I cannot recall if I was born Xhosa, but I am as certain of the ‘fact’ that the first words to escape my mouth were in isiXhosa, as I am certain of my knowledge of where the sun goes when it sets. In my understanding, I believe language is given to us, we are born with the capacity to acquire language and in this acquisition we discover ourselves. We discover the world. But perhaps most importantly, it is through language that we realise our position in the large context of the world and in turn truly begin to live and define our lives and desires. However, this is according to my understanding based on my experience with language.
As I was saying, I cannot recall if I was born Xhosa but I do remember my first attempt at understanding what being Xhosa meant. I must have been no older than five years, I decided that being Xhosa meant not being Zulu. Strange? Well, as a toddler I lived in rural Eastern Cape, in a village called Xhorane, with my grandmother – a woman so deeply immersed in Xhosa traditions that she could not and would not appreciate a woman who wore pants and could not cook. So as it was, I spoke ‘rural Xhosa’. A Xhosa dialect that depends on idioms and proverbs heavily influenced by Xhosa traditions and culture. “Indoda yinxhle ngenkomo zayo,” I’d say to my brother if he spent a minute longer than he should in front of the mirror – the wisdom of the language never did quite fit. At the age of four I relocated from Eastern Cape to Durban and left my unconscious interaction with language behind. I sounded different as a child in Durban. Different from my ‘model-C’ school attending brother, different from my educated KZN residing mother and completely different from all my isiZulu speaking friends and neighbours. I addressed my neighbours as “Nkosazana” and “Mhlekazi,” and spoke of clan names nokuzingca komntu. I suppose this was when I met myself for the first time, I was different even though I did not want to be. And so I began fighting myself.
IsiZulu became the next language I would acquire. IsiZulu was not given to me, I was active in claiming it. I quickly understood that language allowed me to belong. When I spoke isiZulu I was not an inside stranger, or “Cebo’s sister who speaks isiXhosa and does not understand English.” I simply became Nonkululeko. So, I took to the language with confidence, if isiXhosa made me ‘exotic’ than isiZulu meant I was normal, and as a child in a foreign land, being normal was a top priority. I was like a growing snake shedding its old skin to make room for the growth but more importantly, to get rid of the parasites that had attached themselves to the old skin. I met my now best friend in isiZulu, I walked to her house, as a cheeky six year old, told her to come play with me at my house or no one would ever play with her simply because I said so. In isiZulu, I learnt how to intimidate the younger children in the neighbourhood, to me it was either one was doing the intimidating or being intimidated. I understood the politics of survival as being black or white, black being dominant and ‘loud’ so I was loud; and I was dominant. I became a bad leader in isiZulu. I was aggressive in my approach and did not appreciate any expectations of passive behaviour. In hind sight, I think I scared my soft spoken; modest mother into enrolling me to a ‘White’; Catholic primary school – where, again, I noted my difference. Aside from being the only African girl in my class, I was the only African student with an accent. I spoke English as though I was speaking isiZulu, pronouncing every letter, and like a true ‘Durbanite’, never failing to drag the last syllable of every word. “Good Morning Miss” became, “Good Morniiingy Missss” and “well done” was, “weelly done’y”. I stood out like a sore thumb and it was painful. By the time I turned ten my demeanor had rotated itself by 180 degrees, I became soft spoken – if I spoke at all. And we moved again. The house we moved into was bigger, the roads were cleaner, local parks were better equipped. It felt as though everything around me was intensifying into itself and becoming better, yet no matter how much I read I could not seem to control the way my words sounded after they left my mouth. Now, I spoke English but not like my brother or the other children in school. So I began imitating, I picked up the accent of whoever I was trying to impress at that given moment. I learnt how to sound ‘white’ and how to sound like a girl from the suburbs. Ultimately I gave up my scales as a bad leader and became an impeccable follower.
Water snakes know that they are snakes, they do not play with fish and are well aware of their gravitating need to resurface for air. As my command for the English language grew, confidence disappeared, somehow I began fading into the masses. My mother, who was an educator was sensitive towards the nature of children and during our conversations about my out-of-step character she would sigh, look at me as though I had not been sitting in front of her until that moment and say, “You are an, optimistic. Individual.” The calm in her voice told me this was truth, I need not dispute it. I just needed to understand it.
By the time I reached my early teenage years my life had split itself into three subdivisions according to the languages I spoke. I was no longer Xhosa. No. Not even to myself. I was Zulu to my childhood friends, whom I saw only on Sundays; “umXhosa ongum’Zulu” to my extended family, who lived in Eastern Cape – who were never impressed by multilingual abilities. And when both languages failed me, they did fail me. English was my escape. Each language had its purpose. In isiXhosa I respected my elders and loved my family. I prayed in isiXhosa, ‘Uyehova Ngumalusi Wam’ (Psalms 23) was a pivotal part of my night routine. In the mornings I was woken up in isiZulu, “Vuka! Sheshisa mfethu, yin vele wena nes’khathi,” my brother complained every morning. IsiZulu was reserved to express aggression peppered with a pitch of disrespect. My sass was nurtured in isiZulu; and in English I was a brilliant scholar and poet – confused and insecure, English was the barrow where I licked my wounds. See, though I was fluent in all three languages the knowledge of the three languages co-existing on my tongue was an isolating fact. At some point the rules of each language blurred, too often I would speak a language and apply the laws of another. I spoke isiXhosa with a Zulu accent, so said my extended family. I understood the laws of singular and plural in isiXhosa, amehlo became imehlo in its singular form which was enough ground for me to be slaughtered by my isiZulu speaking mates (the correct word is ‘iso’). Straddling the tension between these languages was a daunting tasking, too often it meant I was rejected by the people I held dearest. The growing girl in me had no idea where she belonged. Xhosa people are in Eastern Cape, so KZN was not my home. Xhosa people were in Eastern Cape, “ungum’Xhosa onjani ohlala Kwa Zulu?” And so dawned my permanent retreat into the English language.
