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Meeting Bheki

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Ian speaks

As our Managing Trustee I often visit our trainers in the field. I come back from such visits with stories of the blind people we have trained and I write them up.

So, I’m in Osizweni near Newcastle in KwaZulu, next to a rundown petrol station. Around me, the place sprawls: half rural half township – with goats in backyards and chickens and long horned cattle and washing hanging on fences and dirt roads with some tar here and there. Everywhere, the poverty is palpable. We are waiting to meet up with Bongani who will take us to see some of the blind people whom he trained. I didn’t know then that Bheki would be one of them.

Here, I need to explain that I am blind myself. And so, the first impression I got as we pulled up outside Bheki’s house was the sound of vigorous sweeping from just inside the doorway.

Bongani calls a greeting. The sweeping stops for an instant and, panting from his efforts, Bheki lets out an ecstatic cry of welcome – like it’s his long-lost brother come home! He starts his vigorous sweeping again as he jabbers on with Bongani. Now, he’s beating the dust out of a mat or something, here next to the door. And the talking doesn’t cease. Bongani introduces me then and my colleague, Helen. And the greeting is equally ebullient!

“Hey, hey, Bongani help us too much,” he is saying to me as we stand in the small space just inside the doorway. “We were too battling, too much! This man Bongani, he help us a lot! We were so suffering, too much! We enjoy too much this Bongani coming! He teach us, everything!”

And I can sense that this Bheki talks with his whole body – arms, shoulders, hips, shoes all going at once. There’s no gainsaying that we have here a ball of energy – gusto incarnate.

“I smell cooking,” I say.

“Oh, yes! Come look, come look.”

And Helen scuttles after him into the little kitchen – one of only two rooms in this house, apart from the small space I’m standing in.

“Here is fish.” I hear a pot lid clanking.. “Look, here is the tin for it. I open myself this thing. And here is pap. And onions is this one!”

The next thing, Bheki is heading for his bedroom at speed and showing Helen the landmarks he uses to get there.

Now we are all back in the small space at the door and he says to me, “You come here to see us. Is so nice. But me I don’t know you are a India or you white or what?”

“Oh, ok. No, I am a white man. And me, I am also blind.”

“Blind! Oh, Oh, yo! Is so good you come to see us! Is so good! Come. I show you how I go to my toilet outside and my tap!”

With that, Bheki snatches up a bucket by the door and heads out – no white cane, nothing. You can follow me if you like!” says he.

But I am left standing and it’s up to Helen to race after him – phone in hand and filming it all. He finds the outside toilet that’s just over there and then goes to the stand alone tap and fills up his bucket. Viva Bheki! But the show’s not over yet!

Now we are clustered back in the small space and Bheki whips out his phone. “Is a cheap phone. Just buttons. No a smartphone. Can’t afford. What your number?” he says to Helen. She tells him. He enters it, at once.

“Helen says, I think my phone is in the car.”

“Oh, in the car?”

Next thing, Helen’s phone goes off in her hand. She’d been filming him with it all along! That raised a huge laugh – Helen’s included!

But, there is more to this man Bheki than what we have just seen – a man of about fifty: He with the long shorts hanging below his knees, white with a red hem at the bottom, like the Zulu servants used to wear: Dreadlocks and a front tooth missing and a scar from his top lip to the bridge of his nose. Don’t ask me how I know this. I just do.

So then now, this Bheki we have just met says, “I am a man of my meetings. If I got a talk watch I can know what time, so that I am not too early, not too late.”

“What meetings is this, Bheki?”

“Is School Governing Body. I go there. Is Disability Forum for this Zone. Me, I chairman. And is Clinic Committee for Department Health. There is queue all the time. We say no. Disable mus no stand queue. So now, is rule. Is write on Board. Disable mus come by front of queue.”

And, as we drive away from Bheki’s little poorly built two-room house, With a big crack in the bricks above the window and no plaster on the walls and electric wires dangling here and there, I think, Bheki of the pumping arms and endless energy. If only I were a bit like you, I would change the world.