360note: Apologies for the late delivery…..
Crickets chirped somewhere in the near distance and frogs croaked, calling out to mates in the balmy evening weather. Fire flies floated among the shrubbery in the far distance, flashing on and off and on again, creating a spectacle with their pinpoints of light in the dark. Burning wood crackled and sent sparks shooting up into the skies, red dots of light that burned out as they rose. Bright stars dotted the night sky everywhere I looked.
I took a swallow from the bottle of cider I was holding and let the crisp chill beverage travel down my throat as I reclined in my seat, closing my eyes till they were just slits. I looked around me at the rest of the party and a smile stole up my face.
My husband sat there sprawled in his cane chair looking more relaxed than I had seen him in weeks, his limbs strewn everywhere. He held a tall glass of amber liquid that could only be a Southern Comfort with cola cocktail – that was all he ever drank – the contents half gone.
A few feet from him, talking in that animated way of his, was his younger brother, Chris. In his hand he clutched a bottle of lager which he waved about as he spoke, stabbing the air with it to press home whatever point he was making. Chris was a born marketer, gifted with a smooth tongue. He could sell anyone anything, though he was given to a bit of hard sell. It was this penchant for overkill that sometimes undid him. To be fair, his heart was in the right place. He always wanted what was best for everyone, and he sometimes tried too hard to let you see that whatever he was doing was for your own good too; some people did not like that.
Next to him, pressed into the far recess of her seat, was his date. Chris, not unlike his brothers, was a veritable babe magnet. For this trip, he came with a quiet mouse of a girl. She was wafer thin and shy, with a look about her like she would bolt if anyone said more than two words to her.
Alex, the eldest of the brothers, completed the semi-circle. He sat in a straight-backed chair, a serious look on his face; he had always had that look, even as a little child in the family photos I have seen. He was a go-getter who took life seriously, and was only just learning to take things easy. He was the exact opposite of my husband who never seemed to have any worry, a front he presented to the world.
If Hakuna Matata was a robe, it would look good on Joseph. I knew different though, I was married to him.
We had all come home to the bundus for the holidays. Although we all lived in the city, our hectic schedules made it difficult to stay in touch, so holidays at the bundus had become a means of touching base. It offered everyone, especially the men, respite from the stress and hassles of their jobs – the women still had to cook, clean house and watch the kids; it also allowed the kids the opportunity to get to know each other, especially the larger extended family.
They try to keep things the way they remembered it from their growing up days, so despite there being electricity everywhere now, on some nights we gathered around wood fires and swapped stories. We would sit and watch the orange flames jump and twirl like gyrating dancers to the frenzied beat of drums we could not hear, casting ever-shifting shadows here, there and everywhere.
This was one of those nights.
‘That’s just crap!’ Chris’ loud voice snapped me out of my reverie. ‘And you are paying for that? Really?’ His bottle pointing at Alex.
‘I can’t even believe I am hearing this!’ He let out a mirthless chuckle before continuing.
‘Next they’ll tell the kids that doing chores is bad and warra-warra.’
‘Who rattled Chris’ cage?’ I leaned sideways and whispered to my husband.
‘The school system,’ he whispered back.
‘Alex just told us how at Tsakani’s school, parents aren’t allowed to give children cash anymore. They now have a credit card of some sort which parents are supposed to load with thirty Rands every week. Wait till I tell him about Brian’s school computer policy,’ he said with a chuckle and a mischievous gleam in his eyes.
I sighed. This was the same issue we had discussed at home before coming out to the bundus, Joseph and I. I think some of these policies were counterproductive, and some others did not make one jot of sense.
Growing up in Nigeria, things were a lot different from how they are now back home, and more so from how they were in South Africa. Sometimes it was a struggle for me to make the mental adjustment.
‘Weina, you’ve gotta be kidding me!’ Chris roared when my husband finished. He aimed a thin stream of saliva at the fire. ‘That’s what I think of some of these reforms,’ he said as the fire hissed and popped. ‘What in the world is wrong with people?’ He asked no one in particular. ‘So our children have to own a computer before they learn to hold the pencil? Telling me about homework done and submitted online. How old are these kids? Six? Seven? Eleven?’ He shook his head.
‘I am with you on that, Chris,’ I said.
‘I remember my primary school days. My folks couldn’t afford fancy nursery education, so I stayed home till I was six years old. My first day at school is one of my proudest.
‘I remember walking beside my mom to school. Zumratul Islamiya was originally run by Islamic missionaries before it was taken over by the state government, at that time I didn’t know any different and I didn’t care. I was finally going to school and that was all that mattered.
‘I had my slate, a small rectangle of thin wood painted black, tucked under my arm. In a small tin I carried were three sticks of white chalk. I remember the chalk because I had carefully selected them from the box which also contained a number of broken sticks, sniffing each stick before placing it in my empty Allenbury’s Glucose D tin. It did not matter though, because the first time I pressed down hard on the chalk to write on the blank black slate, the chalked snapped in three places. “Don’t use too much power,” my class teacher had appeared beside my distressed form to reassure me.
‘I don’t remember her face or her name, but I remember her smile that day. She became my new best friend, and I was going to learn to write properly for her. Every day she would bend over each pupil, guiding our hands as we copied out alphabets and Arabic numerals from the big blackboard on the wall onto our slates in front of us.
‘By the second term, the class graduated to exercise books and pencils. So on the night before school was to re-open; my mom called me and my two sisters together and set three paper wrapped parcels on the dining table. I was excited and my sisters couldn’t understand why. Mom carefully peeled off the cello-tape strips binding the parcels before unwrapping them. Each parcel contained books.
