Naming Names

Names are central to the identity of most people.

I feel like not enough people in the world understand the concept of nomenclature, particularly in African countries. Or, perhaps I mean, in my city. Or in my circle.

Let me start at the beginning.

A year or so ago, I attended an event with a friend. This event is championed by black creatives in Cape Town and is an incredible space for sharing and learning from black excellence in a city where black creativity is known to be stifled or sidelined. I could tell so many anecdotal stories from the three hours I spent in this space, but the most relevant one for this discussion, was triggered mostly by my general extra-ness. In isiNdebele – my mother tongue, I suffer from a condition known as ‘amawala‘. I don’t think before I speak, I don’t know my place, and I am most likely going to be sent back to my parents after wreaking untold havoc in my marital home because I am generally ungovernable. Perhaps the word I am looking for is ‘impetuous’. I don’t know.

Towards the end of the session, the programme director asked for my name after a brief exchange (which won me a bottle of alcohol, so point one for amawala). My name is Rebecca. Nobody calls me that. I go mostly by Becky. I have answered to Becky since I was a child and only as I grew older, did I realise that there were people who had no idea that it was a nickname. So, when asked for my name, I answered, without a thought, ‘Becky’. I was unprepared for what followed.

There was a collective eye-roll from the room which was vocally expressed by the programme director when he laughed into the mic and said something along the lines of ‘your name is Bheki‘, and if I remember correctly, something that had connotations of ‘don’t be fancy’. My heart sunk a little and I went into defence mode and immediately explained, tripping over my own tongue – after the laughter had died down, that my name is Rebecca – ergo, Becky. But the damage was done and my spirit was annoyed.

Let me break it down.

By altering my name to vernacular phonetics, he was insinuating that I, as a black person, was somehow embarrassed or colonised, so much so, that I was not proud of the ethnic name I had been given by my parents. So, I altered it to ‘Becky’ to sound more ‘white’, for reasons ranging from identity politics to spinelessness. Who knows?  And this assumption is not unfounded. There are people all over the black (non-English) world who, because of factors such as where they went to school, have altered their names, to make them more palatable to the foreign tongue.

Samkelisiwe becomes ‘Sam’. Bajabule becomes ‘BJ’. Qhubekani becomes ‘Q’. Because the tongues which mould us, or influence the spaces in which we grow, cannot wrap themselves around the rich languages which name us. And that’s not OUR fault. But we can remedy it by REQUIRING them to learn how to. Because the same tongues which stutter at ‘Nomthandazo’ – a fairly easy name, can learn how to pronounce expensive French desserts after hearing them once. It’s disrespectful. It’s a constant micro-agression that we have to endure and it permeates every space we occupy. Think of work related emails. A person will sign off an email with their name and the reply will have the name misspelled.

ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS COPY AND PASTE.

It speaks to the disregard that is carried by certain races for the significance of getting names correct. CERTAIN names. The names of their childhood friends and classmates. The names of their teachers and coaches. The names of the women who helped raise them. The names of the neighbourhoods in which they grew up or the names of the streets along which they rode their bikes. The names of their favourite rugby players.

Then they applaud when a white person speaks a vernacular language fluently. Non-English speakers have been breaking their tongues and cracking their lips for centuries to pronounce words they do not know the meanings of. Where are our news headlines?

It’s even more incensing when you consider that, (at least in Zimbabwe, my home) the same people attended Ndebele (insert alternative compulsory language) classes from grade one to at least Form 2 (that’s grade 9 for the muggles). It means that those classes were so unimportant that the basic language lessons that could have equipped them with the tools needed to pronounce a name correctly, flew in one ear and out the other. Because, ‘when am I ever going to use isiNdebele’, right?

Back to my story. I was upset and annoyed because;

(a) If you do not know a person, whatever name they give you, is their name. You have no right or reason to question the name of a stranger. Get off your entitlement horse and say, okay. That’s her name. Deal with your misfiring braincells quietly. Don’t challenge me on my name. Don’t do it.

(b) The exchange required me, the affronted, to explain myself. To explain my name. Something I don’t know that many people have to do. It is also something I experienced for the first time when I moved to South Africa. I would meet a person and we would introduce ourselves. I would then be asked ‘don’t you have a black name?’ To which I would automatically respond ‘Nomthandazo’. It too, is my name so, I don’t mind being referred to that way. My problem is, why must it fall upon me to position myself favourably within what is clearly, YOUR bias? However validly (or perceived to be validly) founded, it’s not  my problem. What about the person who only has English  names? Must their identity now fall short of this acceptable blackness standard?

