Chewing a handful of raw peanuts now, I find only the faintest smell, and not quite of dagga. Perhaps the peanuts are stale.
The first time I tasted raw peanuts was when I was four. My family were on a road trip that took us along the east coast up to Durban, from there to Johannesburg and then back through the Karoo to Paarl. In Durban we stayed for a few weeks with family friends, a Hindu household that had bought new pots and stocked their fridge with Halaal meat; and a wife, mother and cook who was very happy to indulge my four-year old’s love of curry, a dish not frequently cooked in our own household. But perhaps they also indulged my taste for curry for the benefit of collective comedy. At four years old (and until I was twelve or so), my tongue struggled to find the English middle-ground between a rhotic R and palatal L, so curry and rootie, my favourite dish, became cully and loottie. One of my childhood nicknames was Cully-and-loottie, much to my growing irritation a few years later, when I cussed and threw a knife at another family friend for persisting in teasing me with this. Adults delighted in asking me what I wanted for lunch or supper. In Durban, I was asked this for breakfast too. Cully. Durban was a magical place where one could get curry for breakfast as well.
One branch of that extended family in Durban owned a small holding in a lush, hilly area where they farmed peanuts, among other things. Being so young at the time of our visit, my memories are necessarily fragmented, but augmented (and maybe created?) by photographs that, in later times in my childhood, my family would pore over with nostalgic recollection; photographs which I now, with an even deeper cut of that ache for home, wish I had before me. One photograph stands out, a picture of a tall, lanky and dark, moustachioed man, dressed in dark blue cotton trousers (or was it a blue overall rolled to the waist?) now all muddy at the ankles, a white shirt, rolled sleeves, a hoe over his shoulders and staring dead pan and exhausted at the camera. Behind his right shoulder, a corrugated zinc water tank, fed by a pipe running from the roof of a building of which only part of a wall is visible. The ground is dark and muddy; in the far background of the picture, a deep, indiscriminate, dark green jungle.
Paw-paw, banana, mango, avocado I imagine now, and other plants and trees I don’t know, but all part of a sub-tropical scenery wholly otherworldly to us from the Boland, not itself unknown for its green landscapes, landscapes of mountain and fynbos, fern and protea over which we roamed, my brother and I, with our father, often in winter, climbing rockfaces, slipping over mossy ledges. That strange country of my father’s heart – his own, yet not his own, or, differently, not his own but which he made his own, through all the strange, twisted logic and heartbreak of this heartbreaking country. My father, in winter, somewhere along a steep side of Bainskloof outside Wellington, my father, who loved the natural world, tugging at an obstinate king protea which he would himself stubbornly plant in his garden in New Orleans, year after year, where it would wither and die, again and again, my father would say: “Protected. Conserved. For whom? This is God’s earth, it belongs to me as well.” It is for him that I arrive now, suddenly, at this paragraph, crying as I write this, for which I am not ashamed, for which I forgive myself, knowing that in myself crouches something of that mangled masculinity I inherited from him. And my brother too. Here we are, heirs of apartheid.
Most of the adults, my parents included, were just back from mucking about digging up groundnuts. Four years old and becoming aware of the transient nature of that secure familiarity children find in mothers – when my mother inhabits her other identities and becomes my not-mother: going to work or, in fraternity with our Durban hosts but estranging for me, donning a sari and sporting a red bindi on her forehead, which had me bawling at her to change back into her real clothes – I think I may have been crabby for my mother wandering off into the muddy fields. Not even the chicken cully and lice – of which my then six-year-old brother consumed four helpings, much to the delight of our generous hosts and an act of heroism that would serve as mnemonic for my brother’s negotiation into masculinity – not even the cully could console me. And perhaps my tardiness in finding consolation enhanced a feeling of strong rejection when, sometime that day, I tasted a handful of raw peanuts: not quite soft, but not entirely crunchy, at once bland, alien and offensive to my tongue which already knew and liked roasted peanuts. Perhaps it was a prank played on greedy-guts me by the other, older children and my brother, notorious for teasing me.
Raw peanuts do not smell like dagga, but to this day, the smell of dagga reminds me of raw peanuts; no, dagga smells like raw peanuts. Nothing in my memory or in the workings of memory will allow me to find the smell of those raw peanuts in Durban and project it three years hence to compare with my first smell of dagga. Perhaps an organic chemist could explain it, perhaps a neuro-psychologist. Perhaps I am smell-blind: water cooled in a fridge in a stainless steel jug smells of duisendpoot (millipede); some people’s stale sweat smells like overripe guava; rotting guava smells like cat piss.
I digress again.
As I grew up, dagga, it turned out, was everywhere. It was hidden, but everywhere, a constant. Soon, in high school years, everyone knew who the daggaroekers were (daggarokers, dagga smokers). By various means of cultural osmosis, dagga slang and dagga smoking mannerisms trickled into the perimeter of straight life, that sector of the school which, if it were not for cigarette smoking behind the toilets, would be otherwise straight. Students like me. Cigarette smokers might decide to “make a pipe”, huddling in a small clearing among tall and dense reeds at the back of the schoolyard: empty the tobacco from cigarettes into a bottle neck and pretend it was dagga. Perhaps one of the cigarette-pipe smokers had an older brother who really smoked dagga, who might even smoke mandrax with it, and so lingo from there might be used by this comic bunch of wannabe gangsters: “Hou in, dis wit!” Or in an act of bravado in the school corridors, someone might shout across in greeting as lines of pupils marched to another class: “Maak ‘n pyp, ek sê!” But it would be a number of years before I smoked dagga.
