Legend of the homeless rich man

Legend has it, that he came to Joburg with his wife, a beautiful maiden girl, who was still a teenager at the time, only thirteen. In fact, he too was still a teenager, only three years older than his wife. But he conducted himself in such a way that most who met him thought him to be much older. He had old eyes you see, like one who has lived for centuries. Most people who looked at those eyes quickly looked away, because they had such a profound effect on people. They looked almost blasphemous in the face of one so young. He and his wife installed themselves in an obscure informal settlement in the backyard dregs of the city, living side to side with rats so big they were infamous for robbing drunks of their money at night. Only a week passed before Bra Thabo decided that the place was not for him. And he took his warmest jacket and left his wife behind and went to take up residence in the unfriendly streets of the city.

No one knows what he did when he got there. Years passed without anyone hearing anything about him, as he quietly made his money. But his legend slowly grew in peoples minds, at least the minds of those who lived side by side with him. He was the rich man who still chose to live in the city streets, although he had enough money to be able to afford a mansion in the suburbs. In fact he did buy a house in the suburbs, after he married his second wife. We don’t know where he met this woman. We only know that she was a famous woman who appeared on peoples television screens almost every night. We of course had never seen her. There are no televisions to watch on the street. We tell our stories in much the same way that we do every night, like we are doing now, huddled around the fire as the cold wind creeps into our backs, and we tell these stories to entertain ourselves, or to forget where we are, or to remind ourselves of the legends that we meet on these streets, like the legends of Bra Thabo.

We did not know that Bra Thabo’s second wife was a famous lady of the screen, but we had heard it been said, with no absence of awe, from the people we knew. And we wondered how this man, who lived life very much like we did, had managed to find himself such a wife. And why, with all his money, was he still living on the city like a pauper? And why his second wife did not insist that Bra Thabo leave his life behind and come and live like a normal person, in their big house in the suburbs. It would have been easy to dismiss the story of Bra Thabo’s wife as one of those stories created from the minds of bored men trying to make the nights go faster. But we had no choice but to believe the story, because one night Bra Thabo did take us to meet her.

But before we tell you about that night, first let us tell you about how we came to know Bra Thabo.

We were just young boys living in the street, Njabulo and I, when we heard about him, the rich man who lived in the street. He was already a grown man by then, in his thirties I believe. He had a reputation for liking young boys. Whether or not he slept with them we did not know at the time. We only knew that he took really good care of them. He bought them clothes and gave them money. So much money that some of them left the street, and found apartments for themselves to rent. At which point he found another young boy to take care of. It sounded like a fairy tale to us, but we had nothing to lose by trying to find out. We were no strangers to men who slept with boys who lived on the street. And although Njabulo and I had never done it, we knew well what went on during these meetings. I was thirteen at the time, and Njabulo was fifteen. You could never tell that he was older than me because he had such an emaciated body. He looked like a child, not like a teenager close to manhood. He had stunted growth you see. Its not easy for children who have lived on the street their whole lives to develop healthy bodies. Also, he couldn’t read, and in many ways he was as innocent as a child. But in the ways of the street he was well versed, after all he had managed to survive so well on his own, long before I came along, after my mother died and her family, who were not really her family but her in laws, sold her house, my father’s house, and threw me out. My father had died a few years earlier, and my mother was accused of killing him. And because I looked so much like my mother, they said that I was not my father’s son, and they wanted nothing to do with me. Anyway that is all in the past, it does not bother me as much anymore. We all have our stories, but my story is not nearly as interesting as that of Bra Thabo.

It was Njabulo who met him first. He found him at Joubert park one Sunday afternoon. Playing chess with those giant chess pieces with the chess board drawn on the ground. A small crowd had gathered to watch him play. Apparently he was unbeatable. His style of play was mesmerising. He looked at his opponents with those old, unsettling eyes and forced them to make mistakes. And when he moved his pieces he did so as if he didn’t have to think about the moves at all, as if he had played that game a thousand times and knew exactly what his opponent was going to do long before he did it. It was like playing chess with a prophet, the game is lost before it even begins. It was a hot day, and many in the crowd were sweating. But he wore this big jacket made of thick wool. The kind you see worn by people who live in very cold climates. It was not the kind of jacket that one usually wears on such a hot day without sweating profusely. And yet, judging by the way that he held on tightly to that jacket, it was as if he was cold. Either that, or the jacket held something precious within it which he did not want to lose.

