Richard Botolo has spent a good part of his life hopping from work to work. At night, he is in Namiwawa, Blantyre, where he works as a security guard. When day breaks, he wears a different face, mending back roads in the city in the hope of getting a little something from passers-by. It is quite some load for a man with eight children, Bright Mhango, saw.
He is trapped in a world of mosquito-ridden cold nights, stench and ridicule, but he doesnâ€™t mind, he soldiers on; working the stones, clearing Blantyreâ€™s pathways and patching impassable streams hoping that those who see his importance will throw him tokens for him and his family to savour and get by on.
Richard Botolo, who cannot remember his age but looks 45, works as a watchman at night. Since he gets a measly pay of K5 000 per month, he has taken to an unsavoury and unrewarding career of mending and fixing some of Blantyreâ€™s back roads and streams.
While he fixes the roads, Botolo puts up his hat so that people can voluntarily pay him.
â€œThis is me refusing to beg. Of course, everyone can see that I am begging, but itâ€™s justified begging, helping others while trying to help myself,â€ says Botolo, who breaks off the interview each time a person passes to look them in the eye and greet them.
Some people are indifferent; not even Botoloâ€™s appeal to the eye works. They give him the greeting and walk on without dropping a single object into Botoloâ€™s soiled and battered green plate that he has mounted on a series of broken bricks that stand knee high in the middle of the path, making it impossible to ignore.
One person, two people and 20 pass Botolo and none has dropped a penny yet. Most of the people who use the path that comes from Chitawira to Chichiri Shopping Mall are either students or low-income employees who work in the Chichiri area and are themselves saving money by not taking a minibus.
â€œGiving is voluntary, if they donâ€™t want to give me, itâ€™s their choice, I donâ€™t have to ask or extort, that would be illegal,â€ Botolo plaintively says, but admits that some people are just mean and ungrateful.
Before Botolo works on the path and the bridge, it is some forest of a place with long grass towering into where people are supposed to pass. The stream, Naperi, has a bridge which is creaky and looks like a death trap. The only alternative are the stones that Botolo piles on the stream.
Every year since the early 1990s, he has been coming when the water levels are low to fix the stones. This year, he has even brought some cement, concrete slabs and a tunnel that make a safe passing ground.
â€œI am planning to acquire some trees to fix that bridge over there, itâ€™s in bad shape and people do not use it. I make this place safe. If I didnâ€™t spend my days here, women would be robbed and raped here,â€ he says.
Yes, he said â€˜spend my days;â€™ after knocking off as a guard, Botolo goes straight to the place and gets working. He arrives at 7am and only goes home late in the afternoon before reporting for work in Namiwawa at 5.30pm.
With a family of eight children and a wife waiting in the shanty part of Mbayani, the K5 000 he gets as a guard is not enough. None of his children looks set to break out of the poverty trap that the family is in; two are already out of school and married.
â€œMy other children pick discarded plastic paper bags and sell them for recycling. They sell them at K30 per kilogramme and you know how light paper bags are. My children are not working and I donâ€™t know if there is a way out of my situation,â€ adds Botolo.Â
A trip to Botoloâ€™s house is an eye opener. Although it is a hovel of a house, the people who inhabit it are happy. One child is bed-ridden, the others seem well kempt and contented. They are sitting around a charcoal stove with their mum taking evening tea.
The visit was unannounced, so there was no chance of staging the tea show.
â€œI buy broken plastic basins and sell them for recycling. Depending on the volume, I buy I can make K3 000 sometimes,â€ said Botoloâ€™s wife, Anne Pemba, 43 who has signs of siring eight children and struggling to raise them written all over her.
She sits near the fire shrouded in a cloth.
Botolo pushes himself further to keep his family going. While mending the road and hoping someone will grant him tokens, he also fixes umbrellas in case somebody with a broken umbrella passes by.
The water he handles is almost pure sewage. It has all kinds of smells and has mosquito larvae in abundance. Strangely (or is it miraculously?), Botolo handles the water while fixing the stones without gloves and minutes later gets to eating and seldom falls sick.
His meals range from boiled groundnuts he buys from the women who pass him to the Nsima he cooks himself in a tiny pot with flour from a green bottle that used to house somebodyâ€™s camphor cream and water from an orange squash bottle.
When he is done for the day, he hides some paraphernalia in the bush and loads some in his crocus bag.
Every day is a struggle for Botolo. The maximum he gets per day is K500 and sometimes he can spend the whole day and take home as little as K200.
â€œYou have seen how much people give; K10 and K5 coins dominate. How much do you expect at the end of the day?â€
It is likely that the road users have exhausted their pity for Botolo because he is in their way daily. It is easy to think that he is delaying the work on purpose just to earn a little more from the work.
For example, he erected the small bridge and it was fine. Two days later, he had broken part of it, saying it was not perfect and needed refining…days are ticking.
Botolo denies playing such games, saying he cannot do all the work in a day because he gets the motivation from the alms that people give; the more they give, he says, the more he works.
Like every human being, Botolo is not void of dreams. He wishes he owned a big business some day, he wishes he left the life of indirect begging.
He has the hope, though with a touch of reluctance, that one day he will make it.
â€œI am a baptised Catholic and I know God helps those who help themselves and this is my way of asking him,â€ he said.
â€œDo you think God made you to live the life you live? Is it just?â€ I asked him.
Botolo didnâ€™t open his mouth an inch.