Most days, if the weather allows it, the shepherdesses drive their herds down to the park.
The streets that flank it are busy, but once the women have wrangled their animals through its wrought-iron gate, they can relax: the park is fenced, tree-filled, shady. The shepherdesses sit, their legs straight out in front of them, and begin to discuss the state of things in a combination of Xhosa and sighs.
Meanwhile, the herds have quickly dispersed throughout the park. Two species predominate: large golden retrievers, grazing on cat faeces, and small pink primates, grazing on each other. One of the primates screams; a shepherdess looks up sharply. “Mabel! Don’t push the baby!” The guilty shuffle apart. The nannies go back to their slow lament, and the toddlers go back to being disgusting. Away in the hydrangeas a retriever licks a child off its haunches, then licks it upright again.
As a nature documentary it is fascinating – you can almost hear Attenborough murmuring a commentary about the human two-year-old’s ability to eat its own body weight in earthworms – but to someone who is physically cautious it is worrying. For a moment I wonder if my anxiety is the result of corporate fear-mongering. The sanitary-industrial complex spends vast sums telling us that fatal microbes lurk everywhere; that we should wash our hands with ever more virulent chemical cocktails in case we catch plague from “dirty soap” that has touched the festering, pus-oozing sucking wounds we used to call “hands”. We know that this is hogwash, and that regular doses of dog gob and topsoil help build robust immune systems. And yet the sheer barbarism of the toddlers is jolting. Surely their nannies should be, you know, nannying them?
Then again, maybe they are. For a few years I had a nanny, a vast Xhosa woman called Priscilla. We would watch The A-Team together, and during those peculiarly ferocious but impotent fire fights, in which thousands of rounds were fired without hitting anything, she would shake her head and cluck, “These men, they are wasting their bullets.”
But it wasn’t just the A-Team who wasted their bullets. Any futile endeavour was a waste of bullets to Priscilla. In the end, I think, some of that philosophy, of preserving one’s psychic ammunition, rubbed off on me.
Looking at the feral toddlers in the park, I must consider that similar lessons are being learned here. They seem abandoned, but perhaps they are being taught not to waste their bullets on pointless anxieties. By being given as long a leash as Child Welfare allows, they are discovering that life is risk. More importantly, they are learning that they are trusted, and that they can therefore trust themselves. Before my alarmed eyes, they are growing a spine.
But my unease remains. It seems unjust that these children are learning lessons from women who should be raising their own children instead of leaving them in a township with an over-taxed grandmother. I also wonder: when the parents of these children go off to work in the morning, what do they imagine is about to happen? Do they picture a kind of antebellum idyll, with big black Mammy cooing over their honey-chile, hoping that the vast divide in personal freedoms can be ignored in a haze of nurturing? Do they have an inkling of this Lord of the Flies setup, and are secretly hoping that their township mother might inflict some of the tough love on their child that they themselves are too squeamish to offer? Or is it something in between, a complex relationship that fluctuates between guilt, gratitude, pragmatism and denial?
Whatever the relationship is, it ends; and when it ends, it is left unresolved. We discuss the politics of employing poor black women to raise comfortable white children; we engage with the economics of it. But somehow the psychology of it, of having a second mother who is then sent away by one’s first mother, remains unspoken. Perhaps those who have had nannies don’t know how to talk about that strange vanishing in their pasts, because it was long ago and tinged with loss they don’t understand. I still remember how Priscilla smelled; of Vaseline and Zambuck, now and then of snuff. But I can’t remember why she left, or whether or not I told anyone that I was sad to see her go. For white children, that relationship ends in silence; but the sound of silence lingers on for years.
The toddlers in the shrubbery are being infected with life but also imbued with a sense of belonging to an African mother, to an African whole. When they go home they will be scrubbed and disinfected. It would be nice if some of the soil remained inside them.
First published in The Times and TimesLive