Meeting Dennis

If you follow us on social media, you will know that we are having a huge party for Mandela day for some kids in Tembisa. For this week’s blog I thought I would tell you about my most unusual meeting, with the most unusual person who we are supporting on this day.

I met Dennis because some chicks and I bought her a washing machine…

Picture this: “Hi there, pleased to meet you. Here you go. A 25kg top-loader Speed Queen.” If I had to tell my story on Twitter, this would have had to suffice, but luckily, I have lots and lots of words to use today. (My sincere apology dear blog-reader, this might be a long one, but I touch type, so keep up).

It was about ten years ago and somehow, we heard about this amazing woman called Dennis. (This is not the second time I’ve made a typo; the name is Dennis, her gender is female and no, it is not Denise). We heard that she looks after 34 little children in quite a nasty part of quite a nasty township called Tembisa. Ironically named by the Apartheid government, Tembisa means “Promise”, but I can assure you that  the only promise you will ever find in Tembisa is a broken one. We heard that all Dennis wants in life is a washing machine, and so with military precision, a task force was mobilised. Each person had a mission. We sold pancakes, we sold hot chocolate and we sold second hand clothes. One person looked after the cash, one person had to source the best possible machine for the job at hand, the other had to go in and negotiate the price down, one person went to fetch the machine and my job was to deliver and install the machine. (When I say “I”, I mean my amazing staff, and in those years, that was a guy called Hong Kong).

Now, Hong Kong grew up in a village in the middle of Limpopo and was not a boy scout and was therefore always unprepared. I, ADHD and all, had to make sure he was slightly more prepared than he would naturally have been, especially in these types of situations. So, I phoned Dennis to get directions. I also asked a few other pertinent questions which would help Hong Kong get all the right equipment and parts ready to take with him to Tembisa.

 I asked her  whether she had electricity. Yes, she answered cheerfully, I do. I steal it from the street light on the corner.

Okay, I was not prepared for this.

I then asked her if her house has the right plumbing for a machine. Now as I am writing this I see my errors. Firstly she does not have a house, she has a shack, and secondly, almost no house in the township gets built with any type of plans or planning, as in Africa, we do things back to front. So, if you buy a light fitting one day, you will quickly run a cable through the ceiling (few homes have ceilings so it actually hangs from the trusses). When you then buy a television, you will only then install the aerial cables after the purchase. If you buy a car, you will build a garage. In fact, mamma Nelly was once was given a door, and so because of that, she built a house. I kid you not. You get my drift here.

Anyhoo, Dennis answered that she had the right plumbing. She had “the tap”. So I asked Dennis where the tap is and what the size of the tap in her shack is. No, she answers, still very cheerfully, we don’t have the tap ourselves. We get water from our neighbour… said neighbour’s shack is only 300m away. 

And just like that, the German in me awakes. She does not feature often in my life, this German. I am fully African apart from the fact that I can tell time and am therefore beautifully punctual. So I tell her, in my best Nazi accent, that the machine is very expensive and I cannot come and have it connected like that. It simply won’t work. Let’s put everything on hold and re-group later. She was devastated, but by now I was deaf to any emotion and sent a message to the group saying that we should hold our horses and rather give the washing machine to a place that is more suitably equipped.

 I sat down and  poured myself a cup of tea, rather grateful that Hong Kong could now carry on with his other tasks and that Mr Nine (my faithful driver) could be at my disposal. ( Let’s blame the selfish behaviour= on the German frenzy of that day). My teacup was however not even cold when one of the other troopers on the task team phoned and said, “Darling, this is Africa. Just take the damn machine and allow Dennis to install it herself.”

 I suppose this meant that Hong Kong could still carry on with his tasks and Mr Nine would just have to pop out for a little while and drop the machine. It also meant I could tick the box and cross this whole business off my to-do list. I agreed and got Dennis on the phone again. She burst out crying. No, crying is not the right word here. She burst into a tribal pre-historic noise with ululating and weeping and other sounds I’ve not made myself before. It was rather frightening.

 Dennis and I arranged that Mr Nine would take the branded car and drive to a petrol station in the township close to the squatter camp where she resides. She would then meet him at the station. He wouldn’t  know her, but she would look out for the car.

