Once, writing about pregnancy, I mused that the body has its own knowledge, beyond language and consciousness. If you’ve given birth au naturel, you will remember that the body takes over, heaving and contracting, doing things you cannot tell it to do or to stop; and your mind is overwhelmed in helpless agony unless you can distract it by breathing hard to the body’s rhythm. The body knows birth.
Maybe the body also knows death. Elaine Rosa Salo and her family moved to Delaware, a small state in the US, almost three years ago. It is only a little hyperbole to say that Elaine knew everyone and everyone knows her. I think it was her body that took her back to South Africa twice in the past year, as cancer speared her bones, lungs, liver, the membranes of her brain. I think her wings took her back to the places she loved – like birds do here in North America, flying south when they sense winter is coming. Elaine ignored pleas (“Rest! Conserve your strength!”) and defied the logic of her illness, a 16 year titanic battle. Weakened, she made one last trip to a conference, friends and more family in Cape Town anyway; she threw up in the plane all the way back.
Elaine, child of the Northern Cape, died in Delaware last week. No one is technically in exile from South Africa any more. No more exit permits. But that’s not how it feels. Being away from South Africa burns, it’s a wound that doesn’t heal. It stops hurting when you finally walk into the air outside OR Tambo or Cape Town International and breathe. It stops hurting when you see the mountain, or the bay, or the dusty greybrown scrub grass of the highveld winter. It stops hurting when the air feels softly around you as it should and the colors glow in the evening light as they should. It stops hurting when the people that you are laughing with know, down to the core of their being, the recognition of shared histories. Everywhere else, a little welding flame of sadness is biting at your heart.
A failing body drawn towards home; and a mind that would not give up on the promise of a better life for the downtrodden. In the many, many deep disappointments, disillusionments and failures of this South Africa, we remember that what people fought for was a better life. Elaine came of age in that fight and she carried it through as long and as best she could. Her passion was to clothe the experiences of women and men on the Cape Flats in the dignity they deserved. Not god’s stepchildren, not tattooed gangsters, not gap-toothed drunks on street corners, not child-women shouting at dirty urchins. No. People with histories, communities and choices who deserved respect and careful theorizing. The women, in Hamner’s “Meeting of the Women.” Elaine cared so much about getting all this right that her Manenberg masterpiece was never finished.
Well, that was one reason. Another was that she struggled to find an intellectual home. The disciplines were too straight and the interdisciplines were too crooked. Perhaps she would have flourished in Delaware, where on the one hand, the high South African stakes were one step removed from daily reality and the library is brimming with riches. Perhaps she would have found the space there to think and write. On the other hand, perhaps on the US rollercoaster she would have driven herself mainly to make new connections between southern Africa and the world, with the old fields under-harvested. We won’t know. She has left us.
But Elaine is. A raucous, rolling guffaw, raising someone’s prim eyebrow. As long as pickled fish, and bread and butter pudding endure, Elaine is. She is the stubborn refusal to pander to the status quo. She is the extra kindness that is least expected; the question that you ask anyway. She is the teacher with too many classes and too many students who still thinks about each lesson plan. She entrusted new lives to the one she loved so dearly. She is the belief in goodness. Elaine is.