Bulawayo is a time and a place I will never forget, I sometimes go there in my dreams. It feels like a place where our dysfunctional family tasted a bit of normality for a brief moment in time. It’s a place where I grew into consciousness and womanhood. I’ve tried to go back to the innocence, to a time when life was carefree. My mind has wandered beyond the borders of itself into parts forgotten and snippets are sprinkled across time.
To me Bulawayo was a place where the night skies sparkled and the hot summer rains excited the earth. It was a time of innocence, when I was 10 years old. The memory of it is an awakening amongst the shattered memories of childhood. It was a place of riding bikes till my knees burned, a place of little fear, and bubbling cokes on weekends, warm summer days and holidays.
Although the memory began in the ablution block of Hillside junior school where friendless tears streamed down my isolation, something happened that changed my misery. It was a beginning, an entrance into who I was and am, just a shy child, dragged across Southern Africa like a nomad. My father’s work career uprooted our security with a frequency that stole away my trust. We would move so quickly that I hardly had time to say my goodbyes to the precious few friends that I had made.
I vividly remember the beautiful cape Dutch style house in Burnside where we moved after Sinoia. My mother was as delighted as I was about this house that had a fire place, 4 bedrooms, a swimming pool and the garden of my dreams. The double garage stood on the side with the promise of a workshop for my father and a place to hide my noisy bantams.
Even though my rough beginning had startled my friendless childhood, I seemed to recover. The sweet earth of a large homestead can bring so much joy, it was a garden paradise with clucking hens and Aylesbury ducks sneaking into our swimming pool.
My parents employed a man called Thomas to clean our house and occasionally cook, a gentle soul who by my mother’s reckoning entertained a bevy of delightful woman in his quarters. I loved him almost like a father. He was there for me on the days when no one else was home. We would sit together and listen to the radio and eat delicious sandwiches that he had made. I wanted to enter his private quarters just to see if it was really true about the women he entertained. I longed to catch a glimpse of them just to look on their beauty, but I didn’t really believe it. My parents were kind to him but I never saw equality. I didn’t understand why such a noble man would live in a tiny cold and bare room while we lived in relative luxury and why he had to drink his tea from a jam jar. I still feel enraged by the inequality of this beloved man, and in spite of it, he remained obedient and joyous to the very end. I detected no vengeance in him.
I recall riding home every day from Junior school, sometimes in the hot rain and a little *African boy would ride with me, we were friends. One day he told me that he loved me and I became afraid. All the racist things my father had told me flashed through my mind and I began to avoid this sweet angel. I must have hurt him badly but it was not my intent, fear destroys so much. I still think of him now and regret so much.
My mother was a nurse at the Lady Rodwell maternity home in Bulawayo and she brought home stories that delighted us. Stories about the tiny premature babies who survived under incredible odds. When I think back, I can recall her excitement about life back then and how these babies brought her incredible joy. I think she had a sense of belonging and a purpose in life. At that time my father was a stern individual who I feared. I would hide for hours in the tallest tree at the back of our house if he was angry, and I would silently watch and wait for his anger to dissipate. He required so much of me and I just had so little. I think I avoided him mostly because I didn’t have any of the answers to his questions. The markings of failure were unknowingly starting to spread their evil tentacles over me. My father worked in Johannesburg for a while, but I never remember missing him. I think there was a sense of relief when he was gone, but I hated my mother’s unhappiness and her longing for him.
I remember a lot of normal family moments in Bulawayo, when good friends would pop in for tea or even lazy Sunday lunches and braais that turned into evening drinks on the veranda. I loved it when the house was full of barking dogs and noisy kids. It felt normal when we sat around the table and laughed and drank copious amounts of tea with friends. I spent so much time in our swimming pool on those hot summer days that my hair turned green. I only ran into the house when I feared that lightening might strike me in the pool.
There were the visits from my mother’s old friends from distant lands, wondrous gifts of cardigans from Woolworths and glorious holidays at Zimbabwe Ruins and Victoria falls. Long trips in our Zephyr 6 to Beira and Cape Town were highlights of a happy childhood. Sun baked beach holidays where I spent far too long swimming in the sea and blisters covered my freckled face, much to my delight. Portuguese boys would admire my innocence.
