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The Shortcomings of Words

There are three distinct clicks in the Xhosa language, on the C, the X and the Q. To say a word with one of these letters, the tongue must simultaneously flick the back of the teeth, ricochet off the side of the cheek, or strike the upper palate with the hollow resonance of a mallet on a wooden block. Tsk! Click! Pop! When a conversation in parts of South Africa gets heated, it is a rapid-fire exchange of verbal artillery.

For anyone who did not grow up speaking a clicking language, the lingual gymnastics needed to click and pronounce a letter at the same time are like trying to walk a tightrope backward. Nevertheless, the American makes a solid effort, practicing clicks and pops under her breath during the twenty-hour flight to Cape Town. On the first day of her assignment, she tries out a few words on a kid admitted to the pediatric ward of Groote Schuur, the white-columned public hospital which trains the country's top medical students and serves a largely indigent population. Unjani? Ngubani igama lakho? How are you? What is your name?


The kid is three, and her blank stare means she either doesn't want to talk to this strange woman or doesn't understand Xhosa. So the American tries the one outlandishly random word she knows in Afrikaans, and she declares it with such theater and gusto that no three-year-old’s heart could possibly maintain its steely guard. Grondboontjiebotter! Peanut butter! Nothing.  

The little girl's skin is the color of toasted cocoa beans, smooth and bright, with cheeks protruding like mushroom caps from a roly-poly face. She seems to be African, so even badly pronounced Xhosa should have sparked some recognition—Black families in the Western Cape speak Xhosa at home, and kids usually don't learn English until grade school. But there are eleven official languages in South Africa, and dozens of unofficial ones. If she came from KwaZulu Natal in the east, she probably knows Zulu. Maybe her family came from the tiny province near Swaziland, but Ndebele is also linguistically similar. Maybe she's from Zimbabwe.

But is she really Black? Out of South Africa's sordid history of conflicts and colonization—namely the three-century tug-of-war between the Dutch and the British—came a group of people called Coloured, a catch-all cultural identity for anyone of mixed race. European settlers slept with indigenous Khoisan and Xhosa women, imported thousands of slaves from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar, and other African countries, and then later tried to neatly contain the maelstrom of traditions and facial features into a single classification. To state the obvious, it didn't work so well. 

The nursing sisters go about their daily tasks on the pediatric ward, wheeling metal carts of medicine and nappies between neat rows of painted metal cribs. They lower the side rail of each crib to adjust tubes and tuck in blankets, to reposition the celery-stalk arm of a tiny patient stricken with meningitis or dehydration or any number of stomach ailments. Beside each crib is an easy chair, and in almost every easy chair is a mother, slouched and exhausted. Some of these mothers have spent a week or more on twenty-four-hour watch. At night, they sleep in the chairs on the ward. They take turns carrying soap and toothbrushes to the shower down the hall. By default, they’ve formed a community from the nebulous threads of grief, anxiety, and weariness. One kid cries, and another mother straps him to her back with a blanket and paces to soothe him. They have their own burdens, these women. In a low voice, a teenaged girl frets about not consulting the sangoma, the traditional healer, a revered figure in Xhosa tradition that links physical health to the relationship with one’s ancestors, or sometimes to witchcraft. In a not-so-low voice, a much older first-time mom, with tender nerves and tea-colored eyes streaked red, agonizes over the fact that the undiagnosed illness in Crib Twelve is the result of giving her baby the wrong name. She decides her family will hold another Hindu naming ceremony at once.

The easy chair beside Thimna’s crib is empty. The toddler has one pudgy leg over the rail, shrieks on contact, and needs someone to give her a firm talking-to, in one language or another.

But which of the nurses are also Coloured and therefore know how to speak Afrikaans? Appearance gives few clues, and the American senses the need to tread lightly with assumptions. In the days of apartheid, government officials also had difficulty distinguishing races—a decision that determined whether a child goes to school or faces a future in the mines or fields; whether a family keeps their ancestral home or moves, by force, to the segregated townships on the outskirts of town; and whether, in many cases, a family even stays together. Race classification boards, set up to legally deem each borderline citizen to be white, Coloured, or native, often resorted to outrageous "tests" to come to a conclusion. People who were downgraded lost their jobs and possibly learned their marriage was illegal based on whether their hair, when wrapped around a pencil, was kinky enough to hold it.


The nursing sisters all try their luck with Thimna. Afrikaans doesn’t work, either, but its wren-like cadence sounds pretty, even when the sisters cry out, “You naughty child!” (which is often). The crib in the corner quickly becomes the social hub of the ward, and more often than not Thimna is attached to the back, hip, or hemline of someone—the sisters, the mothers, an eight-year-old fellow patient. She is a brick of energy, one that hurls its stocky frame against the rails of her confines like a manic human pinball and races circles around the nurses’ station, stopping only to tremble with the rattling pneumonic cough that brought her here.

The cough is wicked, but it is improving at a rate that impresses Dr. Roux on his morning rounds. Thimna isn't fazed by it. She speaks constantly, even though technically she’s not really speaking, and the cough is just a punctuation mark in a long paragraph of made-up vowels and consonants. It isn’t baby’s babble. There are deep inflections, pauses, a thought visually dancing across the toddler’s eyes. Questions end with a rise in pitch. Sometimes she scratches the close-shaven crown of her head, stares at the ceiling for a moment before pursing her lips and continuing on. She gesticulates like a diva. You'd imagine another little girl in Ohio or Kentucky wearing a pink tiara and hosting a tea party: the matter-of fact authority with which she is telling Mr. Bear that no, the princess is not available to see him tonight because he is a bear and only unicorns are allowed to visit the castle on Tuesday. The American participates as an honored guest, sometimes in English and sometimes in Thimna's tongue, mimicking tones and expressions and getting caught up in this dreamlike exchange until she abruptly realizes it’s the best conversation she's had in a very long time.

