A mosaic of Leo and Makhosi. (Supplied)

The mlungu in the room

A mosaic of Leo and Makhosi. (Supplied)
A mosaic of Leo and Makhosi. (Supplied)

So this is the place she had always called home; a jumble of houses, shacks and unpaved roads in between the beautiful rolling green hills of KwaZulu-Natal. My parents and I are probably the only white people in a 20km radius. I feel like an intruder. Even at the burial, as I closed my eyes and listened to the singing of the choir coupled with the rhythmic sound of spades filling up the grave with sand, I felt their eyes watching me. Was it really my place to be here?

But as I stepped into the room, I forgot all that. It didn’t matter because this room smells exactly the way her room used to smell. The staff quarters at the back of our house and this room in the middle of Zululand, 300kms apart, are one and the same. I know how terrible it is to say this but I literally cannot describe the smell. It is simply a thousand memories of my other mother.

“This is Makhosi’s mfana”, Mabel tells the other gogos sitting in the room. I feel seven pairs of eyes looking at me, sizing me up. There’s a laugh and a smile and everyone waves at me. I feel a bit more relaxed and looking down I have to smile as well. Laid out on the floor are bowls of rice and dark purple beetroot, plates heaped with butternut and pumpkin and two big pots of stew. And this is just for seven old ladies; there are another fifty people outside all being served plates of food. Everything looks like it was made by her, everything smells like it was made by her; but of course it wasn’t.

We hand over the gifts we’ve brought for the family: a big bunch of flowers and a framed collage of photographs my mom had made. For the first time I really do have to cry. The four pictures of me and Makhosi are handed around the room for all the gogos to have a look at and everyone laughs, smiles and points at me again. No one can believe how big I’ve grown. The mood seems to sway between cheerful hopefulness and total sadness.

There’s someone hurrying around trying to organise a plate of food for me. I keep getting asked if I want some of this or some of that. I keep trying to explain that it doesn’t matter, that I’ll eat whatever I’m given. The Zulu whirls all around my head and of course I can’t understand it, but I do catch one word that I know: mlungu. I finally sit down and take a look at my plate: a mountain of rice covered in gravy and beef, large spoonfuls of mash and butternut and chakalaka. To top it all off, I am offered a chicken drumstick from a bowl that’s being passed around. It’s time to tuck in.

I hear the cow that’s walking around outside moo as I bite into a piece of beef and I feel kind of guilty. The feeling only lasts a few moments, because the stew is amazing. Every bite of rice covered in rich gravy reminds me of being asked to try whatever Makhosi was making, to tell her if it was all right. It was always better than all right and so was this. I turned to the mash and the butternut that had also been soaking in sauce. I was surprised by a sudden burst of sweetness as I discovered little peas tucked away every now and again. I remember the times she used to babysit me when my parents were out and ask me what I wanted for supper. Mashed potatoes were a popular response.

I remember her trying to convince me to eat my vegetables so that I could grow up big and strong. I didn’t need convincing this time as I attacked the bright orange butternut. It was warm and sweet and silky smooth. The rice, the gravy, the mash and the potatoes seem to conglomerate into one big ball of flavour that is chewy and smooth, sweet, savoury and a little bit spicy all at the same time. The spiciness I realise, is from the chakalaka that I haven’t even tried yet. Why is everything so good? The combination of beans, tomato and chili is an explosion of tangy flavour followed by a mild heat.

Someone has handed me a plastic cup filled with some bright yellow, fizzling drink and a sip of the cold, sweet juice is the perfect counter to the heavy, humid heat. I was never allowed this kind of thing as a child, but she sometimes let me take a sip of her coke when my mom wasn’t watching. The drink seems to accentuate the flavour of the food and the tastes are suddenly much sharper. My dad loves to tell me which two hundred rand wine pairs well with the perfect rump steak but I bet he doesn’t know how well Pine Nut Cream Soda goes with beef stew. I finish off the last bits of succulent fat and hunt down a couple of runaway peas until my plate is almost empty.

There’s just the drumstick left. I picked it up with my hands, ignoring the fork I had been using and ate my chicken the proper way; the way she taught me. The crispy skin, the tender flesh and even the knobbly bits on top; I ate everything. All I was left with was the bone and I knew what I had to do. Biting into the bone was my final goodbye. Exactly the way she used to, sitting in her room, with its wonderful aromas, and biting into chicken bones. I found the crumbling, dark brown marrow hidden inside and let the memories consume me.

I thought about everything I had experienced today and had to smile in amazement. The brightly coloured dresses, the beautiful singing and the abundance of food; this was not a mourning of death, but a celebration of life. It was not tea and sandwiches after a depressing service, it was love and warmth put into feeding a hundred people. They hardly have money to live, but there’s money for Makhosi’s umngcwabo. It truly was a special way to remember a special person.

Sibongile, Makhosi’s sister, is walking us to the car; it’s time to go home. “You’ve got a little one as well, don’t you?” my mom asked. A shout and a woza later a little albino boy is running up to us to say hello. “God gave me a mlungu, just like you!”

I’m not sure why I put the Lego man in my pocket this morning. I suppose it was some sort of keepsake. I’d wanted to put it at her grave, but it hadn’t felt right. I bent down onto one knee, “Makhosi and I used to play with these together. But I’m big now and I don’t need it anymore.” I placed the little yellow figure in the milky white hand.

I turned around one last time before getting into the car and saw the little albino boy running to show his friends the little yellow man.

Leo Karamanof is a Grade 12 student at the Deutsche Internationale Schule Johannesburg. This story was an English essay on the topic ‘A remembered meal’ , and was inspired by his visit to Makhosazana Dlamini’s family home in Newcastle for her funeral.

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