Bheki Mashile's Letter from Umjindi

Laughter. Gotta love street vending mamas

Laughter is good for the soul. If you don’t believe that, well, it’s quite clear you need a good laugh, ha ha! But alas, there are those times when you are forced to laugh, much as you really do not want to – or feel you ought not to laugh. Both easier and more difficult is when you have to laugh at yourself.

Which is what I found myself doing, following an interaction with one of the loyal vendor mamas who buy my produce.

But this laughter was long in coming. In fact, it had been boiling up within me for many years, not prompted, however, by the veggie mamas but by interactions with advertisers as I feverishly sought to secure adverts for my beloved Umjindi Guardian community newspaper. The veggie mamas just lit the fuse, to let off my explosion of laughter.

You see Nosey ones, while pursuing adverts I learned very quickly to assess the attitude of potential advertisers. This education prompted me to classify them in racial categories; not the most politically correct thing to do, but heck, sometimes stereotypes fit perfectly.

Now then, when dealing with an Afrikaner shop-owner or store-manager I knew I would be dealing with a straight shooter: “yes I will place the ad” or “no thanks I am not interested”: straightforward, no beating about the bush. Gotta love that.

Then there were the Indian traders, whom I infamously titled the ‘do I get a discount?’ I knew full well that if my ad was, say, R1,000, I would walk out of there with a measly R300, if that. Of course my Indian friends always had a good laugh at my on-the-spot observations.

Then there were the black managers, mainly of big retail shops, supermarkets, and so on. They were worse than the Indian discounters. And so fearful of their mlungu bosses they could never make a decision, and instead referred you to the mlungu (the white man) in Jozi or head office.

 I am reminded of one such mlungu who was very irritated with my call.

“Why the hell do I have these idiots as managers if they can’t make a simple decision to advertise in a community newspaper? I have never seen the newspaper nor do I know the community that well. How the heck do I know what the people there read? These idiots are supposed to be our eyes and ears on the ground. Sorry about all this.

“Tell them I said they can place an ad in your newspaper and they can call me if there is any problem.”

Suffice it to say that every time thereafter when directed to a black store-manager I would simply ask him or her for the mlungu’s contact number. Of course there were always those few exceptions when the brother from the other mother would make the decision.

And what does this have to do with the veggie mamas? Simple. I have learned from them that the more things change the more they stay the same. Oh! Another lesson – maybe just maybe my racial breakdown of things was not exactly fair.

Look, it’s true that among the mamas I have encountered straight-shooters like my Afrikaner advertisers and discount-demanders like my Indian merchants, but, thank God all mighty, no mama has referred me off to a mlungu. How could they? Oh man oh man, what a relief they cannot.

This reality of ‘the more things change the more they stay the same’ was thrust upon me – yes thrust, not impressed, not revealed but yes indeed thrust – as I went about delivering green peppers to these mamas’ stalls.

Within 30 minutes I encountered a discount-demander. Funny how her veggie stall was set up in our Indian area; go figure!

 Then as I made my way to town I encountered a straight-shooter who bitched and complained about the size of the peppers.

I was not in the mood to argue, or explain that the particular  variety does not get much bigger than this. What was the point in trying to do so? I was already livid that she was squeezing my peppers while clearly not intending to buy.

While the first two veggie mamas might have irritated me, I had no choice but to laugh at the third one I encountered.

To my relief she bought a crate without fuss. That is, until she began checking them while I was transferring them from my crate to one of hers.

There you go; this mama, just like my local Pick n Pay produce buyer does, checked each and every single pepper. Quality, quality, what can one do?

So this mama picks out three peppers she is not happy with. I take the three and throw them in a crate in the back of the bakkie. Well, I get my payment, jump in, start up, and as I am about to pull away she yells, “Hey, you are not leaving here without replacing my three peppers”.

For just a moment I looked at myself in the rear-view mirror – and then I laughed and laughed until I cried. I have just created a new stereotype: the sharp-eyed black vegetable-vendor mama. And, I fear, there could be a stereotype of a black vegetable farmer beginning to emerge. What the hell was I laughing at?

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