Some things are elemental. Deceptively quotidian given their resounding power to evoke the past.
I drink tea and I think of my grandmother. Just like that.
Rooibos. Black with no sugar. Picked from the western slopes of the Cederberg mountains, over a thousand kilometres away.
If I am alone in the house, with only the dogs for company, I take it just the way she used to.
I carefully pour a little rooibos from a chipped porcelain cup into a matching saucer and set the tea cup aside. Her own set from aeons ago. Wreathed in delicate pink English garden roses. Just about the only keepsake I have left of her. I hold the saucer reverently with both hands and blow over the tea to cool it, ruffling the carnelian-tinged surface, taking care not to spill a single drop. A ritual far older than I am.
When I put my lips to the saucer and take that first sip, I am overwhelmed with longing. The delicate aromas of rooibos mingle with the peaty scents of wood smoke and fynbos that I draw from memory. The smell of autumn. The heady essence of my childhood.
I am transported to her thatched roof house at the foot of a rocky hill, a lifetime ago in the early dawn of my childhood. To misty mornings when peacocks still walked her vast yard, splitting the cool morning air with their piercingly eerie calls.
Sitting on her stoep, I look out at Mochudi beginning to stir below me. The tiny village tosses and turns restlessly in sleep’s final embrace as Sol creeps shyly over the horizon. On clear mornings I can see across the vale, all the way to Bajibareki. I can make out all the tiny limestone footpaths I have walked a hundred times with my grandmother. They intersect, then reconnect. Flowing west. Swelling till they merge into one wide swathe that snakes indolently through the dusty heart of my maternal ancestral home.
I am eight years old and in those still, ethereal moments, I have the entire village all to myself. I close my eyes as the sun kisses my face. My heart lifts, then soars. On mornings like this, with my eyes shut against the world, I can see far beyond my loneliness and lose myself in wistful daydreams. I am framed by the purple hill behind me. A little boy in sky blue pyjamas, brown face tilted up to the warm rays of the rising sun. Content in solitude.
I return zealously to the saucer and slip even further into the past.
Sitting in her kitchen, I watch her feeding her wood burning stove with pieces of moselesele as she hums to herself. Her black cat purring as it rubs against her ankles, undeterred by the heat and flames licking at the grate.
I am now six years old, perched on one of the high-backed cane chairs at her pine table. My bare toes dangle half a foot off the floor. A piping hot sunflower-yellow enamel mug of rooibos is nestled in my tiny, bony hands.
This is my secret from the world. I can be in the second-floor boardroom at head office. In those disjointed minutes before the management meeting starts. In the jaded limbo I endure as we all wait for the boss, a perennial latecomer, to breeze through the double glass doors. Then I pour myself a cup, or accept the cup offered to me, and I am no longer sitting there at the oval table, in a high-backed swivel chair, staring at my MacBook Air, wading knee deep through a deluge of email.
Part of me is so far away I might as well be on another continent, in a different time zone.
The latecomer finally arrives. Unapologetic. The meeting starts. Talk drones across the oval table. But I am not there. I am in my grandmother’s kitchen, sitting across from her at the tiny, rough-hewn pine table as she mixes batter for the batch of scones she is about to bake. She is telling me a story about my mother, of a time when she was a little girl younger than I was then, and somehow managed to get herself into trouble all the time.
She punctuates the story with humming. Finds space in between the stanzas of her tale to scold the cat and berate the golden ants that invade her sack of brown sugar. Her voice is soothing. Her warm face beautiful with its deep wrinkles as she perspires in a hazy sheen over the stove. Even with her back to me, her eyes find me with her voice.
Her eyes are hazel brown, tiny under snow white brows in the near-sighted squint of her frown, yet large enough to hold the entire world. When she looks at me her eyes turn molten, dreamily halcyonic. Her gaze coats me in glowing aureate and transformed, I become the most important person in the world, no longer inconsequential.
I drift with her tale. The part of me still trapped in the land of dull Monday morning corporate updates manages to nod at the right places, feigning interest to show I am still there with everyone else in the boardroom.
I take another sip of rooibos and I am dragged even deeper into the past. Memory billows, dilating as it thrums, sweeping me away on a torrent of emotions.
Everyone thinks I am a fiend for tea. They do not know my secret. My yearning for the only person in the world who ever really understood the child I was back then.
The scones are in the oven, with its four black iron legs sculpted into heavy lion paws - Aslan with a belly full of burning wood and two dozen scones. The black tea pot on the stove starts to whistle. It is the second pot of the morning. Autumn rises from the bubbling tea leaves and melds with the enchanting aroma of baking scones. The indelible fragrance of my childhood. The smell of home.
