I was born in Durban, South Africa, on the 10th of April 1967. I am the eldest and have two younger brothers of whom I am immensely proud – both strong men with great hearts, brilliant minds and wonderful achievers. My mother, SV Hardy, is one of five sisters, and was born and raised in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). My grandfather was British and my grandmother was a South African of Afrikaans and French decent. My father JJ Ackerman is South African, with German ancestral links.
Many Christmas vacations my parents would laden our trusty transport with every conceivable thing imaginable for the journey on the one way, double track (two thin strips – one for each tyre) road to visit the full spread of my mothers family in Rhodesia. The trip was not however for the faint hearted. It was hair-raising because of local wars, lions truly roaming freely about and roads that were often impassable because of flooded rivers and rockfalls in the mountain ranges. It was uncomfortably hot with no air-conditioning in the middle of the humid African summer, and its daunting duration without regular pitstops ,and fast cars on fast roads we are spoilt with today. Despite, or perhaps because of that, it was a regular adventure, which began a travel bug in my soul. Traveling from one sister to the next, and to my grandparents, gave me the opportunity to see the beautifully wild bush veld and some amazing tourist attractions on the way.
Two of Mom’s sisters married farmers, which was a treasure for me as I lived in a city. Mucking about with cousins in the fields and rivers, fishing in the dams, running in the dirt with the customary pack of dogs, climbing trees, making as much noise as we wanted, and exploring the beautiful land. This not only filled my eyes with vast African light but also with an unspeakable love of the land itself. Both these aunts also painted, and it was in their homes that I learned to appreciate art, and which inspired me to later take it up for myself.
The other two sisters and my grandparents all lived in different mining towns, which gave opportunities to visit the mine social clubs for tennis and tea, whilst eaves dropping (in those days children where to be ‘seen and not heard’, and the ‘seen’ was usually well away from adult conversations, requiring stealth to get close) on tales of the foreign lands beneath the surface. It sounded both a scary and a wondrous place, as I heard how far down they went into the pitch darkness, with horrendous danger at every turn. But the wonder came in the rocks, gems, gold and crystals which filled their homes. I would image huge underground rooms with fairy like crystal droplets dripping from every grain of rock.
About the Christmas tree we would hear stories of never to be repeated adventures, as modernity changed it all. Of one uncles elephant and lion hunting expeditions, as we sat amongst his trophies, and another who spontaneously drove for three years all the way up Africa along the Nile and on to europe before ending in Moscow and coming back again. Tales of how he’d escaped waring tribal areas, traveling without roads, maps or GPS’ and no mobile phones to get news of what awaited ahead until he got there. Tales of danger, intrigue and friendships struck with strangers who wished to accompany him.
The farming sisters space gave me an appreciation of light, art, expanse and nature, combined with a respect for the hard work and struggle it took to produce the things we daily take for granted on our green grocer shelves. Whilst, the mining sisters and grandparents gave me the wonder of the subterranean. I have a love for gems and crystals and rocks since young because of it. It even inspired me to go caving with the Wits University on many a Wednesday night, about the hundreds of caves in the Cradle of Humankind. And, I even found caverns of crystal droplets, just as I had imagined them.
My father is a very practical and handy man. He is also a gifted linguist fluent in a number of South African languages. He built motorbikes from scrap for my brothers, serviced his own car, made our wooden go-carts, hand-crafted elegant bookcases for the family encyloclopedias and could use any tool known to man. All these were carefully and proudly collected, catalogued and stored in a single garage that resembled the Indian cafes of Durban where one had to squeeze in and out because the shelves were so well ladened. He was the one who worked day and night shifts to get me a home, when I refused to sleep in the flat after returning from the first trip to Rhodesia, having discovered the joy of open space and light. He has taught me to play chess, be creative, to take care of my things and of those of others, to never do anything unless I did it well, to problem solve, to believe that I can do anything I set my mind to, to be strong and resourceful, and to be curious about how things work.
My mother is a great supporter, a fierce lioness protector and a champion of all her children. She would sew our clothes, knit our jerseys and bake the most incredible cakes and sausage rolls. Then, she would democratically dish out the cake bowl to be enjoyed, as it baked. Later she would take the time to decorate it with icing sugar flowers, always saving some for me to practice decorating the backs of the saucers she provided. She would walk the four kilometers alone in Durban’s humidity each day, whilst highly pregnant with my youngest brother, just to accompany her two eldest safely to and from primary school, until she learned to drive a car. One of the few times I ever saw her completely loose her temper was with the two twenty-something sons of a neighbour who got drunk and were cursing loudly within our earshot. She was so forceful that they not only apologized but never did it again when we were around. She has taught me to stand on my own to feet, to not complain, to use good language to express myself, to pick my fights and to make the most of what I have.
They both loved to read and would each take out four books a week from the local library. I would read all eight when they were finished with them. In high school this earned me the name of ‘hermit’ from my father. I gained a diverse appreciation of literature from them. Westerns and adventure tales from Dad’s collection (favorites were Louis L’Amour and Wilbur Smith) and historical romances (Barbara Cartland, amongst others) from Mom’s collection. Combining this with the English and Afrikaans classics I devoured at school, ensured a highly varied vocabulary of appreciation. I enjoyed books so much that I became a library monitor just to have access to more. I truly loved school and learning so much, that I decided to never leave and so, when I received the opportunity for a scholarship to train as I teacher, I jumped at it. I realize now just how much of a nerd I was back then. Gosh, I was even a member of the choir until I left college. In fact, in matric, I was so convinced and confident of my decision to teach that I only applied to the one college and got in. Thinking back, now I realize just how reckless I was, and how lucky I am that it all work out.
In Edgewood Teachers Training College I was given only the following options for a second major if I was to teach Afrikaans: Maths, Music or Technical Drawing.
Maths had not made it into my ‘enjoyed’ field of study because of my haunting fear for my Primary School Maths teacher. I did later get over that when I had to teach myself Statistics for my BA degree (Psychology and Geography majors) through the remote learning University of South Africa in my late twenties. Gratefully though and through a funny twist of fate, I was to later teach at the same boys high school as she then did. We shared the same teachers lounge where I gratefully overcame my silliness.
I hadn’t studied music before, though we had an electronic organ at home. I had a friend and a cousin who could play music by ear, which was intimidating. I decided that music would not be an option either, as I could not give it the level of ‘perfection’ it required in my mind, without having studied it studiously from childhood. I did however spend many an afternoon in the piano booths at the college, after studies, teaching myself Beetle tunes off my mothers organ music sheets and singing along wholeheartedly, just for the fun.
That left only Technical Drawing / Drafting. Now in the 70’s, when I was in high school, TD was only taught in boys schools. Reaching college in the early 80’s, I was now permitted to learn it for the first time. It was both liberating and daunting. The challenge was that I would be learning it, with young men who had at least a four year head start on me, having practiced it in High School. Going over the options again in my head, I decided to go for it anyway, hoping that it may be in my blood. My brother was acing it in school, and at least, I reasoned, if I needed help I could go to him. That proved not to be necessary, as I quickly become the one that the men in the class would consult for solutions to its challenges.
Experiences like that in my life have given me the blessed, some may say delusional, belief that I really can do anything I set my mind to. It is that belief, combined with the real joy I’ve discovered in the writing process itself, which has allowed me to begin.