Paballo ya Batho: Soup Kitchen for me

I was never a believer of giving to people on the streets, whether it be food or money. “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime”. That was my saying. When Cassidy came into our lives, she wanted to give back to the community. Leon received a post from someone on Facebook the next day requesting people to assist at soup kitchen in Braamfontein. We took it as a sign that this could be a start point for Cassidy, and we took her. We try and go to soup kitchen every week, on a Wednesday, but sometimes the excuses (some valid, but many not) are stronger than the need to serve.

Up until about a month ago I still believed that we were going purely to ease Cassidy’s mind that she is helping, since I still didn’t believe in just giving. What I have learnt is that many of these people come to soup kitchen not only for food, but for building relationships with the volunteers. So up until just before the Wednesday that just passed, I believed that we were there to support them as well as feed them. But this Wednesday that just passed was an experience on a whole new level. I realised that actually by me volunteering my time I am being served by the homeless. Yes I do serve them and give them my time and a piece of me, but I have a lot more to gain from people living on the streets than I believed. So I started reflecting, and this is a post on everything I have gained and learnt from soup kitchen.

My first real relationship I built was with Oupa. He is a friendly positive guy who knows that a whole bunch of little steps will eventually bring bigger results. He is in JHB because there are more opportunities here than in the Eastern Cape. And his family doesn’t know his situation because then they’ll expect him to come back home. On one particular trip the first two stop points were very draining and hard as our bread was sparse and the guys were plenty. Oupa was always at the third, the last, stop. On this day when he saw our car pull up he was right next to my door to tell me what he had achieved that week. As Cassidy says, he is probably in love with me. That is besides the point, but him wanting to share excitedly with me his progress made the hard work at the previous two stops worth every bit of effort. I haven’t seen Oupa for a while, and hope he is busy building his shoe making business. Reflecting on our chats now, he was the familiar face who taught me that race, beliefs, financial status, none of this stands in the way of making friends. He also taught me that sometimes just having someone to be accountable to gives us enough hope to want to achieve more.

This past week we had a huge number of volunteers, and there isn’t always enough to do then. I left the food serving to those who were eager to do so, and I walked up and down the rows to find people to talk with. I spoke to probably 6 guys and one woman that night, and the conversations were stimulating, energising. I was radiant the next day at work. I spoke to Victor, a Zimbabwean who cannot really find work in SA because of xenophobia. His english is perfect, he is always clean and dresses smartly. He is always listening music when we serve him. We always ask what he is listening to – U2, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen. I am always surprised. He asked me why, and I said it’s because I didn’t realise that their culture listen to our music. He told me that it is probably because he went to english schools. In our conversation I was taken aback about how close they are to politics and how it truly affects the people. If Malema gets it right to spread the land amongst the people, the crime, which has been steadily decreasing in Braamfontein, will actually topple back over to the other side, and become much worse. He asked me some of my political views, of which I have little to none, and he told me that we don’t need to understand as it doesn’t affect us as badly. He didn’t say it demeaningly or negatively, and I wasn’t offended. I learned from him that again, our financial difference doesn’t make us better or worse as people, maybe just a bit disconnected, and that is ok.

There are two people who left unchangeable marks in my life, and heart. The first is a PE colored guy. I recall his name as Kenneth, but could have remembered wrong. He is a qualified pastry chef, but the college won’t release his diploma because he owes them money. He can move back home in Alberton any time, but he is 38 and feels it would be unfair to the children still living there and going to school if he eats their bread. According to him he is old enough to look after himself, and shouldn’t be a burden to others because he misspent his youth doing drugs and other bad things. He can also probably save up the money over 12 weeks from the odd jobs he does every day. But he feels sorry for the other homeless people and rather buys food for them and cooks for them. He was in tears at some point because his heart goes out so much to his fellow street dwellers. He CHOOSES to live on the street and spend his money on serving the people. And he does it with a cheerful smile, and still thanked us for what we do. Kenneth, I thank you for showing me how happy one can be through an attitude of giving and caring.

The second person is a volunteer who was here from the US for 3 months. Gregg Potter. I have seen how he has truly connected with the people and really intimately got to understand their problems and help them find solutions. He knows many of the guys by name, they tell him what’s happening on the streets, where there are job opportunities, what metro has gotten up to again, anything he can share with the rest of the community. He empowered them to get the public showers fixed so the guys can get cleaned up for job interviews or just because they still have enough pride to consider it good hygiene to shower regularly. Not only in what he has done, as a matter of fact Gregg has touched me more by who he is. A US guy who doesn’t understand the African culture and was scared into his bones of being mugged when he came to JHB, but the most loving, caring, giving person I have ever met. Even with fellow volunteers, he appreciates them intimately for the work they do, and I believe he is a role model for any volunteer. I am very sad that we only really got close in his last 3 weeks in SA, but I have a feeling that our paths will cross again, and that we will still become great friends. He shared the documentary we watched when I got my tattoo (refer to my tattoo blog), and his open mindedness was infectious.

Leon also spoke to two volunteers we often see. They are strong Christians, with an unwavering faith in God. I am not religious, and don’t necessarily believe what they believe in. They have sold all their possessions and now travel to countries where volunteer work is needed, be it for hurricanes, clean ups, feeding people, whatever is required. Every trip costs money, and they pray to God for the money and absolutely believes He will provide, and He has never failed them. Call it mind power, call it religion, call it what you like. The fact is their faith is so strong that they can manifest whatever they need in their life. I respect that, and I think they are extremely powerful people.

There is one last thing I have learnt, and today’s post I’m ending on a sad note. As a child I was taught to trust our police force to such an extent that if at any second I felt my life threatened, I could run to an officer and they would protect me. Our Metro today are heartless people. They take away the blankets that are donated to these people. I was told this past Wednesday how Metro woke them up at 4 in the morning by spraying pepper spray into their eyes “to clean up the streets”. They confiscate these people’s IDs and then the next day lock them up in a cell because they don’t have identification which implies that they must be illegal immigrants. The street vendors are trying to make money by providing a service that is needed in town, and Metro confiscates their goods and then chases them off the streets when they sleep there at night because they couldn’t make the money to get lodging in a shelter that night. It breaks my heart that the people who are supposed to serve and protect spread havoc in the city…

I now look forward to the next soup kitchen, and no longer dread going. I thank Cassidy for bringing these people into our lives, and for giving me an opportunity to be served by serving food and serving some of myself.

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