In Conversation with Sybil Pretious
She paints. She writes. And she has lived through history. She was born in a country that no longer exists. The borders changed with movements of history. In South Africa in the late 80’s, early 90’s she ran a Nursery School attached to the local Primary School for whites. She lived through Nelson Mandela’s movement. As laws changed she admitted the first black child into the school in 1993. She writes of celebrating the first democratic elections in South Africa: “I felt ecstatic. I realised that it was not only the Africans who had been freed to be equal citizens, but I felt free too. I had been released from the enormous guilt and helplessness that had been part of daily living during apartheid.” She lived through it all and soared out to explore more…
Sybil Pretious is a woman who has travelled through life with an élan for assimilating the best in all cultures she has lived in, and she has lived in many. She has lived in six countries and travelled to forty. I met her in China, where she was teaching in an international school. She was like a beam of sunshine. She retired and left. Then we met virtually in a world devoid of borders. While she wrote of her travels from China, the part of her life where she lived through incidents we only read of in history remained silent. That is what we set out to explore in this interview. At an age where others retire and complain of aches and pains, she is writing a biography of her mother and looks forward to traveling, painting, and writing more. Now, this traveller in time, with a heart full of compassion, calls herself a South African, lives in United Kingdom and unfolds for us the story of her life.
Tell us about your childhood in South Africa.
My childhood was never spent in South Africa. The first 23 years of my life were spent in Southern Rhodesia/ Rhodesia. Rhodesia joined Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland as the Federation – 1953-1963). Rhodesia declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) from Britain in 1965. This lasted for 13 years and in 1980 after much conflict Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
Only now, when I look back do I realise how much of an influence my childhood had on my passage through life.
Rhodesia, part of the British empire, a land-locked country almost in the centre of Africa, was first colonised by the BSA Company (British South Africa Company) lead by Cecil Rhodes in 1890 when mineral rights were granted by the chief, Lobengula. The country was named after Rhodes. It had a perfect climate and was known as ‘The Breadbasket of Africa’ for the high-quality food crops the farmers produced. Sadly, now, there are many people who do not have enough to eat in the country.
My parents met and married in in 1934. My dad was born in Rhodesia in 1901. His father had been one of the early pioneers in the 1890’s. My mother travelled from Kimberley in South Africa where she was born, to Rhodesia in 1926.
My dad refused to go to university because his father would not allow him to study Mine Engineering. My mother had little education because she was so involved with helping her mother with her six siblings.
I was born in 1942. Fortunately, my father was too old to enlist for World War II. I arrived six years after my elder brother and sister and my arrival was greeted with joy. I was the centre of attention and loved it, generally revelling in the light shining on me and responding to it. From then on, I tried to please everyone. I was not enamoured when two-and-a-half years after my birth my younger sister made an appearance followed a year after that by my younger brother. Of necessity they became the focus of attention, and I became more of a loner and learnt to enjoy my own company.
My father had a great love of the outdoors, prospecting, and mining for gold. Mum grew to love the peace of the veld in his company. During my parents’ first few years of marriage, they moved often as gold reefs ran out. They also farmed during this period. Eventually when they settled in the capital, Salisbury, and made their money by purchasing land, building a house, living in it for a short while before selling it and moving on to the next project.
This made for a rather interrupted childhood where we changed homes and schools often. I attended four different schools in the first four years of my schooling. When I finally had some settled years in a Primary School, I did well. I was the star of the family, but it put a lot of pressure on me to perform.
As children we found it difficult to make and keep friends, but this constant change equipped us for adapting to many different situations. My elder sister insisted on going to Boarding School just so that she could make friends and I think get away from her three younger siblings.
With the wonderful climate in Rhodesia, I spent much of my free time during childhood out of doors. We had one-acre gardens that were generally virgin veld. They provided many opportunities to explore, invent games, problem solve, and use our imaginations.
I loved going to the library in Salisbury and taking out many books, especially adventure stories and visualised myself in the roles of the characters. I created imaginary people and used the natural world to feature in my make-believe stories. Although we were always moving, there was no lack of childhood company as our cousins lived close by. But of course, they were not the same as friends.
Our holidays were spent mainly in Rhodesia, camping in the Eastern Highlands. I loved camping and still do even at my age. On occasion we travelled to Natal in South Africa or Beira in Mozambique for seaside holidays. In our teens we went in friend’s cars on wonderful picnics to dams where we swam and water-skied. We visited the beautiful outdoor places with names like ‘Mermaid’s Pool’ and Sinoia Caves with its mysterious bottomless pool. We scrambled over rocks and climbed hills and had parties on friends’ farms. It was generally a carefree existence in the open air.
My contact with Africans was mainly when we lived on farms. I enjoyed sitting in the dust with a few of the children and pretending to ‘teach’ them. I had a small blackboard, and I would write a word and say it and they had to repeat it and copy in the sand. I used fingers to indicate numbers and showed them how to count (though I am sure they could do that in their own language). They did not attend our schools and we rarely saw the children or mothers in towns. The African men worked as servants in our homes.
Did you often visit other countries during your childhood?
The only other countries I visited during childhood were South Africa and Mozambique for holidays. I loved reading about other countries and was always fascinated the by different peoples, climates, and lifestyles.
Can you recall a memorable event?
The most memorable day in the whole of my time in Africa must be the day of the first democratic elections in South Africa on 27th April 1994.
On that day I remember rising early, stowing a water bottle, some sandwiches and fruit in my backpack. The closest polling station was not far from where I lived so I walked. It was a beautiful day. Clear sky, warm sun (though that proved to be hot after many hours of standing). My husband had decided to go later. I was astonished at the long queues that had formed – some literally miles long. I approached and found myself standing behind two Africans and Indian lady. We all greeted each other warmly clasping two hands together and greeting in our own languages. Later as the time wore on in the heat I shared my water, fruit and sandwiches. Our discussions were general – the weather, our families, where we had come from and how glad we were to be there at this historic time. They had all travelled further than I had but there was no grumbling as we stood patiently.
There was an air of calm euphoria.
I felt ecstatic. I realised that it was not only the Africans who had been freed to be equal citizens, but I felt free too. I had been released from the enormous guilt and helplessness that had been part of daily living during apartheid. We could only treat the people in our employ with sympathy and fairness, but the rules of apartheid shackled our relationships. It was a day of hope for everyone chatting, showing kindness, laughter and waiting patiently to vote.
There was not one adverse incident throughout the country and foreign journalists were disappointed that violence had not broken out. This day was the greatest example of forgiveness and acceptance that I have ever witnessed. I feel privileged and blessed to have been there.
You are writing your mother’s memoirs tell us about it.
My mother was born in 1904 and lived until 2001. At sixteen, she was the eldest of seven siblings in Kimberly, South Africa, when her mother was tragically killed in a shooting accident which involved her brother. When her father remarried, she felt rejected and left to stay with a friend. With little knowledge except of cooking and shopping for her mother she took on the job of manageress of a bakery and improved her education by reading the newspaper to her friend’s blind father and writing letters for him.
Eventually she decided to relocate to the newly annexed colony of Southern Rhodesia. The story records her many personal challenges in this pioneering country – some sad, some hair raising, some very amusing and others poignant. When she married my father, their resourcefulness was tested to the limit with five children to raise. She is an example of courage, inventiveness, creativity, love and sheer grit in pioneering times. It encompasses family life in a fledgling country.
I want my children and grandchildren to know about their roots so that they may be as fearless and resourceful as my mother was in very testing circumstances.
Why did you write about your mother specifically?
I wrote about my mother because the first sixteen years of her life were very demanding as she helped her mother with her six siblings at home while missing school. The death of her mother left her without a purpose in life as the family was dispersed.
She is a shining example of getting on with life no matter the circumstances. Subsequently with her marriage the story includes my father. They have both been inspirational in different ways. My mother for her love, steely determination and creative thinking, my father for his quiet, never-ceasing support of her and us.
My mother, despite her poor schooling manged a bakery, worked in a department store, designed the houses they built, helped build them and was there for her children. She never hired any help to look after us. She was thrifty, made all our clothes and was a tower of strength in our family as well as being adored by her siblings.
She remains the most positive person I have ever known despite having no help with getting over the death of her mother. Her influence on my outlook in life is tremendous and while the story is mainly hers, it honours both of my parents.
How many countries have you lived in? Tell us a bit about why you moved.
