Authors: Trevor Noah
For a while I sort of enjoyed the caterpillars. It was like a food adventure, but then over the course of weeks, eating them every day, day after day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I’ll never forget the day I bit a mopane worm in half and that yellow-green ooze came out and I thought, “I’m eating caterpillar shit.” Instantly I wanted to throw up. I snapped and ran to my mom crying. “I don’t want to eat caterpillars anymore!” That night she scraped some money together and bought us chicken. As poor as we’d been in the past, we’d never been without food.
That was the period of my life I hated the most—work all night, sleep in some car, wake up, wash up in a janitor’s sink, brush my teeth in a little metal basin, brush my hair in the rearview mirror of a Toyota, then try to get dressed without getting oil and grease all over my school clothes so the kids at school won’t know I live in a garage. Oh, I hated it so much. I hated cars. I hated sleeping in cars. I hated working on cars. I hated getting my hands dirty. I hated eating worms. I hated it all.
I didn’t hate my mom, or even Abel, funnily enough. Because I saw how hard everyone was working. At first I didn’t know about the mistakes being made on the business level that were making it hard, so it just felt like a hard situation. But eventually I started to see why the business was hemorrhaging money. I used to go around and buy auto parts for Abel, and I learned that he was buying his parts on credit. The vendors were charging him a crazy markup. The debt was crippling the company, and instead of paying off the debt he was drinking what little cash he made. Brilliant mechanic, horrible businessman.
At a certain point, in order to try to save the garage, my mother quit her job at ICI and stepped in to help him run the workshop. She brought her office skills to the garage full-time and started keeping the books, making the schedule, balancing the accounts. And it was going well, until Abel started to feel like she was running his business. People started commenting on it as well. Clients were getting their cars on time, vendors were getting paid on time, and they would say, “Hey, Abie, this workshop is going so much better now that your wife has taken over.” That didn’t help.
We lived in the workshop for close to a year, and then my mom had had enough. She was willing to help him, but not if he was going to drink all the profits. She had always been independent, self-sufficient, but she’d lost that part of herself at the mercy of someone else’s failed dream. At a certain point she said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m out of this. I’m done.” She went out and got a job as a secretary with a real-estate developer, and somehow, between that and borrowing against whatever equity was left in Abel’s workshop, she was able to get us the house in Highlands North. We moved, the workshop was seized by Abel’s creditors, and that was the end of that.
Growing up I suffered no shortage of my mother’s old school, Old Testament discipline. She spared no rod and spoiled no child. With Andrew, she was different. He got spankings at first, but they tapered off and eventually went away. When I asked her why I got beatings and Andrew didn’t, she made a joke about it like she does with everything. “I beat you like that because you could take it,” she said. “I can’t hit your little brother the same way because he’s a skinny little stick. He’ll break. But you, God gave you that ass for whipping.” Even though she was kidding, I could tell that the reason she didn’t beat Andrew was because she’d had a genuine change of heart on the matter. It was a lesson she’d learned, oddly enough, from me.
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn’t see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to a different world than the one she grew up in. She bought me the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw that not all families are violent. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict on others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that, she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped, Abel had started.
In all the times I received beatings from my mom, I was never scared of her. I didn’t like it, certainly. When she said, “I hit you out of love,” I didn’t necessarily agree with her thinking. But I understood that it was discipline and it was being done for a purpose. The first time Abel hit me I felt something I had never felt before. I felt terror.
I was in grade six, my last year at Maryvale. We’d moved to Highlands North, and I’d gotten in trouble at school for forging my mom’s signature on some document; there was some activity I didn’t want to participate in, so I’d signed the release in her name to get out of it. The school called my mom, and she asked me about it when I got home that afternoon. I was certain she was going to punish me, but this turned out to be one of those times when she didn’t care. She said I should have just asked her; she would have signed the form anyway. Then Abel, who’d been sitting in the kitchen with us, watching the whole thing, said, “Hey, can I talk to you for a second?” Then he took me into this tiny room, a walk-in pantry off the kitchen, and he closed the door behind us.
He was standing between me and the door, but I didn’t think anything of it. It didn’t occur to me to be scared. Abel had never tried to discipline me before. He’d never even given me a lecture. It was always “Mbuyi, your son did this,” and then my mother would handle it. And this was the middle of the afternoon. He was completely sober, which made what happened next all the more terrifying.
“Why did you forge your mother’s signature?” he said.
I started making up some excuse. “Oh, I, uh, forgot to bring the form home—”
“Don’t lie to me. Why did you forge your mom’s signature?”
I started stammering out more bullshit, oblivious to what was coming, and then out of nowhere it came.
The first blow hit me in the ribs. My mind flashed:
It’s a trap!
I’d never been in a fight before, had never learned how to fight, but I had this instinct that told me to get in close. I had seen what those long arms could do. I’d seen him take down my mom, but more important, I’d seen him take down grown men. Abel never hit people with a punch; I never saw him punch another person with a closed fist. But he had this ability to hit a grown man across his face with an open hand and they’d crumple. He was that strong. I looked at his arms and I knew,
Don’t be on the other end of those things
. I ducked in close and he kept hitting and hitting, but I was in too tight for him to land any solid blows. Then he caught on and he stopped hitting and started trying to grapple and wrestle me. He did this thing where he grabbed the skin on my arms and pinched it between his thumb and forefinger and twisted hard. Jesus, that hurt.
It was the most terrifying moment of my life. I had never been that scared before, ever. Because there was no purpose to it—that’s what made it so terrifying. It wasn’t discipline. Nothing about it was coming from a place of love. It didn’t feel like something that would end with me learning a lesson about forging my mom’s signature. It felt like something that would end when he wanted it to end, when his rage was spent. It felt like there was something inside him that wanted to destroy me.
