This Is Only the Beginning
Busamoya Phodiso Modirwa
I am aware of the piercing dark eyes behind me – their heavy gaze fixated on my every move. When I walk through the corridors, they trail behind, lurking. I have never seen them, but the same way I know my shadow is faithful to my body, I know they are there. I do not tell anyone about them because who would believe me when I cannot describe the face they belong to, the body, the intention? But I know, I do not have to look back to legitimise their existence.
This is my first month in university and it already feels too long.
The lump in my throat knows when I have company. Wills itself to the pit of my stomach where I can have a name for it to explain my holding my abdomen. ‘Period pains,’ I say. Friends understand when I miss lessons, one of them writes my first major assignment and submits it for me. I get an A.
A month into the semester, my legs fail to carry me to a Physics lesson that is supposed to be a core course. They leave me outside the lecture hall and preoccupy themselves with shaking. I will later drop the course to relieve myself of the 22-credit load. There is a succession of tests lining up against me like hitmen, and after every one of them, I return badly wounded but alive. Everything happens fast and the fails even faster.
The only life outside of school that I know is in my father’s house in Gaborone West where I visit most weeks to sit silently while he cooks. His natural cheer fails to pull me into a chatty mood. I make an attempt to be interactive but all my answers meet their dead ends ahead of me. When he asks about school, a lump grows in my throat. I do not know this as anxiety yet. My hand catches a stray tear before it trails the soft of my cheek. I want to tell him I don’t understand what is going on, that I am afraid and cannot understand anything during lectures, but he has so much faith in his straight A daughter. I feel guilty because I don’t want to take that away from him. All the energy I have is for holding the waters apart like a Moses so a somewhat normal Phodiso can walk dry to this dining table. To appreciate my father’s efforts, I eat in silence because any word mentioned could be what floods this house. I do not recognise this as anxiety because what is anxiety? I listen to my father talking endlessly about Prophet William, God, and women: their need to sit quietly in church; their need to let men preach, let them pray, let them lead the way to heaven. I wear dresses when I come here because no daughter of my father will wear the devil’s clothes. Although I don’t believe in this gospel, I believe in my father and that faith does not allow me to anger him.
The next semester catches me waddling through the university gates sore with a debilitating heartbreak. Catches me with a post-breakup glow that suggests okay-ness. But I confront this facade one evening on my way from visiting Goitse, a male friend who happens to be my lab partner. Earlier in class, he saw me discreetly wipe a tear and playfully said, “Girl, keep it together. We can schedule a crying party in my room later.” This is not my first lesson at scheduling my breakdowns. Of course, I go to his room later, assuming he was serious, but it turns out to have been just a thing he said. Still, we talk about our little problems. He cries about his first, and I assume it’s safe for me to cry later, here, in the presence of another human being. A stretch for me. When my turn comes to cry, the tears do not come. I speak endlessly about my loser ex who broke my heart and humiliated me. I talk about my father’s anger issues which tie into mine. I talk about everything but my anxiety. Everything but my insomnia, everything but the piercing black eyes.
I know I am going to fail but I cannot reconcile that with myself. All my school years, I have always been able to catch up, to exceed pass, to make a plan to understand even the most daunting subjects. It does not make sense why I feel this stupid here, so I spend all my free time studying the sciences and English texts.
Alone with my sister in her dorm room, I wish I could be honest with her since she is the only person I am close to. If not about struggling with my studies then at least about this lump in my throat. About the way I am always exhausted and cannot seem to shake this feeling of impending doom off me, I hint to her that the ship is sinking and she oars me on with her words: “You will make it sis. You have always been smarter than me” I think she means well but I have never been comforted by self-deprecating compliments. When I leave her room, I regurgitate her words back to myself, try to make myself believe in the Christ sacrificed in them – my sister.
When we left the room with Goitse, outside became a familiar new world where everything hid in plain sight. I recognised the tennis courts by 476, the road before them, the trees. I could see the science block and the girls’ blocks but not the ground they stood on. For the life of me I tried to remember where I was but could not figure it out. Through all this, Goitse keeps telling me how grateful he is that I visited him, that my ex can go to hell, and we’re going to be fine, “After all we are here,” he says, “In UB ntwana, we’re making it.” I am not making it until I’m close to tears and that’s when the veil lifts and I am sensible again. I ugly cry my way to my room, leaving Goitse standing there alone. We never talk about it again.
