Before the villagers rise from their beds to begin their day and long before the hummingbirds have taken flight, darting from bush to bush in search of worms, Joseph is already walking the natural path that eventually leads to the front gate of his bakery.
Darkness still covers the early morning as he makes his way along the uphill winding path that overlooks his tiny village. Somewhere halfway - only he knows where - he’d sit himself down on a large rock that has been worn down over the centuries into the shape of a chair. There he’d take a sip of water, staring at the same time at the horizon to watch the change. In minutes the day would come. The sky would unfold, giving way to a pastel coloured painting, wet brightly as the sun pops up from behind the blackened hills. Joseph would stare in amazement. Then, just as abruptly, he would close his eyes as the sun whisks upwards, allowing its strength to fall on his face.
As though from a thousand flashlights, the streaks of rays would cut through the low-lying clouds, giving Africa its first light. And every time this happened, even when the sky was clear, Joseph always concluded that Africa was arising: the clouds that made misty overtures would be gently pushed out of the valley, letting in the sunlight as the dew sparkled like wealth and dripped off leaves to form dozens of little, silver trickles of streams, gurgling away. Now the mountain showed its true colour, a rich vibrant green, with the deep blue of the Indian Ocean now quite visible on the horizon.
Slapping his thighs in approval, he’d pick up his lunch and continue to the bakery.
At the entrance, Joseph would take one more look at his world, knowing that once inside he would not come out until his quota of bread had been baked. Below him, he could see the dense valleys, walled to the top with trees and other subtropical vegetation, the path he had taken, sandwiched between neat patches of banana trees and squared clumps of sugar cane. From where he stood, tiny puffs of smoke could be seen from freshly lit fires by the women of his village far below. The children would be playing freely. Then his eyes would swing upwards towards the distance where lay the “White city”; its buildings and smoke smudging the days’ creation.
It was time to work.
Today was Friday. Joseph knew that he would work twice as hard because the hotel in the “White city” ordered double the amount of bread to satisfy the guests that came as far as Johannesburg, 700 miles away. Fifty-five loaves of bread to be exact, to be delivered by noon sharp, at fifteen cents a loaf. The price never changed. Only the quality of the bread improved, though the same recipe was always used; passed down from father to son for many a generation.
Inside the bakery the air felt thick with the rich smell of baking bread that lingered on after Joseph had finished they day’s work. It seemed over the years, if not centuries, that the white walls had managed to suck into its cracks all the sweet smells, sealing them in shut.
Joseph would start by digging out the mielie cobs which he had placed a foot into the ground to dry out. Along with them, he’d grab a huge bunch of sugar cane sticks. Together, this would be his coal for the fire to heat the clay handmade oven. Once the construction was completed and set alight, he’d make his way over to a nearby fresh spring to fetch water.
Seeing the fire well ablaze, he’d break into a broad smile. The construction of the coal meant that the heat would last for hours, enough to make the fifty-five loaves of bread and more than enough to feed the families of his village.
Placed underneath the wooden table, overnight stood a container of water filled with tiny shoots of sugar cane. Joseph would add to this the exact amount of yeast, mixing it together until diluted. The container would then be placed on the window sill for six minutes to allow fermentation. To prevent overheating, the container would be covered with layers of wild banana leaf.
Next, with precision Joseph would scoop eighteen handfuls of flour to which salt would be added and placed into a corner of the table that had been accurately chiseled out to form a bowl-like indent. The eggs came next previously beaten and mixed with olive oil: not too much though because he knew of the overpowering strength of this oil; and then the yeast mixture with its sweet base would be added.
Vigorously, he’d agitate the mixture into the flour, his hands a blur of motion. The dough now would be placed onto the table ready for kneading until smooth and then placed in a sunny part of the bakery. In the hour or so it took to rise, the bakery would undergo a cleansing and preparation for the next round of baking. Once in a while he’d peak to make sure that the dough was fine.
Seldom did he make mistakes.
Time passed quickly now as Joseph fashioned the dough into half-moon shapes. The loaves were soon removed from the oven, well before the noon deadline demanded by the hotel in the “White city.”
