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Dark days in Egoli

Their journey was one of sheer terror and calamity but propelled by a determined grit. Dilek and Asim had eventually reached Johannesburg a year later. The memories of their teen years in Kajo-Keji still haunted them. The militia had decimated the South Sudanese people. Fortunately, their families had escaped to Yumbe town in Uganda.

Dilek the older cousin convinced grandfather to sell a few cattle and sponsor their migration to South Africa. Bidibidi refugee camp for them was a cul de sac. Hoping against the odds they knew they could forge some semblance of a future down south. They were the fortunate few who survived the beatings, detentions and illegal border crossings from Kenya all the way to Egoli (Tswana name for city of gold). Separated at times and amidst xenophobic attacks, their fervent prayers kept them together.

Now the land of milk and honey was in a crisis and the days were not looking so bright. The Corona pandemic lockdown was in its third week. Their tiny room in Mrs Booysens backyard was their humble abode. In better days it was the servants quarters. Dilek’s shoe repairing endeavours brought in just enough to pay the rent of a thousand brands, the equivalent of sixty  US dollars.

Asim’s waiter job was no more. All restaurants and most businesses were still shut. Sitting across the bed, Dilek opened a tin of baked bean. Groceries and food items was fast disappearing. They still had a half loaf of bread. The small plastic table stood between the two single beds, the old wardrobe stood against one wall. The other wall had two rudimentary wooden shelves which Asim managed to nail together.

They ate in subdued silence then Dilek said: “Hey bro, I wish we could have had your mum’s matoke now eh? Boy she really knew how to cook man.”

“Yeah and what about freshly baked kisra washed down with sweet tea bro? Mmm ….we cannot forget those days in Bidibidi camp cuz. Anyway, we are not starving here, and I’m sure whatever money you sent to grandpa, they are making ends meet.” Asim replied.

“Listen now, we got to do something different. I was thinking, with the few hundred rands I have, we should buy some fruit and vegetables for you to hawk. You can set up next to my stall on Rocky street. The markets are open, so tomorrow we should give it a go man.” Dilek said.

“Yeah cuz, thanks, I think it’s a good idea but what about the other women selling nearby? Won’t they get angry we selling the same stuff as them?”

“Hey we got to take a chance Asim, otherwise we gonna suffer further in this lockdown.”

Monday morning arrived, they had a cold wash in the tiny toilet adjoining their room. Dilek gathered his shoemaking tools, donning their face masks, they locked the room and stepped out.

As they neared the main house, Mrs Booysens stood in the verandah, smoking a cigarette. She called out to the duo, after taking a huge puff.”Hey Dilek, Thursday is month-end. Make sure you have the rent money ready boy, I don’t want you giving me short. And why did you have the lights on till so late last night?. I  told you by ten o clock lights must be off!” she continued firmly.

Dilek replied weakly “Morning madam, sorry madam, I forget to switch off earlier. It won’t happen again. Don’t worry I will try my best to pay your money in full by month-end.”

They made their way to the down town market at the bottom of Rocky street. The trolley boy wheeled the bag of potatoes and boxes of bananas and apples towards Dilek’s shoe repair stand. Asim handed him a ten rand note.

With the boxes upturned, and fruit and potatoes neatly laid out, Asim was soon hawking his wares. As the hours ticked away, half of the stuff had been sold. A few metres away a stout Zulu woman eyed him menacingly. She strode over to him.”Hey you, what’s your problem man, why are you selling your apples at ten rands for four? I am selling four for fifteen brands! You better charge the same price as me, otherwise there’s gonna be trouble eh!” she warned furiously.

Asim momentarily stunned, hit back:” Aye you can’t say that sis, this is my price and it is my choice to sell how I want to! Please leave me alone, I am not troubling you.”

”Listen here, you people are having your own ways here man, Now the customers are gonna say you are cheaper than me! Just sell at my price or you will regret it. Aye you amakwere are messing things up in this town…” she stormed off still fuming.

Dilek put a  half sewn shoe aside and walked over to  Asim, “Don’t worry bro, just do as she says.We got no say in Rocky street. Here the locals rule.We just got to be under the radar, let’s not upset the apple cart eh! Their faces broke into laughter.

