Any number of things can make me cry

Any number of things can make me cry.  I am not a hard nut to crack.  I get full points for checking in at all the usual things that make most people cry, like funerals, joyful news about babies being born, and beautiful music.

But I also have my own particular portfolio of situations that can reduce me to tears that may leave most of you confused: the skollie patrolie at the primary school, for example, can leave me tjanking.   I just find it so beautiful when the little pupils, all vulnerable and innocent in their 12 years, pit their flimsy weight against 3 ton vehicles, and wearing their bright neon vests, lower their thingy-ma-bobs with the stop sign on it, guaranteeing a safe passage across the road to the two most prized possessions in my world. It is Moses and the Red sea stuff!

Another of my weaknesses is the national anthem.  Sung anywhere, anytime.  Even before rugby matches.  And Michael Vlismas’s article about the Two Oceans Marathon and our being bound together as a force for good as everyday South Africans, despite what the politicians do to drive us apart.  Michael can make me cry. In fact, any incident where integration triumphs over segregation, and we find each other despite our differences, leads me to tears.

And voting.  I don’t think I will ever not find it moving to vote in South Africa. We are so heavily invested in voting here.  Historically, and currently.  I have sobbed at the South African Embassy in London when we voted there when we lived in England. I have cried at the Klipdrif Kontantwinkel in the North West Province when we caste our vote from our farm amidst the boere, and three weeks ago when we went to register to vote again at the Primary school in Joburg, I found myself barely able to talk to the party man who was canvassing gently with words that drove my despair and my hope for a miracle in our country deeper into my heart. “I have also got two children, eight and eleven,” he said, looking at Pippa and Nicolaas. “I also lie awake at night worrying about their future.”

“No need to work on me, Mr party man!  You have my vote!” I said internally, not managing to choke back my tears.  I started miming to Herman, “I am going to be going off with this man for the next few months, to serve my country by building a strong opposition.  Please feed the children while I am gone and make sure they do their homework!… I will return to you!”

Being moved to tears is in my genes.  My father and my grandfather before me, were also not hard nuts to crack.  And my mother has been known to have to leave the church when the singing gets too beautiful.  Once, when all escape routes were barred, she had no choice but to slip quickly into the vestry to hide her tear stained face.  Unfortunately the entire procession of priests, lay ministers, choir and church deacons were seconds away from ending their parade in her hiding place.  Thinking fast through her tears, my mom just slipped into the vestment cupboard Narnia style and stayed tucked up amongst the coats while the priest ended his day’s duties with a closing prayer in the default world on the other side of the wardrobe.  She could hear it through her tears in the snow amongst the pine trees!

So where is this blog going? I can hear you asking.  Well.  Nicolaas was given a fantastic opportunity through his school, to do a voice over for a Deaf TV programme.  The programme is about a family who lives in Pretoria.  Both the mother and the father are visually impaired – let’s call a spade a spade:  they are blind. They cannot see.  And wait for it, both the children, aged 8 and 9, are deaf. Yes. Tanya and Johan cannot see, and Corban and Samantha cannot hear.

I can go into the genetics of why and how this all happened if you want to inbox me.  What I want to do here is answer the question I know you are all asking, “How do these parents communicate with their children, and how do their children communicate with them?  Well you may wonder.  Corban and Samantha use sign language, and Tanya and Johan FEEL what their children are saying. They communicate by placing their hands and fingers over their children’s hands and fingers.

It has been Tanya’s dream to get Cochlea implants for both her children. This will mean that they will be able to hear, and if it is not too late, possibly develop some capacity for speech. Tanya has been trying to make this dream happen for the past 9 years.  She has tried to keep her dream a secret from her children, as she is terrified that she will not be able to raise the money she needs for the implants.  But somehow, Corban, her bright little son, has worked out what her plans are.  He signs to her with his fingers, while she listens back with her hands, “I am going to have an operation, and one day I am going to be able to speak to you.”

