Humba Khale. Go well and to understand. And be understood.

Of moet dit wees ‘n stofdeeltje wat op die plaaspad beroer word en ‘n oomblikkie lank bestaan en weer gaan lê?

Of ‘n blink filofyn grassie wat ‘n oomblikkie lank die son sien voordat die skadu hom weer bedek, en sy blaartjies toevouw?

Dit is genoeg.  Dit is bestaan.


Elsa Joubert, ninety five years old, famous South African writer, has published her recent book, called ‘Spertyd.’   To beat a self-imposed deadline. A friend recommended I read this, thank you Marna, and I not only read it, but wished that everyone who has ever had to be with her mother in her last years, could.  Should.  I wish I had read this in my mother’s last years.

In all the taking care of my mother, the frustration, the worry and the knowing that time was short, I never really felt the devastation of growing old through her eyes.  Elsa makes it plain.  She is that age, and writes of the frustration of what it is like to lose everything, to be in a home where others die as regularly as meal times.

Brutally honest, humorous and poignant, she speaks of her own story.  Of being old and close to death.  The friends who were once there, and now gone, her husband.  All familiar lost yet not giving up. Not just yet.  Failure of body, prodding of medical, caring of strangers who become the lifeline of daily existence.  Frustrations and loss. Without complaining.

My mother never complained.  We were so adamant that she understand that selling her house was best for her, moving her to frail care was in her interest, having security and pills was essential.  Afternoon tea and trying to adjust was just the way it was.  Elsa speaks of the smallness of her reduced life, the going back when going forward is short, when being afraid is normal. Giving over and trying not to give up.  The uselessness of feeling valuable and counted for when all is shutting down.  And wondering about the purpose of it all, her life, her existence.  As I said, honest.

My mum is gone.  Many friends are struggling with the situation now.  They are exhausted and terrified at the same time. Children becoming parents and parents becoming children.  Elsa is never the child in her book, grateful for her family and acutely aware that her time has come, and gone but that her life counts for something. She makes the best of it, without regret.

She speaks for all who are there – at the end of the platform.

Humba Khale is a Zulu term for go well. Never goodbye but travel well.  This book shook me in a way that I always saw my mum’s life ending, but never as part of another journey where I cannot go.  I miss her still, but I am saying Humba Khale to her … and I am sorry I never really understood how it must have been, being removed, re-located, parcel in another chapter she wanted little part of. Without complaining – maybe we just get to that stage where we know others mean well and there is no point in fighting the inevitable?

What is our meaning, our purpose on this earth.

‘Or is it a speck of dust on a farm road, that stirs for a moment and then settles again? ‘

‘Or a shining tendril of grass that catches the sun for an instant before the shadow enfolds it again?

It is enough.  You exist.

Understand all, in youth and old age.  It will be your turn soon enough. Listen and remember the young girl in your mother and say ‘Humble Khale Mama’ – you were part of the universe and always will be.

Image: Dave Ross photography