We are delighted to feature a new guest contributor on our blog. Sharon Wakeford is an internationally accredited mediator and coach, who works in a wide range of settings and contexts, both inside South Africa and internationally. More than this, Sharon is a conversationalist, storycatcher, explorer, seeker, and learner. She loves to listen to, and tell stories, write, dance, laugh, and play. She is deeply drawn into the space of questions and reflection that invite people, herself included, into being a touch bolder, a shade braver, and a little different in ‘who they be’ and ‘how they do’. 

This is the first piece in a two part series, enjoy the read.

A love letter to my housekeeper by Sharon Wakeford

Dear Thembi

You were like an old plant sitting contentedly on its chipped china saucer on a sunny Soweto windowsill, when you were pulled from the pot, had the dry soil shaken off your roots, and replanted, without choice, into my life twenty kilometres away. Now that you have taken root in my home, and your wrinkled branches are wrapped around my heart, you are, once again without choice, yours or mine, to be planted back into your own life.

I know I should be happy for you that you get to return to the stillness of your hard-earned retirement, to be the home you are to your grandchildren, but the impending loss of your gentle presence, your even more gentle teacher, and your delightfully scrunched up smile, brings a hollowness to my stomach.

Nine months ago, you selflessly surrendered your own needs and time, to slip your arms into your cousin Jessie’s housecoat – to become our housekeeper, while Jessie answered an ancestral call to become a Sangoma, a proud and powerful calling she could no longer delay. So, you made a personal sacrifice to save a job for your family.

Has such a sacrifice ever been asked of me – to suspend my life, without a sliver of certainty of when I might get it back? No. But it was asked of you, and quite possibly not for the first time. Not only did you swap the hours in your home for hours in mine, but you came, and continue to come, with a full heart and soft hands and fleshy arms that sweep firmly and rhythmically across our coarse beige carpets. You come on feet that leave the warmth of your bed at 4am to join the incoming tide that deposits housekeepers and gardeners within the high walls, security gates and electric fences of suburban Johannesburg. Walls of privilege, supposed peace of mind, yet equally walls of encagement.

Beep beep, as you de-activate the security beams. 6:08. “Morning Bessie”, I greet you by the name I know you by, when I meet you, still in my pyjamas in the kitchen sometime after 9. “It’s really fine for you to arrive after 8, I don’t want you to leave home earlier than you have to.”

“No”, you say, “it’s better like this. If I get the taxi at 6 and not 5, I don’t know how long I will have to wait because the queue is too long”.

As I am about to reiterate that you don’t have to get here by 8, an ‘aha’ moment, or what I think to be such a moment based on my own interpretation: this is about you taking the tiny bit of control available to you – a few medicine dropper pinches, but hugely important to you as a person who prides punctuality. And so, the 6:08 beeping becomes part of the pulse of our relationship.

Tap tap tap. I sit here in the serenity of Whidbey Island in the Pacific North West of the United States – a place my own privilege has enabled me to visit; seemingly a world away, in every which way from you and Johannesburg. Yet my attention is strongly drawn back to you, when through the large glass pane of the Marsh House, my temporary space of learning, I notice a proud broad-chested bird, wearing what looks like a bright red hoodie, hammering at the arthritic finger-like branches of a knobbly tree trunk. The hammering and the hoodie transport across the many miles back home. A warmth skips down my arms as my ‘memory’s ear’ hears the loud metallic ping as you unlock the side gate and approach my office window, in your bright red T-shirt and snug denim skirt, ready for me to take you to the taxi rank that will join the outgoing tide back to Soweto. The few kilometres we do, seated side by side, are a very small proportion of your journey home, but you are always grateful for the ride, and I am grateful for the quiet cocooning before we bid farewell to our day together. I linger a moment in the parking area, watching your crisp red T-shirt and shiny black shoes advance towards the minibus taxi. To my eye, you carry yourself as fully and proudly in your personhood as the red-chested sapsucker that tapped itself into my attention and brought us together here in Whidbey. And all the more remarkable to me, is that you step with such pride into the world, despite decades of systematic oppression.

