Anele’s story

In 2015 I wrote this story down about a worker we had in the laundry at the guest lodge (note, not the Sunninghill Recovery lodge, another business entirely). I came across it today while I was cleaning up my laptop. Anele no longer works for us, but her strangely funny and desperately sorrowful stories might resonate with you if you have ever tried to function in a capitalist society while also trying to cope in a very third world country where ancestors trump the CEO’s.

In 2019 I wrote down a list of all the things I loved about all staff members. Some staff members had pages and pages of characteristics I adored. For Anele there was just one line: “I love that one day Anele might no longer work for me.”

Here is the story:

I can’t remember how Anele ended up in my life. I think a staff member died or ran away or resigned. Okay, let’s be honest, it’s unlikely that someone resigned, nothing is ever that organised running a business in Africa! So despite my not remembering how she got to me, I do remember my first impression of Anele. She was particularly tall and had a huge moon face with terrible adult acne. She also didn’t make eye contact, ever. She looked strong and fit and we immediately put her into the laundry as this is the area where no one ever wants to work. It’s hot and it’s hard work. I also think all the other cleaners make demands on you and there are often physical fights where two women will wrestle over the same sheet (picture Solomon trying to settle the fight between the two moms fighting over a baby – just like that but with more screeching!).

I didn’t spend too much time with Anele in the beginning. I had an idea that she could not have the best self-esteem. After all, her name means “ enough already:“ in Ndebele. So it is obvious that her parents didn’t really want another child. One morning she came to see me. When staff come straight to me, I know whatever it is, it is never good. I never hear something like: “I won the lottery and will now work for you for free”, or “I serviced my car and will therefor never be late again”, or “I have decided to stop gambeling and won’t ask you for a loan again”

But I digress…

Anele comes to see me and asks if she can take the day off to go to Baragwanath hospital (See, no mention of the lottery whatsoever). Instead of just giving the poor woman a simple yes, I ask for the detail, of course. It would appear that Anele had a baby who got ill and went to hospital. After a few days, the baby died. No one took the time to explain to her why and the nurses told her to wait for the autopsy. She wanted to go to Barra to see if there was an explanation for her child’s death. She told me the baby has been dead for 6 months. Can you imagine this poor woman’s anguish of not knowing what happened to her child or why she died? I am ashamed to say that for the first time ever, I saw her as more than the tall woman in the laundry. I realised that she is a mom in mourning for a child she had to bury with so many questions. I am sad to say, we never found any answers. The baby was dead and there was no one she could accuse, blame or fight with. It is the epitome of  a disempowered woman. No wonder she didn’t make eye contact.

Over the years, Anele managed to get a special place in my heart, not without irritation I must add. Like dogs smell fear, people smell a bleeding heart, and once she mentioned the dead baby she had me wrapped around her finger. Zanele’s life did not lack drama. There was always some catastrophe in which she was somehow involved. I recall a cousin that died in childbirth and somehow Zanele ended up with the baby on her back for weeks in the laundry and had to get it back to Zim. Once her house burned down, or it might have flooded, not entirely sure, but it was a ‘groot gedoente’ and we collected furniture, clothing and new wigs for weeks. Another incident was when she and one of the staff from Malawi had a fight (recall afore mentioned sheet conflicts) and her cheek was scratched wide open and she wore the bloody mess on her face as a medal of honour for protecting her laundry.

One afternoon, I was driving, my hands free kit rang and my spirits slumped. It was the receptionist. As I’ve mentioned, I only get calls when things go south. I heard a funny mumble. It was so bad that I was not sure whether it was Afrikaans or English (it could have been Xhosa for all I know!) After I asked her to repeat what she was saying a few times, I gathered that Anele was very ill.. Now I am not one to deny that people get sick but surely, a big healthy woman I had seen  half an hour ago could not have gotten that ill that quickly?

I arrived to an eerily empty building, not a staff member in sight. Eventually I find all the cleaners gathered around a naked Zanele now lying in the drive way. I didn’t want to ask, but I had to, and Mamma Nanny of course volunteered the story. Apparently Anele was hot and fainted because she broke her isipandla (the animal skin often worn around the wrist in certain cultures, which connects them to their customs, hopes, etc).  I couldn’t quite understand the logic of moving her outside and undressing her, but sometimes a bit of mystery keeps us all safe. I dispersed the crowd, telling them to go stare at something else. I got Mamma Nanny to fetch ice. (I still do not know why she was there, she was not even on duty, but then, old Mamma Nan is not one to miss an episode of any good show). We then covered Anele in ice from head to toe. She of course, could have been dead, for all I know, as she was a dead weight. Anele was out for the count. Eventually Mr Nine (our trusted driver and dear friend) was called, and we started making arrangements for her to be taken to hospital as I (very surprisingly) could not revive her. A compassionate Mr Nine (read the sarcasm here please) took a look at her and with his hands in his pockets he dryly asked me if I realised how much she weighs and how bad the traffic is now. Sitting on the highway with a half dead Anele was not the way he planned to spend his Wednesday. But getting his arse fired was also not appealing, so we started making plans. With Anele’s head on my lap I told him the best way to get to the Helen Joseph hospital, and there, just like Lazarus from the grave, Anele miraculously woke up and said she needed to go to Charlotte Maxeke as she lives in that catchment area. Miracles still happened in 2015!

The end of the story was that Anele did not go to either hospital. In fact, a few of us managed to get her off the driveway and into a room where she spent the night drinking Coke-a-cola, lying on beautiful Egyptian cotton sheets with a Samsung aircon unit humming her to sleep. Next morning at 7:00 she reported for duty and the incident was never been mentioned again. A few months later a new isipandla was seen on her wrist. It did not snap off and therefore did not annoy the ancestors.

Whenever I sat peacefully and worked, and my eye caught the bright orange T-shirt coming towards me, I always braced myself for either the chaos of her life that would be affecting mine, or the SpeedQueen or tumble dryer or iron that had broken. However, one sunny morning even Anele’s drama caught me off guard.

She was fidgeting with her hands and willed me to swallow my coffee so she could deliver the newest soap opera inspired problem. Thank God I was seated. The words coming out of her mouth were really the last thing I expected, as I arrogantly believed I had heard it all.

Apparently her child at home was bitten by the Thokolosh and her stupid parents-in-law took the little girl to the hospital where doctors were attending to her. She (as in Anele the warrior) had to get back to Zim on the first possible bus so that she could break the child out of the hospital and rush her to a Sangoma to treat her. What do western doctors know about treating a Thokolosh bite?

After the isipandla incident I asked no further questions. I signed her leave form and waved her farewell. To my surprise, a happy Anele returned two weeks later, satisfied that her daughter was on the road to recovery even though she had to part with most of her salary for the witch doctor to perform his magic. What happened to the Thokolosh and when he will strike again, I do  not know.

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