It’s International Women’s Day and all day long, blogs, tweets and articles have been asking me which women I admire most. It would be easy to name any of a thousand pioneering souls who broke glass ceilings, gave their lives for the cause, wrote words of such perfection that my heart breaks to read them – but as I think long and hard, I come back to someone that few will remember. My family, perhaps a few of my school friends. You see, in the eyes of the world, she was nobody special, a throwaway person. But the more I think about her, the more I see she was an extraordinary woman of courage and determination, surviving in desperate times.
“Tobellinah appeared at the door, like Mary Poppins”
Tobellinah burst into our lives a couple of weeks before my brother was born. I grew up in a position of great privilege, an upper-middle class child in what was then white Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a deeply segregated society. We had a comfortable house with a large, lush garden, a swimming pool, a cook/housekeeper and a gardener, two dogs, two cats, assorted bantams, goldfish, guinea pigs, white mice and so on. My mother, who was a teacher, had arranged to hire a nanny for the new baby. On the day she was due to start, however, she never showed. Instead, Tobellinah appeared at the door, like Mary Poppins, announced that she was the sister of the nanny next door and she would be coming to work for us. It was all arranged. My mother was so taken aback she, inexplicably, hired her on the spot. We later discovered that Toby had been to see the other woman and told her to back off.
Some months later we also discovered that she was supporting not only her parents but two illegitimate children, fortunately, of a good age to be able to fit into our hand-me-down clothes. It was difficult, they were living in a village many miles away in the thick of the war zone, a situation which came to a head when her daughter, aged 13, was falsely arrested as a terrorist informer (a hanging offence). It took my mother weeks to track her down, free her and get her installed in one of the mission schools, safely out of reach of the security forces. Toby, as a black woman, was powerless and even my mother was threatened for efforts.
In her spare time, Toby knitted for extra income and any male bantam chicks also mysteriously disappeared into her profit pot. When the cook/housekeeper was eventually fired – to our delight (we hated him) – over a combination of circumstances involving bottles of whisky, marijuana and going out for the night in my father’s shirt, Toby immediately leapt in and claimed the job for herself, swearing that she could cook then learning as she went. Any opportunity was grabbed with both hands.
“They were given just enough education to make them useful”
Toby was fiercely intelligent but she’d been taken out of school at the age of 12. Most black African girls were in those days. They were given just enough education to make them useful but not enough to make them dangerous. She told me once she’d wanted to be a nurse. She would have been fabulous. I could have seen her as a dragon matron of a major hospital, ruling the whole place with a rod of iron. She certainly whipped us all into shape.
But the conversation I remember most vividly came when I was about 14. It was towards the end of the holidays and, typical teenager, I was slouching round the house moaning about the prospect of having to go back to school. Toby overheard me and laid in, demanding to know what right I had to complain. Didn’t I know that education was a right not a privilege? Didn’t I know how lucky I was to be getting that education? Didn’t I know how much she and so many others longed for the sort of education I was getting? By the time she stopped talking I felt truly ashamed and it is a lesson that has stayed with me forever.
Toby’s gone now, but it is to Toby and the millions of other ordinary, hardworking courageous women like her who were never given their chance that I would like to dedicate my International Women’s Day.