Bredasdorp, early morning. Paulina is making breakfast. She wakes up at five every morning, dresses and eats her porridge, before walking to her hitchhiking spot at six. Here, someone will eventually pick her up and take her the 24km to Arniston, a small beachside town where my family has a home. Polly is working for us this holiday, as our maid, help, domestic, whatever you want to call it. Seeing her in the morning, we exchange pleasantries and after enquiring about her Christmas, New Year or church meeting, I leave her my empty coffee mug on the edge of the sink. I continue with my day and she continues with my dishes.
One morning, she watches me cut up fruit and put it in a bowl. “You like fruit?” she asks. “Yes?” I respond, surprised. Obviously I like fruit, that’s why I’m eating it. “You like being healthy?” she follows. “Yes”, I say, more thoughtfully now, looking at her, this woman who, every morning, sweeps the ever-sandy floor, traipsed over with our careless sandy feet. She watches me returning sweaty and triumphant after a run, or tanning on the deck with my book. She observes my life through an impermeable gauze curtain of class, race, and economic status, and responds not, as I would, with judgment or resentment, but with curiosity.
What is her life and what is mine? Poles apart, equally human.
My mother told me that Polly asked her about my grandparents, who are visiting from New Zealand for my gran’s eightieth birthday. It turns out Polly also has an eighty year old mother and two children, a boy and a girl, like my brother and I. All of them live with her permanently. Gran remarks that Polly is so blessed to have her family with her all the time (my grandparents would do anything for us to come see them in their small town on the North Island). Polly agrees she is indeed very blessed.
I suppose being blessed is a relative concept: Polly’s mother is bedridden and wears nappies that Polly has to change. She takes whatever work she can get during the year, to help support the household. Her son is thirty, unemployed and a drug addict. Her daughter works the whole year behind a cashier’s desk in Checkers. She also has a granddaughter, Reeza, whose name she says with great fondness. Then there are the two sausage dogs (worshondjies) Tipi and Husky. I meet them all when I visit her in her small pastel-coloured home in Bredasdorp.
Seated smiling and upright on the red sofa, Polly looks a bit like a majestic female Buddha. She no longer has any teeth, but she loves cake, she tells me, as we tuck into two slices of my gran’s christmas extravaganza. Reeza is playing around the sofa, shooting me inquiring looks and Tipi the dogs are sprawling across the cushions and Polly’s lap.
I ask Polly if she has anyone special in her life, a man. “No no,” she smiles, “And you?”
I tell her I’m single and we agree that men are generally a waste of time. She had a ‘friend’ though, as she calls him, with whom she lived in Betty’s Bay, but he passed away three years ago from cancer. I wonder to myself if it could have been prevented.
“A romantic friend?” I ask, sympathetically.
“Oh yes”, and the sadness emphasized in those two words speaks of the greatest weight of longing. But she has the Lord she tells me. And she will pray for me, she says, when she learns I am not Christian. For my education, which taught the importance of well-substantiated opinions and coherent arguments as well as inspiring a burning need to question, prevents it. Maybe, more poignantly, I have no need. And yet at the end of the day she’s the one who walks down the road after a day’s work cleaning someone else’s house, and she’s singing.
I visit her again. Her mother has since passed away. I can’t seem to respond passed the generic condolences. Her sister, Sara, has been invited over, along with her niece and her Sara’s four foster children. They are all girls, and us, making up a room of eight women….
Violence has been increasing dramatically in Bredasdorp over the past few years.
I wonder how it is to be a family of women from 2 to 50 years old in a small (unprotected) little house, when you have internationally proclaimed horror stories like that of Anene Booysen and yet rape rates continue to increase? Sara’s daughter doesn’t feel safe walking around anymore. Coming back from work, she walks directly home. Sara’s other daughter was raped at the age of 6. She is the one I don’t meet that day. How is it, to be surrounded by threats and to stand up so strongly, with such a determined calm? How is it, with no men here to protect them against trouble?
It actually seems that men bring more trouble than they prevent: Sara’s son (Polly’s nephew) has been in prison for four years now, and Polly’s son also seems in bad shape. He usually hangs out on the streets, while his sister goes to work. Only calm, solid, humble women have been strong enough to support a whole family.
I wonder if this isn’t true feminism, hidden in a little house, number 42, in Bredasdorp. I don’t think these women know about the concept itself, but I am not sure I knew it either before arriving in this home. The “feminism” I enact is throwing away my razor and making jokes about #freethenipple. Theirs is being steady and strong women facing, with this remarkable calm and determination, a highly violent and miserable society fed with violent abuse and gang rape.
Without knowing it, they taught me the true meaning of Intersectionality.
All these women have one common man in their life: his name is God. He is loving, forgiving and a good listener. He is the man that will bring more relief than trouble. And he is here all the time.
The man of the situation is invisible, but I feel his presence. Whether or not you believe in religion or God, I can see he has given them faith. And I am sure he is the reason for Paulina’s smiles.
The fact that someone can write a book like The Help about 1950s America and one can write as small an observation as this today shows how far South Africa, and indeed the world, still has to go. Maybe class is something eternal and these thoughts are thus defunct, but the lucky ones should remember how it could so easily have been the other way around. A flicker of light, a twist of fate, born into a different body, a different life. Would I be singing?