Windhoek-Clad in a yellow jacket that has turned brownish from dirt, black pants, brown leather shoes and a black cap is 61-year-old Gabriel Oxurub, who is a regular at a service station in Wanaheda.
Oxurub, who walks with a stick, partly limping with a yellow old bag, is a man of routine. If he is not seated silently gawking at passers-by or cars, he is searching refuse bins for food, or buying food at the nearby supermarket or mini-market.
Oxurub has the psychosocial disorder of schizophrenia, a chronic and severe mental condition that affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves. He does not talk to anybody, neither does he beg for money. But passers-by do give him money, not a lot but sufficient to buy bread, tobacco and other things.
Watch him and you would observe that he has some sort of routine that he follows for most of the day. At a specific time he would be somewhere or doing something somewhere. His family told New Era that this has been his way for many years. Last Friday New Era observed that his routine includes a night out, which he spends not far from the home he shares with his older brother Johannes and the rest of his family.
Oxurub left his family home promptly at 18:05 and proceeded to rummage through a number of household bins along the way before he arrived at a shop 30 minutes later. He would buy himself a loaf of bread, a 1.5 litre bottle of coke and a sausage. He would then have a rest that includes smoking tobacco. He then resumes his routine of rummaging through garbage bins and picking up cardboard boxes as he strolls towards his favourite spot, the service station.
That stroll would take him about 32 minutes. And there he would have his dinner. Later he would head home and arrive at the family home five minutes to 22:00.
“I know he goes and sleep (lie down) at some other places in Wanaheda. He collects boxes and makes a resting place for a few hours,” said Johannes. “But, he always comes home to sleep. If one day he does not come home to sleep I will know for sure that something has happened to him. Even if he comes late he comes home,” said the older sibling.
Johannes says since his brother started living on the streets he has always been dirty, slept in riverbeds, under bridges, and collected garbage.
“You can give him food but he will still go and eat from the dustbin,” said Oxurub’s niece. “Even if you go and look in his room you will find many things (garbage), plastics, anything,” said the niece.
“But he has changed one thing,” Johannes interrupted. In the earlier years Oxurub would bring everything home, including wires and irons, and bring all those into his room. “But he does not do that anymore. He just walks around and looks in dustbins but he doesn’t gather so much garbage anymore.”
Johannes nevertheless says there are days when Oxurub is attacked, such as last month when thugs grabbed his money.
Oxurub gets a pension grant, which Johannes collects on his behalf. He uses some of this money to buy food. “When he goes in the shop, he does not buy a lot of things. If he wants he buys bread or kapana. Otherwise he eats at home, we feed him,” said Johannes.
Johannes throughout the interview referred to his brother as ‘Ou [old] Gabriel’, a way of according respect to another. Johannes does not understand his brother’s condition.
This has brought a sense of helplessness and frustration, as he does not know how best to assist Oxurub. “Die man het ‘n stil siekte (the man has a silent sickness),” said Johannes.
Oxurub is not a violent man. He does not talk to anyone on the streets. And, he is selective on whether to talk to the family or not, explained the older brother. Johannes himself is not in good health and finds it difficult to really care for his brother. What makes it worse, he says, is that Oxurub does not accept his advice.
“He is quite messy and does not want anyone to tell him that. He does not want to be clean and he smokes. The T-shirt must first be torn before he removes it. He sometimes messes in his pants. Then he wants to stay in those clothes,” said Johannes.
“In his own mind Oxurub is not messy. ‘Where am I dirty, go, don’t tell me that,’ are his occasional remarks,” Johannes added.
The only time Oxurub wears clean clothes is when he is going for medical care. “When we are going to the hospital I tell him that he should dress clean because if he doesn’t, the taxi drivers won’t allow him in their car. But when we get back home, he does not even stay five minutes in those clean clothes. That is Ou Gabriel,” Johannes narrated.
Oxurub started showing signs of mental illness when he was very young. But his condition was not diagnosed until in the early 2000’s, after being bumped by a car twice while living on the streets.
Johannes does not have any memory of his younger brother ever working, except briefly on a farm, when he was in his late twenties or possibly early thirties.
“He and another brother lived on a farm. They did some farm work. But he isolated himself,” said Johannes. He said they never understand why Oxurub isolates himself from people.
Johannes related an occasion where during their stay on the farm Oxurub would prefer to cook his own food even if food was already prepared.
“There was only one pot. He would wait for our other brother to eat and then put the leftovers in a plate and start preparing his own food,” said Johannes. When he was asked about this, his response was that he wanted to prepare his own food. The misunderstanding of Oxurub’s disorder led him to part ways with the family. That was when he started living on the streets, mostly sleeping under bridges and in riverbeds. During this time, Oxurub was struck twice by cars.
“We did not take him to the doctor when he was young. It was only after he was bumped by a car for the second time and admitted in hospital that he was diagnosed with the mental illness,” said Johannes.
He does not remember when exactly Ou Gabriel started taking medication but it must have been early in the 2000’s when the family decided to take his brother off the streets.
“My late wife is the one who made sure he was assisted at the mental institution and that he stuck to taking his medicine. Until she died she made sure he was well taken care of. He still takes his medicine,” said Johannes, showing the New Era team the medicine of his brother. Oxurub, who doesn’t have children, wakes up early in the morning, makes breakfast and then goes back to his room to sleep.
“He was already here (in Johannes’ bedroom, just before the New Era team paid them an unannounced visit),” said Johannes. He continued: “He will come anytime now and make a place for himself to sleep under the tree at the house.”
When Oxurub wakes up from under the tree, he cleans his toilet. Then he washes his hands, arms and face, only. Thereafter, he goes about his daily routine, which is to go to the service station and nearby supermarkets in Wanaheda.
“He does everything in a routine,” said Oxurub’s niece.
“If you tell him ‘you are smelling of dirt remove those clothes’ he retorts, ‘What, am I smelling? Where am I dirty? Go, don’t tell me such things.’ That’s Ou Gabriel,” said Johannes.