Friday, 26 May 2017

Teaching English in Al Quwayiyah, KSA

Review of our Saudi experience 

Saudi Arabia 2015

Information sheet for teachers who want to live and work in Al Quwayiyah

Employees, past and current, serves as the best references, publicity (positive or negative) or advertisement for a company that has employed them or that currently employs them. It is that time of the year again when recruitment is taking place for the August/September start of the Academic year. I have posted a video of Al Quwayiyah on YouTube, which is basically a PPT slideshow with pics, comments, and music. Many potential employees have asked me to elaborate on the video as this was the only resource they could find. After the third inquiry, I have decided to basically paraphrase my responses to them in this blog about our experience in Al Quwayiyah, KSA.

Al Quwayiyah souq


In 2015 we were part of the initial pioneering team to teach at a vocational college in Al Quwayiyah, Saudi Arabia. The town is about two hours’ drive from Riyadh city, in the moon landscape desert area of Riyadh province, a town that has seen foreigners for the first time to settle in their dusty outback Bedouin abode. My wife and I arrived as part of the second wave of teachers after 4 months since the inception of the project. We only stayed for 6 months. Like they say in the introduction of the TV show Law and Order: “These are their stories”. In fact, it’s just a brief review of what we experienced two years ago. I cannot speak for the present situation. Some of the issues may have been addressed in the meantime. I hope this can be a resource for potential teachers who would like to teach there.

I would like to list all the responses I gave to specific questions asked of me. I think from the answer the question would be obvious so I won’t repeat the questions:

At the front gate of the Al Quwayiyah male college campus during a sandstorm

ESG Saudi Arabia (Interserve) & the working environment

  • During our stay ESG ran the project, later on however, Interserve acquired ESG and it brought about many changes, some positive.
  • Upon our arrival at 11 pm at night, we were not shown to our chalet, as was promised and negotiated during our interview, but were put up in a room, with no en-suite bathroom. It was a shared bathroom that residents (colleagues) in the house had to share. We had to be up at 6 the next morning to start our new jobs. No induction, no time to adjust, we just had to fall into things immediately. Our case was not an isolated one. Another couple arrived and had to sleep on couches in the living room of one of the villas. There was no-one to welcome them or show them to their accommodation. They had to start their first day of work a couple of hours later. 
  • We left more than a year ago, and according to my knowledge has the number of teachers dwindled due the decreasing amount of students at both colleges in Al Quwayiyah. Esg Saudi Arabia has other colleges in Damam and elsewhere. 
  • The turnover rate for teachers was quite high....about 80% and very few last more than a year. The ESG philosophy is not Saudi culture friendly. ESG emphasizes attendance due to an agreement with the Saudi government that they only receive grants for students with an 80% attendance record. This puts a lot of pressure on teachers to try and keep students in class at all costs even ‘tweaking’ attendance registers. The female college had fewer issues with regards to attendance than the male college. Females see education as a growth opportunity, so they are super motivated as opposed to the males who are generally unmotivated. 
  • The Saudi culture is focused on friendship and hospitality and the way of reaching them is to respond to it by prioritizing relationship building first. There is a constant clash between westernised esg goals and student needs, within the Saudi cultural setting. 
  • Enrolment dwindled because the Westernized system was not met with enthusiasm by the Saudi students. The Bedouin culture is relaxed, it’s about relationships more than anything else. TIS...This is Saudi. You can’t or won’t change it. Adapt or leave. Interserve and ESG wanted to impose the British system of education, of goals and results and attendance. Students in Saudi cannot be swayed. If they want to pray at 12 noon, they will go irrespective whether they have a lesson or not. Therefore, the teacher is in a no-win situation, being pressured into getting students to attend, and getting blamed if they are not.
  • The students are wonderful. Saudi's are very hospitable and friendly. Win them over by respecting their culture and they will do anything for you.
  • I cannot say the same for most of the expat teachers. We experienced a lot of backstabbing and aggressive and self-serving behaviour from some of these expats. Remote sites that pay much attract weird and selfish types. 
  • When we were there we were some of the first teachers, and the project was still finding its feet. Needless to say that it was a hardship posting. I have worked in countries like Somalia and Sudan, but this was the most difficult, due to a very unfriendly and competitive colleagial environment. Instead of standing together and be friends in such a tough environment, there was a lot of back stabbing, hostility and competitiveness, the worst I have ever experienced.
  • We had to go through a lot of birth pains with and because of the company. The pay is good and we received our salaries on time, and were never short changed.
  • There was a lot of frustration with visas and distrust for HR. I hear that it has improved. We were employed on Business visas whilst they were attempting to get us Iqamas. They never succeeded. That is a whole different story. They made visa runs to Bahrain with our passports every month just to get things going. Lots of under hand dealings to keep us legal. It has probably become more organized and you won’t have to be exposed to that.
  • We used 'English first' text books, but had to supplement a lot with online resources. We were observed almost every month by either the principal or British inspectors and had to follow the strict lesson plan structure prescribed.
  • Ultimately it was not the culture that pushed us out, but an organisational culture. If you think you can handle it, I guess you should. If not, stay away.

Central Alquwayiyah

Saudi culture/religion & Al Quwayiyah

  • Al Quwayiyah is very remote and the Al Quwayiyah College staff the only expats in town.
  • The living arrangements are quite challenging. There are 3 compounds, the main compound consists of a big villa, mainly occupied by single males and chalets for single female teachers....on the same grounds, but separated by a gate. Every single male teacher had his own bedroom, but very few had en suite bathrooms. They usually had to share these. The main villa housed a couple of married couples. All the residents had to share a couple of communal kitchens, which created many blow outs and conflict situations. They built chalets for the single females on the same property. Whilst we were waiting for our villa to be built, we stayed in one of these. It was basically a one bedroom apartment with a very small living space outside that of the bedroom itself.
  • The second compound a villa with only single females and the third compound for the married couples. The compound for the married couples consists of 8 large apartments with their own private gardens. 
  • Saudi women are not allowed to go out on their own. They must either be chaperoned by other females in a group setting or by their husband. 
  • Western women don't have that restriction, BUT it is highly advisable that a woman do move in a group or with her husband. Just safer for everyone. 
  • Respect for the Arab/Saudi/Muslim culture is essential. Western women will have to wear an Abaya when you go out, whether in Al Quwayiyah or anywhere else in Saudi. Riyadh has religious police that will do something about it if you don't. The headscarf and hijab are not compulsory for western women, but it is good to cover as much of your hair. Blonde hair attracts attention.
  • You are to buy basic amenities and groceries in Al Quwayiyah, but Riyadh two hours away is the place if you want malls, clothing, imported western goods, a decent meal, etc. Riyadh has it all and ESG has a weekly bus to Riyadh for shopping. 
  • There won’t be much for small children in Al Quwayiya. They have corniche type parks where families go and walk and family restaurants where families can go. All the married expat teaching couples in Al Quwayiyah had no children with them. 
  • As a Christian I found it extremely challenging, not so much the culture and religion, but as stated earlier from colleagues. Remember that you live with these people on the same compound, you work with them and share even the same bus every day. If there are issues they are amplified.
  • The same bus used for Al Q excursions and trips are used for the Riyadh shopping expeditions. In my time, due to internal politics, and mostly a self-centred and self-absorbed bunch, an atmosphere existed on the bus. Eventually, we just got our own taxi driver to drive us to Riyadh and back. It was worth the 600 SAR expense for peace of mind.
  • Al Khobar is the better option, it's near Dammam and the Bahrain border, good for sanity breaks.

