Dudula Is A Sad Symptom of Unresolved Perennial, Colonial And Political Issues
The author was inspired to pen the poem following the recent resurgent spates of xenophobic attacks, threats, deaths and persecutions. This time around these terrible turbulences, protests and afrophobic attacks are initiated, directed and executed under the banner of the Dudula Vigilante groups or the so-called Dudula movement.
Roots and Rules
Dudula means to drive back, repel, repulse, beat back or push away. The Alexandra Dudula Operation was set up in 2021 in Alexandra, one of the lowliest and most lawless areas of South Africa. It seeks to ensure that jobs and business opportunities go to the South Africans, hence like the Dudula which was born in Johannesburg, it strives and hopes to drive out all undocumented immigrants from their communities and the country.
Dudula is a splinter group from a segment in the Put South Africans First movement which executed and promoted ant-immigrant sentiment and campaigns on social media networks. The Dudula movement claims that it seeks to conscientize and galvanize the South African government to take action on undocumented immigrants and those who are alleged to be involved in criminality. While criminal activities cannot be condoned or ignored, the group seems to be bent on making life a hell for the black immigrants in general and for the undocumented ones in particular in mostly in low-income communities. They are on a rampage in townships where they pump up anti-immigrant sentiment to the highest level. Ironically, while they condemn the illegal activities of the immigrants, the Dudula members have been found on the wrong side of the law by taking law into their hands as if they deem themselves above the law.
Traction, Expediency and Populism
Why do groups like the Dudula movement seem to be gaining momentum in spite of their anti-development, anti-black, anti-panAfricanism and anti-unity and peace denotations and demonstrations? For instance, the Dudula groups seem to be spreading across the breadth and width of South Africa. Do they represent the sentiments and concerns of all black South Africans? Are they fighting a genuine cause? Are their aims ,objectives and agendas sustainable and sound? Are they targeting the real problem-causers or they are scapegoating other black victims? What is subtle and obvious about such groups? Are other voices of reason conspicuous by their silence or absence? What about other hidden and hideous forces at play? The author believes that the Dudula movement is taking things in such a sad and simplistic or one-dimensional fashion. This attitude risks isolating South Africa from the rest of Africa. No nation is an island, no matter how powerful or prosperous, it deems to be. What goes around comes around. All lives matter. South African, Nigerian, Ethiopian or Zimbabwean. Black or white. Rich or poor. Humanity is one. Arrogance boasts and blinds. Life humbles.
Cruel and Crude Machinations
One of the possible reasons why the Dudula groups seem to be gaining momentum is the harsh realities that South African blacks face on a daily basis. They have been marginalized for too long. Think of the visibility and accessibility to the increasingly frustrated black South African of another poor black person from another African country who is trying to eke out a living, by doing a menial job or operating a little spaza shop. Historically, we all know of the plight and blight of black people the worldwide, the South African black comes from a previously disadvantaged group. He/she probably feels that the other African brother or sister is taking up his/her job or space. There is an appearance and a feeling of immediacy to the crisis. Is it that immediate? Is it that visible or immediate? Is it new? Is the other ordinary black person the causer? If all the undocumented and illegal immigrants go back to their countries of origin, will the crime and unemployment levels significantly go down?
The disillusionment that political independence does not necessarily translate into economic independence and prosperity for the ordinary citizen is ear -deafening and unbearable. That there is a fierce competition for jobs and other economic opportunities with foreign nationals is uncontestable. However, the problem is deeper and wider than what meets the eye. It is deeper and older than the adverse effects of the covid-19. The pandemic could have worsened the situation but like the undocumented vendor who is selling his/her wares on a pavement, its disappearance is very unlikely going to be the ultimate panacea for the ordinary South African economic woes and poverty. All these two seem to be mere sacrificial lambs in a crude and cruel game of political and colonial machinations, perceptions and indoctrinations, involving political participants, powers, multinational entities and entitlements.
The sooner these vigilante groups wake up and realize that the tragic realities of the shacks and abject poverty in these poor and marginalized communities is not coincidental and artificial the better for the country. The socio-problems which are faced by the ordinary black South Africans are structural or systemic and hence these transcend the emergence and existence of the pandemic and the immigrant populations. When all the key players accept these unfortunate realities, then meaningful, hopeful, honest and life-changing discourses and protests will begin. For now, what I see are nothing else but damaging, dangerous and deceiving purges and tragedies of prejudices, controversies, misconceptions and misdiagnoses of alarming proportions. These anti-black demonstrations and persecutions will not augur well for South Africa`s image and relations on the African continent and beyond.