After the game, when there was no longer any opponents who wanted to challenge him, he came to where Njabulo was sitting, and looked at him with those famed old eyes. They seemed to have aged even more, like those of an old man whose eyes had outlived him, and were loosing their sight. But he saw just fine, saw more clearly than most people.

“Usually, when people look for me I am the one who finds them. Most of those who find me are at times not ready to meet me, and they let their preconceived notions of me cloud their understanding. But understanding is such an imperfect beast, I only ask that you see me, and try not to force an understanding which you do not as yet possess.” he said to Njabulo.

You can imagine that these words were astonishing for Njabulo to hear, he could not quiet make sense of them. I would ask that Njabulo tell you of this himself, but he is not one for words. As perhaps you may know, those who have a story to tell often do not want to tell it, or are unable to tell it. Fortunately, the universe, in need of a witness to its own existence, has given birth to people like me, who have time to contemplate the events of existence, even if our telling is at times imperfect. Njabulo was able to tell me because he and I have know each other for so long, that our communication does not need words. You may have experience of this, if you have allowed your soul to open to that of another human being, to the point were to hide yourself from them would be impossible. You see we hide from each other all the time, this is the kind of world we live in. Njabulo and I were lucky to have found each other, living in a world that was constantly hiding behind itself, while we were barely able to hide our own vulnerabilities. There is something about suppressing your vulnerabilities which gives them a vulgar power. The culture of victim-hood which the human world currently finds itself living under, is partly as a result of people who have spend centuries trying to present a false image of themselves, in an attempt to fit in, to conform to the dominant imagination of humanity. What results is a sickness, a festering wound which can never be healed. All these things Bra Thabo taught us. Taught Njabulo. His bizarre and enigmatic life was as an attempt to escape this dominant imagination. And try to imagine a different reality for himself. And for the boys who he met on the street, who will one day become men capable of imagining their own realities, or in truth, connect to the reality which they had long imagined for themselves, before the world stole their imagination from them, and replaced it with something limited and crass.

Njabulo and Bra Thabo spend that night together. Mostly walking the street and looking at the people going about their lives. The life which somehow transformed itself at night, as if it was a different reality all together. The people you meet at night are not the kind of people you can ever meet during the day. You can never tell if people become more themselves at night or they find it easier to put on different masks under cover of the shadows of the lights. But the truly interesting things were the things that happened in the true shadows, in the places were light didn’t penetrate, in the dark alleys, in the parking lots, behind nightclubs where men either debased themselves, or found enlightenment. The line between these two is thin, and you can never know where enlightenment could be found. But it was not necessary to spend ones life seeking enlightenment, the process could drive you insane. It was only enough to let life take you where it must, without too much resistance, to look and to see. Bra Thabo’s eyes had clearly seen more than the things of this world, yet he did not tire of it, this constant looking. He said there was always more to see, even if you looked at the same things for centuries and centuries, there was always more to see. Those who understood somehow saw more than most. To understand is not the most important thing. To open yourself up to the process of life was. To follow whatever destiny that you have chosen for yourself. No matter how senseless this might seem to others. When Bra Thabo left his first wife behind to lead a life in the street, it was not sense that he was following, or even an understanding of why he was doing what he was doing. When he made his riches and still decided to live in the street, what sense could there be in that? But it was the very thing his soul wanted to do. And he had decided a long time ago not to resist the desires of his soul, no matter what other people say. When he married his second wife and left her to live in that huge house all by herself, somehow, even beyond his own understanding, his wife did not question it. Christians believe in free will, but even they must understand that this Will goes beyond the personal desires of a human being. And yet, if the will is strong enough, a person can easily escape his destiny. Whether that destiny was decided by themselves before they were born, or decided by the society in which they are born into. The difference is that one needs a lot of work, while the other does not need a lot of work at all, but courage.

