The Salvation Army
Port Elizabeth compared to Johannesburg was a strange, uninviting place.
The memory of the loveliness of growing up in a city by the sea, the sun, the beach, the surf, where you can smell and almost taste the sea salt in the air. In Port Elizabeth the blue sky is still like a blue light that travels like a bird, it is cleansing like a ritual purification or a summer rain shower, it disappears like screen idols in Hollywood and spies. It is a friendly legend and is as soothing as a warm glass of milk. In Johannesburg the air was like a sea mist that surrounded your body and assuaged you in its fiercest heat and struck you down cruelly with an illness in the middle of winter. In the early evenings when I walked home after I got off the mini-bus taxi at the corner of Simmonds street and Bree and I walked to the Salvation Army were the happiest moments I experienced. I was free, alone, self-sufficient and independent. For ten minutes I didn’t have to answer to anyone.
As a child I felt free and overprotected. As an adult I lacked common sense but I was serious and intelligent. There were times when I seemed positively small and insignificant. The beginning of my career (working at a television company) was an invasion, the end of it was a cure to all my incurable madness and the deep feelings that I felt of being deeply unlovable and afraid and it made me recognise what the void in my life was – that I should talk to my mother more often. My confidence was misconstrued as arrogance. I had become the mean girl I hated in high school.
The crushing, unbearable heat in summer in Johannesburg sickened me. In winter this was replaced by a numbing cold that would race throughout my body. It was immoveable.
In both cities cultures are panic-stricken, people talk in tongues – there are eleven official languages; everything is blue or black, as serious as a heart attack where the sky often transcends this experience – this black otherworldliness. The world exists upside down. Here women and children who are coloured are not just lost or a shell of a human being, tormented and abused by men, living in poverty without proper sanitation, clean water or education (the many advantages first world countries have), they are gone. Their eyes are dead. They survive by any means necessary. They stay in a shelter for a short while but because it is temporary, they leave and often return to their homes where there is domestic violence.
Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg are both cities of sacrifice and survival. In both cities the girls are radical and sublime – heavenly creatures who look old before their time. In Johannesburg they consume too much alcohol, drugs, hard partying, lines of cocaine, they smoke marijuana whereas girls acquire puppy fat in Port Elizabeth, eat pudding, eat more servings, snack more between meals, have babies and unhappy marriages. The smart girls more often than not do not make the smart choices. They have a degree but then acquire a fake life, a fake identity – they make the ultimate sacrifice in time by disposing of themselves, their intellect, and their chutzpah in minuscule doses and with it any sense of completion.
In Johannesburg hard, successful faces masked the fragile hearts of pale outsiders, hunted ‘old souls’ and the haunted. They were a minority in terms of thought; screaming unbreakable triumphs ignited their minds trapped in Johannesburg’s seedy nightlife and their lifestyles were sordid. Everything that was inherently beautiful and decent within them died and became absolutely corrupt. It is only the dead whose neuroses are safely disguised without investigation and who are left untroubled by knowing and saved ghosts present and past.
City streets are mapped seductively by colour. Hawkers ply their trade outside popular retail stores. Malls are clean; their surfaces are sanitary, shiny and new. The shop windows are sparkly which beautifully reveal the cool elegance of the extraterrestrial glowing interior of the store.
Sometimes there are street children who sleep on the street. They are sullen, sleeping, dreaming and tranquil – the fear gone. At night despite hunger, fire, spiteful episodes, disturbed folk who are mentally ill or emotionally unstable, they stay on the streets because they have no home to go to. When I feel midnight has lasted all day, I think to myself that they are even worse off than I am. When I walk past them at night to get to the Salvation Army where I stay I realise what a painful thing it is to see a human being’s vulnerability. I am glad they can’t see mine.
It is addictive believing that someone is in love with you for who you are even though on the inside you know that it’s a big fat lie. Uninvited he kisses my face. He is cool – dangerous. He says I look beautiful but I don’t believe him. I know he only says that because he wants to sleep with me. Natasha, my friend says he only wants to sleep with me because I am a virgin. I am inclined to believe her. I am very inexperienced, shy, insecure and depressive. I think he looks like an angel with his blonde hair and brown eyes. This is just a phase, I tell myself and I will grow out of it.
A very famous jazz musician and composer shot his wife and then killed himself in the building where I was working. I was editing some of my work and fell asleep. The hunted are always as serious as the impulse of flight about doing themselves in. Did he feel he was faceless in this cold, unknown world? Was he sickened in reverie by his rage? Could I have saved Moses Molelekwa?
The colour of my skin is distracting – am I white, am I black? I am coloured. It seems as if all my dreams are incomplete just by this very basis alone.
How does a mother forget about her own child’s birthday? How does a mother forget about her own child? I am the pale outsider with the fragile heart and the butterflies in her stomach when she gets nervous. Am I not funny enough, happy enough, satisfied enough, is it my funny clothes or my hairstyle that needs to be re-evaluated? Is it because perhaps I have become a younger more efficient version of her – updated and underestimated?
I wait an entire evening for the phone to ring. For her to wish me ‘Happy Birthday’ but this is an entirely soulless exercise and once again my world is untouched yet changed – I will never grow up. My mother – a siren – will always overshadow me.
I don’t feel like drinking. I don’t feel like dancing. So I sit at the bar. People buy me drinks and I sometimes I get up to dance because people come up to me and ask me too or they talk to me – I think because I am sitting alone. But I am going out of my mind because I feel so tired and sad and I am wondering why everyone is being so nice to me. All I want to do is to go to sleep and get some well-deserved rest. I just didn’t want to be alone this evening. But you are worse off when you are alone in a crowd of people who are having fun because it is the weekend. They want to party and forget the stress they experienced that week. Nothing blurs and fades the harsh edges of your world and makes it disappear.
Africa, Africa, Africa let me fall to where you are.
There are wild paths in Africa. Overhead the clouds move in mysterious ways. Here there is no electricity-burning overhead to illuminate gifted children doing their homework. The power of my dreams is fed by hunger. It is no different from their motivation. Animals lick their young but stripped of that substitute; of touch, we die.
This is the end of the world – savage, dangerous, hurtful and self-destructive. In her pure state of being Africa is wilder than the wind; she sighs in African fields of dreams and like in the survival of the prettiest there is pain behind her smile. For a woman, a girl, an uneducated daughter love cannot be the only escape we have ever known?
Africa kills me, nourishes me, you make me forgetful, capable of more beauties, you are like a mushroom explosion that inspires disorder, you are uninvited, you destroy me, your red flowers bloom, you are a vampire, you stir shadows like a black forest in the night, a devil’s nightmare, Africa is as intelligent as the occupation of the sun and out of reach of oblivion.
Africa you saved a terrified and insecure child. I am the phoenix that at last rose from the ashes and found the exit out.