Stranger to sunshine.
By Mak Manaka
Noxolo Mpilo-Jones, the country’s greatest writer. She was the 1st born in a family of two sisters, both her parents were artists, her father was the country’s well known writer, poet and painter Kwanele Mpilo and her mother Pam Mpilo was an actress and a dancer. Her parents moved from the Eastern Cape to Natal coz the father got a job as a teacher in the University of Natal teaching literature. In the 70’s, a profession in the arts was a health hazard because black writers never got the respect they so deserved and coz of that, life became uncomfortable especially living in a disadvantaged province such as the Eastern Cape. So when they moved to Natal, Noxolo was 8 years old followed, by her sister Nomhle whom at that time was 6 yeas old and the baby Nontsikelelo was 2 years old. Noxolo’s father was a member of the Pan African Congress, he wrote about the pain of his people and how black people must unite and define themselves, he spent half the time either writing or on stage directing or a in class teaching, and his wife Pam collaborated with him, he would write and she would act and dance in the plays.
From an early age Noxolo was familiar with theatre, she was born on stage. In the early 80’s her father left his teaching profession and moved to Johannesburg, they lived in Diepkloof, Soweto. And across the road from their home was an arts and culture center where her father spent most of his time if not all of it teaching fine art on Saturdays for little money, and her mother Pam opened up a dance school, by then Noxolo was about 12 years.
She attended school not far from their home and Nomhle was sent to a boarding school in Natal.
It was here in Diepkloof where life got a little bit harder and her parents began drifting apart. Her father was becoming an abusive alcoholic, like many black writers at the time, coz by then South Africa was free, and not in the way they fought for it, and that really frustrated him.
He spent time in his study painting and wrote so much work that never got published, people knew him for his plays. Some time during that time, he wrote a play that went to London, and Pam had to stay behind and look after the children, every Saturday she taught dance. Just before Noxolo’s father returned from Europe, Pam got an acting job on television for a soapie and shut down the dance classes. When her father returned after two months, he was not impressed, Kwanele was threatened by her wife’s artistic growth, he assaulted Pam like she was a man and Noxolo who witnessed everything was devastated. Pam took him to the police, he stayed in the cell for about a week then Pam dropped the case, love can do that sometimes, seeing her parents fight like that affected her so much. After witnessing that vile domestic violence she became very distant, kind of like her mind would wonder. It was her father’s misdeeds that led her to writing coz every time her parents where at each other’s throats, she would take her youngest sister Ntsiki and herself to her room and softly sing for her until she slept, and then write.
It was on the day they went to pick up Nomhle from school that her life changed.
Her father came home smelling like a bottle store, he had come from a meeting that did not go well with the investors and that left a bitter taste in his heart. And so on the way from the airport, Pam and Kwanele got into a fight and he lost control, they overturned with the car.
Kwanele tried to swerve the car from the truck but they were moving so fast, the steering wheel went out of control smashing against the side of a cargo truck. The over turning car threw Kwanele out of the window and he landed head first on the ground, Pam’s face was badly bruised and Ntsiki was paralyzed from the waist down. The father died on the spot that afternoon, and Noxolo never forgave him, she never cried at the funeral.
Three girls and a single parent, and so Noxolo became the bread winner in the house. Pam sacrificed her career and took care of her disabled last born, Noxolo quit school with only one more year to go and got a job as a waitress at a café in Newtown, Joburg’s cultural precinct, this is were she met people from all over the world, and changed her world, she began to read all the time. She would read anything she came across, and before her sifts she wrote and wrote. The more people she came across the more she began to realize her self, though every time she went home she would feel as though she was fiddling with a wound that took a long time to heal, she would clean up the house, make dinner, wash the clothes and try to comfort her mother every lonely night when she wept over the accident. Noxolo felt herself trapped inside of her but every time she was at the cafe, she was free, she was able to be herself and express her self the way a woman does, the way humans do.
The manager of the restaurant decided to host open-mic nights every Thursdays and people from all over Johannesburg came to listen to poets, musicians, and comedians.
She was only 20 years old when she decided to recite her poetry live on stage, after two weeks the open-mic’s had been running, she was extremely scared but calm on the surface, she did a poem about Soweto’s life styles and its the people. The crowd went wild, coz she had the ability to captivate her audience with her commanding voice and her energy on stage. That night she only did one poem and the audience was screaming for more when she was done, she went on stage in her work uniform and performed her heart to the moon.
