Andrew Centofante

Creative Director & Digital Producer

Mama Connie

Mama Connie

October 03, 2011 | By: Andrew Centofante | Tags: travel


This is a photo of Mama Connie.  She was the sweet old woman who let Jane and I stay with her for our homestay in a township called Gugulethu.  She is 74 and her husband Papa Dennis is possible 79 but he was not sure of his birthday.  He only knew what the registry had told him once which neither of them trusted as accurate. 

They had a small home made of concrete.  Dennis took special care of his yard.  He kept it clean and his garden full of flowers, even though his knees were badly injured in a car accident.  Mama Connie said that he takes better care of the garden than of her, to which he replied “by taking care of our house and this garden I am taking care of you.”

Connie was going blind in both of her eyes and losing her hearing.  She said it was from the tear gas that was thrown up and down the streets in a riot during apartheid.  It was awkward at first.  The two of us sitting in this person’s home, not know what to say and having a hard time communicating.  Dennis was embarrassed of his English, although as time went on he spoke very well.  Connie explained that usually her grandson is there to help entertain. 

They would get up and slowly walk around the house moving things from room to room.  Dennis sometimes used a cane that slipped all over the linoleum ground, giving him no support and making us jump every time.  Connie was cooking us dinner and the squash had gotten a little burnt.  We ate dinner with our hands, enjoying the chicken, squash and pap, which is a cornmeal paste. 

The television was always on in the background.  The volume usually a little too loud and Dennis would have to shout to Connie sometimes.  Every channel had a televangelist preaching, a choir singing or a person speaking in tongues.  After dinner Jane and I helped to do the dishes.  There was something about helping out that made me feel more relaxed and at home. 

I sat with Connie for a while and she talked about her life.  How her family used to have a nice house in Retreat and then she came back one day from school to an empty home.  Her neighbor had to tell her where her mother was moved and Connie and her brother jumped on a bus to a township.  They later bulldozed her neighborhood. 

She talked about a hurricane that destroyed their home and that is how they ended up in Gugulethu.  She did not like living here but doesn’t have the money to move out.  She didn’t feel safe to run a business and felt like people didn’t look out for each other.  She said “It is so much worse to have something, a nice place to live, a business and then have it taken away from you.  I used to have so much and now I live here with nothing.” 

It was dark outside, but Dennis needed to go to the store to pick up some things so I accompanied him.  We talked a little bit as we walked down the street to a shop.  He said that young people here waste their money and time getting drunk at a local shebeen.  That young people need to focus on being educated so they can get out of these townships. 

When we got back, Jane and I helped make tea.  We gave them a few presents for letting us stay in their home.  A mug that said “Virginia is for Lovers.”  I pointed to the two of them and said “You guys are lovers.”  They looked at each other and laughed.  I gave them a framed picture of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Connie asked if we could blow it up and make it bigger because it was so beautiful.  They were so so grateful for the small gifts. 

We sipped our tea as Dennis fell asleep in his chair.  We folded some laundry with Mama Connie and she showed us to our rooms.  The next morning we woke up and had a simple breakfast of porridge made from cornmeal before we left. 

It was sad to leave because we felt like we were just getting to know them.  The thing I liked the most was that they didn’t put on a show for us… they were too old for that.  Nothing forced about their culture or lots of things we had to do.  We just spent time together.  I can’t thank them enough for their hospitality and opening up their home to us.

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