A letter to my father

Colleen Lowe Morna, CEO Gender Links and her father, Africa Fatherhood Initiative, Gender Links

Over the course of several months Gender Links has been collecting views about fathers for its Phenomenal Fathers tribute for Father’s Day, 2013. Visit Gender Links to see all the wonderful tributes and analysis on their site.

Here is a letter Colleen Lowe Morna, Director of Gender Links was inspired to write to her own wonderful father who sadly passed away ten years ago.

Dear Daddy,
It’s been over a decade since you left my brother, sister and I, but it seems like yesterday that you collapsed while pinning up protest posters in Harare in support of an independent state of Palestine. On the afternoon of 5 April, 2001 you were hospitalised and diagnosed as exhausted, although the post-mortem would show that the cancer that you had been fighting had spread to every inch of your body.

History is about the powerful and the mighty. For the most part, they destroy and plunder amid brief spells of enlightenment. It is another cast of characters that make history: the little people who, eschewing power, work on the ground floor to make a difference to the lives of people around them. You are one such “big little” person.

John Robert William Lowe was born on 2 August 1930, son of sheep farmer, later a successful and wealthy building contractor, in a small town in the Karoo, in the Cape Province of South Africa. His father, Robert Lowe, was born in London at the height of the Bolshevik revolution, when it was fashionable among youngsters to fly the red flag, even if they had little clue what it meant.

Bob Lowe spun a convincing socialist line even as he became a bigger and bigger capitalist himself. One of his favourite stories was about a pig farmer who called himself a socialist and another farmer who remained unconvinced. The unconvinced farmer asked the pig farmer: “If you had twenty sheep, would you give me ten?” “Of course I would,” the pig farmer replied. “If you had fifty chickens, would you give me twenty five?” “Sure I would,” came back the answer. “And if you had thirty pigs, would you give me fifteen?” “You know I raise pigs!” the pig farmer retorted.

From Bob, you inherited your great sense of humour, one of your most endearing qualities. Your mother Muriel bequeathed you with a wonderful singing voice as well as a grace and charm that smoothed the rough edges of your ruggedness and eccentricities. You were the kind of guy who tied his shoes with string if you couldn’t find shoelaces. Yet you loved dancing, singing, ballet and good theatre- relics of your class that you never entirely jettisoned.

Bob and Muriel were good, kind people. But during the turbulent 1940s and 1950s in South Africa, they like most of their white compatriots, chose the path of least resistance. Daring to be different exerted too high a social cost. Best, they decided, to just be like the pig farmer -romanticise revolution with no intention of being a part of it.

This dichotomy made you increasingly uncomfortable. As you put it in your unfinished book, Learning to Love: “Round about 1940, a nine year old boy sat on a koppie in South Africa’s arid Karoo, gazing on the muddy Great Fish River that was once the troubled boundary between blacks moving south and whites moving north. He was a ‘wasp’ – white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant – a member of a privileged minority.

“When his dreamy gazing was done, his tough little bare feet padded down the slope, over the shale and the Karoo bushes, across the irrigation canal and on to the white washed farm house in the valley below, to those who loved, taught and nurtured him. And somehow, as he grew into adolescence, manhood and old age, all those waspy privileges that were lavished on him brought him no joy and most of the time he wished he had the courage to break from his cultural trappings.”

In 1955, you married my mother Joy, shaking the Pietermaritzburg community and making banner headlines in the local newspaper for having “natives” on your guest list at a “zebra” wedding. My maternal grandfather saw red. He vowed to break all ties with you and for several years did just that, especially after you moved to Chikore, a progressive mission in the southeast corner of present day Zimbabwe, a few kilometers as the crow flies from Mozambique.

Here, you and my mother worked together to understand the politics of your day, and most importantly the politics of the future. How, you asked, could you best prepare your children for the Southern Africa of the 21st Century? You vowed to send your children to the local school where they were the only white students; to speak the local language; to eat the local food and never to use any facility that carried the “whites only” sign.

In 1975, soon after the independence of Mozambique, thousands of young Zimbabweans flocked across the border to join the liberation forces including about half of the 300 students at Chikore Secondary School. Overnight, we found ourselves in the center of the so-called “Operation Hurricane”- the total onslaught of the Rhodesian security forces. Stripped of your citizenship, you sought refuge in neighboring Botswana.

When Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, you and my mother returned. In August 1994, my mother lost her battle to cancer of the liver. Three years later, you came down with cancer of the lymph. During this time, you started to write Learning to Love. Your central thesis is that loving those whom we know is selfish love: the degree to which we love and care for the rest of humanity is the real test of love.

At times as a child, and even in adulthood, I resented this love of humanity at the expense of the family. Later in life, we debated the meaning of fatherhood. You wanted desperately to make amends to your children, carrying this guilt to your hospital bed.

But when I arrived at St Ann’s hospital in the early hours of 6 April 2001 where you lay in ultimate peace, I felt only deep gratitude for the foresight of a little white boy who by daring to be different prepared me for the Southern Africa of the 21st Century as no one else could. I recall packing your earthly belongings. They barely filled an overnight bag. Your most prized possession – a watch inherited from your father – held together with trinepon. Like that glue, I cling to your memory. Today, and always, I celebrate you.

Your loving daughter, Colleen.

Colleen Lowe Morna is the CEO of Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, special series on celebrating Phenomenal Fathers, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.

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