There is no doubt that poverty is the main driver of this kind of anti-immigrant sentiment. Poverty is a pain and a stain no person should bear or parade. Economic growth is key. Poverty is mainly driven by joblessness, laziness, greed and the mismanagement and underutilization of Africa's abundant resources and options. The national cake is not shared and eaten equitably. That is another stark and sad reality. Economic parity is a rarity and an ideal in Africa. Corruption is a cancer. Selfless and exemplary leadership is a must if the ordinary citizens are to be redeemed from the yoke of economic and social frustration, dilapidation and depravation.
Multifaceted Challenges and Charlatanism
The author believes that the current resurgent black- on- black persecutions that have risen their ugly head in that rainbow nation have serious social, legal, economic, political, cultural and psychological implications and complications. Only honesty will or can reedem the situation otherwise charlatanism will make sure that it resurfaces and rules time and again albeit in different shapes, sizes and colours in spite of the concerned outcries and from genuine victims and the affected communities and countries.
A Ticking Time Bomb
Socially, it means that South Africa is not only becoming an unsafe and unfortunate destination and nation by the passing of each day for the poor, undocumented and illegal black immigrants but also it is a potential danger zone for other black South Africans who could be overzealously, randomly and wrongly harassed, arrested or detained by the South African police officers on a number of spurious grounds, including on the suspected and suspicious grounds of being an illegal immigrant.
Of Brothers and Bribery
For instance, one could be interrogated or arrested for failing to produce South African identification documents or for failing to prove one's citizenship status by failing to state or identify the exact parts of the body in a manner that is deemed linguistically unconvincing by a police officer. It is a common secret that a number of South African police officers who stalk and interrogate pedestrians on the streets are motivated more by a personal ,hidden and selfish desire and agenda to grease their palms than to professionally keep law and order. Legally, this could trigger heightened citizens' suspicions, resentment and even lawsuits.
Fans, Fears and Frustrations
The persecutions and killings have not only created a lot of fears, anxieties, controversies, debates, perceptions and misconceptions within and without the boundaries of South Africa about their real political, social and economic motives and nuances of the Dudula Vigilante groups, but more importantly, have isolated, questioned and dented the image of that beautiful Southern African country which Mandela wanted to be a rainbow nation. In a situation of desperation and frustration, it is easy to fall prey to populism and apportion the poverty blame on the next person who is also a victim of bigger conspiracies and principalities. Foreigners in South Africa now live in fear. This is not the first time. The brutal attacks and vilifications against black immigrants are an exhibition of the presence of Afrophobia that is rooted in the minds of the coordinators and supporters of the violent attacks. Will the xenophobic attacks deter migrants?
The Problem of Solidarity in the Corridors of Power
The major chunk of the problems ordinary citizens have to contend with is that African leaders have a long tradition and history of babying the bad that other African leaders do in the spirit of promoting and protecting a false and skwed sense of solidarity, territorial integrity and brotherhood. It looks like it is their mission to protect their cohorts, clubs and friends at the expense of their nations and citizens.
They hardly call out or call to order the misdemeanors ,omissions and mismanagement of funds and votes etc by their incumbent colleagues and neighbors. For instance, it is fresh on our minds that the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki once deliberately trivialized the political and economic decay in Zimbabwe, and he did that in the glare of the world. He did that during our time of need. The year was 2008 after the country’s disputed March 29 elections. This is the kind of panafricanism that l find dishonest and self- defeating.
Values and Norms
The tragedies and ironies of the spirit of Ubuntu are tragically playing out in today’s South Africa for the entire world to see. It is sad. Values are important in any given society because they constitute the glue of love, humility and humanity. Once a society or a people lose basic values, like beliefs in the respect for the sanctity of life, the fiber of that society becomes shameless, shambolic and shivery. What happened to the spirit of love, dignity, integrity, hospitability, brotherhood and sisterhood? If the fight for economic opportunities and survival means going on a road that dehumanizes and destroys an innocent soul, then what happened to one`s inner voice? Is it dead? Vincent Van Gosh says, “Conscience is a man`s compass”.
The Spirit of Ubuntu is Threatened And Dying
Nelson Mandela preached and put a lot of emphasis on the need for a just society where even the blacks would be empowered, uplifted and respected: culturally, politically, socially and economically. Is that spirit of Ubuntu alive in South Africa? It is not dying,if not already dead and buried? Where is the spirit of empathy and sympathy in the senseless killings of black souls in cold blood for the mere reason that they are illegal immigrants or they are undocumented? This could seem like a kind of meting out mob justice by the disgruntled citizens, but it has long term consequences that are self- defeating and damaging. Where do these recurring spates of killings leave South Africa in a community of decent and democratic nations? How do they impact tourism? Justice? International relations?
