the goodbye letters (#3)

the goodbye letters

control

/kənˈtrəʊl/

noun

  • a means of limiting or regulating something
  • the power to influence or direct people’s behaviour or the course of events

Dear Control,

The funny thing is that my struggle to let you go is part of the problem, isn’t it?

On Sundays when I lie in bed and think of the week ahead, I like to know that I’ve already sorted out what’s coming ahead. But sometimes life doesn’t work out the way we plan for it to.

Sometimes life is the maybe, the what if, the in the event that. Sometimes life is full to the brim with variables, and all we can do is let it be.

That drives me crazy. I like for things to go according to Plan A, to be set, to be certain. To complete the sentence with a full stop, not a question mark. Finality.

I lowkey think I wasn’t built for the variable, but I know that’s not the case, hard as it is to accept this truth.

So I’m breaking up with you. I’m letting you go because I know that if I do, I open myself up to a life of adventure.

I know that if I do, there is an endless world of surprises waiting for me. Some are good, some are bad, and that’s okay. Both these will make me better, if I learn from them. If I l view surprises as art, then I can appreciate the creativity of life.

I know that that a hand that is closed cannot receive.

I know that a mind that is bogged down with details and blueprints cannot expand.

It’s not me, it’s you.

This is farewell, and I’ve sealed it with a prayer and a mustard seed.

So then, goodbye, old friend.

And good riddance!

Forever free,

Dusty

“For now he knew what Shalimar knew: if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” -Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

I am coming home to myself

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a girl who met a boy, suave, tall, dark, handsome. And she fell in love with his afro moon and the way he commanded attention with his charisma. He would write letters, and draw pictures for her, and the moTswana girl would see stars and galaxies when he spoke, shyly flashing the smile she would pass on to her first child, who would be fathered, as it turned out, by this very smooth operator who was the reason she was thinking wedding gowns and cattle already. He looked at her and saw a world beginning, a new world that they would build together and they became, one. This one, gave birth to another one, at the most random time. It was a normal day, and would have been extremely boring had her water not broken in the middle of an isle at Pick n Pay (true story), amongst the soap bars and toothpaste perhaps, with the suggestion of two-for-one specials and 20% off house brand cosmetics beaming at her as she groaned with contractions. I mean, the sky did not move, it was a normal day, when I came, and yet I was here, I too had arrived to this Life that God had made.

As children we read stories that began with “Once upon a time”. It is a decidedly English phrase, very ambitious, I think. It claims a greatness it does not live up to. Once upon a time? Time? Really? Its aim is lofty. But I guess we all have our own ways of storytelling. My once upon a time begins in 1991. It really should have been a “Giringan wa giringan”, or a “Keleketla!”, a “Kwasuka sukela”, or a “Kwath kwathi ngantsomi”. Which are the ways that the vaTsonga, baTswana, amaZulu and amaXhosa respectively, begin their tales.

“Once upon a time”, you see, is not the African way of doing things. In a gathering of say, children and adults, usually women and children, “Giringan wa giringan” is a call to attention. “Gather together”, it beckons, “because a story is about to be told”. The speaker will make the call, and those gathering will respond with “Giringan!”, or “Cozi!”

At different pauses in the story, the listeners will encourage the storyteller with repeated shouts of “Giringan!”, “Keleketla!” or “Cozi!”

So the story would go, for instance:

Storyteller: “Giringan wa giringan”

Listeners: “Giringan”

Storyteller: “Akuri na ntombi yo saseka”

Listeners: “Giringan”

Storyteller: “Leyi a yi tsutsuma ku tlula na vafana va le xikolweni”

Listeners: “Giringan”

And so forth, until such a time as the story is concluded to the teller’s satisfaction. During this interaction, because African folktales are always more dialogue than monologue, the listeners can interject with questions, comments, or even alternate scenes. So it would not be foreign for a listener to say, “Ayi tsutsuma ku va tlula? Njani?” or perhaps, “Jhee!” accompanied by a side eye or some other form of shade. Random story, I know, but my point is that the teller has the prerogative to shape the endings to the audiences’ context, so that the story about how the leopard got its spots ends up with five different variations, because in each context the teller-listener-relationship results in collaboration that presents alternate endings. No two storytellers tell the same story. But at the same time, the listener is implicated in the process; unlike in the tyranny of the text, where a reader is all but held hostage by the fixed nature of the print. In this instance, they are not just listening, they are called on to create as well.

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Photo: Dennis Ngango

Now, just a moment: I am most certainly a writer, and I love and believe in the power of the written word. But I do not think that it can exist without oral literature, or as I prefer to call it, orature. In the beginning was the word, and the word begat a story, and the story begat a rhythm, and the rhythm begat a revolution. That rhythm is not limited to written words, though there is value in that. Every important thing must be said in a story. Academia is nice, it is necessary, but if we want to measure the zeitgeist, or define it, or influence conversation, one of the places which we must first look, is stories. Stories do all the important work, really, and they are most effective because they are so unassuming. We do not know it, but when we encounter stories, we are in the classroom.

The moTsonga man with the afro moon and the moTswana woman with the everlasting smile welcomed their little girl into the world with enthusiasm, and vowed to send her into the world a moTsonga girl. This is what is right, this is what culture said they needed to do. You marry, if you are his wife, and are born into, if you are his seed, a man’s culture. In addition, they would send her to a Model C school, they would raise her in a township that was predominantly xiTsonga speaking, and they would speak to her in his language. The little girl’s mother would learn the moTsonga man with the afro moon’s language, though she stumbled through it, she soldiered on. They drew neat lines and built their lives within those boundaries, squashing their daughter’s complex identities into a single way of being. She was never Tsonga enough for the xiTsonga speaking people, and never Tswana enough for the seTswana speakers, and yet, here she was, an inconvenient truth. Everything she knew about culture and identity was one thing, but her life repeatedly presented her with contradictions to the ideals of family and culture. She was a deviant, she was other.

I am ‘other’ – a position of not belonging. Because I am a woman, a Black woman, in a world that hates Black women but demands from them constantly. To create, to hold things together, to not break. I am other because I love God in a world that either blames Him for its injustice, or uses Him to cause it. I am other because I am Black – basically, plankton in the food chain of human life. I am other because my father is a moTsonga in a country that reduces us to stereotypes: loud, what they say is ‘unbearably dark’, ugly, smelly, badly dressed, kwerekwere, and the list continues. I am other because I am both a moTsonga and a moTswana, and despite what society dictates, I embrace all parts of my heritage. I am not either/or, I am both.

I am other because I have lived a life in which as a young girl, my white friends wanted me to be myself, but not too much, lest any part of my Blackness disrupt the serenity of their cushioned realities. White people have the privilege of being themselves without consequence for their race. As Ta Nehisi Coates says about “the invention of racecraft”: “they [meaning white supremacists] made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”  It is a miracle how we are able to carry on, in spite of… and yet the moment that we ‘show’ ourselves, in a way that is perceived as either negative or positive, we are sanctioned. I understood this as a child, that my place in the world came with the burden of my race, and my womanhood.

Only black people are raced. We could build clubhouses together at the back of the school, but when it came down to it, they would get picked up from school by their mothers, and I would take the bus home, get off at the bus stop, walk home, and open the door to an existence that was as different from theirs as the colour of our skins. And to my Black friends, I was a coconut, the snob who spent too much time with white people, stayed in the house all day, and did not have friends in her own neighbourhood. Always struck me as odd that there were clear lines drawn in the sand for lives that are, very clearly, messy and unpredictable. As though much of our ways of being are not learned and reproduced subconsciously. As though we are not always becoming, shifting and navigating the spaces in which we move and have our being.

We exist in the push and pull. In the tension. Author Ben Okri says of it, “We lead fragmented lives, fragmented identities”. And so the middle, not between two lines but where boundaries touch, exactly at the line that joins two different realities, that is where we live our messy lives.

It is a complicated thing, with a complicated history, but it is not my ending.

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Photo: Puno Selesho

Toni Morrison described it best when she said, “We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact. We are not, in fact, “other”. We are choices.”

