This blog instalment is in honour of Katina, my younger sister’s mother-in-law who passed over on 24 November 2009. I have drawn most of the material from my own Honours Dissertation, When “Back Home” isn’t England: making visible the memories, lives and experiences of some white women in Rhodesia. Katina was one of the women who I interviewed for the dissertation. Typically, Katina was unstinting in her generosity, allowing me to share her experiences with a wider audience. The interviews took place in December 1996 and January 1997, in Harare, Zimbabwe. Katina emigrated to Australia some 9 or 10 years ago.
My dilemma in Katina’s case was who I saw not connecting with what I heard. Katina spoke French, Arabic as well as English, Greek and a number of African dialects. She had a strong Greek/French accent. For me, this served to blur her identity, particularly when she said, with conviction, that she was Zimbabwean. I listened to Katina and heard a Greek woman. I looked at Katina and saw a Greek woman who lived in Zimbabwe. I was aware then, and still am, that this was my perception. I reminded myself that I must allow her experience to speak. I relished her articulate knowledge of herself.
Katina had a prodigious memory. She rehearsed her memories for her granddaughters, Chloe and Cath. Always she was willing to talk and reminisce. She valued her memories. Jung maintained that old people become too involved in their reconstruction of past events and remained imprisoned in the memories. If Katina tends to do this, it is as the Storyteller, keeping alive her family’s history. She tells me she was born in Zag-a-Zig in Egypt, on Christmas Eve.
Katina: Because I was born there it was the life I knew. I didn’t come from Greece. To say that I came in … I was born there. To me that was my home. The place I knew. The people I knew.
Eleanor: So you were just twenty-one or twenty-two when you came here (To Zimbabwe)?
When Katina was fifteen or sixteen, following the Greek tradition, her widowed mother arranged Katina’s marriage to a much older man. What Katina wanted was to continue her education and to work as a governess. However, because the Greek high school was in Alexandria and she would have to leave home in Zag-a-Zig to attend, tradition won and the arranged marriage went ahead.
Eleanor: Tryphon was forty-three when you got married?
Katina: Yes. He was twenty-seven years older than me.
Eleanor: You were just a child …
Katina: I knew nothing.
Eleanor: You were the same age as Cath is now?
Katina: No. When I got married I was younger than Cathy. Cathy is past seventeen. I was just past sixteen. I knew nothing. Sometimes I felt that I was a child playing grown ups. You know what I mean? Playing grown ups …
There was sadness in Katina’s voice when she spoke of her marriage and her (late) husband; her lost girlhood, her dreams of school and university. In the interview, she was emotional and not embarrassed to let her tears flow. I pondered on how her experiences have coloured the way she is with Chloe and Cath. I think about how her relationship with my sister started, with her being opposed to John marrying a non-Greek (my sister told me Katina wrote to John to say how she “shocked” she was). But, after speaking to dad and discovering our Thracian background, everything was deemed satisfactory; indeed, when my sister and John got married, my mother took Katina by the hand and said, “Now you are my sister!”
I asked Katina about the journey to Southern Rhodesia.
Eleanor: You flew down from Zag-a-Zig …?
Katina: From Cairo … I had the two children. The one was seventeen months and the other was three years old. The plane was very small, very tight, two seats on one side and one on the other. It was a transport plane that they changed … into a civilian way … I don’t know exactly … It was by BOAC. And of course, they looked after you. It wasn’t a question of not being looked after. Both my kids were sick during the flight. We left Cairo and [after] five hours we were in Khartoum. Something happened to the plane and we had to stay in Khartoum for two days. It took us eight hours from Khartoum to Nairobi. I can’t remember how many hours took us from Nairobi here. But we stopped at Ndola; that I remember.
Eleanor: Ndola, in Northern Rhodesia.
Katina: We didn’t get out of the plane because there was nothing to get out to. It was only dry bush. I was saying to myself “My God, where am I going”.
Eleanor: So you landed in Salisbury?
Katina: And went to the Norfolk Hotel. We spent the night there.
We talked about the Egypt Katina left.
Eleanor: What was Egypt like in those days?
Katina: It was like Europe. All Egypt was civilised. A better life, a higher life. You can have the very poor and the very, very rich. Because there were classes it wasn’t like here [Zimbabwe] … You see the Greek community had its own schools, its own laws, its own church, its own thing into Egypt.
Eleanor: When you came down here … it wasn’t like that was it?
Katina: No. I knew quite a lot of Egyptians. I knew poor ones, rich ones, middle class, high class … I never had any problems.
Katina said that among the Greek community in Egypt, Egypt was known as ‘Mother of the Poor’, because it was easy to survive there with very little money. It was only after the war, when Egypt devalued her currency and there was the threat of a cholera epidemic that Katina, Tryphon and their sons went to Rhodesia.
The community Katina and Tryphon moved into was in a remote area of Southern Rhodesia and the facilities were decidedly primitive. With two young children and another son born later, life was not easy. Although Katina became fluent in English, Greek was her home language. She worked very hard and it was a matter of pride to her that her sons should attend university. This was going against tradition but Katina prevailed. She financed the boys education with sewing, and she used to dress make long into the night, often only getting about two hours sleep, then going off to work, managing the African stores all day. At one stage, she managed six stores in the Lowveld of Rhodesia. She was the only white woman for hundreds of kilometres and the driver would collect her in a five-ton truck. She was totally responsible for all the stocktaking, running the stores and collecting vast sums of money. She was paid a pittance, less than £50 a month, from which she had to feed a family of six. Tryphon was too ill to work; she had the three boys and her mother to support, so she supplemented her income with dress making. She scraped together the money to educate her boys by hard work. When she went to Harare years later she would have the odd flutter on the races but usually lost. When she arrived in Australia, Katina enjoyed a flutter and some of her last words were to instruct my sister to buy her a lotto ticket.
In the latter part of her life, Katina immigrated to Australia to join the rest of the family who had migrated earlier. The close links between Katina and the family remained strong to the end. My daughter was her grand daughter; my grand daughters were her great-grand daughters. Other family members feel the same way. We miss her dreadfully; not only her culinary skills, which were legendary, but her sense of humour, her well considered views on politics, society and life in general. We wonder: who is going to make the delicious dolmades, the spanakopita and other Greek delicacies for our family gatherings now? So, I have written this in tribute to a strong and wonderful woman, a true friend and a loving mother, grandmother and great grandmother. May her dear soul rest in peace.