Agnes

2009-11-19 00:00

IS there a connection between the children on Henrietta Street of Pietermaritzburg and the scattered people of Zimbabwe?

Brrrrr. The gate intercom burbled. It was a lazy morning during the school holidays and my three boys dashed to the window to snatch a glimpse of the unexpected visitor. No, the lounge window did not have a view of the gate, so they raced, pushing and shoving, to the nearest bedroom.

We had only been in Pietermaritzburg for three months and we hardly knew anyone, so who could this be?

“Hello?” I inquired through the intercom.

“Hello. I am from Zimbabwe. My name is ...”

I didn’t hear another word. Zimbabwe, my heart leapt and my mind raced through hundreds of images of pain and loss. Hot tears sprang to my eyes.

I pressed the intercom button again.

“Hello. What did you say your name was?”

“My name is Agnes. I’m selling table- cloths.”

“Wait for me Agnes, I’m coming.”

I reached for my purse and pulled out R100. The last thing in the world I wanted was more stuff. I had been away from Africa for six-and-a-half years and carting possessions was a burden that I had gladly given up. Living simply had brought freedom, but that didn’t matter right now.

I fumbled with the keys to the security gate and door that blocked my way to Agnes. How tedious and sad — this locking ourselves away from each other.

I burst through the door, unashamed of my eagerness to say “hello”. It took only seconds­ for me to reach the street gate to find the short, plump figure that was Agnes. I can’t remember what she was wearing except that it was neat and clean. She wore shoes and a hat and held two small bags.

But I remember her eyes — brown, warm, aching.

“Hello Agnes, I’m Stella. I’m from Zimbabwe too.” My tall, slim frame was enhanced by the upward slope of the driveway behind me and the thin vertical bars of the metal gate. I reached through the gate to take hold of her free hand with both of mine. This was no ordinary greeting.

And so began our exchange of familiar names of towns, places and people from a place we called home. We barely knew each other and yet we were family, connected, as we shared our stories and experiences, having only just met in Pietermaritzburg, far away from our roots.

“Agnes, I don’t want any more katundu, but I want you to have this,” I said, putting the R100 note into her hand. As I spoke she smiled in recognition­ of the word katundu­, meaning stuff, baggage, possessions.

“Thank you,” she said simply, as she squeezed my hand, crumpling the folded note. I pressed her hand in reply. She told me how she had bought a few groceries and would be returning home soon, in time for the three weeks of fasting and prayer that her church had organised. She wasn’t going to miss it.

“When you get home Agnes, please touch the ground for me and ask God ... ”

The tears would not stay back a moment longer. I started to sob. Agnes stretched up through the still closed gate and put her hand on my cheek.

“My sweetheart, my sweetheart,” she repeated over and over. Tears streamed from her soft, dark-brown eyes. There we stood, clinging to each other. No one and nothing could separate us, not even a closed, cold, metal gate … time seemed to stand still. The colour of our skins was of no consequence. It was as if she was not black and I was not white. We were just African, from a place called Zimbabwe. Two hearts had a chance to heal.

We dried our eyes and laughed softly, reassuring each other that all will be well in the end. We exchanged phone numbers and Agnes said that she would come by the next time she was down this way. I know for certain that I shall look for her when I return to Zimbabwe.

I am not the person I was six-and-a-half years ago. Where once my identity seemed questionable, it is now established, in my mind if no one else’s, and that’s all that really matters.

I know to whom I belong. The mirror has reflected to me what I have seen, countless times, etched deeply on the faces of those who have been rejected or displaced. I recognise the story written in their eyes. We share the same heartaches and joys.

Knowing that my story is unique in detail only, I am able to connect with others, offering an opportunity to heal, even if simply through the touch of my hands.

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