Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Mother City Mama


Thomas greets me at the school gate and throws his arms around my waist. His younger brothers, twins Alex and Jon, race up from behind and cling to my legs. I'm immobilized by six loving arms.

"Molo, Mama!"

They've just come from a weekly lesson in Xhosa, one of South Africa's eleven official languages, and they pepper me with new words.

"Kuyavuthuza!" Jon releases my knees and waves his arms above his head. "Kuyavuthuuuuuza, Mommy! It's blowing!"

He's right. It's summer in Cape Town, the wind is always blowing.

For Thomas and Alex, these Xhosa phrases will fade over the next few days, but Jon will continue to practice his greetings, weather words, rhymes, and even the South African national anthem, which is sung in Xhosa and four other languages. Jon's the polyglot of family, no question. I still struggle through the French verses of my own national anthem, O Canada. And if you'd asked me five years ago, I'd have guessed my kids, also Canadian, would struggle through it too. But they have never tried to sing the Canadian national anthem. I doubt they've even heard it.

"What did you do at school today?" I ask as I buckle three boys into their booster seats.

"Thomas fell off the monkey bars," Alex says, "and then all the chickens bited his feet!" Recess and schoolyard animals, the chickens, ducks, rabbits, and tortoises: always more newsworthy than ABCs or 123s.

I pull out of the parking lot and adjust the radio. I'd been listening to a call-in show on the role of lobola in a cosmopolitan South Africa. Lobola is a traditional practice of paying for brides in cash or cattle.

"Mommy! Jon's teasing!"

Snickers, shouts and chicken noises escalate in the backseat. I switch off the radio and begin the drive home. Modest bungalows and upscale family homes line the streets of our suburb. Some front yards cascade with bougainvillea, lavender, acacia and coral trees. Others are all but invisible, barricaded behind high cement walls, electric wiring, or the guardhouses of gated communities. We pass cyclists emblazoned with Lycra and logos, we pass a pick-up or bakkie crammed full of workers. We pass the public park where two nannies dressed in pink house-frocks stand in parched weeds and push their charges high on the swing.

We're almost home now, but first we stop for petrol (I've learned not to call it gas; gas is something else entirely). The boys sit quietly as the attendant fills the tank and I watch a group of young men, about six or seven of them, on the street corner. Some stand, some sit on the curb, some lie in the grass, and they take turns holding an index finger up to passing cars. For weeks after our arrival in South Africa, I puzzled over these groups of men, wondering what they wanted and why they'd often wait the whole day -- and the next -- to get it. I now know they're hoping for work. One finger: hire one man for a day.

I tip the petrol station attendant and a few minutes later we circle the final roundabout and turn into our subdivision. I wave to the armed security patrol doing his rounds by bike, then park under our house in the coolness of our garage.

It's lunchtime on a typical school day in February.

We have lived in Cape Town over three years now, and a day like today is so typical, I might even call it normal, I might even call this home. That is not to say I've figured everything out. South Africa is not a place to "figure out," certainly not in three years. But if I think back to that fall day when we learned that we were moving -- back before I'd ever set foot on the African continent -- I realize my eyes have been opened and my world expanded by this beautiful and complex country.


It was a sunny September morning in Ottawa. I'd just dropped Thomas at daycare and snapped the twins back into their double stroller. Bring-bring. An old-fashioned ring tone from the bottom of my purse: my husband calling from his business trip abroad.

"They want us to move to Cape Town," he said.

I paced the sidewalk, one hand on the stroller, the other held to my ear, and my eyes straight up to the clear blue sky. Early fall can be cool in Ottawa, but I started to sweat.

Let's see. In the last thirty-eight months we had gotten married, had our first child, and bought an unlivable house which we gutted and renovated. Then, when our first child had barely turned one, we had twins. Now we would sell our not-quite-finished home and move three toddlers to Africa?

Yes. I knew we wouldn't pass up this opportunity. My husband works in the field of international development and before we were married, he'd visited and traveled through various parts of Africa. Moving there -- at least to South Africa -- for another job would not be a big stretch for him. It would, on the other hand, be a gigantic stretch for me. In fact, my body and brain were already stretched by three births in a span of fourteen months. Still, I'd seen pictures of Cape Town and knew it was among the most gorgeous cities in the world. And strangely, three births in fourteen months taught me that anything was possible, that I could do much more than I'd imagined. So I knew right away we'd say yes.

By early December, we'd acquired three child passports, filed for temporary residents' visas and administered eighteen travel vaccines to our kids. Thigh-deep snowbanks lined our neighborhood streets and the moving container arrived in a blizzard. I wrestled the boys into snowsuits and boots and inched along icy roads to our hotel. Canadian winter can be trying, especially with small children. Trying, but familiar.

The following morning, we donated all our puffy snowsuits and winter boots to friends, and left for the airport. Bye-bye snow. Bye-bye familiar.

"And welcome to sunny South Africa!" The captain's voice rustled over the speakers as flight attendants whipped open the blinds. "It's another hot one here in Cape Town. I trust you're all headed straight for the beach."

Cape Town, known as South Africa's Mother City, offers a stunning welcome. Mountains rise from the city center -- Table Mountain, Devil's Peak, the Twelve Apostles -- and form a jagged ridge that winds down to the very tip of the continent. On one side of the peninsula, the Indian Ocean shelters penguins and carries platoons of body-boarders into shore. Around the other side, a rough Atlantic pounds the beaches at Clifton and Camp's Bay, and glistens under hillside mansions. One can't fail to be impressed.

