Jeanne Daly: Why This Site

I like to say that I was born on the banks of the “great, grey- green, greasy Limpopo River”, where the fever trees grow. But that mostly isn’t true. As a child, I didn’t speak English let alone read Rudyard Kipling. And really our farm ran close to the banks of the Limpopo River but its 10,000 acres started short of the river and spread away inland. It was in this wild place, this large tract of Bushveld that my father built our house. There were large rooms, no ceiling and baths were taken in a tub that was brought out for the occasion.

It was, I always thought, a lonely Bushveld childhood with the nearest neighbours 20 km away and the nearest town 200 kms distant. But that isn’t true either. Around the fenced-in boundary of the house area were the mudhuts of our Black servants. John was our cook and Annie our domestic help and there were several children around my age. My Ouma, a dour, rigid Calvinist, not fun at all, explained that Ham had shamed his father, Noah, and so God pronounced the Curse of Ham – all Ham’s descendants would be black and they would always be servants, “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. I was not persuaded but the general idea seemed to be that the little Black children were there as servants, not friends. One little boy was my personal servant; he was there to keep me safe from snakes and scorpions. Clearly he was not a relative.

So who were my relatives? The only family who came to stay was my small, black-clad Ouma. She pronounced biblical curses but she also did teach me to knit. In time I found out that the neighour’s children had family, aunts, uncles, grandparents. So where was the rest of my family? I asked my mother, “Ma, where did I come from?” She looked serious, took me on her lap and told me to listen carefully. “One day Pa and I were out hunting when we found a dear little baboon abandoned in the bush. It was so cute that I could not resist it. I took it home and scrubbed it clean in a big pot of hot water. It screamed like mad when we cut off its tail but when we put on a nappy and put it to rest in a soft little blanket, it snuggled into my arms. Over time it came to love us and we loved it very much. Now that was YOU! And we still love you very much.” [1]

I started thinking. Tied by rope to a post in our backyard was a big old male baboon (a common practice on farms in those days). It dawned on me that he must be my Oupa. I went outside and crept up to him. “Hello, Oupa”, I breathed. I held out my little hand to scratch his fur. He watched, alert, then decided he would allow me to groom him. I crept closer and he started scratching in my hair, looking for lice. My mother who had been called by John, the cook, stood with him at the backdoor, terrified, frozen with fear – this was no ordinary pet but a dangerous creature with fearsome teeth. But from that day on I was welcome to come and sit with Oupa for as long as I liked. We were family.

One day Oupa was gone. The cord that had tied him to the pole was cut through. My mother explained that when wild animals hear the call of the wild, they have to go. He would probably have joined his people, the group of baboons that lived in the bush near the house, and who led nightly rampages through our crops. But she was sure that he would always remember me.

Photographer unknown. Please contact site admin if you hold rights.

I knew that one day, like Oupa, I too would hear the call to leave home. I too would go wild. I would reject some of the values of my Limpopo childhood. And so I did. I changed, and I kept moving until I reached Australia. After years of exile, I went back and visited Cape Town. There I hired a car and drove out to Cape Point, to the National Park at the end of the Cape peninsula. Here there are still troops of baboons living off seafood that they scavenge from the rocks.  As I drove to the Point a troop of baboons crossed the road in front of me. A big male baboon jumped on the boot of my hire car, denting it; grabbing the windscreen wipers, he bent them back to sniff under them. Then he stared at me. “Hello, cousin!” I breathed. I paid for the damage to my hire car with a sense of a promise kept.

But, of course, by this time I knew that I was not a baboon descendant but I still felt that somewhere in my past there were ancestors whose heritage had something to do with breaking bonds, with escape to freedom. These were the ancestors I set out to find. My first visit was to the Cape Town Archives Repository in Roelandt Street. I never looked back. There I found the grandfather after whom I was named: Jean Daly. He was a good place to start because in my house in Melbourne I have a “riempies rusbank” that he is said to have “liberated” when the English army entered Potchefstroom on the First Anglo-Boer War.

Photograph from personal collection.

But once one starts on such a journey, there is no end……………..

[1] I only realised much later that my mother was telling a tale from AG Visser’s poem “Klein Boetie”, accessed 1/3/2018.