Local is lekker as they say in Afrikaans. Local is great. The many South African cultures are filled with superstition, local lingo and nuances that make each one so special. I learn from them everyday.
This evening, whilst looking for change at the till, the assistant watched carefully as I scrummaged to find local coins amongst the pence in my purse.
‘What is that Mama?’ He asked, pointing to a twenty pence coin. Mama is a sign of respect.
‘It’s English money.’ I said. He frowned. ‘What is English money?’ he asked.
I had to stop and think about this. English is a language, so how to explain that the money is from a country? See we just accept things so easily. I began to tell him that the money is from England and he listened carefully before asking me why the money from England is in my purse.
‘I live there.’ I replied but he was quick to tell me my accent is South African. Why was I living there if I come from here he wanted to know. The man was too intelligent for me. How to explain again I thought, and wondered if mentioning the past weeks political upheaval would suffice, not that this was the reason we moved to England.
‘My family live there.’ I said. When he asked me why I was here I blurted out ‘to see my family.’ You can imagine how confusing that may seem to one who knows little of Europe and the reasons we live so far apart from one another, yet commute and visit all the time. More questions about England. Then he asked me what the shiny one was in my hand.
‘It is a trolley token from Waitrose.’ I offered.
Asking if he could see it, the money with the hole in it, he asked how much it was worth.
‘Nothing really, you use it in your trolley.’
‘It is worth nothing?’ he asked. ‘It is so lovely.’ he said.
Note to self. Trolleys in South Africa do not require a token to free from the chain, to be used, put back and token retrieved till next time. Again, how to explain? The man has all the time in the world, studied the token as if holding a diamond and smiled brightly as he held it to his chest and asked me if he could have it. It would look good on a chain he said. To him it meant something special.
For a moment I wondered about my token. If I gave it to him, would I be able to get another one? I relished my Waitrose token, searched for it when I needed it and held onto it, for the most stupid reason and here was a man who thought the token worth a great deal. Instead I offered him a one pound coin, saying it was worth about twenty rand and it was my gift to him. Twenty rand he whispered, magic indeed.
He thanked me and asked me if he could go to England and get lots of these coins. And the Waitrose one for himself. He would like many Waitrose tokens for his chain.
‘You would not like England’ I suggested. ‘It’s cold and dark most of the time.’
‘I need Ilanga.’ The sun, he said, but I will come with you next time.’ he grinned. ‘In the suitcase.’
There I was, defending my Waitrose token, trying to explain why money was English and that I lived far from my family, with my family in a country that had little sun. I was the one feeling foolish but his curiosity about another world, small things, the wonder of it all, hit me deeply in my heart. I had forgotten to be fascinated. This man was fascinated and wanted to know more. I thought I knew it all, and therein lies the lesson. People such as he, in South Africa, are the salt of the earth, grounded, hardworking and still curious about life and all the things he had never dreamed of. Things I took for granted.
I handed him my Waitrose token. He thought I had given him a precious gift.
As I left, he said: ‘ Come back mama, when the darkness is heavy and you need the sun. Bring me another one of these to hang about my neck. It is worth much.’
It is worth much. It, is worth much.
Instinctively I reached out to greet him as is the African way of grasping hands, twisting palms and back to the handshake, as was the honourable way to pay my respect. I may be the global citizen, but I left there feeling that I still have so much to learn. Fascination at the small things for starters.
Walking out into the car park, I greeting the car guards (a very South African thing) in French. Migrants from the French Congo who spend all day in the blistering sun watching cars for money. There is another story is this. Migrants who speak French and know little about France. It is another South African gem. As I said, one never stops learning and this country tell me so.
A charming afternoon.