by Thabiso Tshowa
“Hey, you, scrap boy! You’re dirtying our town,” said a teenage boy as he kicked my trolley, which tipped to its side so that all the scrap fell out. As I tried to pick them up, another one poured beer on my head.
“Crawl back to whatever rat hole you came out of!”
The beer felt cold on my head and I could feel it dripping down my T-shirt. But I decided to stay down and not bother with getting up, which only made things worse, because it gave them a chance to pour more liquor on me and start kicking my legs and feet.
I closed my eyes and begged for mercy. “Please bafowethu / my brothers. I am sorry. It won’t happen again. I swear I will leave Mrova, and you’ll never see me again. Please!” I cried out.
“You think we are playing? We told you to leave our beautiful town! This is to show how much we mean it!”
But then, as I was curling up to avoid the next set of blows, I heard a hoarse voice:
“But who told you this town belongs to you? Tell me who!”
The boys fell silent and moved away without kicking me.
The loud, hoarse voice again barked, “I asked you boys a question!”
After some hesitation, one of the boys spoke up. “Eish, Mkhulu siyaxolisa / Grandpa we are sorry.”
“Niyaxolisa? Niyaxolisa? / You are sorry? After all you’ve done to this poor soul! Pick up his trolley and put it in my van. And right now! Before I show you who runs this town!”
I felt a hand picking me up. It was a very fit old-timer; he had a white scruffy beard and was light-skinned and wore khakis and a sun hat.
After he had rescued me from the drunks, Mkhulu / Grandpa offered to give me a ride. “Mfana wami / My boy, I hope those hoodlums didn’t hurt you?”
I dusted myself off. “No, they didn’t. You got here just in time. Ngiyabonga Mkhulu / Thank you, Grandpa.”
Mkhulu smiled. “Okay then, mfana wami / My boy. What is your name?”
I turned to him. “I am Vincent Makua. I am from Lesotho. And thank you again, Mkhulu. You really did me a good turn.”
Though I hadn’t immediately recognised him, I now remembered that I had seen his white van with its blue stripes parked in town, next to a caravan at the taxi rank. This was right by the restrooms. I also seemed to remember that, like me, Mkhulu was in the business of buying and selling recyclable materials. Anyhow, I packed my trolley filled with scrap into the back of the van and went to sit with him in the front.
I figured Mkhulu must be about seventy. Even so, I could tell from just looking at him that he had a lot of fire power, and that he commanded respect. “Mkhulu is a die hard,” I said under my breath.
I took out the little notebook that I always carried with me, along with a pencil, and started writing:
Dumela Mama / Hello Mother
Mama, kajeno kikopane li Moholo O kind buyang. Unthuse kaba shimanyane… / Mother, today I met an old man so kind, he helped me with some boys…
Mkhulu turned to me and gasped, “Makua! Wenzani? / What are you doing?” he asked.
“Writing a letter to my family back home. I wish to tell them how you saved me and showed me kindness. I haven’t met many people like you around these parts.”
Mkhulu smiled and shook his head. “But Makua, don’t you think it would be better to first finish the task at hand, and get you paid for your hard work, then we can sit down and you can write your letter?”
I put away the notebook, “Okay Mkhulu. Ngiyabonga, / Thank you, Grandpa,” I said with a smile.
“Kubonga mina Makua. / No, thank you.”
After I got paid for the scrap by the old white guy who ran the scrapyard, Mkhulu took me to his caravan, and we sat down and talked.
“So, Makua, tell me about your family back home.”
I nodded. “I left my parents and new-born baby and her mother, Dikeledi, and came here to find better opportunities. I was going to try the mines, but things didn’t work out.”
Mkhulu shook his head. “Yes, I know, Mrova can be hard on outsiders. But don’t worry, I will do my best to help you. No one can do it by themselves here in Vice City. Just don’t bring troubles around ngoba uzowukhomba umuzi onotshwala! / You will reap what you sow!”
I nodded. “Yebo Mkhulu. Ngiyabonga / Yes, Grandpa. Thank you.”
Mkhulu was a resident of Mrova, which is term used by the locals for Bethal in Mpumalanga, and well-known in ekasi / the township. He was not one to take nonsense. I figured I could learn a lot from a man like him. So, while we sat inside the caravan on plastic chairs and talked over a meal of pap and pig feet, I told him how I had come all the way from Kopano in Lesotho, and how I’d left my family behind.
