Authors: Trevor Noah
My grandmother lived in Orlando East. She had a two-room house. Not a two-bedroom house. A two-room house. There was a bedroom, and then there was basically a living room/kitchen/everything-else room. Some might say we lived like poor people. I prefer “open plan.” My mom and I would stay there during school holidays. My aunt and cousins would be there whenever she was on the outs with Dinky. We all slept on the floor in one room, my mom and me, my aunt and my cousins, my uncle and my grandmother and my great-grandmother. The adults each had their own foam mattresses, and there was one big one that we’d roll out into the middle, and the kids slept on that.
We had two shanties in the backyard that my grandmother would rent out to migrants and seasonal workers. We had a small peach tree in a tiny patch on one side of the house and on the other side my grandmother had a driveway. I never understood why my grandmother had a driveway. She didn’t have a car. She didn’t know how to drive. Yet she had a driveway. All of our neighbors had driveways, some with fancy, cast-iron gates. None of them had cars, either. There was no future in which most of these families would ever have cars. There was maybe one car for every thousand people, yet almost everyone had a driveway. It was almost like building the driveway was a way of willing the car to happen. The story of Soweto is the story of the driveways. It’s a hopeful place.
Sadly, no matter how fancy you made your house, there was one thing you could never aspire to improve: your toilet. There was no indoor running water, just one communal outdoor tap and one outdoor toilet shared by six or seven houses. Our toilet was in a corrugated-iron outhouse shared among the adjoining houses. Inside, there was a concrete slab with a hole in it and a plastic toilet seat on top; there had been a lid at some point, but it had broken and disappeared long ago. We couldn’t afford toilet paper, so on the wall next to the seat was a wire hanger with old newspaper on it for you to wipe. The newspaper was uncomfortable, but at least I stayed informed while I handled my business.
The thing that I couldn’t handle about the outhouse was the flies. It was a long drop to the bottom, and they were always down there, eating on the pile, and I had an irrational, all-consuming fear that they were going to fly up and into my bum.
One afternoon, when I was around five years old, my gran left me at home for a few hours to go run errands. I was lying on the floor in the bedroom, reading. I needed to go, but it was pouring down rain. I was dreading going outside to use the toilet, getting drenched running out there, water dripping on me from the leaky ceiling, wet newspaper, the flies attacking me from below. Then I had an idea. Why bother with the outhouse at all? Why not put some newspaper on the floor and do my business like a puppy? That seemed like a fantastic idea. So that’s what I did. I took the newspaper, laid it out on the kitchen floor, pulled down my pants, and squatted and got to it.
When you shit, as you first sit down, you’re not fully in the experience yet. You are not yet a shitting person. You’re transitioning from a person about to shit to a person who is shitting. You don’t whip out your smartphone or a newspaper right away. It takes a minute to get the first shit out of the way and get in the zone and get comfortable. Once you reach that moment, that’s when it gets really nice.
It’s a powerful experience, shitting. There’s something magical about it, profound even. I think God made humans shit in the way we do because it brings us back down to earth and gives us humility. I don’t care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyoncé shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forget how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away.
You are never more yourself than when you’re taking a shit. You have that moment where you realize,
This is me. This is who I am.
You can pee without giving it a second thought, but not so with shitting. Have you ever looked in a baby’s eyes when it’s shitting? It’s having a moment of pure self-awareness. The outhouse ruins that for you. The rain, the flies, you are robbed of your moment, and nobody should be robbed of that. Squatting and shitting on the kitchen floor that day, I was like,
Wow. There are no flies. There’s no stress. This is really great. I’m really enjoying this
. I knew I’d made an excellent choice, and I was very proud of myself for making it. I’d reached that moment where I could relax and be with myself. Then I casually looked around the room and I glanced to my left and there, just a few feet away, right next to the coal stove, was Koko.
