The brotherhood of fathers

Tozie's dad in Africa, and mine in England, shared a common aim.

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    A father and his son walk across a footbridge in Diepsloot, South Africa, that has been painted by artists with sayings promoting good environmental habits.
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“My father never stopped us from going anywhere,” Tozie says, reaching for one of my mother-in-law’s buttermilk rusks. “He never said: ‘I don’t want you going to that place.’ My brother and I went to every party and dance we were invited to.”

“Only ...” and here Tozie pauses, anticipating my reaction, “he went, too.”

“Your dad went with you?” I gasp. I thought my father was protective.

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Tozie and I are sitting on my veranda enjoying a lazy Saturday morning in eastern Zimbabwe. Abandoned shoes and sweaters litter the floor. My 2-year-old, ribbons askew, is fiddling with her brother’s penknife. “ ’S’mine,” she challenges when I swoop.

From the garden come the shouts of the boys. Five of them belong to Tozie. One is mine. Last time I looked, they had rigged up a ramp using an old door and a low table under the pigeon-wood tree. From the corner of my eye, I see Tapiwa, age 12, then Sam, 10, fly over the ramp on a bike and thump excitedly down into the grass.

Tozie and I decide it is better not to watch.

She resumes her story: “Wherever the party was, Dad sat outside in the car. If he knew the parents, he’d come inside to chat with them in the kitchen.”

I try to imagine this. The Zimbabwean capital, Harare, in the late 1980s. Looking at her now, Tozie must have been a stunning teenager.

Invitations – to dances, to barbecues – must have come thick and fast. Tozie’s father didn’t want his children to miss out, to feel they were being deprived of anything. 

But he also wanted to know they were safe.

Tozie giggles. “If things were getting riotous, my brother and I would find him suddenly at our elbows. ‘I think it’s time to go now, don’t you?’ Dad would say quietly.”

One of her sons appears at her side. She pulls a box of icy watermelon from her bag, instructs him to hand around chunks of it. For a while, there is silence in the garden. We count heads: six. All boys present and accounted for. The toddler is on the veranda.

Tozie’s father must have spent hours just waiting for her. “It’s kind of sweet, isn’t it, when you look back now? What your father did, I mean,” I venture.

“At the time, I hated it. No boy ever dared approach me,” she says, and laughs. 

I think of the first time my father let me take out the family Nissan on my own. I was 18. It was a graduation dance a few miles from our home in rural Lincolnshire, in eastern England. I can still smell the just-bought scent of a peach-colored angora sweater and feel the way my black ballet flats pressed the pedals.

I was feeling so grown-up that I nearly forgot to switch off the headlights when I parked the car.

When I pulled back into the driveway three hours later, I could see the cozy glow of the lamp behind the kitchen curtains. My father was making himself a peanut butter sandwich.

“Had a nice time?” Dad said casually. He did not say that he had waited by the door ever since my taillights faded from view at the start of the evening. I knew that he had, of course.

There’s a hoot at the gate and then the roar of a car with a slightly damaged exhaust pipe as it edges up the drive. A few minutes later, our husbands appear on the veranda.

“I’ll have one of those,” says Tozie’s husband, Alec, flopping onto a chair and taking a rusk. He is a youth worker and a DJ; my husband is a writer. They both read countless bedtime stories and struggle to pay school fees. But they can still muster the energy after a day’s work to kick a soccer ball. Or – as my husband did yesterday – trek up the mountain behind our house to return a sludgy ice-cream container full of “pet” wild crabs to their stream after their youthful owner realized that sugar and bread crumbs were not a balanced long-term diet for crustaceans.

They are good men, our husbands, the sort of husbands our fathers had hoped we’d have eventually, back when we were teens, 20 years ago. Tozie’s dad and mine are from very different cultures. They live on different continents. But the urge to protect was identical.

Our boys are milling around their fathers now, selecting shoes. The teen years lie just around the corner, nearer for Tozie – whose eldest turns 13 this year – than for me. 

It will be a whole new adventure. 

Tozie smiles at me over the sea of heads. “I was so mad at Dad back then. But these days I understand.”

My husband looks up from our 2-year-old. “Understand what?” 

“Never you mind,” I say.

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