Burying your DeadBy Harriet Perlman with Tshabalira Lebakeng
The City is full of dark spaces. It makes you invisible and when you are hidden from view there is no-one to watch your back. You are truly on your own.
Tsaba arrived at his mother’s backyard room and there was someone else in her bed. Tsaba had run away from his grandmother in Matatiele, a sleepy village in the foothills of the southern Drakensberg, to find her. She worked for Mr and Mrs Andrews in the suburbs of Durban.
The man asleep on the bed had big boots and his mother introduced him as Amos.
‘That was my bed,’ Tsaba recalls. ‘That small bed was the one her and I shared; where I felt safe and protected by her warmth.’
‘Amos is looking after me now,’ his mother told him. ‘He is good to me and there just isn’t space for all of us.’
So began Tsaba’s journey in the city. The bitter fights with Amos. His mother’s drinking and ultimate betrayal, finally found him at the age of 14 years old alone and invisible on the streets of Durban.
‘She just liked her boyfriend more than me,’ Tsaba recalls.
When I was 14 I lived in Northcliff in a house on the hill. My routine was unwavering: wake up and practice the piano, starting with all major and minor scales and ending with the arpeggios. A quick breakfast and then a dash down the hill to catch the school bus.
I loved climbing into bed at night and disappearing under warm blankets filled with comfort. The only thing I feared was the occasional dead bird that my Siamese cat Gemini would place on the blanket to share proudly with me.
I still love the moment before sleep embraces you, gently pushing away the day’s sorrows and wrapping you in her veil of silence.
Tsaba spent the next four years sleeping on a piece of cardboard inside an abandoned pipe near the train station in central Durban. It was here he met his barefooted friends. Young boys like himself alone on the streets, abused and abandoned by the very people whose protection they sought. Together they began to navigate the city and share its risks. They brought companionship and laughter to Tsaba’s day.
But then one of the boys died. He was the youngest. Eight years old.
His name was Mziwenkosi. ‘It means the King’s house,’ Tsaba laughs. ‘That’s funny don’t you think? That’s a pretty funny name for a street kid.’
Tsaba is convinced that it was the Italian restaurant owner who killed Mziwenkosi or Small Boy as they liked to call him.
Finding food is always a challenge when you live off the street. Sometimes they fished in the sea. Other times they scoured the streets of the inner city looking for leftovers; food thrown away by people who always had enough.
We were never allowed to leave anything on our plates. Food represented love and gratitude, the nourishment of body and soul. My brother and I played a game to see who would get away with hiding their brussel sprouts or boiled cabbage under squash skins. Feeding it quietly to the dog under the table was another option.
But I rarely got away with it. And punishment was cruel and unbefitting the crime. No pudding!
No crème caramel or chocolate ice cream; no meringue with fresh mulberries picked from the tree at the bottom of the garden or Moir's red jelly set in an animal mould. I loved touching the wobbly red giraffe and the pink rabbit that danced on my plate.
Tsaba and his barefooted friends laid claim to the bins outside an Italian restaurant. But the owner didn’t like these unwashed children hanging around outside his restaurant. So he chased them away with his gun.
‘We weren’t unwashed,’ Tsaba says. ‘We were the clean boys. We were street kids not thieves.’
Small Boy wasn’t afraid of the Italian restaurant owner. And he liked the leftover spaghetti and meatballs that he found in the bins every night. So he went back for more.
But one night he never returned.
We waited for hours for him.
Eventually in the small hours of the morning Tsaba and the other boys went to look for him. They found him near the bin. He was fast asleep.
‘But when we got closer, we realized he wasn’t asleep. His mouth was full of food. His face was swollen and he was still. Very still.
‘Too still for sleep,’ Tsaba remembers.
He was dead.
Tsaba is convinced that the Italian restaurant owner put poison in the bin. That was how he kept rats and mice away. It would probably work for street boys too.
Tsaba and his friends were faced with a terrible dilemma. What do you do with a dead body when you are 14, on the streets and there’s no-one to cover your back? They couldn’t go to the police, they would never believe their story. They would arrest them and lock them up.
And family? There weren’t any.There was no-one to take care of the ritual. To cradle their overwhelming sense of loss and fear in something bigger, larger and timeless. So they buried Small Boy in a nearby field – on the other side of the railway line. They dug a shallow grave and buried him there.
The boys sat awake on a nearby hill most of the night when suddenly one of the older boys said, ‘What if he wakes up?’
I was with my father when he died. My mother, a nurse and I were there. He was safe and warm in his bed at home. Outside the bedroom window the bougainvillea was in full bloom.
There’s a waiting place somewhere between life and death.
A gap between now and then. Between here and there.
A departure lounge of frightened travellers.
Dad had been ill for sometime. His body and then his mind had betrayed him in what was a slow, painful and difficult decline. He could not speak, stopped eating and rarely recognized who we were. Sometimes shadows of light passed across his face when my children laughed or read stories to him.
But when he took that last breath, a quiet gentle sigh, I became convinced that it wasn’t really over. Nothing the nurse or my mother said could persuade me. I insisted that Dr Pieterson be brought back to check.
Then I made him stay and check again and again and again.
Did the light just go out? Like that?
A few days after they had buried Mziwenkosi the boys decided that they needed to check.
What if he wasn’t really dead? So they dug up the grave to be sure. When people asked where Small Boy was they found new stories everytime. They told the police his parents had come to fetch him. He was lucky he had gone home.
Dad wanted to be cremated. Something unusual in the Jewish community but no longer frowned upon. I didn’t want his ashes to be scattered somewhere. Anywhere. I needed a spot. A place in the universe where I knew he was. A place I could go to mourn and remember.
So we buried my father and later my mother’s ashes under their favourite bench. It’s a bench on the edge of the lagoon at Natures Valley, from where you look out across the water to the sea.
We recited the mourner’s kaddish and the seagulls cried out as they flew above.
Tsaba does not remember the exact spot where his friend is buried. And neither does anyone else.