GOWANUS Autumn 2001
by Pumla Dineo Gqola
off the minibus taxi and begin the short walk to my grand- parents' house.
This has been my routine for two years now, ever since I left lower primary
school. Every Sunday afternoon I board a taxi headed for kwaLanga for a
visit. Grandfather will be sitting outside on the stoep of the house
with Tatomkhulu uNgwevu, his old friend, both men basking in the sun, smoking
pipes. I inhale the sweet tobacco smell along with the laughter shared
by the two men, interspersed with the teasing that is so characteristic
of warm February Sundays. As I open the gate they notice me at once, switching
from whatever topic is on their lips to that of my arrival. Grandfather
calls out to Grandmother inside the house to come see me. He always announces
my arrivals as if he is pleasantly surprised by them, although I cannot
imagine why he should be so.
"Tyhini! Tyhini! Mamfene! Uthi mawuke uzosivakashela namhlanje!"--"So, Mamfene, you have decided to pay us a visit today!" they begin.
I smile and offer a greeting as I walk towards them, closing the gate behind me. After kissing them both on the lips--for Tatomkhul' uNgwevu is as good as family too--I stand on the stoep for a while telling them this and that. Sometimes they say how I have grown and we all laugh because only a week has passed since my last visit. It is all said in good fun, and they know I am not to take anything literally. Then they ask about other people back home, although to be honest they see those people often enough too. Finally I announce that I will go and say hello to my grandmother and am just about to enter the house when she comes outside herself.
"Oh! I see that you have only come to visit your grandfathers here, neh?" she teases.
"Hayi, Makhulu"--"No, Granny, I was just about to come in to you."
Grandfather calls me Mamfene, my family name, never Thembela, my given name. I do not mind, though. In fact, I rather like it even though when I was a younger child I found it slightly old-fashioned. My grandmother calls me "T-Girl" because when I was five that was what I told her I liked being called. At the time she laughed because it was not the logical shortening for my name. Other Thembelas were called Thembi or Thembsie, certainly not T-Girl. At first she said it sounded like I was being called a "tea-girl," and this to her made it all the more strange. I don't remember anymore where I picked up the notion, but it has stuck with Granny. Grandfather never uses it, only his family name and, since he is father's father, my family name too. Everybody calls him Mfene, except my grandmother who calls him by his given name.
Eventually Makhulu and I will be inside the house alone. She always has some kind of treat waiting for me. I sit in the kitchen while she brings out whatever favourite of mine she has made that weekend, or has kept for me from a meal during the week. I always eat all of it even though my parents insisted I finish lunch before I left home to go visiting. I have always had a healthy appetite.
Today as we sit around that kitchen table, Makhulu brings out amafetshu--fatcakes--and ginger beer. Everybody knows I love amafetshu better than anything else in the world. I used to annoy my mother because I would insist on buying them even from the aunties who sold them on the street, unprotected from the dust and dirt. My mother used to say they were unhygienic and would make me sick. Makhulu's mafetshu, though, are always the best, better even than my mother's. My mother laughs when I say this because she insists that she makes the best mafetshu in all of Cape Town.
As Makhulu and I sit together I notice she is not as happy as she usually is. I ask if she is sick. She says no, it is only that she is worried about her friend's misfortune. I wait for her to either explain or not, because I am a child and must not pry. This is not to say I am not eager to hear what has happened to her friend. But I stop myself short of asking which friend, because I really want to know. Children may not ask grown-up people these things. If she sees it fit to tell me, she will. If she doesn't, then it is a matter between adults and I am not to be privy to that information. I can't wait to be grown up enough that I can be told anything I want to know.
Makhulu looks very unhappy now. She is talking about what it was like back home. This always amazes me, because even though Makhulu has lived here for decades she still refers to Libode as home too. Libode is in the Eastern Cape somewhere. I haven't been there since I was a baby, so I don't remember it.
As makhulu Mampinga comes into the kitchen, I begin to wonder whether it is she who has had something bad happen to her. Soon the house has three more grandmothers visiting. Although Sunday afternoons are visiting time, there are seldom so many of them here all at once. It is clear they have come for a reason. And this is how I manage to hear the story. With so many grown-up people confronting such a crisis, it is easy to forget there is a child in the room. It is almost like in the train when my friends and I come from school. The mothers and aunties in the train speak grown-up talk with us right there in the carriage. Sometimes we imagine they are so charged up that they entirely forget we are there and we children try to keep really quiet. In my excitement today, I miss the first part of the exchange between the grey women and only come to my senses when makhulu Mampinga is already talking.
"In no time at all they had found a place to live. I was devastated. This meant that I had to start afresh looking for chars. At this stage, as you know, I am no longer a spring chicken. But it is a woman's lot," she is saying.
