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I Have a Story to Tell
I was holed up in Tara for 6 months in Johannesburg. At first I wasn’t really into the idea at all. My state of mind wasn’t mental, crazy or insane or that of a crazy lunatic going on a rampage thinking that I was the reincarnation of Jesus. I just needed to rest because I was tired all the time. Sadness and unhappiness seeped into every pore, every bone and the core of my body. I was diagnosed with depression. At night I would cry myself to sleep. I stifled my sobs that my body was wracked with a pillow. The world as I knew it was a blur through my tears.
Tara – the hospital where my parents sent me to when I was depressed was an island that came with a towering mansion with a kitchenette for the well-off in-patients and swimming pools where some of the patients came to swim and exercise with deft strokes. Up and down the pool the anorexic and bulimic teenagers would swim slowly coming up for air. Inhaling and exhaling. Those 6 months just flew by and I was released before my birthday. Let me explain how it came about that I escaped to Swaziland from South Africa. It’s a long story but I’ll make it short and sweet.
I remember one day in Port Elizabeth shortly before I left to go to Johannesburg I was standing on the beach, barefoot, my bronzed, polished toes curled in the sand. My mother who was walking slightly ahead of me ignored me. I rushed at the water and recoiled as the chilling water ran over my feet. I thought to myself how rewarding it felt to be a part of something greater than yourself. The ocean always had that effect on me. I wanted to know how I could benefit from it. From humankind, not mankind.
I studied the waves, rock pools, the white brush of foam, the unidentified small fragments that lay around me, the sky a blue dissolve, the lifeguard whose body resembled an oil slick, smooth stones, pebbles, light, the swimmers in their costumes on the beach and my sandy feet. I started to collect small shells and smelt the tang of salt on their rims.
I remembered the pink sunsets and the lilac sunrises. The soggy ice-creams, burgers, foot long hotdogs and dreamy soft serves of my childhood outings with my family. I remembered all of this before my timely escape to ‘another African country’
There was no ocean in Swaziland. It is a landlocked country and I often longed for the sea while I was there. Not to swim in it. I just missed staring at the large expanse of water, the dark green waters underneath the pier, the pretty lights that dotted the entire landscape of the beachfront, the now empty shallow pools where children once played in the olden days of Apartheid. I missed the white sun, ‘Something Good’, ‘Mike’s Kitchen’, eating pizza with my family.
When I was born my parents had already chosen my name. Alice. Alice Chasusa. Currently I am attending boarding school in Swaziland but I have lived my entire life in Port Elizabeth. A city situated by the sea in South Africa. I live with my aunt and uncle and two cousins, Felicia and Magda. It was my dream to study film at the London Film and Television School but I decided that they wouldn’t accept my South African school qualification of a matric. I decided to study for my O’levels and A’ levels at a school in Swaziland.
My family in Swaziland was comfortable which meant they were relatively well-off.
When I still stayed with my relatives my aunt would make these yummy-delicious sandwiches for me to take to school in the morning. We were close. I liked her. She was funny, endearing and sweet even when she was slightly tipsy, I didn’t mind. She more than made up for it. She took swigs from beer cans in the yard, slurped noisily and then discarded the evidence behind a bush.
I can’t remember when the verbal and physical abuse began. I always saw my uncle as being happy-go-lucky and jolly. He always had a smile on his face and he was quiet, kind and gentle but he was a mean drunk. I wasn’t really shocked at this entire wild goings on coming from a dysfunctional household myself. I could only sympathise with my cousins and what they had gone through on a daily basis when they had been growing up. Nonetheless their domestic disturbances frightened me.
I thought I was escaping the abnormal when I came from Port Elizabeth. Domestic disturbances can leave an imprint on the participants and the unwilling witnesses. They can often be brutal and leave a faint dissolve like a bruise the colour of a plum in the air. It can leave you feeling nausea, deranged, slightly mad in the head as if you have no or little control over your feelings, thoughts and emotions. It willfully destroys and distorts the reality of the people around this disturbing and unnatural violence.
When my aunt started to drink and behave willfully, recklessly and wildly I pretended not to see that side of her. I can’t remember my uncle ever raising his voice to her; although emotions were tended to run high in that household. I didn’t dare stay there longer. I escaped to St. Mark’s High School boarding school where I met Lulu and her sister Menuala.
We went out to eat ice-cream one day. A spur of the moment kind of thing and a fierce friendship was borne over chocolate ice-cream sundaes topped with red maraschino cherries covered with a runny chocolate sauce
My father never really confronted me on my decision to leave. He worried. He was moody. He was pensive but respected my decision to leave home at 16 and travel to another African country. It was only later on that he told me how hard it was for him to let me go alone and so young so far away from home.
