There are cities I cannot write about. Cities so full that you cannot hold them in your mouth or hands—spilling over onto sidewalks and tarmac, reaching into the recesses of your blood memories for something you once knew. But how do you remember a thing you’ve never seen? A city you’ve never met? Perhaps it’s the city’s stunning geography or its dizzying history but something stops you before you can put pen to paper that says, “wait, you do not understand… yet.”
In August 2016, I found myself in a theater in Cape Town. It was Women’s Day, that one day unlike many others relegated to the celebration of us: Black women. This one dedicated to the ones who bore the South African struggle for freedom yet remain greatly unwritten and unrenowned. On stage was a celebration of Albertina Sisulu, that woman who’s famed husband, Walter, I had known so much about, while learning nothing of her: the nurse and freedom fighter who took on the role of a mother not only to her children, but to a nation, incanting that, “We could not be little girls raising men.”
I sat in piercing darkness and watched as women who were mothers and would be mothers and those who would never be, gave birth to a nation while their husbands sat in jails and police stations turned into torture chambers.
I wept quietly in my seat: for Albertina, for South Africa, for Africa. I wept for African, for me.
In the audience with me that day sat a woman whose face I would remember without knowing why until she arrived in Nairobi eight months later to read poems from her newly published collection titled, Collective Amnesia. We never spoke that evening in the packed theater but something about her remained with me, much like something about Cape Town remained with me even after I had left. That woman was Koleka Putuma, a young poet causing stirs for her work in “exhuming stories and archiving them” [her words].
Back in Nairobi, I sat in at the Goethe Institut theater on Monrovia Street as Koleka’s Capetonian R’s rolled over me, taking me back to that city so haunted with memory that I have failed to capture it in words; unsure of whether to write its present or past. Deeply aware that one is not without the other.
Much like New Orleans, Cape Town is a city whose racial history troubled me. Unlike New Orleans, Cape Town is a city whose history is much more personal, each of us belonging to that unfortunate circumstance of being African in a white world. Of being too beautiful, rich and fertile with dreams for the white man to resist. From the comfortable Sea Pointe apartment I sat in most days to the colorful Malay Bo-Kaap hillside to the Black and boisterous Gugulethu streets, the question of race and who got what out of the city, found me.
Unlike most countries that try to sweep their traumatic past under the rug, South Africa is a country intent on memory. Engaged in breathing the past into the present. Perhaps the tragedy of its very recent independence, (a mere 23 years ago while the rest of the continent marks anniversaries twice the age of its emancipation) is what makes remembrance so present for it. Memory after all, is a thing that gets clouded with age, slippery to hold onto as the years go by. But in our younger years, it is as clear as the rural night skies.
But to what ends can you hold memory and the present in the same hand without letting one go? I have heard many times from native South Africans that despite the illusion of the rainbow dream and the Truth and Reconciliation process, South Africa remains a country still beleaguered by its racial history. The public face of South Africa’s dialogue is not its private face. South Africa has yet to grieve because it was told to forgive. South Africa has yet to breathe.
As Wandia Njoya, English professor at the University of Nairobi reminded us as Koleka read from Collective Amnesia, “Mourning is very political. Someone’s interests are threatened with a collective mourning.” Cape Town, likewise, is a city that cannot be allowed to mourn. If the Black, Asian, and Coloured peoples of the city grieved their despair, the sea would swell to Robben Island—and Cape Town cannot afford to lose Robben Island, because how else will the tourists who crowd into ferries from the sparkling V&A Waterfront Mall understand the weight of apartheid if their is no monument to the centuries stolen from the men who lost their names on that island? Men whose job it was to build their own prison. Much like many of the Black peoples of the world who were made complicit in their own imprisonment; from the prisons of America to the settler colonies of Africa.
Ours, the Black peoples of Africa, is a history that calls us to remember. That implores us to name ourselves over and over and over again, keeping our ancestors alive on our breaths. But for whom do we remember? The Robben Island museum and tour, to a degree, exists to absolve itself of guilt. Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom marketed for tourist consumption. It sells you the illusion that you too have experienced history as you walk the narrow corridor from the cell where Mandela spent 27 years imprisoned, out of the doors of the main prison building and down the unpaved road towards the prison’s (now) open gates where your ferry awaits.
