“Excuse me sir”, said a soft voice, far below the shouts of taxis conductors persuading passersby they need a lift. With the sun just setting in my eyes, I couldn’t make out a face. A moment later, it stepped to my right, into the light and a young woman appeared.
“Can I ask you a question?” she said, hastily. “Listen, I’m not asking for money. I’ve just been staying at shelter not far from here and I’m hungry. Can you buy me something to eat?”
“What do you like to eat?” I replied.
“Oh, I don’t know, anything, cornflakes and milk, maybe? They’ll last me a couple days at least”.
I hesitated for a second, looked around and spotting a convenience store right across the street and said, “Alright.”
“Really?” beamed the woman.
“Yeah, sure, let’s go over there”, I said, pointing to the convenience store across the busy downtown Cape Town street.
“No, no, no… That place is overpriced. There’s a Pick ‘N Pay just down the way.” She grabbed me arm, “follow me.”
As we crossed the street, I questioned what had I gotten myself into. Where was she taking me? Was this part of some South African scam that I hadn’t heard about? I was still on guard from an event that happened 20 minutes earlier a few blocks away.
“Hey, can you give me some change please, sir?”, said a rather rough looking man in a baseball hat. He walked with me for about a block, eager to get a few coins out of me. I kept my pace, and refused over again but he kept up with me. As we walked along together, I glanced down at the bright gold metal shining on his wrist and teasingly, yet, foolishly pointed out the rather nice watch he was wearing. “Yeah? You want to buy it from me? I’ll give you a good price for it”, he said. “No,no, I’m not interested”, I said, and we carried on walking together for another block.
I tried weaving between pedestrians and street vendors to shake him off but he caught up every time to continue the bargaining. We were stopped for a moment behind a large group of people and street traffic, which gave me a chance to get a better look at the guy. He was short, reeked of liquor and was busy using a flat razor to trim what I assume were calluses on his hand. The sight of the razor sent my heart racing and my long legs kicked into high gear. I gave him no more of attention, held my head up high, turned the corner onto a busy main street and immediately lost the guy in the stream of people.
During the two blocks we walked together towards the grocery store, I learned that her name was Natasha, she was twenty and she came to Cape Town from a city a few hundred kilometers to the east a month ago to look for work. She was recently fired from her retail job and was having hard time finding employment, and consequently a place to live and food to eat. She had been staying in a shelter for a few weeks now, waiting for her Mom to buy her a bus ticket back home. “I think she’s trying to teach me a lesson or something”, Natasha added.
We found the Pick ‘n Pay, but before we entered the store, I asked Natasha to stay near the front while I went in and did the shopping. “I’ll be 5 minutes”, I said. Navigating the crowded aisles, I began to wonder why I didn’t invite her in with me. She probably knew her way around better than I did. What’s more, I could have used someone to keep me on target because I spend most of my time overanalyzing labels, ingredients and making a product choice based on a calculation of price, quality, marketing, social and environmental responsibility. Had she joined me, we could have kept chatting and getting to know each other, talked about our favorite things to eat, ask for a few recommendations. She could have picked out whatever she wanted, I really wouldn’t have minded. I guess I was still overly suspicious of her intentions.
I generally refuse to give people money when they asked on the street, assuming it’s to support some unhealthy habit or addiction. I offer at the very least some human acknowledgement through eye contact and my most sincere smile. Otherwise, I tend to always have a piece of fruit or something on me to offer instead, but most times it’s declined. Meeting Natasha was the first time someone actually asked for food, not money.
A very softly spoken gentleman with bright green eyes once asked me for some money to buy a meal. I happen to be on my way home from a farmers’ market with a bounty full. I went through my bags and listed off breads, vegetables, cider and all sorts of treats to offer him, but he refused. I guess the meal he was looking for came in a different form, or maybe he preferred fast food. As for Natasha, I was more than happy to buy her a bagful of groceries.
I came out of the store with some milk and cornflakes, as requested. I managed to sneak in bunch of bananas, some mango juice and a loaf of whole wheat bread as well for just over 10 bucks. “Here you go”, I said, presenting her with the bag. We left the store and walked the two blocks back to where we met. That gave me just enough time to answer her questions of where I was from, why I was here and what I was doing. “You’re seriously helping people grow plants for food in the city?” she said. I replied with “Yeah, but I don’t mind buying a few groceries when asked”. From there she thanked me again, wished each other good luck, smiled and we went our opposite ways.
While I was walking away, I questioned why I didn’t offer her a bus ticket, the spare room of my flat, dinner at a nearby restaurant, or anything else to help. I had so many more questions to ask her about her life. I could have at least given her my number in case she needed help, support, and a new friend. I think I was still intimidated by my first trip downtown on a Sunday afternoon, with the sun going down. Having been warned about these security variables, I was eager to get on the bus and head back to my part of the woods.
A little while later, I got off the bus and stopped the store to pick up some dinner on my way home. Sure, I could have picked up a few things at the Pick ‘N Pay, but it was my first time at the franchise and it would have taken me quite some time to investigate the shelves for the aforementioned reasons. As I turned into the SOUPS/SPICES/SAUCES aisle, a tall man in a bright orange fleece sweater stopped me. He mumbled something to me I couldn’t understand, which I assumed was in Afrikaans, and begged his pardon. “Can I ask you something?”, he said in English, “would you help me buy some groceries for some people I know who live on the beach”?
“Uh, sorry but I already bought someone a bag of groceries today”, I blurted.
“Oh! Good on you!” he replied with sincerity and pushed his cart away. I stood there baffled by what I had just said. Why is it that I was asked to help buy food for two strangers in one day? My superficial-self blamed the way I looked. “Your new glasses make you look expensive”, noted a friend only a few weeks before. Maybe some people can read that I regard food as the tool for change, the most important basic need for life.
Everyone should have their basic needs met first before they can go on to other things. Food, shelter, water, security, love, respect etc. Once these are met, we can help each other through positive encouragement, role models, or simply a second pair of hands, eyes, and ears to find a path that makes someone happy. I’m a firm believer of the give a person a fish, they’ll eat for a day, teach a person to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime mentality. But then again sometimes you can directly impact an individual with a few small actions or words.
Is buying groceries for someone the same as giving them a few coins on the street? Both are just band-aid solutions, symptoms of much deeper, complex issues. Ceratinly giving someone a meal can help fulfill a person’s basic need for a few days, but who knows what magic can happen in that time. Maybe it’s just the boost of energy they need to get back on their feet.