My life with Maswazi

On Saturday morning I got up at 3.33 as I usually do to prepare for the market. I intentionally set the alarm for 3.33, finding a little comfort in the magic of numbers to make up for the lost sleep. This is what I do every Saturday morning. I make myself a cup of coffee and then the baking starts. And every Saturday morning, at seven, I hear the gate open and Maswazi coming up the stairs to help me.

But this Saturday morning was slightly different. He had to quickly run down to the restaurant at 7.45 to open up for the chef at 8. “My word, Maswazi, I am impressed. The owners must really trust you.”

“Yes, Karen,” he beamed. “They also give me the bank card to go and do some shopping for the restaurant.”
“You’re really working hard and proving yourself, Maswazi,” I said, “I am so proud of you.”
“But, Karen, you remember mos,” he said. “On 9 December last year, when I still lived in the bushes, you trusted me enough to leave me alone in your house.”

I was totally bowled over that that single gesture meant so much to him that he even remembered the date. And I thought to myself, if there is one thing that I have done right and has made my life worth living, it is taking this young man off the street and giving his self-respect back…

I met Maswazi Macaleni last autumn when I put out my garbage bin early on a Friday morning. He was with a friend and they were scavenging for food. Please don’t make a mess, I asked them. I’d rather put out some food in a separate container every Friday morning. But Maswazi told me it wasn’t going to work as the others would get to it first. So I did something that I normally wouldn’t even think of and told him that he could ring my doorbell at that time every Friday morning and I will give him some food.

It was so uncharacteristically for me that it had to the forces of destiny at work…

And so we established a new Friday routine. During the cold winter days I couldn’t stop thinking about this young man and some mornings I would make him a hot cup of coffee and a warm sandwich. But I never opened the gate.
And then, when summer came, he insisted on doing some work for me to pay me back for everything I have done for him. I had a braai shoot coming up that week and the garden desperately needed some tidying up. I also had another food shoot booked so there were more than enough people around to make it safe for me to let Maswazi in through the gate.

The poor guy worked so hard that day, but when I wanted to pay him, he refused. He did it to thank me, he said. “No, Maswazi,” I said, “that’s not the way I do things. You have earned every cent.”

I then asked him to come and help on the day of the braai shoot and then Maswazi started working regularly for me, twice a week. I have a very small garden and could not really afford a “gardener”. But when I had to tell Maswazi, I just couldn’t do it. So I asked him instead if he’d mind helping me and Zuki, my cleaning lady of the past twelve years, in and around the house. December was a busy month with all the baking and eventually Mazwasi helped with the baking of the heaps and heaps of Romany Creams. He turned out to be a natural.


Maswazi, I learned, lived in the bushes behind the school on the border of Walmer Estate and District Six. The guy, who appointed himself as the leader of the pack, was an ex-con and drug addict and, as the days went by, Maswazi grew more and more afraid of him. He would also steal all the stuff I gave Maswazi and sell it to buy drugs. And when he found out that Maswazi was earning some money, he charged him rent for living in the bushes.

I had sleepless nights and found myself constantly worried about his safety. I told Maswazi’s story and how he came into my life on Facebook and it generated such a positive response that I did not hesitate to use the social medium to ask for help. Maswazi needed a full-time job and a place to stay.

Hardly an hour after I posted on Facebook, I received the most wonderful job offer for Maswazi, but still no place to stay. But the more I thought about it, the more concerned I became. The job would require him to get to and from Paarden Eiland every day and I wasn’t sure that, after months in the bushes, he’d be ready for that.

Then the day before I had to take him to introduce him to his new employer, I had a food shoot for the magazine. I had to rush to the shop for a couple of last minute things and somehow Zuki and Maswazi misunderstood me and started weighing the coconut and the flour for the baking.

I couldn’t find it in my heart to tell them there isn’t time for baking. So I made them the chocolate mix and let them continue baking in the one stove while I used the other to prepare the food for the photo session.

The photographer and art director phoned to tell me they’d be late and I breathed a sigh of relief. But when they walked through the door, I took one look at their ashen faces and realised something was wrong. They encountered a woman on the high way who seemed to be having car trouble but it turned out she was disorientated because her four-year-old son had just been raped. They helped the woman and her children to get to the hospital and arrived visibly shaken at my house.

And, as if the day couldn’t get any crazier, the wife of the restaurant owner I recently met, came to observe our shoot. But as I said, the forces of destiny was hard at work…

The wife of the restaurant owner saw Maswazi in action in the kitchen and when the photographer and art director later asked me, after Maswazi had left, if I had any reaction on my Facebook plea, she immediately said that she only advertised that week for a kitchen hand in the restaurant, which was just down the road from me, and after what she had seen today, the job is Maswazi’s.

And so Maswazi started to work at the restaurant in Roodebloem Street, but he still had no place to stay. I told him that he could stay in my garage until he and a friend could get a place to rent at the end of the month. We worked out a bathroom schedule and an emmer system for the night. My taxi driver helped us to put up a lock on the inside so that Maswazi could lock himself in at night. In the mornings, Maswazi helps me with the baking and gets to earn some pocket money. Then we sit down for lunch before Maswazi gets to shower and dress for his restaurant job, clocking in at four.IMG_0915.JPG

Just before he leaves for work, Maswazi would pack a container with lunch left-overs to have later at the restaurant. After a while, I realised that he was blatantly showing off my skills as a cook. But in the end, my biggest culinary achievement, as I see it, is making Maswazi dig with lip-smacking gusto into a dish that contains the vegetables that he, as a true Xhosa male, so hates.

Like the sweet potato and thyme soup I make to ward off the winter cold – no meat in sight, only vegetables. But it soon became one of Maswazi’s favourites.

And then there is my home-made lemon syrup. I once made it with all the pomp and circumstance I could manage, showed him how to first put a sprig of mint in the bottom of the glass, slightly bruise it with a wooden spoon to release the flavour and then carefully measure the lemon syrup into the glass, top up with cold water and ice.
He religiously repeated the whole ritual, step by step, every time he poured himself a glass of cool drink. And I watched, in silent amusement…

At the end of the month it became apparent that Maswazi wasn’t planning on leaving and, as the arrangement suited us both, we never spoke about it again. Of course there were a few hiccups in the beginning, but this 28-year-old Xhosa man with the beautiful smile became such an integral part of my life.

Together we followed the Oscar Pistorius trial with Maswazi adamant that he should go to Pollsmoor and very disgusted with the final outcome. I have ordered the Mandela DVD, Long Walk to Freedom so that Maswazi and I can watch it together. Some days we listen to my classical music while we bake and other days I just zone out when we put on the DSTV music channels for Maswazi.

Yes, I have achieved many things in life that I can be rightly proud of. But when I close my eyes one day, I will know that the most important thing in life, the only thing that really matters, is that I at least made it possible for this young man to believe in himself.