When I was six or seven years old, my grandfather, aunt, and I moved into a room in a small township called Waterfall in Mthatha. There isn’t much to be said for The Room in Waterfall, it was basic. There was enough space for my grandfather to sleep on his bed, and enough room for the mattress that my aunt and I slept on. Our kitchen was the same room. We had a two-burner stove on which we cooked our meals, and the room doubled as our bathroom. It was a block of rooms with about five other tenants, and to use the toilet, we shared one that was outside of all our rooms. This was okay; it was still better than the long-drop toilets that defined our village.
My grandfather was a bus driver at Tembisa School, a special needs school not too far from The Room in Waterfall, I was in my first or second grade, and my aunt went to Norwood Junior Secondary School. Before we left the village, we used to wake up at four ‘o clock each morning and walk to the stop where we would catch a taxi to town. The winter mornings were the most unforgiving; I always cried when my family woke me up to take a bath. My grandmother turned the paraffin heater on sometimes and I would put my Vaseline-laden hands by the warmth of the heater before I lathered it on my body. These mornings were often foggy and wet, and I shivered all the way to the stop. We went to Mthatha where my grandfather would take the bus at the school around 6am, drop me off and begin picking up the learners at their homes. I was always one of the first children to arrive at school.
The Room in Waterfall was to make our lives slightly more bearable as it was closer to school and to my grandfather’s place of work. On Fridays, we took a taxi back to the village – we were villagers – to return on Mondays. One Monday, I took the taxi alone. I often did this when my grandfather or aunt couldn’t be around with me, and I had the protection of a taxi conductor who loved my family. The taxi would stop at the rank, and I would walk for about fifteen minutes to school. After school, my grandfather would fetch me with the school bus, or I would walk to the taxi rank past Circus Triangle Mall and take myself home.
One morning, my grandmother hadn’t given me money to take a taxi home – she didn’t have any – and my grandfather wasn’t around to pick me up. I can’t say I remember how the school day went. When I think of my general disposition as a child, I would imagine I went on with the day as normal, silent about my problem but frightened in my stomach.
Recently, I met with an acquaintance I got to know well during our time at the University of Cape Town. At the end of our coffee date, she said, ‘You know, I had a friend named [redacted] when I was in creche. She was so weird.’
I said something like, ‘How come?’
‘She spent a lot of time in the bathroom. Always had parasitic worms.’
Huh . . . ‘What was the name of your school?’ I asked.
‘That was me.’
It was strange that we’d known each other for over five years and that this only came up now. I’ve spent much of my life moving from one place to the next, from one person to the next, so I don’t have consistent witnesses. And I never knew I had a witness in Kiddieland. I certainly still don’t recall her from my childhood. My sometime friend, now acquaintance, remarked on how I’d taken the role of sole custodian of bathroom legend in our school.
‘You used to talk about Pinky Pinky a lot.’
‘I remember that,’ I laughed.
‘We believed you because you were always in the bathroom, dude.’
Pinky Pinky, a legendary monster that lives in the girls’ bathrooms in black schools all over South Africa, had quite a presence in my life, I remember that much. I remember the parasitic worms; how one day I cried in the toilet and the teachers called my mum to come wipe my bum. How scared I was of the worms, of Pinky Pinky. How little else I remember about this time in my childhood.
When the school day was done, I packed my backpack and walked to the taxi rank. As an esteemed member of an Apostolic church, my grandfather raised all his children in it. We sang in concerts, and as girls and women, lived in a home that prayed regularly and wore all-white to church. Grandfather never had discussions about faith with me, maybe because I was a child. There was just an expectation for me to do exactly as I was told. But on that walk, penniless with no way to go home, I started praying to God. Prior to this, I don’t recall a time where I’d felt more desperate for the divine to intervene in my life.
As I walked through the streets of Mthatha, through traffic, the overcrowded hustle and bustle, the loud men and women advertising shopping specials through speakers placed outside the shops, I prayed harder than I had ever before. The request was simple: I needed R2.50 to be able to get home safely. And I kept asking in all the ways I knew how.
When I was nine years old and living in King William’s Town, I was lonely. I lived in the servant’s quarters of a bed and breakfast on Raglan Street with my mother, little brother, and my two older cousins. The neighbourhood was painfully quiet for a girl who’d grown up like I had. The Saturdays were characterised by tears induced by the Bollywood movies that played on SABC 3, and the Sundays by melancholic boredom. One Easter Sunday, I walked to the Good News Christian Church. It must have been a twenty-minute walk or so. There, they showed us the Passion of Christ and my relationship with God was rekindled. I walked each Sunday with my Gideon Bible, a notebook and pencil to this church. It was the kind of church with a piano and microphones and they spoke English. We could wear pants to church. My mother hung a portrait on the wall. It was a young black girl with a tear running down her cheek. The inscription on the portrait was a prayer:
As I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
I’d recite this prayer each night before I slept.