Abel was much bigger and stronger than me, but being in a confined space was to my advantage because he didn’t have the room to maneuver. As he grappled and punched I somehow managed to twist and wriggle my way around him and slip out the door. I was quick, but Abel was quick as well. He chased me. I ran out of the house and jumped over the gate, and I ran and I ran and I ran. The last time I turned around he was rounding the gate, coming out of the yard after me. Until I turned twenty-five years old, I had a recurring nightmare of the look on his face as he came around that corner.
The moment I saw him I put my head down and ran. I ran like the Devil was chasing me. Abel was bigger and faster, but this was my neighborhood. You couldn’t catch me in my neighborhood. I knew every alley and every street, every wall to climb over, every fence to slip through. I was ducking through traffic, cutting through yards. I have no idea when he gave up because I never looked back. I ran and ran and ran, as far as my legs would carry me. I was in Bramley, three neighborhoods away, before I stopped. I found a hiding place in some bushes and crawled inside and huddled there for what felt like hours.
You don’t have to teach me a lesson twice. From that day until the day I left home, I lived like a mouse in that house. If Abel was in a room, I was out of the room. If he was in one corner, I was in the other corner. If he walked into a room, I would get up and act like I was going to the kitchen, then when I reentered the room, I would make sure I was close to the exit. He could be in the happiest, friendliest mood. Didn’t matter. Never again did I let him come between me and a door. Maybe a couple of times after that I was sloppy and he’d land a punch or a kick before I could get away, but I never trusted him again, not for a moment.
It was different for Andrew. Andrew was Abel’s son, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. Despite being nine years younger than me, Andrew was really the eldest son in that house, Abel’s firstborn, and that accorded him a respect that I and even my mother never enjoyed. And Andrew had nothing but love for that man, despite his shortcomings. Because of that love, I think, out of all of us, Andrew was the only one who wasn’t afraid. He was the lion tamer, only he’d been raised by the lion—he couldn’t love the beast any less despite knowing what it was capable of. For me, the first glint of anger or madness from Abel and I was gone. Andrew would stay and try to talk Abel down. He’d even get between Abel and Mom. I remember one night when Abel threw a bottle of Jack Daniel’s at Andrew’s head. It just missed him and exploded on the wall. Which is to say that Andrew stayed long enough to get the bottle thrown at him. I wouldn’t have stuck around long enough for Abel to get a bead on me.
When Mighty Mechanics went under, Abel had to get his cars out. Someone was taking over the property; there were liens against his assets. It was a mess. That’s when he started running his workshop out of our yard. It’s also when my mother divorced him.
In African culture there’s legal marriage and traditional marriage. Just because you divorce someone legally doesn’t mean they are no longer your spouse. Once Abel’s debts and his terrible business decisions started impacting my mother’s credit and her ability to support her sons, she wanted out. “I don’t have debts,” she said. “I don’t have bad credit. I’m not doing these things with you.” We were still a family and they were still traditionally married, but she divorced him in order to separate their financial affairs. She also took her name back.
Because Abel had started running an unlicensed business in a residential area, one of the neighbors filed a petition to get rid of us. My mom applied for a license to be able to operate a business on the property. The workshop stayed, but Abel kept running it into the ground, drinking his money. At the same time, my mother started moving up at the real-estate company she worked for, taking on more responsibilities and earning a better salary. His workshop became like a side hobby almost. He was supposed to pay for Andrew’s school fees and groceries, but he started falling behind even on that, and soon my mom was paying for everything. She paid the electricity. She paid the mortgage. He literally contributed nothing.
That was the turning point. When my mother started making more money and getting her independence back—that’s when we saw the dragon emerge. The drinking got worse. He grew more and more violent. It wasn’t long after coming for me in the pantry that Abel hit my mom for the second time. I can’t recall the details of it, because now it’s muddled with all the other times that came after it. I do remember that the police were called. They came out to the house this time, but again it was like a boys’ club. “Hey, guys. These women, you know how they are.” No report was made. No charges were filed.
Whenever he’d hit her or come after me, my mom would find me crying afterward and take me aside. She’d give me the same talk every time.
“Pray for Abel,” she’d say. “Because he doesn’t hate us. He hates himself.”
To a kid this makes no sense. “Well, if he hates himself,” I’d say, “why doesn’t he kick himself?”
Abel was one of those drinkers where once he was gone you’d look into his eyes and you didn’t even see the same person. I remember one night he came home fuckdrunk, stumbling through the house. He stumbled into my room, muttering to himself, and I woke up to see him whip out his dick and start pissing on the floor. He thought he was in the bathroom. That’s how drunk he would get—he wouldn’t know which room in the house he was in. There were so many nights he would stumble into my room thinking it was his and kick me out of bed and pass out. I’d yell at him, but it was like talking to a zombie. I’d go sleep on the couch.
He’d get wasted with his crew in the backyard every evening after work, and many nights he’d end up fighting with one of them. Someone would say something Abel didn’t like, and he’d beat the shit out of him. The guy wouldn’t show up for work Tuesday or Wednesday, but then by Thursday he’d be back because he needed the job. Every few weeks it was the same story, like clockwork.
Abel kicked the dogs, too. Fufi, mostly. Panther was smart enough to stay away, but dumb, lovable Fufi was forever trying to be Abel’s friend. She’d cross his path or be in his way when he’d had a few, and he’d give her the boot. After that she’d go and hide somewhere for a while. Fufi getting kicked was always the warning sign that shit was about to go down. The dogs and the workers in the yard often got the first taste of his anger, and that would let the rest of us know to lie low. I’d usually go find Fufi wherever she was hiding and be with her.