I am a third child. I have two older brothers and a younger sister. Growing up, I was a quiet, reticent boy. Painfully awkward and deeply reserved, I struggled to fit in, even within the realm of my own family. Never really a part of sibling dynamics, I existed only on the outer orbit of my parent’s affection. Easily overlooked and oft-times forgotten, I was invisible throughout most of my childhood. Except when I was with my grandmother. Even when she would scold me I always felt her love for me, deep and carmine like the tea she drank.
She passed away at the age of seventy-two, in the middle of a brutal winter. I was not prepared for the cold void her passing left in my life.
I was eighteen years old when she passed. I had just completed my national service and was nervously looking forward to the first year of my undergraduate degree. My father gathered us all in the living room of our place in Gaborone on a Tuesday evening, looking unusually sombre. When my mother told us, in a trembling voice, tears welling in her eyes then spilling over, that my grandmother had passed away, I was stunned into a silence I never fully recovered from. My stammer was born that day and it has never quite gone away. After all these years I wish I could un-hear my mother’s words. My bitter initiation into adulthood.
My grandmother contracted pneumonia. Caught from endless vigil nights spent out in the bitter cold under the stars. Wrapped in nothing more than a faded woollen mogagolwane around her shoulders as she sat in the open in stone courtyards with other women her age, conscientiously observing tradition as she helped to bury her generation.
Duty obliges. Duty kills.
I did not cry the day she died. I did not cry at her funeral either. My tears found me two weeks after we laid her in the ground.
I was alone in her house, in her bedroom. My brothers, sister and parents were out on her veranda, the family unit I was never really a part of. I was hit with the overwhelming realisation that I would never see my grandmother again. That I was all alone and would never be understood by anyone the way she understood me.
The smell of her was heaviest in her room. I sat on her bed, cradled the Setswana bible she kept on her night table against my chest and cried silently, my tears thick and scalding. She was gone and I had nothing left of her.
When I was all cried out I walked slowly through her house in a daze, going through each room, touching everyday objects she had used like I was seeing them for the first time.
I ended up in her kitchen, where I had spent the happiest days of my lonely childhood. I looked at the black wood stove, the red and green striped scone tins, the blackened kettle on the stove top, and I understood that I had something of hers that would forever be mine. The mornings we spent together in her kitchen, drinking rooibos as we waited for the scones to finish baking. They were mine for all time.
Our most defining memories endure. They do not dull or fade. They sharpen over time, becoming clearer and brighter, larger than the lives and moments they help mark. Black and white images stretching all the way back to 1978. Digitally remastered by the heart into blinding, high-definition colour. Hues so bright they stain your hands and burn out your retinas when you embrace them.
Home can be a place. A thatched roof house at the foot of a rocky hill, in a quaint little village north-east of Gaborone. A stone walled sanctuary that a lonely boy could escape to for three precious, ephemeral weeks each school holiday.
Home can be a room. A sooty kitchen plagued by golden sugar ants where a pot of red tea brewing away on a wood burning stove welcomes you with the alluring bouquet of stewed Cape gorse.
Home can be a person. A wizened old lady with sharp eyes who let you know you were loved, that you mattered, even when she scolded you.
Home can be a longing. So deep and so strong that it blots out everything else.
Pula is the Setswana word for rain. It also means life and is considered an immeasurable blessing. It is the highest greeting in my culture. Reserved for royalty, it is used in formal ceremony by chiefs when addressing their tribes.
The derivative of Pula is Pulane, which means a gentle rain. Not a drizzle, but a constant, assuasive, life-giving shower. Nature’s most precious gift in an arid, desert swept country like Botswana.
I named my daughter after my grandmother - Pulane. In certain poses, when she is in certain moods, I catch glimpses of my grandmother in my daughter’s face. The carbon-copy nose. The elven ears. Eyes that darken to ebony whenever they twinkle with mischief. Identical mouths, pursed open when deep in thought, or splayed wide in magical smiles. It just about breaks my heart.
Some things are elemental. Deceptively quotidian given their power to evoke the past.
I drink tea and I think of my grandmother. Just like that.
Rooibos. Black, with no sugar. Picked from the western slopes of the Cederberg mountains.
If you see me pouring myself a cup, or accepting one from you, know that I am far away, in my grandmother’s kitchen, in her thatched roof house at the foot of a rocky hill, in the only real home I had growing up.
I have made an oasis of her in my parched heart.
She lives on in my daughter’s smile.
She is sitting across from me at a rough-hewn pine table at this very moment.
The cup of tea in my hand is hers.
Cornelius Gaetsaloe (he/him) is a hopeless daydreamer who lives in Gaborone,
Botswana. Unseasonably short for his age, he suffers from chronic zoomies and writing is the only tonic that soothes his feral soul. You can find him on quiet back roads on most evenings being walked by his corgis, Mia and Maxine.