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  • We name ourselves variously. In some traditional cultures the tribal name means, The People. Outside the boundary of kinship, clan and tribe are the ‘not people’. There is an honesty to this assertion. When I was kid and went to someone else’s house there were moments of feeling strongly that I had crossed over and entered a strange territory. It was the smells that did it. Something was cooking but it wasn’t food. Just a few doors apart and yet each house a culture unto itself. I was frequently a foreigner in my own neighbourhood.

    Our little school holds many worlds too. Hilda’s desk in the nurse’s office is where they intersect.

    She distributes lunch tickets to parents and kids. Directs them to the Lost and Found. Does the bus changes and passes on my emails about maintenance requests. When the nurse is out she hands out band-aids for paper cuts and pulls microscopic splinters. The drivers stand around her desk and argue about errands and pass notes back and forth trying to decipher the hidden meaning. The idea of play dates and going to and with and for, different arrangement for every day of the week, these are mysterious and baffling customs to them.

    Descriptions that rely on adjectives are even more or a risk. I listen to the discussion about shelves, or notebooks or plastic containers until I can’t stand it. When I go into the office they are turning the paper this way and that as if a different angle will shed light on the matter.

    Ask for a sample, I tell them.

    Houa, says Ms Elizabeth and covers her smile with her hand.

    Hilda is out now. She was in the hospital for several days and was just let out for six weeks recuperation at home.

    The teachers got together and prepared food for her. I got a driver to take Elizabeth over today with it all. Apple crumble and casseroles and banana bread. That kind of thing. Elizabeth came in to see me in the afternoon. She closed the door and sat at the round table in my office.

    I got up and sat with her.

    Mr Ben, she said.

    Yes Ms Elizabeth. How is Ms Hilda.

    She is fine.

    We paused and considered that it was good.

    Mr Ben.

    Yes.

    Ms Hilda said the food the teachers sent. It is very nice but,

    I nodded.

    It is not our food, explained Ms Elizabeth.

    I remembered the Christmas gift packs we had made one year when the currency exchange was at a peak for expats. The Belgian chocolate, specialty soaps, exotic tinned goods and how the staff asked could they please just have money.

    I knew.

    I thought about the little stove the size of a microwave with the two burners on top in her apartment and how her place at home wouldn't even have that.

    I thought of times they had borrowed the school pick-up to haul an old fridge out to Hammanskraal where Hilda stays. Thought of the little house it would go into. Thought of all the scavenged bricks over the years Hilda has hauled out to turn her place from shack to house. Thought how those bags would have filled it to overflowing.

    What would she like, I asked.

    She likes the spaghetti, said Ms Elizabeth seriously. Chicken and mince and macaroni.

    I’ll tell them, I said.

    When I used to supervise all the operational staff we always had a few braais to celebrate. I fired up the school’s grills and sent a couple of drivers off to shop for meat.

    Should I tell them to get steak or chicken or boerwors (sausages) asked the secretary.

    Yes, I said. Lots.

    Elizabeth cooked a huge pot of mealie meal to make pap (thick corn meal porridge) and we served up a massive layer of it on every plate.

    I cooked the meat done, done, done on the grill and the plates were heaped up with meats so it took two hands to carry them.

    Elizabeth always made up plates for the security guards and made sure they got Fanta or whatever cool drink was left over to wash it down.

    There was never any work done those afternoons but that wasn't the point. And there damn sure weren't any leftovers.

    When you go cross borders I always figure it’s good practice to bring the right food along.
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