#BeitbridgeMemoirs: Of memories, tears and healing

Last December I went home. Home is Beitbridge. I was received with tears and admonishes for having been gone too long.

I was surprised by the outpouring of emotion, the overwhelming love and mostly, I was surprised that my absence had been so keenly felt.

I will explain the source of my surprise.


I was surprised because I had never quite considered just how much I mattered to my father and my mother’s relatives.

When my parents died, I felt like my value and worth in the family structure had severely diminished. I grieved for my parents as if I were the only one who felt the blow of their passing on.

In fact, I somehow convinced myself that no one else could have been as shattered as I was and I reckoned that if no one else was as shattered as me – it meant their pain was not worth noting.

This was 15 years ago and it has taken me a long time to realize how wrong I was. Grief is a strange thing.

Sometimes it makes us so self-absorbed that we cannot see beyond our agony to acknowledge the pain of others.
I have an inclination towards asserting my individuality such that even in grieving; I sought to individualize the loss and refused to let it be a collective and shared grief.

This past Christmas I took the opportunity to visit my maternal and paternal relatives, some of them had last seen me at my parents’ funerals 15 years ago.

They were very emotional. And they kept talking about my parents. This outpouring of emotion made me aware for the first time of just how much my parents had been loved and cherished by others.

I felt ashamed that I had so disregarded their pain, discounted the depth of their own loss and failed to be a comfort to them even as I’d refused to draw comfort from them.

My maternal uncle’s eyes welled with tears and his voice choked with emotion when he saw me after so many years.

Virginia’s child,” he said, “Is this you? You, who have been gone this long? Without a call or even a random letter to let us know that you are well. I have missed you and not a day goes by that I don’t mention your name, to ask where you are and if you are okay. How could you go and not return, just go and not remember us. Don’t forget us who love you even if we may have no material things to offer you. I am your mother too, even if I am a man – I am your mother too.

I was moved and I was shamed. I had forgotten what it means to be ‘important’ to other people. When my parents died, I stopped expecting people to see me as important so that it wouldn’t hurt me if they neglected or forgot about me.

My maternal uncle was happy and upset at the same time. He adored my mother (his baby sister) and when he acquired a house, the largest and most prominently placed portrait in his living room was one of his late baby sister.

I have many siblings that I love dearly and I cannot begin to imagine how I would cope with losing a single one of them. I only realized now how much comfort and joy my maternal uncle derives from seeing me and from having some ‘tangible, living, breathing, walking and talking’ reminder of his late baby sister.

Yet I had discounted all this in my self-obsessed immersion in grief.

I remember how my maternal grandfather died three months after he buried my mother (his last born child and his favorite too).

My maternal grandmother insisted that he had died of a broken heart. I had been skeptical at the time. For my maternal grandfather had one leg, the other had been amputated below the knee and for many years he limped on an iron stump that was very heavy. My father later bought him an artificial leg and he was able to wear both shoes which he enjoyed immensely.

I recall thinking that a man who had lost a leg was very strong, so strong that surely he could not die from sadness. But over the years, I grew to learn that my grandfather had suffered many things but never had he buried his own child until my mother’s death.

Now that I am a parent, I can begin to fully appreciate the impact of my mother’s death and the lives that were irrevocably changed the day she died.

My maternal grandmother spoke of how my grandfather simply lost the will to live, withdrawing from everyone and often preferring to not converse with anyone. Before he died they took him to the hospital where a nurse scolded them for troubling an old man because she said his blood pressure was so high it probably meant the family was stressing him.

It was not stress, it was soul-destroying grief… the kind of grief known to a parent who has to bury their child.

How I could have possibly imagined that my pain was unique, so extraordinary and so much more important than the pain of my grandfather and other family members is beyond me. In retrospect, I was too immature to have known better.

While they grieved with me and for themselves… my family had to make time to grieve specially for me – for the daughter who had lost a mother. And yet I could not step outside of my own anguish long enough to grieve for them and to acknowledge their loss – the brother who lost a baby sister, the father who lost a daughter, the husband who lost his wife and so on.

For a long time I viewed the death of my parents as something that happened exclusively to me. I bore the grief of losing them as an individual and solitary process, a pain that I felt and suffered alone. I was wrong in imagining that mine was the only pain that mattered because they had been MY parents.

