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An observer
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Through the eyes of an African child

05 January 2018, 11:47

Today I was remembering part of my heritage.

I was born into an Irish catholic family in 1950 and was the youngest of 6 children and we lived in a small, mainly Afrikaans town, Kroonstad, in the province of the Orange Free State. Both my parents worked to help their more than adequate brood, to survive.

After my birth, my mother was too busy to pay much attention to me, so I was left mostly in the care of my black nanny, Letea, who was from Lesotho. She was like my surrogate mother for the first 4 years of my life.

My earliest recollections of my life are mainly filled with images of Letea. She would carry me on her back the way that African mothers do, held by a blanket and bound by a large safety pin while she did the domestic chores around her house. She would heat my milk bottle in a pot on our coal stove and fed me when I was hungry. Life was a bit of a whirl on her back, but I loved being there and feeling the closeness of her warm African body, and the smell of her Africa skin.

Later when I learned to walk, and was eating solids, I would sometimes follow her around our house, playing with and touching the things around me, discovering my own little world, and when I touched something I was not meant to touch I would get a swift sharp smack on my hand accompanied by her words, “Hai. Suga Wena.” (Don’t do that).

Letea had had her own son shortly before I was born but he spent most of his time with her mother in Lesotho, but he came to visit occasionally and I remembered his visits. We would happily play together as small infants do during the day and he was my first friend, but when my arrived home from work, she expected her children to be present, washed and accounted for. She was a fiery, strict but loving mom.

My first language that I spoke was Sotho that I had been taught by Letea and her son. As a small boy I remember tugging at my mom’s dress and asked her for something and she had to ask Letea what I was saying.

Being a small white boy who spoke an African language wasn’t a problem for me then, or Letea, or her son and seeing as they made up the majority of my world then I hardly noticed my other siblings.

I spent many happy hours of contented peace around my nanny who was a vigilant and loving soul, and knew nothing of the confliction she might have felt because of the white domination over her people. She never showed it.

I ate mainly African foods at the time, and remember sitting around a fire at midday, eating pap (porridge) and gravy with the African workers from a car repair shop next door to our house, and dipping into a communal pot of pap and dipping it into an equally communal pot of gravy, sometimes accompanied by morogo (a plant-based African dish). A splendid fare.

As time went on I learnt to speak English and became more integrated with my own family, but had a high regard and respect for Letea. She slowly weaned me from her care but was ever present in our home for which I was grateful.

During my primary school years, I would sometimes sneak into her room in the late afternoon when something was troubling me and speak with her, not realizing that she was disempowered from giving me advice or comfort. The laws of our land forbade it. As the propaganda put it, “Blacks had to know their place”. What a despicable system.

Today I was remembering her and those times, when skin color, language, culture, religion or family didn’t make any difference, and there was just an appreciation of being together. In African culture they call it Ubuntu. 

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