Brenda Nhamo woke up. She could not remember where she was or how she got here. There was an overwhelming stench all around her. As she raised her head to survey her surrounding, there was aching all over her body. She saw a man who looked like a vagrant sleeping beside her on a dirty, foam-rubber mattress. The blanket that covered them was old, dirty and smelly. She looked around and saw only rot and dilapidation. This can’t be happening; I must be having a nightmare. Me, sleeping in this hole beside this thing! I am surely going to wake up and realise that it was just a bad dream.
“Good morning, darling, how are you feeling after the wonderful night we had?” Chomi asked.
Brenda thought that she must be nuts. She had heard that people who had lost their minds hallucinate. Surely this is what must be happening to her. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. She looked again at Chomi and recoiled in fear, which was quickly replaced by disgust.
Chomi was a sixty-year-old man of with no teeth and a face that had deep lines like dry, cracked mud. He looked eighty, or more. His body was shrivelled, the skin hanging loosely on all his body parts.His body was covered with a layer of grime.His hands and feet where calloused and the fingers and toes looked like talons, reminding Brenda of birds of prey. On his shapeless head were grey-brown, natural, lice-ridden dreadlocks that were caked with grease and dirt. He had an overpowering bad smell, or maybe it was the room, or both, Brenda was not sure.
Chomi had lived in this room since he’d come to Pretoria from Malawi.The room was in a dilapidated flat in Marabastad. It was filthy and was full of cardboard boxes and empty tins, plastics and other paraphernalia associated with poverty. Rats and giant cockroaches moved around at will and they scared Brenda out of her skin. The room spoke of abject poverty and degradation.
Foreigners from all over the world lived in Marabastad, jostling each other for survival. The dirtiness and shabbiness of the area was shocking. Some of the residents had been born and bred there. They had joined the ranks of the poor and downtrodden people in that community. The sanitary amenities were communal and there was no electric power.Because of congestion in the toilets, men urinated on the walls of the buildings and in the alleys separating the buildings. Small children were made to defecate on waste paper and it was thrown into the alleys. When moving around, one had to be careful lest one stepped on poop. Stray cats and dogs roamed the area at will.
Collecting waste-paper and reselling it was Chomi’s core business. He also sold ‘nyaupe’, a potent street drug. Selling nyaupe was a lucrative sideline. It brought in good money, plus he was never suspected by the police because of his age and looks. He never took the drug himself, but stuck to ‘Chibuku’, an opaque, traditional brew, with a low alcoholic content.Although he lived in these deplorable conditions, he had money saved, about R300 000, hidden in the room. The clothes he had on, which hung on him like sails, were in tatters and patches, had been worn for years, and carried the dirt of many weeks. To him, money was meant to be saved and not wasted on luxuries.His decrepit room was more than enough for his current needs. Chomi was content with his lot and lack-lustre existence, for the moment. He dreamed of one day going back to Malawi. The money he had saved would be used to comfort him in his old age.He had long ago given up on love relationships. He had realised that women did not love him, but loved his money. However, the girl lying beside him had literally thrown herself at him, so he’d taken her.
He had been eating his lunch of fat cakes and soup when the girl had appeared from nowhere.
“Can I have some food, Madala (old man), I am famished,” Brenda had requested. Chomi had shared his food and hoped she would move on. Instead, Brenda had stayed on and asked for some money. Chomi told Brenda that he had no money to give her for nothing.She had pleaded and was close to tears. From his experience in the streets, he could tell that Brenda was a drug-addict.
“I might have the stuff you need the money for,” Chomi suggested.
“What do I need, huh? Don’t try to act smart with me, Madala.”
Chomi did not even get angry; he knew this type very well. She would do anything for money and drugs. He examined her closely; she did not look that bad. Actually she had been beautiful once and she was young, but the beauty had been marred by filthiness and drugs. Life on the streets had made her look shabby and unattractive.
He started to take out his wares from his Chinese bag, pretending to examine them and not take any notice of her. Brenda’s eyes almost popped out with surprise and excitement.
“Give me some of that stuff, Madala, please!”
“What’s in it for me? What do I get in return? Something for something, nothing for nothing,” Chomi declared.
Brenda promised Chomi anything he wanted. Chomi, being a shy person, gestured and Brenda nodded. Chomi gave Brenda nyaupe and she took it greedily and was knocked out within minutes. She slept right there on the pavement near him. This girl has nowhere to go, so I will take her home. Pretoria can be brutal to its poor and homeless. It is difficult to survive on its mean streets. Cruelty to the helpless falls short of my creed, so I will take her home, Chomi thought.
Chomi went about his business until evening. He went to where Brenda was and woke her up. He took her to his room in Marabastad. Chomi enjoyed having sex with the girl. He had not had sex in a long time and this girl made him realise what he had been missing. He felt alive and rejuvenated. He thought, I can actually keep this girl and have all the sex I want. I can even make her pregnant and have a child of my own. I would really love to have a child and a partner. Life has been meaningless for me. Although I have money, money means nothing if one has no family or friends. They say it’s never too late to make amends. Having sex with Brenda was the yeast that made his hope rise to the stars. He didn’t allow the scores of years that were between them to be a barrier to his new-found happiness. I can adjust some things in my life for her sake.
