top 10% of my class. Was I really that much of a risk? In any case, every spare cent I had went to my brother who was now studying law. Anything I could do to lighten the load on my parents. It was the first time I understood the phrase Black Tax and I could feel it on my bones. Then the most magical thing in the world happened – I got a scholarship to Oxford. A scholarship I applied for in the midst of my heartbreak and was certain I was undeserving of it. My father cried in the middle of Nelson Mandela St – the first time I had seen him cry in public since the death of my grandfather almost 10 years before. In his eyes, I was going to ‘do better’. He had succeeded. It was 2014. Things felt better. Queues for cash were minimal, petrol wasn’t so scarce and my mother’s farm was booming.

I won’t talk about my time in Oxford. It isn’t relevant to this story specifically but needless to say it was probably the most memorable time of my life. What was important was leaving broke up the normalcy of what was happening at home. I was more at home in the UK than I had ever been in South Africa. Everyone spoke English, my accent was considered as interesting as any other black immigrant’s accent. This allowed me to think about the ECONOMY for the first time properly. Granted, I was a broke student all over again. However I started to see things at home with more clarity. It isn’t normal to go days without water or electricity in your suburban home. If that was happening in the suburbs, then the growth centers and outskirts would surely be worse, right? I was also militant with how the British media spoke about my country. Like we were this wash of black under the hand of a crazy dictator that we happily refused to overthrow. Did they hear themselves when they said that? This was part their creation! White colonialist supremacy is a whole vibe and mood. In fact, you go on in righteous indignation to issue sanctions against the country claiming that these will push the people who need to be encouraged to remove this govt out, like a rod to a misbehaved child. How did people who campaigned in this manner think this helped us? Why was no one saying how mad this is? I was angry with my own government. They were not harmed by the sanctions but wanted us to condemn them. Why were things still so bad? Healthcare was a disaster. You wouldn’t get treatment without cash even if you were bleeding on the hospital stairs. My mother was growing concerned. It was all she could do to keep all the businesses running while my father remained fighting for his country at work. It was getting harder and harder to get money out of the country. ZESA and ZINWA, our wonderful electricity and water providers respectively, were a joke. They started a pretense of scheduling the blackouts or water shortages and eventually succumbed to the fact that they never stuck to those schedules anyway so why lie. Bills often showed up with inflated figures even when you had barely had power that month. I was so used to electricity going out or suddenly waking up without water we got better at managing it. See what I mean by slow boiling of the frog? It got worse so slowly it was years before we realized it was that bad or it wasn’t getting better. I knew exactly what to do when the power went out. Filtering and cleaning drinking water was easy. My father saved for a small generator. We had more buckets and containers filled with water than you can imagine. Petrol prices were back on the rise and queues reappeared, just when my brother had started running a petrol station to help my mother provide for all of us. My brother was my mother’s son. Unlike me, he inherited her love for languages and her ability to raise businesses from the dead. I started working in London and contributing to my brother’s degree. My brother was studying away at a degree he never thought he would get into and was desperate to do well in. Then one day in November, sitting in my childhood home, I was desperately trying to call my father and tell him to come home immediately. I saw a picture of a military tank in the streets of Harare on Twitter.

I should have that on my Hinge profile. How many people can say that they were in a country during an ‘almost coup’ – ignoring the other 12 million people in my country obviously. I was beyond frightened for my family. My mother was at the farm and too frightened to risk coming home with the military presence in the streets. My father went to work in a full suit. He had served this country in war and peace, he wasn’t not going to go in now. By that stage, things were pretty bad. The Old Man had insisted he was going to run for President in the upcoming election. Rumors were abound that his wife intended to run as his Vice-President – a madness if you knew what she was like. We would be more of a laughing stock than we already were. The opposition parties were all a mix of useless. The test of a true democracy is viable opposition and ours met the definition of not-viable. Their entire ethos was “we aren’t the existing government” and they figured Zimbabweans were stupid or desperate enough to vote on just that. Many did but without conviction. Most did not, desperate for a leader who could offer a stable new start. People who argue to vote for just anyone else have a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea of voting “for the devil you know”. The world wonders why we are so skeptical of this great democracy they all speak of but here we are. What does a country do when there is no good opposition but the current leaders need to be removed and everything needs to remain stable enough to fix the ECONOMY?

By the time there was a new President, we were filled with hope. We just wanted things to get better. Getting cash out of the banks was almost impossible. We must have been the most mobile and electronic financial society out there. My grandmother was a pro at mobile banking. Everything was still so expensive – bread was a $1 and sometimes more. Businesses were closing down. Top it all off, climate change. Oh, you didn’t know it was going to make a show here? My country has been in the midst of a drought for years, getting worse with each passing year. The year the Old Man was removed, there were disaster zones declared across Southern Africa due to the drought. My mother was desperately trying to keep the farm alive but irrigation is crazy expensive and droughts don’t care who you are or what is happening with the ECONOMY. People were literally starving in parts of the country. It is crazy that people who live in the developing world know without a doubt that climate change is real and dangerous and the most impacted will be people of color around the world. People like us. However this fact is lost on the very people at the uppermost echelons of power in the countries who have the most power to stop it. It is crazy and frightening… By the time I made that phone-call to my father that day with the pink hue in the sky, it wasn’t a surprise in as much a shock something happened. With all that in mind, can you possibly understand why we were so hopeful? Do you know what hope is? The essence of hope in those circumstances? What faith is? The belief in something unseen is what the Good Book says. A Zimbabwe that we believed should exist; that we deserved. We were beyond hopeful. We were joyous. Yes, I know all those sitting there with their “I told you so” but can you blame us? Maybe this was how we would get out. All of us. That is the nature of grey – it left room for hope.

