I live in a tiny coastal village that has no public transport and no low cost housing nearby. As a result life is very difficult for the domestic workers and gardeners who are employed here: they walk for miles in all weathers or spend a lot of time waiting for contract taxis to fill up and then cough up a huge chunk of their earnings for the privilege of getting a lift. Many of the employers of these workers leave home long before their staff arrive and return long after they are gone. They never see each other and they are,(I imagine) unable rather than unwilling to give their employees lifts. But I have the flexibility and good fortune to often be around at 7.30am returning from the school drop and again around 4pm and as a result I have over the last 20 years got to know my entire community of domestic staff. I recognize their gait from a 100m, even from behind. I know when M’s athletes foot is playing up by the way he is hobbling, I know most of their nicknames and some of the in-jokes. I know a lot of stuff about them and their families and where they travel from every day. I know if their boss is cool or an inconsiderate d**s. I know who keeps their staff waiting until after dark on the last Friday of the month not bothering to communicate that she is going to be home too late to pay him.I know the unspeakable tragedy that X’s son was stabbed in a tavern on the week-end and that he didn’t survive. I know Z’s son hasn’t returned from being initiated on the day he was expected, and then (thankfully, because I get a WhatsApp in the middle of the night) I know he is home again safe and sound. I know a lot of stuff about their health. Especially about the health of those Gogos with arthritic knees. Some of this I know from chatting and asking questions but I know a lot from eavesdropping while Yvonne Chaka Chaka is belting out some tune in the background. I derive enormous satisfaction from listening to the conversation on the short journey up the road, or the longer journey to the N2 or to town.
I often have my Staffy (Basil) with me in the bakkie and at first he was not a draw card. People would gratefully open the door in anticipation of a lift only to recoil in terror when they saw Basil’s toothy grin. But slowly he has won the hearts of the pedestrians and now he is welcomed with open arms when he leaps into the back seat and cruises from passenger to passenger (sort of like royalty) bestowing urgent kisses as he goes and beaming from ear to ear. My passengers all mock him terribly (Awu, uBay-zil he is not a dog he is a baby) and me (UMamaka Bay-zil) especially when word got out that he has a vet/clinic card (Yhhuuuuhayibo! Kunjao, UBay-zil ngumtana!) There is a lot of laughter in my bakkie, much of it at my expense and uBay-zil has much to do with it.
Anyway this is all background for the story I really want to tell. I had probably given C a lift many times before, but my first clear memory of heris from about five years ago shortly before my daughter’s 9thbirthday. She was getting a lift to the taxi rank in town with me and Hannah, and full of typically childlike exuberance, Hannah was bursting with excitement to tell everyone who would listen that her birthday was the next day. “Yho!” Said C, “Nonceba, you are a big girl now! How old are you going to be tomorrow?”
[C is in her late 50’s but seems much older after a life of hardship. She was divorced and then widowed. She travels incredibly far every day, her trip involving 3 taxis and a long walk,and works for a pittance after travel costs are deducted. She has 6 adult (or nearly adult) children, none of whom are employed. She has an incredibly difficult life. Recently she has issues with her blood pressure and often has pain in her joints. She never complains but she shares the details of her life when I ask her.]
As she was getting out the car at the taxi rank she paused and went around to the back seat where Hannah was sitting. She kissed Hannah’s cheek through the open window, tipped all the coins out of her purse and pressed them into Hannah’s hand. “Iminimnandikuwe, Ncebsi! Happy birthday to you Gracie!”(Hannah means Grace and her second name is Grace and her isiXhosa name means Grace. Grace is a thing in our family.) My every instinct was to refuse this gift on Hannah’s behalf but I stopped myself and watched their exchange in the rear view mirror with a lump in my throat.
I was unutterably moved. It felt almost biblical, the story of the widow tithing her last pennies in the temple (I do grasp the fact that Hannah isn’t a temple…). Her offering worth so much more than those of the wealthy dudes who showed up next.The following day Hannah would be showered with expensive gifts but none of them would come close to this in generosity. C literally gave my daughter everything she had. And (as is becoming usual) I was left feeling immensely humbled and challenged. To explain,to Hannah, the significance of what just happened. To become a better human because of C’s example.
And so I wonder: To be of real value, shouldn’t giving cost me something? Shouldn’t it involve a level of sacrifice? If my giving leaves my life unaltered, precisely as comfortable as it was before, then am I even being generous? I’m not sure. [Note to self: what am I giving up to enable someone else to have a better opportunity at success? How is my life-style changing? How am I (even fractionally) less comfortable than before through this act of giving?]
While having this not so welcome epiphany around sacrifice, it occurred to me too that although C and my crew of passengers think that I am helping them, they are in fact helping me. Because of the people I taxi up and down every day and because of my connection with them, the days of my life and the life in my days (and uBay-zil’s) have layers, and depth, and richness that I would miss otherwise. And I’m grateful for this knowledge, and for this unique opportunity of connection. And so I’m grateful to my passengers, and this is yet another reason why #I’mStaying.