I thought that was so powerful, and it’s a mantra that I live by – “We are choices.” We are crafting a new story each day. We can push back. Despite oppression, despite the fact that my name is not shouted from the rooftops. I slither in silence like a snake, not quite as menacing but twice as deliberate, certain, and present. You will know it when I strike, and I intend to strike.

In every story there is a villain, and mine is a many headed monster: heterosexist patriarchy, is written across the first head. Capitalism, on another. White supremacy, on the next. This is the monster against which I intend to strike.

My country beckons me – it beckons you. Maybe God gave us fragility, our Achilles heel, to remind us that we are only as great as others have allowed us to be. Our greatness is not a solitary project.

In the BBC documentary How My Country Speaks, Lebo Mashile shares what she thinks being a South African means, it is quite lengthy, bear with me:

“South Africa feels like a social experiment with 50 million people trying to figure out where we all fit in. If you are white, you are the descendants of settlers, you don’t fit in. If you are Black you’ve been dispossessed so you don’t fit in. If you are coloured then you’re too complicated, you’re mixed race, you don’t fit in. Everybody can find ten different reasons why they don’t belong to this thing called South African-ness, and that quintessentially is kind of what makes us South African.”

She then goes on to recite a poem. Part of it goes:

“South Africa is a fractured mirror, a paradox of schizophrenic selves who don’t talk to one another, who co-exist together but don’t live with each other. Who fear each other. Who revere each other. Who loathe, and pretend, and try to blend in with each other. And this is the time when you can become the greatest substance of your dreams unless you live in a shack, and don’t speak English and don’t know what this poem means.”

Could it be then, that another head on the monster which is the villain of our South African story, is our wounded-ness? We are haunted by the ghosts of our past, by our pain. Our nostalgic leanings, our desires for an untouched past, to return to a pristine and untouched Africa, are a longing for our wholeness. Coates refers to it as a “return to ourselves”. I think he is talking about healing. He is talking about coming home to ourselves.

I am not talking about the model that the truth and reconciliation commission set forth at the dawn of democracy. It was with noble intentions that they did that, but what it did, was suppress Black pain, and let unrepentant murderers go scot free. The TRC and Rainbow Nation-ism, are part of why I am skeptical when I hear white people, and even some Black people, use the word ‘ubuntu’, or ‘botho’. What they should be meaning is justice. Instead what they mean, more often than not, is absolution from crimes they did not intend to pay for, and the chance to not think about their privilege too much. Think Chris Hani and the wounds his family still carries. Think Nokuthula Simelane and her family’s search for truth for over thirty years. Their blood still cries out. Do you hear it? Or are you more concerned, with living a comfortable life?

We want desperately to know, who is African? Who is not ‘othered’ here? Who gets to ‘belong’, here?

Personally I think that anyone may belong here, whatever race they are, for as long as they get with the program, so to speak. Africa is a state of mind. What drives you? Shared responsibility, common justice and equity? Africa is a commitment. For whom do we build our futures? How do we build? Are we willing to decolonise, so that we can build something new?

Sonia Sanchez said it so beautifully when she said, and I live by this mantra, “I will become, I will become a collector of me, and put meat on my soul.”

And so I would like to start my story again, because mind you, my story is always starting and ending and starting and that is its greatest continuity, the birth and death that is always happening. So yes, let me start again, Giringan wa giringan?

**This essay was presented as a talk at The Park Exchange’s first speaker edition. The theme was “Race, Identity, and what it means to be an African”. It has been edited for brevity and clarity. Look out for the next speaker edition, happening in Pretoria this Saturday.

Power, strength, healing, and happy Africa Day.

Dusty

No one is original. Everyone is derivative. ~ Sonny Rollins

“We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact. We are not, in fact, “other.” We are choices.”

~ Toni Morrison, Unspeakable Things Unspoken

Just a Moment –

When we were students we would to trek up the hill of the University, get to the top and head to the Monument building, which overlooked the city. Once there we’d scream our frustrations out into the air, till our voices were hoarse or at least tired. Aaaaaaaah! We’d roar, ferociously. It didn’t solve our problems but it was the release that we needed.

I think I need a Monument Moment.

