Megan's Head

A place where Megan gets off her head.

Of South Africa and Cape Town and me, and the things we don’t really say

Woodstock wheelbarrows

 

I have so many thoughts flying through my brain that I have no idea how to order them. I know I want to write about this stuff but I am all over the place, so I thought I would start with a photo I took yesterday, on the pavement across the road from The Biscuit Mill. These guys were finished for the day (I think they were doing something to those newly erected, weird brick boxes that are obstructing the pavement there) and while they waited for transport they turned their wheelbarrows into these crazy, artistic chairs. I loved this image and I asked them in isiXhosa if I could take their picture. I got a mixed response, but everyone agreed after a pause, and I took the picture. Afterwards one of the guys asked how much I was going to pay, and I said I wouldn’t pay anything. Then he asked for, then demanded and then nagged for a cold drink. The others waited to see my response. I laughed them off. And suddenly everyone was ok and we hung about, I showed them the photo, we giggled and shot the breeze for a moment or two and I left. I left with that very familiar, complicated feeling. That one that impresses upon me the enormous weight of how much we still have to get through, wade through, negotiate, respond to, before we are just people, not black people and white people of South Africa. Yes, it is getting better, because I am getting better at managing myself. When I walked away from this brief connection I noticed  a white guy in a bakkie, parked at the side of the road who gave me that ‘I was watching you the whole time, to see that you were ok’ look. I think that’s what he was doing. I am most probably projecting again. Things are so very complicated.

I was rushing home to pay my new house cleaner (is that an ok title?). This is another complicated story.

For years Buyiswa (Thelma) cleaned our house. I inherited Buyiswa from another place and time in 1997 when I lived with a crazy, slightly drug addicted somebody for a while. When I moved out of the flat we were sharing Buyiswa came with, to clean Southfork, the huge dilapidated house that was a commune, refuge, crazy creative site of giant parties, and home to the beginning of me having animals. Buyiswa moved when I moved, and came into my marriage, and my houses that I shared with Big Friendly. After a terrible road accident in a taxi that left her with a chronic sore back, and being ripped off by the lawyers who took her case to the RAF, it became harder and harder for her to move around. Public transport was challenging, and she was in constant and sometimes unbearable pain. At the end of September last year we agreed that we would pay Buyiswa to not come to work. This was the only way we could think of doing a kind of retirement fund, since we had failed at being responsible and registering her etc.

My relationship with Buyiswa was (and is) complicated. We love each other (but not as much as Big Friendly loves her). Buyiswa was delighted when I started courses to learn to speak isiXhosa, and she would talk to me and teach me. I knew all about her life, and her family, and her house in the Transkei, and her niece that she brought up as her daughter. I knew about her grown up son, who was unemployed and who she was obliged to support. I was (and still am) critical of her very expensive funeral stokvel club. She knew the ins and outs of my most personal things. She understood and sympathised with my unresolved and challenging relationship with my mother, she packed away my underwear, she loved the visits from my brother, she was deeply critical of my non meat eating diet. We knew all the wrong things about each other. The thing is, we were both destined to carry an enormous amount of our own, terribly complicated, unresolved, unexplainable stuff between us. Stuff that wrote her as the victim and me as the saviour or perpetrator. Stuff that made no sense to me at all, like her asking me if she could have something that I had thrown away, or me giving her something that was clearly an insult. She could make me feel guilty, and ashamed and conflicted just as I could make her feel enraged, and misunderstood, and maligned. And we carried a lot of silence and judgement and resentment about each other too. I knew long before I admitted it that she could no longer manage to clean the house, since she was too sore. And yet we both pretended.

Finally, when we worked out a settlement, and I explained that I wasn’t leaving her in the lurch, and she explained how worried she was about what would become of our house (rightly so), we said our physical goodbyes at the end of September last year.

In the beginning Big Friendly and I were brave and stoic and really tried to keep a clean house. I did not want to rush into getting more help, and it felt a bit ridiculous really, I mean, it’s not like I have a 9 to 5 job, or kids, or lack of time or even energy. But, we slid the slippery slope for 6 months. One day a friend came for tea, and I saw the house through his eyes. I was horrified and disgusted. The dust stood inches thick on everything. There were dust bunnies the size of actual bunnies under the bed. It was enough.

I reluctantly put out a call on Facebum for help. And I met, interviewed and employed Clementine. She has been to our house three times in two weeks, just to get us, and her up to speed. And boy are we up to speed.

Clementine is from Rwanda. She has been in Cape Town for two years. Her Rwandan husband has been in South Africa for thirteen years. They have a ten month old son, Moses, the cutest pie. And, in three sessions, Clementine and I have begun to know each other a little better.

There is no stuff between us. She works for me, and I pay her, and we are curious about each other. I am interested in her and her background, and she is fascinated by me and what I do. She told me that in Rwanda she was studying information technology and working as a waitress at a hotel. She had never cleaned houses until coming to Cape Town, but she wanted to work, and so chose to do it. She speaks English with a delicious french lilt. She complains bitterly about the bananas and fresh fruit and white bread, and coffee in Cape Town. She struggles to understand the differences in white, coloured, black, Indian, Christian, and Muslim Capetonians, and was pretty confused to discover I am an atheist of Jewish heritage. We have (briefly) spoken about xenophobia, and crime in Cape Town, but it was general and not personal, I think.

It is an entirely different experience having Clementine in my space and life. She is a cleaning whirling dervish. She is funny, and stylish, and open and forthright. She doesn’t pull my strings and push my buttons, and I don’t think I pull and push her’s. I may be projecting again here.

I have terrible guilt that I didn’t specifically choose a South African, particularly someone I could talk isiXhosa to, but I feel so shifted, and excited and strangely clear about this new change. I feel like it is possible to have a relatively ‘normal’ relationship, albeit friendly and curious, with somebody who works for me. And I am saying this out loud.

I would love to hear all your thoughts, good and bad, and personal and critical on this. Please let me know, people of Cape Town, and South Africa. What is it like for you?

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3 Comments

  1. Debi Hawkins

    Megan, you have opened what many would describe as “a @#$*” can of flippin HUGE worms! Thank you for your brutal honesty about a topic very close to my Colonial heart. Wow, talk about relevance with regard to my new play! Ha, you will have a thing or 2 to say after watching it. Well done on hiring someone for their ability and desire to work hard (in a rather thankless job), instead of hiring someone for their nationality. It was a business contract.

  2. I think the fact that you have simply described what you see and feel rather than trying to analyse or explain it to much is the key. I have similar thoughts and feelings and relationships but added to that I run a social profit organisation that employs a lot of people, that tries to alleviate personal and large scale human sufferings and I routinely spend time in the townships. Learning to manage myself in these spaces is a continous often painful struggle yet it is one I would not forego. To me this is what it means to be human and to be South African. Here we learn. And learn and learn.

  3. Fantastic, brave, honest writing, Megan. These themes are the awful unwanted ones that colour everyday interactions in SA, but get buried under the layers of what we’re allowed to talk about. I don’t think there’s shame in choosing to employ someone from Rwanda or Malawi or Zimbabwe or wherever, when you find that the relationship – for whatever reason, works better for who you are and how you live. I’ve found that sometimes it helps to be quite economically minded about the exchange, and less personally involved (difficult as that is). It’s also taken me time to figure out that when an employment situation is grim and overly demanding for me as an employer, it’s usually turned out that the situation is similarly untenable for the employee.

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