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Jo'Burg Days: Oven Gloves And Tablecloths

Barbara Durlacher tells of Mariba, a lady whose eyesight is failing as she struggles in South Africa to earn money to feed her family in stricken Zimbabwe.

I’ve written about Mariba before, about how she stands outside our local vegetable shop with her crocheted table cloths, oven gloves and place mats, attempting to earn a living by selling her wares to the housewives who frequent the shop every day. It is imperative she earns as much as she can, because anything she manages to save after paying her share of the rent on a crowded room in Hillbrow with a pittance over for food, must go back to Zimbabwe to support her family. Eaking out a miserable existence in that doomed country, the family’s only breadwinners are Mariba, the mother, and the eldest son, a trained teacher, an illegal immigrant to Britain.

Poor Mariba. Her eyesight is so bad that when a car draws up, she cannot distinguish if the driver is a man or a woman, and does not know if she should advance towards the occupant with her beautiful smile, or wait quietly, knowing that a man is less likely to buy her wares than a housewife, suddenly realising she needs a new pair of oven gloves.

Over the years of Mariba’s peripatetic existence as she commutes between Johannesburg and Harare we’ve come to know one another quite well, and I’ve done what I can to help her. When I can afford it I slip small sums of money into her hand, and her profuse thanks for such small kindnesses, underlining her genuine poverty, never fail to bring tears to my eyes.

But far more importantly have been my attempts to help her to get her eyes fixed. A visit to a local pro bono optician who gave his services free at least gave me a professional view of her problem. It appears that sadly there is little, apart from an operation, that can be done to help her. She has macular degeneration [an progressive and irreversible condition of the eyes, leading to total blindness] and even if she manages to raise the funds for an operation, there is no guarantee that it will improve her sight.

After some weeks of tests and fruitless visits to the local public, or government hospital, she was told that as a non-resident she does not qualify for State assistance, and would have to pay the full costs of the operation. In addition, as there was a very long waiting list, it might be anything up to a year before her name would come up.

“Do you have the money for the operation, Mariba?” I asked her some months ago.

“No, Merrem. All my money I have to send to Zimbabwe to buy food for my children. Sometimes, [glancing at me shyly] if Merrem gives me something extra, I buy ‘haf-a-lof’, and some onions and tomatoes. Then I can eat. But money for the operation? Aikona! But my son, he says he will send me the money, when I tell him the hospital is ready to see me.”

Than, the blow fell. The next time Mariba returned from a hurried visit to Zimbabwe to get more goods to sell, she seemed unexpectedly downcast, unlike her usual sunny and optimistic disposition.

“What’s wrong, Mariba, and how are your eyes?”

“Oh, Merrem, they’re still very bad – sometimes I can’t even see when I’m crossing the road. I’m frightened a driver will knock me down, as I can’t see if there’s a car coming, and many times they don’t even hoot. Now my son phones me from England to tell me the boss of the factory where he works has told him to go”.

“What does he do in the factory, Mariba?”

“He works as a sweeper, Merrem. It’s a very hard job. But he has no papers and the boss is frightened. The inspectors are always looking for illegal immigrants.”

How easily we ignore the desperate plight of those less fortunate than ourselves and how widely the effects of political skulduggery and gross mismanagement affect the most innocent people. How easy it is to close our clear-sighted eyes to those living on the very fringes of society whose demands are so few.

Life is very cruel. To repeat a remark I heard the other day, “With money you can do anything. Without it, you are lost.’’

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