Fiction: Symbiosis: A Mother’s Song
By Marcelle Mateki Akita
Let me tell you a story about a girl who was not particularly popular for all the right reasons, but for all the wrong. A girl who constantly fought social stereotypes by consciously obliterating behaviours recognised as the conformable norm (or straightforwardly put: racial prejudice – innit!). This girl, well in actual fact she’s a woman now, is not specifically remarkable. But since she is my daughter this automatically qualifies her as an exceptionally remarkable woman.
The issue was (and this is probably the best way to phrase it) whilst growing up Tsitsi had no one who really understood her. Well, not like I did anyway.
Yes there were friends – there are always friends though aren’t there?
Not the type of friends who shared experiences similar to her or at least those who held similar values, views, disappointments, achievements, losses, griefs, passions, love. At times she found it difficult to explain herself, which she should never have to do but found herself wanting to anyway, regardless. It was this constant need, no actually, it was this constant pressure, this palpable mass she carried on the tip of her tongue and conscious blockade she applied in daily conversations, debates, discussions – whatever you want to call it – that weighed down on her, and all I know is that every time Tsitsi opened her mouth, she felt inclined to explain.
Yet she thought clearly.
Now, Tsitsi presented herself as a shy respectable young African woman; even so, boiling inside her was a portion of confidence, stirring in drops of arrogance and a dollop of pride. These qualities remained heated and warm inside her belly, and even if she did not understand it herself, it was innate. Something Tsitsi was born with – and I would know, I was there – was self-awareness. I could never really put my finger on where this self-awareness originated from but it was a beautiful thing to witness.
There were moments when I felt like a voyeur as I peeked into her window of life.
Initially it was challenging because I would struggle to see through the condensation formed on the cold glass from my warm misty breath, and as I struggled to wipe away the wet cloud from the window so I could see inside, she was growing all the while. Tsitsi was never really sure of my being there though her actions showed that she was aware that she was being watched. I began to envy her intuitive knowing, and her beautiful self-awareness. My envious nature then started to form a thin mucus coating across the surface of my eyes as I witnessed her intuition develop. As she grew, my sight worsened. I could never see quite clearly enough through the glass but I noticed that as the days drew by the paintbrush strokes of her portrait became sharper, wiser, more defined, increasingly intellectual and very solitary.
There are moments when I look in to her window of life and feel like I am the one to blame for her unique upbringing and exposures, and though I recognise her strength amidst her vulnerability, a certainty has crystallised. I had failed to protect her.
Well, I believe it was 1995 that she turned ten. I mean, what would I know? This was subject to mere observation and at this point this envied mucus coating meant my vision had steadily become nebulous. But for the sake of my telling the story, let’s say she was ten.
It is quite difficult to gauge time in a timeless place: you tend to find yourself locked in a dark cellar with the only light streaming in from a faraway window. Her window of life. I peek so often as a way of checking in because if I don’t I’m left floating unknowing. So I play this game where I measure time by looking in on Tsitsi guessing what current stage she is undergoing. I look for key indicators.
For instance, have her breasts grown at this stage?
At ten years old?
Quite unfortunate really, she was not blessed like her mother. The blame lies with her father’s side. Even though she does not know that I know this, she has cursed me many times for her misfortune: cursed me for her lack of breasts (which makes no sense to me, but I guess I will have to revisit this). The curses did not stop there, oh no she had a list (the ungrateful child), detailing her lengthy woes including her lacklustre facial features (which again, is her father’s fault), her tough, dry, kinky hair (how many times had I taught the man about conditioning!), and surprisingly (and I mean a gobsmacking surprise) her well rounded, healthy, god-given arse. Oh the curses she hollered at me from her bedroom, at the bedroom table, on her bed, in her diary, to her teddies, tattered dolls. Oh why, oh why couldn’t her face be more pretty like mummy’s? Skin lighter like mummy’s? Boobies bigger than mummy’s? Hair curlier like mummy’s? Bum, well, flatter than mummy’s? With the whispered compromise: not too flat though (thank god!). I mean honestly my eardrums rung and bled out her pursuit for beauty!
I was ready to archive her curses into a folder entitled:
TSITSI’S CURSES ET. AL.
This girl complained, moaned and screamed to the clouds about her utter disappointment of development. She was quite a dramatic character at that age (and again, her father’s character. I was always the pragmatic one).
She felt entitled, as though it was expected that at this age she should simply have it all ready for her to step into: rounded perky breasts, thick thighs, facial symmetry, curved hips, a tight bum, slanted shoulders, narrow size 5 feet, slender legs, and of course sharply defined eyebrows with full-fleshy lips. The magazines and TV shows confused her; this is what she expected but in reality she was shaped like a pencil and a sharpened one at that.
Let’s not forget that she was only ten.
But this particular episode of her formative years made me think; if only the decision of designing and building the perfect shape, body, beauty was down to the woman from the onset of conception. Because then, if beauty was defined by women individually then we would not need or depend on media to reflect what we should desire, right? Clearly these media ‘should’s aimed at marginalising those who do not possess the portrayed beauty qualities, even if those marginalised belong to the majority. My daughter was marginalised and excluded without even knowing it. One thing that bothers me is the question of who told her that her face had to be symmetrical to be considered beautiful? Tweea! At the age of ten why did this concern her? I could not quite figure this or her out, regardless of my constant speculating it was not clear. I tried to comprehend by peeking in. Despite the furious rubbing against her window of life my vision was still blurred. It seemed so easy for her to stroll through life haphazardly, completely unaware that it could be snuffed out of her at any point.
And it’s funny right? How we assume we own the life we have without recognising that at any moment, any day, time, you could be snuffed. She got this casual attitude from me. Her father was always too careful.
She grew, time passed, and my vision began to improve as the mucus coating across the surface of my eyes began to thin. My envy was dimming and I immersed myself into her love of life and daily curiosities. Against the clear glass, I could see that school had a part to play in her thinking and self-perception. She knew she was different and had despised me for it, in particular of the fact that I was not there to enlighten her.
(Amazing how the mother gets the blame as if it did not take two to pro-create, huh?)
Tsitsi underwent a subtle transition I must have missed because despite the early stages of self-deprecation there must have been a time where it all dissipated, as she grew and her stages evolved, none of this seemed to matter to her anymore. I am assuming that I missed this self-esteem shift during my many ongoing distractions in wiping the consistent gathering of mist on the cold, frigid window. I kept a watchful eye on Tsitsi, in spite of my self-inflicted failing sight, but this change of attitude must have been a subtle one almost like a confidence bug had stealthily crawled across her pillow into her ear one night rewiring and implanting itself into her brain. Because the next thing I knew Tsitsi was oozing with self-admiration. She adopted this new view of life; this appreciation of newly revived knowledge which had laid dormant in the root of her soul, wistfully coasting to and fro until brought to a silent gentle halt.
Silently, gently she came to.
It took me by shock. I couldn’t register this change, and though this was a few years to come. I was not prepared.
Anyway, back to when she was ten. Ha! See what I mean by losing the essence of time in a timeless place? I went off on a tangent, you see? I lost myself in this place. If you are not careful, you’ll find yourself absent in thought whilst life goes on, growth blooms, mindless breaths are taken and given, with this all continues beyond you, behind you, past the window of life. While you are left floating absently, lost, trapped in a timeless place! What kind of conundrum is this? You know – well, look at that! I almost trailed off there…again! Ha! Now, where was I?
There was an incident in school which sparked the beginnings of Tsitsi’s relentless self-battery. Now do not be under any allusion that this was an isolated event, there were many incidents, but this singular one had consolidated whichever loose doubts were stewing in her mind.
Everforest Primary school.
A state shitty-hole.
It was that stick-like brunette with greasy blonde highlights wannabe Barbie.
She thought she was the hottest girl around and who could blame her? With her damn freckles, sickly blueish grey eyes, pink flat lips, boys always bothering her to play kiss-chase, and the ultimate assaulting weapon: she was in final year, an untouchable status. She even made braces look flattering. Urgh. Do you know how much it aggravated me that I could not call her ugly? She was too cute and innocent for that. What kind of mother does that make me? One who does not unduly dish out bitchy expletives to comfort and please her daughter – right? I never believed in succumbing to denigrating other women for self-gratification, especially not to a girl. It’s just too easy. But then again, her personality stank. Like a stink that resembles a pigsty stink, a pigsty stink developed from the foul pervading stench of a bloodily, chewed-up, fleshy heart infested by vermin. I often imagine that her heart belongs there, corroding. This Nicole girl…but let’s not go there, I’m a woman of my word.
This Nicole girl always picked on my darling Tsitsi, set upon my daughter during lunch time with routine verbal onslaughts.
‘Why do you talk like that?’
‘Why do you always have your hair in a bun?’
‘Oh, your hair looks long – is it horse hair plaits?’
‘Gosh Tee-tee that’s not how you say sausage! Haha!’
