'Shall we do a book together?'

9th April 2004 at 01:00
Next week sees the 10th anniversary of democratic elections in South Africa. Novelist Beverley Naidoo, who grew up under the apartheid regime, left for Britain in the 1960s, where she met her husband Nandha, a fellow exile. In the early 1980s she took their daughter Maya back to South Africa, and memories of this journey and others led mother and daughter to collaborate on a new picture book, 'Baba's Gift'. They explain how it happened


When I was seven my mother took me on a plane to South Africa. My grandfather was dying. My mother finally had permission to enter the country of her birth and imprisonment to see him. It was 1983. Until then my connection to South Africa was clutched through a placard on Trafalgar Square. South Africa was the stuff of nightmares. Kids got shot there. I would be an outlaw. My Mum was "White" and my Dad "Indian".

I was gripped with excitement. South Africa was the centre of our domestic universe. Ours was a journey to the mysterious origins of my parents' past.

I would not let my mother sleep on the plane as I recited the litany of cousins I was about to reclaim.

But the thrill was short-lived. We arrived in Johannesburg. The air of decay in my grandparents' flat and the tension of my mother's return were a knock in the face. I was petrified. The two old people who loved me left me perplexed and frightened. They were part of white South Africa and in white South Africa I was wrong.

My mother stayed with her parents. This was the flat in which she had grown up but it was no longer the place for a child. By law I would not have been permitted to stay there anyway. Instead, she put me in the care of an air hostess with a label and a photo of my uncle. I continued my journey to my father's family, in Durban. When a group of soldiers boarded the plane, I was terrified. I thought they were coming to get me.

I had been told to go to nobody but the man in my photo and was relieved when he came. His cap looked like the one in the picture. He won me with a bag of spicy split peas to eat in the car. We drove through rolling sugar cane to the verdant Farm Taurus, my father's childhood home and that of my cousins. My father was banned from returning. To me it was paradise.

On a dirt track under the wide African sky I chewed my first sugar cane, cut with a machete by my tallest cousin. I sucked the fibrous stalk dry of its syrup. At home, I relished my Aunt's delectable roti, golden bread to mop up my curry. My days passed with the Indian farm manager's daughter, sliding on terracotta earth under cerise azaleas.

The only black Africans I met on that visit were servants. I knew it was wrong, but was amazed by the power. The children I saw from a distance.

Their games were the same, skidding about on improvised sledges outside the workers' cottages. We never played together. My father tells me that when he was a child, his family lived in one of them and he had played with the parents of those children.

Years later I went back to teach in Durban in my gap years. It was President Mandela's first year in office. The doors of the formerly Indian school had been prised open. My Zulu-speaking kids were courageous pioneers from the local township, struggling to learn English and overcome the assumptions of their new teachers. They were the creators of that fledgling democracy. That summer I walked on the beach in Durban with a cousin, though most of my relatives said it was dangerous. Many Indians stopped going there when the beach was opened to Africans. We found 20 Rand in a purse and bought milkshakes. I remember with shame the street child who came and begged the dregs of my drink from me.

Since then I have made those journeys again in my mind. With my mother I have written a story that belongs to that place in new times. Two African children travel with their granny to the sea and strike up a friendship with an Indian girl. They take a precious boat their father has made and lose it to the sea. But they find something even more beautiful to take home.

When we wrote the story we spent hours discussing: could friendship grow so naturally across the divide? We decided to be optimistic, hopeful that life would mimic fiction. Bereft of their boat, our two children wonder if it has sailed to India. Whenever I get to that part I smile. Perhaps the new generation of South Africans will both redress the imbalance and begin to celebrate their interconnections.


Baba's Gift began on one of those crystal summer days when sailing boats appear to glide like skaters towards the horizon. Maya and I were rambling along the Dorset coast path from where you can watch the ferry heading to France. It is a good place for thinking about journeys. Maya sowed the seeds. "Shall we do a book together?"

Within minutes we were tossing around ideas. Two children, a sister and brother, by the sea. Not this English sea, but the great Indian Ocean. Not these white, worn cliffs and gentle sheep-grazed hills but the sweeping, subtropical bush and sugar cane hills rolling from the heights of KwaZulu Natal down to DurbanI eThekwini. The setting is vivid in both our imaginations. Maya's memories go back to childhood. So do mine. It was an annual journey, sitting in the back of my parents' car in the 1950s as my dad drove us from Jo'burg down to Durban. Having left our concrete city behind, there was much anticipation through the long hours of flat, dry Highveld until, at last, the mountains, valleys, rust-red earth, lush vegetation, banana and pineapple sellers by the roadsideI all trailers to the final dramatic moment: who would be first to glimpse the sea? In Durban, we stopped at the hotel owned by my mother's Uncle Sol and Aunt Annie. Then we headed down the "south coast", always to the same hotel and a beach that few tourists had yet discovered. Lazy, leisurely days followed. Swimming, digging, fishing, exploring. It was exciting territory for a child, with warnings about sharks, green mambas and, far more obviously, stinging bluebottles on the sand.

I was unaware of the horrors of apartheid. I never questioned the fact that all the friendly waiters were black and we, "the guests", all white. My husband Nandha, Maya's dad, and his family would have been relegated to the servants' quarters. Our family holiday provided the one occasion in the year when our African cook-cum-nanny could spend a couple of weeks with her own children, living with their grandmother in a black "homeland" far away from Jo'burg. Looking back, our idyllic holiday by the sea was part of what the political thinker Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil". It was part of how an evil, discriminatory system was made to look so normal.

Maya and I are completely in love with Karin Littlewood's illustrations for our book. She has brought our characters and their landscape alive in way that is deeply evocative for both of us. On one level, Baba's Gift is a simple story about a day at the seaside. But at its heart it is a story about family and friendship. Apartheid destroyed families, racialised relationships and created barriers to cross-cultural friendships. South Africans now have choices previously denied. In a world of rising ethnic consolidation and conflict, our story is premised on the value of a shared humanity above all else.

Beverley Naidoo's career as a writer began in 1985 with Journey to Jo'burg, based on the story of her African nanny's family. She won the Carnegie Medal in 2001 for The Other Side of Truth, about two Nigerian refugee children in London. A sequel, Web of Lies, is due from Puffin in September.

A play for children, The Playground, opens in the Polka Theatre, Wimbledon, in September. She has worked as a remedial English teacher, in the educational psychology services of the Inner London Education Authority, and as a curriculum adviser on English and cultural diversity for Dorset, where she now lives and writes full time. Maya Naidoo is a barrister based in London. Baba's Gift is published by Viking(pound;12.99) and Puffin (pound;5.99 pbk), illustrated by Karin Littlewood

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