For some reason I pass the semester and somehow feel betrayed. When you’re struggling with something, you want to win but the possibility of failure gives you hope that you could at least rest. Or try again and this time have a better chance. I promise myself next semester I will use the university’s free counselling sessions.
Calculus is fighting me and I am not winning. I’ve made a new friend in another group and she seems pretty good at every module so I am going to ask for help from her. When I arrive in her room, she is with four of her classmates who must be really good at Calculus too. I make this assumption because our examination is the following week yet there is no text book in sight. Instead they are all discussing the fashion sense of some of their classmates like girls are wont to at some point. The moment I step in it feels like I just walked into a packed auditorium. My showing up is me lifting my hand to answer a question I know I cannot get right. I turn around as soon as I step in. I meant to at least say hello but even that word gets stuck in my throat. I walk back to my room angry at myself because, when did we start being this timid? This afraid? Oh we can’t speak now?
The woman I have come to ask for help from is a strong Assemblies of God pastor. I find her house without the aid of directions because despite our appointment, her phone was off this morning, but I needed help. It is intent, more than anything else, that brought me here. When I left my room at the university, I felt the familiar eyes watching me again. Heavier this time. I told myself there is no way I am coming back still riddled by this haunting being. I wanted it all to end, so to turn back because I could not find the pastor’s house was not an option. The first thing the woman notices about me is my black nail polish, which she says is demonic. I spend the rest of the session discreetly scratching it off my nails.
“I don’t know what is going on with me,” I say.
“It is for God to know my child, just try describe it,” the pastor responds. She is so calm it makes her glow, and I wonder if she understands the gravity of my plight.
“Well, I feel like there are eyes watching my every move. I feel exhausted all the time and although I work hard, all my school assignments seem daunting to me.” The words escape my mouth and I all of a sudden feel a little stupid. Nothing I just said sounds serious enough to require the audience of an adult let alone a pastor but I sit in my small shame. I go on about my episodes of hyperventilating before lessons or during my assignments.
“Phodiso, there is nothing to be afraid of my child. You’re just having trouble adjusting to university demands but you will be ok. There is nothing prayer cannot fix.” So we pray – I mean she prays while I sob uncontrollably in her arms. She covers me with the blood of Jesus so the lurking eyes will not find me. She also prays for me to find myself again and that I adjust to my new reality. I leave with renewed hope but I never adjust.
That evening when I get home, I make it an aim to get rid of the demonic nail polish. I pick it from my makeup bag where I usually keep it with my burgundy and nude one. I take a walk behind the block looking for an ideal way to divorce myself from this connection to evil that I have. Along my path, I throw the bottle of nail polish against the concrete side of a trench and watch it shatter into black bloom. I think I feel the eyes behind be blink because a feeling of ease almost engulfed me but right away I feel the eyes on me again.
The morning of the Animal Biology exam, I am fast asleep in my room. My timetable says there is only one afternoon exam today so I plan to wake up at 10am to brush up for it. To my surprise when I get to the exam room at five minutes to two, neither one of my classmates are there. I wait around thinking they will show up but nothing. Just to make sure I am not mistaken, I check the timetable on the notice board which shows Animal Biology has been written at 8am. This cannot be true, I think to myself. I rush back to my room and only then do I realise the time table I have is a draft! I do not know how this happened but I forgive myself for this small ignorance that will cost me much.
School is already a struggle, and I know missing an exam is not going to make it any easier so it does not come as a surprise when I fail my third semester. The local library in Kanye will let me access this revelation a few weeks later. When I get my results, I am somehow relieved to know I have failed. The tears do not come until I see my mother who outstretches her arms because mothers always know what to do. I don’t yet know the avalanche of adulthood coming for me, the mammoth task of self-discovery waiting for me now without distraction. I am not yet the poet or the accountant, not yet free from the piercing black eyes. Right now, I only know my mother’s arms. This is only the beginning.
Busamoya Phodiso Modirwa is a Motswana writer and poet with works published on The Kalahari Review, Ake Review, Jalada Africa, The Weight Of Years: An Afroanthology of Creative Nonfiction, Praxis Online Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of the Botswana President’s Award-Contemporary Poetry 2016 and recently completed her poetry residency at the Gaborone Art Residency Centre in Gaborone, Botswana.
*Image by Anaya Katlego on Unsplash