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  • Acknowledging Black History Month: Dr. Fiona...
  • February 1, 2019

    Acknowledging Black History Month: Dr. Fiona Moola shares her family’s journey from South Africa during Apartheid to Canada

    A Heavy Torch to Carry

    By Dr. Fiona Moola

    Vivid memories of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s pierce my memory often, sharp in detail and rich in colour despite the passage of shadowy time. I dig my eight year old toes into the soft brown soil and green grass at the park, my over-the-knee schoolgirl stockings and black button shoes long since soiled and abandoned on the grass. As I do now in my mid-thirties, I run with reckless abandon over the meandering hills in the park, without a thought nor care in the world. A sharp pronounced voice splits the idyllic silence in a harsh South African tongue. Fiona, get off the grass!!!!!!! Get off the grass? I mutter under my breath? Why? I do not even have time to blurt out a rebellious No! before the aunties and my mother descend upon me like an overprotective flock of geese, smelling of chai, coconut oil, and cardamom, their long red silk scarves billowing in the wind as they drag my tiny body off the grass. The grass is for whites only! Get off! Look at the sign! We must stay only on the concrete path when we walk at the park. 

    Fast forward. Can I go outside to play hopscotch?, I say, distractedly tugging on my auntie’s apron. Only if you stay inside the electric fence, she exclaims as she bats away my hand and continues frying food. Mommy, why are there bars on the bathroom window? I timidly ask, sitting atop the cold bathroom sink with imploring eyes. So no one will come in. We must be careful, however, as sometimes they enter from the ceiling. Yes, mommy, but with the bars, I cannot see the sun. My mother puts me to bed fully clothed even though it is only 6 pm. She huddles under the covers with me because the South African anti-apartheid party has bombed another prominent building again in protest against the government and the police are out. What if they come here, now, to bash in the door? We must be quiet. I attend school with 30 other children who are various shades of exactly-the-same toffee and latte coloured skin like me, ever so different from the rainbow of faces that comprises my grade four classroom in Toronto. Only “coloured and Indian” children learn here in this segregated community, ugly children, like us. The school master is brutally tough. I look down at my knees and shrink into my scarf, fearful that if I am bad, he will smack my knuckles with his stick. A poor black African woman — a “servant” — lives in the shed at my uncles lower middle class racially segregated brown neighbourhood. She looks so cold, her hands and feet callused by hours of scrubbing the floors on her knees. Besides the pigeons, she has no friends, and she sleeps sitting up on a tin can behind a dirty curtain. She only gets to see her daughter on Saturdays, when she walks back to Soweto — an all-black township in Johannesburg— with heavy packages on her head. When my aunts and uncles are not watching, my parents empty their pockets of bills and coins and give them all to her. Thank you Mama, says the servant, bowing her head to my mom in gratitude while she looks away in shame. You have white friends in Toronto? How! Why! Demands my younger cousin, stamping his foot in frustration. Because my mother told me that a garden would not be pretty if all the flowers were the same, I sputter, as my voice shakes.  Mandela is still in prison and he is growing very tired, says dad, night after night after night as he paces the kitchen in exhausted frustration. Another South African comrade has gone missing. They can’t find him. The police might have pushed him off a building but we can’t prove it. I see the exhaustion on my father’s face. Back in Toronto, I tip toe to the bathroom at 3: 00 am, spying on my father who is bent over his typewriter, working feverishly on his Doctoral dissertation on apartheid long into the early morning. Despite being told that he would never amount to anything, he punctures each key with force and conviction and is determined to prove them all wrong. Dad! Just pet the dog already! Angry teenage Fiona says in frustration. It’s just a small dog and you’re seriously embarrassing me in front of my friends! Why is dad so scared of dogs? Mom firmly wraps her fingers around my fist. Because in South Africa, they cut of their tails with knives, making them vicious and ever-ready for attack.

     

    Sitting on an “Indian and Coloured (Mixed Race) Only” bench in Johannesburg, South Africa with my friends, my grandparents and my mother in 1982

    Sitting on an “Indian and Coloured (Mixed Race) Only” bench in Johannesburg, South Africa with my friends, my grandparents and my mother in 1982.

    Can you tell us about your journey in learning about black history?

