‘Force-feeding my kids mopani worms will not make life easier for them’

2008-10-27 00:00

Michael Worsnip

I want to respond to Gita Dickenson’s critique of my recent article, “Thinking about culture over a goat’s head”, because, I think, apart from her ad hominem approach, she does seem to me to be sincere. And the issue is a big one. Too big, I think, to just ignore, even though I do find her argument to be a little strange.

Let me firmly clear the decks then, to begin. Firstly, are my children black, or are they white? Without any doubt, they are black. That is an accident of their physiology, as much as my relative paleness is of mine. Secondly, I do know that Xhosa children get introduced to their ancestors at a certain age. I wouldn’t call myself an expert in Xhosa culture, but that is very basic. So Dickenson can be slightly less scared than she was about me. I thought, however, she might like to ponder the following circumstances.

We have, in our employ, a childminder who comes originally from Venda. Venda is famous for, among other things, mopani worms. One day, I arrived home from work to find my eldest child chewing on a large, seemingly juicy mopani worm, which he had demanded from her plate. My personal reaction was revulsion — but he seemed to be enjoying it, so no harm was done and I made no comment. I notice that today, six years later, mopani worms do not seem to feature on his list of favourite foods. They could, because they are still infrequently present in our household, but they don’t.

When we were living in Johannesburg, our children attended a mostly black pre-primary school. The accent of the eldest child was that of a non-“model C” black South African. Very unlike mine, which, although not Queen’s English by a long shot, has been accused of being slightly “posh”. Our other son, who attended the same school, seemed to have an accent more like ours. When we moved to Cape Town, it took two weeks before the eldest child spoke in a broad and immediately recognisable “Cape flats” accent. The other maintained what he had before. Both children again went to the same school.

My point? Culture, and everything that goes with it, is learned behaviour. It is not somehow connected to one’s DNA. Their culture isn’t somehow connected to their colour. If my eldest child doesn’t eat mopani worms, it is not because he hasn’t been exposed to them, but because the dominant culture in which we live, as a family, doesn’t expose him to them often enough for him to want them.

If he is now speaking with a Cape flats accent, it is because that is the dominant accent he is exposed to at school and one which appears to help him fit in, whereas the other child doesn’t seem to have the same kind of needs.

When we adopted the children, the legal wording of the adoption order was, for me at least, very important. It said that this child was now “as if born to you”. The physical ancestors of that child (and the state), for whatever reason, handed him over to me and my partner. They were not “abandoned”. They were consciously and carefully handed over. Those children are now mine — “as if born to me”. They now have two white fathers.

Now, just because of the fact that these children happen to be black and me white, do I need to start a course in gumboot dancing? Should I rush off and get myself circumcised? Should I have a regular supply of mopani worms in the house to make him feel secure?

This is as crazy as it is bizarre and it reveals, I am afraid, just how far we are away from the very thing which Dickenson wants so badly for herself and for her son — a really non-racial society, where colour is the least significant thing about a person.

No, we are not there yet. And yes, I have no objection to “exposing” (as she calls it) my children to cultures other than my own, (which is the reason, by the way, that we were at the friend’s ancestor do). But I also have no illusions about the difficult path they will need to tread. They need to be secure, not in some fantasy culture from somewhere else, but in their own skin, for who they are. And force-feeding them mopani worms may not make it easier for them. It may make it a whole lot worse.

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