(c) Black people can have non-vernacular names, because nomenclature varies from region to region. For example, millions of Zimbabweans (and other nationalities) who were colonised by Britain, still give their children very English names. It’s not uncommon to find a black boy from the back of beyond whose name is Edward. Edward may not even speak English. Also, religious communities will name their very Ndebele daughters Rebecca. It isn’t uncommon. There are a plethora of nomenclature influences and just because they are unfamiliar to you, does not mean you can use your ignorance to chip at my identity.

I was also frustrated because his ignorance and arrogance centred  ME as the problem, when in actual fact, it was him. A room of educated black excellence didn’t even register that it was not abnormal for me not to have a ‘black’ first name. In South Africa. In 2018. In a room where I was not the only person with a non-‘black’ name.  It didn’t register that in the middle of a cosmopolitan city like Cape Town, there would be foreigners whose names would sound unfamiliar. I don’t know.

Perhaps I’m overthinking it (I assure you, I am not).  Perhaps the nuance of this encounter means that I should have laughed off the dig because it was made in jest. Perhaps (insert all the reasons touted when black women are angry for no reason). The irony of this entire exchange was that the programme director has a ‘black’ name but his nickname is ‘English’ although derived from the former. *sigh*

I have two beautiful names and I weigh them the same. Names are central to the identity of most people, myself included. To some, they are simply a means by which to differentiate. I challenge you to sit with each time you have mispronounced someone’s name, misspelled it, asked them if they had a nickname so they could accommodate the laziness of your tongue.

And change.

Be mindful.

The Empress.

Fresh Starts

Siya waited until the last person had made their way towards the front of the bus before standing up, readjusting her jacket around her slim hips and swinging her satchel over one shoulder as she had seen the stylish models do in old copies of Drum magazine.

The hot summer’s day was tapering to an end as Siya’s bus finally pulled to a stop in the middle of the City. It parked clumsily in the centre parking and straddled a number of parking bays, much to the annoyance of commuters who were scrambling across the wide street in the middle of rush hour traffic to make it into the taxis so they could be home before the sun dipped completely behind the horizon. The cacophony of city noises that exploded into the bus as the driver opened the door jolted Siya from her reverie. She quickly felt blindly for her satchel underneath the worn seat, stretched and double checked that her belongings were all in place. She rolled up her earphones and dropped them into the concealed pocket inside the bag. She then felt for the thick envelope that her grandmother had smuggled to her as she was climbing onto the bus four hours ago. She knew it was filled with money that her uncles would have loved to squander at the only pub at the local Growth Point.

Her grandmother was an industrious maize farmer who had unfortunately been blessed with six delinquent children. Four of these children still lived in and around the homestead that Siya had grown up in, and refused to do anything about the many children they sired across the small town. Siya’s mother was the last child of the six and had taken Siya to her grandmother as soon as she had been weaned from her mother’s breast. She could count the number of times her mother had visited and it was always over the Christmas holidays. She phoned every now and then to keep up the pretence of caring and to ask after her. She sometimes sent money for Siya through the headman’s wife. The whole town knew that the headman’s wife was sleeping with Uncle Qhubani but of course, nobody spoke out about it.

Siya waited until the last person had made their way towards the front of the bus before standing up, readjusting the denim jacket she had tied around her slim hips and swinging her satchel over one shoulder as she had seen the stylish models do in old copies of Drum magazine. She needed all the confidence she could muster for this encounter. She patted her pocket and pulled out her hand-me-down cellphone. Uncle Mbonisi had always been sweet on her and made sure she had a phone before she made the move to the City. He had whispered to her as he handed her the sleek, black, button-less phone, “so that those city boys don’t dazzle you with technology”. She didn’t bother asking where he had gotten the phone from and she and Gogo had laughed about his ‘resourcefulness’ as they sat in the kitchen trying to figure out how to turn the darn thing on.  Uncle Mbonisi never spoke to her in their mother tongue. She loved that about him because it meant she would not be laughed at when she started her classes, surrounded by children who spoke English through their noses. Gogo attributed Uncle Mbonisi’s reluctance to khuluma (speak) to his ‘fall from grace’ as a teacher at one of the high schools in the City. He was fired for making a girl pregnant there and no other school would hire him after he made headlines for a week. He was now the maths and science teacher at the local primary school and he tutored older children who had failed their maths exams. He spoke in English to remind everyone that he used to be important in a place nobody really cared about. The neighbourhood girls called him UNcube Ohluphayo (the bothersome Ncube) because he had never stopped his lustful behaviour and stayed out of his way.

Siya hesitated on the bottom metal step of the old bus and scanned the crowd for her mother. She knew what to expect from the photos she sent to Gogo. Her mother was taller than the average woman and Siya shared her boyish figure. Slender, with just enough breast to fill the palm of a grown man. Gogo said that was all men really needed, anything more was a waste. She knew her mother liked to keep her hair short and generally styled in the classic ‘bibo’. As she looked across the teeming street she was fascinated by the variety of people. Taxi drivers harassed the disembarked passengers with exorbitant prices whilst young, desperate men offered to push luggage to the CBD’s perimeter in carts for small fees. She was paralysed for a moment as she thought of what her life would be like now, being afraid to speak to strangers and walking alone in the City. She heard her name called out in a familiar sing-song fashion, “Siyambonga, mntanami!” (Siyambonga, my child!)

