I had a home in Africa

Writing 101: Where you lived when you were twelve

I turned 12 in a country a world away from where I grew up. My family had been spending a sabbatical year in the US, New England mostly. It had been a year of travel and immense and varied landscapes, of being popular at school for the first time (an experience the reality of which never truly sunk in enough to be enjoyed) on account of being “foreign”, and having an “exotic” accent, and eating with both a knife and fork.

In Connecticut we’d lived in a house with a lake in the back garden, a wooden house, with a fireplace that actually worked. There was a real forest over the road, and in winter there was snow and ice, and in autumn, trees which turned brilliant colours and dropped their leaves, changing the landscape entirely. It was utterly different from Africa. The year our family spent in the US for years afterwards delineated our lives into things that happened either before or after.

When we returned to Africa a few months after my twelfth birthday, we returned to the house where I had been born. I’d continue to live there until I left to be married.

It was a beautiful house, really, thinking back – it had leaded light windows, high ceilings and solid walls, pitched rooves and a bricked exterior grown over with a small-leafed creeper. It was double-storeyed, with the bedrooms up a turning flight of stairs that had, like the rest of the house, parquet wooden floors with loose parts which rattled in sequence a few minutes after someone had walked over them. It wasn’t eery, though; the house was too full of noise and family. Ghosts would have been disgruntled by the lack of attention and left for more hauntable pastures.

My mother always said the house was too small for us, though. I suppose she meant there were too few bedrooms, since there were 6 of us and three bedrooms. It didn’t seem small to me, and in any case, I loved that house growing up just for being what it was; the place we’d always lived.

Being the only girl child, I had the privilege of being the only one with a bedroom to myself. I hated it. My brothers and I, when we’d shared a room in our younger years, had spent many whispered hours after lights-out playing games with torchlight on the ceilings, and besides which, I didn’t care to be left alone with the anxiety. I got used to it eventually, though. It was a tiny room, but it had the best view in the house.

We were situated on a ridgeline, and the back of the house on the top floor, where only the bathroom and my bedroom were, looked out across an undeveloped landscape of valleys and hills. Later on, squatter settlements sprung up there in the bush, and the regular calls of the muezzins drifting over from the mosques were interspersed with the sound of automatic gunfire stuttering up from the valley. But before that, I’d look out from my window, especially on moonlit nights (because the moon also laid claim to that valley) and think of Mowgli and his jungle.

It wasn’t that far-fetched a fantasy. As youngsters it was drummed¬† into us to look out for mambas and boomslangs and black widow spiders. I remember one time a king cobra was discovered in our hedge by a very jumpy gardener. Gangs of vervet monkeys regularly raided our suburban gardens for fruit – one bite of each before it was dropped to the ground; homeowners hated the buggers. Once, I attempted to see off a monkey in the avocado tree with a shooing and (ineffectual) waving of the arms. The cheeky blighter, affronted, came chattering angrily down the branch towards me, her reprimand more persuasive than mine, because I went scuttling back into the kitchen and shut the door.

There was a night when a man was killed outside the gates of that house. I heard the shot, a clap which made me jump, but I couldn’t place the sound, so I went on with my business and would have forgotten about it, except that the adults hastened out as the sirens came, frowning and looking grim. I followed them, pulled by a horrified curiousity, expecting to be scolded and sent back inside by my mother. At first, she, distracted, didn’t notice me padding alongside her in the dark, but when she did I received the anticipated flea in my ear and slunk back in, secretly relieved.

There was another time, years later, when I was alone in the big house with its iron bars on every downstairs window, when I spied out of the window a squad of policemen armed with automatic weapons advancing through the garden. I was happy to see them, actually. I’d had a man knock on the door ostensibly looking for work, and hadn’t seen him leave the property though I’d been watching, so I was panicking slightly, as I’d been trained. Turned out, a neighbour had been nosy enough to see the stranger arrive and not leave, and suspicious enough to call an emergency. Life was steeped in bloody horror stories in those days of violence and paranoia. We kept living like strangers and conquerors in the land, locked up behind walls and burglar guards against the barbarian hordes. Bravado isn’t lack of fear. I guess that’s why you need a squad of armed men to deal with a lone intruder. That incident was pretty much a non-event, though. No sign of the man was found, and the sergeant looked either disappointed or annoyed to have been called out for nothing, I wasn’t sure which.

