Groente vir die pot

ERRANDS FOR SIS’ RUFIE

Die menslike brein se vermoë om te onthou het sy eie prikkels wat herinneringe losmaak uit diepgestelde nisse. Enersyds ontglip dit soms jou brein om spesifieke ervarings op te kommandeer vir nabetragting of verdere denk-oorweging, en jy ontstel of skaam jouself vir die geheueverlies of -tekort, hoe belangrik of nie die gestoorde ervaring wat jy wil oproep ook al mag wees. Andersyds kom ‘n ou herinnering ongevraagd en skielik in jou bewussyn op en neem die eerste gedagtesitplek in. Wanneer dit gebeur, kan jy so ‘n herinnering soms slegs met uiterste moeite weer wegdink, terwyl dit ‘n onsmaaklike, of ‘n bedrukkende of selfs ‘n skuldbejaende ondervinding van die verlede soos ‘n kortrolprentsnit voor jou geestesoog laat afspeel.

Daar is natuurlik ook ander aangename geheuebeelde. Hulle is meestal diesoortes wat maklik deur die brein afgestof en soms opgesmuk kan word en jou dan op vermaaklike wyse die ondervinding op ‘n genotvolle en moontlik ook ‘n inniglike manier met geure, kleure en klanke laat herleef. Die Duitsers het ‘n woord vir die genot wat momenteel uit hierdie tipe geheue-ervaring geput kan word: Sehnsucht, of ‘n diepe verlange om die geleentheid weer te ervaar. Om so ‘n herinnering voor die geestesoog op te roep kos bewustelike oefening. Iemand wat geneig is om hierdie tipe geheue uit die vergetelheid terug te roep—miskien slegs vir die herhaalde genot of Sehnsucht na ‘n gebeurtenis wat was en nou maar net ‘n geheueskim van sy werklikheid is—so ‘n dagdromer is gewoonlik toegerus met ‘n groot genoeg skat van hierdie tipe aangename herinnering, en vir ‘n oomblik word alle ander gedagtes vergeet. Hierdie ondervindings is gewoonlik die prerogiteit van mense met ryke ervarings; dus, die ouer garde. ‘n Jonger gees sal noodwendig, as gevolg van ‘n relatiewe armer geheueskat, meer ingesteld wees op ‘n ander, meer toekomsgerigte dagdromery oor wonderlike ervarings wat nog in die toekoms vir hom of haar wag. Of so dink ek.

Op ‘n besoek aan Macao, die voormalige Portugese koloniale hawestad op die Chinese vasteland, het ek my een laatmiddag in ‘n besige straatmark, of liewer steegmark in ‘n wyk van die stad bevind. Ek was op ‘n besoek aan my broer Jeffrey en sy vrou Eleanor wat albei daar klasgegee het. Jeffrey wou my die klein kleremakerstalletjie wys waar hy ‘n mooi formele baadjie volgens sy spesifieke instruksies in ‘n kort tydjie kon laat maak en waaroor hy nie sy selftevredenheid kon verbloem nie. Die besigheidjie was half weggesteek in ‘n systraat en het as beide werksplek en vertoonlokaal vir die kleremaker gedien.

In die nabyheid van Jeffrey se knap kleremaker se stalletjie het ek eenkant ‘n groentetafel gesien, met ‘n Chinese verkoopsman wat langsaan sit by sy ware. Die groente by hierdie stalletjie het my aandag op daardie oomblik getrek. Dit was opvallend verskillend van die groente waaraan ek as Suid-Afrikaner gewoond is en ek het nader gestaan om die netjies uitgestalde Chinese variante van potgroente van nader te beskou. Elke groentesoort was netjies verdeel in afgemete verkoopporsies wat gerig was op die haastige koper wat vinnig wou besluit wat hy of sy daardie aand as aandete wou nuttig. Geen plastiekgeseelde polistereenbakkies met pryse en vervaldatums daarop nie. Blote eetporsies, met pryse op stukkies karton gemonteer in bamboespennetjies wat aan hul bopunte gespleet was, reg om te koop teen ‘n Macau pacata of twee. Ook op die verkoopstafel tussen die peul- of knolgewasse was kleingeld, op dieselfde wyse op gesplete bamboespennetjies gemonteer sodat die koper sy keuse kon maak en die regte kleingeld saam met sy groente van die tafel kon optel, stilweg in sy inkopiesak kon steek en aanskuifel na ‘n ander stalletjie of tafel vir verdere inkopies. Toevallig, terwyl ek nader staan aan die groentetafel, sien ek hoe ‘n middeljarige Chinees, klaarblyklik op pad huis toe van die kantoor af, vier preie hanteer en dan optel, ‘n papiernoot op die tafel neersit, dan die regte kleingeld van ‘n pennetjie afhaal, en stadig wegbeweeg. ‘n Knik van die kop, ‘n momentele blik van tevredenheid was al kommunikasie tussen koper en verkoper. Dis seker voldoende vir die koop van vier preie vir aandkos.