    I came to the topic of black history through the legacy of my mother and father, Dr. Abdul Moola and May Moola who can be regarded as largely silent heroes in the life long struggle against apartheid. My story of black history is written through the lens of a brown child travelling to and from Toronto and apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, my story can never do justice to the severity of the oppression endured by black lives in apartheid South Africa. My parents were born and raised in segregated communities in Durban and Johannesburg in the 1930s and 1940s, deep in the trenches of apartheid South Africa. My parents and their comrades actively lobbied against the South African government’s forced, institutionalised, and systemic racist regime all of their lives. Thousands of kilometers away from home in the South African desert, my father studied at a desolate school known as Fort Hare University, South Africa’s “black and coloured only” centre for higher education. Here, he studied among those who went on to become some of South Africa’s most iconic and prominent freedom fighters, such as Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani. In cramped underfunded dormitories with abysmal food, they hashed out the seeds of a new South Africa, dreaming about what a democratic country might look like. Under the apartheid system, brown and coloured South Africans like us lived in a “liminal space” between whites and blacks, occupying a bizarre melange of privilege and oppression, betwixt and between freedom and rule-bound constraint. In their protest against apartheid, my parents stood in stark contrast to family members who often questioned the point of the black liberation and remained primarily concerned with their own safety. I often heard their mean whispers behind mom and dad’s backs, suggesting that they were after nothing but trouble. In 1969, my mother and father emigrated to Toronto via London England in search of a more democratic education system. However, their blood and roots always remained tied to their native home. My father and his South African-Canadian comrades started the Canadian arm of the African National Congress late in the 1960s from a cramped and cold basement apartment in Toronto. The Canadian ANC was small but mighty. As children, my brothers and I helped gather food, books, and supplies and to lobby industries to boycott South African goods to Canada. My parents placed international pressure on South Africa, seeking to force the closure of its racist system. 

    2.The Toronto Star recognized the incredible achievements of South-African Canadian members of the African National Congress, like my dad. 1995

    In 1974, my father was declared a “persona non grata” and began a long and tumultuous journey as a South African-Canadian member of the African National Congress in exile. In Latin, persona non grata translates to “as a person not appreciated” and one prohibited to enter a country. For twenty years, he was not granted access to his homeland as punishment from the South African government for his political activities. Writer Dante, exiled from Florence Italy, talks of exile as one of the worst possible punishments. While the psychological scars of apartheid ran deep, men like my father would have been jailed or missing had they remained in South Africa. In exile, my father was not even permitted to attend his mother’s funeral when she passed away in the early 1970s, forcing him to grieve her loss thousands of miles from home. Despite the deeply ingrained belief that he was “not smart” inculcated by a racist and broken education system, my father channelled his anguish into the completion of a Doctoral Degree, undertaken at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Completing his PhD in 1987, his thesis was one document that went onto inform the new educational curriculum in the post-apartheid era, sensitized by the weight of indigenous historical accuracy and black consciousness. As time went on, pressure on the South African government mounted. One by one, the founders of the ANC were released after decades spent on a treacherous mass of land off the coast of Cape Town called Robben Island. At the age of 11, I proudly presented two of the ANC giants – Sir Walter Sisulu and his wife Ma Sisulu – with a gift at Convocation Hall, University of Toronto. My gift recognized South African children in exile. In 1994, my parents cast a free vote as citizens of South Africa for the first time in their lives and cheered and danced as Mandela took his first unsteady walk to freedom. In 1999, at the then “Sky Dome” and Royal York Hotel, we had the opportunity to meet Mr. Mandela. My father always remarks upon his booming voice, his uncanny ability to make everyone – from president to bell boy — feel like a giant, his ever-dancing feet, and his hard calloused hands from years of crushing rocks on Robben Island. My parents walked on a “white beach” for the first time in their lives in 2004, freely digging their toes in the sand.  

    3. Here, we are celebrating the completion of my father’s Doctoral Degree at the University of Toronto in 1987. His thesis, entitled a “South Africa: A Revolutionary Alternative to Apartheid Education” was completed at OISE, UofT and was used as one of the documents to inform the educational curriculum in the new South Africa.

    4. We had backstage seats at Mandela Day in 1999 at the “Sky Dome”. Mandela came to Toronto to thank Canadians for their work against the apartheid system. This was one of the happiest days of my life

    5. The High Commissioner for South Africa – Billy Modise – thanked dad for being a stalwart for the new South Africa. At Ottawa, Canada, 1995.

    My journey to black history is a gift that has been given to me by my parents and their life long struggle for the attainment of a just and free South Africa. However, my journey with black history is radically different from my parents who faced far more systemic and institutionalized barriers, such as segregated schools, parks, and beaches, not having the right to a democratic vote for most of their lives, threats of violence, using passbooks to travel through particular geographic regions of South Africa based on skin colour, and enduring horrendous slurs and race-based bullying, just to name a few. I believe that as young Canadians, our journey with black history is different and perhaps more insidious, more challenging to see. Although there are still many existing systemic barriers such us grave inequities in the academy, we fight many interpersonal and intrapersonal racial issues.