Facing the Haunting Ghosts of the Past
Broadly, politically, socially and economically speaking, the capitalist and racist forces, the dishonest, corrupt , incompetent ,self-serving and greedy African leadership are all in complicit in this mayhem, whether they like it or lump it, whether they agree or disagree. That South Africa has a long road to achieve her socially equitable economic independence in spite of being one of Africa's powerhouses, is beyond debate. Is there a political will to engage the key stakeholders? To hold the bulls by their horns?
South Africa has to look herself in the face and honestly and seriously face her social, economic and political divides and disparities .The majority of black South Africans still live in abject poverty. Though this sad reality or state of affairs has psychological, ideological and economic manifestations and implications, the victims of these inequalities ironically find themselves venting out their frustrations and sufferings on other political and economic victims from other African countries, who also happen to be black, poor and desperate.
Words Are Not Necessarily Actions
Is it not time and prudent for African leaders, businesspersons, political parties and the generality of Africans to discuss these unpleasant and perennial issues in a real, robust, honest and soul-searching manner? Black on black persecutions and killings will continue in South Africa as sickening skeletons in our closet if African journalists, citizens, writers, historians and activists continue to hide under an ostrich mentality that these unjustifiable and unacceptable levels of poverty ,corruption , brutality and social disparities dogging Africa will simply go away of their volition. That is an illusion! Let the selfish and myopic pretenders and puppets sit down, the concerned panafricanists and patriots stand up and play their crucial roles or else history and their legacies will judge them harshly.
For a better, stronger and united Africa to emerge, concrete and corrective measures have to be taken. The meaningful conversations should be based on facts, not sentiment. They should not be grounded on exaggerations, indoctrinations and misconceptions. For instance, poor and marginalized communities are neither a creation, a result, a manifestation of immigrant populations in South Africa nor coincidental and artificial but structural and systemic. Wrong diagnosis begets wrong medication. This is just a brotherly piece of advice.
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
Hidden in a Showcase
‘Ding’; a text message appeared on my smartphone. My fingers tapped to open it. Three of my great-grandchildren with their mom were standing in front of a large showcase in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s ‘Girlhood, it’s complicated’ exhibit. A blown up photo, and some costume sketches were shown: me, and my designs... circa 1950's. My actual skirt, in the snapshot, was in its own enclosure; my maiden name appeared.
“Did you know?” the text asked. “You’re representing all teens in the 1950's.”
Well, how would I know! What curator can contact people whose items were accessioned. That skirt had a Deed of Gift signed in 1974 and was part of “Suiting Exeryone” exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Division of Costume. Well, it’s 2022 and the item might have just been stored. Oh my gosh!
“Of course, who’d believe ‘that’s my grandma’,” text continued.
During high school, I often sat in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume wing sketching the clothing; then I’d draw my modernized version of the design. Staring, holding thin charcoal strips ready to fill blank white pages, I wondered how the women felt as people rather than costumes. Did they love, hurt, have unfilled dreams, satisfied lives? Were shoes too tight, dresses too confining? Was it difficult to launder many layers, rush to outhouses in storms, had any pedaled bicycles or just giggled if rain fell on their faces outdoors?
My mother taught me to sew, make personal patterns, also to do most anything by hand. Did she like dirndl skirts I made with wide belts circling my tiny waist? She looked elegant sophisticated and I found ‘me’ in pastels with gentle flowers. When she entered our living room in black silk velvet glamour, guests hadn’t seen her in a Swirl wrap garment spending the day preparing meals she’d serve them in our dining room. None saw fatigue, stove burners simmering food she’d chopped, beans she’d strung. None would see, hours later, her hand washed and dried dishes/glasses/silver, nor tedious job laundering/ starching/ ironing cloths and napkins. Was that possibly why I wondered about mannequins as ‘people’ whose costumes were shown but not thoughts or feelings as humans?
A month after I turned twenty, during my junior year in college, my forty-five years old father died of a heart attack. My mother, alone, made people around her comfortable, being there for them without guilt if her advice was shunned, and kept her grief private so others could reach for life-oriented joys. I commuted to grad school at night; she even kept to herself the fears for my safety standing alone at the 116th Street subway station to begin the trip back to Queens County. Under her ‘garments’, she was courageous, determined to give her daughters opportunities she didn’t have, creative, intelligent, and camouflaged a void so huge from my father’s death that she never even dated another man but was always cheerful around people and encouraging for their wishes and dreams.
