We talked about her life, and I learned that she brings all the water that the family needs. She cooks all the food. She shops for it. She cleans the house. She washes the clothes. She feeds the chickens.
“What does everyone else do?” I asked.
“Sometimes they help.”
“I bet it’s not very often,” I said, jokingly, but I was not really joking. She sheepishly confirmed they didn’t help very often. But she never stopped smiling and laughing as we continued up the steep hill, having this discussion. There was no time for self pity with Daphne; just time to care for her world.
“Does your husband work?” I asked.
“No, there are no jobs.” At this, she did look sad.
“Do your daughters or your son work?” They were all adults in their 20s and 30s.
“No, there are no jobs.”
I wondered briefly why young Thandeka could carry six pails of water and wash clothes while Daphne’s daughters lounged about, but I had to let it go.
As we passed her new house, I learned that the government builds houses for people who cannot afford to buy them. She had signed up six years earlier for the program, that it would have two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. It would be finished in a few months, and she was very excited about the move. We would see a fair number of these standard homes in our travels, and I got familiar with their layout.
I was her first American and she asked about my husband and children and grandchildren. She hoped I liked her country. Unlike me, she was too circumspect to poke questions at my lifestyle, and I was too embarrassed at the differences in our circumstances to elaborate. But I plunged recklessly ahead with my own questions.
“Will you have water in the new house?” I almost hated to hear the answer.
“No,” she said.
“I’m sorry ...”
“But,” she quickly interrupted. “I am saving money and will run a pipe from the spigot to the house.”
“Do you have a job?” As no one else worked, I had assumed she didn’t either.
“Yes, I take care of the old people.” She had a government job at the home for the elderly, walking and taking one of the pervasive mini cab taxis for almost an hour each way to work.
“So you do everything in your house, you take care of everyone, and you have a job. The only job.”
“Yes ma’am,” she beamed.
All too soon for me, we were back at the spigot.
“This gift is tiny,” I said, handing her the small strong light.
She fingered the light, pointed at a dark corner, and said, “It’s tiny, but it’s not a small gift.”
I decided I had to help get that water to a spigot in her house.
The second time I approached the narrow trail down that steep slope to her house, I couldn’t make it even part way. My fear of falling increased with every step. Finally, I stopped just below the top of the hill and shouted her name several times. She appeared from the house and sped towards me. I asked if she would walk up the hill. A huge smile accompanied her “of course!”
She sped up to the top of the hill and we hugged. I slipped money into her hand. She saw only one of the denominations and burst into tears. So did I. We hugged again. And again.
I made her promise me two things. One, that she would tell no one of my gift, and two, that she would make her children work.
She promised she would.
I made her repeat the second promise.
In my mind’s eye I see Daphne, still making breakfast and doing laundry while her family complains about the lack of opportunity. Not much has changed, except water runs from the tap inside the house, saving her an hour daily of risky climbing and backbreaking labor as she grows older.
I regret only that I didn’t give her something more.