Tag Archives: township

Christmas Story: Mrs Obama’s Garden

‘Rubbish!’ Nkosi spat out. Drunk, he stood before Zuki with crumpled Christmas gift paper piling around his naked feet. He tossed the last of the presents, still partly wrapped, across the room. ‘Rich people’s rubbish,’ he hissed and fell back on his bed. A few seconds later he began to snore.

Zuki surveyed the scene before her. Nkosi had just come back from one of his ‘trips to town’, as he and his buddies called their looting excursions to the affluent suburbs of the city. They never went for anything big, specialising in petty crime only. But the last trip had been a total disappointment. They’d cruised for hours without an opportunity presenting itself until, at last, they saw a woman put a heavy box into the boot of her 4×4 and return to her house without locking the car. Nkosi grabbed the box and they made their escape. At least that is what Zuki had gathered from her brother’s earlier rant.

Now, the contents of the box lay strewn in front of her and Zuki felt a pang of guilt when she imagined how it would feel to discover the box gone. She picked up a piece of the Christmas paper which had landed near the door. Half a gift card was still attached to it. Zuki fingered it and straightened out the wrapping around it. One by one, Zuki traced the letters with her forefinger, deciphering them with some effort and pronouncing them softly under her breath: ‘TO KRISTIN AND WIGGO FROM…’ The giver’s name was missing.

Zuki crouched and retrieved the object which had so infuriated her brother. She hugged the stolen present to her chest. On tiptoe she made her way back to the sofa in the front of the house where she slept. The air was stagnant with the summer heat. Her father was asleep in the only other room.

The full moon illuminated the sofa through the window. Once settled, Zuki finished unwrapping the present and found herself staring into the lovely face of the American First Lady whom she’d recently seen on TV during the coverage of the her husband’s re-election campaign. She suddenly realised that she hadn’t properly held a book since dropping out of school three years ago when her mother died and Zuki took over her work as a char at Ms Murray’s. Ms Murray had shelves and shelves of books in her house, but Zuki only ever approached them with a feather duster.

Michelle ObamaPointing out the letters with her finger, Zuki gradually made out the title of the book and smiled. On the cover, Mrs Obama held a basket full of vegetables in all the colours of the rainbow. Even though Zuki did not recognise most of the vegetables, the picture made her mouth water. Especially the cucumber. In summer, Ms Murray often made cucumber sandwiches for her tea and always shared them with Zuki.

Inside the book, Zuki found many more photographs of Mrs Obama, surrounded by children, working in a garden, all busy with wheelbarrows and spades and rakes, then proudly showing off their vegetables in front of the camera. The people in the book appeared so relaxed and happy.

Zuki hadn’t known happiness since her mother’s death. Although it was difficult to admit, deep down inside she knew that her father was a drunk, her brother a chancer, and that her mother died because her father ordered her to visit a witchdoctor when she discovered lumps in her breast, instead of taking her to a clinic. But Zuki preferred not to dwell on things beyond her control. She was grateful for a roof over her head and didn’t mind giving most of her earnings to her father, just as long as he left her enough to feed them all. Even if what they could afford was mostly umngqusho or rice.

In one of the photographs, Mrs Obama was crouching next to a patch of plants Zuki did not recognise. The small-print text next to the picture looked daunting. At the top of the page, spelling the words carefully to herself, Zuki could make out a caption: “How Times Have Changed”.

In her dreams that night Zuki was in a garden and suddenly found herself face to face with the First Lady who held out to her a funny-shaped, purple vegetable. ‘Do you know what this is?’ Mrs Obama asked her. Zuki had to shake her head.

Waking up she felt her stomach grumble. Her dream made her feel ashamed. She hid Mrs Obama’s book under her sofa.

At work that day, Ms Murray was surprised to find Zuki paging through the commemorative U.S. election special issue of Time magazine. Ms Murray had not liked the idea of Zuki being torn out of school to work for her, but understood the situation and was glad that there had been at least something she could do for the family when her mother passed away. Zuki had never complained or indicated that she missed school, so it somehow surprised Ms Murray to see her looking so intently at the magazine in front of her, pointing, and mouthing the letters which stood to attention before her nail. She was so absorbed that in answer to Ms Murray’s hello she jumped up from her chair, spilling the remains of her tea over the magazine.

