Odd. When I was young, and until quite recently, I had no idea that people might think of my background as exotic. Or like my accent, but that’s another story.
Lately though, people have been asking about my childhood in Southern Africa, what it was like to grow up there.
I can’t remember much past the age of eight, and I have good reasons to prefer it that way, but my early childhood was idyllic. And barefoot.
I am pretty sure I didn’t wear shoes with any regularity until my family moved to Johannesburg when I was eight.
Before that, my nickname was ‘Elephant Foot’ because the soles of my feet were so toughened.
Perhaps one of the happiest periods I remember were the two years we spent living at a mine in Mpumulanga, South Africa, called Klipwal (literally, Stone Wall).
These were my first two years of school: I went to boarding school, and didn’t like that very much – I sobbed every Sunday night when it was time to go back to school, and pretty much every night at school. I was, even then, a sensitive child, introverted, easily bullied.
But I had a few very good friends, and the memories of those friendships are still with me. Portia was black, and I wasn’t allowed to visit her at her house. I didn’t understand why until much later. I just thought my parents were being mean.
Jenny was white, and I spent many weekends visiting her and her family because I lived too far from school to go home every weekend.
We had a lot of fun together, running wild with the taste of African dust in our mouths.
We lost touch after I moved to Jo’burg (my first experience of loss) and I missed her always, until I found her again on Facebook a few years ago. Reconnection!
Mpumulanga never gets very cold: mostly, it was warm enough to swim year-round. The walk to the swimming pool at Klipwal was littered with fallen Frangpanis. Sensuously scented and dangerous with crawling bees. I got stung many, many times, but it didn’t seem to deter me from my shoeless ways.
When it rained, the flying ants would swarm, and my dad, my brother and I would go out at dusk to catch them, pull their wings off, and eat them. I know, pretty gross. But it’s not like people in other parts of the world don’t eat bugs!
Southern Africa has a smell, a very specific smell of hot red earth. No place smells quite like the African plains after the rain.
It’s a devastatingly beautiful place, but always, through my childhood , was the undercurrent of separation – why weren’t white people and black people allowed to use the same toilets? I never understood. Then there were those people who were part of our families – the gardeners, the housekeepers, the nannies – but somehow unequal, invisible almost.
Africa in general, and South Africa in particular, are complicated places. The relationships and power plays are subtle there. Life has a different value.
The longing has eased, like grieving the death of a beloved, but I still miss the sound of African women singing, the dust in my mouth, thunderstorms in the afternoon.
But for someone with a nervous system as fried as mine is, South Africa was a hard place to live. You need to be robust to live there. Able to deal with physical danger, the daily possibility of violence. It’s like a bad relationship that way: you can’t help yourself but to keep going back, even though you know you shouldn’t.