Her mother was the only person who called her by her full name. Sometimes she even used Diana – Gogo’s re-gifted name. Siya found it endearing. Well, anything to give her the semblance of a bond with the mother she never really knew. Lillian – Siya’s mother- was coming from work and was dressed to the nines. She was wearing a burgundy two-piece suit with a floral blouse that wrapped around her long neck in an elaborate bow. Pinned to her left pocket was a name tag which read ‘Lilly’. Her chunky golden earrings accentuated her pretty round face and the ‘bibo’ looked freshly cut and doused in ‘s-curl’ to give it that 90s RnB boy-band look. Her thick lips were red and as she smiled up at her daughter, Siya felt like she was looking into a mirror. She had the same lanky frame and a perfect smile, although she often thought she had too many teeth in her mouth. Their eyes were the same large, expressive black-brown, with lashes that were almost too long. The only difference was Siya’s hair, which she had not cut since she was a little girl. Gogo was obsessed with making her look as feminine as possible because of all the teasing Siya had endured from the other children. Her hair was currently tied in a high ponytail and laid sleekly after her visit to the Growth Point for what would likely be her last relaxing session with NaSalome. NaSalome had a monopoly on hair styling in their town and she was, of course, the worst gossip. Come to think of it, everyone likely knew about Uncle Qhubani and the headman’s wife because NaSalome couldn’t keep a secret. But what she lacked in confidant qualities, she more than made up for with her mean hot comb technique.

Siya hopped to the ground and straight into her mother’s outstretched arms. She smelled like Exclamation – the black and white bottle shaped like an exclamation mark that she had on her dressing table back home reminded her of her mother. They stood like that for a long moment and when Siya pulled back, her mother blinked away the beginning of tears and pressed a red kiss to her daughter’s forehead. They quickly gathered Siya’s battered suitcase before one of the loiterers pinched it. As they wheeled it to Lillian’s grey Nissan Sunny, Siya marvelled at the speed with which Lillian moved despite her high heeled sandals. After bundling the bag into the car, Siya lowered herself into the the passenger’s seat and fumbled with the seatbelt for a second. She mentally kicked herself because she didn’t want to appear backward to her sophisticated mother. Other than the headman and the Police chief, Uncle Mbonisi was the only one in the homestead surrounds with a car. He had forced her to get her driver’s licence as soon as she turned sixteen. She had not been aware at the time that he had selfish reasons for the free lessons. She had promptly become his designated driver on his debaucherous sprees (every weekend).

She had witnessed her first sexual tryst whilst sitting in his Mazda twin-cab and parked outside Bruce’s Shebeen (the owner’s name was in fact Thokozani). Liberty was the most popular guy in the area. He always had on Converse All stars and never went anywhere without a velvet blazer on. Siya and her friends each had fantasies about becoming his wife one day whilst joking about how awful he must smell underneath his blazers. He would come to the Growth Point every Friday from Jozi with gifts for all his girlfriends and parcels for those with family in Jozi. She had watched him stumble out of Bruce’s, half empty Black Label in one hand and Soneni’s light-skinned hand in the other. Siya had been falling asleep when she had caught the movement in her peripheral vision. She’d sat still for fear of being noticed. She had watched as Liberty and Sox, as she was known, turned the corner and her eyes had grown as big as saucers when she saw what a man’s penis looked like when aroused. She swore she would never have sex after she heard Sox’s cries from what definitely looked like pleasure but sounded like a slaughter house. Or at least,what she imagined a slaughter house sounded like. She remembered how Liberty had walked back into the bar alone while Sox fumbled in her bag for tissues and cleaned herself up before following him.

Siya was jerked back to the present when her mother turned up Brenda Fassie and reversed at full speed into the crowd behind her, all the while muttering under her breath about the silly people who did not fear cars on the road. She hummed along to Nomakanjani, and Siya took the time to squint out at the tall buildings and bustling vehicles. She took in each traffic light and every pothole. Finally, they left the busy city and drove into the suburbs, now lit up with over eager street lights which competed with dusk’s light. Her mother slowed down as they took a bend and turned the music down.

“You know that I’m married now Siya. My husband’s name is Vusa and he works at Delta. So you can have all the Coke you want”, she chuckled nervously. “We also live with Vusa’s young brother, Alex. Please, I don’t want trouble okay, sisi? He is twenty-seven and he has a girlfriend but you know boys. Just be polite and ask me if anything makes you uncomfortable.” Siya scrunched up her face as her mother spoke. She spoke about Alex the same way Gogo spoke about Uncle Mbonisi – with a forced lightness to gloss over uncomfortable truths. They turned into a gate that shielded prying eyes from a Victorian looking house with wide windows, two chimneys and a black roof. The outside walls used to be white and there were little weeds growing out of the cracks that were closer to the ground. The lawn was immaculate, as was the stone paved driveway. Lillian parked just in front of the grill that made the gate to the garage and called for Alex to come and help with the suitcase.

Alex sauntered out of a door close to the garage, topless and eating a mango. He was a handsome enough man with a line shaved into his head, as was the style. He sucked on the seed as he eyed Siya from over the top of the car. She waved shyly at him and he jerked his head at her in what she assumed was a greeting. As he walked towards the car, Siya felt something shift inside her. An air of danger wafted from Alex, and not the kind that gives you butterflies, the kind that warns you of nothing but pain and tears. She made a mental note to trust her mother about Alex. He carelessly yanked the bag from the boot and dragged it into the house. Lillian pressed her worn clicker and the gate slowly slid into place. She clicked on another remote and the car made a hooting sound. Lillian made her way towards the side door and Siya followed, somewhat hesitantly. She entered the kitchen and was pleasantly surprised by what met her. The inside of the house was a departure from the faded outside walls. A new looking double door fridge stood to one side and next to it, a similarly silver washing machine. At the stove stood a helper, opening and shutting pots. It smelt like Siya’s favourite- oxtail and isitshwala. She smiled at her mother in gratitude for the small kindness of trying to make her feel welcome. She greeted the girl who was cooking and learnt that her name was Pretty. Turned out,Pretty was the same age as Siya, just unable to enrol in school because, well, poverty. The rest of the kitchen was green and white, with white mesh curtains hanging from the only window in the room. The clock on the wall told her it had just gone past six.

Lillian took Siya’s hand and led her into a spacious lounge with a plush brown carpet. The four leather sofas were arranged to face an entertainment centre decked out with a big screen which was currently showing a football match of some sort. She smiled when she recognised the one team as Chelsea – Liberty’s favourite. The French-windows were open and she saw that someone in the house was green fingered because the flower garden showed off its blooms in the distance. A man stood from one of the sofas and she looked up at him, awed by his height. She supposed one would have to be tall to marry her mother. Vusa hugged her in an overly familiar hug and welcomed her into their home with a warm smile. He reminded her of Uncle Mbonisi – the avuncular appeal calmed her.

She mumbled a thank you and executed a curtsey as she had been raised to do before older men. After Vusa pecked her mother on the lips in greeting, Siya was all but dragged to a room at the end of the narrow passage, whilst her mother chattered about the changes she had made. Lillian clasped her hands together dramatically before pushing the door open with her hip. Siya had always had a room to herself, being the only child at Gogo’s house, but it had never been this big. In the middle, against one of the pink walls, was a double bed, dressed in pink floral bedding and two matching pillows. The wooden floor gleamed and Siya could almost make out her teeth in her reflection. She made a note to help Pretty with the floors as often as she could because Gogo also had wooden tiles. She had spent many a Saturday morning shining them until her arms hurt and she would use her feet, praying that Gogo would never catch her and lecture her about the virtues of a woman who wasn’t lazy. The built in wardrobes already had a few toiletries strategically placed, including a bottle of Exclamation. That made her smile. She leaned into her mother and thanked her with her totem. Her mother’s face lit up and she exclaimed Siya’s name in that sing-song way she had.

They settled on the bed and Lillian started speaking, somewhat awkwardly. “I know that I was not there when you went through the big changes in your life but I know uMama was taking care of you. She told me you still like pink, so I’m glad you like the room. Vusa and Alex painted it last week.” She paused, took a breath and continued, “I’m glad you are here with me now. Vusa doesn’t want any more children – he has two young girls who live with their mother. You will meet them sometime.” And as if it were perfectly normal to move from family to periods in one conversation, Lillian asked, “do you use tampons?” Siya shook her head in shock at the question, but also to get her bearings. Her mother was speeding through the conversation and it wasn’t quite how Siya had imagined their first bonding experience. “You must learn, pads are so messy and hard to hide. I’ll show you. There’s a lock on your door – keep it locked when you sleep and when you are changing okay?” There was that Uncle Mbonisi voice again. Siya nodded and fidgeted with her satchel.

“Oh!”, exclaimed Lillian, ” I bought you some jeans, I hope they fit.” She got up and opened one of the wardrobe doors. Siya could have fainted. There were at least twelve pairs of different coloured denims folded neatly next to what she assumed were t-shirts. “Oh, this is nothing, I have a 30% employee discount at work. So just come to the Edgars on Jason Moyo if you  want something new okay?” Siya nodded again, feeling a little overwhelmed. Her mother’s face grew serious, “Siyambonga, you must always wear jeans when you go to school or when you party with your friends, okay? It’s safer for you.” Siya’s brain stalled in confusion, and revved back up again when she remembered Liberty and Sox. She quickly nodded her head in embarrassment. Gogo always spoke in such heavy layers that it always took thorough analysis with her girlfriends to figure out what it was that Gogo was saying.

Her feelings of discomfort did not ease when her mother opened the top drawer of the worn chest of drawers and beckoned her to come have a look. The drawer was filled with underwear, and not the cotton ones that came in packs of 6 that Lillian usually sent home. Lacy panties and what looked like the g-strings she and the girls would giggle over in the magazines NaSalome had in her salon. Gogo would never allow such doti (filth) in her house. Lillian smiled a knowing smile and said, “you’re a woman now Siyambonga. You’re going to college and you will meet a friend there. A woman must always be prepared. We can talk some more later but this is your room.” She shut the drawer and walked towards the entrance, still in her heels. She paused and turned slightly, “I love you, mntanami. We’re going to have a lovely time”.

Final Whispers

You deserve to be loved unconditionally, for exactly who you are. I, unfortunately, have conditions…

They stand facing each other in the middle of the spacious living area of his sprawling house in Selbourne Park. The late afternoon winter sun streams in and dapples the room with spots where the leaves of the giant marula tree whose branches grow past the windows, obstruct the sun. She looks up at his dark chocolate face and bites her quivering bottom lip as she waits for him to respond over the faint lilt of notes from Il Divo’s Caruso.

Her mind wanders to the first time he showed her his collection of vinyls. He called himself a ‘modern purist’ because none of the records were older than 24 years. She had laughed at his description and over the months that followed, devoted her time to finding him many vinyls by his favourite artists on her travels. To be honest, she secretly enjoyed loading the Audio-Technica that had a lid, just like her grandmother’s ancient record player had in her renovated home in Glencara, Nkulumane. As a child, she was never allowed to touch it and this was a revenge of sorts. He would watch her unwrap the records she had bought as gifts for him and feel the excitement on her face. He didn’t mind that  she did that, even though he enjoyed unwrapping presents as much as she did, and they would dance to whatever she played as she regaled him with stories of her adventures.

Her thoughts are broken by his usually deep and clear baritone speaking with an odd huskiness.

“I can do better. I will do better”, he says.

She gently but firmly responds, “I believe that you believe that. But there’s a disconnect between what you say and what you don’t do. I can’t continue to live this way. To have to have a full blown fight in order for you to realise that what you’re doing isn’t enough or wrong or selfish? It’s exhausting. I’m tired.  Actually, I learnt a new term the other day on Twitter. ‘Emotional Labour’. That’s what this is. I’m exhausted from being the one to do all the emotional labour”. Her accent changes as she speaks, the forced Ndebeleness she puts on to convince her peers that she was not corrupted by the British, giving way to a pronounced English accent, the result of the forced migration of many Zimbabweans.

She lifts one hand up to silence him as he prepares to interrupt. He immediately closes his mouth and stuffs his large man hands into the front pockets of his worn but still visibly expensive jeans. He starts rocking slightly, as his body translates his anxiety subconsciously. She stares at him from the middle of the room and as always, is hit by how his presence commands attention. Overwhelmingly so. His height is what initially attracted her to him the first time she saw him. At the European Winter Finance Summit in Austria, four years ago. The odds of two children of Mthwakazi meeting there made it that much more special. His laugh sealed the deal. He always laughs like he has just heard the funniest joke on earth, even when he laughs at her lame knock knock jokes or her weak limerick attempts. That, and his luscious afro.

But she must continue. She takes a steadying breath and does just that.

“I’ve worked too long and too hard to get to a place where my sanity is protected. I’ve dug myself out of ditches of self loathing and never ending heartbreak, for the sake of self-love. Between rehab, this bloody job and my mother, I cannot go back to a place where I no longer recognise myself. Not for anyone”.

Her princess cut, 4 carat emerald engagement ring catches the light as she waves her perfectly manicured hands around as she speaks, sometimes clapping silently, gaining momentum and forgetting her world-class public speaking training. ‘Do not gesticulate so much, it distracts your audience’. Mrs Mangoye’s annoying voice never ceased to grate her ears, but the woman did know her craft.

She continues, “least of all for the person I’d pegged as my ‘forever after’. This should be the last place I find fear and confusion. The last place I find uncertainty. So, I believe that you want do do better, but perhaps not for me. I shouldn’t have to beg for it, and it shouldn’t have to cause you so much agony.” She waves at his face and says “I can see how tortured you get at the thought of spilling all your secrets. So, you don’t want to be better for me, or try for me, and that’s okay”.

