March 18, 2009

The Great Pumpkin

Makiwa is one of the cooks in the kitchen and makes the lunch every day for the pre-school children. She’s appeared as a character on this blog before when her husband died and I took some staff to his funeral. She’s also the mother of Simnikiwe, a child whose picture has appeared many times on this blog, most recently here.

I haven’t mentioned her much because she is such a solid, dependable part of my routine. (Good narrative needs conflict!) When I need a break from the clinic, I will often sit down in the kitchen and work on my Xhosa with Makiwa and whoever else is around. Sometimes I give the women in the kitchen the limited produce from my garden. I think she is just a fantastic person.

A few years back, she was given a house in one of the housing developments the government has been building around town and so moved out of Itipini. As a result, she and Simnikiwe walk about an hour to Itipini each day, she to work and he to pre-school. Often I pick them up along the road and give them a lift part way.

Last week, she asked me if I could give her a ride all the way home. The water had been out in her neighbourhood for several days and she wanted to fill up some buckets in Itipini and take them home. I happily obliged.

When we arrived, I took the buckets out of the car and went to say goodbye. She told me to stay, however, and went around the back of the house and came back with a pumpkin. She insisted I take it as thanks, I suppose, for giving her a lift.

My first inclination was to turn it down. After all, she has more mouths to feed and less money to do it than me and she worked hard to produce that pumpkin.

My next thought, however, is that there’s a strong argument to be made for treating poor people like equals. (This is one of many reasons it’s a good idea to charge even a little interest on a micro-loan.) If Makiwa freely chooses to give me something, I shouldn’t be so patronizing and know-it-all to presume that I know better what she needs than she does herself.

(Makiwa seemed to realize what I was thinking because she showed me around her huge garden and made sure to point out all the other pumpkins that were still growing.)

So I took it and it felt really good. Instead of being the person who gives all the time, I became the recipient of something tangible and real that was an honest expression of someone’s respect and admiration for me. Having given so much while here - and not always being sure that I’m doing it in the best way - this was an important moment for me and it made the evening seem particularly sweet.

Here we are, the next day in the kitchen.
(The other cook in the kitchen is Wee Mama and she deserves an encomium too. I’ll write about her someday too.)