A weird black Zulu free-spirited woman

2013-06-16 14:00

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I was born in 1982. KwaZulu, the homeland created for the Zulu people, felt more like a country.

Those were the simple days, when a person could just be.

But all that was about to change, and many moments of self-awakening would follow, all of which would help me understand how the world saw me and how I saw the world.

It would eventually dawn on me that the world had a prepackaged idea of who I was based on what I looked like and very little else.

When my family moved to Pretoria in the late 1980s, my worldly experience was turned on its head.

People here were not Zulu and didn’t want to be. Instead, they saw me as abnormal for not being Tswana.

I was required to learn the language of the new land, purely on the basis of being outnumbered.

I tried navigating my way through Setswana but being a source of comedic entertainment wasn’t my idea of a good time.

Eventually, I gave up on learning it. I had always known I was Zulu, but being an outsider in my adopted community made me realise it.

In those circumstances, it made me very sad. But not as sad as realising that I was black.

Many black people can recall the exact moment when they realised they were black.

This is not to be confused with the moment you knew you were black – no one remembers that.

On that day, my mother, a strict and habitually overbearing nurse, was working a day shift.

I remember this because ordinarily her children (like those of multitudes of other overanxious nurses and teachers) were locked up and warned to stay far away from danger, strangers, and dirty kids and their food.

Like any regular child, I took advantage of this rare opportunity and I found myself in the street playing with my contaminated friends and eating their unhygienic food.

Suddenly, my friends ran in all directions, leaving me confused and pre-emptively petrified.

When I turned around, I saw a monstrous yellow machine with a thick blue stripe and gargantuan wheels.

It was approaching slowly and carrying three white men with menacing guns.

I ran back into the yard around the house, but curiosity got the better of me so I ran back, but remained tucked away behind the safety of the fence.

Then the disloyal rug rats were back.

The armed white men threw sweets at the kids in the streets, which the kids did not pick up until the machine was well around the corner.

This is my earliest memory of white people. But for some reason, without needing to be told, I realised everything I needed to know: white people show up, you clear out?.?.?.?then you can come back to see what goodies they left for you – just don’t let them see you enjoying them.

It was the feeling of being done a favour in the middle of being done an injustice, and grudgingly accepting it.

In that moment, I also realised that I was black and being black was already proving to be a problem.

Realising I was a girl was an equally poignant moment in my young life.

My older brother, almost seven years my senior, and I played together as soon as I crawled out of my crib, more so after moving to Pretoria because we were both friendless.

One sunny December day, my brother, who I had played soccer with, who had once dislocated my shoulder during a game of Superman (he was always Superman, I was always the “bad guy”), who had used me to hit boys my size so they couldn’t tell on him, nonchalantly informed me he would no longer be playing with me because I was a girl.

It’s not that I didn’t know I was a girl, but it was the way he said it that made me realise that being a girl wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

That made me very sad, mostly because I didn’t understand how being a girl had suddenly changed me.

There are some elements of identity that are defined in personal spaces, which one shares with only a few people.

These are elements that escape the claws of society’s definitions, which eventually become prejudices, elements that remind you that no matter how much of your identity you might share with others, you are the only you.

Those events were also a revelation on religion and spirituality. I had always thought I was Presbyterian because one is born as such.

My father’s decision to change our church opened new spiritual possibilities for me.

If I could choose to change my church, maybe I could choose to change my religion. If I could choose a different religion, maybe I could choose something other than religion.

Of course this does not imply the decision to stop defining myself as a Christian has gone down well with my community.

Religion is as much a cultural identity as it is religious.

Until the moment you decide to believe something different, you consider beliefs to be truth.

Knowing this, I have made an effort to avoid living a life on a default setting and choose daily to be a “weirdblackZulufree-spiritedwoman”.

»?This is an edited extract. The Youngsters is a series of short books by young South Africans. Other writers in the series include Anele Mdoda, Sipho Hlongwane and Shaka Sisulu

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