AN EXCERPT FROM TWO FEET
LEARNING TO WALK
If you wore shoes – as I did for one day only -- at the local Eastern Cape Government School, you were ridiculed and beaten, so you did not wear them. You went home and put them in the cupboard and ignored them, as shiny and black and tough as they may have been, forever more.
Learning the art of walking barefoot was a necessity for any child who did not want to be ridiculed and beaten or put in a metal rubbish barrel and rolled down a hill or have his head held over the school long drop (outdoor toilet) and forced to inhale, exhale and inhale as a barefoot farm boy twice your age kicked your backside as if it was a rugby ball.
Shoes were for the sissies and the rich, and as schoolboy law forbid either, that was that.
Barefoot, or die.
For the soft-soled, pink-fleshed farm boy, the initial steps are agony. The dusty sand offers heated granules that swamp your naked flesh and the hard trodden areas on the path to the milk shed are as hot as the plate on a stove, so you start your learning by hopping from foot to foot which is witnessed by the herd boy who daily washes the milk cans who quickly and politely turns his back on you, but you can see by the movement of his shoulder blades that he is laughing.
You retreat to the steps of your porch, which is cooler in the shadow offered by the jacaranda creeper where the bumble-bee flit to and fro and there you start to breathe again.
Tomorrow you will have to take the bus to school, and you know that if you wear shoes you will be staring into the long drop as some barefooted, bigger-than-you farm boy kicks your backside so you step back off the porch and you avoid the loose gravel but you adopt a form of hopping because, in your mind, you think this is how the native children that you have seen running to school do it.
You are wrong. The red earth is now blistering hot, and you feel your toes curl away from the heat, so you take unusually long strides toward the soft ground where the dogs sometime rest when the heat gets to them, but you don’t see the masticated bone on the ground, and when you step on it, you bite back pain and, again, retreat to the porch where you collapse onto your soon to be kicked backside and hold your aching feet in your hands.
Thus far, you have learnt only to hop, and it is guaranteed that the herd boy who washes the milk cans has already told the tractor driver who is now telling the maid that he is hoping to marry, that the white farm boy cannot, or does not know how to, walk properly.
I have surrendered and have sounded the horn of retreat. On the stoep, I begin putting on my veldskoens, but as I am doing up the leather laces I have a picture of those children that I see every morning running to the small school on Old Man Ford’s farm (the one with the red tin roof that has no glass in its windows and the playing field is as barren as a bush pig’s hole) in my mind.
As routine as a school bell, these children run, daily, some miles down the length of the main dirt road that navigates past the farm gate. It is a wide road that is covered with corrugations, stones and jaw-breaking potholes. The children run barefoot carrying their slates or a tatty exercise book. They are always smiling and will always wave to you as you drive past in the school bus.
I study this picture in my head as my hands pause over the laces of my veldskoens. I think of their faces, and I am seeing, in my mind that they run with their heads held high; that they are proud to be running barefoot on that road to school. They are focused on what lies ahead for the day, their eyes darting left to right occasionally in case they may see a bird’s nest with eggs in it or the silver of a hub-cap that may have fallen off a pot-hole dodging car the night before.
They are not watching their feet on the ground. They are not running on the ground. Their feet are not touching the sharp, granite stones or the rusty lid of an abandoned sardine can or the heated granules of sand or even the hard cowpat left there by stray cattle.
This is I realise, about mind over matter.
I take off my veldskoen and stand with my bare feet on the waxed surface of the stoep, and I look toward the milking shed where the herd boy is no longer washing the empty cans. A thin spiral of smoke is coming out of the chimney on the roof of the tin sided hut where the water is boiled for milking. To the left of the path the fence there is covered with Granadilla plants and to the right there is a space dotted with clumps of khaki weed and stinging nettles. I focus on the milking shed, the door of the dairy, and the thin spiral of smoke. I keep my back straight. I step off the stoep and onto the sun-baked path.
I get to the milk shed in seconds flat, but I know I never did wince with pain once.
I spent the remainder of the day walking around the farmhouse with a straight back and head held aloft and ignoring my naked feet. Because of this posture, I was soon nicknamed “Skolomanzi” by the herd boys. This is the name they have given to the Blue Crane birds that wade in the shallows looking for fish, frogs and snakes.
That night as I step into the tepid, soapy water left in the bath, I shout out with pain. I rest my bare, no-longer-to-be kicked backside on the edge of the bath and look at the soles of my feet. They are red and inflicted with razor-like cuts.
When I sit down in the school bus the next day, I make certain that my bare feet protrude out into the aisle so that their lack of leather covering can be seen by all, especially the pimple faced over the age of his class farm boy seated across from me.
“Hey,” he says to me.” How come you wear your blerry hair so long? Hey? Just like a blerry girl, man! Sis!”
I stare out of the bus window hoping to see the native children running to schoolle more about you.