Rocky Street in Yeoville had known better days. Apartment blocks in various stages of decline lined the busy road. Spaza shops and Pakistani cellphone repair kiosks clamoured for the passing trade.Groups of young men offering to wash or look after cars stood watching as pedestrians hop scotched over debris on the pavements.

In it’s hey days Yeoville was a boom town with the discovery of gold in Johannesburg. White European settlers quickly moved in and grew the town. Colonial buildings still stand but now hijacked by slum lords. One can find hundreds of refugees occupying decaying apartment blocks. Migrants from Congo, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somali and virtually from all over Africa swarm the area, all on a quest for survival in Egoli.

Dilek said, “Go and buy some bread and polony, I will watch the stuff.”

They sat on old paint drums, munching away. Asim watched the young Zulu girls in their slim fit jeans clutching study folders strolling by. They looked attractive he thought but then again any liason with them seemed hopeless. He always wished he could have finished his high school in Kajo -Kedi. It would be great if his dream of at least going to college would come to pass he wondered.

Dilek said “Yeah bro, at least you sold some fruit and I’ve repaired a few shoes today, maybe the next few days would be better. I just need to scrape up more money for the madam man. Hey she is tough eh, but then again living in her place is far better than in the townships bro”

Asim took out his cellphone.”Phew, just enough data to be on whatsapp to check up on the family back home.”

A ragged looking youth came over enquiring about the potatoes.”It is ten rands for six. Do you want it? Asim asked.

Asim layed the phone on the box beside the fruit and started to pack the potatoes into a plastic bag. Just then the customer grabbed the phone and run off at lightening speed. Asim totally stunned, started to run after him but a fat woman was on his way and he collided with her.

The guy was by now fifty meters away making his getaway. Dilek and Asim could only shake their heads as the folk who witnessed what happened offered their sympathy.

“Hey bro, this is the stark reality here man. Too many criminals everywhere.” Dilek said.

“I think we should go to the station and lay a report. Man, my cellphone had all the family pics and contacts.” he moaned.

“Listen, bro, it’s not a good idea. You know our documents are expired.We couldn’t renew it because of lockdown. Besides what if they arrest us for expired documents. You know these police don’t tolerate foreigners.” Dilek advised.

“Really man, it is like a jungle here. They just prey on us like vultures! It seems we are always on the receiving end of trouble” Asim continued.

Nearby the local health clinic set up a screening and testing station for covid 19. Health workers motioned for folk to get their temperatures checked.

An officious looking nursing sister walked over to the cousins.

“Hello, where are your from may I ask? she enquired.

“We are from South Sudan maam”

“Have you been sanitising and keeping social distance? I see you doing business here so you never know what you may have come into contact with, besides with so many foreigners in this area, I am insisting you two do a covid infection test,” she stated firmly.

” Okay sis we will do it, just give us a minute,” Dilek said.

“I’m gonna take your contact details down so you better give me the correct information okay?”

“We will contact you via sms if all is well or not”

Later in the day, they prepared to leave for home. It was a twenty-minute walk and the cousins had some time to take in the days events.

“Well Asim at least you managed to sell all your stuff, it means we can still earn some cash that way.”

“Bro that phone cost me five hundred rands. I don’t know when I will get another one, with things looking so bleak now. I wish the Spur would open so I can work and get money. Also that Mrs Booysens putting pressure on us, I feel the world is closing in on us.”

Dilek put his one arm around Asim’s shoulder, pulling him closer.

“Listen, my cousin, I told you I am here for you. When we left Bidibidi I promised grandpa I will take care of you. We know the situation is getting bleak for everyone in this country but we chose to come here because it was our only hope. It still is a land of promise. The crime is all over the world, lawlessness will increase, that’s what the bible teaches. As for them hating us, let us not hate back, let us trust in the Almighty. We shall endure bro and we will make it. Don’t worry Asim the sun will shine again for us and the days will soon not be as dark as it looks. We shall overcome!

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Written by Vijay Pillay

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