A story by Ronke Luke
In the decade immediately following independence, West African fathers in the British colonial mold were not warm and fuzzy. At their most extreme they were austere. At their most liberal they showed inconsistent flashes of personality and affection. To their offspring, particularly the very young, they could be rather scary. Unlike their mothers’ spontaneous joy, colonial-mold fathers typically showed their affections on schedule; greetings by the time of day that the children must initiate.
“Good morning, Sir,” or to the more liberal father, “Good morning dad,” must first be said by the children before the reply is given “Good morning.” If he was in a chatty mood, it was followed with “How are you?” or “You sleep well?” Likewise, a greeting in the afternoon might get further query from the father such as “How was school?” and in the evening “Have you done your homework?” African children answered these questions with the briefest answers noting that sentences were needed where these were possible.
“Have you done your homework?”
“Yes, Sir” is the answer to the austere father. “Yes, dad” to the more liberal type
“How was school?”
“School was good Sir.” Or “It was fine dad.” Full sentence noted. A simple “good” or “fine” was not appropriate and could prompt a scolding for not speaking properly.
A liberal dad might accompany the short exchange with a rustle of the hair or a tap on the head or shoulder. Whether these little touches of affection occurred, was not predictable.
But, scheduled emotional interaction was good. It meant that everything was normal. An emotional exchange that occurred off schedule was typically of the disciplinary kind. A shouting or a spanking. In the case of troublesome adolescent sons a whipping or even a bout of fighting! Children learned the differences, though they could not always avoid the activities that prompted their fathers’ unscheduled outbursts. This was when their mothers’ refuge was swiftly sought.
Sunday's rituals could torture …
In Freetown, Sundays followed different emotional rituals from Monday-to-Friday’s questions about school and homework. It was not uncommon in the evenings for a family to pile into the father’s car and set off to either visit family or friends, go on a scenic drive or head to the beach within the capital city. The drive to the destination – at a slow pace - was part of the experience. As families drove along, they could easily pick out other families engaged in the same ritual. Children in the back. Father and mother in front. Dads drove deliberately. There was no fear of grossly exceeding the speed limit. The slow pace heightened the tension for children as they were never sure exactly where this Sunday evening trip might end.
… or Delight
Visiting the beach was always the preferred option for children. Families invariably ended up somewhere the children could play on the sand or in the gardens of a club house. They could have quantities and types of food and drink unlike anything they had at home during the week. A whole bottle of Coke or Fanta per child was unheard of at home. Likewise, an exotic drink like Chapman or an ice cream bar were out of the question. But at the beach, it was all within reach. Unlike at home when children had to eat what was provided – like it or not- the beach meant children could choose their meals. Burgers and fries, or battered fish and chips, fancy sandwiches were all possibilities if a child could only make up his or her mind. Everything about Sunday evening at the beach promised to delight a little child and entertain even the most disenchanted teenager.
A few hours enveloped by night breeze off the ocean did wonders for everyone’s mood. But from a child’s perspective, this time had the most pronounced effect on fathers, who were more affectionate; cheering their children’s games or propping them on their laps to chat briefly before their offspring squirmed off to continue their play. Most shocking, sometimes children overheard their fathers happily telling other adults of their successes at school or in other pursuits. How does he know so much about me when we hardly talk children always wondered? But no one dared ask. Somehow, he was an all knowing father. A child could hide nothing. It took a while to work out how fathers came to their information but for the intervening years until that mystery was resolved, African children preferred to steer clear of their dads. Sunday fun at the beach ended about 9 pm. Reluctantly, children headed home hoping the drive took as long as possible to prolong the magic.
Later that evening “good night dad” could easily be followed by a father actually sitting and chatting with his young child.
“Did you have a good time tonight?”
“Yes, dad. I had fun.”
“Good. Good. Well good night.”
“Good night dad.”
Monday morning it was back to affection on schedule.
My dad was a medical doctor. He tended towards the liberal end of the spectrum. Not the most liberal. Monday to Friday communication was limited. But on Saturday and Sunday he exhibited sufficient impromptu flashes of affection towards us that suggested that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t so scary. He took us on his rounds to the hospital when he visited patients in the evening or on weekends. Sometimes we visited his friends and family after the hospital. We watched with fascination from a child’s safe distance as our dad socialized with his friends. He would be relaxed and funny. They would tease each other and laugh at jokes and fun memories of the past. We were amazed at his changed demeanor.
