Sunday, April 06, 2014

Nits and the hair issue: Venda Sun 10

Venda Sun 10

Giya's first day at school

I am convinced that in this country I'll be able to buy a black Barbie for Giya without hours trailing around English shops asking blank faced shop assistants. Perhaps these material problems are useful reminders to me, as a mother, of many of the other issues my children are facing in Brighton, regardless of its reputation for liberalism.

Hair is one of those political metaphors used both positively and as a club. I was terribly hurt by an offhand remark made once about white women not being able to deal with their mixed race children’s' hair. I spent hours plaiting and combing and although I never mastered cane rows, I was determined they would not suffer the discomfort of permanently tangled and matted hair, or hair cut short to avoid the issue of what to do with it.

Giya managed to avoid having her hair cut at all until she was 18! She just refused. She's always had a thing about hair. When she was a toddler and Risenga cut his hair she saw him and screamed. Mrisi's hair was usually long, too and when I took their plaits out to re-do them, both my children looked like they'd walked out of the 1960s.

But there was a downside and that was another issue I never got to grips with at their primary school. Nits.

At some point during their primary years the school got rid of the nit nurse. The consequences of this for all parents are obvious, but for parents of children with hair like my two the consequences were drastic. It's hard for a school to avoid nits but to ignore the fact that some parents are not doing the regular combing that keeps them at bay is sheer stupidity.

We spent hours at this task. A nit comb's teeth need to be close together to catch the eggs and any lice that have hatched. Mrisi's curls are looser than Giya's, but both of them have inherited thick hair from Risenga and me. So once a week, each of them had to sit in the bath as it grew tepid, then cold, while Risenga or I kneeled on the bathroom floor, hands and arms slippery with conditioner, and worked our way through sections of hair, poking through the slime for evidence of egg cases or live lice.

I dreaded it when over supper at the kitchen table one of them would mention the state of a classmate's hair. Or if, on the odd occasion when I helped out in the school, I noticed the peppery signs of the eggs on either side of a child's parting. I wonder if the women who regularly put out their hands to touch the children’s' hair would have been so ready if they'd known about the insect life in the primary school canopy.

So I spent a fortune on conditioner because the cheap stuff was useless. And I worried about what was in it.

Eventually, when Mrisi went over to cornrows and I had no more responsibility for their hair, I wrote this poem.

My children’s hair

My son’s hair’s in rows
as neat as winter fields,
his wise forehead, old
as the Sussex Weald.

When he smiles I see
poppies, a bluebell wood.
When he cries, the wheat,
the Downs are lost in fog.

My daughter’s hair is wild
as the sea. It curls
and foams around her face
so when she smiles

I hear a summer beach.
When she cries, the waves
rise over the Marina wall -
an ocean, now, soaking me.

The other material issue that cropped up constantly, and still does, was the question of how to pronounce their names. I understand how difficult it is, faced with a name you are not familiar with, to get it. I have made dreadful mistakes myself; I have mixed people up when I've run workshops. Once I spent a week with a group of teenagers and mixed two girls up even on the last day because they were friends, they dressed the same and their names were unfamiliar. So I am culpable.

But Mrisi and Giya's names are pronounced phonetically. MUH RI SEE....GEE YA.
Not Morrissey, that pop singer. Not Gaia, earth mother.

I was surprised at how many teachers did not understand the phonetical explanation. That even after a period of time, particularly at secondary school, some were still getting it wrong.

Mrisi in 2013
And where all this leads is to the big issue of how mixed race children and young people are stereotyped. Even in South Africa, my seven and nine year old stood out as unusual. They were unusual in their primary school, where there were very few mixed race or black children, and they were unusual in South Africa where mixed race couples were as rare as rhinos in the Kruger.

I was and wasn't prepared for what would come. For the conversations I would have with them as teenagers, now as young adults. I can't pretend to understand the hurt and the anger that they feel sometimes.

In 2002, we still saw the bared teeth of apartheid. We saw that, in fact, on every trip and we saw it in Risenga's experience. It squatted in my relationship with Risenga, too.

But from the moment my children became adolescent, the issues of hair and pronunciation were almost irrelevant. That's when the harder stuff began.

In town with friends, shopping as teenagers do, Giya was followed regularly by in-store security. Mrisi was stopped and searched by police - he still has his first stop and search ticket. Giya too has been stopped and searched. Both have been called N***ER. Grown men leaned out of a car to shout it at Giya. Someone screamed it at Mrisi when he was on the school bus. People began to cross the road when he was walking home. When Giya talked about home at college, she realised teachers were surprised her mother was educated and her father was working. Older people who should know better want to high five them, 'talk black', talk rap.

All this is to come in January 2002. But this is the story of the search for a black Barbie in Checkers and going back to the city before we finally return to Brighton.

