It was really strange at first. Just like all days, I fetched my nine year old daughter, Liz from school and as I was driving, she asked me something. “Daddy, do you know how to speak Zulu?”
Her question caught me off guard I had to cough and look at her through the rear view mirror. She smiled at me from the back seat as she repeated her question.
Why would I know how to speak Zulu? I turned my face to look at her. “No, baby,” I responded. “Why are you asking?”
“Nothing,” she said, in a little mischievous grin, the type she always made when she has done something naughty.
To wonder about that made it an uneasy drive back home. There was nothing wrong with Zulu, it was just that my daughter Liz never ceased to amaze me. She took it from her mother, I guess; Chloe was a girl of many wonders; one of the things I loved about her.
When we arrived home I probed farther on why she asked me if I knew how to speak Zulu, but she never revealed anything. One thing I did notice however, is that she appeared eager to learn the language. Right after watching cartoons (Sofia the first) and munching some of aunt Celeste’s remaining apple pie, she rushed to her bedroom with her pink tablet. A girl with many wonders like her mom, or perhaps the tablet was too easy to use although she’d occasionally ask me to help her with a few things.
Leaning my ear on her shut door I heard some Zulu words coming off in a female computer voice. Liz was using the tablet to translate and learn. Simple words like greeting: Sawubona. How are you?: unjani? Are you alright? Uyaphila?
“What is your name?” Liz’s voice from her bedroom as I heard it.
“Ubani igama lakho?” I heard the tablet respond. Then I heard Liz make a noise of joy, giggling to herself.
She reiterated the translation: “ubani igama lakho?” It sounded so natural, like she was a Zulu speaker, like she wasn’t white. A girl of many wonders…like her mom.
I could hear her make more translations, it sounded like she was in a conversation with that tablet. I also wondered how was she able to get the tablet to function like that. I suspected she was using a new app. She was a quick learner, my daughter.
Two days later Liz was able to speak in regular Zulu phrases, but she spoke slowly, she wasn’t yet able to speak them in a normal pace. I also got to learn a few words myself, even though some of them were hard to pronounce. Like inyama for example, that’s meat. Imoto, car. Isihlahla is a tree. It became fun learning these terms with my daughter. It was a game of some sort, and she laughed at how I said some words. Uttering these things felt like I was playing tricks with my tongue, especially when she gave me a sentence and I had to say it back to her in Zulu. It was really fun.
Our housemaid Sindiswa (her name was the only Zulu word I had ever known how to say without sounding weird, at least to my ears) eyes expanded when Liz greeted her in Zulu one morning. It was so hilarious. From then on, Sindiswa taught Liz how to speak Zulu. Weeks later, they seldom spoke English to each other (although Liz’s Zulu vocabulary was only limited to basic words), they mostly did so when speaking to me.
Of course I was impressed with my daughter; she was just trying to be bilingual at age nine. IsiZulu was the most spoken language in our country, so I figured she won’t have much hassles interacting with black people who knew little to no English at all. I was proud of her. But one thing remained in my head…why?
Why was she interested in speaking Zulu? I tried to get the answer out of her in different ways but she wouldn’t tell.
I thought it all played a part to her adventurous side, she was always like her mother. I had never met a more adventurous person than Chloe, sad to say that was one of the reasons she passed away. I thought that Liz had heard so many people speak Zulu around her that she grew somewhat infatuated with it. She always wanted to learn. It was a good thing. What more can a single father expect from his little daughter?
The following month I was invited to her school – Creston Primary – for a parents meeting. I cleared my schedule to go and hear what the teachers wanted to talk about that they couldn’t just send through an e-mail.
I had to postpone an important meeting with a client just to go to Creston Primary School. It was in times like these where I wished Chloe was still alive. She enjoyed going to these parents meetings and she’d befriended other moms of other learners.
There were so many parents at the school. The principal announced that the school fees were now increased. There were growls from the parents, sounds of complaints, some asked why. The principal, along with other people whom I couldn’t tell were teachers or not, helped her explain why the school fees had to be increased. I heard a grunt from this one man beside me who said that this will be too much for him because his three children are in this school. I felt sorry for him. This increament was definetely going to hurt his pockets.
After the meeting, as other parents walked away from the hall, me and this man walked together to the parking spaces where our cars were parked. I told him my name, he told me his was Ronald, and he couldn’t stop complaining. “I may as well start looking for cheaper schools to take my kids to,” he said, “or take them to public schools.”
That could be one of the worst things to happen for his kids. I told him I’ll help him look for schools with affordable tuition, although I had no idea how much he was making, but looking at his car – a red VW GTI – I knew he wasn’t living that bad.
“One possible disadvantage is that these schools might be far from where you live,” I told him.
“Then we’ll relocate, find better transportation or make other plans, I don’t know. My kids come first,” he said.
I felt more and more sorry for him, and I was more than willing to help him. I almost told him that if I don’t find any better school then I wouldn’t mind paying the school fees for one of his three children. I had more than enough money so why not help him? But as I was about to tell him that, a little albino girl with brown dreads ran straight to him. “Dad!”
He picked her up in one take, kissed her on the cheeks and squeezed her in a hug as she giggled. Ronald asked her where are her two brothers, the albino girl said she didn’t know, they are probably in class. Then she looked up me, I saw the brownest eyes ever. Ronald introduced us, “Claire, this is Jeffrey. Jeff, my daughter Claire.”
The girl was beaming with life. She called me Mr. Jeffrey, I then asked her what grade she was in, “grade 4CC,” she replied.
“4CC? Wow,” I said. “You and my daughter Liz are classmates. Liz Thompson, do you know her?”
“Of course. Really? You are…you are Liz’s father?!” Claire said. I didn’t know whether it was an exclaim or a question, or both. The three of us laughed. Looking at the albino and thinking about her father’s thoughts of wanting to remove her and her two brothers from this school because of financial issues, made me feel sorry once again. Ronald asked her: “so how was it? How’s the new girl? What’s her name again? Thandeka.”
Apparently there was a new learner in Claire’s (and Liz’s) class. Claire always told her father about what happens at school, so he’d known about this new learner.
“She doesn’t know how to talk to others,” Claire said.
“Still?” Ronald said.
Claire nodded in a sad way. “But I think she has a new friend,” Claire said and looked up at me. Those big brown eyes, sparkling with the sun’s reflection. “These days she sits with Liz and plays with her,” she said, her eyes still at me like I’m who she was talking to.
“What’s going on?” I asked Ronald.
“Didn’t your daughter tell you? There’s this new girl in their class. Came from the rural areas, KZN…is it KZN?” he asked down at Claire who nodded again. “The girl is from there. It’s her first time in this side around here. New school, new people, a bunch of white learners and teachers around. You can imagine how strange and alone she feels,” Ronald says.
“She’s not used to this place?” I said.
“That’s correct. One of those shy rural little girls who know nothing about the city. She’s the only black learner in that class. I think they still gotta work in the English yet. She can only hear it but it seems like she still doesn’t know how to communicate with others,” Ronald said.
Claire added: “She only speaks Zulu.”
Then Claire’s words replayed in my mind: “these days she sits with Liz and plays with her,” I finally understood it now. The whole thing made sense.