It was like the scene in
when the children turn and the T. rex is right there. Her eyes were wide open, cloudy white and darting around the room. I knew she couldn’t see me, but her nose was starting to crinkle—she could sense that something was wrong.
I panicked. I was mid-shit. All you can do when you’re mid-shit is finish shitting. My only option was to finish as quietly and as slowly as I could, so that’s what I decided to do. Then: the softest
of a little-boy turd on the newspaper. Koko’s head snapped toward the sound.
“Who’s there? Hallo?
I froze. I held my breath and waited.
“Who’s there?! Hallo?!”
I kept quiet, waited, then started again.
“Is somebody there?! Trevor, is that you?! Frances? Hallo? Hallo?”
She started calling out the whole family. “Nombuyiselo? Sibongile? Mlungisi? Bulelwa? Who’s there? What’s happening?”
It was like a game, like I was trying to hide and a blind woman was trying to find me using sonar. Every time she called out, I froze. There would be complete silence. “Who’s there?! Hallo?!” I’d pause, wait for her to settle back in her chair, and then I’d start up again.
Finally, after what felt like forever, I finished. I stood up, took the newspaper—which is not the quietest thing—and I slowwwwwly folded it over. It crinkled. “Who’s there?” Again I paused, waited. Then I folded it over some more, walked over to the rubbish bin, placed my sin at the bottom, and gingerly covered it with the rest of the trash. Then I tiptoed back to the other room, curled up on the mattress on the floor, and pretended to be asleep. The shit was done, no outhouse involved, and Koko was none the wiser.
An hour later the rain had stopped. My grandmother came home. The second she walked in, Koko called out to her.
“Frances! Thank God you’re here. There’s something in the house.”
“What was it?”
“I don’t know, but I could hear it, and there was a smell.”
My gran started sniffing the air. “Dear Lord! Yes, I can smell it, too. Is it a rat? Did something die? It’s definitely in the house.”
They went back and forth about it, quite concerned, and then, as it was getting dark, my mother came home from work. The second she walked in, my gran called out to her.
“Oh, Nombuyiselo! Nombuyiselo! There’s something in the house!”
“What?! What do you mean?”
Koko told her the story, the sounds, the smells.
Then my mom, who has a keen sense of smell, started going around the kitchen, sniffing. “Yes, I can smell it. I can find it…I can find it…” She went to the rubbish bin. “It’s in here.” She lifted out the rubbish, pulled out the folded newspaper underneath, and opened it up, and there was my little turd. She showed it to gran.
“What?! How did it get there?!”
Koko, still blind, still stuck in her chair, was dying to know what was happening.
“What’s going on?!” she cried. “What’s going on?! Did you find it?!”
“It’s shit,” Mom said. “There’s shit in the bottom of the dustbin.”
“But how?!” Koko said. “There was no one here!”
“Are you sure there was no one here?”
“Yes. I called out to everyone. Nobody came.”
My mother gasped. “We’ve been bewitched! It’s a demon!”
For my mother, this was the logical conclusion. Because that’s how witchcraft works. If someone has put a curse on you or your home, there is always the talisman or totem, a tuft of hair or the head of a cat, the physical manifestation of the spiritual thing, proof of the demon’s presence.
Once my mom found the turd, all hell broke loose. This was
. They had
. She came into the bedroom.
“Trevor! Trevor! Wake up!”
“What?!” I said, playing dumb. “What’s going on?!”
“Come! There’s a demon in the house!”
She took my hand and dragged me out of bed. It was all hands on deck, time for action. The first thing we had to do was go outside and burn the shit. That’s what you do with witchcraft; the only way to destroy it is to burn the physical thing. We went out to the yard, and my mom put the newspaper with my little turd on the driveway, lit a match, and set it on fire. Then my mom and my gran stood around the burning shit, praying and singing songs of praise.
The commotion didn’t stop there because when there’s a demon around, the whole community has to join together to drive it out. If you’re not part of the prayer, the demon might leave our house and go to your house and curse you. So we needed everyone. The alarm was raised. The call went out. My tiny old gran was out the gate, going up and down the block, calling to all the other old grannies for an emergency prayer meeting. “Come! We’ve been bewitched!”
