Shuffling blindly, groping walls as my eyes adjust. My throat is parched. I feel my way across the smooth counter until the cold metal of the tap indicates my arrival. I turn the stainless steel and water flows. I drink deeply, placing the empty glass upside down to dry. Back in my bedroom, the lace curtain blows against my arm, making the sickle moon visible in a sky of pitch. I lie back down on white percale linen which gifts me another two hours of sleep. My husband Calvin mumbles as I fidget with the pillows to get them just so, the way I like them. At 21, I am yet young, the world before me.
She lights the kerosene stove inside her hut. Roughened hands speak of her age: 58 years of scrubbing and polishing, wood collecting and livestock raising. These hands scoop water from a bucket into the only enamel pot she owns. The water forms tiny little bubbles as she steps outside to feed her sheep and the chickens which are still sleepily trying to make up their minds if it is time to break into a dawn chorus. They shift on their branches and decide to wait a little longer. It’s just 4 a.m., after all. Her sheep barely move as she opens their pen to allow them into the fields once the sun is up.
Now she splashes stove-warmed water on her face, pats her underarms, pulls on a viscose skirt and a button-up blouse. She fixes her headpiece in place, smooths Vaseline across her face and through her hair, pulls the door closed behind her and starts the 30-minute walk down the dusty gravel road where the bus will pick her up.
She clutches her bag, hoping the children will get to school safely. She hopes her neighbour will watch over “kleintjie (little one)” while she is in the city. She hopes her eldest daughter will not use all the airtime she loaded onto the cellphone. She wonders how she is going to get her husband with his swollen mass of a foot with its gangrene toes to the doctor. He cannot walk, and his whole body emits an odour that makes the mud hut an unbearable place to be in the midday heat of her African valley.
The bus screeches to a halt a couple-minutes walk beyond the waiting passengers. The driver couldn’t slow down in time because of the potholes he was avoiding. She shuffles, gently pushing bodies all around her. Clambering up the steps, she finds a seat and rests her head against the heavily steamed up glass, smudged with all the previous Vaseline encounters.
The bus galumphs in uneven strides down roads until the city horizon, with its smoggy outline, breaks into view. It hasn’t been for a roadworthy test in many many years. She closes her eyes, thankful for another day in which she lives to see dawn break the horizon. She is elbowed and shoved off the stairwell and into the squalor of Proes Street in downtown Pretoria.
A taxi war is raging. It is only when she sees oranges rolling down the road and people scrambling for shelter behind ramshackle market tables that she realises a bullet narrowly missed a man a few steps away from her. She peeps out from a sackloth bag hanging over the edge of the table, finds a clearing and shuffles, from market table to market table, to get into the clear, beyond the rage of the taxi owners who are fighting territory. She finds a minibus van that every possible person is clambering for and manages to get a seat. The driver pulls off, the door still wide open. She hangs on, managing to close it as he rounds the corner.
The morning sun bakes into the windows. Perspiration beads in the cleft of her full chest and knits itself along the ridge of her upper lip. She is dropped off 20 minutes away from my house. She walks, the birds inviting her to join in their song. She does so and wakes me gently.
My doorbell rings. Sleepily I amble down the passage. I hear her singing and my lips curve upward into a grin. I open the door and she pulls me into a big hug. We dance together on the veranda, stamping our feet, thirty-seven years of life and history separating us, yet not, yet.
She tells me it is time for a shower. I say it is time for her to go back to bed. She chuckles a deep gurgle.
On Tuesdays she washes, hangs and irons. Laundry whips in afternoon wind and sun. On Thursdays she gets down on hands and knees and washes my floor, my bathrooms and all the while she sings. She sings because the $10 she will earn today will feed “kleintjie” and her husband, and her daughter, and her son, and her second sister who is dying of HIV for another day.
She is my “Gogs” (granny in Zulu and used as a sign of respect and endearment). I am her “Sussie” (little sister in Afrikaans, used as a term of endearment).
I live in Ireland now. I pay a domestic worker four times more than what I paid Maria, for half the amount of work Maria did for me. It is a business transaction, for a service delivered: one that greatly improves my everyday life. She does not go down on her hands and knees. She tells me when the floor whiz is broken and needs replacing. She goes home to running water, electricity, sanitation and heating.
It seems to me the world believes Nelson Mandela fought to end Apartheid and won. He didn’t. He began to heal the separation, the apart-ness. Others—on both sides of the divide—must continue.
And now I am thinking hard, remembering Maria.
Will I go back to carry on?