How one person could go ahead and do such unparalleled damage to the people, family and relationships she had with others around her was beyond me. This is what I thought about my mother’s dangerous, dark behaviour. It was her ‘other side’. ‘The other side’ that strangers didn’t see. My mother wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. This was also one of my reasons for my escape to Swaziland.
Growing up wasn’t easy. Moving away from home wasn’t easy. Making new friends at a new school wasn’t easy. Trying to fit in with the in-crowd wasn’t easy either but I did make a cool new best friend who also had a journal like me. Sometimes I would go to her house in the afternoon after school and she would make us chips and we would watch the MTV channel of music that was represented on Swazi television and do our homework or just talk.
There was a restaurant that we also used to go to sometimes and we’d sit there and sip our cokes through long white straws and talk about the music career she dreamed of having. I loved going to the British Council’s library which was in the same street. You could take out videos as well for a week, I can’t remember if it was one week or two weeks. But sometimes I still could sad. I still felt unhappy. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
If everything seemed to be going so well for me then why did it seem as if I was stuck in the same old rut of hating myself and of the things around me or the people, the world, what was happening in Iraq, the war? It always helped when I wrote in my journal. Scribbled down all my fears, thoughts and feelings. It was like free therapy. I didn’t have to face those sometimes boring, sometimes painful periods of isolation or face to face, one on one confrontation almost with a counsellor.
The human race has far as I had seen it in newspapers and the news had fallen from grace. I was afraid that the country would erupt in a civil war and that shops would be looted and destroyed and that riots and violence would break out in the townships and they would burst into our neighbourhoods and comfortable suburbs shouting expletives at the top of their voices men, women and children and break into our houses and steal us bare and scare us half to death and people would toy-toy in the streets.
I was miserable in Port Elizabeth. In South Africa the air was dry and had a certain tang to it. I had no real friends. Whenever I had my period I could feel the life leaking out of me. It made me feel more grown up and as if I was blessed with some sacred knowledge that I had to keep a secret from the rest of the world. All to myself. It made me feel special and important. It made me feel like I was finally a woman.
Unrequited love is the worst love of all. Daily it makes you feel as if you have just crashed and burned. It doesn’t matter when and it doesn’t where or with whom you’re with. It’s a feeling, a bad, bad feeling that just creeps up on you and then creeps away. Now that in itself is creepy. I had slowly begun to realise as I hit 14. In Swaziland I was the yearning, burning, questioning student of life. I had been thinking of Kenneth lately. I will not get married for love. I fell in love everyday. It was science. It was chemistry. It was the tone of someone’s voice. It was in the way he articulated himself, his voice or if he drove fast cars like a Formula One driver for instance.
His hair, if he was kind, gentle, caring, should a great philanthropic concern his mannerisms, the car he drove, of he paid any or scant attention to me or it could even be someone in a book. Somebody made up of the intellectual ideas and prowess and prolific pen of a writer. I didn’t really care for hanging up pictures of the famous and rich on my bedroom walls. I usually schemed they were quite boring and didn’t have any character, spine or personality. My heroes were usually the ones thought out by a female writer. That could also drive me wild.
Words like ‘reddish brown copper curls’ or ‘his blue eyes’ or ‘I can imagine the sun glinting in his hair’ or ‘and then he smiled at me I think to diffuse my anger and my irritation’ or ‘it was such a sweet, sweet smile’ really impressed something upon me that I couldn’t let go or surrender.
I wondered how a woman would feel when she would die for a man or do the unspeakable act of killing herself for love like in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. I couldn’t imagine love to be so macabre.
I have words too. ‘Things I will tell mummy when she phones.’ But she never did. I was always the one who phoned. I phoned collect. Sometimes just to get a rise out of her. Just to spite her but I was just biting my nose off to spite my face because it was my father who paid for the expensive telephone bill. He paid for all the phone calls from Swaziland to Port Elizabeth in South Africa.
That period of my life is over now. I decided a long time ago I will marry but only to have children.
Kenny Rowley, the stunning, debonair English teacher. He wasn’t the usual crusty, bald pate Englishman. I was truly, madly, deeply in love with him. I did not believe in teenage, soppy, crushes. Of course he was not in love with me. He was married, divorced they said and he had children who lived in England with their mother is how the story went. Rumours. I would write letters to him in my journal whenever I could pouring out endearments. Yes, I was soppy and love-struck and lovesick. I always went for the older man even then.
He had written a book Heinemann had published. Once again I heard this through rumours floating around the school. I thought I could still see the boy, the young man in him still and that made him feel even more appealing to me. His eyes had tiny flecks of shining brown like golden beads in them.