Main ESG teacher compound in Al Quwayiyah

To view a photo exposè of our stay in Al Quwayiyah

Wednesday, 24 May 2017


Families - God’s way of provision 

By: Henry Badenhorst

23 May 2017

We are family...

The TV series Hawaii Five 0 is a favorite of my wife and me, and we watch it repeatedly, not only for its great cinematography and beautiful Hawaii scenery, but also because we are drawn to the friendships and sense of family, or as they say in Hawaii, Ohana, that is evident among the team members. For the last couple of years, we have been going through a particularly rough patch with regards to relationships. Upon our return from Saudi Arabia, we have been unable to procure any employment in South Africa. There are various political reasons if one wants to make sense of it in worldly terms, but we believe now that God has stripped us of many worldly and materialistic things. He has placed us in an incubator, separated from others, to purify us, strengthen us and grow us. It has certainly been a humbling experience filled with pain and disappointment. We have lost our car, and since we have zero income, we stay with our parents, dependent literally for every physical need. For two people with 4 degrees between the two of them, being 43 years old, having to rely and depend on others again, like a baby, is challenging beyond words.

It is no surprise then that we lose ourselves in escapism, like watching TV. In particular, we have grown fond of Hawaii Five 0, because we can experience that which we lack with the characters of the show. So, what is this Ohana I referred to earlier on? We heard the term so many times that I went to investigate.

According to Wikipedia (online) is Ohana much more than just a word for family. It is not only used for blood-related family but also close family friends. It is part of Hawaiian culture. The concept Ohana emphasizes that families are bound together and that members must cooperate and remember one another. The term is similar in meaning and usage to the New Zealand Māori term whānau, and it's cognate in Māori is kōhanga, meaning "nest".

The cartoon character Lilo Pelekai in Lilo & Stich explains Ohana as follow: ʻOhana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind — or forgotten.” It reminds me of the Navy Seals code that no man gets left behind.... especially behind enemy lines.

What is the purpose of families? Why did God create families? I read this CBN (online) devotional, entitled “Successful Families” and I would like to highlight certain points the devotional made:

  • Families fail to measure up to the ideal picture of a family in many ways.
  • God gave us a picture of His ideal family (one that goes far beyond outward appearances, and one that reflects His special relationship to His people). 
  • The human family serves as a picture of God Himself. 
  • The family, in other words, is there to show people what our heavenly family will be like. It should be a shadow of things to come. The family is a sketch of what is in store for us in heaven. It is a place where you can discover the image of God.
  • A family is an example to believers and unbelievers alike of the love and acceptance we have from God.
  • Jesus referred to Himself as our brother. He said that anyone who does His Father's will is His brother and sister and mother (Matthew 12:48-50).
  • Scripture says that as children of God we become intimately related to one another (Romans 8:16) and that fellow Christians become our brothers and sisters.
  • A family should be a place where you can go, no matter what you've done wrong, and still be loved. It is a place of refuge and comfort. It is home is where you can find love, acceptance, and forgiveness.
  • Even though the prodigal son left his home, squandered all his riches, and everyone else turned away from him, his father still welcomed him home with open, loving arms (Luke 15:11-24). This is an example of the "everlasting love" of God (Jeremiah 31:3) shown in Jesus' death for us "while we were yet sinners" (Romans 5:8).
  • We are besieged with all kinds of pressures in today's world that can produce family conflicts. The world encourages divorce and separation rather than resolution of conflict. Satan is working harder than ever to destroy our families through these conflicts.

families that 'swim together' stick together

It is this strong desire for this kind of family that makes us watch this show repeatedly. I look at the close bonds they have with each other, the sacrifices they are willing to make to literally save each other’s lives at times. We are drawn by this unconditional love they have for each other, how their ‘little family’ comes first, how they are eager and willing to defend this relationship, how they prioritize each other. I watch the show and see all of that and then I draw the line through to our lives and I see a different reality. My reality is that I don’t have a blood family that is willing to accept me, comfort me, love me, forgive me or provide a refuge for me in times of trouble. Instead, they not only withhold these crucial desires, they actively attack, criticize, exclude and persecute you in addition.

If people behave toward each other in contradiction to what God prescribes; if family members say they are followers of Christ, but they disregard in totality God’s commands to love members of their family, can they claim to be Christian? If God is love, can someone say he loves God if he doesn’t even love his neighbor, not even mentioning his brother? Can we claim to follow Him if we neglect the intended structure within which He created us?
How then should we love? How should we behave towards our families?

I came across this very convicting scripture in 1 Tim 5:8: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” It hit me between the eyes. God states that our family, our blood is our first priority. Here is what Jesus said about prioritizing family:

  • Matthew 15:3-9 (NIV)“Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules’.

  • Matthew 23:23 (NIV) - “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former’.

Families are far from perfect....but they celebrate and accept their differences

Love, mercy, justice should outweigh traditions, rules, and religion. The family carries a higher weight than religion and traditions. Taking care of and loving your family is a prescription from God’s word and we cannot nullify it with our traditions and rules that are love-less. The instructions and commands found in God’s Word is based on two things, firstly love for God, and secondly loving your neighbor as yourself

So if God created families as a structure within which we should function, and if He commands us to prioritize these family structures as His will for our lives, why is the family structure crumbling in today’s modern society? Satan attacks the family structure, by bringing conflict, separation, and destruction to the unity of the family. Divide and conquer. The church as the spiritual family is attacked the same way, by creating division, the church would then be devoid of its unity and love, and is bound to fail.

My question is: Where is the concept of Ohana in our Christian family structures? If a society, like the Hawaiian culture, has a concept like Ohana by which they live, why is not so evident in the church and in Christian families. The Hawaiian culture worships spirits and honor forefathers, yet we as Christians can learn from them about love and family. We should be setting the example of true love, yet it is the Eastern and African religions that set the tone of what love and family is. Should it not be the church that communicates this concept to the world?

