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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood / : (by Trevor Noah, 2016) -

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood /   :     (by Trevor Noah, 2016) -

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood / : (by Trevor Noah, 2016) -

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood / : (by Trevor Noah, 2016) -
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2016
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Trevor Noah
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Trevor Noah
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upper-intermediate
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08:44:47
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood / : :

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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah For my mother. My first fan. Thank you for making me a man. The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all. At the time, black South Africans outnumbered white South Africans nearly five to one, yet we were divided into different tribes with different languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Sotho, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga, Pedi, and more. Long before apartheid existed these tribal factions clashed and warred with one another. Then white rule used that animosity to divide and conquer. All nonwhites were systematically classified into various groups and subgroups. Then these groups were given differing levels of rights and privileges in order to keep them at odds. Perhaps the starkest of these divisions was between South Africas two dominant groups, the Zulu and the Xhosa. The Zulu man is known as the warrior. He is proud. He puts his head down and fights. When the colonial armies invaded, the Zulu charged into battle with nothing but spears and shields against men with guns. The Zulu were slaughtered by the thousands, but they never stopped fighting. The Xhosa, on the other hand, pride themselves on being the thinkers. My mother is Xhosa. Nelson Mandela was Xhosa. The Xhosa waged a long war against the white man as well, but after experiencing the futility of battle against a better-armed foe, many Xhosa chiefs took a more nimble approach. These white people are here whether we like it or not, they said. Lets see what tools they possess that can be useful to us. Instead of being resistant to English, lets learn English. Well understand what the white man is saying, and we can force him to negotiate with us. The Zulu went to war with the white man. The Xhosa played chess with the white man. For a long time, neither was particularly successful, and each blamed the other for a problem neither had created. Bitterness festered. For decades those feelings were held in check by a common enemy. Then apartheid fell, Mandela walked free, and black South Africa went to war with itself. RUN Sometimes in big Hollywood movies theyll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, Thats rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that. I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car. It happened on a Sunday. I know it was on a Sunday because we were coming home from church, and every Sunday in my childhood meant church. We never missed church. My mother wasand still isa deeply religious woman. Very Christian. Like indigenous peoples around the world, black South Africans adopted the religion of our colonizers. By adopt I mean it was forced on us. The white man was quite stern with the native. You need to pray to Jesus, he said. Jesus will save you. To which the native replied, Well, we do need to be savedsaved from you, but thats beside the point. So lets give this Jesus thing a shot. My whole family is religious, but where my mother was Team Jesus all the way, my grandmother balanced her Christian faith with the traditional Xhosa beliefs shed grown up with, communicating with the spirits of our ancestors. For a long time I didnt understand why so many black people had abandoned their indigenous faith for Christianity. But the more we went to church and the longer I sat in those pews the more I learned about how Christianity works: If youre Native American and you pray to the wolves, youre a savage. If youre African and you pray to your ancestors, youre a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, thats just common sense. My childhood involved church, or some form of church, at least four nights a week. Tuesday night was the prayer meeting. Wednesday night was Bible study. Thursday night was Youth church. Friday and Saturday we had off. (Time to sin!) Then on Sunday we went to church. Three churches, to be precise. The reason we went to three churches was because my mom said each church gave her something different. The first church offered jubilant praise of the Lord. The second church offered deep analysis of the scripture, which my mom loved. The third church offered passion and catharsis; it was a place where you truly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit inside you. Completely by coincidence, as we moved back and forth between these churches, I noticed that each one had its own distinct racial makeup: Jubilant church was mixed church. Analytical church was white church. And passionate, cathartic church, that was black church. Mixed church was Rhema Bible Church. Rhema was one of those huge, supermodern, suburban megachurches. The pastor, Ray McCauley, was an exbodybuilder with a big smile and the personality of a cheerleader. Pastor Ray had competed in the 1974 Mr. Universe competition. He placed third. The winner that year was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Every week, Ray would be up onstage working really hard to make Jesus cool. There was arena-style seating and a rock band jamming out with the latest Christian contemporary pop. Everyone sang along, and if you didnt know the words that was okay because they were all right up there on the Jumbotron for you. It was Christian karaoke, basically. I always had a blast at mixed church. White church was Rosebank Union in Sandton, a very white and wealthy part of Johannesburg. I loved white church because I didnt actually have to go to the main service. My mom would go to that, and I would go to the youth side, to Sunday school. In Sunday school we got to read cool stories. Noah and the flood was obviously a favorite; I had a personal stake there. But I also loved the stories about Moses parting the Red Sea, David slaying Goliath, Jesus whipping the money changers in the temple. I grew up in a home with very little exposure to popular culture. Boyz II Men were not allowed in my mothers house. Songs about some guy grinding on a girl all night long? No, no, no. That was forbidden. Id hear the other kids at school singing End of the Road, and Id have no clue what was going on. I knew of these Boyz II Men, but I didnt really know who they were. The only music I knew was from church: soaring, uplifting songs praising Jesus. It was the same with movies. My mom didnt want my mind polluted by movies with sex and violence. So the Bible was my action movie. Samson was my superhero. He was my He-Man. A guy beating a thousand people to death with the jawbone of a donkey? Thats pretty badass. Eventually you get to Paul writing letters to the Ephesians and it loses the plot, but the Old Testament and the Gospels? I could quote you anything from those pages, chapter and verse. There were Bible games and quizzes every week at white church, and I kicked everyones ass. Then there was black church. There was always some kind of black church service going on somewhere, and we tried them all. In the township, that typically meant an outdoor, tent-revival-style church. We usually went to my grandmothers church, an old-school Methodist congregation, five hundred African grannies in blue-and-white blouses, clutching their Bibles and patiently burning in the hot African sun. Black church was rough, I wont lie. No airconditioning. No lyrics up on Jumbotrons. And it lasted forever, three or four hours at least, which confused me because white church was only like an hour in and out, thanks for coming. But at black church I would sit there for what felt like an eternity, trying to figure out why time moved so slowly. Is it possible for time to actually stop? If so, why does it stop at black church and not at white church? I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more. Im here to fill up on my blessings for the week, my mother used to say. The more time we spent at church, she reckoned, the more blessings we accrued, like a Starbucks Rewards Card. Black church had one saving grace. If I could make it to the third or fourth hour Id get to watch the pastor cast demons out of people. People possessed by demons would start running up and down the aisles like madmen, screaming in tongues. The ushers would tackle them, like bouncers at a club, and hold them down for the pastor. The pastor would grab their heads and violently shake them back and forth, shouting, I cast out this spirit in the name of Jesus! Some pastors were more violent than others, but what they all had in common was that they wouldnt stop until the demon was gone and the congregant had gone limp and collapsed on the stage. The person had to fall. Because if he didnt fall that meant the demon was powerful and the pastor needed to come at him even harder. You could be a linebacker in the NFL. Didnt matter. That pastor was taking you down. Good Lord, that was fun. Christian karaoke, badass action stories, and violent faith healersman, I loved church. The thing I didnt love was the lengths we had to go to in order to get to church. It was an epic slog. We lived in Eden Park, a tiny suburb way outside Johannesburg. It took us an hour to get to white church, another fortyfive minutes to get to mixed church, and another forty-five minutes to drive out to Soweto for black church. Then, if that wasnt bad enough, some Sundays wed double back to white church for a special evening service. By the time we finally got home at night, Id collapse into bed. This particular Sunday, the Sunday I was hurled from a moving car, started out like any other Sunday. My mother woke me up, made me porridge for breakfast. I took my bath while she dressed my baby brother Andrew, who was nine months old. Then we went out to the driveway, but once we were finally all strapped in and ready to go, the car wouldnt start. My mom had this ancient, broken-down, bright-tangerine Volkswagen Beetle that she picked up for next to nothing. The reason she got it for next to nothing was because it was always breaking down. To this day I hate secondhand cars. Almost everything thats ever gone wrong in my life I can trace back to a secondhand car. Secondhand cars made me get detention for being late for school. Secondhand cars left us hitchhiking on the side of the freeway. A secondhand car was also the reason my mom got married. If it hadnt been for the Volkswagen that didnt work, we never would have looked for the mechanic who became the husband who became the stepfather who became the man who tortured us for years and put a bullet in the back of my mothers headIll take the new car with the warranty every time. As much as I loved church, the idea of a nine-hour slog, from mixed church to white church to black church then doubling back to white church again, was just too much to contemplate. It was bad enough in a car, but taking public transport would be twice as long and twice as hard. When the Volkswagen refused to start, inside my head I was praying, Please say well just stay home. Please say well just stay home. Then I glanced over to see the determined look on my mothers face, her jaw set, and I knew I had a long day ahead of me. Come, she said. Were going to catch minibuses. My mother is as stubborn as she is religious. Once her minds made up, thats it. Indeed, obstacles that would normally lead a person to change their plans, like a car breaking down, only made her more determined to forge ahead. Its the Devil, she said about the stalled car. The Devil doesnt want us to go to church. Thats why weve got to catch minibuses. Whenever I found myself up against my mothers faith-based obstinacy, I would try, as respectfully as possible, to counter with an opposing point of view. Or, I said, the Lord knows that today we shouldnt go to church, which is why he made sure the car wouldnt start, so that we stay at home as a family and take a day of rest, because even the Lord rested. Ah, thats the Devil talking, Trevor. No, because Jesus is in control, and if Jesus is in control and we pray to Jesus, he would let the car start, but he hasnt, therefore No, Trevor! Sometimes Jesus puts obstacles in your way to see if you overcome them. Like Job. This could be a test. Ah! Yes, Mom. But the test could be to see if were willing to accept what has happened and stay at home and praise Jesus for his wisdom. No. Thats the Devil talking. Now go change your clothes. But, Mom! Trevor! Sunqhela! Sunqhela is a phrase with many shades of meaning. It says dont undermine me, dont underestimate me, and just try me. Its a command and a threat, all at once. Its a common thing for Xhosa parents to say to their kids. Any time I heard it I knew it meant the conversation was over, and if I uttered another word I was in for a hidingwhat we call a spanking. At the time, I attended a private Catholic school called Maryvale College. I was the champion of the Maryvale sports day every single year, and my mother won the moms trophy every single year. Why? Because she was always chasing me to kick my ass, and I was always running not to get my ass kicked. Nobody ran like me and my mom. She wasnt one of those Come over here and get your hiding type moms. Shed deliver it to you free of charge. She was a thrower, too. Whatever was next to her was coming at you. If it was something breakable, I had to catch it and put it down. If it broke, that would be my fault, too, and the ass-kicking would be that much worse. If she threw a vase at me, Id have to catch it, put it down, and then run. In a split second, Id have to think, Is it valuable? Yes. Is it breakable? Yes. Catch it, put it down, now run. We had a very Tom and Jerry relationship, me and my mom. She was the strict disciplinarian; I was naughty as shit. She would send me out to buy groceries, and I wouldnt come right home because Id be using the change from the milk and bread to play arcade games at the supermarket. I loved videogames. I was a master at Street Fighter. I could go forever on a single play. Id drop a coin in, time would fly, and the next thing I knew thered be a woman behind me with a belt. It was a race. Id take off out the door and through the dusty streets of Eden Park, clambering over walls, ducking through backyards. It was a normal thing in our neighborhood. Everybody knew: That Trevor child would come through like a bat out of hell, and his mom would be right there behind him. She could go at a full sprint in high heels, but if she really wanted to come after me she had this thing where shed kick her shoes off while still going at top speed. Shed do this weird move with her ankles and the heels would go flying and she wouldnt even miss a step. Thats when I knew, Okay, shes in turbo mode now. When I was little she always caught me, but as I got older I got faster, and when speed failed her shed use her wits. If I was about to get away shed yell, Stop! Thief! Shed do this to her own child. In South Africa, nobody gets involved in other peoples businessunless its mob justice, and then everybody wants in. So shed yell Thief! knowing it would bring the whole neighborhood out against me, and then Id have strangers trying to grab me and tackle me, and Id have to duck and dive and dodge them as well, all the while screaming, Im not a thief! Im her son! The last thing I wanted to do that Sunday morning was climb into some crowded minibus, but the second I heard my mom say sunqhela I knew my fate was sealed. She gathered up Andrew and we climbed out of the Volkswagen and went out to try to catch a ride. I was five years old, nearly six, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I remember seeing it on TV and everyone being happy. I didnt know why we were happy, just that we were. I was aware of the fact that there was a thing called apartheid and it was ending and that was a big deal, but I didnt understand the intricacies of it. What I do remember, what I will never forget, is the violence that followed. The triumph of democracy over apartheid is sometimes called the Bloodless Revolution. It is called that because very little white blood was spilled. Black blood ran in the streets. As the apartheid regime fell, we knew that the black man was now going to rule. The question was, which black man? Spates of violence broke out between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC, the African National Congress, as they jockeyed for power. The political dynamic between these two groups was very complicated, but the simplest way to understand it is as a proxy war between Zulu and Xhosa. The Inkatha was predominantly Zulu, very militant and very nationalistic. The ANC was a broad coalition encompassing many different tribes, but its leaders at the time were primarily Xhosa. Instead of uniting for peace they turned on one another, committing acts of unbelievable savagery. Massive riots broke out. Thousands of people were killed. Necklacing was common. Thats where people would hold someone down and put a rubber tire over his torso, pinning his arms. Then theyd douse him with petrol and set him on fire and burn him alive. The ANC did it to Inkatha. Inkatha did it to the ANC. I saw one of those charred bodies on the side of the road one day on my way to school. In the evenings my mom and I would turn on our little black-and-white TV and watch the news. A dozen people killed. Fifty people killed. A hundred people killed. Eden Park sat not far from the sprawling townships of the East Rand, Thokoza and Katlehong, which were the sites of some of the most horrific InkathaANC clashes. Once a month at least wed drive home and the neighborhood would be on fire. Hundreds of rioters in the street. My mom would edge the car slowly through the crowds and around blockades made of flaming tires. Nothing burns like a tireit rages with a fury you cant imagine. As we drove past the burning blockades, it felt like we were inside an oven. I used to say to my mom, I think Satan burns tires in Hell. Whenever the riots broke out, all our neighbors would wisely hole up behind closed doors. But not my mom. Shed head straight out, and as wed inch our way past the blockades, shed give the rioters this look. Let me pass. Im not involved in this shit. She was unwavering in the face of danger. That always amazed me. It didnt matter that there was a war on our doorstep. She had things to do, places to be. It was the same stubbornness that kept her going to church despite a broken-down car. There could be five hundred rioters with a blockade of burning tires on the main road out of Eden Park, and my mother would say, Get dressed. Ive got to go to work. Youve got to go to school. But arent you afraid? Id say. Theres only one of you and theres so many of them. Honey, Im not alone, shed say. Ive got all of Heavens angels behind me. Well, it would be nice if we could see them, Id say. Because I dont think the rioters know theyre there. Shed tell me not to worry. She always came back to the phrase she lived by: If God is with me, who can be against me? She was never scared. Even when she should have been. That carless Sunday we made our circuit of churches, ending up, as usual, at white church. When we walked out of Rosebank Union it was dark and we were alone. It had been an endless day of minibuses from mixed church to black church to white church, and I was exhausted. It was nine oclock at least. In those days, with all the violence and riots going on, you did not want to be out that late at night. We were standing at the corner of Jellicoe Avenue and Oxford Road, right in the heart of Johannesburgs wealthy, white suburbia, and there were no minibuses. The streets were empty. I so badly wanted to turn to my mom and say, You see? This is why God wanted us to stay home. But one look at the expression on her face, and I knew better than to speak. There were times I could talk smack to my momthis was not one of them. We waited and waited for a minibus to come by. Under apartheid the government provided no public transportation for blacks, but white people still needed us to show up to mop their floors and clean their bathrooms. Necessity being the mother of invention, black people created their own transit system, an informal network of bus routes, controlled by private associations operating entirely outside the law. Because the minibus business was completely unregulated, it was basically organized crime. Different groups ran different routes, and they would fight over who controlled what. There was bribery and general shadiness that went on, a great deal of violence, and a lot of protection money paid to avoid violence. The one thing you didnt do was steal a route from a rival group. Drivers who stole routes would get killed. Being unregulated, minibuses were also very unreliable. When they came, they came. When they didnt, they didnt. Standing outside Rosebank Union, I was literally falling asleep on my feet. Not a minibus in sight. Eventually my mother said, Lets hitchhike. We walked and walked, and after what felt like an eternity, a car drove up and stopped. The driver offered us a ride, and we climbed in. We hadnt gone ten feet when suddenly a minibus swerved right in front of the car and cut us off. A Zulu driver got out with an iwisa, a large, traditional Zulu weapona war club, basically. Theyre used to smash peoples skulls in. Another guy, his crony, got out of the passenger side. They walked up to the drivers side of the car we were in, grabbed the man whod offered us a ride, pulled him out, and started shoving their clubs in his face. Why are you stealing our customers? Why are you picking people up? It looked like they were going to kill this guy. I knew that happened sometimes. My mom spoke up. Hey, listen, he was just helping me. Leave him. Well ride with you. Thats what we wanted in the first place. So we got out of the first car and climbed into the minibus. We were the only passengers in the minibus. In addition to being violent gangsters, South African minibus drivers are notorious for complaining and haranguing passengers as they drive. This driver was a particularly angry one. As we rode along, he started lecturing my mother about being in a car with a man who was not her husband. My mother didnt suffer lectures from strange men. She told him to mind his own business, and when he heard her speaking in Xhosa, that really set him off. The stereotypes of Zulu and Xhosa women were as ingrained as those of the men. Zulu women were well-behaved and dutiful. Xhosa women were promiscuous and unfaithful. And here was my mother, his tribal enemy, a Xhosa woman alone with two small childrenone of them a mixed child, no less. Not just a whore but a whore who sleeps with white men. Oh, youre a Xhosa, he said. That explains it. Climbing into strange mens cars. Disgusting woman. My mom kept telling him off and he kept calling her names, yelling at her from the front seat, wagging his finger in the rearview mirror and growing more and more menacing until finally he said, Thats the problem with you Xhosa women. Youre all slutsand tonight youre going to learn your lesson. He sped off. He was driving fast, and he wasnt stopping, only slowing down to check for traffic at the intersections before speeding through. Death was never far away from anybody back then. At that point my mother could be raped. We could be killed. These were all viable options. I didnt fully comprehend the danger we were in at the moment; I was so tired that I just wanted to sleep. Plus my mom stayed very calm. She didnt panic, so I didnt know to panic. She just kept trying to reason with him. Im sorry if weve upset you, bhuti. You can just let us out here No. Really, its fine. We can just walk No. He raced along Oxford Road, the lanes empty, no other cars out. I was sitting closest to the minibuss sliding door. My mother sat next to me, holding baby Andrew. She looked out the window at the passing road and then leaned over to me and whispered, Trevor, when he slows down at the next intersection, Im going to open the door and were going to jump. I didnt hear a word of what she was saying, because by that point Id completely nodded off. When we came to the next traffic light, the driver eased off the gas a bit to look around and check the road. My mother reached over, pulled the sliding door open, grabbed me, and threw me out as far as she could. Then she took Andrew, curled herself in a ball around him, and leaped out behind me. It felt like a dream until the pain hit. Bam! I smacked hard on the pavement. My mother landed right beside me and we tumbled and tumbled and rolled and rolled. I was wide awake now. I went from half asleep to What the hell?! Eventually I came to a stop and pulled myself up, completely disoriented. I looked around and saw my mother, already on her feet. She turned and looked at me and screamed. Run! So I ran, and she ran, and nobody ran like me and my mom. Its weird to explain, but I just knew what to do. It was animal instinct, learned in a world where violence was always lurking and waiting to erupt. In the townships, when the police came swooping in with their riot gear and armored cars and helicopters, I knew: Run for cover. Run and hide. I knew that as a five-year-old. Had I lived a different life, getting thrown out of a speeding minibus might have fazed me. Id have stood there like an idiot, going, Whats happening, Mom? Why are my legs so sore? But there was none of that. Mom said run, and I ran. Like the gazelle runs from the lion, I ran. The men stopped the minibus and got out and tried to chase us, but they didnt stand a chance. We smoked them. I think they were in shock. I still remember glancing back and seeing them give up with a look of utter bewilderment on their faces. What just happened? Whod have thought a woman with two small children could run so fast? They didnt know they were dealing with the reigning champs of the Maryvale College sports day. We kept going and going until we made it to a twenty-four-hour petrol station and called the police. By then the men were long gone. I still didnt know why any of this had happened; Id been running on pure adrenaline. Once we stopped running I realized how much pain I was in. I looked down, and the skin on my arms was scraped and torn. I was cut up and bleeding all over. Mom was, too. My baby brother was fine, though, incredibly. My mom had wrapped herself around him, and hed come through without a scratch. I turned to her in shock. What was that?! Why are we running?! What do you mean, Why are we running? Those men were trying to kill us. You never told me that! You just threw me out of the car! I did tell you. Why didnt you jump? Jump?! I was asleep! So I should have left you there for them to kill you? At least they would have woken me up before they killed me. Back and forth we went. I was too confused and too angry about getting thrown out of the car to realize what had happened. My mother had saved my life. As we caught our breath and waited for the police to come and drive us home, she said, Well, at least were safe, thank God. But I was nine years old and I knew better. I wasnt going to keep quiet this time. No, Mom! This was not thanks to God! You should have listened to God when he told us to stay at home when the car wouldnt start, because clearly the Devil tricked us into coming out tonight. No, Trevor! Thats not how the Devil works. This is part of Gods plan, and if He wanted us here then He had a reason And on and on and there we were, back at it, arguing about Gods will. Finally I said, Look, Mom. I know you love Jesus, but maybe next week you could ask him to meet us at our house. Because this really wasnt a fun night. She broke out in a huge smile and started laughing. I started laughing, too, and we stood there, this little boy and his mom, our arms and legs covered in blood and dirt, laughing together through the pain in the light of a petrol station on the side of the road in the middle of the night. Apartheid was perfect racism. It took centuries to develop, starting all the way back in 1652 when the Dutch East India Company landed at the Cape of Good Hope and established a trading colony, Kaapstad, later known as Cape Town, a rest stop for ships traveling between Europe and India. To impose white rule, the Dutch colonists went to war with the natives, ultimately developing a set of laws to subjugate and enslave them. When the British took over the Cape Colony, the descendants of the original Dutch settlers trekked inland and developed their own language, culture, and customs, eventually becoming their own people, the Afrikanersthe white tribe of Africa. The British abolished slavery in name but kept it in practice. They did so because, in the mid1800s, in what had been written off as a near-worthless way station on the route to the Far East, a few lucky capitalists stumbled upon the richest gold and diamond reserves in the world, and an endless supply of expendable bodies was needed to go in the ground and get it all out. As the British Empire fell, the Afrikaner rose up to claim South Africa as his rightful inheritance. To maintain power in the face of the countrys rising and restless black majority, the government realized they needed a newer and more robust set of tools. They set up a formal commission to go out and study institutionalized racism all over the world. They went to Australia. They went to the Netherlands. They went to America. They saw what worked, what didnt. Then they came back and published a report, and the government used that knowledge to build the most advanced system of racial oppression known to man. Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control. A full compendium of those laws would run more than three thousand pages and weigh approximately ten pounds, but the general thrust of it should be easy enough for any American to understand. In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid. BORN A CRIME I grew up in South Africa during apartheid, which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family. My mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is black. My father, Robert, is white. Swiss/German, to be precise, which Swiss/Germans invariably are. During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime. In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesnt merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mixand in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason. Humans being humans and sex being sex, that prohibition never stopped anyone. There were mixed kids in South Africa nine months after the first Dutch boats hit the beach in Table Bay. Just like in America, the colonists here had their way with the native women, as colonists so often do. Unlike in America, where anyone with one drop of black blood automatically became black, in South Africa mixed people came to be classified as their own separate group, neither black nor white but what we call colored. Colored people, black people, white people, and Indian people were forced to register their race with the government. Based on those classifications, millions of people were uprooted and relocated. Indian areas were segregated from colored areas, which were segregated from black areasall of them segregated from white areas and separated from one another by buffer zones of empty land. Laws were passed prohibiting sex between Europeans and natives, laws that were later amended to prohibit sex between whites and all nonwhites. The government went to insane lengths to try to enforce these new laws. The penalty for breaking them was five years in prison. There were whole police squads whose only job was to go around peeking through windowsclearly an assignment for only the finest law enforcement officers. And if an interracial couple got caught, God help them. The police would kick down the door, drag the people out, beat them, arrest them. At least thats what they did to the black person. With the white person it was more like, Look, Ill just say you were drunk, but dont do it again, eh? Cheers. Thats how it was with a white man and a black woman. If a black man was caught having sex with a white woman, hed be lucky if he wasnt charged with rape. If you ask my mother whether she ever considered the ramifications of having a mixed child under apartheid, she will say no. She wanted to do something, figured out a way to do it, and then she did it. She had a level of fearlessness that you have to possess to take on something like she did. If you stop to consider the ramifications, youll never do anything. Still, it was a crazy, reckless thing to do. A million things had to go right for us to slip through the cracks the way we did for as long as we did. Under apartheid, if you were a black man you worked on a farm or in a factory or in a mine. If you were a black woman, you worked in a factory or as a maid. Those were pretty much your only options. My mother didnt want to work in a factory. She was a horrible cook and never would have stood for some white lady telling her what to do all day. So, true to her nature, she found an option that was not among the ones presented to her: She took a secretarial course, a typing class. At the time, a black woman learning how to type was like a blind person learning how to drive. Its an admirable effort, but youre unlikely to ever be called upon to execute the task. By law, white-collar jobs and skilled-labor jobs were reserved for whites. Black people didnt work in offices. My mom, however, was a rebel, and, fortunately for her, her rebellion came along at the right moment. In the early 1980s, the South African government began making minor reforms in an attempt to quell international protest over the atrocities and human rights abuses of apartheid. Among those reforms was the token hiring of black workers in low-level white-collar jobs. Like typists. Through an employment agency she got a job as a secretary at ICI, a multinational pharmaceutical company in Braamfontein, a suburb of Johannesburg. When my mom started working, she still lived with my grandmother in Soweto, the township where the government had relocated my family decades before. But my mother was unhappy at home, and when she was twenty-two she ran away to live in downtown Johannesburg. There was only one problem: It was illegal for black people to live there. The ultimate goal of apartheid was to make South Africa a white country, with every black person stripped of his or her citizenship and relocated to live in the homelands, the Bantustans, semi-sovereign black territories that were in reality puppet states of the government in Pretoria. But this so-called white country could not function without black labor to produce its wealth, which meant black people had to be allowed to live near white areas in the townships, government-planned ghettos built to house black workers, like Soweto. The township was where you lived, but your status as a laborer was the only thing that permitted you to stay there. If your papers were revoked for any reason, you could be deported back to the homelands. To leave the township for work in the city, or for any other reason, you had to carry a pass with your ID number; otherwise you could be arrested. There was also a curfew: After a certain hour, blacks had to be back home in the township or risk arrest. My mother didnt care. She was determined to never go home again. So she stayed in town, hiding and sleeping in public restrooms until she learned the rules of navigating the city from the other black women who had contrived to live there: prostitutes. Many of the prostitutes in town were Xhosa. They spoke my mothers language and showed her how to survive. They taught her how to dress up in a pair of maids overalls to move around the city without being questioned. They also introduced her to white men who were willing to rent out flats in town. A lot of these men were foreigners, Germans and Portuguese who didnt care about the law and were happy to sign a lease giving a prostitute a place to live and work in exchange for a steady piece on the side. My mom wasnt interested in any such arrangement, but thanks to her job she did have money to pay rent. She met a German fellow through one of her prostitute friends, and he agreed to let her a flat in his name. She moved in and bought a bunch of maids overalls to wear. She was caught and arrested many times, for not having her ID on the way home from work, for being in a white area after hours. The penalty for violating the pass laws was thirty days in jail or a fine of fifty rand, nearly half her monthly salary. She would scrape together the money, pay the fine, and go right back about her business. My moms secret flat was in a neighborhood called Hillbrow. She lived in number 203. Down the corridor was a tall, brown-haired, brown-eyed Swiss/German expat named Robert. He lived in 206. As a former trading colony, South Africa has always had a large expatriate community. People find their way here. Tons of Germans. Lots of Dutch. Hillbrow at the time was the Greenwich Village of South Africa. It was a thriving scene, cosmopolitan and liberal. There were galleries and underground theaters where artists and performers dared to speak up and criticize the government in front of integrated crowds. There were restaurants and nightclubs, a lot of them foreign-owned, that served a mixed clientele, black people who hated the status quo and white people who simply thought it ridiculous. These people would have secret get-togethers, too, usually in someones flat or in empty basements that had been converted into clubs. Integration by its nature was a political act, but the get-togethers themselves werent political at all. People would meet up and hang out, have parties. My mom threw herself into that scene. She was always out at some club, some party, dancing, meeting people. She was a regular at the Hillbrow Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Africa at that time. It had a nightclub with a rotating dance floor on the top floor. It was an exhilarating time but still dangerous. Sometimes the restaurants and clubs would get shut down, sometimes not. Sometimes the performers and patrons would get arrested, sometimes not. It was a roll of the dice. My mother never knew whom to trust, who might turn her in to the police. Neighbors would report on one another. The girlfriends of the white men in my moms block of flats had every reason to report a black womana prostitute, no doubtliving among them. And you must remember that black people worked for the government as well. As far as her white neighbors knew, my mom could have been a spy posing as a prostitute posing as a maid, sent into Hillbrow to inform on whites who were breaking the law. Thats how a police state workseveryone thinks everyone else is the police. Living alone in the city, not being trusted and not being able to trust, my mother started spending more and more time in the company of someone with whom she felt safe: the tall Swiss man down the corridor in 206. He was fortysix. She was twenty-four. He was quiet and reserved; she was wild and free. She would stop by his flat to chat; theyd go to underground get-togethers, go dancing at the nightclub with the rotating dance floor. Something clicked. I know that there was a genuine bond and a love between my parents. I saw it. But how romantic their relationship was, to what extent they were just friends, I cant say. These are things a child doesnt ask. All I do know is that one day she made her proposal. I want to have a kid, she told him. I dont want kids, he said. I didnt ask you to have a kid. I asked you to help me to have my kid. I just want the sperm from you. Im Catholic, he said. We dont do such things. You do know, she replied, that I could sleep with you and go away and you would never know if you had a child or not. But I dont want that. Honor me with your yes so that I can live peacefully. I want a child of my own, and I want it from you. You will be able to see it as much as you like, but you will have no obligations. You dont have to talk to it. You dont have to pay for it. Just make this child for me. For my mothers part, the fact that this man didnt particularly want a family with her, was prevented by law from having a family with her, was part of the attraction. She wanted a child, not a man stepping in to run her life. For my fathers part, I know that for a long time he kept saying no. Eventually he said yes. Why he said yes is a question I will never have the answer to. Nine months after that yes, on February 20, 1984, my mother checked into Hillbrow Hospital for a scheduled C-section delivery. Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulationsI was born a crime. When the doctors pulled me out there was an awkward moment where they said, Huh. Thats a very light-skinned baby. A quick scan of the delivery room revealed no man standing around to take credit. Who is the father? they asked. His father is from Swaziland, my mother said, referring to the tiny, landlocked kingdom in the west of South Africa. They probably knew she was lying, but they accepted it because they needed an explanation. Under apartheid, the government labeled everything on your birth certificate: race, tribe, nationality. Everything had to be categorized. My mother lied and said I was born in KaNgwane, the semi-sovereign homeland for Swazi people living in South Africa. So my birth certificate doesnt say that Im Xhosa, which technically I am. And it doesnt say that Im Swiss, which the government wouldnt allow. It just says that Im from another country. My father isnt on my birth certificate. Officially, hes never been my father. And my mother, true to her word, was prepared for him not to be involved. Shed rented a new flat for herself in Joubert Park, the neighborhood adjacent to Hillbrow, and thats where she took me when she left the hospital. The next week she went to visit him, with no baby. To her surprise, he asked where I was. You said that you didnt want to be involved, she said. And he hadnt, but once I existed he realized he couldnt have a son living around the corner and not be a part of my life. So the three of us formed a kind of family, as much as our peculiar situation would allow. I lived with my mom. Wed sneak around and visit my dad when we could. Where most children are proof of their parents love, I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, hed have to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. Its the Central Park of Johannesburgbeautiful gardens, a zoo, a giant chessboard with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us. We were in the park, he was walking a good bit away from us, and I ran after him, screaming, Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! People started looking. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him. I couldnt walk with my mother, either; a light-skinned child with a black woman would raise too many questions. When I was a newborn, she could wrap me up and take me anywhere, but very quickly that was no longer an option. I was a giant baby, an enormous child. When I was one youd have thought I was two. When I was two, youd have thought I was four. There was no way to hide me. My mom, same as shed done with her flat and with her maids uniforms, found the cracks in the system. It was illegal to be mixed (to have a black parent and a white parent), but it was not illegal to be colored (to have two parents who were both colored). So my mom moved me around the world as a colored child. She found a cr?che in a colored area where she could leave me while she was at work. There was a colored woman named Queen who lived in our block of flats. When we wanted to go out to the park, my mom would invite her to go with us. Queen would walk next to me and act like she was my mother, and my mother would walk a few steps behind, like she was the maid working for the colored woman. Ive got dozens of pictures of me walking with this woman who looks like me but who isnt my mother. And the black woman standing behind us who looks like shes photobombing the picture, thats my mom. When we didnt have a colored woman to walk with us, my mom would risk walking me on her own. She would hold my hand or carry me, but if the police showed up she would have to drop me and pretend I wasnt hers, like I was a bag of weed. When I was born, my mother hadnt seen her family in three years, but she wanted me to know them and wanted them to know me, so the prodigal daughter returned. We lived in town, but I would spend weeks at a time with my grandmother in Soweto, often during the holidays. I have so many memories from the place that in my mind its like we lived there, too. Soweto was designed to be bombedthats how forward-thinking the architects of apartheid were. The township was a city unto itself, with a population of nearly one million. There were only two roads in and out. That was so the military could lock us in, quell any rebellion. And if the monkeys ever went crazy and tried to break out of their cage, the air force could fly over and bomb the shit out of everyone. Growing up, I never knew that my grandmother lived in the center of a bulls-eye. In the city, as difficult as it was to get around, we managed. Enough people were out and about, black, white, and colored, going to and from work, that we could get lost in the crowd. But only black people were permitted in Soweto. It was much harder to hide someone who looked like me, and the government was watching much more closely. In the white areas you rarely saw the police, and if you did it was Officer Friendly in his collared shirt and pressed pants. In Soweto the police were an occupying army. They didnt wear collared shirts. They wore riot gear. They were militarized. They operated in teams known as flying squads, because they would swoop in out of nowhere, riding in armored personnel carriershippos, we called themtanks with enormous tires and slotted holes in the side of the vehicle to fire their guns out of. You didnt mess with a hippo. You saw one, you ran. That was a fact of life. The township was in a constant state of insurrection; someone was always marching or protesting somewhere and had to be suppressed. Playing in my grandmothers house, Id hear gunshots, screams, tear gas being fired into crowds. My memories of the hippos and the flying squads come from when I was five or six, when apartheid was finally coming apart. I never saw the police before that, because we could never risk the police seeing me. Whenever we went to Soweto, my grandmother refused to let me outside. If she was watching me it was, No, no, no. He doesnt leave the house. Behind the wall, in the yard, I could play, but not in the street. And thats where the rest of the boys and girls were playing, in the street. My cousins, the neighborhood kids, theyd open the gate and head out and roam free and come back at dusk. Id beg my grandmother to go outside. Please. Please, can I go play with my cousins? No! Theyre going to take you! For the longest time I thought she meant that the other kids were going to steal me, but she was talking about the police. Children could be taken. Children were taken. The wrong color kid in the wrong color area, and the government could come in, strip your parents of custody, haul you off to an orphanage. To police the townships, the government relied on its network of impipis, the anonymous snitches whod inform on suspicious activity. There were also the blackjacks, black people who worked for the police. My grandmothers neighbor was a blackjack. She had to make sure he wasnt watching when she smuggled me in and out of the house. My gran still tells the story of when I was three years old and, fed up with being a prisoner, I dug a hole under the gate in the driveway, wriggled through, and ran off. Everyone panicked. A search party went out and tracked me down. I had no idea how much danger I was putting everyone in. The family could have been deported, my gran could have been arrested, my mom might have gone to prison, and I probably would have been packed off to a home for colored kids. So I was kept inside. Other than those few instances of walking in the park, the flashes of memory I have from when I was young are almost all indoors, me with my mom in her tiny flat, me by myself at my grans. I didnt have any friends. I didnt know any kids besides my cousins. I wasnt a lonely kidI was good at being alone. Id read books, play with the toy that I had, make up imaginary worlds. I lived inside my head. I still live inside my head. To this day you can leave me alone for hours and Im perfectly happy entertaining myself. I have to remember to be with people. Obviously, I was not the only child born to black and white parents during apartheid. Traveling around the world today, I meet other mixed South Africans all the time. Our stories start off identically. Were around the same age. Their parents met at some underground party in Hillbrow or Cape Town. They lived in an illegal flat. The difference is that in virtually every other case they left. The white parent smuggled them out through Lesotho or Botswana, and they grew up in exile, in England or Germany or Switzerland, because being a mixed family under apartheid was just that unbearable. Once Mandela was elected we could finally live freely. Exiles started to return. I met my first one when I was around seventeen. He told me his story, and I was like, Wait, what? You mean we could have left? That was an option? Imagine being thrown out of an airplane. You hit the ground and break all your bones, you go to the hospital and you heal and you move on and finally put the whole thing behind youand then one day somebody tells you about parachutes. Thats how I felt. I couldnt understand why wed stayed. I went straight home and asked my mom. Why? Why didnt we just leave? Why didnt we go to Switzerland? Because I am not Swiss, she said, as stubborn as ever. This is my country. Why should I leave? South Africa is a mix of the old and the new, the ancient and the modern, and South African Christianity is a perfect example of this. We adopted the religion of our colonizers, but most people held on to the old ancestral ways, too, just in case. In South Africa, faith in the Holy Trinity exists quite comfortably alongside belief in witchcraft, in casting spells and putting curses on ones enemies. I come from a country where people are more likely to visit sangomasshamans, traditional healers, pejoratively known as witch doctorsthan they are to visit doctors of Western medicine. I come from a country where people have been arrested and tried for witchcraftin a court of law. Im not talking about the 1700s. Im talking about five years ago. I remember a man being on trial for striking another person with lightning. That happens a lot in the homelands. There are no tall buildings, few tall trees, nothing between you and the sky, so people get hit by lightning all the time. And when someone gets killed by lightning, everyone knows its because somebody used Mother Nature to take out a hit. So if you had a beef with the guy who got killed, someone will accuse you of murder and the police will come knocking. Mr. Noah, youve been accused of murder. You used witchcraft to kill David Kibuuka by causing him to be struck by lightning. What is the evidence? The evidence is that David Kibuuka got struck by lightning and it wasnt even raining. And you go to trial. The court is presided over by a judge. There is a docket. There is a prosecutor. Your defense attorney has to prove lack of motive, go through the crime-scene forensics, present a staunch defense. And your attorneys argument cant be Witchcraft isnt real. No, no, no. Youll lose. TREVOR, PRAY I grew up in a world run by women. My father was loving and devoted, but I could only see him when and where apartheid allowed. My uncle Velile, my moms younger brother, lived with my grandmother, but he spent most of his time at the local tavern getting into fights. The only semi-regular male figure in my life was my grandfather, my mothers father, who was a force to be reckoned with. He was divorced from my grandmother and didnt live with us, but he was around. His name was Temperance Noah, which was odd since he was not a man of moderation at all. He was boisterous and loud. His nickname in the neighborhood was Tat Shisha, which translates loosely to the smokin hot grandpa. And thats exactly who he was. He loved the ladies, and the ladies loved him. Hed put on his best suit and stroll through the streets of Soweto on random afternoons, making everybody laugh and charming all the women hed meet. He had a big, dazzling smile with bright white teethfalse teeth. At home, hed take them out and Id watch him do that thing where he looked like he was eating his own face. We found out much later in life that he was bipolar, but before that we just thought he was eccentric. One time he borrowed my mothers car to go to the shop for milk and bread. He disappeared and didnt come home until late that night when we were way past the point of needing the milk or the bread. Turned out hed passed a young woman at the bus stop and, believing no beautiful woman should have to wait for a bus, he offered her a ride to where she lived three hours away. My mom was furious with him because hed cost us a whole tank of petrol, which was enough to get us to work and school for two weeks. When he was up you couldnt stop him, but his mood swings were wild. In his youth hed been a boxer, and one day he said Id disrespected him and now he wanted to box me. He was in his eighties. I was twelve. He had his fists up, circling me. Lets go, Trevah! Come on! Put your fists up! Hit me! Ill show you Im still a man! Lets go! I couldnt hit him because I wasnt about to hit my elder. Plus Id never been in a fight and I wasnt going to have my first one be with an eighty-year-old man. I ran to my mom, and she got him to stop. The day after his pugilistic rage, he sat in his chair and didnt move or say a word all day. Temperance lived with his second family in the Meadowlands, and we visited them sparingly because my mom was always afraid of being poisoned. Which was a thing that would happen. The first family were the heirs, so there was always the chance they might get poisoned by the second family. It was like Game of Thrones with poor people. Wed go into that house and my mom would warn me. Trevor, dont eat the food. But Im starving. No. They might poison us. Okay, then why dont I just pray to Jesus and Jesus will take the poison out of the food? Trevor! Sunqhela! So I only saw my grandfather now and then, and when he was gone the house was in the hands of women. In addition to my mom there was my aunt Sibongile; she and her first husband, Dinky, had two kids, my cousins Mlungisi and Bulelwa. Sibongile was a powerhouse, a strong woman in every sense, big-chested, the mother hen. Dinky, as his name implies, was dinky. He was a small man. He was abusive, but not really. It was more like he tried to be abusive, but he wasnt very good at it. He was trying to live up to this image of what he thought a husband should be, dominant, controlling. I remember being told as a child, If you dont hit your woman, you dont love her. That was the talk youd hear from men in bars and in the streets. Dinky was trying to masquerade as this patriarch that he wasnt. Hed slap my aunt and hit her and shed take it and take it, and then eventually shed snap and smack him down and put him back in his place. Dinky would always walk around like, I control my woman. And youd want to say, Dinky, first of all, you dont. Second of all, you dont need to. Because she loves you. I can remember one day my aunt had really had enough. I was in the yard and Dinky came running out of the house screaming bloody murder. Sibongile was right behind him with a pot of boiling water, cursing at him and threatening to douse him with it. In Soweto you were always hearing about men getting doused with pots of boiling wateroften a womans only recourse. And men were lucky if it was water. Some women used hot cooking oil. Water was if the woman wanted to teach her man a lesson. Oil meant she wanted to end it. My grandmother Frances Noah was the family matriarch. She ran the house, looked after the kids, did the cooking and the cleaning. Shes barely five feet tall, hunched over from years in the factory, but rock hard and still to this day very active and very much alive. Where my grandfather was big and boisterous, my grandmother was calm, calculating, with a mind as sharp as anything. If you need to know anything in the family history, going back to the 1930s, she can tell you what day it happened, where it happened, and why it happened. She remembers it all. My great-grandmother lived with us as well. We called her Koko. She was super old, well into her nineties, stooped and frail, completely blind. Her eyes had gone white, clouded over by cataracts. She couldnt walk without someone holding her up. Shed sit in the kitchen next to the coal stove, bundled up in long skirts and head scarves, blankets over her shoulders. The coal stove was always on. It was for cooking, heating the house, heating water for baths. We put her there because it was the warmest spot in the house. In the morning someone would wake her and bring her to sit in the kitchen. At night someone would come take her to bed. Thats all she did, all day, every day. Sit by the stove. She was fantastic and fully with it. She just couldnt see and didnt move. Koko and my gran would sit and have long conversations, but as a fiveyear-old I didnt think of Koko as a real person. Since her body didnt move, she was like a brain with a mouth. Our relationship was nothing but command prompts and replies, like talking to a computer. Good morning, Koko. Good morning, Trevor. Koko, did you eat? Yes, Trevor. Koko, Im going out. Okay, be careful. Bye, Koko. Bye, Trevor. The fact that I grew up in a world run by women was no accident. Apartheid kept me away from my father because he was white, but for almost all the kids I knew on my grandmothers block in Soweto, apartheid had taken away their fathers as well, just for different reasons. Their fathers were off working in a mine somewhere, able to come home only during the holidays. Their fathers had been sent to prison. Their fathers were in exile, fighting for the cause. Women held the community together. WathintAbafazi Wathintimbokodo! was the chant they would rally to during the freedom struggle. When you strike a woman, you strike a rock. As a nation, we recognized the power of women, but in the home they were expected to submit and obey. In Soweto, religion filled the void left by absent men. I used to ask my mom if it was hard for her to raise me alone without a husband. Shed reply, Just because I live without a man doesnt mean Ive never had a husband. God is my husband. For my mom, my aunt, my grandmother, and all the other women on our street, life centered on faith. Prayer meetings would rotate houses up and down the block based on the day. These groups were women and children only. My mom would always ask my uncle Velile to join, and hed say, I would join if there were more men, but I cant be the only one here. Then the singing and praying would start, and that was his cue to leave. For these prayer meetings, wed jam ourselves into the tiny living area of the host familys house and form a circle. Then we would go around the circle offering prayers. The grannies would talk about what was happening in their lives. Im happy to be here. I had a good week at work. I got a raise and I wanted to say thank you and praise Jesus. Sometimes theyd pull out their Bible and say, This scripture spoke to me and maybe it will help you. Then there would be a bit of song. There was a leather pad called the beat that youd strap to your palm, like a percussion instrument. Someone would clap along on that, keeping time while everyone sang, Masango vulekani singene eJerusalema. Masango vulekani singene eJerusalema. Thats how it would go. Pray, sing, pray. Sing, pray, sing. Sing, sing, sing. Pray, pray, pray. Sometimes it would last for hours, always ending with an amen, and they could keep that amen going on for five minutes at least. Ah-men. Ah-ah-ah-men. Ah-ah-ah-ah-men. Ahhhhhhhhahhhhhhhhhhhahhhhhahhhhhhahhhhhmen. Meni-meni-meni. Men-men-men. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhmmmmmmmennnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Then everyone would say goodbye and go home. Next night, different house, same thing. Tuesday nights, the prayer meeting came to my grandmothers house, and I was always excited, for two reasons. One, I got to clap along on the beat for the singing. And two, I loved to pray. My grandmother always told me that she loved my prayers. She believed my prayers were more powerful, because I prayed in English. Everyone knows that Jesus, whos white, speaks English. The Bible is in English. Yes, the Bible was not written in English, but the Bible came to South Africa in English so to us its in English. Which made my prayers the best prayers because English prayers get answered first. How do we know this? Look at white people. Clearly theyre getting through to the right person. Add to that Matthew 19:14. Suffer little children to come unto me, Jesus said, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. So if a child is praying in English? To White Jesus? Thats a powerful combination right there. Whenever I prayed, my grandmother would say, That prayer is going to get answered. I can feel it. Women in the township always had something to pray formoney problems, a son whod been arrested, a daughter who was sick, a husband who drank. Whenever the prayer meetings were at our house, because my prayers were so good, my grandmother would want me to pray for everyone. She would turn to me and say, Trevor, pray. And Id pray. I loved doing it. My grandmother had convinced me that my prayers got answered. I felt like I was helping people. There is something magical about Soweto. Yes, it was a prison designed by our oppressors, but it also gave us a sense of self-determination and control. Soweto was ours. It had an aspirational quality that you dont find elsewhere. In America the dream is to make it out of the ghetto. In Soweto, because there was no leaving the ghetto, the dream was to transform the ghetto. For the million people who lived in Soweto, there were no stores, no bars, no restaurants. There were no paved roads, minimal electricity, inadequate sewerage. But when you put one million people together in one place, they find a way to make a life for themselves. A black-market economy rose up, with every type of business being run out of someones house: auto mechanics, day care, guys selling refurbished tires. The most common were the spaza shops and the shebeens. The spaza shops were informal grocery stores. People would build a kiosk in their garage, buy wholesale bread and eggs, and then resell them piecemeal. Everyone in the township bought things in minute quantities because nobody had any money. You couldnt afford to buy a dozen eggs at a time, but you could buy two eggs because thats all you needed that morning. You could buy a quarter loaf of bread, a cup of sugar. The shebeens were unlawful bars in the back of someones house. Theyd put chairs in their backyard and hang out an awning and run a speakeasy. The shebeens were where men would go to drink after work and during prayer meetings and most any other time of day as well. People built homes the way they bought eggs: a little at a time. Every family in the township was allocated a piece of land by the government. Youd first build a shanty on your plot, a makeshift structure of plywood and corrugated iron. Over time, youd save up money and build a brick wall. One wall. Then youd save up and build another wall. Then, years later, a third wall and eventually a fourth. Now you had a room, one room for everyone in your family to sleep, eat, do everything. Then youd save up for a roof. Then windows. Then youd plaster the thing. Then your daughter would start a family. There was nowhere for them to go, so theyd move in with you. Youd add another corrugated-iron structure onto your brick room and slowly, over years, turn that into a proper room for them as well. Now your house had two rooms. Then three. Maybe four. Slowly, over generations, youd keep trying to get to the point where you had a home. My grandmother lived in Orlando East. She had a two-room house. Not a two-bedroom house. A two-room house. There was a bedroom, and then there was basically a living room/kitchen/everything-else room. Some might say we lived like poor people. I prefer open plan. My mom and I would stay there during school holidays. My aunt and cousins would be there whenever she was on the outs with Dinky. We all slept on the floor in one room, my mom and me, my aunt and my cousins, my uncle and my grandmother and my greatgrandmother. The adults each had their own foam mattresses, and there was one big one that wed roll out into the middle, and the kids slept on that. We had two shanties in the backyard that my grandmother would rent out to migrants and seasonal workers. We had a small peach tree in a tiny patch on one side of the house and on the other side my grandmother had a driveway. I never understood why my grandmother had a driveway. She didnt have a car. She didnt know how to drive. Yet she had a driveway. All of our neighbors had driveways, some with fancy, cast-iron gates. None of them had cars, either. There was no future in which most of these families would ever have cars. There was maybe one car for every thousand people, yet almost everyone had a driveway. It was almost like building the driveway was a way of willing the car to happen. The story of Soweto is the story of the driveways. Its a hopeful place. Sadly, no matter how fancy you made your house, there was one thing you could never aspire to improve: your toilet. There was no indoor running water, just one communal outdoor tap and one outdoor toilet shared by six or seven houses. Our toilet was in a corrugated-iron outhouse shared among the adjoining houses. Inside, there was a concrete slab with a hole in it and a plastic toilet seat on top; there had been a lid at some point, but it had broken and disappeared long ago. We couldnt afford toilet paper, so on the wall next to the seat was a wire hanger with old newspaper on it for you to wipe. The newspaper was uncomfortable, but at least I stayed informed while I handled my business. The thing that I couldnt handle about the outhouse was the flies. It was a long drop to the bottom, and they were always down there, eating on the pile, and I had an irrational, all-consuming fear that they were going to fly up and into my bum. One afternoon, when I was around five years old, my gran left me at home for a few hours to go run errands. I was lying on the floor in the bedroom, reading. I needed to go, but it was pouring down rain. I was dreading going outside to use the toilet, getting drenched running out there, water dripping on me from the leaky ceiling, wet newspaper, the flies attacking me from below. Then I had an idea. Why bother with the outhouse at all? Why not put some newspaper on the floor and do my business like a puppy? That seemed like a fantastic idea. So thats what I did. I took the newspaper, laid it out on the kitchen floor, pulled down my pants, and squatted and got to it. When you shit, as you first sit down, youre not fully in the experience yet. You are not yet a shitting person. Youre transitioning from a person about to shit to a person who is shitting. You dont whip out your smartphone or a newspaper right away. It takes a minute to get the first shit out of the way and get in the