One of my cousins, S–, older by four years, smoked dagga. As a young, cigarette smoking teenager, I was hanging out with him and his friends, all older than me. Charleston Hill and Elridge Estate, bordering each other, still had undeveloped lots, veld and bush where mischievous teenagers could smoke in peace. Sometimes I would accompany S– and his friends to a spot on a clay bank above Jan Van Riebeeck Drive where they would ‘make a pipe’. Intrigued by the ritual and the slang – making the ‘diamond’ with the foil from a cigarette pack first by folding it up into a flat strip, then rolling that strip tight and fitting it into the mouth of the bottle-neck where it acts as filter; distinguishing between good dagga and majat or kak majat (basically dagga dust filled with pips), cleaning this mess by crushing it onto a piece of paper held at an angle so that the pips roll free to be easily discarded – I nevertheless didn’t touch the stuff. I was terrified that my father would murder me if he found out. But there they were, good middle-class kids in general, but also mixed up with working class teenagers, smoking dagga pipes virtually in their parents’ backyards. There was rebellion, but also a level of innocence.
Eventually, parents found out. My uncle and aunt discovered that S– smoked dagga. He was grounded perhaps for a weekend, refused use of his father’s car, a canary yellow, brand-spanking new Cortina XR6, which was the envy of the neighbourhood friends and which shaped my cousin’s masculine consciousness in a car-mad family where, beyond Islam, Ford was another religion (myself included). Brêkgat. Braggart.
My uncle, S–’s father, was a backyard panel-beater who had built up his business to a respectable and profitable concern. Compared to the lives of his other seven siblings and their families, my uncle’s life had grown comfortable and, to those in the neighbourhood and family friends concerned with the material aspect of life, respectable. He reportedly was the first man to own a colour television set in Paarl, a 57cm Blaupunkt. Or he was always the first man to own the first model this or that Ford in town – always Fords: a Capri Perana (sic), a canary yellow Granada Perana coupe, then a bottle-green one (or was it British racing green?). The Peranas were Fords officially souped up by Basil Green Motors in Johannesburg and sold by Ford South Africa. A legend in South African race-car engineering, Green took these cars, replaced the standard engines with larger, souped-up ones, made suspensions harder and more responsive, improved brakes and so on. He turned these cars into brutes, South African muscle cars that still entertain and maintain commonwealth enthusiasts (just Google it).
And so my uncle and cousin were considered braggarts, but in a tone of camaraderie. Or, not always, all the time, in a perjorative way. “Poesslang!” my uncle would then cry, “Hulle is mos poesslang.” I don’t know the origin of this word, but he used it to mean “envious”.* “Gassad”, my father would say, using the Arabic word. When my uncle wrote off his yellow Granada Perana, possibly flying in that brute of a car and therefore appearing instantly as someone, thinking the road was clear, pulled off into a crossing, he ascribed this to people’s envy: “Jong, hulle is poesslang.” The word sounds like many of those in Afrikaans whose origins lie with the slaves from the Malayan archipelago, words which also carry that religio-cultural mystique which to many South Africans signify “Cape Malay” and which to me signify… what? Something at once specific, from my childhood, with penumbras of meanings that feel mysterious and magical, conjuring old men sitting cross-legged on a moessla (prayer rug) on the floor, in a candle-lit, wood-panelled room, the air thick with miaang (incense), the wooden kaparangs (sandals) neatly to one side. A childhood that found no difference between biesmillah (Arabic) and labarang, kanallah, trammakassie (Malayo). My childhood identity as Muslim incorporated both an Arabic and a Malayo-Afrikaans vocabulary. ‘Malay’ and ‘Maleier’ (or, in teasing, mal-eier, mad egg) were swear words, partly because of apartheid, but also because of a sheen of respectability from my mother and aunt’s middle-class, English-speaking background. We were pre-disposed to saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and stumbled over ‘kanallah’ and ‘tramakassie’. In even later years, as some Muslims in South Africa shunned more and more a Malayo-Afrikaans vocabulary in religious and customary matters, the Arabic ‘shukran’ for ‘thank you’ provided respectability.
Poesslang and Gassad seem to call up supernatural forces. In my uncle’s motor-car accident, other people’s envy conjoined with bad luck, with fate; no, it conjured up the bad luck that brought him to grief. And in a way this was proper to the stereotypical association between Muslims and magic, ‘Malay’ towernaars and magic. For me, beyond specific cultural associations to words such as poesslang and blatjang (chutney), labarang (Eid), batcha (to recite from the Quran) and bang (pronounced as Afrikaans bang but a verb to be, to perform the call to prayer), lies also a further, vague hinterland of history where the roots of words that distinguish a particular identity are lost. And so it is all conjuring. When I hear now in my head my late uncle say ‘poesslang’, it tweaks inside me not at the recent history of my 42 years, but, strangely, at what may have gone previously: my parents as children, my grandparents, old aunts and uncles who, in their childhoods, would have had old aunts and uncles who themselves remembered stories only half-remembered, of secret gatherings where they would whisper words like kanallah, tramakassie, batcha, Tuan. Or doekoem, sorcery. And perhaps also stories about magic in a moonlit clearing of a tropical jungle, before their ancestors became slaves, itself a form of sorcery.
*A writer-friend in the Netherlands and his lexicographer friend are currently sleuthing around for the etymology of this word and I will update in due course.