Even though it’s just a TV show, Hawaii Five 0 has created in me a longing for true family. A family that will stand by you no matter what, that will give you a place of refuge in times of trouble, instead of criticism; a family that will not leave you behind. It is commanded in God’s Word that families come first in God’s Kingdom. You cannot claim to love God if you don’t honor and love the family He has placed you in. You have a responsibility to take care of and provide for your family in need. If you neglect that command, you are worse than an unbeliever.

At this point, we experience a lot of caring ‘words’. “Go and be well fed my brother, I will pray for you” but there is no action to help and assist. Talk is cheap. Love is an action word. Jesus did not speak love only, He did things for people. He healed people, He provided when they had a need. Love is a verb. If you love others outside your family, but neglect to love those closest to you, you miss the point. You should be practicing the former without neglecting the other.

In the end, it was not my blood family that came to our rescue, but the family that I married into. They are not bound by blood, yet they show me kindness, love, and acceptance. They are obedient to the voice of God and His will for families. God placed me in a family that has accepted me because they are His children. God does place the lonely in a family. The sadness for me personally is that my own blood does not have the same unconditional love and care for me. Can they claim that they serve the same God as the ‘family’ that adopted me? It is not for me to judge. God’s word will judge us all in the end. I hope that if one of my own falls into a pit, and needs help, I will not fall short of his expectation to help.

If you are in a similar situation where you are being rejected and disappointed by blood relatives, who claim to be followers of Christ, but does nothing except criticize you, is my hope that you will fix your eyes on Jesus, the author, and perfecter of your faith. He will provide a family for you in your hour of need. So chin up. Forgive the Job’s friends in your lives, for they do not know what they are doing. You are part of God’s family. He is your source. HE is your Ohana.

He's my brother.....


CBN, 2017. Successful Families. Available at: [Accessed on 23 May 2017].

Wikipedia, 2017. Ohana. Available at: [Accessed on 23 May 2017].

Friday, 19 May 2017

Thrown to the snob wolves

Chapter 3 - Thrown to the snob wolves (1987-1991)

My parents decided not to send me to one of the local high schools in our feeding area. Some of the schools had serious social issues like teen pregnancies, kids leaving school early on, kids not getting matric exemption to enroll for university, etc. I won’t say that quality education necessarily lacked, but these schools were environmentally challenged areas with socio-economic problems. A lot of the girls I went to primary school with, became pregnant in these High schools.

My dad had a degree and even though we lived in Mountain View, we could not always identify with many of these families, with no higher education. They were mainly in the blue-collar working class; plumbers, electricians, and mechanics. I guess dad did not want me to be absorbed and swayed by this mindset and culture, so he decided to send me to a boarding school in Eastern Pretoria.

It was the Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool or more intimately known as Affies, an Afrikaans high school for boys, the oldest of its kind in the world. It was in January of 1987 that my parents took me to the school to enroll. It was before the start of school, that all the kids who would stay in the hostel, had to be at school, for induction and initiation purposes. I was confident and self-assured, not afraid to speak my mind, one might say very cocky.


The culture and traditions of the school dictated that all the grade eights had to undergo a yearlong initiation process. You are a bottom feeder, with the matric masters at the top of this hierarchy. This meant all sorts of emotional, mental, and physical abuse at the hands of the older kids, but most specifically the matrics (Grade 12’s). We were to call them ‘Master’ and we were each given a nickname, which you would carry for the rest of your schooling career at Affies.

I was given a particularly humiliating and degrading name called Quaffer. It was a compilation of two words: Qua-Qua, a place in the Free State, where only black people lived, and Kaffir, a derogatory name Whites used for Blacks in the old apartheid South Africa (now, of course, it is considered hate speech and politically incorrect, but in the eighties, it was not an issue). So, I was basically called a black person from Qua-Qua, and for the next five years, I was known only by this name.

Initiation or ‘Ontgroening’ as it is known in Afrikaans, was a practice in Apartheid South Africa, whereby newbies at all levels within organizations would be initiated in a debased manner, that would humiliate them, and put them into their place; that they are the bottom feeders, that they have no authority, and  that their only purpose is to serve those in the upper levels of the organization. It was practiced right through high school, University, Military service, and even at a junior level as an employee. It was the Afrikaner way to discipline you into ‘line’, to subdue you and make you submit. When you get to the top of the structure, you can do the same to ‘newbies’ that was done to you.

We had to serve our ‘masters’, meet all their needs, especially when you lived in the hostel, and you could not escape them. Each one had a master that he was responsible for, from warming the toilet seat for him during winter times to carrying his bookcase and making coffee. They could beat you and bully you whenever they wanted to, whether you were a good servant or not. One had to wear a huge box carton sign around your neck with your nickname and degrading information written on it, that you had to wear all over school so that you will be recognized as belonging to the lowest rank.

During break times, all the grade 8’s had to go to the hall, to get taught the traditions and culture of the school; the instructions on how to function within these rules and traditions, and to get rebuked for our ‘bad’ attitudes, arrogance and pride. We would then have to lift our bums up and down, slamming it into the floor, whilst sitting, and say repeatedly in Afrikaans: “Harde gat word sag”, which one can’t really translate. Literally, it means, hard bum (ass) gets soft, and it boils down to getting your bad attitude or arrogance fixed into a soft submissive state. 

It was a systematic ‘brainwashing’ cycle of making you into one of them, and in order for you to achieve this state, you had to be humiliated, broken down, and reshaped into their ideological sub-culture and traditions. It was certainly, a school for rich kids, with parents in the higher echelons of society, powerful, white-collar professionals, who certainly thought that they were better than people lower on the ladder. This mindset was passed onto their kids. Like the English would say, they were of better breeding and held a higher station in life than the rest, an Afrikaner nobility of sorts.

Grade 8 was like being in the army, the toughest year of your life, but you remember only the good stuff. However, there were abuses that some of us won’t forget. One night in the hostel, I was forcefully taken by a bunch of boys, thrown onto my bed. They held me down, pulled off my pants, and while some held me down, my pubic hair was shaven. It was extremely humiliating. The next day I had to play Rugby and it itched a lot for weeks to come, but it pales in comparison to the humiliation I suffered. One boy, nicknamed Potiphar, was forced to stand against a wall, while matrics would throw tennis balls at him. If he flinched or ducked, he would be punished.

