The sun hung proudly in its final hour above the bustling city market. It beamed beautifully, before twilight descended. Mfundo and Nompilo stood on the sidewalk, dirty as discarded dolls, imprisoned by hunger. It had been a long and unlucky day for them. Their bare soles rested on the pavement, pained to the bone. The thick layer of dust and grime on their heels did little to protect their feet.
They had been standing like scarecrows with their palms outstretched for hours. The beat-up hat that they had placed on the ground was still filled with air.
As Nompilo exhaled an inaudible plea to the flood of people rushing back to their homes, Mfundo watched a stout woman beside him preparing kotas. She was disturbed by a man in blue overalls. He patted his pockets as he put his brown paper bag on the ground. His other hand clutched his back-pack firmly against his side. He withdrew a slim wallet from his rear pocket and handed a coin to the woman. He then tapped two fingers against his lips before sipping the contents of his brown paper bag.
When the woman handed him a cigarette his hand shook. She gave him a box of matches. As he struck the matchstick, muffled sounds from an approaching mob grew gradually into loud howls. The approaching crowd danced energetically, ululating. The young people carried banners painted in bold red letters: “FEES MUST FALL!”
“What’s all this kak about?” the man grunted at the woman as he exhaled smoke from his nostrils. The woman just continued cutting the quarters of bread, stacking the hollowed dough with eggs, sausages, fries and atchar. The man’s eyes watered.
He shook his bald head. “At their age,” he said as he took another drag from his cigarette, “these kids should be looking for work, not making meaningless noise.”
“Let them be,” replied the woman, tying her doek.
The man gritted his teeth and returned her matches. She took the box from his fumbling grip and sat back in the blinding fumes of her worn-out gas burner. He sighed, then walked off, avoiding the protestors.
The market came to a stand-still when the crowd swarmed the streets. They had blocked in every vehicle and vendor. Mfundo saw his opportunity; it was now or never. He clasped Nompilo’s stiff hand and in a split second, he snatched one of the pieces of bread off the table and shoved it under his armpit. He elbowed his way into the congested crowd.
“Thieves!” the woman screamed as she rose, flapping her arms.
Other hawkers heard her cries and armed themselves with whatever they could beat a thief with. Mfundo’s soiled leather jacket melted into the block of protestors. As they ran, Nompilo turned and saw the angry vendors trying to force their way into the thick cluster of bodies. The hawkers waved their weapons angrily in the air.
As dusk thickened, Mfundo and Nompilo settled into their ‘home’ under the Jan Smuts highway bridge. Home was a concrete slab, encircled by a patch of littered soil. The bridge served as the roof but there was no bed, no heater, no parents. Just them.
Mfundo placed the kota on a piece of cardboard on the ground and then tore a piece off it. Nompilo did the same. They ate quickly, as if the food would be snatched from them at any moment. They chewed to the sound of crickets, and of vehicles passing over them. The kota disappeared quickly.
Tell us: How do you think Nompilo and Mfundo might have ended up on the streets?