Nonkululeko, this is my name. It means independence. The prefix at the beginning changes Nkululeko, which means freedom, into Nonkululeko – Independence. I was told I was born free, free from any force that could interrupt my flow with my life source and that to stay true to this I had to understand my existence as an independent soul. My simple interpretation, I was born to be alone. This became the life line that carried me through the treacherous years of my late teenage-hood. I seasoned out most of my friends, lived in my room and spent family vacations in between the covers of novels. I spoke only to whom I needed to speak to, only when I had to and only in English. And so passed high school and my first year as a law student in UKZN. At this point I had abandoned the crowds, and regarded the leader in me with indifference. Spoken language made me a target of social scrutiny, so inscribed language took to me like an invisibility cloak. I lost all interest in social relationships, I hated not being heard or my vocabulary not being understood, but most of all I hated being silent. It was not talking that I missed, no, not at all. I understood the power of silence, it is when the mouth is closed that the mind gets to thinking. In my silence I became my mother’s daughter – quiet, careful, polite and brave. I loved being my mother’s daughter, but I missed being seen. “Yo, awuthule Nonkululeko ndiyakulibala noba ukho,” was a line that completed every family gathering. So, I dropped out of law school, packed a backpack and left home with a single pair of shoes – the ones I wore the day I left. I left everything else behind, I left isiZulu, I left my family with their Xhosa, and I left behind the little Afrikaans I picked up in high school during those long Afrikaans periods I spent sitting alone at the back of the classroom defiantly eating popcorn. I left.
Comfort is a dangerous thing, it is in comfort that we make our most important mistakes. In comfort I forgot to appreciate my individuality, I saw my difference as a burden. I allowed my perspective to be defined by what I regarded as familiar and my misguided need to be a part of what is familiar. Alone, in cities I had never seen before, I learnt about the beauty of the Nguni languages. Though I had hardly been exposed to Sesotho I took to the language with great ease. The similarities in the African cultures extends to the languages which carry the cultures. So in Pretoria I gave up trying to perfect the languages I spoke and just spoke them. In turn I began listening to others, I found wonders in silencing the inner critic. In Swaziland I saw the beauty of two cultures merging and in Port Elizabeth I began to value the Xhosa culture. There was warmth in easing my subconscious, shrinking an ego just enough to acknowledge that I could not be the only one of my kind. I met Xabisa, a Xhosa girl who was born in Botswana but grew up in Johannesburg. I met Xabi – her nickname, in East London. Xabi had a brother, Qhamani. He was, about 20 centi-meres taller than I am – but appeared taller due to his athletic built; charismatic; and charming. When Qhamani spoke, ears wanted to listen. And as though he understood the effect he had, Qhamani was always engaged in intriguing conversations. Perhaps it was my attraction to him, or the reason I was I attracted to him. Nonetheless, I enjoyed listening to him tell me about how I needed to learn to be Xhosa. I was not offended by his unwitting assumptions that he understood me better than I did myself. I listened to him tell me that I needed to learn more about the Xhosa culture. He spoke of language being the vessel for culture but not the definition of a culture. To him culture existed and therefore language is formed. “Learn the culture and you will enjoy the language,” he said to me one afternoon after picking Xabi and I up from work. Though he saw the earth a year before I did, his wisdom; confidence and fondness of the Xhosa culture seemed characteristics of a person older than himself. I had my first serious relationship in isiXhosa and suffered my first heartbreak in English. Bruised, but bolder I bought myself a new pair of shoes and moved to Western Cape. I found myself a job in Cape Town. I worked in a gift store, and it was here that I realised that though I sat at the back of my Afrikaans classroom I was always closer than I thought. As a sales assistant I sold birthday gifts, wedding gifts and all sorts of gifts in Afrikaans. Or at very least, I listened to the instructions in Afrikaans and handed the customer their change in English. My voice sounded louder in my ears. My voice had returned with a calm loudness that suited me like a misplaced glove that recently revealed itself – gracious and snug.
I speak fluently in three languages (isiXhosa, isiZulu and English), I can survive in five languages (including Sesotho and Afrikaans), and I can listen to the radio in six languages (including Setswana). The tree I hail from is deeply rooted in the Xhosa culture and the first words to leave my mouth so happened to be in isiXhosa. Someday I hope to be a Xhosa woman – like my mother, proud and unapologetic in my existence. Now? Now, I know I never want to live in one place for too long – 15 years was to long.
-written by Nonkululeko Gwangqa