Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa meant that Kim witnessed plenty of begging as well as drivers’ drastic desensitisation to it. A mere change of outfit allows Kim to cross over to the other side.
By Kim Harrisberg
Things I now know about begging:
1. The white paint on the tar used to mark lanes and stop streets is an unexpected solace for the bare foot on a hot day
2. It is remarkably easy to lip- read exactly what drivers think about you, and wish to share with their passengers
3. Eye-contact becomes an instant litmus test for those who care to acknowledge your humiliation,and those who don’t.
One Saturday afternoon, I slip on the most oversized jersey I can find and a pair of shorts that are fraying at the ends. I take off my shoes. I wrap a bandage around my leg and use mercurochrome to make it look as if a wound is seeping through the bandage. I scoop up a handful of dirt and rub it against my legs,even on my face. I take permanent marker and smear it under my eye and over my bottom lip. From a distance,this looks like light bruising.
I then tear off the bottom of a cardboard box which housed my new takkies the week before, and write: ‘Pleas [sic] help. God Bless’.
I walk outside my friend’s complex, nodding at the staring security guards who seem to be wondering how this skollie got past them in the first place. I choose a robot on Main road, Claremont,which is cursed by drivers for its unnecessarily long wait.
Holding up my sign, I make sure I am standing directly in between the two lanes. I attempt to strike the balance between being noticed and not being an obstacle in the road.
The first car approaches. When the driver is about 50 metres away, she spots me, and I can almost hear the subliminal alarm bells ringing in her head. She stops much further than is necessary from the robot and looks straight ahead.
My first reaction is to burst out laughing. Can’s she see I just changed my outfit and smeared some dirt across my face? I have to grind my teeth to stop the smile that threatens to leap across the negative space between her and me. She drives off, without having made eye contact once.
She is the first of many to react this way.
After thirty minutes, my palm is not the only one outstretched and pleading. Nasif Ely has arrived. He is patrolling the lane directly next to me and territorial uncertainty rushes over me.
“Must I leave?” I ask, attempting to muffle my accent in case I give something away.
“No, no. This is a free country. And you are my sister,” replies Nasif. I feel a pang of camaraderie. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of his blind kindness with the dehumanising disdain of the passing drivers.
Of course, trained eyes can see that this beggar is ill-experienced. The questions rush forward like a torrent.
“Where is your home?” “Are you on drugs?” “Are you hungry?” He points to my mock bruises. “Who did that to you?”
I mumble a story about being kicked out by my mother,hiding why I am truly here: to experience a fleeting glimpse into what is Nasif’s daily life.
Within moments, Nasif is unbuttoning his dirtied shirt and pointing to raw wounds, shining scars and swollen lumps. Relics of the street life colour his 15-year-old body.
“Go home,” says Nasif insistently. “Mothers are always right. I never had a mother. I wish I had a mother to go home to.” Within seconds he is weeping,his child-like cry a reminder of his age.
He walks to the pavement, sits down, and puts his head between his hands. His bony body convulses with sobs as drivers look on through their tinted windows.
Nasif was born on the streets, all so he says. At the age of 11, he was arrested for being “wrongly accused of house-breaking”. He spent 4 years in Pollsmoor juvenile prison where he was taught to read and write for the first time. One month ago, he
was put back on the streets. But Stefano Mairorano, a resident in the area, confirms he has seen him here intermittently for the past year.
I shuffle over to another robot, allowing Nasif his space.
Within moments, a Polo races towards the robot, music pumping through the open windows. The laughter of the four men in the car gets louder as the car approaches. The driver swerves towards me with a quick flick of his wrist on the steering wheel. Before I can even gasp, the car is swerved back and all that is heard is the fading laughter of the driver and his friends.
My eyes sting with the spasm of humiliation, shock and genuine disgust.
Despite the strong sense of indifference from some, I am surprised at how quickly and easily the cash rolls in. Within one hour, I have made R33, 20. Nasif says he usually makes R10 a day.
A middle-aged woman with a neat blonde bob and dangling earrings, holds out her closed palm towards me. “I’m sorry, this is all I have,” she says apologetically before pulling off. She has placed R9 worth of coins in my hand.
The ricocheting extremes of disregard and generosity leave me feeling emotionally-manhandled.
Long after I have left the street, the image of Nasif hunched over on the pavement, the ridges of his spine sticking through his tattered shirt, will not leave my mind’s eye.
An attempt to contact Cape Town Child Welfare Society a few days later is met with the insistent sound of an engaged line. The Western Cape Department of Social Development does answer, only to put me through to six different people, all strangely terrified to comment on anything. I was then told I would be called back immediately. I am still waiting.
I heaved a sigh of relief when Childline picked up after a few rings. Lydia van Vuuren, a referral officer, spoke with sadness about street children’s ranking on the priority list.
“It is so rare that they can make the transition into foster families. Their peers on the street become their families and this is where most of them end up. We are too under- resourced to really change their lives,” she says regrettably.
This is not what I wanted to hear, even though I expected it. After this phone call, I complete my list I began after walking off the street:
4. Receiving small results in a dim, transient euphoria.
5. This euphoria is linked to both the cash and the acknowledgment that comes with it
6. Were I Nasif, this would be enough to make me return the next day, to start it all again