My anger got me into trouble, barely two weeks into the school year. I initially wanted to hurl Helao Hamutenya across the soccer field, but I weighed considerably less than he did, physics, inertia and what not, so I settled for bloodying his nose. My mother’s explanation: I got my temper from my father, it was my father’s genes that muddied my blood.
“Fighting is Haitange thems family gift. You didn’t get it from me, we don’t do that, it is not ours.”
This is the leading line in the story about how she discovered that my father came from a long line of men who have rage boiling inside them. She had been married three days, my father’s great grandmother summoned her, she wanted to see her. The old lady was blind, so she urged my mother to come closer. “Let me see you,” she said. The old lady put her hands on my mother’s face. “Uhm,” she said. “Newlywed, huh? Not a single scar on your face.”
It was my father’s fault that I acted out of character—my mother blamed my father for any undesirable trait that I exhibited. I found it strange how people who lash others with their words were always trying to make themselves look like the lesser of two evils. My father left us three years ago, he found a younger woman and remarried. I’d seen it coming, the love in our house had long ago died, it no longer felt like a home.
I received a one-week suspension from school. Helao’s father wanted my head, but the principal, Mr. Uugwanga, calmed him down—they were old friends—overemphasizing my importance to the soccer team, both had captained the team in their youth. I presented a heartfelt apology written by my friend Sade, and Hamutenya Senior relented. Helao’s mother wasn’t so easily pacified. Sophia Hamutenya called me a danger to her son in the same aggressive tone she uses in her ministerial speeches. My mother’s response vindicated Sophia’s view of me. When my mother heard what Helao had said to push me over the edge, she didn’t bite her tongue, defending me with the ferocity of a lioness whose cub is threatened. While I sat outside the office reading a news article about a virus in China, all of the parents (my father didn’t attend the meeting)
agreed that counseling was an appropriate punishment, a whole year’s worth. I took the sentence because it meant that I could keep my spot on the soccer team on the condition that I ceded captaincy. I returned to Saint Conrad Catholic School after seven arduous days at home. Most of those days were peaceful yet mundane until my mother got home from work. I didn’t attend St Conrad’s by choice, I was compelled by legacy, my parents were both alumni.
The group counselling sessions took place in the gym fortnightly, on Tuesday mornings. I found my friend seated amidst a circle of chairs; she asked what I was in for—this wasn’t the first time that Sade Gawanas and I had served time together—we were primary school detention buddies constantly for incomplete homework. I balled my hands into fists and did my best Incredible Hulk impersonation. She nodded and laughed.
“What are you in for?” I asked.
“Perpetual sadness,” she replied.
That’s what she called her depression, how she simplified it. Sade had a misunderstood sense of humor; she was misunderstood in general. She sat behind me in every class since we were in kindergarten. So, I knew intimately that the same Sade that gave the warmest hugs, was the same one who’d tell you to go fuck yourself when she was infuriated. The same Sade whose smile brightened days of excessive ennui, was the same one who burst into a puddle of tears at the slightest touch or movement when her mind and soul wandered off into another universe. The same Sade that exudes a lust for life in the morning, is the same Sade that will question its purpose in the afternoon.
We engaged in banal conversation—the weather, undone homework, our mothers (I avoided any topics that required me to reveal the parts of myself that I kept concealed from her)—until Mr Tumisiime arrived. Damba Tumisiime was bespectacled, oval shaped glasses framing his face. He had a greying beard, untrimmed, wore a plaid blazer, and wore loafers with socks. When he introduced himself, he spoke with an accent, nothing I’d heard before. I asked if we could call him Mr. T. He denied the request. He wasn’t a teacher; he was a psychologist.
He went through roll call. We were missing Nelson Muteka—no surprise there. Life has three sureties: taxes, death, and Nelson Muteka arriving late carrying his special flask in hand. He was never on time for any soccer team training sessions; the coach tolerated him for three reasons: money—the Muteka’s had the net worth of a small tropical island; legacy—his father went to Saint Conrad; and his cat-like reflexes. Nelson was an excellent goalkeeper; a soccer ball could be travelling at the speed of sound and he would catch it.
Mr. Tumisiime gave a long philosophical talk about pain and how to cope with it, and then he asked if there was anything we wanted to share. Neither Sade or I shared. Nelson showed up looking disheveled a minute later. Mr. Tumisiime read two poems by Virginia Woolf, and then we left. This became habitude.
News about the Covid-19 virus became more concerning by the week.
The week he read work by Vladimir Mayakovsky.
