Everyday I wake up to the intimidating knowledge that I am a father; intimidating because, while I derive great pleasure out of seeing my children grow, I’m still convinced that I might not be doing a great job. These doubts come when I see a wounded look on my eight-year-old daughter, Asante’s face and realise that it is linked to my refusal to give her my iPad to connect with the Top Model site. And then when I relent and she disappears for hours on end, I suffer the anxiety of not knowing who she’s connected to, conjuring in my head the image of some predatory no-goodnik who preys on small girls pretending to be an innocent correspondent.
I grew up in KwaMashu township in Durban at a time when kids had to fend for themselves and there was zero reliance on parents. This taught us to be adventurous and seek knowledge anywhere we could find it. Some of my friends did stumble on experiences, which had a devastating effect on their lives; I was lucky because I found books and the magical world they opened up for me. There are times Asante shows me what she’s reading. When she was reading Gcina Mhlope’s fables and legends we’d swop stories, with me sharing some of my earlier experiences with books, which were largely unavailable. Reading “Sipho Goes to School” there was some excitement about jazz musician Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, in his sixties, going back to do his Matric, and Asante asked me if this book was inspired by the musician’s decision.
Turning our backs on the formal curricula of apartheid in the 1970s we concentrated as much as possible on what was on offer from other jurisdictions. We learnt that there was a continent of Africa, which the world mined for slaves and whatever else it deemed valuable. I learnt, however that the sons and daughters of those slaves were writing books and teaching the world how to be human. Writers from different parts of the world revealed what was masked and hidden by the warped imagination of the architects of Bantu Education. Adaora Lily Ulasi’s Many Thing You No Understand, written in pidgin English, alerted me to the creative use of language and that English was no longer the sole preserve of the English. By the time I went to university I knew about Kenya from Jomo Jenyatta, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Grace Ogot, Nigeria from Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa
Growing up the way I did taught me vigilance against anything that seeks to harm children and that adults, even well-meaning ones, should always come with a health warning when let loose among impressionable minds. I know I cannot protect my children from the world and its various brands of lunacy completely, but I can exhort them to learn widely, to consume books and to be open to the talents that exist in the world beyond their own experience, and to reflect on every encounter and incident. When the scars of past injuries start itching, when it is possible to harm others through careless language, I take out a book from my growing-up years, perhaps James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain or Tony Morrison’s Tar Baby
My anxiety about my daughter visiting Top Model is lessened as she’s also shown me that the iPad contains much more than mere frivolity; she’s made the connection between the books she loans from the school library and their adaptation into films like Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I see all this enhancing her vocabulary. The language of books becomes the adopted language of the child. At a recent book launch in Hyde Park, I asked Asante if she had eaten as there were snacks laid out. Her response, “I didn’t comprehend at the time that the food was for everybody,” I was glad she had found a new word to bandy about.