“Sizokhulekelana ke Bhut’ Omdala”

Portrait on Themba Jay

Those beautiful and humble words, etched in the title above, were uttered to me by a humbly talented artist who absentmindedly drew the smiling man, Camewell, you see before you.

A few months ago, I set off to clear my head, find a bit of joy, attempt to rid myself of negativity and unhappiness that had engulfed me and in order to do those things, I happily agreed to travel along with two friends to Mamelodi, Pretoria, for a few days.

It could be said that the trip was a pilgrimage of sort for me.

I yearned for new spaces — places where people did not know who I am and quite frankly, did not care much even.

We stayed at one of the friend’s family houses in Mamelodi West for the duration of our trip — my pilgrimage. And, they were phenomenal people who treated us fully like a part of their family.

(Confession: part of the reason is that when I visited the previous time for a birthday celebration held on behalf of my friend’s grandmother, they immediately thought me to be a son from the family and thus greeted me as such. I did not even try to correct them and let them know I was merely a friend — I blended in instead and started running around helping out as the family I had just become.)

After what must have been a week, we journeyed back to Orange Farm — our own home.

At this point, our conversations revolved mostly around the fact the we felt differently somewhat — lighter, happier.

I remember encouraging the guys to talk even more about things they did not like and did not want to see happen. That that’s how they will forget them and rid themselves of the history we sought to distance ourselves from. That’s what I do, and it works wonders.

Anyway, on the train ride back, more amazing things occurred. This time, I was able to notice them quickly because of the emotional state I was in. I had started on a journey to finding peace.

I think we had just passed a certain station just before we entered Soweto when Mahlatse saw a man sitting down, focused on his hands as he drew this face of another happy man on a piece of paper. We didn’t have seats, so we merely watched over him and his diligent work; I first thought he was an artist by profession and then I noticed his jacket written “Pep” below his left shoulder — a retail store I had also worked in a few years back.

“Uxolo bhuti”, I said to him to get his attention.
He looked up and muttered, ” Yebo bhuti!”
“Umsebenzi wakho lo owenzayo?”
He flashed a shy smile and replied, “Lutho! Ngizichithela isikhathi nje”.
“Mina ngithi wenza imali ngako ukudweba.”
He laughed, a bit as if he was not following what I had just sad about money and his art.

A few seconds after that, while looking at him drawing, I realised making money from what he was doing was foreign concept to him.

Mahlatse weighed in, half jokingly.
“Kodwa uyazi ukuthi lento oyenzayo manje ingaba u R3, 000?”

The gentleman, whose name I regret that I did not ask, looked up at him with the same child-like smile and happiness.
“Hawu! Ngempela?”
“Mina ngiyazidlalela nje ngaloku.”

I studied him during his exchange with Mahlatse and I knew at once he hadn’t the slightest interest in what we were saying. And, not in a bad way.
Instead, I could deduce that he genuinely did not know that it was possible to make money from his making of portraits.
For some reason, it occurred to me not to ‘intrude into his life’ and shove that idea; our artist was at peace with himself, and for me, that felt perfect.
We continued to watch him work — or rather, play, pushing time before he disembarked from the train at some station farther.

I turned to Mahlatse and started talking to him about the need for him and Sibusiso to completely master their work. My overall point was this: if there are people who do such amazing things while they are playing around, then we need to work even harder to compete globally.
“Get to a level of dancing where even when you are fooling around, people feel like you’re at your best”, I concluded.

At this point, fellow passengers were gawking at us and the artist extraordinaire. No one had had the courage to talk to him before we did, they merely watched — now, they stared intensely.

There should have been a camera crew then, because we were effectively his audience.

Then, he did what I did not expect!
He neatly put away his pencil, a little sponge with which he shaded the portrait and the case that carried his tools.
I looked away from him, thinking the show was done. I opened Paulo Coelho’s The Zahir and began reading.
Then I saw what must have been a white some thing flicker on the corner of my right eye. I glanced at it, and lo and behold, Camewell was strewn on the train floor.
And without even thinking, I picked it up, before the train vendors could step atop and soil it.
“Hawu! Nangu ubhuti elahla a work of art. Ngeke, I am taking it”, I said to him.
“Ithathe mfwethu; mina bengiganga nje”, he replied, laughing heartily.

I looked at this drawing and placed it between the book’s pages — impressed by the shading on it.

After what must have been twenty minutes later, when I had gotten a chance to sit down, too, and read more enjoyably (I was engrossed in the book), someone lightly touched me on the shoulder.
I looked up and met the innocent smile of the brilliant artist. He held out his hand, and I instinctively took and locked it in mine and he uttered his final words:

Sizokhulekelana ke bhut’ omdala! (Meaning: We will pray for each other then, big brother.)

“Ngane yakwethu!” I humbly said, moved by his gesture and words. His kindness was on full display. Then he made his way to the door, and I continued my journey back home.

I now keep this portrait, occasionally looking at it for some inspiration for my own work, and to remind myself that truly extraordinary and kindhearted people exist in the world. To some degree, it helps me journey forth. And because a smile is a contagious thing — Camewell makes me look like him — childishly happy — when I stare into his eyes.

And when I showed it to my brother, Muziwandile, he looked at it for a while and then I told him the back story of how the portrait landed on his hands. He was fascinated just as I was. Then, being the brilliant mind — and a valued advisor to me — that he is, he said that when he first looked at Camewell, he thought the words were a dedication to me, by the artist I met, on my journey. ‘Came well’ — directly translated: ‘Ngibuye kahle’. A “Travel well and all the best for your endeavours” sort of thing. Just as he said the words that make up the title of this story.

Interesting twist to it.

The words, then, now serve as motivation for me to go on with my search for mastery in my work and a complete peace of mind and total comfortability in my own skin.