House Pannevis

I was in house Pannevis, an old building far from the other hostel complex. It is an old building with huge rooms. We were thrown 10 boys into a huge dorm type room, five beds on the one side and five on the other. Every morning we stood inspection at 06:30, military style, with punishment if you failed it. Lights out were at 10 pm and if you were caught outside your bed, there were repercussions. At times you had to do things for your master, and if you didn’t you would be in trouble with him, but if you did and was caught by a teacher, you would be in trouble too. So it was a no-win scenario, and one could only choose the option of lesser pain because pain there would be. I spent a total of 3 years in the hostel, and my experience was that if you didn’t get corporal punishment during school hours, you would almost certainly get it at the hostel. It was sometimes even used as a preventative measure.

Punishment & Discipline

Today corporal punishment is unconstitutional, a degrading and humiliating punishment, but in those days it was part of our lives. You had to bend it like Beckham and taste the ‘rottang’ stick on your butt on a regular basis. Even the matrics had their own system and methods of punishment, so even if you did escape a teacher’s wrath, you would still be eligible to receive your punishment from the matrics.

In grade 8, I once got angry at the first rugby team captain for throwing me with water during break time. I pretended that I was going to hit him….still a bit arrogant at that time. He later found me and after deliberation with the matric disciplinary committee, they decided that I was to receive 10 ‘krokodille’ (lashes). This meant being picked up by a matric on his back, so that your back was exposed. Several matrics would then take the open sides of their hands and slap you as hard as they can on your back in quick succession. It was a traumatic experience for anybody who ever had to endure it. It was both extremely painful and debasing. Crowds of boys usually gathered as onlookers to the spectacle, and it felt like a public flogging.

Before important rugby matches, the school had a tradition, which entailed that everyone would simultaneously run away from school to close-by Magnolia Park, to go and sing songs, to build morale and unity before the big event. Even though it had been a 75-year tradition at that time, and teachers knew it was going to happen, we were threatened with punishment if we did. If you, however, stayed, your punishment, by the matrics, upon the return, would be a lot worse. So nobody ever stayed behind. This meant that upon your return, you would get 4 lashes from a teacher, another no-win scenario. It behooved you to uphold the traditions of the school, even if it was contradictory to school rules.


I was a relatively good rugby player but was always in the B-team in my age group. Our A-team, in three years, never lost a match and ended up winning the Transvaal Administrator’s cup for under 15’s. I would probably have played in the A-team at any other school, but in the big dam, I was just a mediocre fish. Seven of these players later became part of the Northern-Transvaal Rugby School’s team. Again I think I liked rugby because it was a team sport, where one had to work together to win. It was about the team and not the individual’s brilliance. I was not competitive enough.

The A-Team once lost a player due to injury, and the coach had to choose between me and another player in the B-team to replace him. We had a small try-out and Benito, my teammate was chosen over me. I just did not have the drive and aggression to win. In retrospect, I also think, that I was also conditioned, through bullying, to believe that I wasn’t good enough. Benito later played in the first team and received provincial colors. I, on the other hand, had an injury in Grade 12 and never even played rugby that year. In a rugby school, like Affies, that made a huge impact on your social status. First team rugby players were treated like gods by learners and teachers alike. 

Rugby match between Boys High and us - 1988

Teasing & Bullying

In a high testosterone environment, gentler boys were targeted, by more aggressive boys. Bullying was a common thing. Older kids bullied those on lower levels of the hierarchy. Stronger, athletic type boys picked on those more artistically and culturally inclined. Teasing and humiliation of the weaker boys took place, and learners were not the only culprits. I had a grade 9 Maths teacher who went out of his way to humiliate me in class every day. He shook my confidence so much that I eventually had to take Maths on Standard grade.

Boys who fit the profile were treated with more respect by teachers, whilst boys, who weren’t rugby or other sports stars, were sometimes even targets of teachers themselves. The traditional structure and hierarchy of the school, as well as the focus on being number 1 as the only acceptable place to be, forced mediocre boys back into their shells.

There were fights on the school grounds almost every break, and it was a huge source of entertainment. Boys were manipulated into fighting each other. They would say to one boy that the other boy said something bad about him, just so that there would be a fight. Fortunately, I knew how to stay out of it. I was not the fighting type at all. Only once, in grade 7 in primary school, was I involved in a tussle with another boy, which I won, but only after he pushed it too far.

There was one boy, in particular, Henri Rex, who had his knife in for me. He went out of his way to insult and humiliate me in front of others. To my regret I never challenged or opposed him, I just took it. I think in retrospect that many lost respect for me because I was not willing to fight him. Respect was earned violently at Affies and peacemakers or a ‘turn the other cheek mentality’, meant losing respect. Like a prison sub-culture, you had to beat respect into others. Eat or be eaten. Rex was a tough boy and one of the best fighters in the school, and even though in the same grade, a year older than me. I never stood a chance against him, but I regret not trying.

From early on in my schooling I was teased about my physical appearance. Some boys teased about my big ears, my feet, and my small eyes. There is and was nothing wrong with me physically, but kids are cruel and they take features and blow them out of proportion. I was very self-conscious at that stage, I guess like almost everybody else. It did, however, leave a mark. Due to these continuous remarks and insults, I came to believe that I’m not an attractive person. I had no girlfriends during my high school career, mainly because I did not feel good about myself. We had socials with the girl’s school across the street, and even though I could see some girls were interested, I never fully believed that I was good enough. I think this sums up the whole theme of my high school career. Over a five year period, I was systematically broken down by a sub-culture, in which I never fitted, up to the point where I believed that I was nothing, that I was not worthy.

Your socio-economic background determined your position in the social hierarchy of the school. As I came from the Western part of Pretoria, it automatically excluded me from certain social cliques within the school. One of the first questions I was asked when I started at Affies was: Where do you come from? I will never forget their expressions when I told them. After your background has been determined, you were categorized, assigned a status, and consequently either included or excluded. I was never truly accepted by the ‘elite’ in the school....and it had nothing to do with personality or attitude; I simply was not one of them, my dad was not a lawyer, a doctor or a government minister, and we did not stay in a fancy house in the East of Pretoria, nor did we drive luxury cars. My biggest shame and embarrassment was when my dad would drop me off at school on Monday mornings in our old beat-up 1977 Toyota Corolla. To reach the hostel, he had to drive quite a distance across the school grounds where the other boys were gathering. I usually did not know where to stick my head in. As we passed them I felt their stares and glares.

