Bags and Bottles
Between the potholed road and the muddy bank that is the sidewalk, a woman walks slowly uphill. She is slightly stooped or maybe it’s just the way her head hangs low. Her hands are full; in her right hand a plastic shopping bag and a plastic 5 litre of bottled water. In her left hand another plastic 5 litre of bottled water and a weathered plastic shopping bag. There is a carry-all bag slung over her shoulder. She zigzags in between the standing pools of muddy water and the large potholes on the roadway. About halfway up the long incline, she stops and puts down the bottles and bags and visibly sighs. She mops her brow with a doek that she pulls out from under her grey woolly jersey. She looks up at the top of the hill towards the informal settlement of tin, plastic and wooden structures that is home to thousands of people.
The younger and stronger residents of the settlement walk around her on the narrow bit of the sidewalk that she’s stopped on. They too are bundled up against the evening chill and are similarly loaded down with at least a bottle or two of water, their work bags and groceries. Children roll tyres down the street. They are barefoot and oblivious to the early winter chill. Their faces are alight and their voices shrill each time the tyres smack into a pothole and veer off course, the skinny sticks in their hands serving as steering for the rolling tyres. They shriek and gather themselves to a pause in their games each time a car appears near them. The cars themselves are shabby, what locals would call a skorokoro. A car that’s mostly falling apart, and likely held together by bits of wire and various bodge jobs to keep them going. They spew loads of smoke from their exhausts, some of it reeking of petrol and of partly burnt oil. The plumes of blue smoke from the few cars negotiating the potholed road hang in the air long after the cars have slowly crested the hill and disappeared from sight.
The woman bends down, gathers her load of plastic bottles and bags and resumes her slow, meandering climb up the hill. Her stoop is now more evident and beads of perspiration form on her forehead. She plods on, one foot in front of the other. The well worn plastic bag draws the attention of a pack of dogs. They close in on the old lady but she shoos them away — her voice strong and harsh against the slowly darkening sky. A younger dog, brown with a blackish muzzle rushes forward and nips at the bag, tearing away some of the plastic. The woman stops, she puts the bag down and the dogs stand their ground, just out of reach of her hands. The woman bends down and grabs a stone and the dogs instinctively scatter with little panicked howls. The woman stares at them and then she looks at the younger woman just behind her. She is having a conversation with the people in an overloaded car that’s idling noisily in the middle of the road.
Eventually, the younger woman goes over and one of the car doors creaks open and a few people spill out. There’s a few moments of rearranging of bodies and packages and the woman disappears into the tiny interior of the ancient minicar. The driver turns his head forward again and the car crunches into gear. Slowly and with far too much noise, groaning and blue smoke, the multi-coloured car lurches forward and around a pothole. The woman looks on at this sight and there is an almost perceptible moment of envy in her eyes. She quickly gathers her plastic bags and bottles up and seemingly renewed, she steps more purposefully up the treacherous muddy sidewalk. The worn plastic bag in her right hand drips a stream of red droplets but she does not notice and the dogs are now busy well down the road, close to the group of children rolling their tyres. Several more people pass the woman on their way up the hill and eventually a man slows down and greets the woman. He points to the leaking plastic shopping bag and the woman looks down at the bag in shock. She quickly puts down the plastic bottles and shopping bags and raises the leaky and worn shopping bag closer to her. The man continues to stand near her and they speak the whole time.
Eventually the woman fishes something out the carry-all slung over her shoulder. It’s another worn plastic shopping bag and she carefully slips it over the bag the dogs tore open. The man gently lends her a hand and as she is done, he says something to her. The woman’s face breaks out into a smile as the man hefts the two 5 litre plastic bottles of water in his right hand, smartly moving his two 5 litre plastic water bottles and bags to his left. The woman looks relieved and so lightened, she keeps pace with the younger man as they make their way up the last few hundred metres to the top of the hill. They continue to speak in low, friendly tones all the way to the top of the hill. Seen from the bottom of the hill, the woman is now a silhouette against the reddish and almost dark sky. She stops again and the young man puts down the entire load of plastic bottles and bags he’s carrying. They exchange a few more words and the young man greets the woman and heads off to the left. The woman gathers a plastic shopping bag and 5 litre water bottle in each hand and turns to the right. In a few minutes, she is at the uneven muddy path between several other makeshift structures that leads to a cream painted wooden panel with the numbers 1003485 boldly and neatly painted next to what at some point must have been a white door. There is a coir mat at the door and she puts the entire load she’s carrying down with an audible sigh.
From an open neighbouring door, a head pops out and a much older woman greets the woman. As they speak, the woman hands over a 5 litre bottle of water that causes the older woman to swoon as the weight of it lands in her hands. Their conversation continues as the woman finally enters her dwelling place and gathers the remaining load she lugged up the hill into her space. The sky is now a mere streak of red light at the horizon and soon enough, the light of a candle can be seen through the open door of structure 1003485 on this Mother’s Day Sunday in the Zulu kingdom of the holy land.
Bags and Bottles is an eyewitness account, made possible by a punctured tyre. The only fiction here are the numbers on the dwelling and the promises of politicians to restore regular water supply to the people affected by the flooding.
© Jesh Baker, 2022