Valentine’s Day and A Man named Joseph. (A South African Story)

Joseph came to us by default.  Newly married, first-time home owners and overwhelmed by rampant grass around our little house, I was envious of our across-the-road neighbour’s neatly planted, regularly mown front garden.

Their weekly gardener, whose name I’d established was John, seemed to know exactly what he was about and eventually, heavily pregnant and daunted by the prospect of another weekend spent trying to gain a modicum of control of Johannesburg’s summer vegetation, I wound down the window of my VW Beetle and called him over.

Close up, he looked a little different from the man I’d been waving to every Wednesday, but it was hot and he was wearing a cap.  Most importantly, he had some free days and was happy to start immediately.  Our garden took on a whole new look and our weekends were a lot more relaxed.  We were happy.

So reversing out of the garage a couple of weeks later, I was surprised to see John mowing the lawn across the road.  Surprised because he was at that moment mowing the lawn outside our kitchen.

A three-way conversation followed between my maid at the time, ‘John’ and myself.  It was a little confusing.  I had no African language skills at all, Mavis spoke Zulu and  reasonable English and ‘John’, it turned out, spoke shona and little or no English at all.  Eventually it transpired that our John was in fact Jo and when I’d called him over to the car, he had been ‘filling in’ for John who was on leave.

By then Joseph, as he preferred to be called, had settled into his once-a-week gardening job and it didn’t seem to right to change anything on account of a mistaken identity on my part.

We were in our twenties and we guessed Joseph to be in his thirties.  Over the first couple of weeks we learned that he was Zimbabwean and had come, as had thousands of others, to find work in South African.  He and his family were casualties of of the systematic repression in Zimbabwe of the Shona people.  Back home in Zimbabwe he had a wife and two small boys.

We also learned that he knew little or nothing about gardening and that made three of us.  Arriving in South Africa with no skills and very little schooling, manual labour or basic gardening were his only options.  So we muddled along together and slowly found our way.  It wasn’t unusual in those early days to arrive home in the afternoon to find a shrub, blossom-covered in the morning, pruned to the limit with not a flower left in sight.  Bit by bit we ironed out the glitches and bit by the bit the garden started to take shape.

As winter approached Joseph announced that he would be going home to see his family.  We waved goodbye after loading him with all the groceries he could carry and said we’d see him three weeks later.

Three weeks came and went and there was no sign of Joseph.  After two months we took on another young man to help ‘only until Joseph came back.’  Another month passed and then another but a week after I’d told Norman that the job was now his, the bell rang and Joseph was at the gate.

Only I didn’t know it was Joseph at first.  Skin and bone, he was unrecognisable and it was round about then that I began to get an inkling of what life was like for an ‘illegal immigrant’ to survive and live between his home and his adopted countries.  He was, in short, a refugee.

Once again the story came out in bits and pieces.  Trying to cross the border, he’d been arrested and thrown into prison where he’d languished for months.

We settled back into a routine of weekly gardening visits which soon became bi-weekly.  Joseph regained his strength and life continued as usual.

Years passed.  Our family grew as did his.  He now had four sons back home in Zimbabwe.  One day, smiling from ear to ear,  he showed us his brand new South African Identity Document.  We had no idea how he’d secured it and knew better than to ask.  He still went home once or twice a year and although he was often away longer than expected, the new ID seemed to help.

Somewhere along the way, the South African government offered a kind of ‘amnesty’ for Zimbabweans who had been living and working illegally in this country, if they could provide documentation from an employer.  After jumping through several hoops, we did, at last, secure him a legitimate residence permit.

We moved house, once and then again to bigger and bigger gardens and he kept pace with us.  The second move was a 25 minute car drive away from his accommodation but he was not letting us go.  He hated the local taxi services but by then we’d bought him a bicycle and he was happy to ride the hilly roads between our old and new neighbourhood.  The journey took him over an hour but he was never late. We bought him a cycling helmet and eventually persuaded him to wear it.

Over all this time, Joseph strove to do better.  He registered for adult literacy classes at a local church and improved his reading and writing skills.  He learned basic arithmetic and sometimes ask for help with his homework. He never, ever missed a day of work.  Come rain or shine, Joseph would arrive on that bicycle.  We bought him a rain suit and eventually, a new bike.

Joseph was happy.  When a landscaper brought a team in to make some changes in the garden, she discovered a patch of marijuana thriving behind the kitchen.

About a year after our second house move, Joseph lost his accommodation and needed to find a new place to live.  We were adamant that there was no space on our property.  The house was old and the staff quarters we’d taken over were dismal.  We’d already knocked two rooms into one to make the space more comfortable for Caroline and that left only a damp, leaky storeroom.  Joseph asked if he could stay there for a week while he sorted out new living arrangements.  A week turned into two, then three and then four.