The other grandmothers are speaking now too, and the story is going to take a long time to tell. They are all making sympathetic sounds. Every now and again they make an exclamation. This delaying is the only thing I do not care for in grown-up talk. Children always get right to the juicy bits, but adults savour every word, especially old grown-ups. I hide my irritation because none of this is my business in any case, but I sometimes have special privileges at Makhulu and Tatomkhulu's place. Eventually makhulu Mampinga continues her story.
"They had at least been kind to me. The madam used to deduct from my pay for many years. I knew that I could get that money when they left to go to Johannesburg. This fact alone was my consolation. It is not that I did not want to see them go. Only that it is much more difficult at my age...you know, to start looking again. And kule mali inqabe kangaka--especially with money being so scarce." She took a break here and for a moment I thought I saw tears in her eyes.
It is makhulu Nokuzola who takes up now from where makhulu Mampinga has left off. I realise it is to allow makhulu Mampinga to pull herself together again before she resumes.
"Look at my own case. I have been looking for a job myself for several months now. One madam told me to stop looking and let my children support me. A sad thing that is, I'm telling you. 'Thelma, let your children work for you now', she said. Imagine! Just like that, telling somebody she is too old to work." (I only now realise that "Thelma" is makhulu Nokuzola's work name.)
It is my grandmother's turn to sympathise now, and she begins, "Ei! This old age is a curse against us in this place now. When I was a little girl, old age meant wisdom. But you wouldn't know about that." She is looking at me. It strikes me that Makhulu does not mind that I am here. Addressing herself to me, she continues, "You are from this here township, a city girl. You don't know the old life."
Makhulu Mampinga has pulled herself together enough to be able to continue her story now. She has no more tears in her eyes.
"Anyway, bafazi, let me continue with this thing. My madam told me she would have the money ready and a few things for me to take home. This morning I was sitting in the train trying to imagine how much money I would be getting. I could just imagine, all those years, my nice madam had been putting away little by little. I did not worry that she never told me where she was putting it away," makhulu Mampinga says. But she is once again interrupted.
"Ewe kaloku,"--"Yes, indeed, that is why the white people have so much money. They know of many ways to save their money," makhulu Nokuzola offers.
I notice that the other two grandmothers have not said much. Occasionally they agree or offer a sympathetic sound, but not much else escapes their lips. Not to be outdone, makhulu Mampinga continues her story. It must be very difficult to tell a story under these circumstances, I think to myself. But then, they are all friends and like interrupting each other. It is I, the outsider, who is bothered by their way of going about it.
Makhulu Mampinga says, "Today, however, I was going to reap the benefits of their secret money-making scheme. This money would be more than the money from our mgalelo group at Christmas. I thought to myself, I will only use a little of it to celebrate. The rest I will take and deposit at the Post Office as soon as the following day came. Some other chars on the train were teasing me, 'Are you sure abelungu bakho'--'your employers'--'are going away? Why, then, are you so happy?' Hayi wethu, I told them, I am in a good mood, that's all. Today feels like Christmas for me. The train crawled all the way."
"When you are late the train is very slow, my dear. It's the same when you have to wait for it. It takes forever." That was makhulu Thobeka --Esther, as she was known when she did her chars.
"When the train finally arrived at Kenilworth station, I was beside myself with joy. I was going to see all my money. Curiosity had also got the better of me, because I wondered what present my bosses also had in store for me. They always gave me nice gifts at Christmas. Sometimes they gave me the young master's toys for my boys when they were still young. Sometimes books and guns. The wind pushed me up the slope that day because I had no worry. I was wearing the nice lime-green dress madam gave to me last Christmas. It had been her favourite dress years ago, she told me. It was good quality, I could tell. Yes, this dress was quality. We wore the same size with the madam.
"When I got to the house it was very quiet, so I decided they were out. My key was in my purse, so letting myself in would not be a problem. Inside, I could still hear nothing. They must have packed the kitchen first, I remember thinking to myself. As I went through the house, however, I found myself encountered by empty rooms. The house had nothing but dust, with only the wind whistling as it went through the corridors. Empty! I walked in and out of every room, thinking there must be a mistake. Then I thought that the madam had left something for me in one of the rooms. Perhaps in the bathroom. Of course! It must be in one of the cupboards in the kitchen, in one of the hiding places for master Jimmy's sweets and things that had been kept by only the madam and myself. They had left without saying good bye, but maybe something came up. It didn't matter, really, as long as the money was there. Maybe they left it with my present for the years of service. Now that I thought about it, I could have had much worse bosses."
There are exclamations all around as the grandmothers begin preempting what makhulu Mampinga is about to say. But she gets it out soon enough.
"I looked and looked. I knew every corner of that house, went over each room five times. Eventually with the heat rising from the pit of my stomach into my face, my heart about to start turning as if it were not attached to my body, I sat down. Flat in the middle of the kitchen floor," she says and then remains quiet for a few moments. I notice there are tears running down her face. "I should have known. A clever woman would have asked for her money there and then when the promise was made. Now my money was gone. Gone. I must have thought about this for an hour before I finally got up, let the key drop to the floor and walked out. It made no sense for me to bother closing the door behind me. It was unimportant. It was I who had been robbed. Eight years, gone. Maybe I would have been better to have mean bosses like you, my friends. At least there are no surprises then."
