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Recollections From A Vezandlebe, The Reluctant Illegitimate Child

I taught myself how to speak the language of my father's people and was determined to legitimise myself by seeking his approval and wanting to be like him.

21/04/2017 03:57 SAST | Updated 21/04/2017 03:57 SAST
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I've always wondered what it would be like to grow up never needing to explain the circumstances behind my existence, never having to re-articulate how I can speak such fluent Xhosa even with my Sesotho name and surname, how it would be if I never had to explain why my father and I had different surnames.

I grew up wondering what it would be like to grow up in a house where both parents had agreed to a lifelong union in a lavish wedding ceremony before I was born and not one where I was the mysterious middle child who had come from a woman who was not my father's wife.

I always wondered if I was ever seen as burden, a challenge to a prosperous marriage and happy life, I was after all the child who walked into a home at the age of eight claiming that its head was my father, a father I never knew before, a father who had never changed my nappy or taken me for a walk or ice cream after pre-school. I moved to Johannesburg straight after my preschool graduation, my ailing aunt who had become my primary guardian whilst my mother worked in the city had become too sick to be able to look after me, thus I was forced to join my mother in the city.

The only parents I knew were my aunt and mother who worked tirelessly to ensure that I never longed for anything. Conversations around my paternal family had always been cagey and awkward; I grew up in a small mining village where people married where they grew up. I could never fit into the fabric that was life in Lephalale; I was always a misfit, maybe because I was raised by a misfit. My mother left Lephalale as a teenager for Johannesburg. Her parents had passed away and school seemed like an unattainable prospect so she packed her belongings and in the middle of the night she set off to the city of gold. With a duffel bag full of clothes and undefined dreams in her heart she got a lift from some truck drivers and seven hours later she was right in the middle of Gauteng.

What does a village girl do when she reaches the city of gold in the 1960s? Well, you find a madam whose house needs cleaning and you settle into the role of being the proper kitchen girl, then you find a Jozi fling to release your inhibitions with. While working in the house of a nice madam in Randburg my mother, while running errands for madam met my father, the details of their relationship are pretty sketchy, as with many black folks in apartheid Johannesburg, but somehow in 1993 I was born and my father had become a long distant memory to my mother, and a sacred mystery to me.

Tshepiso Mabula

I had heard stories from old relatives about how my mother ran off to Johannesburg, was impregnated by a mysterious Xhosa man who was never to be seen again, and now she had left me and my sister in the village while she worked in the city so naturally I could never claim to properly know the man who now has such a big influence on my taste in music. One Saturday morning after being forced to bath and put on my Sunday best, I heard a knock on the door, and as I opened there stood a man, who had a slight resemblance to me with two other girls, that was the day I met my father and sisters. From that day on, we were all set on a path we never imagined we'd be on. Suddenly we were a family, suddenly I had a father and I had to start visiting him and his family and suddenly I had to learn a new language and I had to adopt a new way of living with my newly found siblings.

My mother impressed upon me the need to respect my father despite the fact that I never knew him, she always made it clear that I was to please him with my mild manners and dedication to my school work. Perhaps to prove that even though I was illegitimate I was not a delinquent, and so I did, never having any real conversations with the man.

I set out to 'get to know him', I studied him, his demeanour, his likes and dislikes, his love for jazz and literature and his obsession with academic excellence. I taught myself how to speak the language of his people and was determined to legitimise myself by seeking his approval and wanting to be like him.

Indeed I excelled as much I could in my life, but somehow the circumstances of my birth remained etched in the back of my mind, questions that went unanswered became reminders of how bizarre it is in the natural context of things, that he came looking for me. That he found me and without consultation immediately began to integrate me into his family. I often wonder what my stepmother's reaction was to the news, that somewhere out there, there is a child who was to be a part of this family, did she feel betrayed? Did my arrival throw her off in any way? And was the idea of her perfect family dismantled by my existence?

The patriarchal practices in our society often dictate that a woman's job is to endure her marriage and ensure that it stands firms regardless of the challenges she faces. A woman can never give in or think about her own well-being in a marriage, her duty is to nyamezela and keep her marriage standing. I've seen many cases where a mysterious child comes forth, claiming that another woman's husband his his/her father, never thinking that I was such a child once upon a time, and when my consciousness came about, I wondered if my stepmother had to be the enduring wife in my situation. If she ever cried on other women's shoulders about this mysterious child, a vezandlebe who shall now become a part of her family, I wondered if she ever had to kneel in church, praying for the strength to deal with this 'new challenge' to her marriage.

I wondered if my mother was a willing 'other woman' or if she herself was a hopeless bystander, hoping for the chance of promises being fulfilled by her Xhosa love in apartheid Johannesburg. Amidst all these questions one thing is clear, that the deeds of one's youth shall most certainly prevail in old age, that even though I was unplanned, the offspring of sin, a beautiful mistake made between sheets and duvets - my life, like many other illegitimate lives are a constant reminder of how flawed our parents were and how honest conversations are still a much needed therapy amongst black people.