《Born a crime》书摘

Title: Born a crime: stories from a South African childhood / by Trevor Noah.
Description: First edition. | New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2016.
ISBN 978-1-47363-531-9

Part I

1 Run

I was five years old, nearly six, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I remember seeing it on TV and everyone being happy. I didn’t know why we were happy, just that we were. I was aware of the fact that there was a thing called apartheid and it was ending and that was a big deal, but I didn’t understand the intricacies of it.
What I do remember, what I will never forget, is the violence that followed. The triumph of democracy over apartheid is sometimes called the Bloodless Revolution. It is called that because very little white blood was spilled. Black blood ran in the streets.
As the apartheid regime fell, we knew that the black man was now going to rule. The question was, which black man? Spates of violence broke out between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC, the African National Congress, as they jockeyed for power. The political dynamic between these two groups was very complicated, but the simplest way to understand it is as a proxy war between Zulu and Xhosa. The Inkatha was predominantly Zulu, very militant and very nationalistic. The ANC was a broad coalition encompassing many different tribes, but its leaders at the time were primarily Xhosa. Instead of uniting for peace they turned on one another, committing acts of unbelievable savagery. Massive riots broke out. Thousands of people were killed. Necklacing was common. That’s where people would hold someone down and put a rubber tire over his torso, pinning his arms. Then they’d douse him with petrol and set him on fire and burn him alive. The ANC did it to Inkatha. Inkatha did it to the ANC. I saw one of those charred bodies on the side of the road one day on my way to school. In the evenings my mom and I would turn on our little black-and-white TV and watch the news. A dozen people killed. Fifty people killed. A hundred people killed.

2 Born a Crime

Humans being humans and sex being sex, that prohibition never stopped anyone. There were mixed kids in South Africa nine months after the first Dutch boats hit the beach in Table Bay. Just like in America, the colonists here had their way with the native women, as colonists so often do. Unlike in America, where anyone with one drop of black blood automatically became black, in South Africa mixed people came to be classified as their own separate group, neither black nor white but what we call “colored.” Colored people, black people, white people, and Indian people were forced to register their race with the government. Based on those classifications, millions of people were uprooted and relocated. Indian areas were segregated from colored areas, which were segregated from black areas—all of them segregated from white areas and separated from one another by buffer zones of empty land. Laws were passed prohibiting sex between Europeans and natives, laws that were later amended to prohibit sex between whites and all nonwhites.

3 Trevor, Pray

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.

4 Chameleon

5 The Second Girl

The homelands were, ostensibly, the original homes of South Africa’s tribes, sovereign and semi-sovereign “nations” where black people would be “free.” Of course, this was a lie. For starters, despite the fact that black people made up over 80 percent of South Africa’s population, the territory allocated for the homelands was about 13 percent of the country’s land. There was no running water, no electricity. People lived in huts.
Where South Africa’s white countryside was lush and irrigated and green, the black lands were overpopulated and overgrazed, the soil depleted and eroding. Other than the menial wages sent home from the cities, families scraped by with little beyond subsistence-level farming. My mother’s aunt hadn’t taken her in out of charity. She was there to work. “I was one of the cows,” my mother would later say, “one of the oxen.” She and her cousins were up at half past four, plowing fields and herding animals before the sun baked the soil as hard as cement and made it too hot to be anywhere but in the shade.
For dinner there might be one chicken to feed fourteen children. My mom would have to fight with the bigger kids to get a handful of meat or a sip of the gravy or even a bone from which to suck out some marrow. And that’s when there was food for dinner at all. When there wasn’t, she’d steal food from the pigs. She’d steal food from the dogs. The farmers would put out scraps for the animals, and she’d jump for it. She was hungry; let the animals fend for themselves. There were times when she literally ate dirt. She would go down to the river, take the clay from the riverbank, and mix it with the water to make a grayish kind of milk. She’d drink that to feel full.

Back in Soweto, my mom enrolled in the secretarial course that allowed her to grab hold of the bottom rung of the white-collar world. She worked and worked and worked but, living under my grandmother’s roof, she wasn’t allowed to keep her own wages. As a secretary, my mom was bringing home more money than anyone else, and my grandmother insisted it all go to the family. The family needed a radio, an oven, a refrigerator, and it was now my mom’s job to provide it.
So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero.

