Reading Thuli Nhlapo’s powerful memoir, Colour Me Yellow, two thoughts dominated my mind. The book reminded me of a Polish saying that “families are best in photographs”. It also made me think of what Mphuthumi Ntabeni said at the recent Open Book Festival: “We need to address the failures of our traditions.” At the same time, I was overcome by an array of emotions. I was seething at the injustice of what happened to Nhlapo throughout her life, while simultaneously being filled with incredible sorrow for the child she once was and the deepest admiration for the woman she became.
Colour Me Yellow tells one of the most heart-wrenching stories I’ve ever read. Nhlapo grows up with her mother telling her: “I hated being pregnant with you. I used to cry the whole day. I hated carrying you in my stomach. It was such an embarrassment for me and my family.” Wherever she turns, she meets with abuse, neglect and lies. No one wants to tell her the truth about why she is treated differently to her siblings, other family members, and the rest of the community. She feels alienated and scared. “What’s it like to be a normal child?” she wonders. She realises that she is never called by her name. To survive these ordeals, she develops two strategies, to become as invisible as possible so as not to attract any attention and the accompanying inexplicable brutality, and to excel at everything that she does to prove her worth.
“Since all my attempts to be accepted were unsuccessful, I gave up. It was useless to try to smile when I knew I was not wanted.” She reads and watches Bruce Lee films to escape reality. She does extremely well at school and despite all the adversity she experiences, begins to study, eventually graduating and entering the professional world on a high. She also gives birth to two sons and navigates the challenges of motherhood and work as well as the demands her family makes on her as a provider.
But years of denial and dishonesty take their toll: “My only quest was to find the truth”, she writes. She embarks on a mission to find the reason for all the hostility she encountered from her family and beyond. She wants to understand why she was never wanted. Eventually, a family member tells her to go to an address where she will find out everything about her real roots. The people she faces there shock her, but although, at last, they are willing to claim her as their own, she continues feeling that she does not belong. She persists and finally uncovers the truth about her origins. The revelation will have you reeling.
Today, Nhlapo is an acclaimed journalist and television producer. Colour Me Yellow is a portrayal of endurance and courage in the face of true evil. It is also a stark reminder of the ability of truth to set us free and the resilience of the human spirit.
Colour Me Yellow: Searching for my family truth
by Thuli Nhlapo
Review first published in the Cape Times on 29 September 2017.