But Cape Town, and South Africa in general, is a place of bracing contrasts. Glorious landscape, tortured history. Fabulous wealth, abject poverty. And these extremes confront you within minutes of leaving the airport, for in order to follow our pilot's advice and "head straight for the beach," you must first pass the township of Nyanga. Zooming by on the highway, you'll see thousands of shacks made of corrugated iron, wood slats, plastic sheeting and cement blocks. Some stand straight and sprightly in coats of yellow or aqua paint. Others sag, list into neighboring shacks, fade into rust and scrap.

Like townships all over the country, Nygana was created to house non-whites, many of whom were evicted from city centers during apartheid. Segregationist laws ended in 1994, but South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. In Cape Town especially, such inequality tends to follow racial lines and neighborhood boundaries. For example, Nyanga's population is less than one percent white. In our neighborhood of four-bedroom homes and two-car garages, over ninety percent of residents (including ourselves) are white.

I learned these details gradually, picked up facts and numbers over months of living in South Africa. But the discomfort, the visceral wrongness of such disparity, I knew immediately. Never had I felt so self-conscious -- of my color, my class, my means, and my choices. Even mundane activities like shopping or play dates seemed extraordinary, charged with political overtones. In my first few trips to the grocery store, I met a mother and daughter who pleaded for food. I met a lone child who asked for bread. And three different men helped me back out of the parking lot in hopes of a bit of spare change. In that same week, I brought my boys to a neighborhood playgroup. There they made paint stamps with fresh potatoes, necklaces with raw pasta, and I paid the equivalent of two dollars for a latte.

I tried to make sense of such dissonance. I reevaluated my values as a mother, reset priorities for my career, and revised my view that quality of life in North America is unexceptional. In other words, I tried to assimilate, to find my place, and my children's place, in this foreign culture.


"We've lived in this house for a thousand days!" Thomas announced one afternoon. He was restless, but accurate. We've lived in Cape Town for half of his life, two-thirds of Alex and Jon's life. And I am still outraged, still shocked by the injustice I see around me. I still wrestle with my place here -- with what I can or should do -- and with my voice, what I can or should say about a country that is not mine, and about problems I might witness, but if the going gets rough, might also choose to leave behind.

To assimilate: to become similar. In a place as diverse and complex as South Africa, assimilation has little to do with blending in, and nothing to do with complacency. It means doing what needs to be done because and in spite of the challenges facing the country. I've had to shift from a state of incredulity and guilt to doing what all mothers do: get on with it.

And that's what this column is about -- being a mother in South Africa's Mother City. It's about me, but not only me. Finding a place means finding its people, so I plan to introduce you to other Capetonian moms, those who were born here, those who came from abroad, those who left and came back. Each "gets on with it" in her own way, and their stories help me to do the same.

So today I find myself at a typical lunchtime in February.

Thomas asks for a mug of rooibos tea, bush tea, to go with his peanut butter sandwich, and after lunch all three boys tear outside to chase the guinea fowl or play superhero-soccer. Soon, we'll pile back into the car and go to swimming lessons. The boys might ask about things they see from the backseat: children not much older than themselves asking for change at the intersection; the shacks by the highway; the giant aloes; the spectacular, ever-present mountains. I will explain it all as best I can.

At swimming lessons, the teachers will speak mainly Afrikaans. The boys won't understand, nor will they seem to notice; they love the water. And when we're ready to head back home once more, I'll tip the man on the street, the man in the bright yellow vest who has watched over our car. He may well address me as "Mama," just as my kids did this morning, and I will smile in gratitude for I know this is a traditional term of respect in South Africa, and I know that for now this is me: a Mother City Mama.

Katherine J. Barrett is a former senior editor for Literary Mama and  current editor-in-chief for Understorey Magazine. A mother to three young boys, Katherine recently returned to Canada after four years in South Africa. She is the author of the Literary Mama columns Mother City Mama and Of This Fantastic Peach. Katherine holds a PhD in Botany and Ethics and has previously taught at the University of British Columbia.

Katherine lives in Nova Scotia with her family.

More from

Katherine, this is such a thought provoking, exquisitely written piece of literature! You have captured so well that odd, precarious, trans-binary state expats often find themselves caught in. Somewhere between obstacles and pleasure. Somewhere between shame and gratitude. Somewhere between serenity and fear. In visualizing the details you so carefully enumerate, I felt for a moment that I traveled in the back seat as you drove. This is enviable writing--discerning, insightful, and compassionate. What a delight to read!
Yes. Cape Town. Still very segregated. I was shocked even though I moved there from Johannesburg. It has large areas of industrial ugliness in a polluted but beautiful setting. And yet we grow to like it. I am so glad you're writing.
Katherine, thank you for this! Like your essay "Carrying On" in Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Motherhood, it puts the perfect words to numerous aspects of life as an expat mom in a developing country. A joy and an inspiration to read! Can't wait for your next column.
I loved this, and can't wait to read more of your adventures. Thank you for taking us to the other side of the world, and dropping us back off again at home.
Katherine, what a gorgeous, rich essay. As a frequent traveler with my young sons, I do wonder what it would be like to up and move to another country. Thank you for sharing your journey. I look forward to the collection of essays to come!
Enjoyed the way you desciribe the mental gymnastics of adjusting to life in middle-class South Africa. Similar challenges and experiences in Egoli-the City of Gold.
Katherine, this is a beautiful piece, poignant and full of insight. I've sent the link to friends who left South Africa ten years ago to come to Canada. Keep writing! I look forward to more.
Katherine. I love this piece, it is alive with images - I was there as your children scrambled over you. I love the thought processes and the reflection. I look forward to hearing more. Saffia
Thanks so much for all your comments - both here and on email! I look forward to sharing more stories of Mother City mamas.
This is such a beautiful introduction to your column. I'm glad I came across your writing and look forward to being a regular reader.
Thanks for this beautifully-written, thoughtful piece. I have begun at the start of your column. Can't wait to read all the rest!
Comments are now closed for this piece.