Are you two sisters?
Hester van der Walt
Review: Karen Watkins
From the goldfields of the Free State to Venda, the Cape Flats, Heideveld and District Six to Britain and the Netherlands, Hester van der Walt takes us on a journey through milestone moments and decisions in her life that eventually lead to McGregor. But at the heart of this memoir is a secret.
The story begins with Van der Walt’s childhood. As the first of seven children born to poor Afrikaner parents, her father is an alcoholic and her mother is resigned to this. Van der Walt leaves Welkom for Bloemfontein to begin a career in nursing.
She meets Lies Hoogendoorn, originally from the Netherlands, and they become close friends. But it is only when Van der Walt moves to Cape Town to do midwifery that Hoogendoorn follows and their relationship changes. The “sisters” in the title refers to the assumption that two women living together must be siblings, instead of partners. It’s the 1960s, and they feel their love is sinful and to be avoided at all cost but realise that “if God knew about it he would be okay”.
Van der Walt gets involved in the struggle, working with NGOs and friends of all races, experiencing prejudice and racism.
Her beliefs and perceptions of where she stands as a South African and that everything she was taught about Apartheid was a lie and comes with so many taboos, is one of the reasons why she wrote the book.
She ends up in Pollsmoor prison, and despite being released after only a few weeks, she finds support and camaraderie with the other female political prisoners.
She also misses being able to write. It was a time when she thought she would never see freedom in her lifetime. When it did happen in 1994, it was a time of joy, a new beginning and part of a long process. But she has been disappointed.
In later years, she takes early retirement against warnings of poverty.
She moves to McGregor with Hoogendoorn to write poetry, knit and experience the joys of baking bread together. “Whatever you do to it, it rises, and it’s useful, it can be eaten.”
This is a slim book of 130 pages with each chapter flowing well as they follow profound periods in Van der Walt’s life. There are wonderfully humorous moments written with great tenderness, empathy and warmth.