zone and get comfortable. Once you reach that moment, thats when it gets really nice. Its a powerful experience, shitting. Theres something magical about it, profound even. I think God made humans shit in the way we do because it brings us back down to earth and gives us humility. I dont care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyonc? shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forget how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away. You are never more yourself than when youre taking a shit. You have that moment where you realize, This is me. This is who I am. You can pee without giving it a second thought, but not so with shitting. Have you ever looked in a babys eyes when its shitting? Its having a moment of pure self-awareness. The outhouse ruins that for you. The rain, the flies, you are robbed of your moment, and nobody should be robbed of that. Squatting and shitting on the kitchen floor that day, I was like, Wow. There are no flies. Theres no stress. This is really great. Im really enjoying this. I knew Id made an excellent choice, and I was very proud of myself for making it. Id reached that moment where I could relax and be with myself. Then I casually looked around the room and I glanced to my left and there, just a few feet away, right next to the coal stove, was Koko. It was like the scene in Jurassic Park when the children turn and the T. rex is right there. Her eyes were wide open, cloudy white and darting around the room. I knew she couldnt see me, but her nose was starting to crinkleshe could sense that something was wrong. I panicked. I was mid-shit. All you can do when youre mid-shit is finish shitting. My only option was to finish as quietly and as slowly as I could, so thats what I decided to do. Then: the softest plop of a little-boy turd on the newspaper. Kokos head snapped toward the sound. Whos there? Hallo? Hallo?! I froze. I held my breath and waited. Whos there?! Hallo?! I kept quiet, waited, then started again. Is somebody there?! Trevor, is that you?! Frances? Hallo? Hallo? She started calling out the whole family. Nombuyiselo? Sibongile? Mlungisi? Bulelwa? Whos there? Whats happening? It was like a game, like I was trying to hide and a blind woman was trying to find me using sonar. Every time she called out, I froze. There would be complete silence. Whos there?! Hallo?! Id pause, wait for her to settle back in her chair, and then Id start up again. Finally, after what felt like forever, I finished. I stood up, took the newspaperwhich is not the quietest thingand I slowwwwwly folded it over. It crinkled. Whos there? Again I paused, waited. Then I folded it over some more, walked over to the rubbish bin, placed my sin at the bottom, and gingerly covered it with the rest of the trash. Then I tiptoed back to the other room, curled up on the mattress on the floor, and pretended to be asleep. The shit was done, no outhouse involved, and Koko was none the wiser. Mission accomplished. An hour later the rain had stopped. My grandmother came home. The second she walked in, Koko called out to her. Frances! Thank God youre here. Theres something in the house. What was it? I dont know, but I could hear it, and there was a smell. My gran started sniffing the air. Dear Lord! Yes, I can smell it, too. Is it a rat? Did something die? Its definitely in the house. They went back and forth about it, quite concerned, and then, as it was getting dark, my mother came home from work. The second she walked in, my gran called out to her. Oh, Nombuyiselo! Nombuyiselo! Theres something in the house! What?! What do you mean? Koko told her the story, the sounds, the smells. Then my mom, who has a keen sense of smell, started going around the kitchen, sniffing. Yes, I can smell it. I can find itI can find it She went to the rubbish bin. Its in here. She lifted out the rubbish, pulled out the folded newspaper underneath, and opened it up, and there was my little turd. She showed it to gran. Look! What?! How did it get there?! Koko, still blind, still stuck in her chair, was dying to know what was happening. Whats going on?! she cried. Whats going on?! Did you find it?! Its shit, Mom said. Theres shit in the bottom of the dustbin. But how?! Koko said. There was no one here! Are you sure there was no one here? Yes. I called out to everyone. Nobody came. My mother gasped. Weve been bewitched! Its a demon! For my mother, this was the logical conclusion. Because thats how witchcraft works. If someone has put a curse on you or your home, there is always the talisman or totem, a tuft of hair or the head of a cat, the physical manifestation of the spiritual thing, proof of the demons presence. Once my mom found the turd, all hell broke loose. This was serious. They had evidence. She came into the bedroom. Trevor! Trevor! Wake up! What?! I said, playing dumb. Whats going on?! Come! Theres a demon in the house! She took my hand and dragged me out of bed. It was all hands on deck, time for action. The first thing we had to do was go outside and burn the shit. Thats what you do with witchcraft; the only way to destroy it is to burn the physical thing. We went out to the yard, and my mom put the newspaper with my little turd on the driveway, lit a match, and set it on fire. Then my mom and my gran stood around the burning shit, praying and singing songs of praise. The commotion didnt stop there because when theres a demon around, the whole community has to join together to drive it out. If youre not part of the prayer, the demon might leave our house and go to your house and curse you. So we needed everyone. The alarm was raised. The call went out. My tiny old gran was out the gate, going up and down the block, calling to all the other old grannies for an emergency prayer meeting. Come! Weve been bewitched! I stood there, my shit burning in the driveway, my poor aged grandmother tottering up and down the street in a panic, and I didnt know what to do. I knew there was no demon, but there was no way I could come clean. The hiding I would have to endure? Good Lord. Honesty was never the best policy when it came to a hiding. I kept quiet. Moments later the grannies came streaming in with their Bibles, through the gate and up the driveway, a dozen or more at least. Everyone went inside. The house was packed. This was by far the biggest prayer meeting wed ever had the biggest thing that had ever happened in the history of our home, period. Everyone sat in the circle, praying and praying, and the prayers were strong. The grannies were chanting and murmuring and swaying back and forth, speaking in tongues. I was doing my best to keep my head low and stay out of it. Then my grandmother reached back and grabbed me, pulled me into the middle of the circle, and looked into my eyes. Trevor, pray. Yes! my mother said. Help us! Pray, Trevor. Pray to God to kill the demon! I was terrified. I believed in the power of prayer. I knew that my prayers worked. So if I prayed to God to kill the thing that left the shit, and the thing that left the shit was me, then God was going to kill me. I froze. I didnt know what to do. But all the grannies were looking at me, waiting for me to pray, so I prayed, stumbling through as best I could. Dear Lord, please protect us, um, you know, from whoever did this but, like, we dont know what happened exactly and maybe it was a big misunderstanding and, you know, maybe we shouldnt be quick to judge when we dont know the whole story and, I mean, of course you know best, Heavenly Father, but maybe this time it wasnt actually a demon, because who can say for certain, so maybe cut whoever it was a break It was not my best performance. Eventually I wrapped it up and sat back down. The praying continued. It went on for some time. Pray, sing, pray. Sing, pray, sing. Sing, sing, sing. Pray, pray, pray. Then everyone finally felt that the demon was gone and life could continue, and we had the big amen and everyone said good night and went home. That night I felt terrible. Before bed, I quietly prayed, God, I am so sorry for all of this. I know this was not cool. Because I knew: God answers your prayers. God is your father. Hes the man whos there for you, the man who takes care of you. When you pray, He stops and He takes His time and He listens, and I had subjected Him to two hours of old grannies praying when I knew that with all the pain and suffering in the world He had more important things to deal with than my shit.? When I was growing up we used to get American TV shows rebroadcast on our stations: Doogie Howser, M.D.; Murder, She Wrote; Rescue 911 with William Shatner. Most of them were dubbed into African languages. ALF was in Afrikaans. Transformers was in Sotho. But if you wanted to watch them in English, the original American audio would be simulcast on the radio. You could mute your TV and listen to that. Watching those shows, I realized that whenever black people were on-screen speaking in African languages, they felt familiar to me. They sounded like they were supposed to sound. Then Id listen to them in simulcast on the radio, and they would all have black American accents. My perception of them changed. They didnt feel familiar. They felt like foreigners. Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says Were the same. A language barrier says Were different. The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. In the Bantu schools, children were only taught in their home language. Zulu kids learned in Zulu. Tswana kids learned in Tswana. Because of this, wed fall into the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different. The great thing about language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, its easily tricked. If youre racist and you meet someone who doesnt look like you, the fact that he cant speak like you reinforces your racist preconceptions: Hes different, less intelligent. A brilliant scientist can come over the border from Mexico to live in America, but if he speaks in broken English, people say, Eh, I dont trust this guy. But hes a scientist. In Mexican science, maybe. I dont trust him. However, if the person who doesnt look like you speaks like you, your brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code. Wait, wait, your mind says, the racism code says if he doesnt look like me he isnt like me, but the language code says if he speaks like me heis like me? Something is off here. I cant figure this out. CHAMELEON One afternoon I was playing with my cousins. I was a doctor and they were my patients. I was operating on my cousin Bulelwas ear with a set of matches when I accidentally perforated her eardrum. All hell broke loose. My grandmother came running in from the kitchen. Kwenzeka ntoni?! Whats happening?! There was blood coming out of my cousins head. We were all crying. My grandmother patched up Bulelwas ear and made sure to stop the bleeding. But we kept crying. Because clearly wed done something we were not supposed to do, and we knew we were going to be punished. My grandmother finished up with Bulelwas ear and whipped out a belt and she beat the shit out of Bulelwa. Then she beat the shit out of Mlungisi, too. She didnt touch me. Later that night my mother came home from work. She found my cousin with a bandage over her ear and my gran crying at the kitchen table. Whats going on? my mom said. Oh, Nombuyiselo, she said. Trevor is so naughty. Hes the naughtiest child Ive ever come across in my life. Then you should hit him. I cant hit him. Why not? Because I dont know how to hit a white child, she said. A black child, I understand. A black child, you hit them and they stay black. Trevor, when you hit him he turns blue and green and yellow and red. Ive never seen those colors before. Im scared Im going to break him. I dont want to kill a white person. Im so afraid. Im not going to touch him. And she never did. My grandmother treated me like I was white. My grandfather did, too, only he was even more extreme. He called me Mastah. In the car, he insisted on driving me as if he were my chauffeur. Mastah must always sit in the backseat. I never challenged him on it. What was I going to say? I believe your perception of race is flawed, Grandfather. No. I was five. I sat in the back. There were so many perks to being white in a black family, I cant even front. I was having a great time. My own family basically did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids. Misbehavior that my cousins would have been punished for, I was given a warning and let off. And I was way naughtier than either of my cousins. It wasnt even close. If something got broken or if someone was stealing grannys cookies, it was me. I was trouble. My mom was the only force I truly feared. She believed if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. But everyone else said, No, hes different, and they gave me a pass. Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I knew my cousins were getting beaten for things that Id done, but I wasnt interested in changing my grandmothers perspective, because that would mean Id get beaten, too. Why would I do that? So that Id feel better? Being beaten didnt make me feel better. I had a choice. I could champion racial justice in our home, or I could enjoy grannys cookies. I went with the cookies. At that point I didnt think of the special treatment as having to do with color. I thought of it as having to do with Trevor. It wasnt, Trevor doesnt get beaten because Trevor is white. It was, Trevor doesnt get beaten because Trevor is Trevor. Trevor cant go outside. Trevor cant walk without supervision. Its because Im me; thats why this is happening. I had no other points of reference. There were no other mixed kids around so that I could say, Oh, this happens to us. Nearly one million people lived in Soweto. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them were blackand then there was me. I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner youll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there. Whenever the kids in the street saw me theyd yell, Indoda yomlungu! The white man! Some of them would run away. Others would call out to their parents to come look. Others would run up and try to touch me to see if I was real. It was pandemonium. What I didnt understand at the time was that the other kids genuinely had no clue what a white person was. Black kids in the township didnt leave the township. Few people had televisions. Theyd seen the white police roll through, but theyd never dealt with a white person face-toface, ever. Id go to funerals and Id walk in and the bereaved would look up and see me and theyd stop crying. Theyd start whispering. Then theyd wave and say, Oh! like they were more shocked by me walking in than by the death of their loved ones. I think people felt like the dead person was more important because a white person had come to the funeral. After a funeral, the mourners all go to the house of the surviving family to eat. A hundred people might show up, and youve got to feed them. Usually you get a cow and slaughter it and your neighbors come over and help you cook. Neighbors and acquaintances eat outside in the yard and in the street, and the family eats indoors. Every funeral I ever went to, I ate indoors. It didnt matter if we knew the deceased or not. The family would see me and invite me in. Awunakuvumela umntana womlungu ame ngaphandle. Yiza naye apha ngaphakathi, theyd say. You cant let the white child stand outside. Bring him in here. As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate. I didnt know any of it had anything to do with race. I didnt know what race was. My mother never referred to my dad as white or to me as mixed. So when the other kids in Soweto called me white, even though I was light brown, I just thought they had their colors mixed up, like they hadnt learned them properly. Ah, yes, my friend. Youve confused aqua with turquoise. I can see how you made that mistake. Youre not the first. I soon learned that the quickest way to bridge the race gap was through language. Soweto was a melting pot: families from different tribes and homelands. Most kids in the township spoke only their home language, but I learned several languages because I grew up in a house where there was no option but to learn them. My mom made sure English was the first language I spoke. If youre black in South Africa, speaking English is the one thing that can give you a leg up. English is the language of money. English comprehension is equated with intelligence. If youre looking for a job, English is the difference between getting the job or staying unemployed. If youre standing in the dock, English is the difference between getting off with a fine or going to prison. After English, Xhosa was what we spoke around the house. When my mother was angry shed fall back on her home language. As a naughty child, I was well versed in Xhosa threats. They were the first phrases I picked up, mostly for my own safetyphrases like Ndiza kubetha entloko. Ill knock you upside the head. Or Sidenge ndini somntwana. You idiot of a child. Its a very passionate language. Outside of that, my mother picked up different languages here and there. She learned Zulu because its similar to Xhosa. She spoke German because of my father. She spoke Afrikaans because it is useful to know the language of your oppressor. Sotho she learned in the streets. Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world. We were in a shop once, and the shopkeeper, right in front of us, turned to his security guard and said, in Afrikaans, Volg daai swartes, netnou steel hulle iets. Follow those blacks in case they steal something. My mother turned around and said, in beautiful, fluent Afrikaans, Hoekom volg jy nie daai swartes sodat jy hulle kan help kry waarna hulle soek nie? Why dont you follow these blacks so you can help them find what theyre looking for? Ag, jammer! he said, apologizing in Afrikaans. Thenand this was the funny thinghe didnt apologize for being racist; he merely apologized for aiming his racism at us. Oh, Im so sorry, he said. I thought you were like the other blacks. You know how they love to steal. I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcastgive you the program in your own tongue. Id get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. Where are you from? theyd ask. Id reply in whatever language theyd addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. Were good then. It became a tool that served me my whole life. One day as a young man I was walking down the street, and a group of Zulu guys was walking behind me, closing in on me, and I could hear them talking to one another about how they were going to mug me. Asibambe le autie yomlungu. Phuma ngapha mina ngizoqhamuka ngemuva kwakhe. Lets get this white guy. You go to his left, and Ill come up behind him. I didnt know what to do. I couldnt run, so I just spun around real quick and said, Kodwa bafwethu yingani singavele sibambe umuntu inkunzi? Asenzeni. Mina ngikulindele. Yo, guys, why dont we just mug someone together? Im ready. Lets do it. They looked shocked for a moment, and then they started laughing. Oh, sorry, dude. We thought you were something else. We werent trying to take anything from you. We were trying to steal from white people. Have a good day, man. They were ready to do me violent harm, until they felt we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didnt change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didnt look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you. As apartheid was coming to an end, South Africas elite private schools started accepting children of all colors. My mothers company offered bursaries, scholarships, for underprivileged families, and she managed to get me into Maryvale College, an expensive private Catholic school. Classes taught by nuns. Mass on Fridays. The whole bit. I started preschool there when I was three, primary school when I was five. In my class we had all kinds of kids. Black kids, white kids, Indian kids, colored kids. Most of the white kids were pretty well off. Every child of color pretty much wasnt. But because of scholarships we all sat at the same table. We wore the same maroon blazers, the same gray slacks and skirts. We had the same books. We had the same teachers. There was no racial separation. Every clique was racially mixed. Kids still got teased and bullied, but it was over usual kid stuff: being fat or being skinny, being tall or being short, being smart or being dumb. I dont remember anybody being teased about their race. I didnt learn to put limits on what I was supposed to like or not like. I had a wide berth to explore myself. I had crushes on white girls. I had crushes on black girls. Nobody asked me what I was. I was Trevor. It was a wonderful experience to have, but the downside was that it sheltered me from reality. Maryvale was an oasis that kept me from the truth, a comfortable place where I could avoid making a tough decision. But the real world doesnt go away. Racism exists. People are getting hurt, and just because its not happening to you doesnt mean its not happening. And at some point, you have to choose. Black or white. Pick a side. You can try to hide from it. You can say, Oh, I dont pick sides, but at some point life will force you to pick a side. At the end of grade six I left Maryvale to go to H. A. Jack Primary, a government school. I had to take an aptitude test before I started, and, based on the results of the test, the school counselor told me, Youre going to be in the smart classes, the A classes. I showed up for the first day of school and went to my classroom. Of the thirty or so kids in my class, almost all of them were white. There was one Indian kid, maybe one or two black kids, and me. Then recess came. We went out on the playground, and black kids were everywhere. It was an ocean of black, like someone had opened a tap and all the black had come pouring out. I was like, Where were they all hiding? The white kids Id met that morning, they went in one direction, the black kids went in another direction, and I was left standing in the middle, totally confused. Were we going to meet up later on? I did not understand what was happening. I was eleven years old, and it was like I was seeing my country for the first time. In the townships you dont see segregation, because everyone is black. In the white world, any time my mother took me to a white church, we were the only black people there, and my mom didnt separate herself from anyone. She didnt care. Shed go right up and sit with the white people. And at Maryvale, the kids were mixed up and hanging out together. Before that day, I had never seen people being together and yet not together, occupying the same space yet choosing not to associate with each other in any way. In an instant I could see, I could feel, how the boundaries were drawn. Groups moved in color patterns across the yard, up the stairs, down the hall. It was insane. I looked over at the white kids Id met that morning. Ten minutes earlier Id thought I was at a school where they were a majority. Now I realized how few of them there actually were compared to everyone else. I stood there awkwardly by myself in this no-mans-land in the middle of the playground. Luckily, I was rescued by the Indian kid from my class, a guy named Theesan Pillay. Theesan was one of the few Indian kids in school, so hed noticed me, another obvious outsider, right away. He ran over to introduce himself. Hello, fellow anomaly! Youre in my class. Who are you? Whats your story? We started talking and hit it off. He took me under his wing, the Artful Dodger to my bewildered Oliver. Through our conversation it came up that I spoke several African languages, and Theesan thought a colored kid speaking black languages was the most amazing trick. He brought me over to a group of black kids. Say something, he told them, and hell show you he understands you. One kid said something in Zulu, and I replied to him in Zulu. Everyone cheered. Another kid said something in Xhosa, and I replied to him in Xhosa. Everyone cheered. For the rest of recess Theesan took me around to different black kids on the playground. Show them your trick. Do your language thing. The black kids were fascinated. In South Africa back then, it wasnt common to find a white person or a colored person who spoke African languages; during apartheid white people were always taught that those languages were beneath them. So the fact that I did speak African languages immediately endeared me to the black kids. How come you speak our languages? they asked. Because Im black, I said, like you. Youre not black. Yes, I am. No, youre not. Have you not seen yourself? They were confused at first. Because of my color, they thought I was a colored person, but speaking the same languages meant that I belonged to their tribe. It just took them a moment to figure it out. It took me a moment, too. At some point I turned to one of them and said, Hey, how come I dont see you guys in any of my classes? It turned out they were in the B classes, which also happened to be the black classes. That same afternoon, I went back to the A classes, and by the end of the day I realized that they werent for me. Suddenly, I knew who my people were, and I wanted to be with them. I went to see the school counselor. Id like to switch over, I told her. Id like to go to the B classes. She was confused. Oh, no, she said. I dont think you want to do that. Why not? Because those kids areyou know. No, I dont know. What do you mean? Look, she said, youre a smart kid. You dont want to be in that class. But arent the classes the same? English is English. Math is math. Yeah, but that class isthose kids are gonna hold you back. You want to be in the smart class. But surely there must be some smart kids in the B class. No, there arent. But all my friends are there. You dont want to be friends with those kids. Yes, I do. We went back and forth. Finally she gave me a stern warning. You do realize the effect this will have on your future? You do understand what youre giving up? This will impact the opportunities youll have open to you for the rest of your life. Ill take that chance. I moved to the B classes with the black kids. I decided Id rather be held back with people I liked than move ahead with people I didnt know. Being at H. A. Jack made me realize I was black. Before that recess Id never had to choose, but when I was forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didnt spend my life looking at myself. I spent my life looking at other people. I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black. My cousins are black, my mom is black, my gran is black. I grew up black. Because I had a white father, because Id been in white Sunday school, I got along with the white kids, but I didnt belong with the white kids. I wasnt a part of their tribe. But the black kids embraced me. Come along, they said. Youre rolling with us. With the black kids, I wasnt constantly trying to be. With the black kids, I just was. Before apartheid, any black South African who received a formal education was likely taught by European missionaries, foreign enthusiasts eager to Christianize and Westernize the natives. In the mission schools, black people learned English, European literature, medicine, the law. Its no coincidence that nearly every major black leader of the anti-apartheid movement, from Nelson Mandela to Steve Biko, was educated by the missionariesa knowledgeable man is a free man, or at least a man who longs for freedom. The only way to make apartheid work, therefore, was to cripple the black mind. Under apartheid, the government built what became known as Bantu schools. Bantu schools taught no science, no history, no civics. They taught metrics and agriculture: how to count potatoes, how to pave roads, chop wood, till the soil. It does not serve the Bantu to learn history and science because he is primitive, the government said. This will only mislead him, showing him pastures in which he is not allowed to graze. To their credit, they were simply being honest. Why educate a slave? Why teach someone Latin when his only purpose is to dig holes in the ground? Mission schools were told to conform to the new curriculum or shut down. Most of them shut down, and black children were forced into crowded classrooms in dilapidated schools, often with teachers who were barely literate themselves. Our parents and grandparents were taught with little singsong lessons, the way youd teach a preschooler shapes and colors. My grandfather used to sing the songs and laugh about how silly they were. Two times two is four. Three times two is six. La la la la la. Were talking about fully grown teenagers being taught this way, for generations. What happened with education in South Africa, with the mission schools and the Bantu schools, offers a neat comparison of the two groups of whites who oppressed us, the British and the Afrikaners. The difference between British racism and Afrikaner racism was that at least the British gave the natives something to aspire to. If they could learn to speak correct English and dress in proper clothes, if they could Anglicize and civilize themselves, one day they might be welcome in society. The Afrikaners never gave us that option. British racism said, If the monkey can walk like a man and talk like a man, then perhaps he is a man. Afrikaner racism said, Why give a book to a monkey? THE SECOND GIRL My mother used to tell me, I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return. I was a product of her search for belonging. She never felt like she belonged anywhere. She didnt belong to her mother, didnt belong to her father, didnt belong with her siblings. She grew up with nothing and wanted something to call her own. My grandparents marriage was an unhappy one. They met and married in Sophiatown, but one year later the army came in and drove them out. The government seized their home and bulldozed the whole area to build a fancy, new white suburb, Triomf. Triumph. Along with tens of thousands of other black people, my grandparents were forcibly relocated to Soweto, to a neighborhood called the Meadowlands. They divorced not long after that, and my grandmother moved to Orlando with my mom, my aunt, and my uncle. My mom was the problem child, a tomboy, stubborn, defiant. My gran had no idea how to raise her. Whatever love they had was lost in the constant fighting that went on between them. But my mom adored her father, the charming, charismatic Temperance. She went gallivanting with him on his manic misadventures. Shed tag along when hed go drinking in the shebeens. All she wanted in life was to please him and be with him. She was always being swatted away by his girlfriends, who didnt like having a reminder of his first marriage hanging around, but that only made her want to be with him all the more. When my mother was nine years old, she told my gran that she didnt want to live with her anymore. She wanted to live with her father. If thats what you want, Gran said, then go. Temperance came to pick my mom up, and she happily bounded up into his car, ready to go and be with the man she loved. But instead of taking her to live with him in the Meadowlands, without even telling her why, he packed her off and sent her to live with his sister in the Xhosa homeland, Transkeihe didnt want her, either. My mom was the middle child. Her sister was the eldest and firstborn. Her brother was the only son, bearer of the family name. They both stayed in Soweto, were both raised and cared for by their parents. But my mom was unwanted. She was the second girl. The only place she would have less value would be China. My mother didnt see her family again for twelve years. She lived in a hut with fourteen cousinsfourteen children from fourteen different mothers and fathers. All the husbands and uncles had gone off to the cities to find work, and the children who werent wanted, or whom no one could afford to feed, had been sent back to the homeland to live on this aunts farm. The homelands were, ostensibly, the original homes of South Africas tribes, sovereign and semi-sovereign nations where black people would be free. Of course, this was a lie. For starters, despite the fact that black people made up over 80 percent of South Africas population, the territory allocated for the homelands was about 13 percent of the countrys land. There was no running water, no electricity. People lived in huts. Where South Africas white countryside was lush and irrigated and green, the black lands were overpopulated and overgrazed, the soil depleted and eroding. Other than the menial wages sent home from the cities, families scraped by with little beyond subsistence-level farming. My mothers aunt hadnt taken her in out of charity. She was there to work. I was one of the cows, my mother would later say, one of the oxen. She and her cousins were up at half past four, plowing fields and herding animals before the sun baked the soil as hard as cement and made it too hot to be anywhere but in the shade. For dinner there might be one chicken to feed fourteen children. My mom would have to fight with the bigger kids to get a handful of meat or a sip of the gravy or even a bone from which to suck out some marrow. And thats when there was food for dinner at all. When there wasnt, shed steal food from the pigs. Shed steal food from the dogs. The farmers would put out scraps for the animals, and shed jump for it. She was hungry; let the animals fend for themselves. There were times when she literally ate dirt. She would go down to the river, take the clay from the riverbank, and mix it with the water to make a grayish kind of milk. Shed drink that to feel full. But my mother was blessed that her village was one of the places where a mission school had contrived to stay open in spite of the governments Bantu education policies. There she had a white pastor who taught her English. She didnt have food or shoes or even a pair of underwear, but she had English. She could read and write. When she was old enough she stopped working on the farm and got a job at a factory in a nearby town. She worked on a sewing machine making school uniforms. Her pay at the end of each day was a plate of food. She used to say it was the best food shed ever eaten, because it was something she had earned on her own. She wasnt a burden to anyone and didnt owe anything to anyone. When my mom turned twenty-one, her aunt fell ill and that family could no longer keep her in Transkei. My mom wrote to my gran, asking her to send the price of a train ticket, about thirty rand, to bring her home. Back in Soweto, my mom enrolled in the secretarial course that allowed her to grab hold of the bottom rung of the white-collar world. She worked and worked and worked but, living under my grandmothers roof, she wasnt allowed to keep her own wages. As a secretary, my mom was bringing home more money than anyone else, and my grandmother insisted it all go to the family. The family needed a radio, an oven, a refrigerator, and it was now my moms job to provide it. So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it the black tax. Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero. Working for the family in Soweto, my mom had no more freedom than shed had in Transkei, so she ran away. She ran all the way down to the train station and jumped on a train and disappeared into the city, determined to sleep in public restrooms and rely on the kindness of prostitutes until she could make her own way in the world. My mother never sat me down and told me the whole story of her life in Transkei. Shed give me little bursts, random details, stories of having to keep her wits about her to avoid getting raped by strange men in the village. Shed tell me these things and Id be like, Lady, clearly you do not know what kind of stories to be telling a ten-year-old. My mom told me these things so that Id never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. Learn from your past and be better because of your past, she would say, but dont cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but dont hold on to it. Dont be bitter. And she never was. The deprivations of her youth, the betrayals of her parents, she never complained about any of it. Just as she let the past go, she was determined not to repeat it: my childhood would bear no resemblance to hers. She started with my name. The names Xhosa families give their children always have a meaning, and that meaning has a way of becoming self-fulfilling. You have my cousin, Mlungisi. The Fixer. Thats who he is. Whenever I got into trouble he was the one trying to help me fix it. He was always the good kid, doing chores, helping around the house. You have my uncle, the unplanned pregnancy, Velile. He Who Popped Out of Nowhere. And thats all hes done his whole life, disappear and reappear. Hell go off on a drinking binge and then pop back up out of nowhere a week later. Then you have my mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. She Who Gives Back. Thats what she does. She gives and gives and gives. She did it even as a girl in Soweto. Playing in the streets she would find toddlers, three- and fouryear-olds, running around unsupervised all day long. Their fathers were gone and their mothers were drunks. My mom, who was only six or seven herself, used to round up the abandoned kids and form a troop and take them around to the shebeens. Theyd collect empties from the men who were passed out and take the bottles to where you could turn them in for a deposit. Then my mom would take that money, buy food in the spaza shops, and feed the kids. She was a child taking care of children. When it was time to pick my name, she chose Trevor, a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family. Its not even a Biblical name. Its just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. She gave me the tools to do it as well. She taught me English as my first language. She read to me constantly. The first book I learned to read was the book. The Bible. Church was where we got most of our other books, too. My mom would bring home boxes that white people had donatedpicture books, chapter books, any book she could get her hands on. Then she signed up for a subscription program where we got books in the mail. It was a series of how-to books. How to Be a Good Friend. How to Be Honest. She bought a set of encyclopedias, too; it was fifteen years old and way out of date, but I would sit and pore through those. My books were my prized possessions. I had a bookshelf where I put them, and I was so proud of it. I loved my books and kept them in pristine condition. I read them over and over, but I did not bend the pages or the spines. I treasured every single one. As I grew older I started buying my own books. I loved fantasy, loved to get lost in worlds that didnt exist. I remember there was some book about white boys who solved mysteries or some shit. I had no time for that. Give me Roald Dahl. James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. That was my fix. I had to fight to convince my mom to get the Narnia books for me. She didnt like them. This lion, she said, he is a false Goda false idol! You remember what happened when Moses came down from the mountain after he got the tablets Yes, Mom, I explained, but the lion is a Christ figure. Technically, he is Jesus. Its a story to explain Jesus. She wasnt comfortable with that. No, no. No false idols, my friend. Eventually I wore her down. That was a big win. If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind. My mother spoke to me like an adult, which was unusual. In South Africa, kids play with kids and adults talk to adults. The adults supervise you, but they dont get down on your level and talk to you. My mom did. All the time. I was like her best friend. She was always telling me stories, giving me lessons, Bible lessons especially. She was big into Psalms. I had to read Psalms every day. She would quiz me on it. What does the passage mean? What does it mean to you? How do you apply it to your life? That was every day of my life. My mom did what school didnt. She taught me how to think. The end of apartheid was a gradual thing. It wasnt like the Berlin Wall where one day it just came down. Apartheids walls cracked and crumbled over many years. Concessions were made here and there, some laws were repealed, others simply werent enforced. There came a point, in the months before Mandelas release, when we could live less furtively. It was then that my mother decided we needed to move. She felt we had grown as much as we could hiding in our tiny flat in town. The country was open now. Where would we go? Soweto came with its burdens. My mother still wanted to get out from the shadow of her family. My mother also couldnt walk with me through Soweto without people saying, There goes that prostitute with a white mans child. In a black area she would always be seen as that. So, since my mom didnt want to move to a black area and couldnt afford to move to a white area, she decided to move to a colored area. Eden Park was a colored neighborhood adjacent to several black townships on the East Rand. Half-colored and half-black, she figured, like us. Wed be camouflaged there. It didnt work out that way; we never fit in at all. But that was her thinking when we made the move. Plus it was a chance to buy a home our own home. Eden Park was one of those suburbs that are actually out on the edge of civilization, the kind of place where property developers have said, Hey, poor people. You can live the good life, too. Heres a house. In the middle of nowhere. But look, you have a yard! For some reason the streets in Eden Park were named after cars: Jaguar Street. Ferrari Street. Honda Street. I dont know if that was a coincidence or not, but its funny because colored people in South Africa are known for loving fancy cars. It was like living in a white neighborhood with all the streets named after varietals of fine wine. I remember moving out there in flashbacks, snippets, driving to a place Id never seen, seeing people Id never seen. It was flat, not many trees, the same dusty red-clay dirt and grass as Soweto but with proper houses and paved roads and a sense of suburbia to it. Ours was a tiny house at the bend in the road right off Toyota Street. It was modest and cramped inside, but walking in I thought, Wow. We are really living. It was crazy to have my own room. I didnt like it. My whole life Id slept in a room with my mom or on the floor with my cousins. I was used to having other human beings right next to me, so I slept in my moms bed most nights. There was no stepfather in the picture yet, no baby brother crying in the night. It was me and her, alone. There was this sense of the two of us embarking on a grand adventure. Shed say things to me like, Its you and me against the world. I understood even from an early age that we werent just mother and son. We were a team. It was when we moved to Eden Park that we finally got a car, the beat-up, tangerine Volkswagen my mother bought secondhand for next to nothing. One out of five times it wouldnt start. There was no AC. Anytime I made the mistake of turning on the fan the vent would fart bits of leaves and dust all over me. Whenever it broke down wed catch minibuses, or sometimes wed hitchhike. Shed make me hide in the bushes because she knew men would stop for a woman but not a woman with a child. Shed stand by the road, the driver would pull over, shed open the door and then whistle, and Id come running up to the car. I would watch their faces drop as they realized they werent picking up an attractive single woman but an attractive single woman with a fat little kid. When the car did work, we had the windows down, sputtering along and baking in the heat. For my entire life the dial on that cars radio stayed on one station. It was called Radio Pulpit, and as the name suggests it was nothing but preaching and praise. I wasnt allowed to touch that dial. Anytime the radio wasnt getting reception, my mom would pop in a cassette of Jimmy Swaggart sermons. (When we finally found out about the scandal? Oh, man. That was rough.) But as shitty as our car was, it was a car. It was freedom. We werent black people stuck in the townships, waiting for public transport. We were black people who were out in the world. We were black people who could wake up and say, Where do we choose to go today? On the commute to work and school, there was a long stretch of the road into town that was completely deserted. Thats where Mom would let me drive. On the highway. I was six. Shed put me on her lap and let me steer and work the indicators while she worked the pedals and the stick shift. After a few months of that, she taught me how to work the stick. She was still working the clutch, but Id climb onto her lap and take the stick, and shed call out the gears as we drove. There was this one part of the road that ran deep into a valley and then back up the other side. Wed get up a head of speed, and wed stick it into neutral and let go of the brake and the clutch, and, woo-hoo!, wed race down the hill and then, zoom!, wed shoot up the other side. We were flying. If we werent at school or work or church, we were out exploring. My moms attitude was I chose you, kid. I brought you into this world, and Im going to give you everything I never had. She poured herself into me. She would find places for us to go where we didnt have to spend money. We must have gone to every park in Johannesburg. My mom would sit under a tree and read the Bible, and Id run and play and play and play. On Sunday afternoons after church, wed go for drives out in the country. My mom would find places with beautiful views for us to sit and have a picnic. There was none of the fanfare of a picnic basket or plates or anything like that, only baloney and brown bread and margarine sandwiches wrapped up in butcher paper. To this day, baloney and brown bread and margarine will instantly take me back. You can come with all the Michelin stars in the world, just give me baloney and brown bread and margarine and Im in heaven. Food, or the access to food, was always the measure of how good or bad things were going in our lives. My mom would always say, My job is to feed your body, feed your spirit, and feed your mind. Thats exactly what she did, and the way she found money for food and books was to spend absolutely nothing on anything else. Her frugality was the stuff of legend. Our car was a tin can on wheels, and we lived in the middle of nowhere. We had threadbare furniture, busted old sofas with holes worn through the fabric. Our TV was a tiny black-and-white with a bunny aerial on top. We changed the channels using a pair of pliers because the buttons didnt work. Most of the time you had to squint to see what was going on. We always wore secondhand clothes, from Goodwill stores or that were giveaways from white people at church. All the other kids at school got brands, Nike and Adidas. I never got brands. One time I asked my mom for Adidas sneakers. She came home with some knockoff brand, Abidas. Mom, these are fake, I said. I dont see the difference. Look at the logo. There are four stripes instead of three. Lucky you, she said. You got one extra. We got by with next to nothing, but we always had church and we always had books and we always had food. Mind you, it wasnt necessarily good food. Meat was a luxury. When things were going well wed have chicken. My mom was an expert at cracking open a chicken bone and getting out every last bit of marrow inside. We didnt eat chickens. We obliterated them. Our family was an archaeologists nightmare. We left no bones behind. When we were done with a chicken there was nothing left but the head. Sometimes the only meat we had was a packaged meat you could buy at the butcher called sawdust. It was literally the dust of the meat, the bits that fell off the cuts being packaged for the shop, the bits of fat and whatevers left. Theyd sweep it up and put it into bags. It was meant for dogs, but my mom bought it for us. There were many months where that was all we ate. The butcher sold bones, too. We called them soup bones, but they were actually labeled dog bones in the store; people would cook them for their dogs as a treat. Whenever times were really tough wed fall back on dog bones. My mom would boil them for soup. Wed suck the marrow out of them. Sucking marrow out of bones is a skill poor people learn early. Ill never forget the first time I went to a fancy restaurant as a grown man and someone told me, You have to try the bone marrow. Its such a delicacy. Its divine. They ordered it, the waiter brought it out, and I was like, Dog bones, motherfucker! I was not impressed. As modestly as we lived at home, I never felt poor because our lives were so rich with experience. We were always out doing something, going somewhere. My mom used to take me on drives through fancy white neighborhoods. Wed go look at peoples houses, look at their mansions. Wed look at their walls, mostly, because thats all we could see from the road. Wed look at a wall that ran from one end of the block to the other and go, Wow. Thats only one house. All of that is for one family. Sometimes wed pull over and go up to the wall, and shed put me up on her shoulders like I was a little periscope. I would look into the yards and describe everything I was seeing. Its a big white house! They have two dogs! Theres a lemon tree! They have a swimming pool! And a tennis court! My mother took me places black people never went. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldnt or shouldnt do. Shed take me to the ice rink to go skating. Johannesburg used to have this epic drivein movie theater, Top Star Drive-In, on top of a massive mine dump outside the city. Shed take me to movies there; wed get snacks, hang the speaker on our car window. Top Star had a 360-degree view of the city, the suburbs, Soweto. Up there I could see for miles in every direction. I felt like I was on top of the world. My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kidnot white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered. We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of whats possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that my mother started her little project, me, at a time when she could not have known that apartheid would end. There was no reason to think it would end; it had seen generations come and go. I was nearly six when Mandela was released, ten before democracy finally came, yet she was preparing me to live a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist. A hard life in the township or a trip to the colored orphanage were the far more likely options on the table. But we never lived that way. We only moved forward and we always moved fast, and by the time the law and everyone else came around we were already miles down the road, flying across the freeway in a bright-orange, piece-of-shit Volkswagen with the windows down and Jimmy Swaggart praising Jesus at the top of his lungs. People thought my mom was crazy. Ice rinks and drive-ins and suburbs, these things were izinto zabelunguthe things of white people. So many black people had internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own. Why teach a black child white things? Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom. Why do all this? Why show him the world when hes never going to leave the ghetto? Because, she would say, even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, Ive done enough. Apartheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I dont mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there werent enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didnt know what to do with them, so the government said, Eh, well just call em black. Its simpler that way. Interestingly, at the same time, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldnt tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job was to make sure that people of the wrong color werent doing the wrong thing. If he saw an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench, what would he say? Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman! Excuse me. Im Japanese. Oh, I apologize, sir. I didnt mean to be racist. Have a lovely afternoon. LOOPHOLES My mother used to tell me, I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in returnand then I gave birth to the most selfish piece of shit on earth and all it ever did was cry and eat and shit and say, Me, me, me, me me.? My mom thought having a child was going to be like having a partner, but every child is born the center of its own universe, incapable of understanding the world beyond its own wants and needs, and I was no different. I was a voracious kid. I consumed boxes of books and wanted more, more, more. I ate like a pig. The way I ate I should have been obese. At a certain point the family thought I had worms. Whenever I went to my cousins house for the holidays, my mom would drop me off with a bag of tomatoes, onions, and potatoes and a large sack of cornmeal. That was her way of preempting any complaints about my visit. At my grans house I always got seconds, which none of the other kids got. My grandmother would give me the pot and say, Finish it. If you didnt want to wash the dishes, you called Trevor. They called me the rubbish bin of the family. I ate and ate and ate. I was hyperactive, too. I craved constant stimulation and activity. When I walked down the sidewalk as a toddler, if you didnt have my arm in a death grip, I was off, running full-speed toward the traffic. I loved to be chased. I thought it was a game. The old grannies my mom hired to look after me while she was at work? I would leave them in tears. My mom would come home and theyd be crying. I quit. I cant do this. Your son is a tyrant. It was the same with my schoolteachers, with Sunday school teachers. If you werent engaging me, you were in trouble. I wasnt a shit to people. I wasnt whiny and spoiled. I had good manners. I was just high-energy and knew what I wanted to do. My mom used to take me to the park so she could run me to death to burn off the energy. Shed take a Frisbee and throw it, and Id run and catch it and bring it back. Over and over and over. Sometimes shed throw a tennis ball. Black peoples dogs dont play fetch; you dont throw anything to a black persons dog unless its food. So it was only when I started spending time in parks with white people and their pets that I realized my mom was training me like a dog. Anytime my extra energy wasnt burned off, it would find its way into general naughtiness and misbehavior. I prided myself on being the ultimate prankster. Every teacher at school used overhead projectors to put their notes up on the wall during class. One day I went around and took the magnifying glass out of every projector in every classroom. Another time I emptied a fire extinguisher into the school piano, because I knew we were going to have a performance at assembly the next day. The pianist sat down and played the first note and, foomp!, all this foam exploded out of the piano. The two things I loved most were fire and knives. I was endlessly fascinated by them. Knives were just cool. I collected them from pawnshops and garage sales: flick knives, butterfly knives, the Rambo knife, the Crocodile Dundee knife. Fire was the ultimate, though. I loved fire and I especially loved fireworks. We celebrated Guy Fawkes Day in November, and every year my mom would buy us a ton of fireworks, like a mini-arsenal. I realized that I could take the gunpowder out of all the fireworks and create one massive firework of my own. One afternoon I was doing precisely that, goofing around with my cousin and filling an empty plant pot with a huge pile of gunpowder, when I got distracted by some Black Cat firecrackers. The cool thing you could do with a Black Cat was, instead of lighting it to make it explode, you could break it in half and light it and it would turn into a mini-flamethrower. I stopped midway through building my gunpowder pile to play with the Black Cats and somehow dropped a match into the pile. The whole thing exploded, throwing a massive ball of flame up in my face. Mlungisi screamed, and my mom came running into the yard in a panic. What happened?! I played it cool, even though I could still feel the heat of the fireball on my face. Oh, nothing. Nothing happened. Were you playing with fire?! No. She shook her head. You know what? I would beat you, but Jesus has already exposed your lies. Huh? Go to the bathroom and look at yourself. I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror. My eyebrows were gone and the front inch or so of my hair was completely burned off. From an adults point of view, I was destructive and out of control, but as a child I didnt think of it that way. I never wanted to destroy. I wanted to create. I wasnt burning my eyebrows. I was creating fire. I wasnt breaking overhead projectors. I was creating chaos, to see how people reacted. And I couldnt help it. Theres a condition kids suffer from, a compulsive disorder that makes them do things they themselves dont understand. You can tell a child, Whatever you do, dont draw on the wall. You can draw on this paper. You can draw in this book. You can draw on any surface you want. But do not draw or write or color on the wall. The child will look you dead in the eye and say, Got it. Ten minutes later the child is drawing on the wall. You start screaming. Why the hell are you drawing on the wall?! The child looks at you, and he genuinely has no idea why he drew on the wall. As a kid, I remember having that feeling all the time. Every time I got punished, as my mom was whooping my ass, Id be thinking, Why did I just do that? I knew not to do that. She told me not to do that. Then once the hiding was over Id say to myself, Im going to be so good from here on. Im never ever going to do a bad thing in my life ever ever ever ever everand to remember not to do anything bad, let me write something on the wall to remind myselfand then I would pick up a crayon and get straight back into it, and I never understood why. My relationship with my mom was like the relationship between a cop and a criminal in the moviesthe relentless detective and the devious mastermind shes determined to catch. Theyre bitter rivals, but, damn, they respect the hell out of each other, and somehow they even grow to like each other. Sometimes my mom would catch me, but she was usually one step behind, and she was always giving me the eye. Someday, kid. Someday Im going to catch you and put you away for the rest of your life. Then I would give her a nod in return. Have a good evening, Officer. That was my whole childhood. My mom was forever trying to rein me in. Over the years, her tactics grew more and more sophisticated. Where I had youth and energy on my side, she had cunning, and she figured out different ways to keep me in line. One Sunday we were at the shops and there was a big display of toffee apples. I loved toffee apples, and I kept nagging her the whole way through the shop. Please can I have a toffee apple? Please can I have a toffee apple? Please can I have a toffee apple? Please can I have a toffee apple? Finally, once we had our groceries and my mom was heading to the front to pay, I succeeded in wearing her down. Fine, she said. Go and get a toffee apple. I ran, got a toffee apple, came back, and put it on the counter at the checkout. Add this toffee apple, please, I said. The cashier looked at me skeptically. Wait your turn, boy. Im still helping this lady. No, I said. Shes buying it for me. My mother turned to me. Whos buying it for you? Youre buying it for me. No, no. Why doesnt your mother buy it for you? What? My mother? You are my mother. Im your mother? No, Im not your mother. Wheres your mother? I was so confused. Youre my mother. The cashier looked at her, looked back at me, looked at her again. She shrugged, like, I have no idea what that kids talking about. Then she looked at me like shed never seen me before in her life. Are you lost, little boy? Wheres your mother? Yeah, the cashier said. Wheres your mother? I pointed at my mother. Shes my mother. What? She cant be your mother, boy. Shes black. Cant you see? My mom shook her head. Poor little colored boy lost his mother. What a shame. I panicked. Was I crazy? Is she not my mother? I started bawling. Youre my mother. Youre my mother. Shes my mother. Shes my mother. She shrugged again. So sad. I hope he finds his mother. The cashier nodded. She paid him, took our groceries, and walked out of the shop. I dropped the toffee apple, ran out behind her in tears, and caught up to her at the car. She turned around, laughing hysterically, like shed really got me good. Why are you crying? she asked. Because you said you werent my mother. Why did you say you werent my mother? Because you wouldnt shut up about the toffee apple. Now get in the car. Lets go. By the time I was seven or eight, I was too smart to be tricked, so she changed tactics. Our life turned into a courtroom drama with two lawyers constantly debating over loopholes and technicalities. My mom was smart and had a sharp tongue, but I was quicker in an argument. Shed get flustered because she couldnt keep up. So she started writing me letters. That way she could make her points and there could be no verbal sparring back and forth. If I had chores to do, Id come home to find an envelope slipped under the door, like from the landlord. Dear Trevor, Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Colossians 3:20 There are certain things I expect from you as my child and as a young man. You need to clean your room. You need to keep the house clean. You need to look after your school uniform. Please, my child, I ask you. Respect my rules so that I may also respect you. I ask you now, please go and do the dishes and do the weeds in the garden. Yours sincerely, Mom I would do my chores, and if I had anything to say I would write back. Because my mom was a secretary and I spent hours at her office every day after school, Id learned a great deal about business correspondence. I was extremely proud of my letter-writing abilities. To Whom It May Concern: Dear Mom, I have received your correspondence earlier. I am delighted to say that I am ahead of schedule on the dishes and I will continue to wash them in an hour or so. Please note that the garden is wet and so I cannot do the weeds at this time, but please be assured this task will be completed by the end of the weekend. Also, I completely agree with what you are saying with regard to my respect levels and I will maintain my room to a satisfactory standard. Yours sincerely, Trevor Those were the polite letters. If we were having a real, full-on argument or if Id gotten in trouble at school, Id find more accusatory missives waiting for me when I got home. Dear Trevor, Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him. Proverbs 22:15 Your school marks this term have been very disappointing, and your behavior in class continues to be disruptive and disrespectful. It is clear from your actions that you do not respect me. You do not respect your teachers. Learn to respect the women in your life. The way you treat me and the way you treat your teachers will be the way you treat other women in the world. Learn to buck that trend now and you will be a better man because of it. Because of your behavior I am grounding you for one week. There will be no television and no videogames. Yours sincerely, Mom I, of course, would find this punishment completely unfair. Id take the letter and confront her. Can I speak to you about this? No. If you want to reply, you have to write a letter. Id go to my room, get out my pen and paper, sit at my little desk, and go after her arguments one by one. To Whom It May Concern: Dear Mom, First of all, this has been a particularly tough time in school, and for you to say that my marks are bad is extremely unfair, especially considering the fact that you yourself were not very good in school and I am, after all, a product of yours, and so in part you are to blame because if you were not good in school, why would I be good in school because genetically we are the same. Gran always talks about how naughty you were, so obviously my naughtiness comes from you, so I dont think it is right or just for you to say any of this. Yours sincerely, Trevor Id bring her the letter and stand there while she read it. Invariably shed tear it up and throw it in the dustbin. Rubbish! This is rubbish! Then shed start to launch into me and Id say, Ah-ah-ah. No. You have to write a letter. Then Id go to my room and wait for her reply. This sometimes went back and forth for days. The letter writing was for minor disputes. For major infractions, my mom went with the ass-whooping. Like most black South African parents, when it came to discipline my mom was old school. If I pushed her too far, shed go for the belt or switch. Thats just how it was in those days. Pretty much all of my friends had it the same. My mom would have given me proper sit-down hidings if Id given her the opportunity, but she could never catch me. My gran called me Springbok, after the second-fastest land mammal on earth, the deer that the cheetah hunts. My mom had to become a guerrilla fighter. She got her licks in where she could, her belt or maybe a shoe, administered on the fly. One thing I respected about my mom was that she never left me in any doubt as to why I was receiving the hiding. It wasnt rage or anger. It was discipline from a place of love. My mom was on her own with a crazy child. I destroyed pianos. I shat on floors. I would screw up, shed beat the shit out of me and give me time to cry, and then shed pop back into my room with a big smile and go, Are you ready for dinner? We need to hurry and eat if we want to watch Rescue 911. Are you coming? What? What kind of psychopath are you? You just beat me! Yes. Because you did something wrong. It doesnt mean I dont love you anymore. What? Look, did you or did you not do something wrong? I did. And then? I hit you. And now thats over. So why sit there and cry? Its time for Rescue 911. William Shatner is waiting. Are you coming or not? When it came to discipline, Catholic school was no joke. Whenever I got into trouble with the nuns at Maryvale theyd rap me on the knuckles with the edge of a metal ruler. For cursing theyd wash my mouth out with soap. For serious offenses Id get sent to the principals office. Only the principal could give you an official hiding. Youd have to bend over and hed hit your ass with this flat rubber thing, like the sole of a shoe. Whenever the principal would hit me, it was like he was afraid to do it too hard. One day I was getting a hiding and I thought, Man, if only my mom hit me like this, and I started laughing. I couldnt help it. The principal was quite disturbed. If youre laughing while youre getting beaten, he said, then something is definitely wrong with you. That was the first of three times the school made my mom take me to a psychologist to be evaluated. Every psychologist who examined me came back and said, Theres nothing wrong with this kid. I wasnt ADD. I wasnt a sociopath. I was just creative and independent and full of energy. The therapists did give me a series of tests, and they came to the conclusion that I was either going to make an excellent criminal or be very good at catching criminals, because I could always find loopholes in the law. Whenever I thought a rule wasnt logical, Id find my way around it. The rules about communion at Friday mass, for example, made absolutely no sense. Wed be in there for an hour of kneeling, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitting, and by the end of it Id be starving, but I was never allowed to take communion, because I wasnt Catholic. The other kids could eat Jesuss body and drink Jesuss blood, but I couldnt. And Jesuss blood was grape juice. I loved grape juice. Grape juice and crackers what more could a kid want? And they wouldnt let me have any. Id argue with the nuns and the priest all the time. Only Catholics can eat Jesuss body and drink Jesuss blood, right? Yes. But Jesus wasnt Catholic. No. Jesus was Jewish. Well, yes. So youre telling me that if Jesus walked into your church right now, Jesus