Colleen Figg

Packing away my Colonial roots

2007-12-07 08:54

Colleen Figg

I've got English Colonial blood running in my South African veins; my ancestors were part of the people now castigated as oppressors and pillagers of the continent of Africa.

My grandfather hunted elephant on the plains of what was then Tanganyika; before elephant hunting became so terribly unpopular (now they just cull them - what a difference a word makes!). He was a robust man of solid opinion, lively manner and was also a talented raconteur.

Parts of his character are ingrained in me and the sturdy innovative approach to change and disaster and danger he always displayed as a hunter have served me well in my own life. His very English approach to life, where one does not bemoan one's fate, display cowardice, undermine another, nor indulge one's own desires at the expense of anyone else form part of my own history, part of my own self.

His endearing eccentricities, such as the lemon drops and barley sweets he always travelled with - in those old fashioned tins such sweets came in - fascinated me when I was small. He was a very particular fellow, who liked his bedside table to be well organised with everything in its place, including medicaments, sweets and any other necessities to his comfortable stay.

Any room he occupied carried his own particular smell of tweed, handkerchiefs, sweets and that special feeling of a man well travelled, stopping by to see us en route elsewhere but always back again. He fired my imagination, taught me to see things with my mind, by his descriptions of nights on the plains and the sometimes terrifying encounters he had with animals out there.

A great pair of tusks

He had a great pair of tusks from a legendary elephant he brought down; they were so huge I could not touch their tops but I used to like to stroke the ivory whenever I went to his farm in Grahamstown and look at the old sepia print of him standing with the tusks on the day of the kill. They towered over him, too.

In the new world we inhabit, it is strongly suggested that I should pack away my own Colonial history, that I should not allude to or be proud of my English blood, that it should never be mentioned in polite company that my grandfather ever hunted, despite the fact that he was making an honest and acceptable living at the time.

It is felt that I should be ashamed of my past; that it's sort of infra dig nowadays not to be wholly African, and certainly to be affiliated in any way with the cruel oppressors of the British Crown is something that should be swept under the nearest brightly coloured organically made indigenous rug while we all sit around the putu pot pretending we were never white.

Well I flatly refuse to bury or apologise for parts of what make me who I am; every part and fibre of my being is made up of parts of others who came before me; their stories are my stories; their past is my past. The richness of everyone I've known in my extended family is brought to bear on who I am today.

I see the flame of the hunter in my daughter's eyes sometimes and I nod and smile quietly, pleased to be me.

Send your comments to Colleen.

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