In a few months time I am planning to return to South Africa for a few weeks. It’s only been 3 and a half years since I was last there, and yet it feels lifetimes ago. In a strange little way, I guess that it is. When I went last time, I went alone, to stay with strangers who’d grow to become close friends, and heroes more than they could ever have known. It was the longest period of safety I had throughout my childhood, and the foundations laid down by them, simply through their genuine care and kindness, helped me to discover what I really wanted, and so more than ever I fought to get the grades for university. Learning about the culture and watching the children, the happiest children I have ever met and yet with nothing really, helped me to put things into some form of perspective. Sometimes when I’m struggling now I look back through the photos and remind myself…things might be bad but you have a home, friends, you’re studying for a degree, you have your music, and you have a future. Pull yourself together woman.
But planning to go back has let my mind wander a bit, thinking about the person I was when I returned from South Africa last time. When I first arrived in South Africa, the sudden freedom and safety threw me quite considerably. Most of the really horrific memories had blanked, especially of life in the ring, but I knew home wasn’t safe. I very much knew my grandmother was emotionally abusive but I was so caught up in her abuse that I did to a large extent blame myself. I also knew, to some level, that there’d been rape and sexual abuse. The rest was a blur. So, I arrived in South Africa and after living in such an intensely controlled environment, where ever minute of my life at home was dictated, I felt very out of control. I, in hindsight, must have been the world’s most nightmarish guest! I just couldn’t eat. When I did I felt out of control again. I needed something to be intensely controlled because I’d grown so used to the environment at home that I simply didn’t know how to cope without it. With an already hazy relationship with food to begin with, this need for control manifested itself with my eating. My now friends there did manage to shake some sense into me, and when I began to properly realise that nobody there was going to hurt me for putting on weight, and nobody there was going to punish me for not living a strictly controlled lifestyle, I gradually let go of the eating issue and felt my soul transform. I developed a new kind of confidence there that I’d never had before, and haven’t had since. I began to feel sure of myself, and over time felt less and less like I needed to constantly be looking over my shoulder. A few of my friends who’ve gone to South Africa have said the same; there is something about the country that so completely captures our spirit, and it’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t been there. So many people look at me skeptically when I tell them this, due to their media-fuelled stereotype of a starving, dusty, extremely dangerous country with lions every 10 yards and everyone of absolute hostility and cobras in your shoes and god only knows what else. I will grant you that it can be dangerous and I will grant you that it has some of the poorest people in the world. But I will also tell you this – they are all a damnsite happier than the vast majority of the people over here. They are more people-orientated. You walk down the road and smile and say hello to strangers passing by. You do that over here and you risk either being frowned out, or being punched, or just being ignored.
South Africa, both times I’ve been (and the first time with grandparents!) has captured some part of my spirit that has never shown itself in England. A completely untouched, raw and beautiful part of me that is so hidden and protected whilst I live over here, that on both occasions it showing itself in South Africa has completely taken me by surprise. Particularly on my second visit, when I was safe as well, did this new part of me take me by surprise and also ground me. Things that would normally frighten me such as thunderstorms, mostly had me completely awe-struck, amazed and also intimidated by the immense power of nature. Walking through the bush, once I let go of my English head, reached deep within me, and soothed even the most minor stresses that plague us all in Western society. This bizarre, almost paradoxical mindset drilled into us that you make money so that you can then make more money and then make more money, and so on, drifted away from me. Money was no longer an absolute, no longer the be all and end all. Money was part of a much huger picture, something that aids your lifestyle but needn’t rule your entire life. Sometimes I find myself very stressed about coursework or exams, and I stop myself and ask why. I do feel like I’m living on borrowed time, and that life is too short, and in a way the structure of a degree irritates me because it could all be compacted and finished much sooner. But also, there’s more to life than work. In the bush, laughing with friends, observing nature in so many different ways…it helped me to realise that life is about taking what you know and have to offer a guiding hand to others, and in return they will do the same. Life is about working as a team, as a whole group. Not work. Not money.
