SHELTER FROM HELL
It takes me two days, three glasses of wine and prayer to accept this assignment and spend a night sleeping on a cold floor with thousands of Zimba- bwean refugees.
Disguised as a hobo and speaking only my home language, isiZulu, I make my way with colleague Mfundekelwa Mkhulisi to the Central Methodist Church in Small Street in central Johannesburg, home to thousands of Zimbabweans fleeing their country's turmoil.
Mkhulisi seems calm and focused. I'm afraid that someone will rape or rob me. I have succumbed to the stereotypes surrounding Zimbabweans in my country.
We arrive after 10pm to find Small Street has become a dank bedroom for those who can't make it into the crowded refuge.
Cold as it is, sleeping bodies dot the blocks around the church.
At least most have "blankets" to cover themselves, if only newspaper or cardboard. No wonder groups of young men are drowning themselves in alcohol.
It is noisy, filthy and smelly, but the sleepers seem oblivious to their surroundings.
We stumble over bodies and five minutes later enter the church. I push the glass door open, take two steps and from then on step carefully between sleeping bodies.
The first floor is solid with them. They all cover their heads with a ragged blanket or their arms as if in pitiful defence against the cruel world around them.
There are no lights and the smell is stupefying, but we wend our way carefully through this heaving human mass, thanks to the reflection from the street lights outside.
I enter a toilet where two women, no older than 25, stand naked as they dab themselves with water from a basin.
I greet them, hoping to make conversation, but they respond in Shona. I leave them to their sorry attempt to maintain a modicum of decency with their painful ablutions.
We climb the steps to the second floor, still stepping gingerly over sleeping bodies.
The second floor is a small, dark space with a men's toilet and what looks like an office.
The steps to the third floor are even darker - pitch black and reeking.
I notice a group of half-naked men, stop and let Mkhulisi approach them. I find myself a little open space and sit with my chin on my knees. My heavy breathing catches the attention of the sleeping body I have just stepped over.
A dark fellow with short dreadlocks says something in a language I do not understand and I reply in isiZulu, asking him to repeat himself.
He responds in Sindebele.
"Where are you from in Zimbabwe?"
I panic and consider saying Harare but decide that will get me into trouble. So I pretend to choke until Mkhulisi returns.
We've seen enough of this horror and return to the first floor, find an empty step on the stairway and sit down. Big mistake. A man charges at us.
"Women are not supposed to sleep on the steps. Are you new here? Who are you?"
"No, my brother, we are from KwaZulu-Natal," Mkhulisi responds calmly. "We are stranded. The person who was supposed to pick us up did not show. We were told we would be safe here."
Proud to be of service, Richard takes us under his wing and offers to lead me to where the women sleep. Much to my relief Mkhulisi insists on accompanying us to what residents call Robert's Room.
Don't ask me if it's named after Mugabe.
Richard directs a woman called Esther, standing at the far corner of the hall, to find a space for me so I can sleep.
I stumble over sleeping women and children until I reach her. I smile, realising she was the woman I'd seen in the toilet.
My smile isn't returned.
"You don't have a blanket? Here is a space. Sleep here with your head facing left. I'll face the right. Here's a blanket," is all she says.
I have already learnt how to use an old newspaper: lay the news pages on the floor as if they are a mattress, cover yourself with the sports pages and use the classifieds as a pillow.
She isn't interested in who I am and why I am here. That's fine by me. The horror of these conditions makes me retreat into myself like everyone else around me.
I curl up in my little space and wonder what has become of Mkhulisi. I'm sure he'll be safe. The lights are left on outside Robert's Room and two men stand guard.
I lie on the hard floor trying hard to breathe through my mouth to keep the stench at bay. I try to ignore the coughing and crying baby, but unlike the regulars I cannot sleep.
The previous night I had watched an episode of African Idol and had seen talented young Zimbabweans trying to become music stars.
I was convinced there was no crisis in Zimbabwe. What can be worse than living like this?
At about 3am, the door opens, Richard peeps in and calls to me.
"Dudu, your husband is calling you."
I jump up, grab my shoes and make my way, to the door. Then I notice a baby girl sleeping next to her mother. The baby is uncovered.
I hesitate for an instant to pull the blanket over the baby, but it is filthy. And in that instant I lose my own humanity and flee.
"Let's get out of here," Mkhulisi says.
As the door swings closed behind us I know I have just escaped from hell.