Long ago: The baby I never was
Kudala: Azange ndibe lusana

What does one remember first in life? Maybe a smell, a voice, the warmth of the skin of your mom? I try to remember and I can’t.

The first thing I remember is something I am ashamed of. Maybe that’s why I don’t want to remember. I want to forget. I don’t have a first nice memory in life. So, I actually don’t want to be reminded of when I was small, when I was even more tiny than most other babies. That, at least, is what I heard many years later from my Auntie Nompumelelo, the one I loved more than my own mom.

It’s painful that even she has rejected me now. That even she does not greet me on the street anymore . . .

But I promised myself to be honest with this book. I want to write it to become stronger. So, I have to be honest. Even if the truth is not nice.

Like – when I was a baby. I was not only tiny, much too small for my age; maybe I just did not want to be born at all. Because my mom is an alcoholic. Because I did not know how much I would have to struggle after birth. I probably wanted to stay inside my mom’s tummy. There, it must have been warm and safe – and, probably, I was never hungry. But maybe not even this is true – maybe I was afraid already in her womb. Can an unborn baby hear the shouting of the outside world? Is an unborn baby hungry when the mother is not eating but mostly just drinking?

Okay, enough uncertain thoughts. My first memory: me crying. All the time. Crying, crying, crying. And nobody comforting me. Nobody even looking at me. Let alone looking after me. So – I kept crying; crying, crying, crying. What a silly first memory of life.

My name, Mbu, is a short version of Mbuyiseli, which means in isiXhosa the one who returns something.

I once asked my mom why she gave me this name. She said:‘I never got anything from life . . . I hope to get something back from my children one day . . . maybe from you.’ She was sober when she said that and I almost wanted to say: yes, Mom, one day I want to give you a better life. But then I hesitated. And
finally I did not say a word. Because I thought: Mom, how can I give something back when I have never really received much from you? When I was hungry so many times; when I was alone so many times; when I was cold so many times.

Except for my first school uniform . . . that I will never forget. You bought me this yellow shirt, grey short pants and a pair of shiny black shoes. All new stuff. You made me so happy and proud that day! So yes, one day, when I earn my own money, I will give you back something. But only if you stop drinking, Mom. I don’t care about your boyfriend. But I don’t want you to use my money for drinking.

So, when my mom said that to me, about getting something back, I did not answer her. I kept silent. Next to crying, I was silent. First lesson in life: learn to control yourself. Don’t cry – and shut up. Be quiet. Don’t talk. It will only create trouble. Adults always know better. Adults, generally, don’t listen anyhow. So, what’s the sense of talking? Of sharing what you think, what you feel, what you dream of, what you are longing for?

Maybe you can share something with a friend. But not with your family. Not with your mother. And certainly not with the men she brings home. Shut up. Be quiet. Don’t cry. Put a neutral face on. A mask. That’s good. Then nobody can judge you easily. Even if they think you are stupid, because you don’t talk. Don’t worry. Just shut up.

That’s the way I thought for most of my life. I don’t think that way anymore. I’ve started to talk a bit in the place where I am now. Kind of the first home I’ve ever had. If home means – a safe place, where nobody will attack you. Where there is food without fighting. Where you can keep your own stuff safe and clean. Where people don’t gossip about you. Where you can sleep without fear. It was in this place that I started to write about my life. Because I know there are hundreds and thousands and millions of other kids out there who think they should shut up. Who think they are nothing. That they are just like rubbish. Dirty, hungry, stinking. It’s not true! Every child wants to be somebody. Wants to be listened to. Even every baby. And here is where my story starts…

Catch up with Mbu’s story tomorrow when you find out about his older brother and how he survived his early years.

Tell us what you think: Why do you think the title of this chapter in Mbu’s life is called ‘The baby I never was’?