Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website
A Memory from Childhood - Africa
I am an absolute sucker for dogs – no not just dogs. Let’s be honest here - for any furry creature. This strikes me now as the first time I can remember being a disappointment to my mother.
She came from an enormously large family and they were poverty stricken. She went to school in pieces of knitting claimed from ragmen held together with huge safety pins and plimsolls with cardboard for soles. They attended the local Church of England school and she was extremely clever. She did win a scholarship but was never able to take it up as the peripherals could not be afforded. She won first prize for the year once and her sister Marge came fourth. My mother was given a book and Marge (who was two years older than her) was given a doll. My mother wanted the doll and eventually my Aunt Marge (who was one of the nicest natured people I have ever encountered) gave the doll to her. She let her keep the book too as she was never into reading all her life other than the Daily Mirror.
This began my mother’s lifelong obsession with dolls whereas I never cared for them no matter how she tried to entice me away from books or furry toys. A girl should love dolls and that was that as far as she was concerned.
I was nearly six years old and we were living in Africa, Port Elizabeth to be precise. I attended a local Convent School although I was not a Catholic and so was excused assemblies which gave me the opportunity to get up to all sorts of other interesting things. I pestered the life out of the Nun who ran the Library who tended to indulge me because she loved people who loved reading. By the time I was eight I was stealing my father’s library books and reading ‘Murder Inc’, Peter Cheyney novels, Mickey Spillane thrillers (his crudity of expression even all those years ago as never been equalled) and I had already left The Wind in the Willows and Little Women far behind.
A friend had bought to school two very large white rats and I managed to obtain one much to my delight. My mother’s horrified face when I proudly exhibited my trophy at home is something I can still see. I could not understand her instant dislike of this wonderful creature accompanied as it was by furious yelling at me to get it out of the house this instant!
I took it away in a box with tiny bits of material and some grass in it and left the house seeking the company of my ‘at home’ friend, the son of our houseboy.
Africa was different then. The boundaries were at once fixed and clear inasmuch as you used different buses, different schools, different hospitals, different hotels etc., but blurred immeasurably in the day to day life. Children of all races and colours played together without a single thought other than as to what delightful devilments the one could show the other and many a housebound wife made a greater confidant of their houseboy or female servant than they ever did their husbands.
Scenery in Africa is as close too heaven as I think you will ever get here on earth. It is all consuming, all enclosing and rushes in to fill you up (especially when you are a child and don’t even think about it). You simply fall into it and become part of the dry tundra the purple shadowed mountains and hills, the glorious glowing sunsets, the small stubby climbable bush trees, the scurrying snakes (far more afraid of you than you of them), the million multi coloured insects and flying things and, if you are lucky, the powerful, furious flowing rivers or the soothing, trickling streams.
There was a small hill (kopjies they call them) near to my house where we had built, as children do, a fort. This construction was made of cardboard, corrugated tin, bits of colourful rags and unbeknown to both our mothers, the dead ashes of the occasional fires we lit. Other children joined us from time to time, but he was my especial friend.
On viewing my white rat he pronounced it a ‘great good beast’ and instantly agreed to help me provide it a home in the fort. This we did tip-tilting the box so it could get in and out and surrounding this with a wall of large stones, which we built in the manner of Hadrian’s Wall only much smaller and crescent shaped. We gathered various bits of grass to feed it with together with two squashed bits of orange my friend had and half a bar of heavily melted chocolate that I had. The rat seemed quite amenable to its new home and also quite happy to partake of the repast we supplied it with. Satisfied and becoming bored, we eventually left to visit my friend’s home.
This was in a small shanty township consisting of slung together corrugated tin and wood houses if one can call them that on the periphery and, in the centre, some typical round mud built kraal houses with thatched roofs. He lived in one of them and I visited often. This day I ate heartily of brown mealy meal porridge. How generous they were to this plump white child who not only took that for granted but never gave a single thought as to whether she was safe or not, probably because she undoubtedly was. My mother of course never knew about any of this. It is a fact that next to spouses always being the last to know about adultery, parents are the least knowledgeable people in the world!
For the next two days, after school, we went to the fort and played with the rat and fed it. The rat seemed quite happy with its existence and my mother was quite lax about my being out of the house (no doubt because she at once felt slightly guilty about making me get rid of the rat and also tremendously relieved that I had made so little fuss about it). On the third evening my little friend was not there and when I arrived at the fort neither was the rat. I can remember being truly devastated about both events.
The next day my friend was there again and I bewailed the loss of my pet to him. His round, shiny black face seemed even shinier than usual and he mumbled something I couldn’t catch. His beautiful huge brown eyes looked at me and then looked away. ‘He was a great beast’ he said ‘ a good beast’. I asked if he knew where my rat was and he looked at me gravely and said ‘Nothing to eat last night so I take rat home. He was a good beast.’
The true horror of this did not strike me for some moments and when it did I hit him furiously across the face and then ran home crying. I shut myself in my room and cried for an hour. Not all my mother’s questioning or for once concern ever evinced from me what had happened. It was a full week before I would speak to my friend again but of course I eventually did and in time it was forgotten and I continued to visit his kraal on and off until we moved from Port Elizabeth some two years later.
It is only now from this distance of time and experience that I realise how wide the actual gulf was between us where one could and did out of necessity, eat what we in our ivory towers would regard as friends, or pets; that we fed these pets on stuff we would have thrown away; that would have been gourmet feasts for my friend and his family. How terrible to contemplate children who can never afford the luxuary of emotion for a pet or stroke the soft fur of anything and cuddle some animal closely. Better to stay away from such things altogether than be forced to look in the eyes of something you love that you know you have to kill and eat.
It seems to me that these gulfs can never be closed. Always there will be in the world the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. We will never be able to feed them all, save them all. There will always be drought and famine and ignorance and bloodshed. As fast as we build wells and canals and grow crops so others come and kill and burn and destroy and the cycle begins again. Worst of all, there have been many times when I have regarded myself as a ‘have not’. How ludicrous that thought is. It all seems so hopeless that one grows infinitely weary at the mere thought of trying.
Still, I do continue to hope. After all, I did talk to him again after a week!