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Extract from “The Birds know the postman”

by Mxolisi Nyezwa

The room at Livingstone hospital where I was now detained felt completely weird and exceedingly cold as if we – the doctor with a lisp, my mother who stood or sat in a chair nearby, the ill looking nurse, and myself – were all trapped inside a big frozen balloon made of helium. “Do you feel anything at all in your hands?” the doctor asked, looking at me sideways while reaching for a metallic object that I suspected he was going to use on me during his procedure.

The nurse moved forward towards the hanging dome, adjusted something on its side, moved it to a better angle to face a huge beam that radiated from chandelier lights that were fitted up above, a little bit askew. I began to feel dizzy, my head swirled to one side of the room, then immediately spun to the opposite direction. “Can you hear me?” the doctor had to repeat three times before I could hear what he was saying. All I could discern as I lay inside the big machine, my eyes transfixed on the two dark orifices, chained to a swirling table, were the quacky doctor’s two lips opening and closing in quick successive movements, not emitting any human sound at all. After a time that felt like the long hours it takes for a dead human to reach eternity, I was asked to lie down on one side of the examination table. With every passing minute the nurse began to look like a bear. He confessed loudly that he was going to take my life. At least that is what I thought he was saying. My mother, seeing me ready to bolt out of the dreadful building, said “Mxolisi, NURSE wants to take your pulse. Lie down on the bed.” The doctor had retired into a small corner of the room that I took to be his office, and was now sitting like a praying mantis on a swivel chair behind a long table. The pale nurse, whose name I later learnt was Zungandoyiki, (loosely translated as “I SCARE NO ONE” or “DON’T RUN AWAY”), wrote something on a pink pad on the table. The doctor sat on his dry chair studying the notes in front of him. After a minute he stood up, as if wearied down by life, and asked my mother if she could bring me to the hospital for a second examination the following month, which was May, on a Thursday, my father’s birthday.

Growing up in a family like ours with two working parents, we children often had no one to look after us. Our parents did the best they could do, but they could never be present every time to cater for our needs. As a result, my brothers and I often struggled to keep up with the progress of other kids around New Brighton. And this affected our chances of making it in the cruel world. Our bantu education, poor as it was, was interrupted by the school boycotts, strikes, and police raids of the 1980s and 1990s. Young people like us were sometimes known as a ‘lost generation’. They were not wrong to say that. I was lost. I never quite knew what was expected of me. I hardly knew myself. I didn’t know to begin a conversation with the apartheid system which sought to dehumanise me. Once I understood that was never going to happen, I grew afraid and became wild.

I stared at a newspaper and imagined that behind the black letters on the pages there were extravagant voices that were muted in sleep, places where children lived happily, worlds with no angry soldiers or police, where calm and resignation transformed easily into flowers, and wet skies covered the clouds. I stretched my legs and began my walk to my school, half a kilometre away, carrying my school bag or a knapsack over my shoulders. A boy who always stood at a corner of Mendi road, smoking a zol, greeted me during my sojourns to school and around my township. I wanted to erase from my memory much that I found intriguing and wildly boisterous about our world in New Brighton – things, happenings, and people I found too contradictory for my peace of mind. I wanted to make a public demonstration of my love for words. I resented my friends who I felt hadn’t yet mastered the art of conversing with the dead, invisible friends, flying spirits from other worlds, ancestors who appeared in dreams as bees and other insects. There at Mbizweni square, where there were groups of boys and girls partying, I wanted to go onstage and sing my poems for the whole world to listen.

I suppose even now, right at this moment, I am still struggling to talk to a reluctant world which never listens. Even in the deepest of silences in my bed when I’m alone or sleeping, I cannot hear myself. I look at the mirror in my room in front of me, and all I can see is a pitiful shadow. My poems are ways by which I try to hurry my struggle to speak. Something has been taken away from the world. Hearts? Dreams? Women? Dogs? I don’t know. I am not so sure now of how the melodious winds drive their rhythm of insanity up my spine. Or how often the madman howls every other night, consumed by his hatred for life and his nightmares of the coming world. I notice that the housefly only circles the food that I put on the table in front of me. It wants to partake of my meal, dine or die with me. It ignores the custard that has dripped down from my plate to smear the floor with its bright yellow colour. I hear the struggle of voices in bondage. If words do not quite fit, I look for music or I turn back to the writing by others to find what I am looking for, stories and poems that I want to write one day. I will find them. I will just look more, think more about the harrowing life in New Brighton.

Two incidents suddenly come into my mind. The first, my job as a postman when I was still in secondary school. The second, an interview for a study bursary in East London while I was finishing high school in 1988. In my job as a postman I walked all over New Brighton delivering typewritten letters to writers and artists for the Imvaba Cultural Society. A famous isiXhosa poet, Soya Mama, was the leader of the group. My job lasted a few weeks but in that short time my eyes were sharpened to the dereliction of black lives in all the houses I visited. The wiring of my nervous system was changed forever. The other one was an invitation from a big corporate company to come to East London for an interview after my bursary application. I boarded a taxi, bustled and blundered my way to the City Lodge address in Oxford Street, East London where the interview was going to be held. I was totally shocked to suddenly find myself in the midst of sophisticated and neat-looking white students, all with their nice ties and colourful school hats, looking so erudite and rich. I felt so out of place in the large rooms of the hotel that I wanted to cry. I was tired from the long taxi ride, hungry and looking dishevelled like a town beggar. As expected, nothing came of the interview. The innocent young white woman who asked me a few questions was dumbfounded by my appearance and my complete lack of interest in the proceedings.

The names of Tambo and Mandela frightened our parents. Children from strict Christian homes like ours were forbidden to mention those two names. As for myself I would wander about New Brighton fascinated by our grimy surroundings. I kept a craziness about me, an attitude of the mind about the world and its inhabitants that somehow insulated me from the common concerns of our neighbours. The buttons of my collared shirt, that I always wore with delinquent pride at Kama Primary School, were torn off one day by the rough hands of a school bully. We had lots of those, especially from Red Location or eLalini Ebomvu, a poor neighbourhood that thrived on disorder. Black townships were ruled by two heavy hands of strict order: the white government which detested black people, and the gilded hands of the tsotsis and small time hagglers. The time was precisely two o’clock when I rushed inside our house, my white school shirt almost flying off, and threw my schoolbooks on the table. I did not understand anything.

Some days in New Brighton were days for suicides and murders. I wondered why deaths visited us on Sundays. Nothing was ever specific except the suffering. Years later I became a deliberate drinker at Bra Ncesh’s tavern in Gqamlana, remonstrating with the devil. Life was too short. Drinking alcohol brightened up the days. The poetry I came to live dwelled in poor houses with no pictures hanging on the walls, no tall and arched windows. I drank my beer wrested from the world of the crucifix. In Gqamlana someone locked a dog inside its kennel. Men. Where was their conscience?