This is obviously what reduces me to tears.  And I hope it is making you cry too. I am wondering at the synchronicity of the universe, that leads me, a professional fundraiser, to be the mother of the boy who does the voice over for the documentary about their family for television. I desperately want to help Tanya to raise the money she needs for her children to have Cochlea implants. (And just for the record, I am doing this one pro-bono).

So this is a SHAMELESS appeal letter, sent to all of you, the readers of my blog, who have supported and encouraged me for years.  This is a SHAMELESS ask.  Before your tears stop, please take a moment to convert them into a donation that will help Coban and Samantha to be able to hear their mother’s voice for the first time in their lives.  We have to act quickly – we need the operation to be done before the end of the year if it is not going to be too late.

The good news is that Tanya has already raised R139, 000.  She needs another R711, 000.  Please click here to make your donation.  And please use your cell number as a reference.  I know that Tanya would want to be able to thank you in person, and I want to be able to keep you informed of our progress in raising this money, so that we can all celebrate with Corban and Sammy when they have their Cochlea implants, at the latest, before Christmas.

Every Rand we get in, will count.  If you are overseas, we will obviously love you A LOT with our rotten exchange rate. So if you want to be part of something bigger than yourself, please donate and then send this on to your networks!

Thanking you,

Catherine

PS Remember to give your cell number as a reference to your donation  so we can thank you and let you know when Corban and Sammy will hear their parents voices for the first time in their lives!

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Not screaming but vomiting

There is one domestic sound that can turn even the plumpest and most unfit mothers into a champion 100m sprinter. It is the night time cry of a child that he or she is about to be sick. The floor flies past underfoot as the mother covers ground down the passage, through the dining room and into the kitchen. Corners that she used to warn the children about taking carefully lest they crash into the glass display cabinet, get taken within an inch or two of her landing herself in ICU. The cupboard under the sink is cleared of all its contents in nanoseconds. The necessary bucket is extracted and then it is the straight home run back to the bedroom, right-foot, left-foot, j-u-u-m-p onto the bed, all achieved, bucket in hand, in 3 leaps.

With our motion sensitive daughter, our trips to the coast are peppered with, “Stop the car she is about to be sick!” and cries of “Hold on, Pipps! Hold on! We are just finding a place to pull over!”  She gets it from me. I cannot board a boat moored in a harbour on a windless day without my stomach churning, and I cannot bear heights. I cannot even walk around the top of the dam wall on our farm without eliciting choked-up fearful sobs.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached the amusement park at the Rand Show where it is not just the rides that are scary, but also the people selling the rides. Not wanting to transfer my motion sensitive and class conscious fears onto my children, I put on a brave front of “I am not a snob” and “We are strong enough to touch the rails that people of all economic and social classes have touched before us, because we are open-minded and kind that way, and because we have good immune systems, and because we will all go straight to wash our hands of the minuscule spit and vomit bacteria that I am sure coat every surface around me, as soon as we have left this fun place!”

The lady selling the tickets was as scary as I thought she would be. Sixty years old, bottle blonde, cigarette hanging out of her wrinkled mouth. And to boot it all, she was a psychic. Her first words to me where, “Honey, here but for the Grace of God you could also be. Selling tickets for the Looping Star. Married to that man you see over there who fixes the machines, and who is clearly broken by life!” No. They weren’t that actually. It just felt like they could be.

Herman and Nicolaas were determined to do the Looping Star. Pippa was uncertain, but knowing that there simply was no place to pull over to be sick on the roller coaster, I persuaded her to go for the Ferris Wheel. And I persuaded myself that I could do it too, for her sake. What could be scary about the gentle Ferris Wheel? I mean, once you have handed your tickets to the guy at the bottom, who controls the speed and velocity of this machine, and got past the thought that he also looks like he spends a lot of his life on Tik? What can be scary about the gentle Ferris Wheel?

