The Human Factor

HAND-ME-DOWNS

In January,
birthdays are celebrated
with a bucket of KFC, a simple cake and Coca-Cola.
Schools open in January, so do not even consider throwing a party;
if you were allowed to invite your friends from next door,
you were lucky.

But even with January syndrome,
we made sure to not attend the first day of school
in our November uniform or December braids,
even if they were still in good condition.
Everything had to be brand new: hair relaxed or shaved,
Vaseline so thick it could withstand any and all weather.
We were shiny and hopeful.
For what?
We did not know.
From our hairline to our toenails, we were new.

The first day of school was always a contest,
a competition that secretly bulldozed some wallets.
We side-eyed school shoes to see if they were a Toughee or Buccaneer.
The boys who wore Grasshoppers were cooler than cool.
The girls who did not adhere to the knee-length rule
were delinquents sent to detention.
Stationary was not complete until it came in a Waltons box.
Learning did not begin until your black book was covered in plastic and
something colourful.

New marked us, shaped our behaviour and postures.
New created an illusion that some haves had more than what they flashed.

Sacrifice made provision.
Sacrifice miraculously multiplied itself in the face of love or shame.
I come from a lineage of multiplication:
of manna from the sky,
of two fishes and five loaves,
of water turned into wine.
I also come from a lineage of borrowed and borrowing.
#e neighbour’s sugar was an open jar without a debt collector.

(sometimes) new was a luxury,
was impossible mailed to God via prayer.

The older sibling must wear their jersey with care and only on Sundays,
it will be yours in two years
was as new as it got (sometimes).

My oversized school uniform was a savings account in fabric.

If it was broken, it could be fixed.
If it was dead, it could be resurrected.
If was torn, it could be stitched.

If it was lost,
you—wi—ll—fi-nd-it-be-cau-se-mo-ney-does-not-gr-ow-on-tr——ees!

New was a synonym for wealthy, even if it was not true.
New was an adjective for anxiety.

The tension between new and second-hand
was like living in a house without a roof
and hoping that it did not rain,
crossing fingers that your No Name brand would not stick out
or talk or undress you in public.

The desire for new cultivated ugly habits,
wove desires in us
we could only articulate through imagination.

In our imagination,
we were brown bodies
living like kings in white people’s houses.
We were superheroes and skinny models
with white faces.
We were ordering desserts we could not pronounce
in accents that were not ours.
We were in aeroplanes that were going anywhere
but where we came from.

Even our blackness was unaffordable.
We were not too poor to afford a What if?
We were whens and hows and nows
and fingers snapping at a waiter to hurry up.

New
was
a
noose
we
used
to
cut
ourselves
off
from
reality.

I have inherited a lineage of hand-me-downs.
It has made me a mechanic and magician.
It has made my bank account a bucket with a hole.
Black tax is the water.
I have learnt how to say my glass is half-full even when it’s broken.
I also know how to clone myself.
Give, even when there is nothing left.
I have my grandparents’ leftovers in my habits.

Where I come from,
hand-me-downs were not always material things.
A six-hundred rand sneaker on the dinner table
was the manifestation of a hunger in us
that food could not fill.

When you are black and poor
and showing up in a system
that looks at you like you are
dirt.
Cheap.
Disposable.
Damaged.
Labour.
Talks to you like you are a hand-me-down.
Wears you out like you are a hand-me-down.
Walks on you like you are a hand–me-down.
Discards you like a hand-me-down.
We make ourselves poorer to appear rich.
We unlock ‘wealth’ with loans and debt
and lay-byes and Foschini accounts and bills
and a constant desire for more.
For better.
For new.

The system has us in shacks, wrestling with a hand-to-mouth syndrome.
Has us driving around squatter camps in a Mercedes.
It is always showing us
what we cannot have,
who we cannot be,
and what has been stolen from us.

Where I come from,
hand-me-downs were not always by choice.

(sometimes) it was all there was.
(sometimes) it was a love that
said: I kept this as good as new for you.
Said: Wear this memory with me.
Said: I will not be full if you are not eating.

(sometimes) hand-me-downs were a sacrifice that said:
I am here.
No matter the condition.

KOLEKA PUTUMA

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If you do not create change, change will create you.