My mom told me these things so that I’d never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. “Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.” And she never was. The deprivations of her youth, the betrayals of her parents, she never complained about any of it.
Just as she let the past go, she was determined not to repeat it: my childhood would bear no resemblance to hers. She started with my name. The names Xhosa families give their children always have a meaning, and that meaning has a way of becoming self-fulfilling. You have my cousin, Mlungisi. “The Fixer.” That’s who he is. Whenever I got into trouble he was the one trying to help me fix it. He was always the good kid, doing chores, helping around the house. You have my uncle, the unplanned pregnancy, Velile. “He Who Popped Out of Nowhere.” And that’s all he’s done his whole life, disappear and reappear. He’ll go off on a drinking binge and then pop back up out of nowhere a week later.
Then you have my mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. “She Who Gives Back.” That’s what she does. She gives and gives and gives. She did it even as a girl in Soweto. Playing in the streets she would find toddlers, three- and four-year-olds, running around unsupervised all day long. Their fathers were gone and their mothers were drunks. My mom, who was only six or seven herself, used to round up the abandoned kids and form a troop and take them around to the shebeens. They’d collect empties from the men who were passed out and take the bottles to where you could turn them in for a deposit. Then my mom would take that money, buy food in the spaza shops, and feed the kids. She was a child taking care of children.
When it was time to pick my name, she chose Trevor, a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family. It’s not even a Biblical name. It’s just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.
She gave me the tools to do it as well. She taught me English as my first language. She read to me constantly. The first book I learned to read was the book. The Bible. Church was where we got most of our other books, too. My mom would bring home boxes that white people had donated—picture books, chapter books, any book she could get her hands on. Then she signed up for a subscription program where we got books in the mail. It was a series of how-to books. How to Be a Good Friend. How to Be Honest. She bought a set of encyclopedias, too; it was fifteen years old and way out of date, but I would sit and pore through those.

If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind. My mother spoke to me like an adult, which was unusual. In South Africa, kids play with kids and adults talk to adults. The adults supervise you, but they don’t get down on your level and talk to you. My mom did. All the time. I was like her best friend. She was always telling me stories, giving me lessons, Bible lessons especially. She was big into Psalms. I had to read Psalms every day. She would quiz me on it. “What does the passage mean? What does it mean to you? How do you apply it to your life?” That was every day of my life. My mom did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think.

There was no stepfather in the picture yet, no baby brother crying in the night. It was me and her, alone. There was this sense of the two of us embarking on a grand adventure. She’d say things to me like, “It’s you and me against the world.” I understood even from an early age that we weren’t just mother and son. We were a team.

