Awethu woke up to the sound of the ocean rolling in. He hadn’t heard that rhythmic rumble in almost a year, to this day. His birthday. Sweet 16. There would be cake with candles and all his family – from cousins to uncles to aunties to his parents and grandparents – would sing and wish him well. After he blew them out, they would all walk, together, into the sea. Everyone would splash around, some even swim – all except for him and his parents. His mother would be on his left, his father on his right, holding on to his hands as the water lapped his feet. It was like this every year.
Until he turned 18. The magic age when he would be allowed a bath. A proper one, where he could sink his head under the water and blow bubbles as much as he liked. When he could learn to swim, maybe learn to surf like some of his cousins, or sail, or paddle a canoe.
But not this year. It was still “too dangerous”.
“You are our gift from God,” his parents always said. “We promised to take care of you.”
At school, his parents made sure he was excused from activities such as swimming, due to his “chronic condition”. It was some weird skin problem that made his skin darker than that of anyone else in the family, and, supposedly, as fragile as tissue paper. It was why his parents escorted him into the sea, one on each side, every year, in case the experience was “overwhelming”.
Isolating, is what he called it, if anyone had bothered to listen. It set him apart from other people. Different. Deep down, it always felt as if something was missing, a bit of him-ness, lost. An inner yearning, which he hardly dared to admit, wanted him to find this lost puzzle piece, or fix it, whatever it took to be him, in his entirety.
Over the years he’d looked all over the internet for information on this supposed “condition”, but found nothing. “How do you know I haven’t grown out of it already?” he’d inquire.
“We know,” is all they would say.
He hated whatever his mysterious condition was. Was sick and tired of bathing with wet wipes and using hand sanitiser. Nor was it cute anymore to be walking into the sea, hand in hand, with his mommy and daddy. He was going to look ridiculous, 16 years old, towering over parents.
So this year he said, “Why don’t we skip going to the coast? Let’s just have my birthday in the city, with my friends?”
His parents’ eyes had bugged out like he’d suggested they stop going to church. “It’s tradition,” they’d replied.
“Why?” he’d asked. Seemed like a fair question. It was not like any of his cousins had this tradition. The ones that didn’t live at the coast didn’t make special trips there for their birthdays. No way. They celebrated in Joburg, like normal people did: going to movies, having sleep-overs, bouncing on giant trampolines, and these days, having big parties where you danced with people your own age, maybe sneaking in a kiss.
“I’m not going,” he told his parents.
His mother’s eyes filled with tears. “I waited too long to have you, to break my promises.”
He assumed she meant to God. But where in the Bible does any woman yearning to be a mother promise: “Thou shalt keep this child out of the water, except on his birthday, at which time only his feet may get wet.”
Nowhere, that’s where.
Tell us: Why do you think Awethu isn’t allowed to get wet all over?