A jiipsi's tale (Chpt. 2)

Part 1 - The Final Chimurenga The first black people I met in Rhodesia were Robert Ganunga and his wife, Margaret. They were our domestic servants. At first I was terrified of Robert, he seemed very very black skinned and he had a mop of afro hair that perched on his head like a brick.

A jiipsi's tale (Chpt. 2)


The house is in confusion, the boys run to and fro,

There’s rummaging in cupboards and there’s hunting high and low;

And what is the excitement and hurry if you please?

The answer is: “They’re looking for N’Kosikas’s keys”.

Wherever have they got to?”she says with wrinkled brow.

I left them on the table and they’ve simply vanished now.”

So cook must leave his baking and the houseboy’s on his knees,

A-searching under things to find N’Kosikas’s keys.

She says she can’t explain it, just how they disappear;

Perhaps when she went visiting she may have left them there;

So hurry, send the picannin at once to Mrs B’s

To ask if she has chanced to find N’Kosikas’s keys.

Nkos comes in and mutters, “What, lost your keys once more!”

Where do you think you put them?” and, “Are they in the store?”

Advice is all he offers and helpful words like these,

Why ever do you want to go and lose the cussed keys?”

N’Kosikas is crying, she doesn’t like to tell,

But now she feels quite certain that she dropped them down the well;

And all the while the Broody is sitting at her ease

On thirteen tiny chickens and N’Kosikas’s keys!

Hilda M Richards (Next Year Will Be Better)


March 1971


My memories of this country start with the border post at Beitbridge, when my mother, my sister and I were entering this country to join our father, who was already in Bulawayo, to start a new life. I was a five-year-old, and my only concern in the world was my pet guinea pigs. Would they survive the long car journey from Johannesburg, would we be able to keep them concealed from the officials at the border post as we had no import papers for two guinea pigs? I had little knowledge of border posts and was terrified the officials at the border post strip searched every vehicle. I think the guinea pigs were almost asphyxiated by the weight of the clothes and blankets I shoved on top of them to keep them concealed, but they survived the trip and commenced their new lives with me in the government house we had been given to use as part of our immigration assistance.

My family had started our adventure on the African continent with a year in South Africa, before moving to Rhodesia. During that year I had my first experiences with black people, and one incident sticks in my memory. My sister, who is five years older than me, and I, were playing on the railed patio of our ground floor flat, when an African lady walked by on the road. My sister had just started learning Afrikaans at school, and mischievously told me to shout ‘jy is ’n bobejaan’ to the African lady. Full of jealousy at my sister’s apparent bilingual abilities and determined not to lose points in the sibling rivalry stakes, I shouted the words to the African lady, reciting them as perfectly as possible so as to appear to know what I was saying. I had no idea I had just called the lady a baboon. I was completely astounded when the woman strode across our tiny garden, climbed over the railing and proceeded to give my a hiding while admonishing me in rapidly spoken Afrikaans. When the lady had left, and my sister had stopped laughing at her prank, she explained the meaning of the sentence. Whilst I appreciated that the sentence may have been mildly offensive, I regarded the woman’s reaction as extreme, and thought that she must have been a very strict and horrible person. It was only years later that I considered my remark in the context of apartheid and only then could I understand the woman’s sensitivity.

The first black people I met in Rhodesia were Robert Ganunga and his wife, Margaret. They were our domestic servants. At first I was terrified of Robert, he seemed very very black skinned and he had a mop of afro hair that perched on his head like a brick. Quite a frightening prospect to a five-year-old, who had not had much favourable contact with black people. Robert was originally from Mozambique, and he had come to Rhodesia to seek employment - much like my own family when I come to think of it. It was generally accepted amongst the white community that the blacks from the neighbouring states were better workers than the local people. I suppose the consequences of loosing their job was so much more significant to the foreign blacks than it was to the locals. If a local black lost his job, he or she could rely on the available extended family as support while another job was found. This option was not available to the migrant workers, and accordingly they were more conscientious workers so as to keep their employment. Perhaps ironically, Zimbabwe today provides neighbouring South Africa with a considerable migrant workforce that are also considered better workers than their local counterparts for identical reasons.

Once I had grown a little more familiar with Robert, I realised that my fear was unnecessary. He revealed himself to be extremely kind, tolerant and patient with me. In fact such was his tolerance, he became the victim of many of my sister’s and my childish pranks. We spent many hours tormenting and disturbing Robert as he attempted to carry out his domestic chores. Part of his uniform was a white apron which tied at the back in a bow. Every few minutes we would be untying the bow, necessitating Robert to stop what he was doing and retie it. We would reorganise the ornaments around the house, placing them upside down or back to front. If my mother came home and found the ornaments so arranged, she would invariably presume that Robert was responsible, and reprimand him for his ignorance, much to our great amusement. If he was on hands and knees polishing the floors, I would jump on his back and insist on riding around on him. Through all this, I do not recall Robert ever genuinely losing his temper with me or my sister. As a five-year-old, I very quickly came to realise that Robert would do most things I asked, and I probably took far too much for granted in my youthful ignorance.

Growing up, Robert was very much part of my young life, and he provided the basis for which I judged all adult black people. I regarded them as patient and happy people who were quite willing to be given orders by white people, even ones as young as me.