If we weren’t at school or work or church, we were out exploring. My mom’s attitude was “I chose you, kid. I brought you into this world, and I’m going to give you everything I never had.” She poured herself into me. She would find places for us to go where we didn’t have to spend money. We must have gone to every park in Johannesburg. My mom would sit under a tree and read the Bible, and I’d run and play and play and play. On Sunday afternoons after church, we’d go for drives out in the country. My mom would find places with beautiful views for us to sit and have a picnic. There was none of the fanfare of a picnic basket or plates or anything like that, only baloney and brown bread and margarine sandwiches wrapped up in butcher paper. To this day, baloney and brown bread and margarine will instantly take me back. You can come with all the Michelin stars in the world, just give me baloney and brown bread and margarine and I’m in heaven.
Food, or the access to food, was always the measure of how good or bad things were going in our lives. My mom would always say, “My job is to feed your body, feed your spirit, and feed your mind.” That’s exactly what she did, and the way she found money for food and books was to spend absolutely nothing on anything else. Her frugality was the stuff of legend. Our car was a tin can on wheels, and we lived in the middle of nowhere. We had threadbare furniture, busted old sofas with holes worn through the fabric. Our TV was a tiny black-and-white with a bunny aerial on top. We changed the channels using a pair of pliers because the buttons didn’t work. Most of the time you had to squint to see what was going on.
We always wore secondhand clothes, from Goodwill stores or that were giveaways from white people at church. All the other kids at school got brands, Nike and Adidas. I never got brands. One time I asked my mom for Adidas sneakers. She came home with some knockoff brand, Abidas.
“Mom, these are fake,” I said.
“I don’t see the difference.”
“Look at the logo. There are four stripes instead of three.”
“Lucky you,” she said. “You got one extra.”
We got by with next to nothing, but we always had church and we always had books and we always had food. Mind you, it wasn’t necessarily good food. Meat was a luxury. When things were going well we’d have chicken. My mom was an expert at cracking open a chicken bone and getting out every last bit of marrow inside. We didn’t eat chickens. We obliterated them. Our family was an archaeologist’s nightmare. We left no bones behind. When we were done with a chicken there was nothing left but the head. Sometimes the only meat we had was a packaged meat you could buy at the butcher called “sawdust.” It was literally the dust of the meat, the bits that fell off the cuts being packaged for the shop, the bits of fat and whatever’s left. They’d sweep it up and put it into bags. It was meant for dogs, but my mom bought it for us. There were many months where that was all we ate.
The butcher sold bones, too. We called them “soup bones,” but they were actually labeled “dog bones” in the store; people would cook them for their dogs as a treat. Whenever times were really tough we’d fall back on dog bones. My mom would boil them for soup. We’d suck the marrow out of them. Sucking marrow out of bones is a skill poor people learn early. I’ll never forget the first time I went to a fancy restaurant as a grown man and someone told me, “You have to try the bone marrow. It’s such a delicacy. It’s divine .” They ordered it, the waiter brought it out, and I was like, “Dog bones, motherfucker!” I was not impressed.
As modestly as we lived at home, I never felt poor because our lives were so rich with experience. We were always out doing something, going somewhere. My mom used to take me on drives through fancy white neighborhoods. We’d go look at people’s houses, look at their mansions. We’d look at their walls, mostly, because that’s all we could see from the road. We’d look at a wall that ran from one end of the block to the other and go, “Wow. That’s only one house. All of that is for one family.” Sometimes we’d pull over and go up to the wall, and she’d put me up on her shoulders like I was a little periscope. I would look into the yards and describe everything I was seeing. “It’s a big white house! They have two dogs! There’s a lemon tree! They have a swimming pool! And a tennis court!”
My mother took me places black people never went. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do. She’d take me to the ice rink to go skating. Johannesburg used to have this epic drive-in movie theater, Top Star Drive-In, on top of a massive mine dump outside the city. She’d take me to movies there; we’d get snacks, hang the speaker on our car window. Top Star had a 360-degree view of the city, the suburbs, Soweto. Up there I could see for miles in every direction. I felt like I was on top of the world.
My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.
We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will.
Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that my mother started her little project, me, at a time when she could not have known that apartheid would end. There was no reason to think it would end; it had seen generations come and go. I was nearly six when Mandela was released, ten before democracy finally came, yet she was preparing me to live a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist. A hard life in the township or a trip to the colored orphanage were the far more likely options on the table. But we never lived that way. We only moved forward and we always moved fast, and by the time the law and everyone else came around we were already miles down the road, flying across the freeway in a bright-orange, piece-of-shit Volkswagen with the windows down and Jimmy Swaggart praising Jesus at the top of his lungs.
People thought my mom was crazy. Ice rinks and drive-ins and suburbs, these things were izinto zabelungu —the things of white people. So many black people had internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own. Why teach a black child white things? Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom. “Why do all this? Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the ghetto?”
“Because,” she would say, “even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.”

