I don’t know the man in my father’s drawer, but I know what he can do for me — what he can bring to my mouth full of want to coerce happiness back into my life. So, I slide open the drawer, pull it towards me like a hand so this becomes a gift — the man inside the drawer worth twenty Pulas. I don’t yet know guilt, not even as I find other faces of men on two other notes. I will walk away from my father’s office with P80 in my hand and a plan for an endless summer afternoon.
As a child, you learn to regard delicacies as treats. When my mother would leave me at the village with my grandmother for school holidays, my syrupy mouth full of sticky sweetness, I did not understand this as a bribe — as a negotiation with my separation anxiety. As soon as she was gone, I’d find a secluded place to mourn her absence, nothing but the comfort of the popsicle in my mouth. I didn’t understand what the treat was for, considering I’d done no good but throw tantrums with the heavy fear that I’d never see my mother again. I felt a deep sense of abandonment that no grandmother’s potpourri scented arms and house could lift.
That afternoon, me and my sister treated ourselves to garlic Cheetos, pies, and two king cans of Coke. No one asked where we got the money or why we did not wait till we got home to eat. We delighted in the sweet and savory food and to this day, I do not think my sister got from the experience what I did. Knowing now how her appetite has always been a waning thing, I know I ate more than she did. With every bite into the fatty pie, I felt more whole. I was in the moment and nothing could ruin it. I dug into the Cheetos bag like it was the last supper until my hand met the silvery bottom of the bag. I felt a hollowness engulf me. Turned to see my sister satiated but unchanged. Having no words to pull her into the geography of this profound loss and longing I felt, I just asked for the last of her Coke which she gladly gave.
Under the streetlights in 1368 street, the children played till dusk crept up on their unsuspecting realizations. They stayed when the lamps’ doubtful lights coughed their first flickers, stayed longer when they spilled their lights on their ashy bodies. If no adult came to summon any of them, the games would continue. On evenings like these, I too stayed till my father came calling. Though I feared him, I knew to read his voice for danger, a cane perhaps, waiting to meet my bare body, or a wet bath towel on his hungry hand. His beatings were ugly, his rage more violent. But sometimes he called me Ndo and then I knew I could feign absent mindedness for a minute and finish one last round of dibeke. When he called the second time, he wasn’t my father, he was a businessman making an offer, come with me and we will go eat out for dinner. So, I left everything to join him, more for the promise of good food than anything else. Of course, we didn’t go to GrandPalm where they served my favorite potato chips with a generous squeeze of tomato sauce. Instead, I went to bed with a warm tummy of maize meal and Inkomazi. Needless to say, I was gutted.
I don’t know why or when food became my go-to for everything. When younger, I was praised for a voracious appetite, but I don’t think anyone associated anything else with it. I was just a child, and everyone loves a child with a healthy appetite and a plump little body to go with it. When I got older and could buy myself my own treats, I noticed a new feeling associated to my eating. It was no longer just the glorious satisfaction when eating or the harrowing hollowness that followed after. There was a small animal of shame that would ride on my back like the Chicken Licken advert’s craving monkey. With every purchase, every bite, there was a compulsion to hide it. A chocolate bar would be eaten from my handbag till it finished, a large meal would require a closed-door and something to watch for distraction. I have always loved the company of my loved ones but, when eating, I did not want such. And it had nothing to do with sharing either because I could part with some of the food as long as we all went to our different corners to eat.
When lockdown came and there was nothing much to do, it was food that grounded me. Cook. Sit. Eat. Then wash pots so you can have something to cook with. Apply for a movement permit so you can go buy food. Eat. Sleep because what’s there to do after eating? Then repeat. This cycle continued uninterrupted but, with it, I noticed the emotions around it more which led to even more shame. I still didn’t know what to name this need, this cycle of satiation and constant pursuit. I noticed even as life went back to normal that I looked forward to lunch or tea time at work. As soon as I was done with one meal, I was already planning my next one, already stressed I don’t have enough money for meat or chocolate desserts.
And of course, you can’t be intimate with food this way without the waist bearing testament to it all. Writing this, I’m reminded of Vuyelwa Maluleke’s line from Black Girl and Other Poems. “They envy your audacity to love your food so publicly”, which speaks to a bigger girl. I have to say though, I’ve never particularly had a problem with being a big girl. I am never surprised by my clothes size or the numbers on the scale, I guess because I know why. And this is not to say I care less about my appearance. But even in my adolescent years, my only concern was the unsolicited opinions of both friends and strangers about my being fat or clothes being tighter. Hardly about my eating (perhaps because most of it I did it in private). It didn’t help my esteem issues but I still couldn’t explain the shame I had around my eating. I developed a quick tongue for those needing to be hurled back from crossing boundaries and talking about my body.
I don’t know if I eat much more now than ever before or if I’ve just gotten aware of my unhealthy relationship with food. But I know the warmth of comfort that washes over me when I’m eating my favorite food while watching something on Netflix, The Chair or Greenleaf maybe. I know the emptiness I feel when I get up to go wash my plate. And oh! What work I must do now, to dig myself out from under the pile of every unhealthy meal I’ve ever reached out to. I know now, having confronted my shame, there is a new feeling of fear, because something deeper has to lie beneath this food obsession. But what do I know about healthy coping habits? Who will I be if a bigger monster lies beneath this gluttonous escaping, when my emotional management emerges as just a stunted soldier unable to slaughter the beast?