‘I didn’t mean to scare you,’ Ms Murray said and turned on the kettle.

Apologising, Zuki started wiping off her tea from the full-spread picture of the American First Family.

‘Don’t worry,’ her employer assured her. ‘I’m finished with it. You are welcome to have it when it’s dry.’

Zuki hesitated.

‘Are you happy that Obama was re-elected?’ Ms Murray asked unexpectedly. They had never talked politics before.

‘I know very little about –’ Zuki paused.

‘But you are interested to find out, I see.’

‘I’m not good at – ’

‘Reading?’ Ms Murray probed and Zuki nodded tentatively.

‘But you seem eager to?’

Zuki remembered the book at home and nodded again.

‘You know, I could help you,’ Ms Murray said. ‘Would you like that?’ she added carefully.

Zuki raised her eyes. In them Ms Murray found her answer.

In the afternoon, still glowing from the offer, Zuki went outside with a cool drink for Ms Murray’s gardener.

‘Do you mind if I take some of these home?’ she asked, pointing at some plants which resembled the ones she remembered from Mrs Obama’s book.

Alone on her sofa late that night, Zuki opened Mrs Obama’s garden book and held the thyme and rosemary twigs close to her nose. She smelled change in the palm of her hand.

***

Originally published as “Mevrou Obama se tuin” in By on 21 December 2013.

Review: Chatsworth – The Making of a South African Township edited by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed

ChatsworthThe forty contributions to this voluminous collection give a remarkable insight into the trials and tribulations of a South African township. Comprising academic studies, personal essays, and eye-witness reports on Chatsworth and its residents, the richly illustrated volume spans large chunks of the history of the township and its multitude of residents since its inception in the early 1960s.

Purely factual accounts are interspersed with vibrant narratives, like the one offered by the playwright Ronnie Govender who captures the spirit of the entire book by writing that a “ghetto is designed to kill the spirit of its hapless denizens … Chatsworth is one of those ghettos that refused to buckle.” Nearly all pieces in the book convey this message of survival against all odds.

Each of the local and international contributors approaches the township from a different angle. Many pieces centre on historical events and socio-political processes which shaped the area, first and foremost the initial forced resettlements around which all other memories evolve. One report examines the protests which dominated the early 1970s against plans to ban private bus companies from Chatsworth. Others write about specific individuals and entire movements which have been combating the appalling living conditions in the township. They zoom in on the daily struggles of ordinary people facing displacement, dire poverty, unemployment, gang culture, drug abuse, or different forms of exploitation.

There is an account of the horrific incident which shook Chatsworth on 24 March 2000 when thirteen teenagers were killed in a stamped at a nightclub. The tragedy was a wake-up call for the community to rethink the infrastructures available to young people in the township. Such reports are contrasted with stories about people hailing from Chatsworth who have made a great success of their lives, like Kumi Naidoo, the present International Executive Director of international environmentalist group Greenpeace, or Kerishnie Naiker, Miss Africa of 1997, who through her Welfare Initiative has initiated and facilitated the building of the Chatsworth Youth Centre.

Reading about the uplifting role cricket and football played in the lives of Chatsworth’s players, their teams, and the communities which supported them makes one furious about the carelessness with which sports at school level have been dealt with by the post-apartheid dispensation. More inspiring is the story of the Denny Veeran Music Academy where legions of musicians are being taught to reach for their dreams.

The book includes a captivating photo essay by Jenny Gordon which focuses on the centres of worship in Chatsworth. It is a welcome companion to the few contributions which describe the religious make-up of the township and the challenges the various groups of worshippers encounter in their quest for spiritual guidance.

Chatsworth: The Making of a South African Township is not exactly a leisurely read and will not be of much interest to a general reader. For anybody wanting to look into the inner workings of a township, it will be a treasure trove of information and impressions. In this respect, I felt highly enriched by the book.

Review first published in the Cape Times on 2 May 2014.