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Jo'Burg Days: Daniel's Brother

Barbara Durlacher tells the sad, sad story of a man who came into money.

For more of Barbara’s articles and stories please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/joburg_days/

On her visits to the office she observed the staff’s fondness for the part-time gardener, Daniel. Warm conversation, offers of sandwiches and numerous cups of tea with six spoons of sugar; pieces of fruit and other expressions of friendship never failed to herald his appearance in the black staff restroom, while sometimes the babble of conversation became so loud that a senior staffer would knock on the door to call them to order.

One day, she called him aside.

“Daniel, I own a small block of flats and I’m looking for a new cleaner. The job means keeping the place clean and tidy, and looking after the small garden and the pool. There’s a big staff bedroom upstairs and the work is easy. Are you interested?”

‘No Merrem,” Daniel answered, ‘I’m heppy in my job. Here at this place, I work three days, other days I work at the boss’s gedden. At the bosses place there’s big room and bathroom. Aikona change [no change]. But my brother Sam, he’s looking for a job.”

A few weeks later, Sam was comfortably established in the rooftop staff accommodation and already proving a good choice. He was a firm favourite with the residents, and quietly took over more and more of the day-to-day responsibilities, easing her work considerably.

Then one evening Sam, holding a sheaf of papers, knocked on her door.

“Merrem,” he began, “Daniel’s office gave him these papers. They say he must sign. But he can’t understand. Please help him.”

Glancing at the papers, she saw they were proposals to enrol the staff in a death benefit scheme. They also covered the policy holder’s funeral costs. However, as she read, she realised she could not explain the legal terminology to someone with only basic English.

“Sam, it’s better for Daniel to ask someone in the office. I can’t help you. I don’t have the right words. The office will explain. They can get one of the black ladies working there to help.”

So it was done, and time passed. Then one night, Sam knocked on her door in great distress, tears pouring down his cheeks.


“Sam, whatever’s the matter? What’s happened?”

“Merrem, Daniel’s dead.”

“Daniel’s dead! What happened?”

“He was knocked down by a speeding taxi that didn’t stop.”

With few details about the accident, but working together, they arranged to have the body collected from the morgue and taken to a funeral parlour. There would be a small service for Daniel and then his body would be transported back to Zimbabwe for burial.

After delivering a surprising number of Daniel’s very large “closest woman friends” to the parlour in her small car, she unobtrusively took her place at the back of the group. The service was held in a small ugly room, the peeling walls decorated with garish prints of a Catholic Jesus crowned with thorns, gazing soulfully into the distance. The cheap wooden coffin stood on a saw-horse with a few rows of dirty plastic chairs for the congregation. There was no music.

Listening quietly, she admired the ease with which Sheila, a well-spoken Zimbabwean friend, conducted the short service and the solid support the small group showed towards their late compatriot. Hymns were sung with enthusiasm, and the address was echoed and underlined by expressions of “Yebo!” and ‘Hallujah!” at her most telling remarks.

Sam had asked for several days leave to conduct the body back to Daniel’s home village. These were granted, and after his return the event faded into memory.

Some weeks later Sam knocked on the door again. “Merrem, Daniel’s office sent me this paper.”

Reading the paper, she found that Daniel’s former employers had not only paid all the costs of the funeral but, as Daniel had no wife or children he’d nominated Sam as heir. In terms of the policy, suddenly Sam had inherited a large death benefit.

Sam wanted her to help him with the business of obtaining the money. Several visits to the office later and after signing a pile of papers, Sam was a [comparatively] rich man. Then, aided by friendly bank officials, a savings account was opened for Sam. Stressing the importance of not touching the money and emphasising what a good investment it was, she told Sam time and again how if it was left untouched, it would become a comfortable nest egg for him and his family.

A year passed and Sam was due for leave.

“Merrem,” he began tentatively. “I need to take more time for leave.”

“Why Sam, what’s wrong?”

“I want to build my house. My money’s big now, and my wife is crying for a place. I know building. I want to build my house.”

“OK, Sam. If you can find somebody to do your work while you go to Zimb, you can take more time for your leave.”

Sam returned from his leave and talked proudly of how he’d built his own house. ‘It has three rooms, and a bathroom, Merrem. My wife is very heppy and soon there will be another baby.”

Time passed and then, after Sam had spent a long-weekend in Zimbabwe, she noticed him limping and holding his arm.

‘Whatever’s wrong, Sam?

‘Those peoples they so jealous, Merrem. They angry because they haven’t got a nice house also. They burnt my house down.”

“Is your wife alright?”

“She was sleeping inside with the baby. They locked the doors and windows and she couldn’t get out. I tried to open for her, but they hit me and kicked me. She burnt to death. Now I must take money from the bank for her funeral.”

“But you don’t understand Sam. You took all your money out of the bank to build your house. The money’s finished – it’s all gone, there’s nothing left.”

Just another African tragedy.

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