ABOUT seven years ago we moved from the suburbs to the city centre, back to the house where My Love lived as a child. Few of the people from his childhood still lived there, but over time we renewed ties with a few of them.
I met one of them shortly after moving in, when we locked ourselves out of the house one afternoon and a child had to climb over the gate to find an open window. At the same time, a short woman walked by and asked in an authoritative way who we were and if she could help, in the way people do when they mean: “What the hell do you think you're doing?" Embarrassed, like accused, we explained our predicament.
Over time we got to know and love her well: Norma Kariem. She lives in the apartment next to us and was well acquainted with my in-laws. She is an interesting woman: an expert on Jung and yoga who at 70 is still flexible enough to put her hands flat on the floor when she bends over. In her working life she was an audiologist at Bang & Olufsen in Belgium and later a teacher and then the principal of the Dominican School for Deaf Children in Wittebome here in the Cape.
When my children struggled with homework in primary school, Norma helped them. She became like a third parent to them over the years: a sympathetic adult with whom they could discuss their young lives, to whom they could no doubt complain from time to time about their old witch of a mother and who could provide an outside perspective on their problems. To this day, they still visit her most evenings.
Recently, Norma told me a touching story. She started her career as a teacher in her hometown of Graaff-Reinet. The children in her classes were poor but mostly well-mannered. One of them was Liesbet. Liesbet Bokbaard, a common Eastern Cape surname. Liesbet was small for her age, a petite child whose hard life had already been etched on her little face in Standard 3.
Liesbet, Norma found out gradually, was an orphan who lived with people who were not relatives, and she had to work as a kind of Cinderella for a roof over her head and a place to sleep. But for pitifully little more, as Norma would also find out.
Liesbet often slept on her arms in class. One day when she was sleeping again, the girl in the bench behind her called Norma — Miss Kariem, as she was known to the children — and showed her: where Liesbet's head lay, the bench was covered with lice. Norma was horrified and didn't quite know how to handle the situation. She called an older colleague, who arranged for Liesbet to be examined by a doctor at the local hospital.
Norma can no longer remember if there was something wrong with Liesbet. But she does remember that the X-ray of her abdomen showed that Liesbet had no food in her body. Nothing. Which means she had not eaten for about four days.
Norma was transferred to the Cape very soon after that and could not really help Liesbet. But the girl continued to haunt her. Years later, she ran into a classmate of Liesbet — Chrisjan, a success story who rose above his poverty to become a teacher and whose children all have professional occupations. She asked him about his classmates, and also about Liesbet.
“Miss Kariem, didn't you hear? Liesbet is dead.”
One day, she was sent to the mountain to fetch wood, but she did not come back. The family didn't go looking until the next day, when they found her under a thorn tree. Chrisjan didn't know whether she had been harmed or whether it was just the hunger and hardship that finally ended her life.
When talking to Norma, you can hear that the story of Liesbet still haunts her. Shouldn't she have tried to do something? Was there no way to help the child? If only she had stayed in town longer … if only she hadn't been so young and inexperienced. But would it have made a difference?
Home-cooked food is apt for such a sad story. Food without too many frills, that fills your stomach and will make you sleep well.
A pan of food for Liesbet
(Enough for 6 people and an unexpected guest.)
Like a hybrid paella, this dish is made in one pan. You could prepare it on a Karoo fire in front of a little house in the informal settlement on Graaff-Reinet's mountain. The flavours are more complex than Liesbet would be used to, but I'm sure she would have loved the rice and meat. I tried to keep the ingredients as cheap as possible.
- 1 pork fillet, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
- 100 ml olive oil
- salt and pepper
- about half of a chorizo sausage, cut into cubes
- 2 large onions, finely chopped
- 1 large green pepper, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 ½ cup paella rice, but don't drive to the store if you don't have it. Tastic would have worked for Liesbet and it also worked for me.
- 1 heaped tsp smoked sweet paprika
- a pinch of chilli flakes
- 750 ml boiling chicken stock or water
- 1 large bunch of spinach, washed, largest ribs cut out and chopped, or a large bag of baby spinach
- 1 lemon, cut in wedges
1. Heat a large, deep pan of at least 30 cm in diameter until very hot and quickly fry the pork in the olive oil. Just fry it briefly, don't cook it. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the pan.
2. Turn the heat a little lower and fry the chorizo for a minute, then add the onions and pepper. Fry gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Now add the garlic and fry for another 5-10 minutes until the vegetables start to change colour and taste sweet. Stir the rice through so it can absorb all the delicious vegetable flavours. If you want to, you can prepare the dish in advance up to here. It's handy for weekend food, because you can clean the kitchen and do other weekend things.
4. Finishing the dish will take about another half-hour and can be done over a coal fire, if you prefer. Taste and season the dish with salt and pepper. Add the paprika, chilli flakes and hot stock and simmer for 15 minutes with the lid on until the rice is almost cooked and there is still a layer of liquid at the bottom of the pan. Add a little more boiling water if necessary.
5. Arrange the spinach over the rice, season with a sprinkling of salt, put the lid back on and steam briefly until bright green and soft.
6. Now add the meat slices with their sauce to the rice and press them slightly into the rice to absorb some of the oily liquid on the bottom.
7. Cover the pan again and let rest for about 5-10 minutes before eating.
8. Serve with lemon wedges and a salad and bread if you like.
May she laugh out loud
Norma does remember a small detail about Liesbet, a ray of light: she could laugh out loud about something funny. May Liesbet rest where the Light of Love watches over her forever and the sound of those celebrating is never-ending, and may she often laugh out loud with pleasure when another plate of food is placed in front of her.
♦ VWB ♦
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