“Makua, I like your fighting spirit. You came to a foreign land seeking a better life but all you’ve come across is nothing but bad luck.” He shook his head sadly.
I turned to him, “Eish Mkhulu impilo, intando kaNkulunkulu! / Grandpa, it’s life. It’s the Lord’s Will.”
I watched as Mkhulu’s face turned sour.
“Hhayi Makua ungakhulumi kanjalo! / No, Makua. Don’t you dare say those words! Makua . . . in this life you have to play the hand you’re dealt. You shouldn’t give someone else the power over your happiness, and you shouldn’t blame others for your misery and misfortune.” He paused and then added, “You have to be a man and grab the bull by the horns. That’s what life is like – a violent bull that can’t easily be tamed. And if you get a grip on life, make sure to never let go. Stand your ground and show the bull who is master!” He smacked his hand on the coffee table. “When you’re young, you’re taught that there are two kinds of people in this world: sheep and wolves, good and bad. But if you’re willing, I am here to show you another option.”
I took a long look at Mkhulu and wondered what he saw in me, that I had never been able to see in myself.
“There are no good or bad people in the world. That is just a lie created by those who don’t want you to tap into your pure potential. They want you to stay stuck on thinking that if you regard yourself as ‘good,’ or a sheep, you classify anyone who is not like you as the big bad wolf. Well, when I look into your soul, I don’t see good or bad. All I see, is a shepherd ready to serve and protect.” Mkhulu then pursed his lips, and nodded, as if he had decided on something.
“Makua, I won’t give you money, but I will give you advice to point you in the right direction. You see those restrooms behind you?”
I turned round and saw a concrete building with two buckled, black metal doors. I understood where the terrible stench I couldn’t place was coming from.
“Yebo Mkhulu / Yes Grandpa, I see them,” I said.
“Have you been inside?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yebo, Mkhulu. Eish, wona ayabheda / Yes Grandpa. Yes, they are real bad. They are filthy and smeared with shit. It’s a shame.”
Mkhulu smiled. “Well, there you have it Makua. You can be the man in charge of those restrooms. You can maintain them and charge people for your services.”
I jumped up excitedly. “Yes, Mkhulu! Yazi u-right / You know you’re right, I am in!”
Mkhulu grinned and laughed. “That’s my boy! Don’t waste any time. Get on with cleaning them right away. I have everything you need to get started.”
I rubbed my hands together. “Yes, yes! Let me have them right away! I can feel this is the beginning of a brighter tomorrow.”
I got up and went to work.
After I started cleaning the restrooms at the taxi rank, and charged R2 for the services, the taxi association took me under their wing and offered me a place to stay. Mkhulu played a major role in this. He had such influence because he was like a father to everyone and gave a helping hand to the taxi owners and taxi drivers alike, when they were in need. But If you were talking nonsense, he wasn’t shy about giving you a smack, and telling you to go wash your mouth with soap because you’re talking kak / shit.
I was more than grateful to the taxi association for giving me a shelter to hide my head. Really, in most ways, being around Mkhulu had a positive effect on my life. I even started to do my work like a grootman / big man; the restrooms were always spotless. And I made decent money because for the first few months, Mkhulu provided me with the cleaning supplies at his own cost. And to help me find a safe place to keep my money, he had taken me to open a savings account.
Now one day, I was taking a break – feasting on a plate of pap and wors from one of the ladies that sell food from the caravans – when Bab’ Mahlangu came to join me. He had a very large duffle bag in his hands.
“Good day Makua, ndodana ka Mkhulu / Grandpa’s son,” he greeted.
I looked up from the table. “Yebo Bab’ Mahlangu, / Yes, Mr Mahlangu,” I replied.
Bab’ Mahlangu stroked his neatly trimmed beard. “I can see you’re on your lunchbreak, so I won’t take up too much of your time.” He placed the large duffle bag on the table. “These are old clothes we gathered for you as taxi owners. It was my idea, it’s our way of giving back to you and Mkhulu.”
I took a napkin and wiped my hands and mouth, then reached for the large duffle bag. I could feel the weight of the contents as I pulled it closer to me. I unzipped the bag and almost broke down in tears when I saw the clothes.
I turned to Bab’ Mahlangu, “Iyo Bab’ Mahlangu, ngiyabonga, / Thank you, Mr Mahlangu, this really means a lot to me. You know what is funny? I used to look at life from a poor man’s eyes, and that always led me to making poor decisions and judgments, about the people I came across. But now I am starting to view life differently.”
