Three years ago, almost to the day, I published the post below. It has become my most-viewed post in all the years I have been blogging. Reading through it again, I feel that essentially, little has changed although I would dare to say that we’re actually all slightly more positive than we were back then. Our opposition party has recently made serious inroads into government and this is something virtually unheard of on the African continent.
We still have the broom sellers and my wire poultry collection has expanded. The Metro police are still intimidating at times. We’ve moved house but the rhythm of our days is much the same. Caroline, our nanny and housemaid for 31 years, has retired and is a full-time grandmother but we keep in touch. Very sadly, Joseph succumbed to his largely unacknowledged illness on the 1st of March 2015. We think of him often.
Once again, parts of the country are in the grip of a severe drought. On the 15th of September 2013 we had our first major storm of the year. We’re hoping for a similar storm now today but it isn’t looking very promising.
At a magnificent open-air concert on Saturday night, the choir sang a beautiful Zulu prayer calling for rain and later on in the evening they brought the crowds to their feet with Bless the Rains Down in Africa. For some reason, that song never fails to inspire and unite audiences in this country.
First published on September 15, 2013:
One of my readers has commented that my last post, Catwalk on a Dark Continent, differed in tone and content from my usual style. He felt it had negative overtones rather than the positive approach he associates with my writing. It got me thinking as I’ve never tried to be either negative or positive. On Africadayz, my aim has been to keep some sort of record of the times in which I live; the paradoxes, contrasts, tragedies and joys of living in post-apartheid South Africa. I started writing for myself and for family members abroad, but after a while I loosened the restrictions and ‘put it out there’ in case other ex-South Africans might occasionally enjoy a non-political, very ordinary ‘take’ on what it’s like to be here now.
Perhaps my perceptions are usually positive. Beauty, as we’re often reminded is in eye of the beholder and I see beauty here, all around me, every day. There is so much about post-apartheid South Africa to love and so, so many people from the whole rainbow spectrum who make it that way. But to write only about the good would be to ignore other realities and I always intended to reflect all the varied aspects, shades and hues of my life here today. It is only my perspective and only my subjective responses that I try to share.
So I thought, seeing as this question is so fresh in my mind, that I would try to record Today; simply and truthfully as it plays out and so far it’s been a very typical, very ordinary, African Saturday.
An Ordinary Saturday:
I wake to another in an unbroken string of beautiful spring mornings. Caroline, our maid of 29 years, doesn’t work over weekends. Being just the two of us now, our weekend days are our own to do as we wish with. We have breakfast on the patio surrounded by Spring. On TV we see the All Blacks defeat the Springboks hours ahead of us in New Zealand in what we feel is a rather unfair game. We know the prevailing topic of conversation in South Africa today will be this game. I set off to do some weekend grocery shopping and notice several shoppers in Springbok colours. We’re passionate about our team.
I have chosen a particular branch of Woolies where I can park right outside and where I’m able to push my own shopping trolley the short distance to my car. For some reason, this particular car park is free of car guards, formal or otherwise. In most places I feel obliged to hand my trolley over to someone else who pushes it to my car and unloads it in return for a small tip. If I refuse this service for any reason whatsoever, I drive home with a prickly conscience.
So today I unload my groceries into my car in the order I prefer, only to be accosted suddenly by a young man, nicely dressed and apparently perfectly healthy, asking me for food or money. I feel the pull of emotional blackmail. Having just packed several bags of food into my car, it is impossible not to respond. As I drive away, I see him approach another woman just like me and I’m sure I see the same conflict cross her face.