In 1974, when the Smithsonian’s Division of Costume accessioned and displayed that skirt plus a pair of socks I hand-knit, I didn’t attend that opening due to a leg injury, and I knew about that one. Now that one of my grandchildren has told me that I am the face of the 1950's American teen, distance and aging will prevent me from seeing this in person. I told that granddaughter how I hand-made the top, in that photo, from a pink silk remnant material my mother had, I also wore that skirt in college with its Merry Go Round appliques, and that it would still fit me today fifteen grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren (so far) later. My enduring marriage isn’t noticed by viewers looking at my sketches or me. Does any wonder about the girl who danced in such a skirt, and how her life turned out? Think where she’s sitting posing (an undergrad dorm room before a Homecoming party) or even realize there were no hair dryers, curling irons, perma press clothing, one phone shared by sixty-six girls? I lived on the 4th floor and no elevators, dress codes meant skirts only even in severe winter weather, hand written lecture notes, non-electric typewriters.....
Why was I chosen to represent all teen girls from the 1950's? I don’t know, but I so like that a skirt, my dad’s fingers touched, and a top I made from my mother’s fabric drawer material is in my memory. “That’s my grandma” allowed me to find out that this exhibit opened in October 2020 and will actually tour beginning 2023. Will anyone wonder about ‘me’, the person, as I did long ago when sitting before the costumes in the Met?
John Chizoba Vincent is a Nigerian. He is a filmmaker, Cinematographer and Content Creator. He lives in Lagos where he writes.
YOU ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY, NIGERIA!
The day Nigeria died was the day we all started blaming one another for the problems caused by us. It was the same day we died having the stenches of her scars, sorrows and tears. We ate sorrow and drank pains as we carried these stenches everywhere we go. We became libraries: a library of thoughts and a library full of corruption, bigotry, favoritism, nepotism, unemployment and unnecessary books about our heroes past, about our failed system of federalism; about our patrotic brothers and sisters burnt down in the streets of Nigeria. Their blood spilled under the burning weather. We saw this blood and said nothing about it because it wasn't one of our businesses at that moment and none of our relatives were among those killed— we moved on with our activities. "All man for himself" Some said. Now, this evil has gotten home. It has eaten deep into our families and we seek for help from strangers rather than ourselves.
Meanwhile, Our houses in the streets of her shores, borders, municipal, and metropolis became sick — sickled, with fire everywhere. We watched this land rose every morning with anger, pushing down many things. We kept running away from our problems, into the hands of foreigners who thrust us aside because we do not belong to them. You know? I do fear confusion! Confusion that may come now and divide us into what we already know by ourselves because the union of two people is always being made possible by one person not the two parties involved. When you cough, do you still have a brother that tells you to take care? Do you still have?
How does one grieve a living soul? Or a land of abundance made poor like ours? How does one die while still living in a country like ours? Our Leaders have made us wanderers, lost souls seeking for confinement! Is there a future for Children yet to be born in Nigeria or those already living in Nigeria? Are they going to kill our children just before they grow up or are they going to kill us before we give birth to them?
Mother once told us sometimes ago that a boy was picked in his street last two years by some Police men and he has not returned to his parents since then! Is he dead or alive? we don't know! A neighbor told a story of a Boy shot dead close to his office. He was wearing dreadlocks. They said he was a terror to the society. They said he was not supposed to be on dreadlocks. Is this how we are all going to die as Nigerians? Perhaps, we are going to be killed like those in Lekki tollgate with Flags in our hands asking for our rights as Nigerians. Or we die hungry, rolling on the ground with our stomaches while they embezzle the funds that is made for us. Or perhaps we join those who proudly took away their lives in Third main bridge. Nobody cares about us while we live, maybe they'll talk about us when we jump into the sea. By then, we will appear on the front page of Vanguard newspaper or The nation and the matter ends there for us.
It was in that house on the other side of the road that one of my friends' dead body was found. His parents had gone to one of those warehouses in Lagos to look for palliatives when a neighbor found his dead body, dangling in the air. He committed suicide because he became tired of living in a country that has no future for him. Chibuike is dead. Memories I shared with him hunted me for a while. Some night I wake up and I feel tears at the corner of my eyes but when I remember the times we shared, I smile. You could tell how free and liberated he felt and expressed himself whenever we decided to forget about this land. I was almost like a light he couldn't let go even though I had my own struggles about what tomorrow holds for me then. But I gave him my time - most of it. I listened while he talked, and when he was done I would just take his hands and kiss them. He had the most charming smile and dark skinned
But this land stifled him like a wandering fowl. So, I understood that all the dead people in Nigeria are made into stones. We carry them like an autograph everywhere we go. Perhaps, we may die like them and the Government may say nothing about us. Or maybe when they kill us, the Government would lie about our death to foreign ears and nobody would probe them further for any information about our death.
