Joan Hugo Burley has lived in Auckland for seven years. She participated in the “First Chapters” life writing programme mentored by Deborah in 2010. Her story was selected for publication in the accompanying collection Translucence: Life Writing from Manukau and Papakura edited by Deborah.
Going to boarding school in England was a very exciting prospect. There were new clothes to buy and we ticked them off the official list: three navy viyella shirts, two white cotton shirts, two navy tunics and so on.
Everything had to be marked and my mother, sister and I sat for hours sewing on embroidered name-tapes, red for my sister and green for me. Finally, the task was done, and two trunks were packed and left by the door, waiting to be taken to the railway station.
My parents dropped us off at school, and suddenly, they were gone. My sister was in the junior school across the road as she was only nine. I was eleven, and old enough for the senior school. We could only see each other on Saturday mornings, after mending our laundry and washing our hair.
I stood by the jungle gym, watching the other girls go past. Most of them were older than me, and they seemed very big. I didn’t know a soul, and felt very alone. It was hard not to cry.
Up in the dormitory, there were six iron-framed beds with purple counterpanes. I knew which was mine because my eiderdown and rug lay folded at the foot.
In the next-door bed was another new girl, unpacking her suitcase. She smiled and told me her name was Judy. I showed her some photos of home, and the teddy bear I had brought for company. She shared her sweets with me and asked if I would like to be her friend.
My parents had gone back to Africa. I was on my own now, but I thought if I had a friend everything would be all right.
Joan Hugo Burley was born in England, but grew up in Uganda. She qualified as a Doctor in London, and worked as a Paedatrician in South Africa for many years. She came to live in New Zealand five years ago.
It wasn’t unusual to have monkeys dropping in when I was a child in Uganda. We often had tea on the lawn under a huge mango tree. The “house boy”, Yowana, dressed in a long flowing white “kanzu” (like a priest’s cassock) and with a red fez complete with tassel on his head, would carry out a large round table and set it up in the shade. He would cover it with a spotless white linen cloth, and bring out the best china cups and saucers and the silver tea service, including a pair of silver tongs to pick up the white sugar lumps. Picking up the sugar with our fingers was strictly frowned upon, but the monkeys didn’t care, and would swing down from the trees, run across the lawn, and seize great handfuls if they got the chance. Often they managed to grab a piece of cake as well, much to the delight of my sister and me. Yowana would come rushing out with a stick and chase the monkeys away, for they were not afraid of us small children, and could have given us a nasty bite.
We employed six household servants when we first went to Uganda, and that was considered quite normal in 1950. We had a chief houseboy, assistant houseboy, cook, ayah (nanny) dhobi (laundry) boy and a gardener or shamba boy. Many of the names had been borrowed from the time of the Raj in India, and my mother was addressed as “Memsahib”. Some Swahili words had crept in, however, and my father was “Bwana”. I was addressed as “Memsahib Kidogo”, little memsahib, a mixture of Indian and Swahili words. No-one thought it strange that grown men were referred to as “boy”, although that would quite understandably be unacceptable nowadays.
One person who was never referred to as “Boy” was the cook. He had served in the Army, and would come and stand to attention before my mother, and salute before he spoke to her. One day he told my little sister that she was naughty to help herself to chocolate biscuits. She retorted that he was the one who was a “naughty little monkey”, which was not meant to be offensive, but was a term used by my mother when we children misbehaved. He was highly incensed, and it took my mother a lot of explanation, an apology, and a promise of increased rations of sugar and maize meal, to calm him down.
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