Wel, dit het vir my die manier van groentetransaksies in hierdie straatmarkie in Macao opeens baie duidelik geïllustreer, en ek kon nie ‘n fout maak as ek dieselfde wou doen en ‘n paar Chinese groente wou koop nie. Die probleem sou net wees: hoe daarmee gemaak as ‘n mens die moed sou hê om dit by jou tuiskoms in ‘n maaltyd te omskep? Toe ek vir Jeffrey van hierdie Chinese manier van inkopies doen vertel, lig hy my in dat die groente inderdaad vir die aandmaal aangekoop word, en dat die Chinese graag hul ete-bestandele op so ‘n wyse “versamel”—net genoeg vir een maaltyd. Môre se maaltyd is môre se inkopies.

En dit het my aan Sies Roefie laat dink. Sies Roefie was die oudste vrou in die Malaikamp, ‘n blok huise aan die onderkant van Banhoekweg wat deesdae bekend staan as Banghoekweg (miskien in ‘n poging om die straat en die buurt se verlede te ontken). Hierdie straat was die Vlakte se hoofverbinding met Idasvallei, die ander bruin woongebied van Stellenbosch. Ons kinders het elke Saterdagmiddag óf per bus óf te voet ons weg na die sokkervelde van Idasvallei langs Banhoekweg gevind. Die pad loop, nadat dit die Vlakte verlaat, verby die destydse wit buurte van Soetewiede en Verreweide voor dit wegswaai na Idasvallei en verder opstyg om te verander in Helshoogtepas wat lei na Kylemore en Pniel aan die agterkant van Simonsberg.

Banhoekweg 17, waar Sies Roefie gewoon het, was drie deure bokant dié van my ouma Rose February se skakelhuis in die Malaikamp en skuis oorkant die masjiet. Die Stellenbosch masjiet is een van enkele geboue wat die Groepsgebiedewet se gedwonge verskuiwingstragedie van die Apartheidsjare oorleef het en steeds daar staan—‘n stille religieuse getuie van my geboorteplek wat vernietig moes word om ander se ideologiese aspirasies te akkommodeer. Die Vlakte en sy mense is in die jare 1966–1967 “skoongemaak” van sy bruin gemeenskap en sy inwoners is na Cloetesville aan die buitewyke van die dorp verskuif. Maar dit is ‘n storie op sy eie, met sy eie besonderse herinneringe. En ek is bevrees die Vlakte leef vandag net voort in die geheues van diegene wat daar hul lewens voortgesit het. En soos hulle die tydelike met die ewige verwissel, so sterf die Vlakte se erfenis saam met hulle.

As seun van die Malaikamp onthou ek Sies Roefie—oftewel Sies Rufia Abrahams—waar sy meestal op ‘n bankie in stille waardigheid voor die huis gesit en droom het. Miskien het sy so soms geheuebeelde opgetower van vervloë tye om trekkerige dae die stryd aan te sê. En miskien was haar dromery van daardie aangename soort soos hierbo beskrywe. Ek hoop so, want sy was ‘n armsalige inwoner by haar suster Hatta, ook al bejaard, wat ‘n karige inkomste verdien het met partjies, die weeklikse bondels was-en-strykgoed wat Matie-studente in die Vlakte laat doen het.

Sies Roefie het slegs ‘n katel in die hoek van die middelkamer gehad. En dan was daar haar groen geverfde Maleierhoutkis onder die vensterbank, met versierings van kerfwerk wat sy Maleisiese herkoms verraai het.   Daarin het Sies Roefie haar karige wêreldse besittings bymekaar gehou en ons jongelinge het so nou en dan, wanneer sy iets daaruit moes uithaal, ‘n blik gekry van die goedjies wat sy in die kis gebêre gehou het. En by haar was Mailie, oftewel Ismail, haar kleinseun, wat destyds nog haar sorg nodig gehad het in sy woelige jong lewe.