On the wings of that, I moved to Ireland. My brother was halfway through his degree; we were almost there. Maybe we would move back after his degree? Help build our country? Within five years surely we would be better. I had a permanent post finally, my contract role was giving my father an ulcer. He was now retired in the new regime. My mother and my brother, the business pair, were now this family’s only source of income. I joined that fold and now we were three. But still hopeful of what the year would bring. When the news came that they were re-introducing the bond notes, my heart fell. Bond notes are not currency. They were meant to deal with the growing cash crises. I am going to try explain how it works but don’t stress if it doesn’t make sense because the ECONOMY rarely did. We were using money we don’t print. The green money that trusted in God was printed in the US of A. This effectively made it incredibly difficult to have cash in the formal economy. However people had money in their accounts in dollars and banks needed to give them something. Enter these bond notes. The government in all its wisdom decided to print almost-notes, like a bearer cheques. This could act like US dollars without being US dollars. Here’s the thing though, despite their insistence it wasn’t currency, the truth is the Black Market (another powerful body) started trading the notes for USD at a specific rate just like currency. First at 3 notes to the dollar and it fell rapidly after that. We were dealing with monopoly money with an ever-changing rate to the USD. It was lucrative business for the Black Market. Whether anyone wanted to admit it or not we officially had a currency and no steps taken to properly introduce one. In desperation soon after, the government announced an actual currency – the RTGS dollar or the Zim dollar and claimed this was all part of us ‘de-dollarising’. However, with the fluctuating rate, stores often used USD prices to price their goods. At that stage, I made my move back to London. I needed to be closer to the only family I had near me.Trying to see him regularly was a financial strain and he needed me closer. I was the guardian listed in his school and his school could reach out to me when appropriate. Lastly it was a lot cheaper to send him money from inside the UK. The businesses back home were just trying to stay afloat, let alone being profitable. We had been foolish. We should have gotten our money out of the country in 2016 and we hadn’t. We thought it was getting better. We were still luckier than most. Our businesses were still open. Everytime you turned around businesses closed, new ones opened and struggled in their spot. ZESA and ZINWA were still playing hide and seek across the country but this time without shame or apology. It was expected you would go without water or electricity sometimes. Remember we practiced for this? Remember the temperature was raised slowly for this so when it happened it wasn’t abnormal or uncomfortable. It was just a procedure. The news, amidst its one hour parade about how everything was “business is usual”, mentioned in passing that a cholera outbreak had impacted the outskirts of Harare. Otherwise, everything was fine. So our life continued as normal though we talked about money and the future more. With each conversation less sure about the future.

My brother started his final year of university in 2019 and my mother exclaimed that after 2020, she will no longer be paying school fees for the first time in 25 years. Imagine that? That is how long my parents have forked out their hardwork for us. For my brother, this starts the scary immigrant journey of job-hunting. His visa will run out soon. In a Brexit UK and Trump’s America, he is nervously wondering what the chances are for him to get a business to sponsor his visa much like I had several years before in South Africa and in the UK. I am writing this as I visit my parents and my childhood home hasn’t changed. ZESA has been good this visit. It is funny how quick you fall into habits once you are back home. All the buckets, drums and relevant bottles have been filled before the water can possibly go. I did all that before 8am this morning. I always wake up early when I am home. The air is clearer and warm. I start the day eager to go soon after sunrise. I sleep better when I am here as well. I don’t know what it is but I sleep like the dead and am full of energy when I wake up. Tomorrow, the water will hopefully come back in the morning but we are fine for a few more days. I didn’t bring enough dollars with me so its been FRUSTRATING to get around but there are still places that take Mastercard or VISA meaning I have been able to take my mom to get her nails done or my brother to nice lunches. Things they don’t do not because they can’t but are too stressed about their work to do so. The rate is $16.05 to $1USD at the bank but to $20 on that very lucrative Black Market. A cousin told me next time to bring pounds and change them with a dealer he knows and make a good profit. Getting money out to pay my brother’s fees is a Herculean task. This is the same for many parents who have sent their children away to help them ‘do better’. Zimbabweans value that above all else. All sorts of brilliant traders have emerged who can magically get your money in an account outside of the country at a fee and with significant trust on your side. But as my mom says all the time “what else can one do?”. There is an undercurrent in the air. Talks about what 2020 can hold and what it must certainly not hold. The situation cannot stay the same with elections 3 years away. No one except the 8pm News is hiding the fact that the the ECONOMY is not in a good place. The drought is as bad as it has ever been, even maize is expensive and getting harder to find in a country where it should be abundant. Petrol queues are back again, snaking around the streets. Veterans who have played this game before are having ice cream in the queue. This is profitable for those who sell goods by the side off the road in this heat. I walk around Sam Levy Village, a local shopping centre, in the summer sun and watch versions of who I was 10 years ago in tank tops and tight jeans whispering to boys in really ugly vest-tops trying to show off (I assume) their arms. Sigh, young love, even that is hopeful when things are strained. I would have had to sneak out of the house to get outside in that top but parents are different now I guess. It is so beautifully normal to be sipping this coffee in the Village and walking around away from the London cold. Nasty C, a South African artist, is scheduled to perform tonight so I make a quick exit feeling very old watching all these teens flood the Village. I love Zimbabweans. Our ability to keep on would make our former colonial masters envious. We did so not with a smile, but with a sadness and a grit… The sunset is glorious. It is showing off a darker pink against the orange and white clouds tonight. The sun is dipping quickly behind the row of cars lined up near the petrol station.