That night when she got home with an uplifted sprit she found the house empty, Ntsiki was in hospital, she had bedsores that were now very deep into her flesh. That day she was in so much pain coz the sores had affected her skin, her small left thigh was swollen. They didn’t have enough money for the bedsores to be surgically removed, when Noxolo got to the hospital her mother sobbed when she walked in coz in some way Noxolo reminded her of Kwanele coz when Noxolo and her sisters were younger, he was very strong for the family and keeping them together.
Ntsiki stayed in hospital while Noxolo now worked double shifts every day trying hard to raise money for her sister’s operation.
Every Thursday Noxolo would perform like there was no tomorrow. People started coming only to see her perform and then after dazzling the audience with her poetry she would return to work, serving people drinks and food. She was becoming known as the young force from Soweto, every Thursday she would escape on stage and forget the past that fueled her performance. Every night when she came from the café after the exhilarating open-mics, she would tell her mother how people loved her and how they cheered for more, and her mother would discourage her and want her to stop, fearing that she might end up like her father.
She managed to raise money and paid for the operation, the bedsores were removed but the family’s joy never lasted when Nomhle’s outstanding school fees came knocking at the door. The school she went to in Natal was now promising to kick her out if the outstanding amounts were not paid so Pam decided to take her to a cheaper school in the township near their home. Nomhle would pick up Ntsiki from her so called ‘special’ school after school and Pam got herself a job as a receptionist for one of Kwanele’s friends who ran a communications company in the city.
Noxolo continued working double shifts coz in that café she was Noxolo and half of the people who came on Thursday nights now came every other day of the week just to be with her, she had an outgoing personality, she became employee of the month for three months until an older man approached her and wanted to know how much would she charge him for a performance at a private function. She didn’t know how much to charge him coz first of all she didn’t even know that money can be earned from poetry. She got R2500 for her first gig, after that news started spreading and Noxolo was in demand. She would get calls to come perform along side people she admired, in the art community people who knew her father would tell her that she was more articulate than her father.
With her new job Pam paid up all the hospital debts and schools fees and Nomhle was doing her last her, everything seemed to be fine. An article about Noxolo was printed on The Sowetan newspaper, the article spoke about her and where she came from, it also spoke about her father how this country forgot about the genius. Her mother read it and started to cry, she was unaware of how Noxolo’s poetry affected people, and so one Thursday night without telling her Pam went to the open-mic and saw her daughter win the hearts of people with her words, that night she did a poem about the strength in her mother. She went outside and waited for Noxolo until she knocked off, Pam had managed to buy a car, a white Conquest. When Noxolo came out she saw how many of her colleagues surrounded her in smiles and laughter, she was doing most of the talking, she saw a different person and when Noxolo saw her stepping out the car, tears of joy ran down her eyes, her mother congratulated her and she had never been so happy to hear her say that.
Pam called some of Kwanele’s friends to come see Noxolo perform the next Thursday, after the show she got a deal to publish her poetry.
She quit her job and focused on poetry, every night she was out, in a month she would make about R10 000 to
R20 000, she saved all her money to take her sister Nomhle to varsity after graduation and help with Ntsiki’s medicine, Pam had never been so proud of her.
She was only 22 when her book ‘NOW’ was published, she was every where, on television, newspapers, radio, 400 copies were sold on the first night of her launch, she was now a celebrity. She went overseas, performed in places her mother dreamt of.
While she was traveling all over the country, performing and giving workshops to school children about not doing drugs, her sister Nomhle was becoming an addict, I guess she was feeling pressured by Noxolo’s success. On the day she had arrived from London, her sister Nomhle OD’d the night before, her mother was devastated. They buried her next to her father’s grave, her sister’s death traumatized her, she continued to perform but the spark in her eyes was lost. Then Ntsiki’s bedsores came again, two months after Nomhle’s passing and this time around they were worse than before, her left leg was amputated and cost the family a lot of money.