The naughty years

After 3 years in the hostel, I asked dad to leave. He complied and took me out at the end of grade 10. After a couple of months I regretted my decision and asked to return, but he refused. The early years in the hostel are actually the most difficult; it gets easier in later years as you gain seniority. I saw that my ex-roommates had a ball and I wanted to be part of it, but dad refused. I was now a day scholar and had to take 2 buses from Mountain View to Affies and two buses back home every day to go to school. It was a different kind of trauma. The buses had their bus bullies too, which made life difficult. It was also very time consuming, spending almost 3 hours per day waiting and riding on buses. It did, however, bring a certain amount of freedom. My two cousins Marcu and Francois, who came from Ermelo, moved to Pretoria in our Grade 10 year. They were for most of it a bad influence on me.

In our Grade 11 year, I increasingly slept over at their home in Centurion. Many times Marcu and I would, after being dropped off at school, board a bus into Sunnyside to go watch movies and eat out. Marcu and I both had part-time jobs at Pizza Hut in Arcadia, very close to Sunnyside. We worked at Pizza Hut for R 2.32 an hour on weekends and during holidays. I was a runner in the restaurant, assisting the waiters, while Marcu worked in the Take-away section. Marcu and I would bunk school and he would stick me for movies and eat outs at Wimpy. I just though his parents provided royally for him, and never complained. Later it was discovered that he stole money from the till at Pizza Hut and they fired him. I got his old job. One of the waitresses, later stole R 50 from my till. That day I worked a 16-hour shift, which brought my income to R37.12. I was responsible for the money in the till and instead of making money I had to pay in R 12.88. I guess I got a bit of my own medicine, as I was an unknowing and naive accessory to Marcu’s theft.

In that year I was truant more than 60 school days to go on these escapades with my cousin. We lived the ‘high life’ on stolen money, but we were eventually caught. My other cousin played truant on his own, so when they wanted to know about his whereabouts, they wanted to question his brother, who was being truant with me. So the school phoned my dad to ask where I was and he told the school that he dropped my cousin and me off at school in the morning. My cousin and I were playing video games and smoking at a cafe in Mountain View, when my dad walked in. He just waved us over and told us to get into the car. It was on a Friday afternoon, and we had to wait the whole weekend for our punishment at the principal’s office. It was to be four lashes on the buttocks. I stressed the whole weekend. On Monday morning I was called into the principal’s office over the intercom. My classmates laughed at me as I got up to walk the long and lonely road to pain. You could almost hear the words: “Dead man walking”. I took my punishment like a man, but needed to get out of the office as soon as possible, as my butt was on fire, so I hurriedly left not wanting to show the pain I was in.

In Grade 10 mom took me to a clothing department store, called John Orr’s, in central Pretoria to start a job she organized for me. I guess they thought I needed to stay out of trouble, have some purpose and earn a bit of cash on the side. It was my very first job. I was 16 years old, and I guess my mom thought that since she had to start working when she was 16, it was time for me to do the same. So every Saturday at 8 am I clocked in until 1 pm when my shift ended. I was a floor assistant and had to help the salespeople in fetching things from the storeroom and making sure that everything was presentable on the floor. After customers have gone through the lines of clothing and created chaos, I had to reorganize everything. Braam, a school mate, also worked there and we became good friends. Even though I had an employee discount on clothing, I once gave over to the temptation to ‘take’ some items. It was a once-off event, but it is something I always regretted.

When I was about 5 years old, my mother and I visited my great grandmother at the old age home. She had a ‘boyfriend’ Oom (Uncle) Pottie, whom we went to say hello to as well. While we were there, I saw his pocket knife and took it. Later I was found out by my mother and grandmother who gave me a good piece of their minds and punished me. In high school, my one cousin, Francois, went on shoplifting sprees, stealing anything from food to pop music cassette tapes. I never shoplifted as I was too scared to be caught, but I did enjoy the shared spoils. Fortunately, my ‘kleptomaniac’ days did no go beyond my childhood.

Trying to fit in

Francois and Marcu were both very attractive and popular boys. Francois was a good fighter at school and that gave him a certain status. Francois was expelled in our final school year and attended a different high school, a school with girls. He arranged wild parties during school hours at my aunt’s house, with girls and booze. During one of these parties, I got so drunk on house wine that I puked all over the place. At another party, I walked into Marcu’s bedroom while he was in bed with a girl. I’m not sure if their parents even know what occurred at their home, but I got the feeling that their parents allowed them a lot more leeway than mine. Both their parents smoked and drank socially, something that never happened in my conservative home. I hung out with my cool cousins, who gave me a certain status and acceptance in school with the cooler kids, but within that setting bullying and humiliation also took place.

Braam, my workmate at the Clothing store often invited me to join him during break times to attend Christian student meetings, but apart from attending here and there, I never really committed. I guess I wanted people’s acceptance. The irony was that the more I tried, the more I was rejected. I gave up my values to gain acceptance, and in the end, that didn’t even work. Acceptance was the most important thing for me at that time. I joined the smokers during breaks or after school to smoke cigarettes, which was against school rules, to be cool and be accepted. I even got an earring, which was very fashionable in the eighties, to show my commitment to be part of the group. Looking back, there were kids who wanted to be my friends, but I rejected them because they were not high up in the social structure of the school, because they weren’t cool enough; they could not offer me what I desired.  

The scars

In my final year, I faded away in mediocrity, too scared and emotionally bullied to attempt to stand out and excel. I made a silent vow that I would show them all how successful I would become, it became the driving force behind me. For a lot of successful kids, who excel in high school and achieve many things, life ends when they complete high school. They may have reached the ceiling too quickly. We have a saying in Afrikaans: Vroeg ryp, vroeg vrot”, which means that those who become ‘ripe’ too early, becomes ‘rotten’ early. As I ended my high school career at such a low point, I became driven to show everyone how wrong they were about me, how wrong they were to reject me. I came to resent rich people in general.

School photo - 1990

At my ten year reunion, it seemed that very little changed in a lot of boys. They were stuck in the high school phase of their lives. Many have reached the pinnacle of success at school and they lost the motivation to succeed after school. At the reunion the same boys who were in the cool clique at school gravitated together, still refusing to socialize with the ‘uncool’ kids. The irony was that many of these uncool kids became lawyers and neuro-surgeons, whilst many of the ‘cool’ kids could not even complete a college degree. They were stuck in this time capsule of earlier success, still riding on the wings of fame; still living in a world where they are still the cooler ‘kids’. Maybe their social status and stardom were so blown up by fellow students, the system and teachers, that they believed they were little gods. But as soon as they were released back into the real world of objectivity, where your birth and socioeconomic status don’t matter, they couldn’t cut it; they never learned how to survive in a tough environment.

Affies was to a large extent a nightmare; the trauma of the bullying and rejection still affects me to this day. It taught me to think of myself in a certain way, and my place in a social hierarchical system, where I need to know my place. To have been in a school where competitive success was the only real thing that mattered, that your personality, character, and heart was of no real consequence, de-valued me in totality. Success or worth was measured in physical terms, in worldly terms only. You were only a success if you excelled at or won in sport, academics, or culture. 

