Ag in Africa

16 October, 2006

Fist-in-the-stomach moments

Filed under: Development worker, johannesburg, south africa — Ag @ 8:28 pm

In Joburg, I’m surrounded by statistics. Crime statistics (only 642 ‘aggravated robberies’, a paltry 12 murders, and just 150 instances of carjacking in my area in 2004 – hurrah!), HIV statistics, house price inflation (which is a tedious gluttony here too)… numbers, numbers, numbers. But for me it is the tiny details that I come across that turn these numbers into full-colour pictures. Tiny tiny details – just a couple of words thrown at me here, a snap-shot as I glance up a side-street there; the surprise of exchanging pleasantries with a stranger whilst waiting at a pedestrian crossing.

So here are just two of the tiny moments that have left me winded during my three weeks in Joburg. The instances when I’ve felt sick to my core at the burdens of the people who live with me and around me.

1. Mary does the cleaning in the offices where I work. She is, I guess, about 60. She’s a big lady – she puffs and creaks as she washes the two flights of stairs from the ground floor up to our offices. On the first day I met her, I walked into the kitchen where she was sitting with a cup of tea, tired and sweating. She said, “Aggy, where you live, have you already got a maid?” And I was flummoxed. A maid? A what? “No mamma. I live in a house with a family. We don’t have a maid.” She said, “I need more work, I need some money.” And I’m looking at her and I’m thinking that she probably travels here for an hour each day from one of the townships, and she didn’t even ask me where I live. Wherever I live she will travel there every week for the few Rands that she would make cleaning my tiny flat for a morning. It’s surely time for her to relax and work less and just have enough. I said, “When I move to my own place I’ll tell you mamma”. She said, “Thank you, sissy.”

2. In the first few days that I lived in Joburg, my boss (another Blighter) used to pick me up and take me to work. At the end of my street, there would always be men gathered, obviously waiting for something – I assumed to be picked up to go and work somewhere. On the third day, I said to my boss, “These men, who are they waiting for?” She said, “They are waiting for you or I to ask them to do some work on our houses, like plumbing or fixing something.” They are waiting for me? Is that why they look up at us as we pass every day? I don’t have anything for them. It’s late in the morning, so surely there won’t be any offers today? So they probably won’t make any money today. So what will they live on? These are such naive questions, but I ask them, hoping that there are some reassuring answers to them, which of course there aren’t.

You can read about a project to help these thousands of unemployed men.



  1. I guess you’ll be having a lot of those fist in the stomach moments for the next year, the more you get to know, the more you’ll discover buried in people’s lives and histories. força.

    Comment by lucy — 17 October, 2006 @ 10:13 am

  2. I have, of course, been reading your blog since it started, and feel it is an opportune place to convey some news to you from Blighty (apologies if this is inappropriate), in the most derivative manner I can muster. So this posting is a generalised response to your Blog, rather than this specific entry. Possibly as you were composing your entry, you were simultaneously becoming an aunt once more (I’m not sure that it is actually possible to become an aunt once more, already having a selection of nieces and nephews, but this is my submission, pedants, deal with it), you now have a brother living in England with 3 children, one of which you haven’t seen. As you have delegated the continuation of the species, and as sister Sally has taken on the burden of producing the male of the species, myself (or lets be honest, much more Ann) have duly obliged with the production of another female. Once my technological abilities approach your new found level of expertise I shall put pictures on the web for you to view. I’ve got lots, starting from a couple of moments after she was born but when she had the blood and assorted other birth related by-products (at least mostly) wiped off her. I like my photos in the raw, but there are limits. As you say, it’s the tiny, tiny details that matter, and one that matters to me more than I can say weighs 5lbs 14ozs, and has a name – Holly.

    Comment by Danny — 17 October, 2006 @ 11:15 pm

  3. congratulations danny!

    Comment by lucy — 18 October, 2006 @ 10:02 am

  4. Yippee! As they say, ‘If the tide stopped coming in and going out, we’d never know the waves’. I have no idea what this means either, but it seems strangely fitting, given all the colliding circumstances of this post and its comments.

    Comment by aggy — 18 October, 2006 @ 5:47 pm

  5. Here in the U.S. we have this phenomena as well. Here in California it is the Mexicans that gather, often at a small liquor store or a small chain store like 7 Eleven or Circle K, which are places where food, coffee and liquor, including beer, are sold. Once or twice I have found myself needing such help and I tried to pay them a decent amount, usually about $5 an hour. When possible, I’ve also given them some food. As a group they exude an air of hopelessness, but if you hire some of them, those you hire will suddenly become animated and happy. I always wish I could do more.

    Comment by Deborah — 25 March, 2007 @ 2:50 pm

  6. Thanks for your comment Deborah.
    I’ve been here quite a long time now, 6 months. I understand a lot more why things are like they are. It’s desperate for the poorest here. But there is a huge sense of potential in South Africa. A real sense that things can and will be different and better. I imagine that this feeling is new to modern democracies. It’s completely opposite to the UK where everything feels settled and we just coast along. Being here at this time is very exciting!

    Comment by aggy — 25 March, 2007 @ 7:09 pm

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