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A World Apart, Footsteps Away

I must have been about three years old when I first ventured out alone into our backyard. I had a vague sense that I would find Christina out there, my black nanny who had worked for my family for years prior to my arrival in the world. Every night after my family had eaten supper and Tina had taken off the dishes and washed them, I would observe my father bidding her goodnight as she stepped out into the dark backyard. He would triple bolt the kitchen door behind her.

That day, I walked barefoot on the grey concrete yard floor, past a little makeshift kitchenette that smelled of mieliepap* and beetroot, towards a small brick structure comprising two rooms and a bathroom. Only the bathroom door was ajar. I looked in. The toilet had no seat, and the flusher consisted of a long metal chain that seemed to dangle from the ceiling. The bath was ugly and stained, the floor a maroon concrete. I think I wondered why Tina's bathroom looked so different from the bathrooms in my house, just steps away.

The faint smell of Lexington cigarettes wafted towards me through a crack in a door adjoining the bathroom. I walked towards it and gently pushed open the door. I peered into a darkened, smoky room, and saw my beloved Tina sitting at a small table inhaling deeply on her cigarette. She didn't notice me at first, she seemed lost in thought. I looked around the room as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. Tina's room was cramped and small. In the one corner was a large wooden closet with warped doors that didn't close properly. Tina sat with her back to it on a simple orange chair, her elbows resting on a small table covered with a patterned plastic cloth. Resting on the table were a glass ashtray full of stompies**, a small vial of snuff, and an old radio that used to belong to my father. The only other furniture in the room was a single bed raised on bricks to ward off the evil Tokoloshe***.

"Chocho, what are you doing here?" asked Tina in surprise, finally spotting me. Chocho was her nickname for me, the shortened form of Chocholoza - meaning "sweet little thing" in her native language of Tswana. Many times she would sing to me a beautiful melody of the same name.

I don't recall what I answered her, I was too dumbstruck by the room and by seeing Tina without her doek**** on. I seldom, if ever, saw Tina in anything but her colorful maid's uniform with matching apron and doek. But here she sat without her doek, and I saw her white curly hair for the first time. I don't know what I'd expected to be under her doek, or if I'd ever even thought about it.

I think, even in my three year old head, the day I first visited Tina in her room, some deep impression was formed in my consciousness. Something wasn't right. Why was this woman living in our backyard? Why did she not live with her husband and three children? Why was her room and bathroom so vastly different from the home that I lived in just footsteps from this dwelling in the yard? Something didn't seem right at all.


* Maize flour
** Cigarette butts
*** The name "tokoloshe" refers to a dwarf zombie. Originally a water sprite, the tokoloshe is nowadays often a domestic spirit in the households of witches and warlocks. Usually described as a brown, hairy dwarf, it is virtually identical, in habits and appearance, to the brownie of European folklore. (http://www.tokolosh.tk/)
**** Head scarf - common part of the maid's uniform

From: Madam and Eve - South Africa's most famous cartoon strip