A Stylin’ Man
My father wore clothes well. He was tall; his physique still hinted at this athletic youth. He typically wore a suit to work and all events that occurred at a church. Unlike austere colonial-mold fathers, who mostly wore black suits with white shirts, my father’s suits were in a broader color palette – black, blue, grey, brown, beige. The interesting cuts and fabrics suggested a large wardrobe. The possibilities expanded even further as he had dress shirts and ties in a wide range of colors. In between work and events at churches, my father wore African fabric shirts, including the type Mandela made famous, with neutral-colored slacks or a French suit. Only dads of liberal disposition wore French suits. Its closest cousin is the Nehru suit. A jacket and trousers made of the same suiting fabric. Unlike the Nehru jacket that always has a stand collar and outer pockets, the French suit could have a regular collar, a stand collar or even be collarless. It could be worn in formal or casual settings. My dad had incredible collection of these suits. I remember, in particular, a white French suit. It was collarless, long sleeved. The concealed buttons and pockets made the front and sides of the jacket smooth. Paired with white pants, the suit was sleek. A handkerchief in the left breast pocket added a burst of color. Dad looked sharp in that suit. As children we recognized the association of dad’s clothing with the occasions of our lives. It was all very routine.
But then one weekend morning – I don’t remember if Saturday or Sunday – dad came down the stairs wearing canary yellow pants, a camp shirt in shades of green and wrap around gold-rimmed sun glasses! He looked like he’d stepped out of a fashion magazine. We sat looking at him eyes wide, mouths ajar. Who was this? He smiled at us, waved his hand indicating we should follow him and said “Come on! We’re going to the beach.”
We leapt up squealing, running after our father. We had been oblivious to our parents’ preparations, but apparently someone was throwing a beach party and we were going for the day. This wasn’t at the usual beaches where we spent Sunday night supper. This was the beach outside the city, down the peninsular; un-spoilt and pristine. It required at least an hour at normal driving pace but it was worth the effort getting there. The drive to the beach with my dad in his GQ outfit was even more jaw dropping than his fashion transformation. The man turned into a speed demon! He floored the accelerator, hit the horn, overtaking every car ahead of us that didn’t get out of the way. Forget seatbelts. They didn’t exist when we were children. We squealed with excitement laced with terror, at seeming near misses, as dad, at breakneck speed, wove in and out of traffic all the way down a two lane road until he swerved into a parking spot when we arrived. It was an adrenaline rush to match the recklessness of the man’s behavior. But what did we know then.
And the day at the beach was unlike any other. There was lots of food and drinks. With the exception of a ban on alcohol, no one limited what we children could eat or drink. Adults laughed and joked, interacted with each other and behaved in ways we’d never seen them before. Our fathers were very loose and laid back – quite unlike their typical selves. Adults and children, changed into bathing suits, frolicked in the sand or splashed in the ocean’s edge. Those who could swim went further out. And that day in the sea, we had the closest, most personal interaction with our father. Squatting down until his body was beneath the sea, he said “hop on” pointing to his back. In turns, arms around his neck, holding on tight as we laughed, he swam away from the water’s edge mimicking a boat giving us a ride. All of a sudden, he would disappear under the water’s surface and we’d slip off his back, laughter quickly turning to shrieking. Then he suddenly swooped back around and caught us from behind as we frantically wondered where he had gone. All was well again. We would laugh and clamber onto his back again. At times he’d make us doggy paddle towards him but we never caught up as he kept moving backwards. Just when we’d start to panic, he would swim towards us. Eventually, we’d hop on his back and he’d swim back to shore. It was so much fun.
Late in the afternoon as the sun started to fade, the party ended. It had been a day of merriment. We changed back into our clothes, dad into his yellow pants, and headed for home. The drive home was as crazy as the one getting there. This time our fathers raced each other; unleashing their inner Formula 1 selves! Our mother probably urged him to drive carefully, but we children bounced up and down in the back seat, laughing and waving as we passed someone we knew. If someone overtook us, we’d urge dad “Faster, faster.” He laughed and sometimes responded. It was exhilarating. We were oblivious to the obvious danger. Our dad was a daredevil. Invincible. Who could stop him now?
Dad was chatty that night
“Good night dad”
“You enjoy the beach? You have fun?”
“Yes, dad. It was great! I had fun”
“Good. Good. Sleep tight.”
Then came a ruffle of one’s hair
So much affection! So out of character, but the whole day had up-ended perceptions.
We went to bed exhausted and happy.
Reset to Clark Kent
The next day, like hitting the reset button, it was back to affection on schedule. But the outing to the beach remained a treasured memory and a glimpse into a man who, in those yellow pants, transformed into the coolest wild dad we knew.
We never knew when he’d next pull on those yellow trousers. But when he did, it meant only one thing: we’re going to the beach! Like Clark Kent into Superman, those yellow pants turned him into Super dad bustin’ loose of that colonial mold. We were in for a riotous time of sun, sand and fun.
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
We’re Africans. Grew up in West Africa. We like telling stories. It's just part of life. Anywhere West Africans gather they spin yarns that keep the audience riveted.