There is a growing body of memoirs by ordinary people living extraordinary lives. Hester van der Walt’s Are You Two Sisters? taps into this market.
The cover shows a smiling, youthful Van der Walt striding next to a tall woman, Lies Hoogendoorn, her lifelong partner. The two women are now in their seventies, but have been together since their early twenties. The “sisters” in the title refers to the assumption that two women living together must be siblings, instead of partners. This is a mistake easily made in repressive 1960s South Africa, in which Van der Walt and her partner did, for the most part and out of necessity, hide the nature of their relationship.
But the book is not only about their relationship. It uses a series of vignettes to trace Van der Walt’s life from her humble beginnings as the child of a mining lift operator to becoming a nurse and educator and, finally, a poet and writer. It’s a slim book, just 130 pages. Each chapter follows a specific period in Van der Walt’s life. Sometimes many years pass between the events recounted. The extraneous details of a life are not recounted, which makes this memoir flow well.
Van der Walt is the first of seven children born to poor Afrikaans parents. Her parents’ marriage is far from ideal, but children and tradition tie them together – despite her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s grim, resigned acceptance of it. Van der Walt leaves Welkom to study nursing, a decision that will take her far from her roots and introduce her to both a wider world and Lies.
They meet while in training at a hospital in Bloemfontein and form a close friendship. Both are products of religious upbringings in which loving another woman is forbidden. Van der Walt throws herself into her studies, which take her to the then homeland of Venda where she is faced with the realities of the Bantustan system and the oppression wrought by the apartheid government. She is far from the views of her mother, who treats their domestic workers well and warns against using the “k” word, but still tells the young Hester that “the government knows what it is doing”.
It is also while in Venda that Van der Walt awakens to the nature of her relationship with Lies. “I am intensely aware of the whole length of Lies’s warm body against my cooler skin. A tingling I have suppressed for so long washes through me like a golden wave.”
But it is a love that is shrouded in shame at first: “I stay awake, marvelling over this new intimacy in our friendship. Is it sinful? We discuss this often. We can’t decide, but something this delicious probably is unrighteous! … Can two women love one another? Are they allowed to?”
From then on their lives are joined, and soon afterwards they both find positions in a hospital in Cape Town. In the violent 1980s, Van der Walt gets involved in the struggle, working with NGOs and becoming friends with people of all races. Some of the most heart-rending scenes in the memoir occur when she and Lies go on a road trip with these friends. A farmer gives them permission to camp on his land until he sees that two members of their party are not white, and they experience the full horror of prejudice and racism. They find sanctuary with Van der Walt’s parents in Welkom, of all places, but the experience isn’t easily forgotten.
There is also a stint in Pollsmoor Prison. While Van der Walt is released after only a few weeks, and finds support and camaraderie with the other woman political prisoners there, she writes, “After so many years it is still difficult to believe that it happened to me.”
Through it all, there is the story of her studies, including a year in Manchester, apart from Lies, in which she becomes familiar with feminism. In later years, they move to the small village of McGregor.
This is indeed a life full of profound events told with intimate warmth and humour. Understanding comes in small accretions, as therapy uncovers past wounds, all of which culminates in a time of writing and consolidation. The memoir’s intimacy and gentle honesty throughout throws a spotlight on history as two women, and two lovers, experienced it.