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I Am Not Dead Yet

I Am Not Dead Yet

Lollise Mbi, a Motswana based in New York, shares an intimate self-portrait, writing about her shifting relationship with prayer, creativity, and her mother.


I imagine that in a past life my mother was a tyrannical and ruthless queen, which is why, in her current incarnation, she’s in constant supplication to atone for her past atrocities. My mother, the fallen queen, contracted Covid19 a couple of months ago. I was in New York, and she was at home in Tlokweng, Botswana. I had to stay in the moment, constantly pulling myself back to the present to keep from living in the self-propagating distributaries of “what ifs.”

Meanwhile, she was quarantined at home, with mild symptoms. I joined the daily family prayer call, which comprised my mother, my older sister, her husband and daughter, my younger brother... and me with my wayward mind.  I dusted off my chest and rummaged inside it for my prayer paraphernalia; knee pads and such. This time I refrained from picking up the left-over Catholic self-flagellation tools I had carried with me.  I needed a different relationship with prayer, especially for this occasion. These were ‘big league’ prayers, not like the ones I prayed to pass my Form 5, find a decent partner and an affordable apartment. Two weeks later, after a couple small scares, my mother had a full recovery. Now, a month and a half later, she is back to her regular activities: weddings, funerals, all night prayers and worrying about her goats and her adult children.

It took a series of uncleavings to allow me to grow into a life of creativity. I felt that I needed permission from my elders - which I was never going to get. So, instead, it took distance - physical distance - from my family. It started with 433 kilometres, when I moved from Francistown to Gaborone. Then, when my mom moved to Gaborone, the distance had to increase...12,556 kilometres to be exact!  I would have gone further, but at this safer distance I was able to find enough space to question my upbringing, culture, and value systems.  

It also took time for my creative ideas to marinate so I wouldn’t dismiss them as foolish, fleeting imaginations. I dipped my little toe in the uncharted waters, and I wasn’t sucked in. I watched as others dunked their full bodies, some drowning and others swimming off into the distance. I was very timid, I needed assurances that I wouldn't be stricken down for trying. It has taken me a long time to unlearn this feeling of unsafety, which is why I’m starting my public journey of creating at age 40. I needed exposure to other people who were daring to create, who had different perspectives of the world and their place in it.

I contracted Covid19 in early March 2020. I was sick for a couple days, recovered completely and then lost my sense of taste and smell a week later. I found myself alone with my thoughts and questions about death. I had mild symptoms, comparatively, but surviving Covid19 during that apocalyptic time in New York helped me shed some “fundamental truths” I had held about my place in the world.  I was alive and gained some courage, or at least a little bit of a “don’t care” attitude.

And then the creativity flowed, and we wrote songs, lots of them. I sang the bass lines, horn lines, keyboard, and synth lines as I imagined them, and my partner did his best to arrange all of my ideas coherently. I made costumes from the craft materials I had been hoarding and salvaged and trashed items from grocery stores and delis. As my mind was freed from some of its constraints, it conjured and brought forth things I hadn’t allowed myself to create before. In a way, Covid19 gave me a license to create and helped save me from a life of mediocrity. The more I created, the more ideas came. I did not die from creating or from criticism from other people. The thoughts swirling in my head feel like death, but I’m still here.