So, Mr Nine got the onerous task of loading the machine and trekking out to the Promised Land. I waved them goodbye and reported to the group that Speed Queen had left the building and that we could pat ourselves on the back.

 I assumed all went well as I heard nothing for the next few hours. Later, whilst patiently explaining to a Chinese guest that it is frowned upon to comment on the taste of our neighbour’s dogs, Mr Nine returned. He was an impressive eggshell white. Something must have happened to scare his pigmentation right out of him. He almost fell into my arms and said, “Mommy, today I thought I was going to die for a SpeedQueen.” I pieced his tale together patiently whilst feeding him a glass of Oros.

 Apparently what happened was that he parked his vehicle at the pre-arranged petrol garage. The next minute, a man the size of Goliath with the muscles of a Marvel action hero ripped open the car door and instructed him to drive. Mr Nine was petrified and after taking one look at the gangster in the back just started following the barked instructions. He drove out of the garage and right into the heart of the infamously dangerous squatter camp. He told me that he confessed all his transgressions to God whilst driving and promised himself he would stop his extramarital discretions and to go and do a proper unveiling of his late grandmother’s tombstone. He was shaking from head to toe and the impi in the back made a comment on his poor driving. Mr Nine was never good under pressure, and with his imminent death fast approaching, road etiquette was the last thing on his list. Not long after the muscled man got into the car, Mr Nine was told to pull over and instructed to help with the offloading of the machine. He realised then that he would be used to move the freshly stolen machine into the shack before he would be killed and the thief would be able to drive off in his vehicle too. He knew I would never be able to find him and just hoped that I would pay his pension out to his second and not first wife. It was clear that he was going to die only after installing the machine, but was grateful nonetheless for the extra few minutes of his life.

 They put the machine in the shack and then, with a smile full of gold teeth and a wave he was sent on his merry way after the muscled man made sure he had directions out of the squatter camp. Mr Nine did not quite understand what happened, but did not ask any questions. He just ran out of  there.

 When I finally stopped laughing I explained to Mr Nine, that Dennis was a woman. He did not believe me, and nothing I said could convince him otherwise.

Dennis phoned later that night, telling me over and over how much she loves me and how amazing our team was and how divine the Speed Queen was. Before she ended the call she asked me to tell the nervous little man that she says thanks for his help, but next time, she’ll drive.

 And so, this is really where my relationship with Dennis should have ended, but she kept sending me really kitsch, rather awful little messages of encouragement or Bible verses. She made sure I knew she was still around. But she never asked for anything.

 One Monday morning Mr Nine announced that he bumped into my  lady-man-friend over the weekend. He told me she/he was busy changing an engine of a friend of his whose car broke down. As he left my office he turned around and said, “Mommy, she is not a girl”.

 And so, for absolutely no reason I can think of right now, one day I decided I needed to meet Dennis. I had a whole lot of linen and food and a gas stove cluttering up my garage, and who better than She-man to take it.

 I drove into Tembisa, as always, a  bit too fearless and as expected I got lost. Tom-Tom and Waze and Maps and all the other GPS’s simply cannot figure out the squatter camps! It is very much like a rabbit hole maze.

 When I realized I was lost I phoned her and somehow she explained to me how to get to her.

It went something like this,

Her: Okay, what do you see?

Me: I see a red building it says they have a gym and repair refrigerators.

Her: Okay, is the shebeen on your left or your right?

Me: I see three shebeens?


Me again: No, seriously, I see three shebeens and a shack with Cellphone advertising.

Her: Ah ha, okay go left.

Me: There is no road.

Her: Only for a little while, then there is road.

Me: Okay I will drive where there is no road.

 Silence as I try and manouver my sedan over something that might long ago have been a dirt road.

Her: Close your windows, there is a bad sewerage leak soon.

 Me: Hellooooo? I am white, I am in a luxury German car, I am in a squatter camp. Do you seriously think my windows are open?

 Laughter – loud like a crazy gangster cackle.

 Me: Okay now I see a sign for a crèche, it’s called Froggies.

 Her: Okay, when you see the guy with the goats on the corner cutting hair, take a sharp turn right and then I am going to wait in the street for you.