–The WHO declared the outbreak of Covid-19 a public health emergency of international standards.
The week he read work by Sylvia Plath.
–The first case of Covid-19 was reported in America
The week he read work by Ingrid Jonker.
–The first case of Covid-19 was reported in Egypt.
The week he read work by Anne Sexton.
–The first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Namibia.
That day, Nelson lost it during group session.
“What are you trying to tell us?” Nelson took a swig from his flask, leaning forward in his chair.
“I am simply doing my job.” Mr. Tumisiime replied.
“Am I the only one who noticed that all these poets are dead?” Nelson turned to look at Sade and me. He was right, and they had all died by suicide. I’d googled all of them; one article called it the “Curse of Brilliance.”
“You’re looking at it the wrong way. They were very expressive of their pain. They put it into their art,” Sade said. “What most take to the grave, Sylvia Plath put into her poetry.”
I agreed with her.
Nelson looked annoyed—his face scrunched, his brow folded into itself. “This is a waste of time. This is not what I pay school fees for.”
While his gaze was fixed on Mr. Tumisiime, I grabbed his flask.
“You really need to ease off this stuff.”
“And you need to check your fucking daddy issues. Maybe then Helao wouldn’t get in your head so easily.”
I was not going to let it slide. “That’s rich coming from you. At least I have a father.”
It was only after I’d uttered the words that I realized their gravity, but it was too late. Nelson’s dad had passed away the previous year.
“Give it back,” Nelson demanded.
I refused, holding it out of reach.
Mr. Tumisiime cleared his throat and gave me a stern warning, and then scribbled something in his notebook—probably another blot on my disciplinary record. He took the flask out of my hand, shook it, then took a sniff.
“This is just coffee.”
I reached for the flask, twisted it in the middle, and then gave it back to him. Nelson’s flasks had two compartments, twisting the middle changed which liquid the drinking sprout could access.
“This one isn’t coffee!” Mr. Tumisiime shook his head.
“We all cut ourselves. It’s just that not all of us use blades,” I replied.
Sade pulled at the sleeves under her school shirt. In grade 7, she’d started cutting herself. When I first noticed the scars on the inside of her arm, she said a kitchen accident was the cause. Sade started wearing long sleeves under her school shirt the next day.
“Listen ne, don’t go around the corner if you’re coming to fetch me. Just say it with your chest!” The gravity of words. She had assumed that I’d come for her.
Nelson stared me down and then sat back in his chair. He knew that I had come for him.
Mr. Tumisiime wrote something in his notebook and then asked Nelson to come with him. They walked to the other side of the gym, where they talked animatedly, but none of it reached our ears. Nelson shook his head and crossed his arms. We knew a lecture was being given because Mr. Tumisiime pointed his finger at Nelson while he spoke, and then he crossed his hands over twice. It was similar to the gesture in soccer that referees give players to signal a final warning.
Nelson walked back to us, slumped down in his seat, and then notified us that we had also been summoned. We walked over to Mr. Tumisiime.
“Who else knows about this?” Mr. Tumisiime waved the flask at us.
Sade shrugged. “I didn’t know.” She shot an eye at me. “What else you hiding from me bra?”
“I don’t hide things from you. There are just some things you’re better off not knowing.”
“How does he mask the alcohol? How come I couldn’t smell it?” Mr. Tumisiime asked us.
We responded with silence. He threatened us with complicity. We would go down with Nelson. Sade and I looked at each other; she threw her hands up, trying to remove herself from the situation. I wasn’t about to take the fall for Nelson Muteka. Never.
“Garlic, and bubblegum. And only the coach and I know about it.”
Mr. Tumisiime wrote it down in his notebook.
Nelson had started drinking after his father died, especially before games. The coach was the first to smell it. He suggested food with lots of garlic and chewing mint bubble gum to hide the smell. Liquid courage had become the only way Nelson could remain calm on the field.
“This has been a fascinating session,” Mr. Tumisiime said, when we were all seated in a circle again. “I feel that I know you all a bit better now. I think you guys can even start calling me Mr. T.” He laughed but none of us joined in. “Our time is up. I’m hoping you’ll share like this in the next session.”
The next session never happened. Namibia went into a complete lockdown the very next day.
