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I Learn to Live - June 2016 Newsletter (3)

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Dancing Feet

Dancing Feet

 

Her feet are cracked; they are as parched as the ground across which they fly, raising small puffs of dust as she dances to the tune in her head. Her movements belie her age as she shimmies and shakes with the grace of a young girl. She is in another time and space and we are simply the props around which she constructs her current reality. Her name is MaPetticoat; a 70 year old sprite with mischievous eyes and an impish grin. Her shadow sweeps the yard and ripples across the circle of women whose hands dip and arc as they weave long strands of ilala palm into baskets. She does not join the women in their craft; she is too busy telling tales of days long past. She is the story teller, the curator of memories that she does not wish to let die with her passing. She reveals small morsels at every meeting, keeping us going, ensuring we are drawn in and silently pleading for more. Her hands are gnarled; one finger fused at the second joint so it stands to attention as she waves her hands above her head in demonstration of her irritation at the politics of the day. She is not one of the masses, not one of those enamoured with our hero Mandela. No. She is a supporter of the opposition and it is this very finger which has brought her to this place of sheer inflexibility. A run-in with the ruling party during the faction fighting which invaded this beautiful region like a black cloud of hate, resulted in a few broken bones and a finger which refuses to curl and soften; a daily reminder of a time rather forgotten.

As she dances around the weaving circle of women, their hands mimic her movements, building layer upon layer until the strips of ilala begin to resemble shapes which will store grain and mealie cobs. For these women the products they weave are merely vessels in which to store everyday items, but for the women for whom these products are intended, they create masterpieces to be displayed on the mantelpiece; a little treasure from Africa. This group does not resemble the sweat shops of China where visions of cramped quarters crammed with hundreds of tiny birdlike women and children fill the mind. These women sit out in the open under the improbable expanse of an African sky. They shelter in the shade offered by acacia trees and giant cactus and they chatter and sing and howl with laughter as the sun makes it slow journey across the sky. The young girl children are divided into two camps; those that sit alongside their mothers in order to learn this art of coaxing new life into the drying strips of ilala, and those that sit just far enough away from the circle so that they are not drawn in to learn but can still listen to the adult banter. These girls tell me they are destined for better things; they haven’t quite worked out yet how they will get there but menial labour is not for them and will not lead them out of this place in which they feel trapped. They have yet to realise the doors which will be opened to their mothers as the demand for their product grows so that they are barely able to keep up and their hands fly well on into the night.

Weaving Women

Weaving Women

I rise from the circle, unfurling my aching back and stiff limbs from their lotus position. The women roar with laughter as I stretch and bend, encouraging blood to flow back into my legs. I am not built for this work; I am too tall and my hips and bum are woefully inadequate, they lack the necessary padding required for sitting all day long. I have already been promised to at least four strapping sons, for tall women breed tall children and tall children grow up to become police officers; the holy grail of employment in these parts. I cannot offer these men what they really want; strong women to fetch water – walking for miles, swaying along ancient pathways with buckets filled with water perched atop their heads. Not a drop spilt onto the thirsty ground. Women who can cook and clean and work the day away bent over double in the fields, bringing forth abundant vegetable life; beetroots the size of a baby’s head. I watch the men as they sit in the shade of a marula tree. While the hands of the women are constantly in motion, these men sit idle; the only movement is the lifting of a quart of beer which travels from its resting position on a thigh and makes its way up to an opening mouth. They appear to be deep in intellectual debate;  but the few words and phrases I understand reveal that they are merely discussing the prospects of their local soccer team. As the days go by I begin to realise that these men are displaced; no longer the breadwinners, no longer the mainstay of family life. Their wives have surpassed them with their skilful weaving and their ability to bring financial rewards into the home. It is now the men who must ask their wives for money to visit the local shebeen. This shift in power is like a slow cancer; it moves so stealthily, it catches the community unawares. The men while away the day drinking beer under the trees as the women toil. They have no purpose, no drive to achieve. What is the point when your wife is the one to bring home a new colour TV or from her profits sets the house awash with the soft glow from solar electricity? Because she buys it in her name, replacing his surname on the docket with her maiden name and when it arrives the children shine and clap their hands at their mother while he stands under the tree, refusing to be part of the celebration.

Patriarchy, like MaPetticoat, has begun to shimmy and shake. As it rocks and sways it creates an undercurrent of turmoil which infiltrates the homestead like smoke from a fire; its presence felt long after it has gone.

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