I don’t believe that humans are merely dropped off on earth to serve life sentences by a mysterious, authoritarian, white-bearded smite master. Nor are we the creations of a warm-bosomed figure with the likeness of a strong African woman. My faith rests in the idea that we are infinite souls or energy bodies who have come to the earth realm to remember and fulfill our individual and collective soul missions. I like how poet John O’Donohue puts it, “our bodies are inside our souls and not the other way around”. Each soul chooses the body, the family structure, the personality and the circumstances of its incarnation into the earth so that the parts of itself that need healing become evident. If a soul needs to learn patience for example, it will choose a life circumstance that creates causes for it to be impatient and this theme will continue in that soul’s life until the soul learns patience. I believe that when my soul chose to come to earth this time around, it really wanted to learn what it means to love. Hence I was born in a body, family, country, era and circumstances that positioned me to have a lifetime of reasons to be angry, so that I could learn that what my soul really wants is to realise that the role of anger is to wake us up to the need for love. And then my parents named me Milisuthando.
I have not always consciously ‘nurtured love’, which is the loose meaning of my name. But in the last two or three years, I’ve become used to the idea that maybe my purpose on earth is encapsulated in my name. All I need to do is learn the skill or energy of love so that I can fulfill my purpose. Sounds easy enough and yet I am far from feeling that I know how to love myself, the people around me and other humans. Although I must have been clever in my past lives to have chosen such an instructive name as a guide for my purpose in this life.
When a new friend (who is more like the human incarnation of a constellation of stars than she is flesh and blood) invited me to have dinner with her family last November, I agreed because I love her and I wanted to meet the people who made her. But I mostly said yes because of how warmly she speaks of her mum and dad, her sister and grandparents. How palpable their bond is in our conversations. At the time, I had lost my cell phone while traveling in Chicago. The last time I remember holding it was at an unforgettable Italian restaurant called Quartino Ristorante where I broke bread, Campania pizzas, Tuscan ribbon shaped meat pastas and a variety of small aromatic dishes with three strangers* whom I had just met at a bar on Michigan Avenue. When I got back to South Africa, I wasn’t in a hurry to reconnect so for about six weeks I was phoneless and in a state of sustained delight as a result of this.
On the day of the dinner, my friend emailed me directions to her home, which I printed and placed on the passenger seat of my car, carefully re-reading them up at every robot. At the bottom of the email she asked if there are any foods I would prefer not to eat because she was about to start cooking. I wrote back “I prefer not to eat pork please (I don’t like the taste)” and offered to bring dessert. Her response detailed what she was cooking for us: orange, basil and garlic marinated steak, dukkah steamed broccoli, mushroom curry with rice (the vegan option for our vegetarian friend who was also joining us). “Dessert’s covered! We have cake!”, she said in the final email.
I arrived at the house and walked through the reception area, up a short flight of stairs and into a magnificent kitchen. My friend was wearing an apron and negotiating with a mango that was going into a basil, mozzarella and orange melon salad. Her mother, who was beautiful and not that much taller than my friend, stood next to a high chair that was tucked into the kitchen table. We hugged hello and I introduced myself while my friend stood by her fruits. Shortly after, her sister walked in, introduced herself and hugged me hello. A swan, covered in what our vegetarian friend later called “that Woolies skin”; a trait that has been generously distributed among this family. She offered me some tea from a vertical cupboard where only teas reside and I, being a sucker for packaging, picked a pomegranate tea from a brand I’d never seen. I was soon holding a steaming, tiny red sea in my hands. I settled on one of the high chairs across my friend’s mother and we began to talk.
The gate buzzer sounded. It was our vegetarian, who was more dressed up than the rest of us. She smelt good too, deliberate. We hugged and gathered around the table. I poured her a glass of sparkling water, which my friend adorned with mint leaves and lemon slices. As we automatically discussed our holiday plans for December, the fourth and final piece in this puzzle waltzed in. “Happy Birthday to meeee, Happy Birthday to meeee, Happy Birthday to meee, Happy Birthday to meeee!” he sang in a convivial tenor voice carrying a bunch of multi-coloured balloons. The fourth piece was the father and husband. Incandescent, light on his feet and immediately present.
I don’t remember what he said next because ndandiphandliwe, as if I had looked directly at the sun. He kissed his wife and both his daughters hello, then he hugged the vegetarian, who, unlike me, was a regular visitor to this home. When he came to me, he greeted me in the manner that a father greets his five year old daughter’s five year old friend. He looked me in the face, and I mean looked. As if memorising it, head tilted to the side and arms on my shoulders. I forget how powerful looking into someone’s eyes can be. Something in me moved. What unfolded thereafter was not immediately easy for me to experience.
It was as if I was watching a Disney film. No, Disney on Ice. Grace was the way they moved around one another while setting the kitchen table. Placemats. Cutlery. Crockery. Serving spoons. Napkins. The words “my darling, my love, my dear” pouring out of dad’s mouth while he topped up everybody’s waters. Mum straightened the salad bowls and they eased into conversation. A large personalised birthday cake emerged, held by the sister who placed it on the table and carefully inserted sparklers into it. My friend placed pieces of steak onto the hot stove. Within seconds the sound of the meat against the metal filled the room and so did a cloud of smoke form around our cook. “Be careful with the stove my love” warned her father, who then rushed to her side to switch the hob on. “Ke a leboga papa”, she said. And he put his arm on her shoulder. We gathered around the table and I think we prayed.
They insisted I be the first to pick a piece of meat, a strange custom to me because where I come from, the first and biggest piece is always given to the man. The pieces were a little too big for me and I must have said it out loud because the father was quick to cut my piece in half before he announced, “we’ll keep the other half for later”. We dished up like in the movies. “Can you please pass me a fork, my dear?”. “Here you go, love!” We sat down to eat. Dad next to mum. Sisters on either side the table and the vegetarian and me facing the parents. The rest of the room was dimly lit and a brighter light lit our faces into view. We were a family. During the first moment of silence, I started to well up inside, feeling both a deep sorrow and joy. When was the last time I was in the presence of an expressive, loving and functional nuclear family? I had not been around a father’s love since my father died 12 years ago. And even that was not this. Under that shining light, I realised how much I yearned for the ability to love, trust, rely on and find comfort in the love of a father.
As I was about to bite into a piece of steak, I readily started to cry. It wasn’t dramatic. The sister got up to fetch some tissues and by the time she returned, I had composed myself. “I’m sorry”, I said, voice shaking. “I feel so foolish”. A chorus of “noooo, you’re not” replied. “I just realised that I have not had this kind of warmth in a very long time. And I miss it. I think that what I am feeling is the presence of true love and I am clearly overwhelmed. My family is amazing but we are only, mostly women. The kind of love we share is that of women who have overcome, who have left unsuitable marriages, who have been single parents and warriors in the world. They are so strong. They raised us well enough to forget that things weren’t always the way they are. I think am now remembering”.
When I asked for water, my friend and her father literally raced each other to get to the refrigerator. Dad won. We ate dinner and then it was time to cut the cake. There were no speeches. The story of how the parents met and the story of the elaborate planning that goes into the cake each year substituted the need for any speeches. We took polaroid photos. “Do you guys do this all the time or is it because it’s your birthday?” I asked. The parents took turns explaining how and why sharing meals is a daily family ritual. And then the landline rang. I almost cried again when I heard the father talking his father, relaying his day as if he was talking to his BFF. He then handed the phone to one of the daughters. The landline rings quite regularly in this home, and it’s usually my friend’s grandparents. I never met my father’s father and my mother’s died when I was 7. I did not know that they could be this involved.
It was at that moment that I learned that love grows where it is nourished.
But what about the places where the very idea of love is doubted, ridiculed and aggressively unpopular? Four days after the dinner at my friend’s home, I met a woman who told me, more than once, that she does not believe in love. That it does not exist. We met through mutual friends, at a long table in a restaurant in Sandton. I was excited when she sat next to me because she had already established herself as a gifted raconteur. But I did not expect things to take the route they took so quickly. Amongst other explosive statements, her premise was that “men are four legged animals and should be treated as such” and everything else she said pivoted around that point. She has just short of a dozen “blessers” whom she discards after she has spent as much of their money as she can. She believes that women like me, “ooMiss Independent”, are stupid for believing that men can be anything beyond sexual partners and ATMs. “Did you buy your own car?” she asked over a plate of fried chicken and a bottle of L’Ormarins. “Yes of course I bought my own car” I shot back. She laughed at me, loud enough for the other people at our restaurant table to turn around. She told us that her first car was a Range Rover that drove all the other girls back home crazy. One of her married “mainstays” had bought it for her. She told us that even when she’s run out of roll on, she calls one of them to “do something”. And we mustn’t dare think that she doesn’t have her own money. But I feel like the more detail I go into, the less complicated her ideas will seem. In that air-conditioned room in the right square mile of Africa, we like each other for different reasons. She liked me for being “different” and I like her for being so beautifully vulnerable. For weeks after I couldn’t stop thinking about her though, feeling really angry that this is where we are. Even though I’m not married, I took it personally when she called wives who call to check where their husbands are “insecure”.
I definitely judged her and I think that’s why we got along. It’s like we were both holding on to either side of a raw piece of meat. She telling me how she feels and me, telling her how I felt about her feelings. I’m still thinking about her, a glamorous example of a world where women have been hurt so much that we’ve decided that the only way to fight back and feel better is to ape the men who have hurt us.
In the context of a country that has mastered the art of anger, what is the work of love? It is to go where it is needed.
*The strangers did not take my phone.
Milisuthando Bongela is a cultural worker based in Johannesburg. Among other arts and culture related work, her work entails editing the weekly Mail & Guardian Arts and Culture supplement “Friday” and directing a feature documentary titled “The Good Black”.