Thursday, January 06, 2005
Letters from the New World #7: “Post Office Manners” Denis Beckett (JBG)
I had tried to be slightly joyous. I offered a greeting when I arrived, but people mmmphed in that embarrassed bourgeois manner, scandalized at unlicensed breaching of queue silence. So I like everyone was a stalagmite, separate to the other stalagmites, waiting in our separate spaces while the counters proceeded with lo-o-o-ong transactions.
Then a girl came in, a black girl in a school uniform. She looked around in the manner of someone in an unfamiliar place.
“Excuse me”, she said to the tannie (Afrikaans for 'Aunty') at the back of the queue, “Where do I go to send a parcel?”
If she’d whispered it the tannie might have whispered back. As it was, she said it out loud, unconcerned about putting the tannie on the spot in front of the other members of the queue.
So the tannie had an attack of Middle Class Frost, and couldn’t say anything. She gestured the girl in behind her. “Thank you”, said the girl, without irony.
And we stood. The big batch customers up front were taking time. After a while, the girl said, to no one in particular, “Excuse me, has something gone wrong or do we just keep on waiting?”
Everyone laughed a bit, including the clerks behind the counter. Several people mumbled something reassuring. One of the clients at the front turned and apologized for the hold-up. Ostensibly he was apologizing to the girl, but in fact he was apologizing to us all.
We felt better that he did apologize. We had been working up a resentment. Had it not been for the girl, he would never have made the apology. He would have walked out of there with all our glares daggering into his back. But now the glares were defused.
We resumed waiting, but it was different. The stalagmites were thawing. The tannie at the front of the queue called to the girl: “Don’t you have to be back at school by quarter past?” The girl said “Yes, but if I don’t send it now my granny won’t get it in time.” The tannie at the front said: “You’d better come up here, then. I’m sure these nice people won’t mind.” And she beamed a beam at the rest of us in the queue, and people nodded and murmured assent and beamed reciprocal beams.
The girl moved up the queue, politely thanking each person as she passed them. As she got to the front, the apology guy finished and went off with waves and goodbyes. The girl took his place and started explaining her needs in Sotho, calling the clerk “ntate” (Mr.) in every sentence. Apparently it was fairly lousy Sotho, because the clerk switched to English – he was explaining express services – and she was clearly relieved.
Meantime, the tannie at the front explained that she had recently retired from the school. The guy behind her said yes, he thought he recognized her; she had taught his child. Conversation spread. It’s not that everyone was vocal, but that the stalagmites had melted into a brand of community. The feel had been isolation; it became connection.
When the girl finished she did a curtsy to the ntate at the counter, a curtsy to the queue, thanked everyone, and hurried off. The rest of us stood differently now, relating better to each other, better even to the clerks.
Funny, I felt, how in 1994 and for a while beyond, we in the pale gang thought that the big change was an act of generosity; that we were leaning down, holding out the hand of friendship to pull them up.
These days, I find it humbling and thrilling to see ever more evidence of the two way street, the ways that white lives are enhanced by living in Africa.
© Denis Beckett, Submerging Markets™, January 05