Keeping the thought that I was letting a drug addict propel the lives of daughter and myself 60 metres into the air, suppressed, I boarded the swinging shell and soon discovered just exactly what was so scary about the gentle Ferris Wheel. It’s something called “height” and something called “motion”, and something called “not strapped in”. I realised before we were 10m from the ground that I had better keep my eyes screwed tightly shut, if I were not to transfer my fears to my daughter in the form of pathetic and involuntary whimpers. I thought I was doing quite well until we got to the top where I heard someone screaming, “I want to get off!”, and then I realised it was me. Because at that moment the drug addict seemed to have run out of petrol for his machine and had turned it off, leaving me hanging there while he went to get a refill, just, I am sure to spite my snobbish and white-bitch-ass.

Once he had refilled the tank, we set off again for what I hoped was the end of the ride. But it wasn’t. It seemed, oh God, no, that two little tickets bought many round trips. On rotation number two, Pippa was now also yelling, “I want to get off!” No surprise there, she gets it from me. But the control man couldn’t hear her. He was lost in his own world, spinning us around in his hamster wheel.
In fact the only people who were actually enjoying our fun ride were Herman and Nicolaas, feet all planted firmly on the ground. I could see them grinning broadly every time we got to the bottom. I only opened my eyes as then as I was trying to mouth the words “Terminate” to our vindictive controller. I thought it would transfer less fear than “STOP!”

Fortunately after the second loop Herman realised that it wasn’t good for Nicolaas to see his mother in this pathetic state, so he asked the Tick Kop to please stop the machine. Which he thankfully did.

It was then Herman and Nicolaas’s turn to do the roller coaster. I had managed to transfer so much fear onto Pippa in our gentle Ferris wheel ride, that she spent the whole time sobbing into my neck, convinced her brother and father were going to die. While deep down I thought she was right, I had said goodbye to Nicolaas putting on a brave face. “Just don’t accept any sweets from the man who straps you in!” I warned him gently, and explained, “Drug addict, I am sure, all of them!” to Herman as an aside. As it was, neither of them get motion or height sick, so they handled it with the infuriating enjoyment of actors in an old Peter Stuyvesant advert.

Before we left the fun park, I suggested to Pippa that she did one last much gentler ride with Nicolaas, in the hope that she too could have a Peter Stuyvesant experience in this underworld. She thought it a good idea, and soon she and Nicolaas were strapped into speed boats that wafted around on an octopus arm.

Well. How wrong I was about the innocence of this ride. “It’s your job as her mother, to look calm and to control your anxiety.” Herman told me. “You must smile confidently as she passes us and not drop to your knees in prayerful supplication!” I promise you, I was trying. But on each rotation, I could not only see my daughter’s fear stricken face streaked with tears, which was enough to break my heart, but having done the night time 100m sprint for the bucket more frequently than Herman ever has, I could also lip read something far more subtle. I knew the exact moment when her repeated yell, of “Stop, I want to get oooffffffff!” changed to, “STOOOOOOOOP! I am going to be Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick”

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Words not of my own

Even as I said those words, there was a critical voice standing next to me. “That doesn’t sound like you talking!”  I did feel as if I was living a drama that wasn’t my own. I felt as if I was standing on an island off Scotland, in another century. The wind was howling around me in the dark, in a cold winter. I felt as if I was giving a blessing to a fisherman who, needs must, was about to launch a tiny little boat into a stormy sea.  The chances of him making it were slim and all I could do was call on the mightiest force, that myth has it, made the very seas, in the hope that he would be safe.  It didn’t sound like me talking.

“Pardon?” the Afrikaans surgeon asked me, confirming my doubt, and I muttered the words again in English.

He wasn’t getting into a fishing boat.  He was about to perform an emergency brain operation on my son, at 1 o’clock in the morning.  And I wasn’t waving goodbye on a shore.  I was standing alone in the air-conditioned passage of the hospital, having driven 80km to get there, with Nicolaas vomiting the whole way, after he had fallen on his head at home.  The surgeon had just told me that this was a big operation, and a risky one, and that he could give me no guarantee that my son would be alright at the end of it.  And even though Herman was already on his way to the hospital, he did not want to wait to talk to him before he started.  He wanted to operate now, with his bleary sleep deprived eyes, in the tracksuit pants he had clearly thrown on when he got the call at home 20 minutes previously.

