I have been on a glorious week of leave at the coast and have no fresh stories. I was far too relaxed to think of anything profound to write in this blog, so today I want to tell a story from way back. My granddad, Oupa Maarten, used to say he was going to fetch the story in the Garden of Eden, right there where Adam started. I am fetching the story in 1995, so not quite as far back, but according to my kids, that is also ancient history.


I often speak of ulcers, but they are usually my own, mostly caused by the stress of living in a city where my chances of being raped are higher than my chances of being literate, where my chances of being held up in my own home by an armed robber is better than driving anywhere without seeing at least two out of order traffic lights and there is a huge risk that I will die in a car accident caused by an unlicensed driver in an unlicensed, uninsured car. If the crash is not immediately fatal, my chances of living don’t increase much if I don’t have good medical aid because the chance of surviving the “care” in a government hospital is abysmal.


So, luckily I am not going to write about that ulcer, as I can feel it getting angrier just writing about this amazingly dysfunctional city in which I live, and that I love.

Before starting the lodges, I had a proper job – you know those amazing things that when you knocked off at 5 o’clock you actually switched off and stopped worrying and started thinking only of yourself. I worked at IBM, opposite Sandton City. It was a fancy affair, with humming aircons and lovely desks and women wafting around in spikey heels on thick carpets. We employed an old cleaner whose name was Joseph. He was only about 65 but he looked as if he belonged in that small window between 90 and purgatory. He was ancient and could hardly speak English. I remember when I filled out his employment contract that he could not read or write and eventually signed his name with a simple big “J” which someone somewhere must have taught him.


Full disclosure, I adored Joseph. (I’ve always loved the geriatrics). Now in retrospect it was probably because he never said anything bad to me, probably  because we could not communicate in any language. He worked really hard and it looked like he was permanently mopping the floors. Our floors in the kitchens shone! He did not do much else, but then again, he did more than most people in that fancy block filled with  corporate under achievers. One day I noticed that he was hanging on to the mop more than driving it. He was almost using it as a crutch. This continued for a few weeks and then I came across him by chance as he was leaving one day after his shift, and for the first time in forever, he did not have a mop to prop him up. I realised that the poor guy could hardly walk! He was limping and supporting himself by holding on to the palisade fencing surrounding the office block.

I pulled over my tiny little brown Datsun 1200 and walked up to Joseph. I indicated to his limp and he very carefully pulled up his pants. On his calf was the ugliest biggest hole, festering with something black and grassy. I almost fainted it looked so sore! I was totally surprised that he managed to even be upright. I could not communicate much more and decided to schedule a meeting with him and his direct supervisor the next day.

Now Joseph’s supervisor was called Salomina. She was a scary chick and once after she did not like a joke I made, she managed to not speak one word to me for over a year. I think there is a photo of her next to the words “stubborn” and “grudge” in the Oxford Dictionary.

Fortunately for me, this meeting took place during an interval where she did grant me the privilege of verbally communicating with me. I told her that I was worried about Joseph’s leg and, in all my 23 year-old arrogant wisdom, that whatever he was using on the wound was not going to help.

Salomina looked at me condescendingly and stuck her finger in her nose, where she left it for a few minutes while she must have been considering her answer. She eventually answered that I should not worry my little white head about it and that Joseph had taken very good advice from a “naturopath”, and that since I did not have a degree in medicine, nor called by my ancestors to be a sangoma, she suggested that I mind my own business. And so, without Joseph saying a word, the meeting was adjourned. I was horrified! I loved Joseph. I desperately wanted to help him.

You know with youth comes an enormous amount of stupidity and optimism and so I had another card up my sleeve. The
next day we had a big management meeting and as I was really not management but more dog’s body and had to type the agenda, I quickly added another point of discussion: Joseph’s health.

I adored my boss and surely after I brought it up in the meeting he would intervene before Joseph lost his leg. My boss was a lovely English-speaking, South African who worked in catering for many years. I loved him. He taught me a huge amount about how business worked, and I still quote him to this day. I told him about Joseph and that he could hardly walk, and about the funny floor-polish-gunge on his leg. He shared his usual incredible wisdom right there and then. “This, is not your problem, leave Africa to Africa. Move to the next point on the agenda please.” And just like that, my Mother Theresa moment of trying to help Joseph was shattered.

