Monthly Archives: September 2013

I am from…

I am from…

I am from wooden boards used to cut everything from bread to onions to meat
From a majestic dark stained wood sideboard adorned with ornaments, with cupboards filled with crockery, some for everyday use and others used only on special occasions, with drawers filled with table and placemats, and various table cloths, those for everyday use and those for special occasions.

I am from a house on a busy corner, one with a long passage perfect for playing with marbles, a house with creaky wooden floors that made sneaking around next to impossible, with cupboards lovingly built by my father the handyman, and with stippled walls that scraped your skin if you took a corner too sharply.

I am from big purple hydrangeas flourishing in flower beds filled with pungent tree bark and dark moist soil, rose trees lovingly pruned every year, and African violets that were placed in shaded parts of the kitchen counter because that’s where they blossomed.

I am from a rubber tree that grew by my window but eventually needed to be cut down because its root system threatened the foundation of our house, from a guava tree in whose branches I would sit while feasting on sweet fragrant ripe fruit in season, whose long gone limbs I remember as if they were my own.

I am from meals always eaten as a family and strict parents
From a mom and a dad and a baby sister.

Sunday afternoon picnic on Signal Hill

Sunday afternoon picnic on Signal Hill

Bronwyn and I in our backyard

Bronwyn and I in our backyard

I am from dinner at the dining room table every day of the week, meals that included  weekly dinners served strictly at 6 pm, Saturday morning breakfasts that ranged from fried bacon and eggs or French toast or perfect soft boiled eggs and traditional Sunday roast and veggies with pudding served thereafter.

I am from no elbows on the table and washing all strategic parts before getting into bed and gentle Jesus meek and mild.

I am from celebrations that always included family and family friends.

I am from Cape Town, South Africa, born into a Coloured family whose ancestry, and culture, is unknown because shame and/or fear has shrouded our origins in silence. I am from sardines on toast and apricot chicken and green bean stew and coffee with condensed milk,

from a grandmother who was one of eleven children, whose one sister had more than 20 children
from photos of many family holidays and milestone moments,colour photographs of our growing up years, sepia and black and white photos so my parents growing up years and their parents milestones,

from photos lovingly placed in photo albums, with old photographs kept in a shoebox.

Family holiday - Japanese gardens in Durban

Family holiday – Japanese gardens in Durban

I am from a family torn apart by racial classification during apartheid, where some siblings were classified as white and some as Coloured and the only way they could see each other was in secret.
from parents who sheltered by sister and I from the politics, pain and happenings during the turbulent years in South Africa,
from teenage years filled with shame when sale of execution posters were plastered on the windows of the house or when entering a house emptied by the sheriff of the court,
from childhood sexual abuse and adolescent years with a, then, alcoholic father…

But I am also from fresh pine trees adorned with Christmas or ornaments and meters of blinking Christmas tree lights
from many evenings spent playing card games with my sister and parents
from Sunday afternoon drives and exploring the rainbow of sea life in tidal pools at Mouille point
from driving all over the cape peninsula as a child with my dad during school holidays and jerseys knitted by my mom every tennis tournament,
from a grandmother and mother whose faith walk has left me with a legacy that I am proud to emulate.

I am from pain, despair, helplessness, and shame
But I am also from family, from love, from surviving and from overcoming.


Reflections on my heritage for “Heritage Day”

Stories silenced because of shame, because of fear, because of desires or a sense of urgency to be seen in one way and not another…

“Daddy, where did you get the colour of skin?” I asked my father this questions after attending a conference in Uganda this year. The question stemmed from perplexed looks on some conference delegates’ faces when they learned that I was not White, that I was mixed race, but not in the way they understood that term. They seemed to struggle with the idea that I did not have one Black and one White parent, that both my parents were of mixed race.

As a friend and I tried to explain how it was possible that a whole group of people existed in South Africa that were like us, products of parents who were both of mixed race, I realized just how little I actually knew about the origins of this group of people to which I belonged.

Coming home, I continued to process their questions and reactions, and my responses to their questions and reactions. I continued to reflect on the onslaught of emotions that welled up inside me as another friend offered a heartfelt apology at what “her” people had done to “my” people”. I am stunned by the intensity of those emotions, and sensed a stirring deep in my spirit. It felt like an unfolding… an awakening…  a tentative opening of a door that had been shut inside me for so long.

My father’s answer to my question, “Daddy, where did you get the colour of your skin?” was not surprising – “I don’t know.” It is an answer applicable to many of my questions as a Coloured woman in South Africa, questions such as, “Who am I? Who are my ancestors? Where do I come from? What is my culture?” My parents cannot answer these questions because they do not know. Because these stories were silenced, were not passed on from one generation to the next, because no effort was made by the South African government to keep adequate records that would enable subsequent generations of my people to trace their lineage.

Is this, then, my heritage? Is my heritage one of, “I don’t know?” Will my heritage always be the stories that were silenced

…because of shame,

…because of fear,

…because of desires or urgency to be seen as one colour and not as another colour, in a desperate attempt to hold on to dignity when the South African government appeared to do everything in its power to strip my people, any people who were not White, of dignity

…stories silenced forever…lost, because those who knew them have died?

Khadija Heegers wrote a poem called “Suffering” (one variation of this poem can be found at, but this variation was performed at the an event called “songs worth singing, words worth saying, Reconciling through music and poetry in Cape Town); she says,

Suffering, – has a black skin

how am I to be

now that I am made of glass

and my words have no sound except for those uttered in the past

sometimes I am black

when politics parodies a truth

and quantity is king, sometimes I am black

sometimes only in the vagueist sense, do I have a history

a memory

a cultural reality.

easier to keep me in the dark,

easier to talk about the Indian ocean slave trade as if it was one of the stepsisters,

easier to say that I almost suffered

am almost one thing, not quite another

somewhere between here and there, between 1994 and the present

I was lost on the periphery of a South African story

because if memory serves the historical themes

it seems my people were not participants in the resistance

never marched

never fought

never died.

coloured anomaly, forcefully removed, survivors of slave ancestry

the sum total of my past coined thus and by degree I’m the

‘not so bad off’ progeny,

we won’t omit you completely we’ll just be selective and play with the lighting

so it won’t look so frightening

pieces of a story, just enough said so you’ll go quietly to bed and mind your manners

citizen ‘not quite black”…

As a Coloured woman in South Africa, is this my heritage?

But then a gentle voice whispers inside me… “No, this is not your entire heritage. This is not all of who you are.” And a memory slowly begins to surface… a story that I have owned, and told, one that was told to me, one that has become foundational in who I believe myself to be. In one word, this story is one of “overcoming”.

You see, I am a third generation in a line of women who have overcome no matter what life has thrown at them…

I am the granddaughter of a woman who survived a difficult and painful childhood, who married and remained faithful to an abusive and philandering husband, who lovingly raised three children, whose faith gave her the courage to endure and overcome…

I am the daughter of a woman who survived the challenges of her childhood, who remained faithful to a husband who became an alcoholic when life became incredibly difficult (but thankfully is now a recovered alcoholic), whose child-like faith kept our family together and carried us through many difficult, painful years…

Tina Schouw, a South African singer and songwriter, penned these words for a song entitled “beautiful woman”,

Oh sacred tribe of women past

You have circled me

You have blessed this child

She tells the story of the origin of this song in the cover of her album, “winds call”,

“beautiful woman was inspired by a dream I had where all the ancestral women on my maternal side came to visit me. In the dream they danced around me and blessed me. They told me to believe in myself and to honor my body and spirit. I believe that each of us is the sum of the women and men who have grown us on our journey through life. This song celebrates all women, past and present, who have grown and continue to grow us. It is a call to all women to recognize and celebrate their uniqueness.

This perfectly describes my unfolding awakening to my heritage. I am the daughter and a granddaughter of these two amazing women – my grandmother and my mother. Their faith and their lives gave me the courage to rise above

…early childhood experiences of sexual abuse

…adolescence filled with memories of an alcoholic father and family financial difficulties

…crippling self-esteem issues that fuelled the development of various masks in order to survive

…an diagnosis of infertility that plunged me into despair for a couple of years

Last year, I decided to go ahead with something quite uncharacteristic of me… I got a tattoo. And unbeknownst to me, I inked into my flesh what I am now realizing is the key to the question, “Who am I?” and the heart of another aspect of my heritage – overcomer.

My tattoo

My tattoo

So, today, I am embracing my heritage as one of suffering AND overcoming, a heritage that I will, along with all of South Africa, celebrate on 24 September, our Heritage Day.