When I was younger, before I had children, when death was less of a threat and more of a romance, my cousin and I had begged our ageing grandmother to, “Please come back and talk to us from the other side.”  In her bedridden state she looked at us at once amused and hurt.  How could we be planning life without her, with such glibness? Just because she was nearly 90, it didn’t mean she had made the peace we seemed to have made, with her dying. But she promised she would try anyway.

My grandmother did die eventually.  She was only 5ft tall, and she died the same week that the twin towers fell in America.

One of the things she was best at in life was being a grandmother.  She taught us not to litter, and that the common or garden mushrooms clinging to oak tree stumps in the Main Road were undoubtedly shelters for fairies and gnomes.  She would dress up as a witch, slide down sand dunes with us on cardboard boxes, and whenever she came to visit, one of the first things she would pull out of her handbag for us to crunch our way through, were the sachets of sugar that she had saved for us from the aeroplane.

The other thing that my grandmother was good at, was nursing.  She was the matron of a hospital and had all the steely strength it took to rip dressings off wounds with full faith in the principle, “cruel to be kind”.

 After she died, I remember being disappointed though, in her crossing over skills.  She never did come to talk to me from the other side, and I don’t think she chatted to my cousin either.

Until that night. Until I stood in the brightly lit passage in the hospital, having signed all the forms that needed to be signed and having felt the surgeon’s hands on my forehead as he outlined a circle and explained gently, “I am going to cut him here, like this, so that I can lift the blood clot.”

At that moment, when I needed her most, my grandmother did come to me.  She came and moved her empty, shocked and faithless granddaughter over, so that she could stand not beside me, but inside me, and she gave me her words at a time when I had none.  “That doesn’t sound like you talking,” The mocking voice was right.  It wasn’t me. I don’t command blessings.  My prayers and my faith stop at grovelled mutterings.

She gave me the words she used every time she said good bye to anyone who was going on a journey.  And as much as they were words that had crossed over, they were words that handed over. I had done all I could.  “God go with you,” she said to the surgeon.

Aware that his work was only starting, that he had a 2 hour operation ahead of him, he answered back with all that he could offer, “I will do my best.”

We came into ICU the next day to find a nurse sitting at Nicolaas’s side, with one hand on her Bible and the other on her record sheet. She had not left his side since she came on duty, and she had good news for us.  He had eaten already and answered all the questions she had asked him. His mother was a writer and his father worked with grandfather clocks.  His name was Nicolaas, and when could he go home?

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The Vleis Reis

Wolmaransstad, a town 285km out of JHB, is to the N12 what Beaufort West is to the N1, a transit town for people passing through, on their way to somewhere else. To the traveller it’s a place of petrol stations, toilet stops and coffee – the old refreshment station of Jan Van Riebeeck in the Cape, now simply pushed north, providing a stop-off for taxis and 4×4’s instead of ships. 

In addition to this though, Wolmaransstad is also famous for three things: firstly it has the highest density of earth moving equipment in the world.  Related to this it also had the biggest open diamond market in the world until 2004 when the diamond markets were put out to tender.  And lastly we have arguably the best biltong in South Africa.  

Yet despite these claims to fame, many South Africans have never heard of, let alone been to, our town.  If you tell them it is in the North West province, they will get a vague and wondering look on their faces, trying to remember if that is a Province somewhere close to Mpumalanga. And if they do happen to know that the North West Province is the old Wes-Transvaal, then they will remember with discomfort a flat dry landscape, planted with mielies and inhabited by dust devils, with only silos to break the view.  A place where, heaven help the residents, every day of the week must surely grind past like a Sunday afternoon?

