‘I can now eat chunks of cheese’

2011-10-29 09:02

‘But I am one of a lucky few and one day is one day’

Cheese. That is what it’s all about for me.

Whenever I’m asked how my life is different now from when I was growing up, I reply: “I can buy cheese and eat it in chunks now.”

My father was a professional card player and my mother sold amagwinya (vetkoek) when I was younger.

At any given day, there would be between six and eight of us sharing a room in the shebeen we rented in Langa township.

Until I was seven, the patrons of that drinking hole were my uncles and their wives and girlfriends, my aunts.

I counted the coins when they bought loose cigarettes, I fetched the ice-cold Lion lager and Esprit bottles for them.

I stood on their toes as they danced to Miriam Makeba, I watched in curiosity – but not fear – when the couples got into fights, and helped clean up the broken bottles and upended furniture in the aftermath while they passionately made up in the corner.

It was one of the best times of my life.When we became some of the first residents of Khayelitsha, the rose-tinted glasses fell off.

Khayelitsha was much nicer than Langa – we all still shared a bedroom but at least there was a kitchen and an indoor toilet to complete our three-room home.

The sand was a pristine white in our big yards and the streets were newly tarred with something resembling a concrete park just a few houses away.

We heard we could walk to the beach; a challenge I, my siblings and their friends took up with gusto with a disastrous outcome.

But that’s a story for another day.When my parents finally started working – my dad as a teller at an underground parking company and my mother as a packer and general worker at one of the big grocery chains – life was the business.

My father even managed to buy a second-hand car for the astronomical amount of R7 000, which my mother was not overly thrilled about.

What did thrill her, was bringing home the monthly R500 groceries.

And there would be a block of cheese in one of the heavy yellow plastic bags we’d help carry in.

My job was to finely grate the cheese into one of the Tupperware containers and Mama would ensure her kids had brown bread with a thin layer of cheese to carry to school for at least a week.

It was the happiest time of the month for me. Still, I wanted more. I wanted to taste the cheese, to cover the slice completely with a blanket of yellow Gouda so I wouldn’t have to see the bread when I bit into it.

I swore that one day I would be able to do just that.

I started working in 1996 during my first year of college. And guess what the first thing I bought was?

Beautiful yellow Gouda wrapped in a red waxy strip. I cut a huge chunk and ate it all on its own. It was a moment of triumph to savour.

I’d made it. I was a cheese kid.I’m not the first in my family to graduate from college. My eldest sister is a teacher.

However, I am the first to earn what I term a proper professional salary. I’ve bought a flat and a car for myself, a car for her and help out financially in three households. I have a daughter who attends a former Model C school.

I’m saving so she can attend a private primary school in two years’ time.She likes cheese too, and has never had to count thin strands for her bread.

She carries a bulging lunch box to school and often returns with it either still full, or shares it among her school friends.

Her friends in the township are older but congregate in my sister’s garage to play school with her. She’s almost always the teacher, teaching them English words and school rhymes.

Her latest report says she can read beyond her grade level, that she is extremely sociable and that she’s a team player.

I’m proud of her. Post-democratic South Africa and affirmative action have been kind to me. I’ve travelled the country and seen others beyond our shores.

I’ve been exposed to fine wine and dining, and been serenaded by banks, department stores, insurance companies and other entities that want my cash.

I’ve watched my township transform over the years to include real parks for kids, recreational spaces for adults, bicycle pathways and trees on paved pavements.

We have two shopping centres, a court, a public swimming pool, and they are busy building a hospital in the area now.

Whenever I visit Khayelitsha I’m amazed.Still, I cannot help but feel the transformation is happening too slowly.

More and more space is being taken up by shacks. We struggle to get the police to respond timeously.Tik monsters are breeding at lightning speed because too many of the youth have given up finding jobs, and the government school system is an embarrassment.

The anger the youth feel is palpable. They crowd internet shops whenever they have R5 to spare so they can check for jobs online and update their CVs.

They spend hours pounding the pavements, going to restaurants and clothing shops, hoping for a job, any job.

And every time they return home hungry, angry and dejected until they are so fed up they use that R5 to buy something that will make them forget how hopeless their lives have become.

A generation is dying before my eyes. I find myself feeling helpless because I can only educate two children right now.

Sometimes I play the Lotto when there’s a big jackpot, with the dream of giving bursaries to those who cannot afford to study beyond matric.

I would like to be what the National Youth Development Agency is supposed to be but is not.

Right now, the South African youth might not have the courage, discipline and revolutionary spirit those in Tunisia and Egypt have.

But as we say ekasi – one day is one day.

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