In South Africa I have read it is estimated that around 40 percent of the population live on less than USD$2 / day – when you have an official census figure of 49 million and an unofficial one of much more – that’s a lot of people that are living well below the poverty line and in need of extra support and income.
Here it is very difficult to go through any day without seeing some of these people, even though we live in what could be called the equivalent of the lower north shore in Sydney and perhaps Pokfulam in Hong Kong (although some people who live here would probably rather compare it to the Peak -its really not – Repulse Bay without the beach maybe and so you may expect what we see is barely scratching the surface of what is out there in the rest of SA.
It has also opened my eyes to what can be done –even a little that doesn’t cost you anything but can help others. All restaurants pack up leftover food for you – which everyone does, initially I found this strange – every time you went out always seeing take away containers come out at the end of a meal to all the tables, but then I realised many people that ate in restaurants pack the rest of their meals and then pass them straight onto the car guards or security staff at their complexes or take them home for their domestic helpers who take them home to their family– I have even seen people wrap food in fast food restaurants and place it on top of the bin so that someone will be able to eat it rather than have to go through the rubbish bin later. My own fridge at home no longer has old leftovers that need to be thrown away or rotting vegetables in the bottom crisper (I have to admit we were great wasters of food) – as I just bundle them up every few days and offer them to our helper, who takes them home with her, win win! I feel that I should get some environmental points there as well – but not sure exactly how, its just a feeling (Less waste?). I do feel the need to add the veggies are passed on in an edible state – I don’t wait until they are rotting (just to be clear)
I appreciate the above may sound like a ditzy expat chick with no experience at all of poverty trying to be deep and meaningful thinking handing over a few scraps of food can solve worldwide hunger – but that’s not what I am thinking or trying to do. I certainly don’t pretend to have any particular or in depth knowledge of the poverty issues in Africa, but after being caught up in the excesses of Hong Kong for the last six years (where very real poverty also exists – just not sure where I was looking all the time) the excessive visible poverty here is an eye opener for me, a slightly grounding one I hope.
In Asia there are people on the streets asking for money – some people especially children will sometimes chase you for blocks looking for some money, especially if they think you are a tourist, I guess tourists have deeper pockets. In Hong Kong I often heard it speculated that many of the beggars are ‘run’ by the triads – who pick them up each morning, drop them off at their appointed places and then pick them up at the end of the day, might be true who knows? The one thing I do know about Hong Kong is the best place to go if you are asking for money is Lan Kwai Fong (the central downtown drinking area – frequented by the ‘gweilo’ foreigners) any night after about 9pm – when the drinkers have had plenty to drink and think someone tapping on their shoulder is asking for payment for the round of drinks they have just got. Those dressed as monks in particular have this one down pat and I have observed much cash being handed over in this way late into the evening or early in the morning.
Regardless of the amount of times I have been approached in Hong Kong and other Asian countries while visiting it didn’t quite prepare me for South Africa. In Asia in my experience I would say the asking is more passive, people tap you or make eye contact and then wait for you to do something – you may or may not and there appear to be no consequences to that, sometimes you may give some money sometimes you may choose not to. Here the people that have approached me have often given me long and exhaustive stories about why they need the money, and then don’t really move away until you pass it over. They also seem to be able to spring upon you at inopportune times for you – when you are sort of stunned and have to either respond or appear incredibly rude and walk by them to move on.
Twice last week I have had the ‘springing on your from nowhere’ experience instances and handed over cash accordingly. The locals here tell you – never get your wallet out, safety and security etc but sometimes its just too tough.
Thursday after picking my three year old daughter up from school she demanded the ‘special treat’ mint I had promised her if she brushed her hair in the morning and was a good girl at school – as soon as I picked her up – Where’s my mint mummy? I’ve been a good girl, I didn’t hit or push the children today (note the today, there have been incidents!). I checked with the teachers that this statement was in fact factual and then checked the box of mints I keep in the car – alas my cupboard was bare. I placated the distressed princess by saying we would stop at the service station on the way home to pick up some new mints. As soon as we arrived at the busy service station (ie lots of people there) and were out of the car a guy ran up to me (it must have been the flashing sign on my face – ‘Ask me for money’ – its strange that I never see it when I look in the mirror) and the first thing he said was ‘I was wondering if you could help me, don’t worry I’m not a carjacker or anything’. Nice start – not a carjacker! I was then kind of stuck to the spot gripping my daughter’s hand scanning the area, I still had my car keys in my hand and coincidentally my wallet – not a carjacker – what then could he be? He went on to explain that he was in between contracts at the moment (I’m not sure what that means) and was looking for some money for food and a bit of medicine but mostly food – could I possibly help him? His explanation ran on for about a minute but there was a lot of repetition of ‘I’m not a carjacker’ and ‘I need some money for food’. As I was standing there with my wallet and my car keys in my hand and my three year old in the other hand and he was standing between me and the door of the service station I didn’t think I had a lot of choice – I opened my wallet took out the first note I found and handed it over, was blessed by God – and whoosh he was gone. There was nothing threatening about him at all really but you are told time and time again to always be alert when approached by people you don’t know for any number of reasons.
The day before I was window-shopping on the street just outside our local mall and a lovely little boy came over to talk to me (hint all other children were in school – this should act as a warning). His mother and father were out of work and his father didn’t have an ID card (there are a lot of issues in South Africa with ID cards and there has recently been a lot of publicity of a young man that committed suicide when he couldn’t get an ID card as all government support services seem to be blocked to you without one – it is quite a serious issue, you can have a birth certificate and sometimes even a South African passport but if you don’t have an ID card you can’t open or close a bank account, get any kind of legitimate employment, register for school, get a drivers license, apply for any kind of social welfare, get a mobile phone or vote. It seems to be a very lengthy process and can be quite difficult to prove you are who you say you are in some circumstances) I think this particular youngster’s parents also had asthma and it cost 40 Rand for his family (himself his two younger sisters and his parents) to stay in a shelter per night – some people had given him some food that he was holding but it was freezing cold so it wasn’t going to help much he told me – if I could just give them some money it would really help so much. Again – shop window behind me, boy right in front of me. I got my wallet out handed cash over, was blessed by God and then he was gone running down the street screaming Mummy Mummy Mummy! Again I checked the window for the sign that must be in flashing lights on my face – there were at least 10 other people that looked similar to me in the immediate area – but again I couldn’t see it.
Oh well – I have been blessed by others on behalf of God twice this week and on several other occasions in the time I have been here in SA and still not met a carjacker (which I am happy about and don’t ever expect to do in my time here). Perhaps I should start keeping a tally and see on average after 12 months how much such a blessing costs? I know my husband certainly wants to know as he has been to my wallet on some occasions ‘post – blessing’ looking for money that is no longer there. In any case now whenever there is no money there, I have the excuse – I have been out gathering blessings.