No Hunger Today
No Hunger Today
So there was I attending the ‘out to lunch’ writing session at Queen Victoria Street at the Center for the Book, Cape Town, and I was about to be asked a shocking question. This is my second day attending. Last Wednesday was my first and it wasn’t that bad, I think.
I go up the concrete staircase which is made in such a way that it looks like one big stone carved nicely to make stairs from it. Gently, I shove the wooden door on which a piece of paper written Push is pasted with a sealing tape. The security guy is here like last week and the week before. He’s sitting inside his wooden security box place. He is wearing a navy and blue security uniform. On my left is the receptionist lady behind the wooden reception counter. Her face is as heavily make upped as it was last week and the week before. I invite them to smile at me by flashing my own smile as a way of salutation. I want to keep greetings to the minimum, I know my people.
“Out to lunch,” I announce the purpose of my visit here, in case nobody remembers me.
“Brada, is it well today?”
“It is well, sir, thank you. Is it well with you too?”
“It wouldn’t help to complain, brada. It wouldn’t help.”
“I see,” that’s my normal response to anyone who tries to tell me how difficult it is to be black in this country because I already know. I am black too, and I have struggles of my own that I don’t tell anyone. In fact, my work contract and lease agreement both expire in two month’s time and I haven’t found a new job yet. I have no savings to speak of. My life has never been more uncertain. But I am not going to ask anyone for help, and neither am I going to the villages to stay and complain about being an unemployed graduate. I’ve got my pride and I have vowed to myself that I am going swim through this shity time. I just need to make sure I keep my sanity intact.
Actually, that’s why I am here today. I am here to participate in the ‘out to lunch’ writing group so that I can establish a consistent routine of writing short stories every Wednesday, apart from the novel manuscripts I’m working on at home. I have recently found that I enjoy writing and lately I even have a feeling that I can’t not write. I have to be writing because I’ve got stories to tell, or else I would lose my sanity. I write to keep sane. So that is the plan, and it does not involve complaining about how difficult it is to be black because that’s a given, universally. Even in blacks only societies, black people suffer. So if fellow black men tell me things like ‘life is such a struggle it does not help complaining about it’ at the drop of a hat, my response is a flat, unconcerned ‘I see’, which could mean anything really.
Imagine someone telling you ‘it wouldn’t help to complain’, when in fact that is a very complaint on its own.
“I see,” so I tell the security guy as I turn my attention to the receptionist lady. He seems to have gotten the message because our conversation ends right there, without elaborating on what an illusion this democracy turns out to be.
There is silence.
“How are you, my sister?”
“Eyi, mntasekhaya, is it even worth asking… its nuffin but problems problems problems,” she says.
This is it; I’m done with these people. I shall never ask them how they are doing because it turns out I don’t want to know. Or maybe it’s because I already know. I know that no one chooses to be a receptionist or a security. I shouldn’t have asked such a ridiculous question in the first place, because I know it’s not nice to be who they are. But it’s not because I pity them that I won’t ask how they are doing again. It’s because I’m tired of complaints. I’ve never thought about it this way. I’ve asked people so many times before and that’s all I’ve been hearing: complaints, complaints, and more complaints –in that order. And I’m tired of hearing it.
In fact, from today I won’t be asking anyone because I’ve discovered that I am not exactly interested. Not as long as there’s still so much uncertainty in my own life anyway. You know, it’s nice to listen to other people’s problems when your life is sorted. It can even make you cry sometimes. But when you are in the same situation, and you know you’re not supposed to, it’s quite different. That’s why I don’t identify with them today. I know I’m not supposed to be where I am.
“A little late today,” I say, summoning all politeness in me just so that I can disappear from these people. I think the Jacob so-you-think-you-can-preside Zuma government must establish a Ministry of General Complaints with a motto like ‘cry and we’ll kiss it better.’ Or something. We already have the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, don’t we? If we are to complain about some things, might as well go N1. Allocate budget, personnel and all.
“You have a pen today, brava?”
“Yes, thank you,” I say, and I want to add, “what? you think I’m an imbecile?”
There is silence.
I push into the great hall and here is a sacred space. I can hear the echo of my own breathing. I am surrounded with brownness. I can smell the wonderful smell of old wood and I particularly marvel at the softness of the navy rug on the floor. I feel like taking my shoes off and just enjoy every step by step on this smoothness. The silence in this place is enriching.
