Arts & crafts

Stories of remembrance: Thandeka and us

29 Dec 2022 | Written by By Elsa Browne

The Joy Club member Elsa Browne, born in Durban, recounts her childhood stories from growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa…

I clearly remember the day Thandeka took us to her kraal for the first time, I must have been about four or five years old. It was South Africa, early 1950s in a town near Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Segregation was in place, but it did not yet have a name, nor was it written up in law or did I have any understanding of it. 

My fast-and-loose father had sired three children in quick succession and moved on. My mother – of course – was beautiful, and devoted to the three of us (she really was, lucky for us). After my father had left, we returned to the small town where my maternal grandparents lived and moved in with them for a while so that my mother could find her feet (and “office work”). 

My grandparents, being strict Calvinists, must have been quite shell-shocked at the collapse of their eldest daughter’s marriage, especially when she returned home to them with three small children, barely one year apart in age. But they welcomed us with open arms and an abundance of love. All of which made for a relatively smooth transition for the children involved. 

Amongst my clearest memories of that time is sitting outside on warm summer evenings on the wide, neat grass verge outside the garden gate. I’d marvel at the way the local Zulu women could sit with their backs ram-rod straight and their legs stretched out in front of them whilst crocheting away and chattering in competition with the mynah birds in the tree overhead.

From regular inquisitive visits to Thandeka’s ikhaya in our garden, I knew how important those ecru coloured crochet doilies were carefully arranged over the faded candlewick bedcover in that spotless room, each leg of the narrow bed raised on two bricks so that the tokoloshe could not reach her at night. The neighbourhood men – gardeners all – would be there on the grass verge too, playing soothing, repetitive rhythms on guitars made from cooking oil tins and thin strings of wire. Still now, that sound is in my head. When the light faded, we would reluctantly respond to the call from the front door to come inside.

Soon my mother found an 8 to 5 job in the local municipality and she would sashay up the road in the morning in her heels, turning to wave goodbye as she left us with my grandparents. After a while, a problem arose. My grandparents wanted to visit their other daughters some distance away as they did each year, but who would look after the three of us during the day when my mother was at work? An arrangement was made with Thandeka to be nanny as well as domestic help; extra pay was agreed. This was good, she was nice to hang around with and, besides, we liked sharing the lunch meal of spicy cabbage, samp and beans from the big pot on the stove. 

To our surprise, not long after the new deal was in place, with my mother at work and my grandparents away, something seemed to be up. Thandeka straightened the house up in record time. With the three of us dressed and taking my brother by the hand whilst nudging us two girls forward impatiently, she explained that we were going out for the day: Woza! Hamba phambili! Excited, we followed her out of the back garden gate and to the edge of the neighbourhood where the road became sandy, houses disappeared into the distance behind us and there was no more grass verge to walk on. We didn’t stop, as we might do on other days, when we walked to the shop so that Thandeka could exchange greetings with other workers in the street. Today, we were on a mission. 

Into the bush we went where she pointed out a chameleon tentatively crossing the path with an Ayibobo, giving it a wide birth, I think she was scared of it. She carried a stout stick with her. Pushing on, we picked up a track and before we crossed a small stream, she heaved my brother on to her back and tied him on firmly with an old towel that had been tied around her waist. An adventure! He soon fell asleep.

Following the track through the bush, Thandeka ducking for low hanging branches, we came across more and more people that – now in a more relaxed mood – she stopped to greet. From the many gestures and giggling, we deduced that she seemed to be offering explanations as to why she had these uMlungu children with her. 

The track widened and Thandeka slowed down, we had reached a village of mud rondavels. Children were happily playing with sticks and old bicycle wheelrims, chickens were scratching and clucking in the dust and a wondrous sweet smell of woodsmoke filled the air. There was a goat tied up!

A fat toddler ran to Thandeka with glee and she picked him up and swung him in the air before hugging him close. Adults greeted her with wide smiles, talking rapidly in Zulu. We were all the centre of attention. We thirstily drank weak orange cordial offered in tin mugs and shyly joined the gang of children who welcomed us openly. Soon we were engaged in the games they were playing and worked up an appetite for the lunch-time meal.

As it was the custom in our own house, she bade us to rest for half an hour after lunch which meant entering the cool, dark interior of the circular hut to lie down on grass mats, inhaling the smell of thatch and woodsmoke. We were as dusty as the village children and just as happy too.

Comfortably home before my mother, we awaited her return from work, scrubbed and dressed in our cotton pyjamas, our bodies tired and our minds filled with the thrilling events of the day. Those events spilled out of our mouths and into excited accounts to our mother and – once she got over her initial surprise – with her being the free spirit that she was, she gave her blessing for our unusual daycare arrangements and this was the first of several trips to Thandeka’s kraal on the outskirts of the town where we grew up, circumstances permitting (when our grandparents were away).

And so it remained: a glorious secret. 


Glossary of Zulu words:

  • Kraal – homestead
  • Ikhaya – domestic worker’s quarters
  • Woza – come!
  • Hamba phambili – move along (in this context)
  • Ayibo – an expression of fright or amazement
  • Umlungu – White people
  • Rondavel – A round thatch dwelling

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