Friday, 27 September 2013

My Life as a "wanderlust" : Sophie and Me... The unique relationship between me and my South African domestic...

Sophie is my domestic helper... no, I think that definition is a very narrow one...

Sophie, for me, is a doorway to know the culture of the land, I now inhabit... she is my mirror to the larger society that I am a part of, and yet I am quite aloof from it all... being an expat from the United States and an Indian national, we largely have American and Indian friends, who are all expatriates. We stay in gated communities, quite away from the humdrum, the joviality and the color of an ordinary South African life. We are fortunate enough to have a car at our disposal, wherever we wish to go... I have no idea how the "bucckies" (taxis, here in South Africa) are and I am quite unfortunately unaware of the problems that are faced by ordinary South Africans, in their ways of life... because as I said before, I live in a shell like existence...

That is the prime reason, why Sophie is important to me...

Not only she helps me keep my house clean, she also serves as a window to the larger, ordinary South African life...

Will Julius Malema make it to the elections next year..??? Is Robert Mugabe really as bad as portrayed in the world media?  How were the days for her, as a "black domestic" working in a predominantly "white neighborhood" in the days of apartheid? Do the tribes here, really keep Cheetahs as pets and how does one conform to the dual identity of being a Christian and a proud Tribal landlord...

These are some of the questions that Sophie unknowingly answers in our everyday conversations...

The first day, she came to work in my house, the second thing she said, after a big smile and a "thank you" ; is that she has never worked for "this color before", touching my arm to show that she has never worked with an Indian native before... Honestly, I was surprised and to tell the least I was shocked... I had never given any thought to my skin color before, at least not in the sense that Sophie implied, and then I realized that the skin color issue goes so deep in their psyche, that she just can't help but point it out...

I justified my skin color and the country of my origin by stating the one name, I thought she might be familiar with, Mahatma Gandhi... I asked her, "do you know of Mahatma Gandhi? He lived here in South Africa. I am from his country... same color, and same country, you see"... she responded with a huge smile, "yes Gandhi, I know Gandhi", "good man, very good man".... he fought for us...." I really wished some of our Indian Leaders could hear it... especially now, when the only day we remember the great man, is on his birth anniversary, and that too because it's a public holiday.

It's now been almost five months since I have known Sophie, and it seems to me, that she, through her stories, open up an incredible world  for me... it's a world inhabited by proud African chieftains, of the glorious wars the kings fought for cattle, the days of oppression, of Apartheid, of an entire nation suppressed by a minority government and of 1994, when Sophie who was 38 years of age and her mother 80 years old, went to vote for the first time in their lives...

Sophie belongs to the Ndebele (pronounced "debele", the N is silent) tribe who live mostly in the province of Mpumalanga (the M is silent)... her family is related to a tribal warlord who at one time had accumulated millions of cattle and were trading partners with the Boer settlers when they first came in... her mother still lives in a small village in a wattle and daub house and her only brother, was shot by the Apartheid Police when he was 22 and was working as an electrician for a white businessman, his crime, he was out in the "white neighborhood"  without his "identity pass" at 7 pm in the evening... he was the only bread earner in the family of four... after which Sophie took on the responsibility of the household and set off to eMahlaleni (Witbank), an industrial town some seven kilometers away from her village to find work as a domestic...

She has one daughter, Precious, who studies Chemical Engineering in Stellenbosch University near Cape Town. When Precious was small, she could not get admitted to a school near Sophie's then employer's home, because it was reserved for "white kids only" , her then employer, a White doctor called Jaco, (who still live in Silver Lakes, one of the biggest gated Estates in Pretoria East) introduced Precious as their own adopted daughter in order to secure admission for her in a school a short distance away where his children also studied. He and his wife, used to take Precious with their own girls to the school in their car... something that was unthinkable in the Apartheid ridden South Africa...

When she speaks of Nelson Mandela, her eyes fill with tears... Mandela, also known as 'Madiba' here, is the father of the nation. What Mandela and the African National Congress did for the majority of Black South Africans can be gauged from Sophie's life. Sophie belongs to the lowermost strata of the society, a strata long oppressed first by the white minority and then by the elite black minority. Sophie's daughter who is hopefully going to enter the growing middle class is her only hope of having a better life, one in which she hopes, to no longer work as a domestic helper.

As I grow more familiar with her, her life seems so richly filled with experiences, that my own struggles seem puny. She looks much more than 57 years of age, a face wrinkled and creased by experiences, age and struggles. As a woman, Sophie has had to struggle on many levels, a single mother trying to eke a living for herself and her daughter, a black domestic worker, working for white employers, a dutiful daughter whom circumstances forced to become the sole breadwinner for the family, a devoted Christian, and an ANC Card holding member, who with millions of her countrymen are engaged in a long battle to elevate and gain an equal standing in the land of their birth.

The one thing that never ceases to amaze me about Sophie, is this woman, whom life has handed out probably the harshest of the terms, never ever blames life for her destiny. She always has a smile on her face when I open the door in the mornings that she comes to my house. She is always grateful to god, that he has given her a life and enough to eat to maintain her strength so that she can work and earn her livelihood...

Nowadays, very often, a small quote by Gandhi (yes, again, back to him)... comes to my mind, it goes something like this, "when you are in a difficulty, when your ability to decide is being challenged and you are confused about the path to take, think about the most poorest and the most courageous man or woman you have ever met, and think, how the path(s) you are about to take, will effect him or her. You'll see it becomes easy and something that seem complicated, resolves smoothly".

Before this I could not think of any one till I met Sophie...

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