EVERY TUESDAY AND THURSDAY morning my helper Susannah comes to clean my house. Clean and wash and iron and all those things that I am grateful every day that I can afford to pay someone else to do. Susannah usually disappears to her room to change then comes into the kitchen — often as I am finishing my breakfast, catching up on the overnight news. She puts on the kettle, or I do. I make tea or she does. We chat, I hear what is going on in her life, sometimes we talk about local politics. And other times she tells me about what life used to be like in South Africa.
I have been here for 18 months now. It’s still not a lot of time but I have tried to use that time well and see as much as the country as possible. I have also tried to understand the country, its people and its history as well as I can — which generally means visits to museums and tours of cities. Soweto, the Apartheid Museum, Robben Island, the Mandela Capture Site: I have done them all. But sometimes it is a little overwhelming, and my head ends up a whirling mass of facts and dates and names rather than a clear idea of what life was actually like.
Which is why I value my chats with my helper so much.
Sometimes, when we sit down with a cup of coffee in our hands, something sparks off a conversation about what life used to be like in South Africa, for the average South African. When I say average I mean the blacks. In particular, she talks about her mother, who also used to be a domestic worker. One day, it is the mug I use to make her tea.
“This mug,” she says, holding it away from her, considering it as if it were a precious object. “This is one of your mugs.” She is right; I have two or three mugs that are “mine” as opposed to general family mugs; I am not, however, precious about which mug I give to others to use.
“When my mother was working, she couldn’t use these mugs,” Susannah starts, thoughtfully. “She wasn’t allowed to drink in the kitchen or use any of the family’s crockery.
“She had to keep her mug outside. It was a can, cleaned out after it was used.” I imagine her mother drinking out of an old rusted tin can, kept in the garden. There isn’t much I can say to that.
Another time we talk about shoes. Even in winter, she tells me, her mother wasn’t allowed to wear shoes in the house. The floors in South Africa are usually bare, to keep the rooms cool in the summer. The winters can be harsh though and no-one wants to walk around barefoot during those months. Except not everyone had a choice.
Not all the stories are negative. The other morning we talked about how the families used to lay their apricots out in the sun to dry them out, covering them with netting to keep the birds and flies away. They did the same with their meat, hanging it up to make biltong. They had to do it this way because they didn’t have electricity. Nowadays, apricots are mass-produced and dried in factories. I’m not sure how many people outside of the wealthy elite can afford them. Life has certainly changed mostly for the better but I am sure there are some things that have changed for the worse.
Many other subjects crop up in conversation and often it is just a tidbit of information, a sentence dropped into a discussion that tells me more than an entire morning at a museum. About not being able to work somewhere because pass-laws meant they wouldn’t be able to get home in time. Or about voting for the first time ever, for Mr Mandela. And then about how she, Susannah, has never bothered to vote since because she doesn’t believe it will make any difference. I learn a lot about modern life in this way too.
When I leave South Africa in a few months time I know I will only ever have scratched the surface of this country. I feel this is the sort of place you could live in for years and still find out something new every day. It is a land of so many different people and places, of cultures, languages and beliefs, that I suspect even many of the locals don’t know everything about their own country.
But even though I understand there will still be so many things yet to discover I will always remember some things. The things I learnt from Susannah, from just talking to her and, more importantly, from listening. So if I have one piece of advice to pass on from this, one thing I wish others to do if they ever find themselves in a similar situation it is this: yes, go to the museums, do the tours, read the history books. Do them, but don’t forget to do something else that is more important than all the other things put together: talk to the locals. After all, they are often the ones who lived through the reality of what you are trying to learn about in the museums.
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