Wednesday, November 10, 2010

From Both Sides of the Fence

I suppose I consider myself as having had a rather International upbringing.
My father is Irish, from Belfast, Northern Ireland - he considers himself a British Citizen - whilst my mother was born and raised in a very small town called Warden, in what was known back then as the Orange Free State, in South Africa.
They met on a ship sailing from Johannesburg to London, spent several years of their early marriage in Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe), before immigrating to Bermuda.
Bermuda provided my parents a pleasant alternative to the prejudice and religious intolerance that ran rampant in their native lands.
Back in the 60's, when I was born, Bermuda was considered a tropical paradise where one could escape the daily grind of life in the big cities of the United States or the consistently dull weather found in the UK. This small British Colony in the middle of the Atlantic proved a safe haven for many cultures. Of course now, years later, we have our own problems, but when I was younger, the island was a safe and pleasant place.

Growing up, I recall many a party in my home that celebrated South Africa - the South Africa of my mother's youth - with all the culinary delights to go with it. We would have a traditional Braai, with lots of delicious barbequed meats, corn, salads and Koeksisters (a very sweet and sticky fried dough) and Melktert (pastry and a sweet milk and egg combination sort of like creme brulee) for dessert. I mostly remember the desserts. Mom was of Afrikaans descent, although for reasons only known to her, never taught me the language.

We celebrated Northern Ireland and my father's heritage with equal gusto. Potato bread, soda bread and probably a lot of Guiness to go around...and lots of singing. And crying. The parties were loud, exuberant and filled with 'uncles' and 'aunties' that were really no relation at all, yet throughout my childhood, they were our family.

I was fortunate to visit both South Africa and Belfast quite frequently, and of course when my grandparents from both sides were able to come to us, it was a momentous time in my young life. But, as I was to find out later, there was an elephant in the room.
My parents ignored it for the most part. I suppose it didn't seem worthwhile mentioning at the time, when my life was so sheltered and privileged by most standards.
But I will never forget the trip I took to South Africa with my mother when I was eleven years old.
My uncle met us at Joberg airport, and was driving us to my Ouma's house in Warden. The first thing I remember noting was that he drove a Mercedes. Perhaps not such a big deal nowadays, and I don't know how I knew this was an expensive car at that age, but I did. But that wasn't what impacted me the most. As we headed out of the city toward the country, I saw something I had never seen before. Something I did not understand:

It wasn't to the extent of the above picture, but the 'shacks' that I remember seeing along the road did not resemble any homes that I was familiar with. I recall asking my uncle what they were.
I remember his reply, and I am afraid I cannot repeat it here. It was offensive.
Even at age eleven, even though I was not entirely familiar with the words he spoke, I knew they were wrong.
Funny how some memories just stick around, no matter how hard you try to erase them.
Now in my forties, I am grateful that I still remember.

It was a few years afterward I suppose, for I was in my teens, that we spent some time in Belfast.
And there, once again, I was introduced to a life so outside my realm of understanding that I wasn't sure what to make of it.
Violence, bomb blasts, checkpoints - I knew nothing of these things. To my cousins, they were a way of life. Lifting up the seat cushions on the bus - commonplace. Images like this were all over the city.

I don't recall when I discovered what all the violence was about, possibly not on that particular trip. We were Protestant, I was told, when, I don't know, I just knew it. And of course my parents found it extremely hilarious when the house next door back home in Bermuda was purchased by The Roman Catholic Church, and The Bishop of Bermuda moved in.
My very Protestant Irish grandmother, on her frequent visits, had many a chinwag with him, and deemed him to be a very nice man indeed. For a Catholic. You can imagine the conversations my South African grandmother and my Irish grandmother must have had on the few occasions that their visit coincided.
Oh, life. Strange what makes the world go 'round, isn't it?

I've traveled back to both of these beautiful countries as an adult with my own children. And I have told them of their heritage. What they must know and understand, and what they must discard.
As the years go by, I begin to lose hope that my grandchildren, whenever they see fit to arrive, might be born into a different world. Even my island home runs rampant with prejudice, bitterness and a refusal to let go of the past.
I don't know what it will take to change the world.
But I remember what it took to change my heart.

Catherine West writes contemporary romance and women's fiction. She enjoys life on Bermuda with her husband, two grown children, and one rambunctious Border Collie. When she's not writing you can find her in the garden or walking the dog!
Catherine's debut novel Yesterday's Tomorrow will be available March 2011 through Oak Tara Publishers. You can check in with her anytime at her website!


  1. That's certainly a unique background you have there, Cath.

  2. Thank you, Catherine. How do we teach our children to value their heritage, but to choose the godly from the dross? We are American, but my kids grew up in Africa. I remember when we took them to Washington, DC, in last elementary school. What did they notice? The homeless man sleeping on a park bench. Here? In America?

    I just returned from a trip out West. Many tourist attractions celebrate pioneers and gold miners. How am I as a Christian supposed to honor their courage in the face of hardship without condoning the way they trampled Native American rights? and then there are the tributes at the graves of gunslingers and notorious gamblers. Tough questions. Thank you for bringing them up.

  3. Cath, thanks for sharing your fascinating cultural heritage, and the hard questions that can arise from exploring our heritage.

  4. As I was saying on Grace Bridge's posting, I know what it's like to feel like 2 nationalities in one skin. It seems Belfast and Northern Ireland--for such a small place--has sent many writers into the world. It must be the Irish thing.

    I know what you mean about the heartbreak and confusion of what went on during the troubles, and the sentiments that continue to this day. As a Belfast born Irish / Brit I feel that struggle every time I talk to one of my relatives who still lives there.

    Excellent posting.

  5. Cathy, that was fascinating!! What an amazing heritage you have - one filled with all sorts of emotion, history, conflict, and love. I'm sure it was difficult for your parents to shield you from so much at times, but allow enough to seep in so that you have the memories that you do. Thank you for sharing that.