You only achieved social status and acceptance, if you were a winner. This was an environment where a sensitive kid with a good heart, who believed in teamwork and the upliftment of others; who believed that relationships supersede winning at all costs, could not thrive. Irrespectively, I was rejected and bullied because I was not cut out of the same ‘rock’ as they were. I was a foreign concept to them and they did not know how to deal with me. I was the wrong person in the wrong school, and I expressed this to my parents countless times, but they refused to listen and help.

When my brother went to Affies after me, he was the anti-Henry; he gained standing and acceptance because he was successful at everything the school deems successful; good at sport, academics, arts, and culture. My parents gained social status and standing in the parent community based on my brother’s successes. He was competitive and he won, and the school, its traditions, and culture of winning were promoted. That is until he developed the Koksaki virus and could no longer compete; he also faded away in mediocrity.

I am however grateful for the things I unconsciously learned during my painfully traumatic time at Affies. I learned to be strong in adversity, and to persevere under trial. It became the foundation of my motivation to make a success in the real world. Adversely, it had an effect on my social development. Single-sex schools pose certain challenges. At university, I initially struggled to relate to females. I felt socially awkward and did not know how to approach them. These are all important skills one learn during one's development in a mixed gender school. I did my military service after school, which was also a single-sex set-up, so I was 19 when I first had to deal with women in my teens.

Do I regret my time in Affies? I think I never reached my full potential at school, and that will always be tragic, but I did have good times too and wonderful memories. Would I be part of it again, if I had a choice? In retrospect no, but I can see the hand of God in all of it, that He allowed me this painful process, so that I can be the person I am today. It shaped me and molded me for better and for worse, but I think mostly for the better. God was with me in that horrible situation of rejection and fear, like he was with Joseph, and like he, I survived. I want to take the good from that and also understand, that similar to Joseph’s dungeon experience, my experiences in the school, served as a ‘school’ in preparing me for the life that laid ahead.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Growing up in Mountain View



After many years of constantly moving about, dad managed to get a loan from the bank to purchase a house in a suburb called Mountain-View. I was 6 years old at the time and of school-going age, so I started school at Bergsig primary (Bergsig is the Afrikaans for Mountain View). Mountain View was mostly a blue-collar Afrikaner suburb to the West of Pretoria.

The dividing class line in Pretoria exists to this day, dividing the East and West of Pretoria. White collar professionals, who are more affluent, predominantly make up the East, whilst the West of Pretoria is characterized by less affluent blue collar communities. One could say that my neighborhood was middle class, but those in the East would claim that it was less. The people were honest, hard-working folk with values who worked for their money. It was a strict conservative community with regards to both politics and religion, and devoid of snobbism.

My brother and I with my dad in our garden - My brother's first day of school

I had a very good childhood here. My parents stayed in the same house for 18 years and it provided stability in my life. I had a typical middle working class childhood. Looking back, these were some of the happiest times in my life. I went to one school, one church and had one group of friends. The constant moving about earlier on, was gone, and I was able to grow strong roots and cultivate deep relationships.

I met my first best friend, Johan Becker, with whom I am still friends, here. The first memory of Johan is when his mom brought him over to our house for my 7th birthday party in 1981. The theme for my party was cowboys and crooks, so we all had toy guns that we chased each other around with.

Cowboys & Crooks Birthday party: Left to right back row: Johan, Ian, me, Marcu & Zirk
Mountain View - 1981

Voortrekkers - good friends & adventures

Johan was a Voortrekker (an Afrikaner version of the Boy scouts), so it was inevitable that I would join too. In our age group, there were 5 boys, and we formed a troop, the Springbokke. Together, for the next 7 years of our primary school education, we formed a close bond, a ‘gang’ of boys that experienced many adventures.

The Voortrekkers held regular outdoor camping ‘retreats’ where one have learned survival skills, how to live in the outdoors, about the Afrikaner cultural heritage, about plants and animals, etc. However, boys being boys, we just looked for ways to escape the rigors of home life and have an adventure. There were girls in the Voortrekkers too, so we relished the opportunity for interaction with members of the opposite sex.

Our troop had a reputation of being difficult and naughty and we regularly received a new adult officer, due to the fact that the others quit all the time. Outdoor camping is, of course, the perfect breeding ground for pranks that we played on others. The Voortrekkers also did not believe in luxury camping or comfort. I remember countless cold nights spent in old army tents, which had enough ventilation to let an elephant slip through. The camps had a military ring and set up to it with strict discipline and hardships attached to it.

The Voortrekkers were the youth movement of Afrikaner Nationalism and idealism. It certainly was not inter-racial or inter-cultural. I don’t even think we had English speaking whites in our midst. The Afrikaner cultural identity that came along with the ‘Groot-Trek’ was imprinted onto our young minds. Like the Nazi’s we sang songs of Afrikaner historical suffrage and victory despite adversity. Afrikaner nationalism and pride were promoted. Even though it was a cultural society, it served as the breeding ground for right wing political ideology and Apartheid.

We wore uniforms, stood parade and learned to march like soldiers. We queued for food like soldiers and ate with outdoor utensils that we were responsible to clean ourselves, to avoid jippo guts. We slept on the ground in sleeping bags and had cold showers en-masse in ablution blocks. The structure and routine were good for me and prepared me to a certain extent for military service later in life.

I never joined or participated in its ideology. I was in it for the adventure, friendships, and camaraderie. Join the navy and see the world, they say. For an Afrikaner kid in the 80’s, this was my navy. Dad made me do gardening or other chores on Saturdays when there was not an Athletics meet at school, so if the Voortrekkers had a camp on a weekend, I would grasp at the opportunity to skip on these responsibilities.

Since the age of 6, mom paid for tennis lessons. I became quite good and the coach said that I had the potential to achieve provincial colors. I had to sacrifice my time in the Voortrekkers and friendships in order to do this. As I never had a competitive spirit, valuing friendship and relationships more, I chose the Voortrekkers. My brother, on the other hand, showed more potential and had a more competitive temperament. He achieved provincial colors not only in Tennis, but also in Athletics. He sang in youth choirs and competed in art and cultural competitions. He even did better at school than me. Friendships and adventure kept me happy. I was the one who wanted to help everyone to succeed.

Mom and dad spent a lot of energy and resources to support my brother. The focus on me to excel, shifted onto him. He became our family’s superstar, he was talented, gifted even, and he had the hunger and temperament. They supported him, encouraged him, and lived their dreams through him. He had training, coaching, and competitions all over the place, and they were all driven to make sure he succeeds. Later, when he was in grade 9, he developed Koksaki flu (Burn-out) and he had to give up most of these things. The point being, I feel that I never got their full affection or attention, as I did not have the same drive to excel at something.

