Say the word “Africa” in the western world, and images arise of poverty, hunger, desperation. Emaciated children with fly-blown eyes, old women staggering uphill with great loads of firewood balanced on their grizzled heads, men with machetes, boys with machine guns, corrupt political bosses with fancy women and gold-plated toilets. These images make us cringe and shudder, or toss a few bucks at aid agencies, or sign petitions for Darfur. They emphasize Africa’s “otherness.”
But there is another Africa less sensational, the Africa of hard-working, sometimes-muddled, sometimes broken-hearted middle-class Africans: teachers, physicians, government clerks, businesswomen, IT specialists–people who work in cubicles, or grade papers, or swing shifts at the hospital. People who have cars and car insurance payments. People who hook up satellite dishes to the outsides of their houses so they can watch old Hollywood movies when they wake up at 2 a.m. with insomnia. People who have electricity and indoor plumbing, who cart their children to violin lessons and art classes. People who hire less-affluent relatives to care for their aging parents, who try, despite the constant pleas of neighbors who come banging at their doors daily, to save a little for vacations in Mauritius or to take their teenagers to Disneyworld or the Louvre. They have kitchens like this one, and in their kitchens, battered wooden tables, and around those tables the history of their families’ trials and conquests has been lived and told, wept over and celebrated.
This is my friend Moroesi’s kitchen, and in the center of it, the kitchen table that was once her mother’s, the table where the family kneaded bread, drank tea daily and wine on special occasions, listened to each other’s dreams, planned for the future, and wept over disappointments and betrayals. I took this picture early in the morning on my last day in Lesotho. I walked into the kitchen before Moroesi was awake, and I saw the sun streaming through her white curtains, clean and pressed, letting in the light. Later Moroesi joined me in the kitchen. “This table,” she said, slapping its whitewashed surface as I sat at the end of it drinking a cup of her Kenyan tea, “has heard all the stories of my life.”
Like what? I wondered. She laughed, “My mother sat at this table when she came home from working in other women’s kitchens. She lectured me at this very table that I must work hard in school so I wouldn’t have to labor the way she did. Here she looked at my grades and meted out punishments when I disappointed her. Here I told my mother of my marriage to a man she didn’t approve of, of my pregnancy, and before long, with shame and grief, of my heartbreak. She was right about him, much as I didn’t want to admit it. He was not a good man. He had left us. But the next year at this table we opened the letter that said I’d been accepted for graduate studies at an American university. I propped my first baby on this table in her infant seat, I sat my second baby here in her high chair, and just last week I rested my fourth grandchild on this table while my daughter was on the cell phone with her ex-husband and I was trying to power up her laptop.”
Moroesi’s living room has a zebra skin on the floor under a glass-topped coffee table. There are beautiful mahogany masks on the walls, from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Ghana. Her bookcase is full of poetry and novels published in English by Maya Angelou, Chinua Achebe, Alice Walker, Flora Nwapa, Virginia Woolf, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Her grandchildren speak both Sesotho and English, and her granddaughter who is eleven is learning Spanish. Both her daughters are college-educated and divorced; one struggles with depression. Her live-in housekeeper scrubs that whitewashed table after every meal, keeps the curtains fresh, and uses a bunch of grass tied together as a broom to sweep the garden. Like middle-class people everywhere, she worries about the bills; she tries to keep her credit card balances under control; she gets headaches, and she wonders sometimes about the meaning of life.
A powerful windstorm blew in during the night I slept at her house, and it covered her car with dust and blew out the electricity. Before she took me to the airport next morning, she took the little step-stool outside and washed her car, using buckets of water because the drought had dried up all the water in the tap outside. “I love this little car,” she laughed. “It’s the best one I’ve ever had. I can’t take it to the airport looking a mess.” And then she looked out at the roadway in front of her house. “All my poor neighbors know how to come knock at my door to ask for handouts, and you would think some enterprising teenager would have been here this morning, begging to wash my car for a few rands. But not one of them has shown up. Never mind. I’ll do it myself.”