Saturday, 26 January 2019

No 77 -: Makanda Unravelled 3: Roja’s People

 [A third, wholly fictional vignette, imagining Grahamstown-Makhanda cut off from the world in - shall we say - late 2019.]

Hill Street, flooded. (c) Dan Wylie
Roja’s furious barking brought Rebecca Inglis to the kitchen window. It was still raining, though apparently the worst of the cyclones were over for now. She could make out a huddled figure, or figures, outside the gate-that-wasn’t-automatic-now, chained and padlocked since the power had gone down. She was a bit more paranoid about security since the blackout: various neighbours’ evacuated properties on Hill 60 had been raided or illegally occupied.

And she was alone, apart from Roja.

Moreover, her cellphone had run out of juice, so if she were to get into trouble there was no way to contact anyone. She was reluctant to charge it in the car, since she had very little fuel left, and wanted to use that to get up to the soup kitchen in Duncan Village the next day. In fact, she’d been contemplating walking over to the university, where she could hook up to the Pharmacy generator, the only one still running for restricted hours. Though the university had been formally closed since halfway through the six-month drought, a few hardy or perhaps just foolishly loyal academics hung around. It was comforting to gather occasionally in the Pharmacy tearoom and swop stories and survival tips; in fact Rebecca, in normal times rather stuck away up the hill in Journalism’s media centre, had found herself chatting to lecturers from disciplines she would never otherwise encounter – Accounting, Botany. Not that they talked academia much: in these straitened times, the utter irrelevance of so much of it had become as stark as a starveling’s rib.

And Roja was still barking at immediate reality.

As Rebecca peered through the rain-frosted window, the figure at the gate spotted her, and waved. A woman, rotund in the classic Xhosa way; and Rebecca could make out one of those big checkered fibre bags at her feet. Then a smaller figure detached from the woman’s side, a child.  Sisi Mpumelelo, that’s who it was, with her little grandchild – what was her name again? Rebecca had met the somewhat forbidding, often harshly vocal Sisi Mpum’, as she was known, just a few times at the soup kitchen; she was a stalwart of the Sacred Heart church up in the location, and like so many oldsters had taken over raising the child of younger parents who had died or absconded. A situation only intensified by the drought and the floods, the substantial exodus in which mostly the men left for work in the Cape or Joburg – as if the old migrant-labour system had never really stopped.

Rebecca couldn’t imagine why they were at her gate, or even how they knew where to find her. Mysterious township networks. She slung on a poncho and went out; the pair looked bedraggled and forlorn and she brought them quickly under the shelter of her porch. The child – Khaya, she was reminded – was terrified of Roja, though in fact Rebecca was trying to stop the retriever from licking the little girl to death.

“Actually, Roja adores children,” Rebecca laughed, but the terrified child buried her face in her grandmother’s skirt.

And then there seemed nothing for it but to invite them right in, offer towels to dry their faces, and put the kettle on. (Fortunately, she still had gas, which she’d always cooked on.) They sat in the kitchen and had tea with the longlife milk Rebecca was now pulling out of storage. Sisi Mpum’ was reticent at first, characteristically grumpy, but gradually Rebecca pieced some of the story together.

Sisi Mpum’ had always lived in Joza, it seemed, and must be pushing seventy now. She had had four children: one dead in childbirth, one son killed in a bar brawl at twenty-one, and a third, successful as things went, had found his way overseas and not been heard from since. And the fourth, Khaya’s mother, had fallen pregnant out of wedlock to a feckless individual who had absconded, before she herself died of AIDS. Khaya, left with her grandmother, was nearly nine but looked about six; the last year of drought and strain couldn’t have helped her growth, Rebecca reflected. And her own, much older husband was dead now eight years or more. Sisi Mpum’ tutted and groused from under her damp doek; Rebecca wondered how one person could withstand so much tragedy.

“Hm, men,” she was concurring. “My husband left, too, you know?” Sisi Mpum’ affected surprise. “He never liked it here, but I did; when the drought came, he wanted to leave, but I did not. Then when my daughter’s school closed, she went to join him in Pretoria.” Sisi Mpum’s English was none too good, so Rebecca kept her words simple, and interspersed with such isiXhosa as she knew. Of course the situation had been more complicated, the breakdown of the relationship more gradual and entangled. But the drought had proved the snapping-point, the subject of the last furious argument – their marriage a victim of climate change. As for their fifteen-year-old, Simone – she had stayed until even her relatively self-sufficient school had succumbed to lack of water and sewerage; she had hung in, sort of home-schooling, until the cyclones hit. The extended power outage was the proverbial last straw: when kids could no longer easily access social media by phone or iPad, their entire social world, their very sense of identity, collapsed; Simone had been almost catatonic with the feeling of loss. So just the week before, they had found her a lift out of town with friends with a 4x4 that could negotiate the damaged Bedford road, and she too was gone.

