Christopher – The Diarist

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Do you wonder how a Zulu boy came to be writing in a diary, while his friends played in the sun, and pushed their wire cars through the dry grass?

In 1953 we lived in Sharpeville.  It was new then.  My mother worked as a maid in Ventersdorp, and my father worked on the mines in Johannesburg.  He was a proud man, but uneducated.  The only lie he ever told me, that I knew about, was that he could read.  I knew he could not.  He blamed poor vision, and always had me read the newspapers he bought out loud.

He came home once a month after payday, smelling of the big city and exciting journeys on Putco buses.  My mother and I were eager for these homecomings.  He would bring a big parcel of meat with him, some small gift for her, and a packet of hard lemon sweets for me to suck.  If I was very careful, I could make this packet last until his next return.

After our feast of meat, my mother would go to sleep, and I would sit at his feet, and listen to the exciting tales of the doings in Johannesburg.  The great new music of Snowy Radebe, and stories of miners getting drunk on home-brewed skokiaan and stabbing each other to death in the shebeens of the townships.  I loved to listen to my father.

One month he came home with an extra parcel, and a very angry face.  He handed me a paper to read for him.  I never forgot those words.  The words of Hendrick Verwoerd.

“Natives must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans is not for them”.

At the time those words merely confirmed to me that I was inferior to white people.  The few that I had seen till then had been smiling and happy, well dressed, and always driving beautiful shiny cars.  I was very impressed as well, by the fact that all white children had shoes.  To my twelve year old brain it was very simple, I had seen their superiority with my own eyes.  I nodded in agreement.

For the first and only time in my life my father smacked my face.  Beatings on the backside were acceptable, but being struck in the face was something else.  I looked up at him in shock, and I saw the strange mixture of shame and anger on his face.

“Christopher,” he said softly.  “I am sorry.”

We remained silent for a long time, and then he said.

“I cannot change my life.  I am too old.  Our ancestors were warriors.  They must look on me now in shame, as I sweat and slave in the bowels of the earth, for the gold of Africa to make the white man rich.  But not you, my son.  You will not shame our ancestors.”

He handed me the extra parcel he had brought, and I opened it.  I was surprised to see books.  They where very old and tattered.  Then he pulled another book from his satchel.  This one was brand new.  It was a very bright pink with a picture of a laughing purple horse on it.  I took it from his hand and read the inscription on the cover, “My Diary”.

“You will write in this every day, and show it to me when I come home.  You will also learn all that is in these books I have bought for you.  Every word.  You will tell me what you have learned from these books, and I will know if you lie to me.  I have found a shop that sells these old books very cheaply, so I will bring you more to study from.”

My strange education begun on that day, and the beating I received with the sjambok the next month for not filling every page of that pink book, instilled in me the habit of my life to come.

I pulled the books towards me, and examined the titles.  The Life and Times of Henry VIII, Mrs Beeton’s Everyday Cookery, A Treatise on White Magic, and Brought To Bed, the memory of which is enough to bring a blush to the cheeks of even a ghost.

And so I learned of all of these things, and because of my father’s inability to read, I learned of many more strange and wonderful things in the years to follow.

© Jo Robinson 2012

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