Not sure if other parents feel the same way, but becoming a mother has really forced me to look at the world differently. In particular being a darkie mother to a future queen in my homeland South Africa. Hai kunzima.
Yes if you want to be technical about it my freedom was tangible on 27 April 1994 – the simple right to vote. But there is very little victory to show off to my daughter.
For many years I rode the wave of euphoria, a child of freedom in our time. The cracks started showing in a number of ways when I started working, but it is as uMama ka Nandi that the gloss has been completely removed.
Starting in kindergarten I was fascinated to learn that very little had changed. She would come home singing the same nursery rhymes we had to learn – Mary still had her little lamb; Jack and Gill are still going up that hill and no, no mention of anything that she can relate to. But she’s young I thought, and anyway it is our responsibility as her parents and family to teach her about our traditional songs; stories and heritage. A duty her father and I took deliberate steps to ensure she was proud of being named after King Shaka Zulu’s mother, a proud Zulu girl!
After a few years, off she went to school. And again that irritating question you have to ask in a room full of other parents, who always seem irritated with the pro-me rhetoric, what type of future African leaders are we raising at this school that prides itself on being an African school? Are we merely happy with generic African children who can speak English; regurgitate Disney movie lines and emulate Cartoon Network characters? The proud response was that the school allows individuality ….oh and Heritage Day is a prominent calendar day (boom sit down). Then the letter advising us that our kids are starting Afrikaans this year arrived – and no it is not the school it is the Department of Education’s decision, with an option of course to do Zulu in Grade 2. WTF! So yet again I had to sit down with my now seven year old to tell her that we do not simply follow instructions in this family. Afrikaans is the one subject Mommy doesn’t care if she does well or not. “Why mommy?” “Because I don’t see it benefiting you in any way in your life.” “But why is it taught at school?” “Mommy can’t answer that my baby.” I am lucky she didn’t ask any more questions because I had literally run out of answers (even fake palatable ones).
As a child of priest my own beliefs about religion vs. Spirituality had to be stifled, it is not a battle I am willing to wage with my parents. Instead, I allow her to go to church with Gogo and Mkhulu and always find an excuse to find out what she learnt this time around so I can add my take on it. Luckily, our church is one of those ‘progressive’ churches that have removed the white Jesus picture that continues to confuse millions to this day. I focus rather on what being a believer means through action. Thankfully, our church has an active community outreach programme and it is in this small church in Mayfair, Johannesburg that I believe my child has really experienced diversity. While I try to find ways to introduce the beauty of African spirituality to her I console myself with the assumption that at least she’s learning to be an active community member.
Oh yes, we rave, television and other media have changed. Really? Has it really? If we are not fighting in parliament; we are showing off the latest bag/dress/car made in Europe and conveniently endorsed by a bleached child of the soil. Yes of course these are our modern day role-models. But to be safe, let’s let her watch amapopeye (cartoons). Another fail. Most cartoons are more suited to adults than children and if not it is that saccharine sweetness that only Disney can provide; or its UK based fun that even she knows is nothing like growing up in Mzansi.
So we switch off the TV and go shopping for books at our local warehouse. It boasts a huge selection of children’s books, yeah! We end up in the manager’s office, Mommy asking awkward questions again about where the African language books are? “Oh my dear,” he explains shaking his head, “I once bought Zulu books; I ended up donating them to a school because none of my customers bought them.” I sit there ashamed. Konje where are we, this is South Africa right in 2017 where we talk about pride and reclaiming our country but this book warehouse has no Zulu book. Online I go and finally find a vendor who sells at a market every month. She patiently explains that we darkie parents don’t buy these books for our children; we continue to be hell-bent on producing children who are excellent English speakers only. I grab as many books as possible for Nandi, and all my friends kids – great birthday present.
Her crown (aka hair)
I am not a fan of chemicals – she’s seven – they can wait. But already at her crèche (all black staff) the comments would fly around about how she’d look so cute with braids or a hairpiece. She was 3 when I came to fetch her one sunny afternoon and her teacher had so nicely decided to braid my child’s hair. I’m surprised a nuclear explosion was not reported that day – because I lost my mind. Here was a mother, who decided without asking me what my child should look like in order to be considered cute. Hoosah! Four years later, she continues to have natural hair, which tends to get me to bond with like-minded parents effortlessly at her school. And yet again I am reminded who I am in this country, ignored. Looking for products is often a futile effort. We celebrate when one or two retailers finally stock, oh await a US product, while so many local innovators and entrepreneurs have to rely on social media and online shoppers for business. And yes I get it, it may not be everyone’s business strategy to stock in the local supermarket – but for any business how do you ignore the demographic of your consumers for so long? I see gluten free products on the shelves. Just saying.
Clothing and Toys
Every few months we head-off to shops and malls to buy clothes for my Nandi. If it is not the Disney characters plastered everywhere, it’s little blonde girls and very little that reflects or even closely resembles my Nandi. So we go through everything, she’s already learnt what not to even bother looking at, and walk out with plain t-shirts and clothes. She probably hates me, but I’ll take it because I remember what it was like to see nothing that appealed to me in the shops; nothing made specifically for me – the message starts seeping into your psyche. But hai ngiyala, not for my Nandi. Off I go again to find people who can make her outfits that she loves. When she turned one, her grandfather traipsed town for hours looking for a black doll. How hard can it be to find a black doll in South Africa? Almost impossible. And the joke again was get online – but why?
Why should my daughter be exposed to all these images and reminders of a non-African world that does not in any way shape or form emulate or reflect her? Why should my child stand in front of a row of books; toys; clothes that is full of blonde; rosy cheeked; blue-eyed stuff?
Is it because we do not demand change, or do we not care how our kids experience their homeland? We have simply complied, accepted and resorted to complaining and moaning about the same things. Yet religiously we go back for more. We console ourselves with online shopping and referrals from friends who buy in bulk for all of us – but daily we have to go back to the same shops; malls; schools; churches; restaurants; public spaces that continue to remind us that yes this is home but it’s not our home. If business is about the numbers – which numbers do retailers look at? We still go to the same stores (excited that one of us owns the franchise…small victory, same bank account). Are we happy to simply take what is there – will we create; develop and innovate? I’m not sure anymore whether our freedom was truly about winning back our land or was it about letting business continue as usual?
So I continue to be that irritating ‘bitter black’ woman who demands a different South Africa for my child. Perhaps it is time to move to another African country to know what it means to be a proud African. Which it seems is the only option for now; Nandi and I are open to suggestions.
By Lelo Njumbuxa