The will of most people is decided by fear. All those people, hiding behind their four walls, were controlled by all kinds of fears. The fear of losing what they have, the fear of not having what they want, the fear of not fitting in, the fear of failing, the fear of succeeding beyond what they imagined was possible, the fear of been seen for what they truly are by the world, even  when they desire to be seen. The fear of violence, of violation, of exposure and condemnation. The fear of their own obscure lives. Humanity is a species suffocated by fear.

By the end of the night Bra Thabo was in love with Njabulo. He expressed that much to him when the veil of fog which had enveloped the city slowly lifted, when they stood in the middle of the Mandela bridge, watching the city change into the reality of the day. His eyes, which usually looked so old, now looked young, almost like those of a baby, the whites of his eyes incredibly clear, and his pupils were as dark as a starless night. This had the most curious effect on Njabulo. His whole body tingled with an energy he had never before known. He felt as if he had been transformed into a ball of light. And he might explode into a million pieces from the smallest touch. They parted, promising to meet again when night fell. When I saw Njabulo on that day, I was amazed at how different he looked. And for some reason, his need for words had diminished even further. Of course he had some money with him, two thousand rands, and he gave me half. I had never had so much money all at once. We went and bought new clothes, ditching our old rags. We bought them along the street stalls because they did not allow us inside the shops, even though we made sure to bath at the park station toilets, like we did sometimes. We bought new bags and shoes. We bought food that could last us a week, then we sat at the park next to the Joburg Municipality building and invited some of the guys to eat. Some of you might remember, we feasted like kings, then we fell asleep on the grass, some of us with sore stomachs. When we woke up the money was gone. You bastards had robbed us! But that is all in the past isn’t it…

Njabulo insisted that I come along with him to meet Bra Thabo. He said he wanted to meet me, since it was my idea that we should seek out Bra Thabo, and ideas are not mere coincidences, they are proof that the mind is connected to something outside of self, especially when they come seemingly from knowhere. So I went, my mind filled with high expectations, to meet the man who had so transformed my friend. I wondered if he would transform me in a similar manner. Although I had my doubts, I decided to keep an open mind, an open soul in the manner that I had done with Njabulo.

We were to meet at the spot where they had parted. At the foot of the bridge a car stopped besides us, a dark car of an obscure make. When the window rolled down it was Bra Thabo in the drivers seat. We had heard that he owned a car, several cars in fact, but he didn’t usually drive, so it was clear that this was to be a special night. We got in. With apprehension tightening my throat, but Njabulo was at ease, like you would be when you walk into your mothers house, assuming of course that you have a nice mother, and that your father is not a monster waiting to devour you as soon as the door is locked.

We drove north. With neither of us saying anything for a few minutes, simply watching the buildings of the inner city recedes behind us.

“So, you guys lost your money? It happens. It helps to have a bank account. I’m not a fan you know. I prefer using a cash house. I like to know the people I pay to keep my money safe. If they steal it I can at least look at them in the eye and see them slowly descend into hell. You can’t do that with regular banks. The bastards are constantly stealing your money, and there is nothing you can do about it, because they have convinced us that it is the price to pay if you want to keep your money safe. You see money is an illusion, but the thing about this illusion that we call money is that the masses believe in its power. But you don’t need money to have power. You need power to have power. But power, like money, is also an illusion. Anyway, today I am going to see my wife. I am sure you must be wondering why I have a wife, not only one, but two, when I don’t even like women. I wonder about that myself, but I must follow the desires of my soul, even if I do not understand them. I know one day I will, and the revelation may be profound, or it may be a mediocre truth, not at all worth the trouble. But so what, the whole of existence is not worth the trouble if you really think about it.”

