There’s something about fitting rooms in clothing stores. There’s something about the way you brace yourself, subconsciously for what is to come. How you hold the items you spent hours or sometimes just moments inspecting, feeling, touching, close to your chest. As if in prayer for something miraculous to happen after you fit them. Some of the items you choose because they’re fashionable, because you love the look, you’re curious, you need them or you just want to try something new. At other times it’s an outfit you’ve wanted for a long, long time and have finally gathered enough courage to try it on for size.
There’s something about going into a changing room that is a little cathartic.
Like going into a confessional booth for those of you who are Catholic. Not that I’ve done it before, I’ve always wanted to do it, wondered how it must feel to confess all your sins to another person, but since I am not catholic I never did. So the changing room is the closest thing to a confessional I can possibly imagine. Because whether you like it or not, ready or not. It is in this tiny little room in the middle of three full length mirrors with the bright florescent light that you can see the truth about yourself. You can see your body in all its dimensions, every bump, bulge, blemish or stretch mark. It’s like seeing yourself again with new eyes, comparing what you actually look like in reality to the latest version of what you think or hope you look like.
In today’s terms the fitting room can be a place where you go to update your “software”.
Sometimes you find exactly what you’re looking for and it does everything you’ve imagined a garment should do for you when you wear it. In those times you’re very happy, excited even, pleased to be yourself. You can even start dancing, imagining an occasion in which you’ll wear it and how awesome you’ll look. Or you could fall so deeply in love that you don’t even want to ever get out of this garment, it has become a part of you, essential like the air you breathe. Perhaps you start to dance and even strut your stuff. And smile, and the happiness that you feel draws people closer, because now you’re confident enough to walk out of the changing room, you already know you look good. You can feel it. The compliments you receive are just an icing on your already very delicious cake. It was during one of these rare but beautiful moments watching my mother change from one garment to another with youthful abandon, with each one bringing out a surprising side of her, from mature elegance to a youthful, sporty, dancing queen that I started to view the fitting room in a different light.
As a metaphor perhaps, for life itself.
The changing room can be an emotional space. Where strangers commiserate with one another, like patients in doctor’s waiting room. Here they can, if you allow them, bare witness to your struggle, tell you that you look good, or to try another size or colour or style, length. Or even notice something about yourself that you can’t see or were never aware of or thought of as beautiful. I started to see it like a special space, a special time. And just as I was musing on this idea, the lady at the fitting room came to see what my mother was so excited about. They knew each other, because my mother is a regular at the shop. Both in their late fifties they started talking about how age is nothing but a number. How they spent most of their lives taking care of husbands and children that they never quite had time to enjoy just being, women. The fitting lady went further and started to share her story with us in one single breath…
“I was not always this size”
She says with pride. “My breasts used to be double this size, my family used to call me Dolly Parton because I had such huge big breasts” she says motioning over her already large boobs tucked into a tight and short maroon store uniform. “You see my thighs?” she says pointing down at the legs “they were double this size, I was huge big! You see?” she says as she leans against the partitioning walls. “I was big because I had lost too many people in my life” She says and started counting, while my mother looked at her through the mirror “My first husband died at work, he was a head of the bakery at checkers, my second husband died just here, he was a Chubb security guard, My brother, My sister, My son, too many people. So I got depressed and I was on anti-depressants which made me bigger and bigger and bigger. I was always ill. Until one day I said God help me and threw them all in the toilet. Look at me now!” she said showing off a long light skinned legs. “My sons are doing well, I’m happy. One of them is married to a Zulu Girl, another is about to get married now, and the other one just finished matric. This just st teaches you to never give up on yourself, my house if full of people they come, even famous people come, and hang out with my sons, because I’m down to earth” she said in conclusion then she looked at my mother and said “ I’m proud of the woman you are, well done”
I was moved by her open confession, her vulnerability.