would not be allowed to have the body and blood of Jesus? Welluhum They never had a satisfactory reply. One morning before mass I decided, Im going to get me some Jesus blood and Jesus body. I snuck behind the altar and I drank the entire bottle of grape juice and I ate the entire bag of Eucharist to make up for all the other times that I couldnt. In my mind, I wasnt breaking the rules, because the rules didnt make any sense. And I got caught only because they broke their own rules. Another kid ratted me out in confession, and the priest turned me in. No, no, I protested. Youve broken the rules. Thats confidential information. The priest isnt supposed to repeat what you say in confession. They didnt care. The school could break whatever rules it wanted. The principal laid into me. What kind of a sick person would eat all of Jesuss body and drink all of Jesuss blood? A hungry person. I got another hiding and a second trip to the psychologist for that one. The third visit to the shrink, and the last straw, came in grade six. A kid was bullying me. He said he was going to beat me up, and I brought one of my knives to school. I wasnt going to use it; I just wanted to have it. The school didnt care. That was the last straw for them. I wasnt expelled, exactly. The principal sat me down and said, Trevor, we can expel you. You need to think hard about whether you really want to be at Maryvale next year. I think he thought he was giving me an ultimatum that would get me to shape up. But I felt like he was offering me an out, and I took it. No, I told him, I dont want to be here. And that was the end of Catholic school. Funnily enough, I didnt get into trouble with my mom when it happened. There was no ass-whooping waiting for me at home. Shed lost the bursary when shed left her job at ICI, and paying for private school was becoming a burden. But more than that, she thought the school was overreacting. The truth is she probably took my side against Maryvale more often than not. She agreed with me 100 percent about the Eucharist thing. Let me get this straight, she told the principal. Youre punishing a child because he wants Jesuss body and Jesuss blood? Why shouldnt he have those things? Of course he should have them. When they made me see a therapist for laughing while the principal hit me, she told the school that was ridiculous, too. Ms. Noah, your son was laughing while we were hitting him. Well, clearly you dont know how to hit a kid. Thats your problem, not mine. Trevors never laughed when Ive hit him, I can tell you. That was the weird and kind of amazing thing about my mom. If she agreed with me that a rule was stupid, she wouldnt punish me for breaking it. Both she and the psychologists agreed that the school was the one with the problem, not me. Catholic school is not the place to be creative and independent. Catholic school is similar to apartheid in that its ruthlessly authoritarian, and its authority rests on a bunch of rules that dont make any sense. My mother grew up with these rules and she questioned them. When they didnt hold up, she simply went around them. The only authority my mother recognized was Gods. God is love and the Bible is trutheverything else was up for debate. She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her. When I was seven years old, my mother had been dating her new boyfriend, Abel, for a year maybe, but at that point I was too young to know who they were to each other. It was just Hey, thats moms friend whos around a lot. I liked Abel; he was a really nice guy. As a black person back then, if you wanted to live in the suburbs youd have to find a white family renting out their servants quarters or sometimes their garage, which was what Abel had done. He lived in a neighborhood called Orange Grove in a white familys garage, which hed turned into a cottage-type thing with a hot plate and a bed. Sometimes hed come and sleep at our house, and sometimes wed go stay with him. Staying in a garage when we owned our own house wasnt ideal, but Orange Grove was close to my school and my moms work so it had its benefits. This white family also had a black maid who lived in the servants quarters in the backyard, and Id play with her son whenever we stayed there. At that age my love of fire was in full bloom. One afternoon everyone was at workmy mom and Abel and both of the white parentsand the kid and I were playing together while his mom was inside the house cleaning. One thing I loved doing at the time was using a magnifying glass to burn my name into pieces of wood. You had to aim the lens and get the focus just right and then you got the flame and then you moved it slowly and you could burn shapes and letters and patterns. I was fascinated by it. That afternoon I was teaching this kid how to do it. We were inside the servants quarters, which was really more of a toolshed added on to the back of the house, full of wooden ladders, buckets of old paint, turpentine. I had a box of matches with me, tooall my usual fire-making tools. We were sitting on an old mattress that they used to sleep on the floor, basically a sack stuffed with dried straw. The sun was beaming in through the window, and I was showing the kid how to burn his name into a piece of plywood. At one point we took a break to go get a snack. I set the magnifying glass and the matches on the mattress and we left. When we came back a few minutes later we found the shed had one of those doors that self-locks from the inside. We couldnt get back in without going to get his mother, so we decided to run around and play in the yard. After a while I noticed smoke coming out of the cracks in the window frame. I ran over and looked inside. A small fire was burning in the middle of the straw mattress where wed left the matches and the magnifying glass. We ran and called the maid. She came, but she didnt know what to do. The door was locked, and before we could figure out how to get into the shed the whole thing caughtthe mattress, the ladders, the paint, the turpentine, everything. The flames moved quickly. Soon the roof was on fire, and from there the blaze spread to the main house, and the whole thing burned and burned and burned. Smoke was billowing into the sky. A neighbor had called the fire brigade, and the sirens were on their way. Me and this kid and the maid, we ran out to the road and watched as the firemen tried to put it out, but by the time they did, it was too late. There was nothing left but a charred brick-and-mortar shell, roof gone, and gutted from the inside. The white family came home and stood on the street, staring at the ruins of their house. They asked the maid what happened and she asked her son and the kid totally snitched. Trevor had matches, he said. The family said nothing to me. I dont think they knew what to say. They were completely dumbfounded. They didnt call the police, didnt threaten to sue. What were they going to do, arrest a seven-year-old for arson? And we were so poor you couldnt actually sue us for anything. Plus they had insurance, so that was the end of it. They kicked Abel out of the garage, which I thought was hilarious because the garage, which was freestanding, was the only piece of the property left unscathed. I saw no reason for Abel to have to leave, but they made him. We packed up his stuff, put it into our car, and drove home to Eden Park; Abel basically lived with us from then on. He and my mom got into a huge fight. Your son has burned down my life! But there was no punishment for me that day. My mom was too much in shock. Theres naughty, and then theres burning down a white persons house. She didnt know what to do. I didnt feel bad about it at all. I still dont. The lawyer in me maintains that I am completely innocent. There were matches and there was a magnifying glass and there was a mattress and then, clearly, a series of unfortunate events. Things catch fire sometimes. Thats why theres a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, Trevor burned down a house. If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me Terror instead. Dont leave that kid alone in your home, hed say. Hell burn it to the ground. My cousin Mlungisi, to this day, cannot comprehend how I survived being as naughty as I was for as long as I did, how I withstood the number of hidings that I got. Why did I keep misbehaving? How did I never learn my lesson? Both of my cousins were supergood kids. Mlungisi got maybe one hiding in his life. After that he said he never wanted to experience anything like it ever again, and from that day he always followed the rules. But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I dont hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, youll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. Its better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. Youll have a few bruises and theyll remind you of what happened and thats okay. But after a while the bruises fade, and they fade for a reason because now its time to get up to some shit again. I grew up in a black family in a black neighborhood in a black country. Ive traveled to other black cities in black countries all over the black continent. And in all of that time Ive yet to find a place where black people like cats. One of the biggest reasons for that, as we know in South Africa, is that only witches have cats, and all cats are witches. There was a famous incident during an Orlando Pirates soccer match a few years ago. A cat got into the stadium and ran through the crowd and out onto the pitch in the middle of the game. A security guard, seeing the cat, did what any sensible black person would do. He said to himself, That cat is a witch. He caught the cat andlive on TVhe kicked it and stomped it and beat it to death with a sjambok, a hard leather whip. It was front-page news all over the country. White people lost their shit. Oh my word, it was insane. The security guard was arrested and put on trial and found guilty of animal abuse. He had to pay some enormous fine to avoid spending several months in jail. What was ironic to me was that white people had spent years seeing video of black people being beaten to death by other white people, but this one video of a black man kicking a cat, thats what sent them over the edge. Black people were just confused. They didnt see any problem with what the man did. They were like, Obviously that cat was a witch. How else would a cat know how to get out onto a soccer pitch? Somebody sent it to jinx one of the teams. That man had to kill the cat. He was protecting the players. In South Africa, black people have dogs. FUFI A month after we moved to Eden Park, my mother brought home two cats. Black cats. Beautiful creatures. Some woman from her work had a litter of kittens she was trying to get rid of, and my mom ended up with two. I was excited because Id never had a pet before. My mom was excited because she loves animals. She didnt believe in any nonsense about cats. It was just another way in which she was a rebel, refusing to conform to ideas about what black people did and didnt do. In a black neighborhood, you wouldnt dare own a cat, especially a black cat. That would be like wearing a sign that said, Hello, I am a witch. That would be suicide. Since wed moved to a colored neighborhood, my mom thought the cats would be okay. Once they were grown we let them out during the day to roam the neighborhood. Then we came home one evening and found the cats strung up by their tails from our front gate, gutted and skinned and bleeding out, their heads chopped off. On our front wall someone had written in Afrikaans, HeksWitch. Colored people, apparently, were no more progressive than black people on the issue of cats. I wasnt exactly devastated about the cats. I dont think wed had them long enough for me to get attached; I dont even remember their names. And cats are dicks for the most part. As much as I tried they never felt like real pets. They never showed me affection nor did they accept any of mine. Had the cats made more of an effort, I might have felt like I had lost something. But even as a kid, looking at these dead, mutilated animals, I was like, Well, there you have it. Maybe if theyd been nicer, they could have avoided this. After the cats were killed, we took a break from pets for a while. Then we got dogs. Dogs are cool. Almost every black family I knew had a dog. No matter how poor you were, you had a dog. White people treat dogs like children or members of the family. Black peoples dogs are more for protection, a poormans alarm system. You buy a dog and you keep it out in the yard. Black people name dogs by their traits. If it has stripes, you call it Tiger. If its vicious, you call it Danger. If it has spots, you call it Spotty. Given the finite number of traits a dog can have, pretty much everyones dogs have the same names; people just recycle them. Wed never had dogs in Soweto. Then one day some lady at my moms work offered us two puppies. They werent planned puppies. This womans Maltese poodle had been impregnated by the bull terrier from next door, a strange mix. My mom said shed take them both. She brought them home, and I was the happiest kid on earth. My mom named them Fufi and Panther. Fufi, I dont know where her name came from. Panther had a pink nose, so she was Pink Panther and eventually just Panther. They were two sisters who loved and hated each other. They would look out for each other, but they would also fight all the time. Like, blood fights. Biting. Clawing. It was a strange, gruesome relationship. Panther was my moms dog; Fufi was mine. Fufi was beautiful. Clean lines, happy face. She looked like a perfect bull terrier, only skinnier because of the Maltese mixed in. Panther, who was more half-and-half, came out weird and scruffy-looking. Panther was smart. Fufi was dumb as shit. At least we always thought she was dumb as shit. Whenever we called them, Panther would come right away, but Fufi wouldnt do anything. Panther would run back and get Fufi and then theyd both come. It turned out that Fufi was deaf. Years later Fufi died when a burglar was trying to break into our house. He pushed the gate over and it fell on her back and broke her spine. We took her to the vet and she had to be put down. After examining her, the vet came over and gave us the news. It must have been strange for your family living with a dog that was deaf, he said. What? You didnt know your dog was deaf? No, we thought it was stupid. Thats when we realized that their whole lives the one dog had been telling the other dog what to do somehow. The smart, hearing one was helping the dumb, deaf one. Fufi was the love of my life. Beautiful but stupid. I raised her. I pottytrained her. She slept in my bed. A dog is a great thing for a kid to have. Its like a bicycle but with emotions. Fufi could do all sorts of tricks. She could jump super high. I mean, Fufi could jump. I could hold a piece of food out above my own head and shed leap up and grab it like it was nothing. If YouTube had been around, Fufi would have been a star. Fufi was a little rascal as well. During the day we kept the dogs in the backyard, which was enclosed by a wall at least five feet high. After a while, every day wed come home and Fufi would be sitting outside the gate, waiting for us. We were always confused. Was someone opening the gate? What was going on? It never occurred to us that she could actually scale a five-foot wall, but that was exactly what was happening. Every morning, Fufi would wait for us to leave, jump over the wall, and go roaming around the neighborhood. I caught her one day when I was home for the school holidays. My mom had left for work and I was in the living room. Fufi didnt know I was there; she thought I was gone because the car was gone. I heard Panther barking in the backyard, looked out, and there was Fufi, scaling the wall. Shed jumped, scampered up the last couple of feet, and then she was gone. I couldnt believe this was happening. I ran out front, grabbed my bicycle, and followed her to see where she was going. She went a long way, many streets over, to another part of the neighborhood. Then she went up to this other house and jumped over their wall and into their backyard. What the hell was she doing? I went up to the gate and rang the doorbell. This colored kid answered. May I help you? he said. Yeah. My dog is in your yard. What? My dog. Shes in your yard. Fufi walked up and stood between us. Fufi, come! I said. Lets go! This kid looked at Fufi and called her by some other stupid name, Spotty or some bullshit like that. Spotty, go back inside the house. Whoa, whoa, I said. Spotty? Thats Fufi! No, thats my dog, Spotty. No, thats Fufi, my friend. No, this is Spotty. How could this be Spotty? She doesnt even have spots. You dont know what youre talking about. This is Spotty! Fufi! Spotty! Fufi! Of course, since Fufi was deaf she didnt respond to Spotty or Fufi. She just stood there. I started cursing the kid out. Give me back my dog! I dont know who you are, he said, but you better get out of here. Then he went into the house and got his mom and she came out. What do you want? she said. Thats my dog! This is our dog. Go away. I started crying. Why are you stealing my dog?! I turned to Fufi and begged her. Fufi, why are you doing this to me?! Why, Fufi?! Why?! I called to her. I begged her to come. Fufi was deaf to my pleas. And everything else. I jumped onto my bike and raced home, tears running down my face. I loved Fufi so much. To see her with another boy, acting like she didnt know me, after I raised her, after all the nights we spent together. I was heartbroken. That evening Fufi didnt come home. Because the other family thought I was coming to steal their dog, they had decided to lock her inside, so she couldnt make it back the way she normally did to wait for us outside the fence. My mom got home from work. I was in tears. I told her Fufi had been kidnapped. We went back to the house. My mom rang the bell and confronted the mom. Look, this is our dog. This lady lied to my moms face. This is not your dog. We bought this dog. You didnt buy the dog. Its our dog. They went back and forth. This woman wasnt budging, so we went home to get evidence: pictures of us with the dogs, certificates from the vet. I was crying the whole time, and my mom was losing her patience with me. Stop crying! Well get the dog! Calm down! We gathered up our documentation and went back to the house. This time we brought Panther with us, as part of the proof. My mom showed this lady the pictures and the information from the vet. She still wouldnt give us Fufi. My mom threatened to call the police. It turned into a whole thing. Finally my mom said, Okay, Ill give you a hundred rand. Fine, the lady said. My mom gave her some money and she brought Fufi out. The other kid, who thought Fufi was Spotty, had to watch his mother sell the dog he thought was his. Now he started crying. Spotty! No! Mom, you cant sell Spotty! I didnt care. I just wanted Fufi back. Once Fufi saw Panther she came right away. The dogs left with us and we walked. I sobbed the whole way home, still heartbroken. My mom had no time for my whining. Why are you crying?! Because Fufi loves another boy. So? Why would that hurt you? It didnt cost you anything. Fufis here. She still loves you. Shes still your dog. So get over it. Fufi was my first heartbreak. No one has ever betrayed me more than Fufi. It was a valuable lesson to me. The hard thing was understanding that Fufi wasnt cheating on me with another boy. She was merely living her life to the fullest. Until I knew that she was going out on her own during the day, her other relationship hadnt affected me at all. Fufi had no malicious intent. I believed that Fufi was my dog, but of course that wasnt true. Fufi was a dog. I was a boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what Ive felt about relationships for the rest of my life: You do not own the thing that you love. I was lucky to learn that lesson at such a young age. I have so many friends who still, as adults, wrestle with feelings of betrayal. Theyll come to me angry and crying and talking about how theyve been cheated on and lied to, and I feel for them. I understand what theyre going through. I sit with them and buy them a drink and I say, Friend, let me tell you the story of Fufi. When I was twenty-four years old, one day out of the blue my mother said to me, You need to find your father. Why? I asked. At that point I hadnt seen him in over ten years and didnt think Id ever see him again. Because hes a piece of you, she said, and if you dont find him you wont find yourself. I dont need him for that, I said. I know who I am. Its not about knowing who you are. Its about him knowing who you are, and you knowing who he is. Too many men grow up without their fathers, so they spend their lives with a false impression of who their father is and what a father should be. You need to find your father. You need to show him what youve become. You need to finish that story. ? ROBERT My father is a complete mystery. There are so many questions about his life that I still cannot even begin to answer. Whered he grow up? Somewhere in Switzerland. Whered he go to university? I dont know if he did. Howd he end up in South Africa? I havent a clue. Ive never met my Swiss grandparents. I dont know their names or anything about them. I do know my dad has an older sister, but Ive never met her, either. I know that he worked as a chef in Montreal and New York for a while before moving to South Africa in the late 1970s. I know that he worked for an industrial food-service company and that he opened a couple of bars and restaurants here and there. Thats about it. I never called my dad Dad. I never addressed him Daddy or Father, either. I couldnt. I was instructed not to. If we were out in public or anywhere people might overhear us and I called him Dad, someone might have asked questions or called the police. So for as long as I can remember I always called him Robert. While I know nothing of my dads life before me, thanks to my mom and just from the time I have been able to spend with him, I do have a sense of who he is as a person. Hes very Swiss, clean and particular and precise. Hes the only person I know who checks into a hotel room and leaves it cleaner than when he arrived. He doesnt like anyone waiting on him. No servants, no housekeepers. He cleans up after himself. He likes his space. He lives in his own world and does his own everything. I know that he never married. He used to say that most people marry because they want to control another person, and he never wanted to be controlled. I know that he loves traveling, loves entertaining, having people over. But at the same time his privacy is everything to him. Wherever he lives hes never listed in the phone book. Im sure my parents would have been caught in their time together if he hadnt been as private as he is. My mom was wild and impulsive. My father was reserved and rational. She was fire, he was ice. They were opposites that attracted, and I am a mix of them both. One thing I do know about my dad is that he hates racism and homogeneity more than anything, and not because of any feelings of self-righteousness or moral superiority. He just never understood how white people could be racist in South Africa. Africa is full of black people, he would say. So why would you come all the way to Africa if you hate black people? If you hate black people so much, why did you move into their house? To him it was insane. Because racism never made sense to my father, he never subscribed to any of the rules of apartheid. In the early eighties, before I was born, he opened one of the first integrated restaurants in Johannesburg, a steakhouse. He applied for a special license that allowed businesses to serve both black and white patrons. These licenses existed because hotels and restaurants needed them to serve black travelers and diplomats from other countries, who in theory werent subject to the same restrictions as black South Africans; black South Africans with money in turn exploited that loophole to frequent those hotels and restaurants. My dads restaurant was an instant, booming success. Black people came because there were few upscale establishments where they could eat, and they wanted to come and sit in a nice restaurant and see what that was like. White people came because they wanted to see what it was like to sit with black people. The white people would sit and watch the black people eat, and the black people would sit and eat and watch the white people watching them eat. The curiosity of being together overwhelmed the animosity keeping people apart. The place had a great vibe. The restaurant closed only because a few people in the neighborhood took it upon themselves to complain. They filed petitions, and the government started looking for ways to shut my dad down. At first the inspectors came and tried to get him on cleanliness and health-code violations. Clearly they had never heard of the Swiss. That failed dismally. Then they decided to go after him by imposing additional and arbitrary restrictions. Since youve got the license you can keep the restaurant open, they said, but youll need to have separate toilets for every racial category. Youll need white toilets, black toilets, colored toilets, and Indian toilets. But then it will be a whole restaurant of nothing but toilets. Well, if you dont want to do that, your other option is to make it a normal restaurant and only serve whites. He closed the restaurant. After apartheid fell, my father moved from Hillbrow to Yeoville, a formerly quiet, residential neighborhood that had transformed into this vibrant melting pot of black and white and every other hue. Immigrants were pouring in from Nigeria and Ghana and all over the continent, bringing different food and exciting music. Rockey Street was the main strip, and its sidewalks were filled with street vendors and restaurants and bars. It was an explosion of culture. My dad lived two blocks over from Rockey, on Yeo Street, right next to this incredible park where I loved to go because kids of all races and different countries were running around and playing there. My dads house was simple. Nice, but nothing fancy. I feel like my dad had enough money to be comfortable and travel, but he never spent lavishly on things. Hes extremely frugal, the kind of guy who drives the same car for twenty years. My father and I lived on a schedule. I visited him every Sunday afternoon. Even though apartheid had ended, my mom had made her decision: She didnt want to get married. So we had our house, and he had his. Id made a deal with my mom that if I went with her to mixed church and white church in the morning, after that Id get to skip black church and go to my dads, where wed watch Formula 1 racing instead of casting out demons. I celebrated my birthday with my dad every year, and we spent Christmas with him as well. I loved Christmas with my dad because my dad celebrated European Christmas. European Christmas was the best Christmas ever. My dad went all out. He had Christmas lights and a Christmas tree. He had fake snow and snow globes and stockings hung by the fireplace and lots of wrapped presents from Santa Claus. African Christmas was a lot more practical. Wed go to church, come home, have a nice meal with good meat and lots of custard and jelly. But there was no tree. Youd get a present, but it was usually just clothes, a new outfit. You might get a toy, but it wasnt wrapped and it was never from Santa Claus. The whole issue of Santa Claus is a rather contentious one when it comes to African Christmas, a matter of pride. When an African dad buys his kid a present, the last thing hes going to do is give some fat white man credit for it. African Dad will tell you straight up, No, no, no. I bought you that. Outside of birthdays and special occasions, all we had were our Sunday afternoons. He would cook for me. Hed ask me what I wanted, and Id always request the exact same meal, a German dish called R?sti, which is basically a pancake made out of potatoes and some sort of meat with a gravy. Id have that and a bottle of Sprite, and for dessert a plastic container of custard with caramel on top. A good chunk of those afternoons would pass in silence. My dad didnt talk much. He was caring and devoted, attentive to detail, always a card on my birthday, always my favorite food and toys when I came for a visit. But at the same time he was a closed book. Wed talk about the food he was making, talk about the F1 racing wed watched. Every now and then hed drop a tidbit of information, about a place hed visited or his steakhouse. But that was it. Being with my dad was like watching a web series. Id get a few minutes of information a few minutes at a time, then Id have to wait a week for the next installment. When I was thirteen my dad moved to Cape Town, and we lost touch. Wed been losing touch for a while, for a couple of reasons. I was a teenager. I had a whole other world I was dealing with now. Videogames and computers meant more to me than spending time with my parents. Also, my mom had married Abel. He was incensed by the idea of my mom being in contact with her previous love, and she decided it was safer for everyone involved not to test his anger. I went from seeing my dad every Sunday to seeing him every other Sunday, maybe once a month, whenever my mom could sneak me over, same as shed done back in Hillbrow. Wed gone from living under apartheid to living under another kind of tyranny, that of an abusive, alcoholic man. At the same time, Yeoville had started to suffer from white flight, neglect, general decline. Most of my dads German friends had left for Cape Town. If he wasnt seeing me, he had no reason to stay, so he left. His leaving wasnt anything traumatic, because it never registered that we might lose touch and never see each other again. In my mind it was just Dads moving to Cape Town for a bit. Whatever. Then he was gone. I stayed busy living my life, surviving high school, surviving my early twenties, becoming a comedian. My career took off quickly. I got a radio DJ gig and hosted a kids adventure reality show on television. I was headlining at clubs all over the country. But even as my life was moving forward, the questions about my dad were always there in the back of my mind, bubbling up to the surface now and then. I wonder where he is. Does he think about me? Does he know what Im doing? Is he proud of me? When a parent is absent, youre left in the lurch of not knowing, and its so easy to fill that space with negative thoughts. They dont care. Theyre selfish. My one saving grace was that my mom never spoke ill of him. She would always compliment him. Youre good with your money. You get that from your dad. You have your dads smile. Youre clean and tidy like your father. I never turned to bitterness, because she made sure I knew his absence was because of circumstance and not a lack of love. She always told me the story of her coming home from the hospital and my dad saying, Wheres my kid? I want that kid in my life. Shed say to me, Dont ever forget: He chose you. And, ultimately, when I turned twenty-four, it was my mom who made me track him down. Because my father is so private, finding him was hard work. We didnt have an address. He wasnt in the phone book. I started by reaching out to some of his old connections, German expats in Johannesburg, a woman who used to date one of his friends who knew somebody who knew the last place he stayed. I got nowhere. Finally my mom suggested the Swiss embassy. They have to know where he is, she said, because he has to be in touch with them. I wrote to the Swiss embassy asking them where my father was, but because my father is not on my birth certificate I had no proof that my father is my father. The embassy wrote back and said they couldnt give me any information, because they didnt know who I was. I tried calling them, and I got the runaround there as well. Look, kid, they said. We cant help you. Were the Swiss embassy. Do you know nothing about the Swiss? Discretion is kind of our thing. Thats what we do. Tough luck. I kept pestering them and finally they said, Okay, well take your letter and, if a man such as youre describing exists, we might forward your letter to him. If he doesnt, maybe we wont. Lets see what happens. A few months later, a letter came back in the post: Great to hear from you. How are you? Love, Dad. He gave me his address in Cape Town, in a neighborhood called Camps Bay, and a few months later I went down to visit. Ill never forget that day. It was probably one of the weirdest days of my life, going to meet a person I knew and yet did not know at all. My memories of him felt just out of reach. I was trying to remember how he spoke, how he laughed, what his manner was. I parked on his street and started looking for his address. Camps Bay is full of older, semiretired white people, and as I walked down the road all these old white men were walking toward me and past me. My father was pushing seventy by that point, and I was so afraid Id forgotten what he looked like. I was looking in the face of every old white man who passed me, like, Are you my daddy? Basically it looked like I was cruising old white dudes in a beachfront retirement community. Then finally I got to the address Id been given and rang the bell, and the second he opened the door I recognized him. Hey! Its you, I thought. Of course its you. Youre the guy. I know you. We picked up right where wed left off, which was him treating me exactly the way hed treated me as a thirteen-year-old boy. Like the creature of habit he was, my father went straight back into it. Right! So where were we? Here, Ive got all your favorites. Potato R?sti. A bottle of Sprite. Custard with caramel. Luckily my tastes hadnt matured much since the age of thirteen, so I tucked right in. While I was eating he got up and went and picked up this book, an oversized photo album, and brought it back to the table. Ive been following you, he said, and he opened it up. It was a scrapbook of everything I had ever done, every time my name was mentioned in a newspaper, everything from magazine covers to the tiniest club listings, from the beginning of my career all the way through to that week. He was smiling so big as he took me through it, looking at the headlines. Trevor Noah Appearing This Saturday at the Blues Room. Trevor Noah Hosting New TV Show. I felt a flood of emotions rushing through me. It was everything I could do not to start crying. It felt like this ten-year gap in my life closed right up in an instant, like only a day had passed since Id last seen him. For years Id had so many questions. Is he thinking about me? Does he know what Im doing? Is he proud of me? But hed been with me the whole time. Hed always been proud of me. Circumstance had pulled us apart, but he was never not my father. I walked out of his house that day an inch taller. Seeing him had reaffirmed his choosing of me. He chose to have me in his life. He chose to answer my letter. I was wanted. Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being. Once we reconnected, I was overcome by this drive to make up for all the years wed missed. I decided the best way to do it was to interview him. I realized very quickly that that was a mistake. Interviews will give you facts and information, but facts and information werent really what I was after. What I wanted was a relationship, and an interview is not a relationship. Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know themand that is what apartheid stole from us: time. You cant make up for that with an interview, but I had to figure that out for myself. I went down to spend a few days with my father, and I made it my mission: This weekend I will get to know my father. As soon as I arrived I started peppering him with questions. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? Why did you do this? How did you do that? He started getting visibly irritated. What is this? he said. Why are you interrogating me? Whats going on here? I want to get to know you. Is this how you normally get to know people, by interrogating them? Wellnot really. So how do you get to know people? I dunno. By spending time with them, I guess. Okay. So spend time with me. See what you find out. So we spent the weekend together. We had dinner and talked about politics. We watched F1 racing and talked about sports. We sat quietly in his backyard and listened to old Elvis Presley records. The whole time he said not one word about himself. Then, as I was packing up to leave, he walked over to me and sat down. So, he said, in the time weve spent together, what would you say youve learned about your dad? Nothing. All I know is that youre extremely secretive. You see? Youre getting to know me already. When Dutch colonists landed at the southern tip of Africa over three hundred years ago, they encountered an indigenous people known as the Khoisan. The Khoisan are the Native Americans of South Africa, a lost tribe of bushmen, nomadic hunter-gatherers distinct from the darker, Bantuspeaking peoples who later migrated south to become the Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho tribes of modern South Africa. While settling in Cape Town and the surrounding frontier, the white colonists had their way with the Khoisan women, and the first mixed people of South Africa were born. To work the colonists farms, slaves were soon imported from different corners of the Dutch empire, from West Africa, Madagascar, and the East Indies. The slaves and the Khoisan intermarried, and the white colonists continued to dip in and take their liberties, and over time the Khoisan all but disappeared from South Africa. While most were killed off through disease, famine, and war, the rest of their bloodline was bred out of existence, mixed in with the descendants of whites and slaves to form an entirely new race of people: coloreds. Colored people are a hybrid, a complete mix. Some are light and some are dark. Some have Asian features, some have white features, some have black features. Its not uncommon for a colored man and a colored woman to have a child that looks nothing like either parent. The curse that colored people carry is having no clearly defined heritage to go back to. If they trace their lineage back far enough, at a certain point it splits into white and native and a tangled web of other. Since their native mothers are gone, their strongest affinity has always been with their white fathers, the Afrikaners. Most colored people dont speak African languages. They speak Afrikaans. Their religion, their institutions, all of the things that shaped their culture came from Afrikaners. The history of colored people in South Africa is, in this respect, worse than the history of black people in South Africa. For all that black people have suffered, they know who they are. Colored people dont. THE MULBERRY TREE At the end of our street in Eden Park, right in a bend at the top of the road, stood a giant mulberry tree growing out of someones front yard. Every year when it bore fruit the neighborhood kids would go and pick berries from it, eating as many as they could and filling up bags to take home. They would all play under the tree together. I had to play under the tree by myself. I didnt have any friends in Eden Park. I was the anomaly wherever we lived. In Hillbrow, we lived in a white area, and nobody looked like me. In Soweto, we lived in a black area, and nobody looked like me. Eden Park was a colored area. In Eden Park, everyone looked like me, but we couldnt have been more different. It was the biggest mindfuck Ive ever experienced. The animosity I felt from the colored people I encountered growing up was one of the hardest things Ive ever had to deal with. It taught me that it is easier to be an insider as an outsider than to be an outsider as an insider. If a white guy chooses to immerse himself in hip-hop culture and only hang out with black people, black people will say, Cool, white guy. Do what you need to do. If a black guy chooses to button up his blackness to live among white people and play lots of golf, white people will say, Fine. I like Brian. Hes safe. But try being a black person who immerses himself in white culture while still living in the black community. Try being a white person who adopts the trappings of black culture while still living in the white community. You will face more hate and ridicule and ostracism than you can even begin to fathom. People are willing to accept you if they see you as an outsider trying to assimilate into their world. But when they see you as a fellow tribe member attempting to disavow the tribe, that is something they will never forgive. That is what happened to me in Eden Park. When apartheid came, colored people defied easy categorization, so the system used themquite brilliantlyto sow confusion, hatred, and mistrust. For the purposes of the state, colored people became the almost-whites. They were second-class citizens, denied the rights of white people but given special privileges that black people didnt have, just to keep them holding out for more. Afrikaners used to call them amperbaas: the almost-boss. The almost-master. Youre almost there. Youre so close. Youre this close to being white. Pity your grandfather couldnt keep his hands off the chocolate, eh? But its not your fault youre colored, so keep trying. Because if you work hard enough you can erase this taint from your bloodline. Keep on marrying lighter and whiter and dont touch the chocolate and maybe, maybe, someday, if youre lucky, you can become white. Which seems ridiculous, but it would happen. Every year under apartheid, some colored people would get promoted to white. It wasnt a myth; it was real. People could submit applications to the government. Your hair might become straight enough, your skin might become light enough, your accent might become polished enoughand youd be reclassified as white. All you had to do was denounce your people, denounce your history, and leave your darkerskinned friends and family behind. The legal definition of a white person under apartheid was one who in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a coloured person; or is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously a white person. It was completely arbitrary, in other words. Thats where the government came up with things like the pencil test. If you were applying to be white, the pencil went into your hair. If it fell out, you were white. If it stayed in, you were colored. You were what the government said you were. Sometimes that came down to a lone clerk eyeballing your face and making a snap decision. Depending on how high your cheekbones were or how broad your nose was, he could tick whatever box made sense to him, thereby deciding where you could live, whom you could marry, what jobs and rights and privileges you were allowed. And colored people didnt just get promoted to white. Sometimes colored people became Indian. Sometimes Indian people became colored. Sometimes blacks were promoted to colored, and sometimes coloreds were demoted to black. And of course whites could be demoted to colored as well. That was key. Those mixed bloodlines were always lurking, waiting to peek out, and fear of losing their status kept white people in line. If two white parents had a child and the government decided that child was too dark, even if both parents produced documentation proving they were white, the child could be classified as colored, and the family had to make a decision. Do they give up their white status to go and live as colored people in a colored area? Or would they split up, the mother taking the colored child to live in the ghetto while the father stayed white to make a living to support them? Many colored people lived in this limbo, a true purgatory, always yearning for the white fathers who disowned them, and they could be horribly racist to one another as a result. The most common colored slur was boesman. Bushman. Bushie. Because it called out their blackness, their primitiveness. The worst way to insult a colored person was to infer that they were in some way black. One of the most sinister things about apartheid was that it taught colored people that it was black people who were holding them back. Apartheid said that the only reason colored people couldnt have first-class status was because black people might use coloredness to sneak past the gates to enjoy the benefits of whiteness. Thats what apartheid did: It convinced every group that it was because of the other race that they didnt get into the club. Its basically the bouncer at the door telling you, We cant let you in because of your friend Darren and his ugly shoes. So you look at Darren and say, Screw you, Black Darren. Youre holding me back. Then when Darren goes up, the bouncer says, No, its actually your friend Sizwe and his weird hair. So Darren says, Screw you, Sizwe, and now everyone hates everyone. But the truth is that none of you were ever getting into that club. Colored people had it rough. Imagine: Youve been brainwashed into believing that your blood is tainted. Youve spent all your time assimilating and aspiring to whiteness. Then, just as you think youre closing in on the finish line, some fucking guy named Nelson Mandela comes along and flips the country on its head. Now the finish line is back where the starting line was, and the benchmark is black. Black is in charge. Black is beautiful. Black is powerful. For centuries colored people were told: Blacks are monkeys. Dont swing from the trees like them. Learn to walk upright like the white man. Then all of a sudden its Planet of the Apes, and the monkeys have taken over. So you can imagine how weird it was for me. I was mixed but not colored colored by complexion but not by culture. Because of that I was seen as a colored person who didnt want to be colored. In Eden Park, I encountered two types of colored people. Some colored people hated me because of my blackness. My hair was curly and I was proud of my Afro. I spoke African languages and loved speaking them. People would hear me speaking Xhosa or Zulu and theyd say, Wat is jy? n Boesman? What are you, a Bushman? Why are you trying to be black? Why do you speak that click-click language? Look at your light skin. Youre almost there and youre throwing it away. Other colored people hated me because of my whiteness. Even though I identified as being black, I had a white father. I went to an English private school. Id learned to get along with white people at church. I could speak perfect English, and I barely spoke Afrikaans, the language colored people were supposed to speak. So colored people thought that I thought I was better than them. They would mock my accent, like I was putting on airs. Dink jy, jy is gr?nd? You think youre high class?uppity, people would say in America. Even when I thought I was liked, I wasnt. One year I got a brand-new bike during the summer holidays. My cousin Mlungisi and I were taking turns riding around the block. I was riding up our street when this cute colored girl came out to the road and stopped me. She smiled and waved to me sweetly. Hey, she said, can I ride your bike? I was completely shocked. Oh, wow, I thought, I made a friend. Yeah, of course, I said. I got off and she got on and rode about twenty or thirty feet. Some random older kid came running up to the street, she stopped and got off, and he climbed on and rode away. I was so happy that a girl had spoken to me that it didnt fully sink in that theyd stolen my bicycle. I ran back home, smiling and skipping along. My cousin asked where the bicycle was. I told him. Trevor, youve been robbed, he said. Why didnt you chase them? I thought they were being nice. I thought Id made a friend. Mlungisi was older, my protector. He ran off and found the kids, and thirty minutes later he came back with my bike. Things like that happened a lot. I was bullied all the time. The incident at the mulberry tree was probably the worst of them. Late one afternoon I was playing by myself like I always did, running around the neighborhood. This group of five or six colored boys was up the street picking berries off the mulberry tree and eating them. I went over and started picking some to take home for myself. The boys were a few years older than me, around twelve or thirteen. They didnt talk to me, and I didnt talk to them. They were speaking to one another in Afrikaans, and I could understand what they were saying. Then one of them, this kid who was the ringleader of the group, walked over. Mag ek jou moerbeie sien? Can I see your mulberries? My first thought, again, was, Oh, cool. I made a friend. I held up my hand and showed him my mulberries. Then he knocked them out of my hand and smushed them into the ground. The other kids started laughing. I stood there and looked at him a moment. By that point Id developed thick skin. I was used to being bullied. I shrugged it off and went back to picking berries. Clearly not getting the reaction he wanted, this kid started cursing me out. Fok weg, jou onnosele Boesman! Get the fuck out of here! Go away, you stupid Bushie! Bushman! I ignored him and went on about my business. Then I felt a splat! on the back of my head. Hed hit me with a mulberry. It wasnt painful, just startling. I turned to look at him and, splat!, he hit me again, right in my face. Then, in a split second, before I could even react, all of these kids started pelting me with berries, pelting the shit out of me. Some of the berries werent ripe, and they stung like rocks. I tried to cover my face with my hands, but there was a barrage coming at me from all sides. They were laughing and pelting me and calling me names. Bushie! Bushman! I was terrified. Just the suddenness of it, I didnt know what to do. I started crying, and I ran. I ran for my life, all the way back down the road to our house. When I ran inside I looked like Id been beaten to a pulp because I was bawling my eyes out and was covered in red-purple berry juice. My mother looked at me, horrified. What happened? In between sobs I told her the story. These kidsthe mulberry treethey threw berries at me When I finished, she burst out laughing. Its not funny! I said. No, no, Trevor, she said. Im not laughing because its funny. Im laughing out of relief. I thought youd been beaten up. I thought this was blood. Im laughing because its only berry juice. My mom thought everything was funny. There was no subject too dark or too painful for her to tackle with humor. Look on the bright side, she said, laughing and pointing to the half of me covered in dark berry juice. Now you really are half black and half white. Its not funny! Trevor, youre okay, she said. Go and wash up. Youre not hurt. Youre hurt emotionally. But youre not hurt. Half an hour later, Abel showed up. At that point Abel was still my moms boyfriend. He wasnt trying to be my father or even a stepfather, really. He was more like a big brother than anything. Hed joke around with me, have fun. I didnt know him that well, but one thing I did know about him was that he had a temper. Very charming when he wanted to be, incredibly funny, but fuck he could be mean. Hed grown up in the homelands, where you had to fight to survive. Abel was big, too, around six-foot-three, long and lean. He hadnt hit my mom yet. He hadnt hit me yet, either. But I knew he was dangerous. Id seen it. Someone would cut us off in traffic. Abel would yell out the window. The other guy would honk and yell back. In a flash Abel would be out of our car, over to theirs, grabbing the guy through the drivers-side window, screaming in his face, raising a fist. Youd see the other guy panic. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Im sorry, Im sorry. When Abel walked in that night, he sat down on the couch and saw that Id been crying. What happened? he said. I started to explain. My mother cut me off. Dont tell him, she said. She knew what would happen. She knew better than me. Dont tell me what? Abel said. Its nothing, she said. Its not nothing, I said. She glared at me. Dont tell him. Abel was getting frustrated. What? Dont tell me what? Hed been drinking; he never came home from work sober, and the drinking always made his temper worse. It was strange, but in that moment I realized that if I said the right things I could get him to step in and do something. We were almost family, and I knew if I made him feel like his family had been insulted, hed help me get back at the boys. I knew he had a demon inside him, and I hated that; it terrified me how violent and dangerous he was when he snapped. But in that moment I knew exactly what I had to say to get the monster on my side. I told him the story, the names they called me, the way they attacked me. My mother kept laughing it off, telling me to get over it, that it was kids being kids, no big deal. She was trying to defuse the situation, but I couldnt see that. I was just mad at her. You think its a joke, but its not funny! Its not funny! Abel wasnt laughing. As I told him what the bullies had done, I could see the anger building up inside him. With Abels anger, there was no ranting and raving, no clenched fists. He sat there on the couch listening to me, not saying a word. Then, very calm and deliberate, he stood up. Take me to these boys, he said. Yes, I thought, this is it. Big brother is going to get my revenge for me. We got into his car and drove up the road, stopping a few houses down from the tree. It was dark now except for the light from the streetlamps, but we could see the boys were still there, playing under the tree. I pointed to the ringleader. That one. He was the main one. Abel slammed his foot on the gas and shot up onto the grass and straight toward the bottom of the tree. He jumped out. I jumped out. As soon as the kids saw me they knew exactly what was happening. They scattered and ran like hell. Abel was quick. Good Lord, he was fast. The ringleader had made a dash for it and was trying to climb over a wall. Abel grabbed him, pulled him down, and dragged him back. Then he stripped a branch off the tree, a switch, and started whipping him. He whipped the shit out of him, and I loved it. I have never enjoyed anything as much as I enjoyed that moment. Revenge truly is sweet. It takes you to a dark place, but, man, it satisfies a thirst. Then there was the strangest moment where it flipped. I caught a glimpse of the look of terror in the boys face, and I realized that Abel had gone past getting revenge for me. He wasnt doing this to teach the kid a lesson. He was just beating him. He was a grown man venting his rage on a twelve-year-old boy. In an instant I went from Yes, I got my revenge to No, no, no. Too much. Too much. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. Dear God, what have I done? Once this kid was beat to shit, Abel dragged him over to the car and held him up in front of me. Say youre sorry. The kid was whimpering, trembling. He looked me in the eye, and I had never seen fear in someones eyes like I saw in his. Hed been beaten by a stranger in a way I dont think hed ever been beaten before. He said he was sorry, but it was like his apology wasnt for what hed done to me. It was like he was sorry for every bad thing hed ever done in his life, because he didnt know there could be a punishment like this. Looking in that boys eyes, I realized how much he and I had in common. He was a kid. I was a kid. He was crying. I was crying. He was a colored boy in South Africa, taught how to hate and how to hate himself. Who had bullied him that he needed to bully me? Hed made me feel fear, and to get my revenge Id unleashed my own hell on his world. But I knew Id done a terrible thing. Once the kid apologized, Abel shoved him away and kicked him. Go. The kid ran off, and we drove back to the house in silence. At home Abel and my mom got in a huge fight. She was always on him about his temper. You cant go around hitting other peoples children! Youre not the law! This anger, this is no way to live! A couple of hours later this kids dad drove over to our house to confront Abel. Abel went out to the gate, and I watched from inside the house. By that point Abel was truly drunk. This kids dad had no idea what he was walking into. He was some mild-mannered, middle-aged guy. I dont remember much about him, because I was watching Abel the whole time. I never took my eyes off him. I knew thats where the danger was. Abel didnt have a gun yet; he bought that later. But Abel didnt need a gun to put the fear of God in you. I watched as he got right in this guys face. I couldnt hear what the other man was saying, but I heard Abel. Dont fuck with me. I will kill you. The guy turned quickly and got back in his car and drove away. He thought he was coming to defend the honor of his family. He left happy to escape with his life. When I was growing up, my mom spent a lot of time trying to teach me about women. She was always giving me lessons, little talks, pieces of advice. It was never a full-blown, sit-down lecture about relationships. It was more like tidbits along the way. And I never understood why, because I was a kid. The only women in my life were my mom and my grandmother and my aunt and my cousin. I had no love interest whatsoever, yet my mom insisted. She would go off on a whole range of things. Trevor, remember a man is not determined by how much he earns. You can still be the man of the house and earn less than your woman. Being a man is not what you have, its who you are. Being more of a man doesnt mean your woman has to be less than you. Trevor, make sure your woman is the woman in your life. Dont be one of these men who makes his wife compete with his mother. A man with a wife cannot be beholden to his mother. The smallest thing could prompt her. Id walk through the house on the way to my room and say, Hey, Mom without glancing up. Shed say, No, Trevor! You look at me. You acknowledge me. Show me that I exist to you, because the way you treat me is the way you will treat your woman. Women like to be noticed. Come and acknowledge me and let me know that you see me. Dont just see me when you need something. These little lessons were always about grown-up relationships, funnily enough. She was so preoccupied with teaching me how to be a man that she never taught me how to be a boy. How to talk to a girl or pass a girl a note in classthere was none of that. She only told me about adult things. She would even lecture me about sex. As I was a kid, that would get very awkward. Trevor, dont forget: Youre having sex with a woman in her mind before youre having sex with her in her vagina. Trevor, foreplay begins during the day. It doesnt begin in the bedroom. Id be like, What? What is foreplay? What does that even mean? A YOUNG MANS LONG, AWKWARD, OCCASIONALLY TRAGIC, AND FREQUENTLY HUMILIATING EDUCATION IN AFFAIRS OF THE HEART, PART I: VALENTINES DAY It was my first year at H. A. Jack, the primary school I transferred to after leaving Maryvale. Valentines Day was approaching fast. I was twelve years old, and Id never done Valentines Day before. We didnt celebrate it in Catholic school. I understood Valentines Day, as a concept. The naked baby shoots you with an arrow and you fall in love. I got that part. But this was my first time being introduced to it as an activity. At H. A. Jack, Valentines Day was used as a fundraiser. Pupils were going around selling flowers and cards, and I had to go ask a friend what was happening. What is this? I said. What are we doing? Oh, you know, she said, its Valentines Day. You pick a special person and you tell them that you love them, and they love you back. Wow, I thought, that seems intense. But I hadnt been shot by Cupids arrow, and I didnt know of anyone getting shot on my behalf. I had no clue what was going on. All week, the girls in school kept saying, Whos your valentine? Whos your valentine? I didnt know what I was supposed to do. Finally one of the girls, a white girl, said, You should ask Maylene. The other kids agreed. Yes, Maylene. You should definitely ask Maylene. You have to ask Maylene. You guys are perfect for each other. Maylene was a girl I used to walk home from school with. We lived in the city now, me, my mom and Abel, who was now my stepfather, and my new baby brother, Andrew. Wed sold our house in Eden Park to invest in Abels new garage. Then that fell apart, and we ended up moving to a neighborhood called Highlands North, a thirty-minute walk from H. A. Jack. A group of us would leave school together every afternoon, each kid peeling off and going their separate way when we reached their house. Maylene and I lived the farthest, so wed always be the last two. Wed walk together until we got where we needed to go, and then wed part ways. Maylene was cool. She was good at tennis, smart, cute. I liked her. I didnt have a crush on her; I wasnt even thinking about girls that way yet. I just liked hanging out with her. Maylene was also the only colored girl in school. I was the only mixed kid in school. We were the only two people who looked like each other. The white girls were insistent about me asking Maylene to be my valentine. They were like, Trevor, you have to ask her. Youre the only two. Its your responsibility. It was like our species was going to die out if we didnt mate and carry on. Which Ive learned in life is something that white people do without even realizing it. You two look the same, therefore we must arrange for you to have sex. I honestly hadnt thought of asking Maylene, but when the girls brought it up, that thing happened where someone plants the idea in your head and it changes your perception. Maylenes totally got a thing for you. Does she? Yeah, you guys are great together! Are we? Totally. Well, okay. If you say so. I liked Maylene as much as I liked anyone, I suppose. Mostly I think I liked the idea of being liked. I decided Id ask her to be my valentine, but I had no idea how to do it. I didnt know the first thing about having a girlfriend. I had to be taught the whole love bureaucracy of the school. There was the thing where you dont actually talk straight to the person. You have your group of friends and she has her group of friends, and your group of friends has to go to her group of friends and say, Okay, Trevor likes Maylene. He wants her to be his valentine. Were in favor. Were ready to sign off with your approval. Her friends say, Okay. Sounds good. We have to run it by Maylene. They go to Maylene. They consult. They tell her what they think. Trevor says he likes you. Were in favor. We think youd be good together. What do you say? Maylene says, I like Trevor. They say, Okay. Lets move forward. They come back to us. Maylene says she approves and shes waiting for Trevors Valentines Day advance. The girls told me this process was what needed to happen. I said, Cool. Lets do it. The friends sorted it out, Maylene got on board, and I was all set. The week before Valentines, Maylene and I were walking home together, and I was trying to get up the courage to ask her. I was so nervous. Id never done anything like it. I already knew the answer; her friends had told me shed say yes. Its like being in Congress. You know you have the votes before you go to the floor, but its still difficult because anything could happen. I didnt know how to do it, all I knew was I wanted it to be perfect, so I waited until we were standing outside McDonalds. Then I mustered up all of my courage and turned to her. Hey, Valentines Day is coming up, and I was wondering, would you be my valentine? Yes. Ill be your valentine. And then, under the golden arches, we kissed. It was my first time ever kissing a girl. It was just a peck, our lips touched for only a few seconds, but it set off explosions in my head. Yes! Oh, yes. This. I dont know what this is, but I like it. Something had awakened. And it was right outside McDonalds, so it was extra special. Now I was truly excited. I had a valentine. I had a girlfriend. I spent the whole week thinking about Maylene, wanting to make her Valentines Day as memorable as I could. I saved up my pocket money and bought her flowers and a teddy bear and a card. I wrote a poem with her name in the card, which was really hard because there arent many good words that rhyme with Maylene. (Machine? Ravine? Sardine?) Then the big day came. I got my Valentines card and the flowers and the teddy bear and got them ready and took them to school. I was the happiest boy on earth. The teachers had set aside a period before recess for everyone to exchange valentines. There was a corridor outside our classrooms where I knew Maylene would be, and I waited for her there. All around me, love was in bloom. Boys and girls exchanging cards and gifts, laughing and giggling and stealing kisses. I waited and waited. Finally Maylene showed up and walked over to me. I was about to say Happy Valentines Day! when she stopped me and said, Oh, hi, Trevor. Um, listen, I cant be your girlfriend anymore. Lorenzo asked me to be his valentine and I cant have two valentines, so Im his girlfriend now and not yours. She said it so matter-of-factly that I had no idea how to process it. This was my first time having a girlfriend, so at first I thought, Huh, maybe this is just how it goes. Oh, okay, I said. Well, umhappy Valentines Day. I held out the card and the flowers and the teddy bear. She took them and said thanks, and she was gone. I felt like someone had taken a gun and shot holes in every part of me. But at the same time some part of me said, Well, this makes sense. Lorenzo was everything I wasnt. He was popular. He was white. Hed upset the balance of everything by asking out the only colored girl in school. Girls loved him, and he was dumb as rocks. A nice guy, but kind of a bad boy. Girls did his homework for him; he was that guy. He was really good-looking, too. It was like when he was creating his character he traded in all his intelligence points for beauty points. I stood no chance. As devastated as I was, I understood why Maylene made the choice that she did. I would have picked Lorenzo over me, too. All the other kids were running up and down the corridors and out on the playground, laughing and smiling with their red and pink cards and flowers, and I went back to the classroom and sat by myself and waited for the bell to ring. Petrol for the car, like food, was an expense we could not avoid, but my mom could get more mileage out of a tank of petrol than any human who has ever been on a road in the history of automobiles. She knew every trick. Driving around Johannesburg in our rusty old Volkswagen, every time she stopped in traffic, shed turn off the car. Then the traffic would start and shed turn the car on again. That stop-start technology that they use in hybrid cars now? That was my mom. She was a hybrid car before hybrid cars came out. She was the master of coasting. She knew every downhill between work and school, between school and home. She knew exactly where the gradient shifted to put it into neutral. She could time the traffic lights so we could coast through intersections without using the brakes or losing momentum. There were times when we would be in traffic and we had so little money for petrol that I would have to push the car. If we were stuck in gridlock, my mom would turn the car off and it was my job to get out and push it forward six inches at a time. People would pitch up and offer to help. Are you stuck? Nope. Were fine. You sure? Yep. Can we help you? Nope. Do you need a tow? And what do you say? The truth? Thanks, but were just so poor my mom makes her kid push the car? That was some of the most embarrassing shit in my life, pushing the car to school like the fucking Flintstones. Because the other kids were coming in on that same road to go to school. Id take my blazer off so that no one could tell what school I went to, and I would bury my head and push the car, hoping no one would recognize me. OUTSIDER After finishing primary school at H. A. Jack, I started grade eight at Sandringham High School. Even after apartheid, most black people still lived in the townships and the areas formerly designated as homelands, where the only available government schools were the broken remnants of the Bantu system. Wealthy white kidsalong with the few black people and colored