Bab’ Mahlangu nodded. “Kubonga mina ndodana ka Mkhulu. / No. Thank you, Grandpa’s son. Now finish your food and perhaps you may wish to try on some of the clothes when you’re done.” He smiled and stood up, then walked back to the taxi owner’s office. I went back to finish the last of my meal with a smile on my face.
A few days later, Baska, a taxi driver came to stand by my side.
“Ek se, Makua! / Hey, Makua!”
“Awe mfowethu! / Hey brother!” I replied.
Baska reached into his left pocket. “Makua, I got you this.” He paused and took out a Motorola V360 cell phone. “It’s not much and it may be outdated, but at least now you’ll be able to keep in touch with Mkhulu, and your family back home.” Then he placed the phone on the table.
I couldn’t thank him enough. As Baska walked away, I thought about how things were when I arrived in Mrova, and how I was now looking at the world from a totally different perspective.
However, my sense of victory was short lived. The first upset was when the food vendors banded together and came after me.
“Makua,” said a woman with a sour face, “we say it’s time you let us use the restrooms for no charge!”
Mkhulu intervened. “Does Makua eat for free at your establishments or does he pay the full amount?”
The crowd mumbled but didn’t come out with a response.
And then, after Mkhulu had left, Grootman Masilela came to me.
“Ek sê, wena Makua / Hey you, Makua, you bloody foreigner! Uyadelela nifuna induku nino Mkhulu / You’re full of it, you and Grandpa deserve a beating. We all work at the taxi rank, so why shouldn’t we use the lavatory for no charge?”
Now I was really annoyed. “Hayibo, why would you come into my place of business and disrespect me like that? Phela wena ufuna ukungiphuca isinkwa emlonyeni, / You’re trying to take money from right under my nose,” I paused and stared at him. “Manje uthi ngidleni! / What will I eat?”
Grootman Masilela took a few steps back. “Nah mfowethu angilwi manje masowenza so uyangithusa, / No, my brother. I am not fighting with you. The way you’re acting is starting to scare me,” he said calmly.
I pointed him to Mkhulu’s caravan, “I learned from the best”.
“Eh, you’re really just like Mkhulu. Ai, let me leave because I see where you’re headed, and I bet it won’t end well for the both of us.”
I sat down. “Now you’re talking.”
I was fuming, and when Mkhulu came back I told him what had happened. And later, when Grootman Masilela walked past his caravan, Mkhulu shouted at him, “Iye wena sathane, sowuhlakaniphile wena? Uzoyikhotha imbenge ewomile mfana wami! / Hey, you devil, you think you’re clever? I will show you where it hurts my boy!” He made a fist and punched the air.
I was so glad to have Mkhulu in my life and hoped someday, through hard work and determination, that I, too, would be able get to his level. But in a vice-infested city like Mrova it wouldn’t be easy. Every time you took two steps forward, there was someone trying to push you back. Mkhulu gave me hope though because he had made it, and so there was reason to believe I could also succeed.
Looking at myself in the mirror a month later, I couldn’t believe how far I had come at Vice City. As I left my home, on the outskirts of town near the N17, I ran into Doctor Stumza Hlatshwayo. He came by the restrooms now and then when he had to travel by taxi. Stumza was a doctor at Bethal hospital; I had met him there when I went in for a cough and stayed a week. He was proud of how I had managed to change things in such a short time.
“Tjo Makua bhut’ wam,’ masowumuhle kanje! / Makua, my brother. You’re dressed very well!” Stumza exclaimed.
I smiled shyly, “Ayi ukuncenga nje bhut’ wam’ omuhle. / I am only getting by.”
Stumza pounced, “No, Makua, please don’t sell yourself short. What you’ve done is exemplary. I hope bonke abafowethu bayafunda lakuwe! / All our brothers learn from you!” He reached into his pocket, “Here bhut’ wam, / my brother, today’s lunch is on me.” He took out a R100 bill and handed it over.
I took the bill and shoved it into my pocket, “Ngiyabonga, / Thank you Doctor Hlatshwayo. You are truly one of a kind.” I reached out my hand, but he pushed it away and gave me a hug instead.
“Makua uyi Boza! / Makua, you are of greatness!” he exclaimed and walked off.
When I arrived at the taxi rank, I greeted Mkhulu.
“Hau Makua, look at you!” Mkhulu exclaimed. “Is this you? Waze wabukeka umuhle Mfana wami. / You look beautiful my boy.”
