When she initially catches my attention, her packages are on the pavement, sitting on either side of her legs as if she is taking a break after a failed attempt at securing them on her person. I don’t look again.
In front of me is a white Toyota with the words “Thandolwethu on board” written on the back windscreen in pink, childlike letters below a generic illustration of a baby. As the traffic inches forward, I try to imagine what Thandolwethu’s little face looks like, how her day has been and whether she is indeed on board. Before I can look into the back seat, her mother turns left and I’m left wondering.
My phone pings. “Has your period arrived yet?” It’s my friend. We usually make soup for each other and refill each other’s impepho supply at this time of the month. She likes to send hearts and a lot of stars with her texts.
I look up to see that the woman with the packages is now behind me and she’s managed to put a very large, boxy package in a plastic bag on her head while she carries another heavy bag with her right hand. Ahead of me, the sun is going down. Another look back: she has stopped again to adjust the package on her head.
I stop and put the hazards on, irritating a Land Rover behind me. The open window lets the winter air settle in. As she approaches the car, she stops and cranes her neck to say something. A smile reveals a beautiful light-brown face in its 50s, under a white doek.
I open the door and her packages take a seat. First the large leather vanity bag. Then the boxy thing that she shifts around as she makes space for her slim body.
“What is this thing you are carrying, mama?” I ask her in isiXhosa. “Ke TV ngwanaka,” she says in Setswana. “Where did you get a TV?” I reply in isiXhosa. We do that thing that happens in Generations where one person speaks one language and the other responds in another language. I can’t understand everything she is saying but I have the gist of the story: the white people she works for have given her a TV and she is on her way home to plug it in.
We both give up and English slips in to assist. She is going to Parktown North. We are currently outside the entrance to the Planet Fitness gym near the Wanderers some medium distance away.
By the time we are on Bompas Road, she’s already told me that she’s been in Johannesburg since 1978 and “Tjo tjo tjo, Jo’burg itšhentšhile [Jo’burg has changed frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>
I listen. When she started working here, she worked for a wealthy white family in Saxonwold. They owned aeroplanes. “Those white people paid me so well. R20 a month got me everything I needed. Groceries, school fees, money to send back home.”
I express shock, a little too much, remembering how much my father used to love how shocked we would become when he would tell us what R1 could buy back in his day. It works. She tells me more. “A bus to Gaborone back then was R2 and I would still come with groceries. If you were paid R30, you were rich-rich-rich,’’ she says with exblockquotement. We both laugh at the price of bread today.
“Where exactly am I dropping you off, mme?’’ I ask. She says not far from Bakos Brothers. We continue talking, this time me telling her where I’m from. We laugh as she tells me about her siblings and what it was like in Saxonwold during those days.
“So you were going to carry this TV all the way down to Jan Smuts?” I’m now saying the Jan like her, with a hard “J”.
We become distracted and I pass Bakos Brothers. We are on Bompas, going towards the houses. She says I must just drop her at the corner and she will walk. “Walk to where, mama?”I ask. “Do you know Giles restaurant?” she says. I do not know Giles and ask her for the street name where she lives. She tells me and it does not sound familiar. It’s now night-dark outside. She directs me and we drive further and further into a very nice suburb, quite far from Jan Smuts.
I see Giles and remember that I have been there with an ex. We’ve now moved on to the subject of Botswana President Ian Khama and his parents, Ruth and Seretse. I ask her if she knows about the movie about them and she says yes. “But he likes English too much,” she says.
We are still driving, past the busy street where Giles is located and on to a quieter area. I’m now a little less chatty as I think about the distance that she so casually understated. She leads me to her house, near First Avenue in Parkhurst. We arrive at the entrance of a big, beautiful, monochrome exterior.
“This is where I live. I work here Tuesdays and Thursdays,” she says, getting the stuff from the car. “If you ever want to come for tea, just knock on this door.” She asks for my name. And I give it to her. Then I drive off and join the traffic where it all started.
iimbali! is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis
Cover image: ”I am a lady”, a sculpture by Mary Sibande