Day 181: Rats 1 : Sonja 0

I had now made it as far as Klerksdorp. Back on the West Coast, Antoinette had told me to contact her sister, if I ever found myself in this area, and had given me her phone number. Unfortunately Georgia was busy moving that day, but she sent me to the McDonald’s franchise where she works.

When I arrive the staff are already expecting me. With bright smiles they are ready to take my food order and try to outdo each other, vying for my attention. Mpho, Maggie, Stokie and the others decide that one of them should take me in. I don’t understand their animated conversation, but judging by its volume, their faces and lively gestures, they are either fighting over me, or refusing to have anything to do with me. In the end it is Maggie who takes me home.

Yet again my presence at the taxi rank causes a stir. Repeatedly, Maggie is asked who her friend is, where she is she going and what she is doing. There is no animosity, just curiosity.

On the short walk from where the taxi dropped us to her home I ask Maggie whether she’d told her parents that she is bringing a friend. ‘No, it is not necessary. People are always coming and going,’ she informs me matter-of-factly.

At twenty years of age Maggie lives with her parents. The family lives in a five-roomed corrugated iron shack that must be as stifling in summer as it is freezing in winter. There is no tap; instead a drum is filled daily with water collected from an outside tap.

The lounge is full of family members. Maggie introduces me to her parents, who are a little surprised to meet me, but welcome me graciously nonetheless. Here, too, I can see that this is a novel experience for them. And, as so many times before, my heart aches from being received so warmly by people devoid of any ill will towards me.

The air is alive with family banter. We chat about my adventures and Maggie’s mother, who speaks a little English, is surprised to hear that white South Africans also open their doors to a stranger. Yes, we are all African, we all have uBuntu, I tell her. She likes that a lot.

Then they begin to tease me. ‘Haven’t you heard about the rats in shacks? They’re HUGE, if you know what I mean,’ says Maggie.

They are amused by my exaggerated facial expressions of disgust when they claim that the rats are the size of rugby balls. And that the rats take a shine to house guests. I laugh so much at their embellishments my stomach hurts.

Then Maggie’s perceptive mother notices my stifled yawns and suggests we turn in. A younger sister prepares one of the two children’s rooms, separated by a curtain, that lie at the back of the shack and are reached from the lounge. She offers 
to sleep with the little ones, giving up her spot in the single bed she shares with Maggie.

Head to toe, we decide and get under six layers of blankets. The sound of the township buzzes all around me, swirling with hype and activity. I can hear some kwaito in the distance, house music nearby, a ladies’ gospel group practising next door. Dogs are barking. Children laughing. A baby cries. The air is thick with the smells of approaching winter – smells of paraffin and fire. Of humans huddling together. The sense of gratitude that floods me is overwhelming, my heart is swollen, pounding against my ribcage.

And then I hear it. Scurrying.

Then quiet.

And again . . . scurrying.

Maybe there are birds on the corrugated roof, I think sleepily, before I doze off.

Late in the night I wake up from a sensation that something is on me. I focus and see them. Yip, there are rats, running across me. I fight to stay calm. Tell myself not to panic, not to wake anyone. But I see images of rats nibbling my extremities, so I grab my sarong and the toiletry bag from my backpack next to the bed. I douse the material with citronella and tea tree oil and wrap it around my head – around and around and around. And I don two extra pairs of socks.

Amazingly, I fall asleep once more.

When Maggie awakes at half past five the next morning she says nothing about my strange attire, or the wild look in my eyes. She just stretches, yawns, smiles and asks me how I slept. And in that moment everything about my nighttime terror changes. This is Maggie’s reality, I realise, and I feel silly, ungrateful and ashamed in my getup. Maggie, her family and many hundreds of thousands of people in our country live like this. Day to day. Night after night. This kind family took me in without hesitation, without expecting anything in return. Without their help I might have ended up sleeping under a bridge.

I stayed another night. Although I once again donned my silly attire, I awoke at six the following morning feeling wonderfully refreshed after a most peaceful night. The mind is a powerful tool.