She paces across his dark brown Persian rug in her favourite travelling boots, oblivious to his annoyance at her breaking one of his many rules – ‘no shoes on the carpet’, which is usually followed by ‘uMaMpofu will kill me’. He lives in fear of his housekeeper. Everyone does.

She turns the volume down, so she can concentrate on her thoughts.

Another deep breath. “I just hope you can find it in yourself to do better for the right one. Because you deserve to be happy. Deliriously so. You’re an incredible soul, and you deserve to be loved unconditionally, for exactly who you are. I, unfortunately, have conditions and for a hot minute, I thought I could put them aside in the name of compromise”.

At this point, the tears are gushing from her eyes and the forearms of her blue and yellow sweater, emblazoned with her almer mater’s name, are damp from all the wiping. He takes a step forward and makes to hold her and she steps back quickly and shakes her head, her long, black box-braids move as she does.

“I’m not done”, her gravelly voice says. “Being in love with you has been the most challenging experience of my life. I’ve learnt things about myself I didn’t know. Things about the world. About cars and plants. About Thabani’s secret drug store and bottle top art.  About Asian history and about the financial markets and Bitcoin – which I will never use ever again”.

She chuckles and sniffs twice in the most unladylike manner. He offers an awkward smile and rubs his chest, as if to ease a sudden tightness.

“But most importantly, I learnt that I cannot be an open book for someone who keeps their secrets under lock and key. It’s okay that you don’t want to talk about things. It’s just not okay for me. Begging for scraps. It’s been two and a half years and you know me better than anyone in the world yet I don’t know what it is that hurt you or why we can never talk about it. It’s easy when I’m off on assignment, to forget that there is more to us than missing each other or the sex or the comfort of feeling safe somewhere. I want to understand you and you won’t let me”.

He interrupts successfully on his second attempt. “What do you mean?? I’m going to marry you! Why would we get married if we didn’t know each other? You always do this. You get upset over into encane and blow it out of proportion, and come back usupholile. Let’s just skip to that part now”.

She surprises them both when her next words come out at normal volume.

“Why can’t I meet your sister? Who is Mthobi? How come Thabani gets to talk about your secrets with you and I don’t? What were you and your mother whispering about the day I found you two crying? Why don’t you want children? There’s a plethora of things I don’t know and I don’t understand why I can’t know them. You and your friends and family have this secret society and I’m like the stray dog you picked up on Masiyephambili and brought home. I can sit in the dining room but not on a chair. Ang’sakwanisi mina.”

He’s gone deathly quiet. Like he realises that she’s serious this time. These are questions she has never asked because he thought she understood never to ask them. But this time. She’s serious. She’s walked out on him exactly four times since they began their volcanic love affair – the volcano being her. Each time he has waited patiently for her to return from whatever far flung country she jets off to and crawl into his bed at an ugodly hour. Each time he hears her struggle with the locks on his door, curse until she gets it right, place a new vinyl for his (her) collection, on his antique oak side table, offload her luggage behind his bedroom door, strip and promptly fall asleep beside him. It was after the fourth time that he proposed. Mostly out of fear that she would leave forever. A ring would keep her around and so far it had worked.

Each time she wakes in his bed after a hiatus, they carry on as though she did not invoke her ancestors and all the plagues of Moses as she stormed out. And always over his reluctance to give her information she does not need. But this time, there is no yelling or violent packing of hair products and dangerous looking stilettos. There is only calm and steady speech. She is serious this time.

He clears his throat and the words come rushing out like a fountain that was stopped has suddenly been unstopped. He says, “I never want to talk about any of it because it’s about a dark time in my childhood and telling you will not change anything, but if it means so much to you I can… “

She shakes her head again, steps forward quietly and slowly covers his soft mouth with her left hand. Her other hands reaches around and buries itself in his mass of curls. She scrunches them for what is most likely the last time, the way he likes. His eyes close at the familiar tug and his stiff body relaxes. His lips pucker beneath her palm as he presses gentle kisses on it and they stand like that for what feels like an eternity. Her tears subside as his arms engulf her in her favourite hug. He always makes her feel small and fragile although she is anything but. Perhaps he is wrong and she will stay. She likes to tug at his afro before undressing him and taking what she wants. His softening is a Pavlovian response to their regular rhythm. She finally wriggles out of his hug and with one last deep breath, she commits his scent to memory. Sunshine, fresh air and 21 year old Glen Moray.

“It’s too late.”

It’s said so softly he’s almost unsure she’s even spoken. But as she pulls out her battered cellphone and swipes her fingers across its cracked surface a few times, taps it and slips it back into her pocket, it begins to sink in. The suitcase she never stowed in its spot behind his bedroom door. The way she kept her sweater on inside the heated house. The way she kept glancing at her wristwatch as she spoke. The way she hovered near the front door. She never intended to stay. She came all the way from the old flat she refused to sell in Famona, to say goodbye.