    These include — to name a few — the challenge to overcome racial assumptions and stereotypes, overcoming internalized racism passed down through generations, and debunking the myth that whiteness is associated with power, prestige and beauty. As a young academic, I have worked hard over the past seven years with my colleagues to try to address the alarming lack of diversity in the academy. Although our students are becoming increasingly diverse each year, the academy remains largely a white institution especially at the highest levels of administration. When students look to faculty, for me, it is critical that some of the faces gazing back look like theirs so as to promote mirroring, recognition, and a sense of belonging and place.

    I believe that it is important to honour black history for a myriad of important reasons Black lives and black history remain a largely silenced narrative in contemporary society. We do not celebrate the vast achievements that black lives have made to many fields, such as medicine, science, the arts, and literature. Or, when we do, it is often in a tokenistic and inauthentic way. Celebrating black history is just one way to ensure that these stories are not lost with the passage of time. Celebrating and honouring black history means that these lives are given an important place in contemporary dialogues.

    How do you carry the spirit of Black History Month throughout the year?

    I try to carry the spirit of black history always. Honouring the contributions of black lives is a value that I uphold every day. Even when my voice shakes  —and I am nervous, awkward, or uncertain — I always try to break silence in public spaces in an attempt to ensure that we remember black lives. For me, mistake making and being very awkward is far better than remaining silent on gravely important issues. My voice shakes as much today as it did when I was eight years old, telling my cousin about the colourful rose garden.

    Who inspires you and why?

    I am inspired by many lives on my black history journey. Of course, the life and times of Dr. Nelson Mandela are for me, a fascinating exploration and study on tenacity, forgiveness, and resilience in the face of inhumane injustice. His 30 year imprisonment stunned the world over, instilling new insights on the ways that peace, education, and reconciliation can bring together a broken people long divided on racial lines. I admire Dr. Maya Angelou for using the transformative power of words and poetry to shed light on issues like injustice and oppression. But, more importantly, I am inspired by silent and fallen heroes who did not ever reach an iconic status or public recognition. Although my parents formed the corps of South Africa’s peaceful revolution, their 30 year efforts – and the psychological losses and sacrifices they endured — went unnoticed by many.

    South Africa’s system would not have fallen without the help of many hands like theirs that pressured the South African government to fall. As pictured below, I am also inspired by fallen heroes like Hector Peterson. Hector was one of the young leaders of what became known as South Africa’s Student Revolt. At the revolt, young South Africans protested against the South African government in the name of a better education system that was not stripped of Bantu or Black heritage. At this peaceful protest of mostly unarmed children and youth, the police opened fire and Hector was one of the first students to fall. Although his image splashed the pages of the media at the time, most of us forget his name now. Hector’s story is always uttered in our home. For me, he is the embodiment of black South African education and their fight for access to knowledge.

    6. In our home, it is important to remember 16 year old Hector Peterson at the Students Revolt, 1976, in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. For me, Hector is the embodiment of black South African education. He was shot by the South African police at a peaceful student rally to improve the education system for black students. Dad met the girl in this iconic photo who ran with Hector on the day of his death shortly after the dismantling of apartheid

    With eager anticipation, I look forward to reading the other Holland Bloorview black history profile stories this month. Although it is a very heavy torch to carry and I often fall down, I am eternally grateful to my parents for ensuring that I never forget black history and lives. Because of mom and dad, I will always try my best to be an advocate, ally, and friend.

    Black History Month 2019

    Recognized and supported by the Government of Canada, Black History Month gives Canadians the opportunity to celebrate the many achievements and contributions of Black Canadians throughout history and has played a fundamental role in building a country of culture, diversity, compassion and prosperity.

    This month is a time to learn more about Canadian stories, the courage and contributions of Black Canadians, the diversity of Black communities and their importance to the settlement, development and growth of Canada.

    Black History Month at Holland Bloorview

    Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital wants to recognize and promote our diversity to create an inclusive environment, and therefore, strive for equity within our hospital. The Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee would like to highlight Black History Month at Holland Bloorview and bring awareness to our diverse workforce and health equity for our clients.

    There are many organizations and educational resources devoted to the promotion and awareness of Black Canadian History. We encourage the Holland Bloorview community to participate in the many events taking place throughout the month. For more information, check out City of Toronto and their calendar events.