people and Indians who had money or could get scholarshipswere holed up in private schools, which were super-expensive but virtually guaranteed entry into university. Sandringham was what we call a Model C school, which meant it was a mix of government and private, similar to charter schools in America. The place was huge, a thousand kids on sprawling grounds with tennis courts, sports fields, and a swimming pool. Being a Model C school and not a government school, Sandringham drew kids from all over, making it a near-perfect microcosm of post-apartheid South Africa as a wholea perfect example of what South Africa has the potential to be. We had rich white kids, a bunch of middle-class white kids, and some working-class white kids. We had black kids who were newly rich, black kids who were middle-class, and black kids from the townships. We had colored kids and Indian kids, and even a handful of Chinese kids, too. The pupils were as integrated as they could be given that apartheid had just ended. At H. A. Jack, race was broken up into blocks. Sandringham was more like a spectrum. South African schools dont have cafeterias. At Sandringham wed buy our lunch at what we call the tuck shop, a little canteen, and then have free rein to go wherever we wanted on the school grounds to eatthe quad, the courtyard, the playground, wherever. Kids would break off and cluster into their cliques and groups. People were still grouped by color in most cases, but you could see how they all blended and shaded into one another. The kids who played soccer were mostly black. The kids who played tennis were mostly white. The kids who played cricket were a mix. The Chinese kids would hang out next to the prefab buildings. The matrics, what South Africans call seniors, would hang out on the quad. The popular, pretty girls would hang out over here, and computer geeks would hang out over there. To the extent that the groupings were racial, it was because of the ways race overlapped class and geography out in the real world. Suburban kids hung out with suburban kids. Township kids hung out with township kids. At break, as the only mixed kid out of a thousand, I faced the same predicament I had on the playground at H. A. Jack: Where was I supposed to go? Even with so many different groups to choose from, I wasnt a natural constituent of any particular one. I obviously wasnt Indian or Chinese. The colored kids would shit on me all the time for being too black. So I wasnt welcome there. As always, I was adept enough with white kids not to get bullied by them, but the white kids were always going shopping, going to the movies, going on tripsthings that required money. We didnt have any money, so I was out of the mix there, too. The group I felt the most affinity for was the poor black kids. I hung out with them and got along with them, but most of them took minibuses to school from way out in the townships, from Soweto, from Tembisa, from Alexandra. They rode to school as friends and went home as friends. They had their own groups. Weekends and school holidays, they were hanging out with one another and I couldnt visit. Soweto was a forty-minute drive from my house. We didnt have money for petrol. After school I was on my own. Weekends I was on my own. Ever the outsider, I created my own strange little world. I did it out of necessity. I needed a way to fit in. I also needed money, a way to buy the same snacks and do the things that the other kids were doing. Which is how I became the tuck-shop guy. Thanks to my long walk to school, I was late every single day. Id have to stop off in the prefects office to write my name down for detention. I was the patron saint of detention. Already late, Id run to join my morning classes math, English, biology, whatever. The last period before break was assembly. The pupils would come together in the assembly hall, each grade seated row by row, and the teachers and the prefects would get up onstage and go over the business of what was happening in the schoolannouncements, awards, that sort of thing. The names of the kids with detention were announced at every assembly, and I was always one of them. Always. Every single day. It was a running joke. The prefect would say, Detentions for today and I would stand up automatically. It was like the Oscars and I was Meryl Streep. There was one time I stood up and then the prefect named the five people and I wasnt one of them. Everyone burst out laughing. Somebody yelled out, Wheres Trevor?! The prefect looked at the paper and shook his head. Nope. The entire hall erupted with cheers and applause. Yay!!!! Then, immediately after assembly, there would be a race to the tuck shop because the queue to buy food was so long. Every minute you spent in the queue was working against your break time. The sooner you got your food, the longer you had to eat, play a game of soccer, or hang out. Also, if you got there late, the best food was gone. Two things were true about me at that age. One, I was still the fastest kid in school. And two, I had no pride. The second we were dismissed from assembly I would run like a bat out of hell to the tuck shop so I could be the first one there. I was always first in line. I became notorious for being that guy, so much so that people started coming up to me in line. Hey, can you buy this for me? Which would piss off the kids behind me because it was basically cutting the line. So people started approaching me during assembly. Theyd say, Hey, Ive got ten rand. If you buy my food for me, Ill give you two. Thats when I learned: time is money. I realized people would pay me to buy their food because I was willing to run for it. I started telling everyone at assembly, Place your orders. Give me a list of what you want, give me a percentage of what youre going to spend, and Ill buy your food for you. I was an overnight success. Fat guys were my number-one customers. They loved food, but couldnt run. I had all these rich, fat white kids who were like, This is fantastic! My parents spoil me, Ive got money, and now Ive got a way I can get food without having to work for itand I still get my break. I had so many customers I was turning kids away. I had a rule: I would take five orders a day, high bidders only. Id make so much that I could buy my lunch using other kids money and keep the lunch money my mom gave me for pocket cash. Then I could afford to catch a bus home instead of walking or save up to buy whatever. Every day Id take orders, assembly would end, and Id make my mad dash and buy everybodys hot dogs and Cokes and muffins. If you paid me extra you could even tell me where youd be and Id deliver it to you. Id found my niche. Since I belonged to no group I learned to move seamlessly between groups. I floated. I was a chameleon, still, a cultural chameleon. I learned how to blend. I could play sports with the jocks. I could talk computers with the nerds. I could jump in the circle and dance with the township kids. I popped around to everyone, working, chatting, telling jokes, making deliveries. I was like a weed dealer, but of food. The weed guy is always welcome at the party. Hes not a part of the circle, but hes invited into the circle temporarily because of what he can offer. Thats who I was. Always an outsider. As the outsider, you can retreat into a shell, be anonymous, be invisible. Or you can go the other way. You protect yourself by opening up. You dont ask to be accepted for everything you are, just the one part of yourself that youre willing to share. For me it was humor. I learned that even though I didnt belong to one group, I could be a part of any group that was laughing. Id drop in, pass out the snacks, tell a few jokes. Id perform for them. Id catch a bit of their conversation, learn more about their group, and then leave. I never overstayed my welcome. I wasnt popular, but I wasnt an outcast. I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself.? I dont regret anything Ive ever done in life, any choice that Ive made. But Im consumed with regret for the things I didnt do, the choices I didnt make, the things I didnt say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. What if If only I wonder what would have You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days. A YOUNG MANS LONG, AWKWARD, OCCASIONALLY TRAGIC, AND FREQUENTLY HUMILIATING EDUCATION IN AFFAIRS OF THE HEART, PART II: THE CRUSH In high school, the attention of girls was not an affliction I suffered from. I wasnt the hot guy in class. I wasnt even the cute guy in class. I was ugly. Puberty was not kind to me. My acne was so bad that people used to ask what was wrong with me, like Id had an allergic reaction to something. It was the kind of acne that qualifies as a medical condition. Acne vulgaris, the doctor called it. Were not talking about pimples, kids. Were talking pustulesbig, pus-filled blackheads and whiteheads. They started on my forehead, spread down the sides of my face, and covered my cheeks and neck and ravaged me everywhere. Being poor didnt help. Not only could I not afford a decent haircut, leaving me with a huge, unruly Afro, but my mother also used to get angry at the fact that I grew out of my school uniforms too fast, so to save money she started buying my clothes three sizes too big. My blazer was too long and my pants were too baggy and my shoes flopped around. I was a clown. And of course, Murphys Law, the year my mom started buying my clothes too big was the year that I stopped growing. So now I was never going to grow into my clown clothes and I was stuck being a clown. The only thing I had going for me was the fact that I was tall, but even there I was gangly and awkward-looking. Duck feet. High ass. Nothing worked. After suffering my Valentines Day heartbreak at the hands of Maylene and the handsome, charming Lorenzo, I learned a valuable lesson about dating. What I learned was that cool guys get girls, and funny guys get to hang out with the cool guys with their girls. I was not a cool guy; therefore I did not have girls. I understood that formula very quickly and I knew my place. I didnt ask girls out. I didnt have a girlfriend. I didnt even try. For me to try to get a girl would have upset the natural order of things. Part of my success as the tuck-shop guy was that I was welcome everywhere, and I was welcome everywhere because I was nobody. I was the acne-ridden clown with duck feet in floppy shoes. I wasnt a threat to the guys. I wasnt a threat to the girls. The minute I became somebody, I risked no longer being welcomed as nobody. The pretty girls were already spoken for. The popular guys had staked their claim. They would say, I like Zuleika, and you knew that meant if you tried anything with Zuleika thered be a fight. In the interest of survival, the smart move was to stay on the fringe, stay out of trouble. At Sandringham, the only time girls in class looked at me was when they wanted me to pass a letter to the hot guy in class. But there was one girl I knew named Johanna. Johanna and I had been at the same school intermittently our whole lives. We were in preschool at Maryvale together. Then she left and went to another school. Then we were in primary school at H. A. Jack together. Then she left and went to another school. Then finally we were at Sandringham together. Because of that we became friends. Johanna was one of the popular girls. Her best friend was Zaheera. Johanna was beautiful. Zaheera was stunning. Zaheera was colored, Cape Malay. She looked like Salma Hayek. Johanna was out and about and kissing boys, so the guys were all into her. Zaheera, as beautiful as she was, was extremely shy, so there werent as many guys after her. Johanna and Zaheera were always together. They were one grade below me, but in terms of popularity they were three grades above me. Still I got to hang out with them because I knew Johanna and we had this thing from being in different schools together. Dating girls may have been out of the question for me, but talking to them was not, because I could make them laugh. Human beings like to laugh, and lucky for me pretty girls are human beings. So I could relate to them in that way, but never in the other way. I knew this because whenever they stopped laughing at my jokes and stories theyd say, So how do you think I can get Daniel to ask me out? I always had a clear idea of where I stood. Outwardly, I had carefully cultivated my status as the funny, nonthreatening guy, but secretly I had the hugest crush on Zaheera. She was so pretty and so funny. Wed hang out and have great conversations. I thought about her constantly, but for the life of me I never considered myself worthy of dating her. I told myself, Im going to have a crush on her forever, and thats all thats ever going to happen. At a certain point I decided to map out a strategy. I decided Id be best friends with Zaheera and stay friends with her long enough to ask her to the matric dance, what we call our senior prom. Mind you, we were in grade nine at this point. The matric dance was three years away. But I decided to play the long game. I was like, Yep, just gonna take my time. Because thats what happens in the movies, right? Id seen my American high school movies. You hang around long enough as the friendly good guy and the girl dates a bunch of handsome jerks, and then one day she turns around and goes, Oh, its you. It was always you. Youre the guy I was supposed to be with all along. That was my plan. It was foolproof. I hung out with Zaheera every chance I got. Wed talk about boys, which ones she liked and which ones liked her. Id give her advice. At one point she got set up with this guy Gary. They started dating. Gary was in the popular group but kind of shy and Zaheera was in the popular group but kind of shy, so his friends and her friends set them up together, like an arranged marriage. But Zaheera didnt like Gary at all. She told me. We talked about everything. One day, I dont know how, but I plucked up the courage to ask Zaheera for her phone number, which was a big deal back then because it wasnt like cellphone numbers where everybody has everyones number for texting and everything. This was the landline. To her house. Where her parents might answer. We were talking one afternoon at school and I asked, Can I get your phone number? Maybe I can call you and we can talk at home sometime. She said yes, and my mind exploded. What???!!!! A girl is giving me her phone number???!!! This is insane!!! What do I do??!! I was so nervous. Ill never forget her telling me the digits one by one as I wrote them down, trying to keep my hand from shaking. We said goodbye and went our separate ways to class, and I was like, Okay, Trevor. Play it cool. Dont call her right away. I called her that night. At seven. Shed given me her number at two. That was me being cool. Dude, dont call her at five. Thats too obvious. Call her at seven. I phoned her house that night. Her mom answered. I said, May I speak to Zaheera, please? Her mom called her, and she came to the phone and we talked. For like an hour. After that we started talking more, at school, on the phone. I never told her how I felt. Never made a move. Nothing. I was always too scared. Zaheera and Gary broke up. Then they got back together. Then they broke up. Then they got back together. They kissed once, but she didnt like it, so they never kissed again. Then they broke up for real. I bided my time through it all. I watched Popular Gary go down in flames, and I was still the good friend. Yep, the plan is working. Matric dance, here we come. Only two and a half years to go Then we had the mid-year school holidays. The day we came back, Zaheera wasnt at school. Then she wasnt at school the next day. Then she wasnt at school the day after that. Eventually I went and tracked down Johanna on the quad. Hey, wheres Zaheera? I said. She hasnt been around for a while. Is she sick? No, she said. Didnt anyone tell you? She left the school. She doesnt go here anymore. What? Yeah, she left. My first thought was, Wow, okay. Thats news. I should give her a call to catch up. What school did she move to? I asked. She didnt. Her dad got a job in America. During the break they moved there. Theyve emigrated. What? Yeah. Shes gone. She was such a good friend, too. Im really sad. Are you as sad as I am? Uhyeah, I said, still trying to process everything. I liked Zaheera. She was really cool. Yeah, she was super sad, too, because she had such a huge crush on you. She was always waiting for you to ask her out. Okay, I gotta go to class! Bye! She ran off and left me standing there, stunned. Shed hit me with so much information at once, first that Zaheera was gone, then that she had left for America, and then that shed liked me all along. It was like Id been hit by three successive waves of heartbreak, each one bigger than the last. My mind raced through all the hours wed spent talking on the quad, on the phone, all the times I could have said, Hey, Zaheera, I like you. Will you be my girlfriend? Ten words that might have changed my life if Id had the courage to say them. But I hadnt, and now she was gone.? In every nice neighborhood theres one white family that Does Not Give a Fuck. You know the family Im talking about. They dont do their lawn, dont paint the fence, dont fix the roof. Their house is shit. My mom found that house and bought it, which is how she snuck a black family into a place as white as Highlands North. Most black people integrating into white suburbs were moving to places like Bramley and Lombardy East. But for some reason my mom chose Highlands North. It was a suburban area, lots of shopping. Working people, mostly. Not wealthy but stable and middle-class. Older houses, but still a nice place to live. In Soweto I was the only white kid in the black township. In Eden Park I was the only mixed kid in the colored area. In Highlands North I was the only black kid in the white suburb and by only I mean only. In Highlands North the white never took flight. It was a largely Jewish neighborhood, and Jewish people dont flee. Theyre done fleeing. Theyve already fled. They get to a place, build their shul, and hold it down. Since the white people around us werent leaving, there werent a lot of families like ours moving in behind us. I didnt make any friends in Highlands North for the longest time. I had an easier time making friends in Eden Park, to be honest. In the suburbs, everyone lived behind walls. The white neighborhoods of Johannesburg were built on white fearfear of black crime, fear of black uprisings and reprisalsand as a result virtually every house sits behind a six-foot wall, and on top of that wall is electric wire. Everyone lives in a plush, fancy maximum-security prison. There is no sitting on the front porch, no saying hi to the neighbors, no kids running back and forth between houses. Id ride my bike around the neighborhood for hours without seeing a single kid. Id hear them, though. They were all meeting up behind brick walls for playdates I wasnt invited to. Id hear people laughing and playing and Id get off my bike and creep up and peek over the wall and see a bunch of white kids splashing around in someones swimming pool. I was like a Peeping Tom, but for friendship. It was only after a year or so that I figured out the key to making black friends in the suburbs: the children of domestics. Many domestic workers in South Africa, when they get pregnant they get fired. Or, if theyre lucky, the family they work for lets them stay on and they can have the baby, but then the baby goes to live with relatives in the homelands. Then the black mother raises the white children, seeing her own child only once a year at the holidays. But a handful of families would let their domestics keep their children with them, living in little maids quarters or flatlets in the backyard. For a long time, those kids were my only friends. COLORBLIND At Sandringham I got to know this one kid, Teddy. Funny guy, charming as hell. My mom used to call him Bugs Bunny; he had a cheeky smile with two big teeth that stuck out the front of his mouth. Teddy and I got along like a house on fire, one of those friends where you start hanging out and from that day forward youre never apart. We were both naughty as shit, too. With Teddy, Id finally met someone who made me feel normal. I was the terror in my family. He was the terror in his family. When you put us together it was mayhem. Walking home from school wed throw rocks through windows, just to see them shatter, and then wed run away. We got detention together all the time. The teachers, the pupils, the principal, everyone at school knew: Teddy and Trevor, thick as thieves. Teddys mom worked as a domestic for a family in Linksfield, a wealthy suburb near school. Linksfield was a long walk from my house, nearly forty minutes, but still doable. Walking around was pretty much all I did back then, anyway. I couldnt afford to do anything else, and I couldnt afford to get around any other way. If you liked walking, you were my friend. Teddy and I walked all over Johannesburg together. Id walk to Teddys house and wed hang out there. Then wed walk back to my house and hang out there. Wed walk from my house down to the city center, which was like a three-hour hike, just to hang out, and then wed walk all the way back. Friday and Saturday nights wed walk to the mall and hang out. The Balfour Park Shopping Mall was a few blocks from my house. Its not a big mall, but it has everythingan arcade, a cinema, restaurants, South Africas version of Target, South Africas version of the Gap. Then, once we were at the mall, since we never had any money to shop or watch movies or buy food, wed just wander around inside. One night we were at the mall and most of the shops were closed, but the cinema was still showing movies so the building was still open. There was this stationery shop that sold greeting cards and magazines, and it didnt have a door, so when it closed at night there was only a metal gate, like a trellis, that was pulled across the entrance and padlocked. Walking past this shop, Teddy and I realized that if we put our arms through the trellis we could reach this rack of chocolates just inside. And these werent just any chocolatesthey were alcohol-filled chocolates. I loved alcohol. Loved loved loved it. My whole life Id steal sips of grown-ups drinks whenever I could. We reached in, grabbed a few, drank the liquor inside, and then gobbled down the chocolates. Wed hit the jackpot. We started going back again and again to steal more. Wed wait for the shops to start to close, then wed go and sit against the gate, acting like we were just hanging out. Wed check to make sure the coast was clear, and then one of us would reach in, grab a chocolate, and drink the whiskey. Reach in, grab a chocolate, drink the rum. Reach in, grab a chocolate, drink the brandy. We did this every weekend for at least a month, having the best time. Then we pushed our luck too far. It was a Saturday night. We were hanging out at the entrance to the stationery shop, leaning up against the gate. I reached in to grab a chocolate, and at that exact moment a mall cop came around the corner and saw me with my arm in up to my shoulder. I brought my hand out with a bunch of chocolates in it. It was almost like a movie. I saw him. He saw me. His eyes went wide. I tried to walk away, acting natural. Then he shouted out, Hey! Stop! And the chase was on. We bolted, heading for the doors. I knew if a guard cut us off at the exit wed be trapped, so we were hauling ass as fast as we could. We cleared the exit. The second we hit the parking lot, mall cops were coming at us from every direction, a dozen of them at least. I was running with my head down. These guards knew me. I was in that mall all the time. The guards knew my mom, too. She did her banking at that mall. If they even caught a glimpse of who I was, I was dead. We ran straight across the parking lot, ducking and weaving between parked cars, the guards right behind us, yelling. We made it to the petrol station out at the road, ran through there, and hooked left up the main road. They chased and chased and we ran and ran, and it was awesome. The risk of getting caught was half the fun of being naughty, and now the chase was on. I was loving it. I was shitting myself, but also loving it. This was my turf. This was my neighborhood. You couldnt catch me in my neighborhood. I knew every alley and every street, every back wall to climb over, every fence with a gap big enough to slip through. I knew every shortcut you could possibly imagine. As a kid, wherever I went, whatever building I was in, I was always plotting my escape. You know, in case shit went down. In reality I was a nerdy kid with almost no friends, but in my mind I was an important and dangerous man who needed to know where every camera was and where all the exit points were. I knew we couldnt run forever. We needed a plan. As Teddy and I booked past the fire station there was a road off to the left, a dead end that ran into a metal fence. I knew that there was a hole in the fence to squeeze through and on the far side was an empty field behind the mall that took you back to the main road and back to my house. A grown-up couldnt fit through the hole, but a kid could. All my years of imagining the life of a secret agent for myself finally paid off. Now that I needed an escape, I had one. Teddy, this way! I yelled. No, its a dead end! We can get through! Follow me! He didnt. I turned and ran into the dead end. Teddy broke the other way. Half the mall cops followed him, half followed me. I got to the fence and knew exactly how to squirm through. Head, then shoulder, one leg, then twist, then the other legdone. I was through. The guards hit the fence behind me and couldnt follow. I ran across the field to a fence on the far side, popped through there, and then I was right on the road, three blocks from my house. I slipped my hands into my pockets and casually walked home, another harmless pedestrian out for a stroll. Once I got back to my house I waited for Teddy. He didnt show up. I waited thirty minutes, forty minutes, an hour. No Teddy. Fuck. I ran to Teddys house in Linksfield. No Teddy. Monday morning I went to school. Still no Teddy. Fuck. Now I was worried. After school I went home and checked at my house again, nothing. Teddys house again, nothing. Then I ran back home. An hour later Teddys parents showed up. My mom greeted them at the door. Teddys been arrested for shoplifting, they said. Fuuuck. I eavesdropped on their whole conversation from the other room. From the start my mom was certain I was involved. Well, where was Trevor? she asked. Teddy said he wasnt with Trevor, they said. My mom was skeptical. Hmm. Are you sure Trevor wasnt involved? No, apparently not. The cops said there was another kid, but he got away. So it was Trevor. No, we asked Teddy, and he said it wasnt Trevor. He said it was some other kid. Huhokay. My mom called me in. Do you know about this thing? What thing? Teddy was caught shoplifting. Whhaaat? I played dumb. Noooo. Thats crazy. I cant believe it. Teddy? No. Where were you? my mom asked. I was at home. But youre always with Teddy. I shrugged. Not on this occasion, I suppose. For a moment my mom thought shed caught me red-handed, but Teddyd given me a solid alibi. I went back to my room, thinking I was in the clear. The next day I was in class and my name was called over the PA system. Trevor Noah, report to the principals office. All the kids were like, Ooooohhh. The announcements could be heard in every classroom, so now, collectively, the whole school knew I was in trouble. I got up and walked to the office and waited anxiously on an uncomfortable wooden bench outside the door. Finally the principal, Mr. Friedman, walked out. Trevor, come in. Waiting inside his office was the head of mall security, two uniformed police officers, and my and Teddys homeroom teacher, Mrs. Vorster. A roomful of silent, stonefaced white authority figures stood over me, the guilty young black man. My heart was pounding. I took a seat. Trevor, I dont know if you know this, Mr. Friedman said, but Teddy was arrested the other day. What? I played the whole thing again. Teddy? Oh, no. What for? For shoplifting. Hes been expelled, and he wont be coming back to school. We know there was another boy involved, and these officers are going around to the schools in the area to investigate. We called you here because Mrs. Vorster tells us youre Teddys best friend, and we want to know: Do you know anything about this? I shook my head. No, I dont know anything. Do you know who Teddy was with? No. Okay. He stood up and walked over to a television in the corner of the room. Trevor, the police have video footage of the whole thing. Wed like you to take a look at it. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. My heart was pounding in my chest. Well, life, its been fun, I thought. Im going to get expelled. Im going to go to jail. This is it. Mr. Friedman pressed Play on the VCR. The tape started. It was grainy, black-and-white security-camera footage, but you could see what was happening plain as day. They even had it from multiple angles: Me and Teddy reaching through the gate. Me and Teddy racing for the door. They had the whole thing. After a few seconds, Mr. Friedman reached up and paused it with me, from a few meters out, freeze-framed in the middle of the screen. In my mind, this was when he was going to turn to me and say, Now would you like to confess? He didnt. Trevor, he said, do you know of any white kids that Teddy hangs out with? I nearly shat myself. What?! I looked at the screen and I realized: Teddy was dark. I am light; I have olive skin. But the camera cant expose for light and dark at the same time. So when you put me on a black-and-white screen next to a black person, the camera doesnt know what to do. If the camera has to pick, it picks me as white. My color gets blown out. In this video, there was a black person and a white person. But still: It was me. The picture wasnt great, and my facial features were a bit blurry, but if you looked closely: It was me. I was Teddys best friend. I was Teddys only friend. I was the single most likely accomplice. You had to at least suspect that it was me. They didnt. They grilled me for a good ten minutes, but only because they were so sure that I had to know who this white kid was. Trevor, youre Teddys best friend. Tell us the truth. Who is this kid? I dont know. You dont recognize him at all? No. Teddy never mentioned him to you? Never. At a certain point Mrs. Vorster just started running through a list of all the white kids she thought it could be. Is it David? No. Rian? No. Frederik? No. I kept waiting for it to be a trick, for them to turn and say, Its you! They didnt. At a certain point, I felt so invisible I almost wanted to take credit. I wanted to jump up and point at the TV and say, Are you people blind?! Thats me! Can you not see that thats me?! But of course I didnt. And they couldnt. These people had been so fucked by their own construct of race that they could not see that the white person they were looking for was sitting right in front of them. Eventually they sent me back to class. I spent the rest of the day and the next couple of weeks waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for my mom to get the call. Weve got him! We figured it out! But the call never came. South Africa has eleven official languages. After democracy came, people said, Okay, how do we create order without having different groups feel like theyve been left out of power again? English is the international language and the language of money and of the media, so we had to keep that. Most people were forced to learn at least some Afrikaans, so its useful to keep that, too. Plus we didnt want the white minority to feel ostracized in the new South Africa, or else theyd take all their money and leave. Of the African languages, Zulu has the largest number of native speakers, but we couldnt keep that without also having Xhosa and Tswana and Ndebele. Then theres Swazi, Tsonga, Venda, Sotho, and Pedi. We tried to keep all the major groups happy, so the next thing we knew wed made eleven languages official languages. And those are just the languages big enough to demand recognition; there are dozens more. Its the Tower of Babel in South Africa. Every single day. Every day you see people completely lost, trying to have conversations and having no idea what the other person is saying. Zulu and Tswana are fairly common. Tsonga and Pedi are pretty fringe. The more common your tongue, the less likely you are to learn others. The more fringe, the more likely you are to pick up two or three. In the cities most people speak at least some English and usually a bit of Afrikaans, enough to get around. Youll be at a party with a dozen people where bits of conversation are flying by in two or three different languages. Youll miss part of it, someone might translate on the fly to give you the gist, you pick up the rest from the context, and you just figure it out. The crazy thing is that, somehow, it works. Society functions. Except when it doesnt. A YOUNG MANS LONG, AWKWARD, OCCASIONALLY TRAGIC, AND FREQUENTLY HUMILIATING EDUCATION IN AFFAIRS OF THE HEART, PART III: THE DANCE By the end of high school Id become a mogul. My tuck-shop business had evolved into a mini-empire that included selling pirated CDs I made at home. Id convinced my mother, as frugal as she was, that I needed a computer for school. I didnt. I wanted it so I could surf the Internet and play Leisure Suit Larry. But I was very convincing, and she broke down and got it for me. Thanks to the computer, the Internet, and the fortunate gift of a CD writer from a friend, I was in business. I had carved out my niche, and was having a great time; life was so good as an outsider that I didnt even think about dating. The only girls in my life were the naked ones on my computer. While I downloaded music and messed around in chat rooms, Id dabble in porn sites here and there. No video, of course, only pictures. With online porn today you just drop straight into the madness, but with dial-up it took so