The Initiative by Beryl Ensor-Smith

In the sleepy South African town of Prentburg, Christina du Plessis misinterprets an overheard conversation and spurs the church sisters into a misguided mission; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.

The main topic of conversation of the church sisters during preparation for harvest festival was the newly elected American President, Donald Trump. There was lively argument about some of his actions, some being for and some against. In fact, things became quite heated on the subject of his efforts to curb immigration, especially his travel ban on those from countries he considered a threat to America.

"You can't brand everyone a terrorist," Rina van Wyk declared forcefully. "Many people from the countries he's outlawed already have visas to visit members of their families living in America. To prevent them coming just isn't right! It's a good thing that judge stepped in and put a stop to it."

"In your opinion," Christina du Plessis retorted loftily. "Anyway, he's not giving in and I think he's quite right to ban possible dissidents. Who knows what could be spirited into the country in one of those burkas worn by women from those parts. All you can see are their eyes, and they hold a lot of secrets!"

The discussion segued into loud disagreement, some voluble 'sisters' citing the strict security measures at airports, and petered out completely when gentle Sarie Blignault said softly:

"It must be awful to be made to feel so unwelcome when all you want is to see your loved ones."

There was some embarrassed clearing of throats before Helga Swanepoel took charge.

"Well there's nothing we can do about what happens in other countries, but we can certainly make visitors to ours feel happy to be here."

"Oh, what a good idea," Sarie breathed. "Ntebo says there are heaps of new arrivals in the informal settlement from Sudan and Ethiopia. We should do something to help them."

Her suggestion reduced the sisterhood to dismayed silence as each contemplated what adopting it would entail. Why did the ingenuous Sarie choose as her best friend Ntebo Dlamini, a black township woman, when there were so many less... problematic... ones she could have befriended in her own community? Helga decided to nip this idea in the bud before it flowered into something uncontrollable.

"Very commendable, Sarie, but we can't take on something so ambitious. I think..."

"And so dangerous," Christina rudely interrupted, "You should know by now that wandering around there is asking for trouble. Old Man Davenport thinks that just living close by is reason enough to keep that vicious dog to protect his property, yet you expect us..."

She, in turn, was interrupted just as she was working up to a full head of steam.

"Enough, sisters!" Helga commanded sternly. "What we can do, is extend our hospital visits to include strangers from overseas countries who have been taken ill unexpectedly in our village and land up there."

An inspired if somewhat pointless decision that the relieved 'sisters' agreed to with alacrity, for visitors to their unremarkable dorp were few and far between, never mind those from foreign shores. Even more unlikely that any would need a hospital bed! Helga studiously avoided the sceptical eyes of those who recognised a cop-out when they heard one.

It started with Christina's visit to the beauty salon owned by Ntebo, Sarie's friend, who ran it with great success despite the disadvantage of having had to win over the existing clientele when she bought it from its previous white owner. Christina was a regular customer once she realised that Ntebo was far more expert at her craft than Hermien Siegert had ever been. Ntebo was not as admiring of the difficult Christina, but knew that pleasing customers was essential and went out of her way to satisfy each and every one of her "ladies".

Christina, as always, chose to sit near women deep in conversation as she liked to be up-to-date with what was going on in the dorp. She had picked up many an interesting tit-bit eavesdropping on private conversations, although she would have hotly denied doing any such thing if so charged. Could she help it if some people chose to broadcast delicate matters at the top of their voices? It was, of course, sheer coincidence that when at the beauty salon, she happened to be where at least one of two chatterboxes was under a noisy hairdryer, unaware that she was talking louder than usual.

On this occasion, to her annoyance, she could hear only one side of the conversation as the other participant, waiting for a facial, had her back to Christina and was an ultra-refined, softly spoken type speaking hoity-toity English which she found hard to follow. That she herself was considered a hoity-toity Afrikaner by all who knew her, quite escaped her!

"...So sad, finding herself ill and alone on her journey to him. I cried buckets, my dear, especially when she was rushed to hospital and couldn't understand what was happening because of the language barrier."

