In winter, the Amatola Mountains are a spectacle. Layered with crisp white snow, reminiscent of White Mountain cake frosting, warmly nestled in a blanket of hazy white fog. White, like the calamine-smeared faces and blankets of the abakwetha that trek the mountains for Ulwaluko. An age-old tradition known only to those who partake in it; related to the rest of us in speculation and rumours. The hike up the mountain, the symbolism of the rite of passage as proud young Xhosa boys surrender their names and clothes during their metamorphosis from boys into men.

I am remembering my older brother Kwezi now, who left as a boy in the winter of 2006 and returned only as a statistic: one of the 39 initiates who die every year from botched circumcisions during the ritual. Another boy in my class came back – a man I suppose, although he did not look much changed to me. He didn’t speak much about his time there, until some years had passed and finally he spoke, recounting horrific details of being violated and coerced into performing sexual acts by the overseers. My heart ached for him because I recognised myself in him. Pillow tainted with blood-stained tears and silent screams reverberating in my mind because no word or sound could succinctly describe my pain. I remembered my uncle who snuck in one afternoon as I lay in my grandmother’s room in his care and pressed himself into me. I suppose I couldn’t fault him much for his actions because he was just ‘being a man’. The way he was taught in the mountains.

For a long time, I didn’t think about what had happened that afternoon, until I left for boarding school in 2008. I had recoiled so deep into unhallowed confines of a dark place within me that I didn’t realise I had stopped trying. I welcomed any and every drug that would drown out the noise in my mind, even if just for a moment. Boarding school was the last desperate attempt at an intervention by my parents, who couldn’t understand where they had gone wrong with me. I was away. In a foreign place where I could remake myself into whomever I wanted to be and I was in control. In science, it is said that energy cannot be destroyed, it can only be changed from one form into another and so, I channelled all my negative energy into my school work, got involved in all the extracurricular activities the school had to offer and thrived, like a germinating seed.

Two years passed, and I received a bursary that would cover the rest of my school years and a radical thought happened upon me. If I carried on like this, I would never need people who had the potential to hurt me, to ever take care of me again. Once a week, all the recipients of the bursary were required to attend a mandatory educational support group meeting and in one such meeting, I met and grew fond of a girl who opened me up, who made me feel things I had up until that point thought I was only supposed to feel for a man. She too had been raped some years ago, had fallen pregnant and been kicked out of home, was diagnosed with HIV and still, her determination to be educated and do the best she could for herself and her child never wavered. I loved her even more for that. She healed me by teaching me how to love myself again by how much she loved herself.

I remember reading about Hellen Keller who fell ill as a child and was rendered deaf and blind. Her caregiver taught her how to read and write by letting her feel things and tracing the words of the thing she had just felt on her little hand. My pragmatism about faith and resilience is somewhat like this; being born blind and deaf but believing that there is a lot of life in the world that you force yourself to be a part of, despite circumstances. That even though you may not be able to see it at the time, somebody who cares about you wants to help you. So, don’t be too quick to judge a book by its cover because nothing is ever as it seems and what you see on the cover is nothing like the story inside.