January 20, 2011

lunch with the Xhosa gardeners

before leaving Island Club this past December, i came to share lunch with the gardeners.  i had gotten to know most of them over the course of more than a year living there.  the one holding the cake, Xolani, was assigned to our lawn and became like an extended family member.  i wrote about him months ago in the blog.  he was the one directly responsible for watering our lawn and maintaining the shrubs.  the others passed by our kitchen window more than 10 times a day -- they were constantly walking back and forth to deliver weeds or trimmings to the compost area nearby.  when the window was open, we greeted each other with a wave and 'Molo' or 'Molweni' (if more than one).  we would also chat sometimes when i was coming or going from the car which was parked in front of our flat.

despite the photo's blur, i hope that one can feel the joy from their faces.  this is what touched me the most about this group of souls.  it's not that they were always smiling while working, but the moment we interacted there was a beaming smile of joy emanating from their hearts.  it took some of them time to realize that i was genuine.  the legacy of apartheid in this land lingers everso thickly between the races -- most Xhosa people who are the ones doing the labor that no white person will do, are regarded by most white people as insignificant and are disregarded in any social interaction.  i have repeatedly been told that i'm the only white person (umlungu -- but it really means one that is not Xhosa) that has ever been genuine with them.  most of them, not only the gardeners, but guards, janitorial people, construction workers, etc. have never had a white person be real with them or even talk with them.  i'm learning this to be true as well with the Zulu people i am meeting here in KwaZulu Natal.

i was always curious where the gardeners (and cleaning ladies, painters and construction workers) in the complex went on their 'tea time' and lunch break.  it wasn't until right before i moved that i set up a time to visit them for tea time.  it was an occasion we were all looking forward to.  two of the gardeners are female; they had regularly been in our flat for tea, so i arranged with them when to come.  the women took me to the underground parking lot where we walked quite a distance to the room where they meet.  it is a very small room for all of them to keep their change of clothes and lunchboxes.  there aren't enough seats for them all to sit with dignity and rest.  they do not have a microwave to heat their leftovers (they started bringing me their containers to heat up the last 4 months or so of my stay there, something they said they will greatly miss when i move).  they gather with the fullest spirit of 'ubuntu' -- that we are who we are through others..acts of generosity and cooperative sharing that permeate every aspect of living:

  • if one doesn't have food that day, they will all offer whatever coins they each have to that person to ensure he/she can purchase something at the market
  • if there is only one tea bag, they will make 4-5 cups of tea with it and make sure everyone gets to drink some of it
  • if one person came early and finished eating, he gets up to let another person sit there instead of resting
  • if there is only one container or plate of something, each person will take just a little and keep passing it around until all have shared it

these acts of selflessness and basic courtesy adorn the Xhosa culture from one's earliest years of life.  it is one of the most beautiful ways i have witnessed in countless situations, not just in the small room with the gardeners.  no one has to make a request for anything.  it's as if they are so aware of each other in the most natural sense of their interconnectedness.  there is no sarcasm or cheekiness, just genuine regard for each other that results in joy and laughter amongst the group.

as i sat there quietly observing everything, some of the new gardeners looked almost shocked to see me in this setting of theirs.  they proceeded to eat and eventually they shared the cake and made tea for everyone.  when everyone was finished, Nolutho, one of the women, asked me if i wanted to explain why i was there.  i asked her if she could speak to them in Xhosa, and that afterward i had something to share.  she proceeded to explain to them about our relationship and that we had talked about my desire to come say goodbye to them where they meet (rather than having them come again to my home).  [she had shared with me that morning that they no longer consider me 'umlungu' because they felt that i was the same as them, as if to say that referring to someone as 'umlungu' is acknowledging how socially separated we are from each other without the love shared for one another as people.]

it was now my turn to say something.  the room was quiet and oddly i felt a little nervous.  i wanted to make sure that they were left with the truest sense of my heart.  this was our goodbye.  my heart was sad to be leaving this group of souls, as well as the many other Xhosa people i was fortunate to have met over the course of 3 years in Cape Town.  i started by saying that i was thankful for getting to know them and for all of the work they render.  i then gave Nolutho a compilation of sentences in Xhosa that i wrote down from one of the Baha'i books about spiritual education.  this page of sentences expressed the nobility of the human race and the reality of our oneness.  it described that the dignity and beauty of humanity consists in us acquiring the divine qualities, and it ended with the theme of humility before our Creator and each other.

there was a moment of silence and thoughtful reflection.  then they started quietly commenting to each other in Xhosa.  Nolutho shared that this was beautiful and asked me, on behalf of all the gardeners, if they could keep it.  they wanted to hang it up and remember the message it conveyed.  it was a special moment for all of us.  i quietly left, giving each of them a pounded fist as a gesture of peace.  two days later we moved.  i recently sent this photo to Island Club.  i am hoping they received it (nothing is guaranteed by post in Africa) and can hang it up next to the spiritual message on paper.