The Doorway

They stood in the doorway with the sun coming in. Her leaning against the doormast with her hands in her jean pockets and looking outside into the distance. He had his arms crossed, back straight against the open door and one foot on either side of the entrance. He was looking down and breathing in slowly, intentionally.

Olanna, their (was she still ‘theirs’? who did she now belong to?) grey and black cat, gazed at them lazily from the table by the door. She was clearly confused by this seeming stand-off and what seemed to be tension in the air. She offered a few quiet meows to break the heavy silence to no avail and resigned to silence. She watched them silently.

He sighed heavily and opened his mouth to start apologising and she flashed her eyes at him so he snapped his mouth shut.

“Don’t. I am not sorry”, she said, trying not to sound as angry as she felt. She wasn’t angry at him. She was angry at herself, at life, at this moment for losing him.

He looked hurt nonetheless. He was desperate not to hurt her but he needed to go and it just… they both knew it didn’t work. Surely knowing was supposed to be better? Pulling the band aid quickly was supposed to be better right? Why didn’t it feel better? He bit his lip trying to find the strength not to cry. He could feel a sharp pain in his chest. It was all he could do not to gasp for air. She had described his love like a light that had shone on her scars and made her feel seen and whole even with her broken in full view. Seen. It was the first he had heard that at 1am that night as she dozed off in his arms and her braids on his chest. He did see her. It was easy to recognise the same hurt in another. Didn’t similar souls find shelter in the same places? Had our fathers not left the same mark? Yes, he saw her. The crying, the laughter, the joy, the expanse of love she so clearly held. To love her was to confront yourself uneasily, to debate what it meant to love so easily and to reevaluate what the hell it meant to love before this very moment. This is why this so fucking hurt. To say he was broken would be an understatement but this was necessary.

“I am trying…”, he whispered. She turned away from him slightly and took a loud breath in. In looking into the house she saw him all over their damn house. Fuck, not theirs. There wasn’t a theirs.

She understood what he was saying. Logically, clearly, she understood the words and what they meant. The story they told however wasn’t computing. How is this happening? How had she allowed so much feeling so that this moment, that had a part of her heart being cut open, could happen? Why was she so angry? This was so unfair. So deeply unfair, to have mined for this for so long only to have this moment. She held onto the doorpost to catch herself from feeling dizzy. Jesus, she wanted to hate him. Why couldn’t she just hate him? Why did he have to be the softest part of her heart?

“I know you are… I want you to be…”, she sighed the words out. Not having his voice around. His hiking boots no longer by the door. No more random rap music in the shower. Missing his smile as he dozed off. Losing the bad jokes that made her roll her eyes. The loss of the poetry of his words when he was overwhelmed by emotion and she smiled at him. Her eyes were filled with the tears of what this future would look like and it was cold. It was the loneliest she could imagine. This was heartbreak.

Olanna walked out into the garden and sauntered between them, through the door. She meowed again, bored by the seemingly lack of movement of these two. How was she to know the walls were falling in?

“I should leave”, he said firmly, uncrossing his arms and putting his hands into his shorts.

“Yes.” she said, despite everything she wanted to say. She was drowning in what she wanted to say. She had never drowned in an ocean like this.

Neither moved from the doorway and the dusk light was starting to come in between them. Finally a force makes him take another breathe and step out of this time warp. He stepped into the garden and, when the cold air hit, he realised his jacket was still inside their house (theirs? hers, his, the?). He decided he could get it when he came back with his boxes while she was out tomorrow. At this moment, he couldn’t go back. She was still leaning against the doorpost, looking into the oncoming darkness in the house. She didn’t want to cry in front of him. He walked down the path and looked back only when he heard the blue door close.

Stretches of sea

Been reading a lot of Nayyirah Waheed and am playing with formats and wording and thought processes. I am in a romantic nostalgia these days. I don’t know how long it will last but am riding the daydreams, loneliness, sweetness and bitterness of it all so bear with me.


Stretches of sea

I do not think there were seas

Harder to traverse

.

Lonelier in their waves

.

Broken along the shores

.

Than the one that stretches between us now

.

Ships as different as day and night

.

Where your warmth is not next to mine

.

.

Where your laugh is a memory

.

.

Your hand is a ghost on my skin

.

.

And your kiss is a dream I once had…

.

.

I do not think there were seas…

.

.

,

That drowned me like this.

Comets

“That’s the thing about fathers, right?”

It was weird to talk about something so heavy here.

The weight of a father was deep.

There was something about it that defined you.

How you loved, how you hated,

The taste of your patriarchy.

 

He was staring up at the ceiling.

She stared at his jawline and watched him breathe.

Her braids on his chest.

A fan whizzed round on the roof.

He breathed in her scent.

His hands along her back as he contemplated.

 

“Even Okonkwo was destroyed by the fear”.

Even a man so blinded by strength was steeped in it.

How can two people be shaped so firmly by two different men,

Be lying here in this bed, wound by that singular grip.

Sometimes you wait for someone to see your pain.

Sometimes it is good for someone to kiss your scars.

 

He kissed her shoulder gently and held her.

She giggled at the touch, safe in his arms,

Talking about her father made her raw.

It broke her heart worse than anyone ever had.

Way before anyone ever had…

It was painful to have to  know this man played with the same demons.

 

“I have to leave soon”, he whispered.

She nestled into his chest and closed her eyes.

Her skin was beautiful in the light,

Her moans were musical, even her giggles were trilled the air,

She was soft to touch, honey on his lips.

He laughed as she moaned her desire for him to stay.