Ek onthou haar as ‘n baie rustige ou mens wat min gepraat het. Haar kopdoekie het pal haar wit haardos versteek behalwe vir die twee dik vlegsels wat dit nie heeltemal agter haar hoof kon verberg nie. Die tranerige ogies en verrimpelde gelaatstrekke het die aanstap van die tyd op hierdie ou motjie se gesig duidelik bevestig, wat haar op ‘n manier afgesluit het van jonger of enige geselskap. Sy was meestal ʼn beeld van salige rustigheid waar sy op sonnige dae voor haar huis gesit en dut het.

Smiddae was Sies Roefie op die uitkyk vir kinders van die jaart, want dan het sy haar bestanddele vir die aandete nodig gehad, en ʼn bode om die skrapse inkopies te doen. Ons jongelinge kon haar nie maklik ontduik nie, want sy het soos ʼn verkleurmannetjie haar prooi ingewag, en voor jy kon ontglip, momemteel vasgevang in jou kindermissies, het sy jou geskaak om die inkopies te doen. Dan het sy jou nader geroep en moes jy haar ui en tamatie of twee aartappels by die nabygeleë Gaiety Café of Toefy’s Cash Store of tien sent se stukkies vleis by die slagtery gaan koop. Ons kinders was die gewone bodes vir sulke inkopie-ekspedisies, en die winkeliers van die hoek-kafees en baas Raymond van Bird Street Butchery was gewoond aan hierdie kinder-middag-inkopies namens die huishoudings van die buurt.

Respek vir oueres, al dan nie meerderes, was van kleins af ingeskerp in die kinders van die Malaikamp, soms met ‘n harde woord en soms ook met ‘n dwarsveeg van die belt of strap as ons na oorweging onverskillig was teenoor diegene soos Sies Roefie. Nie dat ons geneig was tot onverskilligheid in daad of woord teenoor haar of andere nie. Sies Roefie het feitlik al die kinders in haar onmiddellike omgewing goed geken, en wanneer sy jou nader roep, kon jy beswaarlik betyds wegkom sonder on jou eie naam te verloën. Sy het stadig maar uitdruklik haar lysie potbenodighede mondelings vir ons gepreuwel. Terwyl sy die kosbestandighedelysie opgenoem het, het sy die vuilerige sakdoekie uit haar voorskootsak gegrawe en met stywe vingers die knoop losgewikkel. Sy het dan die muntstukke—een-, vyf- en tiensentstukke—versigtig ondersoek en afgetel. En so moes ons met bedektelike trae voete ons weg baan na die hoekkafee waar die groente of kruideniersware aangevra en in ontvangs geneem, en die karige bedrag skaam-skaam oor die toonbank na die winkelier geskuif is.

Met my terugkom na so ‘n inkopietog het Sies Roefie haar bode altyd bedank met die woorde “Baie dankie, my kind. Die Here sal jou seën.” Dan was ek verleë, want ek kon nooit die ongemak te bowe kom nie: die paar groentetjies, die afgemete suiker of sout, die kwartbottel visolie kon nie aan die winkelier verduidelik word nie. Om vir hom te sê dat die goedjies vir Sies Roefie se aandpot was, was verregaande. Wat het so ‘n verduideliking geïmpliseer? Dat ek te goed is om vir een ui of twee aartappels te vra? Ek, ‘n kind van die Malaikamp? Nee, die bestelling moes noodwendig stilswyend gedoen word.

Miskien kon die Chinese groentetafel van die steegmarkie in Macau ‘n uitkoms verleen het. Ja, as die groentetjies afgebaken op ‘n tafel gelê het, met muntstukke vasgeknyp in die gesplete bamboespennetjies daarnaas.


