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  • Writer's pictureMandisa Magwaxaza

Makeshift Living

My Grandmother was the first person to tell me about life in the squatter camps. She had just returned from a family funeral in Motherwell and had spent the weekend with my oldest auntie, Sindiswa - Sipho’s mother. I call her Makazi - all sixteen of us and our children do. Makazi is a contraction of mamakazi – a deputy mother. It is the formal isiXhosa title reserved for maternal aunties and female relatives. All three of my aunties should have been addressed like this but the convention only stuck with Sipho’s mother because she is the oldest and the unfamiliarity bred by her migration to the city was cause for formality and instant reverence. My two younger aunties were teenagers when I was born, and were more like older sisters than makazis. As the first grandchild, I set the naming precedent for all those that followed so Tsitsi and Monica were called by their names until they married and we all respectfully addressed them as sisi.

The weekend in Motherwell grieved my makhulu deeply. At first, I thought it was the funeral that dampened her spirits. Her unwrinkled face frowned in contemplation and the hum of uNabantu Bakho Thixo rose with the steam as she arm-wrestled simmering mielie meal to transform it into umphokoqo. I perched on the edge of her little wooden bench and asked how makazi was doing. “Tsii mntano’mntanam”. That is the opening line to every vent about the worries my makhulu bears. She was concerned about the living conditions in the informal settlement where makazi had set up her small shack, but there was an undertone of disgust and shattered expectations. Like me, I think makhulu expected everything in the city to be grand and the sight of her child and relatives encased in corrugated iron tins lined with cardboard and newspapers, was not. She said the one-room dwelling was a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, and at night, the urinal was also inside. I think this is the part that upset my grandmother the most. She is a private, proud and conservative culturalist with a heart of gold, a crystal-clear memory, and a devout Christian spirit. She takes cleanliness seriously, too and had been a model housekeeper for most of her adult life.

There was a time in my life in which makhulu was the best-travelled person I knew. Her love for her church and people took her to conferences, events, funerals, and traditional functions everywhere she could possibly go between working and running her household. She is the best storyteller, a demure extrovert who thrives on meeting new people to make old connections. I always enjoy her tales from King William’s Town, Cumakala, Southwell, Bathurst, Port Alfred, Alice, Paterson, Alicedale, and every farm in the area that once had homes and clans she honoured with her presence at poignant occasions. My Makhulu liked to be impressed by the way people live and her first comments about a place are always about how the households are run and how the people live and host their visitors. The township lifestyle left the worst impression on her.

I hoped makazi would leave the place soon and I would never have to visit her there. I should have rather prayed for my grandmother to never end up living in a squatter camp, that’s what I should have done that day. However, I did not know that game reserves and eco-tourism would take over the Asegaaibos area, uproot our way of life, and abandon families and clans to semi-permanent living. Unrooted, never settled, and departed from their dignity.

I can still see my makhulu sitting on her little custom-made bench with a mielie meal encrusted ladle tapping at her knee, grappling with the unrest of a semi-permanent life in a rickety dwelling and then surrendering, again, to hope. Her humming diaphragm vibrated under my arm as I held onto her. Half comforting her, half steadying myself on my perch. “I guess they are on their way, that is not how they will live forever. They say Mandela is going to build them good, brick houses,” she said, resurrecting hope.

This is the scene that replayed in my mind as I clutched my mother’s hand. She was asking a street vendor to point her to the taxis that would take us to Walmer township. We walked down to Norwich – I still don’t know whether that is the name of the street, the area or the transport association, but the taxis to the Southern Suburbs of Port Elizabeth still file there under the Settlers Way freeway. We climbed into the taxi and I answered the routine questions asked by the conductor to confirm that I was four years old. I was five going on six and supposed to pay full price while hunched on back-to-back with the driver's seat on a hot wooden plank. My mother deserved to save two rand.

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