A few weeks ago in our leadership seminar we were asked to write about a leadership lesson we’d gleaned from our childhood and how it had impacted our lives. I struggled with this for a while but here is what I came up with….
I now wonder if my father deliberately sought to empower us as his girls or were those trips to the Cattle Fair simply his way of loving us. When we were children, our family used to spend weekends or holidays at the farm near Qamata in the then Transkei. They were the best times. I come from a family of 3 children, 1 boy and two girls. My brother is the first born, my sister, and then me. For the children, those family holidays consisted of long, slow, sunny days spent in the outdoors, swimming, hunting, exploring and often doing back breaking farm chores. We ate ulusu or tripe ( which I love) or umvubo which is corn meal with sour milk ( which I loathe) .We never really knew nor were we interested in what the grown-ups did but everyone seemed content and we all dreaded leaving there whether it was after a weekend or 10 day holiday.
While we didn’t pay too much attention to the adults except for when they called us for meals, chores or evening prayers, there were those days when Tata would emerge wearing jeans or cords and summon my sister and me to accompany him on a trip to eFandesini. This is a livestock auction or market. These would usually be held in Queenstown, the South African town 2 hours away from the farm. We were from Mthatha, you see, so that made us Transkeians under the old Apartheid divisions which sought to relegate blacks to homeland states.
At the time we never questioned why he singled us out nor did we ever really notice because aside from my brother, there were many other cousins around, both boys and girls who usually joined us for those farm getaways. We simply put on oversized overalls, dungarees, or jeans and hit the road. It should really have struck a chord because he usually took my brother and male cousins on those trips, but it didn’t. We were kids.
My sister and I adored those trips as it was quality time with our father. He was a tall, handsome, kind but stern and austere man with a wry sense of humour which you could miss easily because of his terse manner. We got to see the funny side of him on those trips. He laughed in loud but short bursts at some of the things we said. We amused him I think.
We played games. He always made us play number games to see if we were keeping up with school work. “Madlamini, if there are 10 apples on the table and I eat two, how many would be left for you to eat, if one of them is red?”
A trick question for me, because he knew I hated red apples.
We would arrive in Queenstown at the Fandesi with the place teeming with sweaty animals and khaki clad men. We would be these two little girls with massive afros or untidy cornrow plaits in too large dungarees and dirty jeans, looking like his under- age farm workers.
The cattle would run around, almost putting on a show. Prospective buyers would poke, prod, point and gesture. Under the harsh straw coloured sun of the rural Eastern Cape my sister and I would tag along as our father did the same, but we weren’t just bystanders, he would ask for our opinions. We shouted them out loudly with the confidence, innocence and ignorance of children. Not knowing what we were looking for – but being 8 and 11 years old or round about, we would give our preferences based on colour or size or whatever grabs the fancy of girls that age.
Tata took us seriously. “Uthanda eyiphi wena MaDlamini?” (Which one do you choose,Madlamini?) And we would all deliberate and confer on our preferences while the sellers tried to impress, convince and charm him into buying their livestock.
We often only returned to the farm by early evening, dirty, sore, sun- burnt, scruffy and tired but happy after a hard day’s work advising our father on cattle and helping him and the farm workers transport the stock we would buy voetstoets, onto trailers. Other livestock, if there was a major purchase would be sent later in the week.
I’d never pondered why our father felt the need to take his girls to an auction until recently. It’s not as if we were experienced in the trade but we dove into it because he asked us to and he valued our input.
What a gift he gave us because my sister and I have never felt as if there was a thing we shouldn’t or couldn’t do. My father died in a car accident when I was 10, my sister 13 and my brother 16. My lioness mom grabbed us tightly like little cubs and made sure we grew into strong and useful adults. I’ve always credited my mother for our tenacity. While his time with us was brief, I now think that Tata wasn’t just spending time with his girls at the Fandesi. He was teaching us to be the women we are today; to know that we are valued and loved but also that what we have to say counts. And that we can be whatever we want to be and operate in whichever space we so wish.