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I grew up in a world run by women. My father was loving and devoted, but I could only see him when and where apartheid allowed. My uncle Velile, my mom’s younger brother, lived with my grandmother, but he spent most of his time at the local tavern getting into fights.

The only semi-regular male figure in my life was my grandfather, my mother’s father, who was a force to be reckoned with. He was divorced from my grandmother and didn’t live with us, but he was around. His name was Temperance Noah, which was odd since he was not a man of moderation at all. He was boisterous and loud. His nickname in the neighborhood was “Tat Shisha,” which translates loosely to “the smokin’ hot grandpa.” And that’s exactly who he was. He loved the ladies, and the ladies loved him. He’d put on his best suit and stroll through the streets of Soweto on random afternoons, making everybody laugh and charming all the women he’d meet. He had a big, dazzling smile with bright white teeth—false teeth. At home, he’d take them out and I’d watch him do that thing where he looked like he was eating his own face.

We found out much later in life that he was bipolar, but before that we just thought he was eccentric. One time he borrowed my mother’s car to go to the shop for milk and bread. He disappeared and didn’t come home until late that night when we were way past the point of needing the milk or the bread. Turned out he’d passed a young woman at the bus stop and, believing no beautiful woman should have to wait for a bus, he offered her a ride to where she lived—three hours away. My mom was furious with him because he’d cost us a whole tank of petrol, which was enough to get us to work and school for two weeks.

When he was up you couldn’t stop him, but his mood swings were wild. In his youth he’d been a boxer, and one day he said I’d disrespected him and now he wanted to box me. He was in his eighties. I was twelve. He had his fists up, circling me. “Let’s go, Trevah! Come on! Put your fists up! Hit me! I’ll show you I’m still a man! Let’s go!” I couldn’t hit him because I wasn’t about to hit my elder. Plus I’d never been in a fight and I wasn’t going to have my first one be with an eighty-year-old man. I ran to my mom, and she got him to stop. The day after his pugilistic rage, he sat in his chair and didn’t move or say a word all day.

Temperance lived with his second family in the Meadowlands, and we visited them sparingly because my mom was always afraid of being poisoned. Which was a thing that would happen. The first family were the heirs, so there was always the chance they might get poisoned by the second family. It was like Game of Thrones with poor people. We’d go into that house and my mom would warn me.

“Trevor, don’t eat the food.”

“But I’m starving.”

“No. They might poison us.”

“Okay, then why don’t I just pray to Jesus and Jesus will take the poison out of the food?”

“Trevor! Sun’qhela!”

So I only saw my grandfather now and then, and when he was gone the house was in the hands of women.

In addition to my mom there was my aunt Sibongile; she and her first husband, Dinky, had two kids, my cousins Mlungisi and Bulelwa. Sibongile was a powerhouse, a strong woman in every sense, big-chested, the mother hen. Dinky, as his name implies, was dinky. He was a small man. He was abusive, but not really. It was more like he tried to be abusive, but he wasn’t very good at it. He was trying to live up to this image of what he thought a husband should be, dominant, controlling. I remember being told as a child, “If you don’t hit your woman, you don’t love her.” That was the talk you’d hear from men in bars and in the streets.

Dinky was trying to masquerade as this patriarch that he wasn’t. He’d slap my aunt and hit her and she’d take it and take it, and then eventually she’d snap and smack him down and put him back in his place. Dinky would always walk around like, “I control my woman.” And you’d want to say, “Dinky, first of all, you don’t. Second of all, you don’t need to. Because she loves you.” I can remember one day my aunt had really had enough. I was in the yard and Dinky came running out of the house screaming bloody murder. Sibongile was right behind him with a pot of boiling water, cursing at him and threatening to douse him with it. In Soweto you were always hearing about men getting doused with pots of boiling water—often a woman’s only recourse. And men were lucky if it was water. Some women used hot cooking oil. Water was if the woman wanted to teach her man a lesson. Oil meant she wanted to end it.

My grandmother Frances Noah was the family matriarch. She ran the house, looked after the kids, did the cooking and the cleaning. She’s barely five feet tall, hunched over from years in the factory, but rock hard and still to this day very active and very much alive. Where my grandfather was big and boisterous, my grandmother was calm, calculating, with a mind as sharp as anything. If you need to know anything in the family history, going back to the 1930s, she can tell you what day it happened, where it happened, and why it happened. She remembers it all.

