It’s hot here in the Northeast, actually across much of the country. I’m locked in my office working to finish the Long-Distance Dad book proposal. It’s over 90 outside, but I’m comfortable with the A/C cranked. I was thinking about how hot it was in Johannesburg when I visited in January — and how Mtuseni not only doesn’t have air conditioning, he doesn’t even have electricity for a fan. His mother’s windowless brick shack must be like a mini-oven on summer nights. Mtuseni is now in the “annex” that he built with his brother. It’s made of gypsum wallboard or something, just panels haphazardly nailed together into walls, the dirt floor covered with blankets. I’m certain that it must be a bit cooler than the shack in summer.
Except that it’s not summer in South Africa; it’s the middle of winter. Last night Mtuseni’s MXit status line said “cant feel my legs, the Cold has completely paralysed me.” I laughed. As a writer myself, his ability to paint evocative word pictures is one of the things I most love about him. And he does have a flair for drama. He’s been complaining about being cold for months, well before winter set in. It’s not like he has any fat on his bones to keep him warm. When we were in Cape Town during the Southern Hemisphere summer, he slept in long-legged, long-sleeved pajamas, complaining about the barely-there air conditioning. We fought like an old couple over the thermostat setting.
I checked the weather online yesterday and, indeed, the overnight forecast for Joburg was 34 degrees. But the city gets the urban heat island effect. Mtuseni has often said that his area 15 miles from downtown gets much colder. So it is likely well below freezing in his community — and the forecast shows those conditions for the next several nights. Mtuseni told me that the gas-powered fridge in his mom’s shack throws a little warmth, perhaps from the compressor. But now that he’s in the ramshackle annex, he is essentially sleeping outside with walls. He only has one heavy blanket and thin cotton sheets.
As I dial the thermostat to ensure my own temperature-controlled comfort while working on this book, I hope that one day I’ll be able to buy flannel sheets and warm blankets for the whole family. Perhaps even sleeping bags. Someday, maybe I’ll explore a more comprehensive solution such as solar panels for all the community shacks — to power a cooling fan on hot January nights, and maybe a little extra warmth in the bitter-cold South African July.