The church community's social worker Shungu walked into her office after a weekend when she could have done without all the family drama in preparation for her brother Frank's wedding. She loved him, but there was a limit to her filial concern as she hosted relatives waiting to play their part and rescue the family name from yet more shame. Frank, the only son, had been indulged from day one by his parents, who were oblivious to his immaturity and sense of entitlement. He always knew someone would bail him out even when he was forced to marry their neighbour's daughter, a schoolgirl he had impregnated, with no intention of paying 'damage' or the bridal price.
Soon after that scandal and showing no remorse, he moved back in with his parents, with his young wife and the baby. Even that relationship didn't last, and the short-lived bride moved back to her parents complaining of Frank's neglect, leaving her baby behind. The child, now a toddler, became the full-time responsibility of his grandparents. Their worst nightmare was that Frank would find yet another gullible woman to bring home as his new partner. Shungu wondered whether Frank even realised that he was lucky to have such a forgiving family who always provided a safety net.
There was a long line of people outside her office waiting for counselling and support. She felt despondent as she tried desperately to mentally distance her family problems from the day’s workload. Before starting with the first client, Ben, her colleague, jumped the queue and made himself comfortable opposite her.
"So, how was the weekend? OK! Let's leave that unanswered because I can tell from your face that all is not well. Don't tell me it's that brother of yours again. What has he done this time?"
Shungu switched on her computer while sorting out her thoughts and narrating her latest family saga.
"Frank's life is an ongoing drama," said Ben laughing. "But before you start wading through the problems of the new clients outside, there is the matter of Tineyi. He was back in the church again yesterday, at the early service. Some congregants approached me afterwards, concerned that Tineyi could become a regular and drive away others who have a stake in the church. You know, the ones who keep this place financially afloat. Now he's in the habit of occupying the front pew, which is where Mr and Mrs Nhamo, our main benefactors, usually sit. No one dares to ask him to sit elsewhere. I'm not saying that he is not welcome, but we have to know who butters our bread."
Shungu, exasperated, turned to Ben, "So what do you want me to do? I got him into the halfway house down the street, and he lasted one week. Then he was back on the street again. It's not easy when someone has sunk so low. He's harmless, Ben. Just a lost soul. He's not going to steal the church silver if that's what you are worried about. We have to think of some other way of helping him. After all, isn't that our Christian duty? Love your neighbour and all that?"
"All I am saying, Shungu, is that he is becoming a nuisance. Good luck with the crowd outside. Should I leave the door open?" Ben stepped aside as a woman entered, clutching a worn handbag. She placed herself opposite Shungu without uttering a word. It was going to be a long day.
The courtyard was already crowded with homeless regulars by lunchtime. The majority Shungu now knew by name. Some she had a soft spot for after hearing their stories of despair, abandonment and misfortune. She chattered with them as they made their way to the soup kitchen. Mondays were always busy since no shelter served any food in the whole city over the weekend, and the homeless survived through begging and emptying dustbins in the alleyways. Now and again, a local chicken and chips takeaway place would send the word out offering free food when business was low. The owner had long realised that there was a limit to reheating leftover food portions without succumbing to a visit from the Health Department.
Shungu made a beeline to Tineyi. He was standing at the tail end of the queue holding a discoloured empty plastic container concealed in a supermarket bag that had seen better days. He looked gaunt with his overgrown beard and dishevelled appearance. His steady brown eyes peering out of a weather-beaten face told a different story.
"Mr Tineyi, how are you today? I hear you came to the church service yesterday," said Shungu. Trying to solicit a response, she continued. "I had to leave early. How was it?"
"It was all right".
Shungu stepped back as Tineyi's odour travelled up her nostrils. She kept a straight unaffected pokerface and carried on, "Since you left the halfway house, which I honestly thought you would like, have you tried finding somewhere else? Everywhere, there are bound to be rules. But at least it's somewhere to sleep, be fed and get medical attention. I know you come here during the week for lunch. How do you cope when the soup kitchen is closed at the weekend?"
Tineyi just stared into the distance and shuffled closer to the dishing hatch. It was a good day because wellwishers had brought offerings on Sunday with the soup kitchen in mind. The menu was usually vegetarian by default. Sometimes beans and potatoes, always cabbage from an emergent farmer who grew the crop all year round. If they were lucky, dried fish and slices of bread and the occasional rice with best by dates which were too close for comfort.
Shungu watched as Tineyi's container was filled with his ration. "Aren't you going to eat it now while the food is still hot?"
