Hazel McHaffie

Out of Africa

Before the KnifeFor those willing to ‘brave the dark without a candle‘, this slim volume, Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, will move and disturb in equal measure. It’s immensely readable, powerful and totally absorbing.

It’s author is Carolyn Slaughter and she writes with beauty and courage of the devastating childhood experiences that affected her life for decades. The second of three daughters, she was abused – sexually and physically – by her father from the age of six; so traumatised that she blocked out the images and memories. Nevertheless her troubled past manifested itself in wild and self-destructive behaviours. Her mother and older sister knew what was going on but turned a blind eye; their mutual silence destroying them all each in their own way.

Carolyn’s father was a government official who was posted to various colonies in India and Africa, and she captures the country, the landscapes, the smells, the political intrigues, the class distinctions in wonderfully evocative language. I’ll try to give you a flavour.

‘… the great plains and deserts stretched as far as you could see, wild beasts roamed the vast savannahs, tracing and retracing their paths across ancient migration trails, moving to and from water, decay and death. On the grasslands and at the edges of the deserts, the black man lived and reigned as he had for all eternity: tilling his small fields, slaughtering his cattle and goats in times of plenty, starving or dying out when the rains didn’t come, or when marauding tribes from over the hill brought his days to an end. Women pounded the maize, stirring black pots over wood fires that sent up small blue columns of blue smoke that vanished into the clear blue sky. Sweet potatoes and fat speckled pumpkins hugged the brown earth, and under mimosa trees with spikes long as a child’s finger they fed their babies and shooed chickens from underfoot, waiting for their men to come back from the bush. When the sun rose in the morning, little boys shook out their limbs and led goats out to graze, trailing sticks in the sand and wandering silently through the shorn landscape dotted with thorn bushes, interrupted only by a solitary acacia tree with branches laid flat across a sky as endless and blue as the sea.

But then one day, into this eternity we came marching. We sailed across the Atlantic, tall masts and white sails brilliant in the sunlight, and announced that we’d discovered Africa, We took a quick look around and, picking up the four corners of the sleeping continent like a picnic cloth, we shook it up, cut it into pieces and flung it back down in our own image. White faces radiant in the sun, we brought in our columns of mercenaries, or guns and whips; we spread our diseases and plagues, and toppled the landscape and the languid people who’d lived on it since time began. We stayed on for a while, sojourning in Africa the way we had in India, never really intending to stay, dreaming always of England, and those blue remembered hills. But, for all the coming and going of white feet, the snatching of lands and lakes, and all the ivory, gem, gold and trophy collecting, and the building of farms and cities, in the end it was always a short visit: white men coming to make a hurried living along the beautiful acres of the equator that stretch all the way up into the show-peaked crests of mountains put down a few hundred million years ago. We took what we needed and packed up again, and in no time at all, the life of the white man, so transitory and scattered, so greedy and impatient, would be over: one by one, nation by nation, we pulled up and went back over the sea, and once we had gone it was as if we’d never been. We left no memory of ourselves on the still air, no trace of our footsteps on the scorched plains – we were gone – no more than a handful of bleached bones on the lap of a continent that could remember man’s first startled smile.’

The young Carolyn lived alongside racial discrimination, brutality and white domination and tried to make sense of life with precious little guidance. Small wonder that she was bowled over by her first experience of warm ‘maternal’ love from Rena on the farm, and obsessed by sixth-former Virginia who showed her understanding, sympathy and affection.

In her eloquent writing she brings partition and aparthied, tribal superstitions and imperial rule to life. She describes her fractured relationships with her parents with brutal honesty. She also explores the dark places of her own mind with breathtaking clarity; I wanted to reach out and pluck her from that precarious edge and wrap her in safety and warmth. Her volatile temper, her own urge to hurt and kill, her wild and untethered youth, her rebellion, her intoxication with risk – they all make sense in face of the revelation she sketches briefly in the prologue and eventually recounts in the epilogue.

‘…the moment when everything changed only really came the night that my father first raped me. I was six years old. This rape, and the others that were to follow, obliterated in one moment both the innocence of my childhood and the fragile structure of our English family life. We all knew. I showed my mother all the proof she needed, and my older sister was right there in the room with me, in the bed across from mine. But once it had happened, we decided that it had never happened at all. In our privileged and protected world, we chose to bury it, we put it out of sight and memory, never said another word.’

Set against our modern understanding of abuse and its effects, of repressed memories and mental illness, this story is heartrending. No wonder it took 50 years and a wealth of support to write it down. One can only hope that the process has been cathartic and now in her 70s, she has found some peace.

And yet, in spite of the horrors she endured, in the end Carolyn’s story is one of triumph and enormous courage. I recommend this book to anyone who can bear to feel the pain of a lonely and deeply damaged child.

(c)

Shutterstock image

When she faced the prospect of returning to England she wondered how she could survive living amongst people who had no concept of her life in Africa.

‘How could I bring them the magic of the river in Maun, or of the African women walking down to the mealie fields with their babies strapped to their backs? How could I tell them how guinea fowl stepped lightly through splashes of moonlight, or describe how the scorched plains vibrated and hummed when the sun was high? What could they know of the slithery nights when the hyenas bayed at the moon and the lion gave out its solitary cry; how could they understand the underwater silence of the crocs sidling among the water-lily stems? How could I tell them any of it?’

We know about those slithery nights and scorched plains because she has brought them to us so eloquently.

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