HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Lockdown diaries: Alone together, everywhere


Wednesday’s are a busy day for me. They’re the kinds of day we all experience – some of us daily. The kind of day where you’re so consumed in work and deadlines, where whatever you’re working on demands that both sides of your brain work to full capacity. The type of day where somehow, you’re supposed to muster up the ability to make rational decisions amongst the noise and haste and messy mental collage of your creative process.

It’s the kind of day where you ignore emails, turn off your WhatsApp notification but definitely keep Twitter running in the background to let off some steam and take obligatory procrastination breaks. It was that kind of day. And I am lucky for it.

Unlike so many others at this time, I am able to work from home, to earn some money and more than that, unlike the millions of people round the world working in essential services that people’s lives depend on, I have the privilege of actually ignoring calls, so I can shut everything down. But another thing happened yesterday, my phone rang and I answered. It was a woman called Lizzy.

Lizzy called me from her house in London where she has a small backyard. Her three kids were humming in the background, the way young children do when they’re busy with play and I imagined her staring out the window at a sunny grass patch where the irony of England’s weather has come into full force – lovely days with nowhere to go.

I don’t know Lizzy. I have never met her and I have never seen her. Lizzy doesn’t follow me on Twitter, nor I her. Our phone books are empty of each other’s numbers and any other personal information like say, surnames, which may help us search for one another on Facebook.

Lizzy’s Instagram page is an album of imaginary pictures to me. Is it frame after frame of her kids? Are there black and white portraits of her husband sitting in front of a large soundboard while he engineers special effects for the broadcasting industry? Who can say? And I kind of like that.

I don’t know if Lizzy is spending some her Thursday wondering the same thing about me – but in those 10 minutes of that phone call, Lizzy and I were friends for just a moment. We had a real conversation the way people used to do before. We heard each other’s voices, shared our thoughts and wondered what life would be like after lockdown or what things we would change about the way we live.

I told her that Bec and I had pondered on this question and we came to the conclusion that we would take advantage of the Sea Point promenade a lot more because we always took it for granted. Lizzy said she hadn’t really thought about what the first thing is that she would do, but what she did come to notice while spending so much time at home with her family was that they’re becoming a really strong unit. The bonds had tightened between them and she realised that we spend a lot of time distracting ourselves with other people when in fact, really, if we take the time to invest in our families, we may come to realise that what we really need to be more grateful and appreciative for each other.

So how did we get to talk, why did my phone ring and why did I answer it? Well, I signed up for an app called Dialup which developed a new service for Covid-19 called QuarantineChat.

When lockdown started to become a regularity around the world, many of the masses complained or expressed fear and anxiety about being indoors around their spouses twenty four seven, or panicking about having to home-school their kids. A lot of younger people became comatose at the thought of watching the entire Netflix catalogue and found themselves feeling gloomy because they worried there would be nothing left for entertainment.

But the stories that were few and far between were the ones of those who lived alone. Of those who would breath the heavy air of isolation by themselves until the choking oxygen of loneliness settled deep into their bellies and morphed into depression.

The majority of these people would be elderly – statistically speaking – and I have a deep fondness for the elderly. I love to sit and hear their stories. I love to wonder while they speak my mind into a time past and tell me about the things they saw and did and all that they lived through. It’s magical to sip on their youth, their tales of young love and first love and lost love.

I have been known to cry for the elderly. At my old flat in Linden, my neighbour was an 80-something-year-old woman who lived alone and every night she would sit in her living room with the lights off and watch TV with the volume turned all the way down. The lights from the screen would fall over her and create a solemn shadow and every time I saw it, I cried.

I don’t know what that says about my relationship with the elderly, but I don’t like seeing them sad - not even in fiction. There’s a scene in Better Call Saul where all her friends at the old age home ignore a grandmother and she is left feeling like an outcast to the point of just collapsing into heart-wrenching tears. I sobbed. I don’t like it. I don’t like old people being alone and in this time of forced isolation, the thought bugged me even more and that’s why I made myself available to answer a call from a stranger, somewhere in the world, who may or may not be of an older generation and who might be so lonely that even a stranger’s ear would do.

QuaratineChat asks for some information when you sign up. Where in the world are you? What languages do you speak? That kind of thing. And the service is managed in a way that all calls are randomised so you can pair with absolutely anyone and neither person knows who is waiting on the other line. We don’t call each other. The app calls us. It plays a bit of music while it pairs us to a stranger and off you go.

Of course, you don’t have to answer. The line will just redirect itself to someone else and for the first few times I didn’t answer. I was a bit scared of what I would say – I’m not much of a talker – I once even told my wife she needs to be more discerning about what she chooses to tell me – she’s a gabber and can talk for hours on end until I find myself knotted up in a ball of nerves.

Then, eventually, after three missed calls, I put down my computer on my busiest day of the week and waited on the line. Of course, I hoped for someone older. It didn’t happen. But it helps to know that someone, somewhere is waiting to talk because maybe, just maybe, they’re lonely and old and really, really need the virtual hug of a stranger. And when that moment comes, I am there.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.