IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE to grow up in colonial Rhodesia without becoming aware from the earliest age of the deep hostility between the races. The land issue was the main bone of contention. At the age of four I would listen to my (maternal) grandfather talking about the land issue with his old friend, a Somali who owned a butchery near my grandparents’ cafe. My grandfather, Yee Wo Lee, had come to Rhodesia in 1904 as a youth of seventeen, the fifth son in a large Chinese peasant family. As the fifth son, he did not inherit any land in China. Instead he was given an education. He had gained initiation into politics as a schoolboy follower of Sun Yat-Sen, and as a result was very sensitive to the colonial situation. He was one of the first people to provide financial support for black nationalists, and his bakery, Five Roses Bakery, situated very centrally in the middle of Charter Road, and near the Railway Station (in the capital city Salisbury, now renamed Harare), soon became the meeting place for many nationalist leaders. He was later to pay the rent for ZANU….
My mother died when I was three years old, leaving my father with three young children. My father was busy running his business, and we were left in the charge of our nanny the whole day long. It was in that situation that we soon picked up a working knowledge of Shona, one of the main African languages in the country. We also came to understand our nanny, her views, her character, and background quite well as we followed her around. We knew her friends and what they talked about. It was in those early and impressionable days that I came to understand the situation in the country….
Education, or rather the lack of it, was an area that caused bitter resentment. Children were separated by race. White children attended “European” schools. Black children attended “African” schools. There was a third category of schools known as “Coloured and Asian” schools that we attended.
I attended a primary school for Asians. It was called Louis Mountbatten School, named after the British Viceroy for India, as most of the pupils were Indians. Our headmaster, Mr. V.S. Naidoo, a South African Indian from Durban, drummed into our heads from the earliest grades that since we were not whites, we would only make our way in the world through education. This message obviously fell on fertile ground, as both the teachers and pupils were exceptionally dedicated to learning. It was many years later that I learnt that it was not very usual for primary school children to be conversant with Shakespeare and Jane Austen. By the time I went to secondary school I had already covered quite a lot of the secondary school mathematics syllabus….
I was fortunate that by the time I completed primary school, the first secondary school for Coloureds and Asians, Founders’ High School, was opened in Bulawayo. Our primary school head, Mr. Naidoo, a dedicated educationalist, spent a whole day persuading my father to allow me to attend this school as a boarder as the school was in a different city, Bulawayo, four hundred miles away. My father, a conservative and traditionalist, did not really believe in educating girls, particularly in a boarding school far away from home. But Mr. Naidoo was persistent and persuasive, and my father finally relented….
At the end of my second year at Founders’, St. John’s School, a well-known Roman Catholic school for Coloureds, established a secondary section. My parents decided to transfer me to St. John’s immediately so that I would be nearer home. Moreover my father had great faith in the nuns, and believed they had special powers to improve people’s character and morality, and as he placed great value on character and morality, I had to leave the Government school for a Roman Catholic school. He was not very confident that a Government school like Founders’ would provide the right moral background.
It was at St. John’s that I came to understand the colonial set-up more intimately. St. John’s was also an “orphanage,” but the “orphans” were not really orphans. Many of them were the offspring of white men with their black mistresses. The children of such unions were usually rejected by their fathers, and sometimes also by their mothers. The totally abandoned children were raised by the Dominican sisters. They were easily identifiable as they were invariably given the names of Catholic saints such as Francis Xavier or Martin de Porres. They had developed a hard exterior, often persecuting children like myself from more privileged backgrounds. They did this by stealing our panties and our soap. Actually they were deeply sad children who knew no home other than the school, and no other family than the nuns and priests. I spent two years at that school, and it made me appreciate the privilege I enjoyed of being a spoilt child from a middle class family.
Such was the racialist consciousness that some of these children of mixed races would themselves despise and reject their black mothers. One of my most vivid childhood memories was of a black mother coming to visit her ten-year old daughter at St. John’s. As the school had very few visitors, crowds of children would usually gather round to stare at every visitor. So it was that when Hilda’s mother arrived to see her, I was one of the crowd of children who had turned out to stare at her. Ten-year old Hilda was mortified that her black mother had come to the school. This incident made me think. Hilda constantly talked of her father, a white farmer in Sinoia. She was very proud of her father who had rejected her, but she did not want to know her own mother who had come to see her. I was amazed. As a child who had grown up without a mother I found it appalling that someone would reject her own mother because of race.
I learnt at St. John’s that Coloured children placed a premium on white skin and straight hair. Many Coloured children were indistinguishable from whites, and they were envied. Many others were indistinguishable from blacks, and they were either despised or pitied. Teenage girls spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make their skins whiter and their hair straighter. Chinese girls like myself, in contrast, spent our time trying to make our hair curlier. We all had the image of the perfect beauty, who was Caucasian….
I remember wishing, as a hakujin kid in Japan, for straighter hair–and later, in a high school dorm named for the Duke of Gloucester, for more tannable skin.