But flights wait on no one and he had to go.

 

“I’m going to hate not having you here”.

The patriarchal code for ‘I will miss you’.

“I had fun with you today”.

That stood for ’You made me feel safe today.’

More colonial cipher as the room changed heat.

More secret language came from their lips in goodbyes.

Their clothes became barriers and they stood further further apart,

And time told them that the midnight hour had struck.

 

He held her one last time and she was dizzy in his grip.

“Goodbye”, he smiled.

And as she shut the door behind him and placed her lips on the frame.

She whispered, ”Thank you for seeing me”.

She would never see him again.

Dear Loving

Dear Loving

This isn’t a break-up letter

I promise it isn’t

I am not capable of leaving you if I tried

It’s a ‘I need a break’ letter

‘I can’t do this right now’ kinda letter

This is the letter where I tell you that you are too much

That this is mostly me but also kinda you sort of letter

 

Dear Loving

 

I need to think about myself right now

I tried to hold onto you as tight as I could

I envisioned what you should feel like

I tried to conjure you into existence

So that you would hold my hand like I imagined

You would kiss my shoulder like I dreamt

That in some way you made me whole…

 

Dear Loving

 

I tried to wear you on my sleeve

I thought if I declared you to the world

Opened up, let you in and let you take over

I thought if I was effortless and free that you would embrace me

That you would do so soft and hard and strong and all at once

I thought that you would be there waiting

I thought you were what I needed…

 

Dear Loving

 

You consumed me whole

You burnt wild and I didn’t stop you

I thought that was how it should be

That my whole body and mind should be yours

That I needed to exude you at every moment

That I needed to drown in you in with every breath

That I needed to possess you…

 

Loving…

 

I couldn’t do it.

I have lost control.

I am no longer myself and float outside my own body

I look at it in anger and contempt

It is a foreigner to me, dark, slow, distant

I thought I could carry you and I couldn’t

I thought I could hold you and I failed

I thought you would hold me and you took over

My skin is scalded by you completely

My heart… my heart is so very broken…

It hurts softly like a wound on the mend…

 

Dear Loving

 

I am taking a break and starting again.

Loving, I need to be honest and take the journey back

I need to find the road that leads me to myself

The map that is etched in the scars you left on my back

The road that I allowed you to beat through my veins

I need to go back to when my body was my own

Loving, thanks but no thanks, I am taking my own path

Is your clothing political expression?

This is something I have been thinking about a lot. It was started by a conversation I had with Barbara Walker who posed the question to me – do I wear what I wear because I want to or because I have to?

I was astounded because I had to stop to think.  I wear a LOT of African print. I wear yellow headwraps, bright purple lipsticks, African print shirts, bright jewellery, dresses and trousers. I stick out, especially in certain spaces. I am a clearly dark woman, an immigrant and head to toe in bright print. I recently went natural so I have a teeny weeny fro and I wear huge bright earrings. If I were in Accra I would be underdressed (God bless West Africans) but in the London and Oxfords of the world I know I stick out.

“Why do you wear what you wear?”

So I took a step back. I had not always dressed this way. In fact in law school I stuck to darker colours, was convinced that yellow made me look darker. I feared that once upon a time. I didn’t want to look darker in South Africa – a country that has long issues with colourism. I was darker than most of my local female friends. It was the first time I was envious of my brother who was lighter than me, had unfairly inherited my mothers lighter skin. I became conscious that I was not skinny, I was not light and as such I dressed in blacks and greys. I wore baggy shirts. I didn’t wear lipstick because I thought it made my lips look big and I grew up in a home where single women who wore lipstick had a word attached to them. They encouraged good churchgoing men to sin and as such I struggled with the idea of make-up.

A mixture of things changed me.

Firstly, living in South Africa made me militant. I encountered racism for the first time in my first year at law school. Wait, let me be clearer. I encountered and understood what it was for the first time. It is shocking being a black woman and looking back at your life and realising that certain moments were racist, sexist, sexual harassment and assault and you didn’t actually know it… South Africa was the first time it was openly directed at me. It was the first time I realised it was institutional. It was the first time I realised what terms like ‘systemic’, ‘oppression’, ‘postcolonial’ and ‘decolonise’ meant. It was the first time I learnt the words for so many feelings and I was furious. I mean lie in bed burning at the injustice as any black radical at 18 years old feels. My skin boiled with anger and it was all I could do to stay calm when professors claimed black students were lazy and that’s why so many dropped out. Not because students were fainting from hunger in registration lines but because bursaries don’t pay for food. Not because they were given no support at institutions no one wanted them at. Not because they were forced to be educated in languages that were not their own in a country that was. The fact that there was only one black lecturer at a law faculty in a country where more than 70% of the population is black? Well we can’t help if the right applicants don’t apply, right? I was outraged and what was worse was I stayed silent. I was an undesirable in a country that set alight a man because he made the mistake of being foreign. Buses to Zimbabwe were regularly attacked in Limpopo. The safest thing you could do was smile when someone made a derogatory joke about Zimbabweans or when I was complimented on my English. You ignored if you were the only black person in a room. I was told if I learnt Afrikaans I would be safe from the xenophobic attacks. That’s another word I learnt. ‘Assimilate’.

