It was the perfect day to do it.
I had just finished a marathon sewing session at Dainfern College in honor of Mandela Day, when people all over South Africa come together to give back to their communities. What better way to end out the day than performing an unplanned-for act of community service?
So I happened to drive past Diepsloot on my way from hockey to horse riding with Sunshine, still visions of the hundreds of beanie hats we had finished that morning dancing through my head. It was the same shortcut I took the day that I helped two women transport their firewood to their homes, which later became my first Strong Women of Africa story.
Sure enough, I came across another group of women this time. These ones had a bit of a leg up on the last ones in that they were the proud owners of two wheelbarrows, piled high with what looked like two whole trees. But they also had babies with them. One strapped to the back of one of the women, the other one riding high on top of a pile of wood.
I checked my watch, noticed I had a bit of extra time, and pulled over.
“Are you going to stop for everybody carrying wood from now on?” was Sunshine’s question. She had heard about my previous adventure and was probably a bit wary of what would come next.
“No, but I’m going to stop for these ones.”
All three of them greeted me with a friendly wave. Much different from the last group, who had been very skeptical about my offer. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, it almost seemed like these ones expected me as they were waiting by the roadside. Perhaps my big black car already has a reputation in these parts?
It seems hard enough to walk huge bundles of firewood halfway through town. Now imagine doing it with a baby strapped to your back. I don’t know about you, but when I had kids that age, I was already exhausted by the time I had finally wrestled stray arms and legs into the Baby Bjorn and read the instruction manual on how, exactly, all those buckles were supposed to fit into one another. (Though it must be mentioned here that I did my fair share of dragging trees all over the place when I had a newborn, courtesy of Hurricane Fran paying a visit to North Carolina in September of 1996 and felling about half the trees on our property, two weeks after Zax was born. But I had the luxury of putting him down for his nap before reporting to tree duty.)
Together, we heaved and shoved and pushed until everything was in my car, or at least most of it. Some of these logs were brutally heavy but they hefted them up as if they did this every day. Which I had to remind myself they did. As I had learned the last time around, a load of firewood, even as big as this one, barely lasts two days.
We had to leave two of the women behind to push the now empty wheelbarrows, but the third, Cecilia, clambered into the front seat next to me, the baby, Sarah, on her lap.
On the short drive back to the township, I learned that Cecilia wasn’t South African but had fled from Zimbabwe several years ago. This soon became evident in that she directed me to the outskirts of Diepsloot to an area that looked even more decrepit and ramshackle than the rest. There is a certain hierarchy to township life, you see, and as a foreigner and relative newcomer, Cecilia and her family had to make do with what no one else wanted. She told me she really wanted to clean houses but so far hadn’t had any luck finding permanent employment. It made me think of my own trusted domestic helper, who is also from Zimbabwe and was overjoyed recently to finally received her South African permanent residence status.
I didn’t get to ask Cecilia any more questions, as I really had to get Sunshine to horse riding, but what I would have liked to know is this:
What was the life she had in Zimbabwe that she was willing to give that up for this backbreaking existence?
You often hear about Zimbabweans with good educations, teachers, doctors, nurses and the like, who perform menial tasks here in South Africa, just to get away from Robert Mugabe and what is surely one of the cruelest regimes in the world. Not knowing where your next meal will come from, performing odd jobs, if you’re lucky, in hopes of permanent employment, and walking miles every few days just to keep yourself and your baby warm, and never knowing if you’ll even be allowed to stay… All this is probably infinitely better than living in fear of torture, perhaps even death, in a country like Zimbabwe, where just being seen with an opposition figure might get you put on a hit list for reprisals. The ones who simply go to jail are the lucky ones. Read Peter Godwin’s The Fear, his third and most disturbing memoir about Zimbabwe, and you will have a whole new appreciation for your freedom and security.
If I’m indeed going to do this firewood-delivery more often, I want to be better prepared next time and carry a list of interview questions with me.
And a broom to clean out the car.
When we got to the vicinity of Cecilia’s house, we passed a makeshift soccer field full of boys who immediately crowded around my car. That’s one thing I love about visiting townships. There is always something going on and the kids are running around outside around the clock, only summoned back to the house at dusk, much like I remember from my own childhood.
Quite a few pictures later, the truck was finally unloaded and Sunshine and I waved our goodbyes.
Bumping along the rutted lanes, Sunshine contributed her piece of wisdom for the day:
“It took us much less time than 67 minutes to help, but it probably saved Cecilia much more than 67 minutes by not having to push the wheelbarrows all this way.” (Read about the meaning of the 67 minutes here.)
And you know what? All that jostling and jolting over potholed dirt paths somehow got a pesky warning light on my dashboard unstuck, which had been glaring accusingly at me for quite some time, nagging at my subconscious to schedule a date with my friends at the car dealership.
I might have saved myself a 67-minute errand as well.