Friday morning I wake up early with Karin to go to her work so I can use the Internet while she teaches her morning classes. Karin teaches grade nine students at a Jewish school in Joburg; she is out at noon on this last Friday before a three week break. The traffic in Johannesburg is legendary but Karin beats it by leaving the house at around 5:45 am. It is still dark and cold when we get into the car.
Out in the streets there is not so much car traffic but I see many people walking along the side of the road. Almost all of the men are wearing some version of a worker’s uniform, which is a (usually blue) long-sleeved jacket and matching work pants. The uniforms are almost penitential and tell any looker at a glance: I am poor.
The sky has lightened by the time we arrive at her school and the security guard lets us in with a wave and a smile. Johannesburg is full of fences and security guards. Every building has an armed response plaque displayed outside and most residences have security guards in little booths to record visitors. In many parking lots, men in worker uniforms stand and watch the cars. They are employed by the businesses (grocery stores or the like) but also make money from tips from shoppers who are satisfied when they emerge from the grocer to find their car and parcels where they left them.
We pull in and park. It’s about 6:45am. Karin tells me that though classes don’t start until around 8:30, she arrives at this time every day and goes to the apartment of a friend and colleague who lives at the school. They spend the time drinking coffee and doing their make-up. As we step out of the car, she’s got her car keys in one hand and a straightening iron in the other.
We make our way into the building and I note that high school smells the same everywhere in the world. We go down some stairs and past closed doors, the last of which Karin knocks on. “Sometimes, Mirelle is in a good mood,” she whispers, “and sometimes not.” The door opens and Mirelle is standing there looking every bit the beleaguered teacher. She snarls a begrudging greeting but her eyes are smiling. Karin turns to me as if to say “See?’ as Mirelle crawls back into her bed, leaving the door open so we may enter. Mirelle’s apartment is a single room with a kitchenette, a small bathroom and a balcony. Both women light cigarettes and I find a stool to perch on while they speak in Afrikaans. After some conversation it is decided that I will stay at Mirelle’s to use her Internet while they teach, as it will be more private and comfortable for me than the computer room.
“Mirelle is not feeling well today,” Karin tells me in English. Mirelle groans from under three duvets. She really doesn’t look at all well.
The power is out (this happens all the time) so we wait and bitch about wanting coffee. The school is not empty – an administrator is around trying to fix the outlets. Every few moments she’ll bellow something from the basement and Mirelle will scream back a response. Finally the appropriate switch is flicked and the power comes on. Mirelle makes coffee and invites me to sit on her bed. Karin is at the mirror doing her make-up.
You know how sometimes if you intentionally blur your eyes a pattern will emerge in an otherwise random-seeming collection of shapes? That’s what listening to Afrikaans is like for me: like I am blurring my ears. If I can surrender myself to the impatient flow of glottal rolls and excessive use of vowels, I can sometimes get a sense of what is being said.
So, when Mirelle says something that sounds like sviineflu I turn my head. “I may have forgotten to tell you but there are three cases of swine flu at this school,” Karin tells me. “The principal just went into the hospital, in fact.” Fabulous. This, I am beginning to see, is South Africa, then: everything is fine and cozy and ticking along as it should be and then… DANGER!
At our braai, we had talked about the crime rate and violence in Johannesburg. Karin reassured me that things had gotten much better. It used to be a regular occurrence that farmers were murdered in their homes, but no more. All this was happening, oh, four years ago. This is inconceivable for a Canadian. We are soft and peaceful and coddled, like Alberta cows quietly feeding at a trough. Being here is rattling my bell, but it is also exciting and I am very aware that because of the hospitality of these women I am getting to experience a few days in the life. I am not a tourist – I am a friend.
I am in full think on this when in a sudden flurry of activity, Mirelle drags herself into the bathroom, emerging 10 minutes later looking like an entirely different person. Karin’s friend Bernise arrives. Bernise is the woman whose bed I slept in on my arrival and she greets me warmly. The three women talk about their classes, the administration, and the upcoming day. Karin wants to leave extra early so Bernise and Mirelle say they’ll cover her classes. “Just make sure you are loud and obvious at the morning assembly,” says Bernise. “They’ll never know you left.”
At exactly 8:30 they all abruptly leave and I am alone in the apartment, a South African soapie (soap opera) on the television. On it, two women share a passionate kiss, after which one woman withdraws and begins to explain that it is wrong – that she wants only to be friends. The alternating storyline appears to have to do with a corporate merger that is going to affect a local village, and there’s a lot of talk about tribal dignity and so forth. I watch until the commercial break (a very strange animated piece in which stick figures sing a song about making sure to take your complete round of tuberculosis medications) and then go on the ‘Net. Facebook is banned at the school so I check emails.
About ten minutes later, Bernise comes into the room and says she feels sick and feverish. She crawls into the bed and burrows under the covers.
A wind has kicked up and the room has gotten cold so when Bernise interrupts her sighing and groaning to offer me a blanket, I take it. We two sit watching TV in amiable silence until Karin comes into the room. She wants Bernise to go to the hospital – it is obvious to her that she has swine flu. Under the blanket I can feel myself getting a bit feverish. I may have a sore throat too, and I am shivery. Bernise says she can’t leave school now because she has a class. Karin lists the roster of reasons why she definitely has swine flu: the sudden onset, the headache and fever, the achey muscles. By now I am regretting my weakness in accepting the pestilent blanket. Like a sick child, I am thinking about my parents – and how angry they will be. Karin and Bernise strike a deal (Bernise will visit the doctor, but not until later) and we leave.
Hours later, after running some errands that takes me to the outskirts of Joburg on three sides including a drive past Soweto, the day has gone from brisk to boiling. The car is a braai and I am a pork chop, slowly crisping. The roads are all under construction. Joburg will host the 2010 World Cup so there is major investment in infrastructure. The men working the roads wear an orange version of the worker’s uniform, and I sweat just looking at them on the baking tarmac.
Finally we get back to the farm. Exhausted, I gorge myself on three full hours’ sleep.
When we get up, we have a bite and get dressed for an evening out. We are going to have dinner at Karin’s friend Tamzin’s house before heading out to listen to some music. We are only a few minutes away from Tamzin’s when Karin exclaims, “Bernise! I need to call and see what the doctor said. If she did have swine flu Mirelle would have called me – or so I hope.” She dials Mirelle and no amount of ear-blurring will help me navigate this conversation: it is all shrieking and cooing. Something unexpected is definitely taking place. When Karin hangs up, she turns to me excitedly and says, “That was Mirelle! She and Bernise began taking whiskey when we left and they are now both quite drunk… perhaps this will help her get rid of the swine flu though.” I ponder just how bad a swine hangover will be.