The Books of a South African Childhood

My cousin Haidee says that when she thinks of me as a child, she sees me lying on a bed reading and eating a tomato. That is true. I loved both books and tomatoes and still do. The tomato fed my body and the books my mind and soul.

The books also planted in me the seeds of adventure and connected me to the world outside Messina, (now called Musina) the small town on the Northern tip of South Africa, where I grew up. I never read stories about Messina, the Bushveldt or the Limpopo River, eight miles away. I simply lived in this place without any curiosity about it.

I played under the shade of the ancient baobab tree, eating its bitter seed, not learning until years later in a story I read that it is an ancient tree. We would picnic on the banks of the Limpopo River, but were never allowed to swim in it because of the snail- bearing disease, bilharzia and the crocodiles that attacked people and animals swimming in the water.

The world of my mind was the one in which I lived, in my room, lying on my bed, eating tomatoes and reading. I started at about the age of seven, with the words of Enid Blyton, an English writer. I read about Noddy, the little wooden boy toy who lived in an English village and had adventures with the townsfolk.

As I grew older, I graduated to the Famous Five, who were brothers and sisters, and the Secret Seven who were a group of friends, who lived in the English countryside. They solved mysteries and had adventures, lived with Mummy and Daddy, and had a Nanny or a governess, and ate tea instead of supper.

A few years before I went to boarding school, I started reading the Blyton books about boarding school. I read stories about girls who slept in dormitories, bought snacks at the tuck shop, played field hockey, always took French from a Mademoiselle, and had midnight feasts consisting of sardines on crackers washed down with condensed milk, sipped from the can. Once I reached boarding school I too did all those things except that I took Latin instead of French.

There were no bookstores in Messina in the fifties, but there were libraries. The town library consisted of a book mobile, which came from Pietersburg, a bigger town 120 miles away. It came once a week and I would line up with the other kids to get the next in the series of whatever book I was reading. We also had a school library, so between the two I managed to keep a constant supply of adventures and escapes. I think that fearing that I would run out of books before the book mobile arrived has stayed with me, and is what fuels my search for bookstores on all my trips. I would rather run out of food than books.

I left home for boarding school at age thirteen and discovered English literature. I read Dickens, Shakespeare, Scott, the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. I memorized the poems of Milton, Keats and Shelley. I devoured the histories and biographies of the royalty of England and France. I read that Marie Antoinette had hundreds of pairs of shoes, that Charles the First loved many women and so did Henry the Eighth who loved them and then cut off their heads.

At boarding school, I could no longer spend afternoons lying on my bed, reading and eating tomatoes, because I was not allowed in my room in the afternoon, or to have food upstairs. But I still found time to read. I would rush to bed and read before lights-out or sit on the benches in the garden and once again be transported to other lands.

boarding school girls

My reading sources were the school library and a bookstore in downtown Pretoria. I loved being around books so much that I became a library volunteer. I spent two afternoons a week filing and sorting, and checking books out for my classmates. I loved the peace and solitude it gave me. The opportunity in this place of constant company to have only books surround me. Whenever I was allowed out to shop, the first store I visited was the bookstore. It was a cool dark place with books lined up on wooden shelves. I would browse and then have to make the hard decision of which one to buy. Most of my pocket money went to buying books rather than the clothes my peers bought.

What I never realized then, but now know, is that books changed my life. Lying on my bed, eating a tomato and reading, I was transported from that hot, dusty little town, where I lived with Mom and Dad and two noisy, teasing brothers, to the cool, rainy, green lands of England. I never had to dream of leaving home or having adventures. I already had, thanks to the pen of Ms Blyton. That those stories produced such vivid pictures in my mind, that when I did leave home for boarding school, I had a road map to follow.

What I did not know then, but now know, is that all the reading I did in high school classes prepared me for the real travels I would take as an adult. When my husband and I had to make a decision about where to emigrate to in 1967, I knew from what I had read that I did not want to live in the dampness of London and have to wash diapers that would never dry. Instead, perhaps because of reading books about New England and the history of the United States, I agreed to move to Boston. When we flew into Boston airport, I was startled by the sense of recognition I had. I felt as if I had lived there and, of course, I had, in the books I had read.

Today I still lie on my bed and eat tomatoes but now I read the books that I have bought in bookstores around the world. Books are still my connection to the universe.

First printed in BookWomen in 1996   http://www.womenpress/bookwomen.com

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This entry was posted in Personal Travel Essays, South Africa, Travel through Books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Books of a South African Childhood

  1. Cheryl Noren says:

    Very interesting to learn about your childhood! Thanks for sharing. Cheryl

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