I was safe here in Swaziland for the mean time in between the lush, green rolling hills and valleys in the rural countryside and swimming in the school’s swimming pool where I swam with my friends. I was away from the emotional damage and scarring of my dysfunctional childhood home in faraway South Africa.
Daily I wondered will we succeed in building strength and confidence in the human race, declassify ourselves from the inherent class system, status quo and the different race groups that has bewitched and even beguiled us since time began.
It is just a perfect day today. My hair is perfect. It is shining and there is not a hair on my head that is out of my place. I had just recently gone to the hair salon and had it straightened. So my hair lay flat on top of my head and not curly or frizzy as if I had a perm. That was the natural way. My hair usually behaved uncontrollably especially if it was raining.
October will be a long month. I made lunch today. It was a soft, white creamy mass of mashed potatoes with towering peaks and fried fish cooked in a batter. It doesn’t sound very glamourous but it tasted fabulous. I can cook.
The teacher’s strike continues at full force. I am staying at the senior class of the school in the hostel ‘White House’. They say it will soon be over but I have my doubts. I got up late this morning. 10:15 am. Dolly Parton is playing on the radio.
The universe is a joke the aliens played on us. Everyday at school I was ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ and the school was my playground and my journal, fresh and new was for making abstracts and in-depth reports on the daily observations that went on around me between the learners, parents, the teachers and the principal and at the assemblies. The school was Neverland. For that year no one that I went to school with grew older only wiser.
The most popular boy in the school died in a car crash and a memorial was held at the school. His mother who was with him in the car survived. It was very sad coming back to the second term of the school year to hear that ghastly news. It frightened me. He was so young. He had had a bright future ahead of him and now it had all been gone and blown to smithereens.
I didn’t really know him.
The weather has been dreary and depressing. I have written a letter to my grandmother. I ended it with, ‘wish me luck as I embark’ but I left it incomplete. I can’t compare my problems to the destruction wrecked by nuclear weapons on the world or warring factors in tribes in Africa. I can’t hurt people; argue with them just to live.
I told Mya my pen pal from St. Francis Bay on the telephone that I’d be wearing a yellow jersey when we were supposed to meet at the mall. I didn’t even own one. I just said the first thing that came into my head. That was a mad idea. We met in the local shopping mall and I wasn’t wearing a yellow jersey when we met. We recognised each other from pictures we had sent each other. I am always full of these made, crazy ideas but I don’t know if it’s on account of my depression or because I’m strangely talented in some way.
It felt when I was growing up that my mother never really loved me or as an awkward, gawky adolescent. There is a picture I have in my head of a photograph I found, I may be two and she is holding onto me, her head turned away from the camera. My father said she was smiling, laughing when I asked him about this. The expression on her face he was at pains to tell me was one of joyful happiness and love.
My mother was out of the picture in Swaziland. She rarely surfaced in conversations with my family in there or between my friends. But I knew that in some ways I was like her. I resembled her more than my father although I had his likeness. I looked like him.
I volunteered for the ‘Red Cross’ in Swaziland for a brief period. I was happy. I was doing something productive. It filled me with a passion. I was no longer a ‘daddy’s girl’ or a ‘little girl lost’. I could imagine being a grown up and doing things that other adults did. It filled me with a sense of duty, empathy and a unique consideration for other people. I became more sensitive to the plight and the serious problems that other people went through. I didn’t think about words like ‘lithium’, ‘mental illnesses’, ‘in-patient at mad hospital’ anymore.
I was not doing anything out of a sense of obligation. One day the director of the ‘Red Cross’ drove me to a pre-school in the rural countryside where I worked with small children all day. I played with them and read to them. I inter-acted with other people who seemed to have the same goals as I did; to work with other people. I could see that it could be hard work putting aside differences to work with people who had a different faith and culture than I did.
Words like ‘bilateral symmetry’ and ‘carbon footprint’ enticed me at school. They excited me. Words would spill off furiously from my pen as I wrote in my journal. It fed my hunger for more words and more until I could hardly restrain myself from reading books, massive biographies of icons and superstars and international, local and fashion magazines at the local library where I went to everyday.
Growing up so fast I’ve realised that through the people I’ve come into contact with that everybody’s life; every moment of change is marked somewhat by pain. War zones and the winters in those hot and dry; in those faraway countries filled with sweltering heat and unfamiliar war zones in Africa always seemed to linger at the back of the recesses of my intellect, my mind, my ideas and my subtle consciousness.
It makes me feel more aware about the world around me. It makes me feel less like the Outsider. It makes me feel less alone. I’ve been through my own war zone. I know what that climate is like. I know the personal spaces and the psychological battle scars that exist there somewhere inside the mind of that child. The sulphur, ruthless bombing and air strikes in the night air seem familiar in way that I want it to linger.