7 Fufi

Fufi was the love of my life. Beautiful but stupid. I raised her. I potty-trained her. She slept in my bed. A dog is a great thing for a kid to have. It’s like a bicycle but with emotions.
Fufi could do all sorts of tricks. She could jump super high. I mean, Fufi could jump . I could hold a piece of food out above my own head and she’d leap up and grab it like it was nothing. If YouTube had been around, Fufi would have been a star.
Fufi was a little rascal as well. During the day we kept the dogs in the backyard, which was enclosed by a wall at least five feet high. After a while, every day we’d come home and Fufi would be sitting outside the gate, waiting for us. We were always confused. Was someone opening the gate? What was going on? It never occurred to us that she could actually scale a five-foot wall, but that was exactly what was happening. Every morning, Fufi would wait for us to leave, jump over the wall, and go roaming around the neighborhood.
I caught her one day when I was home for the school holidays. My mom had left for work and I was in the living room. Fufi didn’t know I was there; she thought I was gone because the car was gone. I heard Panther barking in the backyard, looked out, and there was Fufi, scaling the wall. She’d jumped, scampered up the last couple of feet, and then she was gone.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. I ran out front, grabbed my bicycle, and followed her to see where she was going. She went a long way, many streets over, to another part of the neighborhood. Then she went up to this other house and jumped over their wall and into their backyard. What the hell was she doing? I went up to the gate and rang the doorbell. This colored kid answered.
“May I help you?” he said.
“Yeah. My dog is in your yard.”
“My dog. She’s in your yard.”
Fufi walked up and stood between us.
“Fufi, come!” I said. “Let’s go!”
This kid looked at Fufi and called her by some other stupid name, Spotty or some bullshit like that.
“Spotty, go back inside the house.”
“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “Spotty? That’s Fufi!”
“No, that’s my dog, Spotty.”
“No, that’s Fufi, my friend.”
“No, this is Spotty.”
“How could this be Spotty? She doesn’t even have spots. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“This is Spotty!”
Of course, since Fufi was deaf she didn’t respond to “Spotty” or “Fufi.” She just stood there. I started cursing the kid out.
“Give me back my dog!”
“I don’t know who you are,” he said, “but you better get out of here.”
Then he went into the house and got his mom and she came out.
“What do you want?” she said.
“That’s my dog!”
“This is our dog. Go away.”
I started crying. “Why are you stealing my dog?!” I turned to Fufi and begged her. “Fufi, why are you doing this to me?! Why, Fufi?! Why?!” I called to her. I begged her to come. Fufi was deaf to my pleas. And everything else.
I jumped onto my bike and raced home, tears running down my face. I loved Fufi so much. To see her with another boy, acting like she didn’t know me, after I raised her, after all the nights we spent together. I was heartbroken.
That evening Fufi didn’t come home. Because the other family thought I was coming to steal their dog, they had decided to lock her inside, so she couldn’t make it back the way she normally did to wait for us outside the fence. My mom got home from work. I was in tears. I told her Fufi had been kidnapped. We went back to the house. My mom rang the bell and confronted the mom.
“Look, this is our dog.”
This lady lied to my mom’s face. “This is not your dog. We bought this dog.”
“You didn’t buy the dog. It’s our dog.”
They went back and forth. This woman wasn’t budging, so we went home to get evidence: pictures of us with the dogs, certificates from the vet. I was crying the whole time, and my mom was losing her patience with me. “Stop crying! We’ll get the dog! Calm down!”
We gathered up our documentation and went back to the house. This time we brought Panther with us, as part of the proof. My mom showed this lady the pictures and the information from the vet. She still wouldn’t give us Fufi. My mom threatened to call the police. It turned into a whole thing. Finally my mom said, “Okay, I’ll give you a hundred rand.”
“Fine,” the lady said.
My mom gave her some money and she brought Fufi out. The other kid, who thought Fufi was Spotty, had to watch his mother sell the dog he thought was his. Now he started crying. “Spotty! No! Mom, you can’t sell Spotty!” I didn’t care. I just wanted Fufi back.
Once Fufi saw Panther she came right away. The dogs left with us and we walked. I sobbed the whole way home, still heartbroken. My mom had no time for my whining.
“Why are you crying?!”
“Because Fufi loves another boy.”
“So? Why would that hurt you? It didn’t cost you anything. Fufi’s here. She still loves you. She’s still your dog. So get over it.”
Fufi was my first heartbreak. No one has ever betrayed me more than Fufi. It was a valuable lesson to me. The hard thing was understanding that Fufi wasn’t cheating on me with another boy. She was merely living her life to the fullest. Until I knew that she was going out on her own during the day, her other relationship hadn’t affected me at all. Fufi had no malicious intent.
I believed that Fufi was my dog, but of course that wasn’t true. Fufi was a dog. I was a boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what I’ve felt about relationships for the rest of my life: You do not own the thing that you love. I was lucky to learn that lesson at such a young age. I have so many friends who still, as adults, wrestle with feelings of betrayal. They’ll come to me angry and crying and talking about how they’ve been cheated on and lied to, and I feel for them. I understand what they’re going through. I sit with them and buy them a drink and I say, “Friend, let me tell you the story of Fufi.”

8 Robert

While I know nothing of my dad’s life before me, thanks to my mom and just from the time I have been able to spend with him, I do have a sense of who he is as a person. He’s very Swiss, clean and particular and precise. He’s the only person I know who checks into a hotel room and leaves it cleaner than when he arrived. He doesn’t like anyone waiting on him. No servants, no housekeepers. He cleans up after himself. He likes his space. He lives in his own world and does his own everything.

