You’re on a boat with other men and women. The men are all dressed in turbans and dhoti pants, and the ladies in simple cotton saris. You make the three-month journey from Tamil Nadu with the promise that you will enter a land filled with milk and honey, where the roads are laden with gold.
The British recruitment officer promised that you will make so much money that you will be rich enough to feed your entire family for many years, buy multiple houses in India and open up a number of businesses when you come back home. It will only require a short time in your life to sacrifice away from the village and your family, and you can return with a paid passage back to Chennai after the contract expires. You do not shy from hard work because everything you commit yourself to produces excellence.
The excitement on the boat is growing in intensity as the shore of Port Natal becomes visible to your naked eye. You forget about the doctor who did not want to give you medicine when you got sick two days ago or the British army officer that kept saying the word ‘coolie’ when he spoke to you.
You get off the boat, and the other officer screams for you to stand in line while they register your details. You are given a number (1366) and are asked for your name. You say it in the best accent you can muster. They don’t understand you after the third try so the officer just writes something down in English, and points in the direction that he wants you to go. You follow the line to this unknown place, still trying to contain your enthusiasm for making money and working with all the benefits. You find yourself in a hut with 16 other men. You can hardly find a place to put down your belongings.
A social structure is forming inside this hut amongst the men. You don’t know where you fit in, but you are determined to keep your head down and do your work. The first night you sleep without dreaming. The second night you dream of your children and grandchildren and this leaves a smile on your face. The third night you dream of your great grandchildren who call themselves South Africans. They do not hear you when you speak to them in Tamil. You can hear them talk to each other in perfect English. You want to tell them that they look beautiful in their modern clothes. They look at you, confused about who you are and where you have come from, and you realize that your hands and feet are still muddy from the hard day’s work. It was a tough day and you just narrowly escaped a whipping for not meeting your daily target of cutting sugar cane.
You did not realize that in your dream, you traveled 157 years into the future where your descendants are thriving in this country on the southern tip of the African continent. You can see that your great-grandson has the prominent nose that is a family trait. You are saddened that he does not speak to you in your mother tongue but you are pleased that he has made a success of his life. This means that the decision to come to Port Natal was a good one and you will proudly bear the beatings to come until you have the papers to give you freedom from the slavery they call indenture.
Fast forward to 16 November 2017, when South Africans of Indian origin commemorate the 157th anniversary of the arrival indentured labourers to South Africa. Here is a very noteworthy quote for us to reflect on; ‘You do not know where you are going until you know where you have been!’ With great pride, I have noticed how much interest has been built around learning about our roots and protecting the last fragments of our cultural heritage, which remain fragile but distinct through dialect, cuisine, clothing, and religious practices.
Thank you to the many ancestors who sacrificed their own independence for the slavery of indenture in 1860. We, their descendants, will make the constant efforts to remember their sufferings and we will carry the spirit of success well into the future. Four or five generations down the line, here we are thriving on this African continent.
The Porridge People of South Africa
The Great South African Ayas
My Clan Name Is Pillay
Our Slurring Mother Tongue