The thing about oppression is you learn to assimilate. You learn to code switch. You make your words palatable to your oppressor. You camouflage. You change your name so no one remembers that this land you stand on still does not belong to you. You wear the same colours, speak in the same tones and toast with them every time you get a leg up. Biko warned about such spaces. Warned about assimilating and tone-policing as this is what allows white liberals to sleep at night. Because they have found a black body they can tolerate and for that you are rewarded. You are rewarded because your tones are not angry, aggressive or cruel like the other ones. Thank goodness for that! That meant no-one was angry. I remember asking one of my white friends when we would see racial equality in South Africa. She shrugged. She replied it would be a long road and we should all accept that it may not happen in our lifetime. She went further and said that if everyone would wait another 50 years then maybe we would see the South Africa we all wanted…

Fifty Years…

Just like that so calmly, an acceptance that myself, anyone who looked like me, my children and anyone who looked like them must just remain calm and police their anger until maybe their children could be free… For fifty years (ignoring how such a number was calculated because the equation must be hilarious). Can you imagine being told, in a calm air-hostess voice, while you drown, to stop making so many waves? “You are disturbing the other swimmers and a floatation device will be handed to you as soon as is possible but please kindly remain calm.”

So I became militant. I was in spaces where I was the good black, the right type of immigrant and in a space where being in law meant acting, talking and dressing in a certain way. I read everything I could about black consciousness. I taught myself that I was loved. I reminded myself daily that I deserved goodness. More importantly I realised that my entire existence was political. Not by choice. Privilege is the ability to do everything you wanted because of the freedom of choice and to be treated no different for it. Imagine that? Being treated as a human being separate from the political jigsaw a system of oppression had created. The black body I inhabit with its chosen gender and femininity meant that everything I did was a political choice. Where I work, what I wear, how I speak, who I sleep with. And I was in privileged spaces. White male spaces. Spaces where there were too few bodies like mine. Spaces where if you complained or spoke back you were told you are too emotional, too angry, calm down, you cannot be expected to be listened to when you act like this, you have to frame your words better… How did I want to operate? What was I ready to say or not say? What choices did I have to make?

“So do you wear what you wear because you have to or you want to?”

I wear what I wear because I am filling up the space I was told I had no business being in. I wear what I wear to make those spaces uncomfortable. My dress is my shield, my uniform, my expression of my feminine African blackness and a reminder to others of it. It is a reminder to myself to speak when I know I should and to be angry because my anger is bright orange and justified. A reminder that I should stay angry. It is my daily presentation of my authentic self. It is reminder that I am in spaces that dead white men in the ground and faceless people in boardrooms and Oval-like offices all over the world didn’t want me to be in. It is my celebration because everyday they have failed to kill me.

Softer?

She hated that she wanted to tighten the grip on his hand
She felt afraid, as though she was being stared at
He smiled at her, green eyes sparkling, joyfully called out to his friends
They surrounded her immediately
Welcome,hello! they cried,
She was overwhelmed in a flurry of people
They complimented her dress, her hair, her smile
She felt like she was being taken apart
She felt his grip loosen as he got swept into a sea of white
Her heart was in her throat as unknown women took her hand
This was a foreign place
She couldn’t breathe here in this ocean
People swirled around, music felt distant and her skin felt prickly
Like it was aware
Like it knew that there was no kinship here
Like it knew the history of blackness in these spaces
Like it remembered there were penalties for this
And it felt hot and her hair on edge
The talk around her felt distant and she tried to catch it.
She felt exhausted.

Do you find it less exhausting to date black men, a friend had asked once
She had to think about it
They lay on the college grass under starry skies
It was the talk of too much cheap wine
She knew the exhaustion of constantly explaining
Having to explain why she was followed around in stores
Why she cried everytime another black child was dead
At the hands of yet another white man
Having to explain that she had once hated her own skin
Because the world told her that there was only beauty in lightness
The exhaustion of blackness and womanhood was traumatic
It was a pain that drove her mother mad
It was something no one really explained to you
And she found a certain solitude in her black lovers
They shared her love of okra stew and oily plantain
Their skin was beautiful in the moonlight
Indescribably smooth and glowing to touch
They knew parts of her that were too painful to speak of
They had been broken in a way that made her weep
They could carry some of the anger
Even then…
Only some…
Do you find it less exhausting to date black men, a friend asked again
No, she answered,
Black men have never given me a reason to consider them my sanctuary, she said,
They have killed me too many times.

She was surprised by her feeling for him
He was tall and his red hair was distracting
It was a weird descriptor but it was
And it made him look paler than he was
He was beautiful though, with all his hair and beard,
Especially in the mornings
When he could barely open his eyes
Her friends would have said that he was ‘white white’
As white as the day is long, they laughed
What on earth do you have in common, they cried
She wondered as well
He couldn’t comprehend how she had grown up
He ran a restaurant, enjoyed cooking and biking
Talked to his parents about sex and politics
He was…gentle
Gentle in a way she could not get her head around
He pulled her to him in his sleep
Did so with intention
He hated if she slept too faraway from him
He reached out to her without warning
Kissed her deeply
In public, in private, in front of friends,
Without…warning…
She had become accustomed to warning signs
She had become accustomed to having to mine for affection
To having to dig through chasms of pain for it
She was so tired of having to earn touch
She was startled by how at ease he was
With how soft he was
He could share his struggles
What a privilege to be so soft
Her brothers had had the softness brutalised out of them a long time ago

She didn’t tell him that she was scared sometimes
The way he stared at her sometimes
The way he would play with her braids
Sometimes, even when he called her skin beautiful
A voice would whisper from nearby history
That is fascination, you know that, it sneered
Like you are a zoo animal, it said,
A creature he has never had the chance to play with, it whispers,
She has to drown it out
It whispers whenever she has to explain
It taunts her when people stare at them holding hands
She hated that she had to grip his hand so tight sometimes
That her skin felt hot as though her belonging was questioned