Part II

14 A Young Man’s Long, Awkward, Occasionally Tragic, and Frequently Humiliating Education in Affairs of the Heart, # Part III: The Danc

I went to my mom and begged her to give me money to buy something to wear for the dance. She finally relented and gave me 2,000 rand, for one outfit. It was the most money she’d ever given me for anything in my life. I told Sizwe how much I had to spend, and he said we’d make it work. The trick to looking rich, he told me, is to have one expensive item, and for the rest of the things you get basic, good-looking quality stuff. The nice item will draw everyone’s eye, and it’ll look like you’ve spent more than you have.

Tim had promised he’d get me a beautiful date for the dance, but he hadn’t made any promises about any of her other qualities. Whenever we were together, she was speaking Pedi to Tim, and Tim was speaking English to me. But she didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Pedi. Abel spoke Pedi. He’d learned several South African languages in order to deal with his customers, so he’d spoken with her fluently when they met. But in that moment I realized I’d never actually heard her say anything in English other than: “Yes.” “No.” “Hi.” “Bye.” That’s it: “Yes.” “No.” “Hi.” “Bye.”
Babiki was so shy that she didn’t talk much to begin with, and I was so inept with women that I didn’t know how to talk to her. I’d never had a girlfriend; I didn’t even know what “girlfriend” meant. Someone put a beautiful woman on my arm and said, “She’s your girlfriend.” I’d been mesmerized by her beauty and just the idea of her—I didn’t know I was supposed to talk to her. The naked women on my computer, I’d never had to talk to them, ask them their opinions, ask them about their feelings. And I was afraid I’d open my mouth and ruin the whole thing, so I just nodded and smiled along and let Tim do the talking.

15 Go Hitler!

Hitler, although an unusual name, is not unheard-of in South Africa. Part of it has to do with the way a lot of black people pick names. Black people choose their traditional names with great care; those are the names that have deeply personal meanings. But from colonial times through the days of apartheid, black people in South Africa were required to have an English or European name as well—a name that white people could pronounce, basically. So you had your English name, your traditional name, and your last name: Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. Nine times out of ten, your European name was chosen at random, plucked from the Bible or taken from a Hollywood celebrity or a famous politician in the news. I know guys named after Mussolini and Napoleon. And, of course, Hitler.
Westerners are shocked and confused by that, but really it’s a case of the West reaping what it has sown. The colonial powers carved up Africa, put the black man to work, and did not properly educate him. White people don’t talk to black people. So why would black people know what’s going on in the white man’s world? Because of that, many black people in South Africa don’t really know who Hitler was. My own grandfather thought “a hitler” was a kind of army tank that was helping the Germans win the war. Because that’s what he took from what he heard on the news. For many black South Africans, the story of the war was that there was someone called Hitler and he was the reason the Allies were losing the war. This Hitler was so powerful that at some point black people had to go help white people fight against him—and if the white man has to stoop to ask the black man for help fighting someone, that someone must be the toughest guy of all time. So if you want your dog to be tough, you name your dog Hitler. If you want your kid to be tough, you name your kid Hitler. There’s a good chance you’ve got an uncle named Hitler. It’s just a thing.
At Sandringham, we were taught more about World War II than the typical black kids in the townships were, but only in a basic way. We weren’t taught to think critically about Hitler and anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We weren’t taught, for instance, that the architects of apartheid were big fans of Hitler, that the racist policies they put in place were inspired, in part, by the racist policies of the Third Reich. We weren’t taught how to think about how Hitler related to the world we lived in. We weren’t being taught to think, period. All we were taught was that in 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and in 1941 he invaded the Soviet Union and in 1943 he did something else. They’re just facts. Memorize them, write them down for the test, and forget them.

16 The Cheese Boys

If you add up how much you read in a year on the Internet—tweets, Facebook posts, lists—you’ve read the equivalent of a shit ton of books, but in fact you’ve read no books in a year. When I look back on it, that’s what hustling was. It’s maximal effort put into minimal gain. It’s a hamster wheel. If I’d put all that energy into studying I’d have earned an MBA. Instead I was majoring in hustling, something no university would give me a degree for.