To which my sweet little Tsitsi would respond:
‘Why do you talk like that?’
‘Why is your hair always down and wet?’
‘No, my hair is braided.’ (This was always followed by an exaggerated rolling of the eyes as if to say ‘like, did she really just ask me that?’)
‘I don’t care. That’s not how you say my name, Nicole.’
See what I mean? She was bullied endlessly. But my goodness, Tsitsi allowed nothing to phase her. Until this day arrived.
‘Well, I care about how you say sausage. But I don’t care about how I say your name, Tee-tee.’
‘I’m gonna tell Ms. Evens that you’re distracting me from my lunch.’
‘Ah look a little tattle tell! Ha! Do you think I care? I don’t care, go tell Ms. Evens TEEEE-TEEEE!’
Then came the cackles and crackles from little ten-year olds’ mouths expanded into oblong ‘O’s laughing at my daughter.
‘What, you going quiet now? Don’t go quiet! Say sausage again, but this time say it right, not like how you say it sauce-urge.’
The cackles and crackles erupted into an explosion of laughter around Tsitsi who was now engulfed by the sounds from hollow ‘O’s.
And Tsitsi, my sweet darling Tsitsi, sat there silently.
Warmth suddenly descended onto her hair, hovering over the carefully sculpted partings and through her coiled follicles, traversing the kinky patterns of her long braids and spreading itself thickly across her forehead, face, neck, travelling past the clavicle’s cleft to surfacing her chest. She was heating up uncontrollably, even her fingertips were being consumed by this sudden heatwave. Tsitsi became instantaneously aware of her cheeks while noticing her vision blur and chest tighten. She began to feel isolated and everyone and thing seemed so distant from her as her senses honed in on the heat emitting from her skin coupling with her blurring watery sight. I could see in that moment that my daughter felt alone. Warm salty tears silently streamed down her face, slowly at first then picked up in pace, gathering at the bottom of her chin waiting to fall. A small pool started to form on the grey laminated table with graffitied scratches. As the tears fell the small pool of warm salty tears dispersed and branched out into the grooves of pupils’ indecipherable scratches into the surface made with the high artistry tools of classroom compasses and illegal biro pens. Fascinated by this, Tsitsi watched the transportation of her tears, their journey without her seemed unfair. I could see that she felt trapped.
I could see that my daughter was trapped.
Now that I am reflecting on this, this must’ve been the precocious steps of her perfecting the art of self-misery. Unhealthy for a ten-year old, I know, but let me tell you something, this girl became one of the biggest manipulators I have ever seen. There were times she manipulated her own will into doing things she was completely against. Trust me when I say that malicious forms of manipulation stems from self-misery – this is one thing I have learnt from watching Tsitsi.
She continued to watch the tears trail off in fascination.
‘Oh my gosh Becky you’re right, she is crying! What a loser!’
The laughter resumed. The cackles and crackles became intolerably louder.
Tsitsi looked up to face the stick-like Barbie and her motley shallow crew. Her eyes were now the big round ‘O’s.
’N’awwwww what happened to telling on me you snitch?’
‘Shame mummy ain’t here to wipe those baby tears away!’
There was now confusion in the air. The noise started to quieten, the laughs did not sound so sure and intolerable now. Mist began to gather against the window of life but I was too engrossed to notice. Tsitsi looked directly into Nicole’s eyes which did not shift. Instead there was a glisten of pride and a stare-down ensued. That’s when my vision became cloudy by gathered mist making it difficult to figure out what was happening beyond the window; I placed my ear against the cold, frigid glass. I could hear some trickles of dying out laughter. But the loudest of all was the shifting of rubber soles on the waxen canteen floor. I rubbed viciously against the window of life hoping my failing sight would magically pierce the looming cloud of doubt and uncertainty encompassing Tsitsi. Tsitsi I am here! I remember screaming against the misted window. Tsitsi I am here! The silence was deafening, even for me. I waited, rubbed and put my ear against the glass. A moment passed and then (and only then) came the thump, yelp, pulling of hair, rushing of feet, sounds of whistles, loud voices of young and old, muffled choking, heavy breathing, then the suspension.
None of the other children defended Tsitsi’s actions. They were all too scared of that snotty-totty Nicole girl. On that day, whist sitting in the headmaster’s room, Tsitsi learned three things:
- She preferred wearing hair up in buns.
- She was sworn-off from ever eating or saying sausage ever again.
- She accepted that mummy is dead and she has to be her own mum now.