And this is what makes the “Maquassi Hills Vleis Reis” a must-see-must-do experience. If you are a cyclist keen to explore South African landscape, and to be surprised by what you find beyond your first impressions, then this is your number 1 Stop.  What the “Vleis Race” reveals, even to the local town dwellers, is that hidden in this flat landscape of red dust and silence, is a ridge of Hills – the Maquassi Rante –  that have been preserved over the years as a conservation area by a number of concerned farmers. And once you are there you will see what has been so worth preserving.   (The word Maquassi, incidentally, is a San word for a species of wild spearmint).

You are of course, able to visit these Ridges as guests to private game farms in the area anytime, but if you want the experience of navigating this landscape physically on a bicycle, then this is your chance to do it.  The reason for this is that it is only for this annual event that the farmers break down their fences and allow the public onto their land. So it’s your chance to cycle along the hills, to weave alongside the herds of game, and to stop at the halfway mark at the Leeuwfontein Lodge where you will be blown away by the panoramic view that stretches to the horizon – at least 50km into the distance.  The reality of what a short window period you have to experience this, can be seen by the fact that if you do happen to be riding at the back, as you pass from one farm to the other you will be closely followed by a man on a quad bike, who will be joining the barbed wire fences back together behind you, with one of those crazy hand held instruments that fix fences in seconds and remains an ingenious tool of mystery to city dwellers.

But it is not just the scenery and the surprise of this hidden jewel of ridges on the Treasure Route,  that will attract you and make you want to come back again next year.  The North West Province also typifies good South African platteland hospitality and the provision of Boerekos filters right down to the water points.  In the words of some of last year’s cyclists: “the best water points I have ever experienced on a mountain bike race.  In particular, I will never forget those potatoes!”

Race options are: 10km, 35km or 70km mountain bike routes as well as a 20km, 40km or 80km road bike option.  In terms of the main mountain bike race it is 95% on jeep track or single track with a total 800m ascent.  It’s cross country cycling with technical sections which will satisfy serious competitors, but which are not so hard that the average recreational cyclist will not enjoy them as well.  

The route also goes past a monument significant in the area, but which is relatively unknown: that of the first white child born beyond the Vaal River – it’s a tall but humble stone, erected to the child named Thomas Broadbent who was born to Wesleyan missionaries in 1823. He was also the last English speaking person seen in Wolmaransstad. (That last bit is a joke, but if you are English speaking, come prepared to practice your “Lees, gesels en skryf”, and if the locals do switch to English for you, know that they aren’t local).

The race is not called the “Vleis Race” just because it rhymes. It’s called the “Vleis Race” because in addition to Tannie Ansie’s koeksisters (which you can buy from one of the stalls at the food market) “Vleis” (sorry for all you namby-pamby city vegans) is what we do best here in the North West.  So once you have completed the route and cruised or “losed” into our majestic Bloekomboom Boma where you start and finish, you stand a chance to win “meat for the year”. There are 3 sheep to be won as prizes in the race, and there is also a Lucky Draw: this winner will receive a sheep (cut up and packed) per month for 12 months; the runner up the same but only for 6 months and for those of you who are not lucky enough to win the race or the raffle, you will at least be able to buy meat for prices you will never see in Supermarkets. It’s literally “reg van die plaas”.

The last surprise that we have for you, on top of our diamond history, our biltong, our ridge of beautiful hills, our herds of game, our koeksisters and our meat prices, is that you will have free entry to Saturday afternoon’s entertainment: Pieter Smith will be singing from 3.30pm in our Bloekomboom Boma adding his nostalgic and linguistically versatile voice to a day that will already showpiece so much of the goodness and comfort of being South African.

The race takes place on the 19th of October and you can enter online as well as order your meat before the time on www.maquassihilllsvleisrace.co.za . If you don’t want to drive there and back in one day, you can email info@maquassihillsvleisrace.co.za for a list of possible accommodation. Come on Friday night the 18th October, and buy tickets to the pre-race entertainment: a Seafood evening – eat as much as you like (“Muisvoelskerm” or the “Vettemossel” style), while listening to Adam Tas and Jan Rhaap.