“Let me do this. Let me tell you. I can tell you” he says, panicked.

She answers in her new calm tone, “my taxi’s here. I’ve got to go. I’m catching the 8pm flight to Addis. Khonzani got me a press pass and a bunch of one on one interviews with some of the Summit delegates. It’s huge. And I get to bring my own crew along.” Her voice is barely audible as she mumbles the last sentence.

He’s dumbstruck as she reaches out her hand places her engagement ring on the cowhide ottoman near the door. She picks up her handbag and pushes her spectacles further up her nose as she fidgets, waiting for him to respond to the information she’s just dropped and the simple act of removing the only thing left tying her to him. His legs won’t move and his throat is dry. She fiddles with her hair as she waits for something. Anything. After a long moment, she turns and pulls the heavy door open.

She wheels out her suitcase and clumsily piles her belongings into the boot of her taxi. The scruffy driver peers curiously at her through the rear-view mirror as he chews on what is possibly a toothpick from last night’s supper. It takes everything to not turn around and see if he has followed her. To check if he is watching. The dull ache that started as she began her speech has matured and is now a splitting pain spreading rapidly from her heart to her head. She shakes her head and steels herself and all but collapses into the back seat of the car. The driver steals a glance at her, confirms her name and destination. She makes a jerking movement he assumes is a nod, turns the music up and drives away from the rest of her life.

He stares at the front door which stands ajar. She never closes it properly. He begins his wait for her return. He can’t wait to wake up to her warm body and cold feet in the middle of the night. He can’t wait to see what vinyl she finds for him in the music shops of Addis Ababa. He can’t wait for uMaMpofu to complain about umngane wakhe who doesn’t do the dishes. He wakes us every morning feeling the emptiness on his left.

She never returns.

Of Notions of Masculinity and Chipped Nail Polish

I love them. They test me, but I love them.

Disclaimer: This is a really long post. Good luck.

Another disclaimer:  My thoughts on all /most things are not my own. I have read and read and read to try and inform myself on these things. My utterances are often regurgitation of the thoughts of others, contemplated and altered or added to, to explain my understanding.  I dislike people who speak authoritatively on issues they do not have enough information on. What is enough? I also do not know. I stay cautious though. Of commenting on black masculinity. On anything really. This is where my head is at right now.


I never let my nail polish chip. well, I never used to. My OCD dictated that I had to paint them every Sunday with optional touch-ups every Wednesday and Friday. This was the one ritual I never flaked on and so it went on undisturbed, until I discovered bell hooks. (Her pen name is stylised this way on purpose.) Anyway… .

bell hooks is an American feminist and social activist. She is also an author. I stumbled upon her during my “find your feminism” phase. Because, contrary to popular belief, most feminists are not born with a clear understanding of what being a feminist is or means to them, or where, in the multilayered fabric of feminism, they lie. Like many young, African women, the fruit of conservative families and diluted histories, I had to embark on the journey by myself, for myself. I too, subscribed to the heteronormative patriarchal tendencies spouted by religions and cultures in my immediate world. Even when I questioned them internally, I acquiesced, because surely, the elders knew better than I. (Insert eye roll of appropriate intensity). I still read and have conversations with women and men in a bid to solidly locate myself somewhere in this fabric. What I do know for sure, is that equality and choice are the foundation of my feminism.

I digress.

I stumbled upon bell hooks’ “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity” on a Sunday afternoon. I was day drunk (of course) and looking for something to learn as I painted my nails. I was probably looking for some light reading on why Hollywood refuses to pay female actors the same as their male counterparts, or whatever happened to so and so (insert former child star of choice).  The book is collection of essays on how white culture marginalises black males. Because she is American, it is obviously Afro-American-centric, but many of her thoughts can be extrapolated and understood in the context of our own brothers, fathers, friends. She suggests that black males are forced to repress themselves in white America and that the ways in which racist and sexist attitudes developed in America criminalised and dehumanised black men (and boys), have harmed the black community.

Throughout the book, she explores the economic exclusion of black men and their fetishisation. I could go on for days about the mindfuck of oppression and dehumanisation of slavery and its effects, but then, I would never make my point. It’s a difficult book to read, but not because of the subject, but rather, because of the way in which it’s written. There are numerous thoughts and the anthropological background needed to fully grasp all of them is daunting. (Also, it’s extremely long and there are no car chases).  It took me a good 7 months to power through. It left me tired and unable to fully immerse myself in my nail painting ritual. Because when I wasn’t earning my monthly SMS, I was reading this book, printing pages, highlighting passages and trying to understand things (there were so many things), conducting research and reading the works of writers in response to the essays. I doubt I committed this much effort to my dissertation. I deserve (more) wine.