But, as you can see, this is not where the story ends. A few days after the meeting that ended in such an anti-climax, I heard a commotion in the cold kitchen. I stormed out of the goldfish bowl office and found Salomina (the supervisor, come on, pay attention, the one who hated me)  writhing and thrashing around on the floor, foaming at the mouth. The first time this happened it was very scary. I had never seen someone have an epileptic fit before, and as Salomina was not a small woman, she looked like a big leviathan monster thrashing around on a beach trying to re-enter the sea. One of the dishwashers explained however that it was not an epileptic seizure. Salomina was in fact anointed with the power to know when someone passes into the other world. This seizure was the way the ancestors communicated the message to her. She was very blessed indeed.

So on this day when I found Salomina on the floor I patiently helped the other staff move tables away and folded a table cloth under her head while we waited for the ancestor to finish the conversation. After the spirits finished their chat and she went to lie down a bit, I heard that she was alerted of an imminent death in her village and that she was taking a week’s leave.

Yes, when the cat’s away, the mouse decided to play, and in my uncanny ignorance I decided to help Joseph while Salomina was away. (It is perhaps important to note here that Joseph never asked for help or indicated that he needed it, but no one can say I was not determined to help nonetheless). 

Delightedly, I knocked on my boss’ office door and announced that I would be taking Joseph to the doctor. He looked at me, and I could see him straining to avoid rolling his eyes, but he nodded and pulled out a piece of paper from his drawer. “Best you put in a day’s leave then; you can’t take time off on my watch,” he told me.


He rained on my parade, but Polly Anna was super excited and convinced she would change the world, one leg at a time. I informed Joseph with some difficulty that we would be going to the hospital in the morning and arranged to meet him at 5:00 am. I might have been naive, but I knew about the queues at the government hospitals and I was well aware of the fact that we were going to spend hours waiting for service. But who cared, Joseph was going to be healed. I doubt the ill guys lying next to the pool at Bethesda in the New Testament were as excited for the angel to come and bless the waters as I was to take Joseph to the then JG Strydom Hospital. (The irony is not lost on me that I was taking a man who was illiterate because of an abusive Apartheid government to a hospital that was named for one of the pillars of the regime).

And so, the next day, my little Datsun 1200 pulled up next to him where he waited for me on a chilly Highveld morning. He hopped in, literally, struggling and in pain – not with a spring in his step kinda hop – and off we tootled at a snail’s pace because the little Datsun was bought for its low price not speed.

Eventually we arrived at the hospital where I could see people had been queuing for ages, and we started waiting. It was past lunch time when we were finally ushered through to see a nurse. She was an old, very fat white Afrikaans woman who lost the joy of nursing long ago, if she ever had it at all. She diagnosed his sore as a venous leg ulcer which had become inflamed, She roughly removed the disgusting shoe polish mixture and spoke loudly to me in Afrikaans, completely ignoring her patient. She told me that the traditional healers made this concoction usually so that the ulcer could either heal, or get worse, in order for the sangoma to make a few more bucks. Joseph winced in pain but did not struggle. The nurse applied a compression bandage and I listened to all her instructions regarding elevating the foot, healthy diet, good circulation, etc etc. I was even so diligent as to make notes, and I asked the first available Zulu speaking cleaner I could find to help and she generously translated all the information to Joseph.

Joseph was smiling from ear to ear, and so was I. I thought I had made a difference. In fact, I kind of felt I was right up there with Joan of Arc fighting for the oppressed.

I dropped him close to the taxi rank, and although exhausted, and a bit sad that I spent a precious day’s leave in a government hospital, my little Datsun 1200 and I limped home where I made myself a warm whisky and got into a warm bath to scrub the hospital off me. I was exhausted but really felt I helped.


The next morning, I arrived at work and greeted the staff, Joseph was just outside my office, where I assumed he was about to come and express his heartfelt gratitude, but he did not say anything. He just came in like every other day to empty my dustbin. Just then my boss popped in and I proudly proclaimed the success of the previous day’s expedition to achieve better health. Mr Boss then lifted Joseph’s leg to inspect the fancy compression bandage, only to find a big blob of shoe polish and grass – exactly what had been there before. That is why Joseph was smiling the previous day in the car. He knew he was on his way back to the sangoma to get rid of the stupid white chick’s bandage.

What lesson did I learn? Stop being condescending, stop interfering and ask before you try and help whether people actaully want help. 

I don’t know what ever happened to Joseph, his leg or his ulcer, but I do know, these days I take the time to listen to people before making any decisions on their behalf.