The rest is history.  We built Caroline a cottage behind the house and installed Joseph in her vacated suite.  It was now 1996 or 7.  Joseph has started working for us in 1982.

It was around 2000 that Joseph started to cough.  Perhaps it was bronchitis?  Our family GP, unfailingly kind, prescribed medication and the cough improved.  He went home on leave and arrived back with the news that his wife was very ill.  His cough returned.  A few months later came the news that his wife had died, leaving four school-going sons motherless in a dangerous country.


Baskets made by Joseph’s wife and sent back with him as gifts.

Joseph arranged for relatives to take care of the children but this was never satisfactory.  His health deteriorated and our GP, recommended chest X-rays.  He had TB.  Our whole family, including Caroline had to be X-rayed.  We were fine but Joseph was admitted to hospital for treatment.

Discharged after a few weeks, he came home with with medicines enough to sink the Titanic. With Caroline supervising, we tried to make sure he took everything at the right time of day, every day.  By now we’d employed a garden service company to come once a week to take on the mowing and heavier garden work.

More years passed and to list all the hospital visits, GP visits and emergency room visits would take many more pages.  We knew what we were dealing with but Joseph, if he knew, was having none of it.  After one extremely bad bout of illness we found a bed for him at the Mother Theresa Nursing Home in Yeoville and it’s fair to say those dedicated nuns saved his life.  A doctor visited him there pro bono for several weeks and persuaded him to take the HRV medication freely provided.  We visited Joseph in his ward and all he wanted was to come home.  He thought he’d been sent there to die and some of the men in his room did succumb.  Through grit and determination Joseph improved enough to be discharged.

By that stage, he had no work other than ours and refusing to accept his health problems, he took up woodwork.  No longer able to pedal, he’d push his bicycle around the neighbourhood, gathering up off-cuts and planks cast out from building sites.  These he’d lie across the bike before wheeling it back home.  Sometimes I’d pass him, stopping for breath at the side of the road, his bike now an ungainly building supplies vehicle.

The space behind our kitchen turned into a woodworking yard as Joseph sawed and hammered, turning random bits of wood into stools, throne-like chairs and benches.  And he found a market for them.  Some he sold to other gardeners and maids and others he managed to send home to be sold in Zimbabwe.  We could only admire his perseverance and determination.  He refused to be idle.

Our son came home on a visit from London.  Joseph had been part of lives before he was.  Greg looked at the woodworking operation in amazement, went out and returned with a work bench and new tools.  Joseph was overwhelmed.


A parcel of tools to go with the work bench.

He made a bench for Greg and a chair for our daughter.


A bench for Greg.


Caroline took great pride in Joseph’s achievements.

More years passed and the coughing worsened.  He lost weight.  He shrank.  HIs health deteriorated by the week.  There were more hospital visits.  Once he was too ill to get into a car and an ambulance took him away.  He’d stabilise and come home.


But home was changing.  With both children not only out of the house, but out of the country, it was time for us to downsize.  We bought a stand in 2012 and started building in 2013.  We talked to Caroline and Joseph about their retirement and tried to make plans.  Caroline was ready to retire to her own home as our moving date drew nearer in early 2015.  Joseph, showing the same stubborn streak he’d demonstrated throughout his 33 years with us, resisted any suggestion that he should spend at least a few weeks with the Mother Theresa Nuns to recover his strength after another bout of appalling ill health.  But then he so so weak and frail, we felt it would be the safest and most comfortable place for him and we doubted he could live much longer.

Joseph would have none of it.  We suggested a few other options but he had made up his mind to live close to his sons – all now in South Africa – in a township on the eastern side of Johannesburg.

Knowing we would not be able to visit him there and needing to move to Cape Town ourselves while we waited for our new home to be completed, it was with very heavy hearts that we said our farewells,  a day or two before we had to leave our home of the previous 21 years.  The tears I shed in our driveway that day were the only ones to fall throughout the whole downsizing process.  I felt we’d dismantled his life and in my heart of hearts, know we’d not see him again.

A week later, while unpacking in Cape Town on the 1st of March, my phone rang.  It was Caroline to say that Joseph had died the night before.  It was, without doubt, one of the saddest days of my life.

It was also, oddly, the 23rd anniversary of my mother’s death.  She had been a natural gardener with the greenest of fingers and had taken a keen interest in my first two Johannesburg gardens.  I remember her showing Joseph how to prune roses.  In my more whimsical moments, I can’t help hoping that if there’s a Heaven, she’s up there somewhere, along with Alec – the gardener of my childhood – and Joseph, who tried so hard to better his life.  With any luck they’re creating beautiful gardens together.

People sometimes remark how ‘lucky’ Joseph was to have found us back then in 1982 but ‘luck’ is not a concept I could ever associate with a life like his.  He might not have been able to teach us much about gardening in those early years, but he taught us more important things.  He taught us about loyalty, determination, honesty, self-respect and about showing up, always no matter what the cost.  In all those years, no matter how ill he was he never once asked for a day off. We had to make him rest.


