Between the ages of five and 10, Mark Mathabane experiences severe suffering and trauma as a result of his family’s poverty and the environment that they live in, all of which ultimately stem from apartheid. Before he can become an accomplished student or rising athlete, Mathabane’s first struggle is merely to survive—to endure his family’s suffering with his will to live intact. Mathabane’s early childhood demonstrates the trauma suffered by people in abject poverty, and suggests that one can only survive such suffering if they find a reason to live, such as other people’s love and dependence on them.
Mathabane’s early childhood is filled with hellish scenes that demonstrate the suffering a person experiences in abject poverty, especially under a brutally oppressive system such as apartheid. By the time he is five years old, Mathabane has already been severely beaten by adult police officers several times during their night raids. On top of his growing fear of police officers and white people generally, Mathabane becomes so accustomed to the danger of night raids that whenever his mother wakes him up, he assumes that the police are coming to hurt them. Such behavior not only demonstrates Mathabane’s suffering as a young child but also suggests that these experiences traumatize him and condition his behavior from an early age. When his father is arrested and disappears for nearly a year, Mathabane, his mother, and his younger siblings grow so poor that they nearly starve to death. Still only a young child, Mathabane spends days rooting through garbage dumps for food—one day finding a dead baby girl instead—and survives by drinking cow’s blood from a slaughterhouse and eating worms that resemble leeches. As the oldest child, he spends hours fanning flies off of his young siblings, who are so malnourished and ill that they are nearly catatonic. Meanwhile, Mathabane grows so hungry that he hallucinates. Although Mathabane’s recollections are horrific, his depiction of their ghetto in Johannesburg suggests that such suffering is common amongst poor black families, especially those broken up by apartheid. Mathabane’s childhood is also filled with scenes of grotesque violence. When he is six, Mathabane joins a group of destitute boys around his age who survive by prostituting themselves to soldiers. Although Mathabane escapes when he realizes what is happening, the event leaves him scarred and confused, barely able to speak. When he is 10, he watches from a bush as local gangsters butcher an unarmed man in broad daylight, cutting him with machetes and tomahawks until his entrails spill out of his torso. As with his family’s near-starvation, Mathabane reflects that both child prostitution and wanton murder are common occurrences in black South Africa, “constitut[ing] the only world I knew, the only reality,” again demonstrating the horrific suffering that children like himself experience growing up.
Mathabane’s experiences of suffering leave him so traumatized that he questions whether life is worth living at all, suggesting that such trauma can eliminate one’s will to live. After watching gangsters disembowel a man, Mathabane recounts that he “developed a fatalistic resignation from life” and begins “withdrawing into myself.” The brutality of the murder causes him to “spend days brooding over my helplessness and senselessness of the broken cycle of pain.” Mathabane’s horrific experiences to this point, capped by the murder, leave him so traumatized that can no longer cope with living in such a suffering world. He adds, “My sensitivity to the world around me made me soak in all its suffering like a sponge […] Soon my mind was saturated,” suggesting that he has reached the limits of his own capacity to comprehend or endure suffering. A few months after seeing the murder, Mathabane starts thinking of suicide. Though he was always a fighter like his mother, he feels that the world “hold[s] out nothing to me but hunger, pain, violence, and death,” and he is “weary of being hungry all the time, weary of being beaten all the time,” again suggesting that he can no longer endure any more suffering. The fact that he considers suicide at such a young age reiterates how such suffering and trauma can eliminate one’s will to live, especially in a seemingly hopeless system such as apartheid.
When Mathabane’s mother finds him with a knife, ready to kill himself, she helps him to endure his suffering by understanding how his life impacts others. Her intervention shows him that recognizing one’s value to other people, rather than only oneself, helps one persevere through such trauma. Mathabane’s mother reminds him of how much his younger siblings depend on him, and how they’ll need an older brother to look up to throughout their lives. She continues, “I too would want to die if you were to die. You’re the only hope I have.” Mathabane is “very much touched by what she said” and realizes she is right; even if life is full of suffering, other people still depend on him and love him, so he still has something to live for. Mathabane closes this episode by saying, “Whenever the troubles of the world seem too much, it helps to have someone loving and understanding to share those troubles with; and life takes its true meaning in proportion to one’s daily battles against suffering.” This suggests that recognizing the people who love and depend on oneself is vital to enduring and surviving such traumatic suffering. Mathabane’s decision to live rather than to die ultimately sets him on course to be a successful student and competitive athlete, accomplishing far more than he could possibly have envisioned as a weary 10-year-old. His life trajectory ultimately suggests that the future is never certain, and is always worth living for.
Suffering, Survival, and Trauma ThemeTracker
Suffering, Survival, and Trauma Quotes in Kaffir Boy
My father was now a completely changed man; so changed that he now began drinking and gambling excessively, and from time to time quarreling with my mother over money matters and over what he called my mother’s streak of insubordination not befitting “the woman he bought.” But he still tried, in his own way, to be a father and a husband.
From my experiences with white policemen, I had come to develop a deep-seated fear of white people; and seeing the bloody murders and savage beatings and indiscriminate shootings in the movies, that fear was fueled to phobic proportions. I vowed that never would I enter such a world, and I thanked the law for making sure I could not do so without a permit.
But all of this I passively accepted as a way of life, for I knew no other. The house, the yard, the neighborhood and Alexandra were at the hub of my existence. They constituted the only world I knew, the only reality.
They, like myself, had grown up in an environment where the value of an education was never emphasized, where the first thing a child learned was not how to read and write and spell, but how to fight and steal and rebel; where the money to send children to school was grossly lacking, for survival was first priority.
It struck me that [Granny] could not read, like millions of other blacks who worked for whites? How did they function normally in a world totally ruled by signs?
Thus my consciousness was awakened to the pervasiveness of “petty partied,” and everywhere I went in the white world, I was met by invisible guards of racial segregation.
While student leaders argued about what to do to diffuse the situation, the police suddenly opened fire. Momentarily the crowd stood dazed, thinking that the bullets were plastic and had been fired into the air. But when several small children began dropping down like swatted flies, their white uniforms soaked in red blood, pandemonium broke out.
How would he deal with the fear, the frustration, the hate, the anger that were the lot of every black child? Would he stay out of trouble long enough to become a man, to realize his dreams, whatever they might be?