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FAHLA - My Zulu Uncle
by Sidney Robbins
Fahla, who came to be known as my Zulu Uncle, was one of the most influential people in my life. When he passed on, my thoughts turned to my grandmother, Liza Robbins, and I felt compelled to place on record their lives and the wonderful relationship that developed between my family and Fahla's family in particular, and the Zulu people in general.
Recording the story for posterity was my inspiration
This story is based on fact.
The fabric of the drama that unfolds is based on the actions of a white woman when she decides to save the second born of Zulu twins, and this unleashes all the conflicting passions of culture, race, colour, hypocrisy, love and prejudice. The setting is in the undisturbed natural beauty of a corner of Zululand, on the Qudeni Mountain range. The birth of twins exposes the conflict between Ancestral Worship, custom and superstition on the one hand, and the influence of Christian missionaries and Western values on the other. The joy of birth now becomes a hideous nightmare for the Zulu family.
It takes place in another era - nearly 100 years ago - and although there is a degree of racism, it is not institutionalised as happened under Apartheid, a hideous period when the feelings that fuelled racial hatred and prejudice dominated people's lives.
But it does teach a moral lesson – that human kindness and compassion transcends race, colour, beliefs and prejudices. My grandmother had the greatest affinity with the Zulu people and spoke their language fluently, yet in her time their respective cultures were so different. This she respected and realised that Fahla - the twin she rescued - would have to be re-introduced to his own family and culture, and was determined that this should happen. She inspired my interest in Zulu history and culture.
I wrote the novel so that the story would not die, as so many stories do, when we go - and a whole library dies with us. My greatest wish is that this true story should be shown on screen.
It is a story of compassion, prejudice, emotionalism, beauty and at times, hilarity.
In 1907 my grandparents Sam and Liza Robbins and their family moved from Dundee to Qudeni when the area was opened up for farming shortly after the Natal Rebellion of 1906. They came from a comfortable existence in town to an untamed area high on the Qudeni mountain range that stretches to the east of the Tugela River valley along the northern border of Zululand. This was pioneer country with no roads, only wagon tracks, no telephones, post that was delivered by runner from Kranskop, 40 miles away, and there were few neighbours.
The Zulu people had settled back to their traditional way of life after the Rebellion and many now lived and worked for the pioneer farmers, on land that had formerly been theirs. The treatment by the government of the Zulu people before, during and after the Rebellion is still resented.
By 1910 a settled White community had developed, centred around the Norwegian Lutheran Mission and the Police station. It was at this time that twins were born to the wife of Gabajana, my grandfather’s induna (foreman), and this story is the beginning of the saga of Fahla, my ‘Zulu uncle.’
I learnt to speak Zulu before I could speak my own language. My first companions were the little Zulu boys on the farm and some of us became inseparable companions. In this wild and remote part of the country there were few white youngsters of my age around, and as I was the eldest of my family, my siblings were too young for company. My situation was not unique. It applied to many youngsters who grew up on the mountain range at that time. Telephones were a luxury, roads were mostly tracks and suitable only for ox-drawn wagons and horse carriages.
My first recollections of Fahla date to when I was about four years old. Tall and broad shouldered, of impressive stature, he would come regularly to report to my father about the cattle in his care. He would place me on his shoulders and together we would go to the forest, and in its depths a little white boy and this large Zulu of fierce countenance would absorb its quiet and solitude, with only the company of the wild creatures.
Two generations of my family were born on that farm. In the 1950s and 60s the National Party government introduced the policy of 'Separate Development' and as the Qudeni farms were an area completely surrounded by African tribal lands, they were bought by the government and we became 'displaced people'. Former farmers and the African families gradually lost contact. I deeply regret that our families lost contact - I was living in Central Africa at the time - and it was only months later that I heard of Fahla's death. We mourned the death of a wonderful friend. In so doing, we were mindful of the deep debt of gratitude we owed to a brave and compassionate lady, our grandmother, who took a helpless little Zulu boy to her heart and presented us, and the world, with a fine gentleman. She bridged the gap between our world and that of the tribal Zulu, yet remained aware of the differences. With immense wisdom, she showed the way for both to co-exist in harmony and mutual respect.