Strain as she would, Christina could not hear a word that was said in reply and had to wait for 'hair-dryer' to respond.

"Yes, well, a Russian dialect, naturally, coming from one of those countries that used to be part of the USSR."

Another indistinct question from her companion, which elicited the answer:

"A bit of broken English, but the hospital staff couldn't make head or tail of it or chose not to. Whatever, I was moved to tears by her plight. No one to turn to. If I could have..."

"Mevrou Du Plessis, come to the basin please," Ntebo called, "Your turn to be washed." Reluctantly Christina moved off, missing the rest of 'hair-dryer's' comment: "...leaped between the pages of the book, I'd have comforted her myself. You must read it, Nora, you'll love it!"

Squeezing her eyes shut to avoid shampoo getting into them, Christina mulled over the snippets she had overheard. It took her a while to work through the implications. A refugee fleeing oppression, she decided, like the ones Donald Trump aimed to keep out, en route to join her loved one, her husband. (Christina disapproved of lovers; there was, she thought, something unwholesome about them. Any respectable couple would marry!) Her eyes shot open at the realisation that here was the very scenario Helga had outlined; a foreigner in their own hospital, isolated and lonely, needing hospital visits, and she, Christina would be the first to fulfil that obligation! She was filled with elation that she would be the bearer of the pleasing tidings at the next gathering of the church sisters; one in the eye for Helga who was too inclined to take charge of proceedings. (Christina conveniently ignored the fact that Helga, as current Chairwoman, was doing precisely what was expected of her.) Just then some shampoo trickled into one of her triumphant eyes and she spent some time berating Ntebo, all other thoughts temporarily deserting her.

By the time she met up with the church sisters at their weekly gathering for morning tea at the Astonishing Café (still only astonishing for its inadequacies, but one of only two places offering such sustenance in the dorp), her story had evolved. "A White Russian," she told the surprised sisterhood, "an aristocrat being hounded by Vladimir what's-his-name, into all that athletic, he-man stuff," shuddering with distaste. The mere thought of exercise made Christina want to faint. "She's stranded in our hospital, ill and abandoned. I called on her yesterday sisters, and it was an education!"

It had been an education, too, for Chava Resnikoff, great-aunt of Leon Markovitz, pharmacist and owner of the dorp's only chemist shop. He and his family were delighted to have Chava visit while her husband was busy sorting out their finances, "selling shares and transferring money all over the show to try to curb the losses we've made with all the drama going on in the world. He panics, does Ivan, for nothing. We are no chickens and our money will last longer than we will! I needed a break from all of his drama," Chava told them humorously on her arrival.

Unfortunately after only a week she was rushed to hospital with an emergency appendectomy; totally unexpected, as she had not suffered so much as a twinge until then. The Markovitz family and their friends rallied round spoiling her with flowers, gifts, afternoon and evening visits. In the mornings Leon and Talia were busy in the pharmacy. She managed all the paperwork, orders and book-keeping and he was responsible for the shop and the needs of their customers. They took turns with friends to visit Chava in the afternoons, and both visited her every evening. Ivan was all set to rush to Chava's side, but she assured him that she was receiving excellent care in the hospital, loving attention from her family, and insisted he should stay put and get on with securing their future, breathing a sigh of relief when he reluctantly agreed to do so.

Chava enjoyed the tranquility of her private ward, free of feelings of guilt for not being active. She spent her third morning after the operation reading and napping. Because of her age, her doctor was keeping her in hospital until satisfied that she was on the mend. This was OK by Chava; or it was until, just as she was drifting off to sleep, her peace was rudely shattered and she was left in a state of total bewilderment.

The sound of a chair being dragged across the floor woke her and for a moment she wondered whether she was dreaming when a very overweight woman, breathing heavily from her exertions, positioned it next to the bed and plonked herself into it. It took her a moment to catch her breath, during which time Chava blinked uncertainly, taking in a few details. This was definitely someone she'd never seen before, reeking of perfume and dressed to kill in swirling silk and sequins, with a double string of creamy pearls cascading from her plump neck. Moreover, this person might be breathless, but her shrewd eyes were summing Chava up in a way that left her feeling she was a disappointment. She waited mutely for an explanation.