My great-grandmother lived with us as well. We called her Koko. She was super old, well into her nineties, stooped and frail, completely blind. Her eyes had gone white, clouded over by cataracts. She couldn’t walk without someone holding her up. She’d sit in the kitchen next to the coal stove, bundled up in long skirts and head scarves, blankets over her shoulders. The coal stove was always on. It was for cooking, heating the house, heating water for baths. We put her there because it was the warmest spot in the house. In the morning someone would wake her and bring her to sit in the kitchen. At night someone would come take her to bed. That’s all she did, all day, every day. Sit by the stove. She was fantastic and fully with it. She just couldn’t see and didn’t move.

Koko and my gran would sit and have long conversations, but as a five-year-old I didn’t think of Koko as a real person. Since her body didn’t move, she was like a brain with a mouth. Our relationship was nothing but command prompts and replies, like talking to a computer.

“Good morning, Koko.”

“Good morning, Trevor.”

“Koko, did you eat?”

“Yes, Trevor.”

“Koko, I’m going out.”

“Okay, be careful.”

“Bye, Koko.”

“Bye, Trevor.”

The fact that I grew up in a world run by women was no accident. Apartheid kept me away from my father because he was white, but for almost all the kids I knew on my grandmother’s block in Soweto, apartheid had taken away their fathers as well, just for different reasons. Their fathers were off working in a mine somewhere, able to come home only during the holidays. Their fathers had been sent to prison. Their fathers were in exile, fighting for the cause. Women held the community together. “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!” was the chant they would rally to during the freedom struggle. “When you strike a woman, you strike a rock.” As a nation, we recognized the power of women, but in the home they were expected to submit and obey.

In Soweto, religion filled the void left by absent men. I used to ask my mom if it was hard for her to raise me alone without a husband. She’d reply, “Just because I live without a man doesn’t mean I’ve never had a husband. God is my husband.” For my mom, my aunt, my grandmother, and all the other women on our street, life centered on faith. Prayer meetings would rotate houses up and down the block based on the day. These groups were women and children only. My mom would always ask my uncle Velile to join, and he’d say, “I would join if there were more men, but I can’t be the only one here.” Then the singing and praying would start, and that was his cue to leave.

For these prayer meetings, we’d jam ourselves into the tiny living area of the host family’s house and form a circle. Then we would go around the circle offering prayers. The grannies would talk about what was happening in their lives. “I’m happy to be here. I had a good week at work. I got a raise and I wanted to say thank you and praise Jesus.” Sometimes they’d pull out their Bible and say, “This scripture spoke to me and maybe it will help you.” Then there would be a bit of song. There was a leather pad called “the beat” that you’d strap to your palm, like a percussion instrument. Someone would clap along on that, keeping time while everyone sang, “Masango vulekani singene eJerusalema. Masango vulekani singene eJerusalema.” That’s how it would go. Pray, sing, pray. Sing, pray, sing. Sing, sing, sing. Pray, pray, pray. Sometimes it would last for hours, always ending with an “amen,” and they could keep that “amen” going on for five minutes at least. “Ah-men. Ah-ah-ah-men. Ah-ah-ah-ah-men. Ahhhhhhhhahhhhh­hhhhh­hahhhhhahhhhhhahhhhhmen. Meni-meni-meni. Men-men-men. Ahhhhh­hhhhh­hhhhh­hhhhh­hhhhh­hhhhh­hhhhh­hhhhh­hhhhmmmmmmmennnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­nnnnn­n.” Then everyone would say goodbye and go home. Next night, different house, same thing.

Tuesday nights, the prayer meeting came to my grandmother’s house, and I was always excited, for two reasons. One, I got to clap along on the beat for the singing. And two, I loved to pray. My grandmother always told me that she loved my prayers. She believed my prayers were more powerful, because I prayed in English. Everyone knows that Jesus, who’s white, speaks English. The Bible is in English. Yes, the Bible was not written in English, but the Bible came to South Africa in English so to us it’s in English. Which made my prayers the best prayers because English prayers get answered first. How do we know this? Look at white people. Clearly they’re getting through to the right person. Add to that Matthew 19:14. “Suffer little children to come unto me,” Jesus said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” So if a child is praying in English? To White Jesus? That’s a powerful combination right there. Whenever I prayed, my grandmother would say, “That prayer is going to get answered. I can feel it.” Women in the township always had something to pray for—money problems, a son who’d been arrested, a daughter who was sick, a husband who drank. Whenever the prayer meetings were at our house, because my prayers were so good, my grandmother would want me to pray for everyone. She would turn to me and say, “Trevor, pray.” And I’d pray. I loved doing it. My grandmother had convinced me that my prayers got answered. I felt like I was helping people.

