The night before had been spent all around Bloemfontein, at the memorial museum, the movies, a pit stop at the office, and they had shared some laughs and beers with their ever so liberal friends. It had been a while since Palema felt anything besides joy, but she never forgot that winter would always come. Every breathtaking moment she had lived in the past few months would be stored away in a place somewhere in her heart for the dark days.
The morning of her great breakthrough was ironically the day she had needed to unpack some of the happy memories made with Thabo not too long ago. It was 04:30, and she figured a bath would help her beat the deafening silence and the drowning sadness, the dark days had arrived and she could feel her joy slipping away slowly, like she was fighting to hold on to reality but the darkness was pulling her in. She came out of the shower and drenched herself in a concussion of oils that left her skin a splendid glow and lingered in the room so that beyond her thoughts the smell helped her transcend for short spells of time. Everything around Palema seemed still, everything but her own mind. That morning as night turned into dawn she looked in the mirror and saw the light dim from her eyes and appear ever so punctually in the sky.
Palema had been the only one who could predict her episodes of darkness. She had never met anyone who could explain it. Depression was not a thing for 20-somethings year from Lesotho. To her people, that kind of darkness meant death. It meant something had to have gone horribly wrong. But, nothing had gone gravely wrong. The world just got dark for her, and Palema would never be able to explain this. She was a young, bright and accomplished social commentator, girlfriend, sister and daughter. She had a beautiful life sprinkled oddly with misfortune as lives sometimes are. She was living a good life with a tortured soul, another Black woman whose intersectionality of misfortunes and injustices had left her with depression. That morning when the light started to dim from her eyes, she unpacked the morning that she and Thabo had watched the sunrise over Bloemfontein. She got into one of Thabo’s T-shirts and for a few minutes all she did was lie in bed and replay her happy thought. Sleep eluded her until it was time to get out of bed and be normal again. She would have moments almost identical to this as the pressures of being Palema piled up in days to come.
Palesa and Palema had been inseparable since their first year at the University of the Free State. She would tell her best friend about the two incredibly fine but simple minded hotties that sat at the table adjacent to them in the coffee shop. They would later agree—after discussing the conversation on which Palema had eavesdropped—that those boys didn’t know any better than to be misogynistic pricks. They had both unfolded the multiple facets of being a girl and being a feminist the longer they stayed in Bloemfontein.
“Ausi, there is no room here for Basotho girls with big opinions and obscure accents, but we will make room. Right here in this Godforsaken town.” Palesa had said this once before, after Palema came home disillusioned by the omnipresent racism and the awful cultural stereotypes. That coffee shop date with Palesa was the last moment of normality Palema would see for a while. Her grand breakthrough came in the form of a phone call that she got on her way back to the car. The blue Chevrolet Spark had been a joint gift from her mother and uncles after she received her first degree. It was her most valued asset. 2nd avenue was a relatively quiet street on week days so she took a brisk stroll to the car, which was parked just one street over. It was one of the days when Bloemfontein weather made sense—warm with a breeze that was just right. It was like God had turned on the air conditioning that day. Palema’s skin was a luminous rich glow. She had completely forgotten her look of sadness hours before, that time when she stood in front of the mirror and willed herself to confront the impending darkness. Everything was in order that day.
“Okay sir, thank you so so much, I will see you tomorrow at 14:30, yes, thank you.” Palema had even forgotten to hang up the phone. She stood in complete wonder at what had just happened. After a quick victory dance, she realized that the walk to the car had ended at the same time as her phone call. Crossing the street in a slight jog, she unlocked her Chevvy Spark and scrambled in her bag for her cell phone. It was still in her hand. “I am going to lose my mind from excitement,” she said with a giggle.
“Homie, are you sitting down? I have news…?”
Thabo sounded like he was having a busy day but anything Palema had to say was more important. Good news was always a momentous occasion coming from Palema. She had always managed to dress even the smallest achievements with so much excitement that Thabo almost always DID actually sit for the good news, no matter how small they were.
“Alright I am sitting, what is going on?”
“The publishing company took up my book baby. I am going to have a book, a real one that you can touch and page through and accidentally spill your tea on.”
“Whaaaaat? This is amazing. I will meet you at our spot after work. We have to drink to this, and I mean DRINK!”
