Wednesday 24 June 2020

Doris' House

Doris and myself at Bethany's Baby Shower

The first seller was willing to sell his house to Doris, our expatriate Zulu housekeeper from Ulundi then living with us in Saudi Arabia, but said he’d keep the erf upon which the house was built. 

We were not to worry though, all would be sorted out by an affidavit he’d make at the police station, in which he would state, untruthfully, that Doris Mbekwaphi Mamba was his aunty and hence entitled to live in the house. All this in exchange for a mere R85000, to be sent via postal order.


We were obliged to tell a greatly disappointed Doris that his scheme, although innovative, was illegal. The blow was significantly lessened, however, by her discovery that hijackers operating in the neighbouring house dismantled cars throughout the night.


The second seller did not own the house he was selling. He too proposed a series of payments into a post office account, after which the longed-for title­ deeds would materialise. He was furious when he discovered we’d had the audacity to hire a firm of conveyancers. But we had told Doris that since it was our money purchasing her house, the involvement of lawyers was non-negotiable. She, of course, was terrified of losing a dream, while we were adamant we’d not subsidise thieves. A stand-off arose, but thankfully Lindi, a member of Doris’s extended family, worked at the Department of Housing and independently ascertained that the house in question had no owner. Lindi told us our would-be seller spoke no English or any common African language, which made it all the more remarkable that when our conveyancers contacted him, his English proved adequate, albeit profane.

The setbacks were hard on Doris, who spent day after day, week after week of the Saudi summer, which we fled yearly to return to a cold, dreary winter, taking taxis from township to city, city to township, pounding the streets, knocking on doors, asking if anyone knew of a house for sale.

But what was this Zulu woman doing in Saudi Arabia in the first place, working for us as a housekeeper? Some 13 years previously I had phoned an employment agency looking for someone to undertake “piece work” and was duly informed, “I am just going to have to send you Doris.” I was startled by the fact that here was a fait accompli being presented to me. When I queried this, I gained no satisfactory reply, and hence Doris arrived.

At that time, she spoke only Zulu, but proceeded to demonstrate her willingness to work by tackling absolutely everything all at once in one day. It was exhausting to watch her and in her haste and anxiety she was very clumsy. But the desperation in her eyes was apparent. As the years went on and we learnt her story­, we realised why.

Abandoned by her mother at the age of two, Doris was first put to work as her blind grandmother’s eyes. When her beloved Gogo died, Doris was sent into the fields to herd the cattle­ since her uncle considered schooling wasted on girls. 

Desperate for education, she’d attend a week of school here, two weeks there, and would beg others to teach her what they knew. The fact that she can read and write today is testament to her intelligence and sheer doggedness.


Her move to the city in her early 40s was precipitated by her husband taking a fourth wife and refusing to support her and her two young children. The rural areas around Ulundi provided no work and she was told the best she could achieve, “with no skills” would be domestic work.

Duly arriving in the city every day that she could, Doris scrounged the fare from her brother, took a taxi to the employment agency and sat there, simply sat there. Work there was to be had and, by God, work she was going to find. And hence both the employment agent and I had to submit to the inevitable.


A few months later, however, she found full-time, live-in employment and brought along her sister-in-law, Regina, as her replacement. This would normally be the end of the story­, except that, one day, some 10 years later, Doris arrived in Regina’s wake.

Regina said Doris, now fluent in Afrikaans­ but unemployed by nine job losses, needed the work. She was reduced to living in a squatter camp and despite clear evidence of starvation, would cheerfully take the earliest taxi and sit outside on the verge, waiting for the household to stir.

“Die werk is die werk,” she’d reply staunchly to us, mortified by her long wait. I remember her bouncing my newborn son in the air upon hearing we were to leave to go to Saudi and saying, “Wat sal ons doen? Ons sal vrek van die honger! Vrek, vrek, vrek, vrek, vrek van die honger,” bouncing him higher up in the air on each vrek! He loved the ride.

In a heartbeat, Doris, who had no experience of travel, gave an unqualified “ja” to our asking if she would join us in our expatriate life, and some 18 months and miles of red tape later, there she was, a feat all in itself.

My husband had, in fact, to take himself off as supplicant to the offices of the Emir of the Eastern Province, where, towering over the Saudi security­ guards with his long hair in a ponytail, it was hard enough simply to persuade them to let him into the building. He was accompanied by a Saudi friend, who argued convincingly that provincial affairs included those pertaining to an expatriate worker in the oil industry, a previously untested proposition.

Once inside, it was an even more daunting task to find someone who would accept the letter he clutched in one hand, beautifully transcribed into Arabic and with all due honorifics added.

Our Pakistani translator, thrilled to discover my husband was writing to one of the Big Four Saudi Princes, was horrified that we had not understood the gravity of the situation, and informed us that a simple, “your royal highness”, although necessary, was utterly insufficient.

After four hours of being kicked upstairs, in slow increments since no one wanted to make a decision upon the matter lest it rebound upon them, at last they were left to cool their heels outside a very fancy door. Great was their surprise when barely five minutes later, the letter was returned with an important signature scrawled underneath a few words to the effect: “Give visa.” That part of the process took two days, the rest, months of blood tests and police statements and the usual bureaucratic requirements.

The letter stated our reasons for asking for a special visa to bring Doris, a woman in her mid-50s, into the country under our direct sponsorship.

 We asked our Jordanian friend, Ammar, who was Muslim, spoke Arabic­ and had worked a long time in Saudi, to help us in finding common cultural ground. But actually it was compassion that ruled the day, for among other reasons, we stated simply­ that she had worked for us for a long time and with our leaving she was without work (although we did grant her a monthly stipend during this era), that we were loyal to her and wanted her to attain a better life. Islam, after all, values compassion, and ever since Archbishop Desmond Tutu had urged all South Africans who could, to adopt a family in need, well, we figured, we knew who our family was.

Once in Saudi Arabia, Doris proved her remarkably resilient personality, befriended all the nurses and led a far more social life than we did over weekends. Her chakalaka even won first prize at an American chilli cook-off contest, much to the chagrin of her highly competitive fellow participants, and is now sold by a Saudi catering­ company, which reports to us that, apart from being healthy and vegetarian, it is remarkably low in calories.

We led an expatriate lifestyle to fund our dream house and did not see why Doris should not realise her dream above all dreams for which she prayed. After all, ubuntu is not just about the spirit of giving, it’s actually about giving. We could not ask her to save, since among the very poor, if you have, you give.

At last a third house seller was found who actually owned her house and was willing to sell both it and the ground upon which it stood.

The conveyancers informed us that here indeed we might have a deal, all we needed to surmount was the issue of a substantial backlog of rates, a tenant unwilling to vacate, a husband wary of selling, and the usual small mountain of related paperwork. But nothing could frighten us now.

So, as others had helped Doris, she helped them, as she helped us, we helped her.

Doris, her dream realised, took early retirement and lives with her grandchildren in a house of her very own.  

About the author

KATHRYN Kure studied for her initial degree at UKZN, Pietermaritzburg. After many years in Johannesburg and Saudi Arabia, she, her husband and three children now live in Kloof. From February, she is the new director of the eThekwini Community Foundation. Her food blog can be found at

First published in the Natal Witness as part of their short story competition - but it is now lost from the interwebs and hence has been republished here under the moral rights of the author to her creation, though it was recently found in a News24 archive:

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