They all look the same

2011-02-22 00:00

WHEN I worked in Khayelitsha for Catholic Welfare and Development, I was often mistaken for Sister Lyette. Sister Lyette was, wait for it, 40 years older than I was, and although she was a plain-clothes nun, she was still a nun. I was not even Catholic.

Yet time and time again Khayelitsha residents would confuse us. "How can you even think that?" I would ask them indignantly, praying this was not the Lord calling me to a life of celibacy.

"Well," someone told me once uncomfortably but honestly, "you white people are always cutting, dyeing, changing your hair and altering your appearances. We don't really know what you will look like tomorrow."

The only relief I felt in being confused with a 60-year-old grey- haired nun, was that it was proof that this racist stereotyping, this inability to "tell them apart", was not a politically incorrect sin particular to white people.

They are all, you know (dismissive wave of the hand), black. They all have brown eyes and they all have the same colour hair." Unless I, you know, really know them, to be honest, I just cannot tell them apart.

Since moving to our dusty town in the North West Province this issue of struggling to tell "them" apart, has taken an even more complicated turn. I discover here it is not just an obstacle to be tripped over in relation to race.

Here, all the local white Afrikaners think I am my friend Lucy. Admittedly, we are both on the slim side, we are close enough in age and we both have curly hair. But that is where the similarities stop. She has dark hair, mine is red. My face is covered in freckles, hers is not. She has blue eyes, I have brown. She has lived in this town for 36 years, I have been here for 18 months. What enables people to get us mixed up is that we are both, you know (dismissive wave of the hand), English.

I have had people pressing money into my hand that they owe Lucy. I have had car guards asking me where my other children are that day (no, I only have these two, it's Lucy who has four). I have been invited in shops to put all my purchases onto Lucy's account. (That would be useful).

"But you are at least sisters, aren't you?" people ask in disbelief when I claim to be me not her. Not even sisters, no, just both, you know (dismissive wave of the hand), English.

I found myself tripping over this obstacle as well. When we first moved here, I spent six months hugging and kissing the wrong tannie. I thought she was Tannie Sarie. She looked like Tannie Sarie. She had the same permed brown hair that Tannie Sarie had. If I had not been so busy impressing myself with my Afrikaans (I had not switched to English once in all our interactions), I would also have noted that instead of asking me all sorts of questions about Herman, her nephew, she was staring at me with a glazed expression asking if we had moved here recently.

It was only when the real Tannie Sarie's husband died, and I noticed my Tannie Sarie showing no sign of grief, that I looked more closely and realised my blunder. But you know, I don't blame myself, as they are both, you know (dismissive wave of the hand), Afrikaans. How was I to tell the difference?

That wave of the hand sheds responsibility. It says it is just too much hard work to work you all out. So unless pressed into closer relationship, we all just fumble along wishing that everyone wore the same clothes every day and hoping that they won't swop check-out tills tomorrow.

But the wave of the hand also waves the other way. If we all have this difficulty, then there must be a whole lot of waving and greeting and smiling going on between complete strangers, who are fearful that they may have met before. New relationships must be springing up all over the country 24/7 like the khakibos grows up in the lande after the rain.

"Wave and smile," just in case that woman with the baby on her back is Muttering Darkly's other daughter. "Wave and smile," it's either Lucy or the other English one. Hair red today, brunette tomorrow.

"Wave, smile and hug," it's either Tannie Sarie or Tannie Sarie, and either way a tannie doesn't mind a friendly drukkie.

So next time someone tells you South Africa is one of the friendliest nations in the world, don't be fooled. We are simply a people beset with a pandemic of "wave and smile just in case" social disease.

It's possibly the only disease that makes for a pleasant place in which to live.

(Wave, smile, wink and hug.)

• Catherine Smetherham is an ex-city dweller who is rediscovering herself and South Africa from a platteland perspective. Contact her at Catherine@

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