Begin. In the middle of a pandemic. Buy three buckets of paint. One 5-liter bucket of white paint for the ceiling and two 10-liters of paint for the walls. Choose a color you would paint a room to symbolize a new beginning. As many coats of cream white paint as needed to silence dirty baby blue walls. Paint. Hang a framed black-and-white photographic portrait. Purchase new sheets. Discover the womb of your healing. Create the space to love yourself. Start again.
I was raised by my unemployed, widowed mother in our three-bedroom home in a small suburb in Johannesburg, South Africa. There was only one bedroom for both my younger sister and me. It had two single beds and an antique chest of drawers that housed our underwear, socks, and pajamas between mulberry-painted walls. While I have reverence for the room for providing a safe space for my sister and me to share secrets since I was about 9 years old, sharing a very intimate space with someone else meant having no intimate moments alone. It was dreadful having to wait until my face was facing the wall right before I fell asleep to be able to cry. There was nowhere for me to feel anything that demanded to be felt, because I had to think of my younger sister’s feelings before I could even welcome my own.
I was incredibly lonely because I am an awkward, quirky Black girl and the eldest daughter, who was often barred from excitedly telling others about how happy her hobbies made her. Maybe I struggled to, because it all deviated from what is defined and accepted as culturally Black, or African. So I sat alone in the library and read fiction. I was isolated, with hundreds of thoughts, judging and belittling me for being me. I never learned to ask for help — not even from myself. My family never looked to objects and spaces that our hands can dismantle as easily as they can build them; when you were struggling, you had to remember to pray. The idea that I could help myself recover was unknown.
I was so alone that when my brother passed down his bedroom to me, just before I turned 18 years old, all I had was a double bed on its base between the four dirty baby blue walls that bore his exhaustion. I was okay with the bed and nothing more for about two years.
The state of the bedroom itself was crying for a functional body. The space was crowded and seeing unwashed cups heightened that feeling. I had to do something about the clothes that lay on the floor for days — the first thing I saw in the morning, the sight overwhelming me — and start asking myself for help.
So much of me needed so much more than a bed that only provided physical rest. So much of me needed mending. So much of me needed to do more, to be more in the process of mending myself. I wonder why I occupied the bedroom and did not play Alessia Cara’s debut album out loud? Why did I not bring in a desk and a chair to write? I had to stop yearning and seeking for what I desperately needed by spending hours elsewhere, when the sacredness of the mundane in my daily life could bring joy.
My grandmother and mother may have had prayer only to rely on, but while struggling to pray I had to ask myself what I had. At the time I did not know that learning to take care of myself would begin with routinely sweeping the floor. I looked around for a fresh start in what I had — something many of the women before me never had, a bedroom of their own.
I started over with Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir on her search for everything she required while in Italy, India, and Indonesia. My relationship with her search continually saves me. I fell in love with her memoir through the film one early evening on Netflix. There is a scene where Gilbert travels Italy and has intense, intimate moments with food. I do not know how many times I have rewatched that part of the film and had the strongest desire to feel that kind of intimacy.
I found myself crouching over a shelf in a bookshop to take a hard copy of the memoir home to read right before the pandemic. Gilbert taught me the importance of stillness in starting over. She listened to God when He told her to go to bed, she listened to those who understand silence, and most importantly, she listened to herself wholeheartedly. I allowed her to guide me when I read: “It was vital to my survival to have a one bedroom of my own. I saw the apartment almost as a sanatorium, a hospice clinic for my own recovery. I painted the walls in the warmest colors I could find and bought myself flowers every week, as if I were visiting myself in the hospital.” And it was not until I read this that I realized that I never offered the exhausted and wounded girl within me the opportunity to rest here, with me, at home, because I did not feel safe alone.
Recovery and happiness cannot be bought, but I do believe that it is crucial to allow financial freedom to mend us. I did not grow up in a home with abundant financial freedom. When I earned my first salary, I remembered that while the women in my family prioritized necessities, they still managed to put aside a little from the small amount that they earn to spoil themselves. Therefore, I took a little bit of the $387 I earned from my first full-time job ever as a content writer working in the heartbeat of Johannesburg, sometimes in a sunlit office and other times in the dining room.
I did not want to spoil myself, though. I wanted to take care of myself, so I asked my mother to paint my bedroom. When she agreed, I spent weeks on Pinterest choosing a color that would silence the remnants of my brother’s voice on the walls. Choosing a color felt like there was a little girl sitting with me, who did not grow up with a space she needed, helping me make a choice that would sustain us both.
When the bank notification came in telling me that I just spent $79 on three buckets of paint for a room of my own and we started painting, exhaling immediately stopped feeling like a task. The sun suddenly started greeting me every morning and bidding farewell every afternoon, without hiding herself, because the cream white paint let her come in to see me. I never knew that the sun could do that until the walls were carrying me.
The walls are carrying me in the black-and-white photograph of myself that I hung on my bedroom wall. It is a reminder that I am a story worth documenting and deserving of being kept alive. I learned this from Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” an essay on her liberating search of what kept our mothers alive daily. I continue to return to the highlighted hard copy when I need a reminder of my role as a writer. Like countless Black women, I come from women who spent many of their days cooking for others before thinking of feeding themselves and learning others’ names without ever learning to spell their own. Black women were refused the time to use their gifts freely for centuries. Walker taught me that Black women died with their gifts, because their genius was denied its necessary power. If I carry my ancestors’ trauma, it is therefore my responsibility to mend them through me.
This room — with cream white walls and a dandelion yellow satin duvet cover set, the first of my own — is my antidote. I have the women who raised me and women who write to themselves, for themselves — my ancestors who write through me, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Alice Walker — to thank for allowing me to bow at my own feet, for starting over.
Tshedza Mashamba is a BA law student and writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa.