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My life as a servant

Shiny floors

My place is in the kitchen of the Gork household. My mother is Miriam. She came from the Kraal, a village of straw huts.


Each tribe had several kraals. Her tribe was the Mogale, one of the Sotho nation, whose center was Mafeking, about 150 km from Krugersdorp. A special permit was stamped into a document, known as a pass, that she had to carry with her at all times, which allowed her to live in the town because the white madams needed servants.

 

All the black people carried passes. Without it the police arrested us, and we had to pay a fine. 


She lived in the dark, windowless servant's quarters in the backyard of the Gork household. My dad didn't have a room, but he slept with us sometimes. He worked in the mine, which was about 5 miles away. He stayed in a hostel there with other workers.


The police didn't allow him on the white people's premises after nine at night. Whites were known as Europeans to show that they were civilized, and we weren't. A siren sounded to advise us to go back to our lodging. The police arrested them after that time. Once, my mother took me on her back to visit him in goal. 


My mother never stopped working after she gave birth to me; she carried on as usual, tying me to her back in a blanket and polished the wooden floors until they shined like mirrors. I sucked my bottle and was happy. 


One day, I got tired of riding on her back as if she was a donkey and I a cowboy, and started running around without clothes. Mom slapped me on my backside but laughed. She didn't mind me being naked. She thought it was funny.


The slap was to show the white madam that she was teaching me to be obedient. "If she didn't teach me, the madam would scream, "Get that kid out of my kitchen," but she spoke kindly, gave me sweets, and patted me on the head. She never hit me; that was my mother's job. I think that the missus only came into kitchen to shout at my mother.


The little baas (Afrikans for master), the madam's child, and I were the same age. He also ran around naked. We had sticks and used to throw stones at the cars. I warned the little baas that would cause trouble, but he wouldn't listen to me, and his ma didn't allow him to play with me anymore. He still came to our room and played under Ma's bed so nobody saw us.


Mabel, the maid's daughter, occupied the dark space, the room next to ours. Wooden beams supported the corrugated iron roof. The room was hot as hell in the Summer and cold in the Winter. Spiders, ants, and cockroaches crawled along the wood I used to lie on the think straw mattress watching those funny creatures with my mother. The dampness attracted them, and the place had a bad smell.


John, the man who took care of the garden, played the guitar and swallowed an intoxicating liquid called mampur. Later, I learned how to make it from rotten fruit. I imbibed lots of the stuff with my friends, and we got drunk. He was about 40 years old and looked about 60, with all the wrinkles on his face and no teeth. 


However old he was, the white people still called him boy. "Hey boy, clean the floor. Hey boy, polish the young master's shoes. He wasn't insulted and just laughed at their stupidity.


In any case, he was intoxicated most of the time. 


I learned to be obedient early in life. When I was three years old, dressed in cast-off patched grey shorts and a brown shirt that once belonged to the little master but had been thrown away because it was torn and tattered, Mama sent me to the coal shed. 


My first job was carrying a bucket of coal to the kitchen at 4 o'clock every morning so my mother could light the stove and warm the kitchen for the big baas' breakfast at 7 o'clock. 


Pieces of the black stuff fell on the floor, and Mama said, "Ow! You are a silly boy. That's how I learned that I was a boy. Mabel showed me the difference between boys and girls.


When I was six years old, Mama took me to live with my grandmother at the Kraal. Children weren't allowed to stay in town with their parents. I acquired a felt hat that once belonged to the big baas and wore it when looking after the cattle. I didn't return to the room in the backyard but started working on the mine nearby. I stayed in the hostel. 


When I visited my mother, the little baas didn't remember me. He went to school and had a fancy uniform and a grey cap.I was proud to have a job at the mine. I earned money and bought stylish shoes.


The girls were mad about me, but I was loyal to Mabel. She and I had children, and she worked as a nanny for the white people while I continued at the mine. One day, perhaps we'll live together in our own home in the town. 


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