It seemed to me back then that no one else was as hurt as I was…like no one else ‘could be’ or even ‘should be’ as hurt as me. Over the years I have come to appreciate and understand that my relatives lost two people they loved and cherished the day my parents each died. It is such an obvious thing to me now.

But I was so blind to it back then. Trying to elevate my pain and suffering and loss and grief above that of others. Trying to assert a more exclusive claim to the burden of grief as if others did not feel it as keenly. It shames me now to recall how self-centered I was.

This past holiday I realized what a comfort I am to my relatives…seeing me and talking to me gave them so much comfort and eased their pain. And I had withheld such comfort by being so distant and straying so far from them. I was chastised.

I am not the only one who lost someone the day my parents died. My paternal uncles lost a big brother who’d vigilantly watched over them all their lives. The youngest of my uncles was expecting his first child who was born less than a month later. It must have been such a bittersweet year for him.

I reckon it must still hurt to know that his big brother did not live to see his first child. In any event, my paternal uncle went on to name his first child after my dad. Now when I visit him, every day the name of my father is mentioned when we call his namesake. My uncle also gave his son a Venda name – Aifheli – which means something doesn’t end.

I asked him about it once and he said, he meant that memories do not end. The memories we have and carry of people we’ve loved and lost, they do not fade or end – we do not forget them. I have no doubt he was thinking of my father mostly when he named his first child.

Looking back now, it feels like I never fully appreciated the depth and texture of my paternal uncle’s grief.

How could I when I had been so busy elevating my pain above that of everyone else. So selfish of me.

It didn’t occur to me that other people were as hurt as I was by the death of my parents. I failed to consider that my parents were deeply loved by others and that their death changed other people’s lives forever.

I was not the only one who loved my parents and who mourned their passing on. Even though it seemed like everyone just carried on with their lives despite my parents’ death.

The fact that they could carry on with their lives after such a terrible blow had been dealt seemed to suggest that perhaps they had forgotten because perhaps they had not been as deeply wounded or affected as I was.

But now I know we can move on without forgetting, we can move on in many aspects of our lives but in other aspects we can stay stuck, stay grieving, stay hurting and stay remembering.

I learnt a lot over the holidays spending time with my relatives from both sides. Maybe because I was emotionally ready to learn and maybe because I was met with such breathtakingly fierce love that I found myself wondering why I never noticed.

I think it is because I felt lost without my parents and didn’t know how to claim or locate a place for myself within the family without them.

But going home was a therapeutic thing. Lots of painful memories relived and lots of tears and healing was gained.

Every now and then I think it is important to just go home.

Home where people know you as the child of so and so…. where your status and position and education and accomplishments don’t change who you are in the eyes of those who watched you as you grew up.

And when we lose the ones we love, we must never hesitate to draw comfort and strength from the pool of people who share in that loss.

Some glimpse into my parents can be found here —>

 Remember me…or maybe not (written when I forgot the anniversary of my mother’s death in 2010)

My father – A man of emotions (written in fond and bemused memory of my dad)

The day Mmawe followed me (written as a nostalgic recollection of my mother’s protectiveness)

Holding on…

I am a very good let-goer. I let things go. I let people go. I let relationships go. No matter how hard it is, I know how to loosen my grip on something by sheer force of will and I let go.

Because I have never had anything or anyone that hurt me that was worth holding on to. So I let go. Time and again.

Trying to introspect recently on why I stopped writing – really writing – I discovered that it’s because I write to let go and I write to heal and I write to make sense of each loss, each meaningless blow that life deals upon me.

I write to process pain, triumph, living, loving and losing.

But I finally found something I am unable to write away because I now have something I am afraid to let go of. It is not something really, I should say it is someone.

Someone who held the pieces of me together simply by existing. Just knowing he was there, tucked away in his office slaving away editing some story, fretting over deadlines and dispensing his own brand of commonsensical wisdom sufficed to make my world to go on merrily.

My uncle died this year.

I have been telling myself that I will work through the grief later… eventually… when I am ready to let go – I will write about him.

But the day never comes, the moment never presents itself because I don’t want the pain to lessen, I don’t want the blow to be cushioned, I don’t want the suffering to diminish, I don’t want the loss I feel to ease.