I don’t know why but I feel I can relate to the stolen innocence and the defiant, stubborn air, the leering menace that lurks in the eyes of those child soldiers. Their eyes are empty limpid pools, vacant; staring at something that lurks off in the corner of the camera. Not staring straight ahead. Their violence brutal, horrific, without strategy and a game plan only to murder, maim, torture and to kill by their masters. They had a cloak-and-dagger style about them.
In wars in Africa children’s lives are marked by their stolen innocence, oppression and exploitation. I read newspapers greedily looking for speedy social change in furthermost African countries along the continent, the rehabilitation and recovery of child soldiers who pose menacingly with guns on the front pages of international magazines and newspapers and books. I read the names of the countries of Africa in turmoil, in civil war, inhabited by refugees, the poor, the dead, the ones who live off parcels from OXFAM and international aid, cruelly damaged children and devastated countries silently off in my head. They go off like bombs one by one blowing everything in sight to smithereens; like soldiers in warfare fighting in camouflage in the searing heat and the massacres in Rwanda. Sierra Leone, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt and Ethiopia. I discovered all of this, this trail of madness and unseen unquiet in libraries and on television in Swaziland. I could not fit into my head just how massive the backlash of war is.
It was as if I was singing a war song for the walking wounded who were just like me. They were out of reach in a way of comfort; nourishing food in their bellies, playing at pictures and portraits of happy families in smoke and mirrors. Much of this information was garnered from newspapers and reports at the British Council library and bulletins on the news at night in Swaziland.
I remembered when I was 12 in Port Elizabeth and watching CNN with my grandfather one summer afternoon how I felt a heady rush, a sensation like sickness or nausea that was faintly unpleasant. I felt a feeling that felt like I was floating outside my body, levitating above the ground when I first came across the first discoveries of the mass graves in Bosnia Herzegovina. The images flashed up on the screen as ‘Breaking news’. They were shown all over the world but all I remember was the heat of that weekday afternoon after school and that I was busy with homework eating sandwiches that my ‘Ouma’ had made with rich, syrupy-sweet golden fig jam with thick coagulated pieces of ripe fig in.
This was long before Tara and long before my escape to Swaziland. Long before the journal entries began in golden notebooks. War hooked me, every pound of my flesh, my brain; it led to my creative spurts and outpourings of what I thought about corruption and affirmative action. I even, (I know it wasn’t appropriate) had an opinion that it was a person’s personal choice when they chose to lose their virginity and I raised it loudly and vehemently when ‘True Love Waits’ came to our school with their stance that you had to remain a virgin until you got married.
This was before Swaziland and before my diagnosed depression. Daily I had quizzical expressions on my face on every opinion that mattered from current affairs to politicians and to law and order. I watched police television shows and dramas to get my massive fix of injustice, untimely death and suicide. There were never moments when I felt cloyed by it. My teachers all thought I was going to be a journalist the way I carried on in class in fiercely debating the burning issues of the day and the slant and edge my essays in my English class took.
I could only watch how the different translations of the fragments of the elderly, the frail, the delicate and vulnerable human bodies were in war in print, on television or in conversations. I was helpless in the face of the sieges and battles that took place on a daily basis. I was far away from them, tucked away in a hostel in Swaziland. My spirit and my soul was safe from all harm, psychological or otherwise. In Swaziland I found the peace of mind and the harmony that was sorely lacking in my home back in South Africa.
I marveled at human beings in war-torn countries, whose lives and livelihoods were stricken with poverty, whose strength and resilience could help them to keep fighting back against terminal oppression and exploitation. I marveled at how journalists could fight back the injustices of the world just with words, clashing with weapons, lords of war, enemies, police spies, informers, clashing with swords that were wielded keeping them at a distance, at arm’s length from truth.
Swaziland taught me many truths. It especially taught me to think that I was braver than the world thought. I was even braver than I gave myself credit for. It made me even realise a few more truths. I treasured the freedom of speech I still have, liberation, my own country’s newfound rebirth and its newborn democracy and independence and that I, Alice Chasusa was a writer to be reckoned with a relevant and compelling voice.
What motivated me to write was a pale September, walking to and fro from school, a hail shower in Swaziland, a forest of flowers, autumn in Port Elizabeth, the falling of the leaves, the wind in the trees, the golden threads were caught up and that ran in my sister’s hair, children caught in poverty, abandonment, neglect, malnourished with their distended bellies, the weight of driftwood, seawater, fish and chips with my mother after out walk on the beach, talk of angels in war, drought, famine, hunger, the spitting, thin rain or being drenched by a downpour, harbingers, outsiders and insiders.
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