I tap my microphone three or four times to make sure it’s recording. Across the table, there’s a clatter of typing as my uncle finishes one last email. It’s a quiet morning in Washington, D.C., and we’re the only two awake in the house.
I’ve known Enos Banda all of my life—I’ve heard bits and pieces of his story, his youth in South Africa, his struggles and achievements during and since, but never chronologically or without the censorship one provides a child. All I knew for certain was that his story was large. I could’ve gotten this interview sooner and on many occasions, perhaps at this year’s family Christmas, but I feel glad that I waited—for this calmer space in his home. I slide the microphone in front of him, signaling I’m ready to begin. His laptop closes and his attention shifts to me. I ask him to describe his childhood in South Africa.
“When you’re a child, the world is physical. You run, you punch, you jump—but when you have physical limitations, you turn to the mental. Having a physical disability forced me to go cerebral very early on.”
Under apartheid law, mandatory education for black South Africans ended at age thirteen. This was never acceptable for Enos. Education was everything. It was his life jacket and boat. It was the counterbalance to what his disability had hindered. It was his catalyst and apparatus for challenging an oppressive apartheid regime—one that often made threats on Enos’s life but never acted upon them.
“I think, in a way, my physical disability saved my life.”
But before he was a teen leading his peers against the apartheid government, before he was old enough to speak or even remember, he was a victim of polio. These were the days when nurses would dip syringes in spirits between patients and reuse them.
“When I was two years old, my mother took me to a clinic to get vaccinated against various illnesses, including polio.” Shortly after, the disease struck, and the muscles in his left leg began to atrophy. Over time, he lost the ability to walk or stand without assistance. “So, the big issue was, obviously, what kind of life could I have?”
Enos grew up in the mid-1960s on a plantation known as Letaba Estates. Centrally located within the fertile Limpopo province, it was (and remains) one of the largest citrus producers and processors in South Africa. Letaba Estates was an all-encompassing world of its own, with a school for the children, a church for the faithful, and unlimited labor for all able bodies. Enos weaves me through an afternoon in his vibrant community. The march of adults returning home. Sunset and commotion. Smoke and wood fire. Wild dogs and chickens and dust.
He reminisces over afternoons spent hunting with slingshots made from sticks off fruit trees and tire rubber that stretched like jerky. With great pride, he describes the day he sailed across a crocodile- and hippo-infested dam in an old, leaky oil drum.
“Water would bubble into the ship, so I had a ball of clay from the shore in one hand and would patch the holes and paddle with the other. I was Vasco da Gama, crossing the oceans.”
“Wednesday and Saturday were drunk days.”
Enos explains it was a common practice for plantation owners to provide alcohol as a form of workers’ compensation and to fuel addiction. However, the products weren’t legitimate alcohols. They were thick and unrefined (made from sorghum) and often made people sick in all ways imaginable. On those two days, normal moral principles were thrown aside and drunkenness would envelope the community. Rampant swearing and abuse would surface and, frequently, disputes boiled over.
“I was very young when I saw somebody’s bowels opened with a knife. You know, guts spilling out. Nobody would think twice about it because the majority of people were drunk.”
Just as the plantation housed a school and a church, it housed the Letaba Cripple School. This residence was meant to confine the mentally and physically disabled, making no distinction in how the populations mixed.
“Hiding children with disabilities is a known practice globally. This institution was essentially created to make those children disappear.”
Enos recalls the anxiety and dread he felt as a five-year-old going to bed each night. He uses the words “nurse” and “warden” interchangeably as he describes a threatening woman with a metal rod who loomed over those who wouldn’t fall asleep. It was a sedentary place, with a strict bedtime that often saw two kids sleeping in one tiny bed. There was no rigorous academic program or extracurricular activities. It was a place where time passed and children sat until they were sorted into predetermined careers.
If you were visually impaired, you were raised to be a telephone line connector. If you were physically impaired but could use your hands, you were raised to be a basket weaver. If you were mentally disabled, you lived within the walls of the institution until it came time to bury you outside them.
“My destiny was to be a basket weaver.”
Early into his time there, Enos formed a relationship with child with a mental disability. However, to call it a “relationship” is euphemistic: Enos was utility. The boy discovered that if he stuck his finger into Enos’s food, Enos would immediately push his plate aside.
“I was a fussy child,” he admits.
It was an easy relationship to uphold, given Enos’s fussiness and meekness, the other child’s infinite appetite, and the staff’s apathy. After days and weeks of this lunchtime coercion, Enos was losing weight.
One afternoon, Enos’s father came to visit him as he did nearly every day. Only, on this occasion, he was received by an empty reception room. With no nurse in sight, he decided to break the rules. He walked toward the lunch area and noticed his son sitting at a table. Instead of going in, he decided to observe from the doorway. Enos sat eating until a boy took the seat next to him, and the lunchtime ritual unfolded.
Immediately his father understood his son’s weight loss. He stormed into the room and instructed Enos to get up. Enos did as he was told, and his father guided him through the lunch room doors. They left the institution and never returned.
“That was the end. That was how I left. It was essentially a jailbreak.”
Enos and I laugh together at the drama of the situation, and I entertain the idea of what his life would be without the help of his lunchtime bully.
“That would have been it. I probably would’ve been the most awesome basket weaver by now.”
But a rare and massive fight between his parents punctuated his return home. Fearful questions of “how are we going to take care of a disabled child?” were met with answers of “he will figure it out.”
To Enos, his mother’s concerns were sensible. The family did not have the resources to care for him. A wheelchair was beyond their means, and the grounds at Letaba Estates were too rough anyway. Yet the answer that arose again and again was “he will figure it out.”
Now a parent himself, Enos empathizes with his mother’s worries, even acknowledging that his father acted out of emotion rather than logic. He pauses.
Enos returned to school. He returned to church and to hunting with friends. His father made him a makeshift splint and, at great expense, bought him a bicycle that increased his mobility. He became very aware that to survive and ride beyond the world of Letaba Estates, he would have to invest in his mind.
By high school, Enos was top of his class and a prominent organizer in his community. He coordinated numerous demonstrations and protests against the apartheid government, both inside and outside of school grounds, which subsequently led to multiple suspensions and arrests. Enos witnessed classmates and comrades get detained and killed. He received multiple death threats that proved empty—something Enos believes he owes to his disability.
“The police in South Africa operated on a macho principle. Ninety-nine percent of the time, people get beaten up. Not one day was I beaten. I suspect, on a psychological level, they needed an excuse to beat you. But they couldn’t even pretend I could fight back, so they never touched me. And I was the leader.”
In 1986, Enos was brought to the United States through a United Nations scholarship program funded by USAID. It was part of a Cold War-related effort to ensure South Africa didn’t turn communist if the apartheid governments were overthrown. He tells me he didn’t want to come, that he had no choice. He hated living in a new country that, at the time, through its policies and arms trade, supported the apartheid government and, subsequently, the oppression of black South Africans. Had Enos not come to the United States, he says would have joined the armed struggle against apartheid as a bomb maker.
He entered his new country unsure if he would be able to return his attention to education and find calm in an unfamiliar surrounding that reflected nothing of the instability and violence he had known his entire adolescence. But he performed extraordinarily on his entrance exams and was offered a full scholarship to a college in Amish country of Pennsylvania, Franklin & Marshall.
One day, he received a phone call to his dorm room. The voice on the other end was representing the South African government. “We know where you live. Stop speaking out, or we will kill you.” Even from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Enos felt a duty to his family, friends, and comrades back in South Africa. His guard was high and his nerves were tightly wound.
It took a long time and many friendships for him to settle into a life that replaced bullets with Frisbees and protests with study blocks—a life where he could focus on academia without war, and rediscover his youth without the guilt of leaving his struggle behind. I imagine it to have been slow, his transition and letting go of a romanticized notion of dying for South Africa while discovering a new way of living in America.
Enos now lives in Washington, D.C. I do too, although it’s rare we find each other. He travels to London for months at a time, serving as CEO for Anergi, the only African-run investment fund for clean energy projects in Africa. Between the years of his student activism in South Africa and the position he is in today, Enos was a political refugee, a graduate from Georgetown Law, a professor of sustainability at Cambridge University, and a leader in the South African Chamber of Commerce.
After the abolishment of apartheid, he worked closely and passionately with ambassadors and government leaders in South Africa to better his homeland, conscious of his tangible ability to influence change, now from the other side of the field. He married my aunt, Debbie, in 1992, and lived in South Africa for twelve years before returning to the United States. They’ve raised three children, two of whom are now in college.
Enos keeps a collection of canes tucked beside his front door, each one made of a finer wood or metal than the last. He has told me that even now, having lived in the United States for more than thirty years, he feels great appreciation for a guaranteed meal. I often admire the balance he has struck in life, knowing what it is to live in peace and in war, with worldly possessions and with nothing. In that balance, he walks with a swagger in his limp and a lightness in his stride.
“A physical disability is whatever you make of it. I look back and think, with this disability, something positive has come out of it. I have never felt a limit in my life—ever. In fact, I’ve knocked down doors.”
Albert Tong is a film producer and editor with Center Peace Cinemas and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.