At school it was slightly different. The school, run by Dominican nuns, was one of a very few with a multiracial intake at the time. Being a child, I did not regard this as out of the ordinary in the context of Rhodesia, and I had a number of black friends amongst my classmates. I did not see these black school children as any different to myself. What I do remember as being peculiar was the bus ride to town after school. The government owned bus company provided a bus for the school at lunch times. In the centre of every bus was a partition, and whites had to sit at the front of the partition, and all non-whites in the seats behind the partition. Getting on the bus one day, I was engrossed in a game of marbles with a black boy of my own age. In order to continue the game, I followed him to the section of the bus behind the partition and sat down. Some distance into the journey, one of the other black pupils told me I would have to move to the front of the bus. The game was still not finished, and I was reluctant to leave, but the boy insisted that we would all get into trouble if I didn’t. I asked a number of people on the bus why we would get into trouble, and no-one appeared to know, but everyone was sure we would, so I moved. Some years later I realised that there had been racial segregation laws that prohibited blacks and whites sitting together on buses.

When we had first moved to Rhodesia, although UDI had been declared for six years, the liberation struggle had barely started, and was confined to extremely isolated incidents in remote areas of the country. I was totally unaware of any armed conflict happening and had never heard of ‘the liberation struggle’. At the start of my fourth year of primary school, I was moved by my parents to a government school that was only for whites. The Dominican school, being small, combined classes for the fourth and fifth years, and this was not considered ideal by my parents. By now it was 1975, and the ‘terrorist war’, as we called the ‘liberation struggle’, was beginning to gain momentum. Not infrequently the television news would commence with a ‘Combined Operations Communiqué' detailing the various attempts of insurgency by the terrorists. According to the communiqués the terrorists appeared always to be highly unsuccessful. Gradually, the army began to call up more and more people for active service, and as children at school, our play began to include war games based on current events. I don’t think, as children, we ever discussed or thought about why there was a terrorist war, we just accepted it as an ever-increasing part of our lives. If I think about it now, how I would have thought about it then, I believe I would have thought that the black people fighting as terrorists were in no way connected to the black people that I knew, as friends and that worked in my home. In my mind, and I’m sure in the minds of my peers, the war was being fought between foreign blacks who were communists and bad, and the whites and other blacks that made up the good people of the country. I had probably never considered voting rights and the disenfranchised black majority and a multitude of other unacceptable aspects of the Rhodesian regime. My opinions, if any, were based on the little I saw and heard, and in the context of my life, the black people around me seemed as happy as the whites.

Robert and his wife had two children during the seven years they were in our employ. The first child was born shortly after our arrival in Bulawayo. Late one night, Robert knocked on my parents’ bedroom window urgently trying to wake them up. It seemed that Margaret was in the advanced stages of labour and needed to be taken to hospital immediately. Such was the level of communication between our two families, we weren’t even aware that Margaret was pregnant! My father hurriedly drove Margaret to the nearest hospital where a baby girl was delivered within minutes of his arrival. My father’s name was Michael, so the little girl was named Michelle as a symbol of the gratitude the Ganunga’s felt for my father’s assistance. A few years later, Michelle was joined by a baby sister, Marie, named after my sister’s middle name in recognition of the hours of time my sister had spent teaching Michelle. This phenomenon of domestic workers naming their children after their employers is still common place today. It seems to be a form of simple respect to the employers, and usually arises from a sense of gratitude towards the employer. The significance of this gesture was probably greatly overestimated by me as a five-year-old. I believed my father to be a sort of lord over these people, if they considered him to be great enough to name their child after. I never came across white people who named their children after black people.

Apart from naming their children after their employers, the domestic workers I came across were often named in the most bizarre fashion - gardeners were often called ‘Sunday’ or ‘Bigboy’ or ‘Sixpence’. These names were a great source of amusement to us whites generally, and particularly the children. It was only years later that I realised that these names were not normally the person’s real name, but a convenience adopted by the person for the benefit of whites. As the black languages were totally foreign to most whites, blacks felt that their real names would be unpronounceable by whites and would most likely jeopardise their chances of employment.

As new immigrants, our family did have a somewhat different attitude to the blacks, than that of whites who had lived in Rhodesia most of their lives or had been born in the country. In some ways, our attitude was more liberal towards the blacks as a result of the influence of our English origins. In other ways we were more guarded and suspicious of certain black behaviour as a result of our inexperience with and lack of exposure to local black culture and traditions. For instance, my parents choosing multiracial schools for their children to attend was not the generally accepted practice and considered quite liberal at the time. At the same time, it took us ages to come to terms with the black extended family arrangement. Most blacks had a large number of children during their lives, and this obviously led to an enormous extended family. In the local language, an uncle younger than one’s father is a ‘little father’, an uncle older than one’s father a ‘big father’, if one takes the translation to English literally. All cousins are by derivation then, also, brothers and sisters. When our gardener (Sunday), approached my parents for leave to attend to his sick father, naturally we were thoughtful and considerate, and gave him the time off, money for transport and other arrangements. A short while later we learned that his father had died and accordingly, we offered our condolences and what assistance we could. Several months later, Sunday again approached my parents with a request for time off to attend his father’s funeral. Whilst the request was granted, my parents now believed they were being taken advantage of. Obviously, Sunday could not possibly be attending his father’s funeral for a second time, and in our minds the only explanation must be some deviancy on the part of Sunday. What we did not know was that one of the ‘fathers’, or perhaps even both, had been an uncle. Out of this my father came up with the joke that if Sunday wasn’t back by Friday he would be fired on Saturday, which the whole family thought was hilarious.

This confusion in family terminology often led to suspicion on the part of white employers. One might, for example, be introduced to your domestic worker’s mother, only to come across a complete stranger a short while later claiming to also be your employee’s mother. As a very young boy, I had already suspected there were profound differences between black people and me, these incidences convinced me, but on the whole I found them completely likeable, and an endless source of entertainment for my youthful curiosity. Certainly, I never found any hostility in them, or animosity from them, towards us white people. In my insular little world black people appeared perfectly happy with their existence.

To be continued...

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