My parents were incredible nurturers and role models. But for some reason – like the millions of other Cape Flats parents at the time – they used to gaslight me and my siblings something awful over the New Year’s period.
It involved the ‘atchas’. Now let me explain (without the coy quotation marks): the atchas are a minstrel troupe that participate in the annual Cape Town tradition of ushering in the new year. Whereas the minstrels are all about the colour and sound in their satin tuxedos, the main purpose of the atchas is to scare the living crap out of children during the street parade.
My parents would use the atchas as a threat if you were naughty.
It went against every principle of parenting. Instead of shielding kids from the trauma, our parents actively encouraged members of the atchas, dressed in terrifying masks and as ghouls and devils, to torment us.
I promised never to do this to my kids. The fear of the atchas never went away. It put me off the minstrel street parade for my entire childhood and early adulthood.
But about a decade ago my son asked if he could participate in the street parade and I was sold on the idea. My parents never said it but they weren’t too enthused about me being part of the minstrels. I felt that I needed the experience and perhaps it would help me conquer my fear of the atchas.
My reasoning, as a kid, was that the minstrels were not the atchas. They looked more like cowboys in their panama hats so they had to be the good guys. It then stood to reason that the atchas were the bad guys. And in adulthood I believed donning a satin tuxedo as a minstrel would thus be my shield against the atchas. It worked. My son too was never afraid of them.
I hadn’t even entertained the thought of the atchas until I was confronted with them again as a ‘civilian’ and not a minstrel on the 2nd of January 2023 during the street parade.
My 5-year-old daughter was enthralled by the show – until the atchas arrived. And then I turned into my parents. I was paralysed with helplessness when a guy dressed as a devil with a red pitch fork perched himself on the steel barricade, looked straight at her and gestured at her to come to him.
She was beside herself with fear and started crying hysterically.
Later, that evening she was preoccupied with the atchas and was trying to make sense of it all.
“So he was standing on the gate and I was crying,” she told her aunt on a video call.
“He was pretending he was going to get me. He was happy that I was sad. I made his day because I was sad. I know it’s not real.”
And then she re-enacted the scene.
“He was holding his pitch fork like that!”
I later chatted to her about it. My heart sank when her response to my question whether I let her down was yes. I had become the parent I had promised not to become!
Before bedtime she asked if she could be part of the minstrel street parade next year and I promptly agreed. I may have failed her this week but I’m intent on setting that matter right.
After all, it’s a great way for young people to be exposed to dance, costume design and performing. And for dads to bond with their sons and daughters.
Tell us: What were you frightened of as a child?
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