I don’t want him to vanish and become just another name in a long list of people that I have loved and lost.

I want to grieve for him every day, to carry the weight of his absence with me wherever I go because I am afraid that if I set it down, I might forget to pick it up again or life might fill my arms with so many other things that there will be no room to carry the memory of his departure.

So I stopped writing to keep remembering… to remember Paul Mambo.

To remember an uncle who loved me like a father, who was fiercely protective of me like a mother and who was so impossibly proud of me… I want to remember the lectures and the lessons; the petty arguments and the major fights; the tantrums I threw and which he tolerated; the joy that lit up his face when I set foot in his office the first day I returned from the UK and the hours of endless teasing over his “old-fashioned” ways.

I remember. And it hurts.

The kind of hurt that congeals your smile into a more pasty version of its former glory, the kind of hurt that makes you trip over your laughter and laces it with the edge of hysteria.

The last picture I took of my Uncle on 25 May 2013 when I'd been teasing him about his white hair and beard advising him to tint it black so he could retain some youthfulness... he, of course, resisted my recommendations. The last picture and the last time we spoke. If I had known it would be the last time... I would have remembered to tell him I love him and to thank him for making the woman I am.

The last picture I took of my Uncle on 25 May 2013 when I’d been teasing him about his white hair and advising him to tint it black so he could retain some youthfulness… he, of course, resisted my recommendations. The last picture and the last time we spoke. If I had known it would be the last time… I would have remembered to tell him I love him and to thank him for making the woman I am.

Holding on is so hard. One day, when I am ready – I will write about that man.

But today is not that day.

Today is another holding on, a little tighter, a little longer, a little harder and a little more desperately to the miserable “if onlys” which are all that remains of what once was.

I miss him.

Miss him selfishly, the kind of missing that makes you want to curl up in a ball and die too. No, today is not the day for letting go. It is not the day, so I will hold on because if I stop holding on, I am afraid that there shall be nothing left of him to mourn.

For memories are such fickle things, so prone to erasure, to distortion, to yellowing around the edges like the pages of a much perused book… so I hold on to the pain a little more because it is real and is the only tribute that seems worthy of the man I lost.

Sometimes, I try to remember what life was like at 2039hrs on Saturday the 20th of July a minute before that fateful text message was delivered to my phone simply stating the irrevocable: “Paul Mambo has died”

If I could have had the presence of mind to text back the only appropriate response would have been: “…and so have I.”

It’s been almost three months and I’m holding on even though life continues to unfold ahead of me, I refuse to step away from the edge of my grief for fear that life might sweep me away in its tide and wrench my pain out of my grip.

I’m just going to stand here. Cry a little more. Hold on a little longer. And die bit by bit… because I can’t seem to write myself back to wholeness. Not today.

An ode to those that broke us

I remarked the other day to some of my friends that we had to take a moment and toast all the men who had walked into our lives, walked all over us, trampled upon our hearts and then walked out on us.

I said each one of them had forced us to seek solace in our work, in the dreams we pursued and in the aspirations that we once might have chosen to forfeit.

If you’ve ever had someone rip out your heart, tear out your guts, shred your confidence and make you feel like you were walking around with excrement stuffed in your bra – then you are a good candidate for dream chasing.

Dream chasers are people whose dreams are better than the reality of their lives.

The harder your life is, the more susceptible you are to being a dreamer – fantasizing about how your life could be different and what you could do to make it so.

And sometimes we have idyllic childhoods, perfect family backgrounds and wonderful educational opportunities but then we end up falling in love with the wrong person.

And the wrong person is not necessarily some heartless devil but sometimes it is someone who is too selfish to give you up even when they know they cannot reciprocate the love you feel for them.

Someone once said that we are never as defenceless against suffering as when we love.

When you love someone you can’t defend yourself from them – you are entirely at their mercy. The tragedy is that too many people have little mercy to spare.

Show some mercy.

We often can’t help who we love and oftentimes it is hard to even explain why we love that particular person when there are perhaps other ‘better’ candidates who want to avail themselves to us.

The most fragile person is a person who’s in love and the strongest person alive is the person who’s loved – who holds in their palm the precious heart of another.