"My a-pol-o-gies," Christina intoned slowly, drawing out each syllable. (Did the woman have a speech impediment?)

"Can... you... un-der-stand me?" Chava nodded, shrinking into her pillows. This resulted in a drawn-out, tortured monologue of which she could make very little. Later, during the evening visiting hour when telling Leon and Talia about the strange woman who had called that morning and scared her witless, she insisted:

"There was something very wrong with her. I even got to thinking the hospital might have a psychiatric ward, and she a... a disturbed patient, but they say they haven't. She had great trouble speaking and it was hard trying to make out what she was saying. Half the time I couldn't! Something about cultural differences should not lead to misunderstandings and that the Russian President was a horrible man; crazy talk! Also, that I am not alone, and to expect more visitors." Her eyes widened as the penny dropped. More like that woman?

"Leon, I want to go home!" she beseeched.

Leon went off in search of a nurse to provide something to calm his agitated great-aunt who would certainly not be allowed to leave so soon after her operation. Had he been there to hear her next comment, his knowledge of the villagers and their foibles would have provided some insight as to the source of her distress. Talia, an introvert, chose to distance herself from the local busybodies and did not make the connection when Chava wailed:

"I think some nuns will be next. This person said the 'sisters' would be taking turns to visit me. Talia, what do the Catholics want with an old Yiddish bubbe like me? Take me home!"

Christina, too, had been disconcerted on first seeing Chava. Her imagination had run riot, fleshing out the scenario of an oppressed foreign woman on the run. She had envisaged a beautiful, helpless heroine. The woman she'd been directed to might be helpless, even heroic, but a beauty she was not! She was old, wrinkled, and in Christina's opinion, none too bright. She had hoped for a moment that the receptionist had sent her to the wrong ward, but the arrogant young woman had been quite adamant that there was only one outsider in the hospital, a lady, Chava Resnikoff, who'd had an emergency appendectomy. The disenchanted Christina thought this a very common affliction; couldn't it have been something more dramatic, such as heart problems requiring a complicated bypass? She decided to prune her account of the hospital visit when informing the church sisters, to keep it more exciting.

They, in turn, were left feeling very frustrated. Christina seemed unable to answer any questions. (Not surprising, as she had done all the talking.) She couldn't even remember the name of the woman she'd visited other than it was Russian and ended in "koff".

"But surely you asked what had driven her away from her homeland? What kind of persecution she had suffered?" Helga persisted. "Did you even find out where she's from?"

"You forget the woman has a limited vocabulary," Christina flared, "she could only nod, though she was clearly traumatised by all she'd been through. She was very unresponsive."

"You told her more of us would visit her?"

"I did, but," spitefully, "she didn't seem very thrilled at the prospect."

Later, those of the sisters who stayed for another cup of tea after Christina had left were of the opinion that she was responsible for any lack of enthusiasm the refugee might feel about future sisterhood visits.

"You can bet she put her foot in it somehow," Rina said crossly. "She probably regaled the poor woman with boastful stories of her accomplishments instead of being kind and comforting."

"What a pity she visited first," Elsie Fourie agreed. "It would have been far better if someone more sensitive had broken the ice. How are we going to win her over if Christina has antagonised her?"

"Good luck with that," the impudent Suzie Lamprecht chirped. "I'm withdrawing from this daft 'initiative'. You lot can deal with an angry Babushka. She'll probably swear at you in Russian!"

This caused an upset, some of the 'sisters' rounding on her, so that by the time they left, all were bad-tempered, sniping at one another.

Leon and Talia, after conferring, decided that the only way to ensure Chava's peace of mind and persuade her to remain in hospital until the doctor gave her the all-clear was to prevent anyone from visiting who wasn't a family member. Chava, being as warm and funny as she was, was well-liked by the friends they had introduced her to. Being told they were to stay away from the hospital did not sit well with some of them and they took umbrage. Another group of discontented people!

