Jabulile Bongiwe Ngwenya writes a letter from her 80-year-old self — and finds her way forward

Darling Jabu,

Take a moment to be with me. Sit down. Let go of the worries. When we’re done here you can always go back to them. But for now, feel the usefulness and agility of your body. Put your hand to your heart and feel it beating. Enjoy what it feels like to walk about without any groaning in your hips or knees. Let your eyes wander where they may, enjoying all you can see. Delight in yourself as you are right now.

Growing up sucks balls, doesn’t it? I won’t beat about the bush. I don’t get to do this often. Your full attention is not something you give to me easily. Young people can be so foolish, looking at us “old people”, never thinking their bodies or minds will give in at some stage. It’s a good thing, I suppose, because it shows you delight in your youth. But let’s not fool ourselves: nothing lasts forever.

You’ll get over the pain of losing the one you now think is the love of your life. And, as unimaginable as it may seem right now, you’ll love again. Believe me, it’ll be better the next time. You’re getting past that inconsequential desire to have your knees turn to jelly and to look at love through rose-coloured glasses. It has its place, that puppy love, but you’ll soon find that love, when it’s real and more mature, increases in companionship, in sharing, in giving, in being free. Take your time and get to know the other person. And when you’re in doubt about their intentions, stand back and reflect. You’ll save yourself days, weeks, of pain. In your case it tends to be months because you wear your heart on your sleeve and take an odd pleasure in suffering.

There’s nothing pleasurable about suffering. You deserve a lifetime of happiness. You know that, don’t you? But you always punish yourself.

You punish yourself for wanting happiness, for wanting to be rich, for wanting the kind of sex that leaves you radiantly exhausted. I miss that, I tell you. Half of the time these old men can’t see the destination so I amuse myself with memories of what it feels like to be touched, loved and have my body adored as if it were a shrine.

Memories are good, but don’t make them your prison. Live, darling. But don’t live in your head. Live in your heart and in the world. In the quiet moments memories are the old photographs you take out and look at, but then put them back where they belong and move on. An ending is an ending for a reason. Feel the pain for a while, then let it go. As long as you have breath in your lungs there’s a beginning somewhere. So find it. Make it your own! You look around you now and wish you were like the others. I hate that you constantly hurt yourself and believe you’re not good enough. You don’t have that fiery temper for nothing. By Jove, you’re amazing — a little on the dreamy side, but you need to get that that’s what makes you you.

Don’t be afraid to stand out. Let that awkward baritone voice be heard. Let your spirit soar. Follow your heart even if it takes you to unknown, uncomfortable places. Strangely, it’s always in those moments that you find comfort because you’ve found yourself. Be uncomfortable every day; comfort is so boring and you hate being bored. And for heaven’s sake, stop trying to fix every unbroken thing and sometimes let things stay broken. If you can, fix it, but if it’s broken beyond repair throw it aside and find something else to play with. The world is full of amusing toys.

Continue to be an explorer of worlds. Continue to carve your own path. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Behave badly. Take those naked photographs of yourself you’ve been wanting to take for so long. At my age it would be nice to look back and see how gorgeous I looked before the arthritis, inflamed joints, gammy ankles, the wrinkles and sagging boobs.

Love hard and fiercely, throw all your worth into a cause you believe in. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Stand for something and believe in yourself. If you’re going to give something up, give up those darned cigarettes and the need to please everyone. Both are extremely bad for you. They both cause death — of body and spirit. Now, if you really need to, go back to your incessant problems. I’ll be loving you no matter what.

Love, Jabu at 80


Jabulile Bongiwe Ngwenya

Jabulile Bongiwe Ngwenya is a photojournalist with a BA honours degree in English language and literature. She’s written extensively for national and international publications in the areas of travel, lifestyle, finance and social commentary. In 2009 she published the controversial and critically acclaimed novel, I Ain’t Yo Bitch. In 2010 she collaborated with Denise Slabbert and Pat Hopkins to produce The South African Fact Book, published by Penguin Books. Ngwenya lives in Johannesburg and is working on her second novel and third non-fiction book. She plans to visit every country in the world before she dies.