It was only on my return from Whidbey that I stopped to consider the name ‘Bessie’, the name I had been calling you for seven months. To ask if that was even your birth name given to you with love and meaning by your parents? Or was it given as a so-called ‘Christian name’? Worse still, a ‘slave name’ yoked around your neck for its ease of pronunciation, to make life simpler for your ‘masters’ and ‘madams’? The term landed like a streetfighter’s fist to my gut when I heard the anger and agony in my strong friend Tshidi’s voice, as she explained the ‘Hazel’ and ‘Esther’ who appeared in cold black print on her identity document, with ‘Matshidiso’ trailing sadly behind. Why, despite my severe windedness at Tshidi’s words, did I, for so many months of being us together, blindly call you Bessie without inquiring about the giving and your receiving of this name? Oh, the creeping collusion.

Beyond the bright red T-shirt and shiny black shoes, I deeply admire you as the woman in Jessie’s well-worn mauve housecoat (the right size for Jessie, but slightly too tight for you), not just for every practical thing you do while wearing it, but for the grace with which you slipped your arms into its sleeves, drew it up around your shoulders and buttoned up its front, never mind the recalcitrant middle button intent on exposing your friendly flesh.

Could I have worn such an uninvited housecoat? If I was wearing it at all, it would undoubtably be with an echinacea taste in my mouth – a taste borne of it being imposed on me, with no indication of when I would be freed from it, and able to hand it back to its ‘rightful owner’. I would be especially bitter about the middle button, and be caught in the paradox of giving it power over me while I fixated on trying to banish it from my thoughts. Yes, of course there are obligations that rise up to meet my world, but when have I not had a choice about whether to take on the obligation, or a piece of it; or held no power to script or negotiate an end?

To my observer, you inhabit the housecoat with acceptance; but is it simply that: ‘my observation’ and what I would like to believe, rather than the reality of feelings that sit deep in the silence beneath your skin? A resentment, or at least some resignation stitched into its seam? The sigh in your voice, and slump in your shoulders do indeed whisper their own truths, when I ask if there’s any news of when Jessie will complete her Sangoma training and resume residence in the housecoat. “I don’t know” you say, “we just have to wait”. What I know is that I am part of this burden of obligation that you carry, like the bucket and mop, which I sometimes find left abandoned somewhere in the house when you have become distracted by another task. I laugh as I hand them back to you and say: “Eish Bess, you are getting madala” and your face scrunches into that delightful smile and you reply: “madala, yes”. But having served people for 30 years in Woolworths’ staff dining room, you are now having to serve me, rather than being able to grow madala in the peace and pace of your own home.

But the truth is, I don’t want to release you to a tide that goes out and does not come back in. I still want your soft, fleshy hands to be moving the iron over my shirts, slowly and carefully to get the collars small and upright, just as I like them. I still want your energy enveloping the house, an energy as light and loving as the strokes of the yellow duster as it traces the counters of our oregon coffee table. I am soothed by your quiet ebb and flow and am not ready for the return of Jessie’s volume and volatility. Even greater than this, I want time to peer more deeply into you, to know you better, and to be on the path you offer, a gentler path of understating into some of the complex woundedness of our beloved motherland. A mother on whose ample breast I was allowed to suckle greedily, but from which you and your children were so cruelly denied. A denial which in turn denied me, though obviously not with the same cruelty, but which causes me anger and even more so, sadness – a denial that kept my African siblings as strangers, not sisters and brothers with whom I shared stories at the kitchen table.

But what right do I have to ask you to provide this path, why should you have to educate me? Why should it fall to any black South African to educate white South Africans? We have taken so much historically and yet we still ask for more – for you to help us make ourselves better.

I also need more time to be with your unintentional and understated teacher. How confused I was one late afternoon when, as the kettle gurgled to a boil, you rested your hands on the neatly folded washing, and asked: “How was your day for you, Sheri?” The surprise was not hearing myself being called Sheri, but rather the question itself. We had been within 25 metres of each other the whole day and you knew that I had just been working in my office. Why then would you still ask about my day? Slowly, like the last rays of the afternoon sun falling on the clean washing, my quiet realisation: in your own way, you were inquiring into the ‘being’ rather than the ‘doing’ of my day – just as I ask similarly oriented questions of people who unravel themselves and their stories in my deep teal-coloured coaching chairs that you brush down three times a week.