Being confined at home for eight weeks had pushed me from one Tik-Tok dance challenge to another, but the novelty had worn off. The premier league was on hiatus, the NBA was on an indefinite pause, boredom was slowly suffocating me. There was very little distraction. The streets of Windhoek suburbia had never been quieter, so I poured over news articles about how the Covid-19 virus had ground the world to a halt, and a stream of WhatsApp chain messages claiming that it was about to end. To make matters worse, online learning was in its fourth week and I was trying to submit an English essay when I discovered that the Wi-Fi wasn’t working. When I told my mother, she pretended like she hadn’t heard me. I repeated myself and she handed me her phone.
“I have data, so send from here.”
We were out of bread, milk, and butter. It also seemed to fly past her when I mentioned it. I’d opened my mouth to repeat myself when she replied.
“The shops were out when I went yesterday. I was told the trucks got stuck at the South African border. They said they’d probably have some tomorrow.”
The next day, I tried logging into the online classroom, but it failed. After the third attempt, I called the school IT technician and he referred me to admin. Admin didn’t mince words, I was suspended because my fees were in arrears. When I told my mother, she brushed it off, assuring me that the fees would be settled the next day.
“Are we okay?” I asked.
“What makes you think that things aren’t ok? Everything is fine,” she said in that dismissive tone parents use to distract kids from noticing that the center cannot hold.
“Why are you lying to me?”
“What makes you think I’m lying? I’m telling you the truth.”
When my mother lies, she defaults to answering a question with a question.
“Like you were telling the truth about dad?”
“Those were things you didn’t need to know.”
“Mom, those were things I already knew.”
My father cheated before he and my mother divorced. He was very careless with his philandering. The first time I found out, I’d come home early from school and found him in bed with another woman. The image was seared into my mind for months: the audacity of the man to cheat in my mother’s house was only surpassed by his ability to conscript me into covering for him; he bribed me with a trip to the coast—a father and son fishing trip. I kept his secret, but my mother eventually caught him. That was the nail that shut the coffin on their marriage. My mother used this to negotiate in the divorce, my father got his freedom and in exchange we got a comfortable lifestyle.
The next morning, we woke to no electricity; the power company had plunged us into darkness. My mother came clean, said she’d been retrenched from work a week after lockdown; tourism was virtually dead and the hotel she worked for didn’t need her as a chef anymore. This little virus had stopped our world. We both knew what had to be done so things wouldn’t completely fall apart. She reluctantly called my father.
A week later, I was sitting on my bed, a semblance of normalcy having resumed: there was food in the fridge, the lights were back on, and my mother had started cooking again. She started a lunch service delivering to clients. She called it “Queen of a Small House.” My father had sent us both the same text message: if we needed anything else, we should let him know. I checked the country code from which he’d sent the message and saw that he was in Dubai.
I was still suspended from school, so I busied myself by making friends with the shadows on my bedroom wall. My phone beeped from somewhere under my blankets. It was a text message from Sade.
Sade: Hi. You’ve been MIA.
Long story, things have been rough. Tough times are lasting.
Sade: Are you okay bra?
Nope. I’m not okay.
Sade: Sometimes, not okay is fine, perfectly normal.
How long is not okay supposed to last?
Sade: Nothing lasts forever. Even amidst fierce flames. The golden lotus can be planted.
Ted and Sylvia. Bad romance.
Sade: Check your WhatsApp.
I can’t, no data.
My phone beeped. Sade had sent me data.
I checked my chats, a billion messages blinked at me. I prioritized. Sade had taken a screenshot of my last text and responded with an emoji—a laughing, shocked monkey. I had also been added to a chat group. The Dead Poets Society. Nelson, Mr. Tumisiime, and Sade were all online. Mr. Tumisiime started a video call.
Sade was in her kitchen, still in her pajamas. Mr. Tumisiime was at a desk; his beard had turned into a bush. Nelson’s camera was off and his microphone was muted.
“Can you hear me?” I asked.
They both waved.
“You’ve been quiet,” Mr. Tumisiime said.
I explained my situation to him. He was sympathetic. Sade was busy chugging from a bowl on the kitchen counter.
“How have you been? All of you.” Mr. Tumisiime asked.
“Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another one of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time.” I was starting the next verse when a laugh came booming into the call.
“Not you quoting Virginia Woolf, what’s next? Are you going to start playing Nirvana songs?” Nelson had been there the whole time.
“Say less,” Sade said. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started playing in her kitchen.
Mr. Tumisiime talked to us about lockdown fatigue, and remote learning coping mechanisms. We listened but mostly talked to each other in between his pauses. It had been nine weeks since I’d had contact with Nelson and Sade. I actually missed them, the awkwardness, the silences, the bickering.
