Excerpt from “Freedom for my People”

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Essays

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The autobiography of Z.K. Matthews, my great grandfather. I’m so embarrassingly late to reading it, but so glad that I finally am. This is sometime in the early 1920s, late 1910s.

It was borne in on me and my brothers at a very early age that our father was an uncommon man. For one thing, in most African families, work around the home was women’s work. So we were vastly impressed by the fact that whenever my mother was away, my father could and did do all her jobs, cooking, cleaning, and looking after us. He helped also when she was at home and the same was expected of us. We lived in this way in a community in which housework was regarded as being beneath male dignity. Even in families which, like ours, produced boy after boy – our sister came fifth – it simply meant that the mother carried a greater and greater burden of work. But in our family the boys did girls’ work and my father did it with us. One of the prime chores of life in the ‘Location’ was fetching water from the pump down the street, some 200 yards from our door. Since the pump was not unlocked until 6 a.m. and there was always crowding, a system had developed whereby you got out before dawn, placed your four-gallon tin in line, and then went home, returning later to take your place. Often, of course, tins would be moved back in line and others moved ahead. This could be corrected if none of those in front were too big a challenge. The real problem was that all the others in the line were girls or women. It was their job in most families; in ours my brother John and I, and later, our younger brothers as they grew up, took turns at it. How the girls would ridicule us! And how we resented the shame and humiliation of it all! When taps were substituted for the pumps, the first one installed was nearly a mile away from our house and we had to make the trek with the water tins balanced on our heads, another indignity, because this was the way girls, not proud males, carried their burdens. All the children in the neighbourhood knew we did women’s work and I can still hear their derisive laughter. But we did our jobs doggedly because our father and mother expected it of us. And our father did everything we did, including fetching water on occasion, and commanded us by sheer force of his example. This did not prevent us, when our sister Miriam grew big enough, from loading on her as many of her ‘rightful’ tasks as we dared. But we gained a capacity to go our own way despite the views of the crowd, and an admiring respect for our father which has increased through the years.“

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