One day she was there. The next day she was gone. She was gone for a very long time. When she came back many who knew her didn’t recognise her. What happened to her during the months she was gone can only be speculated upon. Those were the days of thunder before the birth of our young democracy. As we celebrate the 18th year of a democratic South Africa, I thought it appropriate to share this true story that I was a witness to.
She came into our lives like a tornado…beautiful, vibrant and completely uninhibited about everything. Her dress, her behaviour and her political views. With her wild dreadlocks she attracted everyone’s attention, especially the boys who couldn’t take their eyes off her. And us girls, could only stare in a mixture of envy and admiration. Secretly, she was the girl we all wanted to be like. But would not openly admit it.
The backdrop to this story is Wits University. The year was 1985.
During this time I picked my way to lectures very carefully. I had classes in the both the East and West Campus. As I rushed to class, I kept my eyes and ears open to any unusual noises and any unusual cloying suffocating smells. The sounds of dogs barking in the beautiful green lawns of Wits was unusual…and usual for the time. Shouting and screaming, the sounds of running feet, also out of place…but not for the time. Smoke and tear gas unusual…but not for the time. I was very careful not to get caught up in the chaos of a raid on the campus by the then security police. It was a dangerous time, especially for those who were actively fighting for freedom.
I was studying political science and the debate in class was always cautious. Except by her…she debated her views openly. One day, half-way through the first semester, she did not come to class. I wondered at this because I always looked out for her, such was my intense fascination. The next day I looked out for her in class, but she was again absent. She was gone for a very long time.
Towards the end of the academic year she came back. I didn’t recognise her at first. Gone was the vibrancy. She was skeletal. She walked in and out of class very quickly, not pausing to say hello or make eye contact. She sat at the back and was quiet. She was flanked, protectively, by her friends. Her wild dreadlocks were gone, her hair shaved very close to her scalp.
Once, she met my curious gaze – what stared back at me was a shell, barely recognisable as the beautiful and vibrant girl of a few months back. Her haunted eyes spoke of things too terrible to mention.
Soon after that she did not return to class. I never saw her again. I still think of her and I wonder what has become of her, where is she now?
To me she will always be the beautiful and vibrant girl I was fascinated with…and I didn’t even know her name…
Blogger’s note: I wrestled with myself whether to tell this story. It was a sensitive time for many. I would have published this earlier were it not for my irrational fears. In retrospective I am glad that I waited to post, because today was probably the most appropriate day to have done it.