I can’t breathe:

I walk to the shops, my nostrils filled with the stench of teargas and burning tyres. At 7- years- old, I’m too young to understand that the colour of my skin is not celebrated. All I know is that I can’t breathe. With police officers and army officials constantly patrolling the streets, I learned the colour of my skin is wrong.

I can’t breathe because the smell of poverty surrounds me in the world I live in. Poverty has a smell, often disguised with over sweet flowery cheap sprays concealed as a perfume that cloy to the older women in the township I live in, the smells of homes that cook the same food because it’s the cheapest. I’m sensitive to smells and find I can’t breathe so I take a deep breath, rush to a safe space on my bed, waiting to exhale. My taste buds have become accustomed to certain dishes and my stomach to small portions. I’m told you can survive on only water for 3 weeks. I am on day 2 and I am hungry. How will I survive by day 7?

I can’t breathe when I hear women’s plaintive cries for mercy in the dead of night. The pain in their voices as they try to defend their faces against the blows! Blows that are being given as easily as the love that was doled out that morning! Blows that are meted out like bonuses because there’s none visible, to the face! I take a deep breath as I lie awake, wondering, waiting for the silence so I can exhale. This time my gender is the wrong one.

He is touching me again and I wish he would stop. I don’t like it. He says it’s our secret and I have come to realize that secrets aren’t fun but painful. I am told I am beautiful so I start scratching my face to make myself ugly. I scratch until I can feel the blood under my nails. Its warmth soothes me to sleep. I exhale. This time I learned my age is the wrong one.

My resentment at my circumstances leaves me feeling powerless but I have learned patience and count the days until I am big enough to defend myself. I take a deep breath and hold it in, waiting until I am an adult and I can exhale.

If everything is wrong about me then what am I doing here? Why was I born? I’m angry at God. I want to live a life where the only reason I can’t breathe is when I am no longer on earth. I turn away from God, upset that I wasn’t protected. I’m selfish enough as a child to want to live a carefree life. I hope and pray, yes, I continue to pray, that life would be easier, that I would find my purpose and discover why I was born.

I learn to fight the bullies that bully the weaker children in the neighbourhood and now I am known as a bully. I don’t want to fight but how do I stand and allow the children to be bullied?

I can’t wait to move to discover a place where people aren’t mean and ugly because of skin colour, gender, or age.

I promise myself that when I grow up, I will fight for people’s rights. I realized from an early age that I needed to speak up and speak out. That maintaining silence only serves bad agendas and that education about racism, gender-based violence, child abuse and other ills of our society flourishes when there are silence and darkness.

Since my silence is no more, I have slowly begun to exhale the breath I have held in for so long. My pain is my teachings as is my triumph over it.