A SELF-TRANSLATION

A German professor in a nineteenth-century lecture on anatomy is reported to have said to his class, “Meine Herrn, nächst beobachten wir die Milz. Die Wirkungen davon bleiben immer für uns unbekannt. Álso die Milz.” (Gentlemen, we now come to the spleen. About the functions of the spleen, we know nothing. So much for the spleen.) Despite all the “facts” that have been gathered about the human brain via general observation over the ages, hypotheses on its place and function in the body, and current research on this mysterious and mystifying organ, remain fairly unbekannt, and may well still elicit the same honest response in a modern-day anatomy class. Medical researchers and educators are still very much thrown out, and occasionally thrown about, when it comes to this “seat of intelligence” in the human body. And while the brain continues to be hounded by scientific investigation, it determines its own actions and reactions to the world in which it functions. We have all experienced awkward moments of memory lapse, moments of forgetfulness—the irksome inability to make our brains comply with a request for information about a specific event or situation from our past, the details of which are no longer readily or clearly available to us. In short, our recall ability lets us down more frequently than we would like to admit.

Responding to its own triggers, the brain will at other times “play back” the details of a memory in an unsolicited fashion, and with such vivid intensity that all current thinking processes are momentarily suspended. However hard we try to regain control of our mental faculties when this happens, control is regained with difficulty and with conscious effort: the “brain clip” of a past experience that we must have stored so deeply in the recesses of this most elevated muscle will have its full moment of replay.

Such picture shows of the brain need not, of course, be depressing, or fill one with self-conscious embarrassment. They may instead be, as they indeed are on many occasions, memories of a more pleasing nature, and presented with the ostentation and subtle amusement befitting the owner of the memory, who might possess a much-exercised mind, or whose life on earth might have been spent so quietly that “memory o’er their tomb no trophies raised”, to quote Gray’s poem . Then, functioning with its own creative independence, the brain infuses such pleasant reminiscences of past experiences with enhanced fragrances, colours and sounds that may very well not have been present in the initial enactment of the experience, all those years ago.

The Germans call it Sehnsucht—a longing for the past. The word encapsulates the pleasure accompanying such “retrograde daydreaming” (for want of an English term close enough to the German), and also points to the conscious effort of recall needed by the Sehnsuchter to bring about precisely such enhanced and sometimes modified memories. Reflecting in this way on one’s past experiences requires a well-stocked bank of memories. These experiences are mostly encoded in the combined currency of occasion, opportunity and time, a currency that younger people might not have a great many of, being generally more inclined to daydream into their futures (a projection into time for which the human brain is also very well-equipped, with all its powers of imaginative refinement).

A small tailor shop in a busy arcade in the former colonial capital of Macau on the Chinese mainland served as a trigger for the obtrusion of a deeply recessed childhood memory into my consciousness. The passageway was lined with stalls and tables upon which wares and produce of all kinds were displayed, to catch the eye of passers-by and potential customers. While observing a transaction being carried out at one of these stalls, between a greengrocer and a middle-aged man on his way home after a long day at the office, I suddenly thought about Sis’ Rufie, an old inhabitant of the Malay Camp at Die Vlakte in Stellenbosch. It was a curious thought, slung into my conscious mind by that mysterious memory-recall part of the brain. Brenda and I were in China visiting my brother Jeffrey and his wife Eleanor, who were both teaching in that far-off place at the time. We had gone to that part of the city for Jeffrey’s appointment with the tailor, for a fitting of a blazer he had commissioned. I was walking around in the arcade while my brother was in the tailor shop.

On the table of the greens vendor lay his wares: vegetables of various kinds, ready to serve as the basic ingredients for any meal. Next to each meal-sized portion, a hand-printed price tag on top of a split bamboo blade made the sales transaction easy. For one Macau pacata or three, one’s choice was made as far as selection and preference were concerned. To facilitate the purchase even further, small change, skewered in a similar fashion, was positioned near the vegetable display. All a buyer needed to do was pick up his vegetables from the table, pay for them, take the correct change for a larger bill, and move on to another stall for any other items he might be looking for. The Chinese office worker I was studying had picked up a bunch of Macauan spring onions, or some type of vegetable resembling a spring onion. The transaction was carried out in this silent, unspoken manner. Quick nods of satisfaction and acknowledgement were exchanged between buyer and seller, and that was all. Nothing else was needed for buying a few spring onions for the evening meal. And I myself would not have encountered any difficulties either, had I needed to buy anything at the stall. Or at any of the other stalls in that busy street market, for almost all of them had the “bamboo wedge” payment arrangement. What to do with exotic Chinese greens thus purchased was quite another thing altogether.

