|Giya (left) in Johannesburg 2012 with Nkateko, her cousin (far right)|
Venda Sun Part 1
A group of South African exiles and friends met at Brighton train station in April 1994 for the journey to London to vote in their country’s first elections. My partner and father of my son was among them. I can’t remember why I didn’t go too, although I was 3 months pregnant and my son was not yet two. That might have had something to do with it. In the end Risenga didn’t vote – his passport had expired – but in December that year, with a new baby, we set off for the first time as a family to visit the country he’d left.
Throughout my children’s childhood and adolescence, South Africa has been their other country, home to cousins, uncles and an extended family that far outnumbers their English relatives.
My daughter’s life has mirrored South Africa’s own growth as a democratic nation – born in September 1994, her 18 years to adulthood have witnessed three presidents as the country rebuilds itself. Coincidentally, my son’s expected birth date was 16 June 1992, the day commemorating the 1976 Soweto school uprising – although he actually arrived three days early.
That first visit in 1994, then, was symbolic for both of them because neither has memories of it other than of the photo albums we made on our return. They don’t remember sleeping in Risenga’s mother’s zozo in a squatter camp, the long journey south from Johannesburg to Cape Town and being refused a place to stay in the Karroo. They don’t remember the curiosity our little group attracted, or the dangers – cobras and lethal drivers.
Frankly, with a new baby and a toddler to care for, my memories of it too are hazy now, although powerful images have beached themselves somehow – the poster of Mandela beside a ditch in Orange Farm, Risenga’s mother’s home, her first view of the sea in Cape Town, rain storms, red earth and bars on the windows.
But as they grew up – mixed race children in Brighton, not the most multicultural of cities – that first trip was significant to their sense of identity. They had been to their other country, even though they didn’t remember and something of it would have lodged with them as they grew – the sounds of the country’s music, perhaps some memory of its heat, its vastness, its languages and races.
I was lucky that several friends in Brighton had children with men from outside England. One of my closest friends, Jane, married a Turkish man, another, Hilary I became closer to as the children grew later had a child with her Gambian partner. I became close to a college friend of Risenga’s whose partner was from South Africa and she had a son after Mrisi. I met another woman whose son was the same age as Mrisi – his father’s family was from Jamaica.
Some of the links between us were forged through Mosaic, an organisation in Brighton for mixed race families. We talked, Jane and I particularly, about what our children needed from their other country and culture.
What does this other country mean to a child growing up in England? Risenga, my children's' father was studying music when I met him and later ran workshops in South African drumming, dance and percussion. He performed with his own groups and whenever his original band, Amampondo, was visiting, he joined them.
But he never spoke to the children in his mother tongue. This is not unusual, I’ve since learned, and he had his own reasons – where else would they hear Shangaan in Brighton? he asked.
This other country meant I knew the children needed books with black characters, with a south African or general African focus. I bought these books whenever I saw them, searched for black Playmobil and Lego, Barbie and Action Man figures.
Birthday and Father’s Day cards were the most difficult. Shopping trips to find these in Brighton left me exhausted with frustration. Once in a card shop I asked if there was anything for a six year old with a black figure on – I was shown a picture of Bob Marley smoking a spliff. I hand made cards, I compromised with pictures of animals, with numbers. They made their own Father’s Day cards almost every year.
I feel I can write this book now, as my daughter Giya prepares to go off to university in September, Mrisi in his third year, preparing for independence as a working adult. I couldn't have done it even two or three years ago. Perhaps Mandela's death opened the door for it, a sense of the end of an era.
A gold candle from one of his 80th birthday cakes sits in a glass cabinet on our landing. There is a blurred photo of Risenga shaking his hands, taken, possibly, by Thabo Mbeki. The election poster still occupies its space in the kitchen.
1994…… new baby, the first elections, the first visit
19 December 1994
Feeding Giya I hold the back of her head. A hard lump, moving – it’s a golden Xmas beetle, so called because it comes into the house at this time of year to die. There’s a scorpion in a jam jar, outside weaver birds have built their nests in the trees like shells. It was 32 today, we’re in South Africa, arrived yesterday after a ridiculous journey. It was hot as hell on the plane, no vegetarian food. Mrisi throughout was brilliant – thank god for Aladdin. Giya sucked a lot but she was so hot. I was purple most of the time.
It’s raining hard, it was incredibly hot when we arrived. Risenga’s mum and brother were at the airport with Glynis and Herve.
As I look through my diary of the trip, I realise the writing’s in two layers – there’s the immediate record and later, undated but evidently after I’d returned, my emotional reflections. Most of these don’t feature in the day to day memories of what we did but these are where the long narrative poems that appeared in Party (Leviathan, 2000) came from.
When we arrived I’d lost my voice through hours of shouting before the trip, dry air on the plane. I strained to whisper, croak out the words as if I’d lost all language, all command, control. As if the baby needed my softer voice and the boy and everyone. As if going into this new country where I don’t speak the language I’d decided not to speak at all, as if part of me, the part that says ‘I am’ and has opinions, was gone. It took days to come back, as if in all the screaming and the babies crying, I’d taken my time out, or as if I couldn’t compete now, I was willing to go with the chaos.
We go into Johannesburg for the first time, to the Museum of Africa in Market Square near the Market theatre. It’s hot at 6.30. We have to be out of the house by 9.30 am because the horse is being put down. We piled into H's car. The landscape’s like Greece, eucalyptus, red earth, rocky. Going into the city we pass the mines, leaving the airport too, gold mines. We pass the spot where Risenga’s grandmother used to sell corn.
* The Venda Sun is a working title. It was the name of the only hotel in Thohoyandou until 2001 when it was renamed the Tusk Venda Hotel and Casino. It now has a Venda name: The Khoroni Hotel. Khoroni apparently means 'royal homestead'.