“The poor are hard to love, they disgust us because they are us, shorn of our illusions; they show us what we’d look like without our fine clothing, how we’d smell without perfume.”
These are the High Sparrow’s words in the popular HBO series Game of Thrones. We pass them by and commonly ignore them. This is made easy through stereotyping and prejudice, which is highly predominant in big cities where everything is in the shadows of gloomy infrastructure. Our neglect for poor people becomes seemingly justifiable, but in doing so, we forget that that which makes us human is other human beings, and that self-glory comes from giving rather than from receiving. They are the angles of our time, the Kings and Queens of the world to come, and the stars in a world full of darkness.
I remember when I was very young, back in my small hometown of Umtata in Eastern Cape, there were not a lot of homeless people. In fact, I knew only two, and they seemed mentally unstable. Even so, they were a part of the community. Back then my mother would on occasion invite home some of the poorest of the poor children who were found searching rubbish bins for food. These children were around my age and they would sit with my brothers and myself to watch evening TV.
I believe my mother saw in them a sad reflection of her sons. However, at that time we were simply amazed at how crazy our mother was, bringing such dirty people inside our house. After she passed, my mother left me with a certain kind of love for all human beings, but poor people most of all.
Out of the love I have for my four siblings, I learned to see other people as no different from ourselves and being just as deserving of love.
When I arrived in Cape Town in 2013, to enrol for my higher education studies in Journalism at CPUT, I was met by a troubling realisation – there was a lot of homelessness in the city.
I was shocked to see much homelessness around me. One day, naïve and too compassionate, I was fooled into buying a fake ‘Hugo Boss’ cologne which turned out to be a mixture of what seemed to be coffee and something else. The guy that sold me the cologne convinced me that he worked at Edgars and had taken it from work to sell and get some money for his bus fare. The huge discount for this supposedly ‘Hugo Boss’ cologne was music to my ears.
Despite some ‘homeless’ people playing on the naivety of others, there are still good homeless people out there. I was fortunate to meet Wesley, a young adult homeless fellow who begs by the MyCiti bus station at the Civic Centre in town. I’m often there to catch the bus to my aunt’s place where I had been staying.
Things weren’t easy initially with my aunt. We’d gotten into a series of arguments as I thought she was treating me like a child, despite my age and life experiences.
On the day I met Wesley, my aunt had kicked me out to ‘wherever I could do whatever I wanted’. I warmed up to him that day because he had approached me so nicely to ask for small change. After giving him the little I had I sat down with him for a chat.
Talking to him opened up my eyes to one of life’s most important lessons: no matter how terrible you may think your life is, there is always going to be someone worse of than you! He shared with me stories of his day-to-day troubles and how hard it is just getting enough money to cover a single day’s shelter fee, a mere R20.
He told me about how difficult it was to sometimes get people to sympathise with him. I wasn’t so surprised. I had seen the many frauds on the street and had been taken by them too.
This was the start of many encounters with him. Little did he know the value he would add to my life.
My life started to take a better turn. I began to sort things out with my aunt back home. And, I later found that I slept better at night knowing I had helped Wesley with some small change whenever I could. Even though he would sometimes stress that my friendship was already a great gift. Some small money which I would have probably used for a cigarette would add value to his life, which was my great gift.
I discovered that ‘value’ was a word Wesley seldom used; he believed he lost it long ago. He first arrived in Cape Town after the passing of his parents. He had hoped moving to the city he’d be able to build something for himself. But, the streets swindled him of most of his possessions and that’s when he became homeless.
He was often alone. But he would always wear a beautiful, rare and genuine smile regardless of his circumstances. I would think to myself (with Wesley’s voice sounding through my thoughts), “People find it easy to talk”. A very smart and kind individual like him should easily get piece jobs. I can never begin to imagine a single day on the streets, but from Wesley’s point of view, there is no gloominess whatsoever.
A week ago as I approached the station, I saw Wesley from a distance; he was looking down as though he was deeply saddened by something. I snuck up behind him to surprise him and possibly cheer him up. He responded with a lukewarm grin, nonetheless he was keen to find out how I was doing. The last thing I wanted for a sad person was to feel more so.
Despite my challenges I told him about how great things were going for me, then it was his turn to share. He told me that a very close shelter friend of his had almost died after being exposed to severe cold the previous night. He then told about how he had recently pulled through a very similar event in the weeks before.
I had passed Wesley a few weeks ago on a very cold morning as I was late for work. I took out some change and placed it in his hands as I passed by. With his back half bent he failed to look at me or even say thank you as he shivered in anguish. It was easy for me to think that he was probably on some drug; I would not have blamed him. I tried to quickly dismiss the thought as I had placed so much trust in him.
It turns out that he had spent the previous night in a drenching rainy downpour, and was later that day taken to hospital after passing out at that spot where he stood. The doctors told him that he had barely survived. His friend, who shared the exact same lifestyle, was not so fortunate. He was then in hospital on life support. The doctors were debating turning off the support, hence his terrible sadness.
Wesley has taught me many lessons. One thing is certain from all this, happiness and riches are not found in money alone, but also in helping those around us.
Not being so rich myself, it is easy to feel like a victim. We must always remember that no matter what circumstances we are in, there is always someone to be helped and sometimes getting someone to smile is all it takes to make the world feel just a little bit better.
Written by Masibulele Lunika
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