And now, while Rebecca rattled disconsolately about her large house, Sisi Mpum’, apparently, was suffering a rather more dramatic loss: her home had survived the dust-storms but not the cyclones, her roof ripped off, her little garden stripped bare by vandals and buried under mud.

“We want to stay here,” she said bluntly.


Rebecca mused briefly on the town’s – the country’s – history of division, hatred and misunderstanding, For all her work with the Black Sash in the apartheid years, and more recent charitable efforts at the soup kitchen and reading groups, her social interchange with Xhosa folk had remained superficial and desultory. She had occasionally entertained folk from the townships, but never had anyone stay overnight. Suspicion had, if anything, intensified under the latest climatic upheaval. Rebecca had the sense that the 1819 Battle of Grahamstown – which in some low-grade fashion had perhaps never ceased – was being renewed as Xhosa destitutes increasingly raided westwards into the ‘white’ suburbs.

Now, however, there seemed no question of turning her visitors away. She recalled Mrs Curran, the protagonist of J M Coetzee’s novel Age of Iron, her discomfiture at the invasive presence of the vagrant Verceuil. But this was different: Rebecca in fact felt a bit relieved, trusting, companionable, even a bit self-congratulatory as she installed them in the spare bedroom. Khaya wanted to sleep with her gran, as she was accustomed to.

They returned to sit at the kitchen table, which at this time of day seemed more appropriate than the lounge, or leaving the still somewhat awkward guests in the bedroom. Rebecca wondered what now to do with the rest of her day. There were limits to how much ‘entertaining’ she could do. Maybe just go to the university as she’d intended, even take Khanya; or retire to her study to work on a PhD chapter (she was working on a study of sexism in selected Zimbabwean newspapers of the 1990s, though nothing seemed more irrelevant right now).

There was, for example, what to have to eat, since the supermarkets had been eviscerated. In truth, Rebecca had stuff still in storage, tinned and dried foods. Her husband Jack had been a troubled and troublesome character in many ways, but in his favour he had been pragmatic and prescient, in a gloomily apocalyptic sort of way. “El Nino is looming,” he’d say. “The desert will encroach,” he’d say; or “This municipality will never get its act together”; or, “Mark my words, Eskom is in a death spiral.” Hence he had stockpiled food and a bit of petrol, installed an array of rainwater tanks and solar panels for LED lights and water-heating, and a small gas fridge for emergencies. He had left Rebecca a lot better off than most townspeople, who had generally done little to hedge against even a mild disaster. Even so, now in the third week of the province-wide power outage and the reduction of fuel and food resupply to an ad hoc trickle, her margins felt exceptionally thin. Only water was suddenly abundant again.

But Sisi Mpum’ was opening up a plastic bag onto the kitchen table: a carton of Cokes, packets of two-minute noodles, cans of chakalaka relish, crackers, some carrots, teabags. She did not, evidently, intend to stay for nothing, without the dignity of contributing.

“Goodness,” Rebecca exclaimed, “how did you get this stuff, not from shops, surely?”

“I have friends, the taxi-drivers,” the old woman said. “They go to the break in the PE road, then they walk to the other side, they come back with these things.  You want batteries, I can get; even petrol, I can get for you. Sometimes expensive, but we can get.”

Boer maak plan,” Rebecca quipped, and they had a little warm chuckle together. Always, in times of stress and even violence, some people got together, forged unlikely alliances, gave with uncommon generosity. Out of the blue, for example, one of her students,  Jesse van der Vleis, a boy she scarcely knew, had several times now taken it upon himself to bring her biltong, once even some fresh venison he had shot on his parents’ farm, and declined recompense. Around the soup kitchen, too, as vicious depredations and even death – a Zimbabwean storekeeper had been murdered just two days before – swirled around, sweetness and sharing also blossomed, like flowers in the Richtersveld. What was that book by her namesake, Rebecca Solnit, something like Building Paradise in the Middle of Hell – about such generosities and beauty in the midst of disasters?

“You might like to come with me to the soup kitchen tomorrow,” she said to Sisi Mpum’, you could help me a lot just by being there.”

“I will come,” the Xhosa woman replied.  “You are a good woman, Mama English.” They looked at each other across the table, then reached out and held hands for a moment. “We are together, ne?”

Roja barked, as if in agreement, and for some reason that made even Khanya laugh.


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