Fingers gripping my desk, I stare at the screen in front of me until there is a lull. I exhale with relief when that moment comes: the sound of silence, blessed quiet. It doesn’t happen often. The atmosphere in the office is more like a scene from a hairdressing salon than a place of productivity. Eish’s, ahhh’s, explosions of laughter and surprise echo. I can’t understand what the journalists are saying as they’re speaking in Xitsonga, but they sound like they’re having a good time – everyone except me. I put my headphones in my ears, and select music to block out the distractions and allow me to relax at the same time. I turn it up, up, up. My stress level rises with the volume. Even the blaring music doesn’t drown them out.
I had been staring intently at the page for what seemed like hours, trying to ignore the background crescendo. Linky was sitting in a chair to my right, basking in the sun, waiting for her story to be edited by Lou or Briget, I supposed. Suddenly Bongi appeared next to Linky, wanting to warm up. They started a conversation. It was too close and too loud. I gave it a few minutes, hoping it would end quickly and everything would be okay. It soon became clear that the conversation wouldn’t be over anytime soon.
“Guys,” I heard my annoyed voice coming out, “Would you mind keeping it down? I’m just finding it really hard to concentrate.” I saw Linky’s face turn as I started speaking, what seemed to be an amused look in her eyes. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but maybe you can continue the conversation at another point later in the day. It’s just really hard with this 24-hour talking,” I added.
“24 hours! Oh, come on, Daniela!” Bongi said.
“Ok, I’m exaggerating, but you know what I mean,” I said. “I’d really appreciate it if we could have some quiet time. Thank you.” I put my focus back on the computer. The silence that followed was palpable. I wished I could take back the words, and even more the tone they carried. I grit my teeth, and willed myself not to cry. A few minutes later, I heard Thandi’s voice coming from behind me. “Lou, is Danny okay today?” Before I could stop them, a few tears fell down my cheeks. I wiped my eyes, but felt the rest of the flood rising with me. I got up and walked quickly into the house, into the bathroom, and closed the door. I leaned against it, and cried and cried. I tried to ask myself why I was so upset. I knew it was more than just today.
I put in my best, do everything I can to make sure the journalists get what they need. I don’t do it some days; I do it all the time. Sometimes I feel like maybe I try too hard. It’s not as easy for me as Briget and Lou. I’m carrying my past, the past of the country of which we are all a part. I know the bond I’ve built with the journalists is deeper now, more real. But it still feels so fragile. It seems that the trust between us could shatter at any moment, and would then need much more time and care to be rebuilt.
It hit me the other day with Cosi. The journalists had all submitted online entries for a journalism competition, but because the attachments had taken so long to load, Briget, Lou and I had finished sending them after they went home. The next day, Cosi was looking at her computer screen and exclaiming agitatedly. I heard “Danielo” in the midst of the Xitsonga. It turned out she was looking at a returned email for her competition application. When I went over to Cosi, I saw that the email that had not been delivered was, in fact, to me, CCed on the email. The application to the competition had been sent.
I had to laugh at the irony, but at the same time, I was taken aback by the speed with which Cosi assumed my actions had been lacking. It didn’t seem to fit with how close I felt we’d become, the way she has shared very personal stories with me. What’s missing here? I wondered. I realized it was trust.
It wasn’t just Cosi. People in Acornhoek just don’t seem to trust each other, even in their closest relationships. The woman who started Teddy Bear Creche, a local non-profit preschool, told me she did it to protect children, who are often abused by family members if left at home. “Roll-on” is the name given to a partner in addition to the one you’re with, and as commonplace as using deodorant. From multiple conversations with the journalists, it seems the infidelity of your partner is taken for granted, even expected. The only thing you can trust is that you can’t trust him to be faithful. And you certainly can’t trust him to be there to support his children. Most families consist of a single mother raising her kids with very little involvement on the father’s side. Linky’s most recent story is about families who have had their pap turn yellow. After one girl who was cooking noticed the strange color of the traditional thick, white porridge, she threw it to the chickens, who later died. People in the neighborhood suspect someone nearby is trying to poison them.
In the suburbs of Johannesburg, residents sit in houses surrounded by high walls, barbed wire and electric fences. If something goes missing from a home, the owners are quick to blame the maid for taking it. Lack of trust is still prevalent between different racial groups in South Africa. Men in Acornhoek glance at us volunteers with suspicious eyes. I instinctually become nervous when a black man is walking too close behind me, even though I have no evidence of his intentions. History has conditioned South Africans not to trust each other. And even after living in Canada for so many years, I still have a tendency to periodically look over my shoulder. I always lock the car doors. Being raised in this culture of mistrust has marked all of us. How much greater my challenge of attempting to forge deep, authentic connections with these women becomes in a society that lacks such a fundamental trait. And how much more important! Unlike Briget and Lou, exotic foreigners unconnected to this land, I must forge these friendships in spite of my baggage. I yearn to create a different reality by breaking out of this mould, moving beyond the label of “white South African,” with all it carries. The weight of this responsibility is heavy on my shoulders
Sitting on the edge of the bath, the tears kept coming. After a while, I heard the door of the house opening.
“Danny, are you in there? Danny?” I recognized Bongi’s voice. I wiped my eyes, took a deep breath, and came out of the bathroom. Thandi and Bongi were standing together.
“Danny, are you okay?” Thandi had a concerned look in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I feel really bad about before. I’ve just been feeling really frustrated, and I didn’t know how to say it. It came out wrong.”
“We know. We’re human, we all make mistakes,” Bongi said, kind eyes earnest.
I suggested that being able to work and talk at the same time may be a cultural difference, and explained that the noise was even more distracting to me because it was in a language I couldn’t understand. Bongi said if that was the issue, they could speak in English. We both laughed. Thandi admitted she sometimes felt like slapping the other women when they talked while she was trying to write. They both apologized, and promised to try to be quieter.
“We can keep it down, for a few minutes at least,” Thandi added. The laugh I’d grown to love resounded as they left. I felt so grateful that they had come in to find me. It showed the connection was still there, and that made all the difference.
At lunch and in the photo workshop that followed, Bongi would catch my eye while talking. There was a twinkle in hers, an indication we were making amends. At the end of the day, Thandi and I walked to the gate together, hanging behind the rest of the group. She told me she never tells people everything, she doesn’t trust them. Here she’s open, but at home she’s different, she said. She always laughs a lot while telling her stories. It’s when I see her youthfulness and sense of fun. I felt the privilege of her confiding in me.
My mind went back to a few months ago. We went to report on a talented blind woman who had started a successful business in spite of her challenges. Thandi asked me what I was planning to do next year, if I was going to go back to Canada.
“Just when you get to know them, they leave,” she said. I heard the pain in her voice.
Bongi took the businesswoman’s arm to guide her outside to where we would take a photograph. “Can you hold me like that?” Thandi asked. I thought she was joking, but she put her arm through mine. We maneuvered through the narrow kitchen, letting go only when there was no space to move together. At that moment, I felt how badly Thandi longed for connection, how much she’d lost when her mother was no longer there to give it to her, when it became her responsibility to care for her brothers and sister. Now, as we continued to make our way down the dirt path, Thandi asked, “If you could have seen into the future and predicted what it would be like this year, would you still have come?” I looked her in the eyes, and answered without hesitation: “Yes.”