Joining me at the stall, my brother explained that people in Macau liked to make daily purchases in this way, especially for their important evening meals after work. They assembled their meal ingredients fresh from the market stalls: just enough for one meal, eaten on the day of purchase. Stocking up the food pantry was apparently not much provisioned for in their way of life.

Why then did I suddenly think of the Sis’ Rufie of my youth? The most senior member of that close-living body of people, Sis’ Rufie spent much of her time on a small wooden bench in front of her house on sunny afternoons during the last years of her life. The unexpected resurfacing of her memory in my mind must have been triggered by the implicit frugality and respectful detachedment of the transaction I had witnessed while observing the vegetable stall.

I remember her sitting there on late summer afternoons, watching the street activities of that busy road or just thinking her old maid’s thoughts. She lived with her spinster sister Hatta, also very elderly, and the two of them made a living for themselves as washerwomen to supplement the small government old-age pension on which they lived quietly at number 17 Banhoek Road. Maties students brought their weekly laundry bundles to her on Mondays, in their partjies or cotton laundry bags. The bags were home-made, with the student’s name and koshuis or student residence embroidered on them by a doting mother who missed her son studying far away from home in the old university town: Johan Truter, Wilgenhof. Then Sis’ Rufie and Hatta would sort the soiled rugby wear from the socks, underwear, shirts, scarves and handkerchiefs, beginning the laundry assignments with that sedulous attention that earned them high recognition from other Vlakte washerwomen and residents alike.

Her worldly possessions were a bedstead and an old-fashioned wooden Malay chest painted a shiny dark green colour. The chest stood under the shutterwindow of the middle room of the house, with the bed next to it. She kept her little treasures in that chest, and on rare occasions I had a glimpse of its contents when she opened it to retrieve an item she needed. Her teenaged grandson Ismail was living with her at that time, after he had become too unmanageable for his father, Salie, a local fishhawker.

The two sisters were a quiet, rather taciturn duo. Sis’ Rufie hid her two thick tresses of white hair under a headscarf. Her two shrunken but keen eyes and a face with careworn lines kept a respectful distance between us young folk of the Malay Camp and the old motjie. We were her water carriers on those washdays when the University of Stellenbosch was abundantly represented on the washing-lines of the Malay Camp yard. And then there was our errand-running for Sis’ Rufie, a lighter but in a sense more tedious assignment for us.

From her seat outside the front of the house, she would be on the look-out for any of us who came within her line of vision in the afternoons. She needed young legs to do her daily shopping. And like a chameleon perched to catch a passing insect with its tongue, she literally caught us with her voice. I was a favourite target of her attentions; she would wait for me to come into her ambit and then sharply call out my name. The ineluctability of that summons carried with it her certainty that I had heard her. She would then send me to buy a loose onion or tomato and two potatoes at the Gaiety Café, or ten cents’ worth of cooking oil and a bit of sugar at Toefy’s Cash Store higher up the road. It was a short list of plain ingredients for the poor woman’s evening meal, and any child of the Malay Camp would do to get them for her at the neighbourhood shops. Respect for the elderly, and a readiness to be of service to them, was a vital part of our code of good behaviour, of the spirit of ubuntu that was present in the Malay Camp, and in the Vlakte community more generally—at a time when that word still had to be coined. Any wilful disrespect for this code was immediately corrected with an injunction for improvement, and sometimes even the sharp bite of a father’s belt or a mother’s ladle.

It was therefore necessary for this old woman to know the names of the Malay Camp children, so that she could catch them in their stride, so to speak. She would sedately list the cooking items she needed for her pot and hand over the coins, untied from the kerchief she conjured up from somewhere in her pinafore, and send one of us on that important errand with a blessing for a reward.

My light step was replaced with a heavier one on such errands. At Toefy’s, Sis’ Rufie’s trickle of cooking oil or paraffin would be syphoned from the store’s bigger drum containers, and small brown paper bags would be filled with the meagre quantities of sugar, rice or salt she had ordered, measured with the tiniest of scale weights, after I had communicated her shopping list and pushed the few coins across the high service counter to the imam on the other side. My return to Sis’ Rufie on her bench in front of the house after such a shopping errand was always concluded with the following iterated blessing: “Dankie, my kind. Die Here sal jou seën.” Thank you, my child. God’s blessings be yours.

