village of Clairwood had an official graveyard. This was a most
surprising fact because the Village itself was a ghetto in which most
happenings were unofficial. Judging by the few irregular Municipal
services received, Clairwood was, virtually, non-existent,
know the graveyard existed officially because the grave-diggers were
paid by the City, Durban. One of those diggers was one of my Dad's
brothers. Whenever I needed a few pennies, he would assign me a grave
to start digging. Many, many years later, I was cast in a school's
onstage play, "Hamlet" (William Shakespeare) in the role of
the Second Gravedigger.
Clairwood, there were no police persons. I lived there for over
twenty years; I saw police persons passing through only twice. Most
'official' roads were too narrow for police four-wheel vehicles. Most
roads, 'official' and unofficial, were nearly impossible for bicycles
because of wild vegetation and holes and stones and debris. Most
roads had sections where there were no homes. Those sections were
impassable by all kinds of vehicles because of garbage thrown there
by residents from everywhere.
those rare moments of joy in the Village, persons were heard to joke
that there being a cemetery in the ghetto made perfect sense since,
in history, the graveyard came first; the ghetto grew around the
the time I was born in Clairwood, everyone believed there were more
Clairwoodians buried in the graveyard than there were living in the
Village. That guess was never offered in humour.
few people owned vehicles in Clairwood, including the persons who
were in charge of the graveyard. Every day in Clairwood on a few
roads there were people shoulder-carrying corpses in homemade wood
boxes, to the graveyard.
slowly moving columns were sought out by barefoot ragamuffin children
like me because there always were opportunities to help people in
small ways, for which we would be paid in pennies.
persons needed handkerchiefs. We were ready to pass handkerchiefs
from one person to another. Of course, we never had handkerchiefs of
a grief-stricken person did not have the strength to walk any
farther, we were there to help them sit at the roadside. Quite often
we would sit there and cry with them. We learnt early in life that
roadside tears generated more pennies.
made the most pennies when we attended the burial in the graveyard.
There was no customary protocol at a graveside. Nobody required
grieving persons to have enough self-control to follow rules. This
opened up endless opportunities for us volunteer helpers-for-pennies.
were official grave diggers. No matter what day or time of day it
was, grave-diggers were digging graves. Only spades and hoes were
used. There were no machine-diggers. We were too small to handle
spades; but there were hoes especially made for us. In the years I
served, I must have helped dig hundreds and hundreds of graves.
best time to dig a grave for an occupant, is at night; by oil lamp
light. It is quicker to dig a six-foot hole at night because more
diggers are available to participate in a dig. As well, at night
there is no risk the dig will be interrupted by a nearby funeral
ragamuffins worked in the daytime only. We would start a grave hole
with our hoes until we were knee-deep, after which the adults, men
and, or, women, would take over, with spades. When there was no
school the next day, ragamuffins were allowed to help out
peripherally at night, for our pennies.
grave hole had to be dug by a special pattern. The six-feet deep hole
had to have the soil piled up and sloped away on four sides in order
to keep grievers from stepping too close to accidentally fall into
the hole, before or while or after the coffin was lowered.
a griever had to be physically restrained from intentionally jumping
into the grave. Grave diggers were expected to mingle among the
mourners in order to help prevent such catastrophes.
official grave-diggers were allowed to handle the ropes to lower the
coffin. It was a task that required skills to cope with unpredictable
sudden dangerous changes in rope maneuvers in co-ordination with at
least four other equally precariously situated rope-handlers.
frequent disruption of a coffin rope-handler's task was a distraught
mourner's uncontrolled attempt to help a rope-handler lower the
coffin. We ragamuffins were usually in there helping the
rope-handler, before any other mourner. This task, most times, earned
us silver coins. We would dive in and grab some part of the mourner's
clothes, and pull.
were times when distraught mourners jumped into graves to be with the
coffins. It happened twice when I was at the graveside. Both times I
was so horrified, I ran away out of the cemetery, instantly. I was
still paid my pennies, in full.
was a time when the cemetery was being extended. Trees were being cut
down. The work had to be stopped temporarily because a pile of five
ten feet long iron poles was unearthed.
ragamuffins took an interest in the poles mainly because,
mysteriously, each pole was light enough for two of us to lift
shoulder-high. This made the poles eminently stealable. We stole
everything that was easily movable by our age-group. But a ten-feet
pole could not be hidden, and worse, we could not come up with how we
could benefit from owning one, or more poles.
gave up on the notion of stealing a ten-feet iron pole, until one of
us came up with the sheer genius-of-an-option; break a pole into
half. A five-feet pole could easily be hidden in the wild
weeds in the virtually countless wild vegetation areas in our ghetto.
Just until we could find uses for the pieces. After all, those poles
had been in earth for years, but showed no signs of rust or decay.
could child ragamuffins break a ten-feet, mysteriously lightweight,
iron pole into half? We knew officials knew how, and had machinery to
do the job, easily, if they so wished. Again, among us, ragamuffin
searched among the trees that were still not yet cut down. We found
our solution. Two trees close enough for us to wedge an iron pole
between them, and to use the weight of a few of us to bend the pole
to-and-fro until it wore out, and broke.
night we broke a pole in half. It was so easily and enjoyably done,
we got greedy. The night was young. We had the time. We stole all
five poles. We broke all of them into halves. I was not one of us who
took some of the halves home to hide among the wild weeds in the back
yard. Our home was one of many that did not have a back yard.
many years later I was at a home far away from Clairwood. The family
had a workbench they had made with four metal poles they had picked
up free at an official dump site. They marveled at how rust-free the
poles were, with no especial care needed. And how light they were,
for being iron.
iron structures constructed thousands of years ago exist in modern
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Story list and biography
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