Joseph is very much on my  mind today.  He loved getting a birthday cake, especially from the Home Industry bakery down the road.  I would order them with ‘Happy Birthday Joseph’ iced across the top, a feat which never failed to impress him.  It was an easy birthday to remember because it fell on Valentine’s Day and there was no shortage of cakes and treats to be found. He would have been 68 today.  When I mistook his identity 35 years ago, I could never have guessed how much I would learn from him.

Hamba Kahle Joseph. Go Well.   It’s time now for me to have tea and cake in the garden.


(Postscript:  While I’ve wanted to write about Joseph for almost three years, it’s proved difficult to do it and then, cleaning out my bedside drawer in January in a flurry of New Year resolution, I came across a notebook in which I’d written two pages on the 23rd of September, 2011.  Rereading them, I decided the time had come to tell Joseph’s story.)

“I’m unsettled this morning.  I’m waiting for ‘Doctors on Call.’  Joseph, after doing quite well for the last year has taken what seems to be a sharp turn for the worse and I feel out of my depth.  I’ve never used ‘Doctors on Call’ before but the idea came to me this morning; a real inspiration.  This way I don’t have to make him sit in a waiting room, or worse, take him to the Gen.


Right.  So Dr Lance Josselson has been and gone and it seems Joseph will live to fight  another day,  He needs more X-rays and another TB test but is better this morning than I expected to find him and seems to be no longer coughing up copious amounts of blood.  Perhaps, the doctor said, he burst a blood vessel in a lung with all that coughing.

Dr Josselson is a charming, gentle young man in a yarmulka. He admired the garden when he arrived and said ‘No wonder you look after your gardener so well.’

And then he left, just as the garden service company arrived and I explained that they’ve been coming for at least 10 years, from when Joseph became too weak to push a lawn mower.  And right now, I’m listening to one of their young men coughing and coughing outside.

But I’m relieved about Joseph for now. And I can get on with another African day.”

12 thoughts on “Valentine’s Day and A Man named Joseph. (A South African Story)

    • Thank you Ian. It was a difficult piece to write but had somehow been ‘asking’ to be written. We were not able to go to his funeral which was held in Zimbabwe but we heard it was very well attended by the church group to which Joseph had belonged here. I have always felt the need to pay tribute to him in some way and feel, at last, that I have done that.


    • Thank you Jessica. Writing that post yesterday, I really wasn’t at all sure if anyone would read it. I have been surprised by the response it has generated on Facebook especially. He was an extraordinary man and courageous too.


    • Thank you D’Arcy. It seems to have made a few people cry but somehow it was a post that was as determined to be written as Joseph was determined to beat the odds.


    • Thank you Mariss. Yes, Joseph’s story has been simmering on a back burner in my brain for a long time. And sometimes I think it is not only his story but that of so many displaced people. But he had extraordinary courage and determination. Welcome to WordPress. I will be following you.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I have known for several days that this story was waiting for me to read it, but I have had to psyche myself up for it because I knew it would make me sad. I found myself this evening with an hour to myself (apart from the dogs) and knew the time was right. You have paid Joseph a great compliment in taking the time to write his story and share it, Jacs, and I hope many people have read it and reflected on Joseph’s courage, determination and extraordinary dignity. I cannot think of him without heartache, not just for him but for the many thousands of others like him. Each time I arrived in Johannesburg, over the years, he had grown thinner and more frail, but his smile of welcome remained as brilliant as ever. Once, I set out into the garden to find him, soon after arriving, only to be stopped by Caroline. ‘No,’ she said, ‘Joseph says you cannot see him now. First he wants to make himself look smart.’ Sometime later he appeared, wearing the beanie hat and T-shirt with a penguin logo – do you remember how he was fascinated by penguins? – that we’d sent him for Christmas. I was so touched by his thoughtfulness. I remember precisely where I was when I heard he had died. I was immeasurably sad.


    • Thank you for this, Sue. He was so very much a part of our household and like Caroline, always loved your visits. Thank you for reminding me about his fascination for penguins. It had slipped my mind. It always worried me that he’d never seen the see, let alone a penguin. Had his health not prevented it, we would have got him to the coast somehow. Thank you too for the Xmas gifts, beautifully wrapped, that you contrived to get out to South Africa year after year. They brought both Caroline and Joseph great pleasure and were always treasured. I knew you would find this post difficult to read but thank you for doing so. I found it difficult to write too. It took almost three years to do so. Seems like it had to ‘percolate’ first. And still, there were some particularly challenging memories I found I could not commit to paper.


  2. Such a moving account Jacqui- and a great and well- deserved tribute to Joseph.Thank you for sharing the story of this courageous and special person.


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