Walking the crowded streets of Pretoria one sunny day, enjoying the hustle and bustle of city life, I am tempted to pitch my tent right here and then, never to return to the sleepy village deep in the mountains of Limpopo where I hail from. However the herd boy in me prevailed and I abruptly dismissed the evil thought before it takes root, lest I join the long list of fellow herd boys who became shackled to the lurid enchantment of the city never to return back to their herds back home.
As I proceeded down the newly-renamed Lilian Ngoyi street, hawking calls permeated the humid air as young black men on the side pavements attempt to extract a last minute sale from the weary nine to fivers, who homed in robotically to the droning sounds of taxi marshals. Some though, responded to the cooing, mindful of the hungry mouths waiting at home.
Observing the energetic young men dispensing sales with liquid grace, I tried to reconcile the scene with a mental picture painted earlier by a piece I read while commuting to the capital city.
The writer of the said piece bemoaned the laziness of black people, their aversion to work, their demands that things be given to them for free, and the entitlement culture –real or perceived - that has become entrenched in the black society. However at that moment I realised the dangers of stereotyping, of the follies inherent in drawing general conclusions from sampling of but a tiny portion of a whole.
The young men before me did not seem to be demanding anything from anyone; they were hard at work earning a decent living from the sweat of their brows.
I let the wave carry me further down to another taxi rank serving the Soshanguve community and my nostrils were assailed by the tantalising aroma of a fried chicken emanating from a nearby KFC establishment. And in keeping to the norm, there was a long line of patrons snaking out the door, eager to taste, as they do every month-end without fail, the elusive recipe of Colonel Saunders’ fried chicken. Not being a KFC lover, owing much to the underlying stereotype than anything else, I proceeded down the street until a came upon something no city in the world is not without.
Jingling coins in a tin cup was an old woman wrapped in a dirty shawl. Prudence being one of my virtues, I stood back and observed. A few minutes passed and a neatly dressed man of a debonair disposition made a bee line to the beggar and dropped a rather dull-looking coin into the now silent tin cup. The clinking sound of the coin seemed to energise the old woman who resumed the jingling with added vigour albeit for a brief moment, I took it she noticed the dull coin.
What struck me the most was the old woman’s poise; she just sat there motionless with her head hung in a subservient manner, I took it to be shame. Clearly the old woman did not enjoy what she was doing, she could not bring herself to look in the eyes of those who pitied her, and I could only guess what it was doing inside her.
I approached the old woman and after a few soft-spoken words I established that she was from Atteridgeville, one of the black townships on the periphery of the city, and from our brief exchange I also learned that she does not access any state grant or pension owing to her lack of an identity document. I resolved to take up her case with the home affairs department and the department’s response and the willingness to help the poor old woman was overwhelming.
Most people feel good when dropping coins into the begging bowls of beggars, or giving half-eaten morsels of food to a homeless. Giving is like advice; it benefits only those who give it. It gives them a sense of accomplishment, the sated feeling of having done something to help a fellow man.
Can you really say you have helped someone when you see them the next day in the very same position they were the previous day? Is offering a brief reprieve the best one can do for those who are helpless and in need of a helping hand.
Behind every beggar, every homeless there is a story that needs an audience, take time to listen to that story and help them to help themselves. Keep those coins and drop them into the piggy bank.
Back in the village, sitting around the family fire I never miss an opportunity to narrate my heroic deeds to any willing listener, even the unwillingly ones, thank God for the flaw in the design of the aural organ.