Editorial Assistant Moonrat has unilaterally turned National Listening Day into National Listening Weekend. I’ve extended this into International Listening Weekend.
I’ve spent the past few days listening to stories about my Dad, Isaac, who recently turned eighty
Photo left: My Dad, in full mining gear, underground at Shabani Asbestos Mine in Rhodesia, ca 1965
Here are a few vignettes of his life I collected from the people who know him and love him.
My own favourite story about my Dad comes from the early 1970’s, when the darkness of apartheid still overshadowed the soul of South Africa. My Dad worked as a Mine Captain on a gold mine in the conservative (and right-wing) Free State goldfields. Although it may appear strange in today's world, at that time he was considered a liberal because he liked to help his men. Most of his 1000+ workforce were migrant workers, far from home and far from their traditional leaders and community support. My Father became their i'nkosi, their chief or king, and the one they turned to in times of need...
As I stumble sleepily from my bed, I first notice the blood on the kitchen floor. Then the noise – male and female voices raised in anger and anxiety, a mixture of Shangaan, Fanikalo and English.
It’s not the first time, nor is it to be the last, that Jãoa wakes us up in the middle of the night. The Mozambican is one of the team leaders who refuse to work for any other mine captain: if there is a rockfall that needs clearing, or a man to rescue, Jãoa and his comrades will not begin work until my Father arrives. He is their inhlanhla enhle, their good luck, for he works beside them in the choking dust and stale air and he has had many miraculous escapes from unexpected rock falls and explosions.
This visit to our home is more interesting than most. Jãoa's naked girlfriend is with him; he, too, is naked and bleeding. Just outside the kitchen door, my father is grappling with the girlfriend’s panga-wielding husband who, having sliced into Jãoa’s handsome black face, wants more retribution.
‘Do you need any help, Ma?’ my sister and I ask.
‘Come and hold the bowl, Ona,’ my mother says. Apprehension sharpens her voice as she turns to me. ‘Go and get some clothes for Jãoa and his friend.’
I’m relieved. I don’t like the thought of having to hold the bowl with the water pinkened by the blood that pours from the deep gash on Jãoa’s face. I disappear quickly, my heart thudding with a dark foreboding as, to my teenage ears, the sounds of the struggle outside the door approach a frightening climax. What if – I can barely frame the thought – the angry man gets inside? What will we do? What will we do?
When I return with an armful of clothes, there is only the murmur of voices outside and the soft sobbing of the woman as my mother tries to calm her down with sugar-rich tea.
With his usual combination of physical strength, unwavering courage and quiet diplomacy, my father has disarmed the irate husband. All the two antagonists still need to do – with my father as mediator – is to resolve the issue.
The excitement over, we yawn and ask, ‘Can we go back to bed, Ma?’
My Mom hustles us back into our bedroom. It’s only the next morning we discover they stayed up all night – my father with the two men and my mother with the woman – soothing wounded male prides and arranging mutually satisfactory compensation according to complex tribal laws.
Jãoa has breakfast with us.
‘Why are you so stupid? Why mess with another man’s wife?’ my father asks angrily.
‘Sorry, iNkosi,’ Jãoa replies. He gives a fatalistic shrug. ‘The ladies just like me.’ His knowing grin says that he sees through my father’s harsh lecture. As with all the times before, and those yet to come, he knows that, as a foreigner in a strange land, far from his Tribal Chief and his village, it is to this white, Afrikaans man - my Father and his - that he can turn for help and for safety.
My Dad's sister: "I remember as a young girl, when my Dad – your grandfather – came home mean and drunk. Our Mom would hide us kids behind the cupboard to keep us safe, but sometimes he’d still find us. But it stopped when Isaac turned thirteen. He was big and strong for his age, and he came out from behind the cupboard so fast our Dad was on the floor before he knew it. The old man never hit any of us again."
My Dad's cousin: "Isaac is ten years older than I am and he was always like James Dean to me. Once, I remember waiting for him to come home from the asbestos mines in Rhodesia. He roared up to our house on his Triumph motorbike, his black leather jacket filthy from the 700 kilometer journey he'd done overnight. He had a wooden box strapped to his chest that made us all curious. It was a gift of real silver and bone-handle cutlery which Aunty Betty [my Dad’s Mom] had always longed for but could never afford to buy. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she opened the box." [Note: I still use some of that cutlery set today!]
My Mother: "Ouma used to tell the story about when she urgently needed to get from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg [a distance of some four hundred kilometres, roughly 250 miles] As usual, your Granddad wasn’t quite, er, sober. Isaac was only nine years old, but he told his mother he’d make a plan. So he tied blocks of wood to the pedals of the car so his feet could reach them. He sat on a box so that he could see over the steering wheel...and many nerve wracking hours later they arrived in Jo’burg: his Mom somewhat shaken - not stirred! - and miraculously still alive."
My Sister: "I remember when Dad played bowls at the Leeukop Prison Club. He’d come home every Monday with his car washed and brilliantly polished by one of the prisoners.
‘What did he do to end up in jail, Dad?’ I asked, ever curious.
‘Ona,’ he said, ‘it’s not respectful to ask a man what crime he committed. It might make him feel small. Besides,’ Dad added, ‘I looked into his eyes.'
Dad shrugged. 'And he seemed a decent fellow.’
They struck up an unlikely friendship. Every Monday Dad would buy a carton of cigarettes on the way to bowls and, in return, he’d accept from the prisoner a bunch of roses to take home to Mom (Uh, these roses were “borrowed” from the prison warden’s garden!)"
Listening to these stories has made me remember why my Dad is my hero. He is old now, and frail, but he hasn’t changed a bit. Even though his lungs are riddled with the miner's disease asbestosis, his spirit is as mischievous, and as indomitable, as it ever was. But that's a whole new story...!
With thanks to Moonrat for reminding me that sometimes it's good to just sit and listen.