A page from the story of my life
This memory comes back with an apology to Alan Paton. "There is a road that runs ." not through the green KwaZulu-Natal hills, but along the dusty landscape from Mahikeng to a place called Buhrmansdrif. I am about nine years old, and being driven with my siblings to a "holiday" on an uncle's smallholding.
We know what lies ahead. At nightfall, the adults will go and have fun in Mahikeng, leaving us with a minder whose job it is to ensure we don't get up to mischief. Well, there isn't much you can do with candlelit gloom inside and eerie darkness outside.
But tonight we are surprised. A new minder, Aaron, sits us down around an mbowla and reads to us, from Sol Plaatje's novel Mhudi. We are simultaneously scared and thrilled by all those battles and scary warriors. The main character is a woman, nogal, who can sense that her faraway husband is in danger. She knows, as if by magic, where to find him.
Did my love for reading truly begin on that "holiday" or is my memory trying to render that dark place and time more lovingly?
All I know is that over the next few days my brothers and I sought Aaron out at every opportunity, gently demanding that he read to us, not yet aware enough to ask how a well-read man like him ended up being a handyman, driver and child minder.
Yes, he read from Mhudi each day, right up until the fairy-tale ending, where Mhudi and her husband, Ra-Thaga, ride to safety towards Thaba Nchu.
Soon, our family also left, taking the dusty road back to Mahikeng and then Johannesburg. This time the departure was tinged with sadness for me. But it also inspired me to seek out books at home in Joburg, even the forbidden ones about sex and politics that my father kept hidden in a wooden chest.
Today, I read to our seven-year-old son every night, a ritual that he loves as much as I do.
And it isn't just the usual fairy-tale fare he likes but adventure books about characters who are obsessively cheerful, incorrigibly loud, abnormally nimble or incurably nosy.
There are also books translated from isiZulu, such as Mafutha the Elephant, about a calf that to other animals appears obsessed with food and eats all the time when all she's doing is building her physique to become hefty enough to withstand the bullying by lions and other predators.
Will I read Mhudi to him? I think he'll get there in his own time. It is amazing how ready access to words and stories gives children a sense of their own identity and reinforces their wish and ability to make informed choices. He'll find his own way to the books that I sought out simply because they were unavailable to me.
I have returned to Mhudi, by the way. It is the framework for my next novel.
- Dangor, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, is a writer and activist who grew up in a mixed- race township near JohannesburgHis novel 'Bitter Fruit' was short-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize