Memoir — From the February 2015 issue

Honky, Napoleon, and the Empress Wu

Memories of a South African childhood

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Having a dog in her room made difficulties for Emma with the men in her life. When she adopted Honky, Reuben, the houseboy, a proud, dark Congolese man, who was her lover, ordered her to put him out of her room at night. But Honky was not negotiable, and there were loud rows in the servants’ quarters. After some weeks or a month of this, and quite suddenly, the authorities deported Reuben back to the Congo, and Emma became unsmiling and doleful, singing solemn Easter hymns as she moved through the days, Honky in her apron pocket. I couldn’t even tempt her with “Stormy Weather,” one of her favorites. “Ai, no, Bum,” she would say, “too much work to do.”

Ours was a family of nicknames. To Emma I was Bum, another word unrelated to its American meaning. I never asked why. To me she was Amazinyo Kanogwanga, Rabbit Teeth, or Empress Wu of the Feathered Dog. My first boyfriend, a plump, devoted, hapless boy, she named Pullman Bus, Pullman for short. “Bum,” she’d say, “Pullman at the gate.” And when, eventually, she took up with a new man herself, someone as cross and unpleasing as she was cheerful and pleasant, she called him Old Man, although he was no older than she was.

When I asked her to write out the words of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” a hymn she and I had sung many times together, she said she would ask Old Man to do it, he was educated and knew how to spell. But when she asked him, he just clicked his tongue. “Ai, suka!” he said. Old Man was political, she whispered to me. By which I took it that he was annoyed by the idea of a white girl presuming to learn a black hymn.

Emma herself, who had had to leave school after Standard Four, was a keen reader. Every night she read Napoleon’s Book of Fate to find out what lay ahead. She also read the Bible and the newspaper, and taught herself to read recipes and to calculate times and temperatures for when she had to take over as cook. But she was not political. Political in the Fifties and Sixties was a dangerous thing to be, and for Emma it held no romance at all.

Her romance lay in the songs she sang: “Sentimental Journey,” “Now Is the Hour,” “Tennessee Waltz.” There was also the holy romance of praise and supplication — “Jesu, Lover of My Soul,” “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past.” She sang to console herself or to lift her heart, to rejoice if there was something to rejoice over, or just to keep herself and Honky company when there was no one around to join in.

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’s story “The Way Things Are Going” appeared in the August 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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