And the most dangerous person in the world is the one who knows they are loved but doesn’t give a damn about it.

When we love we are defenceless against suffering at the hands of the person upon whom we have bestowed our affections.

And one of the coping mechanisms of broken-hearted people, is to redirect their focus to other things that they have some semblance of control over – things they can exert their will upon.

Confronted with the merciless pain inflicted by someone that doesn’t love you anymore or that never loved you at all and finding yourself incapable of extricating your heart from them – you pour yourself into something else that can distract you.

And for some of the women I know, and myself as well – career and school and our talents and our ambitions and our dreams have afforded us the opportunity to rise again and move past the hurts we’ve suffered.

Career advancement, academic triumph, opportunities to travel and exploit our potential and talents may not undo the damage caused but they have inevitably made the pain count for something.

If indeed we had to suffer, then at least the product of that suffering should become something that will matter to us long after our wounds have healed.

So I said to some of my friends – as they celebrated the attainment of new milestones in their careers, in their academic pursuits and in opportunities to travel and explore the world – let’s pause and drink to the men whose cruelties pushed us to our limits, forced us out of our comfort zones and brought us face to face with our own raw potential.

Let’s say an ode to those who broke us because in picking up the pieces – we were able to build something meaningful out of the emotional devastation of loving the wrong person at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

Feelings are fragile…

This article first appeared in and was written for the Sunday News – a weekly newspaper based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

Feelings are fragile things; they get hurt even when they’re not supposed to. Even when the brain explains to them why they shouldn’t be hurt by a certain action or statement — they still curl up in pain and demand that some reparation be made.

Feelings are fragile things and they should never be left lying around for some random person to carelessly trip over them with some reckless word or deed.

Of course hurt feelings heal but they heal only to a certain extent, in fact, they heal only to the extent that you can guarantee that the same harm will not be inflicted again.

So when someone says sorry the brain has to convince our feelings that the apology is sincere and that the harm will not be repeated in future and that the remorse is genuine so that the emotional pain can subside.

But if you live with someone who never apologises for hurting your feelings, you begin to nurse a reservoir of pain and build a wall around your emotions with layers upon layers of resentment because feelings are fragile things.

I think the only thing worse than a person who never apologises when they’ve hurt your feelings is a person who apologises but doesn’t change his/her behaviour.

It is the apology without repentance that wounds the heart because it says that your feelings are inconsequential.

And many married women live with this kind of emotional torment every single day — pasting smiles on their faces to mask festering wounds in their souls.

I know this is true because of the many married men who have small houses and have no intention whatsoever of ever being faithful to their wives or even bothering to respect their marriage.

Feelings are fragile things and too many women live with men who just don’t care about the hurt they cause.

If the prevalence of small houses has taught us nothing, it has at the very least demonstrated that there is an abundance of unrepentant husbands prowling our streets and by extension there are too many wounded wives living in despair.

When someone hurts you, I think there are usually two options — you either fight or flee but when you’re married fleeing is a very frowned upon course of action and fighting is never recommended (because you have a physical disadvantage in that regard).

So married women are told to hold their tongue when their feelings are hurt, apparently keeping silent is the best foolproof marital elixir.

I doubt that pretending something doesn’t hurt and bottling up one’s feelings makes things better but I am open to being persuaded (since I don’t know it all) as to how having someone hurt your feelings and suffering in silence is supposed to make things better.

How does anyone decide that it’s okay for someone to trample all over your feelings, constantly humiliate you and be an endless source of pain to you?

There are many things I find to be outrageous but none of them is as outrageous as the idea that our lives are not within the ambit of our own control.

My soul limps… now

I go through the days with a firm resolve and the same goal that pulled me back from the edge of that precipice now propels me forward.

But it is never an easy thing to drag anyone away from the carcasses of their hopes and the mortuary of dreams. It is not enough to say to the soul, “look here, it is dead. Let it go.”

The soul will not have it. It will not be reasoned with. Because wherever a person’s heart ventures – the soul plants its roots and calls it home. And you were my home.

You were home.

In the aloneness of this solitude I have no one to put up pretence for. But some habits must have somehow snuck into the tightly packed luggage I brought with me. Even though I am surrounded by strangers, I still pretend I am fine – as if they could tell the difference.