long for the images to load. It was almost gentlemanly compared to now. Youd spend a good five minutes looking at her face, getting to know her as a person. Then a few minutes later youd get some boobs. By the time you got to her vagina, youd spent a lot of quality time together. In September of grade twelve, the matric dance was coming up. Senior prom. This was the big one. I was again faced with the dilemma of Valentines Day, confronting another strange ritual I did not understand. All I knew about prom was that, according to my American movies, prom is where it happens. You lose your virginity. You go and you ride in the limousine, and then you and the girl do the thing. That was literally my only reference. But I knew the rule: Cool guys get girls, and funny guys get to hang out with the cool guys with their girls. So Id assumed I wouldnt be going, or if I did go it wouldnt be with a date. I had two middlemen working for me in my CD business, Bongani and Tom. They sold the CDs that I copied in exchange for a cut. I met Tom at the arcade at the Balfour Park mall. Like Teddy, he lived nearby because his mom was a domestic worker. Tom was in my grade but went to a government school, Northview, a proper ghetto school. Tom handled my CD sales over there. Tom was a chatterbox, hyperactive and go-go-go. He was a real hustler, too, always trying to cut a deal, work an angle. He could get people to do anything. A great guy, but fucking crazy and a complete liar as well. I went with him once to Hammanskraal, a settlement that was like a homeland, but not really. Hammanskraal, as its Afrikaans name suggests, was the kraal of Hamman, what used to be a white mans farm. The proper homelands, Venda and Gazankulu and Transkei, were places where black people actually lived, and the government drew a border around them and said, Stay there. Hammanskraal and settlements like it were empty places on the map where deported black people had been relocated. Thats what the government did. They would find some patch of arid, dusty, useless land, and dig row after row of holes in the ground a thousand latrines to serve four thousand families. Then theyd forcibly remove people from illegally occupying some white area and drop them off in the middle of nowhere with some pallets of plywood and corrugated iron. Here. This is your new home. Build some houses. Good luck. Wed watch it on the news. It was like some heartless, survival-based reality TV show, only nobody won any money. One afternoon in Hammanskraal, Tom told me we were going to see a talent show. At the time, I had a pair of Timberland boots Id bought. They were the only decent piece of clothing I owned. Back then, almost no one in South Africa had Timberlands. They were impossible to get, but everyone wanted them because American rappers wore them. Id scrimped and saved my tuck-shop money and my CD money to buy them. As we were leaving, Tom told me, Be sure to wear your Timberlands. The talent show was in this little community hall attached to nothing in the middle of nowhere. When we got there, Tom was going around, shaking hands, chatting with everybody. There was singing, dancing, some poetry. Then the host got up onstage and said, Re na le modiragatsi yo o kgethegileng. Ka kopo amogelangSpliff Star! Weve got a special performer, a rapper all the way from America. Please welcomeSpliff Star! Spliff Star was Busta Rhymess hype man at the time. I sat there, confused. What? Spliff Star? In Hammanskraal? Then everyone in the room turned and looked at me. Tom walked over and whispered in my ear. Dude, come up onstage. What? Come onstage. Dude, what are you talking about? Dude, please, youre gonna get me in so much shit. Theyve already paid me the money. Money? What money? Of course, what Tom had failed to tell me was that hed told these people he was bringing a famous rapper from America to come and rap in their talent show. He had demanded to be paid up front for doing so, and I, in my Timberlands, was that famous American rapper. Screw you, I said. Im not going anywhere. Please, dude, Im begging you. Please do me this favor. Please. Theres this girl here, and I wanna get with her, and I told her I know all these rappers Please. Im begging you. Dude, Im not Spliff Star. What am I gonna do?! Just rap Busta Rhymes songs. But I dont know any of the lyrics. It doesnt matter. These people dont speak English. Aw, fuck. I got up onstage and Tom did some terrible beat-boxingBff ba-dff, bff bff ba-dffwhile I stumbled through some Busta Rhymes lyrics that I made up as I went along. The audience erupted with cheers and applause. An American rapper had come to Hammanskraal, and it was the most epic thing they had ever seen. So thats Tom. One afternoon Tom came by my house and we started talking about the dance. I told him I didnt have a date, couldnt get a date, and wasnt going to get a date. I can get you a girl to go with you to the dance, he said. No, you cant. Yes, I can. Lets make a deal. I dont want one of your deals, Tom. No, listen, heres the deal. If you give me a better cut on the CDs Im selling, plus a bunch of free music for myself, Ill come back with the most beautiful girl youve ever seen in your life, and shell be your date for the dance. Okay, Ill take that deal because its never going to happen. Do we have a deal? We have a deal, but its not going to happen. But do we have a deal? Its a deal. Okay, Im going to find you a date. Shes going to be the most beautiful girl youve ever seen, and youre going to take her to the matric dance and youre going to be a superstar. The dance was still two months away. I promptly forgot about Tom and his ridiculous deal. Then he came over to my house one afternoon and popped his head into my room. I found the girl. Really? Yeah. You have to come and meet her. I knew Tom was full of shit, but the thing that makes a con man successful is that he never gives you nothing. He delivers just enough to keep you believing. Tom had introduced me to many beautiful women. He was never dating them, but he talked a good game, and was always around them. So when he said he had a girl, I didnt doubt him. The two of us jumped on a bus and headed into the city. The girl lived in a run-down block of flats downtown. We found her building, and a girl leaned over the balcony and waved us inside. That was the girls sister Lerato, Tom said. Come to find out, hed been trying to get with Lerato, and setting me up with the sister was his way inof course, Tom was working an angle. It was dark in the lobby. The elevator was busted, so we walked up several flights. This girl Lerato brought us into the flat. In the living room was this giant, but I mean really, really enormous, fat woman. I was like, Oh, Tom. I see what youve done here. Nicely played. Tom was a big joker as well. Is this my date? I asked. No, no, no, he said. This is not your date. This is her older sister. Your date is Babiki. Babiki has three older sisters, and Lerato is her younger sister. Babikis gone to the store to buy groceries. Shell be back in a moment. We waited, chatted with the older sister. Ten minutes later the door opened and the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my life walked in. She wasgood Lord. Beautiful eyes, beautiful golden yellow-brown skin. It was like she glowed. No girl at my high school looked anything like her. Hi, she said. Hi, I replied. I was dumbfounded. I had no idea how to talk to a girl that beautiful. She was shy and didnt speak much, either. There was a bit of an awkward pause. Luckily Toms a guy who just talks and talks. He jumped right in and smoothed everything over. Trevor, this is Babiki. Babiki, Trevor. He went on and on about how great I was, how much she was looking forward to the dance, when I would pick her up for the dance, all the details. We hung out for a few, and then Tom needed to get going so we headed out the door. Babiki turned and smiled at me and waved as we left. Bye. Bye. We walked out of that building and I was the happiest man on earth. I couldnt believe it. I was the guy at school who couldnt get a date. Id resigned myself to never getting a date, didnt consider myself worthy of having a date. But now I was going to the matric dance with the most beautiful girl in the world. Over the following weeks we went down to Hillbrow a few more times to hang out with Babiki and her sisters and her friends. Babikis family was Pedi, one of South Africas smaller tribes. I liked getting to know people of different backgrounds, so that was fun. Babiki and her friends were what we call amabhujua. Theyre as poor as most other black people, but they try to act like theyre not. They dress fashionably and act rich. Amabhujua will put a shirt on layaway, one shirt, and spend seven months paying it off. Theyll live in shacks wearing Italian leather shoes that cost thousands. An interesting crowd. Babiki and I never went on a date alone. It was always the two of us in a group. She was shy, and I was a nervous wreck most of the time, but we had fun. Tom kept everyone loose and having a good time. Whenever wed say goodbye, Babiki would give me a hug, and once she even gave me a little kiss. I was in heaven. I was like, Yeah, Ive got a girlfriend. Cool. As the dance approached, I started getting nervous. I didnt have a car. I didnt have any decent clothes. This was my first time taking out a beautiful girl, and I wanted it to be perfect. Wed moved to Highlands North when my stepfathers garage went out of business, and he moved his workshop to the house. We had a big yard and a garage in the back, and that became his new workshop, essentially. At any given time, we had at least ten or fifteen cars in the driveway, in the yard, and out on the street, clients cars being worked on and old junkers Abel kept around to tinker with. One afternoon Tom and I were at the house. Tom was telling Abel about my date, and Abel decided to be generous. He said I could take a car for the dance. There was a red Mazda that wed had for a while, a complete piece of shit but it worked well enough. Id borrowed it before, but the car I really wanted was Abels BMW. It was old and beat-up like the Mazda, but a shit BMW is still a BMW. I begged him to let me take it. Please, please, can I use the BMW? Not a fucking chance. Please. This is the greatest moment in my life. Please. Im begging you. No. Please. No. You can take the Mazda. Tom, always the hustler and the dealmaker, stepped in. Bra Abie, he said. I dont think you understand. If you saw the girl Trevor is taking to the dance, you would see why this is so important. Lets make a deal. If we bring her here and shes the most beautiful girl youve ever seen in your life, youll let him take the BMW. Abel thought about it. Okay. Deal. We went to Babikis flat, told her my parents wanted to meet her, and brought her back to my house. Then we brought her around to the garage in the back where Abel and his guys were working. Tom and I went over and introduced them. Abel, this is Babiki. Babiki, this is Abel. Abel smiled big, was charming as always. Nice to meet you, he said. They chatted for a few minutes. Tom and Babiki left. Abel turned to me. Is that the girl? Yes. You can take the BMW. Once I had the car, I desperately needed something to wear. I was taking out this girl who was really into fashion, and, except for my Timberlands, everything I owned was shit. I was limited in my wardrobe choices because I was stuck buying in the shops my mother let me go to, and my mother did not believe in spending money on clothes. Shed take me to some bargain clothing store and tell me what our budget was, and Id have to find something to wear. At the time I had no clue about clothes. My idea of fashion was a brand of clothing called Powerhouse. It was the kind of stuff weight lifters wear down in Miami or out at Venice Beach, baggy track pants with baggy sweatshirts. The logo was a cartoon of this giant bodybuilding bulldog wearing wraparound sunglasses and smoking a cigar and flexing his muscles. On the pants he was flexing all the way down your leg. On the shirt he was flexing across your chest. On the underwear, he was flexing on your crotch. I thought Powerhouse was the baddest thing in the world, I cant even front. I had no friends, I loved dogs, and muscles were coolthats where I was working from. I had Powerhouse everything, the full range, five of the same outfit in five different colors. It was easy. The pants came with the top, so I knew how to make it work. Bongani, the other middleman from my CD business, found out I had a date, and he made it his mission to give me a makeover. You need to up your game, he said. You cannot go to the dance looking the way you lookfor her sake, not yours. Lets go shopping. I went to my mom and begged her to give me money to buy something to wear for the dance. She finally relented and gave me 2,000 rand, for one outfit. It was the most money shed ever given me for anything in my life. I told Bongani how much I had to spend, and he said wed make it work. The trick to looking rich, he told me, is to have one expensive item, and for the rest of the things you get basic, good-looking quality stuff. The nice item will draw everyones eye, and itll look like youve spent more than you have. In my mind nothing was cooler than the leather coats everybody wore in The Matrix. The Matrix came out while I was in high school and it was my favorite movie at the time. I loved Neo. In my heart I knew: I am Neo. Hes a nerd. Hes useless at everything, but secretly hes a badass superhero. All I needed was a bald, mysterious black man to come into my life and show me the way. Now I had Bongani, black, head shaved, telling me, You can do it. Youre the one. And I was like, Yes. I knew it. I told Bongani I wanted a leather coat like Keanu Reeves wore, the anklelength black one. Bongani shut that down. No, thats not practical. Its cool, but youll never be able to wear it again. He took me shopping and we bought a calf-length black leather jacket, which would look ridiculous today but at the time, thanks to Neo, was very cool. That alone cost 1,200 rand. Then we finished the outfit with a pair of simple black pants, suede square-toed shoes, and a cream-white knitted sweater. Once we had the outfit, Bongani took a long look at my enormous Afro. I was forever trying to get the perfect 1970s Michael Jackson Afro. What I had was more Buckwheat: unruly and impossible to comb, like stabbing a pitchfork into a bed of crabgrass. We need to fix that fucking hair, Bongani said. What do you mean? I said. This is just my hair. No, we have to do something. Bongani lived in Alexandra. He dragged me there, and we went to talk to some girls from his street who were hanging out on the corner. What would you do with this guys hair? he asked them. The girls looked me over. He has so much, one of them said. Why doesnt he cornrow it? Shit, yeah, they said. Thats great! I said, What? Cornrows? No! No, no, they said. Do it. Bongani dragged me to a hair salon down the street. We went in and sat down. The woman touched my hair, shook her head, and turned to Bongani. I cant work with this sheep, she said. You have to do something about this. What do we need to do? You have to relax it. I dont do that here. Okay. Bongani dragged me to a second salon. I sat down in the chair, and the woman took my hair and started painting this creamy white stuff in it. She was wearing rubber gloves to keep this chemical relaxer off her own skin, which should have been my first clue that maybe this wasnt such a great idea. Once my hair was full of the relaxer, she told me, You have to try to keep it in for as long as possible. Its going to start burning. When it starts burning, tell me and well rinse it out. But the longer you can handle it, the straighter your hair will become. I wanted to do it right, so I sat in the chair and waited and waited for as long as I could. I waited too long. Shed told me to tell her when it started burning. She should have told me to tell her when it started tingling, because by the time it was actually burning it had already taken off several layers of my scalp. I was well past tingling when I started to freak out. Its burning! Its burning! She rushed me over to the sink and started to rinse the relaxer out. What I didnt know is that the chemical doesnt really start to burn until its being rinsed out. I felt like someone was pouring liquid fire onto my head. When she was done I had patches of acid burns all over my scalp. I was the only man in the salon; it was all women. It was a window into what women experience to look good on a regular basis. Why would they ever do this?, I thought. This is horrible. But it worked. My hair was completely straight. The woman combed it back, and I looked like a pimp, a pimp named Slickback. Bongani then dragged me back to the first salon, and the woman agreed to cornrow my hair. She worked slowly. It took six hours. Finally she said, Okay, you can look in the mirror. She turned me around in the chair and I looked in the mirror andI had never seen myself like that before. It was like the makeover scenes in my American movies, where they take the dorky guy or girl, fix the hair and change the clothes, and the ugly duckling becomes the swan. Id been so convinced Id never get a date that I never tried to look nice for a girl, so I didnt know that I could. The hair was good. My skin wasnt perfect, but it was getting better; the pustules had receded into regular pimples. I lookednot bad. I went home, and my mom squealed when I walked in the door. Ooooooh! They turned my baby boy into a pretty little girl! Ive got a little girl! Youre so pretty! Mom! Cmon. Stop it. Is this the way youre telling me that youre gay? What? No. Why would you say that? You know its okay if you are. No, Mom. Im not gay. Everyone in my family loved it. They all thought it looked great. My mom did tease the shit out of me, though. Its very well done, she said, but it is way too pretty. You do look like a girl. The big night finally came. Tom came over to help me get ready. The hair, the clothes, everything came together perfectly. Once I was set, we went to Abel to get the keys to the BMW, and that was the moment the whole night started to go wrong. It was a Saturday night, end of the week, which meant Abel was drinking with his workers. I walked out to his garage, and as soon as I saw his eyes I knew: He was wasted. Fuck. When Abel was drunk he was a completely different person. Ah, you look nice! he said with a big smile, looking me over. Where are you going? Where am IAbie, Im going to the dance. Okay. Have fun. Umcan I get the keys? The keys to what? To the car. What car? The BMW. You promised I could drive the BMW to the dance. First go buy me some beers, he said. He gave me his car keys; Tom and I drove to the liquor store. I bought Abel a few cases of beer, drove back, and unloaded it for him. Okay, I said, can I take the BMW now? No. What do you mean no? I mean no. I need my car tonight. But you promised. You said I could take it. Yeah, but I need the car. I was crushed. I sat there with Tom and begged him for close to half an hour. Please. No. Please. Nope. Finally we realized it wasnt going to happen. We took the shitty Mazda and drove to Babikis house. I was an hour late picking her up. She was completely pissed off. Tom had to go in and convince her to come out, and eventually she did. She was even more gorgeous than before, in an amazing red dress, but she was clearly not in a great mood. Inside I was quietly starting to panic, but I smiled and kept trying my gentlemanly best to be a good date, holding the door for her, telling her how beautiful she was. Tom and the sister gave us a send-off and we headed out. Then I got lost. The dance was being held at some venue in a part of town I wasnt familiar with, and at some point I got completely turned around and had no idea where I was. I drove around for an hour in the dark, going left, going right, doubling back. I was on my cellphone the whole time, desperately calling people, trying to figure out where I was, trying to get directions. Babiki sat next to me in stony silence the whole time, clearly not feeling me or this night at all. I was crashing hard. I was late. I didnt know where I was going. I was the worst date shed ever had in her life. I finally figured out where I was and we made it to the dance, nearly two hours late. I parked, jumped out, and ran around to get her door. When I opened it, she just sat there. Are you ready? I said. Lets go in. No. No? Whatwhat do you mean, no? No. Okaybut why? No. But we need to go inside. The dance is inside. No. I stood there for another twenty minutes, trying to convince her to come inside, but she kept saying no. She wouldnt get out of the car. Finally, I said, Okay, Ill be right back. I ran inside and found Bongani. Where have you been? he said. Im here! But my dates in the car and she wont come in. What do you mean she wont come in? I dont know whats going on. Please help me. We went back out to the parking lot. I took Bongani over to the car, and the second he saw her he lost it. Jesus in Heaven! This is the most beautiful woman Ive ever seen. You said she was beautiful, Trevor, but this is insane. In an instant he completely forgot about helping me with Babiki. He turned and ran back inside and called to the guys. Guys! You gotta come see this! Trevor got a date! And shes beautiful! Guys! Come out here! Twenty guys came running out into the parking lot. They clustered around the car. Yo, shes so hot! Dude, this girl came with Trevor? Guys were gawking at her like she was an animal at the zoo. They were asking to take pictures with her. They were calling back to more people inside. This is insane! Look at Trevors date! No, no, no, you gotta come and see! I was mortified. Id spent four years of high school carefully avoiding any kind of romantic humiliation whatsoever, and now, on the night of the matric dance, the night of all nights, my humiliation had turned into a circus bigger than the event itself: Trevor the undatable clown thought he was going to have the most beautiful girl at the dance, but hes crashing and burning so lets all go outside and watch. Babiki sat in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead, refusing to budge. I was outside the car, pacing, stressed out. A friend of mine had a bottle of brandy that hed smuggled into the dance. Here, he said, have some of this. Nothing mattered at that point, so I started drinking. Id fucked up. The girl didnt like me. The night was done. Most of the guys eventually wandered back inside. I was sitting on the pavement, taking swigs from the brandy bottle, getting buzzed. At some point Bongani went back over to the car to try one last time to convince Babiki to come in. After a minute his head popped up over the car with this confused look. Yo, Trevor, he said, your date does not speak English. What? Your date. She does not speak any English. Thats not possible. I got up and walked over to the car. I asked her a question in English and she gave me a blank stare. Bongani looked at me. How did you not know that your date does not speak English? II dont know. Have you never spoken to her? Of course I haveor, waithave I? I started flashing back through all the times Id been with Babiki, meeting at her flat, hanging out with her friends, introducing her to Abel. Did I talk to her then? No. Did I talk to her then? No. It was like the scene in Fight Club where Ed Nortons character flashes back and realizes he and Brad Pitt have never been in the same room with Helena Bonham Carter at the same time. He realizes hes been punching himself the whole time. Hes Tyler Durden. In all the excitement of meeting Babiki, the times we were hanging out and getting to know each other, we were never actually speaking to each other. It was always through Tom. Fucking Tom. Tom had promised hed get me a beautiful date for the dance, but he hadnt made any promises about any of her other qualities. Whenever we were together, she was speaking Pedi to Tom, and Tom was speaking English to me. But she didnt speak English, and I didnt speak Pedi. Abel spoke Pedi. Hed learned several South African languages in order to deal with his customers, so hed spoken with her fluently when they met. But in that moment I realized Id never actually heard her say anything in English other than: Yes. No. Hi. Bye. Thats it: Yes. No. Hi. Bye. Babiki was so shy that she didnt talk much to begin with, and I was so inept with women that I didnt know how to talk to her. Id never had a girlfriend; I didnt even know what girlfriend meant. Someone put a beautiful woman on my arm and said, Shes your girlfriend. Id been mesmerized by her beauty and just the idea of herI didnt know I was supposed to talk to her. The naked women on my computer, Id never had to talk to them, ask them their opinions, ask them about their feelings. And I was afraid Id open my mouth and ruin the whole thing, so I just nodded and smiled along and let Tom do the talking. All three of Babikis older sisters spoke English, and her younger sister Lerato spoke a little. So whenever we hung out with Babiki and her sisters and their friends, a lot of the conversation was in English. The rest of it was going right by me in Pedi or in Sotho, but thats completely normal in South Africa so it never bothered me; I got enough of the gist of the conversation from everyones English to know what was going on. And the way my mind works with language, even when Im hearing other languages, they get filtered into English as Im hearing them. My mind stores them in English. When my grandmother and great-grandmother were hysterically praying to God to destroy the demon that had shit on their kitchen floor, all of that transpired in Xhosa, but its stored in English. I remember it as English. So whenever I lay in bed at night dreaming about Babiki and the moments wed spent together, I felt like it had transpired in English because thats how I remembered it. And Tom had never said anything about what language she spoke or didnt speak, because why would he care? He just wanted to get his free CDs and get with the sister. Which is how Id been dating a girl for over a monththe girl I very much believed was my first girlfriendwithout ever having had a single conversation with her. Now the whole night came rushing back and I saw it from her point of view, and it was perfectly obvious to me why she didnt want to get out of the car. She probably hadnt wanted to go to the dance with me in the first place; she probably owed Tom a favor, and Tom can talk anyone into anything. Then Id left her sitting and waiting for me for an hour and she was pissed off. Then she got into the car and it was the first time we had ever been alone, and she realized I couldnt even hold a conversation with her. Id driven her around and gotten lost in the darka young girl alone in a car in the middle of nowhere with some strange guy, no idea where I was taking her. She was probably terrified. Then we got to the dance and she didnt speak anyones language. She didnt know anyone. She didnt even know me. Bongani and I stood outside the car, staring at each other. I didnt know what to do. I tried talking to her in every language I knew. Nothing worked. She only spoke Pedi. I got so desperate that I started trying to talk to her using hand signals. Please. You. Me. Inside. Dance. Yes? No. Inside. Dance. Please? No. I asked Bongani if he spoke Pedi. He didnt. I ran inside to the dance and ran around looking for someone who spoke Pedi to help me to convince her to come in. Do you speak Pedi? Do you speak Pedi? Do you speak Pedi? Nobody spoke Pedi. So I never got to go to my matric dance. Other than the three minutes I spent running through it looking for someone who spoke Pedi, I spent the whole night in the parking lot. When the dance ended, I climbed back into the shitty red Mazda and drove Babiki home. We sat in total awkward silence the whole way. I pulled up in front of her block of flats in Hillbrow, stopped the car, and sat for a moment as I tried to figure out the polite and gentlemanly way to end the evening. Then, out of nowhere, she leaned over and gave me a kiss. Like, a real kiss, a proper kiss. The kind of kiss that made me forget that the whole disaster had just happened. I was so confused. I didnt know what I was supposed to do. She pulled back and I looked deep into her eyes and thought, I have no idea how girls work. I got out of the car, walked around to her side, and opened her door. She gathered up her dress and stepped out and headed toward her flat, and as she turned to go I gave her one last little wave. Bye. Bye. In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust. Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of itwhat it means. As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. Well, that was shameful, now wasnt it? In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We werent taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way its taught in America. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now its done. It was the same for us. Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Lets move on. Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. Whatever you do, dont make the kids angry. GO HITLER! When I was in grade nine, three Chinese kids transferred to Sandringham: Bolo, Bruce Lee, and John. They were the only Chinese kids in the school, out of a thousand pupils. Bolo got his nickname because he looked like Bolo Yeung from the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Bloodsport. Bruce Lees name really was Bruce Lee, which made our lives. Here was this Chinese guy, quiet, goodlooking, in great shape, and his name was Bruce Lee. We were like, This is magic. Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us Bruce Lee. John was just John, which was weird because of the other two. I got to know Bolo because he was one of my tuck-shop clients. Bolos parents were professional pirates. They pirated videogames and sold them at flea markets. As the son of pirates, Bolo did the same thinghe started selling bootleg PlayStation games around school. Kids would give him their PlayStation, and hed bring it back a few days later with a chip in it that enabled them to play pirated games, which he would then sell them. Bolo was friends with this white kid and fellow pirate named Andrew, who traded in bootleg CDs. Andrew was two grades above me and a real computer geek; he even had a CD writer at home, back when nobody had CD writers. One day on my tuck-shop rounds, I overheard Andrew and Bolo complaining about the black kids at school. Theyd realized that they could take Andrews and Bolos merchandise, say Ill pay you later, and then not pay, because Andrew and Bolo were too scared of black people to go back to ask for the money. I leaned in to their conversation and said, Listen, you shouldnt get upset. Black people dont have any money, so trying to get more stuff for less money is just what we do. But let me help. Ill be your middleman. You give me the merchandise and Ill sell it, and then Ill handle getting the money. In return, you give me a cut of the sale. They liked the idea right away, and we became partners. As the tuck-shop guy, I was perfectly positioned. I had my network set up. All I had to do was tap into it. With the money I made selling CDs and videogames, I was able to save up and add new components and more memory to my own computer. Andrew the computer geek showed me how to do it, where to buy the cheapest parts, how to assemble them, how to repair them. He showed me how his business worked, too, how to download music, where to get rewritable CDs in bulk. The only thing I was missing was my own CD writer, because it was the most expensive component. At the time a CD writer cost as much as the rest of the computer, nearly 2,000 rand. I worked as a middleman for Bolo and Andrew for a year. Then Bolo left school; the rumor was that his parents got arrested. From that point on I worked for Andrew, and then as he was about to matriculate he decided to quit the game. Trevor, he told me, youve been a loyal partner. And, as thanks, he bequeathed unto me his CD writer. At the time, black people barely had access to computers, lets start there. But a CD writer? That was the stuff of lore. It was mythical. The day Andrew gave it to me, he changed my life. Thanks to him, I now controlled production, sales, distributionI had everything I needed to lock down the bootleg business. I was a natural capitalist. I loved selling stuff, and I was selling something that everybody wanted and nobody else could provide. I sold my discs for 30 rand, around $3. A regular CD in the store cost 100 to 150 rand. Once people started buying from me, they wouldnt buy real CDs ever againthe deal was too good. I had an instinct for business, but at the time I knew nothing about music, which was odd for someone running a music-pirating business. The only music I knew, still, was Christian music from church, the only music allowed in my mothers house. The CD writer Andrew gave me was a 1x CD writer, which meant it copied at the speed it played. Every day Id leave school, go to my room, and sit for five to six hours, copying CDs. I had my own surround-sound system built with old car speakers Id salvaged from the junkers Abel kept in the yard, and I strung them up around the room. Even though I had to sit there while each CD played, for a long time I didnt really listen to them. I knew it was against the dealers code: Never get high on your own supply. Thanks to the Internet, I could get anyone anything. I never judged anyones taste in music. You wanted the new Nirvana, I got you the new Nirvana. You wanted the new DMX, I got you the new DMX. Local South African music was big, but black American music was what people were desperate for, hip-hop and R

  • Tales of mystery and imagination /     (by Edgar Allan Poe, 1993) -    Tales of mystery and
  • Love Story /   (by Erich Segal, 1996) -    Love Story /
  • A Christmas Carol /    (by Charles Dickens, 1997) -    A Christmas Carol /
  •    1 . . (2004, 22) +mp3 1 2004,
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