It has now been more than a year ago since this strangely innocent and naïve young Xhosa man has moved in with me.
The original arrangement that Maswazi Macaleni would only stay for a week or two in my garage until he can find elsewhere to live has long been forgotten and we have settled into a comfortable routine that is mutually beneficial.
I must admit that I had my doubts in the beginning. I am a very private person who can only tolerate other people for short periods of time in my space. But I also realised we had to make it work – he had nowhere else to go.
Of course, we went through a few rough patches. I had to learn to set boundaries and Maswazi had to adapt to a household run by a weird woman and a spiteful little black cat. But somehow we managed to pull through.
He is a kind and gentle young man, who will avoid any confrontation and any form of aggression at all cost. He is honest to a fault and has an inherent integrity and sense of fairness that astonishes me every time.
And in all the time he’s been staying with me, he has never forgotten his friends who are less fortunate than him. He would often ask me, before I throw something out, if he could rather give it to his friends. I often indulge him and keep something aside that he can give to his friends – even now and then a bag of Romany Creams or some cake left over from the market.
Cleo loves to tease him. The tiny little black cat would preempt his movements and go and sit right in his way. And then he would call me for help. But Cleo also goes to him and ignore me completely when we have lunch. She’ll only accept little titbits from the table out of Maswazi’s hand
But Maswazi can also irritate me with his annoying habit of screening my friends and visitors. Saturday afternoons after the market he does not allow anyone near me. “Karen is resting,” he would say in such a way that nobody dares to dispute it. And I would be blissfully unaware – only the next day he would tell me about people asking for me.
When a computer guy sacrificed his off day to help me fix my laptop, Maswazi made a point of hanging around. “This guy is not right – I don’t trust him.”
He is also my self-appointed stylist. The other day I was in a hurry, on my way to a food shoot for CCTV, the Cape Town local TV channel. He looked me up and down and said disapprovingly: No, Karen, not those boots with that dress.”
For a moment there I was completely speechless and then I started laughing. I went back to my room to change my dress.
The other day, while my mom was visiting, I quickly went to the shop. My mom got quite upset when she saw my handbag on the chair. “She’s forgotten her bag,” she told Maswazi.”
“No, Ma, she took the black one. She’s wearing a black dress,” and then added emphatically. “Karen is a lady.”
I giggled when my mom told me the story, because I only get the looks of disapproval and never hear something good.
Maswazi is not particularly fond of gardening but will try to humour me. He realises cleaning is an important part of running a household and really tries to make an enthusiastic contribution. But it is truly in the kitchen that he becomes alive. He loves cooking and baking and absorbs everything I teach him. And it is true what he told me right at the very beginning: “Karen, you only tell me once!”
I often get frustrated with his limited communication skills in English and I have been trying to teach him that, although I only need a word or two to understand him, he’ll have to learn to complete his sentences to make himself understood to other people. When he feels I have harassed him too much about his English, he takes his revenge by not speaking to me at all or by chatting away in Xhosa to Zuki, ignoring me completely.
But there is no question about his loyalty towards me. The other day I got quite angry and frustrated with the painters at my neighbour’s house. One of them told Maswazi in Xhosa: “She’s racist.”
“No,” said Maswazi. “She isn’t racist – she washes my clothes!”
I would probably have far less problems and some money to spend if I didn’t have Maswazi in my life. But I would be so much poorer in spirit and in life experience without this young man whom I have grown to love as the son I never had.