There is something magical about Soweto. Yes, it was a prison designed by our oppressors, but it also gave us a sense of self-determination and control. Soweto was ours. It had an aspirational quality that you don’t find elsewhere. In America the dream is to make it out of the ghetto. In Soweto, because there was no leaving the ghetto, the dream was to transform the ghetto.

For the million people who lived in Soweto, there were no stores, no bars, no restaurants. There were no paved roads, minimal electricity, inadequate sewerage. But when you put one million people together in one place, they find a way to make a life for themselves. A black-market economy rose up, with every type of business being run out of someone’s house: auto mechanics, day care, guys selling refurbished tires.

The most common were the spaza shops and the shebeens. The spaza shops were informal grocery stores. People would build a kiosk in their garage, buy wholesale bread and eggs, and then resell them piecemeal. Everyone in the township bought things in minute quantities because nobody had any money. You couldn’t afford to buy a dozen eggs at a time, but you could buy two eggs because that’s all you needed that morning. You could buy a quarter loaf of bread, a cup of sugar. The shebeens were unlawful bars in the back of someone’s house. They’d put chairs in their backyard and hang out an awning and run a speakeasy. The shebeens were where men would go to drink after work and during prayer meetings and most any other time of day as well.

People built homes the way they bought eggs: a little at a time. Every family in the township was allocated a piece of land by the government. You’d first build a shanty on your plot, a makeshift structure of plywood and corrugated iron. Over time, you’d save up money and build a brick wall. One wall. Then you’d save up and build another wall. Then, years later, a third wall and eventually a fourth. Now you had a room, one room for everyone in your family to sleep, eat, do everything. Then you’d save up for a roof. Then windows. Then you’d plaster the thing. Then your daughter would start a family. There was nowhere for them to go, so they’d move in with you. You’d add another corrugated-iron structure onto your brick room and slowly, over years, turn that into a proper room for them as well. Now your house had two rooms. Then three. Maybe four. Slowly, over generations, you’d keep trying to get to the point where you had a home.

My grandmother lived in Orlando East. She had a two-room house. Not a two-bedroom house. A two-room house. There was a bedroom, and then there was basically a living room/kitchen/everything-else room. Some might say we lived like poor people. I prefer “open plan.” My mom and I would stay there during school holidays. My aunt and cousins would be there whenever she was on the outs with Dinky. We all slept on the floor in one room, my mom and me, my aunt and my cousins, my uncle and my grandmother and my great-grandmother. The adults each had their own foam mattresses, and there was one big one that we’d roll out into the middle, and the kids slept on that.

We had two shanties in the backyard that my grandmother would rent out to migrants and seasonal workers. We had a small peach tree in a tiny patch on one side of the house and on the other side my grandmother had a driveway. I never understood why my grandmother had a driveway. She didn’t have a car. She didn’t know how to drive. Yet she had a driveway. All of our neighbors had driveways, some with fancy, cast-iron gates. None of them had cars, either. There was no future in which most of these families would ever have cars. There was maybe one car for every thousand people, yet almost everyone had a driveway. It was almost like building the driveway was a way of willing the car to happen. The story of Soweto is the story of the driveways. It’s a hopeful place.

Sadly, no matter how fancy you made your house, there was one thing you could never aspire to improve: your toilet. There was no indoor running water, just one communal outdoor tap and one outdoor toilet shared by six or seven houses. Our toilet was in a corrugated-iron outhouse shared among the adjoining houses. Inside, there was a concrete slab with a hole in it and a plastic toilet seat on top; there had been a lid at some point, but it had broken and disappeared long ago. We couldn’t afford toilet paper, so on the wall next to the seat was a wire hanger with old newspaper on it for you to wipe. The newspaper was uncomfortable, but at least I stayed informed while I handled my business.

The thing that I couldn’t handle about the outhouse was the flies. It was a long drop to the bottom, and they were always down there, eating on the pile, and I had an irrational, all-consuming fear that they were going to fly up and into my bum.

One afternoon, when I was around five years old, my gran left me at home for a few hours to go run errands. I was lying on the floor in the bedroom, reading. I needed to go, but it was pouring down rain. I was dreading going outside to use the toilet, getting drenched running out there, water dripping on me from the leaky ceiling, wet newspaper, the flies attacking me from below. Then I had an idea. Why bother with the outhouse at all? Why not put some newspaper on the floor and do my business like a puppy? That seemed like a fantastic idea. So that’s what I did. I took the newspaper, laid it out on the kitchen floor, pulled down my pants, and squatted and got to it.