Tineyi looked at her as if in a trance and just smiled.
Sensing she was not going to get anything else from him, Shungu persisted, "There must be something we can do. What about trying to contact your relatives again? You said you have a brother who works in town. Surely he can put you up till you get back on your feet." She continued, "I know it didn't quite work out the last time. I can try and set up a meeting with him again? We can't give up."
Shungu realised she was now speaking to herself as Tineyi strode off, clutching his lunch box. His was head bowed, trying to avoid the other street people's gaze as small children stood at a distance and giggled, pointing at his appearance while hiding behind open palms. Sensing their mockery, he disappeared into the crowds.
The church staff's Monday afternoon meeting focused on the mundane, the state of the gutters, and flower arrangement costs while skirting around what was uppermost in Shungu's mind.
"I know some of you and the congregation are having a problem with Tineyi. Unlike other clients, he is in our face daily, yet we don't seem to be able to help him. At least not long term. Ben?"
"The problem with Tineyi is that he hasn't done anything which we can report to Social Services. Then he would be their baby. But we can't have him chasing away the regulars in church. I know we are supposed to welcome all and sundry. But I have seen latecomers hurriedly leave to find somewhere else to sit in church. They probably wouldn't last the full service sitting near to him, judging from his overwhelming pungent smell. I know you've given him a change of clothes on several occasions. I don't know what he does with them. It's not as if we are not trying to help him," said Ben as others nodded their heads.
"They probably get stolen or traded for food. I don't know," said Shungu.
"His mattered unkept dreadlocks, which look like a breeding ground for lice, just make it more difficult to warm to him," said another staff member. "Have you seen his bundle of clothing and paper bags on a stick like Dick Whittington?" The younger members laughed and then looked down shamefaced as Shungu glared at them.
"I don't see what's funny. We are supposed to help those in need, and we all profess to be Christians, yet we are mocking and laughing at someone in dire straights. Haven't you any suggestions? He doesn't deserve the life he is living."
A newer staff member piped in, trying to lessen Shungu's helplessness, "He comes from my home area. I know his family, and whatever he did to them, they are not interested in taking him back. Something about evil spirits. It's as if he is cursed."
"There you go! It's now clear we can't help him. Only his family can deal with his demons," said Ben.
"Cursed? Demons? Is that the sort of language we should be using here?" said Shungu.
"No, seriously," said the new colleague, "Something went very wrong somewhere. He had a job and support systems like some of us. He was somebody, and there is still a proud gait about him. Even when he is in the church service, he knows what he is supposed to do. So he's not a lost cause. Tineyi comes from a long lineage of Christian converts and staunch founder members of various church congregations around the country. What caused him to go off the rail, I don't know."
"That's all in the past, my friends. Let's talk about the present," said Ben losing patience. "He's now living in the street, and from his shambolic state, there's nothing commendable about his status quo. Shungu, have you tried talking to him again about rehabilitation? Refer him to a shelter in another town, and then it will be someone else's problem. He may be law-abiding for now, but people can get desperate. Soon enough, we will be hearing complaints about money collection boxes being broken into or stolen hymn books being sold on the street. He doesn't have a cent to his name. It's not like we are in a first-world country where people like him get social security. Let's be real. We've tried, and he has to move on."
A few days later, Ben was back to polishing the church's wooden floor till he could see his face in its reflection. He arranged the prayer books for the noon service and joined his colleagues, serving food in the soup kitchen. Shungu joined them soon after catching up with miscellaneous people in the food queue.
"You look anxious, Shungu. It's not about that brother of yours again, is it? "said Ben. "He's going to lead you to an early grave."
"It's not Frank for a change. Have you seen Tineyi lately?"
"I thought you followed my suggestion and referred him elsewhere. I haven't seen him since Monday. Why what's wrong?"
"It's not like him."
"Now you are worried about someone of no fixed abode? He's probably left town. You are not his keeper."
"I'm concerned because I have finally contacted a sympathetic relative and set up a meeting. I can't find Tineyi, and I need him to be there also."
"Well, you take over feeding the latecomers. He might turn up. I have work to do," said Ben and left.
Armed with his polishing machine and a duster, he resumed his duties, humming one of his favourite hymns. Pausing at the back of the church, he started speaking to himself,
"Now who's this who is sleeping it off in the corner? Was the service that boring? Wake up! Wake up!"
Tentatively, Ben shook the bundle of rags sprawled across the pew rec until he recognised the trainers with soles reinforced with cardboard and the lifeless ashen face.