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I always loved the smell of fresh cow dung. Some families preferred mud, but we always used dung. To keep the floor of our hut tidy, we would rub in a new layer of manure every week. I’d sit on my knees and spread the dung in wide circling movements and then press and rub it in until the floor became all smooth and shiny. There wouldn’t be a speck of dust on it! To this day, I love that rich, earthy smell.
Our rondavel, or hut, consisted of just one round room made from mud blocks with a thatched roof. It needed constant maintenance. When a mud block would split, we had to smear in fresh mud to patch it up. When the roof started leaking, we would gather green twigs and then have somebody bend them into form and weave them onto the thatch where the hole was. All the families had to do that.
We didn’t need much furniture. All we had were a couple of tree stumps for chairs, which my dad would cut according to the children’s varying heights, and a pillar post with cracks, where we would stick our spoons and knives. That was very practical because the knives could be stuck in high enough so that the smallest children couldn’t reach them. In the center of the hut was the fireplace with a large cooking pot over it. Rondavels typically didn’t have windows, and since the fire was going much of the time, it was always pretty smoky.
We lived outside a place called Harding in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, just about fifty miles from the coast. Today, Harding is a small town with a number of shops and even a golf course, but back then it was pretty rural. My mother gave birth to thirteen children. I was the twelfth. The baby who came after me died as an infant, so I was the youngest in the family.
My mother’s name always makes me smile: Mancini, which means “small girl.” When I think of Mancini, my heart opens wide.
Shortly after giving birth to her last child, my mother died. Of course, all of us children had been born at home. I don’t know if there even was a hospital, but if there was, people were too scared to go. The bleeding from that last delivery never really stopped, I was told, and my mother eventually died from anemia. I was three and a half years old.
I don’t recall her face, but I am very lucky to have a photo I can remember her by. It shows a tremendously kind face with large dark eyes. It is also fortunate that she had a twin brother who looked just like her, so I could always see a bit of her in him. She was from the same area I grew up in and was one of nine children. My relatives spoke of her with great fondness. Though she wasn’t educated, it seems she was a kind person, quiet and loving, ready to help wherever and whenever she could. She not only took care of her own children but also looked after other people’s, just to help out. And she worked very hard to support our family. Besides running the household, she baked and sewed and did other handwork for ladies who were getting married, and she also did the washing and ironing for a nearby farm. It couldn’t have been easy for poor Mancini. She had married young, probably at age sixteen or seventeen, and by the time she passed in her early forties, seven of her children had already died. But the people she left behind remembered a woman who was dearly loved.
My father wasn’t an easy man to live with. He drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney. He spent virtually all of his money on alcohol and dagga, cannabis. When I was old enough to climb onto a horse, I often had to ride out in the middle of the night to fetch him from wherever his drinking spree had taken him. I would find somebody to lift him onto the horse, and then I’d walk the horse home. He wasn’t a bad person, and he was a very loving father, but he’d just had some bad luck in life and no skills to deal with it.
My mother had been his third wife; the first two had also died. Since he never had much of an education and jobs were hard to come by in the Harding area, he had to go to work in the diamond mines outside of Johannesburg. He really tried to provide for us, but after just a few years, the dust of the mines got into his lungs and he developed pneumoconiosis. I think he already had asthma, and when he contracted the lung disease, it left him physically crippled and unfit for work. The mining company promised him a disability grant of five shillings every three months and sent him home. So there he was, just sitting at home, unable to work or keep himself busy. It wasn’t good for him and soon he started to develop bad habits. When I was maybe ten or twelve, I asked him, “Why are you drinking? What do you get from being drunk?” and he said, “It’s how I am consoling myself for all the hard times I’ve had.” To lose three wives so early in life, to see thirteen of your children die (all six children from his first wife), and to have your health ruined while trying to feed the remaining children was more than he could take.
After my mother died, distant relatives took the youngest of my brothers, and my oldest sister took care of the rest of us. But pretty soon my sister got married and left the house too. Then the next sister left to work someplace. One after another, all my siblings moved away, and by the time I was six I was left alone with my dad. He decided that it was best for us to live closer to his sister, so he built a small hut not too far from her place. I think he wanted her to help raise and feed me, but my aunt had children of her own and she too was very poor. Often there wasn’t enough food for everybody, and my aunt couldn’t help us out. With my dad out drinking all the time, I was pretty much left to fend for myself. It was time for me to grow up, and to do it fast.
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