IT is difficult to write about unequal relationships. When one person is wealthier and the other poorer, for example. Or when one is healthy and the other sick. An employer and an employee. Add race to the mix and you have to tread carefully. Words lie like barbed wire on your path. The expectations of a rainbow nation become suffocating and you stare at the keyboard for hours, in this case a year.
“What are we, Lydia? Who are we to each other?” I ask while we drink tea in her kitchen in Ipelegeng, the residential area outside Schweizer-Reneke. She has lived there permanently since her retirement. Before that, she cleaned houses in Johannesburg.
Decades of toil have enabled her to build a simple brick and concrete house. The place is sparkling clean and tidy. There is running water but the tap is outside, and she has a bucket system for drinking, washing and bathing. Each bucket has its place. There are porcelain figurines and a decorated water bottle from a funeral in a glass case in the living room where the soap operas play on TV all day long. Outside, there is a peach tree that sprouted from an unsown pit.
“Ousie, are we friends?” I ask her. “How would you describe our relationship?” Earlier, I heard her explaining to her curious neighbours that I am the person who lived next to her previous employer. She also did piece jobs for me.
My visit caused quite a stir. White people don't often come to Ipelegeng, especially not to stay overnight. A white skin in the township is still a novelty for some and something to be afraid of for others. One child burst into tears when she saw me. She thought I was a ghost. To be fair, my skin is very pale, even compared with other white people. Added to that, my wild hair with fresh platinum streaks; I must have looked like a fierce ancestor to her. Then she crawled in behind her mother's apron. It was New Year 2022 but it could just as well have been decades ago.
As we drink tea, people walk in “by chance". The news of my presence spread quickly. They welcome me with wide smiles, big eyes and perfect Afrikaans: “Welkom, Tannie! You must enjoy your stay here." Lydia and her neighbour, Rebecca, specially cooked a meal for me. They had to work hard to get everything ready before load-shedding kicked in at sunset. Potatoes, rice, fried chicken, homemade onion rings and baked beans with mayonnaise. For dessert, there was custard and canned peaches. When the sun's rays finally shone through the windows and illuminated the feast, we all held hands and Lydia prayed for us.
Rebecca is dressed to impress. She wears a bright blue shweshwe outfit with a headscarf. It is spotlessly clean and crisply ironed. I tell her she looks beautiful and smells nice. She giggles mischievously, like a little girl: “Yes! I had to dust a bit before you came — even in the ‘corners’,” she laughs, referring to her bucket bath, which even included the parts covered by underwear.
I help myself to a third plate of food; it's not the time and place for keto and low carbs. The freshly fried chicken makes a satisfying crunch when you bite into it. I'm glad they didn't put too much sugar in the canned peaches; you can still taste the wildness of the peach. There is nothing like homemade food, especially when it’s put together with so much effort and care. That's how my mom used to prepare Sunday afternoon meals for us, and Lydia did the same for her employers.
“You must enjoy your meal, sis Ousie,” Lydia says proudly as I give the beans another go. “Thank you, Ousie."
In the afternoon, Lydia and I speak about the old days. I tell her that since she left I have cleaned the house myself but it's a much more difficult and technical task than I expected. So the house remains dirty. Lydia looks disappointed by my feedback but not surprised. “Yes, it's hard. And those people wanted me to polish the floors every day. I had to go on my knees every day. That's why I walk like this. My legs don't work any more.”
Lydia isn't complaining; they're just scars from the struggle. She slowly stands up and shuffles to put on more hot water. She gives me advice on which mops to use. “Those new mops at Pick n Pay don't work; you have to get the old mop with the cords on the head. Go to the Pakistani store.” I thank her for the advice and we talk about random things.
Forgiveness for the fight
Then Lydia can't hold back any more. She wants to talk about an incident that has bothered her for many years. I remember it well and wish I didn't. The time we had a terrible fight about a dirty ring around the bathtub. I complained that I had to clean it myself in the end because the thing remained dirty, and it took me an hour of scrubbing. But I used other words, horrible words. Her counterargument was that she doesn't have an hour every day just for a ring in the bath. Lydia has a loud voice and that day I knew I had been spoken to. “Do you remember, Ousie? You shouted at me?” Lydia says, looking uncomfortable. “I also shouted, I shouted.”
At times like these, you have to be careful. Asking for forgiveness is often the indulgence of a narcissist. The words you choose cannot serve one party more than the other. “I am sorry,” I say, biting my lip. I can't remember if I made eye contact. “I am sorry too,” Lydia says.
Those three words come out of our mouths so disproportionately. For one thing, they had to do the work for a whole chapter, a whole generation. They also embodied regret over a stain in an old enamel bath that had been scrubbed so harshly that the scar would never come out anyway.
Then you remain silent and have more tea.
“What does that word ‘Ousie’ actually mean?” I ask. “Is it like a friend, but for women?”
“Sis Ousie is like a sister. It means we've come a long way and there are no problems."
That's all. To bear witness; that's all we can ever have regarding each other, especially in relationships that last for many years. To be able to say: “I've seen you. I was there. I took notice.”
We don't pay attention in this country. We look away. Equality doesn't mean a clean slate. It's not even-handedness. It's a new-fashioned mop that denies the cobwebs. We try to give shape to things that are still ghosts.
The road between Schweizer-Reneke and Wolmaransstad is diabolical. The potholes are scattered so widely in places that the left side and the right side of the road no longer carry meaning. You aim in a direction that is sort of “forward" and you drive.
When I announce that I am driving back to Johannesburg, a queue of people forms who want a lift out of town. I draw the line at five. The poor child who thinks I'm a witch screams bloody murder when she gets into the car but calms down when she sees this ancestor isn't actually that mean. As I see the child and the maize mills and silos in the rearview mirror, I turn my face away and let a tear roll down my cheek.
And I cry because I can be a sis Ousie.
♦ VWB ♦
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