by Thabiso Tshowa
“I am sorry, Nkele, but we ran the test several times. You can’t have kids,” said Dr Mosala with a grim face, seated behind her huge pine desk in her office.
Looking at her wedding ring and the pictures of her, and her happy family, I felt a ball of anger inside me. “But Dr Mosala I was diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder just last month and my thoughts are running a thousand miles a minute. Now you’re telling me I can’t have kids!” I got up to leave. “I knew hospitals were nothing but bad news!”
Dr Mosala raised her hand. “Before you leave, you must know, these tests are not conclusive. You’re welcome to ask for a second opinion.”
I turned to her with a sour face. “Thanks, but no thanks, Doctor!” I spat.
I left home and hooked up with a few college friends of mine; Zukiswa and Nandipha. I felt good about myself, not knowing this was all part of my bipolar. The upside, and the fun side, and living a life free of consequence. I felt a powerful force inside of me. Colours seemed brighter and there was no song I couldn’t imitate and dance to. And with that, the first rays of sunshine gently stroked my face.
Zukiswa proposed a plan. We were sitting in a huddle and trading gossip. “Ladies are we going to die broke here in the Eastern Cape?”
Nandipha turned to her with a look of despair. “What else are we going to do? We flunked out of college, and no one will hire us.”
Zukiswa took her hand in hers. “No, baby girl. I am talking about something bigger than that. I say we gather up everything we have, and head straight for the Western Cape. I heard of a town called Woodstock and there, even a small-town girl can make it. I heard of modelling agencies that pay up to five thousand rand to amateur models.
Nandipha pounced. “You think they will take us?” she asked with a hopeful smile.
“Why wouldn’t they? I hear they take all kinds of girls; from a smashing tall and dark beauty like Nkele, and a curvy red bone mama, such as myself, to a full plump shorty, such as yourself.”
Nandipha chuckled. “Wow, so we are sitting on fifteen K, as a starter!”
I looked up at them. “Guys, are you sure we want to go through with this? Because . . . it sounds too good to be true.”
They both laughed in my face. “Ra Soko’s little girl. You’re afraid you will miss daddy?” asked Zukiswa sarcastically.
I recalled my last conversation with Ra Soko and how I had stormed out. I felt as though I didn’t even know the guy. “Screw it. I am in!”
It took us thirteen hours to get to Cape Town by bus. We ran out of money for food along the way and all we had left were our wits and courage. We finally made it to the Mother City. We hitched a ride to Woodstock with a student – our city of gold – where we were bound to get rich. But, what we found when we got there, was nothing like what we’d expected. The place was down to only a handful of operational stores. People walked around with an ominous look in their eyes, and I’d never forget the reeking odour, from the slaughterhouse.
I witnessed a rat biting on a hobo’s broken boot, and he tried to fight it off, but the vermin was winning. So finally, he gave up the boot, and went back to sleep on the side of the road. We were fish out of water. “Lord, have mercy on us all!” I said to myself.
We walked around all day and came up empty handed. We couldn’t locate any of the modelling agencies we’d heard about, anywhere. Until night-time came, and in desperation, we were in an alley, exhausted, and trying to find a place to sleep.
A man with a funny accent and a black hoody who’d been watching, approached us. “Hello girls. Would you like be models?” he asked.
We all jumped to our feet. “Yes!” Zukiswa exclaimed.
The man smiled at us. “Well come wit me den. I be Emanuel by der way.”
We should have known better than to trust a stranger in a dark alley at night in Woodstock.
I worked at the agency until February 2009, then I relocated to Bloemfontein, where I rented a small house and settled down.
By May, I had anxiety that was causing me discomfort in my daily routine. I couldn’t focus on simple tasks, such as doing my housework. And I couldn’t get proper sleep. It became so crippling that I couldn’t get out of bed and had to hire an old prostitute to take care of me. I lay in bed the whole of winter, crumpled up like a foetus under a mountain of blankets, but still feeling cold. I didn’t have the strength to chew my food, which always tasted like rotten eggs, and smelled like roadkill. I felt as though my wings had been clipped and my feet were tied together. I thought about Ra Soko. And our last conversation. “You’re not my daughter! You’re the black sheep of this family! Get out!”
I cried into my pillow as I thought about the first time that he taught me how to ride a bike, at age 13, after mom was taken by cancer. He was the only one who showed me support.
I thought about my mother and remembered that I, would never be a mother. The days were dark, and I had no friends, or even family to turn to. I thought about my friends, Zukiswa and Nandipha, who I’d left behind, still working at that horrible agency. I could still see and smell Emanuel, leering at us, as we took off our clothes for the camera.
The noise from car alarms and running engines and people shouting from a distance were the only other things I heard. I suffered, in silence. I was not brave enough to ask for help because of the stigma against people with mental health issues. “Hang in there, it shall pass,” I said to myself under my breath, in the worst moments.
With the anxiety and depression slowly fading away. I regained my confidence through bars and night clubs. I was able to look at myself in the mirror again, and at least fake a smile.
But come December time, I was left broke and depressed. The rent was coming up and I couldn’t pay it. I thought perhaps, here in Bloemfontein, I could find easy money. A girl with my looks can sure score if they need to.
I walked out of my dingy flat and went to the dark side of the city. Little did I know I would run into good luck there.
I overheard a group of girls talking about a modelling agency, and I figured, with my experience, I had it.
I followed them to an old building with wooden doors and big colourful windows.
I heard singing inside and it was terrible, but I sang along. “Dwala Lami, Dwala Lami laphakade . . .”
The girls disappeared on me, and I tried to go back, but I bumped into someone on the way. “Oh sorry, I was just-” I froze, and gazed at the interesting young man wearing a collar.
He looked up at me. “Wow, you’re so beautiful.”
He reached out his hand. “I am Father Chowa, but you can call me Power.”
“Why Power?” I asked
He smiled even more. “Because, I am here to put, The Power, in you!”
I chuckled. “Okay, Power. But if this is a church then I am in the wrong place. Thanks, but no thanks,” I said and turned to walk away.
Power spoke up. “Okay, how about I tell you a secret?”
I stopped. With no money and nothing else to do, I was curious. “Do tell.”
He chuckled. “Well, the thing is, I have so many ladies in my choir and none of them can lead. So, foolish me, I prayed to the Almighty to send me a leader. And seeing that you’re here, and I heard you singing back there, I’d say, my prayers have been answered.”
I took a step back. “I don’t know.”
“I am sure there’s something you desire.” He walked up to me and held my hand. “Such tender hands, what’s your name?”
I blushed a little. “Nkele Mshengu.”
He caressed my hand, but in a brotherly way. “It’s lovely to meet you, Nkele. So, are you going to help me or not?” I looked away in shyness. “I’d love to . . . but I can’t.”
“You mean, you won’t.”
“No, I can’t, because I am afraid. I might mess it up. Because I have bipolar. So sometimes I can’t function at full capacity. Even before I came here, I was depressed, and might have done something stupid again.”
Power came even closer and gave me a gentle hug. “Don’t worry about a thing. I know exactly what to do. You know this choir is not just for church people only, it’s also for people with mental health problems, and substance abuse.”
I gave him a hug back. “For real?”
He stepped back and held me by the shoulders softly. “Yes, Nkele. And I will get my sister, Joyce, to look at you right away. She’ll take you to a psychologist for a full examination. Are you fine with that?”
I smiled as tears of joy filled my eyes. “Yes, I am.”
I had a black rose in my hand. It had sharp thorns and a blueberry smell. And for the first time I felt that I could relate. I had been deemed a black sheep by my father, so it was only fit that I found solace in it: the black rose represented all I had become.
Power turned to me. “Nkele, do you wish to share with us today?”
I got up from my chair with a bright smile. “Hello everyone. I am Nkele Mshengu. I have bipolar mood disorder and it has been exactly thirty days since I felt low, or high. I have been taking my medication and attending therapy with my psychologist, and group therapy here in church too.”
The room filled with applause. We were at the church, holding our daily therapy meeting.
“Thank you.” I continued, “This is a milestone, and I felt I should celebrate it with the people whom I have come to call my friends, my family, my loved ones. The people who took me in when I was lost and broken, and who gave me a fighting chance in the world.”
Power gave me a nudge to go on. “Today, I am proud to stand before you and say, I have a stable career as the lead vocal at a jazz club. I eat mostly plant-based food. And that’s not all, after a talk with Power, I wrote a letter to my father, Ra Soko.” I reached into my bag. “And, I’d like to open the reply now in front of you.
I can feel it in your words that you have undergone some experiences that shaped you into a wiser person who has accepted herself as she is. I am proud you have made a life for yourself in Bloemfontein and have yet again found your passion in singing. I believe you have everything under control with the help of your new friends but if you ever need anything, I am here for you my child. I love you and I too am sorry.
Pass my greetings to father Chowa.
Applause filled the room. Power stood up and gave me a hug. “Thanks for sharing. I am so proud of you.”
“You gave me courage through it all. I don’t know how I can ever repay you,” I said and gave him a kiss on the cheek, and then took my seat, with the others.