Childhood

I started writing this as a comment on Janus’s post but got a bit carried away. As I did not want to hijack his, (I am considerate that way), I decided to write my own.

I have mentioned that I came from a large family. Living in the Tropics meant that the hours of daylight were fairly constant throughout the year. About 11 hours in winter and 13 hours in summer. In a farming community not a great deal went on after dark, especially during the week. We did not have television at home and so we spent our evenings together talking, reading and playing games. My mum taught us at home until the age of 10 when we were sent off to boarding school.

While at home during the term time, she would read to us. Each child, or pair of children would be designated a different book and an appropriate bed time. Babies went to bed about 6pm. Up to 6 years at 7pm, 8 years at, 7.30pm and 10 years  at 8pm. Approximately. Books included, Lorna Doone, Children of the New Forest, When London Burned, The Reign of Terror, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Winnie the Pooh,  Masterman Ready, Dog Crusoe, Big Tiger and Christian, to name but a few. For the most part they carried messages of sound Victorian values, with good triumphing over evil with the 7 ‘deadly’ virtues being held in high regard.

Discipline was maintained not so much by my parents, but by the elder siblings. They would ensure that the younger child did not usurp their bedtime privileges or infringe on their reading time. The threat of a thwack later was enough to send them on their way. On the whole we were very polite well behaved kids, though given a fair amount of freedom to misbehave. Respect for our elders and betters, coupled with honesty were the key values my parents tried to instil in us. Although my parents carried a big metaphorical stick, they seldom used it and I can only recall being beaten 3 times. Once by my mum and twice by my dad. Though in hindsight, I am sure there were other occasions. There were rules that became inviolate. No ragging after 6pm. No bouncing balls. No telling tales, (unless it was life threatening). No cheek to anybody 5 years older than you. Always offer food before you take, especially the last piece. Fight your own fights. Stand when a lady enters the room. Never, ever point a gun at anyone.

As one reading finished, so the child would be sent off to brush his or her teeth and then report back to say good night. Children’s supper normally took place at about 6.30pm and somewhere in between all this family prayers were said; all of us kneeling down and rattling off a few favourites with a couple of songs thrown in on special occasions or when my mum was feeling particularly happy or sanctimonious. Prayers always ended with a ‘God Bless….’ listing each member of the family.

My Dad used to make an appearance depending on how his day had been going, either before or after having washed and changed for dinner which, during term time, he usually ate alone with my mum. Most evenings he would switch on the wireless at 8pm to listen to the World Service news before going to eat.

During the holidays things were more relaxed and we tended to eat dinner as a family and go to bed later. Because the older children were back from school, more games were played such a bridge, racing demon, canasta etc. We also played charades and other ‘parlour games’ especially if friends were staying. But even during the hols, we tended to go to bed before 10pm. Our days were generally full and active and we were pretty shattered after a day of fishing, riding, shooting, destroying, (sometimes building), fighting, climbing, falling, exploring and above all blowing things up. Generally speaking therefore, we probably got about 10 hours sleep a day.

While we did not have television, our friends on the neighbouring farm did and we would occasionally go over to watch for an hour or two, during the holidays or at weekends. Under the circumstances, I find it rather surprising just how many programs I remember from those days. (I think that might be the subject of another post.) I believe the first program I ever watched was Sgt Preston of the Yukon. He had a dog called King and horse called Rex. In winter he travelled by dogsled and in summer on horseback. The opening voiceover was ‘Back to the days of the Gold Rush and Sgt Preston of the Yukon….’  Each episode ended with Preston saying to his dog, ‘Well King, this case is closed’. I recall my father and a friend of his asking me what I thought of TV and what the colours of the police uniforms were. As you can imagine, they laughed a great deal when I replied, aged 5, that they were ‘dark white’. The Magic Roundabout never made it to Rhodesia as far as I am aware.

Communal early morning tea was provided for the children at 6am in the dining room. My parents got theirs in their bed room. Prayers at 10 minutes before breakfast which was at 8am and consisted of porridge or cereal with brown sugar and cream followed by fried eggs bacon and tomato with fried bread. Kippers or kedgeree on Fridays. Coffee, hot milk, toast, butter and marmalade. Not a bad start to the day.

Lessons began at about 8.30 and my mum would have as many as 5 children in the school room. While the youngest was learning his or her ABC, the oldest was studying Algebra or French or something. Others might be learning the ‘times tables’, practising writing, tracing maps, reading history lessons (Our Island Story), learning spelling or a poem by heart for recital later, writing an essay etc. Breaches of discipline, grumpiness or general lack of attention were addressed by being made to do ‘star jumps’ while mum sang ‘Out in and out in and out in and out and in’ to the tune of a Scottish air, the name of which I forget. (Mr Mackie where are you?). This went on until the perpetrator/victim began to laugh.