My gaze floats out the window to the butterfly-like fluttering of fine green leaves and grasses, a gentle sight in this beautiful place that is Whidbey Island. A place so luxuriant in its freedom from the electric fences and backward glances of my world, yet which is stinging me with its questions and realisations. It is from the same deep pocket of privilege that brought me to Whidbey, that I have paid hundreds of thousands of Rands for learning about ‘being’ and to develop competence to work more skilfully with this ‘being human’. Yet, despite your lack of opportunity, you intrinsically get it – these fundamental concepts of being and deep seeing.

And from your question of “How was your day for you?”, uncomfortable questions start taking aim at me: Why have I never asked you this 4 o’clock question about your day? Is it as innocent as it simply not crossing my mind, or are there more subtle threads of colour, class and privilege that sit in the arc of the pulled back bow? Of course, I would hope it was simple ‘mindlessness’, but given how long the body of this country was riddled by its cruel cancer, is it plausible that I claim such innocence? Surely the cancer has made its way into my connective tissue?

I wonder how you see and experience me? How did it feel for you to have my arms around you as you crumpled howling to the lounge floor when you received the news of your sister’s death? I witnessed the intensity of your pain, expressed with every ounce of your body and being, so different to my impression of white people’s expressions of grief that tend to be contained like their manicured lawns. Besides offering you my arms of support and the glass of water you gulped down, I gave you money to travel to be with the family, to meet your next round of obligations. I felt embarrassed for giving money in the face of your gasping grief. Apologised. How could money provide any balm for your anguished heart? It couldn’t possibly, but in the reality of our economics, you thanked me sincerely for the money.

I am also curious about what you make of some of the conversations we have had – the playful and poignant moments. Creases wrinkle around my eyes as I think about your delightfully unexpected use of a metaphor – the day we were talking about life’s challenges and you remembered back to school and telling your mother that you wished you could have been a piece of chalk. “Why a piece of chalk?”, I asked, thinking that it might have been about a desire to draw, or to write your own story across a blackboard. Because, you explained: “Chalk gets smaller and smaller until it’s gone. I wished my life could be like the chalk, used and then gone.”

I wonder now, as I wondered then, why would you have wished for this diminishment? Does the human condition not instinctively strive to be more and not less? What were the particular wounds that you would have wanted to chalk over?

And more challengingly to myself: what is the chalk dust so deeply ingrained under my fingernails as to be invisible? Chalk dust for which I must be accountable and not disingenuously claim coated my forebears’ fingertips but not mine. Or which residue I could attempt to wipe away with the flimsy belief that since 1994, the white school room chalk has been gloriously replaced by the seven colours of our rainbow nation. I don’t think so.

Is this the proverbial ‘white guilt’? Yes and no, because what does this term actually mean and how helpful is it anyway? I am white and I have been, and continue to be privileged, and certainly there is guilt that walks alongside my privilege. My guilt, not a collective, de-individualised, unspecific guilt that can easily immerse many but just as easily be owned by no-one. A guilt that can guide my own ways of being and doing, and which equally others can make their own choices about. I am no spokesperson or apologist for others – how arrogant, entitled and offensive this would be for both white people and black people. I speak only to what sits in my own heart and mind.

So, from accountability to responsibility, I need to ask: how do I increasingly bring my own piece of chalk to the vast and overwhelming blackboard that is our country’s history? Our country’s future? Daunting questions whose answer I do not know, but have to live into. But what I do know, is what my heart feels, that perhaps, your being planted into my life, has been about giving us the chance to hold a different piece of chalk in both our hands, and together draw a postage-stamp size picture on a 1.2 million square kilometre blackboard.

So, I say a grateful thank-you to the universe, for loaning you to me. And to you, my Thembisile (no longer Bessie) Mangena*, an even deeper gratitude for the incredible gift of you: for the promise you hold in the meaning of your true name – and the promise you have invited from me towards rediscovering our collective heart in our fraught, fragmented and beautiful land.

With all my love

Sharon

* Not her real surname.