Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mildred’s petite frame and respectful demeanor belies an alluring personality that is equal parts boldness and vulnerability. Speaking in an even, measured tone she talks openly about her life, on growing up in the African country of Zambia and coming to South Africa. Embedded in the retelling is a poignant undercurrent of sadness as she recounts her fragmented relationship with her father. She also talks about the love of the grandparents she will never have an opportunity to repay, and the people who continue to profoundly influence the way she perceives the world.

The smoke that falls

Zambia takes its name from the mighty Zambezi River, which flows through six African countries. Along its course lies a magnificent natural wonder, which in various African languages is referred to as the “the smoke that falls”, or more popularly known around the world as Victoria Falls. The waterfall straddles both Zambia and Zimbabwe and was named after England’s Queen Victoria by the Scottish explorer and missionary, David Livingstone, who is said to have been the first white man to clap eyes on it.

Livingstone would later have a Zambian city named after him. It was in this city of Livingstone, on Zambia’s southern border close to the “smoke” that Mildred spent some of the happiest years of her early life.

Born brave

Mildred was born in 1973 in the city of Ndola, the commercial capital of Zambia in the Copperbelt region. “I was born brave” she says with a smile. Her mother was loving and passionate. She was a well-groomed, smartly attired businesswoman in the clothing trade who “used to spoil us with beautiful things” says Mildred.

Her father was a talented graphic artist who worked on big brands like Colgate toothpaste in the pre-Photoshop pencil and paintbrush days. He was not an educated man, not in the formal sense of the word, but he was clever and witty and he and Mildred were close. “We are not that close anymore” she says sadly.

Not always what it seems

By the time Mildred’s mother met and married her father, he’d been married and divorced and had a son from his first wife. He’d also had another child from a relationship with another woman after divorcing his first wife, prior to meeting Mildred’s mother. Then, while married to Mildred’s mother and, having already had Mildred, he had another child with his first wife. Subsequently, Mildred’s mother and father had a second child, her sister. By the time Mildred was six her parents were divorced and her mother was travelling frequently, sourcing garments for her thriving clothing business.

“The values that I carry with me”

It was also at around this time that Mildred went to live with her maternal grandparents in the rural village of her mother’s birth near Livingstone. In Zambia, but more so among the Lozi people, the tribe to which Mildred’s maternal grandparents belong, respect for all humanity is inculcated from birth. However different a person’s background, struggles and circumstances all people, strangers even are deserving of respect. Lozi people always shake hands in greeting, and will often kneel to guests when bringing food or refreshments not as a sign of subservience but one of respect.

 “Culture lives within each of us” says Mildred. “Living with my grandparents I discovered my roots and the values that I carry with me. I am who I am because of them”.

When everything changed

Mildred was thirteen when she and her sister left her grandparents’ village and went to live with their father. He was married to his third wife, a hard, complex woman who was verbally and emotionally abusive to Mildred and her siblings. If Mildred’s father intervened on their behalf the repercussions would be harsh. They would be sent to school in dirty uniforms and with no food as punishment. She soon learned to keep the abuse to herself and to pretend she wasn’t witness to her stepmother’s unusual habits and associations.

Mildred finished school, studied further, became independent, moved to Cape Town in 2002 and worked hard to make a life for herself. Her grandparents had passed as had her mother and she was constantly worrying about not being able to protect her sister from their stepmother. Eventually, she made a plan to bring her sister to live with her in Cape Town.

The day GOLD opened it’s doors

By 2007 Mildred had fallen in love with the hospitality industry and had taken a course in Food and Beverage. She was one of Africa Café’s top waitresses and had been promoted to supervisory level.

In July of the same year Cindy, one of the restaurant Directors, left Africa Café and Mildred did too. She says: “It wasn’t the same without her. I knew I wanted to work with her and for her in her new restaurant”. When GOLD Restaurant opened its doors in October 2007, Mildred was ready.

Ill and in hospital

When seriously ill and admitted to hospital in 2013, she reached out to her father. He showed no concern for her wellbeing and they haven’t spoken since. "This family (GOLD Restaurant) was here for me" she says. "Cindy will always be here for me no matter what. She’s in my life whether I want it or not. That’s what I like. She’s my role model and my protector. She will always tell me the right thing. She will always hear what I have to say. We agree and disagree but in the end we find the best solution in terms of what is right for the business and our guests.”

Mildred never settles for easy. She’s a perfectionist. She wants things to be right. There’s no such thing as “it can’t happen” in her vocabulary. “If something is not done perfectly I can’t let it go. Cindy puts so much into everything. Look at the food. You can tell when something is cooked with passion. You can taste it. Therefore everything has to be of a high standard”.

Finding love

Mildred met a man in whom she found all the good qualities of her father. They married in December 2014 in a beautiful ceremony in which one of her other “dads”, an uncle from her father’s family travelled from Zambia to give her away. Her husband paid “labola” to her uncle, the bride price, which is still widely practiced as a token of appreciation to the bride’s parents. In Zambia the father’s brothers are “dads” and the mother’s sisters are “moms”. Her husband keeps her going, literally holds her hand when she’s down, and plans for a future in which “he only worries about the two of us”, she says.

The ultimate gift

Mildred has not returned to Zambia since she left in 2002 mostly because she didn’t have the money – she’d been sending funds back to her father to help support him financially. While she has forgiven her stepmother for the spiteful and harsh treatment of her and her siblings, she insists that one day she will take her husband back to Zambia with her to confront her stepmother. She says, “I’m small but courageous and enough is enough”. Her father’s emotional disassociation on the other hand is still too painful to forgive.

In bygone days Mildred was more like her father than her mother. When she was a little girl she would often play at the neighbour’s house. She’d hear her father’s voice calling her name. It was enough for her to drop whatever she was doing, dart off, jump the fence to their big yard, quickly wash the dirt off her legs and rush to sit at her father’s feet in anticipation of their shared appreciation of the wrestling match on television.

Ultimately, there is no greater gift a person can give to another person than the gift of understanding, of looking and really seeing. Mildred deserves the right to be seen and heard. She owes it to herself.

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