It had been the two of them together like this since chance led them to each other. That day Mfundo had been aimlessly wandering the city, when he had stopped in front of a restaurant window. He watched as the people inside filled their faces, while he sniffed a bottle of dried glue outside.
When he had eaten enough with his eyes, he went around to the alley behind the restaurant and wrestled with the trash cans outside the back entrance. They were crawling with rats. He rummaged through and tossed aside a few plastic bags.
Then he jumped in alarm as the pile of trash next to the bin moved. He thought he saw an arm. He cleared the rubbish away carefully, cautiously, this time, and unveiled the thing that moved underneath. It looked dirty, yet delicate. He uncovered Nompilo. Her arms and legs were as thin as twigs. She had barely a thread on her back, her eyes were closed, and he couldn’t see her breathing.
The rats were running all over her. He pushed at them with a stick and then prodded her gently. Nothing. Just then a cleaner from the restaurant came out to throw away some old food.
“You dirty tsotsi! Get out of here,” he yelled and shooed Mfundo. But Mfundo stood his ground. “Hold on. Just wait here,” the man said before he disappeared back inside. He had left the door ajar and that meant only one thing; he was going to get a weapon. Mfundo looked back at the child buried in trash, then glanced down the alley; he had to make a move.
Then the girl’s eyes fluttered. She was alive but was quickly slipping back into unconsciousness.
“What? Hey, wake up,” Mfundo shook her.
The man came back flailing a club. Mfundo quickly hoisted Nompilo across his back then kicked his heels as hard as he could down the alley. The man yelled obscenities behind him.
That was a year ago.
Today, here Nompilo sat sharing a stolen kota with him.
But that morning she had defied Mfundo, insisting on going to Glenwood Hills again, despite his objections. Recently she had formed a habit of disappearing during the day and going into the suburbs alone. Today, like other days, she had left Mfundo to move around the city looking for work and collecting things ordinary people no longer needed.
Today he had been unlucky. He hadn’t found any work, and only a few almost worthless recyclables.
Every day was hard. He woke early and headed downtown to the printers to find work delivering or selling newspapers; or he would battle for a job selling pineapples around the city. He wasn’t the only one looking; it was very competitive and sometimes blood was spilled for work. That was how he had earned himself the scar under his left eye. Mfundo was small and that made him an easy target for the bigger boys. But he was very tough and gave as much punishment as he took.
“Where were you?” he finally asked as he licked his fingers. “I looked across half the city for you earlier.”
“I … you know where I was,” she said as she bit off a chunk of the bread and ripped through the sausage. “I was trying my luck in the Glenwood.”
“What did you just say?”
“I said I was trying my luck.”
“I looked for you in Glenwood Hills.”
“I went deeper in today.”
“But that’s dangerous,” he said and shook his head. “What do you do for three hours every day?”
“I just look around for anything I can do. A job maybe, like pulling weeds. I don’t know …”
“The suburbs invite trouble for us, so why the hell must you go there?”
Nompilo wrinkled her nose and shrugged. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Tell me the truth, right now,” Mfundo ordered, but Nompilo only chewed slowly on her bread, ignoring him.
Tell us what you think: Why would ‘the suburbs’ be places where street kids like Mfundo and Nompilo can get into trouble?