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Open Features: Brown Leather Shoes

...The old man looked up. A young White woman stood before him. She held out to him a pair of brown leather shoes. He was mystified. These were obviously new, and did not need mending.

“These are for you,” she said.

He became very suspicious and uneasy...

Marianne Hall tells a story you are never likely to forget.

The old man shifted awkwardly on the wobbly wooden tomato box. The cold seeped through him. He shivered. The Highveld wind was painfully icy. He pulled the blanket closer and then picked up a shoe. His numb fingers gripped the thick needle. The leather was stubborn today.

“Sawubona Mnumzane.”

The old man looked up. A young White woman stood before him. She held out to him a pair of brown leather shoes. He was mystified. These were obviously new, and did not need mending.

“These are for you,” she said.

He became very suspicious and uneasy. What does this woman want? These Whities did nothing without good reason. These days they were bending backwards, like reeds in the wind, to please.

He took the shoes and ran his fingers over the fine leather. Indeed – a good pair of shoes.

“I just want to talk to you,” said Sue quietly. She waited. She had a thesis to hand in to Prof on Friday. It dealt with migration to the cities.

“Please tell me about yourself.”

The woman’s voice had a soft lilt in it. It reminded him of his mother, Notemba. He could still hear her voice crooning softly as she held his baby sister, Thulani, to her breast.

“Thula, thula,baba,thula sana.”

Notemba, as the Induna’s first wife, had been much favoured. When it was time for his father to join the ancestors, his eldest brother Themba would be chief. He smiled as he thought of Thulani. How she had ranted and raved in frustration when he helped with the milking and the herding of the cattle whilst she was allowed only to collect water or carry the seed – always accompanied by her mother. When she got older the complaints became louder.

“I have to stay home, hoe the fields, cook, keep the floor of the hut swept and carry the firewood, whilst all Sipho does is to look after the cattle.”

Sue took out her notebook and pencil. It was time to get down to business.

“Are you Zulu or Khoza?” came the question.

Sipho looked steely at the woman. Did she not know that such a question was a great insult. To find the lineage of a person the question always had to be indirect. “Do you come from this or that area?” In this way one could gradually establish from where a person came.

“Zulu”, he answered reluctantly.

“Ah! Zululand. What was it like living there?” Sue poised her pencil in midair.

“Warm,” answered Sipho.

He could feel the cold from the pavement penetrating through his bones. Around him was nothing but concrete. Even the ornamental trees which had been planted did nothing to take away the drabness.

He thought of the rich grasslands, sweet from the recent rain. Endless streams from the Mfolozi cut across the valleys. The climate was always warm or hot. There were many rhinos, buck, zebra, wildebeest, buffalo and giraffe. It was also the home of the cheetah, the leopard and the lion. The forests were home to the heron, the wood stork, the korhaan, the cuckoo and the little bee eater and the crested barbet.

“I’m getting nowhere,” thought Sue impatiently. She decided to prod him on.

“Did you live in a kraal with round huts?” she asked.

“Yebo.” He made a circle with his arms. She made a note in her book.

The huts were cool and comfortable when the sun became hot. The air passed through the thatching and the ventilation carried away all smoke caused through cooking. The floor, made of clay and cow dung, was polished until it shone like a mirror. When it rained the water ran off the overlapping thatch.
What excitement there was when a new hut had to be built. A workforce of family and friends were called in. The men put up the framework and thatched the roof. The women levelled the floor and lay the grassmats. Amazi, the curdled milk, flowed.
Maybe the old man is senile, thought Sue. She would take him back to his childhood.

“Did you play games at all?”

“Games?” Sipho frowned.

“I mean, with spears and things.”

“Ah, spears.”

The old man’s eyes lighted up. He made a dartlike movement with his arm. His uncle, Zikhali, was the ironsmith – almost as important as his father, the Induna. For hours he and Themba had watched how the ironstone was first heated up, then hammered into shape and finally sharpened with a stone. They tested their accuracy by trying to spear soft vegetables. Sipho remembered with great satisfaction the day he beat Themba at the game.

Sue decided to change tactics. Many migrants from Zululand had at one time or another worked underground.

“Did you ever work on a mine?” she asked.

“Yebo. E.R.E. Six years. I was a lasher boy.”

“Why did you leave Zululand?”

“Nagana. Amatsetse. 1946,” came the answer.

She recalled having read about the outbreak of nagana due to the tsetse fly between 1945 and 1946 when more than 60 000 head of domestic livestock had died of this virulent disease.

“Were you in the hostels?”

Sipho nodded. The Zulus had been like one family. They ate and drank together and took turns to do the shopping.

Discipline was strict. Those who did not adhere were liable to be fined. Those were good days.

“Why did you leave the mines?”

Sipho pulled down a dirty threadbare sock. There was a deep scar running from mid calf to ankle. The foot was throbbing again.

“Accident on mine. I went back home.”

He had been compensated. On his return to the kraal he found that because his parents had long gone to their ancestors, Themba was now the new Induna. He had grown fat and pompous. He had taken several wives.

