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Siphiwo Mahala

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Neighbourhood Watch

Spring has come. The citrus season is over. There are no more lemons to talk about with Oupa. For after almost a year in this neighbourhood he remains the only neighbour I know and get along with. My good neighbour still can’t speak a single word of English. Given the deficiency of my Afrikaans, I have to think about each conversation in advance.

One Saturday morning he catches me picking up some dirt in the yard and he says something to the effect that this should be my “sport”. Cleaning? My Sport? I wonder if he is commenting on my impairment as a gardener. I’m not lazy I just don’t have time to work in the garden. It’s not an attractive hobby anyway. Grass is growing up the wall, dry leaves are scattered all over the yard and the clearly neglected lawn has been thirsting for water throughout winter. My braaing stand is standing in a corner full of ashes since the last time we had a braai way before we were hit by the recession. I am well aware of the fact that my yard is not the tidiest but I don’t need an old man to remind me about this.

But he belongs to another generation and I don’t wanna disrespect elders, especially a neighbour. And the only one I know nogal. Besides, given our linguistic barriers, disagreeing with him might prove difficult as I hadn’t prepared for it in advance. “Yes, this should be my sport,” I repeat his words, for that’s the routine of our conversations. He continues with the conversation but I miss a lot of what he is saying because his dog is barking. I’m irritated by the dog because this moment is not only important for me to get to know my neighbour better but also to increase my Afrikaans vocabulary. He catches my eye staring at the dog and feels obliged to explain that the dog is new. His pug (which I also didn’t like very much) had died recently. In addition to the dog, Oupa has three big cats that I suspect are close cousins to leopards. You’ll understand what I mean when you see those massive animals.

And now we talk about cats and dogs; dogs and cats all the time. No more lemons! My sober mind tells me that the animal conversations are more sustainable than lemons. Actually, I don’t know why I didn’t think about them in the first place because I wrote good compositions of “My Hond” and “My Kat” at school. These lessons would for once in my life come in handy. I know my Afrikaans compositions were good because I memorised everything that our teacher taught us (which in turn, she probably read during her school days).

The animal conversation network is increasing rapidly. Just a few days ago I was walking to the shop and speaking on the phone. Suddenly a car makes a screeching stop right in front of me. I lift up my head and realise that I walked in front of the car as it was approaching the driveway. I apologise profusely. I’m not the one for fights, not especially with neighbours. In fact, I subscribe to the Michael Jackson philosophy (bless his departed soul) that “I’m a lover not a fighter.” The old man behind the wheel gestures at me and I take that as a warning.

This is a military area. In the past the area was meant exclusively for military officers and most of my neighbours served in the army at some point. I mean truly military men and not those guys you saw struggling to climb over the Union Buildings fence a few weeks ago. If a soldier wags a finger at you and brings his car to a screeching halt you are bound to tremble. At least I did.

I end my call unceremoniously as the driver gets out of the car. I’m about to apologise for walking on his driveway when the man hastily gets out of the car. I notice that there is something peculiar about his walk. He must have lost his leg in the army, I make a mental note. With a big smile across his wrinkled face, he stretches a hand to greet me. I am relieved that this is a friendly encounter and I happily shake hands with him. He introduces himself as…well, I’ll just call him Mr S. Now I’m happy about two things. I am not just getting to know another neighbour but this one can speak English too. That’s a bonus!

