They wanted us to feel low, as low as the ground

All of us raised in what was Southern Rhodesia have vivid, if not scary memories of how THEY didn't miss an opportunity to make us feel really low, as low as the ground.

All of us raised in what was Southern Rhodesia have vivid, if not scary memories of how THEY didn't miss an opportunity to make us feel really low, as low as the ground.

Bobbejaan! was used liberally. But like the black cricket player from Australia, I was called a monkey. You could say my verbal tormentor decided not to monkey around with words.

What does this insult to your dignity do to you? For a start, it reminds you that you are black and THESE PEOPLE just don't think of you as a person. In other words, you are no better than a monkey.

I was 20-years-old then and fairly decent in my grasp of the English language. In fact, my boss, a big, hairy Scotsman, often appealed to me to "speak in simple English".

I sat in an office behind the counter, where he worked, writing out invoices for motor spares, a cigar stuck in his mouth, most of the time.

When this white woman came in and asked him: "What's that monkey doing there?" I was pounding away on a typewriter.

I stopped for only a second or two, trying to decide if I should jump out of my chair, rush to the woman and give her a punch on the nose - or just smile that special smile of the understanding African: "Oh, you silly white woman! I am used to such insults. I wasn't born yesterday. Sticks and stones."

But it hurt, deeply. What had I ever done to her?

Of course, if I had obeyed my instincts and punched her, I would probably not be writing this today.

They would have sent me to jail for a long time, to teach "this cheeky kaffir" a good lesson in manners.

I know now that the incident soured my personal relations with the other whites in the company.

One of them said something to me, to which I took great umbrage and I retorted cheekily. He slapped me on the face and I was getting ready to retaliate when my workmates restrained me.

If they hadn't I probably would have ended up in jail. You were always risking jail, if you let your temper have its way.

It had not always been so stormy for me. In my previous job as a clerk I had established such a cozy relationship with my co-worker.

She was so polite to me we exchanged greetings like equals. She had so much confidence in and respect for me, one day she asked me to park her car.

I had never driven a car before, but I don't know what possessed me to sit behind the wheel, start the car and accelerate as if I was a racing driver at the Monte Carlo Rally.

Of course, the vehicle went wild and when it stopped, I was gasping for breath, wondering again, what devil had possessed me to pretend I was a qualified driver. I apologised to her and she said: "We can try it again some other time."

I wasn't exactly naïve, growing up in the township and working among whites.

I learnt something valuable: they were no different from us. Some of them were cheeky, others were. well. nice.

The cardinal lesson for me was that our situation was completely untenable.

Our mission in life was to show them that we were as good as they were, could speak as well as they could, work as well as they could. and hold ourselves with the same dignity. Once I had decided that, I found I didn't have to be cheeky with them.

lBill Saidi is deputy editor of The Standard in Zimbabwe.