On the road to town

2012-01-11 00:00

I ALWAYS consider it my South African duty to give women and children waiting at the side of the road, a lift into town. If I can save them the R15 taxi fare it costs, I don’t see why I should cruise past in my air-conditioned vehicle. And it is safe enough here in the North West on our farm roads. I don’t pick up men. Men, I drive past awkwardly. I pretend not to see them or if eye contact is unavoidable then I mime with some hand gesture that says:“Turning off before town” or else, “Sorry, car is full”. What I actually mean with both of these is: “Sorry, I don’t know you and you could be a murderer or a rapist.”

Once I have the children and mothers in my car, I see it as my duty to engage them in conversation. “Which farm are you from? What is your name? Who is your mother? Where are you going to in town?” If I can ask the children in particular questions and if they can overcome racial prejudice and cultural limitations about talking to their elders instead of casting their eyes to the floor, and answer me, in English or Afrikaans, then I believe I have done my bit to encourage them to enter the Best Speaker’s Competition at school, pass matric, get to university and complete their MBAs. And all because of that seed of inspiration that I planted in my SUV.

So today I slammed on brakes, and my heart went out to two perhaps 10-year-old girls, and I set about changing the course of their lives with my taxi magic. After three attempts at conversation in both English and Afrikaans I gave up. Their eyes were not fixed on any Best Speaker’s Cup. They could not converse in either language. “Where do you live?” was answered by a mutter in Tswana that could have meant “We live in the township ” or “We live on a farm”, all depending on what they thought I wanted to hear. Oh well. No English, no Afrikaans, no future. I reflected sadly on their plight as we drove into town. At some stage one of them kindly put my gym towel back on my handbag which was sitting on the arm rest just next to me. It must have slipped off. I noted their consideration, and almost thanked them, but the no English and no Afrikaans issue exhausted me. I just nodded at them.

When they got out of the car they were both beaming. “Sank you Missus!” “Sank you!” Bless them, I thought, listen to them trying. They must have at least picked up in our conversation that my mother tongue is English and they are making the effort to thank me in my own language.

I said goodbye to them and watched them walking off. As I passed them seconds later in my SUV I leaned forward and waved an extra-special wave. It was a wave that said: “Look after yourselves, my dears. (Because I am 42 now and old enough to call everyone “dear”.) Look after yourselves in this wicked world and grab every opportunity to lift yourselves out of poverty. God knows with no English and no Afrikaans, my air conditioner and I are not going to be the ones to help you with your future.”

I considered blowing them a kiss as I do for Pippa when I leave her at home, but in retrospect I am glad I held back. It must have been St Jude, the patron Saint of Lost Causes intervening on my behalf.

Because it seems I need not have worried about no English, no Afrikaans and no future. I also need not have encouraged them to grab every opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. They did not need my help at all. They were quite capable of helping themselves. When I got to the hardware store and tried to pay for my purchase, I realised that the little dears had fleeced, lifted and Oliver Twisted every note from my purse on our 30 km drive into town.

It took me a while to get over my shock. “I promise you I had wads of notes in this wallet a minute ago,” I said to the man in the hardware store as I stood unable to scrounge together R5 for my pop rivets. He laughed at me when I told him where I thought it had gone. “You should never pick up anyone,” he said to me.

The man in the hardware store was, I am sure, not the only one laughing. I can imagine the little dears laughed the whole way to the township. It took me a while, but eventually I was laughing too. As they are poor enough to laugh at their fortune for the day, I found myself rich enough to laugh about it too.

“Sank you, sank you [stupid] Missus.”

“Pleasure [you little skelms].”

• Catherine Smetherham is an ex-city dweller who is rediscovering herself and SA from a platteland perspective. She lives in Strydpoort, North West. Contact her at Catherine@holtzhausen.com


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