On the panikin filled to the brim

On the panikin filled to the brim

The last week has been filled with the relentless cleaning of Forbes database files, to ensure that meta-data is consistent, summaries are provided, all uses of racial terms and phrases are recorded, JPEG numbers of photographs are noted, and so on and so on. It is a curiously satisfying thing to do. It is both back-breaking and immensely enjoyable because pristine order is produced from something more patchy. There is a sense of things being finished in good order, but there is also something beyond this that involves a kind of figure-ground effect. That is, previously the attention has been on letters and other documents in their singularity, but contemplating them now in their massive seriality one after another after another after another after… is as they say to see the wood rather than all the trees.

But woman cannot live by cleaning datafiles alone. And because cleaning each file takes around a day, the celebration of finishing one of them has involved delving into that most favourite part of all the collections, the ‘miscellaneous’ and ‘various’ boxes and files right at the end. Here are the things that really are the flotsam and jetsam – not the successions of thousands of letters, but the torn scraps, empty envelopes and tallies in all their mysterious randomness. Always drawn to such things because they make you think, the –  what to call it? – short scrappy document with tea or coffee stains that is shown here has some extremely interesting aspects.

Umlandu. Inaiquai. Mesatchux.
Worked 9 days on our line fence
Kaiep. Unchingeta. Ingolibazi.
Umkati. Umpina – worked 4 days on it
During the time they were working on
the Mr Turners own work they got sufficient
food but when the men were on the Athole line
they got one fill of the panikin which they
have left here three times a day – only full to the brim      

This is a note, but not a note for self because the way it is written implies another reader, for it does not have the presence of intransitive verbs that notes to self ordinarily have. It does not have any direct address to another person, but it is a kind of explanation or argument expressing some facts and implying a conclusion. There is much about time in this piece of writing, but it is not dated. It is by a writer, but their name never appears and nor is it implied.

It concerns the amount of food given to people who had been working on ‘the line’ on  two farms, Mr Turner’s and that of the Forbes at Athole. They are named individually, and the numbers of days work that they did is specified. What they were doing is not, but this is likely to have been either clearing some land or else other group tasks such as weeding or harvesting.

The panikin is important. And that at Mr Turner’s it was filled to ‘the brim’ is the essence, the denouement, of this piece of writing. Being fed was an important part of wages received, and there were certain expectations about what was normative in this regard. This is the topic of other scraps of paper and some letters, to the effect that what happened in the Transvaal was very different from Natal, where workers were not fed ‘properly’. The implication of how this document is written is that the measure of food given at Athole was not just or appropriate, it was insufficient, and by implication it is putting the case for the food ration in the panikin to be increased or some other recompense given.

And how interesting that these workers are named individually, rather than homogenised by providing a number and an ethnic/racial category, as in ‘4 Swazis’ or ‘4 Kaffirs’. Who they were individually was important, because it involved payments; and the closer the Forbes documents come to the interface of economic exchanges between people, the more likely it is that they deal in named persons rather than them being homogenised as category-members.

Last updated: 24 February 2017


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