We had just read Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. My father had read it to us on my parent’s bed with all of us leaning into him to listen to the story. In the 1970s my parents rented one of two cottages in Hyde Park. It was old farmland, in the middle of the growing city of Johannesburg, with a large farmhouse and a real (I swear this is true) forest.
In other parts of South Africa resistance to apartheid was reaching a crescendo. In 1976, I was four, and children, not much older than I was, were taking to the streets to protest the imposition of Afrikaans as a teaching medium by the apartheid government. The picture of Hector Pieterson, a thirteen-year-old boy, shot dead, carried by his friend, still haunts South Africa.
“We’re going to poach pheasants in the forest,” my Dad said, “it’s a secret and if we ever tell anyone we will be in big trouble.” We were sworn to secrecy and the pheasant poaching began.
There were no pheasants in the forest. There were some chickens tended to by the property’s caretakers from their servant’s quarters at the bottom of the property (I once saw a chicken without its head- I swear this is true- running around with blood pumping from its neck).
The plan was simple: we were to soak raisins, in Disprin, overnight and then, after dark, dressed in the blackest clothes we could find, we were to walk into the forest and throw the raisins far into the trees for the pheasants to eat. The pheasants, after eating the doped raisins, would fall from the trees. All we had to do is wait.
Behind the scenes, my father had commissioned my mother to find a shop that sold birds with feathers still on them. My mother found a shop that sold feathered guinea fowl (the guinea fowl would pass for pheasants).
We left the cottage in the dead of night. We were all very scared that we would be caught. Led by my father we walked into the forest. It was very quiet. When we had reached the centre, my father stopped and whispered, “Ok, here. Throw the raisins into the trees.” We took our raisins from our pockets and hurled them with all our might into the trees. And then, we waited for the pheasants to fall from the trees so that we could grab them and go running back to Mum to tell her all about it.
Behind the scenes, my mother and grandmother were running towards the forest with dead, feathered guinea fowl in their hands. When they reached the edge of the forest, they hurled the guinea fowl as far as they could and then ran back to the cottage, quickly- because they knew we wouldn’t be far behind.
When the “pheasants” fell, we could scarcely breathe for excitement. We collected them quietly and ran, at full speed, back to the cottage, to tell Mum and Gran and to enjoy a hearty meal.
This is one of many memories that I have of my, mostly happy, often joyful, childhood. There were Easter Egg hunts and Christmases at the sea. During those Christmas holidays my father would frequently say, “Let’s go on an adventure today.” And we were off – looking for treasure in ship- wrecks, walking to Diaz cross or floating down the river (“like Mao Zedong”, said my Dad). My two sisters and I shared a room at the cottage in Hyde Park. My middle sister and I had a bunk bed. She had the bottom bed and I had the top. At night we would play a game until one or both of us fell asleep. I would hang my arm down and she would try and catch it.
Our lives were untouched by the misery, poverty and discrimination all around us. My parents, although not oblivious to the injustice in South Africa, conspired to keep us happy and safe.
My father died when I had just turned twenty-four. And the world became dark for a very long time. His death devastated all of us. I have also been through heartbreak so bad that it nearly destroyed me. Illness has come to our family -illness that is not possible to cure. Our journeys have not been easy.
But there remains a yearning for joy, untroubled. The elation, the ecstasy, the excitement.
And so, this is an invitation to go on an adventure with me. Let’s get dressed up in our blackest clothes and walk to the forest again.
Let’s be scared and excited.