The face of suffering

2019-02-18 10:40
Teenage traffic light beggars have become a dangerous nuisance, says Glenwood residents who want action taken to remove the kids from the streets. This young boy regularly begs at a traffic light at the corner of Cleaver and Che Guevara Roads in Glenwood.

Teenage traffic light beggars have become a dangerous nuisance, says Glenwood residents who want action taken to remove the kids from the streets. This young boy regularly begs at a traffic light at the corner of Cleaver and Che Guevara Roads in Glenwood. (Ian Carbutt)

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Damn. The traffic light is red and I’ll have to stop.

Maybe he won’t see me. Maybe he’ll be distracted by the long line of other cars and the traffic light will turn green. Please change … change ... change ...

But, nope, I’ve been waiting too long in the crush of cars at rush hour and sure enough, he comes shuffling up to my driver’s window, hands cupped, head to one side, rubbing his stomach and pleading for money.

I look him in the eyes (eye contact is important; he must not be made to feel invisible), shake my head and make a gesture of empty hands. It’s like an awkward ritual we go through every day. Every day he asks, every day I say no.

Today he looks particularly bad. He’s getting thinner and thinner, and his eyes are glazed. He’s dirty too. That worries me. I’m told that in town some taxi drivers ask vagrants who go near the rank, why they’re dirty. If they can’t answer, it’s presumed they’re whoonga addicts there to rob and harass their clients, and they’re summarily sjambokked. I’ve never seen this, but my source is reliable. She says she’s seen it happen.

We’re all being harassed at traffic lights. It’s not pleasant as we sit with our full tummies and in air-conditioned cars. It’s discomforting. It disturbs our fragile but closely-held sense that all is right with the world. It shows us that amid our contentment, someone is suffering and that someone represents a microcosm of the face of suffering in our city, our country and our world. It’s an unwelcome intrusion into our space of having enough of what we really need.

There was a youngster at the traffic lights on my route home some months back. He must have been 15 or younger. This boy, let’s call him Thabiso, was as ragged and miserable as the expression he wore. I suppose he had learnt that looking pitiful was profitable. As I drew up beside him, I did the whole head shake and empty hand gesture thing for some weeks. But then he spotted the popcorn.

You see, Tuesdays and Thursdays are special days at The Witness. That’s when the “Popcorn Aunty” arrives. The cry “Popcooooorn!” goes up at random points around the building as the message filters through that she’s here. There’s a stampede to her car. It’s cheap, it’s filling and we love it. I always buy some for the guy at home. He’s rather partial to a packet of popcorn.

But one day, at the traffic lights, Thabiso’s gaze through my window fell on this bag of fluffy kernels lying on my passenger seat. He stared at it, looking past me as the robot stayed stubbornly red. I could almost hear him salivating. I couldn’t not do it. I passed him the packet. His smile was immediate and huge.

“Thank you very much,” he said with perfect manners. He ran to the side of the road, broke open the packet and began shovelling it in. And with that, he had me. I began to buy an extra popcorn for him each Tuesday and Thursday.

He got to know my car and would come running towards me. I’d wind down my window to pass the popcorn to him and we started chatting.

I assembled him a hygiene care pack so he could clean himself up. He was delighted. “You don’t know how much I have wanted this,” he said with genuine feeling. He thanked me for a few days after, showing me how he’d brushed his teeth and cleaned himself up.

He charmed me and I fell for it.

One day, when I saw him at lunchtime, I asked him why he wasn’t at school. He told me he was forced to leave because there was no money at home. He lived with his ageing granny and didn’t have school clothes or school shoes.

He was clearly very bright and spoke confidently using good vocabulary. He assured me he was thirsty for knowledge and wanted so badly to return to school. He promised he would stop begging if he could do this one thing. Before I knew what I was doing, I gave him enough money to cover his school needs. It was a fair amount. He was so happy. He promised I would no longer see him begging and enthused about returning to school. I believed him. He wasn’t there the next day and I felt like a million dollars. I’d helped. I’d made a difference.

And then, the next evening the familiar figure approached my car. His eyes were red, his expression glazed and that spark of intelligence faded completely. He was as high as a kite.

I felt like the world’s biggest fool.

I looked him in the eyes, kept my window closed and shook my head at him. He would get no more.

After a few repeats of this, he stopped approaching my car. He disappeared from the traffic lights a while ago, his spot taken by this other man with a benign smile, rubbing his stomach. I won’t give the new guy money, but don’t think that means I don’t care. I do. They’re all someone’s children and I hate saying no. We all do. Maybe one day soon I’ll buy him a packet of popcorn and we’ll take it from there.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  beggars
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