Agatha: maid of honour

2010-03-01 00:00

AGATHA Lobokeng first came to me in Durban to do some ironing onApril 25, 1971. By February 1972 she was washing, ironing, cleaning, mending, shopping, cooking and also doing small sewing jobs for me at home. I was then working by day, studying for a degree part-time and I considered her an absolute gem. She believed that God sent me to be of financial help to her.

We communicated mostly by note and her occasional struggle with spelling gave hers to me a special charm, for example:

Dear Miss Hazel,

I brought you an overcoatter pear from my tree.

Thanks,

Agatha

She always began with Dear Miss Hazel and ended with thanks even when it was I who owed her the thanks.

In November 1972, her husband died and while the funeral was in progress somebody stole both her and her husband’s wages plus some club money which had to be replaced. She came to me, smart in her widow’s weeds, but with her face as ravaged with grief as it was usually radiant with life. Her need then was a letter to prove that she earned a certain sum for she was locked in an emancipation battle to prevent a male relative taking over her house.

This culminated in a note to me on April 27, 1973.

“Here is some good news I know you will be very pleased about it. I won the fight for my house yesterday afternoon so the house is mine with my children.”

If I were at home on study leave and it was a day for Agatha to come I would put aside my books, for as she did her chores Agatha would tell me about her life in KwaMashu.

There was the man who continually tried to stab her daughter, then he killed the person who tried to protect her.

There was a friend whose son ended up in jail. A lot of help had been given, although he had stolen from her, but in the end even Agatha’s generous nature rebelled.

“The child has been badly brought up. I will pray for him, but nothing more.” She apparently had a sliding scale of how much help to give, depending on various circumstances. This was very wise because with her tender heart and the amount of trouble­ around her she could have been overwhelmed.

Although her religion forbade it, the family had to request the help of their ancestors to find a lost brother. He was found, not of sound mind, living­ among the bushes in the botanical­ gardens.

One of her daughters collapsed in West Street and a traffic cop called an ambulance to rescue her.

Her father dropped his coat under the bed and, being blind, did not see it. White ants ate the coat and his pass. Agatha wanted to get him a pension, but she had to start with the long involved process of getting him a new pass. She took him food and clothing, but found him neglected. He told her that he wished his grave was dug and he could lie down in it and die.

It was not all bad news. She held a very successful party for a daughter — roast goat and all.

Then there was a young man who had recently joined her church who had a voice like an angel.

“God sent him to give us all the pleasure of listening to him.”

I gave her some wool. She made three hats and sold them for R2 each. She also made one for herself.

Once I drove Agatha to a job interview. The woman did not really want her, nor she the woman, but it was a lovely day for a drive and we came back via the seaside. Agatha was talking all the way and I thought all the view was wasted on her, but not so.

She suddenly burst forth in delight at what she would have to tell her children that night, for she had seen the Maharani Hotel. They had read in the newspaper that a chair had been stolen­ from there and neither she nor her daughters knew where it was. Now she knew and could tell them. I dropped her off in high spirits near the Indian market, where she intended to buy some special beans for both of us.

In 1974 Agatha started to complain of headaches. The note read: “Dr said there is nothing wrong with my blood pleasure its my blader and kidneys and my eyes need glasses.”

I kept painkillers in stock for her and organised eye tests and glasses.

In 1975 she complained of what she called “inchie” eyes. I bought her eye drops, and had new glasses prescribed and supplied, but her general health was deteriorating. At the township clinic the doctors told her that a woman who held herself as beautifully as she did could not be sick.

She had additional employers now and one, being a housewife, found the time to take her to her doctor who apparently diagnosed arthritis. Agatha had all her teeth out on the advice of some person who said that it would improve her health.

In November 1978, however, she left this note for me: “Sorry I could not stay to do the ironing I am rushing to go to the clinic I am inchie all over the body even my head, ears from last night 8 o’clock I am scraching all over like a mad dog I can not stand it anymore. Last night I slept about 2 hours I had a hot bath at 12 oclock and even in the morning before 5 with dettol soap nothing doing.”

Through sheer willpower she battled on until the end of September 1979. Then a daughter came in her stead, saying that the arthritis was so bad her mother could not move. After that she came once in November and how, with her pain, she walked up the hill from the station I do not know.

By February 1980 she was in King Edward VIII hospital with lupus erythematosus­. She went out again, but she was soon back in. I was familiar­ with the hospital and I was able to visit her regularly on my way home from work.

They kept her and her bed beautifully clean, with a cage over her body so that the bedclothes did not hurt her. She had withered away and was enduring torturous pain and a devilish itch, but she kept an avid interest in the other patients, in my life and that of her KwaMashu community.

I took her soft nightdresses, a bowl with a lid to keep her bread and milk warm, her favourite pine nut drink, her daughters to visit. One of her other­ employers took her a face cloth and a little radio. We worried that the latter might disappear as some money­ had already been stolen from her while she slept.

When I told her about my new curtains and a new kitchen bin she asked for the old ones and knew that they had been installed in her house before­ I did. When I bought her daughter a sewing machine she knew within two hours that it had arrived and that a dress was already cut out and being sewn. No cellphones then, but such was the bush telegraph from KwaMashu way over to the other side of Durban.

She talked about her insurance and she was worried that her late husband, who had taken it out for her, had not known her real age. She confessed that one daughter had a child and she, being a good Catholic, had been too ashamed to tell me because the daughter was not married. I told her a child was a gift from God, not something shameful.

The father had left school, got a job, paid damages and child support. He did it by working a great deal of overtime­ at Durban’s docks. That is why his pay packet was so worth having and he was stabbed to death for it.

Paralysed by now Agatha was praying to Jesus to let her just go home and be able to sit up in a chair. On July 3, 1980 she asked me to read over her will saying that she had very little to leave, but she wanted to be sure that her daughters would inherit the house.

Early the next day the sister­ from Ward N5b phoned me to say that Agatha had died at 5.30 am. The night before she had said to her nurse: “It is time for me to go now.”

The ward staff asked me to tell them when the funeral would be as some of them would go to it, for, as they said: “She was such a nice lady.”

I went to fetch her radio, feeding cups, bowl, face cloth, a little towel and her rosary.

On the blackboard outside ward N5b for two months had stood the chalked instruction.

Agatha Lobokeng — six hourly — eusol­ dressing.

It had been erased.

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