Anyway, so I had a whole host of epiphany moments whilst out there, and despite having gone to South Africa still feeling ruled by my grandparents, I left a completely different person. This new part of my spirit remained the most dominant, and became most apparent with how I dealt with my grandparents. And this is where the title of this blog post will become clear.
When I got back to my home, with my grandparents, I remember feeling scared but also just impatient with them. They bickered, my father bickering too, and it dawned on me that whilst I had changed in just a few weeks…they certainly had not, and why would they? They had no reason to. We got to the house and they bustled ahead of me, snapping at each other, shouting orders at me over my shoulder, before looking at me properly. My grandmother’s face twisted into what can only be described as a snarl, and she hissed “God you’re fat. Shove a finger down it you disgusting lump,” before going back inside. I felt this new part of me wobble, wounded by the abuse which although I’d been expecting, still cut deep. I, however, did not go to the toilet and make myself sick as she’d ordered. I just ignored her, and went straight to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
I don’t know whether it was my assertion or my absolute defiance, but for a week or so they didn’t seem to hold any power over me, and they knew it. At the end of their first week, two of their closest friends came to stay. I have mixed feelings re these friends. They seemed nice enough, though often took our grandparents side, and on one awful occasion a few years ago where my brother actually physically got hurt, and some huge row escalated with screaming and things being thrown everywhere, they simply sat in another room and put the telly on. I felt betrayed. However, they came to visit and so I knew I was supposed to be on absolute best behaviour, waiting at their table when they ate and making sure I was seen, but not heard. But I couldn’t be arsed with it. My grandfather started ordering me to do stuff, and I simply said “no.” He lost it, and I looked at him feeling very tired and said “get a grip grandad. I’m busy, I’ll do it later, but right now you’re making a fool out of yourself” and I walked away from him. I knew the punishment once their friends left would be severe, but I really couldn’t have cared less.
To my absolute surprise, on the second (and last day) of their friend’s stay, the husband pulled me to one side, glancing around to make sure my grandparents were nowhere to be seen. He looked at me and said “I just wanted to say, you’re looking so much healthier. South Africa seems to have done you good. It’s good to see you more confident, keep it up.” And then he left, and it was never spoken of again.
But that was him becoming an ally, even if for just a quick moment. He knew fine rightly that my grandparents simply loathed this new, healthier and more assertive me. But just a quick, quiet encouragement that confirmed to me that as much as they might hate it, it’s definitely better me being like that, was incredibly powerful.
As it was, due to a couple of very traumatic events and the constant drip drip drip emotional crap tactic from my grandmother, this new me disappeared quite quickly. My eating fell off, again, and I started to blame myself, again, and obediently bent down to any order. By the time I left for university, after juggling a huge amount of work and going through some more severe abuse, I was a wreck. But I’d made it. I’d got to university, and I genuinely think that without that short empowering spell in South Africa which proved to me that confidence was possible and right, I wouldn’t have had the stamina to get there. And so my recovery began, and I grew to meet and know some incredible individuals and develop some amazing friendships.
Even now when I struggle, I think back to how I was in those couple of weeks, and my grandmother’s face when I told her to “do one,” and I have to smile. It was a hilarious facial expression, all things considered. The deep, new part of my spirit has never resurfaced, but I know is safely buried and will do when I’m back in South Africa. Nonetheless, I have developed more confidence and assertion, and despite being in a lot of pain currently I’m also very far away from being ruled by my grandparents and crushed into the floor. It’s a different kind of pain, and in a lot of ways much worse, but I am glad that I am at a point now where I can feel the pain of what was done to me, rather than being in pain for what is being done to me.
This time, I can only hope that my life is even safer and so when I return from South Africa, the fresh and healthier me will stay dominant for good, because I won’t have cruel grandparents to drive her away…and will have more than one of their friend’s quiet words to keep spurring me on.