Is there still hope for employment for graduates in this land flowing with milk and honey? Is there still hope for good education in Nigeria? Will ASUU keeps going on strike monthly? Tell me if you know of these things.
I don’t carry this grief always. I don't remain in every sadness like I do always when I watch how this land that was made to protect us kills us daily. Whenever I remember home, I remember a string missing in every smile we lose to the grief of Loved ones and template of hopeless youths scattered all over the places, confused. Because being a Nigerian is a sin, we have learnt to change our identity everywhere we go. Because having the Nigerian name is a crime and we must fasten our agonies to hide every truth away from the world to accommodate ourselves in other to fit in; perhaps pretend that we are all well in this country from the tweets we send out on dailies or the memes we gather to make ourselves happy despite the calamities befallen us. However, we have developed different strategies to make ourselves happy despite the hardship abounds in the country.
Dead things don’t tell of the dead and a dark blue sky can’t tell of happiness in a land like ours. Have Nigerians forgotten about the Chibok girls like that? Are they back home to their parents? Or are we still waiting for them to return home as promised by our President? Are they one of their political lies? Which father attach no meaning to his children's tears? Which mother would see her children pleas as violence? You are longer a country, Nigeria! You are a land thirsty of blood! You are a home full of dramatic ghosts. You are a house whose foundation is faulty. You have made your Police as vultures to their brothers. You have exposed your soldiers yourself. You have made your Doctors flew home. You've made your children homeless. You've made your mothers Childless. You've made your Youths useless. You are longer a country, Nigeria! You are a tasty water causing diarrhea. You are a mouth seeking for more while your hand has not given out to anyone.
My neighbour travelled last week so that his money would not be borrowed to complete the 2021 budget. Perhaps staying in Ghana would help him to keep his sanity intact.
In Fela Kuti's voice: you were long gone before now. Eedris Abdulkareem tapped our shoulders in 2004 and reminded us that you were no more but they chased him away. He was accused of blaspheming and you did nothing, Just nothing. When African China rose in 2007 and narrated to us the crisis he saw, we hoped you would change another wrapper from the old ones you were given but we were disappointed to see you still like this.
Now, the youngsters believe that the only Christmas worth doing for themselves is to leave your shore to foreign land. Some of them believe more in fraudulent activities rather than hard work. Seeing your passport is nothing to foreigners whom you were better off than before. Your currency has been devalued severally by those you put up there!
Who has naked you, Nigeria? Who has called and you refused to pick? Who did you offend that they treat you like you are a nobody — a nuisance?
An Igbo man said he was better than a yoruba man few days ago and the yoruba man stabbed him on the back then the government went to Brazil to borrow money to settle the issue. An Ijew man said he owns the oil well in Delta, then, a Fulani told him the well belongs to his ancestors. He showed him many wells that his fathers built in Delta state from Katsina. The Ijew man in an argument killed the Fulani man, the government flew to China to borrow money to settle the family of the dead man. When an Hausa man looked at a Benin man and told him he looked like a ghost, the Benin man realised that he has to dine with a long spoon henceforth. It is no longer a big story that we are a lost people. Therefore, we have allowed religion to divide us. There are those who still fast and pray for a miracle to happen to Nigeria. Those who baptized logic into a demon. Just like Juliet, the choir mistress, who dodged bullets until she choked on hallelujahs and died that is how many of us who placed the problems in this land in the hands of God without solving it would die. Maybe, God will prepare a room for them in Heaven.
Meanwhile, the Senators have learnt to stage drama everytime they meet to discuss. Even those that doze off during meeting are paid sleeping allowances and those who fight while they conversed are paid fighting and quarreling allowances. The only reason I have finally summoned up the courage to speak about this is because I am certain a lot of us who might come across these things as they evolves are in the same state of frustration as I am but we killed this very land ourselves. We made this country what it is today the very day we started avoiding taking up our responsibilities as patrotic Masses we are.
How do you feel when you recite the national anthem? Do you read meanings to the wordings or you just say it just like that?