If you are Black like me, you are likely surrounded by White tourists taking photos when you visit Robben Island. If you are Black like me, you have probably heard a tone deaf White woman ask Theba Msomi, your guide and former Robben Island prisoner 2484, “What was the food like?” If you are Black like me, you have pulled back while the great mass of Whiteness propels itself through the gates and into the souvenir shops that await them— knowing you cannot make that walk to freedom with them. If you are Black like me, you have understood, excruciatingly, that there are ferries that take you to the end of the world and others to its beginning. You have swallowed the truth that for us, the Atlantic Ocean has always held a complicated history.
That Cape Town, between its hipster art markets selling ‘Coconuts for Africa’ and all-consuming views is more than a beautiful city hugging the Atlantic Ocean at the tip of Africa. It is an open wound, dressed but still leaking. One that both enamors and encumbers you in equal turns, leaving you with the question of what we shall and should remember–and what we must surrender.
*Excerpts taken from Koleka Putuma's poem, Water, which appears in Collective Amnesia
* Feature image: Personal photo showing view of Cape Town from Robben Island
The memory of going to the beach every New Year’s eve
Is one I share with cousins and most people raised black
How the elders would forbid us from going in too deep
To giggle, to splash in our black tights and Shoprite plastic bags wrapped around our new weaves, forbid us from riding the wave,
For fear that we would be a mass of blackness swept by the tide
And never to return
The elders forbid us as if the ocean has food poisoning
I often wonder why I feel as if I am drowning every time I look out into the sea
This and feeling incredibly small
And I often hear this joke
About Black people not being able to swim,
Or being scared of water;
We are mocked
And we have often mocked ourselves
For wiping our faces the way that we do when we come out of the water-
Compare it to how they do it all bay-watch like
And how we so ratchet-like with our postures and kink.
Yet every time our skin goes under
It’s as if the reeds remember that they were once chains
And the water, restless, wishes it could spew all of the slaves and ships onto shore
Whole as they had boarded, sailed and sunk
Their tears are what have turned the ocean salty,
This is why our irises burn every time we go under.
Every December sixteenth, December 24th and December 31st
Our skin re-traumatises the sea
They mock us
For not being able to throw ourselves into something that was instrumental in trying to execute our extinction.
For you, the ocean is for surf boards, boats and tans
And all the cool stuff you do under there in your bathing suits and goggles
But we, we have come to be baptised here
We have come to stir the other world here
We have come to cleanse ourselves here
We have come to connect our living to the dead here
Our respect for water is what you have termed fear
The audacity to trade and murder us over water
Then mock us for being scared of it
The audacity to arrive by water and invade us
If this land was really yours, then resurrect the bones of the colonisers and use them as a compass
Then quit using black bodies as tour guides or the site for your authentic African experience
Are we not tired of dancing for you?
Gyrating and singing on cue
Are we not tired of gathering as a mass of blackness?
To atone for just being here
To beg God to save us from a war we never started
To March for a cause caused by the intolerance for our existence
Raise our hands so we don’t get shot
Raise our hands in church to pray for protection
And we still get shot there too
With our hands raised
Invasion comes naturally for your people
So you have come to rob us of our places of worship too
Come to murder us in prisons too
That is not new either
Too many white people out here acting God
Too many white people out here doing the work of God,
And this God of theirs has my tummy in knots
Him and I have always had a complicated relationship
This blue eyed and blond haired Jesus I followed in Sunday school
Has had my kind bowing to a white and patriarchal heaven
Bowing to a Christ, his son, and 12 disciples
For all we know
the disciples could have been queer, the holy trinity some weird twisted love triangle
And the Holy Ghost transgender
But you will only choose to understand the scriptures that suit your agenda
You have taken the liberty to colonise the concept of God
Gave god a gender, a skin colour and a name in a language we had to twist our mouths around
Blasphemy is wrapping Slavery in the Gospel and calling it freedom
Blasphemy is having to watch my kind use the same gospel to enslave each other
Since the days of Elijah We have been engineered kneel to whiteness
And we are not even sure if the days of Elijah even existed
Because whoever wrote the bible did not include us
But I would rather exist in that god-less holy book than in the history books that did not tell truth
On behalf of us
If you really had to write our stories
Then you ought to have done it in our mother’s tongues
The ones you cut off when you fed them a new language
We never consent
Yet we are asked to dine with the oppressors
And Serve them forgiveness
How, when the only ingredients I have are grief and rage
Another one (who looks like me) died today
Another one (who looks like me) was murdered today
May that be the conversation at the table
And we can all thereafter wash this bitter meal with amnesia
And go for a swim after that
Just for fun.
Just for fun.