Sipho no longer felt comfortable sleeping on the mat on the floor. He was bored by the endless discussions on trifling matters. He felt like a stranger. Even the women did not appeal. Soon his money ran out and he moved back to the Transvaal.

Sue looked down at her notes. Thus far she had not achieved very much. The shoe angle looked interesting. Perhaps she should concentrate on this aspect of his life.

“O.K. I get it this far. Tell me, though, how did you get involved in this?” She indicated towards a pile of shoes which obviously still needed mending.

The old man shifted again. It had started to rain. Fortunately, his place on the pavement afforded some cover. This woman was persistent.

It had been very difficult to find employment. He finally found a room and for it he had to work in the garden. A meal was part of the agreement, usually scraps from the table. There was very little difference between what he ate and the dog ate. The “Missus” was mean and nasty. She complained incessantly.

“Dig the weeds out at the roots, Sipho. You’ve pulled out all my seedlings again, I told you not to dig around the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – you will disturb the roots. I want no drinking and whoring in the room. Keep your toilet clean.” She went on and on and on.

“Why are you taking my bricks?” she screamed when he used them to raise the bedstead.

The bed was low and his boxes and suitcases did not fit underneath. How he hated this woman. He felt empathy for her husband, a quiet and unassuming man, a shoemaker by trade, who was often at the brunt end of her complaints.

One day the Missus came to him.

“I want you to help my husband in the shop, but first I must get you civilised”, she said firmly. “No more eating with your fingers.”

Breakfast was pap, loose and slimy which stuck to his tongue. He longed for the crumbly putu and sour milk which his mother, Notemba, used to make. He resented being treated like a Maperu – only they ate smooth pap. Now, instead of fingers, he had to use a spoon. The taste of metal lingered in his mouth. The chipped enamel plate and mug were removed. Did she not know that food did not stay hot for long in stoneware?

He always liked to squat in the sun and eat. He felt close to the earth and secure. The chair was hard on his buttocks. She bought him a T-Shirt, a pair of jeans, a jersey and found some old takkies for him.

“Wear these”, she ordered.

He retrieved his old blanket from the dustbin and hid it away. He could never find his old woollen hat. In it’s place was a peaked cap – he felt like a stork. The snake-like jeans were tight and uncomfortable - hard as untreated skin. He battled with the zip – a dangerous device- he went through agony the first time he pulled it down.

He liked Joe, his “Baas”. A sympathetic and understanding man. As soon as the Missus had left for her job in the city he would remove his hat and the tight shoes.

“Sipho, if they hurt, take them off.”

Sipho had an affinity for leather and had often helped in the making of shields. The oxhide had been rubbed and scratched on the inside with thorns or metal to soften it and then it was pegged on the ground and cut to shape. Slits were cut in the hide and a staff with animal tails was fastened to it. He found it easy to talk to Joe about his home and family.

He learnt to repair shoes with Cuban and Spanish heels.

“Use thin nails,” advised Joe. “This will avoid splitting the wooden heel.”

Removing worn soles was tricky.

“Put the last inside the shoe to make a solid foundation to work on. Use a pair of nippers.”

He loved the feel of the knife cutting through the leather when trimming the new soles. He found that all peening, rasping, buffing and finishing was much better when the last was inside the boot. He became an expert at sewing soles to veldtschoens, immediately putting new stitches behind the old ones.

Then tragedy struck. Joe became ill. It was a coronary, the doctor said. The Missus had never liked him and told him to “hamba”. Samuel, Joe’s old friend, heard of his plight and gave him a job in his café. Six months later a big wooden padlocked box arrived at the shop.

“It’s for you, Sipho,” said Samuel, handing him a letter containing a key.

In his Will Joe had left all his shoemaker’s tools to Sipho. There were hammers and knives, lasts, strops, pliers, pincers, nippers and staves - trimmers, awls and irons. He examined the familiar tools. He knew the names and uses of each and every one as he had known the names and ways of each of his father’s cattle.

Samuel allowed him to work outside the café, but then he too, died, and Sipho moved on. Business was always very slow. The Whities did not trust him with their shoes.

“He’ll probably pinch them,” he heard someone say.
He was chased from pillar to post.

“Your pass, man,” was an all too familiar demand.
He slept in alleyways and doorways on cardboard under newspapers. On cold nights he would sit with the tramps in front of the bawula and watch the flickering flames.
As from a distance he heard the voice of the White woman:

“It’s very cold here, old man. Why don’t you come home with me. I have a room for you.”

Sipho shook himself out of his reverie. The woman was holding him by the shoulder. Who was SHE to tell him what to do? He shook his head. He was proud and independent.

“My ways are not your ways,” he shrugged.
He wrapped the old tattered blanket closer. "I am tired. Come back tomorrow.”

It was cold and damp that night. Sue could not get the image of the frail old man out of her mind.

Early the next morning she hurried back. A small crowd had gathered. She came closer. Something was amiss. An old woman looked at her sadly and shook her head.

He looked so peaceful as he lay there.

In his arms he clutched a pair of brown leather shoes.

Marianne Hall
copyright 1970.

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