Sometimes Dad took me fishing on a Saturday. He had this old blue truck with a canopy at the back. Sometimes we would even overnight at the fishing spots, sleeping in the back of this old truck. My friends went to movies, and I was stuck at a dam fishing with my dad. He enjoyed the quiet, but I being restless, grew easily bored. Sometimes we spent the whole day at a lake and catch nothing except a sunburn. I did not have the patience to cast a line and wait to hook a fish. Looking back I see the efforts made by my dad to connect with me, but gardening and fishing did not really speak to my heart, at least when I was a kid. Now a fishing expedition seems like bliss, but all I wanted to do was to hang out with my friends and see ET and the Karate Kid.

My brother and I at an airshow - Wonderboom

Friday nights I usually reserved to stay over at the Beckers, Johan’s family. He was one of three brothers. They had a VCR and Cable TV, things we did not. They were in the habit to eat takeaways on Friday night, usually Viennas and Chips.  My mum was at one stage a bit of a health fanatic and these delicacies came few and far between in our home. So many a Friday night I would sleep over at the Becker’s. Sometimes the rest of the troop would have a sleep-over at his house, where we would stay up the whole night to watch 80’s movies and eat sherbet. In comparison to the conservative home I grew up in, this was utopia.

Favoritism & Rejection

Weekends not spent at either the Voortrekkers, Athletics meets, or fishing with dad, were spent at the Bushveld farm where my grandmom still lives. It was never a true joy for my mom. She simply was not married to the right brother. My dad, upon arrival, would pick up his gun and would disappear into the veld to hunt….or as I later realized, fled the scene. My mom was left with us at the house with the rest of his family. She saw how my grandmom favored my father’s siblings and their children, and even though dad was the eldest, she experienced their rejection of him and his family. My brother excelled at sport, cultural activities, and academics. My grandmother simply would not acknowledge him or his achievements. At one stage, my two cousins were in the same school than we were. At an athletics meet, my grandmother attended, my brother, came first, my cousin only fifth. She cheered and made a big fuss of my cousin’s achievement, while simply not even congratulating my brother.

This favoritism was so obvious that everybody made jokes about it in the family. Of course, they were all laughing about it. We did not laugh as we were the victims of this rejection. Today, there is almost no relationship between my grandparents and my family. My dad only communicates with his mother out of respect, not out of a relationship. The rest of the family still regularly goes to the farm on weekends and holidays, but we no longer go. My grandmother has made it clear that we play no important part in her life.

The child my grandmother and step-grandfather adopted, became everything. When my great grandmother was still alive, she set the tone for high moral standards. My mom’s dad was an alcoholic to an extent, and he was never invited to visit the farm. After my great grandmother’s death, there was a moral decline. My adopted uncle had drinking parties in the veld with all his college buddies, they held paintball tournaments in the veld, for so-called charity. He even built himself a house in the bush, which in effect was only a glorified bar and pass-out facility for his college buddies. There is a giant heap of beer and liquor bottles on the farm as a testament to this decline.

There are a lot of double standards. My step-uncle, even though he is not a blood relation, was favored above my brother and me. Today my grandmother talks with such love of his little family, even though they are not blood relatives. She will come to Pretoria and visit my step-uncle and other uncle and their families, but would not inform us that she is coming. In my 43 years, she has visited us exclusively only twice. Yet she visits the rest of my family and stay-over at their homes on a very regular basis. She doesn’t even want to hide the fact that she is doing it. In this very difficult time that my wife and I are both unemployed for a prolonged period, she has not made one single effort to assist or to encourage us, yet she has such a passionate love for those who are not blood relatives.

My grandmother on the family farm - Doornfontein

I don’t have a problem with adopted family being equal to blood relations, but surely they are not to be favored above that of blood relatives. That has been the theme of my experience with my family, that even though you are the heir and son, you have to make way for the adopted one. Does this make sense? Will any real parent who loves his children, discard them in exchange for an adopted child. The right answer is surely that you will love them both equally. One may even understand that one may favor your blood over that of an adopted child. What cooks my noodle is how one favors an adopted child above that of your own flesh.

The big theme revealed to me, is that of rejection. I was rejected not only by my father’s family, but also my mom’s family. With the exception of one of my mother’s sisters, they have also rejected me. They will, of course, deny it at all cost, but being a sensitive person, actions, body language and facial expressions speak louder than words. People cannot lie to me. Their mouths may utter one thing, but their true intentions are as clear as daylight. Mom’s family did not really like my dad, and I, being his look-alike, was rejected.

I was accused of being a snob. Dad decided to put me in an Ivy League school, a posh fancy boarding school, one of the best in South Africa. It was their excuse to exclude me now, because I am better than them. They projected their thinking onto me. I was only a boy. I did not think I was better than them. In fact, during that time I needed my family the most. I distinctly recount things I told my mom, how much I desired a relationship with my family. I had the heart and desire to connect with them. They rejected me first and then had the audacity to pin the rejection on me. I have experienced this countlessly in my life, where people reject you, and then turns it around and blames you for their rejection of you.

It was then not surprising that I favored friends more than family. I made use of every opportunity to withdraw from family events and relationships, because I could not deal with the rejection, and secondly being blamed for their rejection of me. Voortrekkers became that vehicle in which I could escape. In that ‘family’ setting, I had real friends, who wanted to spend time with me, who made me feel wanted and special. Apart from its ideology, the Voortrekkers, gave me a childhood of friendships and adventures, which to this day remain some of my most memorable.

Primary School

Life in Bergsig Primary was very normal. I was a sensitive and gentle boy, who wanted to get along with everyone. It was not a school filled with kids from white-collar families. The socio-economic setting of the school almost ensured that there would be tough kids at school. I was not a small kid, but I was not very aggressive. This allowed for periods of bullying. Fortunately, I had my troop, and I was a very likable boy. I did not want to compete, I just wanted to love people and see that they succeed. I was also the class clown and a bit of a drama queen that entertained kids, so I was not targeted very often.

I recount the incident of twin boys, a couple of grades above me, who lived nearby. They walked the same route to school as I and they made a point to hurt me when they could. They were quite big physically, so it was traumatic. Not willing to play the victim role very long, I informed my mom. She took me by the hand, walked over to their home and spoke to their dad. They never bullied me again.