The nursing sisters finally give up trying to figure out which language Thimna might know and use whichever one is handy. They are persistent teachers—“You want your koppie? Sound it out. Kuh, kuh, koppp…”—but Thimna always manages to get a drink of water without ever properly asking for it, and, stubborn child, she never attempts the syllables next time. The sisters may be persistent, but they are also busy, and also there are children with dressings to change and medicines to receive and IVs to attend to who are all much sicker than Thimna, and also, when it comes down to it, it is the mother’s job to teach vocabulary. She must have a lot on her hands.  

But Thimna has an arsenal of communication tools that take the place of vocabulary. Pointing, furtive smiles, a brow that stretches and scrunches in one fluid motion. Wild, flirty, expressive eyes. The most powerful weapon at Thimna’s disposal, however, is a pose that quickly earns the name around the ward as her Claudia Schiffer. Arms akimbo, chin tucked and lips twisted in a pout, thick caterpillar eyelashes just daring to tell you where you hid the purple crayon.

Never once does the American question the meaning or emotion behind Thimna’s words. And yet, she is puzzling. The American doesn't know much about autism. Or a child's psyche, for that matter, whether learning a proper language is an inborn human desire or a behavioral choice. She doesn't know what goes on in this child’s head when she wraps her limbs around her waist like a squid and tugs at her clothing so the two of them can walk to the floor-to-ceiling window and peer out over Cape Town. She never wants to leave the window. There is something close to joy in her eyes, but not quite. Bridled excitement; the shine of a child sitting in front of a wrapped present, imagination churning with different scenarios. She has stories to tell, and soon the window is smudged with fingerprints. The red Spanish tiles of Groote Schuur’s roof descend in levels down the steep terrain, nestled in the foothills of Table Mountain. The peaks themselves aren’t visible, but downtown Cape Town is, a cluster of skyscrapers glittering with the prosperity of any big city viewed from a distance. At the base of Groote Schuur is grimy, artsy Observatory, and beyond that are the manicured green lawns of Rondebosch Commons, where University of Cape Town students and well-to-do white suburbanites go for their morning jog. The boxy rows of middle-class houses in the Coloured neighborhood of Athlone lie over the bridge. And after that, the sea: cobalt blue, shining cold and vivid. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. The only smudge is the perpetual wisp of smoke in the distance that lingers over the Cape Flats, a product of burning trash and bin fires kept for heat mixed with car exhaust and the pollution from the rest of the city that Table Mountain funnels down into a bleak beyond. Gugulethu, Nyanga, Philippi, Crossroads. Mitchell’s Plain and Manenberg. 

Nelson Mandela raised a triumphant fist over free South Africa nearly thirty years ago, but the ghosts of apartheid linger, embedded deep in the structures of the education system, the workforce and the roster of potential role models robbed in their youth of opportunities. In the townships, children find themselves bound not by law but by circumstances of poverty. They seem destined to live and die a story already written for them, the same story lived by their parents and their grandparents and the ancestors that came before them. There are no plot twists, no surprise endings. The slow realization of inevitability extinguishes the light in many eyes.   

Thimna doesn’t tell the American where she's from, of course. There are many things about her that remain a mystery, and as the week goes on, more and more doctors, social workers, and speech therapists begin to whisk her away for tests.

By Friday, the ward is engulfed in quiet disbelief. There is no biological reason for Thimna's language issues. There is no developmental glitch to be corrected, no obscure tribal tongue thus far overlooked. It turns out Thimna—sassy, street-smart, three-year-old Thimna—never learned a language. She lives at a children’s convalescence facility nearby, a temporary member of a congress of kids in varying states of orphanhood because of the social situation at home. Technically she has a mother, although no one by that name shows up at the hospital to visit the little girl. Notes on Thimna's chart attribute the absence to severe alcohol dependency and list an approximate address in Khayelitsha, the shantytown by the airport. At some point between toddling through goat shit outside a home constructed from garbage bags and sheets of corrugated metal and joining the overcrowded ranks of the orphanage, Thimna missed the chance to speak. And until now, no one ever noticed.         

Words are the vehicle of history. They allow injustices to be relived as vividly as the day they happened. They carry the past into the present with the stealth of a mercenary, so nimble and skilled and camouflaged that it goes unnoticed when beliefs long expired continue to reincarnate. Many people spend their entire lives shackled to the stories they've told themselves—stories of their worth, their limits, how things have always been, how things always will be. Others come up with fanciful tales of possibility that steer their lives in another direction. Thimna, by product of will or necessity, learned not only how to survive but how to get exactly what she wants without saying a word. All she needs is one person willing to take the time to grasp her hand as she begins to trace the ABCs, to guard that fire in her heart like the fate of the entire world depends on it, and tell her, girl, you've got things figured out more than you will ever know.


The American holds the child tighter the next time they visit the hospital window together, the Cape Flats sky as hazy as her future: How will Thimna's world change when she has the words to describe it?

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