Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tea with Gogo

While I'm tempted to take the khumbi into town today, I've pledged to stay on the homestead, take a walk, and "integrate into my community."  That's good ol' PC jargon for chillin'.

I've placed the office chair Gogo has loaned me in the yard outside my hut.  The chickens mill around, scratching in the dirt for worms near the dried stocks of maize.  The bees hum around the peach tree sprouting pink blossom behind me.  A couple of children play in the yard too as there are always a half dozen here at the Simelane homestead in Khiza.

Though they have no toys or balls to keep themselves occupied, they play for hours on end,  never seeming to get bored and never to quarrel.  A few children walk up and down the rusty dirt roads with homemade push toys --- bits of wires fastened together in the shape of a car or a train on two small wheels.  The other day, from my khumbi window, two boys pushed paint rollers attached to a pole along the tar road.

Gogo Simelane and her granddaughter Keke are at the other end of the yard behind the chicken coop washing clothes in a fiberglass bathtub.  They plugged up the hole in it and put in a little bar of green soap with about four or five buckets of pump water and a pile of dirty clothes the size of a small glacier.  Keke then stomps on them, walking back and forth in the bathtub with her bare feet as if she were crushing grapes.  Afterwards, the clothes are rung out, put back again in the tub to rinse in clean water and then the process is repeated.  Finally then, after at least an hour, the wet clothes are hung on the line to dry which takes no time here in the slight dry breeze.

For ironing, which is mostly reserved for Zionist church garb, Gogo Simelane sits in the kitchen by her wood-burning stove and uses little irons - literally - that are warmed in the fire and look like they're from the Middle Ages.  She often sits by the stove in the evenings with her feet on a blanket and a rusty metal TV tray before her.  Yesterday evening, she put a chick in the bottom drawer under the stove to warm and massaged it back to life.

Gogo cares greatly about her chickens, which she calls 'hooligans' behind their backs but secretly adores.  Almost every week, a new brood of four or five hatch.  Around the yard, there is an assortment in graduating sizes ranging from teeny tiny  to almost grown. But before they are ready to eat (as hers are apparently boilers rather than layers), it is a world fraught with challenge and hardship.  Gogo often keeps her eyes cast on the horizon as occasionally a hawk will swoop down into the yard and steal a chick away.  The other day, the puppy Daisy ate an egg from the coop so she is chained up now by the latrine looking punished but not contrite.  Brings new meaning to the expression, 'don't count your chickens before they're hatched.'

Before laundry this morning, we gathered at the water pump outside my hut.  Gogo was peering into Keke's open mouth and tut-tutting.  I looked over Gogo's shoulder and noticed that the back four or five molars in Keke's mouth were blackened, jagged and misshapen.  I didn't even know what I was looking at until Gogo threatened Keke to take her to the dentist and have them pulled out.  Who knew that teeth could look as if they were charred black as coal.  Just turned eight years old and the back of Keke's mouth was all but rotting out.

"Too many sweeties at school," concluded Gogo.  "And you tell her, Thembi.  Tell her she must brush her teeth --- once in the morning and once at night."

I parroted Gogo's admonitions but I'm not hopeful.  Maybe when I next went to town I will look for mouthwash with floride.  More than once, we volunteers have commented on the beauty of these Swazi smiles - with their perfectly white straight teeth.  And Keke's looks like that too - from the front.  Once again, I mumbled thanks to my mother for standing over me as a child, making certain I brushed the length of time it took for the salt to run through the inverted hour glass of an egg timer next to the sink.

A friend gave Gogo a gift of a phone yesterday.  Apparently Swazi Telecomm is giving out one free with the purchase of a new "wireless" phone, which is basically a cellphone that looks like a land line, complete with receiver, cord and push button pad.  Yesterday, after assembly, Siabonga and another of Gogo's grandchildren, and I trucked down to Swazi Telecomm to find out the phone's number and to buy 40 Rand of credit to charge it up.

When I asked her whether she liked her new phone this morning, I was expecting her to report that it was nothing special (she has a cellphone) but instead she raved.  She said she had talked and talked and talked on it last night and the call had only cost 10 Rand. She was over the moon.

Now it sounds such an easy thing to do, call into some automated Swazi Telecomm number, follow the prompts, 1 for English and 2 for Siswati, but somehow it is all so much more mysterious.  For whatever reason, I'm not completely certain, we were there for hours, huddled around the kitchen table, straining with our glasses to see in the darkness of the kitchen, with the black plastic phone placed between us as if an oracle.  We punched this or that number, with or without a hash or a star, sometimes on the speakerphone, sometimes passing the receiver back and forth, in bizarre broken English or minimalist Siswati.  Then Gogo called a friend on the cellphone for direction, back and forth again, to me in English, then back to Gogo again in Siswati.  It seemed all hope was lost.

And then it was done.  The credit for 100 R made it onto the phone, the transaction deemed SUCCESSFUL on the phone's tiny screen and we jumped around the table, high-fiving and dancing. 

"Oh Thembi!" Gogo shrieked, the joy all the sweeter for all the frustration.  "You are so clever.  You are so clever!"

Not really, I thought.  It shouldn't have taken me so long but I was pleased she thought so.  And very happy indeed to have helped my host mother in some small way.  I was useful.

It reminded me of the first time I met Gogo Simelane two weeks ago.  All my belongings and I had just arrived and we were anxious to know about each other.  As we sat down for tea at her kitchen table, she told me she had two daughters but when one died, she left her job as a domestic for a family in Johannesburg and returned to her family home in Khiza to take care of her two grandchildren.  She told me she was 61 years old.

I asked inanely about whether 61 seemed old to her.  Or did it seem an achievement?  Afterall, the life expectancy in Swaziland is 35 or so.

"Ah, 61 is old.  Very old," she sighed.  "I am no longer useful."

I told her I was 54 and that I had a husband and two daughters at home in America.  I brought out photos of my family and my home and she oohed and awed.

"And you leave them behind?  Your family in America?"  Her brows furrowed, the look on her face was that of a strong, smart woman who was not easily convinced, and even more rarely surprised, She seemed unable to comprehend why this strange white woman would travel halfway around the world to come to live in the hut behind her house when she had a choice in the matter.  "Why?"

I paused to think of a simple answer to that simple question.  One that had been weighing on my mind for over a year now.  But silently, the clouds parted, and it all became so clear.

"To be useful," I said.

We looked deeply into each other's eyes, which were both filling with tears.  Just then, I thought, we understood each other completely.  Two women, from different worlds, in a moment of complete mutual understanding.  Yes, this is what we both longed for in our lives.  If not happy, then to be useful.  Or perhaps useful is a form of happiness after all.