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Sunday, April 7, 2013

For Mandy

I’m sitting by the ocean as I write this. Sometimes when I think of South Africa, this is all that comes to mind – a vast stretch of blue. Ocean, sky, the jagged outline of Table Mountain. Us in Mandy’s car, the road rolling out before us mottled with blue cloud-shadows; rolling, rolling, rolling all the way to the distant horizon.

Zain is fast asleep beside me on the beach chair on a blue and white, striped towel. Mandy never saw my children. The last time we met was in South Africa, where Azfar and I went for our honeymoon in 2007, but I knew her from two years earlier – December 2005, to be precise, when she and her friend Waldimar Pelser visited Pakistan on my cousin’s invitation. My cousin lived in Lahore but had a propensity to invite people to my mother’s house in Islamabad, usually at a few hours’ notice, and so it happened that we were told that two journalists from South Africa were going to be staying at our place. They’d put Islamabad on the itinerary because they wanted to attend a traditional Pakistani wedding. This happened to be my cousin’s ex’s wedding. Needless to say, it was going to be a complicated few days.

I only remember snatches of that trip. There were conversations over tea. Waldimar and Mandy loved their tea. Maybe it was a journalist thing, or maybe it was a South Africa thing – whatever it was, it created moments for bonding. Mandy was soft spoken and kind, and would then surprise you with a delightfully wicked streak. She liked to reach out to people, to establish a connection. One of my lasting memories is of her standing in front of my mother in a blouse and petticoat, ooh-ing and aah-ing as a sari was tied around her for the wedding. She had rocked up a storm on the dance floor at the mehndi the previous night, dressed in a shalwar qamees. Another memory is of Mandy and Waldimar in my room, frozen mid-conversation with terrified excitement as the windows rattled and the ceiling fan swung to the rhythm of a small earthquake – one of the hundreds of aftershocks post October 2005. Pakistan was meant to be an adventure for those two, I think. Perhaps, like so many other people who visit my country, they wanted to be able to say that they’d made the trip and survived.


Two years later, I walked into Mandy’s Johannesburg apartment with my new husband.  She’d kept cardamom and clove flavoured chocolates for us in the guestroom. We bonded over drinks again – she nursing her glass of wine and we our mugs of herbal tea. I asked her the direction of the sunrise so I could figure out which direction to pray in. A couple of days later, we were heading out at the crack of dawn on a road trip and I realized the sun rose from the exact opposite direction that she’d said. I called her.

“Mandy. Thanks to you, I’ve spent the last three days praying with my ass towards the Kaaba!”

“Oooooh I’m so sorry! I didn’t want to admit that I had no idea what the direction of the sunrise was! I mean, who expects you to know that?!”

Sadly, she’d been called away to Cape Town for work, but she left the keys to her car and apartment with us. When it was time for us to travel there, she arranged a bed and breakfast for us within hours because our hotel booking had fallen through. The B&B was run by an Israeli Jewish couple called Eliaf and Petunia. It was the first time they were hosting a Muslim couple from Pakistan, and they were pleasantly surprised to find that we were normal human beings. “Come, sit here,” Eliaf would say, “and I will show you that our faiths are not so different. What?! You do not believe in reincarnation?! So what if it is not in your Book, it was not in ours either! Ah but you see, that means you do not let your faith evolve! You are STUCK!”

“Eliaaaaf,” Petunia would call from the kitchen, “I tell you and I tell you again: let it BE! Is no use! Hey Ali, why you not eat your second egg? You only have one fried egg in morning?? Here, have sausage. No sausage even?! Tut, tut. How you live??”

The new South Africa had no place for people like them, Eliaf told us. “My son has already left,” he said, waving his hand at a portrait on the wall of a solemn Jewish priest with a long beard and the customary tendrils down the side of his face. Eliaf and his wife were holding out because South Africa was their home and they were loyal to it, but many other people were leaving in droves, unhappy with the system of government and the rising instances of State corruption and mismanagement. “They are doing reverse apartheid now,” he said gloomily, “if you are white, you know.  All the educated people are leaving. There is no future here.”

It was only partly true, of course. Mandy believed in the new South Africa, and in many ways represented the best of the new South Africa. She accompanied us to the Constitution Court, which we were allowed into because it was not in session at the time and because she flashed her press card at the guard. She was clearly in awe of her surroundings, having only seen the room on television before when the justices had been presiding over a public case.

“Put on the mic, Mandy,” I urged her. “Say something.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t!”

“Tell them how it should be.”

She put on the mic but didn’t speak.

“Sing the national anthem, then.”

“I can do that. Yes.”

And she did. It is my last and my best memory of her.


Three weeks ago, my cousin sent me a link over email, with no message attached. Media24 Reporter Mandy Rossouw Dies. She’d been complaining of chest pains and had been admitted into hospital over the weekend, but was discharged with a clean bill of health. She was found dead in her apartment on Monday after she missed a dinner appointment with a friend.

There was an official statement of condolence from the government. South African newspapers ran eulogies. Mandy had come a long way. And, for some reason, this was as far as she was meant to go. I read through her resume in one of the obituaries and realized that it didn’t capture some of the beautiful things she had done – like her expedition to Pakistan, or the time she sang the national anthem in the Constitution Court. And so, this is my small contribution to the curriculum vitae of her life. It is not a goodbye post, because I am not ready to say goodbye. Perhaps someday, when we go back to the country where we honeymooned, I will finally say, “Yes, it happened.”

Mandy II by dm_51613f0352082


  1. Jab mai mar jaao na tou meri obit bhi tum hi likhna. And ek acha sa Reema types dance vid include karna (agar tab tak youtube khul giya ho). and say "Yes, It Happened". I think Shazaf will turn that into How It Happened.Part Deux

    1. Video abhi se bhaij do. Umar ke saath saath one starts looking less like Reema and more like Bhima!

  2. I think tributes - especially ones written from the heart like this one- are lovely things. They fix an image in your head of the person making them more permanent.

    1. That's exactly right. I also wanted to add to the image that would be in place in other people's heads... people who knew her and worked with her, people who like her were working to make South Africa better. Thanks so much for reading.

  3. So beautifully written... may her soul rest in peace and may the people who grieve for her remember her in all the ways she touched their lives.

    1. She deserves to be remembered that way. Thank you, J.

  4. How apt to remember the sweet and funny moments. Very touching.

  5. Do not stand at my grave and weep
    I am not there. I do not sleep.

    I am a thousand winds that blow.
    I am the diamond glints on snow.

    I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
    I am the gentle autumn rain.

    When you awaken in the morning's hush
    I am the swift uplifting rush

    Of quiet birds in circled flight.
    I am the soft stars that shine at night.

    Do not stand at my grave and cry;
    I am not there. I did not die.

    - Mary Elizabeth Frye

  6. Hi Aafia:

    This is a beautiful tribute.

    Warm wishes