When you shit, as you first sit down, you’re not fully in the experience yet. You are not yet a shitting person. You’re transitioning from a person about to shit to a person who is shitting. You don’t whip out your smartphone or a newspaper right away. It takes a minute to get the first shit out of the way and get in the zone and get comfortable. Once you reach that moment, that’s when it gets really nice.

It’s a powerful experience, shitting. There’s something magical about it, profound even. I think God made humans shit in the way we do because it brings us back down to earth and gives us humility. I don’t care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyoncé shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forget how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away.

You are never more yourself than when you’re taking a shit. You have that moment where you realize, This is me. This is who I am. You can pee without giving it a second thought, but not so with shitting. Have you ever looked in a baby’s eyes when it’s shitting? It’s having a moment of pure self-awareness. The outhouse ruins that for you. The rain, the flies, you are robbed of your moment, and nobody should be robbed of that. Squatting and shitting on the kitchen floor that day, I was like, Wow. There are no flies. There’s no stress. This is really great. I’m really enjoying this. I knew I’d made an excellent choice, and I was very proud of myself for making it. I’d reached that moment where I could relax and be with myself. Then I casually looked around the room and I glanced to my left and there, just a few feet away, right next to the coal stove, was Koko.

It was like the scene in Jurassic Park when the children turn and the T. rex is right there. Her eyes were wide open, cloudy white and darting around the room. I knew she couldn’t see me, but her nose was starting to crinkle—she could sense that something was wrong.

I panicked. I was mid-shit. All you can do when you’re mid-shit is finish shitting. My only option was to finish as quietly and as slowly as I could, so that’s what I decided to do. Then: the softest plop of a little-boy turd on the newspaper. Koko’s head snapped toward the sound.

“Who’s there? Hallo? Hallo?!”

I froze. I held my breath and waited.

“Who’s there?! Hallo?!”

I kept quiet, waited, then started again.

“Is somebody there?! Trevor, is that you?! Frances? Hallo? Hallo?”

She started calling out the whole family. “Nombuyiselo? Sibongile? Mlungisi? Bulelwa? Who’s there? What’s happening?”

It was like a game, like I was trying to hide and a blind woman was trying to find me using sonar. Every time she called out, I froze. There would be complete silence. “Who’s there?! Hallo?!” I’d pause, wait for her to settle back in her chair, and then I’d start up again.

Finally, after what felt like forever, I finished. I stood up, took the newspaper—which is not the quietest thing—and I slowwwwwly folded it over. It crinkled. “Who’s there?” Again I paused, waited. Then I folded it over some more, walked over to the rubbish bin, placed my sin at the bottom, and gingerly covered it with the rest of the trash. Then I tiptoed back to the other room, curled up on the mattress on the floor, and pretended to be asleep. The shit was done, no outhouse involved, and Koko was none the wiser.

Mission accomplished.

An hour later the rain had stopped. My grandmother came home. The second she walked in, Koko called out to her.

“Frances! Thank God you’re here. There’s something in the house.”

“What was it?”

“I don’t know, but I could hear it, and there was a smell.”

My gran started sniffing the air. “Dear Lord! Yes, I can smell it, too. Is it a rat? Did something die? It’s definitely in the house.”

They went back and forth about it, quite concerned, and then, as it was getting dark, my mother came home from work. The second she walked in, my gran called out to her.

“Oh, Nombuyiselo! Nombuyiselo! There’s something in the house!”

“What?! What do you mean?”

Koko told her the story, the sounds, the smells.

Then my mom, who has a keen sense of smell, started going around the kitchen, sniffing. “Yes, I can smell it. I can find it…I can find it…” She went to the rubbish bin. “It’s in here.” She lifted out the rubbish, pulled out the folded newspaper underneath, and opened it up, and there was my little turd. She showed it to gran.


“What?! How did it get there?!”

Koko, still blind, still stuck in her chair, was dying to know what was happening.

“What’s going on?!” she cried. “What’s going on?! Did you find it?!”

“It’s shit,” Mom said. “There’s shit in the bottom of the dustbin.”

“But how?!” Koko said. “There was no one here!”

“Are you sure there was no one here?”

“Yes. I called out to everyone. Nobody came.”

My mother gasped. “We’ve been bewitched! It’s a demon!”

For my mother, this was the logical conclusion. Because that’s how witchcraft works. If someone has put a curse on you or your home, there is always the talisman or totem, a tuft of hair or the head of a cat, the physical manifestation of the spiritual thing, proof of the demon’s presence.

Once my mom found the turd, all hell broke loose. This was serious. They had evidence. She came into the bedroom.

“Trevor! Trevor! Wake up!”

“What?!” I said, playing dumb. “What’s going on?!”

