The Real Interior by Nthabi Taukobong is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers and is available now. This extract published by permission.
My father created an environment for us to be, and do, our best. He would challenge us in our daily discussions and have us resolve issues for ourselves. While my mother would throw a shoe at us, my dad would sit us down and ask how we had come to whatever conclusion and what we believed was the best way forward. He never accepted a yes or no answer, or allowed us to use the words good or nice in our vocabulary.
We were hardly ever allowed to wander around aimlessly during the day – except for the few hours of free time after school. Most of our days were structured and filled with healthy, stimulating activities.
My father believed that a person was not a product of their environment. Just because we were born in Soweto – a place of segregation, filled with a dark, heavy cloud of inequality – did not mean that our story would end there. He raised us to believe that we were free to dream big, right there in our five-roomed home that we shared with our grandparents and to imagine life leading us to greater pastures.
Schooling in the townships in the 70s was unstable and turbulent. There would be weeks, sometimes months that we would be home because of riots and calls-to-action by the youth and parents to stay away from the schools, whose system of oppression was meant to cripple the young and an entire nation.
Many of us remained disillusioned and directionless, wandering aimlessly around the dusty streets, playing games such as hide-and-seek, skipping rope, hop-scotch and stones until the sun disappeared and we heard the call to come home from our parents.
But my father, bless his breathing soul, decided quite early on in the system shutdown that schooling did not only take place in a classroom, left to the sole responsibility of the teachers. He sat us down one night and gently let us know of the doom we were facing in our country and that it was up to us to do better, right here at home, and to continue learning no matter our circumstance, not waiting for the day when things would become better.
My father came up with a system of continuing our learning at home while we were on our undefined school breaks. He would write short notes for my brother and me to study in four languages, those being Tswana (our home language), Zulu (my mother’s language), English and Afrikaans, which we then had to translate back to him in his language of choice. He also brought home books for us to read in those languages and imposed a TV and radio rule that allowed for only the languages being learned that week to be consumed in whatever medium we were indulging in. So if we were learning Afrikaans that week, we could only watch Afrikaans programmes on TV or tune into the Afrikaans radio stations.
Even when speaking to each other, the language would have to be that of what we were currently studying. There were no half measures with my father, and still to this day a task he gives you must be done properly.
It was his gentle ways that made us all willing followers. Nothing was drilled or imposed; he gave us logic with every lesson and allowed for open question and answer sessions. Maths was handled in much the same way. He would breakdown the formula then we would go off on our own and try to work it out, and if we couldn’t come right we would be able to go back to my father and work through it with him – always calm, never raising his voice, and always with a soft, welcoming smile.
My parents worked an average of three jobs each. My dad was a truck driver then and travelled extensively throughout South Africa and our bordering countries. I remember when he started driving trucks to Botswana and back to South Africa, which resulted in him being away for such long periods of time, and my mother holding it all together, keeping a lioness rule over her pride.
If anyone so much as dared to touch or cause harm to me and my brother in the neighbourhood or at school, my mother was notorious for loading us up in her red Mazda and speeding off in the direction of whoever had messed with her children. She would shout at them like we were eternal saints who deserved nothing but kindness from everyone we interacted with.
The same rule even applied to the school teachers. Corporal punishment was never to be imposed on Fikile’s children. Should she hear that we were hit at school, all anyone would see the next day, as soon as she was able to get a break from work, was my mother’s feisty, red car screeching into the schoolyard, dust clouds everywhere, and her storming out of the car and into our classroom and blasting the said teacher to no end. We were absolutely terrified and thrilled in those moments. No sane teacher wanted that vision to come again, and she set the bar extremely high on how her children would be treated.
We learned very early in our lives that we had strong cheerleaders in our corner who would move mountains for us. My mother never questioned if we were guilty or not when she sped off in her car to fight our fights, which in turn made us more accountable of what we reported to her because we knew she would go into a flying fit should we have been wronged. So we needed to be sure that we were, in fact, certain of what had happened and that we were prepared for her to take the no prisoners approach.
My brother and I would actually review each case after school if we had been in some form of altercation and had not managed to resolve it ourselves. We would weigh up the pros and cons before notifying my mother if someone deserved her wrath. On most occasions we pleaded the fifth, because you see, the tricky part was that my mother made us come along to point out the culprit at each scene – so we had to be damned sure of the charges and of our story, otherwise we would face further wrath on the playgrounds the next day and the cycle of abuse and shouting would be unending. We quickly learned how to play nice, and the other kids learned to play nice with us as they, too, feared the fiery mother in the red car.
Since our schooling was covered by my parents, and in part by the local school we attended, my dad thought that we not only had to be excellent students, but also cultured individuals. He signed us up for tennis on weekends in the ’hood and on the days he was around, my brother and I found these outings an amazing time to bond with our father and show him how much we had learned that week and of course that we were up to the challenge of learning a new sport and ensuring he was impressed with our skills.
I loved tennis from the first time I walked onto the court. I’m not sure if it was because my father was attached to that happy memory but I was hooked. I loved the sound of the ball hitting the racquet, my cute tennis outfits and the presence of my father as he watched us improve every week. There was never a person I wanted to be more proud of me than my dad.