Powerless in the face of Mamma Africa

2011-11-07 00:00

I DON’T want Muttering Darkly to leave us, but I could clearly see that if Maria had her way she would. Maria came to visit us on Sunday. We sat on the grass outside in the hot sun drinking tea. “Herman het

terruggekom,” they practically

ululate rejoicing at our decision to live on the farm.

Maria was pleased to meet me but in a distant sort of way. Her level of interest in the unknown English wife was similar to how I imagine a president would take interest in a new typist employed in his office. I had yet to prove my worth.

Maria now lives in the township 20 kilometres away from our farm, but she used to live “daar agter, op Karel se plaas”. Every time my mother-in-law came to the farm from the city, she would drive over to Karel’s farm and ask him if Maria, Jon and Pattas could come and work for her for two weeks. And then Missus Corrie with the team of workers would attack the homestead with the force of a Dust Devil. The grass would get mowed, the windows washed until they sparkled and the weeks of dust that had built up in the uninhabited house would be vigorously removed from

every crack and crevice. Curtains that had originally been used in the city house, but had now hung in the farmhouse for the past 10 years, would be taken down and replaced with the next set of curtains that had been used in the Jo’burg house but were now past their city sell-by date.

Jou ma het size 6 gedra,” Maria remembers. Herman smiles and tells me that Maria used to get all his mother’s clothes. I feel miffed at my place in the pecking order, and want to point out to her that I wear size 5, so she must not hope for any of my shoes. Not until she likes me, anyway.

Maar hulle is almal nou weg,” Maria sighed. “Ouma San, Oupa Piet, Missus Corrie,

Karel …” Everyone is silent. We suddenly all feel lonely and lost, sitting there on the grass without the old people. Even I, who hardly knew these people, can feel how everything has changed.

After some moments, Maria tells me she will come in December when the schools close, and she will work (with the force of a Dust Devil) for us in that month.

Herman cautions that we must be careful. We don’t want

Muttering Darkly to feel that we are trying to push her out of her job. No, Maria assures him. But we are to remember that she is younger than Muttering Darkly and we are also to remember that Muttering Darkly, on this very Sunday afternoon, is lying at home because of … Maria brings her hand to her mouth and pretends to be drinking on the bottle.

At some stage in the conversation Herman recollects that both Maria and I can speak Xhosa. Maria, in fact is Xhosa. Not having thetha-ed since I left the Cape, I stutter and stumble a bit until I find my Xhosa feet. Jon joins in. Maria tells me that she managed to do a linguistic makeover on her husband when she met him, and everyone now thinks he is Xhosa. I tell her I have done the same thing Anglicising Herman — people in town now wonder if they can speak Afrikaans with him. We chortle at the power of the mother’s tongue.

Maria has found her edge. She explains to me once again, but this time in Xhosa, how she will come in December to work for us.

I explain again in Xhosa, as Herman has before, that Muttering Darkly may feel threatened if we get someone else to work in the house. Maria assures us that Muttering Darkly is her sister-in-law, which is true, but I am not sure that it means Maria can have her job.

Maria keeps talking, and I struggle to get a word in edgeways. Eventually all I am saying is “Kulungile”. She is still brightly outlining our future together as she and Jon and her two grandchildren stand up to move through the farm gate.

I find that by the time they reach the road, I have

“Kulungil-ed” everything. She will be coming in December with her family, to work for us. She will wear my clothes and she will squeeze into my shoes.

What can I do? What can I say? I am powerless in the face of the force of Mamma Africa.


• Catherine Smetherham has entered the SA Blogger awards. If you have ever enjoyed her blog (which is what we publish) and would like to vote for her, please go to her blog at www.strydpoort.wordpress.com and click on the “vote” button. Then fill out the squiggly test thing, and when you get an

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