The air is still and thick with dust and smoke. Dust because it has not rained for weeks, and smoke because the grass is bone dry and the evidence of periodic veldt fires can be seen across the flat valley floor towards the high ridge of the striking Ngwenya mountains. The colour of the landscape is burnt umber. In the middle distance distinct grass types can be identified; some colonies wave with deep red fronds and in the marsh areas butter coloured reeds with green tops crowd together. Where recent fires have occurred the land is charcoal black. Sporadic trees stand alone, dark green, stark and aloof.
Occasional cars and trucks speed along the tarred dual carriageway towards the Ngwenya border post. The highway is elevated here and the vehicles are removed from the life below. On the transverse road that runs under the highway leading West to Hawane and East towards Sicunusa more sedate rural vehicles chug, splutter and smoke – adding to the general fug in the vicinity of the market.
“Excuse me,” this time a little more insistent and punctuated by delicate throat clearing.
The market is a flattened dusty area defined by rows of small brick structures forming three sides of a square. A laager of commerce. Each shop unit has a steel tip-up garage door common on any urban house. At the entrances there are counters piled with goods. Long green bars of soap, tins of pilchards, matches, bread, bags of meillie meal - the stuff of life. Root vegetables and fruit are wrapped in neat pyramids in clear iplastici. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, oranges, onions, and tomatoes. Each pyramid contains between six and eight items and all cost fifteen Emalangeni for ease of commerce. Cabbage and spinach are sold in bunches for ten Emalangeni each.
There are as many stalls outside the formal garage structures. Here the vendors are exposed to the winter sun that provides warmth in the open but cannot penetrate the shade. They sit under once cheerful coloured but now dull and faded sun umbrellas, invariably with babies and toddlers in restless attendance.
“Sorry Madam, excuse me”
A seasoned victim of mendicants and beggars Sara stiffened. How many times has she heard just this approach? The opening gambit would follow. Something along the lines of “Can you help me?” And how many times had her innate generosity been called upon. She was most vulnerable to frontal assault from well dressed persons waving what appeared to be an official letter with an appropriate official ink stamp giving the bearer permission to collect money for this or that worthy, and apparently government sponsored cause.
The most memorable encounter had been the heart rending case of the poor fellow who had caught his arm in a thresher, or was it a bark stripper, or perhaps the rock crusher at Nkwaleni Quarry. Whichever demonic piece of machinery it had been it had rendered his left arm (or was it his right?) so useless that it seemed to revolve as if the elbow was a ball joint rather than a lever. He’d had to travel urgently to Siteki (why is it always Siteki?) to get the currently redundant limb set and thus rendered usable. He had emphasised his predicament by theatrically twirling the loose limb with such violence that Sara thought it must surely finally detach itself and thump twitching to the ground like a newly landed fish.
Twice. Twice Sara had given to this noble cause. The second time was admittedly a year after the first and she only realised after handing over the obligatory 50 Emalangeni (why always 50?) that while the story and the fellow were the same (and perhaps therefore potentially credible) the limb was different.
She turned to face her interlocutor.
Standing in front of her was a youngish man in his mid thirties. Shaved head with a carefully groomed pencil moustache. He was wearing a sharp suit and those absurd shoes that Sara had noticed had recently become fashionable, impossibly shiny with long wedged toes. The well pressed collared shirt was open at the neck revealing a chunky gold chain. He could easily be one of the new crop of preachers who had sprung up recently at little more than the drop of a psalm. To his credit all his limbs seemed to be intact.
As she had so often in the past reflected - here I am, a lone mulungu among a concourse of Swazi women and all I want to do is to buy onions, sweet potatoes and whatever green vegetables I can find, and I get approached by someone who thinks that because I am white I have got money to spare.
“Can you tell me another word for ‘generosity”.
He pronounced the word with care, each syllable deliberately enunciated “gen-ur-os-ity”, the “os” inflected and running into “ity”.
Oh my God she thought – this is a new one. I wonder how the holy book will be invoked. This is beyond money for a taxi ride to town in order to catch an onward connection to Siteki to collect money for a sickly child in need of emergency hospitalisation. I am about to be severely tested.
“No no I don’t think I do,” she said politely. “I don’t think I do know another word for generosity”. The word deliberately flatly pronounced with no unnecessary inflection or emphasis for fear of giving inadvertent offence, but at the same time underscoring a strength to her reply. The start of a defence against a biblically inspired onslaught on her conscience.
“Eleven letters”, he said. “Fourth letter e.”
Only then did she become aware that he was brandishing a copy of the Times of Swaziland. It was folded carefully in half, lengthways. He was pushing the newspaper towards her as emphasis. Uppermost was the cryptic crossword. Sara could see that at least a third of the white squares had been completed in careful block capital letters with blue ink.
A wave of relief washed over her, heavily tinged with the guilt of wrongful expectation. Oh dear, she thought, caught again; and so comprehensively caught again!
“Goodness me,” she exclaimed.
After a moment of careful consideration the man said “I don’t think so Madam. Goodness me is ten letters, and two words. I need eleven letters in one word. Just one word. Generosity, eleven letters. Can you help me?”