The story of a 106 year old Ayah(Nanny) of Indentured Ancestry.
The unprecedented conditions of Covid-19 is testing on our home situations. The government-led lockdown in South Africa has yielded outstanding results compared to the devastating effects of the pandemic elsewhere. Although we are yet to see the eye of the storm, the inequities and privileges in the economic landscape come into sharper focus. This is especially as it relates to the middle class luxury of domestic labour.
For those with young children, the ease of nannies, gogos and day care centres is something usually taken for granted. Their absence is an alert to a labour phenomenon that is hidden in plain sight. The roots of domestic service lies deep in colonial history. While African women are by far the largest number among domestic workers, our narrow attention in this series is on the largely undocumented aspects of worker history as they relate to South Africans of Indian origin.
In the course of our research, we were fortunate several weeks ago to interview 106-year-old Rookmoney Munsamy in her humble Chatsworth home. For much of her working life, she was in domestic service as an ‘ayah’ or nanny. Munsamy was born in 1914 in Umbogintwini, a colonial corruption of eZimbokodweni on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast. Her mother was born in the same area on a banana farm where Munsamy’s maternal grandfather worked.
She is one of five children with two brothers and three sisters, all of whom have since passed on. Munsamy was brought up by her father, ‘Fisherman Thaman’ after the early death of her mother. She took care of her siblings while her father earned his living fishing on the Bluff. She proudly points out that her father refused to remarry and dedicated himself to caring for the brood. He eventually passed on at a sprightly 104 years in the same council house she keeps with her octogenarian daughter.
Munsamy was betrothed at 15 in an arranged marriage in 1929. Her much older, husband was born in India and came to South Africa with his mother as an infant. She recalled that her mother-in-law came to Natal with a group of women who were conned into indenture. Unbeknown to Munsamy at the time of her marriage was that her husband was a widower with three young children. Such was the conditions of an arranged marriage that she was obliged to take care of her new children even though that she was herself a child.
Munsamy’s husband worked in a chemical factory at eZimbokodweni with a unique history of more than 150 years. The company, Kynoch originally opened its doors in Birmingham, England in the 1850s where it manufactured explosives for the armaments industry. In 1908, a few Irishmen left Arklow in Ireland for the Natal south coast. They set about clearing the bush to erect the first part of a new factory.
At the end of the First World War, there was an oversupply of explosives throughout the world. This prompted Kynoch to build the first fertilizer plant in South Africa. Today, Kynoch plays a key role in agriculture supplies. Munsamy recalled her simple lifestyle in the town. They lived in a barracks compound built by Kynoch. She recalled that they lived harmoniously with their African neighbours even though the barracks were racially segregated.
Following the early death of her husband, Munsamy moved to Clairwood with her father. Around 1945, she started working as an ayah for a white family on Point Road where she cared for two children. In impeccable English she recalled: “I did not enjoy working for that family. They were drunkards’. Her next employer was an ambulance driver who lived on Umgeni Road. “They called me Elizabeth,” she gleamed. This was to be a far more pleasurable experience cementing her anglicisation. She cared for the baby until the girl turned thirteen. Her boss enjoyed Munsamy’s cooking and would often ask her to prepare mutton curry for him before she left at 4pm.
With children grown, the family no longer required her services. She then took up employment with an elderly couple on Manning Road, working as a housemaid, washing and ironing clothes. Later, she moved to Overport, close to McCord’s Hospital. Those were to be her last employers. When the man died of a heart attack, the ‘madam’ moved to Cape Town.
In 1965, Munsamy moved to Chatsworth as one of the earlier residents of council housing in Croftdene. “It was all bush around here and we had to walk a long distance from the bus stop. I even got lost one day ending up in the forest,” she chuckled as her daughter Gracie brought a beautiful meal of rice and tomato chutney with pickled chillies. Fisherman Thaman having lost a foot through a medical condition died in his sleep a year later within the same simple bag-washed walls of their beautiful home. In his last hours, he was watched over by his daughter and grandchildren.
We both share a part of Munsamy’s history, claiming Chatsworth as our ancestral village. The meal and the setting was as beautiful as the story of a 106-year-old working life which must celebrated in the milestone anniversary of the first Indian arrival.
Munsamy is a later cog in the history of British Raj in India. Their use of nannies and domestic workers goes back to the early years of the colonial conquest of the Asian sub-continent. To maintain perceptions of class superiority, British settlers and officials employed armies of domestic workers and ayahs for their comfort.
The move to other colonies of the Empire saw the replication of this lifestyle while maintaining Victorian boundaries of class, race and gender. According a census report of Colonial Natal on 17 April 1904, there were 21 473 Indians employed as domestic servants, gardeners, coachmen, dhobis and cooks in comparison to the 70 000 or so working on the plantations. Whilst in the employ of the colonialists, domestic servants were often as brutalised as their plantation counterparts.
In one instance according to a report as referenced by Prinisha Badassy Masters thesis titled: Crimes of Passion, Crimes of Reason, found at the Pietermaritzburg Archives, servants named Bhola and Mohesia submitted a complaint of assault by their master, CB Lowe of mid-Illovo:
“ I have come to complain that I was assaulted by my master last Sunday evening at about 7pm. He came to the hut and said why my wife was making noise and I told him that because she was assaulted by you and the mistress and she was crying because it pains her. I further asked him if we were brought here to be beaten like this. He said yes and then kicked me with his feet five times on my back….”
His wife, Mohesia reported that on the Saturday morning she was assaulted by her mistress: “About 7am I was wiping the floor of the kitchen with a piece of cloth and my mistress came inside with cow dung on her feet and pointed out to me on the floor that I had not cleaned properly. I said I did wipe it but it is the dirt from your boots. She then kicked me several times all over my body with her feet and I lay unconscious on the floor spitting blood from my mouth and my master saw ‘Alec’ dragged me outside from the kitchen and left me under a tree.” For further reading please refer to https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00020184.2018.1503487
This vicious episode is substantive evidence of the abuses suffered at the hands of the colonialists in Natal. As in the case of Munsamy and other nannies, there were also cases of employers taking decent care of their employers.
Prior to interviewing Munsamy, we posted a Facebook message requesting people to relate their experience of ayahs. Among the responses was one from Mary Hawm together with precious pictures taken with a small box Brownie camera. Hawm related her story as follows:
“I grew up in Durban in the 50s. We lived in Morningside, and when my mum had twins we secured the services of a young lady called Lily to look after me. I must have been about two years old then. As the twins grew bigger more help was needed, so Lily’s friend, Rhumba joined her. They were our nannies for a few years, at least until I started school. During that time Rhumba married and she also had twins. By then my brother and sister had outgrown the pushchairs and I remember saying ‘goodbye’ to her when she came to collect them. It is funny how one remembers some things. Lily often came to visit us over the years. She never married. When I was at high school she came to do ironing for a while when my mother went back to work. They both lived at Puntans Hill.”
There are many more hidden histories that warrant better telling. Domestic service remains a dominant feature of a large number of contemporary households but hardly features in research or published literature. Working conditions may have improved with legislation but the ridiculous minimum wage of R15 per hour is well below what such important work warrants. In telling stories like Munsamy’s, one hopes that this class of worker may take their honourable places in the labour history of our country.
The authors, Selvan Naidoo & Kiru Naidoo are affiliated with the 1860 Heritage Centre and the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre at UKZN respectively. 2020 marks the 160th year since the first Indian indentured workers were shipped to colonial Natal. This series seeks to explore the many untold, unheralded stories of indentured ancestry that speak to our collective consciousness and the necessity of better recording the totality of worker history in our country. The series will be published in a book by the Mercury later this later.