It was Philip’s idea. “We can take her to the park, show her a good time. She deserves it, man.” I liked his idea. We could both take her out with us, split the costs. She did a lot for both of us after all. For everyone in the place, really.
What I wasn’t really sure about though, was whether she would like the idea; whether she would say yes. But what the hell, I thought. “Next time I see her, I’ll ask.” I said, before adding “I think we have to ask Piet if she can come with us too. He is the driver, after all.”
She was a tough little lady; a cancer survivor, one hell of a cleaner, a woman, an HIV positive; Kalape had been through it all. At first glance she looked around 60, maybe even mid-fifties on a good day — when she worked the veggie garden under the brilliant African sun and laughed her booming, crackling laughter readily, as if everything was right in the world, or at least in hers —.
On a lesser day though, her dark charcoal skin looked dusted and ancient on her, the tendons stretching and pulling under the layers of a burdened life. But even on those grey days, she had this thing — like an aura — about her which made you believe she could make it through almost anything. As if life herself had tired of battling her and granted her — grudgingly — the secret to immortality.
She came dressed for the occasion. A colorful skirt with the patterns and symbols of ancient tribes, complimented by a matching head wrap, and a radiant smile. She had never been to a National Park, but she recognized many of the animals. Off to the right was an Izimpala (impala), standing under a thorn-bush tree a proud umgankla (kudu). And oh, look at the tall indlulamithis (giraffes) watching us.
“How are you liking it, Kalape?” We would ask her and she would throw her hands up in the air, chattering excitedly in a mix of English and Zulu.
Late in the afternoon, as we drove through the hazy acacia trees, we heard a low, deep rumbling. Branches buckled and cracked as an aged bull elephant emerged out of the thick brush like a giant magic trick.
For a long moment, it stood with his back to us, absorbed in a world accessible only to him. Kalape was beside herself, shaken. Then the behemoth turned, as if struck he had had a sudden change of mind.
Kalape let out a small shriek, covering her mouth. I whipped out my camera and leaned out of the window. He flared his ears. Kalape looked at our driver as if begging him to save us all. I zoomed in on the old beast as he kicked a cloud of dust and swung his massive head sideways. Time to retreat. Piet shoved the gear stick to reverse and backed off the Land Rover slowly.
We all sat silent for a while, still in awe of what we had just witnessed. But there had been something exceptionally warm, — almost reassuring — about Kalape’s raw reaction. It was reassuring because it reminded me that the African elephant — or perhaps the African bush itself — had that same magical effect on a tough South African woman, who had seen more than her fair share of life, as the rest of us.
It had been reassuring because Kalape, for a moment, was what humanity once was; fearful, respectful, and fully alive in the presence of that most astounding of sights; life itself.