I must have been 10 or 11 when I first travelled to Botswana. The rolling landscapes of Mopani trees, the untamed beasts, the oceans of stars and the ululating cacophonies of birds were liberating in their beauty. I fell madly in love with all of it. One night in particular, my brothers and I gathered around the campfire, as we did every night, listening to my father telling jokes, charming us with his tales of African life. He was always an engaging parent, someone who was incredibly funny, a great story teller, who also loved nothing more than to strum his guitar to the childish melodies of nonsense songs. He had been in Botswana for barely a year and seemed to be so happy; desperate to share something of this feral land with us. But, that night he seemed restless, getting up from the log he was using as a chair and going off to the kitchen tent every half hour or so.
I followed him there. I stood behind him and watched as he opened a cupboard and took out something. At that moment, implausibly, I felt ashamed to be there, as if I was watching something forbidden. I retraced my steps, hid in the dark until he emerged. Then I went back to the kitchen, opened the cupboard and stared at the endless rows of alcohol. Teeny tiny bottles of Whiskey, Rum and Brandy. Signifying, what, I was not really sure; but suddenly, I felt really, really afraid.
I don’t remember much of that time; it seems like a lifetime ago. It was the day I have in my mind’s eye as the day in which my life suddenly stopped being so certain. I loved my father, adored him in every way. He represented everything that was strong and manly; with his intelligence, his wit, his cupboards full of rifles and walls full of trophies. He was brimming with life; filled with talents and opportunities and good will. On that day his colours seemed to fade and I found that evil lurked below the surface of his smile.
The next day I stood in the kitchen until it emptied and then, in dismay, hunted for every single open bottle of alcohol I could find and poured it down the drain. They were everywhere; hidden behind the sauces, behind the plates, symbols and admissions of guilt. I am not sure where I learnt to pour alcohol down drains, but it was not the actions of an 11 year old. I was so small and, yet, so so big. I continued to grow old as the years passed; a subtle greying of my smile, an unconscious fearful hold over my days, the constant knowledge that there was a never-ending decaying quality to this disease.
As I aged beneath his alcoholic unpredictability, as I chose the route of the adult, as I behaved too responsibly, as I learnt more and more was it means to live under the threat of uncertainty, he lost more and more control. The stories are endless, my memories brimming over with terrible, sad and shocking moments. The man I knew lost the stature he once held and fell from his pedestal of parenthood, lost his goodness, his friends, his sanity. The glow of those Botswana days felt like the sunset of my childhood.
There are bits and pieces of good memories; of fireside reading in the Berg, of childish songs in his room, of taking me out to shoot my first gun. Then I cannot seem to forget hearing of the time he placed a gun to his sisters head, of the time he managed to out-manoeuvre the local police when he defied a court order against seeing his mother, and they chased him through the streets of his hometown.
I remember hearing about the prostitutes he had over in our room; women my grandmother saw leave in the morning. And always, always the endless bottles; piles of them hidden beneath the bed, in cupboards, under car seats: symbols of the endless lies and deceit that his disease discharged from him.
Whatever freedom, or innocence, or safety, being a child is about was something I had to lose so that I could simply cope with my fear. However, in every way, I hold no regrets. I do not long for second chances. I have learnt in life, that whatever greater force there is out there controlling your destiny, that you will never be given more than you can manage; that whatever happens, humans have more goodness and resilience that what we often believe of them.
I have constantly surprised myself with how I managed to emerge from the mess my life became. I learnt early to look after myself, to show myself kindness and forgiveness. I learnt early not to lay the blame on those around me. I learnt self-control and responsibility and how to pick yourself up and go on and on, even when you are not sure if you can take another day. I learnt to do all I can to protect myself and those around me who matter. I learnt, in a matter of years, all those lessons that he never did. Now his life is nearing its end, but what a waste it’s been.
I believe that this is it; we have one chance. We do not know what is to come after this, after tomorrow, after the next hour. Don’t make the same mistakes that your parents do. Every day is a new opportunity to change.