Staying over will have yet another advantage.  As the race takes you past first impressions into landscape that will surprise you, meeting more locals will also take you past first impressions: behind the stereotypes of Afrikaners, braai , boerewors and rugby ( and all the conservatism that is normally associated with that in a small town), you will find a community of open minded people, keen to meet you and to talk, and grateful that you have taken the time to come and get beyond your first impressions.

Because after all, isn’t getting beyond first impressions, something that cyclists do best?

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Second time around…

It was wonderful to be with thousands of parents and their children last week. Parents, who unlike me are way beyond the “Don’t pick your nose and don’t eat it!” stage.  These were parents at a graduation ceremony at the University of Pretoria, and I was there as the proud wife of a graduate. (In four years time I will hopefully be proud Dr.Mrs.Wife of the same graduate – a title which will absolve me of ever having to study further myself!).

So there I sat with my two children who were picking their noses, and in between whispering, “Don’t eat it!” I looked around at average Mr. and Mrs. Subhurbia, and Mr. and Mrs. Soweto and Mrs. and Granny Emaxhoseni.  And I was humbled.   These people had clearly directed their lives around this ceremony. I could hear them explaining, “I have worked my whole life for one company.  I hate my job. But today it all made sense as my daughter graduates! She will have the chance to do things that I always wanted to do, but never could.” or “We have travelled by bus to be here.  It was cold through the night but we had blankets. Ululate! We will watch our son graduate.  He will now have a better life than we had.  We are proud!”

And I got to thinking about my own graduation 20 years ago. The realisation that came through loud and clear, was that I was not in the spirit of things as I should have been.  Truth be told, I had no idea of how lucky I was to be under that hat.  I was part of a radical trendy lefty group that right up until the day of the ceremony, held our parents in suspense, “I am not sure that I am going to the ceremony, Ma! Ceremonies like this are restrictive! They perpetuate institutional violence”.  (?) My mother wisely said nothing to me, having learnt after 21 years that trying to change my mind about anything from picking my nose to persuading me not to wear dresses I had made out of old curtains, would simply drive me further into my stubbornness. It’s a situation that goes around and comes around and is being inflicted back on me by my own daughter whose rudder in life at the age of 5 is already pretty much steered in any direction other than where I want it to go.

All that my mother did in the face of all her colleagues and friends enquiring about the exact date of the event, was to try to cover for me around the coffee counter… “Well, we are not yet sure that we will go… she is still thinking about whether or not she wants to attend…” Oh!  Sip. Cup back to saucer. No further questions then. Sip. Smile awkwardly to a Mexican wave of raised eyebrows.

When I eventually did concede to go, mumbling the whole way through, I wore my best Turkish pants made from curtains which billowed out from under my grad gown.  My parents got the photos they needed of their “brat under the hat”.  But for me it was all so uncool. I had scant regard for all they had done to get me there: starting businesses to generate income to send me, while also tolerating my attacks on capitalism around the table; mopping up relationship tears which threatened to derail the whole process, and being willing furniture removal assistants four times in one year as I struggled to find the right digs… “Why are you so grumpy, Dad? If the desk got in, it must be able to get out!”

So Herman and I are starting young with our children. We went to the graduation to show them what a university is, and what they can aspire to. Once we were seated, it was clear to me we had the youngest children there.  This was not a young family environment.  The point was proven when Nicolaas and Pippa got restless and started playing games with each other’s feet, which brushed lightly past the back of the very serious gentleman in front of us. “Julle moet stil bly!” he turned slightly and barked in a whisper.  Oops! The man was clearly way past the don’t-pick-your-nose-and-don’t-eat-it stage of parenting. He was so stressed he was must be at the stage of “brat under the hat”. He had fought his own child to be there, and he buggered if he was going to let my children ruin it for him. We were a painful reminder of his lifelong struggle against his own offspring.

We made it through the guest speaker, and then thanks to technology, we explored the campus until Herman BBMed us to come back to watch, as he was “up next”.  And it was very moving.  More so than a graduation of brat, as Herman had his Masters Cum Laude, gained not while schloofing around campus in curtains, but while running businesses and holding a young family together.   I left with the feeling that no one deserves to be there, unless they know what gift they are receiving. Be gone, Brats in Hats, be gone!

