Bridgetown Harbor, Barbados, West Indies Federation
[I was told to expect a “tall ship,” although the “sails” of IS Imfingo refer to the four vertical wind turbines rising from her sleek, trimaran hull. When coupled with banks of PEM, or proton exchange membrane, fuel cells, a technology that converts seawater into electricity, it is easy to see why the prefix “IS” stands for “Infinity Ship.” Hailed as the undisputed future of maritime transport, it is still rare to see one sailing under anything but a government flag. The Imfingo is privately owned and operated. Jacob Nyathi is her captain.]
I was born about the same time as the new, postapartheid South Africa. In those euphoric days, the new government not only promised the democracy of “one man, one vote,” but employment and housing to the entire country. My father thought that meant immediately. He didn’t understand that these were long-term goals to be achieved after years—generations—of hard work. He thought that if we abandoned our tribal homeland and relocated to a city, there would be a brand-new house and high-paying jobs just sitting there waiting for us. My father was a simple man, a day laborer. I can’t blame him for his lack of formal education, his dream of a better life for his family. And so we settled in Khayelitsha, one of the four main townships outside of Cape Town. It was a life of grinding, hopeless, humiliating poverty. It was my childhood.
The night it happened, I was walking home from the bus stop. It was around five A.M. and I’d just finished my shift waiting tables at the T.G.I. Friday’s at Victoria Wharf. It had been a good night. The tips were big, and news from the Tri Nations was enough to make any South African feel ten feet tall. The Springboks were trouncing the All Blacks…again!
[He smiles with the memory.]
Maybe those thoughts were what distracted me at first, maybe it was simply being so knackered, but I felt my body instinctively react before I consciously heard the shots. Gunfire was not unusual, not in my neighborhood, not in those days. “One man, one gun,” that was the slogan of my life in Khayelitsha. Like a combat veteran, you develop almost genetic survival skills. Mine were razor sharp. I crouched, tried to triangulate the sound, and at the same time look for the hardest surface to hide behind. Most of the homes were just makeshift shanties, wood scraps or corrugated tin, or just sheets of plastic fastened to barely standing beams. Fire ravaged these lean-tos at least once a year, and bullets could pass through them as easily as open air.
I sprinted and crouched behind a barbershop, which had been constructed from a car-sized shipping container. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do for a few seconds, long enough to hole up and wait for the shooting to die down. Only it didn’t. Pistols, shotguns, and that clatter you never forget, the kind that tells you someone has a Kalashnikov. This was lasting much too long to be just an ordinary gang row. Now there were screams, shouts. I began to smell smoke. I heard the stirrings of a crowd. I peeked out from around the corner. Dozens of people, most of them in their nightclothes, all shouting “Run! Get out of there! They’re coming!” House lamps were lighting all around me, faces poking out of shanties. “What’s going on here?” they asked. “Who’s coming?” Those were the younger faces. The older ones, they just started running. They had a different kind of survival instinct, an instinct born in a time when they were slaves in their own country. In those days, everyone knew who “they” were, and if “they” were ever coming, all you could do was run and pray.
Did you run?
I couldn’t. My family, my mother and two little sisters, lived only a few “doors” down from the Radio Zibonele station, exactly where the mob was fleeing from. I wasn’t thinking. I was stupid. I should have doubled back around, found an alley or quiet street.
I tried to wade through the mob, pushing in the opposite direction. I thought I could stay along the sides of the shanties. I was knocked into one, into one of their plastic walls that wrapped around me as the whole structure collapsed. I was trapped, I couldn’t breathe. Someone ran over me, smashed my head into the ground. I shook myself free, wriggled and rolled out into the street. I was still on my stomach when I saw them: ten or fifteen, silhouetted against the fires of the burning shanties. I couldn’t see their faces, but I could hear them moaning. They were slouching steadily toward me with their arms raised.
I got to my feet, my head swam, my body ached all over. Instinctively I began to withdraw, backing into the “doorway” of the closest shack. Something grabbed me from behind, pulled at my collar, tore the fabric. I spun, ducked, and kicked hard. He was large, larger and heavier than me by a few kilos. Black fluid ran down the front of his white shirt. A knife protruded from his chest, jammed between the ribs and buried to the hilt. A scrap of my collar, which was clenched between his teeth, dropped as his lower jaw fell open. He growled, he lunged. I tried to dodge. He grabbed my wrist. I felt a crack, and pain shot up through my body. I dropped to my knees, tried to roll and maybe trip him up. My hand came up against a heavy cooking pot. I grabbed it and swung hard. It smashed into his face. I hit him again, and again, bashing his skull until the bone split open and the brains spilled out across my feet. He slumped over. I freed myself just as another one of them appeared in the entrance. This time the structure’s flimsy nature worked to my advantage. I kicked the back wall open, slinking out and bringing the whole hut down in the process.
I ran, I didn’t know where I was going. It was a nightmare of shacks and fire and grasping hands all racing past me. I ran through a shanty where a woman was hiding in the corner. Her two children were huddled against her, crying. “Come with me!” I said. “Please, come, we have to go!” I held out my hands, moved closer to her. She pulled her children back, brandishing a sharpened screwdriver. Her eyes were wide, scared. I could hear sounds behind me…smashing through shanties, knocking them over as they came. I switched from Xhosa to English. “Please,” I begged, “you have to run!” I reached for her but she stabbed my hand. I left her there. I didn’t know what else to do. She is still in my memory, when I sleep or maybe close my eyes sometimes. Sometimes she’s my mother, and the crying children are my sisters.
I saw a bright light up ahead, shining between the cracks in the shanties. I ran as hard as I could. I tried to call to them. I was out of breath. I crashed through the wall of a shack and suddenly I was in open ground. The headlights were blinding. I felt something slam into my shoulder. I think I was out before I even hit the ground.
I came to in a bed at Groote Schuur Hospital. I’d never seen the inside of a recovery ward like this. It was so clean and white. I thought I might be dead. The medication, I’m sure, helped that feeling. I’d never tried any kind of drugs before, never even touched a drink of alcohol. I didn’t want to end up like so many in my neighborhood, like my father. All my life I’d fought to stay clean, and now…
The morphine or whatever they had pumped into my veins was delicious. I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t care when they told me the police had shot me in the shoulder. I saw the man in the bed next to me frantically wheeled out as soon as his breathing stopped. I didn’t even care when I overheard them talking about the outbreak of “rabies.”
Who was talking about it?
I don’t know. Like I said, I was as high as the stars. I just remember voices in the hallway outside my ward, loud voices angrily arguing. “That wasn’t rabies!” one of them yelled. “Rabies doesn’t do that to people!” Then…something else…then “well, what the hell do you suggest, we’ve got fifteen downstairs right here! Who knows how many more are still out there!” It’s funny, I go over that conversation all the time in my head, what I should have thought, felt, done. It was a long time before I sobered up again, before I woke up and faced the nightmare.