Noxolo had never had a boyfriend, so at 25 she was a lonely poet with past issues haunting her dreams, a show was held at the café she used to work in and she was the main attraction, that night was phenomenal, some people were crying, it was such a memorable night coz that was the first time I met your mother. Noxolo seemed distant the first time we spoke, I had to wait for a while until I could finally speak to her, everybody wanted to speak to her, then finally we sat down, she didn’t even drink alcohol then. We spoke about everything, she loved to laugh, she was a nice person.
We saw each other almost everyday, came to visit me at work, then, I was a financial advisor for Nedbank. She also loved talking about her past life and how she never forgave her father and how she missed her sister. The first time I met with your grandmother Pam, she was very happy that I was not an artist and that my job was money, she would always tell me how bright the future looked every time she looked into my eyes. Pam developed a sickness of the heart, it was weak and every now and then Noxolo would have to take her to hospital, two years after we had been going out, your grandmother, the strong Pam Mpilo, passed away and Noxolo was in America performing, I took care of everything. She was left with one more show when I told her the news, that night she cried before she went on stage and when she was on stage she performed her soul to the moon, that night she got a standing ovation. She got the first flight out of New York and came back home, her mother’s passing really affected her, she couldn’t perform or write for two months, and in those two months she spent her time with her youngest sister Ntsiki. Every time I came to see her, her charming smile was fading and she didn’t laugh as much.
She used to say that all her life she has been a child born to pain, that she was a stranger to sunshine.
I tried every thing in my power to bring her back, I managed to get her a deal with some publishing house to publish her second anthology but she would refuse until her sister Ntsiki said to her if she keeps on feeling sorry for her self, her talent will die then she would have worked so hard to see their last name go to waste, for a 20 year old I guess Ntsiki grew up before her time. And so Noxolo agreed to publish her second book of poems, ‘Here I Stand’, she was now 30 years old and felt like she had lived. One would think that fame changes people but Noxolo remained the same, went to open mics every Thursday, she never forgot were she came from but would always try to forget her own past. She began having an interest in spirituality coz her family were never into ancestors and sacrificing a cow or a sheep for the dead, a woman had told her about a traditional healer she must see, and that she had a dream about Noxolo asking her for help. Noxolo began seeing more and more of this lady, that day your mother came home depressed, it was the first time in months since her mother’s funeral I had ever seen her so depressed, she told me that the lady took her to a healer and the man told her that, she was going to die lonely, he told her that her father is not happy and that is why Pam and Nomhle were gone, Noxolo ran out of the old man’s room, he told him how her family was doomed. I was stunned, I mean I was shocked, how do you tell someone something like that, it was like, how could Morpheus put so much pressure on Neo.
Noxolo got a deal to publish another book of short stories about her life experiences titled ‘Write On’. After this book, you came, and that was her happiest moment ever to see her baby girl. We named you after her sister, your late aunt, Nomhle.
You came at a time when so many things were confusing to your mother, that is why when you were young, she wasn’t around much, always at hospitals, she became delusional after you turned 8, before she went to hospital she would wake up in the middle of the night, go check on you then talk while typing on the computer, your mother wasn’t crazy, she was going through episodes of her past life at that moment, I heard her talking to her father while she was typing. She was admitted to a psychiatric ward and I then send you to my parents in London and took care of your mother, oh, how I loved her so, when Ntsiki came to see her, she would cry then keep quiet and listen to her speak about her new boyfriend, how much he doesn’t see her as a disabled woman and that he proposed, and while Ntsiki was speaking I could see her eyes glow, it made me sad to see her like that, she couldn’t talk properly, her speech was slurred and she looked dazed.
I saw her everyday after work, her doctor once told me that, Noxolo had a tough time letting go and that her sister’s death really affected her coz every night she sleep talks and cries her name, and apparently she had a lot of repressed memories, the doctor said that was the cause of her delusions.
She was about 45 years when she died and that man was true, she died alone, blood was not properly reaching the brain, she died the day before her Ntsiki wedding, and so the wedding was postponed. I took all of her work to the same publishing house and wrote you down as the inheritor of her rights, they are your birthright so when you are lonely and feel like you cant breathe, look to your mother’s art and listen to her voice, she lives in you, you even look just like her. So you take care of yourself and enjoy your 21 birthday, your mother would be so proud of you and don’t you ever imprison or sacrifice your happiness. You are not a stranger to sunshine.
I love you baby.
Sincerely your father
Richard Alfred Jones.