"Oh look, she's got red blood! I thought boesmen had a different colour." - An excerpt from Colour me yellow
Thuli Nhlapo grew up constantly hearing these words from her mother. She was seven years old when she realised that no one called her by name. Known as “Yellow”, she was bullied at home and at school. Fearing that she had a terrible disease, she withdrew into herself.
Years later, Thuli is still haunted by her childhood experiences. She confronts her mother about her real father and real surname. Getting no answers, Thuli embarks on years of searching for the truth.
In the process, she uncovers unsettling family secrets that irrevocably change all their lives.
“Whilst exposing and exploding the impact of family secrets on people’s sense of identity and well-being, it is also a celebration of one woman’s determination to live her life to the fullest.” - Mmatshilo Motsei
Thuli Nhlapo is the Managing Director of her own media company, Thuli Nhlapo Media. She has previously worked for ABC News (USA), Daily Sun and SABC News as reporter and/or producer. She has also written for The Sowetan, Mail & Guardian and The Star. Nhlapo works as a communication strategist and content producer and is based in Gauteng.
Read an excerpt from Colour Me Yellow:
A lot of changes took place in my seventh year. To this day I’m paranoid about the seventh year because I seem to expect something to change in my life, either good or bad. One day in that same seventh year one of my cousins called me. This cousin was named Saturday but the Zulu word for it. I was in my favourite spot next to the main gate and my cousins were playing with other kids next to the garage. I was puzzled when she said ‘Ja, let’s fight’ because I was not a fighter and she was older than me. Worse, I was the only skinny kid among all my meaty cousins. My big cousin, another good fighter, loaded sand in both her hands and closed them in her fists. This practice was to determine who was a coward: the first person to pound the fists was considered brave. The group began cheering, and I was hoping someone would come to my rescue, when the cousin punched my face.
‘Aye ye ye boesman!’
‘Look, she’s turned blue!’
‘No, look, she’s turning red!’
It was obvious that the crowd was excited to see a fight between a normal person and a boesman. The punches rained down on my mouth, stomach and face. I was on the point of falling over but the cousin picked me up and shoved my head under her left arm where she punched my face mercilessly. I didn’t cry, but by the time she let go of me I fell to the ground and felt the earth rotate. The group was still cheering. I felt an urgent need to wipe my nose. My hand came away with blood on it.
‘Oh look,’ shouted one girl in the group, ‘she’s got red blood! I thought boesmen had a different colour.’
‘It’s not red like ours. See, it’s weak. This thing has green veins, so what makes you think it can have the same blood as ours?’
I could not afford to mess my clothes. Mother would be hysterical. Moreover, how was I to explain what had happened? She was not going to believe it. Even with her eyes wide open Mother didn’t see a lot of the things that happened to me. Even if by chance she saw the blood, she was not going to believe me. But if she did, for a change, believe me she would report the matter to her husband, who would say I was lying. That’s what happened when I told her one of my cousins had pierced my bicycle tyre with a nail. Mother believed me but the husband was furious. He was quicker to undo his belt than to check if the bicycle tyre was actually flat. Telling tales about incidents that happened in the yard was not an option because Mother could also get mad and use her morning slippers trying to beat the truth out of me. In fact, it took very little for her to become mad. Without seeking advice, I knew I had to get my clothes out of this mess and keep quiet about it.
I was down and defeated but the crowd did not disperse. Perhaps they wanted to observe how boesmen stood up after being beaten stukkend. Stand up I did, but I had to balance myself on the nearest wall before facing my cousin.
‘One day when I’m older I’m going to be strong and rich. You’ll come to me for help but I will turn you away.’
I heard sarcastic laughter and for a second it looked as though she was going to punch the lights out of me again.
‘You won’t be rich with my uncle’s money that you and your mother are wasting,’ she said. ‘And listen, boesman, I will never ask for anything from you because there will be nothing to ask for!’
To this day if I close my eyes I can still hear the loud laughter that followed from the crowd.
Since all my attempts to be accepted were unsuccessful, I gave up. It was useless to try to smile when I knew I was not wanted. And that was when I forgot what it was like to smile. A frown and a serious look became my mask. I felt safe behind that mask.
Quietly, I started reading every book I came across. Even though I was in a Tswana school, I taught myself how to read the South Sotho Bible, and when my cousins weren’t watching I stole quiet and peaceful moments to teach myself to read their Zulu books. I was hoping somewhere someone might mention the word boesman. I wanted so badly to know the meaning.
- Colour Me Yellow: Searching for My Family True by Thuli Nhlapo
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