A question’s been bugging me for the longest: How do we mourn in an age that doesn’t appreciate humanity? How do we mourn when we’re saturated with concerns, causes, epidemics, craziness? How do we mourn? A life vanishes and we are forced to do business as usual. Like it was nothing, like it was Thursday.

I have no idea what it’s called, but there’s probably a name for it in some social science. I’m talking about being an intensely sensitive person. If you are sad, you feel it deeply, (depression, bleh). If you’re happy, you feel it with the heat of a fire that can turn coal to diamond. Sometimes, ‘feelings’ are how you know when something is right or wrong – you know, like when something about an interaction doesn’t ‘feel right’, or when you need to make a decision and a certain path ‘feels off’. Sort of like your gut, or intuition, discernment. The great thing about hypersensitivity is that you’re super aware of everything happening around you, and so nothing goes by unnoticed. The bleak thing is you tend to carry people’s ‘heaviness-es’ like they are your own, or you don’t apply wisdom and your emotions overtake your judgement.
The downside of empathy is having to cope with the weight of the world on your back.

There’s a little song by Laura Mvula, ‘Can’t Live With the World’, that I like. In it she sings:

You can’t live with the world on your shoulders
Take my hand and you’ll see love will find us
You’ve been lost in a dark place a long time
Come to me, say goodbye to your struggles
Remember how far you’ve come
From the start till the end
Depend on me
You can’t live with the world on your shoulders

It’s great because it’s a reminder that we can’t believe ‘the hype’ of our own feelings. Sometimes we’ve got to breathe, take care of ourselves. We can’t navigate any of it as though we were an island. It’s okay to reach out.

Audre Lorde said:

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

We so desperately want to know that our living means something, to be part of something greater, but you can’t change your corner of the world if you’re weary. I’ve heard it said, that love is a revolutionary act. Yes. Love is activism.

It’s hard to mourn in an age that doesn’t appreciate humanity because there’s so much coming at us that we can’t keep up with it all. There’s so much wrong with it and we feel helpless. We can’t fix as much as we’d like to – is it any wonder that we even get desensitized to the pain?

Ever get fatigued sometimes, when you log onto twitter and all you see on your TL is more stuff to get angry about? Or when you’ve spent a little while confronted with challenges that won’t come right, and your frustration just keeps building?

For those who have the tendency to feel every hurt – don’t. Take a moment, a Monument Moment, and press the Off button. Then keep it off. Nurture. Find a way to love in this world that hurts and is hurting. Internalize that. Remember it. Press the On button. Reload. Then, as fiercely, relentlessly and compassionately as you can – love.

Love and light,
Dusty

“There she waits looking for a saviour, someone to save her from her dying self. Always taking ten steps back and one step forward. She’s tired, but she don’t stop…”
– Laura Mvula, ‘She’

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
– 1 Corinthians‬ ‭13‬:‭3, 13‬ (ESV)

Going back in time: Letter to my younger self

I know people wait until they are rich and famous – or at least poor and infamous – to write these kinds of letters; but I reckon I have a few things I can share, too. I’ve been doing that thing where you look back and wonder what you have accomplished over the past year, what you have learnt, and where you are going. Took me back to a time when I was much younger, and I wondered: what would I say to me five, six years ago? Realised, I’m not who I used to be back then, and surely, I have a few pearls I can give, too. And these pearls may help someone out there. So, feast.

My dearest Dusty,

How beautiful you are! Full of love and joy and warmth, even though you don’t know it. When your parents named you “Relebone Rirhandzu”, it wasn’t only because you arrived to much love, it was also because they wanted you to fulfil that prophecy. To be love, loving and loved. And it will happen, it will.

You are living in a strange, strange world; and you can barely navigate the madness without feeling like Alice in Wonderland, half the time. The darkness is deep, I know, but you are that unique thing in life called a ‘writer’ – you have the ability to not only be a mirror to society, to capture the zeitgeist, but you also have the power to write yourself (and society) out of the darkness. Your words are your superpower, wield them like the fiery darts that they are.

I remember that time when you were standing in the kitchen at night, with the light turned off, and a knife in your one hand. I remember the strength of the tide that threatened to pull you into a sea of depression, and how eventually, you walked away. Not even because you pulled yourself out, but because you were too much of a coward to go through with it. It doesn’t matter why you didn’t do it though.