I remember when I went home to my village for the holidays. I was late for church there one Sunday, so my aunt left me. When I arrived, Gideon Bible, notebook and pencil in hand, my aunt was scandalised by the look of me. She told me to go get a white cloth to cover my head. I walked back home and did as I was told. My grandfather was preaching that day, telling us in isiXhosa that izulu, heaven, is a state of mind. He said that if we were expecting to travel to a literal place, we’d be sorely disappointed. I didn’t take any notes, the preachers didn’t tell us to turn to any of the books in the Bible. The church sang sparsely, and it was all acapella. The Good News Christian Church was so much better.
When I was 13 years old and living in Cape Town, I found a church there too. I was living with my mother – The Most Agnostic Woman in South Africa – at the time, but my feet wanted to go to church on Sundays; and Tuesday evenings for dance practice; and Friday nights for the youth service.
I can remember Pastor Donnie Franklin repeating Hebrews 11:1 over and over in a sermon, with the showmanship we’ve come to recognise as reminiscent of the negro-spiritual-singing African American pastor. Now faith, Pastor Franklin walked up and down the stage chuckling to himself, is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Pastor Franklin had a testimony, something he said always came from a test, and the church was rapt.
The tannies were ecstatic as Anthony, pastor Franklin’s son, played the keyboard to emphasise the enormity of this message.
I was thirteen years old, my prayer for taxi fare long forgotten. I just sat in church listening to Pastor Franklin on faith.
Faith and I go way back.
I think I met Faith on that day in Mthatha. I think she may have been an undiscovered part of me that finally revealed herself. I was left to my own devices, and, in my humanness, I knew that they were not sufficient. I didn’t have the capacity to take myself home that day, and there was no adult there to help me. Faith, taking advantage of the openness of a child’s heart, seemed to know something I didn’t. I allowed her to take the lead. When I was about to enter the gate at the taxi rank on the right side of the pillars, I saw a shiny silver coin. I got closer to inspect it. It was a R5 coin.
I can’t say that I remember bursting into praise and worship. All I remember is that I had an extra R2.50 to splurge with. I bought chips from one of the street vendors, and I hopped on my taxi to Waterfall. Memory is a fickle and inconsistent thing, but I can almost recall myself recounting this story to my aunt; how I just prayed and prayed until I was able to find my way back to The Room in Waterfall.
Growing into Christianity took me away from the taxi fare that God sent me, when I was just six or seven years old. From the long walks I took to Good News Christian Church when I was nine years old. Instead, I was now living in a world where I was fixated with sin. I remember each altar call; the pastor would ask who wanted to accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour and I would put my hand up each time. There was a bounty of sin in me; the disobedience of my mother, lies about one thing or the other, the Mills & Boon novels I read that turned me on, were but a few of my sins. As I grew, I began to have questions for God that were difficult to find answers to. Being “born into sin” wasn’t as liberating for me as it was when I was younger. Instead, I struggled with the idea that I was fundamentally a sinner. That I had to apologise to God with each Sunday that passed. I felt that I had inherited shame about my humanness and some of my mistakes. But still, I persevered through the wrestling with my humanness, for the love of God, until I went to university.
Reading Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like at eighteen years old, in the middle of the #RhodesMustFall protests, would be what took me away from God, and Faith. When Biko wrote about the fact that white supremacy had reduced indigenous Southern African beliefs to superstition, all the while forcing Christianity onto Africans, I was ready to walk away. Even his characterisation of Black Theology wouldn’t allow me to stay. I questioned who this God was, and because white supremacy had impressed Jesus Christ of Nazareth as the only way, truth and life upon me, I didn’t look for another God. I didn’t have the curiosity to explore these beliefs that Biko said were relegated to superstition. I was an atheist and if anyone pushed hard enough, I told them that black feminism was my religion.
It was all very confusing, and I began to feel lonely. I’d made the mistakes of youth and felt empty from the guilt. I started thinking about Jesus Christ of Nazareth once again, and how I knew to give my guilt to him when I walked with him. I wondered what to do with my humanness since I had killed God. If I’d have the capacity to forgive myself and have that be enough. So, I went to visit church again. There was a guest pastor who had a PowerPoint presentation about the sin of anal sex. There were five things that were wrong, and I wish I remembered them. After church, my pastor asked, ‘Esi, do you still love the Lord?’
Nineteen years old now, I shook my head. This foreign, homophobic God had no place in my life. After some debate, Pastor Franklin accepted the chasm between me and Faith.
When I was twenty-three years old, I discovered that I had the ancestral calling to become a sangoma. I’d gone through enough experiences to believe it, by the time I was told this by my sangoma. She told me that I was a descendant of the people of the ocean, and they were calling upon me to come towards them for healing.
When I began ukuthwasa, the initiating to become a sangoma and faith healer, I was told that I had isiThunywa. Among several things, IsiThunywa is an ancestral spirit that heals through faith, prayer, water, and motifs associated with Christianity, like the Bible. I had to pray five times a day. This time, I prayed in isiXhosa and I sang hymns from the church I rejected for not having a piano. I spent much time speaking with God, telling him I didn’t believe in him but that I had to reach out to get closer to my ancestors. After some time, I remembered the taxi fare and the Good News Christian Church and thought about how funny it was, to bump into Faith again after all these years.
Esinako Ndabeni is a sangoma and writer living in Johannesburg.