Some things are hard to live behind.

They are too burrowed deeply into the survival kit of our psyche. And they are forged by seasons of hardship, of pain and of life’s endless unknowable and unshareable sorrows.

Home is not a place. It is not a thing or an object. Home is a person. If you’re lucky it’s many people but for most of us – it’s usually just one person.

And even if the home goes up in flames the soul lingers round it like some crazed phantom refusing to believe that all is lost. The soul is too stubborn to be reasoned with.

It will keep you there. In the rubbles of the past, driving you mad with its frenzied desire to go through the rubble attempting to find something salvageable.

There is nothing left. It is all gone. And in the end you have to be okay with the fact that it’s gone. But your soul wants to go home to a home that no longer exists.

You show it pictures of the devastation. You show it the witness reports your heart has compiled over the years – detailing every pain sustained, every hurt inflicted and every self-demeaning act of retaliation.

Your mind weighs in – with minty fresh memories of disasters endured, of laughter that got extinguished and soul deep agonies to which the defenceless body curled up through long nights.

You want to tell the soul, “let’s go.” And it won’t budge. It won’t.

Like the desperate futility of holding on to the corpse of a cherished one, the soul wants to stay here.

Wants to try and nourish these drought-hardened soils. Wants to sacrifice itself by making manure out of its roots to fertilize the ground again… perchance something may spring up again.

You tell it “no. We have tried it all. It’s over. Let’s go. Please.”

And in the end you are left with no choice. You must go. This is no longer home. It hasn’t been for a very long time. You must go.

And so you wait until your soul takes a nap, lift it gently and tenderly; try to carefully uproot it from the ground and realize you can’t – it’s too deeply rooted.

If you don’t hurry, your soul will awake and keep begging you, “let’s try one last time. Please. Just one last time.”

But you know that one-last-time would be a waste of last times. You know the reserves containing your one-last-times have become depleted. You know you spent them on this very space and you are running out of one-last-times to spare.

You cannot try it one-last-time.

You are looking at the flatline on the screen, telling you that there is nothing left to resuscitate – that the dreams which once thrived have shrivelled and died. That the hopes which were on life support slipped into a coma and did not survive the wounds inflicted by sterilized loss.

Sterilized loss is a silent killer; a grief denied gains potency with time. Grief is a messy business but sterilizing it only pushes it deeper into our souls. By denying it an outlet – it becomes at home in our hearts – tiny slivers of unacknowledged pain.

We die from tiny defeats, from small let downs and from tiny flesh wounds…it is not their tininess that matters – it is their multitude – death by a thousand paper cuts is still a death.

Your soul is starting to stir and you know the nap will soon be over. You must go. And if you cannot convince your soul then you must just take it with you by force. There is nothing to stay here for.

So you grab it. Grab your reluctant soul and realize the roots are still tied to this ground. Your soul wakes up in alarm and demands to know where you’re taking it, why you don’t want to try one-last-time. You are done talking.

You tell your soul it is time to go. Go before you die in this mass grave containing all the dead dreams and hopes of the past.

Your soul says it will go but there’s a price, “Leave something behind. Leave a piece of me here. This used to be home. Something must be left behind. This used to be home.”

And so I carried my soul out of there, stumbled out into the open of a new day and am blinded by the brightness of future prospects.

“Put me down”, says my soul, “I can walk from here”.

I put it down and begin to walk, thinking that it was right by my side… but a few steps and I realize something is wrong.

I turn back to see my soul following with a limp, “what did you do?” I ask in distress.

And my soul says, “I left something behind. So that I could remember the home that once was. If I could not save it, then let me at least remember. It used to be home. It used to matter.”

Now I understand why my soul limps and why my smile curves into a sad tilt and why my laughter goes out of tune sometimes… ringing in a high falsetto.

You used to be home. You used to matter. And my soul limps to honour that.

I wished I was a racist…

On Saturday, I went to the Cape Coast Castle to tour the place where slaves had been kept before being shipped off to lands unknown during the slave trade. I recall being excited by the prospect of finally seeing the remnants of what was to me nothing more than a story. I had no idea that by the end of the day I would be churning with hatred and a whole cocktail of murderous feelings.

