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Here In Africa: Memories Of Guy Fawkes Day

Barbara Durlacher recalls the infectious gaiety of Guy Fawkes Day celebrations in mile-high Johannesburg, South Africa.

When I was a child, the coming of summer was a much anticipated event. Johannesburg’s summer climate is very changeable, and temperatures can vary from near zero to the high 30’s Centigrade in a few hours. Traditionally, the summer rains are supposed to begin in October but as world weather patterns change, it seems that our rainy season, which invariably ends at the Easter weekend, gets shorter and shorter. Some years the rains only begin late in October, and if it is a really bad year, then there is no precipitation until November.

“So what?” many readers may say, but when you realize that the Johannesburg climate is extremely dry and the city is situated at an altitude of over 6000 ft, and that the much anticipated rains arrive at the end of a cold winter (May – Sept) with the last precipitation of any consequence in April, then perhaps the reader will appreciate that this annual event assumes the same importance as the coming of the rains in India – a cyclical change which has of late, seemed to me to be of equal importance in both continents. The rains are also of great importance to the farmers, as they cannot plough until the rain has fallen and rendered the ground soft enough to plant the mielie crop (corn) on which their entire year’s income rests.

Readers in Australia are probably more accustomed to these cycles and living in a trying climate than folk in the northern latitudes and consequently will understand humankind’s dependence on rain and sufficient water, and the delight everyone feels when at last the air is soft and moist, trees burst into flower and bird calls are heard all over the land.

That is how I remember November during my childhood and the approach of Guy Fawkes Day. For some extraordinary reason, and clearly without the slightest understanding of the origin of the custom, black children from the nearby Alexandra Township would arrive in the white residential suburbs. Twirling those old wooden rattles once so popular with football crowds and tapping an old paint tin as a makeshift drum, young boys dressed in frilly cast-off dresses with their young black faces wildly decorated with vivid red lipstick, they would caper gaily around, shake a money box and smile winningly. Occasionally they offered a handful of half-ripe plums or apricots while singing a garbled version of the first couple of lines of the Guy Fawkes jingle or let off a few crackers, if their funds could run to it. Then grouping together, they would beg for “Money for the Guy”. Bonfires were not popular – possibly because of the danger of the fires spreading or strong parental influence.

Their gaiety was so infectious that it was impossible to refuse, and together with a small sum of money, my mother added a handful of homemade biscuits or a doorstep or two of bread and jam, as she knew that these youngsters were grateful for the odd handout or two, even if they took the food home to a younger brother or sister.

Alexandra Township was for many years one of the biggest blights on the conscience of the Johannesburg City Fathers due to the appalling living conditions in which thousands of blacks lived and I am happy to see that at last more than seventy years later, a concerted effort has been made to upgrade and improve the former awful conditions. Homes have been rebuilt and some areas are less squalid than before. The Township has always been ‘No-Go’ place for whites and even today there are certain parts where the biggest criminals operate and the only intruders are the police who never venture in alone but always in heavily armed patrols.

Another indicator of the arrival of summer and Guy Fawkes Day was the delightful sound of the “Piet-my-Vrou” (Diedericks Cuckoo) calling. That undulating song, so seldom heard today in the suburbs, possibly due to loss of habitation or the constant noise of traffic, was a sure indication that summer had arrived, as was the early fruit. During my childhood, the Transvaal, as it was then called, had an excellent climate for deciduous fruit. It is seldom grown today, more is the pity, as fresh early plums, apricots, grapes and peaches from your garden simply cannot be beaten by anything bought in a shop, no matter how much the advertising may tell you that it is straight from “the grower to the plate”.

Every home had a small orchard and the Transvaal Yellow cling peach was particularly popular with housewives who every year canned, bottled and made delicious jam and preserves from these small but sweet fruit to their heart’s content. Nearly every household grew their own vegetables, and horse manure was a prized addition to the compost heap and many households kept their own chickens. If a horse and cart passed on the daily delivery round, we kids knew that we must rush out with hand-broom and scoop to collect the “offerings” along the road. At that time, horse-drawn traffic was common in the suburbs and many was the sack or two of coal that was delivered to our coal-shed by horse and cart. Large loads of prunings and dead branches were carried away by the carters for a small consideration; later to be chopped up as kindling for township fireplaces.

To end, and speaking of fires and fireplaces there are another two memories which come unbidden when thinking of a late autumn or early winter evening. That was when a thick pall of the smoke from the township fires would hang like a cloud over the township homes from the coal-fired kitchen ranges – the “Dover” model was a particular favourite - and the still evening air would turn from a soft lavender to mauve and then purple as the maroon disc of the setting sun glowed through the haze as it sank rapidly below the horizon. The second memory, which in fact is not a memory at all, but very much a present day annoyance, is the strange habit of the African people each winter to set the veld-grasses on fire in order, so they tell me, to encourage the early spring grass to sprout. As many black households in those early days had their own cattle which were allowed to graze on the commonage, this was sensible but today, when livestock is prohibited for public health reasons, and because the danger of the animals pose if they wander unchecked onto the highways, this grass burning is still practiced, although there is no longer any reason to continue with this damaging custom.

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