“Thixo somandla bonakele abantu, ungavumi bakujwayele” (Heavenly father people are rotten, do not let them take you for a ride)
— Nkunzi Emdaka, Maskandi singer
Last month, our family was struck with a great tragedy. While on holiday in France, Mpho got a call from home. His cousin, Duna, had been killed.
These calls come from Lusikisiki altogether way too often. I know it is bad news because the air in the room changes with a silent thud. The phone rings, I hear his voice say “no” with a distinctive pained disbelief and I brace myself. I know it is bad, but always hope it is not as bad as bad can possibly get. At one point I tried to convince myself that maybe Mpho had gotten used to it. Like, maybe if you endure enough loss you become conditioned at it, ‘good’ at it. That is not how it works, obviously. It was a defense mechanism against opening up to what it means or how it feels to have so many people in your life die. I still cannot do it. But he sure can; he does not have a choice.
The details of his death are vicious. Duna was brutally attacked while sleeping in his home. It looks increasingly like the perpetrators were a group of four of his friends and neighbours. He had been out at the shebeen with them the very same night. I knew from the moment I heard about it, whatever ‘reason’ or backstory might follow would be heartbreakingly stupid. Maybe it was a robbery for $20, maybe it was an argument gone too far, maybe he made a move on someone’s girlfriend. As much as I hope that police are able to solve the case, bring them to justice and provide Mpho with some closure, I already know the story will be a chilling example of how life can actually lose its value.
A number of parallel thoughts have rattled through my brain as the recent xenophobic violence across South Africa, the Garissa University massacre and the one year anniversary of the #bringbackourgirls Boko Haram kidnapping have unfolded. Like these atrocities, the violence was both personal and grotesque. Duna is also now a similarly tragic statistic borne of a frustrated time and place. But like each and every soul involved in any of the above, he is so very much more than a number.
There is no question that the world values lives differently. When people die, the ones with most distinguished status are mourned the loudest. Even obituaries and eulogies often focus on people’s accomplishments. As a student and lover of Africa, there are way too many examples of Africans whose stories get swept aside or who are ‘othered’ to the point of becoming nameless, faceless statistics. Not only is it dishonest, it keeps the rest of the world at arm’s length instead of closing the gap.
Duna was hardly impressive by most standards. He was unemployed, did not have much of an education, never married and liked the bottle. When it came time to write his obituary nobody even knew his mother’s real name. His father, who passed away 6 years ago, had brought him home to Gran as an infant. As she does, she picked him up and raised him. He was the notorious drunk cousin that could most often be found around the house and who showed up late to our wedding, dancing to a chorus of cheers, completely off his rocker and wearing fake neon green glasses.
Lusikisiki bears many of the same scars as other homelands or townships that absorbed so much of the colonial and apartheid burden. It is poor and under-served. Hard to reach and without basic amenities. There are very few jobs, education options are sparse and bad and the population is disproportionately composed of elderly and small children. Options in Lusikisiki are simple:
1) get out
2) do nothing.
Getting ‘out’ requires the perfect genesis of a whole lot of forces: luck, grace, vision, talent and a series of helping hands. My husband is a living testament to all of the above. When he goes home, his Gran is always delighted to see him. But after a couple of days she encourages him to leave. As she sees it, nothing good happens to young people there and whatever good he brings becomes at risk the longer he stays.
Mpho and Duna’s lives have gone down very different paths, but only by the slimmest of margins and by none of the measures that matter the most.
Mpho changes when we go to Lusikisiki. I know very little about what is going on – I don’t speak enough of the language and many details are lost to my oblivion. But it does not take spoken language to recognize the peace that washes over him or to know that it comes from belonging. His truest version of himself is as a young kid running through the hills, rolling tires, herding cows, stick fighting or sitting around talking crap; all with Duna by his side. They grew up in exactly the same house doing exactly the same things, together. Duna was his cousin, first best friend and home.
Duna was loved because he was a person. A good person. He had a good heart and did no harm. He shared his home, his time, his identity, his roots. He gave my husband the most important and generous gifts – unconditional love, belonging and a sense of self.
Mpho’s pain over the past few weeks is palpable, as is his Gran’s and the rest of the family. The loss is heartrending, the tears so very real. In its own right, but further compounded by both the callousness of the situation and by having endured so much already. They do not need anyone to validate their feelings, but I wanted to write this anyways.
To Duna – you are loved. In the end, that is all that carries on. Walk in the hands of God, my brother.
And to Mpho – I am so very sorry for all that you have lost. For whatever it is worth, I love you fiercely and will do my best to give you a sense of belonging wherever we go. It is not the same and we would never look to replace your home, but the kids and I will keep trying to live our love out loud. Love certainly lives here.