When I left that house in the autumn of ’94 to begin a dysfunctional family life of my own, it was also in the throes of our international move. Within 6 months, the family had relocated across the world to New Zealand. In the commotion of immigration the sadness of not only leaving home but saying goodbye to it forever, barely registered. In the years since, StreetView has allowed me to walk down those familiar roads again, even though I’ve never been back. The technological magic of the warlock Google. The property has changed now from a family home to something more fortress-like. There’s a sense of disconnect, the distortion of a memory – but it’s an acceptable loss. Life goes on. But there’s no house that will ever stand in the gap left by a childhood home. Isn’t that just how things are?



Merry Mid-Summer Christmas

Writing 101, Day Ten: Be inspired by a favorite childhood meal.

It’s not very trendy to admit, but growing up, food wasn’t really a big deal. I mean, that’s a good thing in world terms; it means we weren’t missing it. But it wasn’t until I met my husband that I became a foodie. And in all honesty, even now I’m only a foodie by association.¬† I struck it lucky Big Time by marrying a foodie. Our minister’s wife is also a foodie, and her husband and I often congratulate ourselves on our cleverness in getting caught between competitive foodies in our all homemade, all homegrown dinner get-togethers.

But as I was saying, it wasn’t always thus. Which is not to say we didn’t eat food, or enjoy it, or that my mother and all the aunties were not good cooks (I grew up in a patriarchal culture, and cooking was a woman’s job), because there was certainly food, good food and plenty of it when the family got together, and we did that a lot. I just didn’t pay it the attention it deserved. In part, precisely because of the chauvinist connotations, of which I was acutely aware before I ever knew the word, owing mostly, I believe, to the fact that “female” chores clearly outnumbered the “male” chores at least 10-1, and that the burden of these girl jobs fell to me, being the lone daughter, while the gardening and other boy jobs were spread nicely across 3 brothers. If my parents had wanted me to buy into the patriarchy, they should definitely have considered how it was sold to the overdeveloped sense of fairness of a child.

But anyway, my parents both came from sizeable families, so that made for large and frequent family gatherings, at which, as I was saying, there was always food and eating. It was mostly pretty standard type European food; roasts and veg, but also featured was the braai (barbeque), which was favoured by the women, since braaivleis cooking was a man’s work. Well, when I say man’s work, as anyone familiar with the worldwide institution of the barbeque knows, women make the salads, the breads, the puddings, set the tables and clear away, while the men get bragging rights for how hard they have toiled, and the women quietly roll their eyes and smile indulgently.

But everyone enjoyed a good braai. I have many memories of tearing about gardens with cousins, the smoke and heat of the braai blending with the roasting African sun while the men huddled around the skottel, fueled and cooled by beer alone, waiting for the coals to reach the exact cooking temperature to produce the perfect boerewors (sausage), which was clearly a science well beyond the ken of women.

One of the times of year we’d have a braai for sure was Christmas, especially every second Christmas when we’d spend the season with my dad’s side of the family; the German side, although they weren’t strictly pure blood Germans, but we’d observe German Christmas traditions, including opening gifts on Christmas Eve (sweet as, opening presents a night early!). The real magic for me, besides – and maybe even equal to – getting at the presents, was the giant tree, lit with candles, in my aunt and uncle’s lounge, so big it brushed the high ceilings. In our home in town, we’d manage a small to middling tree, but out on the farm where my cousins lived, we had a Real Christmas Tree, just like one from a story book.

There would be a full house that night, as our family, with the four of us kids, had come to stay for a few glorious days of farm freedom with my aunt and uncle and their three kids; the twins and their little brother, along with our bird-like granny, who was fit as a fiddle but unknowable and prone to snapping at small children. We posthumously diagnosed her with autism.

Dinner would be unnecessarily prolonged, as far as I was concerned, and consisting of roast meat and potatoes, and completely unwelcome vegetables, of a type and prepared in a fashion both unfamiliar and objectionable to my fussy self. (How my tastebuds have developed since then with regards to veg!)

Eventually dinner would end, and there would be songs, sung at the foot of the magical tree, some of them in German, so that I moved my lips vaguely to the tune and attempted to look knowing. Finally, gifts would be dispensed to the eager hands of children; the enchantment of wrapping and ribbons never surpassed by their actual contents, or so I remember it. At some point beyond that I suppose we were herded into bed. It didn’t matter; when we woke up there would be the big garden with the towering metal windmill in the middle, and the sugar cane fields and pine forest outside to reconnoitre – unadulterated liberty for town kids – and the braai; the smoke, the sun, the bean sprouts to avoid.