‘The smaller exercise books were mine. The blue covers were smooth and cool to the touch as I ran my fingers over them, the white pages were bright and the smell of the fresh leaves heady. I noticed the pages were lined differently: the 2A pages had evenly spaced horizontal lines of blue with red vertical margin lines on either end; the 2B pages were covered in tiny blue squares; the 2D had blue and red horizontal lines. A pair of blue horizontal lines between two red ones; the drawing book pages were plain white sheets. It wasn’t until much later that I was able to sound out the words “Olympic exercise book” and “Apex Mill” on the cover of my books, and “Onward exercise book” on my sisters’ books with their orange covers.
‘Mom then gave me a pack of crayons, a pencil with eraser on one end, a ruler, a sharpener and my first school bag. I felt so grown up.
‘My best part of the school day was break time, not only because it was play time, but also because of lunch. Iya olounje, the cafeteria woman went from class to class in the mornings to collect meal orders which pupils paid for from the lunch money their parents gave them. The meals were then delivered in small plastic plates arranged on a big flat tray and covered with a length of polythene film. The teachers sorted out which child ordered what meal.’
‘Some parents packed lunches for their kids, so not all children had the school lunch. I was one of such children. Mom would pack lunch in my ‘lunch box’ which was really an empty Planta margarine tub. I had a water bottle to go with it. The bottle was a blue plastic cylinder with a white screw cap and a white cup that screwed on on top. It had a white and red strap which was too long for me, so mom tied it together in a knot to shorten it.
‘The only thing mom gave me money for was fruits. Iya eleso our fruit woman went from class to class carrying a fruit laden aluminium basin. Pupils wanting to buy fruits formed a queue. Although my favourite fruit was mango, I never bought it in school because it attracted a lot of flies and it was very sticky where it ran down my arms – which it always did at home. Instead, I bought an orange or tangerine. Besides lasting longer, since I ate it in wedges, the rind came in handy for mischief at break time – it burned the eyes if the oils were squirted into them.
‘After school, the walk home under scorching sun was usually made bearable with a condense to suck on and friends to walk with.
‘Condense is sweetened coloured water bagged and frozen to form a cone, like a popsicle without the sticks.’ I explained in response to the frown which appeared on Chris’ face.
‘The sweetness was usually the first to go, followed by most of the colouring, by the time I got home, I was usually left with a small piece of ice and a numb tongue; the best 10kobo I spent every day!’
I paused to sip from my bottle and grimaced, my drink had gone warm and the apple tang was sharp on my tongue. I was vaguely aware of fire lit shapes around me. I sighed as another wave of nostalgia hit me.
‘I really don’t know what the deal is with schools these days,’ I said.
I got up and was going to the kitchen for a fresh, cold bottle of Savannah Dry when I saw her.
She was sitting on a tree stump by the side of the house, the same tree stump on which countless wood had been split over the years to stoke many fires. She was wearing her flowery cotton nightgown, absentmindedly swatting at insects real and imagined. She cut a forlorn figure sitting there watching the other kids on the veranda arguing about something.
Not wanting to startle her, I started to hum a tune as I approached her, and then I called out to her. She turned in my direction, a smile quickly plastered on her face, a smile that did not mask the sadness in her eyes.
“Come little flower,” I called softly to her, “Come and tell auntie what troubles you.” I gave her a warm smile.
“Nothing,” she said, but her voice betrayed her. It was as sad as her eyes.
“If nothing troubles you, how come you are not with your brothers and sisters?” I asked her. She looked up at me with brown soulful eyes and then wrapped her arms around my legs, burying her face in my wrapper. Sometimes it was easy to forget how young these children really were; she was only six years old.
We stood there a moment before I stooped to her height. Holding her at arms-length, I peered in her face for a clue to what was troubling her; there was not a sign to see. She was indeed her father’s daughter. Alex had always been the hardest of his brothers to read, and his daughter was no different.
“All the other children hate me.” Tsakani sobbed.
“Hush darling, you know that is not even possible.” I chided her.
“But it’s true!” She wailed. “See how they are talking and playing without me?” She asked.
“What happened? Did anyone say anything to you?” I asked, now really concerned.
“No! They are all speaking Venda even though they know I don’t understand it. Even Brian.”
Now we had come to the bottom of the matter.
I sent a silent prayer up for my husband who had insisted that we speak Venda at home to our son.
Back then I had thought it a bad idea, and let him know too, but in that way that he has, he heard me out before repeating that Venda would be our primary language at home.
I could not understand why someone as educated as he was would choose to be stuck in the past on issues of culture. He was my husband and I loved him, so I respected his wishes even though it was a bigger struggle for me being a Nigerian.
About a week later lying in bed, he had cradled me in his arms and said to me, “Babes, the world may have become a global village and people may try to speak with one voice, but humanity will never speak in one tongue. Do you not see the adverts on TV every day? Everyone is working to preserve their culture, to explore and exploit it for business and tourism purposes. Why then should our children lose sight of their culture because their teachers in school say so? Because a book told their teachers so?”
He was never one for ‘serious’ talk, so I paid extra attention when he explained his reasons to me. I gave it some thought and decided there was more than a little merit there. That was the night I decided Brian was going to be as familiar with my heritage as I could impart. It was, after all, his heritage too.
I buckled down and learned Venda, it was a struggle for me, but I did; for my sake and for Brian’s too. I also taught him a few Yoruba words and as many Yoruba folktales as I could remember. I also talked to him about my life growing up in Nigeria.
So now, holding Tsakani in both arms, I thought of how far we had come to change our lot in life, and wondered how far we would go before we would have gone too far.