Have you dated a black woman before, she asked him once
They lay on his bed in his ‘minimalist’ room
That’s what he called his near empty room. Minimalist.
And I mean a dark skinned woman, she clarified
Dark like me she thought
Because it was different, her blackness was different
She didn’t know what answer she wanted
If no then…that was bad right?
If yes then…was it always black women?
Wasn’t that worse?
The trauma of committing this crime!
Of wanting to love while a black woman
It was damn tiring
You spent your life questioning
Nothing could ever be yours because you were you
He looked at her strangely and asked if it mattered
She sighed, tired, needing to find the words to explain
Again

Finally she felt a hand on her shoulder
She was starting to feel dizzy with all these people around her
She looked up and there he was
There was worry in his eyes
Like he had sensed that she was drowning
Let’s go outside for some air, he offered
She was thankful and she put her head to his chest
It was warm and soft
It smelt of quiet
And the voice felt faraway

#YouOkMan?

 

“Please talk to me”

 

His eyes were dry red and he covered his face for a moment before sitting up straighter and pulling away from me. His foot started tapping almost impatiently.

 

I could feel the wall rising. He glanced at me and I could see a fleeting glance of desperation before he stood up and walked away.

 

I was trying to control my voice: “Please, please talk to me. Please”

He wasn’t always like this. Walled up and angry. I used to wake up some mornings and he would be lying there watching me. The first time it had been hilarious, like he was curious as to how I could look so quiet sleeping. The next time, it was cute, like he didn’t mind that I drooled slightly in my sleep. After that… It had made me feel safe. It was perhaps when I had been happiest. Knowing I would open my eyes and in that brief quietest of moments with the rising sun coming through our ugly blinds, he would look straight at me with such openness and clarity.

 

He had said “I love you” first. I was surprised. Too surprised to answer the first time to be honest. His breath on my neck as he whispered it. I could hear his sharp intake of breath before he said it. As though he wasn’t certain that he should say it. What does this world do to our men? As though he was opening a door and was fearful for what it would look like once he did. I could feel the hot warmth in my chest. I was elated. I skipped around at home when we parted ways. This is what it felt like.

 

—–

 

I stood up and clutched my hands together, almost pleading. I watched his back. I loved his back, I would draw lightly on it with a finger as he slept. His dark black skin unbroken and strong as though a marked black body was the only way to show it had suffered the world.

“Please talk to me. My God, please”

He turned around and looked at me again. That’s the thing about loving someone. You know them. You know from their breathing whether they are joyous or grieving. You can tell from how their shoulders move whether they feel burdened or free. And I knew him. God, I knew him. I think I knew him better than even I thought I did. I had made the age-old mistake and had built our home in him. I had tied myself to him in a way I couldn’t describe. And as he stood there drowning before me, I could feel my own breath leaving. Being locked in that way cannot be right. I could feel his lungs filling up, blocking his words and steeling his shoulders. He was scared. He was scared and he couldn’t speak.

“Fadzai… I…”

Jesus, he never called me that. Only when we fought and this wasn’t a fight. In a fight, I had a fair chance because I could fight back! Fight for this, fight for us!  This felt like coming to the battleground only to discover that your ancestors had long lost the war.

He hadn’t always been like this. The first time he held my hand in his I knew. He hated public displays of affection. Most Zimbabwean men I knew did as well. As though only women were prone to the desire for the assurances of touch. It implied a vulnerability. It said you were weak to allow someone to be so close to you and that you were foolish to parade it. It said, most of all, – you were human, far too human. There was no benefit to being human in a world that stripped it away before any boy got a chance to decide what it meant.

It had been very casual, buying bread from a store. Suddenly as we walked back to the car he reached over right there in the parking lot as though he had always done so and just took my hand. Just like that. I had felt electricity in the touch, the press of his palm against mine, the heat from hand… You could tell he was fighting through how uncomfortable it made him. His shoulders, which usually rolled like waves as he walked, were stiff and squared. As though he was daring anyone to question the act. I smiled like a two-year-old. He was holding my hand. Something the couples on TV that didn’t look like us made look so easy, was a victory to me. I kissed his hand and smiled.

Lately he had been like this. He spent more nights away then he did at home. He was moody and angry, slamming the tiny fridge door and never speaking in full sentences. He slept with his back to me when he was home. When he did sleep. There had been nightmares, tossing in his sleep like he was running from something. Most nights I would hear him pace the floor of the tiny kitchen in the next room. He had been agitated, like a trapped animal trying to fight off something stronger than he was. He had avoided my glance. I caught him staring out the window not moving several times, his eyelids twitching – as though he was searching for something and could not find it. Sometimes he would squint as though the light was too bright. I no longer saw that beautiful look when I woke up at dawn. Just his back which I had always loved. This from the man who used to joke that our tiny bed was too big because he wanted me by his heart as he slept. I couldn’t remember when he had last held me.

And now he was standing by the window in our home and he was drowning and I was too faraway to help him. I didn’t know how to.

I tried again, I was near begging at this point, I could not stop the tears by now.

“You are hurting and I can feel it and I don’t know what to do. Please tell me what to do”

“I just… I just…need you to… stop”, he whispered, “I can’t… urrrghhh shit.”

I was trying not to panic. I was trying to understand. If this was a break-up why did it feel like he was pushing me away rather than just leaving?

“Ok, I can give you space if you need space”,I said,” I just… can you help me understand? What, what can’t you tell me? Please let me help you”

He looked right at me again and this time I was certain. I could feel it. The setting sun came through the window into our almost empty flat. We had been ecstatic when we bought the table and chairs. We decided against a couch because the space was too small. We declared to the world that we were going to build our dreams at that table and we had stood there looking at the afternoon sun on it’s cheap wooden surface as though it’s light was a blessing of our future.

