There are a few things you will learn when you arrive to Johannesburg. Casual ones, like to always carry a lip balm with you everywhere you go, as the dry climate tears your lips apart. Or more serious ones, like to roll up your windows at crossroads, to prevent the mash and grab.
And then, there is the golden rule. Always hold on to your remote as if your life depended on it. That’s your lucky ticket, the one you don’t want to share, because a remote, that’s basically the key to a safe place in case of emergency. And in this city, you don’t want to jeopardise the access to your safe place. For your own security, and more importantly, for the one of your family.
So you don’t share your remote. You don’t give it to your neighbours, you don’t give it to your maid. Even the security guard in our cluster has to phone every single house to enter the complex. Obviously, he’s the one least trusted here.
I’m very obedient, and easily scared as well. So I abode by the rule. And never gave the remote to the lady who comes twice a week cleaning my house.
My cleaning lady is actually the subject of this post. Her name is Pretty, and given the brightness of her smile, I guess it suits her pretty well. Pretty is the best cleaning lady I have ever had. She takes care of everything. You don’t have to ask her to do something, she anticipates your needs and does not leave the house before it is spotless. I feel very lucky to have her.
But Pretty is also very shy, and tells her story only by bits and pieces. I knew she had kids, two, a boy and a girl. I learned recently that she was a widow, and that her husband passed away earlier this year. And that was it. We were living in different dimensions, and carefully made sure not to step onto each other’s world. I used to prepare tea for her for instance, so that when she would arrive in the early hours of the winter mornings, she would have something hot to warm her up. But when I realised she was hiding into a far corner of the house to have her tea, in order not to bother us during our breakfast, I stopped doing that. I could feel she was not comfortable. Instead, I made sure there was always a tea bag waiting for her, to have it in her own time.
Today was different. Today, I had to work from home. And therefore spent the day with Pretty. So when I fixed me something for lunch, I offered half of the meal. We sat together at the same table, shared the food and started chatting.
The chat was a little awkward, at first, but soon, she opened up. Pretty told me in a few words her heartbreaking story. She told that tomorrow was her birthday. She told me she was born the same year as I was. We laughed about that. That her kids where 8 and 4. That she didn’t like living in Johannesburg, or to be more precise, in downtown Joburg.
When I asked her why, I felt stupid. But what is said cannot be unsaid. She kept telling her story.
I had always assumed that her husband had either died of AIDS or from a car accident. How cliché of me! How could I know? No, her husband didn’t die of AIDS. He was actually a security guard and got shot to death by the thieves who were trying to rob his company.
A silence fell upon us. And then it struck me. Of all the persons I did or didn’t trust, Pretty might actually be the one I could trust the most. Because she is the one who has suffered the greatest lost from the evil hands of the city. The irony of life can sometimes be so painful.
So here is what I learned today: no matter our race, skin or condition, we are all victims of the fear that has spred throughout the city. And also that the ones truly affected by this are actually the ones we least expect.
I bought flowers to Pretty for her birthday and gave her some money to celebrate with her family. Her smile had never been brighter than when she left the house today. And while I was watching her go, I prayed that one day, the fear would vanish, and that I would be able to share my remote with her. It truly hope I will live to see such a day blossom over South Africa.