Sitting patiently outside the bakery, the children of the village waited. They had come to help Joseph carry the bread six miles to the hotel whose view overlooked the neatly crashing waves that rushed up the clean beach, used by White bathers only
The door opened.
“Ten loaves for you….Three for you….Wait until you are older, then you carry more.” The procession would march off, in fine line, in playful spirit, behind their leader Joseph.
They’d pass through the village handing out the excess bread to the waiting women who would scurry off in all directions to feed their families. The procession would continue down the natural path to the main road that led to the city. By midday, they’d gathered at the back entrance of the hotel waiting for the owner to inspect the bread - as if the bread ever needed inspection. But Joseph knew the sales ritual all too well. He had gone through it for many years, like his father and uncles.
“Joseph, boy!” Pik Vaan, the owner of the Holiday Heights, a two star hotel, blurted out in a stern but friendly tone.
“The bread better be bloody good otherwise I’m not taking it,” he said, breaking off a piece and chewing on it. Joseph, his hat held to his breast waited for the answer and payment.
“Ja it’s lekker man, tastes good. I don’t know how you do it. But Joseph, listen here, listen carefully you hear? I don’t want your bread no more. A baker from Bloemfontein moved into town and from now on we are going to buy from him. So look after yourself, Joseph.”
The door to the back entrance to the hotel closed, leaving Joseph staring at it blankly, confused, holding his payment tightly in his fist. His eyes glistened softly, but red with hurt, the children chasing one another, waiting for their elder to lead them home again.
All that had become part of tradition suddenly became a closed book, the dismantling of a gentleman’s agreement, He had feared this, that a White baker would come to town, but not this soon. After all, he knew he was Black and the entrance for him was at the back of the hotel; his most important customer whose regular orders of bread helped him buy the the few odds and ends that the members of his village needed so badly.
Joseph ordered the children home, instructing them to say he’d be back late in the night. Joseph walked to the front of the hotel, painted fresh pink with the outside beams and window panes in a strong blue. Up the stairs he climbed onto the verandah that looked into the dining room, where guests were seated at lunch.
He watched in silence as they spoke, some cutting into his bread and stroking each slice with a generous amount of butter, stroking every corner of his bread until evenly overly thick.
He watched as they ate, some with their eyes closed, others reaching for seconds.
At one table at the back of the dining room stood the owner, one hand on the shoulder of a guest. Both were laughing. Then by chance he looked up to where Joseph stood, stared back and then turned away. Joseph turned away. It had been the first time that he had ever seen his bread eaten by someone other than the people of his village.
The town was small with not that may streets and had only one main street. The townsfolk knew Joseph well, greeted him as he went. He stopped outside the new bakery, bright, clean with its shelves stuffed full of freshly baked bread and cake. The owner was chatting away with some of his customers while one son packed the bread, the other working the till.
Joseph stepped inside, into a world of difference, but one he knew so well. What struck him was the aroma that seemed to escape at every opportunity rather than stay in. Everything, the counter, the oven, the glass cabinets, all sterile, reminding him of a hospital he had once visited.
“What do you want?’ The owner asked rudely. Joseph turned, reached out for a loaf of bread and placed it on the counter. Quickly like the automation of the bakery itself, the son working the till thunderously ordered Joseph never to touch the shelves again.
“Kaffir boy, you want bread, you knock on the door and I’ll think about giving it to you there. Give me thirty cents and get out.” Without a packet, he left. Everything outside remained the same. “Howzit Joseph….Hey, how’s the village?”
Across the street from the gleaming bakery, Joseph sat in silence. Tearing a piece from the loaf, he ate and the tears came to his eyes, the first time since his father had died nearly five years back. And he cried, remembering his father’s words to him, “My son, the bakery at the top of the hill is now yours. Teach it to your children so that they may teach their children and so they may sustain the life of our village.” With those words, Joseph saw his father die beside him.
For weeks he sat idle, sometimes staring up the hill. There was no need to wake up before the sunrise, to enjoy the glory of watching the African awakening. It had once given him strength but that seemed unimportant to him now. Mostly he could be found lying in his hut, occasionally coming out to help fetch wood for the fire his wife made every morning. The villagers were worried about him.
