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The Creamery

Story ID:2904
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Biography
Location:Manzini Swaziland
Person:Alan, my cousin.
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The Creamery

Sneaking into places was a very big thing when Alan and I were kids. It seemed like the most important thing we could do. We tried to sneak into just about any place that had an access left unguarded.

Alan was my cousin, the youngest son of my mother’s sister - Loretta. His family lived in the house right next door to our house and our yards were separated by a simple chain-link fence with a small chain-link garden gate, which only stayed closed to keep our dogs from tearing each other to pieces. In fact, Alan’s dogs would have torn ours to pieces because my father favored hunting dogs, like Pointers and Weimaraners. These dogs could easily track partridge, guinea-fowl, quail and other game birds with their sensitive noses, but they were not designed to be fighters. On the other hand, Alan’s father, Uncle Dez seemed to prefer large, aggressive Alsatians and they would be given very authoritarian names like “Sergeant” and “Rex” and “Major” and “Prince.”

Dez had been in the South African Army during the Second World War. He fought along side the Allies with the South African Tank Corps. He drove a jeep for some tank muckity-muck, entering the war a private and exiting with a beautiful Italian girl to take home: my Aunt Loretta. Dez was satisfied to re-live the glory days through World War II comic books and dogs with authoritarian names.

My father had found some success by starting a small Hardware store in Manzini, called “Swaziland Warehouse and Company, Ltd.” At the time Dez and Loretta Romburgh were struggling to make ends meet in Johannesburg during the post war recession and since my father needed employees, my mother thought: why not have them and their four children come to Swaziland where Dez could work for my dad at the hardware store.

The company grew, mainly due to the fact that my father was a trained attorney and a brilliant businessman, my mother was an accountant and a highly intelligent woman and together they were a commercial juggernaut. Conveniently, Swaziland Warehouse and Company was just around the corner from our home and so my father would walk to work early every morning. My mother, who was not a morning person, would join him later in the day.

They worked through the day without taking time for lunch although they did eat a snack at about midday while sitting at their desks. One of the warehousemen was assigned to scare up some steak, which would then be grilled on an open fire in the yard and finally cut into bite sized pieces to be distributed to the loyal few who stayed through lunch. I would often try to turn up for this little treat because of two major draws. Firstly, there is no steak taste like the one generated by grilling over an African wood fire in the yard and secondly, they would cut the steak into bite sized pieces with a scissors! There was something deliciously irreverent about eating steak that had been cut with a scissors. The rock salt also added a little extra taste.

My father insisted that Uncle Dez’ tool collection grew commensurately with stock shortages of tools in the store’s inventory. He ended up having the most comprehensively stocked workshop that anyone had ever seen. This irked my father to no end, but my mother managed to keep a lid on things for the sake of family harmony. He really did love my mother. However my father complained about this until well into his eighties. His frustration was only equaled by his amazing ability to overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by wit and resourcefulness. He had a sign in his office placed just above his head which read “Please Don’t Waste My Time.” There was a little curtain that could be drawn when one of the Royal Family came to visit. One of the perks of being of Royal Stock is that you can waste anyone’s time.

Near Swaziland Warehouse and Company, Ltd., was the Swaziland Creamery. This was the plant which processed the milk and bottled it for delivery to milk stores and a few households. The Creamery also made butter and buttermilk. The building was set back from the dirt road, perhaps to avoid the first and second layer of dusting from cars passing on the dirt road. The buildings lay behind some purple jacaranda trees which seemed always to be dusty. The trees were surrounded by a low barbed-wire fence and some low shrubs for decoration and also, presumably, dust filtering.

The Creamery was always a source of mystery to me and Alan, sitting there, a short distance from the road, taunting us and looking mysterious. Workers would turn up and then disappear for the entire day only to appear in the evenings as they left for home. The fact that this is fairly close to what every worker did in Swaziland did not diminish the mystery. What does a Creamery worker do? Do they have buckets of cream? Do they do paperwork or just drink milk all day? Can we get some free milk? Always open to an adventure, Alan asked “Why don’t we check it out? You never know what we can find.”

On a Sunday in May, right after Mass, when there was sure to be no-one at the Creamery, Alan and I decided it was time to solve the mystery. For the expedition we decided to dress in black although we were going in broad daylight, black was a dramatic color that added to the thrill of the sneak.

“It’s daylight! How’s black going to help us?” Alan asked.

