There was a boy at the robot on the junction turning into Duduni Mall. He was always there – Monday to Sunday, from sunrise to sunset – always on time, and always wearing short khaki pants and a torn blue shirt. He was 15 years old.
“Khombela tshelede ya zwiliwa – I am asking for money to buy food,” he told passers-by.
Most people ignored him. Some gave him 10 cents as a form of mockery, but he always took it gratefully.
Some took selfies as they gave him their leftovers so they could post them on Facebook and Instagram for likes and shares. While those likes and shares made them Felebs, or Facebook celebrities, they did not help the boy’s plight.
Some called him a nyaope boy. “We won’t give you our money because we know you are going to smoke all of it,” they said.
Most of the money he was given came from varsity students who took pity on him, especially during winter. Most days it was just enough to meet his needs, but never enough to help him move on from his life of begging.
Mr Mudau, a lecturer from the nearby college, had often seen this boy on his way to and from work. One day he decided to get out of his car and talk to him.
The boy thanked him in a very polite manner for the R20 he offered, but he did not seem willing to say much more. Mr Mudau could see he was genuinely grateful for the money, and now he was even more curious – how could such a well-mannered boy end up begging at the lights each day?
After work, Mr Mudau again parked near the robot, but this time he stayed in his car. He decided he was going to follow the boy and find out more.
He waited until after 6pm and, just as the last bus was departing, the boy walked off towards the eastern side of the town where the township was located.
Mr Mudau got out of his car and followed. He tried to keep close, but not too close. He didn’t want to lose sight of him, but he didn’t want the boy to see him either.
The boy walked around the dark township with no fear, relying on the dim lights from the shacks to find his way. The only noise in the streets was from dogs barking, which startled Mr Mudau each time. He admired the boy’s courage, as walking through these streets made him very nervous.
Eventually the boy arrived at a small, two-room house. It was built of mud bricks and large cracks had appeared next to the door. The roof had more bricks piled on top to prevent it from blowing off.
As Mr Mudau was examining the shack, the boy came back out and the lecturer followed him once again. About 10 minutes later, they arrived at a spaza shop and this time Mr Mudau followed him inside.
The boy picked up some bread, a small jar of achar and six eggs. Before he could pay, Mr Mudau stopped him and offered to buy him all the supplies he needed to fill his cupboards at home.
The boy stared at the man in shock – no one had offered to buy him groceries like this before. He grabbed a 2kg bag of pap to add to his basket. Mr Mudau replaced it with a 50kg bag and found some other items he thought would be useful. Then he paid for it all and offered to help him take it home.
The owner of the shop watched in admiration. It was the first time he’d seen the boy smile, and he helped carry the shopping bags outside and waited with the boy while Mr Mudau went to fetch his car.
Mr Mudau could see the boy was nervous and he tried his best to make small talk as they drove back to the shack.
Slowly, his passenger started to relax and the lecturer took the opportunity to probe a little deeper into the boy’s history.
The boy repeatedly thanked Mr Mudau for his generosity then, suddenly, he sank back into the car seat and the words came pouring out. He said he’d been forced to leave school the previous year to help his younger sister.
“She has a medical condition – the doctors say she has respiratory problems and these got worse and she needed to go to hospital. Nobody wanted to help us and it was very hard.
“In the end, I found a man in the next village who said he’d help us with transport to and from the hospital. But then he started to ask for money. He threatened us, so now I beg for money to buy food and I try to save some so I can pay him back. The money is hardly enough but I will keep on trying. She’s only 12 and I don’t want anything bad to happen to her.”
Mr Mudau sighed with a heavy heart. “What happened to your parents?”
“I never met my father and my mother died a year ago. She also had breathing problems but she didn’t make it. Some people came to her funeral and promised to help us, but they never returned. Now I rely on the gogo next door to look after my little sister during the day.”
Mr Mudau sat thinking in silence for a while then an idea came to him.
“I know an orphanage not far from here that might be able to take both of you in. I will contact them tomorrow and I will make sure someone comes to help.”
As promised, a woman arrived the next day and took the boy and his sister into care.
There was a knock on the door. “Please wait. I’m on a phone call,” Mr Mudau called out.
A few minutes later, he shouted again, “You can come in now. Sorry about that – I had to take that call – an urgent matter. Now, give me one minute, I need to find my notes then we can get started.”
Mr Mudau was rustling through some papers with his back to the door and didn’t look up when the student entered his office. He was expecting Soli, one of his best students, for a tutorial and wanted to find his comments on the student’s last assignment.
“Actually, I’m not here for assistance. I just came to say thank you and I’ve brought some lunch for you. It’s not much, but it’s all I can manage right now. Next time, I will try to bring something more substantial.”
Confused, Mr Mudau turned to face the boy. He removed his reading glasses to bring him into focus. It was not Soli, but there was something familiar about him. Then it hit him – it was the boy who he’d helped years ago at the robot.
He’d been in touch with the orphanage for about a year after they had taken him and his sister in, but then the communication had stopped. And now, five years later, here he was face to face with the boy. He was taller, more muscled and definitely healthier. He even had a broad, happy smile on his face.
“I thought you’d be surprised,” the boy laughed. “My sister and I were adopted a few years ago by a kind family and I was able to go back to school. I worked hard and now I have just started to study here – I’m doing first-year law.
“I have thought about you so much over the years. The kindness you showed me allowed me to change my life and I wanted to come and say hello and let you know how things worked out for my sister and me.
“I told my new parents about you and they would love to meet you some day. In the meantime, we decided I could repay a little bit of your kindness by bringing you lunch each day. I have class now, but I will see you tomorrow.”
Mr Mudau was lost for words. He managed to mumble his thanks as the boy placed a lunchbox on his desk and walked swiftly out of his office.
“Are you okay?” Soli asked. He’d arrived for his tutorial to find his lecturer staring blankly into space.
Mr Mudau shook his head and returned to the present. “Right, Soli. Change of plan – today we are going to discuss the meaning of kindness . . .”