And we had the satisfaction of having exposed our children to real university life.  At ages 7 and 5 they know what it is to sit through boring talks and to spend hours playing pool in the cafeteria!

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Black and White Issues

“Jo! That is very black of you!” I wanted to say to him.  Jo works at the local co-op.  He sits behind the till, swipes my credit card and compliments me on my dress sense, “You don’t look like you come from here.  You look like you have just come off the beach!” He says this because I am the only woman in town who wears a sunhat.  Or rather, I am the only white woman who does.  All the black women who walk between the township and the dorp every day, they wear hats. It’s a very black thing to do.  A black, and a Catherine thing to do.

To get back to Jo, as I have said, he does not labour at the co-op. He does not load the chicken food into the back of the bakkie, and accept tips.  So when Jo asked me for a Christmas box, I was honestly shocked.  I had thought we were equals, retail pals, fellow groupy followers of platteland African-Chic fashion.  Why, if I were to tip every black person who exchanges money with me from behind a till, Jo, I would be handing out money to my bank manager!  Bad show Jo, not very newly empowered of you.  You are not the dustbin man!

Then last week, Herman drove the sheep shearers back to a neighbouring town after they had shorn our sheep.  They explained to Herman that at night on this particular road, you will often see people hitching. They carry no parcels or bags with them.  If you pick them up, they sit silently next to you.  When you come to the next town, you look down, and realise that they have eaten out your intestines!   Now I ask you, how black is that? That is scary black.

And how white, how scary white am I?

Muttering Darkly’s daughter gave birth to her sixth baby in hospital this week.  When Sara had given birth to her fifth child, I fetched her and the baby from hospital.  I have given birth twice, and I know that no woman is in any state, 24 hours after labour, to walk to the taxi rank, to stand in a queue waiting for a lift and to carry a new born being in a vehicle full of noise and sweat and smoke.

This time, after I had heard that the baby was born, I told Muttering Darkly that I could fetch Sara from hospital if they could be ready straight after school. Muttering Darkly said she would let me know as soon as she knew Sara was discharged.  I heard nothing, and came home.

That evening at 6pm, Muttering Darkly came walking up to the farmhouse. As I watched her approach, I told myself that new baby or not, with Herman working in Joburg this week, I was simply not going to load up the children into the car, and drive into town at this hour to fetch Sara and her 6th baby. It was a school night.  And what time was this to ask me to go to town? Surely this was just a little bit black and unnecessarily disempowered? So it was “Speak to the hand” for Muttering Darkly when she told me Sara was discharged.  What was going to happen if we did not fetch her?  Where would she spend the night? Muttering Darkly did not know.

I stuck to my guns.  Baby number 6 was coming home by taxi, regardless of the noise and the sweat and the smoke. I gave Muttering Darkly all I had in my purse, which was R40. Enough, I hoped, to catch a late lift at the side of the road. I quickly calculated that between her other 5 children, Sara was scoring R3,500 per month from child grants, and that somewhere in there should be money for them to all catch a taxi back.  And if there wasn’t, well then surely the hospital had some system of dealing with such patients? Surely the safe homecoming of Sara and baby number 6 was not completely dependent on me?

Two days later I saw Sara.  What had happened the night she was discharged? Where had she slept?  In the hospital.  Where there any beds? No.  She had slept sitting up in a chair.  After giving birth.

To say that I felt a deep sense of shame is an understatement.  To say that I try to rationalise my shame away, is a truth. I had allowed a whole lot of black and white issues to cloud over the fact that another woman whose name I know, had given birth.  And because it was too inconvenient for me to drive to town so late, because I was cross that the poor will always be with us, and because I desperately wanted to believe that there were other options (which there weren’t) because of all this, Sara had spent the night sitting up in a chair, trying to get some sleep, while holding her new born baby.

How white is that?

And the worst of it is Sara wasn’t even cross with me.