“What wonderful night are you talking about, Madala? You don’t mean I slept with you?” Brenda was emerging from the stupor caused by nyaupe. She vaguely remembered actually having sexual intercourse with this old man, whom she despised.
“You actually did, my dear, and you seemed to enjoy it just as much. Since you are homeless and penniless, I thought we could live together. I can take good care of you. I have lived alone for too long and I wouldn’t mind a companion.I’m sure you know that the streets are no place for a woman alone.”
Brenda looked at the scanty comfort provided by Chomi’s room. She thought of spending another night in the streets and reason prevailed over pride. Although she knew that staying here with Chomi was bordering on sheer lunacy, she agreed to stay.She thought, I will stay here for a few days while I find my footing. At least here, no one will see me. In the street I will stand out like a sore thumb. I can’t risk being seen by anyone in this sad and sorry state.”
She told Chomi that she would stay with him on condition that he supplied all her needs. To Chomi that was not a problem; who wouldn’t do anything for one so young and beautiful. To him she was a gift sent by God.
“Where do we take a bath and wash our clothes?” Brenda enquired.
“I will get you water; I use that plastic basin for bathing and washing. I’m afraid you will have to use cold water, because I don’t have gas for heating the water. Jot down all you need and I will bring it for you in the afternoon. Meantime, I will get us breakfast from a spaza.”
When Chomi had gone to ‘work’, Brenda turned the room upside down looking for money.I can’t live with crap like Chomi. Not even for all the Rands in South Africa. Staying here is beneath my dignity. I know I don’t look like much myself, I know the depths to which I have descended, but I can turn things around. I will not stop at this page of my life; there is another chapter in front of me. I will stop taking drugs and start all over again. This is my life; I will take control of it. I will make someone great of myself. Not giving up had gotten Brenda this far. Her optimism was a force so potent that it kept her going against all odds.
Brenda knew the likes of Chomi - though they appeared poor, they saved money. They always had a secret horde stashed somewhere, usually in the room where they slept. She turned the room upside down, but just when she was about to give up, she moved a cardboard box to look underneath.On careful examination, she discovered that there was a movable concrete block. It took all her energy to remove the block. There was a hole in which was a metal box, the kind used for storing tools. With a pounding heart, she took out the box which had no lock, but was secured by an electric cord.When Brenda opened the box, she was dazed by the amount of money inside. There were bundles upon bundles of notes, R200s, R100s and R50s. Remembering that Chomi had said he would come back at lunch time, Brenda grabbed a bunch of R50s and went to buy a suitcase and some clothes at a nearby shop.
After quickly changing her clothes, she put all of Chomi’s money in the suitcase and left the place. She went to a taxi rank and boarded the first taxi that came. Only when the taxi started moving did she realise that she had no idea where it was going. When the driver told her that it was going to Hammerskraal, she decided that’s where she’d go. All she wanted was to put the farthest distance between herself and Chomi as soon as possible.
Two men who had alighted from the same taxi accosted Brenda.“Can we help you with your suitcase, sister?”One of the men had a pock-marked face, with blackheads that could have been easily removed with soap and water. He had a huge, flat nose, which seemed to occupy half of his face, the remainder of which was occupied by bulging, blood-shot eyes. All eight incisors were missing and the teeth that could be seen in his cave-like mouth, were plaque-ridden. It was the sort of face that could frighten any child and most adults. Her heart started pounding as if it would rip her chest apart. She did not need to be told that she was in deadly danger. The men saw panic written all over her face and were satisfied. Before she answered, one of them relieved her of her suitcase.
“Come along; home is just around the corner.”
The one with a pock-marked face pushed her forward slightly, making sure she saw the knife he had hidden under the wind-breaker that he wore.
Brenda followed with trepidation. The other man, not the ugly one, opened a shack and they all entered. The men opened the suitcase and whistled with surprise.
“We got ourselves a rich bitch. How did you get all this money? You robbed a bank?” They laughed heartily at their joke. Brenda did not answer.
“Are you a mute bitch,” Ugly asked, about to slap her.
“Don’t beat her, restrain yourself. Aren’t you grateful that she brought us riches? You are taking too much dagga; it will get you into serious trouble soon.”
“Okay boss, but I hate to be ignored, especially by whores.” He looked at Brenda with dangerous and murderous eyes. Brenda was squirming inside with mind-numbing terror. Oh, just my luck, jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. These two are a lethal mixture of cruelty and violence. I just pray that they let me go whilst I’m still in one piece.
The two men started smoking marijuana. They could tell that Brenda was an addict because of the glassy look of her eyes. They didn’t offer her any of the marijuana, though, in order to distress and torment her, and Brenda almost lost her mind due to her craving for it. After smoking, they took turns to rape her and Ugly beat her in the process, demanding cooperation. That night, they took her in a taxi and dumped her in Bosman Street.
As she loitered in the streets, feeling cut-off and isolated, she started remembering how she had ended up like this. It appeared to Brenda as if all the odds always had been stacked against her. For as long as she could remember, she had faced difficulties on every front. Every hope that she’d had, had become dust and ashes right before her eyes. For the first time since she’d come to South Africa, she started to miss her mother. She was so lonely and felt desperately in need of company; even the company of her mother, for whom she had a deep-rooted hatred, was better than this loneliness.