Saturday 26 January 2002

Driving to Pretoria. R refuses, saying I interfere. A bad start. By the time we pass Pietersberg I’m exhausted. We stop in the city and are on reasonable terms until we park and he loses it again. I take the children to the art museum where we see John Baloyi’s crocodile. We meet up eventually and he takes over, driving about 100 km. We drive into Basotho country again, mountainous and rainy. Then flat plains, then more hills. We arrive in Pretoria exhausted. What a relief to see R and S. We have a brai that evening. R cooks squash stuffed with lentils and blue cheese. I sense tension. S’s dad is staying and friends of theirs come round, including P, the new principal of a major educational organisation in SA. He used to be chairman of a key non-governmental body. He is a large man with a small wife and sits at the centre of the table holding court as if he’s used to being listened to, which of course he is. He doesn’t appear to be interested in much of what other people are saying although he tries. He spent 10 years in the UK in exile where his wife worked in local government. Now they’re mixing with diplomats and top government people, making policy about SA’s future. Anyway, the barbeque goes well.

Sunday 27 January

We go to Rosebank Mall in Johannesburg where there’s a large indoor market selling crafts and masks. It’s brilliant. On the way R has to do a radio interview about research she’s published on violence against women and children. There’s been enormous press interest.  Here’s SA’s intellectual elite. She’s driving and while she’s doing the live interview, she's negotiating a traffic jam and accident scene. 

I buy a long raffia from the Congo. We buy bracelets and beads, baskets made from electricity wire. We have lunch in a trendy café and the kids watch bushmen buskers. The portions are tiny for the price. We’re all used to eating loads. 

We’re off to J’burg in the morning. I do some washing. I’m surprised the machine is in the au pair's bedroom. 

Monday 28 January

Today's my birthday. We drive to Jo'burg and arrive at another of Risenga's friends' houses at 1ish. We’re early and go shopping in the Eastgate mall – Checkers. We have a row with a woman over a black Barbie doll. 

Much later, Risenga ended up buying a house in Kensington, in Johannesburg just round the corner from where we stayed in 2002. The last time we visited, in 2013, we went to the Eastgate mall again. If I hadn't written this diary, I would have been convinced that my memory of the black Barbie incident happened in the north, or in Vereeniging, or somewhere else anyway. But it was in the heart of Johannesburg. Admittedly, not in Southgate mall, which serves Soweto, but nevertheless....

Possibly I didn't elaborate on this row in my diary because I was sick of rows. Possibly I was sure I'd remember it. Or maybe I didn't want to remember it. But the way it has settled in my mind is that we were certain it would be easy to find one. Perhaps we were buying both the children something because it was my birthday. Who knows. But there weren't any black Barbies on the shelves so I asked a shop assistant whether it would be possible to get one in another branch.

The response nearly floored me. It was something like: why would you want something like that?

The two women at customer services had obviously been trained to a standard where they understood the demands of a post apartheid society. Checkers is now owned by Shoprite, Africa's largest food retailer.

Anyway, none of that was relevant at the time. I complained, customer services were understanding, said they'd do something about the rude shop assistant and explain why we might want a black Barbie in a country where the majority population is black.....and we left without one.


V's nice. We climb a hill at the back of her house. It’s stormy and humid. On the side of the hill we hear thunder. There’s a fantastic view of J’burg. R spends much of the afternoon in various cloak and dagger operations. I find out he’s been trying to find a penny whistle player in Soweto, but it’s a great birthday and it’s warm. This must be the first time I’ve ever had my birthday in the heat. I’m feeling really good for a change. 

Tuesday 29 January

We go to the top of the Carlton Centre and look down at the city from the tallest building in SA. Grids of streets. Remains of mines. The city seems quite small. Industrial buildings. one or two tower blocks. We go to Diagonal Street – familiar from the first trip. There’s nothing different other than the kids are older and I don’t feel so frightened. Jo'burg is very relaxed. There are loads of police around. 

Perhaps it's frame of mind. We do the same as we did before because there’s not a lot to see. We saw the Market Theatre and the square, the museum. When we arrive back they all go swimming. I’m knackered and just want a rest.

Wednesday 30 January

R and I argue. We’re taking his mother out tonight for a meal. The rest of the day I don’t want to do anything. Or at least I want him to suggest something but he can’t be bothered. V's dithering, unsure about whether she’s coming with us or not. We go to Spaza Arts, a small gallery in a house and calm down. R buys me a bottle and I buy him an early birthday present, print of a guitar player. 

Afterwards we go to the Oriental Plaza, a place where there’s some good cloth shops. We go for lunch and bump into Betty. It’s odd. She finds me in the loo and for a while I don’t recognize her. She looks so relaxed and happy. Later swimming in Rhodes Park there’s a storm. We rush out of the pool while the sky empties and the lightning flashes. The kids run around loving it. 

R is late coming back from getting his mother and Joe but there was a mix up. We go to Eastgate Mall and a Spur restaurant – western and beefy. The food’s disgusting. I’m awake most of the night with indigestion. R’s mum holds my hand. 

We eat mountains of ice cream after the meal – for four adults and 3 kids it comes to 300 r (£20). Not bad at all although Joe is stunned by the cost, of course. 

Thursday January 31

We go to the pool early in the morning. First of all there’s packing to do. We have to buy bubble wrap for the fish and the sticks. We bake in Ellis Park Stadium. It’s not until midday that I feel my skin tingling and realise, horrified, I haven’t put any sun cream on. When we get back to V's I’m like a beetroot. My legs are burning and my shoulders are sore. The airport’s packed. I can feel my face is puffy and red. I try and smear concealer on my cheeks. 
Art on the way into the city from Kensington, 2013