How black (and disempowered) is that?

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Catalogue Wife

It’s a wonderful thing if you live in the North West Province, to drive across the country on a trip to the sea.  You leave behind the envious looks of those not going this time, and when you arrive back you go almost shyly into the OK Grocer.  You know you have changed. The positive effects of the salt and the sea glow around you inappropriately and for all the attention you draw you may as well be wearing a Matric dance dress while you do your shopping.

On the way to the sea, avoiding the N1 and driving on all the back roads, we delved into the Karoos, big and little. When we were about 170km from any sign of civilisation, we came across a sign, “Hennie Potgieter en Seuns”.  Which lead me to wonder what had happened to Mrs.Potgieter that she did not get a mention. Where we are, it is very firmly “Hennie en Lydia” or “Ou Boet en Anika” on farm gates.  But at the Potgieters it seemed that the men were cooking for themselves.  The remoteness of the area, the constant Sunday afternoon lull of the Cicada beetles and the fact that her nearest neighbour with whom she could have had a cup of tea would have been a day’s journey away, convinced me that Mrs. Potgieter had come to the farm, fulfilled the breeding requirements for the lineage, and then had slowly lost her mind tussen niks en nerens (1) and been written out of the family history.

It reminded me of a conversation that happened in our kitchen the week before, when Henk had coffee with Herman in the kitchen. At one stage, Henk lowered his voice slightly so that I would not hear what he was about to say, “So waneer het jy haar gaan haal en terug plaas toe gebring(2)?” he asked, tilting his head in my direction.   For Henk I was pretty much a postal order acquisition.  A catalogue wife.  There was no other explanation for why an English speaking woman had settled here in the old Westransvaal. She was either brought here or delivered.  Herman had obviously sat on his family farm through the years, desperate.  While his sheep multiplied outside, his personal pickings were paltry.  Then he came across the brilliant idea of importing a wife.  Perhaps we had corresponded briefly and badly in English or Afrikaans, and then at some stage agreed that it was time to see if the relationship could work physically.  Herman went to fetch me at Joburg Station and brought me back to the farm.

On the way back I mimed to him by pointing to my imaginary watch, holding my hands in the air, and shrugging my shoulders, “How long till we get home?” At which point he had sprung to the ground and held himself dead upright, then hopped to just next to where he had been and held himself upright once again.  “Soldiers?” I asked confused.  He shook his head, no, not soldiers.  Once again he held himself dead straight next to where he had just been standing.  He did this 14 times and then he moved further along and went through the same motions.  It took me a while, but eventually I realised he was pretending to be grain silos.  We would be home after passing 6 sets of grain silos.

Then, doing another mime he pointed first at me and then gestured as if he was stirring a pot.  Cooking? Yes!  Then he made a big round belly motion in front of himself.  I understood. Once home I would cook and become pregnant.  Stuck there in the heat of the African sun, under my bonnet but away from my people, my options were few.  I gave Herman a “Sharp!” thumbs-up response.  He smiled and took out a piece of paper.  He drew a signpost and wrote our names on it next to each other.  I jumped up and down excitedly – this was the adventurous life I had been seeking!  Depending on the success of my fertility, I was to have my name on a farm gate in Africa!  I gave him another “Sharp!” sign and we continued home.

Out here, if you are not “gebore and getoë”(3) here , then there are three options for you.  You either become an alcoholic, a fundamentalist, or you lose your mind as Mrs.Potgieter did.  To Henk’s amazement I avoided all of these, despite what seemed to him, an impossible linguistic divide between Herman and I.  Thank the Lord it all worked out.

Perhaps it did, not only because the nearest town is only 30km away and not 170km as in Mrs.Potgieter’s case, but also because we had “love and dependency at first sight”, on our side. And of course, something greatly needed where entertainment is thin on the ground, we also had a Charades partnership that skriks for niks! (4)

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Footnotes:

(1) in the middle of nowhere

(2) “So when did you go and fetch her and bring her back to the farm?”

(3) born and bred

(4) is unbeatable!

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