In fact, the masses say the government is the problem but Government says the masses are problem.The masses are waiting for the government to fulfil their promises of one Dollar to one Naira while the government are waiting for the masses to obey the traffic rules and stop throwing dirties on the streets. To whom do we fault the problems of Nigeria?
You won't find Jesus in Nigeria to resurrect her. You won't call his name in Nigeria and expect him to come because we are still sick at 60, just like we were, the very day we were born and christianed Nigeria.
©John Chizoba Vincent
Janet Brown has been writing short stories for many years. Some of her work has been published in various magazines and newspapers. When she's not writing, she's reading reading memoirs and biographies of amazing people. She resides in the northeast part of the United States where she works in her flower garden in the summer.
Lillian and the Shack
When I was a young girl, there was a little, old, brown house that was situated down from where I lived. This house, which was really a shack, would actually serve as a home for many different people over a span of many years.
It was a very odd looking construction for many reasons. For one, the little brown house sat far back away from the road; it could not be seen by anyone who may be driving by. The driveway that led to the house was the same one used by the owners of the big house that sat closer to the road. This shared driveway arrangement between the two houses caused problems. Throughout the years, whenever the little brown house had occupants, and there were numerous short term transients, the owners in the big house had to move their car so that there was room for the other one to get by. Sometimes the driver would steer the car off of the driveway and this would enrage the owners when they saw the flattened grass and the tire track marks.
Fortunately, for the big house owners, most of the occupants of the little brown house didn’t even own a car. People really needed a car to get around in the country, but there were still some unfortunate people who were stuck in our rural and secluded area without any means of transportation. Lillian was such a person. She was stuck and isolated in the little brown house for several years. The lack of transportation, however, was the least of her problems.
The little brown house was originally built as a temporary place to shelter the owners while their real house, the big one situated closer to the road, was being built. The little house was never meant for permanent human occupancy. But that’s not how it ended up. After the big house was finished, the owners decided to not tear down the little one because they saw an opportunity to make some extra money by renting it to poor people.
The construction of the little brown house was in the shape of a box. It was built on top of a crude cement slab which extended about three to four feet beyond the base of the construction. One door led to the inside, where, if you moved to the right a few feet, you could easily see the other three rooms because there weren’t any hallways. Each room measured one-fourth of the box-like construction. The room which served as the kitchen was immediately to the right where an old, rusty sink and an electric stove took up most of the space. If you looked out of the only window in the kitchen, you could see the backyard, the field, and the outhouse. All of the houses in this rural area had wells on their property and although there was running water at the kitchen sink, there wasn’t any toilet or bathtub. The occupants had to heat the water on the stove and get washed up at the kitchen sink.
The other two rooms in the house were used as bedrooms. There weren’t any doors leading into either bedroom nor were there any closets. Both of these rooms had one small window which barely let in any light.
Oddly enough, although the little brown house did not have a hot water heater, it did have oil heat. The owners had a very basic heating system installed to help warm the house during the bitter, cold winter months. A silver colored oil tank sat outside in the backyard, immediately next to the kitchen area. I rarely saw an oil truck come to fill up the tank. Lillian never bought oil while she lived there. Instead, she heated the kitchen by turning the knob on the oven to the highest possible temperature. After about ten minutes, she’d open the oven door and everyone would huddle close to it for warmth.
The outside of the house was covered with brown shingles, much like the kind used on a roof. The pattern of the shingles was like bricks, but the house never looked like a real brick house. Most rustic cabins looked and functioned better than this box-like construction. Today, various zoning and permit regulations would never allow such a building to be rented out to people. Although everything about its existence was also illegal in the 1950’s, the rules were ignored.
The construction looked exactly like what it was. A shack. Lillian and her four children lived in this construction for several years.
I was ten years old when they moved in. I never saw a moving van (a big one wouldn’t be needed) or even a small pick-up truck. They must have moved in when I was at school. It seemed like they just appeared one day. That’s how it always was at that house. Tenants would appear and disappear. They would sneak out late at night and then new tenants would magically appear seemingly out of nowhere.
One early evening, when I was alone in the backyard, I noticed a very faint yellow glow emanating from one of its windows. I could barely see it through the pine trees bordering our field, but it was a definite glow. The little brown house had been completely dark for several months after the last family had moved out and I was starting to get used to the dark silence by the field. I decided to wait until the next day to meet my new neighbors.
The next morning, I knocked on their door and introduced myself.
Although Lillian was only in her early twenties, she wasn’t young looking, nor was she pretty. The burden of raising four children by herself had already taken its toll. She was rail thin and walked with a limp due to a hip and back deformity that made her look like she was leaning to one side. It may have been scoliosis. She told us what it was one time, but her actual medical condition never quite registered in my mind.