The room was colder now. His figure filled up most of our window and the yellow-orange of the setting sun was struggling to shine in around him. I could barely see his face by now, hidden in shadow. I was barely breathing. All the windows were open but the air was too heavy and the blaring traffic felt like it was muffled.

“I wish I could… I wish I could talk to you…”he said.

His voice broke, almost as though he were going to cry. I rushed forward. Perhaps the most honest thing he had said so far. I just needed to tell him that he could talk to me! I was his partner, I would bear the load with him, was this not what women like me had done for the longest time? Had I not learnt this from my mother and her mother before her and her mother before that? As soon as I moved towards him, his eyes clouded over. He moved closer to the window and he was now a complete shadow against it. His hands up, as though I would hurt him, stopping me in that frightful pose. I froze and the panic was overwhelming. His back straightened and his shoulders squared. He looked away and when the figure looked back I didn’t know who it was.

 

“I will take a few things with me now. I can come back for anything else another time”.

 

He moved towards the bedroom. Our bedroom. I stood there in the darkened room, trying to understand what was happening. He walked back out with a small bag in hand and he looked through me from across the room.

 

“I will call you later. I just…I just need to go” and he was gone.

 

Just like that.

 

It was dark outside now. I didn’t move. My legs fell away under me.

 

Just like that.

A Love Letter

To my body

I wanted to write you a love letter. I wanted to gush about how I have always adored you. A long Shakespeare-like-feel with talk about the night sky, constellations on your skin that twinkle when you move in the light…

I had all the right words but I opened this page and I struggled. I struggled for weeks and was angry at my failure to honour you… Then I realised what was so wrong with my sudden desire to write you a love letter. What was so deeply wrong with writing you a letter expressing my adoration when that had not always been the case. I had not always loved you. I had in fact hated you several times. Who was I to express love when I had not asked for forgiveness for what I had done? How do I even begin to ask you to trust me when I am unwilling to admit the wrongs I had done?

So let’s start from the beginning. I am sorry I hated you in school. I know that is meant to be normal  but I don’t think it should be. I thought you were too tall and clumsy. I hated that I had to wear a bra so early and I felt like my body wasn’t my own. When the tennis instructor stared at me, his eyes drooped low and clouded with an intensity I didn’t recognise at the time… that hot day on the court and I even remember the blue Mazda that drove by on the nearby road. My shorts were too short, too tight, too much of my thigh showed… My 12 year old brain only knew the danger of such a look and did not comprehend where the blame really belonged. As soon as the lesson was over I ran home and I didn’t go back. I couldn’t explain to Mama why. I blamed you because I had been told that it is the fault of women when men lust. When they look at you that way… I blamed you for how you had rushed to womanhood and I had not been given the chance to catch up. I blamed you because your change felt like I was being thrust into danger and that look… that look scared me even if I didn’t get it. And it was never your fault and I am sorry I thought it was. It was always his and has been since the beginning of time.

I am sorry for that day in undergrad when they made us do that residence initiation. That awful day when they made all the young women line up so the men from the other residences could pick who they could ‘escort’ to campus (oh yes, the madness of University of Pretoria, an Afrikaans stronghold). The day when I was 1 of a few black women in a sea of white women waiting to be picked as though it was an honour. The embarrassment of having man after man after man after man after man AFTER MAN brush past me. They barely glanced or met my eyes. They didn’t even see you. They wouldn’t even see you! I was ashamed and I despised you. The first time I truly hated you. You were too dark, not skinny enough, too much thigh, too much breast, too much hip, knotty hair… I cried that night in a foreign country into the blanket my grandmother had given me. I was hurt and angry I was hurt at what felt like something so stupid. And I blamed you. I am so so so so sorry I blamed you. I held this against you for so long and I had no right to. You who had done nothing wrong in a world that was entrenched in anti-blackness and sexism, you were the victim and I didn’t know better. I know better now. My coming to blackness moment was slow and you suffered the worst of it.

I am sorry for every man I let near you that had no right to even breath the air around you. I confused intimacy and desire with fulfilment for a long time. I assumed that if I was desired then I would be fulfilled. What that meant was that there those that should never have touched you that I allowed to. There were those who went on to hurt us because I sold you in hopes of something I could not even name. I did it time and time again and for that there are no words… You are as deserving of desire as anyone else and I am learning that. I am learning to have your consent before I open those doors. Learning to find joy in your desire and satisfaction.

Lastly, I am so proud of you. Proud that you demanded I take better care of you. Proud that you have awed me time and time again. Every time you lifted yourself up the pole. Every time you sweat through a spin class. Every time you wore something because the colour was electric on your skin. Every time you walked away when you knew it was not the burden our soul had to bear. Proud that you would insist that you were more deserving than the treatment I gave you.

And that’s why I love you. Not because there are no stars comparable to you or that your skin glows in the moonlight under an African sky. I love you because this world tried to scar you and you fought back. I love you because you are dark and tall and too much thigh and too much ass and too much hip and clumsy and uncomfortable in the bra most days and sweat like crazy when you climb stairs. I love you because finally seeing you has brought a peace and calm to me that only real love can bring. A peace and calm I thought was meant to come from another and I am humbled that I found it in you.

That is my love letter. The first of my reparations. The promise for better.

Yours

Fadzai

All the women in me are tired – Nayyirah

Damn.

