Journey to Qwa Qwa

2011-12-19 00:00

WHEN she came, I was annoyed. She had been foisted on me when I was at my weakest. I had just had a mild stroke and I was feeling weak and angry at life.

My daughter was young and a small energetic handful.

My usual domestic had chosen this moment to go home “back to Qwa Qwa” to deal with a mother who was allegedly at death’s door. How could I refuse? I had come to rely on Emily Ntshingila like a personal assistant. But I was bitterly resentful.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I will bring my sister-in-law.”

That is how I began my relationship with Regina Mdlolo. Little did I know that I was a mere pawn in the Qwa Qwa employment bureau. The wheels had been set in motion some weeks beforehand.

The furtive phone calls Emily had been receiving were from her previous madam who had been wooing her back to her old job with promises of an en-suite bathroom and a 10% increase. Emily duly left with quite a hefty bag to tend to her “ailing” mother and Regina settled in.

Regina was timid, her English was hardly existent and she did not know how most household appliances worked. For weeks I gritted my teeth and explained repeatedly how this machine worked or how that task should be done. I am sure she thought I was an evil tyrant.

I phoned Emily on her cellphone to ask how her mother was doing. To my surprise her mother answered the phone. “How are you?” I asked. “Oh very well,” she replied. Suspicion began to form in my mind.

She gave me Emily’s new work number and I knew I had been duped. I waved the number at Regina and said: “Aha, you knew Emily had a new job!” But she gave me her blank and angelic face and feigned ignorance. I was furious, and felt betrayed.

But by this stage the wooden floors were gleaming and my daughter snuggled on Regina’s back like a pro in the saddle.

Regina was also emerging from her state of fear and her personality was coming to the fore.

She was a brilliant worker, a quiet and wise soul and a truly gentle person who had endured untold hardships.

Slowly through her eyes and broken English we became acquainted with a part of the country we would never had been privy to.

Her real home was a part of the eastern Free State called Qwa Qwa.

Usually a dry dust bowl that was a failed apartheid experiment, the smallest of the homelands this industrialised hub had almost ground to a halt after 1994. Today it mostly sits like a white elephant. But Regina was forever loyal and every holiday she would board the taxi to spend time back home.

Over the years our contingent of Qwa Qwa neighbours in Johannesburg increased. They lived in back rooms and worked in local shops all recruited through the Qwa Qwa network. It is an unspoken code “all for one and one for all”. I understand that Emily’s desertion was really just an opportunity to get a fellow Qwa Qwa person a job.

At the beginning of this year it was time for us to wave Regina goodbye. Our family had decided to relocate to KwaZulu-Natal. In the intervening 10 years we had come to know her family like our own. Her sons were like relatives, her trials and tribulations were observed and shared, and we watched as she became a gogo to her own grandchildren.

Saying goodbye to Regina was the hardest thing about leaving Johannesburg. She had decided to take her grandchildren and look after them in Qwa Qwa. Her sons who were working had promised to support her and supplement the retrenchment package we were paying.

But I worried. Would she manage? What kind of house did she live in? Would she be warm in the winter? In my mind Qwa Qwa was the South African equivalent of Siberia where men hung around the street corners jobless and women minded strings of hungry babies.

Many people scoff at the odd relationship between employers and domestics but when you share a home and routines you learn about other people. You cannot help but be curious about their lives and they slip into your heart.

Regina was our domestic for 10 years and I had never been to her home. I had probably contributed to most of its furnishing. Hand-me-down sofas and sheets and utensils were always carefully packed and shipped via death-trap taxi to Qwa Qwa. To me Qwa Qwa became a mythical place.

Regina taught me humility and courage. She would wake at 4 am in the morning to queue at the clinic for her medicines and she never complained.

I encouraged her to get false teeth to replace her missing teeth when I noticed when she smiled, she would always hide her smile with her hand. She and her dentally disadvantaged friend Agnes headed off to the hospital to have their teeth removed. I was horrified when they returned, all gums, and said they would have to wait a year for new dentures.

I felt responsible for this crime.

A small loan and a private dentist ensured the women soon had Colgate smiles, and she was really glad to be off a diet of soft porridge.

Regina never complained. When her sisters died, she soldiered on. When her mother died, she faltered and still soldiered on. She told me her husband died when she was a young woman and she had to keep going for the kids. Regina taught me that family comes first.

She commiserated when I got divorced. I commiserated when her son got in trouble with the law. We always shook our heads. “Eish — men!” we would say.

She told me once in a matter-of-fact voice that she had never known her father and had been raised by her uncle. She was taken out of school in Grade 5 because he had decided that all she needed to know was how to read and write.

At 13 she was out in the fields shepherding the cattle and goats. “I decided at 15 that I needed a job. I was so bored of watching those goats. I told my uncle I am going to get a job. So I got dressed and I went to town. I came home with a job and he could not believe it.”

Regina had become one of the small underpaid army of seamstresses that worked in the manufacturing industry.

Regina had skills. She learnt to bake amazing muffins and could cook a dozen decent home-made meals. My son swears that no one makes chicken like Regina’s soft tender chicken.

As I drove towards Phuthaditjhaba, the capital of Qwa Qwa, I was amazed at how modern it is. There’s a mall!

Regina cut a small but recognisable figure outside the Chicken Licken, our designated meeting place. She was wearing a skirt I gave her. I felt a surge of tears. We sat in her tiny brick house, a warm place which had photos of my children pinned on the wall.

Outside she was growing a vegetable garden to supplement their food and her desire was to get a chicken run and then to buy some. In my mind I hatched a plan. We drank tea and reminisced. Her grandchildren have grown. Her hair has gone a little grey but she is still the same wonderful woman.

I am glad I have visited because the mystery of Qwa Qwa is solved. It is not Siberia, just dry and they need rain desperately, but this is compensated by the high magical sandstone mountains. The roads are potholed and jobs are scarce but there is a feeling of hardiness here. The people are tough like tumbleweeds and after they have been blown to far off parts they always return home.

I passed the Chicken Licken and made a note to return with chickens on my next visit.

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