Driving home I notice that one of the intersections which is usually abuzz with informal vendors selling everything from cell-phone holders to beaded animals, is unnaturally quiet and I remember that yesterday I saw a group of metro police rounding people up and herding them away. I recall that I felt faintly sick at the sight of it. Most of the ‘traffic-light vendors’ are from Zimbabwe. They have so little and selling small wares in the traffic is the only way they can earn a limited living. While I can’t say I enjoy being besieged at every red light, I sympathise with their plight and wonder why the metro police can’t occupy themselves by dealing with real problems rather than harassing these people. I know one of the vendors who stands at the intersection a little further up the road. His name is Stuart and he has a certain dignity. I wonder what he did in Zimbabwe before coming here. I feel sure it wasn’t this. I have bought beautiful beaded chickens from him in the past. As I passed yesterday, I spotted him, hovering anxiously on a traffic island, trying to work out whether the police would be coming for him next. I hated seeing him so demeaned and decided to buy another chicken next time I see him there. Soon my garden will be overrun with wire poultry.
And today – Oh No! – the police are back in action at another corner where just a few days ago I saw the most exquisite roosters, beaded in the colours of our national flag. The traffic light is green and I cannot stop to see what is happening, but several large policemen are looming over an older black woman who appears to be pleading with them. My heart clenches.
This sort of scene is uncomfortably reminiscent of similar events in my childhood. Near my local corner store in East London, groups of African men would gather to play a gambling game on some weekend afternoons. Without warning, police vans would screech down the road; swarms of white policemen would descend on the men, scattering them in all directions. Many would be caught and bundled into the vans to be driven off to who knows where. As a little girl I witnessed this a few times and was traumatised by it. Now the scene seems to be replaying itself, grotesquely out of time. The intimidation is the same but now the policemen are black.
Slightly rattled, I turn into my tranquil, tree-lined street and approach my driveway but not before my well-trained eye has registered a stranger sitting on the pavement directly opposite my closed, electrically operated gates. As I turn, he rises and makes his way toward my car. I see that all is not well with him. He limps slightly and seems in some way mentally challenged. One voice in my head tells me that he is only begging and I should simply give him something, but the other voice, the wary-wearied South African one, tells me I cannot risk it. The endless conflict; to trust or not to trust. I reverse slightly and call my house on my cell phone to muster some moral support. Immediately he changes tack and heads off up the road towards another gate and another intercom. I drive into my garage and am soon back in the sanctuary of my garden.
Not ten minutes later the intercom chimes and on the camera screen I see a broom-seller at the gate. At least once a day a broom-seller rings the bell but there is a limit to how many grass garden brooms or feather dusters one can line up in the cupboards. The explanation of this is tiring and often heart-rending and sometimes it is easier to succumb and buy a 10th broom.
Now it’s time for gardening. We’re waiting for the rains to start and the ground is baked and hard. The electronic sprinkler is not doing enough and I need to really soak some of the plants. As I drag the hose around, my thoughts turn to Joseph, our gardener of 31 years. He went home to Zimbabwe on leave more than a month ago and he wasn’t very well when he left. He is HIV positive and is on ARV’S. I know he was due to get his next supply of medicine from the clinic last week and I am concerned that he isn’t back yet. This is not medication you can take in fits and starts and I think he understands that. Caroline is also very concerned and has managed to track down the phone number of a neighbour in Zimbabwe. We’ve tried to call several times. I picture the phone ringing endlessly in a small thatched house in the hills somewhere near Bulawayo. Yesterday someone answered but sounded as though they were under water on the other side of the world and no conversation was possible. Why is this? I can call people in Canada and they sound as though they’re in the next room. If he doesn’t return tomorrow I will be extremely anxious about him. There is no health care to speak of up there and he certainly won’t be given free ARVS.
Over lunch, in the garden again, I talk about my drive home from Woolies, the police and the apparent harassment. We debate the fact that our government supports Mugabe when the huge influx of economic refugees is surely proof of the havoc he’s wreaked. And then these people are spurned and intimidated at every turn. It’s another paradox.
After lunch my ordinary, everyday, housewifely day continues. Last night we had dinner at a sleek Asian/fusion restaurant. The rainbow nation was out in force; a colourful parade of designer shoes and bags. We could have been anywhere in the world. Tomorrow we’re having lunch at a popular Italian restaurant. The food will be every bit as good as in Italy. But today we’re at home and I decide to make lemon curd. Friends are asking for it and the tree is heavy with fruit. I struggle to reach the higher ones and think of Joseph again. He can’t do heavy work anymore, but standing on a ladder to harvest fruit is something he enjoys and I wish he was here.
