by: Heather Ferris

My life was greatly impacted by a teaching I received when I was ten years old. It was a Saturday, the day I went on my own to Cape Town from Pinelands, where we lived. I was learning to play the accordion to please my Scottish dad. This particular day, I was walking along St. George’s Street clutching ten cents in my hand, my train ticket in my pocket, probably on my way home.

I was fascinated by people and unafraid, always curious. A black woman my mother’s age was walking towards me. Her hair was tucked under a red floral scarf, her grey jacket hung loosely over her black calf-length skirt. She carried two bags. It was a warm day. I noticed her soft red shoes. Instead of walking by, she came up to me, her kind, dark eyes smiling.  She looked deeply at me as if connecting in some way.“Can you spare some change?” she asked, holding her hand out towards me. I wasn’t expecting this. My face flushed. I felt awkward; white fragility in its infant stages.

My fingers tightened around the coin. “I don’t have any money,” I said, hoping to sound apologetic and believable; a nice, good child. She smiled again and took one bag in each of her hands making her way along the street from where I had come. I hastened away in the direction of the train station flustered, feeling guilty. I had gone about twenty steps when I stopped, remembering her kindness. I did have money and that woman didn’t. With a sense of urgency, I retraced my steps looking for the mother so that I could hand over the ten cents. I felt desperate. I looked everywhere, where had she gone? Surely she was close by. She couldn’t have disappeared. I felt the grief of an opportunity missed. It seemed important. I felt disappointed in myself; possibly the birth of conscience. 

With a heavy heart, I turned back and made my way to the station. My train was just about to pull out. I settled into my first-class green high-backed seat alone. It was quiet. I could hear movement, singing and chatting in the next carriage, but I wasn’t allowed there. I sat quietly remembering the mother. I didn’t even know her name. I felt like I had seen into another world, one forbidden to me by law. 

The eyes of a black mother had looked directly into my heart. What did she see there? She saw me and caused me to examine myself. I wished I had been generous and not held back my money. The train screeched to a halt at Ode Molen station close to where we lived. I was still picturing the woman as I walked home. I never spoke of her but carried her with me. She woke me up to kindness, generosity, honesty and equality.

 I didn’t know black people. I saw them and wondered about them. My parents weren’t in favour of apartheid. They didn’t teach us about this sad law that kept people apart. We learned from them to mock the Afrikaner governing party and later when it didn’t change, they left the country. 

My teacher that Saturday morning shaped my life. In 1999, when I returned to South Africa after many years abroad, it was the mothers I sought out. They were the community women dealing with HIV and AIDS and no medication. What kind and generous hearts. We had fun and worked hard together for many years. They welcomed me home.