Swimming in a Drought

19 October 2017

-The olympic swimmer - SANKOFA


"You wouldn't throw yourself head first into a coffin would you?"

"No ma."

"Then don't do so now"

That was my mothers' warning to me when the sea

and I would meet in holy matrimony.

She would berate me, lovingly for swimming too far in - going too deep,

but little did she know that the sea welcomed my whispers of rebellion.


Perhaps that was my first act of rebellion,

Learning to swim.

I knew it?


when the swimming coach called me "Blackie" in grade 2.
A fitting description of the fly in milk that was me in my all white grade 2 swim team.

Perhaps she couldn't stand that the only black child on the team had learned to swim regardless of the sound of the shaking of shackles that she had tied to me and my identity with that nickname.

Perhaps she hated the fact that I had learnt to swim freely,

Perhaps she hated that apartheid was so far gone that that nickname was all she could give to me - that black abomination of a 8 year old child who had managed to learn how to hold her breath underwater for the full length of the pool.

Unaware that holding my breath came almost naturally to me -

I was black in a white school which meant that I had learned the art of drowning-

holding my breath and all the words which would accompany a much needed exhale long before I dove head first into a swimming pool.

I had learned, long ago,  to hold my breath on dry land.

'Save your breath' they say,

unaware that that cultural phenomenon was what the sea whispered to me and my ancestors as their cries remained unheard on a long voyage with shackles shaking

- drowning out the sound of liberation for centuries to come as they were stolen from their land.

I had learnt to save my breath long before she had no choice but to put me on the A team.

But on the A- team,

she still heard it,

the sound of shackles beating the man-made current that was me doing

breaststroke, backstore, butterfly and freestyle.

What she didn't know was that the water was egging me on -

that the water was calling me home.

You see every time we swim - we mess up our hair,

and how it used to upset me.

That my hair returned to being krus after a Sunday of sitting in the sun in rollers.

The swimming pool with one mighty stroke had all my hard-work undone.

So upset it made me,

that my ancestors even there

in that chlorine-riddled water

had managed to call me back home - to my roots,

standing on end.

Not relaxed,

the heart of my ancestors called me home,

reminding me that swimming was only preparing me to return to the sea.

And I always loved the sea, unaware that our bond ran deeper than sight would allow.

You see

I think the sea is apologetic that She can't control her nature,

a force of nature,

unwittingly moves,

inhaling and exhaling in breaths that we now call waves.

I think she must have rocked my ancestors like children in her arms,

trying to comfort their wails,


ready to catch those who were thrown,


slipped on a piece of soap while                                                                                    washing,


So when she got wind that I was learning to swim she was expectant,

for us to meet

and see each other on more equal terms

because then she could hold me

aware that

swimming would serve as a release for the moments when her love becomes too fierce

and at high tide, she becomes overwhelmed by the ever-present cries of my ancestors,

pushing her,



running rampant


and                                                                                                                      further ashore.

She wouldn't take me with her.

She would know I knew the release of freestyle and how to free myself with breaststroke.

Swimming was my first act of rebellion.

Even so,

I don't like to swim.

I don't like to swim.

I don't like to swim.

Maybe something in my cells finds it insulting that I play amongst the gravestones of my ancestors with a smile of glee.

Maybe something in my cells remembers the trauma of the sea sounding

like an automaton,

an unfeeling conveyor belt delivering my ancestors to the unadulterated hell that awaited them,

a fate so poor that somehow the sounds of shackles shaking in that floating coffin would sound like a song of liberation because once ashore

the sea separated them from home.

The burial site of their family and ancestors -



Maybe I don't like to swim because I have only recently learnt how to exhale on land and refuse to retraumatize myself with practising holding my breath underwater.

" You wouldn't dive head first into a coffin would you?"

Except that you already have,

knee deep you have waded barefoot

through the graves of my ancestors unaware that unmarked graves greet you silently.

You have swum amongst mass graves and then wondered why you can hear the sound of the sea when you place a shell to your ear unaware of the fact that shells are some of the only relics of my ancestors jewellery and that they use shells like phones to call us home to visit them again -

why do you think the shore is flooded with black bodies on new years and after Christmas?

I do not like to swim but I have learnt to stay afloat.

And we have stayed afloat for centuries

and now there is a drought.

In the 'Cape of Good Hope',

I feel it in my bones an- ancestral rebellion.

They say that when a tsunami happens the sea recedes -

disappears from sight before the onslaught ashore.

We're in a drought at the moment and I can't help but wonder if mother nature has finally succumbed to the cries of my ancestors,

perhaps the Sea and the sky have held a colloquium sidelining condensation.

Perhaps the nature of this rebellion is helplessness for those on land -

the same flavour of helplessness felt by my ancestors for months on end.

Helplessness-  concept etched into my cells retraumatized in history class.

We're in a drought and

now people cry out for the same water that was used to drown us.

I once read of a storm so bad with winds so strong that the wind blew the water at the same velocity as bullets.

I can't help but wonder if my ancestors have been gathering their ammunition as dark black clouds gather above.

I can't help but wonder of the violence and life-giving propensity of water.

Perhaps when it finally rains we will be cleansed by the grace and forgiveness of my ancestors.

A well-preserved tradition that we have religiously practised.

Perhaps when it finally rains, we will be baptized in gratefulness.

Perhaps when it finally rains the power of my ancestors will be resurrected in the land it waters, replenishing and giving the lost years of life to the land that denied them the same privilege.

Perhaps when it finally rains the synecdoche  that is me, that is blackie,

will learn how to swim on land

and my ancestors will be resurrected from their graves like Lazurus

and I will understand that I was never taught to swim -

but rather that I always knew how

with forgiveness as my mother tongue

my ancestors and I always meet in the eye of a storm

and I await our family gathering,

knowing we will swim on dry land.

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SANKOFA WORKS HARD & DOESN'T LIKE THEIFS! don't copy paste my work babe x