As I read, I often thought of African men and the way history has been unkind to them and the effects of said history.  I read about the shortness (height) of certain ethnicities, particularly the men, because of the advent of imperialism and mining. Labourers were sent underground for unhealthy periods of time and exposed to chemicals without protection. This resulted in health complications, one of which was stunted growth in the men who lived and worked in mining towns. No wonder mining is called the male version of prostitution. (non PC term, I know). Then we make jokes about how South African men are short like they voted to be. (Yes this is a generalisation. I am making it in relation to the above, don’t come for me). There are hundreds of examples of threads that run through black men that contribute to their conduct and understanding of the space they occupy today.

So I started asking the men in my life about their perceived roles in the world they find themselves in. And the more we spoke, the more my heart broke. The angrier I got. The more I empathised. The more helpless and jaded I felt.

My conclusion is that men don’t even realise that they are problematic. Despite all the noise women have been making. They don’t get it. But then again, some men do. Through willingness to open their minds and come to the table, they get it. Or are beginning to. That’s when I get mad.

If some men can do it, what’s holding the rest back? (insert hysterical laughter)

A very tangible example of this is sending a girl to school and encouraging her to be anyone she pleases, until she gets home and has to don her humble-submissive garb and be the exact opposite of the person you’re hoping will enter the working world, and behave like an equal. We’re creating people with complexes who don’t understand why the world gets mad when they don’t exercise the agency they are taught to doubt. And I see this everyday on social media where men you laugh with say things that give you whiplash.

I went a step further and turned to social media to try and get a sense of where my generational peers stand. How they understand themselves and the spaces they navigate. In world where they are bombarded with information on feminism, equality, mental health, gender role-redefinition etc.. I used three of my personal favourite content producers.

The first is The DojoSA Podcast. The Sensei and Archbishop are two uncensored men, living in Johannesburg who talk about it ALL. I appreciate their candour, and although I don’t agree with them on a lot, their open invitation into the mind of the average man is a breath of fresh air. What I particularly like is listening to the growth. They don’t think the same way today, as they did when they started, particularly when it comes to interaction with women, and it’s testament to the fact that opening your mind won’t disappear your brain.

The second is Broke Niggaz – a vlog produced ANARCHADIUM. The series follows a group of young (early twenties – you know, when college and life are blurry and you’re just trying to figure yourself out) black men. They have conversations, they groove, they collaborate. It’s some dope footage. I wish I’d had them when I was 23 and trying to get uguy from around the way to state his intentions and be a supportive, present adult. (Laugh with me). It’s relatable and authentic. None of it perfect but I get the sense that it isn’t trying to be. They talk about interpersonal relations and how navigating humans is a minefield. Sometimes the answers aren’t black and white. I find their self awareness refreshing in a way that isn’t like going to church, but like hearing an unedited version of your favourite song. They check themselves. Listening to the Broke Niggaz discuss wokeness, #FeesMustFall, and general febaring, feels like all the things the world is throwing at them are being met with an informed, world view. Again, not perfect, but welcome.

My final source is a mini documentary from back when I was a Tidal user. They went and cancelled my subscription and hiked their fees so I’m now like the rest of the muggles – receiving my JAY-Z and Beyonce information a day late. The mini docu is entitled “MaNyfaCedGod“. It features Jigga, Chris Rock, Meek Mill (yeah, the dude that shouts all his raps and gives you anxiety. He also had a kind-of beef with Drake, LOL) and even Trevor Noah. In it, black men discuss their conceptions of masculinity and how these have evolved over the years. Lots of buzzwords and tooting-of-one’s-own-horn about how far they have come. Which is understandable and laudable, but in the same breath, draining, because these are grown men. By the time you are in your thirties or fifties, you’ve left a trail of poor decisions that can be excused by your fragile, toxic masculinity and unawareness back then. And perhaps they only saw the light because their actions were so amplified. A luxury so many do not have.

These platforms are important. Important as a glimpse into the black man’s understanding of his place, role and trajectory. They are the beginning of thousands of offshoot conversations which interrogate the meaning of masculinity. They why, particularly. And perhaps they won’t go far and the conversations will turn into a drink-up that nobody will remember. But maybe, just maybe, if men understood WHY they have been socialised to relate with the world the way they do, feminists would have less to shovel.  Because wow, the shovelling is trying.

I’m conflicted after all of this, because men are indeed, trash. It’s bigger than they are. And arguments that women can be the sole change of the relationships between groups stand weakly beside those that require more from men. To have voices as loud as those of the women they victimise. Or louder. Not to speak on behalf of, but with. Next to. And my conflict lies in the desire to understand my personal role in this world, whilst taking time out to listen to the men I love. Perhaps over wine, late on a Sunday afternoon. Whilst they paint my nails and I read some smut about Justin Beiber’s abs.

Fresh manis and patience.

The Empress x

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