Johnny Gawiseb who is notoriously known as “Maalkop” which means “crazy head” in Afrikaans was the poster child for menace to society in his early 20s when he lived life as a purse snatcher on the streets of Katutura.
Now a reformed man, Gawiseb (39) is a school drop-out and has now turned his life around as a successful entrepreneur. How did your life of crime start? *Giggles*, when I dropped out of Grade 6, my parents chased me from the house. I had a choice to go back to school, but I ended up under a bridge with lots of guys. I had to learn to survive. I then met a friend who is now dead, his name was also Johnny, but mostly we called him ‘Stout Johnny’.
We hooked up and went to town as we were young boys with older boys, I learnt the thing of purse snatching and pick pocketing from them. As we had to work in a team, the thing was that I would snatch the purse and I throw it to ‘Stout John’ who would usually run with it to the spot where we always gathered after a ‘hit and run.’ Back then we called it ‘hit and run.’
At the spot, we would divide whatever is inside equally, and then the first thing we would do is cover up for a loaf of bread and Cool Aid, a powder that is mixed with water to make juice. After eating then it was the same thing going on the streets to a different location and snatching or pick pocketing. But whatever you pickpocket is always yours alone because you did the job alone, that’s how we worked.
What made you give up the life of a purse snatcher?
Everything was going well that day, and it is a day I will never forget. Johnny and I had a lot of ‘hit and runs’ but could not stop as it was paid day, and we wanted more. We went to town, and when we arrived, we met a third friend whom I cannot remember anymore.
The three of us decided to do it together. As we were looking for a ‘hit and run’ it almost got dark, but the town was very crowded that day. We saw a lady put a lot of cash notes in her handbag in town, so we followed her around until we got the right chance to snatch the purse. We all were hesitating to snatch the handbag but our third friend, managed to successfully snatch the purse and threw it to ‘Stout Johnny,’ but he was not so fast enough and ran straight into an oncoming vehicle while trying to run to the other side of the road in town and died a day later in the state hospital.
I then decided to go back to the bridge which was my home for about three and a half years. The next day when I heard that ‘Stout Johnny’ died and there was nobody to claim his body for burial and that he had to be cremated, I almost lost it. ‘Stout Johnny’ was cremated, and that scared me a lot as a young man with potential, and I just had to take a new path.
I went to my father’s workplace, this was without seeing them for three and half years, and I told my dad that I wanted to come home but he refused. So I decided to find work while I was still staying under the bridge and got a job in Pioneers Park to water plants. Later I moved to a backyard flat when the whites (employers) got to know me and felt pity for me. But I stole from them and got chased away. With the payment I got from them, I bought sweets and started selling without stealing or snatching purses.
I realised that I was making money and went back to my father’s place to convince him. He took me in but wanted me to go to school, so this was in the middle of the year so no school could admit me. From the money I saved up I bought my ?rst hair cutting machine and started cutting my friends’ hair which helped me to gain more experience.
Later my father saw my potential and organised a little Kambashu for me in our yard that’s how I quit and never went back to that life again.
What do you say to children in the same position as you were?
First of all, a lot has changed. I do not see how kids in today’s world would do that. I mean there are a lot of soup kitchens and places kids can go to if they need help. There is even a number to call centres when they need any help. Back then there was nothing, it was ‘Zula to Survive.’ I would just like to tell today’s kids that they should make use of every opportunity they get to change their lives for the better. I am not saying it is that simple; I know it is tough to change from what you are used to. Everything takes time and like it or not a person always fits in, in the end.
How the community also treats you as a street kid also plays a role. I know I turned to hate anyone that would not want to help me with a fifty cents coin or would look at me as if I am some animal. So treat every thief you see as human too, we all are human.
The kids that are on the streets now can just make use of all the resources that the state and private organisations have made available for them and must not forget always to pray.
Where do you stand in life now?
I never went back to school, but as you can see I am here in my barber shop, and one is in Havana, and I have a business that is going very well. I sell fruits and vegetables to customers here and those outside Windhoek about eight times in a year, I travel a lot. I am working on a car. That car outside, needs me to employ a taxi driver and get an extra income. As we speak, we are now standing on my erven, and I have two tenants that pay the monthly rent.
Gawiseb is now a father of two boys who are both at primary school level and he has vowed to see to it that they will not indulge in the same life he has had in the past.