"We've offended kind friends who mean well, Leon," Talia said ruefully. "It's too bad that some nutcase should cause so much trouble. Perhaps the receptionist will remember her?"

When, later, Leon made enquiries of the receptionist about a woman caller who had upset his great-aunt, his description was as misleading as Chava had been long on shuddering distaste, but short on accurate information:

"She was downright creepy and smelt overpowering. She was fat, unappealing, no longer young and dressed very unsuitably for a hospital visit, probably because those are the only kind of clothes she has. She could do with some help in that department!" She added guiltily, "Poor soul. I know I should pity her for her halting speech, but it only made her more... more of a nightmare!"

This resulted in Leon telling the receptionist that the culprit was a heavy, poverty-stricken old woman with a bad speech defect. Not for a moment did the girl equate this description with the expensively attired, loquacious Christina, whose only speech impediment was saying far too much far too loudly!

In no time at all the tale reached the ears of the manger of the hospital administrative staff. He took the receptionist to task, saying severely:

"It's your job to vet people visiting patients. How could you let someone so unsuitable slip by you, someone whose appearance should have alerted you to possible danger to a patient? I am very disappointed in you, Marietta!" He strode off leaving a petulant receptionist feeling very aggrieved.

The ban on hospital visits came as a great relief to the sisters of the church, none of whom relished the thought of visiting an irate White Russian refugee who might resort to verbal abuse. Helga, however, saw the banishment as a blot on the unstained record of their good works. At the next sisters of the church meeting, she announced:

"Sisters, our initiative must simply change direction." She drew a deep breath and tried to quell any display of the reluctance she felt. "We will take up Sarie's suggestion to help the Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees in the informal settlement, and," turning unrelenting eyes on Christina, "since the initiative arose at your instigation, we appoint you to co-ordinate with Reverend Motsepe of the Non-Denominational Church in the settlement as to how best we can offer practical assistance to relieve their plight."

While Christina was rendered speechless with indignation, all women present clapped in enthusiastic approval of the motion, convinced that, despite not knowing how, it was entirely her fault that things had come to this pass. There was little sympathy for her. Instead of spending the odd hour on hospital visits, they would now all be involved in months of work relieving the plight of foreign refugees. Meanwhile no-one was taking care of the dorp's own poor, of which there were many. Any treasure in heaven they might be accruing through this 'initiative' would surely be offset by putting up on earth with Christina's defiant tantrums for as long as the 'initiative' lasted!


  1. It was very good to revisit the sisters in the dorp - and the blustering, bamboozling Christina - thank you Beryl for such a wry and amusing story,

  2. very topical and with the usual gentle humour. lovely written elements of confusion! First class!
    Mike McC


  3. Topical piece. Interesting array of characters and a subtle take on Christian charity.

  4. I often wonder why it is so much harder to do good things rather than the selfish and harsh. Why fear and hate spread so much quicker and easier than love and good will. My favorite couple of lines from your story are, "Who knows what could be spirited into the country in one of those burkas worn by women from those parts. All you can see are their eyes, and they hold a lot of secrets!" So much said in those words. Another nice story about our favorite sisters, this one with a soft punch. Interesting take for us sitting in the good ol' USA. Thanks much, Beryl.

  5. Thank you Ceinwen, Mike, Mark and Jim for your encouraging comments. Always good to hear from you!
    Best wishes,

  6. Heh! I like calling him Donald Drumpf too.... :-}

  7. Enjoyed your comment, Mary!!

  8. Phew, back to normal. Apologies Beryl. Sending ones computer for repair turns ones life upside down.
    ...Another witty and engaging visit to the Prentburg Dorp and I particularly enjoyed the scene in the hairdressers. Christina should insist on Baby Shampoo, it won't do her hair any good but it won't sting her eyes.
    B r o o k e