“He called me a kaffir”

We all have moments in our lives that define us. For me, these moments happen quite unexpectedly and without ceremony. Like when I first learned to swim in the ocean; a great beast of a wave became untethered, tearing a path towards me, its great white bubbling peak grew greedy, desperate. I was too inexperienced to avoid the beast as it pounced and collapsed on my chest, giant paws of pressure shoving me beneath the surface. I felt myself, arms and legs flung out wide, sinking towards the rough sand, paralysed in the moment. The beast toyed with me for a moment, tossing sand in my face, and then in an instant, I was released. Breaking the surface, the taste of the ocean in my mouth, something became very clear to me; I would survive in the ocean only if I respected it. Much later in life, the ocean would teach me a far less serious but important lesson (rough seas should never be paired with a bikini) but we’ll leave that for another blog.

Many moments, some happy, some sad, passed before I arrived at my teenage years (arrogant beyond my years, with daddy issues neatly filed too closely to my criteria for a boyfriend). In an overly dramatic fashion, one such moment would change me irrevocably. It was a mild afternoon, a respite from the stifling stickiness of a typical Durban summer, and I stood having a banal discussion with a boy so poorly suited to me that I decided to date him. A classmate of his walked over to us, his long legs moving with slow deliberation, and said without introduction “He called me a kaffir”. My voice caught in my throat and there was an unnatural stillness in the air, as if for a moment all that existed were the three of us. Let me not spin this story as though the callous word had never slipped through my lips, as though my ignorant and bigoted words have never harmed. Forgive me a moment as I tuck the thoughts of my jaundiced actions back into the memory reel that will plague me tonight. What I had never heard before was a black person using the word “kaffir”. What I had never seen before was the hurt it could cause. There he stood, shoulders stooped, voice thick with emotion and I felt as though I had caused his pain. I felt as though I had spoken those words to him, I felt like I had broken him. I had never before considered how parasitic words could be, and this word in particular, latched on to the receiver, fattening itself of pain and anger. What a terrible thing to deal with this parasite, even those who purveyed it could not escape the sickening barb lodged deep within their prejudice. I had dealt with it, serving myself through its dispensation, and in that moment, I hated myself. I could hear a mirror crack, I could see shards fall to the floor and I knew that if I were to look into it, my reflection would be ugly, disfigured.

I wish had a neat bow to tie up this post and my thoughts. I wish I could tell you that I have repaired that mirror, that it now shines from lessons learnt but no matter how much I buff it or try to put back the pieces, it refuses to be mended. Sometimes I move slightly so that the crack is no longer in my view, sometimes it is all I see. Either way, it is there, a constant reminder of who I do not want to be.

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