The lack of respect for human life runs like an engorged vein through the heart of South African communities. I realise it is a global disease.
At one stage it was reported that violence and killings were on the decline, but currently South Africa has been overtaken by violent crime and poverty; trauma counselling is fast becoming the most sought after service.
But I’m going to disappoint you, for once, crime becomes the passenger.
I would like to take you along to a community of people who are sneered at and regarded as a mere nuisance – waved aside like pests that infiltrate our convenience and bring discord to our somewhat pretentious and harmonious existence. Perhaps because at one level or another they are an extension of our reality – our homes.
They’re called “street people”, “vagrants”, “homeless”, “mountain people”.
A community who sleeps in doorways, seeks shelter from under cover office patios, subways and bridges and even the office front door. I guess one could say that they would seek shelter wherever there was minimal to no threat of being chased like dogs or literally kicked to the curb.
But even when treated less than animals they would take their chances.
They huddle like a lost and forgotten tribe, a tribe that is growing at an alarming rate. They are a noisy, active and often troublesome (without always intending to be) group of people who get into your face at the most impossible times and your entire being is rocked by a smell resulting from a lack of simple necessities we take for granted.
Their nutrition is found in rummaging through bins or the offerings flung from passing cars and sandwiches wrapped by irritated residents. They clothe their babies by the same means; living at the mercy of those “in brick houses”.
A community of people who have lost hope and live only because their bodies will it. But their souls have long given up on the breath that beats so strongly on the inside. Women, men and children with stories that have plummeted their spirits lower than the drain pipes they often sleep in; solitary beings hardened by years of fighting for survival.
There is a threat however that homeless people fear more than the streets – it’s called Winter. The South Easter wind in South Africa and particularly Cape Town, slices through corrugated and cardboard shacks like a hot knife through butter.
Its merciless hiss is accompanied by torrents that toys like a teasing hurricane. Those who are too weak, starving or too drunk to care, simply brace against the storm that rises like a god as it tosses their world in disarray. Perhaps it is a silent hope for the end.
When its all done, like true survivors they, barefoot and dressed in winter hand-me-downs, take to the street and beg for money and food. For something to keep them warm. Alcohol and glue a definite goal when holding out a dirty cold hand for help.
Some sit in parking lots and call out to you from a distance. “Hello beautiful, I’m your father”. Their antics bring a smile. Their hardship less evident in laughter.
Most pass them by with the shake of a head, a throaty grunt. We roll up our windows at stop streets and traffic lights.
Or do we give them the money they beg, for their staple diet of spirits soaked in bread; their heat and getaway. That need for warmth.
It is a fact they say, that they are kept warm by the intoxicating liquid that courses through their blood. I’m told that street kids sniff glue for the same reason; dessert on the street – beverage and a supplement your money bought.
A passer-by who threw some coins added, “Its not for me to question what they do with that which I give them. For until I am able to provide alternatives, I will give what I can so that they at least are warm and their belly’s full. Turning a blind eye and shaking my head in disapproval does not make the problem go away. I will trust that the money I give to the one under the subway will be used to buy food, and if he chooses to buy alcohol instead, I hope it keeps him warm and helps him survive the winters cold.”
It concerns me that we feel so helpless and limited in our ability to provide alternatives.
My son took a 12 year old boy home for a bath and a meal. But even then, it is never enough.
And what about those who roll up their windows and attack our “vagrants” with verbal atrocities. Is that the solution?
I have an even greater concern. Is this the level at which human life is measured in South Africa or across the world? And if it is, what about those on the street who indeed want to live?
A friend told me a story that changed my attitude and life.
“My mother was a teacher for whom life became too much when my father died. Alcohol became her escape and strength. She lost her job and found her way to a cardboard home and moved in with a man who became her friend.
Most who spit at her feet will never know that she was the teacher who taught them to count – After many winters her mind no longer remembers home but all my mother wants for Winter is warmth. All we want is for our mother to come home.”
This story gave birth to “Levens” (11’s), who came into my life and changed it for good.
Jambiya is an emotive South African writer; poet and storyteller who weaves the tragedy and victory of the human experience into a tapestry of memorable imagery and metaphor. She writes with honesty on the spiritual and social challenges of our time.
Jambiya’s works are a feast to those accustomed to the jaded perfunctory cleverness of modern wordsmiths.