Suddenly it become rather obvious to me, that some of the biggest changes in our lives, happen in small rooms like this one which I shared with my mom. Something spiritual, soul deep which, when it happens requires no endorsement or validation from anyone. I realized then that this is where some of the more imperceptible changes in our lives can occur. That the very act of taking off the old clothes and putting on new ones can be a physical representation of what goes on in a persons heart, some kind of an unofficial ritual to prepare for change. It’s the place where you can decide that it’s okay to look in the mirror, to accept those part of yourself that you cannot change, that don’t make sense. To love anyway to tell someone your truth, to be honest. I started to think how freeing that must be to be seen, to be known to someone and to be loved and accepted with every scar, blemish, bump and curve. I started to think how beautiful that can be, to approach life with a certain naked innocence of a child. And when someone loves you like that, something happens behind the curtains that makes you want to change, to update your old software. You come out a little different each time.
I also realized that sometimes and I have found this to be true in my own fitting room experience, you’ll never know what you want or what you look good in, or how good a change can be until you try something on. And this for me is the ultimate paradox of this ever changing life, my own light bulb moment in the chaging room watching my mother fall in love with her new software; and it is this – real lasting change can only happen, once you commit to it. You have to be committed, to change. Needless to say, I’ll never look at a fitting room in the same light, again.
Today I’m sitting down writing these letters with Louis Armstrong the African-American Jazz Musician serenading me with his version of “You go to my head” in the background. His soothing trumpeting and delicate piano notes on which he lays his zesty voice is calming to my shot nerves. I need him you see, because I have been in over my head, trying to compartmentalized my life into neat little boxes, to sort out the papers and stories which have been piling up. I have been restraining myself, refusing to let myself go and allow my feelings to spill like water all over the keyboard smudging the lines of stories stenciled with ink on paper. I need to know what I’m doing.
Naturally it’s been hard to ignore the news of David Bowie’s passing (69), last week. This British pop, music,art, film and fashion icon of the 60, 70s, 80s and 90s seems to have shaped a lot of people’s lives and by extension mine. I was never part of his fan base and was quite frankly surprised to discover that he enjoyed a massive cult like following from every sector of society. His repertoire is impressive. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I didn’t know of David Bowie, I knew of him and heard his endless list of songs sung word for word by an ex of mine who had a near fanatical adoration for him. I now realize that he emulated Bowie in every single way. Everything he did from the ways he dressed or more aptly how he curated the clothes he put on his body, to the way he approached and spoke about art, culture, politics, fashion creativity and life in general – including his androgynous nature, were all inspired in the main by the Bow.
But I realize this, of course, only in hindsight. David never meant anything to me, I had no cultural references to him. I never thought of him as an icon or followed his acting, singing or performance art career or played his music. The only song I know of his, is the more mainstream “Let’s dance”, simply because that’s the one song my ex and I enjoyed dancing to together. Tellingly, Bowie confessed to the Interview Magazine in 1995 that he had come to loath the success of this track in particular “I went mainstream in a major way with the song “Let’s Dance.” I pandered to that in my next few albums, and what I found I had done was put a box around myself. It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did “Let’s Dance,” and it was driving me mad—because it took all my passion for experimenting away. [David Bowie, Double Trouble!!, September 1995]”. Ironically I ended up feeling the same way about our relationship, too, toward the end, essentially boxed in.
So when stories and news of David Bowie started flooding my timeline, I thought of him and how he must be feeling. I thought of how we loved to dance together and how he was quite possibly the only person who could dance with me. I thought of our life together, the moments that we shared, which at the time felt as if they were going to last forever but now seem like a flicker of light in an attic full of memories. I danced once again in my mind with him enjoying his raspy laughter and seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm for life. In some far-fetched way, I grieved. I cared about David Bowie’s death only because I once loved someone who adored him. There were times, private moments when he would sing along with David Bowie with such passion I wished he could love me like that too. Or that I understood the sheer significance DB in his life. Nevertheless we shared a story together dancing to David Bowie and those were always, happy times.