I had awesome caring teachers, and to this day, they stand out for me as the best teachers I ever had. There was Miss. Barnard my fifth-grade teacher, who made a huge impression on me, who did not try and discipline the dramatic sensitive side out of me, but taught me that it was okay. Instead, she harnessed my talents, and she picked me to play a leading role in a play in seventh grade. The play was in Sotho, a native South African language. I had to appear in only shorts, painted black from head to toe, to play the father of the boy who ran away. All the dialogue was in Sotho. The play was a huge success.

School photo of me - I guess I'm about 9 or 10

Mr. Voight, even though a very strict teacher, was an excellent English teacher, the best I ever had. He gave me a position of leadership in his class, making me a group leader. He would give each group five minutes to prepare for impromptu plays that we would perform during class time on the netball field. It was highly entertaining.

Then there was Miss Nell, my Afrikaans teacher, who did not take my class disrupting nonsense, but gave me structure. She would give me jobs of responsibility and purpose to keep me busy. I was responsible to usually go and fetch her toddler son from the kindergarten a couple of blocks away in the afternoons. Later they became house friends of ours.

These teachers weren’t teaching at the smart private schools, they gave their talents to kids in a less privileged community. They had the competence and ability, and I guess some even the opportunity to teach at ‘better’ schools, but the chose to stay, and provided us with a quality education. Later when I did attend the prestigious boarding school, I was in some respects ahead of my classmates who received a so-called first-class education.
My seventh-grade year was the highlight of my school career. I participated in most school activities, even excelling at some. I received a lot of awards for my academic performance, played in the first rugby team, was the number one tennis player, was relatively popular and had good friends. I was a big fish in a small pond. When I later had to leave this small pond for a much bigger pond, it was a big and humbling adjustment.

A good story always contains an element of love. I was smitten with a girl in the same grade as me, Elzabe Bezuidenhout. She had short golden hair and blue eyes the color of the Mediterranean Sea. She lived a couple of streets above us and she was in the Voortrekkers with me. She had a sort of arranged boyfriend, Hennie, in a grade above us. Their parents were in the military and the two families spent lots of time together. From grade 5 onwards, when I fell in love with her, there was no-one else. There were girls who liked me, but the one I loved, eluded me. On the very last day of primary school, when I was leaving that community to attend a boarding school away from home, she waited for me after school and told me that she liked me too. As I was probably never going to see her again, I told her I’m leaving and that nothing can come of it. I was not to attend the same high schools than all my classmates. I was the first one, and the only one to attend this prestigious boarding school, and her acceptance came far too late. She was the first love of my life and I was totally infatuated with her, but at that time I had no choice but to move on.

My classmates from this very small blue-collar class primary school resented me for going to this ‘snob’ school in the East of Pretoria. It was at that point that most of them severed their relationships with me, accusing me of being a snob. Little that they know that their rejection of me, would not be the only pain I would have to endure. As I was from Western Pretoria, I was never truly accepted by my newfound ‘friends’ in the new boarding school. Rejected by both sides, my high school career was not one of outstanding success and good memories.

Mom's studies

In my fifth grade, mom decided to get a college education. She was crazy about gardening and decided to study horticulture. She had to enroll full time and consequently could not earn an income. Dad had to be the sole breadwinner and we went through a financially challenging time, where there wasn’t much money for luxuries. My grandparents on the farm frequently gave milk and meat in order to help.

Mom, my grandparents, my step-uncle and my brother and I - Mountain View (1985)

Mom was a hard worker and a straight-A student. She put in a lot of hours, burning the candle sometimes through the night, in order to do well. The diploma she enrolled for consisted of an 18-month theoretical element and a consequent 18-month practical element, where she had to work for slave wages for landscaping companies and nurseries. I remember that she was under a lot of stress, there was only one chance to succeed, and she did.

During this time, she also had to deal with losing both her parents and her brother in the span of a year. My grandmother on mother side, the sweetest and kindest lady I ever knew, went first. My granddad developed some motor neuron disease shortly before her death. He could not speak and his mobility was limited. He had 10 children. Some were willing to look after him for a period of time. In his final year, however, he came to stay with us. After school, in the afternoons, I read him the newspaper. He became very aggressive due to his feigning powers. He could only make sounds, and Lettie, our maid, and I struggled to understand. So he used a note pad to communicate, but his handwriting was worse than that of a doctor, he would hit us with his cane out of frustration. Even though my mother never spoke of it, it became clear that he was physically abusive towards his wife and children. In later years my dad confirmed this fact, even telling me of an incident where my granddad attempted to assault him personally.

Lettie played a huge role in my life. She was my substitute mother when mom was at work. She brought us up with love and discipline; tough but fair. She was illiterate and uneducated, yet she was full of wisdom. She was a pillar in her community and someone people looked up to. She was always smiling and laughing, except for the times when she got really angry at us being naughty. If I really went too far she would take a wet washcloth and give me a hiding, like any mother, would do. She worked for my family for 30 years and became part of our family. In order to be at work at 7 am, she had to wake up at 3 am and board several buses and trains to get to work. In the Apartheid years of the ‘Struggle’ against white oppression, she had to endure intimidation and threats. Blacks who wanted to go to work were intimidated, had their houses burnt, and the trains and buses that took them to work, were set alight, to boycott the white regime. 

She faithfully, with great personal danger to her safety and sometimes at a cost, came to work for very little money to sustain her and her 5 kids. She saw us a lot more than her own children, yet she never resented us for it. Mom was kind to her and her little family, giving clothes and food when she could. She held a Christmas party for them every year. Lettie would bring all her kids and mom treated them with all the luxuries, treats and gifts, they as black kids, had very little of. To this day, she has never seen the ocean, and it is still my dream to one day take her. I have never seen her unhappy, she was content with very little and despite her hardships, always had a joyful and positive outlook.

Lettie took us to school every day. When my brother was small, she carried him on her back to Kindergarten, the same as black people do with their children. She made sure we had our meals until mom and dad would get home from work. She cooked the dinner for our family, she cleaned, did the laundry, ironed the laundry, and even did gardening at times. She took the initiative and did not wait for instructions from mom. When she saw the problem, she fixed it. It became her home and household; mom only had to ensure she had everything she needed to do her job and pay her at the end of the month. I think we were extremely blessed and fortunate to have her. 

Lettie - 2012

Many other white families struggled with getting and keeping maids that were reliable, competent and trustworthy. Then, on the other hand, many white families treated their servants with disdain, disrespect and a racist attitude. My mother and father treated Lettie with the utmost respect; it was a two-way street. Lettie, in her lifetime, never took anything from us that was not given to her. Mom and dad trusted her with our lives and well-being. My family owes her a big debt of gratitude.  Later her kids became my mom’s employees when she ran her own landscaping company. They were the best workers, honest and reliable; they had a mother who raised them with these values.