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Siphiwo Mahala

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Meet the Neighbours

I lead a boring life. I neither smoke nor drink and I’m always immersed in books. I was lucky to meet a companion with similar habits. Now we are a combination of a boring husband and a boring wife. The two of us are not the most sociable couple.

In the past three years we’ve changed residence twice and meeting new neighbours has been such a mission. Our rural background forbids us from staying in flats and townhouses. We can’t imagine our children growing up independently without the influence of unruly city brats from neighbouring flats. The cheap exotic houses become our obvious choice for a home.

The importance of having a good relationship with the neighbours cannot be overemphasised. Wine or beer of any kind plays a pivotal role in sowing the seeds of good neighbourliness. The fist place we bought a house in was a new development area and I was the first individual to be resident there. My family was to join me later as my wife was busy sending applications left right and centre trying to secure a job, any job, in Gauteng Province. With time I saw more houses with curtains, a sure sign that there were new neighbours around.

At the time I used to leave the house at 5AM and return in the evening at about 19h30. I didn’t even have a TV set so my neighbours wouldn’t even notice when I’m home in the evening. Of course, at the time I used to indulge on take-aways so I hardly spent time in the kitchen—not that I am not gifted in that department. I just love my Steers burger, that’s all. I was working on my novel at the time so neighbours would barely catch a glimpse of me on weekends either.

I met my Venda speaking neighbours well after a year. It turned out that they only came home on weekends as both the husband and wife worked in North West province. I promised to look after the house during the week and they promised to do the same when I leave for Eastern cape during December holidays. I planned to visit them on the day of the over-glorified Soweto derby and my first disappointment was that while I favoured Chiefs, my good neighbour was a staunch Pirates fan. Anyone would know that rivalry is imminent in such a situation.

I sat there while chiefs walloped Pirates and I had to limit my excitement, lest I upset my newly acquired friend. I have heard stories of people that get killed over soccer arguments and I didn’t want to be a statistic. Things were made even more awkward when he offered me beer and I refused. I almost vomited when his wife offered me their traditional delicacy called something like Mopane worms, which to me looked like larva. Now, my biology studies told me that larva develops into a fly and eating that is no different to eating maggots.

We left this area and moved into what practically is an old village for white Afrikaners. I didn’t pick this up in good time because the gentleman from whom we bought the house was relatively young and spoke English well. I even developed a good relationship with him especially because we are both Blue Bulls fans. I realised later that befriending him won’t be very helpful because he won’t be here when we reside in the house anyway.

Now, unlike my previous residence, in a retirement village neighbours are always watching your moves like hawks. They know what time you left home, what time you came back, who visited you, and they see you when you throw a chocolate wrapping paper carelessly. Basically, it is more like your house is under surveillance. This should guarantee relative safety but one gets suspicious when you don’t share a common background with the neighbours especially in Pretoria where there’s a history of racially based violence.

So I try to brake the ice, I had nothing to loose after all. I extend my hand over the fence to introduce myself. The old man next door responds in Afrikaans and stretches his arm to greet. Well, I love people who love their languages, so I continue with the conversation in English. I did this before, I had a 30 minute conversation with a guy who spoke Afrikaans while I spoke English. I understood what he said in Afrikaans but could not respond in the language and the same applied to him. I tried my luck with my new neighbour but he told me straight that he cannot understand English.

Now, I did Afrikaans at school but we all regarded is as the language of the oppressor as a result we were quite hostile to it. We learned it only for the purposes of passing exams and we were not very enthusiastic to learn to speak the language. With my neighbour speaking Afrikaans only it meant I was the only one in my family who could have an inkling of what they are saying. My wife is from the former Transkei Bantustan and never did Afrikaans at school. When I converse with the neighbours I speak on behalf of my linguistically challenged family.

Somehow I manage to string together a few Afrikaans words and my Afrikaner neighbours turn out to be the nicest neighbours we have ever had. They have a lemon tree and one day I asked for lemons because I could see them falling off from the trees. They brought me a sack and a few days later I thank them for the lemons. They say they can give me more. With my lack of Afrikaans vocabulary, our conversations are punctuated with lemons and now we get a sack of lemons from the neighbours every two weeks.

I call my neighbours Oupa and Ouma. They are probably in their late eighties and I must say they continue to impress me. They probably know the formula of my conversations. When I see Oupa I ask, “Waar is Ouma?” and vice versa. So this day Oupa tells me that Ouma went to a hair salon, and I wonder why would a woman of her age bother doing her hair. She is under no obligation to impress the guy. He can’t divorce her now. He needs her company as much as she needs his.

My second shock came a week ago on Saturday 1 August, probably the coldest day this winter in Gauteng. Wind was whistling outside my window and I remained in bed contemplating fetching the book that I was reading from the car. After several hours I had to brave the cold. I couldn’t believe when I saw Oupa struggling to shield a bunch of floors against the strong wind. The man had braved the cold just to buy flowers for his eighty something year old wife.

I imagine that this couple probably has shielded their relationship from many storms over the years. I thought that may be I can learn a thing or two about life from the old couple. I see compassion in their eyes. And that is all the more reason to believe in love.

To be continued…


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    August 11th, 2009 @10:54 #

    Absolutely loved this piece. It was worth switching my computer on for this.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    August 11th, 2009 @11:57 #

    Lovely writing. I can't wait to hear more about Ouma and Oupa and the lemons.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Ingrid</a>
    August 11th, 2009 @12:25 #

    mooi mooi, thank you for this.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Ingrid Andersen</a>
    Ingrid Andersen
    August 11th, 2009 @16:29 #

    I really enjoyed the conversations punctuated by lemons. I have an elderly neighbour who speaks the same language- but as I have a large lemon tree, our talk involves lemons too. :-)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Siphiwo</a>
    August 13th, 2009 @07:03 #

    Thank you all. More will come soon.


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