He may not have said any of this at all, but this is the impression that I got from him. Njabulo got a completely different impression. He spoke Venda you see. I know many languages, but Venda is not one of them. My mind refuses to absorb it, or perhaps I have not tried hard enough. Yet when Bra Thabo spoke, I understood what he was saying, or at least I thought I did. This ability of his to speak an unfamiliar language, and make himself understood in different ways by the different people listening to him, was one of those enigmas that defined his life. It is for this reason that his legacy will forever remain contested. Understanding him was not about understanding him at all, because understanding him was impossible, his life was not made for understanding. It was about understanding the self. Which may seem like a monumental task when you see just how little of the self we have allowed ourselves to acknowledge. At times denying the self altogether, for an image that pleases us, but ultimately does nothing for us.

His wife was not surprised to see us. It was clear that she was used to her husband bringing strange homeless boys to their home. To the home which he didn’t live in. Because he refused even to spend a single night in it. We saw the pictures of her on the wall. All the pictures on the wall were pictures of her. Which wasn’t such a bad thing because she was really beautiful. Some of the pictures were taken by a camera, others were painted, or pencil drawn. It was clear that the artist, or artists who did the pictures really admired her, maybe even worshipped her as a goddess. For indeed she was a goddess. She looked more of a goddess in those pictures than she did in real life. Her presence next to those pictures produced a strange dissonance, like reality splitting in two. The pictures were a mesmerizing sight.

“Thabo did all the paintings.” she said when she saw me staring at them “They are beautiful aren’t they? They startle me sometimes. I feel that the woman on the pictures is not me. Almost like I was playing a role when I posed for them. Its the same feeling a get when I see myself on television.”

She spoke slowly, quietly, breathing out the words, like the effort of speaking was too much for her. Her words drew you in, made you listen more intently, made you search for hidden meaning in everything she said. I had no idea that  a person could wield so much power simply by the act of speaking, or indeed, posing for a picture. Is this what Bra Thabo meant when he said that you need power to have power. Because the source of her power was in her very being.

However, I sensed that Njabulo did not like her, did not like her pictures, thought them to be ugly and vulgar, and if he could, he would burn them all.

“You guys have never seen my wife act have you? Its an experience. And you’re in luck, because her show is on now. Ill leave the television on for you, me and….my wife, have things to do.” said Bra Thabo.

I saw the light in her eyes fade a little, but she still allowed herself to be led by him up these winding stairs to what I could only assume was their bedroom. Njabulo I felt was still seething. When he turned towards me he had this light smile on his face, and I could not understand it. But I had felt this since we got into that car, that the connection between us was fading, whether it was because of Bra Thabo or not I could not tell. It bought an uneasiness to my heart, seeing him drift away from me, seeing him hidden behind a thin veil where only his shadow was visible. Perhaps it was not meant to be that two people should be so connected that words become obsolete. Perhaps the whole experience of life is so that we can master the art of explaining ourselves to others.

Njabulo threw himself on top of the big wide black leather sofa, with the flat screen television opposite, attached to the wall. It was a monumental thing, and the people in it looked so real that I expected them to leap out of the screen any minute. We didn’t have long to admire it though, because there was Bra Thabo’s wife, in all her splendour, adding yet another layer of reality to her being. She played a villain. And it seemed that the whole show was centred around her, as a feared nemesis. Her performance was so raw that it made me flinch. She commanded a whole other different kind of power. She spoke with a serpentine voice which pierced needles through my skin. Even Njabulo felt a kind of fear from watching. Living on the streets we had conquered many fears. But here was a woman behind the giant screen introducing us to yet another kind of fear. We even began to suspect if the woman we had seen was the same woman that we were watching now. It seemed inconceivable.

Just then we heard her scream, but not from the television. It came from upstairs. It was long and pained. I got up, with the intention to check what was going on, but Njabulo held me, and shook his head. Just then I realised that the reason why I had felt disconnected from him was because he was connected to another human being, to Bra Thabo, and his nature was such that he couldn’t stay connected to two people at the same time. It was such a deep and poignant scream that tears fell down my cheeks, and I could not bid them to stop. Njabulo seemed unaffected, like he understood something I did not, like he was in on the conspiracy. And, although we were the same size, for the first time I began to see him as a person older than me. A person who had grown older simply from being exposed to Bra Thabo. For the first time in a very long time, I felt lonely.

