Inspired by: Lynching Black Men
I had first picked it up in his voice on the phone. Calling him from Oslo at his work place in Pretoria about once a week in the latter part of the 1990s, I could hear him sounding ever more tired each time we spoke. He would of course express tremendous delight upon hearing my voice, proudly shouting to his colleagues, “My son is calling from overseas!”
When I last saw him Easter time 1996, he was as charming as ever. But he was beginning to look a little frail. And it seemed he had stopped caring too much about his hair, which he always groomed immaculately before, dying it pitch black constantly. I was just beginning to find my way around in Norway at that time myself, and coming home to Welkom that Easter, I had bought presents for everyone. I even paid for renovation work on the family house, buying some nice furniture for my mother as well. Better times had arrived. Let’s celebrate. Pappa would be fine, I thought. At age 63 then and still working in Pretoria, I felt it was indeed time for him to retire, come home, relax, and enjoy life. I would do every thing possible to ensure that my parents have a good life all their days. But my ever-resilient Pappa went back to work. His work was his life. Little did I know that it would be two years later the next time we meet again after the Easter holidays, 1996. He would be in an abattoir-like city council mortuary, lying supine in a coffin; eyes open wide, staring into oblivion. The autopsy cut sewed up ugly, unbefitting a once most elegant gentleman. In the end we are just things, I thought.
When my father’s corpse was found, after the janitor had forced his apartment door open, he may have laid dead on the cold floor for about 48 hours. The janitor had last seen him going into his apartment during the day on a Monday. Alarm was raised when even by Thursday morning he hadn’t reported for work, and no one had caught any sight of him in his neighbourhood for 2-3 days. My father was a man of the people. I wonder if he cried at all as death came down encircling him. By the look of things, he may have stumbled, and fell on the floor as he came out of his bed. He may have failed to get up again, choking in his own puke. Apparently he had left work on the Monday not feeling too good. He came home to die, in cold solitude. Does it help to cry when dying alone? Or do we cry at birth only, with people around us?
I’ve heard of people who’ve had near-death experiences talk about counting their sins at the realization that the end was imminent. I wonder if Pappa did ever get to count his own as the moment of reckoning struck. Now that I know more, and understand better, I do realize that Pappa led a life of deep emotional suffering. That he went on and on, without breaking down a single day, as a caring, devoted, and responsible father, as well as a respectable member of society, baffles me to this day.
Disenfranchised under colonial rule as a young man in the then Northern Rhodesia, he, soon after World War 2 in 1947, walked from his village in what is now Zambia’s Eastern Province. After many weeks he arrived in South Africa. His father, and numerous others before him, had done the same hazardous trek many times before. Golden South Africa was a land of opportunity, with a promise of a better life. But because Pappa had come alone, outside the then organized labour conscription carried out in the Rhodesias and Nyasaland, he moved around the country with ever-changing identities; doing all sorts of menial jobs. He quickly came to speak fluently about all the major Southern African languages. After an adventurous life of a free migrant labourer and street hustler in the major cities of the country, Pappa finally moved to Welkom in the Free State Province in the late 1950s. There he would eventually meet and marry a very beautiful girl with whom he would beget 5 children in a space of 14 years.
Now stuck in Welkom, disenfranchisement would hit Pappa even harder, living with big personal secrets, lying his way through life about the story of his life to keep himself, his wife, and children alive. I understood early that he was ever so vulnerable. Used. Abused by almost all around him: Black, White, Yellow, Blue, Purple, Cheese, Gulagulatimbuktumadamdamba, etc., people, by dogs and cats, in variable settings and circumstances. But he took it all in with dignity. Honour is in never exposing the hurt and the bruises to the world. Hold your head high. Keep your back straight. Move on and on, and on. Make impossible things happen. Never, never any storms, no waves. Move with grace, like a duck in water. Be good. Look good. Create wealth; sustain wealth. Let your wife blossom; let her be queen bee. Be a pillar of strength for your children. Make them believe they are the most beautiful, the most intelligent children in the world because you are their father.
On two occasions only have I seen my father show a very dark and extremely scary side. On either occasion, he in his characteristic calm and gentle manner went to the one man, and then the other, who each had offended him most vilely. Greeted softly. And then he unexpectedly unleashed a verbal onslaught lasting a minute or two perhaps. I recall watching him, thinking he looked like a village hut on fire in stormy weather. Wondered if these two men didn’t pee in their pants as a reaction to such extreme wrath manifestation.
One afternoon in 1974 Pappa comes home from work looking tired like a man who had just run the Comrades Marathon, or some other similarly extreme physical exertion endeavour. As was customary, my siblings and I flew at him in joy. Usually he would first ask us about how our days at school had been, and then everything would roll from there. This day, however, he told us first about how terrible his day had been at one of his 3 daily jobs. His Italian boss’ 5 year-old son had earlier on in the day called Pappa “Boy”. When Pappa politely asked the boss to teach his little son not to call grown-ups “Boy”, he was told heaven and earth about how White people could call Black people anything they wanted to call them. Although the boss, his wife, and two other male friends of theirs present did not get physical, Pappa told us that they shouted at, and insulted him so much it felt like every word they said became a physical strike on his body. I never saw my father looking so hurt, and helpless. Pappa was in my eyes the hardest and toughest man alive. So, it was too difficult for me to fathom this state of despair I was witnessing. I recall weeping silently for my father, for our sufferings at the hands of racist Apartheid White people in South Africa. It was time to leave the country.
Acquisition of some very interesting family travel documents, and our subsequent nearly 4 months’ train and bus trip to Zambia via Botswana, Rhodesia, Mozambique, and Malawi, from the beginning of 1975 are a full adventure on their own. The culture shock of living in Zambia, meeting for the first time our paternal relatives, whom we had never known existed before, is another separate adventure. We had been made to believe all along that my father came from a different country originally. However, after several years our family life in Zambia had stabilized somewhat, with Pappa and his wife rocking the world as usual, each in their own special ways. Good times were back. Let’s do it again!
We probably had been in Zambia 10 years when one happy family evening we are reviewing the things we had gone through in life as a family that far. It’s worth noting that my mother is also one hard and mean, demanding lady. She, together with us, their spoilt and at least equally demanding children, would make life a living hell for Pappa when things were going tough for us as a family. So, this particular happy evening I ask Pappa what his source of strength was. What was it about him that made him withstand and survive extreme pressures, always finding solutions, and moving on? How come he never seemed to cry when the going got tough, no matter what it was? He replied something like, “Crying produces tears. Tears blind your eyes. When you can’t see things happening around you, you cannot think properly… And, please, my children, when I die, don’t cry. Keep your eyes open! That way you will do things right … ”
I cried 5 years after my father’s death. Unlike him, I cry all the time. I cry when I’m sad, I cry when I’m happy, I cry when I’m angry. I cry because I feel ever so small and humble in the face of sorrow, joy, and rage. In these states it’s okay not to think. Tears temporarily detach me from the trappings of reflections on the right and/ or wrongs of/ in life’s things. I’m dynamite after the tears have dried on my face; their salty taste still lingering on my tongue. Who wants to lynch me now? Lo, watch me raise my father from the dead!
March 08, 2013
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