Sunday, 5 November 2017

The Story of Wow

I met her for the first time, sitting outside our local grocery store in Africa. She was sitting on steps by a parking area and what made me take notice at first was the fact she was still wearing the traditional Xhosa turban style head scarf and long skirted dress. As if aware of my stare, she turned and smiled at me, which was a bit startling as she had only one tooth in her mouth as far as I could tell. She looked ancient, but a hard life can age people fast. Judging by her traditional dress and bare feet, this tiny elfin old woman was probably rural. 

 By John Reynolds - Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.

Much to her obvious delight, my route to the shop entrance took me straight by her. She began to talk to me, waving tiny skeletal hands as she chattered away in Xhosa in this very high pitch old voice. She sounded like a Xhosa chipmunk. I smiled and nodded as I walked by. I only know four words of Xhosa. I had no idea what she was talking to me about, but she was smiling and laughing as she spoke and her happiness was infectious. 

On the way back to the car with my groceries, I saw she was still there, looking equally thrilled at my return. I wondered how I could dodge another super-long and incomprehensible conversation and, completely on impulse, I handed her the money I was holding. My change from the grocery purchase.
That was the first and last time I ever heard her speak English. She gasped and said (loud and shrill), "Wow!" Then she took my hand in both of hers and kissed it.

I felt like such an ass, but two Xhosa people passing by smiled at me and commented on my kindness and that helped. And it did shut her up. I managed to get to the car with only a chorus of "Wow! Wow!" She waved as we drove away.

And so began our family's friendship with Wow. I never found out her real name. It's possible she did tell me, because from then on... she told me a lot. I just have no idea what it was. Every time my mother or I saw her in town, she'd wave madly as if we were family she hadn't seen in years. If we met out of the car, she would talk and talk... and talk. The fact we never spoke back never seemed to bother her. Did she know we had not a clue what she was saying? I don't know and I don't think she cared. And always, regardless, she was in a good mood. Always. 

I could have called over someone to translate for us, but I never felt the need either. There was something strangely delightful about our long chats without verbal communication. Something lovely about the fact we could stand smiling and laughing, two women of completely different ages, cultures and races just enjoying a moment of sharing time with each other.

What do I know about Wow? She was a charmer and knew how to use that. I never ever saw her begging for money, but our local store knew her well as a low-grade con-artist. She'd take her groceries to the counter, put down her money... and it would always be not enough. And almost always, whoever was in the queue would see this wispy little old dear counting out her coins and offer to pay. But she never pushed it. Her purchases were humble: a half loaf of bread or a small carton of maas (a very popular sour milk drink).

One winter, my mom and I decided that rather than giving our bag of clothes to charity, we'd offer the warmer goodies to Wow. We had noticed how threadbare her only jumper was, a hole at one elbow as she waved her hands talking. We found her on the side of a road and, slightly anxious as we didn't want to offend her, stopped and showed her the clothes. Once again she was full of delighted "WOW"as she rummaged through our offerings. Then she put everything on. All of it. Transforming herself from an elfin twiglet into a multi-layered Babushka. That fitted our hunch that she probably lived in the nearby squatter camp. Another friend of ours who lived there had told us how things worked. When you lived in a house with no real door, you have no security from thieves. You keep your valuables on you and that includes wearing all your best clothing.  

There is one particular time I saw Wow that is especially poignant. It's the only other time I heard her speak something other than Xhosa. At the time, my grandmother's weak heart had led to her needing to be on an oxygen machine 24/7 at home. She also had an oxygen bottle that was meant for emergencies, but gran used it up mostly on trips out in the car. Nothing was going to keep my gran home! This particular day, my mom and I had taken her out for a drive. We stopped at the shops for a few purchases. I was in the back seat, gran's oxygen bottle on the floor next to me. Wow spotted us from across the road and came over for a chat. 

Wow stood, leaning against our car as she chatted to all three of us, clearly enjoying herself as always. But then, somewhere in all the animated squeaky chatter, Wow noticed my gran's oxygen tubes and leaned sideways to follow them to the oxygen bottle on the car floor. as the realisation hit her, her eyes welled up with tears. For the first and only time Wow was silenced. With tears brimming, she looked at me and said, "Ag shame... Ag shame." A South African phrase that stretches to fit anything from outrage to deepest sympathy. 

Wow leant in and patted my gran on the arm, repeating the only words of comfort and sympathy she knew in our languages, "Ag shame..."

I remember how stunned I felt to realise that this frail, homeless woman that most would hold in pity was feeling the deepest pity for my gran. It was a realisation that whilst we had thought of ourselves as rich and Wow as poor... at that moment Wow considered herself far richer than my grandmother. 

How do we judge ourselves and others? What makes our lives rich or poor? Wow was a huge lesson in the fact that every life has richness, things that are a blessing or a strength, it's all in the perspective.  


  1. What a wonderful story and so well written! It's a great reminder that even in our "poorest" times, there is always someone who is suffering more. We should all take time to be grateful for our health, our happiness and especially our friends.

  2. You know, at the end of the story I went "WOW!". This is one of the reasons I love your writing so much. <3 Thank you for sharing this eye-opening story.

  3. I love this story. There are so many lessons in the woman's joyful acceptance of her life and your gifts. Thank you.



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