“Ya, but if we had to hide in the building, we would look like just a couple of shadows.”

Alan said “I had to wash my black shorts. They were dirty, also my black socks.”

“All I have is my mom’s black jersey, I don’t have a black shirt” I explained. The jersey had a cowl neck and looked a little feminine.

“Don’t worry,” Alan said, “You look great!”

We also put our hunting knives on our belts because: well, you never know. With nothing but curiosity, agile bodies and one container each to swipe some milk, we set out to enter and explore the Creamery.

On the way we ran into Sixpence Mlongo. He was a respected elder of a kraal which was located near Hlatikhulu. He was dressed in his traditional finery which meant he had monkey skins to cover his loins, brightly coloured red print cloth imported from Indonesia wrapped around his chest and one shoulder and several feathers in his hair. The feathers were not red, which would have marked him as Royalty, but the fact that they were there at all gave him not inconsiderable status. Mlongo’s hair had been allowed to grow long and was starting to develop dread-locks, long before it had become fashionable. He sported a small goatee which was an uncommon achievement for his race and therefore quite a status symbol. His face was thin and etched with high, pronounced cheek-bones and his skin the colour of toffee.

“Sa’ubona umfundisi,” I said holding my right hand up to my face and cupping the right elbow in my left hand as a sign of respect. “Yebo, m’fana.” He intoned. “Kunjani wena?” I asked and got the polite reply signifying everything was fine with him: “Ukhona. Kunjani wena m’fana?” “Lungile umfundisi….”

In Siswati sa’ubona, literally translated, means “I see you.” It is the greeting of the Swazi. The reply: Yebo just means “Yes.” Umfundisi means preacher and/or teacher. It’s an elevation most Swazis would enjoy and it confers intelligence and status. The Swazi crow is a large black bird with a white collar and he is also called umfundisi, because he looks like a Catholic priest. Kunjani wena is “How are you?” The replies are different forms of “Well.” Lungila is more “Alright” not great, but alright. M’fana means “My boy.”

Mlongo looked at us with a confused expression on his face. At first we didn’t know why, but it soon became apparent that two little boys, dressed all in black in the African heat with one of us in his mother’s black cowl-necked wool jersey, must have been a strange sight to a man who was appropriately undressed for the weather.

“Klein Baasie” Mlongo started using the mixture of Afrikaans and English a lot of Swazis used when talking to Mlungu, “Where are you going… a funeral?” The Swazi’ pronounce every consonant and vowel so where we would pronounce it “Fyoonril” the Swazis would say “Foo-ne-ral.”

“Hai Mlongo,” I replied, “why are you asking?” (“Hai” meaning “no.” and the present continuous is always preferable to the direct question.)

“Is eet not too hot for thet cala today?” He asked in his familiar Swazi Accent referring to the colour black.

“Hai Mlongo, we will be in the shade.”

After a second to think Mlongo asked: “Where ees this shade m’fana ghitsi?”

“Over that side” I said nebulously pointing in the general direction we were headed and a description not uncommon in the Swazi vernacular.

“But you hev to get there in the sun?”

“Yebo Mlongo… that is the problem.”

He looked from one of us to the other, trying to understand what was going on and then said: “Eet ees interesting to me, why you are going to sit in the shade with your knives.”

“There are guava trees there M’fundisi,” said Alan cleverly “and we are hoping to cut them and eat them.”

“The guava weel fall and those that do not are easily picked.”

“Yebo M’fundisi, but this is Africa and you never know….”

Mlongo seemed content with that answer. Either that or he was too polite to press the issue. After a brief examination of the two black attired, armed shade and guava seekers he saluted us: “Hamba kahle.” “Hamba kahle Mlongo” we replied as he was going somewhere too. Normally one person says “Hamba kahle” with the k pronounced as a g, which means “go gently” and the other says “Sala kahle” which means “stay gently.”

As Mlongo walked on, Alan and I headed for the Creamery, checking over our shoulders to make sure he hadn’t taken note of our direction.