The embarrassed shame I had to hide while making those purchases for Sis’ Rufie at Toefy’s Cash Store was redoubled by a sense of discomfort that could not be shaken off: explaining to imam Toefy that the few vegetables, the equally tiny measures of sugar and other dry goods, and the quarter bottle of fish oil or vinegar were Sis’ Rufie’s requirements, not mine, was unthinkable. What purpose did such further information serve? That it was beneath me to be buying loose single vegetables? Was I not from the same Malay Camp down the road? Even if such an explanation to the shopkeeper was an intolerable impertinence, not to be given any consideration at all, I must have realised even then that humble life circumstances, unlike Death, could never be an equalising factor.

The cultish traders in indigenous herb medicines on Cape Town’s city pavements, displaying their wares in bundles on sheets of hessian cloth, have become something more than a transient curiosity these days. These braided-haired traders are all dressed in the same coarse jute cloth, cut in interesting designs of their own making. Apart from making a bold statement about an alternative lifestyle, they also indirectly offer their own counter for those people whose purses are severely challenged by the price-coded, polythene-wrapped ready-to-purchase portions of foodstuff found on the shelves of Woolworths, Shoprite, Checkers and Pick n Pay stores. The herb sellers have attracted regular customers and carry on their trading quietly among other street stalls cluttering most pavements in downtown Cape Town. They are also in direct competition with international pharmaceutical corporations that offer established medicinal, cosmetic-hygiene and lifestyle products that are mostly out of the reach of the poor. The spaza houseshops in townships join these cult traders, resisting the disempowering exclusion strategies that strong food-supply conglomerates press on the poor. The spaza shops also sell their wares in affordable sizes and quantities that are aligned to the poor man’s pocket, just as the modern-day arcade market stalls continue the centuries-old colonial tradition of serve the poor in the busy oriental metropolis of Macau.


POSTSCRIPT
I started life in 1951 in the brown residential area of Stellenbosch called Die Vlakte and I lived there until 1971, when I was relocated? resettled? to Cloetesville, along with most of the residents of that neighbourhood, under the apartheid laws of the time. In my later years, I worked as an educationalist, and I had the privilege of engaging with the young minds and souls entrusted to my care in class at the primary, secondary and tertiary level.
Die Vlakte, as I knew it, was the brown quarter of Stellenbosch, located between Bird and De Villiers streets and Muller and Merriman streets, with the Andringa Street extension (with its “Rooi Yard”) up to Crozier Street a contested area of habitation where the so-called “Battle of Andringa Street” apparently took place in July 1940.
Very little published historical writing on Die Vlakte exists. The most recent and relevant piece of writing is In ons Bloed, compiled by Hilton Biscombe, who, like me,  grew up in the place. There also exists a tome on the tercentenary celebrations of Stellenbosch, which has a single paragraph on the town’s brown residents hidden away somewhere in the book.
“Groente vir die pot: Errands for Sis’ Rufie” is one of a collection of essays that I am finalising about Die Vlakte and that I hope to publish soon. These essays were triggered partly by the promptings of my daughter, Ilze Wolff, who urged me to share my “Vlakte” stories with a wider audience, and partly by my own notions that a place and its history and its people should not die out, especially as the voices of its former residents become quiet – my own voice included.
And the Vlakte story needs to be told. It is not only a story of the personal discomfort and suffering brought about by the forced removal and relocation of people across the entire country, and the levelling of buildings with the ground on which they stood, however traumatic and painful these experiences continue to be in the memories of those who experienced them. Ultimately, it is the story of the vicious and unholy attack on disempowered fellow South Africans and of the death of identity and self-image that it brought in its wake for those who suffered these persecutions – and occasionally, although very rarely, for the perpetrators thereof. Too late for resurrection, such a death may be appeased by and through the printed and spoken word, especially when even today formal state pronouncements are still failing the issue of restitution, an issue by which this country may very well remain standing or fall.

 

Wilfred PHOTO FINAL

Photo taken by my father Edward in our yard in Die Vlakte, Stellenbosch, c. 1960. From left: Ursula Olivier (our neighbour’s daughter), Tony (my father’s friend) with my brother Jeffrey in front of him, and my brother Brian (left) and I (right) in school clothes.