I stood there, my shit burning in the driveway, my poor aged grandmother tottering up and down the street in a panic, and I didn’t know what to do. I knew there was no demon, but there was no way I could come clean. The hiding I would have to endure? Good Lord. Honesty was never the best policy when it came to a hiding. I kept quiet.
Moments later the grannies came streaming in with their Bibles, through the gate and up the driveway, a dozen or more at least. Everyone went inside. The house was packed. This was by far the biggest prayer meeting we’d ever had—the biggest thing that had ever happened in the history of our home, period. Everyone sat in the circle, praying and praying, and the prayers were strong. The grannies were chanting and murmuring and swaying back and forth, speaking in tongues. I was doing my best to keep my head low and stay out of it. Then my grandmother reached back and grabbed me, pulled me into the middle of the circle, and looked into my eyes.
“Yes!” my mother said. “Help us! Pray, Trevor. Pray to God to kill the demon!”
I was terrified. I believed in the power of prayer. I knew that my prayers
. So if I prayed to God to kill the thing that left the shit, and the thing that left the shit was me, then God was going to kill me. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. But all the grannies were looking at me, waiting for me to pray, so I prayed, stumbling through as best I could.
“Dear Lord, please protect us, um, you know, from whoever did this but, like, we don’t know what happened exactly and maybe it was a big misunderstanding and, you know, maybe we shouldn’t be quick to judge when we don’t know the whole story and, I mean, of course you know best, Heavenly Father, but maybe this time it wasn’t actually a demon, because who can say for certain, so maybe cut whoever it was a break…”
It was not my best performance. Eventually I wrapped it up and sat back down. The praying continued. It went on for some time. Pray, sing, pray. Sing, pray, sing. Sing, sing, sing. Pray, pray, pray. Then everyone finally felt that the demon was gone and life could continue, and we had the big “amen” and everyone said good night and went home.
That night I felt terrible. Before bed, I quietly prayed, “God, I am so sorry for all of this. I know this was not cool.” Because I knew: God answers your prayers. God is your father. He’s the man who’s there for you, the man who takes care of you. When you pray, He stops and He takes His time and He listens, and I had subjected Him to two hours of old grannies praying when I knew that with all the pain and suffering in the world He had more important things to deal with than my shit.
hen I was growing up we used to get American TV shows rebroadcast on our stations:
Doogie Howser, M.D.; Murder, She Wrote; Rescue 911
with William Shatner. Most of them were dubbed into African languages.
was in Afrikaans.
was in Sotho. But if you wanted to watch them in English, the original American audio would be simulcast on the radio. You could mute your TV and listen to that. Watching those shows, I realized that whenever black people were on-screen speaking in African languages, they felt familiar to me. They sounded like they were supposed to sound. Then I’d listen to them in simulcast on the radio, and they would all have black American accents. My perception of them changed. They didn’t feel familiar. They felt like foreigners.
Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says “We’re the same.” A language barrier says “We’re different.” The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. In the Bantu schools, children were only taught in their home language. Zulu kids learned in Zulu. Tswana kids learned in Tswana. Because of this, we’d fall into the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different.
The great thing about language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked. If you’re racist and you meet someone who doesn’t look like you, the fact that he can’t speak like you reinforces your racist preconceptions: He’s different, less intelligent. A brilliant scientist can come over the border from Mexico to live in America, but if he speaks in broken English, people say, “Eh, I don’t trust this guy.”
“But he’s a scientist.”
“In Mexican science, maybe. I don’t trust him.”
However, if the person who doesn’t look like you speaks like you, your brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code. “Wait, wait,” your mind says, “the racism code says if he doesn’t look like me he isn’t like me, but the language code says if he speaks like me he…is like me? Something is off here. I can’t figure this out.”