Maybe I grew up on Contraband
I was four years old when I left with my mother after one of her weekends-off from her live-in domestic job in Port Elizabeth. I had always imagined that the shiny, multi-coloured building blocks, Mickey Mouse jerseys and bright white church socks travelled for days to reach me in Seven Fountains, and that’s why my mother came home only every second weekend because Port Elizabeth was too grand to be nearby. Would I be fancy too, now that I was going to live so far away? Would my hair also become soft grapevine curls that stained the collars of nice-smelling blouses? I wondered if I was going to work and bring home new couches, sweets, and strange recipes with ingredients that nobody enjoyed. Had my grandmother already reserved special linen and blankets for my use only?
I don’t remember the details of the day I left my grandmother, my three aunties, my two uncles, and my first best friend all lurking about the various mud houses that made up our homestead. I don’t remember, but I imagine that the only person who would have been forward enough to walk us to the gate and say hello to my mother’s employers would have been my second youngest auntie, Tsitsi. Can you hear the viper-like sass in that name? It suited her well. I remember the first time I saw her ID book and read that her birth name was Nandipha I was disappointe. That docile name betrayed her flamboyant blonde s-curl, and the smack of her lips when she tasted amasi or was gossiping. That name could never live up to her venomous use of words when she was scorned or keep up with her brisk dash – she walked with a mission and never dawdled or lay idle.
She would have been the one to walk us to the wide gate next to the farmhouse where my mother was often collected by her employers on their way home from Salem when they had also pilgrimaged back to their roots. The day I left the farm was one of those weekends and now knowing Longs’ considerate affection – it was all probably prearranged so that I wouldn’t go through the arduous alternative means of transport my mother used. Hitch-hiking from the N2 to stand on the cusp of Motherwell and hope to catch a taxi that was not already overloaded and make it to Korsten in time to get a seat on the last taxies to Kragga Kamma. I later grew used to this as well, but on the day I left my home I am grateful to have been part of the pilgrimage. I didn’t feel fancy at all – I was petrified and tried to be as quiet as can be as I got into the car and sat in the company of people who were used to leaving home. We were all farm kids, after all. Different cloths woven from the same cotton.
My most vivid memory from that day are the kind eyes I met in the review mirror, and what became a signature wink of acknowledgement from Uncle Stan before I hurried my gaze to the gravel and dust filming the window behind my mother’s shoulder. We passed the fields where my grandmother’s cows grazed, and then her church went by in a blur of red rust and that blue-ish mint colour that became of green paint tint when mixed with the water-soaked white clay that the older people mined on the hills that are now inside Lalibela Game Reserve. I loved the smell of that clay – it was one of the scents of Christmas on the farm along with ripe apricots, raisin bread, ginger beer, cow dung, roasted fresh corn, and carcasses.
When December came by around the middle of November, Tsitsi would wake us up at the sound of the dairy engines going off kwamlungu and the parade of hooves moving in their hundreds to pasture. Mine and Sipho’s jobs, from 4 and 2 years old was to take our miniature buckets and collect the warm dung left behind by those cows. When we were older we used to imagine that the best dung came from the cow Jimmy Emslie had chosen to slaughter for Christmas rations. Slaughter day was one of the best days of Christmas. A tractor laden with grains, and fresh meat would deliver to every home on the farm and my uncle always sliced the first cut meat for Sipho and I and did a quick umbengo for us on the fire. We were the VIPs, and fourteen grandchildren later, we are still my grandmother's favourites.
Tsitsi would mix the dung with a pliable dunk of mud behind the Big House and smear a patterned coat over the walls and verandah of each house on the homestead. My youngest auntie, Monica, chaperoned our dung missions while she collected the lion’s share of dung sans twigs and grass. By the time the sun showed up to dry the morning’s work, Tsitsi and Monica were already hiking out of the valley to mine white clay. My youngest uncle would have returned from pasturing the cows by then and making an ant line between the water troughs and the giant petrol drums which he filled as effortlessly as my aunts dunked 10kg sacks of clay from their heads into those drums. Sipho and I would peck little bits of clay into our mouths. The buttery dryness glued my tongue to my palate and salty granules melted into a delicious cavity over my teeth. It was a weird delicacy enjoyed by anyone who had acquired the taste. With no judgement from those who hadn’t. Except for my mother’s, she never approved of us eating clay or red earth, even though she revelled in scrubbing my teeth with coal and ash.
The daka on the walls would soon be masked with the musk of home-made clay paint. Sweet-smelling sacks of apricots brought to us by pickers waited for my mother. She made jam for us to spread thickly on fluffy slices of hot raisin bread baked in a cast iron bak pot over coral-coloured coals. Pickers would come by with new mielies, but they did not bring as much produce as the ones from the apricot farm because the Howarths were very strict farmers. The bigger sacks used to arrive after dusk just in time for the neon coals which illuminated my mother’s shiny curls as they shook disapprovingly of Tsitsi’s stories about her latest trysts and verbal assaults on some narrow minded chauvinist.
Perhaps farmer Howarth was nicer to his afternoon shift workers, maybe I grew up on contraband mielies. I don’t lose any sleep over it. When I close my eyes I see my mother secretly amused by her sister’s mischief. I smell the grassy, starchy burn of mielies on the coals, and smile a smile all of my own. A unique drop of joy in the ocean of wealth that was my childhood.