“Yebo yimi Mkhulu. / Yes, Grandpa. It’s me. I take it you like what you see. Vincent Makua is here futhi ufike nge vosho! / And he’s here with a bang!” I said proudly.
Mkhulu took another long look at me as I pranced round in my outfit. “You know Makua, you remind me a lot of my young boy, Vusumuzi.”
I sat down next to Mkhulu. “Where is he? How come you’ve never mentioned him before?”
Mkhulu looked out the window. “Vusumuzi was my pride and joy . . . until he was lost that is.” Mkhulu gave out a long sigh. “Makua, we all have our different paths in life. And each of us must make it a point that we find that path. With that being said, in order to find your path, sometimes you have to lose your way because if not, then everyone would find that path.”
I turned to Mkhulu. “Did he ever find his way?”
Mkhulu closed his eyes and shook his head. “Makua, I am afraid some people go their whole lives without finding their path. Right until the day they meet their maker.”
I gasped. “Tjo mara Mkhulu! / Is that so Grandpa!”
Mkhulu turned to me. “But looking at you dancing around before me, I can see that my boy is at rest, and he even presented me with the opportunity to see things from his view because he too went out to Johannesburg, to look for better opportunities.”
I smiled. “I see!” In some way, in Mkhulu’s eyes I was more or less the reincarnation of Vusumuzi. I thought.
Mkhulu nodded and smiled as I took the cleaning supplies from the cupboard inside the caravan and went to work. I rolled up my sleeves. You see, I took pride in what I did; I didn’t mind cleaning toilets because I was making a decent living and was never short of anything.
Then as I was working in the ladies’ restrooms, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It gave me a fright because I wasn’t expecting anyone so early in the morning.
It was Cilvia, a highly respected police officer in Mrova.
“Hey Makua, uyavuka yong! / You’re up by the crack of dawn! And you’re a hard worker. I wish my sons can be like you. Awubheke umuhle kanjani! / Check out how smart you look! You look very distinguished.” She paused. “If I was not taken, I sure would go out with you. You don’t sleep on yourself,” she winked and went into the next booth.
I couldn’t believe what she’d just said. To catch the attention of such an impressive woman meant I was really onto something extraordinary. But I couldn’t afford another minute thinking about women because I had a baby and a family to take care of. My mother had sent me their picture with her last letter.
I took the picture from my shirt pocket. Looking at it, I felt even more determined to keep doing a great job. I gave it a gentle kiss, “Lebohang, my baby, ubabakho uyakuthanda. / Your father loves you.”
Since everyone at the taxi rank kept calling me ‘Ndodana ka Mkhulu’ / ‘Grandpa’s son’ I decided to colour my beard white like Mkhulu’s, and I wore a hat like him, too. But one thing for sure, it doesn’t matter how much inner peace you attain – there will always be people along the way who will test you.
It began with this one magogo / old woman who insisted on calling me, ‘mfana we scrap’ / ‘scrap boy’. She would say all kinds of nasty things to me, and I wouldn’t say a word back because I needed her business. Then one Sunday afternoon – Sundays are usually quiet – she came rushing in and used the toilet, and on her way out, she threw the R2 on the floor and gave me the nasty eyes. Twenty minutes later she was back, then ten minutes, then five minutes. The whole time she was talking kak / shit.
“Iyewena Mfana we scrap! / Hey you, scrap boy! You bloody foreigner, these toilets better be clean when I come back, they have a nasty smell, or is that you?”
Every time she came to use the restrooms, she had a brand-new insult.
Seeing that the sun was setting and Mkhulu was not around, I decided to lock up and head home. But when I reached the end of the taxi rank, I heard a man yell out some nonsense.
“Iyewena mfana we scrap! Woza uzovula le toilet intombiyam’ ifuna ukungena! / Hey you scrap boy! Come open these doors. My lady demands to use the restroom!” he shouted.
I can see the Magogo / old lady holding on to her stomach for dear life. Yes, the woman had the runs – and badly.
I looked back without answering. The man got angry. “Iyewena mfana, we scrap! Ufuna ukubonani! / Hey you scrap boy! I will show you where it hurts!”
I laughed. “Go find her a nice bush to do her business. I am closed for the day.”
“Please Mfowethu, / my brother, I apologize on her behalf,” he now begged.
