(by Gillian Black)
I was born in Zimbabwe in the 1970s—a time of civil conflict known as the Rhodesian Bush War, which ultimately led to the end of the white minority-led government. We had a privileged lifestyle, living in large houses, with nannies and housekeepers and a private pool. But food was rationed, and there was never enough of anything for our family of six.
My father, a civil engineer, was serving in the army. I remember being terrified when he would return home after having been in the bush for months on end. He looked completely wild, unshaven, filthy, with a look in his eyes that I would later understand as “the thousand-yard stare.”
I often felt like the black sheep in our family, and had a strange relationship with my mother. There were frequent violent beatings from my father, and my mother never intervened. After many years of therapy and introspection, I came to realize that she enabled the abuse. She constantly threatened me with “Wait until your father gets home” for the slightest infraction in behavior, and did nothing to stop the bullying by my two older sisters and brother.
My mother, a devout Catholic, insisted on my sisters and me attending a convent preschool for girls. Being painfully shy and a loner, I would seek solace in the chapel on our breaks from class, but was quite horrified by the idea that the man covered in blood, nailed to the cross with a crown of thorns on his head, was there because of my sins. I felt awful about my part in his torture, so I sang—always the same song, basically a repeat of the word “Amen” in varying tones. I would sing until I heard the school bells calling us back to class.
One day at assembly, I was called to the front. I was full of anxiety as I walked toward the nun standing onstage, sure that I had done something wrong. So it was with much surprise that I heard I was being given a prize for singing to God in the chapel every day. Unbeknownst to me, my solo choruses had been secretly witnessed by many of the school's nuns. My prize was a coupon for milk. I was over the moon—both praise and milk were rare for me. After the assembly, I rushed out and exchanged the coupon for a packet of milk at the tuck shop, then returned to the sanctuary of the chapel to drink it.
I was about to tear the packet open when I suddenly froze, with the thought of my mother. I knew she would want me to share the treat with my family. I vacillated between the promise of instant gratification to overwhelming guilt.
Gratification won. I attacked the corner of the plastic packet with my teeth, pierced it, and reveled in delight as I gulped down the delicious creamy milk. I drank it in one go and with such speed that I almost choked. I can still taste it today—one of the most exquisite foods I’ve ever had. After swallowing the last drop, I looked around me to make sure I was still alone before scrunching up the now empty packet until it was completely concealed in my hand. Then, feeling much like a criminal leaving the scene of the crime, I quickly knelt down, made the sign of the cross, and scurried out.
I ran to the convent's parking lot, and saw my mother sitting in her car, furious that I was late. I apologized, and during the drive home, I stared out the window in stony silence. I sadly began to realize that, by keeping the milk a secret, I had forfeited the possibility of telling my mother, or any of my family, that I had won a prize in school that day. It was the first praise, let alone prize, I had ever been given in my seven years, and I regarded my vow of silence as my penance.
For years afterward, the abuse at the hands of my family became abuse from my (now ex-) husband, plus substance addiction, cutting and self-harming, and chronic depression. I was in and out of asylums often. You can only imagine what the asylums in a third world country are like. Each time my family signed me over to the government and into one of these run-down facilities, I was basically left for dead, often the only white person, with no form of security or segregation between men and woman. My mother always seemed to be near, offering sweet words like "This too shall pass," and I believed she was the only one who really loved me, but came to realize that she did nothing to help.
I started dreaming of clowns as a little girl, waking up to draw pictures of the dream as best I could with pencils and charcoal. There were always two different kinds of clowns in my dreams, one I called light, the other dark. One was full of love, the other full of masked hate. I covered my bedroom walls with these pictures. But one day I returned from school to find my walls were bare. I was told that they were "too disturbing,” so they were removed. Later my psychiatrist explained that they were in fact "too revealing.”
Food continues to be a somewhat bittersweet subject to me. As a single woman, living alone, I confess that I often regard eating as an annoying necessity, and am now a true connoisseur of super-food protein milkshakes. But as a performing artist, presenting a show as “Ingo the Clown” for the underprivileged children of Zimbabwe, I’m well aware of the tragedy of starvation that goes on in many nations, as well as in private homes behind closed doors. (“Ingo” is a variation of the nickname I was given when I worked in a treehouse safari bush camp because I would always stand up to the bullying owner. The African Zulu men called me "Ngwando,” singing: "Ngo! Ngo Ngwando! Ngwando Special! Sharp Sharp Ngwando!" It’s a tribal name for a female warrior, and no matter how many times she is beaten down, she gets back up stronger than before.
Although my parents are both British, and I too have a British passport and citizenship, I consider myself as a “White African.” I have come to a place of compassionate understanding about my family—strangely, perhaps, my mother the most. Her own childhood was very abusive, and I now understand the multigenerational nature of abuse. Although I am ostracized by my siblings and have no contact with their families, I message my mother now and then. She is quite elderly, and I do not feel any malice. If I see her, I offer her a glass of my nourishing protein milkshake. The philosophy that allows me to find peace and acceptance is simply: "Hurt people hurt people.”