I had a gaggle of ducks and bantams that bred excitedly in front of my eyes. This added to the magic of living in Bulawayo. I named each one of them and spent endless happy hours talking to them and feeding them. Horus and Hilda would cackle outside the kitchen door early in the mornings waiting for a morsel of bread. Sometimes they would venture into the house at their peril. Judy my beloved dog did not have much tolerance for their noisy clucking and would chase them. One day she hurt Henrietta in the neck and I was heartbroken when Thomas had to put Henrietta out of her misery. She still remained my faithful Judy, following me around the garden when I planted tiny seeds and she would let me dress her in funny glasses and tight dresses. I forgave her but I realised she was not to be trusted.
I can’t remember my parents drinking then as much as in later years, but I do remember feeling very alone at times, as though no one loved or noticed me. I would hide at the top of my cupboard in loneliness waiting for someone to come and find me, no one ever did. My brothers were wonderful beings in my eyes, strong and bold, they could do no wrong. I so longed to spend time with them. I would sit for hours in my room and listen to my brother Rick’s “home radio station” piped through speakers into my room and I would push pieces of paper with requests for my favourite tunes under his door.
My brothers had a great love for one another and never seemed to tire of each other’s company, something I never experienced. My sister was beautiful, clever and kind but she seemed distant to me, I was in awe of her. Even though I longed to be just like her in every way, I knew I was incapable of it. She was 5 and a half years older than me and we probably had very little in common, I was the dull little girl who nobody noticed. My parents had set us up to fail very early in our childhood and I recall them saying that we would never get on. How wrong they were!
I’m not actually sure when my sister left our family home to go to Rhodes University. My mind is just a muddle of memories and longings. I didn’t enter into the secret camaraderie that my other siblings enjoyed, though I longed to. I just looked up at them, as one looks up at a magnificent but distant night sky. Somehow I think I understood my place as a little sister, and the boundaries were firmly set.
So I spent much of my time in my own company and the company of my pets, friends were not easy for me to find. Having moved so much my confidence was shattered. From a very early age I didn’t think much of myself and I longed for love and admiration.
In spite of being alone a lot of the time, I found some security in warm Bulawayo as I watched the happenings of my family and I saw some happiness for a time. My pets never rejected me, I could see how they looked at me, and that was comforting. I loved our garden and I had my own little corner where I planted seeds. What a joy it was to see tiny plants poke themselves above the hard soil.
I can vividly remember the day that I watched my father from my bedroom window, shoulders slumped, his morose figure walking in the garden, grey clouds gathering. I could taste the fear, and I think I sensed then that the happiness was ending.
I find no memory within me of how I felt about losing my beloved pets and leaving this wonderful home, perhaps it all happened too fast and I just woke up in another city…. Perhaps it was the lure of Durban’s warm sea and balmy breezes that captivated me, but I found myself alone with 2 people that found solace in a bottle of brandy. I was a tender 16 years old, full of longing and yet my vulnerability was evident.
I went with them, but I never knew why. My brothers stayed in Bulawayo and I only saw them in the holidays when they came down to visit. I was shattered each time they left and I remember my mother wanting to give me a tranquilizer when the tears refused to stop.
I couldn’t make the grade in this place where the madness was and the mists of Kloof would engulf my mother in misery each day. I failed at the so called “school of dreams”. The day I found out that I had failed I could taste the bile of shame in my throat when I had to give the news of my failure to my father. What a horrible disappointment I was, what a vile creature that let everyone down. I hated myself from that moment and I gave up. I hated St Mary’s and everything that it stood for, rich, spoilt kids. My beloved sister and her husband are in the scattered memories amongst my sadness. Their presence at that time comforted me.
The one redeeming factor was that at seventeen I met Jesus, the lover of my soul. My journey with Him began in the friendless halls of a decadent white minority school.
But I will never forget the warm Bulawayo days and nights, the carefree innocence that all felt well with the world. It was a glorious window of what childhood should really be like but it was far too brief and it ended before I found enough strength to overcome the World.
Perhaps that why I go back there in my dreams.
*I say African reservedly because it feels like it brings more honor to him rather than “black”, but I too am an African…be it a white one!