In the old days of apartheid people in the service of white citizens in South Africa had a rough time under the Afrikaner regime. When Mandela was freed and forgave a nation who had been his guards for 27 years in prison the curtain was lifted, and South Africa took a turn for the best. While many black South Africans who were in their twenties could participate in good and expensive education and many were degreed, there are still those blacks living in poverty in shacks in the townships. Still, blacks from Zimbabwe and other black countries streamed in like salmon for a better life, and South Africa’s own blacks had to fight for jobs; people with education took menial jobs.
On a sweltering day a few months ago the doorbell rang and there stood a black guy in work clothes, medium height, with a respectful look on his face. Next to him was an old lawnmower with chords and petrol and ropes to tie his working equipment together. In SA people did not open their gates to anyone who knocked on doors, and especially not to blacks.
He told me his name which was Bennet and asked if he could mow my lawn. I was in need of the grass being cut and said yes. We negotiated a price and Bennet cut my lawn, carried out a patio clean, packed up the bricks, and did such a good job and took such a long time, two and a half hours, that I felt bad keeping him there so long. There was something different about Bennet. He agreed to anything you said because he had a wife and three kids who had to be fed. He did not live in my neighborhood and walked all the way to where I lived where he walked up and down the street with his noisy lawnmower looking for work.
I got used to Bennet. I did not have to tell him what to do. I just let him in, gave him a bottle of water and a sandwich if I had bread, and let him be. As I got used to Bennet we talked sometimes and Bennet saw the poster of my film on the wall and asked if I was a writer. I said yes, and that was that. Bennet saved up his courage and a few lawns later asked me how my writing was going. I told him briefly that I was writing my 11th novel. When he came the following week to do the lawn Bennet said that he was a writer too. I said great, that’s wonderful, but did not think too much about it. He said to me that he wants to make money too from his writing, and I laughed. I said, Bennet, look after your lawnmower, you make more money than me.
Two weeks later Bennet brought two pages which had been neatly typed and asked if I would read it. I said yes, and read it that night. I was shocked. I had expected to read drivel or some hard-baked poetry, and here were two pages written in perfect English, and was a piece of writing entitled African Development about a white guy in his Hummer traveling from one side of Africa to the other giving pencils and books to poor African children who did not have anything to write with and used coal.
I was struck by the quality and style of the writing. It was sparse and therefore more interesting. When Bennet came back the next day to hear what I had to say about the writing, I told him, Bennet, I feel so ashamed. You ARE a writer, and better than me. I couldn’t believe what I read. You don’t need my lessons. I was ashamed of how I had behaved. I had judged Bennet too because of my own prejudices. It was a good lesson for me. Bennet who had no job and needed money himself was working to help save Africa’s children. In time I learned that Bennet was from another country in Africa and that he had a degree. In his country he was a man of learning; in South Africa he was Bennet, the lawn guy.