Today's kids miss out on having a favourite uncle
By raising them under extremely sheltered conditions we’re depriving our children of all sorts of experiences
He perpetually reeks of booze. It doesn't matter the time of day, summer or winter, the state of the economy or whether the KZN premier is from the IFP or the ANC. He always has a sachet of Boxer pipe tobacco in his hand.
No, he doesn't have a pipe. Instead, he's always on the lookout for a Durban telephone directory or the Yellow Pages book. He has a preference for these pages to roll his tobacco. They're much better than brown paper or newspaper, he swears.
The last time he held a steady job was as a machinist at Dano Textiles in 1986, before the textile industry went into a slump as cheap Chinese imports arrived on these shores. In his backyard there's a carcass of a 1972 Chevrolet El Camino that is a reminder of his days in gainful employment. The car has been the maternity ward of generation upon generation of chickens in the yard.
This is the archetype of the average favourite uncle in many families - at least the favourite of all the kids in the family.
There was a synergistic symbiosis between the dysfunctional uncle and all the children in the family and among other neighbourhood kids. No sooner would he appear than a dozen snot-faced midget knuckleheads would descend upon him, chanting in unison, "Nang' umalume!" (Here comes uncle!).
This is partly because he inevitably had a roll of Wilson's Extra Strong XXX Mints or Kool Mentholyptus sweets in the pockets of his tattered jacket that he was always willing to distribute.
The other reason Uncle Dysfunction was so popular is that the filters between his sorghum-beer soaked brain and mouth had been eroded by alcohol abuse. This manifested in him sharing his unadulterated thoughts, using the most colourful language the kids were ever likely to be exposed to.
One such uncle was one Malum' Nyamanyama. At slightest provocation he would burst into expletive-riddled songs he'd learned while working on a ship during World War 2.
I'm reminiscing about this because I'm pushing the Big Five-Oh and I'm susceptible to nostalgia. But it's also because I look at my kids and my peers' kids and they do not have a jovial, alcoholic Uncle Dysfunction in their lives. They're just a bunch of couch potatoes who spend their days and nights on their PS4 playing Apex Legends and Steep.
It's not their fault. They didn't grow up in the township where the first thing you were told after school was, "Now, go outside and play", after which you'd scuttle out to the street until dusk. They don't have an uncle who suffers from verbal diarrhoea and is armed with dozens of prison stories collected during a stint for stealing Baas Venter's cattle in 1964. Malum' Nyamanyama had plenty of those and he'd punctuate them with revealing his impressive serpent tattoos.
And it's not just the uncle. There's also the auntie. Of course, instead of Boxer tobacco, she always has a container of Ntsu chewing tobacco that she whips out every 15 minutes. Next door we had an Auntie Lonnie who worked in a bakery somewhere in Umhlanga Rocks.
We would time her return from work and she'd find us waiting at the bus stop next to the KwaSishi Shopping Centre. Our motivation and reward was the contents of her plastic bags; leftover apple crumble, milk tarts and other treasures.
She never went straight home and would always start at the local municipal bar. We'd grab her bags, walk her there just to stand outside for a few minutes and enjoy the sounds of The Soul Brothers, Mpharanyana and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens blaring from the 20c a pop jukebox. Then we'd take her bags home - but not before we each got hugs and sloppy kisses.
The municipal bar was also the regular venue for what must have been a regular bizarre scene for the neighbours. From time to time, Malum' Nyamanyama would get so inebriated at the bar that we'd have to "borrow" a wheelbarrow from one of our houses and "Uber" him home.
The following day he'd reward us with a packet of Zulu Mottoes sweets, and give us kisses on our cheeks. And by "kisses", I mean rubbing us up against his pot scourer stubble, imparting us with the aroma of Boxer.
I look at my kids and think there are so many experiences dying with my generation, because we are raising them under extremely sheltered conditions. It occurred to me that both the 14- and 11-year-old have never even been sent to the corner shop alone. Growing up the way we did, many of us could author a book just on our trips to the shop.
So I gave them R100 and told them to get me a packet of tomatoes. They returned full of anecdotes about the colourful characters they'd encountered. They were giggling hysterically telling me about a fellow who was asking himself questions and answering them.
Still, it pains me when I think that they will never share stories of their own Uncle Dysfunction.