“He’s such a naughty girl” says Lina, as I stumble through the front door with Monty in my arms for the 4th time. This has become something of a refrain in the household, although it is sometimes expressed as “She’s such a naughty boy.” Try as I may, I cannot the recall the pronoun and noun ever matching. It was only a few years ago, after attending a lecture on the subject, that I appreciated fully that our African languages do not distinguish gender through the use of the pronouns he, she, his or hers. It’s hard to believe that having been born and bred in South Africa and growing up surrounded by a variety of African languages, it has taken me so long to learn this. I’m ashamed of myself and often wonder about the number of misunderstandings that must have arisen in households across the country because of this one small but vital linguistic difference. We’ve had a few of our own over the years, but since being aware of the problem, I try to be quite specific about who or what is the subject of the conversation. Otherwise we have exchanges that go something like this:
“Lina, Robyn is coming this morning to fetch her books.” A few hours later, on returning home I’m told: “He didn’t come.” There follows a moment of confusion. “Who didn’t come, Lina?” “Robin. Janey’s husband. To fetch her books.” Penny drops. “Oh. No, Lina, not that Robin, the other one, Eva’s madam. She’s coming to fetch her books.” With a little stress on the pronouns but it’s been too long now – 27 years as part of our household and family – to patronise Lina with English lessons. We just muddle along. With her 8 year old grandson, however, I’m far stricter. He lives with her and attends an English-medium, neighbourhood school. When he makes this mistake I’m quick to correct him, but then he’s growing up in a very different world from hers.
Regardless of pronouns though, Monty is a ‘naughty boy’. Seduced by a photograph – captioned ‘Hopefully somebody will think I’m special” – that arrived in my inbox last June, we brought him into our home from a rescue organisation. He settled quickly into what we like to think of as quite a comfortable lifestyle after months of fending for himself on the streets and became – apparently – a very contented part of our little menagerie.
Until suddenly, one rainy January night, he wandered off into the garden and didn’t return. We searched high and low, made calls, visited neighbours and distributed flyers to no avail. We did, however, become more closely acquainted with our broader neighbourhood. Only one block away I discovered a stretch of 3 vacant lots where old Rosebank homes must have been demolished. The boundary walls and fences remain but wilderness prevails behind the gates with a few traces of the lovely gardens that must have once flourished there. Trawling up and down the pavement like some sort of crazy cat lady, (waving an opened tin of pilchards in tomato sauce which I’ve been told should prove irresistible to wayward cats) I suddenly realised that all was not quite what it appeared to be and that hidden deep within the rampaging shrubbery was at least one makeshift tent or shelter. As I looked, a branch moved and became an elderly man. In an old, black jacket, tall, stooped and grey-haired, he tried to remain invisible. I left then; my search for a lost cat seeming suddenly trivial. I now find myself looking for him whenever I pass that way. I would like to hear his story and understand how he comes to be living there. I hope he knows about the soup kitchen at the church nearby.
People are living here….
8 days later, when we’d given up all hope of finding him, we heard that a cat was stuck on the roof of a house several doors away from us. Sure enough, it was Monty, teetering on the edge of the tiles and howling pitifully. He would or could not climb down the way he’d gone up and eventually, after some negotiation, Patrick, the resident gardener, fetched a ladder. Up I went and after quite a struggle, managed to get a grip on the recalcitrant cat, who despite loud protestations, seemed relieved to find himself rescued at last. Patrick stood stoically below, trying to look as though having a madam from down the road scrambling over his roof, was not in any way unusual. On arriving home, hot, dusty and not a little dishevelled, I was met by Lina at the front door, wanting to know on whose roof Monty had been found. “The gardener’s name is Patrick”, I told her. There was a slight pause before she answered. “Oh. He’s a Zulu, but a nice one.” This is high praise. Lina is Tswana and seems to harbour deep-seated suspicions of Zulus. How our State President fares in her assessment, I’d love to know. But Patrick has evidently passed some sort of test and meets with her approval. I, however, have not met with his. Contrary to our expectations and quite inexplicably, Monty has repeated this escapade several times and I have become unwillingly familiar with my neighbour’s rooftop. Patrick has kept his distance the last few times and I have had to rely on Nomsa, the Zimbabwean housemaid’s assistance. She has even earned herself a large chocolate cake as thanks for her efforts. Monty is now on the cat equivalent of Prosac and we do our best to make sure he’s indoors before dark. I’ m not convinced though. I have a nasty feeling he may go up there again. Something seems to fascinate him on that particular roof. I do not look forward to going up that ladder again. And I have no doubt that my ‘Madam’ reputation, for what it’s worth, is in absolute tatters in this street.