Memoir

Feeling Safe in Africa, 1966

The captain of the plane is telling us over the radio that we are going to land. Are we there yet?

“No, we are stopping…” Why?

I am only five years old. The eldest of three. My Mom is gathering up my seven month old baby brother and has my younger sister by the hand. “Are you coming?” Where are we?

We are in the Congo, Africa. So we are not in The Netherlands yet. What if the plane leaves without us?

I am too scared to leave the airplane with my Mom and I stay behind inside the airplane. Why would a five year old feel more afraid to leave the plane with her Mom and less afraid to stay behind inside the plane in a strange country?

They made quite a big fuss about me on this gorgeous blue KLM plane. I have a pin that says “junior stewardess” and I was allowed to help hand out the candies before we landed. (I don’t think I will help again, because the best ones were taken by the time I could have one.) I liked the ones that had multiple candies in one wrapper. The stewardesses spoke Dutch, just like my Mom. My brother sleeps high up in a special basket and we each have our own seat. White, blue and grey stripes. I play on the floor. It’s cozy down there and you can even lie down flat if you want too.

We are on our way to visit Oma and Opa in The Netherlands. They visited us twice where we live in Pretoria and now we will visit them. We will meet my father’s family too. Uncles and aunts and cousins. It is all very exciting! My Mom is very happy because this will be the first time she is going back since we immigrated to South Africa in 1961. I was just a baby then and we came by boat.

I don’t know why we are landing and I don’t know this country in Africa. I don’t know where I am. We don’t know anybody here. What if the plane leaves without us? Our suitcases are inside… I think I will rather stay here and fly to my Dutch family, no matter what!

My Mom tried to convince me that everything is fine, but I couldn’t get over my fear. If she is going to try and make me, I will kick and scream! (Eventually she leaves me behind and goes into the airport terminal with most of the other passengers. The stop-over is not very long and they welcome the opportunity to stretch their legs.) I have to wait a long time inside the plane. It’s getting warm and stuffy. I am getting a little bit bored, but I won’t know where to find my Mom now. I still feel safer here inside the plane though.

The first time I ever really felt safe is when we arrived in Canada in 1994. People joke that you sleep really well the first night when you get here. Not just from exhaustion, but also as if a weight has been lifted. You feel you can breathe again.

My Mom would notice this cough that I did not even realize I had. Every time they visited she would tell me to go see a doctor. We had to go for all kinds of medical testing as part of the immigration process and everything was fine. She visited me here in 1995 and she noticed the cough was gone! Must’ve been nerves. You don’t realize when you feel stressed permanently.

Here we can leave the red wagon with groceries outside the variety store and it’ll all still be there when you come back outside. You can even take walks outside after dark. In the beginning, after we just arrived, the kids would yell when the car doors are not locked, but eventually we all forgot about that. We even park the bicycles on the front porch.

There are no walls around the property, no gates and no alarm system. My sister’s house in South Africa has a gate at the street entrance of the driveway and another one at the courtyard entrance. There is a metal gate at the front door and another one in the hallway before you go to the bedrooms. There are burglar bars in front of every window and a dog in the backyard. Despite all these precautions they still came home to an intruder one day… Here is none of that. Here I feel safe. Here I can breathe.

PS We were there in the beginning of June. For 10 days in June and July, 1966 an attempted coup took place in the Republic of the Congo. The coup was sparked following the demotion of Marien Ngouabi (the future President) who was accused of insubordination.

Afrikaans: “Liewer bang Jan as dooie Jan”

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