Thabo and Palema had been together for so long that their individual achievements had begun to feel like mutual victories. They had been together for so long that Thabo knew about Palema’s mild depression. She had told him. He was probably the only person in the world who knew, but he could never see the darkness creep in. Only she knew when it was near. Sometimes being a black young, semi-successful woman made her feel like there was no room for her condition. Her mother and her grandmother before that had both managed to raise beautiful families with full times jobs, great ambitions and highly active lives. There was absolutely no reason or explanation for Palema’s occasional drowning. Days had gone by since she first saw the light dim from her eyes. She had expected darker days to follow, but work kept her so busy that at times she would forget that she was unhappy. Her sadness was one that crept in and always promised to stay, but like an absent parent or a disappointing lover, it always managed to slip away and come back at its earliest convenience.
At the book launch of one of South Africa’s most promising novelists, Palema sat on a panel alongside a mutual friend of hers and Thabo’s. Derek was a big Ghanaian man with a strong accent and enticing opinions. He wore his dreads like a majestic mane, and if Palema was honest, he was one of the few exceptions to her “black man must rock short hair ONLY” rule. Growing up in Lesotho, dreadlocks, cornrows or anything that hung off the shoulders raised some skepticism in what would otherwise have been a promising squeeze. Derek wore his like they were meant to be there. He made Palema wish Thabo looked exactly like him. She dreamt too often of being one of the #BlackLove couples she fondly looked at on Tumblr. Between her very plain face and Thabo’s round body, she always figured theirs was the kind of love that you kept off social media. The truth is they were best friends. Their love was envied by many… this didn’t matter. During that panel discussion all she cared about was how clean and kinky Derek’s locks were.
Rocking a dress she had bought during one of her flea market escapades, Palema had reached within for the great thinker/writer that the world and her academic peers knew her so well for. The novel under consideration, “If The Mountains Spoke,” was based on the Chobediso marriage practice of Lesotho. Not many were interested in Lesotho-based fiction. When Palema caught wind of such a project outside of the Kingdom itself she was almost compelled to take part in the discussion. The visuals played in Palema’s mind as she sat in the middle of the blank stage that was used as the platform for discussion the night of the book launch. She had first read the book merely for entertainment purposes, to discover how compelling the story really was. She had come out of the book launch with even more question marks and blank looks. The discussion prompted new, deeper thoughts. The practice of Chobediso to Palema had always been absurd. Beyond anything it was a gross violation of a person’s human rights. Palema and her friends knew nothing about the details of the practice. It was close to home. She was a bit mad at herself for not knowing more. From that day on, self-edification on the practice was her new found interest/project. She had plenty of these projects stored away somewhere at the back of her mind. Life had been too busy to get them all done, but they included, taking up painting classes, underground theatre, running marathons and gardening. She missed gardening the most.
Thabo had been away for work for about 3 days now. She had kept count because her days were a little emptier without him, and she was honestly really eager for him to return before something called the darkness in. It was too late. The most unfortunate thing was that her Thabo was the trigger this time. She had been calling him for hours to no avail. She and Palesa had spoken about good for nothing boys over wine the day before. That conversation and Thabo’s absence brewed an unhealthy mixture of insecurities. The light was gone! Just like that Palema suddenly felt like the world was a little bit too much to deal with. She sat and cried over the stash of reading material she printed about the Chobeliso practice. In tragic cases, some of those girls never got to see their families again. One girl named Moleboheng was a virgin when her husband took her. She had wanted to stay that way. Moleboheng had gone from a budding young girl from Semonkong to a wife in the space of two days. As Palema read, she imagined the first night Moleboheng had spent in her new “home.” She pictured it dimly lit. In the evenings, it smelt like smoke and burning maize. The mornings were a blend of fresh cow dung and paraffin from the Primer stove they used to cook the night before. By the time she got half way through Moleboheng’s story, thoughts of Thabo creeping around on her had begun to consume her mind. Thoughts of the good for nothing ex boyfriends that had done horrendous things to her before were flashes in her mind and just like that the light was gone. Palema cried, softly for an hour. The next morning she woke up to no missed calls or messages from Thabo.
“Enoa e ba reng ke Thabo o ntloaela hampe.” She said loudly to herself.
It was a Saturday, and she wasn’t working today. She got up and did what she knew how to do most—camouflage the pain of her boyfriend’s absence and the torture of her past. She had read somewhere that what she was feeling was called relationship anxiety… the pain was far greater than Thabo. He just happened to be the closest thing to reignite it.
