Life with the headmaster’s son

By Time of article published Oct 3, 2011

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu turns 80 on Friday. Here, in an extract from a book released today, his wife, Nomalizo Leah Tutu, reveals a few things about her life with the “headmaster’s stuck-up son”.

My first impression of him was that he was the headmaster’s stuck-up son.

When I first saw him it was early days. I was in my teens. That was Krugersdorp, where his father was the headmaster of the elementary school I went to.

Elementary school in those days was longer than it is now. What would be called middle school now, was then part of elementary school.

I was about thirteen or fourteen and he was two years older. The first time I saw him, his father was in our classroom and he had come to collect pocket money.

I knew he was the headmaster’s son who had been ill. He was in high school in a different place than where we lived.

I was great friends with his younger sister. I was in and out of his home long before I ever had visions of dating him. That didn’t change my impression of him as the headmaster’s stuck-up son.

He had been very ill with tuberculosis. He had been recovering and the family was really dancing around him. They sort of nursed him, or guarded him, as one does a sore tooth. But I liked him.

He seemed a nice guy to have around. He was very thoughtful. He was very gentlemanly. I think his parents were very fond of me, too.

When I was in high school, I thought he looked smashing!

I don’t know whether he looked smashing because he was the headmaster’s son or whether it was really a crush. There was always an attraction about headmasters’ sons at that stage.

We started dating when I was at teacher training college. It was my last year of training. In the meantime, my friend, his younger sister, had dropped (out) and got married.

I continued to visit her from college. I don’t remember seeing her brother there. But then, one day, just out of the blue, there he was.

He said something, I don’t remember what, but just some comment. It was the first conversation we had in all those years. I think he asked about how I was faring in college, or something unimportant like that. That was when I started talking with him as equals and eventually we started dating. We dated for about two years.

The strange thing about his proposal… I can’t really, in all fairness, say that he proposed, because of how he put it.

He said: “You know my parents want me to get married.” I thought, “Well!”

The conversation went on thereafter to other topics. And then later, when I’d gone back to college, I wrote to him and said: “Well, I think I will assist you in being obedient to your parents.”

His “non-proposal” was very close to my writing the final exams of the teacher-training course that I was taking. I was very aware of the impression I would make on our parents about my schooling.

He said that he would like us to start family negotiations about our marriage in December when I got home.

But I said: “You know what my mother would say if I failed? She would say, ‘I’m not surprised that you failed. How could you pass exams when you were looking at being married?’”

So I said he shouldn’t start anything like that before my results came out. When the results came out, I had passed very well. We agreed that negotiations could start. That was after Christmas.

We were married in July. By then both his sisters were married and in their own homes. I went to live with his parents.

In those days this was a done thing. You got married and went to live with your in-laws. The Xhosas have a word for it: uyakotisa which means you are a new umakoti (bride). And ukukotisa (the act of being a newly-wed in the home of her husband) in true African tradition is when you want to impress your in-laws with what a good wife you are going to be to their son. You wake up early, you make them tea… and I did absolutely nothing of the sort.

It was winter when we married. It was cold.

His father used to knock at our door early and say: “Hoo, don’t get up, it’s freezing outside! What would you have, coffee, tea or cocoa?”

Desmond used to have cocoa and I would have tea. His father would bring us cocoa and tea in bed. In our African tradition that was not the done thing! It surprised my mother quite a bit how spoiled I was at my in-laws’ home.

His parents loved him. They spoiled him. It was always, “Boy this” and “Boy that”.

He was very spoiled by his mother. His mother thought the world of him and he of her. He didn’t get on that well with his father.

His father sometimes drank quite a bit and he hated that. He hated when his father was soused. His father was so friendly when he was soused. He was very loving while under the influence. But Desmond didn’t like it at all. He didn’t want his father to drink.

We married in July and it was after Christmas when we actually moved into our own place. It was three rooms: a bedroom, a kitchen and a dining-room. But we had a sofa in the dining-room, which we used as a guest bed.

There was sort of a shower with cold water, which we never used as a shower; instead we used it as storage. There was no bathroom really to speak of. We used to warm water on the coal stove and have a bath in this big metal tub that we put in the centre of the room. That was the bathroom.

Desmond never cooked like my father-in-law used to do. He was only good in cleaning. He would clean. He would wash up. Actually, I think he is one of a few African men of his age who used to wash nappies.

I’m still surprised when I hear young women talking about men that won’t do this and won’t do that.

I think he was far ahead of his time as far as helping in the house is concerned. We used to work together. He is a very tidy man, tidier than I am. He hates messes. He would get up and dust. He would get up and sweep.

We just shared baby caring. From the beginning he was more of a parent than I have been. I’m a little short tempered and my children would never call out for me. It was always “Daddy, Daddy”. At night, when the blankets had fallen off anybody’s back, it would always be “Daddy, Daddy, my blankets have fallen off”. Never “Mummy” – they knew better.

l Nomalizo Leah Tutu is married to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and is the mother of their four children. She championed the cause for better working conditions for domestic workers in South Africa and, in 1983, she helped found the South African Domestic Workers Association. In 2010, together with her husband, she was awarded the Inyathelo Indima-Tema Philanthropy Award.

This is an edited extract from Tutu, the Authorised Portrait, by Allister Sparks and Mpho A Tutu, which was published by Pan Macmillan South Africa in association with PQ Blackwell. It is available in all good bookstores. Recommended Retail price R350.

Don’t miss our special tribute to Archbishop Tutu in Friday’s Cape Times.

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