When they came back down there was a slight limp in Bra Thabo’s wife. She wore a flowing white night dress that reached down to her knees, which ballooned away from her body, making her seem like one of those old ghost from movies, living in a haunted mansion, or a haunted mental institution. Once again I got the impression of her splitting reality into different pieces. And Bra Thabo, walking behind her, also seemed changed.

When she sat down in a couch opposite us, with her legs spread apart, her dress settled and hugged her legs. And almost immediately blood stains appeared on her thighs. Blood stripes that went down to her knees. I looked at Njabulo and he seemed not to notice it, his attention completely absorbed by Bra Thabo. I hated him at that moment, I hated Njabulo and I hated Bra Thabo for the way he treated his wife and for taking my friend away from me.

“My wife has an award show she has to attend tonight. She has been nominated. We must leave her to get ready. Let me drop you guys off okay.” said Bra Thabo.

His wife showed no sign of moving, or indeed a willingness to do so. She just sat there and looked drained, staring at us with empty eyes. All her power was gone. Perhaps Bra Thabo was a vampire, who married her to feed on her blood, and her power. Perhaps that is why he lived on the streets, despite the fact that he didn’t need to. What did he do to young boys anyway, was he going to use us for some kind of sacrifice? Was that how he made his money, by sacrificing young boys living on the street?

When we left his wife was still sitting listlessly on the couch. My heart was pounding the whole time, not knowing what to expect. When I looked at Njabulo he looked happy, smiling like a child, and I didn’t know if I should feel reassured. Bra Thabo did not say anything the whole trip, but the way in which Njabulo was looking at him, the energy which radiated from him, made me think that perhaps they were communicating in the way that me and him used to communicate, and they were shutting me out from their world. But Bra Thabo looked distracted, occupied by something. Finally he stopped his car on the outskirts of Hillbrow, and told us that there was somewhere he needed to be. Njabulo was disappointed, I could tell that there was something more he expected to happen, some undefined event that only he and Bra Thabo knew about. On my part I was glad that nothing bad was going to happen to us.

“It is not the best of times for us. Maybe when I come back I will come and look for you. Hopefully you will not have forgotten me.” he said.

He gave us a bag full of money. Enough that we would not need to struggle on the street anymore, at least for a few years, or months, depending on how we spent it, provided that no one stole it.

“Don’t use it all at once. If you want you can go back to my wife, she will take care of you. And you can take care of her.”

With that he was gone, and we knew that we were never going to see him again. With him gone my connection to Njabulo came back. It was as if a spell had been lifted from us.

We heard that on that night he went back to his first wife in the squatter camp. We don’t know what happened when he got there, but we know that the shack that she was staying in burnt down that night. Those that were there swear that they saw Bra Thabo’s face in the flames as they devoured the shack. A face that roared with rage. Afterwards the people of the squatter camp went around with sticks and garden tools and other self made weapons looking for him, fearful that he was going to burn down their shacks as well. They went up and down the whole night, but they couldn’t find him. In the morning, when they searched the burned down shack, they did not even find any bodies inside, or any ashes of burned bodies. It was like he and his first wife had just disappeared. Once again, Bra Thabo had left an enigma behind him.

For years I have been trying to make sense of this enigma. The enigma of Bra Thabo’s life. I have considered that there were certain things which I did not see, and those things gave me an incomplete understanding, much like all those wavelengths of light which we do not see, and our not seeing them makes life less beautiful, our perception a lot more poorer. But we do not know that, we go through our days thinking the beauty we see in our natural environments is all the beauty there is. But if our perceptions were to shift, for even a little bit, a whole new astounding world would open, and we would wonder how we have lived all our lives so blind. I am waiting for that time, when my perception should shift, and this enigma will be understood, and a whole new world of beauty revealed. But whatever else happens, I know that this life, like all our lives, was an experience in time, in place. Perhaps that is all that matters.

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