Lessons in Painting

On Tuesday of this week, Stellah, Sophy and I met at my house to finish painting the interior walls.

This was our second attempt.

The first time we tried to paint the house we ran out of paint after the first coat in the first room (it's a two-room house). Really this was probably my fault. When they asked me if I thought "five" would be enough, I naturally thought that of course, five gallons would be more than enough to paint two coats in two small rooms. Unfortunately South Africa runs completely off of the metric system. So "five" meant liters and not gallons, and five liters was enough for one coat in one room on a concrete wall.

For the second go around, they bought a ten liter bucket. I new it wouldn't be enough to fully finish the job, but I was more concerned with the other more serious problem. This was a different kind of paint! Not only a different shade--this was water-based and in our previous attempt we had used oil-based. My mind wandered back to basic science in elementary school--oil and water do not mix. I already knew, but now I was positive that this was my coworkers' first experience with painting a house. And really, what could I do? The paint had already been purchased, and I knew that it had cost the center a lot of money that they didn't have to spend. So we started painting the second room...

During my previous experience of painting with Stellah and Sophy, I found myself several times teaching basic painting skills like: paint in the same direction to keep the paint from looking streaked or blotchy when it dries, don't put too much paint on your brush or in the paint trays, finish painting the section you are on before moving to the next. I frequently found myself feeling like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid--"paint the wall, Stellah-son and Sophy-son." But I don't think I was displaying the Miyagi patience. Several times I felt my frustration rising as I showed them again and again the importance of painting in vertical strokes--not circular motions or a few vertical strokes followed by a few horizontal and diagonal strokes.

At one point on Tuesday, I asked Sophy if she was tired, "A o lapile?" Sophy said "no" that she liked the work. I was surprised at her response. I knew how tired and frustrated I was. I really just wanted the project to be done. But as Sophy's response sunk in, my heart softened and my frustration began to subside. I suddenly realized how empowering this simple activity was for these two women. Two single mothers in their late twenties for the first time in their lives doing a job that is traditionally thought of as a man's job. My friends got to live for a few hours outside of the cultural norm and experience something challenging and new. And I became so excited and happy for them.

At the end, we completed two coats in the second room--which looks pretty good--and one and a half coats in the first room--we'll call it art-deco. It was an experience that I hope I will not forget soon, and I'm hopeful that Sophy and Stellah will not soon forget it either.