“Come! There’s a demon in the house!”

She took my hand and dragged me out of bed. It was all hands on deck, time for action. The first thing we had to do was go outside and burn the shit. That’s what you do with witchcraft; the only way to destroy it is to burn the physical thing. We went out to the yard, and my mom put the newspaper with my little turd on the driveway, lit a match, and set it on fire. Then my mom and my gran stood around the burning shit, praying and singing songs of praise.

The commotion didn’t stop there because when there’s a demon around, the whole community has to join together to drive it out. If you’re not part of the prayer, the demon might leave our house and go to your house and curse you. So we needed everyone. The alarm was raised. The call went out. My tiny old gran was out the gate, going up and down the block, calling to all the other old grannies for an emergency prayer meeting. “Come! We’ve been bewitched!” I stood there, my shit burning in the driveway, my poor aged grandmother tottering up and down the street in a panic, and I didn’t know what to do. I knew there was no demon, but there was no way I could come clean. The hiding I would have to endure? Good Lord. Honesty was never the best policy when it came to a hiding. I kept quiet.

Moments later the grannies came streaming in with their Bibles, through the gate and up the driveway, a dozen or more at least. Everyone went inside. The house was packed. This was by far the biggest prayer meeting we’d ever had—the biggest thing that had ever happened in the history of our home, period. Everyone sat in the circle, praying and praying, and the prayers were strong. The grannies were chanting and murmuring and swaying back and forth, speaking in tongues. I was doing my best to keep my head low and stay out of it. Then my grandmother reached back and grabbed me, pulled me into the middle of the circle, and looked into my eyes.

“Trevor, pray.”

“Yes!” my mother said. “Help us! Pray, Trevor. Pray to God to kill the demon!”

I was terrified. I believed in the power of prayer. I knew that my prayers worked. So if I prayed to God to kill the thing that left the shit, and the thing that left the shit was me, then God was going to kill me. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. But all the grannies were looking at me, waiting for me to pray, so I prayed, stumbling through as best I could.

“Dear Lord, please protect us, um, you know, from whoever did this but, like, we don’t know what happened exactly and maybe it was a big misunderstanding and, you know, maybe we shouldn’t be quick to judge when we don’t know the whole story and, I mean, of course you know best, Heavenly Father, but maybe this time it wasn’t actually a demon, because who can say for certain, so maybe cut whoever it was a break…” It was not my best performance. Eventually I wrapped it up and sat back down. The praying continued. It went on for some time. Pray, sing, pray. Sing, pray, sing. Sing, sing, sing. Pray, pray, pray. Then everyone finally felt that the demon was gone and life could continue, and we had the big “amen” and everyone said good night and went home.

That night I felt terrible. Before bed, I quietly prayed, “God, I am so sorry for all of this. I know this was not cool.” Because I knew: God answers your prayers. God is your father. He’s the man who’s there for you, the man who takes care of you. When you pray, He stops and He takes His time and He listens, and I had subjected Him to two hours of old grannies praying when I knew that with all the pain and suffering in the world He had more important things to deal with than my shit.

When I was growing up we used to get American TV shows rebroadcast on our stations: Doogie Howser, M.D.; Murder, She Wrote; Rescue 911 with William Shatner. Most of them were dubbed into African languages. ALF was in Afrikaans. Transformers was in Sotho. But if you wanted to watch them in English, the original American audio would be simulcast on the radio. You could mute your TV and listen to that. Watching those shows, I realized that whenever black people were on-screen speaking in African languages, they felt familiar to me. They sounded like they were supposed to sound. Then I’d listen to them in simulcast on the radio, and they would all have black American accents. My perception of them changed. They didn’t feel familiar. They felt like foreigners.

Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says “We’re the same.” A language barrier says “We’re different.” The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. In the Bantu schools, children were only taught in their home language. Zulu kids learned in Zulu. Tswana kids learned in Tswana. Because of this, we’d fall into the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different.

The great thing about language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked. If you’re racist and you meet someone who doesn’t look like you, the fact that he can’t speak like you reinforces your racist preconceptions: He’s different, less intelligent. A brilliant scientist can come over the border from Mexico to live in America, but if he speaks in broken English, people say, “Eh, I don’t trust this guy.” “But he’s a scientist.”

“In Mexican science, maybe. I don’t trust him.”

However, if the person who doesn’t look like you speaks like you, your brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code. “Wait, wait,” your mind says, “the racism code says if he doesn’t look like me he isn’t like me, but the language code says if he speaks like me he…is like me? Something is off here. I can’t figure this out.”

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