The first person in my life I really admired was my older brother Mavusi. Maybe I even loved him, because he was the first one who looked after me, although he was only four years older. But he was there, when we were both left behind, alone, in the shack at night while my mom was at the shebeen. I remember that he tried to put food in my mouth and I could not eat it yet because it was too hard; stuff like old bread. But, at least, he shared. Sometimes he hugged me when I was crying. Sometimes he beat me because he had enough of my crying. Both of these Long ago: The baby I never was things I appreciated because it was the response of another human being.
His voice is still in my ears: ‘Tula, man, tula . . . be quiet, man!’ he said, a thousand times. He was then maybe six and I was two; but maybe I never was a baby.
Sometimes my father was still around. There was a nice smell around him when he came home from work. A smell of fresh bread and cake. He worked in a bakery. And sometimes, when he was there, we had a lot of bread after days of nothing.
But my mom and him were fighting a lot. I don’t know about what, as I just was too small. He never looked after me like my brother did. But it was good when he was there. My father is tall and strong and much older than my mom. I felt somehow safer when he was around, when I heard him snoring in his corner of the shack.
But suddenly he was gone. Just like that. I must have been about three then, not even four yet. I only met him again many, many years later. When I had started searching for him. Another story. For later, not yet.
So, my brother Mavusi was there. He tried to take me everywhere. To neighbours to beg for food. To his friends when he went to play with them. When I was too tired to walk he’d push me: ‘Hamba, man – go, man, go!’ He never used my name but always called me ‘man’. He was not strong enough to carry me as he was still small himself. Actually, he was a very skinny boy and sometimes had a bad cough.
One day a dog attacked us both. This was still in the early days in Masizakhe township in Graaff Reinet, which is where I was born. Maybe the dog came after us because of a small piece of bread Mavusi had in his hand. But he refused to give it to the dog. The dog started growling and barking. It was a black dog with long hair and huge white teeth and a red tongue, and I was so afraid because the dog was much bigger than my brother. There was no adult around to help us. So I started screaming – not just crying but screaming, as loud as I could, full of panic that this dog might bite my brother and then eat him. And then, of course, me.
But Mavusi? He stood his ground. He grabbed a wooden stick with his right hand and kept the piece of bread in his left hand. And he started to shout at the dog: ‘Suka, nja, suka – go away, dog!’ He did not even swear at the dog. He was just shouting: ‘Go away, dog!’ But suddenly the dog jumped and I closed my eyes in sheer terror. When I opened them again, the dog was growling horribly and standing over Mavusi, who lay on his back, trying to hide the small piece of bread. But the dog wasn’t stupid. It was sniffing all over my brother. Finally, it grabbed his arm, and only then did Mavusi give up. He yelled in pain and threw the bread away from him. In one jump the hungry dog caught the slice and crunched it down. It then lost interest in us and just walked away . . .
My hero brother Mavusi was holding his arm up and trying to stop the bleeding by pressing the veins above the wound. I could not understand why he was not crying. He was eight at the most. He just mumbled: ‘Inja esisidenge, inja elambileyo – stupid dog, hungry dog . . .’ The bleeding stopped. But later in the day his arm became swollen. By the evening it looked terrible and he could not move his fingers anymore.
There was nobody at home. So, he woke me up and said: ‘Masihambe siye kuMakazi Nompumelelo – let’s go to Auntie Nompumelelo.’ She lived not far from us and, fortunately, there was still a paraffin light burning in her shack. You could see the light through the wooden pieces and plastic sheets of her shack. When she saw Mavusi’s swollen arm, she shook her head and said: ‘Asilunganga – this is no good!’
She did not even ask where our mom was, just put me on her back and took my brother by his uninjured hand. Then we walked to the taxi rank. But it was too late for any taxis to the hospital in Graaff Reinet. She decided that Mavusi’s arm was too serious to be left till morning. And so we walked and walked and walked . . .
Tell us what you think: Why was Mbu’s brother so important in his life? Do you have a similar relationship with a brother or sister?