Controlled panic meets fragile hope

2014-04-20 06:00

So I have this embarrassing admission to make: my family set-up includes a budgie.

A little bird covered in swirls of blue and green with yellow cheeks. His name is “Budgie”. I know it is dreadfully untrendy to keep a bird in a cage, but Budgie’s cage is huge and he is cheerful and infuses my daily life with irresistible chipper.

Budgie is a lone creature per default, as he has outlived three spouses. I’m pretty sure Budgie kills his partners with love, as he is always all over them and then they die. I refuse to get him a new wife because frankly I can’t deal with another death in the family. In fact, a relationship with a much adored guitar-playing ex-boyfriend unravelled soon after said boyfriend missed deceased bird number XXX’s funeral because of band practice.

Perhaps Budgie’s sunny disposition can be attributed to his miraculous survival of Cape Town’s Vredehoek mountain fires circa 2008. I was out of town at the time and a friend saved him from my flat, which was filled with smoke thick as soup. From what I gather, cheating death is a life-affirming experience, so perhaps he is just truly grateful to be alive.

When I stand on tippy-toes to cover Budgie’s cage with a cloth at night, similar memories fill my head. Budgie’s doek was a hand-me down. It is blue and red with paisley patterns; aesthetically unremarkable and yet in its folds live rich images stretching back to a dusty Karoo township called Dysselsdorp.

Dysselsdorp is filled with poverty and children. Many, many snot-nosed kids with broken dolls and large upturned eyes like deer. Some of the adults in Dysselsdorp work in restaurants in Oudshoorn, 20 kilometres down the road. But most of them are jobless.

It was November 2012 and I had been assigned a story on 17-year-old Magdaline Lewis, a Grade 10 pupil at Dysselsdorp Secondary. Magdaline was hosting extra-mural school lessons for the area’s kids on her parents’ concrete stoep every day. Her “pupils” sat on wooden benches and overturned buckets on the porch next to a fig tree while she used the side of an old washing machine as a blackboard.

Magdaline’s “stoep school” was brought to our attention through a YouTube video. My editor was eager to feature her story, a classic tale of the human spirit rising above dire adversity.

The assignment got off to a wonky start when I missed my flight to George. Fortunately my boss, a calm and pragmatic man, pointed out that if I hit the road at the crack of dawn the next day we could still make Oudtshoorn in time for our 11am meeting with contacts there.

That road trip was a study in controlled panic; I drove relentlessly into the sunrise, not even sparing a moment to stop for roosterkoek at the garage outside Swellendam. I picked up the photographer in George (who did not miss his flight) and we headed over the Outeniqua mountains to the Karoo. We made it.

My contact accompanied us to Magdaline’s two-bedroom house in Kleinhans Street, Dysselsdorp, where we met her 17 pupils – aged between 5 and 15. We went inside to speak with her parents, retired domestic worker Miekie and Karel, an unemployed builder who relayed how he was stung by bees collecting honey for spare cash just the other day. Their little house was neat with pictures of Jesus against the walls.

And then there it was: Budgie’s doek! Wrapped around the head of Magdaline’s grandmother, Susan, who was bent and tiny like a little bird herself. We spoke and the elderly lady offered us ginger biscuits and tea. Underneath the doek, her eyes brimmed with mischief and unspeakable sadness. I never told her that I have a similar doek back home, and that I use it to cover my pet bird’s cage.

Feeling overwhelmed but numb I took a picture of a kid patting a mongrel and uploaded it to Facebook. No amount of words or pictures could capture Dysselsdorp: the clinging poverty and dust, the despair – which now live on in the folds of Budgie’s doek in my flat in Cape Town.

Often at night, perched on tippy-toes, I remember Susan. Her eyes. I wonder how Magdaline is doing. And her pupils with their soft, upturned eyes. Miekie and Karel. Will they vote, and for whom. On which pre-election promises will they pin their fragile hope? Will some of these promises perhaps come true?

It breaks my heart. But hey, good night, Budgie. Tomorrow is another day.

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