It matters only that you survived it, and that you walked away from that edge. Now stop running. Stop running from the pain and face it head on. You’ll be surprised what strong stuff you’re made of!  Anyhow doesn’t help to run, because unless you deal with it, junk follows you wherever you go.

Now you have questions about your identity, about who you are, where you’re going. The answer to everything you think about yourself is (drumroll please) – it’s true. It’s true because you can’t help but live up to your expectation of yourself. What you think of yourself, your thoughts about who you are, these are like a memo for your actions. You will become that which you fear or desire, if you fear or desire it strongly enough. You see, fear is an expectation. Of, for instance, failure. We become what we fear because our mind internalises this fixation, subconsciously uses it as data to determine our action and who we will become. When we fear something we submit to its power, agreeing that it is more strong than the Power at work within us. And so we become what we fear because we’re working towards the expectation we set out for ourselves.

Choose to believe that you are beautiful, that you matter, that you are not only on your way to greatness, but that you are great. You don’t fall short in the things that are crucial – there’s nothing the matter with you. You were made whole and complete and perfect. You are perfect (yeah, I said it). Do not be afraid to be who you want to be – rejection may come but those who you need around you will accept you for who you are.

”You are perfect” does not mean that you are not going to make mistakes, or that you are better than others. It means only that you ought to stop thinking you will never measure up wherever you go. Your heritage, your circumstance, your experiences, these aren’t things to be ashamed of! By the bye, you’re not done making mistakes yet, either, so build a bridge and well, get over it.

Let’s talk about that annoying thing you do, you know that thing. That thing where you play the victim because you want to feel validated, seeking in others what is lacking in yourself. It’s not alien – we need to be needed and we need other people, as human beings; but we also need to be independent. To be certain of ourselves. I know your pain comes from a real place and that your cries for attention come from a crushing hurt, but the healing you’re looking for is in something Other than where you seek it now. Follow the Light. That’s where you will find the salve. And stop being so needy, girl. (~> “How you go win, if you ain’t right within? Uh uh, come again.” ~ LH)

You’re a sensitive soul so I’ma speak to you kindly too, because I know you need affirmation. Wanna tell you (you hot thang!) that you’re a powerhouse walkin’ on two sexy legs (short as they are) and you have so much depth, wisdom, intelligence and heart inside that body that hey, it’s inevitable that you’re gonna leave a mark the size of legacy when you’re gone. (DUDE, THE WORLD AIN’T EVEN READY FOR ALL THAT!) Choose to see yourself as beautiful. Choose every day, to walk like the magnificent queen that you are. Besides, you know how Dimamzo hates it when you walk in that hunched-shoulders-defeated way you do sometimes (chuckles). Head up. Chin up. You’re magnificent!

Here’s the hard truth about people: they don’t owe you anything, hey. And because they don’t, they won’t always care about you, or take the time to get to know you, or love you like you deserve. I know that that scares you, but it shouldn’t. They’re on their own path and they stumble also, sometimes all over your toes, but it ain’t a thang to do with who you are! They are human, too. You have all of Heaven’s resources available to you so whatever gets thrown your way, head up, chin up, tswela pele. You’re magnificent.

I’ma end it here. We’re a writer so we wax lyrical about, well, everything, but let’s cut it. If you forget everything else: remember this one thing: live your convictions out courageously, love recklessly, go about life honestly. And, keep God with you.

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid. 😉

**“Relebone” is the Setswana term for “we have seen” or “we have seen you”; and “Rirhandzu” is the Xitsonga term for “love”. Together “relebone rirhandzu” makes the sentence “we have seen love”. Parents were tryna be cute with the whole ‘merging-our-two-cultures’ thing. (chuckle)

**tswela pele is the Setswana term for “go forward”, or, used in this context, “keep it moving”.

Love and light,

DustySoul

“Sethe,” he says, “me and you, we got more yesterdays than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” 

~ Paul D to Sethe, after Sethe complained that Beloved (whom she considered the best thing in, and about, her life) has left her; in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’