“Greetings everybody,” I say when I enter the small ‘out to lunch’ room at the far end of the great hall. There are one two three four people seated round the table. Each one has a writing pad before them and the ‘out to lunch’ box is at the center. They mumble their greetings and I find a chair between the old man who looks like a retired professor and the elderly woman who doesn’t look like a local. Jack, the guy with a blonde beard and brown woollen jersey from last week, is wearing the same clothes and looks like he never left this place, and is sitting on the right side of the retired professor, where he sat last week, and the week before. And next to Jack is a young fellow who is not so clean, and whose hair is somewhere between an afro and locks –depending on how much you contemplate him.
“Let’s get cracking ya’ll,” announces Jack.
“Who is going to choose ze topic today?” asks the old lady on my left, and my suspicion is confirmed, she’s not from here because we don’t have ze topics in this part of ze world.
“I chose last week,” I say to eliminate myself as today’s option.
“You, you choose ze topic today,” she instructs the young fellow whose fingertips have turned brown from smoking the ends of cigarette ends.
“Me, okay,” he says, and he opens the ‘out to lunch’ box and picks up a piece of paper which he reads to us.
“Hunger,” he says, and without pausing he adds, “no, we not have hunger again, we have hunger that day, no hunger today.”
He says this with such passion I find myself nodding in agreement that hunger is not such a good idea to write about today. It’s clear to me that hunger affects this fellow so much that writing about it, again nogal, would be absolute torture. He reaches for another one and this time he tells us that we must come up with new topics before he reads, “barbed wire fence!”
For a brief moment I watch these people who do not think about what they will write but start writing without more ado and I wonder if I will ever reach this level.
There is a silence.
All reality fades away and the five of us here allow ourselves to be consumed by the phenomenon of a barbed wire fence. When it’s time to read, I volunteer to start with my own. The first line goes something like: and if there is anything else to write about today, then it must be about a barbed wire fence. I go on using a barbed wire fence as a metaphor to illustrate how the law, politics, religion and hunger are a barb to humanity. I enunciate the word hunger. When I finish, there is a collective sigh as everyone is still swallowing my words. I must have raised the tempo too high, I think. And I’m beside myself with pride.
Next is ze o’lady. She reads a story about a couple who lived in a farm, raising zeir little boy who one day asks why zeir home was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Surprised by ze question, ze father answered that it is to keep bad people outside ze yard. I yawn, and so does everybody.
Then the young fellow who had read us ze topic reads his story too. I find it fascinating when he ends by saying a barbed wire fence is an illusion of safety.
“If not, then I never writ,” he says, and all I can think of is that here is a K Sello Duiker in the making. Except that he might just have plagiarized Shakespeare on the last words.
Jack’s writing is different. He writes about the unsolicited barbed wire fences surrounding Christina Aguilera’s life. Then he closes the book and runs his fingers over the Christina Aguilera cover, his eyes closed.
There is silence.
I think we have a problem here. But I must not judge, you see.
Lastly, the retired professor reads his script. There is something about his voice. It sounds deep and so matter-of-factly it’s like those voices you hear on a documentary film.
“Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives,” that’s what we are being told by the retired professor. Or at least that’s what we hear, which may or may not be what he necessarily wrote. But dammit, his voice!
There is silence.
“Great, everybody don’t forget ze new topics for next week, okay.”
As I walk towards the door, rushing so that I can enjoy my catwalk on the rug, the young fellow grabs me on my upper arm. It’s violent, I think.
“Good write ne.”
“You are not doing badly yourself.”
Now we talk about our writing as we walk on the carpet. Of course I am annoyed because I am not enjoying the silence and the softness. To enjoy the softness of this rug I must concentrate, but now…
“You stay where?”
“Me? I live in Plumstead.”
There is silence.
The young fellow looks at me with awe. What I said is unbelievable to him. I know because Plumstead is a rich suburb, sort of, and it must be puzzling to a homeless person to have a fellow black person who claims to live in such luxury. I can see he wants to say more. And to tell you the truth I am now willing to have this conversation.
“Are you African?”
Am I what? That is the next question I get asked. I mean, really, what else could I possibly be. I’ve had people ask me which country I come from or which tribe I am, but I’ve never been asked this before. I don’t know whether it’s an ‘out to lunch’ trick question or what, but I nod.
“Yes, I am an African.”
He falls silent and walks away to start a conversation with the security guy about the difficulties of life, leaving me dumbstruck. I leave and as I snake through the gardens I think about the question. What makes me an African? Have we, as a nation, finally figured out who is an African and who is not yet?