I also want to cry because everybody in Makhulu's kitchen has become silent. To keep from feeling uncomfortable, I look outside the window. The clouds are starting to gather. Thank goodness it is Cape Town, I think. It will rain, but at least there will be no thunder.
Makhulu Nokuzola says, "Hayi wethu! There never was any money. It was a way to justify under-paying you all these years. And you kept saying you had such nice bosses."
I watch as the women sit in my grandmother's kitchen sharing a friend's pain. But I am still shocked. All I can do is shake my head. Then I think to myself, how can I make my escape? I would rather wait until I am big to listen to old people's stories.
Makhulu Charlene and Aunt Thobeka promise to keep an ear open. They both know makhulu Mampinga is old and that it will be hard finding a position for her. People want young blood. She has spent half of her life cleaning other people's houses three times a week. It is now her time to retire and grow old. But she needs the money. Her friends are here to tell her that they care that nobody wants an old woman working for them.
"Injalo ke bafazi!"--"That's the story, then, women. My husband's pension will have to do for now. It is time now for me to be old too," was how makhulu Mampinga's story ends.
"How can you say you will live on your husband's pension? What about your own?" Makhulu asked. But Makhulu has not worked at a pensionable job for a long time. I do not even remember when that might have been. It was around the time she bought a sewing machine and started making dresses and other things. Earlier, she used to work as a seamstress at a factory in Goodwood. Now she has her own "factory" right here in her home, she often says.
It is still hard for me to keep quiet in light of what I have just heard, so I choose to leave the kitchen. I take my last fetshu and what is left of my ginger beer and walk towards the stoep where the grandfathers are still laughing together. Perhaps they will cheer me up.
Tatomkhulu is telling a story about the tricks they once played on one another as boys. I laugh with them, noting that both my grandparents seem to enjoy reliving the past. I know they like the city too, though. Otherwise they would have moved back to the rural areas like some of their friends did. But they prefer to spend their last days here. When asked about this, Makhulu often says, "Mh! Uthi mandiyokwenza ntoni mna ezilalini?"--"Huh? What do you want me to go and do in those places? I have nothing there any more. My friends are all here. So are my children."
Tatomkhulu echoes him.
Their words surprise me, because they both like to reminisce so much about their youth and how things were back then. But maybe all they want is to remember, not go back. Still, they call it home. But they call kwaLanga home too. I think one is the home of their youth and the other the home of their old age. Grandfather Tatomkhulu is from Bizana and Grandmother Makhulu from Libode, so maybe it is a good thing they came to Cape Town, because otherwise they may never have met. Maybe that is why they don't want to go back: they would have to go back to different places. This is what I say to my grandfather as I join the two old men on the stoep. There is no sun any more, but they show no sign of moving. My suggestion is met with roaring laughter.
"Hayi ningabantwana bedolophu nyani nina."--"You indeed are a child brought up in town. We could not have spoken to our own grandparents of such matters," is Tatomkhulu's response.
He makes a joke of it, but I realise
my comment was indeed inappropriate. It was alright to think it, but not
to say it aloud. As nice as he is about some things, my grandfather is
a stickler for tradition. He is as conservative in that way as can be.
All these years in Cape Town have left no imprint on him in that regard.
This was a matter I should have raised with Makhulu, because she is less
strict about such things. Last week I even told her that my sister has
So, I think, now I will have to keep quiet for a little while. But soon they are interrogating me again about what I want to be when I grow up. I tell them I want to be a vet, which is what I told them last week.
Tatomkhul' uNgwevu challenges this, " But I thought last week you said you wanted to be a doctor? Who will heal us if you are so busy healing animals?."
My Tatomkhulu teases, "Hei! You know, Ngwevu, these children know of all sorts of things. But the times are on their side. Now they can be anything they put their minds to."
Both grandfathers break into laughter again, and it is with regret I realise I must be starting home. It may not rain for another hour or so, but it is getting late and I do not want my parents to worry. My mother worries even though she knows where I am. Maybe she thinks something will happen to me in the taxi or something. People always make a fuss about taxis, but I have not heard of many accidents in which a minibus taxi was involved. And I know of a lot of accidents. I walk back to the kitchen to bid all grandmothers farewell. Then I say goodbye to my grandfathers. This has been the strangest visit I can ever remember having with my grandparents. Maybe next week things will be back to normal.
(Pumla Dineo Gqola lectures in
the Department of English and Classical Culture at the University of the
Free State. Her creative writing has most recently been published in Tyhume
and Running Towards Us: New Writing from South Africa (Heinemann,
edited by Isabel Balseiro).