Lillian also had missing teeth on the top row of her mouth, and this caused her to speak with a lisp. You had to listen very carefully when she spoke. There was also a permanent, one-inch, jagged scar above her upper lip, perhaps from a childhood fall or a push or punch from a boyfriend or husband. After we became friends, she told me that her husband was in jail; perhaps it was for domestic abuse, I often wondered.
Aside from being excessively thin, Lillian was also short. Her dark brown hair was only about an inch in length below her earlobe and it was not really cut in any particular style. In fact, her hair was usually teased up high, and often looked like she just got caught in a wind storm. After Dianne, my girlfriend down the road, and I became regular visitors at Lillian’s, one of our favorite hobbies was shampooing and setting her hair on rollers, even though there wasn’t anyone to impress with a new hairstyle.
Lillian lived in the house alone with her four children. David, the oldest, was seven years old and was rail thin like his mother. Likewise, Robert, a year younger, was also very thin. He was also mentally disabled; no one could understand him when he spoke. Next came Brenda, Lillian’s first girl, a year younger than Robert. She had big brown eyes and short, light brown hair. The baby, Ellie, was a year old. She looked just like her sister, except a miniature version.
I rescued Ellie once when she was left alone with her siblings. Lillian was actually at my house using the phone. This wasn’t the first time she had left her children unattended. I was in my backyard when I heard Ellie screaming and crying. By the time I got to the house, she had stopped screaming, but she was still in her crib, whimpering, naked, except for a droopy, soggy diaper that reeked of urine. David, Robert and Brenda were watching TV in the living room, oblivious to their baby sister’s needs. I reached in, grabbed Ellie out of her crib and then went back into the living room to ask them about her bottle. The TV had their full attention; none of the kids looked at me or responded when I asked them again about Ellie’s bottle. In the meantime, I took off the baby’s soiled diaper, which by now had almost completely fallen off of her tiny body, and I dropped it on the floor. I was so upset when Ellie started to cry again. She had a terrible, red, diaper rash and I wasn’t sure what to do next.
“Where is Ellie’s bottle?” I demanded again, this time raising my voice loud enough to be heard over the cartoons.
Brenda looked over at me, and without saying anything, she scooted off the couch and walked into the kitchen. The other kids never took their eyes off the TV. I followed behind Brenda with Ellie, now completely naked, riding on my right hip. Brenda pushed the kitchen chair over to the sink, hopped up on it and moved plates and bowls around in the sink until she was sure there wasn’t any bottle. I looked inside the sink too, just to make sure.
“Look in the refrigerator!” I yelled, this time shifting Ellie to my other hip.
I scanned the kitchen table top, but there was no bottle in sight, nor could I find a diaper or rash ointment.
Brenda hesitated and then grabbed the handle of the refrigerator door with both hands and tugged hard. She backed away and almost lost her balance as the door flew wide open. There wasn’t any food inside. Not even a half empty jar of mustard.
Dianne and I were invited one time to eat with Lillian and her kids. We didn’t want to accept her food because we knew she was so very poor, but we could tell that she really wanted our company that day. She fried hamburgers for everyone and then she opened and heated a few cans of vegetables. Most of Lillian’s food came from the government. I didn’t know exactly what that all meant, but a lot of the cans in her kitchen were different from the cans in the supermarket and from the ones in our house. Big silver cans of peanut butter, cans of potted meat and other strange looking canned goods with black lettering on the outside were all lined up on the homemade cupboard that Lillian had constructed out of boards and cinderblocks.
After she dished up the food onto our plates, we all sat at the crowded table and proceeded to eat. There wasn’t enough room to sit together comfortably at the table, but we managed. I offered to share my seat with Lillian, but she wanted to stand. David was trying to hold Ellie steady in his lap (she didn’t have a high chair) while trying to maneuver the food into his own mouth and then into Ellie’s. Brenda and Robert shared a chair and were stuffing the food into their mouths as fast as they could, while Lillian was passing out plastic glasses half-filled with red Kool-Aid.
All of a sudden, I noticed a bunch of black moving dots all over the table! I looked closer and realized that there was a trail of ants all over everything and that they were quickly making their way toward everyone’s food! Lillian noticed the ants too but she didn’t say anything. Rather, she calmly took her index finger and proceeded to kill each ant. Dianne and I looked at each other, but we didn’t say anything either. In the meantime, Lillian continued to kill the ants with her finger and the kids continued to shovel the food into their mouths. Dianne and I looked down at our plates and ate as quickly as possible.
