A mother goes to Salt River
I went for a walk.
The kind of walk you take when you don’t really know where you’re going.
Just around my block. I went up towards the main road.. And continued going until I started to get hungry. For something different.
I found myself in an area called Salt River. This is a pocket of grittiness that you’d be surprised to find within the borders of the glittery city limits of Cape Town. It has a “working class” atmosphere. There are industrial sort of buildings all around you. They don’t look like they’re doing much more than gathering dust. But they’re there. There are wide and vast factory shops. Fabric shops and automobile parts stores this way and that way. The roads are busy. The mini-bus taxis are swerving and shouting. “Wynberg” – Says an enthusiastic conductor bellowing out to people on the street walking adamantly in the opposite direction. As I start to look around and take in what I’m seeing. Part of this reminds me of the chaos of Mthatha. My hometown. But it’s different. In this area there are more people who are often referred to as “Cape Coloureds”. There is a lot of Afrikaans being spoken on the sidewalks. Fast-talking slang and dialects that my ears really fail to pick up and sometimes even detect. There are ladies adorning beautiful Hijabs. And children scurrying along in school uniforms.
I started to slow down.
Getting lost in the busyness that surrounded me. Feeling disconnected. From the experiences of the people in front of me. Who live here. One of the forgotten pockets of the City. Literally minutes away. From some of the most celebrated spaces on the continent. Salt River. Remains today. As it was yesterday. Perhaps with a little more dust. Caught in a web of promises of change, sewn together by threads spun with mistrust.
As I came in and out of the heaviness of my head. A lady, a few steps ahead of me caught my attention. She was an elderly woman. With a look of real reliance about her. She wore a light green Hijab and was covered to her toes in a light flowing material that was tugged by the Cape Town winds. She was carrying two very heavy looking bags. And struggling. Every few meters or so she would pick them up. Walk. And take a break. Clutching her lower back and breathing heavily. Many of the people around her looked with concern, and seemed to be weighing up about whether to get involved.. I guess I was doing the same. It wasn’t long before I had caught up with her. And I caught her eye and decided. “Hello Ma, can I help with the bags?” – I said in the best I’m-not-a-criminal voice I could muster. She looked at me squarely. Sizing me up. Her eyes flicking to strangeness of my haircut. But before too long she seemed to decide I was harmless. And said “Right, thank you my boy, let’s go, just this way”. I lifted the bags carefully, trying not to show my surprise at how heavy they were.
And so we walked.
She asked me where I was from. She was curious about the Eastern Cape, she had never left Cape Town before. After some time we began deviating of the main road. Heading in to the residential parts of Salt River. She guided me as we went along. Every now and again checking in with me about whether I needed to be somewhere.. Eventually I asked her if she was going home. And she went quiet. After a few minutes past she asked to stop to take her breath. And we sat on a bench in what looked and felt like an abandoned small children’s park. She suddenly spoke as I began to get comfortable. “Brian is it?.. Okay.. I am from Mitchells Plain. In the Cape Flats. And I’m here to deliver food..”, my interest was piqued. She said those words with a heaviness that made me feel like something was up. I tried to hide my curiosity and asked her if she was dropping of food for her family. She was now looking resolutely at the floor. She spoke clearly and firmly. And told me that she was here to visit two families. They where not related – well at least not by blood. She told me about a young woman. A young mother. Not much older than I. She had dropped out of school and had fallen in love with a man who “Ma” didn’t like. He worked on commission she said. Selling something or the other. But really spending his time drinking she would assure me. I held my silence and listened closely. Every now and again she would pause – perhaps to check if I was still listening. I would say “Hmm” or prompt the next few sentences with a leading question.. She told me about how she felt sorry for the children. She told me that it was for the children that she had come into town. Apparently they had sent her a message. Telling her that they didn’t have any food at home. I was speechless. She now sounded angry. She told me she didn’t want this family to be dependent on her. But she could not let the children not eat. “What could I say to a message like this?”.. I felt like crying. But I didn’t want to. It felt self indulgent. So I coughed and cleared my throat while she continued.
Her voice remained steady. And before long she asked me if I was ready.
And so we walked.
Salt River was much bigger than I had thought. There where many narrow side roads and houses. Many parks like the one was had sat at. Many schools and make-shift soccer fields. Salt river looked and felt like something that might have been very different once upon a time. Many of the homes whose frames resembled something handsome and proud now was covered in chipped paint. Rust and the creeping green of Mold. The yards where very small. There were a lot of children on the streets. Running around loudly, with bicycles. Kicking soccer balls with their bare feet. But this place felt abandoned and forgotten. It had this feeling. As we moved down the street though I began to notice the cars parked on the narrow streets. They looked clean, shiny and sometimes pretty fancy. Placed on the pavements outside forgotten homes was an uncomfortable image, I thought..
I realised I had gone quiet for a bit. Lost in my thoughts about the story she had shared with me. I felt guilty for the silence.. so I asked “Are we.. nearby?”.. to which she swiftly responded to and said “Actually it’s right here.. I will be back”. I stood at the gate of a little house on the corner. A young little girl stood at the arch of the balcony in front of us. She had an off balance posture, her head tilting up at us, looking at me with great curiosity. I gave her a glowing smile and she suddenly looked like she had decided something, swiftly turning around and heading inside to call her father. I felt a little red in my cheek from the rejection of attention from the little one, Haha. But “Ma” had now decided to go inside. She told me she wouldn’t be long. And so I waited at the gate. Tapping my feet and looking around. As I turned my back I realised for the first time that day, that you could see Table Mountain from here too. It was a beautiful view actually. It was a strange feeling. To see the mountain the is so deeply connected to this cities fame. Seen from Salt River. Engaged with, through this frame..
Within a matter of minutes.
She was back with one of the bags in her hand. It seems we had 1 last stop.
A second family. Just down the road from where we were.
As we made our way to the next stop she told me that she didn’t have much to say. She was just glad the children would be alright for a while. I bit my tongue until we arrived at the next doorstep. If I unclenched my teeth. I really don’t know what I would have asked. Or what I could have even said to that. She leaned over the short wire fence. And peered into the window. This house was very similar. A small yard. An old car raised on bricks with parts sporadically across the ground..
“Ma” turned to face me. She thanked me and embraced me. She welcomed me to Mitchells Plain to taste her food any time. She assured me her curry was the best in Cape Town. I smiled and nodded. Not knowing what else to do with my face.
As we parted ways. And I began to resume my aimless walk home.
I thought back to “Ma”. The mother. And Salt River.
I felt at a loss for words. Confronted by the harshness and realness. Of pain and hunger.
Concealed by the City. Less than 10 minutes away from my own door.
I thought about the young girl in the arch. And the forgotten houses.
Dusty streets. And makeshift sports fields.
I thought about the houses around me as I walked. How many of them are filled with children praying for a meal?
I wonder when “Ma” will get home. To Mitchells Plain. When will she be back?
How many parcels of food has she carried? Will she carry? Is that what has brought pain to her lower back?
I remember a riddle I heard long ago.
When I was a child. One who’s answer I thought I already did know..
“What has a bed but cannot sleep?”
“What can run but cannot walk?”
“What has a mouth but cannot eat?“
I guess it’s true..
It’s a river.