By Maggie Downs
In this excerpt from Braver Than You Think, Maggie is in the small village of Nqileni, South Africa, where she finds a sense of home — and reminders of her mom — on the other side of the world.
THERE ARE MANY ACTIVITIES TO DO IN THE VILLAGE, AND I choose to spend a day with Abalene, a woman from Nqileni. She brings me to the hut where she and her sister live.
Abalene pours water into a bowl of dry clay and stirs it gently with her fingers. Then she spreads it on my face, smoothing the brown mud over my cheeks, forehead, nose, and chin. It’s been a while since I’ve had someone else’s hands on me. It feels both intimate and strange, like the first tentative touch of a new lover. I close my eyes and take it in. The longer she strokes my face, the more maternal it feels.
A memory surfaces of an incident that took place around 2005, about a year before my mom entered the nursing home. My dad was away for a work trip, so I was Mom’s caregiver for the weekend. I had to give her a bath, be-cause she could no longer take showers on her own. There was the fear that she could slip and fall, of course, but more importantly, on a couple of occasions my mom had tried to bring a plugged-in hair dryer into the running shower. “My hair was getting wet,” she explained.
At this point, Mom was still in one of the earlier stages of the disease— too far gone to know my name but cognizant enough to know I was someone trying to help. She was also stubborn enough to fight.
It’s difficult enough to give your own mother a bath—it’s a vulnerable act for everyone involved—but it’s even harder when she doesn’t want to do it. She thrashed, spilling bathwater on the floor, and she cried, spilling tears everywhere. I sat on the tile with my back against the door until she calmed enough to stay in the tub.
I bribed her with lovely, lilac-scented soap, then whispered, “Shhh,” as I wiped down her skin with a washcloth. Without her clothes, she looked very small. I smoothed her face with my fingers, cupped her chin in my hand. She was no longer crying, but her body hiccuped with silent sobs.
Abalene’s sister picks up another bowl—this one smaller than the first— and holds a matchstick between her thumb and index finger. She dips the end of the matchstick in reddish clay, drawing a line of dots around my forehead, then another line across my cheekbones and the bridge of my nose. On each cheek she makes small, swishy lines, fashioning simple daisies. She is the art-ist, and I am her canvas.
The clay face paint is part decorative, like local cosmetics, but it’s also practical. We’re going to be spending most of the day in the sun. The clay will act as a natural sunblock for my fair skin.
Abalene also grabs a red scarf and wraps it around my hair, tugging the curls into the fabric, then drawing both ends of the scarf into a knot, which she situates near the top of my head.
I hold my camera in front of my face and shoot a self-portrait, then ex-amine the image. I don’t recognize the face staring back at me. The first layer of clay has dried mint green, while the design is a ruddy red. I look beautiful but different, as if the Wild Coast has ripped away my surface and left me with something new.
Abalene smiles. With her approval, we head outside.
She teaches me to scavenge from the nearby forest, gathering firm sticks for firewood. This will be our kindling later when we prepare lunch. We secure the bundles with strips of fabric. Abalene places a bundle on top of my head, and I lean and sway from the sudden weight and strange pressure.
“Stand up tall,” she says. “Hold head high.”
I feel a knot of gnarled wood knuckling into my head, and I also feel the place where wood splinters catch on my red head scarf. All the sticks are long and hard, and when I walk, they threaten to topple. As I become more sure-footed, however, the branches also grow more confident. The wood perches as if it were meant to be there, like the branches were sprouting from my head.
I slowly, slowly make my way back up the hill and into Abalene’s hut. I don’t drop the wood, not even a single stick. She smiles and claps.
“Now let us try a bucket of water on your head,” she says.
The bucket ends up at my feet, my right shoulder baptized. A group of village children hoot, and I can’t help but giggle with them. Water drips down my side; clay runs along the side of my face. Abalene and I wipe tears from our eyes, we are laughing so hard.
“This is why you have the small bucket,” she says.
ABALENE’S HOME BECOMES MY OWN FOR THE DAY. I KNEEL on the compacted dirt floor, where I use a flat stone to grind corn into course pieces, like dry grits. Abalene has already cooked a pot of beans, which she sets aside while she boils water. We talk and she cooks the cornmeal until it becomes a thick porridge called ugali.
“You cook?” Abalene says, and I nod.
“Yes, but never ugali.”
“Then what do you eat?” she asks, incredulously.
The ugali is stiffer than day-old mashed potatoes. We roll it into balls with our fingers, then use the balls to sop up the bean stew. Until now, Abalene’s son, a child about four years old, has been playing in a neighbor’s hut. Now he sits close to me on the floor, his legs slung over mine.
While we eat, Abalene tells me about her family. Her husband works in the mineral mines near Johannesburg, several hours away. Like most of the men in this village, he leaves for months at a time. This leaves the women to run the town. They raise and educate the children. They care for each other’s farms. They tend to the sick and the elderly together. When one person’s cow wanders from the field, every woman sets off to search for it.
There’s an old saying in South Africa that a single straw from a broom can be broken, but together they are strong. That concept is known as ubuntu, the philosophy that we are all part of an interconnected web, rooted in acts of kindness and generosity. It means the way we treat others is more important than our individual accomplishments. Essentially, you can’t be human all by yourself.
I think about ubuntu a lot in this village, because I see it in action. Abalene breaks off a piece of bread to share with her young son. He toddles to the door, where he has three friends waiting. There he tears the bread and gives a piece to each of his friends.
Abalene pokes her head out the door and calls to a handful of women washing clothes in buckets outside a nearby hut. They saunter over and share some of the bean stew and ugali. As they leave, Abalene hands them a small stack of her laundry, which they will wash with their own.
We clean the dishes by hand, and I stack the bowls on a small table. That’s when I notice a framed photo on the wall, a black-and-white image of a finely dressed woman, head held high like royalty, eyes small and firm. I look to Abalene, and she answers before I ever ask the question.
“Mother,” she says.
I pull my iPhone from my bag. It doesn’t receive any service out here, but I can still access the photo library. I scroll through the photos, showing Abalene my best friend, my husband, my brother, my sister.
I stop when I get to a blonde woman, her head raised high just like Abalene’s mother, curls framing her face like a halo. She is sitting on a park bench in Europe, slim legs crossed at the knees, the hem of her checkered dress flared out around her calves. Her lips are slightly pouty, frozen mid-word.
This woman looks past the camera, far beyond the photographer. Some-times I wonder what she is thinking in that long-distance gaze, if she can somehow see beyond that moment. Imaginary loves, future sorrows, a home across the ocean.
“Mother?” Abalene says.
“Beautiful,” Abalene says. “She looks like you.”
Excerpted from BRAVER THAN YOU THINK: AROUND THE WORLD ON A TRIP OF MY (MOTHER’S) LIFETIME. Published with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2020 by Maggie Downs
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