This morning, we had a few hours free and the boys were invited to play field hockey with Michael and David, two boys who live here in Hands Village. They are the same age as my boys and it's been so great to have them here. It took a few days but they've all become good friends and found their roles in rebuilding a huge tree fort up the hill. Michael and David play field hockey every week so they invited Aidan and Easton along for an open slot of lessons and then a scrimmage. They loaned our boys some sticks but we had to head into Nelspruit to pick up some shin pads for our guys.
I was sitting in the mall in Nelspruit, a beautiful modern mall in which you could easily convince yourself that you were back in North America. As someone with a long history of working in retail, it has all the trappings and conventions of a corporate retailer environment carefully crafted to infuse you with the desire to acquire. I'm not going to lie. I don't enjoy malls at the best of times and this one no more than most, but it was somewhat a comfortable space to be in. After weeks of culture shock and learning different languages and customs and experiencing life in different communities, the mall felt comforting. I know my role in a mall...wander and look, inquire and acquire. I know my role on both sides of the retailing entity so I'm not going to gloss it over. Being in the mall made me feel homesick or more accurately, "work sick". It is no secret that I miss the women I work with. They're pretty spectacular. I have loved going to work every day for the past few years and it's because of them. I have said over and over that they are the only reason I haven't choked a middle aged woman bearing three beige paint chips explaining to me in a patronizing tone that they are NOT beige but creamy espresso, sand harbour and caramel macchiato. The very idea of losing my job (or freedom for that matter, if convicted) scares me to death. Life without "Aunty Cheri" and "Gdawg", Liz and Corinne, Jinnette and Jamers? No truck girls? No Janet singing in Spanish? Not really life. I mean, I'd survive, but I've experienced the fun and shallowness, craziness and cattiness, depths and loveliness of working with women. (I think they think I'm okay too...I mean, at least they put on a good show of it...which has really made me a better person.) So, when I divulge what I did while waiting in the mall, please keep in mind that this is what I'm missing. I didn't mean to be a creepy mall person but I did end up one. Innocently walking around "Mr. Price Home" for some time, lovingly touching the dinnerware, rearranging some mugs on a display so that all the handles faced the same way, I found myself missing work. Not that Mr. Price has anything on P1, but I do admit to refolding one (or six) stacks of napkins and shuffling the colours from light to dark, left to right. I can't help myself! This is why I don't go to malls! I'm compulsive! So, when the sales girl approached me for the third time and then stood within a three foot radius of me for the rest of my time in the store, I KNOW what she was doing. I have been that stalker, the pre-emptive strike between a shoplifter and her prey. I tried my best to explain that I worked in a similar store but she looked confused at my explanation and subtly summoned the security guard that works at the entrance of every store. Now, I didn't want to end up in South African jail, pleading insanity or at minimum, obsessive compulsive disorder, so I made my way towards the exit, but not before picking up a cushion off the floor, fluffing it and arranging it neatly back onto the window display. I gave a quick "mystery shopper" like evaluation of their attentiveness and made my way back out into the mall, and safer venues, to continue waiting for Jason and the boys to reappear with the shin pads so we could make our escape.
I happened upon a small bench made out of a tree trunk where I plunked myself down a safe distance from the watchful eye of the Mr. Price Home security guy. I was in front of one of those stores I'd never enter - a really fancy shoe store. The window displayed several stiletto heeled shoes in varying degrees of animal prints and studs. I may have to give up my female citizenship when I admit that there's no way I'd be able to totter my way around in those shoes but, there is something in them that held my attention. Earlier in the day, we had watched several career women, pushing around a grocery cart in similar types of shoes. I think these shoes are made for African women's anatomy. They saunter slowly even in flip flops or bedroom slippers that they wear around but in stilettos? Their whole being embodies the shoe and it becomes an elaborate dance involving a shopping cart, purse and the whole of the vegetable aisle. I admire their ability and acknowledge my own limitations. White girls can't wear stilettos. I'm not painting us all incompetent but as a whole? We just don't have it. Sorry girls.
So, sitting outside this shoe store where a pair of shoes costs as much as a month's accommodations here, I watched a gorgeous young woman in a black dress with a thin red belt contemplate a pair of red stilettos. She walked by the window slowly and then went in, picked them up. She looked at her phone as if wondering if she had time to try them on. The salesgirl caught the motion and quickly came over with a box of the shoes, conveniently in her size. She tried them on. They were gorgeous on her. They were the same red as her simple little belt and we all know the allure of a good outfit when it all comes together...well, she couldn't resist. She actually put her shoes, that were beautiful in their own right, into the box and walked to the till, five inches taller, in her stunning new red stilettos.
While this little visual played out, on the opposite side of the mall, crouched behind a cart wielding mops and garbage can, a wet floor sign and several spray bottles, was a young woman in blue overalls. She had been stubbornly working on what I assume was a piece of gum fixed to the floor when she was captivated, as I was, by the woman in the shoe store. I can't explain it clearly enough but on my right, on the floor, scraping gum, was a beautiful woman - watching another woman, equally as beautiful, spend as much on a pair of shoes that the first woman probably earned in a month or more. I didn't know who to turn my attention to. I kept looking back and forth, watching it all play out in front of me. I know I don't read minds but it didn't take much imagination or empathy to feel what either woman was feeling. The elation of a good purchase of shoes...I can't begrudge a woman that. It was just an illustration to me of what we see in South Africa every day. I don't mean to paint the woman working as poor or deprived. I just see her as an example of the women we see here, those who work hard at thankless things, invisible mostly, not worthy of notice on first glance. These two women? Maybe not so very different but my assumption would be that they live very different lives. South Africa is that. Shining, clean malls and handmade wooden market stalls. Overcrowded taxi vans careening through the hills and Mercedes Benz shining at the stop lights. It is KFC and roadside chicken dust. It is wineries and fermented amarula drinks. I lean to loving the dirty, dusty side of South Africa. I felt a level of comfort being in the mall, recognizing the language of retail, the lingo of sales...but I am becoming more and more at home in dusty walkways between houses, in crowded cement buildings filled with Siswati or Tshonga, around the fire at a feeding point, serving pap to long lines of children whose names leave me tongue tied. I can make judgements about people, and their choices and their living situations just as quickly here as I can at home. I catch myself doing it all the time...but I am learning. More and more every day...I realize you don't know someone, really, really, know someone, until you've walked in their shoes. Most days, I'm just following in South Africa's dusty footprints...and learning every step of the way.