Our afternoon video call became the new routine. After I was added back to the online learning system and buried under three weeks of missed work, it became the highlight of my day. Under the weight of quizzes, typed essays, live presentations, and the odd occasion where our archaic mathematics teacher Mr. Viljoen gave us tests that needed to be written on paper, photographed, uploaded, and then submitted online: it became my reward for making it through the day. An hour or so of actual human contact besides my mother and the supermarket tellers; it was as close to normal as I could get. Misery loves company, so we shared the stress, the anxiety, the depressing reality of navigating school during a pandemic, a pandemic that seemed like it might never end.
Six weeks later we were back in school for the first time in three and a half months. Things were back to as normal as they could be. The new normal was strange. It even smelled strange. Nelson said sanitizer reminded him of bottom-shelf vodka. It looked strange: half a person’s face hidden behind a mask. I couldn’t remember what half the people in my classes looked like. And it felt strange: we walked in queues with spaces in them, sat at desks enclosed by markings on the floor; we were living life one and half meters away from each other.
Sade came running towards Nelson and I while we were queueing up outside of class; she hugged us. There was enough love in that hug to solve all the world’s problems, but she’d broken the same rule twice, not keeping social distance. Several teachers screamed it at us, but we didn’t care; we could finally talk without a screen between us.
The first class was life orientation. We were split into three groups to adhere to social distancing protocols—twenty students per class. The three of us had Mr. Uugwanga, who usually used the time to lecture us or make announcements. It felt strange that the inevitability of final exams was juxtaposed against the Matric Farewell in the middle of a pandemic that threated to end the world; it seemed trivial. But not to Sade. She said that according to the bible, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah decided against running and had one last chill. So, even as fire and brimstone set everything alight, they partied.
“Bra, do you know how much you need to love to thrive, to choose a good time over survival? Even the dinosaurs ran when it started to rain fire out of the sky!” She spoke with her hands, so it sounded funnier. To Sade, if those people had chosen a good time in the face of annihilation, what was a little pandemic? I hadn’t read the Bible since my confirmation, but I knew she’d bastardized the story. I found her hope in desperate circumstances rather encouraging.
We left life orientation in a hurry; it was Tuesday, and we were late for group session. The excitement quickly dissipated when we got to the gym and found empty chairs, arranged in a socially distanced square. Mr. T finally showed up, uncharacteristically late. Three new students accompanied him, two juniors and a classmate I didn’t know.
Mr. T read “Ek Dryf in die Wind” by Ingrid Jonker. It set the tone for his sermon-like speech: “Death is a fact of life, it’s sudden nature however leaves many questions, doubts, and many what ifs. This has been exacerbated during this pandemic. People get sick, go to hospital, die, and are buried without loved ones getting to see them. Death surrounds us, and it can leave you lost, like a leaf drifting in the wind.” Mr. T scanned the room. “Your thoughts?”
“I don’t know what all the fuss is about. People die all the time. We’ve always been surrounded by death,” I said.
Nelson was quick to counter. “That’s something you say if you don’t care about the people who are dying.”
I glared at him. “You would know right? Talking from experience?”
Sade tugged my arm, the shake of her head asked me to stop, but the words had already fallen out of my mouth.
Mr. T wasn’t as amused. He summoned me away from the group. Once we were out of earshot, he said, “You’re a reasonably smart young man, so I know you’ll understand this. The concept is simple. If you put crabs in a bucket, they will pinch each other. If one tries to climb out, the closest will pull him back down.
“That’s normal.” I replied. “Humans, do that as well.”
What he said next threw me off.
“Crabs don’t go around walking into buckets, that’s not normal behavior for them, the bucket is a foreign environment. Crab mentality is not normal, it’s a trauma response, primarily a survival mechanism.”
I knew what he was trying to do.
“So high school is a bucket, and teenagers are the crabs?” I asked.
“No. School is a safe space. I know that you’ve gone through trauma in your life, that trauma has triggered your survival instincts, but it’s turned you into a crab in a bucket. I have seen no improvement in your conduct, and you’re becoming a danger to everyone else in the group. You’re disrupting their progress.”
“So what are you saying? I have to do another year of this?”
He scribbled something down in his notebook, then looked back up at me. “In medicine, when a drug isn’t working, you increase the dose.”
“Good thing you’re not a doctor.”
“Sometimes in hurting other people, you are hurting yourself in the long run. You will need those people one day.”
I wanted to scream at him, I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t the problem, that people always pushed me. Helao had pushed me. We’d lost a game and our coach was on a tirade, handing out blame like Oprah dishing out free cars. Coach turned on me because I’d failed to clear a ball and we conceded as a result. Helao had shouted, “Owa tegelela shike? Omuntu ngono oha zi mokagumbo.”
