For the first six years of my schooling I had always known I was different in the sense that I was the only black child in my class and that there were few black children in the school when I was attending. But up to that point, because I was in a Christian school, I didn’t feel different at all. The Catholic nuns tried to instil a level of compassion and understanding among the children, which helped. But when I was 12 years old we moved to a smaller, rural town called Que Que. It was a mining and agricultural town, two and a half hours’ drive south of Harare on the Bulawayo Road. Que Que was such a small town that if you were driving to Bulawayo and blinked you could miss it. I’ve always called it a ‘one street no horse’ town.
My father got a fantastic job there as a chartered accountant working for Zimasco, one of the largest Chrome producing companies in Southern Africa, so the move was exciting and it meant new opportunities for my parents. But for us it meant having to cope with going to school in the public school system, which was a less sheltered environment. The year was 1979 and the neighbourhood we lived in was called Fitchley so the primary school I attended was Fitchley Primary School. I was the first black child at this school, and my sister who had just started high school was a pioneer too, the first black child at Que Que High School.
On my first day at school I fully experienced what it was like to be in a minority. The prejudice of the children showed up clearly on a daily basis. They all sniggered and laughed if I walked by and nobody would sit next to me in class. I decided to sit right up front near the teacher to get away from the sniggering and the stares. I soon discovered that was a big mistake because I became the target for small pebbles, bubble gum and wet paper darts shot from the barrels of their pens and aimed at the back of my head. Mrs Morris, a stern looking, white middle-aged lady, was my teacher. The teachers in the school were all white and they all chose to turn a blind eye and ignore my pleas for help to stop the teasing and abuse. It was very difficult to try to make friends, and in fact for the first two or three months no one would talk to me. Eventually I made a breakthrough when, after three months of verbal abuse from the children in my class with no protection from the teachers, I got involved in a fight.
In every group environment there is always one person who is the weaker of the species, and in this case it was a small white boy named Devin. Judging by his clothes, Devin came from a family of very low socio-economic status. He lived in a caravan at the caravan park. I remember that his jerseys were torn and tattered at the elbows and during winter when the boys wore trousers his were always two or three sizes too small for him. He was the butt of all the jokes in the school until I arrived, then attention shifted from Devin to me, something he thoroughly loved and enjoyed.
The verbal abuse that I had to endure was horrible. The children used to call me Kaffir, that horrid and derogatory word.
“Look at the Kaffir!” they jeered. “What is it doing in our school? Go home, Kaffir! This is our school.”
“She smells,” they would say, blocking their noses. I quietly wondered how they could smell me when none of them would come within two metres of me. And so it went on. Devin was always the first one to start as I walked into a room. I learned to escape into the world of books during break time because no one would play with me and I usually opted to stay in the safe haven of the classroom alone during our breaks. It was a blessing in disguise really as this escape fuelled my passion for reading, my vocabulary improved and I was always the top student in English.
One day I walked into the classroom and there were four or five children sitting there. Devin was playing at the blackboard drawing pictures. He looked around at everybody and started laughing and said, “Oh, the Kaffir has come to make the room smell again,” and everybody laughed. Children can be so cruel. And after three months of taking this abuse and quietly trying to endure what these children were putting me through, I decided that enough was enough.
I walked up to Devin and said, “What did you say?”
“I said you are a smelly Kaffir,” he said, with venom, spitting in my face as he spoke.
I wiped the spit off my face with the back of my hand and said calmly, “I dare you to say that again.”
“I said you are a smelly Kaffir,” he repeated, this time holding his nose. The laughter continued; they all thought it was very funny that Devin was being so insulting. Something in me snapped. I have never been involved in a physical fight again to this day, but something inside my head snapped in that classroom and I grabbed Devin by the neck and pushed him against the blackboard. Fortunately for me, Devin was just a little runt, but come to think of it, so was I. And I’m short, I always have been. Even at the age of 39 my 16 year-old son stands head and shoulders above me, so you can imagine what I looked like at 12. I was small, scrawny and thin, and got involved in a fistfight with a boy.
Soon everybody heard what was going on in the classroom and more children started pouring in to witness the fight. By now I had him pinned to the blackboard with one hand and with the other I started punching. I punched him so hard he started to cry. I punched, and I kicked.
The children were cheering and jeering,
“Hit her, Devin!” they shouted. “Kill her!” But I had him in a paralysing grip and he couldn’t move. It was good having three little brothers to fight with, my tomboy ways were definitely paying off. He screamed for help and before I knew it I was being torn away from him by one of the male teachers.
“What’s going on?” asked Mr Patrick. “Why are you fighting?”
“He called me a Kaffir again,” I said.
“Devin, did you say that?” Mr Patrick demanded.
“No sir, I didn’t say that to her,” he replied.
“Devin, tell the truth.”
Of course, Devin was not going to admit that he had said this to me, because all the children had been told by the headmaster at the last school assembly not to be insulting. I had been to the principal’s office several times to report the abuse, but no one had done anything about it.
The teacher turned around in the room and asked the other children, sternly “Did Devin call Getrude a Kaffir?” He glared at the spectators.
“Yes sir, he did,” came a small voice from the back of the room. It was Amanda Mackenzie, the little British girl who had just come to Rhodesia with her expatriate parents. I had always sensed that she wanted to speak to me but was too afraid of being mocked by the other children. Now for the first time at that school someone stood up for me and admitted that I had been insulted. We later became very good friends and we finished Fitchley Primary School together.
“Right,” Mr Patrick said to Devin. “You’re coming with me.” At this point Devin had a bleeding nose and he was crying, but Mr Patrick pulled him by the ear and took him to the principal’s office for some corporal punishment.
From that day things improved. I had earned my place and won respect from my fellow students. At the age of 12, I had to get involved in a fistfight in order to assert who I was, and that I had as much right as any other child to be there in that school. Looking back I can see I had claimed my small spot in the world of mankind. I had a right to be there, just like everybody else. Little did I know I still had a lot more to endure in high school.
Excerpt from my book “Born on the Continent – Ubuntu”, buy a copy on my website http://www.bornonthecontinent.com, 100% profit goes to the Africa Alive Foundation for HIV and AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe