Diaries Magazine

It Takes a Village- a Short Story.

Posted on the 03 June 2018 by Sallygatez @salaminaM
I recently took a trip down memory lane. Remembering my primary school years with nostalgia and fondness. In fact, I still drive past Emmarentia Primary school from time to time. If you have ever driven through this suburb you will have fallen for its lush green streets, peppered with beautiful Jakaranda trees on every street. It was an era of innocence for my brother and I, and a time we both still recall fondly.
It takes a village- a short story.A lot was going on politically in South Africa, but our parents did their best to ensure that we never ever felt the burden of the politics of the day, in quite the same way that they did. My little brother and I had to pass an entrance exam to get into the school, and it was really a happy day for our parents when we were accepted into our first 'model-c' school. For them this was the beginning of big things to come. In hindsight, I don't think they were100% sure of what it was that they were signing up for when they took us to this kind of multi-racial school, what with its non stop cakes sales, inter-house sports days, concerts and swimming galas, it just went on and on. But my parents being determined to assimilate, did the most to rise to every occasion. In this case at least, hindsight showed us that we had all bitten off more than we could chew.
We lived in Randfontein. In a small housing complex/hostel that was for the staff working at Millsite mental hospital. My Mom worked at the hospital, so she walked to work. My older sister went to a school in Germiston, close to where my Father worked in Wadeville. The school run every morning was much like being in a car assembly line, where the three of us were the motor car parts being passed in between our parents at various stages, as they prepared us for school every morning. The trip to our school took almost 2 and half hours and then my Dad and my sisters trip from Emmarentia to Germiston would take them a further hour and a half. Let's just say my sister was very rarely early for school. My Dad's woes didn't end here. Our other problem was the afternoon pickup, which in most cases was more like an 'evening' pick-up from school. Here's where the village came in. It wouldn't have worked any other way.
My brother and I were quickly signed up for after care and still, this didn't quite remedy the situation fully. When my Dad managed to come pick us up early he arrived at 18h15. After care ended at 18h00. Most times though, our pick up was usually closer to 19h30 or in the really bad cases, at 20h30. This was not a time of mobile phones so you can just imagine what a difficult position it put our teachers in, and how stressed my Mom would be every night, wondering where on earth her family was. At first the teachers were patient and kind. They understood that they couldn't exactly leave two kids alone outside the school gates at closing time. So they used to take my brother and I home with them, leaving a note with the grounds keepers for my Dad- with the address of where we were. But this was a weekly, and sometimes three days in a row occurrence, so after a while, even the really nice teachers started to lose their patience with my Dads apparent 'tardiness'.  We got letters, we were often called to the office over the intercom, and we faced prying questions that usually started with; "Is everything okay at home?" There was not a teacher at the school who didn't know us or our 'African time' Dad.
Winter was always the worst because it got dark so quickly. We were also losing patience and dying with embarrasment. After hearing our Dad bluster breathlessly about the traffic, a meeting that ran over time or his problematic car that had overheated along the way, far too many times- and having a front row seat to many of these very awkward exchanges between our teachers and our Dad, complete with silent reprimands, heavy sighs and eye-rolling, my brother and I devised a new plan. We started to lie. You see, over the months we had gotten friendly with some of the ground's staff, the men who cleaned the classrooms, the grounds and did all the maintenance work around the school. We always greeted them with respect, learnt their names and would on occasion have a small conversation with one or two of them asking about their homes, lives and their families. Unbeknownst to us, these men would be soon be our saving grace.
They became a big part of our lives because it was them we wove into our little lie. One of the grounds staff had the surname Legodi, which also happened to be our Mother's maiden name. Bingo! We told all who would listen, teachers and students alike, that Ntate Jonas Legodi was actually our uncle, and from then on whenever it became apparent that our Dad was running late, we told the teachers that they could leave us at school because our Dad had arranged with Ntate Jonas ('our dear Malome') that we wait in their quarters until he arrived. I kid you not, this arrangement actually worked for the 4 years that bro and I were at Emmarentia Primary School.
The school had four grounds staff working there, and they all lived on the school's property at the bottom of the playground. Their names were Ntate Jonas, Joseph, Joe and Petrus. Their living quarters were by no means comfortable, just functional. If you can call two shared rooms and two toilets and one with a leaky faucet sticking out of the side of the wall for showering- functional. I remember the place was always neat but not particularly spotless, and it always smelled of Lifebouy soap, Pine-gel, old tobacco and paraffin. They used a two plate paraffin primer stove to boil their water and do all of their cooking. Almost three times in a week, my brother and I would sit in these meagre quarters with these men, drinking their tea with no milk, listening to them telling us how they had come to work at the school and what they really wish they could have been if they weren't here. On a night when they hadn't cooked, they would make us each two thick slices of white bread to eat, always with an obscene amount of margarine, that we absolutely loved.
I said at the beginning of this recollection, that it was an era of innocence because at no time did we ever even consider whether these men could be trusted. We never questioned it, in fact it never even crossed our minds to wonder.  On those early evenings in the belly of the school at dark, we would listen out for my Dads whistle and rustling car keys and we would wait for him to appear from the playground, to greet the men, apologize profusely and then thank them with a R20 note. They would joke heartily about how much of their food we ate, or how naughty my brother had been and off we would go. Heading home to our worried Mom. Tomorrow it would all start again.
Only when I got older and I started to hear stories of young boys and girls being sexually abused, did it strike me how lucky we had been to have been surrounded by such kind gentlemen like those men who tended to the grounds at our primary school. In so many ways, those men took turns to stand in the gap for our parents, and they did it in such a protective and unflinching way, and without the need for judgment as to why my Dad always seemed to pick us up from school, so late. When we asked if we could stay with them to enable our teachers to go home, they didn't hesitate. They just took us in, understanding without us having to explain to them. They understood like so many other black people around us at the time, that we all had to stick together, stand up for each other, and in some cases even cover for each others faults and failings.
We didn't see it then- but of course I now realize that our Dad was doing his best. He was trying to keep us in a school that he knew my brother and I loved so much, yet all the while, straining himself to be all things to all people. But with time, not living in the schools feeder area proved to be too much for him to juggle, what with him also simaltaneously breaking his back to make his own bosses happy. So eventually my brother and I had to leave our beloved primary school and we were transferred to a primary school closer to home to finish off the remainder of our primary schooling. This meant that we also had to say a sad goodbye to those men that had come to feel very much like our extended family. I was at Emmarentia from Grade 2 to Grade 5 (then Standard 3), a happy four years.
I am forever grateful to have experienced those days. To have gotten the opportunity to know those men from Bokgomo, Mokopane and Grobersdal. They were giants among men. Their job was to fade into the background of every day suburban schooling, never disturbing the day to day flow. Theirs was to not be noticed, to merely clean up after the litter bugs, empty the trash cans and mow the lawns for our recreation. Most of our peers hardly took note of them, but for my brother and I, a whole life awaited us after after-care. We knew these men. We knew them as fathers themselves, grinding in Johannesburg and pining always for real homes.
We were like their children, without being their children. And because we were among the first few black students that had ever attended the school, we also represented for them, a future that they had only imagined. Where black pupils would walk onto the same stages as the white kids, compete on an equal footing and get the same opportunity to thrive. They enjoyed having us around because we respected them like our elders yet we also taught them to dream with us and walk towards a future which meant we could all have a better kind of freedom.
This for me, is what the "it takes a village to raise a child" quote is all about. Its about noticing each other, taking a keen interest in one another and with respect, lending a helping hand to our neighbours.
It takes a village- a short story.
To bo Ntate Jonas, Petrus, Joe and Joseph...Thank you.

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