It is incredible to observe how ingrained David Bowie’s lifestyle had become in so many people’s lives, from multiple generations and how his influence in their world left no stone un-turned in art, fashion, photography, music, films etc. He was in fact, a movement, a revolution continuously evolving and re-inventing itself in one single human body. I did not know when I first met my ex, that I was in actual fact meeting them as a variation of DB, and not really as they truly are themselves, because who are we if we’re not copies of each other to some extent? Even Bowies’ own style was “inspired” or copied from a colourful neighbour he once saw walking down the street when he was younger.
A sobering conversation about politics with my father brought on a rather insightful conversation about how culture is transferred, primarily though language and of course through music. My father relayed to us a story of his life in a remote part of Mozambique where he had to learn to speak Portuguese pretty fast in order for him to do his work efficiently. That’s when, he said, he saw the power of language, and how it can open doors and break down even the toughest walls. To clarify his point he used a long forgotten South African example of someone who was able to dismantle certain prejudices through music in a very tangible way. And this of course was not a minor achievement in Apartheid South Africa where in some areas it was illegal to speak African languages.
For many years many black South Africans despised Shangaan speaking people. They referred to them as MakwereKwere, foreigners, people who did not belong. In fact during the 60s, 70, and 80s comparing someone to a Shangaan was considered the ultimate insult among black South Africans living in Johannesburg Townships in particular. Back then being a Shangaan was frowned upon, it was the lowest you could be as a human being. This discrimination and hate stemmed, according to some social anecdotes, from the Shangaan people’s inability to adjust to township life. The men never brought their wives to live with them in the city, they never bought any furniture, anything of value or comfort such a bed or a humble bench to sit on because they considered their stay in the city of gold to be temporary. They always spoke of returning home. The Zulu’s, Sotho’s Xhosa’s and others who had already acclimatized to township life could not understand the Shangaan people and their threadbare, nomad-like way of life, let alone their language. They were for the most part considered to be dirty people or people who didn’t care for personal hygiene. With time Shangaan people began to assimilate to township life, brought their wives to live with them, they soon started families and their children attended local schools just like everyone else, but the stigma remained.
Until Paul Ndlovu, of course, known as the Shangaan Disco King came to the scene with a song that single-handedly changed all if not most of the negative perceptions people held against Shangaan people and made the Shangaan way of life enviable to most. His most important contribution however, was not his dress sense which was quite dapper, nor his dance moves which everyone tried to emulate, nor in fact the traditional (tutu/motsheka) dresses worn by his back-up female singers. His most important contribution was singing in his language, Shangaan, which made people want to learn more about the language and its people. Suddenly the hit song “hita famba moyeni Katanga” changed people’s perceptions of Shangaan people. Shangaan people were no longer dirty and despicable, they were people who travelled to Giyane or their hometowns in planes, something which was unheard of for most black people at the time. Paul Ndlovu became a household name and his song became the soundtrack of people’s birthday parties, stockvels, wedding celebrations or Shebeen get-togethers’. Understanding the Shangaan language became a plus, a positive addition to the township lexicon. But as quickly as he rose to fame his light dimmed just as fast. He was killed in a car accident but rumours surrounding his life and death sold newspapers and magazines for month’s even years after he was buried.
Today one cannot find a more prouder nation than the Shangaan and with them the Venda and Tsonga people who take pride in speaking their languages without demeaning other people. They have also since found their own music awards for musicians who promote their culture through language. Of course Shangaan people were not aliens who landed from far away planets as many believed. They are in fact descendents of the Zulu nation and are named after Soshagana, a Zulu Warrior, who was sent by the Zulu King, Shaka to conquer the Tsonga people in area of present-day Mozambique. Soshangana found a fertile place inhabited by scattered communities of peace-loving people, and decided to make it his home rather than return to Shaka.