My mother too was subject to boredom in the classroom on occasions. One sultry afternoon my elder brother spotted out of the window, a duiker, grazing in the field at the bottom of the house. He pleaded with my mother for the chance to go and shoot it, strictly for the pot and to make biltong. She agreed and while he grabbed the 16 bore shotgun from the cabinet, I armed myself with my trusty hunting knife and together we set off in stealthy pursuit of our quarry. A single shot and the animal fell to the ground. Quick as a flash I leaped forward and brandished my knife; the mildest boy to ever cut a throat. 15 minutes later and the buck was hanging in the larder and we were back at our desks to pursue our lessons.

Besides being read to by mum, we also were encouraged to read ourselves. We had an after lunch siesta for a half hour or so. Each of us was offered a prize of 10/- if we completed a ‘proper’ book ‘Stumps’, by Stella Austin on our own before the age of 7. We were allowed to read in bed and were generally responsible for turning out the lights ourselves. The general consensus being that we would fall asleep before long anyway. In the early days, we only had candles in our bedrooms. But this system of nocturnal illumination was followed by paraffin lamps and eventually, after several years we progressed to having a single bulb that would hang down from the rafter of the thatched rondavel. Luxury! We shared these rondavels, two to a room.

Clothing and bathing were rudimentary. For the most part we did not wear shoes except for Sundays when we would select a pair of sandals from a draw full of different sizes. As soon as mass was over and we were outside the church, the shoes would come off.  Shorts and tee shirts were the standard apparel, the majority of my clothes being hand-me-down. We bathed most days, hot water being supplied by what we knew as a Rhodesian Boiler. A 44 gallon drum over a fire with a link to a second drum full of cold water above it, supplied by a stop cock. It was generally very effective, though it did need the fire to be maintained by the gardener or kitchen staff. Occasionally it would over heat and boiling water would spew out of the escape pipe. Sometimes we would nick a piece of meat from the kitchen and braai it over the fire.

My mother was a fairly industrious woman. Apart from teaching us, she ran a dispensary from which she administered medicine and bandages to the various farm workers and their families. Even we as young children got to apply antiseptic creams to wounds or pass out aspirins to those with various aches and pains.

She also maintained an incredible fruit and vegetable garden that contained virtually any thing you can imagine. Plums, peaches, apples, apricots, quinces, oranges, lemons, tangerines, Tree tomatoes, Pecan nuts, Macadamia nuts, bananas, granadillas, strawberries, raspberries, young berries, mangoes, grapes, artichokes, asparagus as well as all the standard veggies. There was even an olive tree that once bore fruit, though never again. It was special treat for us to troop down together to the garden during the summer holidays, Christmas time, and pick plums and peaches in anticipation for the coming festivities.

7 thoughts on “Childhood”

  1. Thanks Sheona. Maybe you can work out the name of the Scottish tune. It features in one of the Highland reels, but I can’t remember which.

  2. Good God, sir! You mean you’ve never read Winnie the Pooh in the original Latin? “Ursus est, Pooh nomine….”, etc.

    Harrumph!

    OZ

  3. OZ, ‘fraid not, we were too busy reciting the Lord’s Prayer:

    “Pater noster, qui es in caelis: sanctificetur Nomen Tuum.”

    Then we would have to sing in our sweet treble voices:

    ‘Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu in mulieribus’

    Only then did we get to eat breakfast.

  4. Very well done Sipu, I’m sure you evoked a few memories there for those Charioteers who had a rural upbringing. You must weep for the old Rhodesia when you see what has replaced it

  5. Thanks OMG. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. I have stopped weeping, not that I ever really did. You see it was all so predictable. I think that most Rhodesians understood that in their hearts that it would crumble and everything we worked for would be destroyed. It is the nature of Africa. (See fable below.) We were only ever there on borrowed time. Rhodesia was like a person’s youth; magical, but destined not to last. But I still love it and would go back tomorrow if I could. To me it is the most beautiful country in the world with the most amazing climate. The people, black and white are delightful and the lifestyle is terrific, provided you have an income which admittedly many do not.

    In my view things can only get better there and when that happens, it does not matter how bad things are, you know tomorrow will be an improvement on yesterday. On the other hand it does not matter how good things are right now, if they are getting worse, life is depressing. A simple philosophy, but one that works for me.

    Anyway, that is my ambition. As soon as I can get the authorities there to give me residence, which they are not yet willing to do, I will return. I was not born there and as dual nationality was prohibited, it seemed safer to have British rather than Zimbabwean citizenship. Hence the problem.

    An African Fable:
    There once was a scorpion that wished to cross the Zambezi River. As it could not swim, it waited until a frog came by.
    “Please Mr Frog, will you not take me across the river on your back.”
    “Good heavens, no” replied the frog. “As soon as I am half way across you will sting me and I shall die.”
    “Why would I do that” answered the scorpion, “If you die, so will I as I cannot swim.”
    The frog saw the logic in this argument and so agreed to ferry the scorpion across the river. In the middle of the river, the frog suddenly felt a searing pain and realised that it had been stung by the scorpion.
    “Now we will both die” he gasped at the scorpion. “Why would you do such thing?”
    “That is Africa, baby. That is Africa.”

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