Bootee was our new gardener. His predecessor had been fired abruptly. Normally my mother was a tolerant employer but he had turned up drunk once too often – so drunk that he lay on the lawn groaning and could not be roused to chop our firewood. Without firewood there could be no coffee for breakfast. Mother had called over the garden fence to Button, the neighbour’s gardener: “Where can I find a sober garden boy?
“Boy” (I am ashamed to report) was the current term in those colonial days, applied even to dignified grey-haired men.
“I bring one, madam,” Button had called from the other side of the hedge. “My brother’s boy. Very hardworking, never drinks. Name is Bootee.”
Bootee arrived early next morning and Button came over to negotiate wages, duties and all. When I came home I tried to talk to our new employee. He spoke no English. He spoke no Nyanja. He did not even speak Fanagalo. This last was a relief to me since I did not like to admit that I spoke this primitive pigeon. I would have sunk in the estimation of every African – classed with haggling Indian shopkeepers and poor-white Afrikaner farmers.
Bootee, as I found, spoke only a language from remote Angola. If my mother wanted to give him instructions she had to call over the hedge and his uncle shouted back a translation. But Bootee was well-liked. He was hardworking and sang cheerfully while working. Moreover he did not drink. I never discovered how he came by his name but spelled “Boetie” it would be Afrikaans for ‘little brother’. Perhaps he had once worked for an Afrikaner in tandem with an older brother.
In those days domestic servants were often allocated names like Button or Bootee or even Jim Fish by employers. Despite the oft-proclaimed superiority of our race, many whites found it far too difficult to memorise names like Sikambo or Kumbilwa. Moreover after a servant was fired, his successor was often allocated the predecessor’s name. Thus our superior white brains were not overburdened.
Shortly after he received his first pay, Bootee came to me very agitated. He gesticulated and shouted but I could not make out what was bothering him. Eventually his uncle came over to explain: Bootee was saving for bride price. He had hoped to use his first wages as a down-payment to the girl’s parents. He had hidden his money in the thatch of the rondavel hut which he had to share with three strangers from alien tribes. When he came home that night his money had disappeared. So had the second of the two shirts that he possessed. The others denied all knowledge of the theft. Button and I accompanied him to complain to the European “compound manager” but we might have saved our breath. Nothing was ever found or restored. I looked around the miserable hut that housed these four young men. There was no furniture… only four sacks spread out on the concrete floor to serve as beds. A few articles of clothing hung from nails in the wall. And that was their town home!
I arranged that in future my father would retain the bulk of his wages until he had saved enough to present to the girl’s family. My father made Bootee a present of one of his old shirts.
It took some time before Bootee started singing again. He sang as he chopped firewood, syncopating his stroke to the rhythm of his song. Even my father, who had little appreciation of African music, conceded that Bootee was musical.
Several months passed. Bootee, with the help of his interpreter, arranged to collect his savings and to take some leave.
“So now he’s going to buy himself a wife?” asked my father.
I protested that no purchase was involved. After all, had his own grandfather been purchased when a dowry passed? African bride price bound two families to guarantee the stability of a marriage.
The evening before he was to travel back to his remote village Bootee collected his savings. I wished him well. To my surprise he came back later that evening to show me a blanket he had bought for his future in-laws.
Alas, the following day, when I returned from work, I could hear the noise from afar. My parents and the neighbour’s gardener and another neighbour were standing disconsolate around Bootee. He was cowering on the ground, hugging his body and howling. Yes, howling!
His uncle explained that Bootee had slept on top of the bundle which contained his savings but by morning this had disappeared. One of his house mates had vanished. The police doubted they could trace the thief. All that known was that he came from the Congo.
My parents and I debated late into the night what we could do for him.
“If I make him a gift,” said my father, “they’ll all come with sob-stories.” He was referring to the employees of his little business that was barely managing to feed our refugee family. A decision was postponed until the following day.
Next morning Bootee did not turn up for work. This had never happened before.
I called over the hedge to his uncle. He said he had gone that morning to collect Bootee but had not found him. He had vanished during the night. We grew worried. Suicides were not uncommon among Africans. It was several days before he got the first news of him. Bootee had turned his back on the white man’s city and all its evil ways. He had given up on job and on his prospects of marriage. He was last seen walking in the direction of distant Angola.
My family were refugees and poor. But what did we know of real poverty?