It felt as though she had stabbed me, sharply, deeply, knowing exactly how to make me bleed and gasp desperately for air. Darkness had swallowed me up. If I could have felt my heart, tangibly, it most probably plummeted to the bottom of my infinite soul into eternal abyss, like a pebble spiralling down the expansive ocean. Anchored by this weight, I limply succumbed to the darkness. Hope had finally left me.
Drifting into the suffocating, never-ending dark cellar.
How can you gauge time in a timeless place?
Screams. Blood-red and blinking black spots. I could faintly hear our baby girl’s gurgling screams straight after birth, before I was snuffed, before I could hold her.
All I wanted to do was hold her even for a second but all I heard were her anguished cries. I was denied the chance to be her mum in the physical world and the only way I could make up for it was to watch her through the cold, frigid glass. I got the chance to watch her grow. At least I could still be a part of her life, watching over her from up here.
Curious, I drifted stealthily back to her window of life clearing the co-mingled mist and mildew to resume my role as spectator.
She always dazzled me, my daughter. I could never really anticipate her reaction to physical, mental, spiritual and emotional development yet no matter how she handled it there was always an element of innocence in her discoveries. Breasts had started to form, thick bulbous nipples began to poke through her thin cotton vests. It was clearly time for bras – but she knew this. The complexion of her early breasts amused her. The dark brown nipples surrounded by a lighter shaded area and I heard her sometimes question, ‘Was this how mother’s were?’. Her stomach was stretching: a tight long torso with the beginning signs of hips developing. In the mirror Tsitsi would stare long and hard at her stomach pulling at excess flesh to make the belly even tighter to see the bony pelvis then massaging her abdomen by pushing the fatty flesh centrally towards her belly button to coax the emerging hips. By playing I assume she was trying to prepare herself for womanhood. Though her breasts did not grow to be voluminous like mine, her shape was exquisite. She took extra pride in caring for her hair, growing it long and healthy, and finally learned the beauty of conditioning. (Bless the dad, he tried but my god was he useless!)
Still the coy demeanour was maintained but now she carried a commanding aura. Confidence began to float around from the brewing potion in her belly. When it began to solidify and take root firmly in her twenties, she was a force to be reckoned with.
Tsitsi took no prisoners because she was always so sure. Especially when she began working full-time and was introduced to the socio-political culture of the London office. She meditated daily on a self-taught mantra she had developed through her student years: I’m beautiful, intelligent and qualified to achieve all I want and need.
Then a day came when this was tested.
She was usually quiet when confronted with such situations but today was not that day. She was not going to be conveyed as the tormentor or the victim. She had been and seen through too many of these cycles and could not stand to be faced with it yet again. Enough was finally enough.
‘So, Mary, let me ask you this, and I want you to answer me honestly’, she swallowed deeply to really immerse herself in this moment, because after this she could not go back. ‘If you were in my shoes, right now, how would you react?’
Mary’s facial expression quickly changed from being irate to perplexed, her lips began to twist in confusion. As Mary stood there, struck by this question, Tsitsi watched her. Her gaze was intense. She wanted this moment to marinate, for Mary to really feel it. Mary’s chest heaved heavily steadily becoming a reddish colour.
‘Well whud’you mean? There isn’t anything to react to – ’
‘You called me emotional and unprofessional. You can make all types of obscene jokes -’
‘I haven’t finished. Right, now I don’t care about what you personally think of me. I really want you to understand that. But calling me names just because you do not understand something is very telling of your ignorance. No, I haven’t finished. Don’t interrupt me, you’ve had your say in the office, in front of everyone, at least I have given you the human decency to call you out of the office to discuss this. I would’ve expected a woman of your experience to have understood how discriminatory and degrading it is to call another woman emotional and unprofessional for defending herself while surrounded by co-workers. Men have done enough of that already.’
Tsitsi eyed her manager slowly and deliberately before walking straight into the director’s office to begin the grievance procedure, leaving Mary standing at a loss to what had just transpired between them. Tsitsi wanted to see Mary’s face when she received the letter, wanting to watch her suffer in the confusing silence, in the uncertainty of what laid ahead. She wanted so much to happen that she had never planned for or desired after so badly.
She took a moment to remind herself: I’m beautiful, intelligent and qualified to achieve all I want and need.
Renewed, she added: And I don’t take shit from no one.
I remember composing and humming a half-written song for Tsitsi at that very moment, the lyrics went something like:
She’s a woman on a mission
She’s carrying a self-perfected vision
I then kissed the window glass and wept.
Image: Gates Foundation
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