After a brief altercation between Alan’s black pants and the barbed-wire fence we entered the grounds. Crouching and running in the fashion of the heroes of World War II depicted in Dez’ comic books, we could easily have been mistaken for commandos. We circumnavigated the building several times until we spotted a window open very slightly. A jacaranda stick lifted the latch and we were in! What a smell greeted our nostrils. It wasn’t unpleasant at all, in fact rather nice, but foreign to two ten-year-olds. We discovered later it was a smell referred to as “clean.” There was a slight aroma of milk or cream or something, but the cleanliness astounded us. We found ourselves in a huge room with four huge, stainless steel cylindrical vats filled with something we could not see. The sides of the vats were too high. We knew there was something in them because above them were rotating mechanisms which stirred and agitated the insides of the vats with a low regular hum. We walked around the vats and noticed that the bottom of the cylinders was bullet shaped and tapered to a rounded end. Then we saw a label on the side of one of the vats. The label read “Buttermilk.” The place was very cold after being outside in the African sun and we started to shiver a little, but we were thrilled. Not only was there milk, but this was “Buttermilk!” With a name like that it had to be delicious! “Butter” and “Milk” together! Who came up with this delicious idea?

Whispering unnecessarily, Alan indicated that we should explore other rooms, perhaps where we could actually see what was going on. I agreed although I hadn’t given up on the vats. We stole stealthily into a small office just off the vat room and finding nothing of interest started exploring the rest of the Creamery. There were a lot of pipes and tubes running hither and thither and I was getting an itch to climb them.

“Hey Johnny, check this room, this is like your mom’s office.”

In the room we found a desk with two photographs on it and a letter that just read: “Dear Anne,” nothing more, as if the writer could not think what to say to Dear Anne. The paper had gotten wet and smeared the ink somehow and we decided that was why the writer didn’t go on with it. The photographs were black and white and of a woman hugging a man, but in each picture it was a different man. One of the pictures was in a tin frame. The other was just lying on the desk by itself. We had no idea who the people were or what they were doing, but the young woman was very pretty and laughing in both pictures. The men seemed to be about the same age – old – over twenty, at least. One wore a hat like my Uncle Mickey.

“She’s pretty hey? Have you seen her around?” I looked closely and said I hadn’t. “She’s almost as pretty as Marilyn.”

Marilyn was Alan’s brother Errol’s girlfriend and she was the prettiest girl we’d ever seen.

“Hey, let’s see if he has any biscuits” I said as we lost interest in the pictures.

There were no sweets, chewing gum, or biscuits in the office so we continued our search for the break-room to see if there was anything to eat there. In no time, we found it and like a miracle, there were day-old fet koek lying in a plate in the refrigerator, some only half eaten! Fet koek are hole-less doughnuts, much like Louisiana Beignets, but less pretentious. The message is “Eat this, it’s good, later you’ll probably die of cholesterol poisoning.” Fet koek literally translates to “fat cook” so there is no equivocation there. I ate one that hadn’t been touched, at least by a human. Flies were a different story, but I was very finicky when it came to other people’s spit. Alan, who has a slightly less discerning palate, wolfed every other koek down. Then he licked his fingers until they pruned.

“Alan, look at your fingers. It looks like you’ve been swimming.”

“Ya, those were lekker” he exclaimed, using some of the common Afrikaans vernacular.

Perhaps it was the influence of all the stories our Italian mothers told us describing horrible deprivation during the War and of starving and eating anything the family could get their hands on, but we seemed always to be looking for different, if not easily accessible, sources of food.

Having stuffed ourselves on the treasure we were unwittingly seeking, we decided a nice drink of milk would end the adventure on a positive and fulfilling note. In addition we were really thirsty now.

I said: Hey let’s check out the vats and see if we can grab some of that Butter-Milk!”

I really wanted some of that Buttermilk! So we made our way back to the vat room and pondered the ways we could get up and over the side. I pointed at the pipes running along the walls and over the vats and said:

“Let’s climb up here, shift ourselves along those pipes until we’re over the vats, then we can climb down to the rims.”

In short order I was hanging over a vat from a ceiling pipe. Alan did the same and we both climbed down to lower pipes that would place us just above the churning vats.

We were thrilled! They were about half full of the promised Buttermilk and we thought that if we moved quickly enough we could dip our containers into the milk and bring them up before the massive stirrer blades could catch an arm and tear it off. There were two blades moving around the vats slowly. The milk was too deep to see the bottoms of the blades, but we assumed they tapered down to fit the bullet shape of the vats. The edges of the blades were close to the vats’ sides and there was a turning pole to which the blades were attached. Although there was very little space between the edge of the blade and the side of the vat, there was a space of about 5 or 6 inches from the inside of the blades to the pole which joined them in several places and drove them around.

