“O lekgoa” was thrown around whenever we smelt good, or “O nkgasekgoa” (You smell white).
Thwack … squish and I feel the mud slurp at the edge of my spade as I rip up carpets of agapanthus from my Kiwi customer’s flowerbeds. A wash of snail- and worm-slimed earth, along with trodden-on cat shit washes over my face and arms. The smell and taste get into my throat, under my skin, in my nails. The grimy shorts I am wearing I have probably worn every day for the last three days. A clean shirt is kept in my van, hopefully sprayed with deodorant, if I remembered. From time to time surprise sheets of rain, lifted off the same ocean that glints nearby, flail across my back and the garden I’m sometimes thigh-deep in.
In my mind’s eye, as I drop the spade to grab an axe, there is Sipho’s silent, dark arms and calm, wet back as he thudded with a spade into similar but drier earth alongside me outside a military camp in Eikenhof, South Africa, 1983. We were both required to dig a trench for God knows what reason. He watched me with a grin. Grunting away, I was hammering my spade into the ground to remove roots and plants. He chuckled. Then he said, “not like that”.
I straightened up and watched him. His movements with the spade and axe were soft as water; yet he flicked large spadefuls of dirt and foliage to the side and sliced through small trees with ease. I was whacking at the ground too hard. The way I banged away with my spade and axe was counter-productive, exhausting, and jarred my joints. I followed his movements, using the weight of my body and my back muscles instead of relying on the strength of my arms. I discovered that using a spade and axe well, had more to do with balance and weight, rolling on the balls of the feet, getting a feel for the right thrust at the root-dense soil; it was learning to master an axe-sharp stab at a weak point between the stem and root of a plant. With short breaks and deep breaths, you can learn to go on like that all day. Sipho was as effortless as the wind or a ballet dancer.
We toiled for most of that day, half-crouched on the earth in Eikenhof near Johannesburg, sweat pouring off me, not so much off Sipho who had been doing this kind of work for a long time, unlike the “privileged” white youth next to him.
I don’t remember Sipho’s smell but I do remember his significant life lesson about not forcing things. My father also taught this in a different way when he saw me trying to fix a clock and losing my temper: “As soon as you force something,” he said, “you are doing something wrong.”
Today, here in Brown’s Bay, New Zealand, I stand up, suck in air, spit on the ground. My back is a slick of perspiration as I rub grubby gloved hands over my face, savour and smell the grit in my armpits that’s also streaked down my chest and shoulders along with sweat, bits of plant and heaven knows what else. The odours that burst from split plants and axed trees is by turns fragrantly half-rotten, or bitter-sweet like the lemon tree I dug and hugged up with both arms, her soil dripping from long roots which I will take back to my Chinese landlady, discuss in my rusty Mandarin where to plant it with her and her father-in-law.
The scents of this place. They are heady, always real, exact, pulled into my lungs and expelled as I absorb the smell of myself, the smell of the spaded-up and axed-through earth which slowly darkens, forms the pews and aisles of late afternoon shade.
As I finish off the job of clearing out the huge flower beds the Kiwi customer comes home, a kindly, middle-aged lady who works part time for a local SPCA . She is thrilled with my work. Man, I love that.
I point to a stump I was unable to remove; we both know that would have needed a stump grinder anyway. This reminds me of a silver-haired man who walked past earlier who introduced himself as Tim. I immediately knew Tim to be a fellow South African because of his accent. We spoke for a bit and at one point he told me he was retired, and complimented me on my work. He suggested a stump grinder for the stump I was crouched next to. I stopped sawing off a branch from the stump, and muttered back to him that, ja, ja, I did know that. And that I wanted to do the best I could for my customer by removing the branches I could without an expensive stump grinder. Tim then gave me too much advice on how I should have been doing things and I — still sometimes easily irritated — nearly told him he must have been on the board of directors of some company back in his day.
But this was the poignant thing. When I first replied to Tim’s greeting and he heard my similar accent as he strolled past, he stopped. He turned to face me. “Oh,” he said, “you also from South Africa — which part?” His face changed, creasing up as he took in a white man in his fifties working with an axe and spade, speaking in that old accent rich with Dutch and British colonial history. Then he slowly lifted his hand to his chin. Several centuries were suggested in the simple gesture of him staring at me as his fingers thoughtfully stroked his cheek and mouth. Those centuries were filled with the history of the southern tip and sea routes of that faraway continent: hundreds of years that reeked of oppression, cheap labour, deeply divided classes and races. His hand stroked his face most of the time he looked at me while we talked about the uses of stump grinders and so forth.
After a bit, I smiled and told him I had to go back to work. He said, “I’ll let you get on with it”. Then he turned to look at me one more time and used a common Kiwi expression, said softly and encouragingly, the words nevertheless faintly echoing those colonial centuries. “Good on you mate. Good on you.” I smiled again, knowing what he meant. I watched that thoughtful hand of his slowly drop, as if cutting through the veils of those hundreds of years. Rubbing my face again with my grubby garden gloves, I smelled myself. Breathed in the real, exacting earth to which I will return.
Ja, I smelt me. Some might say, I was smelling my whiteness.
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