My Nanny, Sarah

My first few years of life were spent in an area called District Six , designated for ‘coloured folk’ in Cape Town.   We were not coloured – my parents were English – and I was their first child born on African soil.  My sister was born in London before they came to Africa, and my brother came after me.   But we were poor, very poor.   We lived in a flat which overlooked Table Bay on one side and Table Mountain on the other, which today in cities around the world, would be considered a millionaire’s view.   But I was there just recently, and it is still poor (though not as poor) and populated with coloureds and a large Muslim congregation.   I even visited those same flats.  Our flat.  But that is another story.

We had a maid called Sarah, who was coloured.  She slept in the bedroom my sister and I shared, on a pull out bed, which was covered with a rust coloured knobbly fabric with springs which squeaked a lot, directly under the window.   Susan and I had single beds facing her.   I don’t know where she bathed or went to the toilet as in those days, it was deemed (even for us poor folk) impossible for coloured people to use the same facilities as we did.

Sarah walked us to the bus stop each morning and accompanied us to St. Mary’s School on the bus.  She met us outside the school gates each afternoon.  I sat on her lap, and she sang to me,  songs in Afrikaans, which I still remember.   “Zim Ba Ba, Ma Ma’s Kuike”, “Daar Onder in Die Mielies” are two melodies which roll around my head.  (Recently, I unconsciously began to sing these songs to a young friend in labour.)  She told us mystical stories that defied explanation, much more graphic than my mother would ever allow.  She helped Susan and I create a real life theatre in our bedroom with blankets suspended over the chest of drawers, and I remember her working with me to line up a long row of dolls, Micky Mouse, and a teddy bear in the audience to watch our show.   Susan – always The Voice – conducted the show, and I leapt from the chest of drawers on to the bed in a swan dive, a ballerina of extraordinary grace, delighting my audience with my prowess.

I loved Sarah.  And she loved me, as she loved Susan.   I did not know it then, but nannies like Sarah all had kids of their own, faraway, and they came to the towns to look after white peoples children so they could send money home to their parents who were  taking care of their kids.    It would never have entered my head at that age that she had another life apart from ours.

It must sound strange to say in one paragraph that ‘we were poor’ and in the next share about our maid.  Back then, every white family had household help.   Everyone needed work, coloured, black or white.  But a poor white person was less poor than a poor coloured or black person - who I imagine worked for pitiful wages, supplemented by a bed and food – so women like my mother could go to work in a store like Garlicks,  in the confectionary department, to bring home money to supplement the meagre wages of her mechanic husband.

One morning my parents, Susan and I were having breakfast at our small kitchen table.  The table was covered in a checked oil cloth which my mother used to wipe down after every meal.  Sarah, who ate alone in the bedroom, but never with us – came into the kitchen for the toast my mother had made, which she gave to her on an enamel plate.  We never ate off the same plates as our help.   She waited  humbly – even at that young age I remember her subservience – for my mother to pass her some butter and jam.   My father at the head of the table, spoke up.   “NOT the butter, give her the margarine”.

My mother put the butter back on the table and got the margarine from the pantry and handed it to Sarah.

It was A Moment for me.

I understood the difference between butter and margarine – even us poor people had a choice.   What I couldn’t understand was my fathers utterance.

Sarah, unblinkingly, accepted the margarine and left the room.

My Dad was a kind man, a good man.   Sarah was our family.   But I had a bad feeling in my heart.   Even then, I knew this was wrong.

Why didn’t my Dad give Sarah the butter?