Dianne and I weren’t Lillian’s only visitors. From time to time, Lillian’s parents would come to the house and take her and the kids shopping. They weren’t much better off than Lillian, but at least they owned a car. One August, before school started, they took David to a big discount warehouse that sold irregular clothing and other miscellaneous items. David came home with a big plastic bag filled with an assortment of brightly colored shirts and pants. Brenda got jealous and started to cry when she saw David’s new clothes. Lillian reminded her that David was starting school in September and that she would be able to get new clothes when it was her turn.
David had already been left back twice at his previous schools before he moved to the little brown house Now, he was starting yet another new school where he had to get used to new surroundings and teachers. He had to start at the very beginning again because he couldn’t read or write. Lillian tried to help him, but she couldn’t read either.
One of Lillian’s girlfriends also visited occasionally. She also liked to do hair, so one time Dianne and I allowed her to wash and set our hair. We brought all the supplies, including the shampoo, conditioner, hairspray, brush and hairdryer. It was a fun afternoon that included smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and listening to Lillian and her girlfriend talk about various adult topics that we never heard at home. We weren’t allowed to smoke cigarettes at home, but that didn’t stop us from smoking them at Lillian’s. We learned how to take long drags and inhale without coughing. We thought it was exciting to listen to Lillian and her girlfriend talk about all the things that our own mothers wouldn’t discuss with us.
After Lillian’s girlfriend was finished with us, we walked to Dianne’s house to show off our new hairstyle. As soon as Dianne’s mother saw our heads, she told us that our hair was teased up entirely too high and that we needed to comb it down immediately. Although we didn’t think so, apparently we looked too grown up and sleazy, according to Dianne’s mother.
Lillian’s new boyfriend was another visitor. I first met him when I knocked on Lillian’s door early one Saturday morning. Lillian answered the door in her underwear and let me in. She introduced me to him and at first it seemed like he was interested in what I was saying, because he kept nodding and smiling, but soon it was clear to me that he couldn’t understand a word I said. I wondered to myself if he had spent the night. I couldn’t figure out how he had gotten to Lillian’s house since there wasn’t a car parked outside. Then I wondered who had brought him there and how had Lillian even met him in the first place since she rarely went anywhere. All of these thoughts, and more, were swirling around in my mind as he continued to nod and smile. He didn’t understand anything Lillian said either, but I was old enough to understand that Lillian's interest in this guy didn’t involve talking anyway, so a language barrier didn’t matter.
Lillian’s new boyfriend became a permanent fixture at her house and within a few short weeks, things got really, really bad. Lillian was now constantly preoccupied with her new boyfriend; she ignored her kids and often sent them outside to play until well past bedtime. The fun afternoons of doing each other’s hair were over. Dianne and I didn’t even bother to ask Lillian for cigarettes anymore. Now, on washdays, the new boyfriend’s clothes were seen hung on the line alongside David’s not-so-new-anymore school clothes, and Robert’s, Brenda’s and Ellie’s old clothes. Lillian started yelling even more and she’d even curse at the kids if they really got on her nerves. Some of the vile things she’d say to them was often worse than her regularly administered slaps, which caused dark red marks and lots of tears.
No one called the authorities to report neglect or abuse. Back then, people usually minded their own business when it came to domestic matters. Family matters were considered private and the police didn’t like to get involved unless absolutely necessary. People would give money, food and clothing, but they wouldn’t call the police. Today this kind of family situation would warrant having the kids taken away and put into foster care.
My mother always gave Lillian my younger brother’s outgrown clothes for David and Robert. Other people also tried to help out. One time a lady from the Salvation Army brought a big box of food. Another time a farmer down the road dropped off some meat from a slaughtered cow. People in my area always helped others, but Lillian never got the kind of help she really needed while she lived in the little brown house.
Dianne and I rarely visited anymore, and when we did, we only stayed a few minutes. Lillian eventually stopped answering her door when we knocked. We could hear the TV and the kids inside. We knew she was in there.
Lillian, her new boyfriend, and her four kids, disappeared one day. I must have been at school when they left.
Over the years, many more people came and went at the little brown house, as quietly as Lillian, until one day the owners finally tore down the shack, along with that wretched outhouse in the back. The ground was seeded and fresh, new, green grass grew in the spring. The owners in the big house, the one closer to the road, now had a bigger backyard, and they no longer had to share the driveway.
Once that shack was torn down, everything looked better.
Raia and Me