Helao then proceeded to call me ‘the prince of a small house.’ If Nelson hadn’t pulled me off of him by dragging me away, I would’ve done more than just broken his nose. It wasn’t because he referred to my home as a small house, but because he’d included my mother in the insult, insinuating that I wasn’t parented correctly because there wasn’t a man in the house. I wasn’t the monster—he was. I wanted to tell Mr. T how deep this had cut me, but the words caught in my throat.
“There are kids who’ve just joined us, who’ve lost parents to Covid-19, I would appreciate it, if from now on, if you would just keep your mouth shut. If you have anything to share, you and I can have a session, one on one.”
I didn’t respond.
That afternoon I got a text from my dad; he was back in the country. He asked if I needed anything. I was about to catch a cab when Sade pulled me aside, she was going shopping for a Matric dress; she informed me that I was going with her. I wanted to protest but I needed the distraction.
I texted my dad.
I need a suit for Matric farewell.
None of the shops in the City Centre would let Sade try on dresses, so we ended up at a boutique in the seediest part of town, famous for brothels masquerading as nightclubs. Sade was on dress number three when she asked me to accompany her to the Matric farewell as her date.
“Has nobody asked you? Wouldn’t that be weird?” I asked.
“Yes or no.” She crossed her arms. “Look ne, we started this together, we might as well finish it together. That’s why I’m asking you.”
“And I don’t trust anyone else the way I trust you.”
I agreed to go with her while she was trying on dress number four. It was a blue lace gown with lace on the arms that was see through. On the inside of her left arm I could see scars. Our eyes met in the mirror.
“Sorry, that dress looks amazing on you,” I lied, trying not to look at the cuts.
When she came out in dress number five, I could tell that the cuts were still fresh. My dad texted back, sending photos of suit samples. He wanted me to choose a color: Black, grey, or white?
The shop attendant was packing up dress number four and I was waiting for Sade outside the dressing room. I sent a reply: Do they have any in navy blue? It goes with my date’s dress.
“So, when were you going to tell me that you started cutting again?” I asked when she emerged from the dressing room, back in her uniform.
Sade didn’t respond. She walked past me to the teller, paid for the dress and then walked out.
I followed her. My phone buzzing.
My dad had replied: Consider it done, and if it doesn’t fit right, we’ll have it adjusted later.
“Sade, stop. Just talk to me.”
“There are some things you’re better off not knowing.”
“I thought you were getting better.”
“I thought the same about you. What you did to Nelson today was cold. Whatever grudge you have against Helao, you’re taking it out on him.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Sade threw her hands in the air. “Sure, what do I know. I’m crazy, right?”
We stood outside the shop, the silence between us only broken by cars speeding past. She confessed that she’d cut herself two weeks ago, after her dad had come to stay with them for a few days. Her dad had a particularly sharp tongue; her mom tolerated him for reasons only known to her. The man said the kinds of things that would drive anyone to suicide, his words were caustic.
“Is that who I think it is?” Sade pointed to a man across the street. He was tall and wore a plaid blazer with loafers. When the man turned around, we could clearly see that it was Mr. T.
The shock spread across Sade’s face. We watched as he was greeted by a scantily clad woman. I did what anyone else in my position would do, held up my phone and snuck a picture. Maybe I could use it as leverage.
After Mr. T embraced the woman they went into the bar.
We all cut ourselves, I thought.
My phone rang in my palm, I almost dropped it. It was Nelson. He spoke in bursts.
“Where are you guys? I need to tell you something. It’s important.”
I told him I was with Sade. He asked me to put him on speakerphone.
“Listen guys, you need to get tested as soon as possible. I just got a call about a Covid test I took a few days ago. It was positive. I’ve got Covid.”
Sade and I glanced at each other, both realizing what we’d suspected during lockdown: this thing wasn’t going away, not anytime soon.
About the Author:
Filemon Iiyambo is a Namibian writer and former newspaper columnist for the Namibian Sun. He has also contributed social commentary articles for the New Era. Filemon holds BA and BA Honours degrees in English Literature from the Namibia University of Science and Technology. Filemon works as an educator. His work was included in Erotic Africa, an anthology of short stories published by Brittle Paper in December, 2018. His short story “December” was shortlisted for the 2021 Bank Windhoek Doek Literary Awards. He is currently working on a novel.
Feature image by AnnaliseArt / Pixabay