With all this in mind I started to imagine what South African airwaves would sound like today, had the late-former-President Nelson Mandela elected to speak in his mother tongue exclusively during public speeches as a rule upon his release from prison in 1990 and throughout his tenure as President. And this not because he could not speak English or Afrikaans, but because that would have sent a signal to all black people in South ( Africa) including our former oppressors and colonizers that our languages matter – to us the people who speak them, that our culture, our way of life and ways of thinking are just as valid. Other people would have been forced to learn our languages in the same way we were forced in the past to learn theirs. We would not be insulted for failing to pronounce English words. Engela Merkel does not address Germany or the world in English, neither does Francois Holland, the Chinese president, or any number of statesmen who lead non-English speaking countries and that’s not because they can’t understand English. It’s because they understand the power of language as a primary tool to transfer culture and to change people’s way of thinking and points of reference. They know who they are speaking to.
Sadly there’s nothing online featuring interviews with Paul Ndlovu although I’m sure there are many in the analogue archives of the SABC, Bona and Drum magazine including the Sowetan newspaper. And so, with respect to the dearly departed, perhaps David Bowie should have the last word. “You know you can’t put down anybody. You can just try to understand. The emphasis shouldn’t be on revolution, it should be on communication.”[David Bowie Tells All and More to Patrick Salvo, March 1973].
Before we forget.
Expelled ANC Youth League Leader Julius Malema, is practically emulating almost every strategy and tactic which his mentor and South African President Jacob Zuma himself employed when he outsted his then arch rival former President Thabo Mbeki back in 2008.
If we could take detailed notes, we would be forgiven when we give Malema correct marks point by point by point. One 100 percent full marks. Though we don’t know as yet if Malema will make it to the ruling party ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane (sic) Mangaung in the North West Province in November.
The charges which the Hawks (South Africa’s specialist police) have been investigating since the beginning of the year could continue well into 2014.
History Repeats itself so What’s new?
The public is taken a-back my Malemas’ arrogant, disrespectful insults against President Zuma – who is ineffect his elder, a father figure (for) to him; who is to be respected. And in African tradition and culture what Malema is doing is simply “unheard” of! Out of Order with that natural flow of things.
No matter how wrong your mother, father, uncle and great grand father might be, however angry you are with them, however justified you might be in your righteous indignation, it is not correct to shame them, insult them and call them illiterate in public. Nothing they can do warrants the slightest disrespect from a youngster – “upstart” a friend once remarked.
Let’s look back at the “spear” debacle and the the moral anger it ignited even amongst the fiercest detractors of Zuma’s presidency today. Brett Marais’s painting infused such righteous anger in the public discourse it became a racial issue ( Black Africans and White Africans don’t read for the same morality book sometimes) in the public discourse. Yes many might agree that Zuma’s behavoir is wrong, but however wrong he might be, we can’t expose his manhood for all to see in public galleries even if they are of an artistic nature.
Young people are tickled by Malema’s utterances, but older folk are angered by them. To the point of being Livid. To them it is like a child whose filthy nappies you changed turning against you and saying telling you that you are nothing. You know nothing.
It’s a very dangerous line to cross.
The recent elimination of Tshidi – a promising and should I add much loved contestant in South Africa’ talent search – Idols’ is a case in point. As part of the top four competitors she was followed back to her home town of Thokoza where she was met by scores of people including her family and friends, waiting to congratulate her on having succeeded and come so far in the most talked about singing competition in South Africa. But before she came out of her car, she nervously said: ” Please don’t jump on me, don’t jump on me please, I don’t want to fall over etc, please don’t jump on me” for at least five minutes.
Such a light statement that was.
Needles to say no one came near her, and the country demonstrated their displeasure at her “pompous” comments when they eliminated her from the race to become South Africa’s next Pop Idol. No votes for Tshidi.
Malema – if found guilty could loose everything.
One hopes for his sake, he has an uncle or friend some where who can help him pick up the pieces.