I sniffed. “And about time, my friend,” but decided to forgive the Magogo and went to open up the restrooms for her. From then on, the drunks, including that Magogo, started giving me the respect I had worked so hard to earn.
Of course, my best clients are taxi passengers because they always bring grocery bags with them and give me a tip for watching over them. Even if one doesn’t tip me, I don’t mind because I know there are ten more people coming in, and sure thing, they will give me something because they love the service at the restroom.
The restrooms always smelled fresh with pine scent and were spotless, including the basins; I even started giving the people a complimentary roll of toilet paper and assorted mints. And if someone didn’t have money, “Come in,” I would say, “just don’t make a habit of it,” with a bright smile on my face.
I even found a way to make peace with the caravan merchants; we agreed they would each pay a fixed amount of R50 every week, in return for them using the restrooms whenever they wanted.
And so, peace was restored at the Mrova taxi rank, or should I say, ‘Vice City,’ and even Mkhulu agrees with me on that name.
I had gained a reputation at the rank for my shiny clean restrooms. Even people who were in a similar line of work, took their hats off to me. I had finally become part of the Mrova community.
Sis’ Piwe, a cleaner at Bethal hospital, would come over and we would trade secrets for ways of keeping a clean lavatory. Other cleaners didn’t get the respect I got from the Mrova people.
“Mara Makua you really brought change to the taxi rank, look at how frequent people come to the restrooms since you started working here. I tip my hat to you,” Sis’ Piwe would say.
But things weren’t always peaches and cream. The perfume salespeople gave me a hard time. I didn’t mind them selling their perfumes outside, but they targeted my customers when they were at their weakest and in need of the lavatory. Then they would force their perfumes on them.
I can’t even count how many times Cilvia had to come down here to settle a dispute between the salespeople, because they ended up scamming each other. Besides Cilvia, Mkhulu was the only one who was able to deal with them, and all the other scammers at the taxi rank.
I thought I had seen the last from Grootman Masilela, the one who had led the crowd of food vendors against me, until he showed up one Saturday afternoon with immigration officers. They arrived in a white van, wearing plain clothes, and asked to use the restrooms.
“Sho, mfowethu, / Yes, my brother it’s only R2,” I said to the one officer.
“Can you show me the way?” he asked politely.
I stood up from my chair under the shade and led the way inside.
“Ja, Makua, we got you. You think you run this town with no permit. Well, today you’re going back home!” the officer shouted and reached for his handcuffs.
I wanted to scream for help, but I wasn’t sure what would happen next, so I froze. Then I pulled myself together.
“Please bafowethu, / my brother, I am making an honest living,” I said calmly.
“Honest living or not, you don’t belong here!” said the officer, and dragged me outside to the van.
When he opened the back of the van, I started to cry because I could see that I was done for.
People had started to gather around the restrooms. Some of the vendors who didn’t like me were laughing. Grootman Masilela, the one who had brought the officers, grinned. “Yes, finally! Mthatheni u Makua! / Take Makua away!” he shouted, “Futhi / And I am the one who called you here. I want him gone!”
As the officer closed the door to the van, I saw Mkhulu’s vehicle make its way into the taxi rank. It parked right next to us.
Mkhulu stepped out, “What is happening here?” he asked. “Where are you taking my boy?”
The officer approached him. “This man is a foreigner without a permit, so we are taking him back to Lesotho and that’s final.”
Mkhulu went closer to the officer. “Final? Said who? Well, if you’re going to take my boy, then you’d better take me too, because he is not going anywhere without me. I am his father!” Mkhulu shouted.
Baska stepped up as well with his hands held out. “Well, you better take me too because Makua is my brother so that makes me a foreigner.”
Bab’ Mahlangu stepped up as well and after him the rest of the taxi drivers and owners came forward, all offering to get locked up with me.
The officer must have realised that there were only two of them and an army before them, and so he gave in.
“Okay, we will let Makua go, but he has to get his affairs in order because people are watching, and we don’t want to get fired for not doing our job.”
I was let out of the van with a smile on my face. I went to stand with Mkhulu and the taxi drivers and owners. “Thank you so much. I can’t thank you enough for what you just did for me. For the rest of the weekend, everyone can use the restrooms free of charge!”
They all cheered and gave me high fives and fist bumps.
“Wadlala Makua. Kubonga thina mfowethu, / Thumbs up to you Makua. We are the ones who are grateful. We’re just glad we can do something to show you our appreciation for cleaning up the restrooms!” Baska said.