 The next thing I see is a person, running towards me. She is wearing a dress and a ridiculous straw hat. There are muscles bulging under that dress, and I am waiting for the fabric to burst open and reveal a 6 pack! I am hoping this is Dennis and not someone intent on killing me.

Muscles rips open my door and jumps in (I now feel Mr Nine’s pain and take it upon myself to apologise to him when I see him next ) and whilst Muscles is still settling in to the seat I get pulled into such a fierce hug that I briefly lose consciousness.

 Okay, sweetie, we are almost at my shack. Stay on the road she says.

Thankfully Muscles was Dennis afterall.

 We get to her shack but there is no parking, in fact, the street is very narrow and has only space for one car.

She tells me to park.

I tell her I can’t.

Sure you can, no one else needs this road today.

That settles it. I parked in front of her shack, blocking the entire road.

 Her shack is huge as far as shacks go. Her shack is also not built from corrugated sheeting but it looks like it is made from bricks and mortar. A big palisade fence surrounds the building. There is a 1 x 5 m area in front of the shack where about 30 little brown bodies are sitting eating maize meal and cabbage with their hands. They were the most well behaved children I have ever laid eyes on.

 In my surprised state I was walking towards her front door staring at the wonderfully behaved children and did not look where I was going. Suddenly everything went black except for the shooting stars and the unbelievable pain in my head. Someone must have knocked me on the head with the butt of a gun. What else could cause such pain?

Truth be told I hit my head on the bar of an iron gate! I thought I was dying as I was lifted up and convinced I was going towards a white light. But there was no light, only the bright white teeth of Dennis now shining in my eyes as she lifted me up as if I was a new born baby and carried me into her house over the threshold.

 And there, I lay, on her bed,  in her little house, whilst she washed the gaping wound on my forehead with some water.

 Her house, she told me, was built with her own two hands. She would collect bricks and rocks and then mix cement and she built the whole thing room by room. She built bunk beds for the children in three tiers and picked up broken bits of wood to build cupboards and shelves. She looks after 34 children she says, as that is all she is allowed to do according to some authority, but she feeds another 90. She also makes sure that all the ones with HIV get their ARV’s. On weekends she goes to the children’s shacks when they are with their parents and makes sure the parents are sober and that they have remembered to feed the children. She tells me that often the parents forget to pick up the kids during the week, but she does not mind as then she knows they are safe.

 Throughout our conversation she laughs a lot, at me, at herself and at life. There is no self pity despite the fact that none of her dreams have ever been realised. She wanted to be a police officer, but that did not happen. She wanted a loving husband but he beat her to such an extent that she ended up in hospital and him in jail. She flexes her biceps and tells me that she started body building because she was never going to let a man beat her up again.

 I noticed a lot of alcohol in the room, and asked her about this. She answers as she points to about 9 crates of beer under her bed. Now, to the person not familiar with Township culture this does not make sense, but I get it. Dennis is hiding the booze for a shebeen. She tells me that her neighbour has an illegal shebeen (is there another kind? ) and when they hear the police are coming to raid they quickly come and hide the beers under Dennis’ bed as the police are scared of her.

 We went from strangers to very good friends very quickly. While I’m still recovering on her bed she shows me the infamous Speed Queen in the kitchen. One can see the entire kitchen from the bed. An estate agent would call her place an intimate and cozy fixer-upper. So, I ask her, if she is enjoying the Speed Queen.

Yes, she says. I used to work my black ass off washing 34 kids’ clothes all the time and I had permanent back ache, and now, I don’t even have to borrow Deep Heat from the old age home for my back anymore.

 When I leave she says to me, “You know, I really hated you that first time you told me I can’t have the Speed Queen. I have always hated Zulu’s and Afrikaners, you guys are proud and full of shit. But you, I think I am going to like you.”

 We have since become close friends. All her kids are going to great schools, Jacksons Whole Food makes sure the kids are supplied with nutritious meals, Sunninghill Medical Centre assist us free of charge with all their medical needs, Hope Ridge church has adopted her and between a group of people all her kids are receiving the best possible education.

 I do not know how to ever help her or the community stop the cycle of poverty, but maybe we’ll get there, one Speed Queen at a time.


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