..a miniature model of the idyllic setting of slavery's horror

If the walls could talk, they would no doubt lament to this day the brutality and inhumane atrocities that were committed within that castle… and yet from a distance it looks so tranquil, so inviting and indeed so picturesque.

We toured the castle… visiting the dungeons that once held men captive. Big gaping holes dug into the earth where human beings were tossed in to wait for three months in order to voyage into lifelong servitude, suffering and indignity.

My skin crawled as I stood in that dark cave, stuffy and mouldy, listening to the endless drone of the tour guide who spoke as impassionately as one who had grown accustomed to telling a tale so tragic and horrific that he did not need any theatrics to make his audience understand the hell that our ancestors went through.

It was the size of a tiny room, this cave-like dungeon, built to accommodate 150 men but later accommodated as many as 300 men. Men who did not see the sunlight, the sky or feel the breeze on their skin for three months as they awaited ships. Men who slept together, urinated and defecated on one another, whose excrement piled and rose to mar the walls of their prison.

Men whose stench, sweat and fear fouled the air. Men who lost their dignity and freedom to the whims of a white man. And the high roofs of the dungeons captured their odours and bore mute testimony to their dehumanization. When it rained, the waters seeped in through and turned the excrement into a soggy mash of filth – men lay in it and some died in it.

Even now, I do not understand how a human being can treat another human being so callously. How? It does not make sense to me and it feels me with rage, with hatred and yes I admit, with the thought of vengeance.

But the tour continued, to the female dungeons… to where the women were kept also for three months in the most cramped little burrow in the earth. They too, like the men, had to pee where they stood, defecate where they slept and watch in humiliation as their menstrual blood flowed down their legs. And those who had children kept them in there… in that hell hole to share the nightmare of losing their freedom.

The women were bathed… only when they were picked out by the soldiers and the officials – picked out to be raped and have their bodies plundered ruthlessly. And those who refused, were placed in solitary confinement…in the tinniest shelf of a hole until they gave in; until they surrendered and until they quit fighting.

And above these dungeons, sat the irony of white hypocrisy – the missionaries’ chapel where they sought an audience with God while their hands dripped with blood and their crotches flaked with the blood of torn hymens.

I wished I was a racist – so I could HATE. Hate with abandon, allow the madness to consume me and embrace the poison of bitterness so I could just walk over to the nearest European tourist and mercilessly, unrepentantly stab them through the heart.

I wished I was a racist so that the powerlessness I felt could have been translated into some action, into some cruelty of unimaginable proportions – so that I could have the satisfaction of avenging those who had so needlessly died and so needlessly suffered.

But I am not a racist, I have been tutored in the Queen’s language to know that hate is barbaric and it’s bad enough that I have a black skin without allowing my soul to become as black as my posterior.

I felt it. This agonizing stab of pain, felt the tears well up in my eyes and heard the thudding of my breaking heart as I retraced the steps, taken centuries ago by my ancestors and I wished so very hard that I was a racist.

I wished it, I will not lie.

Wished to grab every white person in the vicinity and drive them out – and tell them they had no right to be there. To be desecrating the shrine of our forefathers’ gravesites. I wanted to ask them why, why they returned to the scene of their ancestors’ most heinous crimes. I wanted to scream at them, to rant and rave and tell them how dare they, how dare they soil this place with their presence – to look on with curious faces and inscrutable expressions at the hell holes that once held our kin captive.

...the door of no return

I will not lie. I wished I was a racist. Wished I had a gun and the mind of a lunatic to go on a rampage and not fear the reprisals. To gun down every person who was not of my skin colour, to bash their head in with the barrel, crack their ribs with a vicious kick and pummel them to death.

As we retraced the steps they took, past the door of no return – it hit me just how much those men and women had lost just by walking through a door. They lost their identity, they lost their freedom, they lost their dignity, they lost their language, they lost their roots, they lost their family, their homes, their friends and they lost every shred of who they were and of what they had once owned.

...a vow made... a vow that must be kept

I will visit the Cape Castle again. Because I owe it to them to remember and not forget. For even though the experience does nothing but grate at my innards – I have no business forgetting what it means to be a child of Africa, and the struggles of being a woman of color.