The stirrer motors quietly moved the two huge blades around in a clockwise direction, making the liquid slosh through the centre spaces. The vats were very cold and we were very thirsty. Perhaps it was the cold numbing what little sense we had or perhaps it was the fet koek thirst, but we didn’t see any danger in this quest.

They say “God looks after drunks and little children.” I have seen more evidence of this than I care to remember. We hung there, by both legs and one hand, practicing our dipping technique before the actual dip, raising and lowering our containers and then raising them again to avoid the stirrer blades. When I thought I had the rhythm down I went for a deep dip, got about four table spoons of milk and got out of the way just in time. Naturally I had to crow about it.

“Hey Alan, you think you might get some before tonight?” He gave me an angry look.

I smirked but when I tasted the Buttermilk I nearly died! It was horrible! I spit it out and made such a racket that Alan looked up at me, lost his grip and fell into his vat. I tend to think his pruned fingers had more to do with it than my shriek and I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince him of that later. The blade, that was passing as he fell, knocked his container away and he tumbled in after it passed; disappearing entirely for what seemed an eternity. When he came up he caught his breath and started screaming as the second blade pushed him around the vat at speed. He made several circuits, alternately dropping in and then, finding some purchase, pushing his way up. His dark hair and dramatic black clothes alternated white and black as the cold liquid penetrated the fabric and then drained out each time he rose.

For a few seconds I was petrified. I couldn’t move. I didn’t know what to do. I started to climb towards his vat, all the time watching him rotate and hearing him scream. I was calling out to him but I’m sure he never heard. He looked funny and scary with his white face and milky clothes. I wanted him to laugh, desperately. I wanted him to see the funny part; not the horrifying part. If he decided he’d had too much he’d run to his mom and we would both be in more trouble than I could imagine. Then, all of a sudden the blades slowed and stopped and the electronic motor started to screech. Miraculously in a few seconds it died and there was a foul smell of burning shellac.

Alan continued to scream until my shouting at him got through and he realized the blades had stopped.

“Alan! Get up and step on the thing there and then I’ll grab your hand. There, that thing - where the blade joins the pole.”

“I can’t move, I can’t get up!”

“Why not?” I asked wondering if he’d lost his legs.

“It’s like my pants are caught.”

“Feel around and see if you can find how they’re caught. Hurry up, we’ve got to get out of here.”

Alan felt under the milk for a second and then said: “I’ve got it, it’s my knife! Jeez Johnny it’s freezing in here!”

“Look Alan, just loosen your belt and leave your pants there, let’s get out!”

“I’m not leaving my pants, these are my favourite” said Alan with a tone of finality.

He stayed in the Buttermilk until he got his belt off and the knife off his belt. He was crying and shivering, but when I said: “Whatever you do, don’t drink the milk, it’s disgusting!” He burst out laughing through his tears.

When Alan got out with Buttermilk pouring out of his clothes all over the Creamery floor, we high-tailed it for the window and climbed out as unobtrusively as a billboard for Black and White Scotch. Thankful for the heat, we went quietly to his house because he had a swimming pool and we both dived in so that, we thought, neither could be identified with the break-in if it ever got to our parents. I tried to tell him that he should not have been sucking his fingers after eating the fet koek, but I knew he sort of blamed me for startling him with my shriek. When I got home Catherine Dlamini, our maid, scolded me for “falling in the pool” and getting my clothes all wet.

Monday and Tuesday were very difficult days. Alan and I stayed apart having agreed that it would be better that way. We got together the following Wednesday to read what we could in the weekly newspaper, praying there would be nothing about a break in at the Creamery. Thankfully, we saw nothing about a break in at the Creamery. In fact it was just another week in Swaziland. There was a big building contract awarded to a South African firm, The Paramount Chief, who would eventually become king when Great Britain gave us independence, announced that he was going to take yet another wife at the coming “Incwala” ceremony and a couple were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide pact in the Bougainvillea Apartments on Collins Street.

Alan and I were so relieved that we promised each other we would never sneak into any more places as long as we both lived and as long as there were no open windows. The solemnity with which we took the oath was only equaled by the solemn looks we seemed to get from our parents for the next two or three weeks. We discussed these looks and decided that they contained puzzlement too, but we felt sure they knew, we just didn’t know why they never brought the subject up.

For his birthday on June 1st, Alan got a hunting knife “to replace the one you lost” Dez said. Alan told me he had never said he’d lost the old one.