Bheki Mashile's Letter from Umjindi

Reminder. A mind is a terrible thing to waste

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, read the infamous slogan used by the USA’s United Negro College Fund. A short while ago I had reason to be reminded of that slogan.

What brought this on? Well, strained muscles from a fall that left me unable to drive or walk. Being in this kind of situation leads to serious frustrations, especially for someone like myself who can be highly strung and annoyingly impatient.

So what’s a crippled boy to do? Clearly my only option was to draw in one of my trusted workers to be my personal assistant for driving, going to the shop etc. Generally this man was to become my errand boy. (Oops! Did I just say that? Sorry. He is not my “errand boy” but  rather a much appreciated assistant. Good thing I am not white, otherwise this little “errand boy” faux pas would make national news.

However, if I thought that bringing in Sdumo’s help would ease my frustration, my pain, and make my temporarily crippled life a little easier, boy oh boy, would I be proven wrong.

It began with our first trip to the supermarket. I send Sdumo in to get a few basic things – bread, milk, ground beef and pasta, but I sense trouble when he says, “I don’t know what ground beef is”. I remind myself to get off my American high horse and I tell the fella I mean mincemeat.

Then, while driving back to the farm I notice he bought the mincemeat from the store’s butchery. Major irritation. “Why the heck didn’t you get the mince from the meat fridge? There you get great money-saving specials of the day,” I say.

He responds: “I always buy from the butcher”.

I say, “That’s because in the kasi (township) you have no choice but to buy from the local butchery, you idiot.” But my inner voice immediately kicks in and objects to the idiot remark, saying “Easy there, Mr Snob”.

Next, we get to the farm and, as he puts the milk in the fridge, I notice it is fat free. Bheki the snob and Mr Annoyed gather forces and go on a tirade: “Why the hell would you buy me fat-free milk? Do I look to you as if I need to worry about fat?”

“But this is the milk I always buy,” he says.

“B***s***t,” I say. “You just grabbed milk. Why didn’t you read it?”

As soon as he leaves, I hear that inner voice pipe up again and it says: “Hey genius, did it ever dawn on you that Sdumo does not have a good grasp of spoken English not to mention that he clearly can’t read it.”

Inner voice continues, “Listen you idiot that’s why you got fat-free milk, and how often do you think he goes to the supermarket when he survives on piece jobs? He might be part-time with you, but it’s probably his first steady job. So, naturally, his shopping habits would be for the little he can afford at the spaza which is convenient for him.”

Yup, the inner voice is correct. I am – and feel like – an idiot for not picking up on these things. So I respond to the inner voice. “Okay,” I tell myself, “Next time I will have to write a shopping list and instruct him to ask one of the store clerks to help.”

Well, the next time the need for some groceries arises, I follow my own advice and write a shopping list to be presented to a store clerk. The items on the list are not just simple, I even write them in both English and Siswati. Furthermore, I take the pains to thoroughly explain what the items are. Included is coconut hair food, a hair moisturiser (hey, gotta take care of those natty dreads). So I sit in the bakkie and wait – thoroughly satisfied that nothing can go wrong.

Well, Sdumo comes back and I casually look into the plastic bag. I see a box of oatmeal and some of the other items and give the thumbs up.

We get home and while unpacking the groceries I notice that instead of the coconut hair food he bought a 500g bag of coconut flakes. To say I went ballistic is an understatement. I say, “I wanted to moisturise my hair, not give it coconut frosting like on a cake!” He says, “It wasn’t me, it was the clerk.”

I quickly compose myself and in the kindest way I ask whether he can read English. Not surprisingly the answer is no. I then ask, “How much of what I say in English do you understand?”    “Very little,” is the answer.

“As of today you are my English pupil and not only will I teach you to speak it, I will teach you to read it.

“Oh, and by the way, while we are at it I am also going to teach you how to shop so that you can stretch the meagre wage I pay you.”

With a big smile on his face he says, “Eish! Awati ukutsi ngabeungsite kanjani (loosely translated: you have no idea how much you would have helped me).”

Yes indeed, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.


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