In South Africa, poverty is in your face. Every day I walk past a squatter camp, just a couple shacks made of sticks and plastic bags and doors that look to be cardboard boxes. Tall grass covers the lives of the people who live in this tiny lot, little more than an median between two streets, and less than an empty aluminum can’s throw away from the expensive and trendy 44 Stanley, where one can “om” in yoga then sip organic raw smoothies then buy over-priced designer clothes. (Yes, I admit that I enjoy these activities too much and if I had more money would probably enjoy them more often.) In America, poverty is present but was nearly invisible in my childhood suburban home of Webster Groves. And nowhere in the US have I seen the kind of poverty children suffer as I have in South Africa. Living in Durban in 2006, I grew used to dirty children sniffing glue and weaving through traffic. Back in South Africa, I still cringe seeing children on the street. But I also cringe when I realize that I’m again getting used to seeing children on the street.
It isn’t hard to mournfully describe the horrors of poverty. It’s much harder to consider one’s reaction. The other day a little boy in front of my gym held out his hands. He didn’t need to say anything since beggars are on every street corner, anywhere a car will stop since most people with money drive. I told him to wait there and went into a shop to buy him some bread and bananas. He listlessly accepted the food and was gone when I came out of the gym. I have also seen children, possibly that same boy, and walked by them as they held their hands out. The vast majority of the time I walk by, rush by, often without cash, sometimes with cash. When I’m in the car with South Africans, I’m always curious how different drivers respond to the beggars who come to the window at every traffic light, or “robot” as they say here. Some ignore the person knocking at the window. Others shrug and say they have nothing. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they do. And sometimes they give. Since I just started renting a car, I’ll be able to judge my own reaction. A friend warned me not to ever roll down my window at stoplights since robbers often come as beggars. I suppose lines get blurry when need and hunger and desperation are involved.
Last weekend, this everyday situation—the confrontation between the haves and have-nots—was on my mind as I stood with Rotarians raising money to buy blankets for the needy. Several Rotary Clubs were running a blanket drive at a local shopping center. The lovely and exuberant Katinka, from my host club, New Dawn, organized the event and kindly gave me a ride. She had been working for weeks on the event with early guidance and encouragement from Jankees, the club president. And all day on Saturday and Sunday, she manned one of the tables with other Rotarians, “selling” blankets. The resourceful Rotarians had organized with the blanket company to get heavy blankets in bulk for only R50 a piece—a little more than six US dollars. We asked people to pay R50 to sponsor a blanket that would be donated to one of several charities Rotarians had picked—most of which were charities helping children such as the 5Cs orphanage that New Dawn is particularly involved with and Children of Fire that is very close to my Melville home and supports children burned in the all-too-common fires that break out in informal settlement communities.
Saturday more shoppers were about, but Sunday morning was fairly quiet. Since Rotary had two tables in the center, we gave out stickers so no one would bother the shoppers twice. My table with Katinka and two other Rotarians was fairly energetic for 8:00 am on a Sunday; we joked and drank coffee that Katinka had generously provided. Some people greeted us with the same cheer, interested in the charities, interested in Rotary. Many people who donated didn’t ask for their R50 change for the R100 they gave, wanting to buy two blankets instead of one. Our club sold 315 blankets! However, I was surprised how many people didn’t give, and surprised by who walked past our table the fastest. Often those dressed the best, with heavy leather purses or pressed slacks, looked the other way and ignored our exuberant greetings. Many said “no” when we asked: “Would you like to sponsor a blanket for a child this winter?” Many more than gave to the other table told us, loudly, that they gave to the other table. One woman even shouted: “You people better stop! You’re getting really annoying!” Immediately angered—not only at her rudeness, but her lack of awareness that Katinka and others had volunteered hours and hours of their time for this and we were raising money to provide blankets for needy children during the cold winter months—I grumbled, “it’s only for children.” But she didn’t hear. And I’m hypocritical for grumbling. How many times have I ignored Green Peace when their workers have asked me on the streets of DC: “Do you want to help the environment today?” “I do, but I’m in a hurry,” I say, and usually it’s true. I heard many similar comments: “I sponsored a blanket through my church/school/work!” “I always give to charities!” One couple even said, “Sorry, we live in Durban!” Most people rushing past us felt the need to justify not giving, as I do when someone too small for his pants comes to my car door. For my own safety, I can’t roll down the window.
One polished woman on her way to brunch stopped to feel the heavy sample blanket. “How much? I’ve been looking for a new dog bed.” I quickly explained what the blankets were for, cynically picturing her as Chaucer’s Prioress. But she surprised me. She donated money for two blankets and called over her friend, who did the same. The woman who touched me the most was a little old gogo (Zulu for grandmother). She was modestly dressed with an old cap and a worn shawl. Her granddaughter hid behind her legs. She politely returned my greeting and listened to my spiel. She frowned when I said R50, so I added that we were also taking any smaller donations as well. (Katinka kept a side pile of change donations that we would add when it reached the R50 needed for another blanket.) The gogo carefully tapped out R15 from a small coin purse and gave me the most beautiful smile of the day.