I have lived in six countries but travelled to about forty. My home country is of course Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
I travelled to UK age 23 and lived here for a year working and travelling.
When I married in 1967 my husband was from Swaziland, so we lived this beautiful mountainous country for three years. Our first precious daughter was born there.
We moved to South Africa in 1971 and lived mainly in Durban and Johannesburg in the next 30 years. Our precious two younger daughters were born in Durban. This was during the apartheid years. In 1988, we bought a trading store in the rural cane farming area out of Durban and with no experience plunged into that way of life. Our customers were mainly Zulu farm workers. During that time, I started a Pre-School and admitted the first African child. These were the years leading up to the first democratic election and there were many tumultuous incidents during that time. Our venture failed and we returned to Johannesburg to recoup our losses.
While I was teaching, I studied for my BA by correspondence, and did a Remedial Teaching qualification.
In 2003, I obtained a teaching post at an International School in Maputo, Mozambique, commuting back to Durban during the holidays. After two years, I realised that I needed to be on my own and in 2005 our divorce went through.
In 2006, I secured a teaching post at an international school in Suzhou, China. I spent the next six years in this fascinating country. This was a really special time in my teaching career and life and fuelled my passion for travel. Precious people in a spectacular country, they will always remain dear to me. In 2012, I had no choice but to retire at age 70.
I have not taught since moving to the UK but have enjoyed the history, walking in gentle countryside, painting, singing in a choir, Circle Dancing and of course writing. This has been a beautiful retirement.
Which country has been the most memorable and why?
Many people ask me which is the best country I have ever been to or lived in. My answer is simple:
“The best country in the world is wherever I am.”
Of course, no one is satisfied with that answer even though it is perfectly true. I look for the best in each country I go to and tell the people I meet.
I generally find that it is then very easy to settle into a new place.
If I was forced to choose a country, my home country would be the one – wonderful people, perfect climate and terrain and a relaxed lifestyle.
What has been your learning from all your travels?
I have learnt that there is no substitute for my own very special daughters. While on my travels they and their families were so often in my thoughts, and I have learnt that sacrifices are made when you are away from your family.
I have learnt to welcome differences instead of looking for similarities in cultures.
I have learnt that you need not speak a language to communicate. Communication comes in many forms.
I have learnt to go with the unexpected as wonderful surprises often ensue.
I have learnt that the way in which you approach people is usually what will be returned to you.
I have learnt that this world of ours is infinitely beautiful in so many different ways.
I have learnt that we need to take better care of our precious planet.
I have learnt to take risks and not to fear the unknown.
And I have learnt to appreciate and understand differences and similarities in countries and peoples.
How did you get impacted by the pandemic? How did you tackle it?
I did not weather the pandemic very well during the first lockdown in 2020. In 2019, I had just moved into a new complex, gone through winter, then spent a month in South Africa with my family so had little time to meet people and settle in. I returned to UK the day that lockdown started. My youngest daughter and family lived fairly close, but I was unable to see much of them.
I am usually positive in most situations, but my mind appeared to lockdown during this time.
I gave up painting, playing the ukulele and at times writing during those months. I cleared out a lot of stuff that I didn’t really need so that was good, but it was a very frustrating time for me as I was considered too old to volunteer for anything. I didn’t consider myself vulnerable and resented being told what was supposedly ‘good for me’. By the time the second lock down came in 2021, I had inherited my granddaughter’s little dachshund called Hope. She has indeed brought hope and joy to my life. And now that we are almost back to normal, I seem to be re-igniting my creativity.
Do you see any commonality among people across different cultures and in different places?
People are people throughout the world. Unfortunately, borders are created by governments. Wherever I have travelled my reception has always been generous and helpful. People are curious and show exceptional interest in the differences between our cultures. Laughter often follows explanations. I have been asked to give a speech at a Chinese wedding and had toasts in my honour. I have slept on beds with bamboo pillows and climbed mountains with local people. I feel blessed for the acceptance I have experienced.
Travelling without expecting other cultures to mimic your own; expecting and experiencing exciting and interesting differences is the most gratifying point of travel. I have been privileged to be accepted into the homes of local people in many countries which is why I like to travel on my own or perhaps with one other. The real joy of travel and culture is to be found in local places with local people, not in hotels and on organised tours.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)
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