Kindness and cold weather

2011-08-01 00:00

OH the luxury that we have grown accustomed to. There's a white box on the wall usually about 1,3 metres from the floor. When we press the bottom part of the button it clicks and lights illuminate the room. When we press the top part of the button a click audibly alerts us to darkness setting in again. Except for the few days surrounding the arrival of the bill and the payment thereof, we take electricity for granted.

The past few days' experience tells me that the electric cable between poles across South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal in particular, is not very strong. It was probably acceptable years ago to allow the country's infrastructure to collapse under the weight of a few grams of light snow. But we're now in the 21st century and people have come to expect the state body generating power to be able to deliver it come hell or high water.

When the power goes off systems collapse and often those who suffer the most are the vulnerable and the dependent. We only employ two people on a 1,6-hectare smallholding. For heat, cooking and warmth, they are almost entirely dependent on Eskom. Some sense of duty and some of foreboding led me to consider the possible plight of our gardener in the event of severe cold or snow. I bought for his little house a paraffin stove of the type often seen used in Europe during bitter-cold periods. A circular wick makes a wire mesh dome glow a gentle red. Hold your hand too close to the rising column of heat and you prove to yourself that you are alive and still have feelings. Sidney's cottage is a lot warmer than it was last winter and a kettle can be boiled on top of the heater.

Saraphina has a bedsit with washing and cooking facilities in one corner of our house. Her heating is a wall-mounted electric panel and a single-bar electric fire. No power, no heat. From an early age most of us learn by example. When I was a child and our herdsman Jim was sick with flu, we discovered that his new young wife was barely capable of making soup. It didn't come in packets in those days. My mother sent me three-quarters of a mile down the Blue Door lane with a hot thermos. Jim was back herding in a couple of days. When a calf got sick, Jim nursed it day and night. This ethos becomes ingrained at an early age. Hot tea and thick slices of bread, butter and strawberry jam brought out to the hayfield were enjoyed by everyone. Those who work with you are the most important human resource on a farm.

When I came to South Africa, I was told that one does not work with the natives. Tell that to Skhumbuzo, Francis, Simpiwe, Sidney and Saraphina. In times when I knew that they had no power to cook on, I could not sit down to an AGA-baked potato by myself. I can understand that employees, especially where there are just two, could feel resentful. Regardless of whether the power supply is there or not, a working relationship benefits from the sharing of what is available when the chips are down. There can be few matters more damaging to a working relationship than for an employer not to put the welfare of staff first in times of difficulty. A man returning from hunting first gives his dog a meal, his horse a mash and his gun a drop of oil before feeding himself.

A little prayer my father taught me contains the words: "To give and not to count the cost". Thoughtfulness, thanks, kindness and good wishes are the least expensive of life's gifts. Sharing even slightly difficult times with people can be rewarding. To take it for granted that they can cope is wrong. One stark difference between the northern and southern hemisphere culture rests in the ethos of giving and receiving. It is easiest to give in the north and to receive in the south. Give me any day's work with the man who gracefully receives a hot buttered potato or a portion of fish and chips. He never takes a thing for granted.

• McGillycuddy is an Irish chief who lives near Himeville.

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