Thinking of gardens and gardeners turns my thoughts to friends who live a few blocks away. While they were away for a few days this past week, their much-loved gardener committed suicide in their garden shed. I write it so simply while it is anything but. Everyone, from their maid who found him to their neighbours who rushed to her assistance, is traumatised. His employers are heartbroken and confused. Reasons are vague and obscure but it seems there was some point of honour involved and some threat of retribution. Something unknown and African that we will probably never know or understand.
His relatives, apologetic and distressed, have asked if they can perform a small ceremony in the shed next week. They need to ‘free his spirit’ so it can accompany his body to the funeral which will be held in Zimbabwe. They are Christians. This doesn’t quite fit with conventional belief patterns but it’s okay. It’s respectful and all who attend the ceremony will be welcomed and given refreshments. It is accepted. Cultures collide and blend a little.
This has all reminded me that last year a school taxi driver from the little school up the road was found hanging from a branch in the neighbouring churchyard. In the middle of a sunny afternoon. We were horrified and stunned. We have never learned the reason but similar rumours rustle around the neighbourhood. A taboo was broken. There was only one resolution. We will never understand.
As I set out my ingredients I think about these things; this violence and hardship that hovers constantly on the fringes of all our lives. We know it’s there. We try to find ways to manage it. We hope that we can make a positive difference somewhere, somehow. Our cultures clash continuously but perhaps less stridently now. We do not live separate lives here. It isn’t possible. We’re all connected and intertwined. We think about each other and we do what we can for each other. We care even when we try not to.
I think of my sister’s peaceful English country garden. There is no hidden agenda. There are no broom-sellers at the gate. My internal soundtrack kicks in – ‘An English Country Garden,’ part of our primary school music syllabus. We belted it out year after year. I doubt any of us had ever seen a hollyhock. Back then we all pretended to be British. We were steeped in the literature, the music and the culture. But Africa was always at the back door, waiting to be let in. Today there is no pretence. We’re all African and we’re all trying to get on with it.
I line up the lemons and start baking. I love the process; it’s productive but soothing. I especially enjoy using recipes from my past. My lemon curd is my grandmother’s; written in her hand on old blue paper. She speaks to me from the page and I remember her kitchen, her baking and her regular Saturday morning tea parties. Born in this country in 1893 to new British immigrants, with the exception of her school days spent back in Oxford, she lived here all her life. I follow her instructions exactly; same recipe different kitchen, very different time. Her voice is often in my ear and I carry her with me. I often wonder what she would make of our ‘new’ South Africa. I don’t think she’d like it. But I do. Despite everything, I love it and I thank God for Mandela and our first democratic elections in 1994.
Blending the lemons, butter and sugar, I think of my children in London. They love south Africa too but they’ve lived away long enough to find other things to love as well. They have become accustomed to different standards and different lifestyles and part of me hopes they will stay there. It seems less complicated in so many ways.
Every day something else tugs at my heartstrings or nudges my conscience. I pour out the lemon curd. Sunshine in jars. Granny Bee would approve. A shadow falls over the kitchen and a sudden crack of thunder shatters the domestic peace. The first storm of the season breaks and the cracked earth steams under the rainfall. Lightning shreds the sky repeatedly. Dangerously. I think – not for the first time – that this is not a country for the fainthearted either physically or emotionally. It’s complicated, unpredictable, fractious and magnificent. It takes its toll. Perhaps my ancestors should have stayed in the Northern Hemisphere where they belonged. But they didn’t. They came here with their fair skins and European dreams. The smell of rain on the parched garden washes into the kitchen. It’s the smell of new beginnings and it’s the smell of hope. The soundtrack in my head changes abruptly. ‘An English Country Garden’ is knocked off the charts. Toto takes over with ‘I bless the rains down in Africa’ and it is so much more appropriate. I dance in the kitchen.