The matriarch of my wife’s large family, has died in Johannesburg .
Zohra Rajah was born 89 years ago in the Garden City Hospital just a short distance from her last home.
Zohra’s lineage bears testament to the cultural melting pot that is typical of many South African families and perhaps counter to what an outsider might imagine. The family tree includes names like Knight, Maas, MacPherson, Scrimpton and Green.
Zohra, born Nora Knight, was brought up by her grandmother, Annie Scrimpton, and around the Alexandra Rajahs for whom some of her extended family worked. She fell in love as a young woman with the dashing Ismail Rajah. This was complicated because she was neither of Indian heritage nor a Muslim. The Rajah family did not approve and the young couple were cast adrift when they chose love over convention and married.
Zohra had seven children; later twenty grandchildren and nineteen great-grandchildren. We are still counting. This, combined with what must have been a tough upbringing, shaped the feisty woman that she became. She would stand no nonsense, was often very direct and always fiercely protective of her children. She was well known in the community and was sought out for advice. She was known variously as Auntie Ba, Ouma Ba, Ma, Zohra and Nora to friends and family. Her home was open to all.
Life under apartheid was not easy for Zohra and her family. Educational opportunities were limited and there were times when the children had to travel long distances to school or make the move from their rural home to Lenasia Township, south of Johannesburg.
Zohra converted to Islam early in her marriage and fulfilled her obligation to make the Hajj pilgrimage, with Ismail, some years ago. When her own children attended madrassah, they helped her increase her knowledge of the Quran.
Amongst many happy family times, highlights include Sunday picnics at Lone Creek Falls near Sabie in the old Eastern Transvaal and weekend trips to Portuguese Lourenço Marques where the family could enjoy a respite from apartheid.
Although Zohra had little formal education, she was a fount of knowledge. She could name rivers by country across the globe. She enjoyed a crossword or word puzzle. She was a fan of Elvis Presley and the most handsome of the lead men in Bollywood films. She was as comfortable engaging in a lively discussion with a lawyer or university professor as she was was with the gardener.
After 66 years of marriage, Zohra was widowed and the loss of the love of her life triggered a steady decline in her health. This did not alter the fact that wherever she was became the family hub. She was almost never alone. Her instagram generation grandchildren were happy to sit for hours and be entertained by her stories or receive life advice. Friends from the old days would frequently visit on Sundays.
A small piece of the best of the old South Africa just left for a better place; resilient, self-sufficient, loving, generous and welcoming. She will be missed.
Written with the help of my wife, Zohra’s 4th daughter, Nafisa.