Constitutional Lullabies – Boipelo Maetla

What happens to the ancient proverb when there is no village left to take care of the child? When genocide is a broom sweeping a whole country clean? And those that survived wished that they had not, as being haunted was inevitable. The trauma of the current generation is not divorced from that of the previous. In fact it is heightened because of what happened in the past, the choices of those that fell and those that brought them nearer to the ground, the weakness and survival of the fittest.

I have seen blood, a lot of blood, not because I was once a nurse, but because there came a time when there was only so much that nurses and doctors could do. Which body to attend to and which to leave to rot, to become carcass and bury itself into the soil, to memorize the smell of sunlight scorching a black body. Who were we and what could we possibly have done. In nursing school there were a few lessons on history, but none of it told us who we were before the awfulness of colonization. As if that is our story, as if villages did not raise children and that poverty was this awful thing. We have never been poor, we were born from a people that understood that nature provided us with all that we needed and it was not necessary to use things to excess because we had more days to live. Without caution, or the accentuated contrast of rich and poor stifled down our throats till we gagged and bowed down to foreign supremacy.

The hospital was home to so many, yet never the sick, only the injured, always only the injured. The walls of my work place were haunted by spirits that did not understand the reason for their death, some still bitter from waiting too long, waiting till they died, waiting till they contracted new infections, waiting and seeing open skulls, browning flesh, burst capillaries. Like these people were not people and the hospital suddenly looked like a butchery, the meat never to be eaten but buried like secrets lying safe and warm in the minds of those that did not care for us. And when shamans came to cleanse the hospital, they shook and screamed and cried, they heard things we could not. This is the reason why survivors wish they were not survivors, they are haunted by pleas and begs for mercy. What’s worse for the survivors who were also spirit mediums, seeing the dead still pleading, their forlorn spirits colored blood red, like the clothes they last wore. What a world. What a time.

The universe teaches that we will always be granted hours of calm, be it still silent nights or long rainy days, calm is guaranteed and nobody deserved it more than we did. A day where the whole country was closed, and everyone stayed away. The troops would go back home, there was not many people left to kill, the government would endorse their departure, and those that did not die would have to sort through defaced and dismembered bodies in search of their people. Some buried an arm, some a single leg which they were convinced belonged to a family member. The pursuit of closure does not allow you to continue searching for body parts as if trying to find the best dress at a flee market from a pile of clothes that did not connect with you. Some stories we wish to never have to tell, or have them exist from a place in someone’s sick imagination. But then again, we lived in a time where telling someone else’s stories was a fulfilling attempt to avoid the unbecoming that came with acknowledging your own. So the newspaper headlines and magazines flooded. Rwanda was burning and we read about it, as if we did not know we were the ones on fire. We muttered amongst ourselves that only we could have written this better, from a place of experience. We buried the bodies, we left pieces of ourselves in those caskets, to make the dead understand their misery was our own. We heaved and became a family, we laughed from the fear of crying. What kind of person cries their whole entire life? The person that lives on dictated and borrowed time, the one whose breath is a commodity, and lives in a country that belongs to them, just that they misplaced the title deed so their voice is shunned. Every day without halt.

I had a brother who would probably not amount to much had he not been killed during those times. While some people live through a revolution, some are swallowed by it, both the former and the latter being undesirable, no one ever walks out of a revolution as they were when they were vacuumed in. My brother lived for politics, for the revolution, alcohol and women. An intellectual lay about, crippled by things we were not familiar with because of our lack of inclination on the subjects of psychology. And whatever this thing was, it ate at him every day, reducing him more and more into an angry stranger, violent to his children and to himself. I was left to care for his children as that is what a noble aunt does. I had my own and no husband. Children outside of wedlock were no calamity, there were bigger and more urgent calamities that the community had to deal with beyond what was perceived to be immoral. I did not answer questions posed to the status and chosen use of my womb.

The family became blended and I treated all the children as my own. The sun still rose over the country, and I would often wonder what kind of guest it was that continued to visit a place so inhospitable. Mornings turned into nights, families recuperated and we gave each other lessons on how to breath with less caution, like we were entitled to breath and we would have this written in the constitution too. Alas, good ol’Constitution. Ye’ that cometh bearing hope and purity, the rain that doth wash the old sins away, ye’ intentions noble and promising. The constitution was to us what Nelson Mandela was to South Africa, a ball of new beginnings and restoration, of recovery and peace. They told us it was for us, by us. It read like a good bedtime story should, every word feeling like a hug from your mother.

Something foreign was growing between me and my children. We had tried to talk over its voice, to sing loud over its husky tone, to take steps larger than it could handle. When it crawled, we walked, when it learnt to walk, we would jump, when it learnt to jump we decided to run, run from being poor. But as most things do in life, it caught up with us. A nurse’s salary could only go so far. The squatter camps welcomed us, like prodigal children accepting that they had attempted flight and failed, black people walk, they do not fly. The air of communism in the squatter camp was overwhelming. In this place of nothingness, we felt at home although I felt as though I had failed, I was still alive.

We first heard of it from the radio, the transit centers that swept poor people off municipal owned land. By inhumane force and actions similar to those of yesteryear. After the promises and the moving forward, something about the air that day felt like it did some decades ago. I wondered often about this, if it was their land when did they buy it? When we were still trying to concentrate on not dying yes? The transit centers were cold and brutal, it was inside these that I remembered my favorite part of the constitution. Article 10 which stated that the human person was sacred and inviolable, and that the State had the obligation to respect, defend and protect him or her. Such a luxurious read. Optimism is when you think a constitution will save you from a life where doom is commonplace, realism is when you realize that the only thing beautiful about the constitution is the font in which it is typed in. There was no end to the punishment. I had never seen a people more crucified for being alive than we were. As if we were being punished for surviving a genocide. These boxes they kept us in, detailed like sardines, only heaven knows where they were taking us. Some of us silently hoped it was somewhere better, with less blood spill and drought, less morbid breath and censored thoughts.       Then this one night, I told one of my children to take off his shirt off and we would all urinate on it, there was no water source except our urine, no food too, but that was nothing new. The shirt was to tie to the wooden bars of this transit prison, wet them and attempt to break two of these bars apart by stretching the wet shirt between them and pulling them together. The thing about a long shot is that it is always worth a shot. The wooden bars broke and we could all fit into this gap to escape.

I ran out, my children ran out, the other squatters ran out, people ran in the same fashion that they did some decades ago. Running from fear and toward a promised land that fulfilled our desire to be human again, even though it existed mostly in our imagination.    I had hoped I had done my children enough justice, by teaching them that words like constitutions and human rights were buzz words that could easily rebuke their existence and be bent to fit the desire of the kings. I ran in my own direction and while stopping to catch a breath, watched them scatter into the night like stars abandoned. Flight as light as that of a butterfly and with the speed of a cockroach they dived into the streets, over the border, living to die another day. Something inside of me wondered if they would remember that this time, the hero was a woman.

Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo



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