jo robinson

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

Christopher – The March That Was Not

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They are sitting on the verandah now, my diaries scattered around the remains of their lunch.  Princess feeds them too much.  They are laughing.  Except for Sam.  Samson, my son, the son that was taken from me.  He is not laughing.  He is filled with rage.  Even as his hatred for Suzette Hertzog consumes him, he is silent as she reads aloud from my diary, and the hair on their heads touches as they lean over my writing.  Hers the colour of the moonlight, and his black as a starless night.

Aah, they are amused about the march that we lost heart for.  There was nothing amusing about our struggle for our freedom, our dignity, and the return of that which was taken from us, but sometimes there were moments that stood out, moments where white and black recognised their mutual humanity.

I remember that day so well.  We had planned a march in Soweto.  It was hot, we were hungry, and we were angry.  Then the ratels came, and the saracens, those terrifying death-dealing vehicles.  We expected death on that day, of course, our marches seldom ended without such.  We did not care.  Our eyes were red with the light of battle.  We roared, and raised our fists.  The noise was powerful.

The young white boys of the army and police cocked their weapons, fear etched into the faces of these children, forced to fight a war which most of them never really understood.

And then a police vehicle drove in fast, and pulled up so suddenly that it slewed sideways, raising a cloud of grey dust from the road.  In the small silence that followed, the drivers door was flung open, and we briefly saw the scowling face of a high ranking officer, before it dissapeared completely.

Of course we are a superstitious people, and I am sure that the blood of each man turned to ice at the complete vanishing of this person.  We stared as the dust settled, until one of the white policemen begun to laugh hysterically, and there at his feet, chin level with the ground, was the still scowling face of the officer, who in his haste had failed to see the ditch that he had stopped beside.

Our laughter grew loud, and mingled, black and white, which is as it should be.

I watch Suzette wipe the tears that begun with her laughter, and now creep down her face in sadness.  I wish I could give her comfort, this daughter, this soul that entwined with mine, at the end of my life.

© Jo Robinson 2012


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Madam said to me, “When you write your cookbook Princess, maybe it would be better if you don’t call it Africolonial Cuisine.”

She does not like that word.  Colonial.  She is much ashamed of what her ancestors did to us, here in Africa.  Of course, I understand her shame, I have met her parents after all.

My book is not of those things, those times of great suffering, or indeed of the sufferings of today.  It is of cooking.  My cooking.  My Africolonial Cooking.  That is what it is after all, and I will not be as the ostrich, and hide my face beneath the soft sand, believing that if you cannot see it, it is not so.

I must look now, and see, which dish we shall serve first.

© Jo Robinson 2012