She switched on the radio and boiled the kettle while she jumped into the shower. She had dreamt of mornings like this back when her entire life could be packed up in two boxes. The space and the silence. Now that she had it, being alone in her 2 bedroom flat made her nervous. It made her light go off. Much like other times, Palema thought she was in control of her sadness until she sat by the window with her cup of tea and thought of how cruel the world could be. She cried… on days like this not even her journal could come to the rescue, not her journal, not a drink of wine, not a happy memory unpacked from the past. On days like this, she wanted to curl up in her bed and sleep. If she could, Palema would sleep forever. She didn’t want to die, No… but it would be a great relief if she could just remain asleep forever. Feeling depressed made her heart ache. It made her hands shake and her mind work overtime. The plan had been to go to the gym and head for an art opening after. She chose instead to find Thabo’s cleanest T-shirt and soak it in tears for the rest of the day.
“ Mfana, whenever you make it you won’t forget that I made you. I discovered all this talent.”
“ Your ass is amaaazing, but you still need to stay healthy, maybe you should join the gym and lose a few kgs.”
“Che Palema le senya chelete tsa batsoali ba lona hore, kannete ‘Mme a ka patala chelate e ngata hakaale hore o lo ithuta ho ngola sekolong?”
The voices of disapproval, criticism and insult played over and over and over again in Palema’s mind until she finally managed to fall asleep again. When she woke up, the sun was lower and the radio was now playing music that hurt her ears. She switched it off and walked across the soft new rug in her bedroom into the bathroom. She couldn’t tell yet if that small episode of tears and bad memories was all it took to make the sadness go away.
She returned to the bedroom—“Huuuuuuuumf”—took a deep sigh as she sank into the corner of her bed and checked her phone. Nothing from Thabo still. She tried to convince herself that he was still busy. Thabo wasn’t the reason for her sadness. He was just a trigger. When she had decided that there was a perfectly good explanation for his silence, Palema was saddened by something else.
“Why has it taken me so long to get my first book deal? How come everyone I graduated with is living a good life while I am living off a lousy salary with Black tax and the woes of an upcoming writer?” She wept. It had taken Palema a little longer to get to where she was than everyone around her. When people were frequenting business meetings and high-end jobs, she had been a cashier at Pick n’ Pay. This was about three years ago now. She sat, now right in the middle of her bed and cried a little more. Somehow from time to time Palema had always managed to convince herself that what she had achieved wasn’t enough. Not if you were a young black woman trying to revolutionize the world. When the light came back to her eyes, she would be upset at herself for thinking judging her based on her past.
Feeling depressed for Palema had become like a roller coaster ride. Some dips were deeper than others. She thought about the book launch again “If Mountains Spoke.” If she had been one of the girls that made up that anthology on Chobediso in Lesotho, if the mountains could tell HER story she wondered what they would say.”
If Mountains Spoke, they would say Palema grew up in a loving home with too much logic and not enough passion.
If Mountains Spoke, they would say Palema was a tortured soul from the moment she watched the life fade from her brother’s eyes the day he was shot by a car full of soldiers that belonged to the Lesotho Defence Force. ( He had been an honest cop at a tough time in Lesotho politics.)
If Mountains Spoke, they would say Palema could barely breathe every time she thought of losing a loved one, this was almost all the time.
If Mountains Spoke, they would say Palema had done everything she knew how to but still hadn’t given her mother a mansion and a new car.
If Mountains Spoke, they would say that the man who was meant to be Palema’s protector had tricked her into multiple sexual encounters only for her to realize that it had nothing to do with her and everything to do with the feeling.
If Mountains Spoke, they would say that being a Mosotho girl with a busy life and a tortured soul was hard for Palema, that it was painful to have body image issues, insecurities and fear of the unknown.
What Palema had may have been depression. It could have been bipolar, or an anxiety disorder. She had read up on it, and the lines were very blurry between all three. All she knew was that it was a dark and painful place to be.
When she was younger, she binged—to camouflage the darkness—on weed, on alcohol, sex, weed AND alcohol, and sometimes all three.
Now she sat in the emptiness of her flat and cried. When evening came she walked outside and headed as far down the street as possible. She gazed at the stars almost the entire time she walked, and she wondered why. Why the darkness crept in, and why she couldn’t find contentment and acceptance in what she already had. She talked to God, and for a moment she reminded herself of Halle Berry in Their eyes were watching God.
She was one of the few whose darkness never chose to stay but when it came made them feel helpless. Soon Palema would devote a lot of time to telling people that this wasn’t strange, that depression did exist in black communities, and that it was an illness as legitimate as any other.
The image in this is an adapted version of a photograph by Antonio Lirio via Flickr.