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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