The Coconut and the Calabash

A Short Story

By Nomthandazo Nxabela

“Do you eat porridge?”

A big-eyed baby cousin looked up at me, her face washed over with astonishment as I dug into my bowl of pap and spinach for breakfast, the morning of my uncle’s funeral. He had passed away after losing a battle to HIV and AIDS and we were dressed with grief, to practice burial rituals which have become so mundane in contrast to the lives we lose. It’s amazing how burial rites are all done the same although we are all unique. I’m glad we don’t have to bury souls, just bodies. What a shame it would be.

Little Paulina continued to stare at me, “You eat porridge?” she quickly quipped, when she realized I’d stopped digging in out of discomfort. “Yes”, I replied. She smirked and filled the silence by reciting the conclusions her young mind had made about my disposition. “It’s just that, you don’t look like you eat pap…” I smiled and continued to eat, for this is something I had heard numerous times in my life. These statements would make me conscious of myself and into a heavy analysis of what about myself made me “look like” I wasn’t particularly the kind of girl to do what is the norm to other people within the socio-cultural context (Basically, my people) of the environment I find myself in. Really this has been my struggle growing up a little light-skinned black girl, from the suburbs; and a Black girl who grows her hair in an Afro refuses to comb her hair and won’t stand for the belittlement of her race or culture. And as a human being who just wants to live without labels, freely existing. May my soul never feel the need to want to try to conform; I hope you free yours too.

Searching for my existence I have always bordered the lines of being called a coconut (Mosadi wa lekgoa) when going back home to visit extended family. And being a “black activist” or a “girl with so much anger” when issues of race become topical in the educational institutions. I find myself choked by numerous personalities I have to enact to not exactly fit in (because I never really do, nor do I care to try) but to not stand out either, because really, questions like: “do you eat pap?” do rattle a rise of discomfort within. To answer little Paulina and everyone who has ever asked: Yes I do eat pap, I love it with sour milk if you please; maybe chicken livers if you have any for me.

The story I just told is so close to my heart. It is reminiscing how I grew up being perceived as a snob. It goes with saying that because of how you present yourself, so will people label you. I read a lot of books as a young girl and my mother would give me textbooks to indulge in when she was still a teacher. My English just became better, and that made me a snob. In my defence, I was never a coconut. In fact, I’m a calabash. I am brown and loud. My soul is palpable and my contents, when shaken, create a great sound; Either a symphony or a beautiful cacophony. A coconut is someone who perceives themselves as a superior to the people within their race. I couldn’t be anything else on the inside if I wanted to be. I wouldn’t dream of it.