She stood up again. Angry. She felt trapped, suffocated, pacing her room. There was an animal in her chest. She rushed to the window and opened it and was reminded how cold it was. She hadn’t been able to write in weeks. No…it was months now. She stuck her head out and clenched her fists till her knuckles hurt. This was too much. This was awful. Like she was ill.

She turned back to her desk and stared at the screen again. It was blank. Had been for the longest time. At first she had told herself that she was merely spent from her previous writing spells. She HADN’T BEEN WORRIED. Then the itch came. It was hard to describe. It was like… like a tickling in her chest. Like it wanted to feel air. Whatever it was , it was hungry sometimes. It happened haphazardly. That’s how she knew she wasn’t a writer. A real writer. Writers wrote with a commitment and consistency that she couldn’t muster. She lacked the discipline and the desire. Her writing was a desperate escape. It was better than wine sometimes… The Tickle came at very specific times. When her grandparents died within a year of each other. When her father almost went blind. When they stole the breath from another father on the sidewalk. When they took that other father’s life in front of his child. When her lover left her. When she nearly lost her brother…

She shut her eyes and shook her head. Maybe she needed a walk. Yes, didn’t they say inspiration came to those who walked? Or something else equally stupid. Just take a walk. That was the idea. With determination she grabbed her coat and pulled her cap on.

When the Tickling had gotten worse in her chest a few weeks ago she had sat down and nothing had come. Again she hadn’t worried. Not really worried. She had too much going on. Work was stressing her out. He had been fighting with her. Ignoring her calls. Pushing the knife into her side daily. It had been a bad time, that was all. She had pushed past it. She had gone out running in the mornings, stayed later at the office, filled her bed with pillows so she wouldn’t think about emptiness and told herself that as soon as the words were ready they would come out. They always did.

Now she was standing in the street. She was breathing too hard. She was trying to breathe around the ever-expanding lump in her chest. Walk, just walk. She turned left and walked; faster than the peaceful pace she had hoped she would achieve. She had not been peaceful in a while. She had feigned peace. She had forced it out when asked. She had ensured it was an impeccable façade. An award winning act her mother had taught her before she could tie her own shoes. No-one has a right to your tears, said maternal whispers. Some of her most brilliant performances of Peace made her cringe with how well she had done them. Her Act on Heartbreak had been her best work. Even when she literally felt physically ill from his absence, she had thrown parties, gone on dates and even taken on extra work. Is that not how one copes? She could not afford to cope in any other way. Could any black woman? Did they give out those permission slips to people who looked like her? Was there space for that? Can you imagine if all the black women were to unload? Where would it be held? The anger, the joy, the sadness, the weariness. What oceans would take it? Which shoulders would bear it? Her second best performance, Desperate, was marred by the occasional drunken slips she had made where she had been caught tearing at the seams. Otherwise, no one would have known how bad things were at home. How the family was barely speaking to each other. How they barely slept because they were so frightened of what was to happen next. The whole world was frightened. Nothing was really quite right, was it? Everything was burning. The world burnt.

“Watch where you’re going!”

She halted to a stop and a red faced man stared down at her, scowling at her. She apologized profusely and was met with a dirty look of disapproval as he angrily brushed by. Like she did not belong there. There was tons of space on the sidewalk. Yeah, she was preoccupied but he could have JUST moved. Why did she always have to accommodate? Why did she always have to move out of the way? Why was she the one who always always always had to give. Why was she so damned preoccupied!? She turned around and stomped home.

Back at the desk. This damn desk. The thing in her chest felt like it was actually moving. Like it was fighting to strangle her.  She hadn’t slept properly in weeks. She felt like she was on the edge of tears every time she took a breath. She missed home. She kept dreaming of it. She missed the feel of her mother’s hand on the back of her neck. The way her mother held her when combing her hair. How much light the living room had been filled with at dinner. The smell of her father’s favorite tea. The smell of the spring flowers in her bedroom. Her room. Her room here was too quiet! She stared at her screen and typed angrily. The keys loud with how furious she was:

WHY DO YOU DO THIS!????’

She stared at the screen, even angrier. She could feel the first hot tear on her cheek. Oh Christ. She typed furiously some more. Hyperventilating in desperation. Desperate and click and desperate and click and desperate.

 

Why do you keep doing this!

When your well is dry

When your mine has been looted

Your stolen lands laid barren

Your silver silos emptied

By the men you opened your doors to

By the world you thought to carry

 

‘UUUUUUUUHHHHHHHHHH!’ she sucked in loudly and sat on the floor. Her hands were shaking slightly but she could feel something different. The animal in her chest at that moment wasn’t moving. IT WASN’T MOVING. Her breathing was still loud, her chest still heaving but for two seconds she could breathe around it. She shut her eyes tight. No, she would not. She could not. If that’s what it wanted she would not give it. The sacrifice was too high if that was the price to keep that beast asleep. She wasn’t committed enough. She wasn’t willing enough. To put on paper that… it was too much to ask.

She didn’t want to write about how tired she was. About how hurt she was. About the anxiety that slithered in her chest. About the weariness she felt in the world. About the lives that were being taken. About her own loneliness. Her homesickness. About how guilty she felt to feel what she felt when she did not live it. She shut her eyes tightly. She forced herself to try breathe. She stood up and leaned over the desk. She closed the screen with deliberateness; the most steady she had been all day. No, she would not. It stirred in her chest again. She wiped her face. A walk. She would go for another walk. Perhaps to the park this time. Maybe call someone for coffee. Talk about something… something that wasn’t the ache in her chest. She felt it scratch against her ribs, waking up almost. It was fine. Eventually she probably would not notice it…