Joseph was in a deep sleep when a sudden commotion outside his hut woke him.
“Where is Joseph the baker?” boomed a voice, one he immediately recognized as that of the hotel manager in the “White city.” I want to speak to him now!” Half asleep Joseph stumbled outside to greet the visitor. This was the first time a White had ever set foot in the village.
“Look Joseph, my guests are complaining about the bread we buy from the new baker in town. They prefer yours. I have decided that I shall only buy from you and I have even told the new baker that I don’t want his bread. Friday, noon, fifty five loaves of bread and don’t be late.” The hotel owner smiled as he walked off.
There was dance and song in the village. Joseph rubbed his eyes. “Today is Thursday. Friday will be hard work.”
That night the sky was clear, the stars bright, the moon full giving depth to the valley , illuminating the ocean faraway. The village was peacefully asleep as the smoke drifted downwards towards the bottom of the valley, passing its way through the village.
Then the screaming began.
“The bakery is on fire….The bakery is on fire….Joseph, come quick!”
Like a leopard about to catch its prey, Joseph shot up that path, passing his rock, cutting his feet, panting out of breath, running towards the gleam of red, his bakery now crumpled, caved in and burning fiercely; dying. The wooden table on which he worked had fallen at an angle, black in colour.
The seal of aroma had escaped from the walls. In its place the stinking smell of burnt bread left in the oven for days, blackened to a powder, now rotting the air. Joseph sat down in front of the gate, while the villagers encircled him. A cloud covered the moon and a light drizzle began to fall as the villager, exhausted, knowing that nothing could be done, turned back and headed for home, leaving Joseph behind.
At noon the next day, the backdoor entrance of the hotel opened. Joseph’s wife stood there.
“Master,Bass, something bad happened. The Gods took bakery away by fire. Joseph has not made bread.
Mr. Pik Vaan the hotel owner, stood silent. In all his years of running the hotel, it was the first time that a delivery had not been made.
“Come sit inside, Elsie.” He ushered her into the hotel lobby where she sat, watching the guests, her head sometimes bowed in embarrassment.
The new bakery was thriving, customers coming and going. Mr. Vaan walked in. “Goeie more Meneer Vaan, I see your hotel needs our bread today,” laughed the owner, his sons joining in.
“Do you know that Joseph from the nearby village had his bakery burn down last night?”
The son working the till laughed even louder. “It was easy to burn that Kaffir’s bakery down. You think we want Kaffir competition? No way. Mr. Vaan you know the people this city wants our bread and not the bread made by dirty black hands. “ The silence was icy, and some customers began to walkout, followed by the rest, none of whom took their orders.
Mr. Vaan boomed out to the people that happened to pass by, to notify everyone in the town to a meeting urgently at the hotel. Within an hour, the people of the town had gathered most not knowing what for.
“Joseph, the baker from the village p on the hill has supplied this town and my hotel with his bread for many years. Last night, Joseph’s bakery was destroyed by fire, deliberately burnt to the ground by our newcomers, the Botha’s to avoid competition, especially from a Black. My friends, as you all know, the people of the village and our town have always maintained an excellent relationship. We must keep it that way.
The meeting went on for another two hours with many people having something to say.
On top of the hill, by the gate, sat Joseph, cold as he had not moved all night. Behind him a noise grew louder and louder until it was upon him. To his utter amazement, he saw coming up the hill hundreds of Whites, from the town, old and young, men and women, some of the guests whom he had seen eating his bread, carrying buckets, spades, cement and bricks. By nightfall, a new bakery stood.
That Friday at noon, Joseph knocked on the backdoor of the hotel. Mr. Vaan appeared smiling.
“Joseph, boy, the bread better be good and tasty, you hear. I’m counting on you, you hear?” he said, pinching off a piece from the loaf and placing it into his mouth. “Bloody good. Just as always. How do you do it?”
From now on, payment on your bread will be thirty five cents a loaf. Friday by noon and don’t be late, we have new guests.
Joseph smiled and his followers as always, took to their line. They marched down the street passing the new bakery. On the door it read, “Closed for Business.”
Quickly Joseph slipped thirty five cents under the door and continued home.