In a telling way, Mr S asks if that is my house. I respond in the affirmative and tell him how happy I am to finally meet him. In a deep Afrikaans accent he says, “Nee, I see you and your
wife drive in and out all the time. Even at night sometimes.” So he’s been watching our moves, I say to myself. “But you guys are so quiet.”
“Are we?” I say listlessly still amazed that he’s been keeping an eye.
“But that’s a good thing,” he adds. I’m pleased that we have a good record so far, but he is oblivious of the fact that soon we will be bringing the house down. We’ll be hosting a surprise party for a friend of ours in about two weeks. It is our responsibility as young people to bring life to the neighbourhood.
“I like this area.” I try to change the topic.
“Yah, it’s a good area—quiet and safe. But you must get a dog.” He warns.
“What for? This is probably the safest area in town.” I say because I know the area is relatively safe but it will be interesting to hear from a legendary resident. No one will ever mess with a neighbourhood where there’s an R4 rifle in almost every second household. ADT has no business in our neighbourhood. We are our own Armed Response. Okay, that’s just me threatening criminals who may be visiting this blog!
“No, it’s important to have a dog. There’s crime here. The dog will bark when
somebody tries to break into your house.” He justifies his point.
“But have you ever experienced crime here?” I’ve been curious to know because in my reasoning only a foolish thief with a death wish would try to steal from a military village.
“Oh, yes. We found our old dog floating in the swimming pool. Somebody must
have poisoned it.” He says trying to convince himself.
So, his crime testimony is the death of a dog which he suspects must have been poisoned and thrown into a swimming pool. Suffice it to say nothing was stolen!

A few days later my skorokoro coughed a few times and collapsed. After several attempts trying to resuscitate it I had to face the reality that it’s dead. Counting the years that I’ve been driving it without changing anything (other than tyres, oil and fuel), I know it needs a new battery. After buying the battery now the challenge is to remove the old one. I battle with it for several hours and decide to call on my good neighbour, Mr S. He’s a driving instructor and should know a thing or two about cars.

Mr S comes immediately and I introduce him to my co-worker who’s a friend visiting from the Eastern Cape. ‘Oh, I’ve seen you before. That was you the other night coming from the
shop with bread.” He says with a smile and my friend agrees. They go on about the happenings of that night which I was not privy to. Apparently it was quite late and my friend had to buy bread from the 24 hour garage nearby. Mr S, who by now is clearly the self-appointed neighbourhood watchman, followed the strange man and asked him where he lived. My friend had to prove that he was resident there by opening the gate with a remote control.

The happenings of that late night encounter having been clarified, I want to seize this opportunity and get to know the old man better. I’ve been dying to ask Mr S about his life in the army. In fact, I concluded from the first day that he lost his leg in the Second World War. I wanted to hide myself when he objected, saying it was actually a car accident. That’s why he decided to open a driving school so that he can teach people how to drive properly and minimise accidents on the road. I couldn’t agree more. He goes further to tell me that he is selling his daughter’s motorbike. Reason. He hates motorbikes. That makes two of us, I say.

They seem fun but any accident in a motorbike is a serious one. Even if you were riding at 60Km p/h when you fall it is your body that goes to the ground. But Mr S has a long history with motorbikes. First, his son drove one and he would be out late at night clubbing his youth away while the father stays awake worried. The young man would arrive at ungodly hours and the little machine would wake the whole neighbourhood with its loud engine.

The second testimony is about his daughter and her motorbike-riding boyfriend. Apparently this young man, who was supposed to be taking her out, didn’t know much about his father-in-law. And guess what mode of transport he used. A motorbike. How can he ever think of making the daughter of Mr S ride a motorbike? Over my dead body, Mr S tells me that’s what he said. They must either take a bus or the young man must borrow a car from his parents. I wonder if that was going to be the first time that the couple rode the roaring machine together.

As fate would have it, or rather, as Mr S had warned, soon there was a dead body. And it was not Mr S’s. The young man met a fatal accident while riding his motorbike. And fortunately for Mr S his daughter was not there with the boyfriend. In a typical storytelling formular, Mr S concludes by telling the moral of the story—the daughter later came back to him and said, “Daddy, you
were right. You saved my life.”
“I told you, this thing is dangerous.” Says Mr S, clearly pleased with himself.

So Mr S does not only provide free neighbourhood watch. He is watching his family as well. And perhaps to him the whole neighbourhood is family. Welcome to my neighbourhood!


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    September 30th, 2009 @17:48 #

    Don't miss this post! It's another of Siphiwo's wry slices of suburbia, SA-style. You'll smile and wince.


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